On the Cover: Pianella Studios

Sep 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Matt Hurwitz


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Marco Beltrami's separate writing room is centered on an Avid D-Command and MOTU Digital Performer.

Marco Beltrami's separate writing room is centered on an Avid D-Command and MOTU Digital Performer.

After years of using a converted walk-in closet in a rental in Malibu, Calif., as a demo production studio, Oscar-nominated film composer Marco Beltrami (The Hurt Locker, 3:10 to Yuma and the upcoming remake of The Thing) decided it was time to build the kind of facility that would provide him and his sound designer/co-composer, Buck Sanders, a place to compose, record and mix final score recordings.

The result is Pianella Studios, completed in 2010. Situated on a mountaintop in a rural portion of Malibu in Ventura County, the studio offers a uniquely reverberant—particularly for its size—recording stage, designed under the supervision of Abbey Road Studios alumnus John Kurlander, who has also been Beltrami’s scoring mixer for more than 45 films.

Composer Buck Sanders and studio owner/composer Marco Beltrami (seated)

Composer Buck Sanders and studio owner/composer Marco Beltrami (seated)

“We do a lot of experimentation,” Beltrami explains of his and Sanders’ composition process. “I found that we were spending a lot of time in studios recording sounds, and when you’re paying for the studio, it gets prohibitive. You can’t really explore to the fullest. And that’s something we really enjoy doing.”

An avid motorcyclist, Beltrami had explored the area that would become Pianella’s home. “It was just raw land,” he says of the 20-acre site. “It was just an amazing place.” Working with architect Gary Williamson, Beltrami initially planned a three-fold design: a house, featuring the recording studio on the lower level; a guest house for visiting production teams; and a 60x40-foot barn to store his bikes and other materials.

The permit process, however, forced him to change his plans. While the simple barn structure was approved quickly, the approvals for the house were delayed. As Kurlander recalls, “He called me to lunch with Gary, and said, ‘Look, we have approval for the barn, but the house is going to take forever and I need a studio. How about we put the studio in the barn?’ It was very big, and when we overlaid Gary’s studio plan onto the barn, it was dwarfed. So I just drew out on a napkin a little plan, which we built.”

Kurlander, who moved to Los Angeles from England in the late 1990s, wanted to see something that didn’t exist in L.A. scoring stages. “All the orchestral studios and recording venues in Europe, particularly in London, have ambient spaces where the reverberation time is much longer,” with decay times of more than two seconds. “The converted soundstages of Southern California, however, are closer to 1-second RT. They definitely have a dead sound. It’s just a different mindset.”

So while Kurlander could have spec’d a false ceiling to deaden the room, he chose to take advantage of the 28-foot ceiling the barn structure offered, maximizing the reverberation in the 30x35-foot studio area, where up to 35 musicians can fit. A 10.5-foot balcony underhang allows room for an additional five players.

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