SUNSET SOUND RECORDERS

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Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood California

 

 


JBL's reputation and success in the professional markets largely began with studio monitors and the recording industry. For some time, it had been my desire to see and hear a JBL installation in that environment. Thanks to George Augspurger and Craig Hubler of Sunset Sound Recorders, an opportunity arose as part of the 2003 Lansing Heritage Tour (LHT).

Sunset Sound Recorders is one of the most storied studios in the United States. The complex is a collection of old commercial and residential buildings (some built over 80 years ago) that was originally converted into a studio by Tutti Camarata in 1962. The studio is still in the Camarata family, being owned by son Paul, and is one of the last privately owned major studios.

It's hard to do justice to the history and legacy of this studio. Over 200 gold records have been recorded here. From the Beach Boys, to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Alanis Morrisette - they have all recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders. It is the last venue where all of the Beatles played together for Ringo Star's album in 1972.

Our connection to Sunset Sound Recorders was George Augspurger who was responsible for the acoustic design of the recording and control spaces in addition to designing the custom JBL main monitors. He did the initial design in 1976 and has been responsible for continuous upgrades to this date. George arranged a tour of Sunset Sound on the morning of April 8, 2003. We were met by Craig Hubler (shown at right in the recording space of Studio 3). Craig has been Sunset's studio manager for the past 20 years.

There are three studios in the recording complex and our tour began in Studio 3. Here George is pointing out the details of one of the main monitors. The mains in all three studios are of a similar, custom design using JBL and TAD components. The Studio 3 mains are an all JBL system using twin 2231 bass drivers reconed as 2235's. The midrange is a 2440 with the "Hartsfield" 2390 horn lens. Highs are covered by twin 2405's (.

The control room design is interesting in how it deals with bass frequencies. The room is a relatively small space considering the size of the main monitors and bass management is an issue. The back wall of the studio has been designed to have a degree of acoustic permeability to bass frequencies so that the adjoining hallway acts as a bass trap.

The console is a API-DiMedeo unit with a monitor section that was custom made by Sunset Sound Recorders. I found it interesting that all of the studios primarily use analog equipment. As Craig explained, virtually all recordings will at some point enter the digital realm, and Sunset Sound has a full Pro Tools setup in each studio. However, most of their clients prefer the sound of analog equipment and each studio is also equipped with a 2" Studer tape deck.

We next moved to Studio 2 where we were joined by Mick Higgins, the Chief Technical Engineer at Sunset. Mick is shown at the far right of the adjacent photo with George and Craig in the recording space of Studio 2. Studio 2 is the most renowned of the three at Sunset and is the largest. It has become the "Carnegie Hall" of studios with a unique character that has become a standard of sonic excellence. A number of recent multimillion dollar studio designs have used Sunset's Studio 2 as a reference.

Part of the magic of  Studio 2's sonic character relates to the materials. For example, the tile flooring dates to the original conversion of the studio and is no longer available. However there is a concern that replacing it would change the acoustics. Therefore, George Augspurger has had to work very carefully during the 25 years of his involvement with Sunset Sound Recorders. He has designed necessary upgrades involving changes to room geometry, construction and surface treatments. In every case,  he has ensured that the result is a sonic improvement. The result is a definitive "Augspurger" room.

George strives for consistency in sound in all of the spaces he designs. I found the sonic character to be a bit of a revelation. I had expected a "dead" character, since I know of the problems that reflected sound can cause. However, the rooms at Sunset Sound Recorders are not dead. As George explained, a completely dead room would sound unnatural. There is a certain amount of reverberant energy in any enclosed space and trying to eliminate it would be counterproductive. Instead, George looks to strike a balance, where the reverberant soundfield is controlled to eliminate room colorations, but still evident to provide a natural sound. An interesting anecdote regards the fact that I recorded our entire tour of Sunset Sound by clipping a small digital recorder to my shirt pocket. The voice recordings from our time in the recording spaces were remarkable in quality compared to anywhere else. Voice intelligibility was far greater in these rooms no matter where the speaker was.

The control room for Studio 2 was completely redone in 1995. It is the largest and most sophisticated of the three control rooms. It is designed around a Neve 8088 console. The main monitors are custom JBL's that are virtually identical to those in Studio 3. A great pleasure was the opportunity to listen to the mains from the engineer's seat at the console. The sound is amongst the best I have heard. It had all of the dynamics that JBL's are famous for, yet could be subtle and detailed sounding depending on the program material. There was no noticeable coloration. My concluding thought - I want this in my home!

Upstairs at Sunset Sound Recorders is a "live chamber" used for creating reverb effects. A key component of this chamber is a venerable Altec Lansing A7 Voice-of-the-Theatre. With all of the technology available to create reverb effects, it is intriguing that there is still a place actual recording in a reverberant room. The technique involves playback of a recorded signal through the A7 at one end of a very live sounding room. A microphone setup at the far end of the room captures the reverberant soundfield. The "liveliness" of the room is created with non parallel walls lined with hard, reflective materials. Supposedly current digital technology can not match the smooth natural reverb achieved with such a room.

Our next stop was Mick's domain; the maintenance facility for the studio. Mick is responsible for keeping all of the studio equipment in working order. There is a complete inventory of replacement parts to keep down times to a minimum. Along the top of the right wall is only a small collection of the literally scores of gold records that were produced at Sunset.

No studio is complete without the definitive midsize monitor; the JBL 4310. In this case, they are part of the shop sound system that Mick uses while working. This is actually the first pair of 4310's I have come across. While noteworthy for establishing the market for smaller monitors, the 4310 was not produced in that great a number. It was in production for less than three years, when upgraded to the even more successful 4311. For this reason, there are not that many still around and it was a pleasant surprise to find this pair.

We only had a short time to visit Studio 1 since it was in use at the time. George had specifically scheduled the tour for the morning since, (surprise) most popular recording artists are not morning people. That allowed us unfettered access to Studios 2 and 3. However, a young music act (obviously unaware that they were not supposed to be morning people) was laying down tracks in Studio 1. We were able to sneak in during a break in their work.

Studio 1 is the newest of the recording spaces. The control room in centered around a Sunset Sound custom console. This studio had been cosmetically refurbished in February 2003. The main monitors in this facility use 2-15" TAD woofers with the remaining components being the same JBL's as used in the main monitors in Studio 2 and 3.  As in all rooms, a pair of ubiquitous Yamaha NS10M's are mounted on the console bridge as nearfields.

The last photo is from the storage room for microphones. Sunset Sound prides itself on a collection of over two hundred mics to meet the demands of virtually any client application.

I want to conclude by expressing our gratitude to the staff at Sunset Sound Recorders and to George Augspuger for arranging the tour. Even though he had just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires, George made time to arrange and join us in the tour.  Craig and Mick could not have been more accommodating. They spent two hours giving us access to virtually all aspects of their studio operation. It was one of the high points of the entire 2003 LHT.

2003 Don McRitchie

 
 


George Augspurger on Sunset Sound Recorders Monitor Design

By today's standards, the monitors at Sunset Sound and Cherokee are retro loudspeakers.  The basic design goes back more than 30 years: Originally, a pair of LE15A woofers were complemented by a 375 high frequency driver mounted to a Hartsfield horn and lens.  The system was bi-amped through an 800 Hz, 12 dB/octave electronic crossover.  In most installations the crossover network was a plug-in component on the back of a White Instruments 1/3-octave equalizer.

One or two 2405 super-tweeters are included to handle frequencies above the effective 10 kHz cutoff of the 375.  These are driven through a simple R-C highpass filter.  The JBL N7000 network was designed for this purpose and used in equivalent JBL top-end systems, but I think the 375 sounds better when connected directly to the high frequency power amplifier.  Two or three studios insisted on tri-amplification but this refinement probably adds as many problems as it solves.

In some installations I mounted two 2405's in a vertical array, tilted slightly to widen the vertical pattern.  In other installations only one 2405 was used but I provided two mounting holes - one on either side of the high frequency lens - to allow for stereo symmetry without having to build two different mounting baffles.  When Capitol Records installed custom monitors in their mastering rooms they  filled both holes and performance was surprisingly good.  As many speaker designers have discovered, scattering the sound energy above 5 kHz or so gives a pleasant "airy" effect without affecting stereo imaging.  Mounting two 2405's a couple of feet apart, with one slot horizontal and the other vertical, supplies this kind of ambience.

After Ed May designed the 2231 woofer (precursor of the 2235), it replaced the LE15A in almost all of my custom monitor designs.  Today the TAD TL-1603 is the most popular choice.  It sounds very much like a 2231/2235 but will take incredible abuse without blowing up.  At Sunset, we tried 1603's in all three studios, but decided that the JBL woofers still sounded better in two of the three.

2003 George Augspurger