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The Sound and History of Ocean Way Studios
2014-05-05


In the mid-70s, Bill Putnam Sr. of Universal Audio caught wind of “this kid” who had finagled his way into buying up some surplus gear from his UREI factory at fire sale prices. The story was that he had been selling some of it off at a handsome profit, and using the rest to help build a remarkable home studio right off the beach in nearby Santa Monica, CA.

After a brief meeting in his office, Bill Sr. decided to pay a visit, and took his son along for the ride. Bill Jr., just twelve years old at the time, remembers that day vividly, “We drove out in my dad's Lincoln Continental, walked around the back of the house and into the garage, and there was this huge speaker system right in front of us. It seemed like it was ten feet tall. And when he played us a bunch of stuff that he had recorded, my dad's jaw just dropped.”

That young studio owner, barely out of high school himself, had started to build a reputation by recording bands straight to two-track and installing hi-fi systems in the homes of musicians and label execs around town. He'd even once landed a summer job as a runner at Putnam's Western Recorders, but their paths hadn’t crossed much. He was sharp and outgoing, with a great ear, a shrewd business sense, and deep understanding of sound and audio gear. His name was Allen Sides.

By all accounts, Bill Sr. was “stunned” by what Allen had already achieved. It wasn't just the home and studio speaker systems that Allen had been putting together – which were practically unprecedented at the time – but the sounds that he was able to capture and make those speakers reproduce. A few of the recordings they heard that first day in the studio together were ones that Allen had made as a teenager, but they put the work of some long-time pros to shame.

The two hit it off immediately. Sides and Putnam shared a die-hard work ethic, an entrepreneurial streak, and a tinkerer's passion for circuits and for sound. It was a relationship that would endure throughout their careers, and helped preserve the continuity of a pair of legendary recording spaces that have been longtime favorites of Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Beck, Whitney Houston, Green Day, Sheryl Crow, Kanye West and Radiohead.

Putnam had originally named this studio “United Recording” when he first opened it in 1957. When Allen took over operation in the 1980s, he renamed the complex after that first home studio of his, down by the beach in Santa Monica, calling it “Ocean Way.” But aside from the name change, Sides took pains to preserve the sound of these iconic spaces as they were from the beginning. And they sound just as good as when Putnam left them 30-some years ago.

 

The Creation of United Recording — Bill Putnam’s Perfect Rooms

Bill Putnam Sr. was something of a pioneer when it came to room ambience, both real and simulated. He's often credited with the first commercial use of an artificial reverb in the US, when he created a makeshift echo chamber using a speaker, a microphone and a tile bathroom to add a huge, ever-shifting ambience to the Harmonicats #1 single “Peg Of My Heart” in 1947. On that recording, the listener's perspective morphs constantly as the reverb signal is blended in and out of the track in a way that still sounds unexpectedly novel today.

Of course, Putnam's experiments didn't end there. He essentially invented – and perfected – the auxiliary sends we take for granted whenever we call up effects. He was also instrumental in the invention of the Cooper Time Cube — one of the first-ever practical delays that didn't rely on magnetic tape — and he worked hard to try and perfect the early oil-can delays and reverbs of the 60s.

But as much as he was driven to toy around with extreme and sometimes otherworldly reverbs, Putnam clearly understood that the most important thing to get right was the natural ambience of a real recording space.

Bill Putnam Sr. was something of a pioneer when it came to room ambience, both real and simulated. He's often credited with the first commercial use of an artificial reverb in the US, when he created a makeshift echo chamber using a speaker, a microphone and a tile bathroom to add a huge, ever-shifting ambience to the Harmonicats #1 single “Peg Of My Heart” in 1947. On that recording, the listener's perspective morphs constantly as the reverb signal is blended in and out of the track in a way that still sounds unexpectedly novel today.

Of course, Putnam's experiments didn't end there. He essentially invented – and perfected – the auxiliary sends we take for granted whenever we call up effects. He was also instrumental in the invention of the Cooper Time Cube — one of the first-ever practical delays that didn't rely on magnetic tape — and he worked hard to try and perfect the early oil-can delays and reverbs of the 60s.

But as much as he was driven to toy around with extreme and sometimes otherworldly reverbs, Putnam clearly understood that the most important thing to get right was the natural ambience of a real recording space.

Ocean Way's Studio A has fans all its own, and it's been responsible for some truly enormous-sounding recordings from pop legends like Frank Sinatra, Lionel Ritchie, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Sheryl Crow. In contrast to Studio B's exceptionally clear and open reflections, Ocean Way's A room is just a bit darker and warmer, while still remaining exceptionally smooth. It has a slightly longer decay time than B, with a little more weight and roundness from 400Hz on down.

From United Recording to Ocean Way Studios

Like so many of his clients, Allen Sides fell in love with the sound of Studios A and B at United Recording. When a prior lease was finally set to expire for Studio B, Sides approached his friend about taking it over for himself, and Bill Sr. offered him a “sweetheart deal” on the space.

Allen quickly rebuilt the Studio B control room and moved all his equipment in, but left the astounding acoustic space of the live room alone. Out of all the rooms that he had designed and built, Bill Sr. considered this his favorite, and was thrilled to have his protégé carry on the tradition. Sides' early sessions in Studio B ranged from Frank Zappa and Chick Corea to Neil Diamond and Bette Midler.

In 1982, Bill Sr. decided to lease Studio A to Allen as well. Once again, Sides made a few changes to the control room, but left the main acoustics of the room more or less untouched. One of the first projects to come through its doors was Lionel Ritchie’s Can’t Slow Down, which would go on to sell 25 million copies. A couple of years later, Bill Sr. sold the entirety of the United Western Recorders complex to Allen, at which time Bill Putnam’s United Recording became known as Allen Sides' Ocean Way Studios.

It was also during this time Sides began buying almost a thousand rare tube microphones from overseas. European studio owners and broadcasters had begun dumping loads of “antiquated” tube microphones for brand-new phantom-powered transistor mics. A master of salvaging audio gems, Sides carefully went through every microphone, adding the best of the best to his own collection and selling off the rest. Before long, Ocean Way had amassed one of the largest collections of tube microphones in the world.

Although his sound may be no accident, to hear Allen Sides tell it, he got into audio engineering through something of a sideways path.

“I was a speaker designer at first,” he says. “That was my main thing. I came into recording — to a certain degree — because I was looking for impressive-sounding material to play on my speakers. When I built my first studio it was hard to find a lot of stuff that would make you go 'Wow'! There was just a very finite amount of material where the sound could really shock you.”

One of the few producers at the time who made those kind of recordings was Phil Ramone, who he considers “a mentor from a sonic standpoint.”

“He was one of those guys who set a new standard for what things could sound like. Some of his straight to two-track audiophile stuff was just ridiculous. That's what I always wanted to hear. When the artist comes in, I want them to be speechless.”

In pursuit of that goal, there's no part of the chain that's outside his purview. Bill Jr. describes Allen as being “incredibly obsessed” with everything — from tracking down high-performance transducers and building great-sounding consoles, to getting the room and speakers tuned just right. For him, so much of the battle is won before a single mic even goes up on the stand.

When he does get to recording, Allen generally prefers to work quickly, relying on decades of experience placing great mics in the rooms he knows so well. Rather than fiddle around too much, his primary goal is to make sure he can get a great sound without ever wasting a musician's time. Also paramount is ensuring that the rough mixes the band hears always sound like a finished record, every step of the way – even when they're just listening through headphones on the cutting room floor.

Aside from that, it can be hard to pin down Allen's technical approach much further. “Ultimately,” he says, “all that matters is the end result. That comes from listening and from taste. How you get there is irrelevant.”

In recording, just as in music, it's less about knowing any one trick and more about knowing your instrument and what it's capable doing. In Allen's case, that “instrument” includes the microphone, the signal path, and the room itself. According to Sides, in order to make a great recording, you have to understand how the room reacts to the instrument, and how the mic reacts to the sound within the room.

 

Recreating Ocean Way Studios for the UAD Platform

Over the years, the relationship between Allen and the Putnam family has remained close, and that's perhaps no better exemplified than with the development of the Ocean Way Studios Plug-In for the UAD Powered Plug-Ins Platform.

After Universal Audio was re-founded in 1998, they sought to bring their critically-acclaimed digital emulation expertise to the realm of room modeling, and starting with the iconic rooms their father himself designed seemed an obvious choice.

Sides likens to working in an ongoing collaboration with two generations of Putnams. Bill Sr. designed the space, Allen learned how to make it sing, and Bill Jr. figured out how to make its legendary sound accessible to producers and engineers who might never be able to set a foot inside a studio so well-designed.

When recreating these rooms for the Ocean Way Studios plug-in, Bill Jr. was reminded of just how far ahead of its time his father's work was:

“We can test and measure these things much more accurately now,” he says, “and when I shared our room analysis with some researchers, they were amazed at how quickly the reverb tails fall off into those kind of random, almost noise-like reflections, which is the ideal. So in the process we rediscovered that even from a mathematical standpoint these rooms are pretty spectacular.”

But the goal of the project was not to take a clinical measurement of the room and make it available to other engineers. Instead, Allen and Bill Jr. joined forces to capture these rooms as they sound in a recording.

Rather than put up a couple of sterile measurement mics and call it a day, they instead broke out some of the best pairs from Allen Sides' personal vintage microphone collection — mics like the Neumann U47, U67, and M50, the AKG C12, the RCA 44, and even the incredibly rare RCA 10001 — a microphone best known in the film-scoring world as one of the best ribbons ever made.

From there, each of these hand-selected mic pairs was placed in a variety of positions based on Allen's decades of experience placing these very mics in these very rooms. As Sides puts it, they “not just modeled the room, but the experience,” right down to the mics used and the engineer's informed aesthetic choices.

The behavior of specific instruments within the space were also recreated for the Ocean Way Studios plug-in, as different sources often sound their best in different parts of a room. On top of this, each class of instrument has its own unique dispersion pattern and excites specific frequency ranges that aren’t typically accounted for in a conventional impulse-response reverb.

In this way, to hear the sound of the Ocean Way Studios Plug-In is not only to hear a taste of Studios A and B, but also to hear many variations of these two great rooms. And with the ability to move three simultaneous mic pairs dynamically, it's also possible to conjure up sounds never before imagined.

When all was said and done, the final results of the plug-in surprised even Sides himself, who is by no means the target customer for an emulation of a studio that he already owns. “This is something I would use,” he says. “To put up all these microphones and begin to re-mic a signal would take maybe six hours. But to have it right there at your fingertips during the mix? That's just incredible.”

It seems that even after spending countless hours putting together an authoritative model of his favorite rooms, Sides has still managed to win yet another battle in his endless quest to get a great sound without wasting too much session time.

 

The Next Evolution of Ocean Way

Now, after nearly 30 years under Allen Sides, these legendary studios have changed hands once again. The nearby Sunset Gower Soundstage acquired the rooms and all their equipment, forming a strategic alliance between the recording space and their 100-year-old film and TV studios.

The original recording spaces have stayed true to Putnam’s designs since the beginning, and fortunately, they are set to remain that way for the forseeable future. Under the new owners, everything that is truly important about these historic studios will be left untouched — from top staff and key equipment, right on down to the name (which they've licensed to use). As Allen Sides moves on, the indelible legacy that he and Bill Putnam Sr. built will no doubt carry on into the 21st century, with a new generation of hit-makers coming to work within the storied halls of Ocean Way.

 

 

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