Capitol Records: Music and Technology Come Together at Capitol Royale in Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES, CA-
“Artists reveal. Musicians reveal to technologists what technology is for. It is not the other way around, no matter how much technologists want to say it’s the other way. I can tell you this because I’m one of the people who writes the code. I built the tech. And I didn’t know what it was for- musicians showed me.” Amil Dash (CEO, Glitch), Capitol Royale panel ‘How Music & Tech Build Each Other’
The recording industry has been on a continuous creative journey since before 1942 when Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records in Los Angeles and big band vocalist Martha Tilton jazzed it up in Capitol’s very first recording session, an analog single-track 78rpm pressing of “Moondreams.” Today, while digital and Dolby multi-track are the industry standards, recording boundaries are constantly being pushed with new technologies and continuous evolution. To honor and further examine the role technology plays in the music business, Capitol Music Group sponsored its second annual Capitol Royale event, Music on the Move, a full weekend of seminars, demonstrations, live music showcases and tours of the iconic Capitol Records’ famous studios.
The Capitol Records building, a towering cylinder of louvered discs, located near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, opened in 1956 and was designed by architect Louis Naidorf of Walter Becket Associates. Relocated from the studio’s first location on Melrose, this second one is often referred to as ‘The House That Nat Built,’ and it was Nat King Cole himself who first recorded in the building, in a session conducted by Frank Sinatra. Declared a Historic-Cultural Monument, the building’s 13-levels and spire, which blinks out the word Hollywood in Morse Code, resonates as a mid-century modern masterpiece, but it was its underground echo chambers, devised by guitar virtuoso and inventor Les Paul, that was absolutely revolutionary in recording technology in the mid-1950s. These eight echo chambers, trapezoidal in shape and located 30-feet below the rear parking lot, are natural reverb chambers, each containing 2 microphones and 2 speakers. At the time they were constructed there was no other way to get that delicious reverb sound. Music patched into any single one of a chamber’s speakers will bounce around the small room with no parallel walls, creating a decay time of up to 4-seconds, an echo, which is then picked up by mics and sent back to the mixing board for further tinkering. This innovative method of harnessing natural reverb was greatly in demand and became known as ‘the Capitol Sound.’ Though the effect can now be manipulated digitally, these old-fashioned echo chambers have been used on every single record ever made at Capitol and still continue to be used every day, proving that sometimes the oldest technology is often the most sought after.
The incredible Studio Tour, offered as part of the event, takes us into the control rooms, behind the mixing boards and into the actual recording studios A, B and C. Recording engineer Steve tells us in Studio A, “Music does not happen in the mixing room, it happens in the recording room, by musicians playing it. My job is to capture it. If they want something different or manipulated, then I can do that. But if we do our job right, the musicians actually do it. I start without using anything. I start by choosing the right microphone and putting the right musician in the right place in the room and making sure they can hear themselves. These are all tools,” he says motioning to the mixing board, “and tools are used to fix stuff. But if it’s not broken, you don’t need a tool.”
In Studio C, staff engineer Nick Rives demonstrates a most modern technology of Dolby Atmos surround sound, using a 20-speaker playback system to let us hear a new remix of Elton John’s 1972 song “Rocket Man.” We are entranced by the layers of this new digitally enhanced version, hearing parts that had previously been buried in the mix, proving that new technology, when used responsibly and with humane care, can be used to strengthen and complement an existing music track.
The Capitol Royale event stretches out all day on both Saturday and Sunday, giving us the opportunity to hear lectures and panel discussions such as ‘The Evolution of Sound: Saturday Night Fever Then and Now,’ ‘Head vs. Heart: How Data is Transforming A&R,’ ‘From AM Radio to Fully Immersive Experience; Music’s Journey in the Car’ and ‘Content & Technology, How One Informs the Other.’ During this same time live DJs spin records around an outside beer garden, a Motown Lounge offers a chance to chill out on comfortable couches and listen to songs from that label, several bands chosen by BandsInTown perform live sets and a parking lot Wax Fair offers vintage vinyl for sale. A VIP Happy Hour in Studio A on Saturday allows us to hear live sets by artists in the Motown Accelerator Program while sampling deliciously handcrafted cocktails. The takeaway is that technology definitely does enhance the music industry, but it is the humanity in artists and listeners that is the most important part of the equation.
This is summed up nicely by Anil Dash in his seminar conducted in Studio A, ‘How Music & Tech Build Each Other.’ Dash, CEO of Glitch and an advocate for a more ethical technological industry tells us, “It certainly is not impossible to spend more time with technologies that are created by people who give a damn. That’s what this event is about. That’s what this kind of community is about, drawing the connections between people who understand the powers that creators have in this world.” He challenges us to “think very deliberately about where we spend our time and attention, how much time we spend with our hands on the keyboard or our thumbs on the screen, and whether that time is spent giving as much meaning to our lives as the best music and the best art does.” He asks us to apply mindfulness to technology and question “where I’m spending my time, attention and money and whether that is something creative, regenerative and supportive. If that number isn’t something that you feel good about, then you have to take the time to change it.”
Capitol Royale Music On the Move, November 15-17, 2019, Capitol Records, Hollywood, CA