Capitol Records LA : A History of Sound Chambers & Reverb
Capitol Records was the first recording studio to open its doors on the west coast of the United States. Quickly the label established itself amongst its east coast and southern contemporaries, and working in the studio became the ambition of many aspiring musicians - traveling cross-country for the chance to be a part of the label’s success and to enrich their recordings with reverb from Capitol Records mysterious echo chambers.
It’s almost guaranteed that you’ve heard music from Los Angeles based record label – Capitol Records. A favoured haunt of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, Capitol Records has produced tracks from The Beatles’ Help! to the Beastie Boys’ masterpiece Pauls Boutique. The label’s state-of-the-art recording studios and world-renowned engineers are contributing factors to Capitol’s continued success. However it’s what lies beneath the north-east car park that may be the secret to the unique sound of Capitol Records releases.
The thirteen-story Hollywood Boulevard building was commissioned in 1955 shortly after the label acquisition by international recording giants Electric and Musical Industries (EMI). The architecture resembles stacked records, even the mast could be likened to a turntable’s needle. Astonishingly, the stylistic choice was coincidental: Louise M. Naidorf, sole architect for the project remarked in a 2000 interview:
"It was a secret project in the office. I didn't know who the client was. All I was told was that they wanted an office building filled with lots of individual offices."
While the aesthetic of the building was never intended to reflect its purpose, the Capitol Records building is not without its mysteries. Hidden 30 feet below the headquarters, far away from prying eyes - and ears - lie eight chambers; rooms void of pretty much anything - and that is exactly how they were intended to be.
Designed by none other than the father of the electric guitar, inventor and recording genius Les Paul, these eight chambers were created to reflect sound. Each chamber has a unique trapezoidal shape and no two surfaces - not even the floors or ceilings - run parallel. These off-set rooms are engineered to maximise echo, creating up to 5 seconds of reverberation after sound is introduced. This 5 seconds of effect time has the ability to sonically transform audio; drawing out detail like a good varnish brings out the finer parts in a wood grain. An excellent example of Capitol Record’s echo can be sampled in the in the Beach Boys’ 1964 smash hit Surfin’ USA cementing the iconic harmonised vocals the band are so known for.
Applying reverberation - or reverb as it is more commonly known - to a track is straightforward: sound is piped down to amplifiers at one end of a chamber and the sound with added reverb is collected from microphones at the other side, but it is the quality of Capitol Records reverb that sets it apart. Up until the introduction of plate reverb units – reverb created with a spring mounted plate and transducer in the same way an echo is created by casting a stone on a frozen lake - chambers were as the only way to authentically create reverb in a studio environment and Capitol Records was one of the only facilities on earth that had this on site.
Today reverb is available in an endless variety of colour and voicings; there is even reverb modelled after line 14 of the Paris Métro. But not the Capitol Records echo; the character of the unique effect has never been truly emulated, if you wished to experience it first hand you would have to take a trip to the tower itself. Without an invitation though don’t hold your breath, Capitol Records is still a Record producing titan and have only opened their doors for the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the building.
Check out our Capitol Records Playlist: