Green Day’s multi-platinum album “American Idiot” was once just an idea, floating about within the walls of Hollywood’s United Recording studio (then known as Ocean Way Recording). Were it not for a sharp-eyed technician, the album might have disintegrated in that same room amid a blaze of infamy.
“There was a piece of wire that was exposed on an extension cord, and on Day 1, we almost burned the building down,” said Rob Cavallo, who produced the 2004 album alongside the band. “Our drum tech said, ‘Oh, my God. Fire! Fire!’ We went running in there from our lunch and caught it just in time.”
The album lived on, and four years after “Warning” failed to meet commercial expectations, “American Idiot” put Green Day back on top with 16 million copies sold worldwide to date. An album wholly disillusioned with the idea of American superiority, Billie Joe Armstrong’s words were made more urgent by the punching drums beneath him, which the pristine sonics of United Recording helped shape.
“We loved the sound of the room itself,” Cavallo said. “If you listen to the song ‘American Idiot,’ there’s times in the song when you hear the drums, and you hear the room. Studio B at United is featured on that song.”
The studios of United Recording have shaped many essential releases across multiple generations of music, from Ray Charles’ landmark “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” to Beck’s Grammy-winning “Sea Change” to Jay-Z’s “4:44,” to name only a few. More recently, Kendrick Lamar rented Studio A for eight months while creating “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” while Paramore later recorded much of “This Is Why,” released last month, in that same room.
The Audio Engineering Society went as far as to name United Recording one of the “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” on the same tier as Abbey Road and Capitol Studios.
But the future of this marveled studio is now in jeopardy.
Earlier this month, its owners announced that it would cease day-to-day operations on April 3 and would instead rent out the studio for film shoots and special events.
Two days before that announcement, nearly all the studio’s 16 employees were laid off by Hudson Pacific Properties, the real estate investment company that purchased the building in 2013. Some staffers were asked to help wind things down, while the majority were shown the door immediately.
A United Recording spokesperson told The Times that the studio would require “longer minimum bookings” for recording sessions after April 3, but declined to provide the new minimum time requirement. The studio will also require clients to bring their own engineers, rather than employing a dedicated staff of technicians who knew the space best, according to a memo the company distributed internally that was reviewed by The Times.
“United Recording is one of the entertainment industry’s most storied and celebrated recording studios, and the changes we have made will keep that heritage intact by strengthening the studio’s financial position while ensuring our clients have the best possible experience,” the spokesperson said.
Multiple employees and producers, however, called the proposed plan a “joke” after the studio laid off all but one employee.
“It’s absurd to me to try and run a studio of that size, with no people on staff,” said one former employee who asked to remain anonymous due to the terms of their severance package. “You can’t just turn those consoles off and back on and hope everything works. It just seems like PR… If it is their actual plan, it’s ill-conceived and it won’t work.”
Several more former employees, who likewise requested to remain anonymous due to terms of their severance, bemoaned Hudson’s leadership, saying the company frequently “sabotaged” the studio’s music operation by prioritizing more lucrative film shoots and events.
In a move that caused staffers (and musicians) additional discontent, Hudson submitted an application to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission to “pick up” the studio and relocate it to the interior of the Sunset Gower complex and demolish the original structure in favor of a 15-story building with creative office space and sound stages.
The plan was approved by the city in October 2020, although construction has yet to begin. (A United Recording spokesperson told The Times that it was working with the city to update the plan but declined to go into details.)
“Their story just keeps changing,” a former engineer said. “It’s hard to know what will happen to the building. We don’t have a ton of faith in them.”
United Recording was the brainchild of Bill Putnam, an influential recording engineer who founded the Universal Recording Corp. in 1946 in Evanston, Ill. As the studio grew in prominence, Putnam caught the eye of Frank Sinatra, who lured him to Los Angeles in 1957.
Sinatra sought a home for his burgeoning label Reprise Records, and he found it within a dilapidated film studio on Sunset Boulevard, which Putnam renovated into United Recording in 1958. He would soon purchase the neighboring Western Studios in 1961, merging the two to create United Western Studios.
For Putnam, great wasn’t great enough — the engineer was hell-bent on innovation, crafting state-of-the-art rooms with equipment that would soon be replicated around the country.
“Frank Sinatra cut some of his classic records there,” said Grammy-winning producer Cavallo. “Some of the greatest engineers in the world… some of the best compressors and mic [preamps] in the world were built and designed there. Bill Putnam is a guy we don’t talk about too much, but he’s largely responsible for the technological advances that started there.”
Leland Sklar, the famed bassist who’s recorded with the likes of James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King, remembers those days fondly. The first time he stepped foot into a music studio, it was Studio A at United in 1967, when he and his band Group Therapy set out to record their first album.
“We weren’t even allowed to play on it,” Sklar recalled, the upstart band too inexperienced to be trusted with the instruments. “It was the [legendary session musicians] Wrecking Crew that played on our album.”
Sklar, now 75, has frequented the studio ever since. He’s built multi-decade friendships with some of the studio’s longest tenured employees, which he said made it easier to jump straight into the creative zone each time he walked in.
“The established studios — Village Recorders, Conway Studios, Capitol, United — always had that kind of feel, because the engineers had been there for many, many years,” Sklar said. “But most of those are all gone at this point. There’s a certain melancholy when you talk about these places.”
In 1984, Putnam sold the complex to Grammy-winning engineer Allen Sides, who renamed it Ocean Way Studios. Sides eventually sold the Western part of the complex in 1999 to early internet pioneer Rick Adams, who renamed it Cello Studios (it’s since been named EastWest studios, and will remain open as United changes course).
By then, Ocean Way’s reputation preceded itself within the music community. Music composer Derek Whitacre remembers moving to Los Angeles in 1998, looking for his big break as a recording engineer, with Ocean Way at the top of his list of dream studios.
He got his wish in 2000, securing a job as a Pro Tools technician.
“You walk around the halls, and it’s pictures of Frank Sinatra in those same rooms [I was in],” Whitacre said. “I remember sitting in the lobby talking to Mick Jagger, or playing with Joni Mitchell’s dog, or talking with Paul McCartney as he came out of the bathroom. Every day, it felt like you were walking through music history and helping to create music history.”
In 2013, Sides sold Ocean Way to Hudson Pacific Properties, which changed the name back to United Recording Studios. The studio motored along, with a new class of top artists such as Jhene Aiko, Lizzo, Marcus Mumford and acclaimed hip-hop producer No I.D. coming through to create.
However, some staffers were wary of the building’s new owners, suspicious they had purchased the property for its real estate value rather than its musical history. Some bristled at low wages and inconsequential raises and were unhappy at how little Hudson would invest in the studio’s future.
“We felt they bought the place because they also owned the Sunset Gower lot,” one employee said. “The studio was basically on the lot already.”
Those fears were heightened in 2017, when Hudson filed an application with the city to demolish the current structure and many of the surrounding buildings, construct multiple high-rise structures on the Sunset Gower lot and “move” United Recordings to the interior of the lot.
The total renovation would create about 628,000 square feet of floor area, spread across three new buildings, according to documents filed with the City Planning Commission that were reviewed by The Times. The tallest building would front the complex in the area United Recording had previously occupied, and would stretch 240 feet tall with 15 stories. (For reference, 9000 Sunset Blvd., currently the tallest building on the street, is 16 stories.)
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, those plans have yet to materialize. A historical site review, which would have given the studio additional protection, was previously completed, but the building didn’t have enough unique architectural features to qualify.
Despite the uncertainty, United began 2023 with a bang; Doritos filmed a Super Bowl commercial that featured Jack Harlow, providing an instant cash infusion. Attempting to get ahead of a potential pivot to prioritizing film shoots ahead of music, staffers did outreach to show the studio’s owners the importance of their work.
It didn’t always have the desired result.
“Our studio manager was trying to get corporate more interested in what we’re doing,” one employee said. “We wanted them to see the value in our work, even if it doesn’t make a ton of money. One guy would come down from time to time, but he’d just be like, ‘I want Green Day to sign my copy of this record, I want Dwight Yoakam to sign my guitar.’”
On March 6, the owners called an all-hands meeting, taking employees aside one by one to let them know their fate. Workers under Hudson’s banner were offered severance, while the many employees who’d been hired via a temp agency called Adecco received nothing, despite often doing the same work as their staff counterparts.
The news is the latest blow to the recording community in Los Angeles; last year, Capitol Records announced that it would temporarily close its revered studio at Capitol Tower for structural repairs. And more recently, beloved rehearsal and recording studio Bedrock.LA officially shuttered its doors, selling off its equipment at a yard sale in December.
It’s not the first time Whitacre has seen so many treasured rooms cut the lights for the final time.
“There was a big purge of studios in the early 2000s, when the record companies were restructuring amid online [music] thievery,” Whitacre said. “It got pretty hairy for a while. I remember 2004, 2005 — every time I walked up to the door, I wondered if it was going to be locked or not.”
These days, a growing number of artists favor a DIY approach, recording at home and mixing tracks themselves or outsourcing it to an engineer through the internet. For some artists, especially younger acts operating within hip-hop, pop and dance, that’s enough to get the job done and keep expenses down, in an era when a single Spotify stream is worth a fraction of a cent. But for those who prefer in-person collaborations and impromptu meetings in a studio hallway, options are drying up.
“There’s fewer and fewer great studios, and that definitely impacts the music scene,” Sklar said. “At some point, maybe people will look to other cities to go to. Nashville, New York, Seattle, even Canada. Maybe we’ll all go to Europe.”
As conglomerates attempt to expand their slices of L.A.’s ever-inflating real estate market, engineers and artists are looking around for their life rafts.
“Certainly, there are artists in the business who are incredibly successful, that could potentially put together an investment group and purchase these properties, to make sure they’re here for the foreseeable future,” Sklar said. “Whether or not there would be interest, I don’t know.”
Former staffers, however, fear Hudson would be an unlikely seller, because the Sunset Boulevard property is simply too valuable to a company whose portfolio is built on real estate. With long-term plans for the building still in flux, many are operating as if United Recording were already closed — artists and producers have been swooping in since the announcement, snagging backup copies of their work from the tape vault to ensure their safety.
The skeleton crew of engineers who are on board until April tries to keep their woes to themselves while artists are around. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that an era is drawing to a close.
“Most people know at this point, it’s such a small world,” one engineer said. “I was assisting in a session on Monday, and we just had to keep it together until the end. Another engineer was in tears by the end of the night.”
“It’s just sad,” Cavallo added. “Angelenos don’t even realize, some of their favorite recordings — the world’s favorite recordings — came out of there. We’re losing our Abbey Road.”