Columbia Studios Spins The Automatt

Here’s the rest of/rest of the story on Columbia Studios, who stuck in out in S.F. until 1977…around the time producer David Rubinson held the grand opening party for The Automatt, the studio he opened in their Folsom Street building. The Automatt started as a one-room studio here; he had time to install some pretty good equipment—including the city’s first (working) automated console—and record a couple of projects before Columbia threw him a curveball. The saga begins below. In-session info on excellent Patti Labelle and Herbie Hancock projects. Happy Reading! — Heather

The time had come for [David] Rubinson to secure his own studio, and an opportunity to reconnect with his comrades at Columbia seemed like an ideal choice. Under the agreement, Columbia would provide the room, maintenance, parking, reception, and microphones—basically, all of the extras—and Rubinson would provide the console, machines, his ace engineer Fred Catero, an assistant, and lots of clients. Again, he offered to pay by the year. Agreements were made, papers were signed, and in the fall of 1976, Rubinson hung the shingle for The Automatt, a combined reference to an old New York fast-food chain and the advanced technology that would grace his small studio.
David Rubinson in The Automatt’s Studio A. Kaz Tsuruta Photography

David Rubinson in The Automatt’s Studio A. Kaz Tsuruta Photography

He installed a custom Harrison 4824 (Harrison had just come into the market in 1975) console with programmable mute keys on every module and brought in a decent selection of outboard equipment: an Eventide Harmonizer and Omnipressor and various limiters, EQs, and machine sync equipment for the MCI 24-track, Scully 8-track, and MCI 2-track machines. Monitors included the popular Altec “Big Red” system driven by Mac 75 power amps.

Mike Larner, who came on board as Rubinson’s engineering consultant, put together a computer-accessed automation storage and retrieval system that interfaced with The Automatt’s Harrison 4032. The Allison Memory-Plus Automation System had the ability to store more than 65,000 separate functions. With the Zilog Z-80 computer system, automatic recall of a mix became possible. Another Larner invention, Autopunch, interfaced the Allison programmer with the MCI 24-track, thereby automating all of its tape-recorder functions, including motion control, record, and playback.

Another Automatt first was Larner’s 4-track earphone cue system, which let each musician mix his or her own cue balance. Today, most studios have up to 16-channel headphone cue systems. At the time, the Automatt system was revolutionary and a huge benefit to the musicians, who could now hear only what they needed to hear without affecting the other musicians’ mixes or relying on the engineer’s headphone mix. With The Automatt, Rubinson got everything that Heider’s wouldn’t provide and then some, and he began touting The Automatt as the city’s first fully automated studio.

In 1977, Rubinson brought Patti Labelle to his relatively new studio to record her self-titled solo debut. Prior to the session, he and his A&R man, Jeff Cohen, selected about 40 songs (some of which Cohen co-wrote) to take to Labelle in her native Philadelphia. She had also written several songs for the project, and together they narrowed down the list to an album’s worth of material. Next came rehearsals at The Automatt with Labelle. The band included musical director/pianist Bud Ellison, drummer James Gadson, guitarist Ray Parker, Jr. (of later “Ghostbusters” fame), and bassist George Porter and guitarist Leo Nocentelli from The Meters, who had just come up from New Orleans the week before to record a Meters album with Rubinson at The Automatt. According to a 1977 feature in Modern Recording, Catero used a “standard, basic set-up” that included Neumann U-87s on the guitar amps, bass and Fender Rhodes recorded direct, two U-87s on the acoustic piano; on the drums were U-87s, Shure SM56s, and Sony C-22s. For Labelle’s powerhouse vocals, Catero used a Shure SM56 for the “live” cuts. If the lead vocal was overdubbed, he used a U-87 with Labelle singing close to the wind-screen. “Patti’s voice is so strong and clean she could telephone in her part and it would come out sounding great,” he said.

Labelle and the band recorded “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover” completely live, and they built up “Dan Swit Me” from the ground floor, writing and composing the song in the studio. Rubinson notes that Labelle, as with most singers he worked with, always sang live with the band—that interaction was crucial in these creative moments—with a few “fixes” made later, if need be.

For “Dan Swit Me,” they laid down a foundation with one of Roland’s first rhythm machines, with drums, bass, piano, and guitar and background vocals added on top. Labelle reportedly wanted to add her own backing vocals, but Rubinson advised against it; her voice was too powerful for backgrounds, even her own! The experience led to a solo album that would ultimately send the singer down a new path of high-charting success.

Herbie Hancock first came to the burgeoning Automatt to listen to the mix of V.S.O.P., the live album from the reformed Miles Davis Quintet (minus Miles, but with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet). Hancock reportedly didn’t like the amount of echo he had requested from Rubinson on the piano track. He wanted to change it. Had Rubinson owned the average manual board, the remix would have been quite tedious and costly. But with Allison Automation on board, Catero could simply recall the original mix, tweak the EMT on the piano, and save the new mix. They were able to make the change without altering the levels on another client’s album being mixed on the Harrison at the time.

The president and chairman of Columbia listened to the final mix of V.S.O.P. during the official grand opening party for The Automatt. A who’s who of San Francisco’s recording scene came out to celebrate the occasion, and Rubinson was thrilled to raise a glass to his new recording home, which was already booming. “They walked out the door, everybody was feeling great, and the announcement came the next day that they were closing the entire studio complex, including The Automatt,” Rubinson remembers.

“Closing! I signed the paper! I gave them a lot of money! I was depending on their ass, and they announced they were closing the San Francisco studio. I called them up and said, ‘You were just in my studio. I signed the lease with you guys, what do you mean you’re closing? My machines are in there. My whole life is in there. I’ve got projects booked for the next two years. You can’t close.’”

CBS/Columbia forbade Rubinson to record any Columbia acts until they settled a nasty dispute that arose with the engineer’s union as a result of their closing. But The Automatt wasn’t a union studio, Rubinson protested. Couldn’t they keep recording?

They locked the door.

Wanna read more? Get the full story on The Automatt and other S.F. studios, here.


Filed under Music, Recording, San Francisco

8 responses to “Columbia Studios Spins The Automatt

  1. Michael Reif

    I would love to know what happened to the archives of master tapes when the Automatt closed in 1984. I produced an album there in 1981 and left the 2″ masters there. It was for a singer-songwriter named Gene Sarazen who has recently died. Jim Gordon played drums, Billy Cross guitar, Larry Russell Base and Allen Pasqua keyboards. Any redirection would be greatly appreciated, Michael

  2. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  3. john nowland

    Michelle Zarin was the manager when it closed, and made all attempts to return masters. Not sure what happened to leftovers. Trying to track down a Neil YOung master that was last noted as being @ “CBS-76”

    Good luck


  4. Pingback: Sharon Redd, Ula Hedwig & Charlotte Crossley – Formerly Of The Harlettes « My Jazz World Archives

  5. Sign: zdbrw Hello!!! rkyym and 8574czynwpnzuv and 2702 : I love your site. 🙂 Love design!!! I just came across your blog and wanted to say that Ive really enjoyed browsing your blog posts.

  6. I recorded there in ’84 with Fred Catero and Daniel Levitin (see the website linked here: I own the complete rights to the never-released master):

    I’m currently working with Fred Catero on his bio/memoir, and I’m looking for anyone who would like to add any of your own personal stories about your own experiences working with Fred.

  7. coale johnson

    I worked on the creation of the last room they built…. studio D (?) I think. We weren’t done when Andy Johns and Eddy Money came in to do an album….. whoooboy. They blew the monitors, stomped out cigarettes on the new parquet floors (hmmmm, were they tobacco?) and left an empty whiskey bottle on the console. Now that’s Rock and Roll…..

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