Hyde Street Studios Survives and Thrives

Apparently, rumours have been swirling about town that Hyde Street Studios is either closed or closing. Just this past weekend, a musician friend of mine told me that his band was booked there in April, and they were going to be one of the last! Well, it’s true that this historic studio — a haven to established acts and indie bands alike — will close, but no date has been set, and probably won’t for some time, according to the studio’s management. When it does, the real estate developers that own 245 Hyde and other buildings on the Turk/Hyde block will gut the building and turn it into a condominium complex. In The Tenderloin. However, they’re stuck in red tape at present, which means this could happen later in 2007, or in 2008, or maybe even later. In the meantime, it’s business as usual at Hyde Street Studios, and make no mistake — they’re as busy as ever right now! It’s not the prettiest place in the world, but there are some great studios lurking within that building. Studio A contains all the high-end gear you could want, and Justin Phelps and crew have done a bang-up job remodeling famed Studio C. In between, there’s a myriad of smaller rooms, and production suites where local artists do their work. The fact that a studio that’s survived for nearly 40 years will one day become small, nondescript, and likely very expensive living spaces is troublesome, indeed. In the meantime, if you’re a musician, producer, or engineer with a project on the horizon, give this place a call.

Below, I’ve included an excerpt from my book on the beginnings of Wally Heider Recording, now known as Hyde Street Studios, and the inaugural recording session from Jefferson Airplane. More info on this studio will surface in forthcoming blogs. You can also read a bit about one of the Pointer Sisters’ sessions in one of my previous blogs, here. Okay, enough babbling. Thanks for reading — Heather j

<>Wally Heider Recording
<>San Francisco’s recording landscape experienced a seismic shift on April 27, 1969, the opening date of Wally Heider Recording.

<><>Heider’s already established reputation as a producer, engineer, and owner of a popular professional studio in L.A. suddenly gave many San Francisco bands a reason to record in town. Before Heider’s arrival, nearly all major local acts recorded at their respective label studios in Los Angeles or New York. The Grateful Dead recorded their first album at Warner Bros. in L.A. Jefferson Airplane holed up in RCA’s basement studios for their first five albums. Quicksilver Messenger Service’s debut came out of Capitol Studios in Hollywood and Creedence Clearwater Revival did their first three there. Big Brother & the Holding Company and Moby Grape tracked at Columbia Studios in New York. As young artists, they oft en didn’t have much choice in the matter, although that was slowly changing as artists gained more power in the industry. Plus, it worked to the labels’ financial advantage to keep their artists—their products—in-house. But even if a big-name band wanted to record in their home city, the facilities available in early 1969 couldn’t compare technically or acoustically with the facilities available at or near label headquarters. So off they went, until a piece of L.A. moved up North.

<>Wally Heider oversaw an L.A. studio deemed more than acceptable by label standards. A former attorney turned engineer mentored by Bill Putnam, Heider likely saw an opportunity to create a substantial recording center in San Francisco based on the overflowing talent pool there at the time, and he had more than enough connections to make it happen. Laurel Canyon boys David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash recorded their groundbreaking debut Crosby, Stills & Nash at Heider’s Studio 3 in 1968 before moving north to join San Francisco’s community. Famed producer/engineer Al Schmitt, a Tom Dowd protégé and Grammy-winning engineer since 1962, also worked at Heider’s L.A. studio regularly. Both would both go on to become some of Heider’s first San Francisco clients.

<>A longstanding passion for music brought Heider into the recording business and, on more than one occasion, to San Francisco. He had played saxophone in a big band but, as he readily admitted to his staff , he was such a bad player that the bandleaders made him turn away from the mic. Recording other musicians seemed a more logical choice. He recorded a number of
Woody Herman shows, following the group around in a station wagon with an Ampex 351 in the back. After moving to Los Angeles from Oregon in the late ’50s, Heider went to work for Bill Putnam at United Recording Studios as a part-time apprentice. He worked his way up to engineer, then moved again to serve as chief engineer at Putnam’s Las Vegas studio. While there, he leased his remote recording equipment to United and managed that end of United’s business, as well. About 18 months later, he left Putnam’s expanding umbrella, moved to Hollywood, and opened a small studio in 1965. In 1967, he launched Studio 3 of Wally Heider Recording, which he then sold to Filmways a year later. He remained actively involved in both his L.A. and San Francisco studios during the next decade.

The same year he opened Studio 3, he drove one of his popular remote trucks to the Monterey Pop Festival, an event that may have given him the impetus to open a studio in San Francisco. His other work as a live recordist may have also influenced his decision to expand to S.F., right down to his choice of address. Heider leased an old building near the corner of Turk and Hyde for the new Wally Heider Recording site. That building, 245 Hyde Street to be exact, previously housed film offices, screening rooms, a soundstage, and storage for 20th Century Fox, and it sat across from the legendary Blackhawk nightclub, where Heider recorded some Miles Davis performances for CBS. The hot jazz club was long gone when Heider moved to the neighborhood. In its place was a methadone clinic.

The Tenderloin district was raw, on its way to becoming seedy, when Heider sent Dave Mancini, owner of Devonshire Sound Studios in L.A., to design and build the new rooms. Studio C would come first, with a total of four rooms running by 1971. Heider hired Mel Tanner away from Coast Recorders to serve as general manager, with studio manager Ginger Mews, chief tech Harry Sitam, and staff engineer Russ Gary rounding out the original staff.

Measuring roughly the size of Studio 3 in L.A., Studio C offered EMT plates, tape delay units, and access to live echo chambers. The recording room was covered with odd-looking, square midrange/diffuser-type objects that were popular at the time. While engineers have described the studio area as everything from “great-sounding” to “crackerbox,” not many criticized its equipment. Possibly influenced by mentor Putnam, Heider installed custom DeMedio equipment throughout his facility, most notably a 24-channel console for Studio C equipped with passive Universal Audio EQs on their way to United Audio plug-in line amps. It had eight buses and Gotham linear faders that had a resolution of 2dB steps. It was a workhorse of a board, nearly indestructible. Outboard gear included four UREI 1176s, two Teletronix LA-2As, Altec and Lang EQs, and two portable Pultec EQs. The monitoring system featured Altec 604-E loudspeakers with McIntosh 275 power amps, which cranked loud enough during playback to satisfy most of the rock and rollers. They also had an amply stocked mic closet and two of the finest tape machines in town—an Ampex MM1000 and a 3M 56 16-track—both as new to the city as the studio itself.

Thrilled at the idea of getting away from RCA’s watchful eyes and corporate hassles, not to mention recording in a new, independently owned studio and sleeping in their own beds at night, Jefferson Airplane booked Studio C to record their sixth album, Volunteers, months before the room was even finished. They didn’t care that they had to pay for studio time—about three months total—for the first time. Freedom, comfort, and making the record they wanted to make took priority over money, which they had more than enough of anyway. Grace Slick probably enjoyed driving her new Aston Martin to the studio. She parked it out front in the “No Parking” zone so she wouldn’t have to walk through the sketchy neighborhood, and after the sessions, she made the short drive home to the Airplane mansion on Fulton Street, thus avoiding much of the hassle of recording in L.A.

The group brought up Al Schmitt from L.A., who had recorded their previous three albums, to produce the sessions. Heider, in his typical fashion, went out of his way to tend to his clients: he made sure Schmitt had a nice place to stay and even loaned him his car while he was in town. The Airplane worked Monday through Friday. They usually started in the afternoon, took a break for dinner at a nearby restaurant—sometimes at Original Joe’s, an oldtime steak and spaghetti place at Taylor and Turk—then resumed work at Heider’s until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Friday night, Schmitt would catch a midnight flight to spend the weekends with his family. They took their time in the studio, giving this album more attention than any of their previous works.

While Heider’s crew finished up final tweaks to Studio C, Jefferson Airplane would come in as a unit to record basic tracks. Aside from putting Jack Casady’s bass amp in the still-unfinished Studio D, Schmitt kept the recording process simple. He didn’t experiment with any off -the-wall recording techniques; he just wanted to capture their latest collection of songs as best he could while ironing out some minor kinks on the brand-new DeMedio board.
Throughout the recording of basic tracks and overdubs, frequent visits from friends and fellow musicians added not only to the relaxed vibe, but to the album itself. Jerry Garcia added a pedal steel part to “The Farm.” Nicky Hopkins took a break from his Quicksilver Messenger Service duties to play piano on several tracks, and many other friends came by to listen, smoke a joint, or just hang out. “We were always having visitors,” recalls Schmitt.

“Janis [Joplin] would come by, Big Mama Cass…David Crosby would stick his head in every so oft en. Anytime anyone was in town they’d drop by the studio. A big part of the day was socializing, which was one of the reasons records took as long as they did [back then]. And my job was to keep it all going, because me and [Airplane manager] Bill Thompson were the ones getting all the calls from RCA!”

Calls to Schmitt became even more frequent and heated after he turned in the record. With the recent election of President Richard Nixon and the unrest on college campuses over the Vietnam War dominating the news, Kantner voiced his own views on “We Can Be Together” and the title track, which he wrote with Marty Balin. RCA nearly rejected the record. “When they heard ‘Up against the wall motherfucker’ [on ‘We Can Be Together’] they almost died!” says Schmitt. “They were not going to put this record out. They said, ‘No way. You have got to change that.’ And I said, ‘You know what, you’re going to have to talk to them because they’re not going to change it.’” And they didn’t. Jefferson Airplane did not give in, but the label did, and released the album as is, (although the off ending word was written as “Fred” on the lyric sheet).

Chalk up one for the Airplane and a big one for Wally Heider Recording; which, by the time the group left in the summer of 1969, had become the most popular game in town…
Read about the next 37 years (and counting), here.


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Filed under Music, Recording, San Francisco

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