On Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, a recording studio once frequented by Bing Crosby and The Beach Boys has been getting a lot of new attention from acts including Haim, Kesha, Black Lips and more, eager to play with pristine vintage gear untouched for decades.
“People will pay top dollar to record at these historic studios, to feel humbled by who’s been there before them,” says Nic Jodoin, producer and studio manager of the refurbished Valentine Recording Studios since it reopened in 2015. “Those who belong here will walk into the studio and feel excited to become part of its legacy.”
But it’s not only a sense of legacy left by past icons that’s drawing artists to Valentine Studios today. The space itself is transportive — when you step inside, it’s like stepping into the past, from the elegant, nostalgic feel of its vintage furniture and classic decor to the warm, comforting tones of its aged tube amps and ribbon microphones. If the space feels frozen in time, it’s because it has been.
In 1946, war veteran and aspiring recording engineer Jimmy Valentine began to assemble his first home studio. He had gotten a job as an engineer at Capitol Records and, noticing a growing demand for recording time, eventually decided to open his own studio in a former dentist’s office. Over the years, Valentine Recording Studios became a sought-after location for sessions with musical visionaries such as Bing Crosby, Stan Kenton, The Beach Boys, Jackson Browne and Frank Zappa, along with voiceovers for Hollywood pictures like television series Battle of the Planets and productions by Hanna-Barbera.
But changes in music during the late ’60s weren’t agreeable to Valentine. The more artists wanted to be involved with the recording process, the more turned off he became. Says Jodoin, “Until the mid-’60s, you’d have the Wrecking Crew playing on everything… At some point, the artists decided that they wanted to do everything themselves. Now, instead of hired guns coming in and getting it done in three takes, the engineer had to worry about the opinions of these players who couldn’t really bring it on.”
The growing influence of drugs on the genre — and their prevalence in the studio — also deterred Valentine from taking on new clients. Meanwhile, his attention turned to another business opportunity: After he and his wife, Eve, had trouble finding spare parts for their 1957 Nash Metropolitan, they started buying up all they could find and in 1975, opened a specialty auto shop next door to the stuid — a family-run business that still exists to this day. With that change in focus, Valentine Record Studios became a storage unit for the Metropolitan Pit Stop and went otherwise unused for nearly 30 years.
When Jodoin moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, he had his sights set on breaking into producing and songwriting. After getting his start as a member of the Vancouver-based psych garage outfit, The Minstrels, he began working with pop and hip-hop producers. Decades later, the resurgence of garage rock and analog recording equipment returned Jodoin to his roots and supported his devotion to collecting old-school recording gear. In 2015, when Jodoin reluctantly agreed to check out an old studio’s leftover equipment at his friend’s bequest, he couldn’t have known what kind of treasure trove he’d find.
“The family didn’t really know what to do with the place, but they were thinking about selling the gear,” says Jodoin. “They were pretty open to my idea of reopening the studio because of the namesake and its story. People had looked at the space over the years, but everybody thought they needed to modernize it; it was just the right timing when I walked in, because I didn’t think so. My idea was that we’ll just buy a good converter and we can use all the original equipment. The technology is good enough.”
Valentine’s detailed record-keeping allowed Jodoin to reassemble the studio to its original set up. Several months of cleaning out the space and analyzing its salvageable equipment revealed several mysterious quirks, like two functional trapdoor echo chambers in its ceiling and what Jodoin described as a spiritual presence making unexplainable noises when he first moved in.
The two recording rooms still use much of the same equipment as they did nearly 60 years ago, like an 32-input MCI JH-416 Quadraphonic board console, three Pultec EQP1 equalizers, a remote-controlled Universal Audio 177 limiter, a mono EMT 140 reverberation plate, Quad Eight spring reverb and a variety of other preamps, equalizers and compressors. Vintage shag carpeting in burnt-orange and golden hues and geometric motifs on its walls have made the location ideal for period-piece film shoots. The use of analog equipment and its chic, vintage aesthetic provides a time-capsule feel.
“I didn’t want to have big [computer monitor] screens in front,” Jodoin says. “I want people to sit down and be part of what’s going on in the studio around them. If there’s a big screen and that’s all you’re looking at, it’s a different mind-frame. What we have to offer is that experience.”
Valentine Recording Studios officially reopened in 2015 and word has spread quickly around the city’s music scene. Haim, Gotye, Eagles of Death Metal, Kesha, Elle King, Black Lips, The Coathangers and Curtis Harding have all recorded there, drawn to the vintage gear and warm ’60s aura that blankets the space’s sound. Still, Jodoin is selective about how the studio is used and who records there.
“I feel like a protector of it,” he says. “I try to keep things as much as possible as they were. It’s too much of a mom-and-pop vibe and that’s most important to me. This is a vulnerable space and I don’t want to deal with someone who’s unhappy because of expectations, or who won’t appreciate the quirks of what we have to offer. I’m not a hardcore purist, though. I still use Pro Tools. I think even when I do use modern stuff, it’s still in that same mentality.”
While most of Valentine’s relatives are focused on running the Metropolitan Pit Stop next door, the studio still remains a family operation. Valentine’s grandson, Justin Barsony, and his wife, Britney, have partnered with Jodoin on the venture and are learning more about their family history in the process: Barsony wasn’t even aware of the studio’s history until Jodoin began researching it. Today, the business acts as a tribute to its former self, but more importantly — after Valentine died of cancer in 2008 — it also supports assisted living care for his wife, Eve, late in her life.
“When we sat down and made a plan for the studio, the most important thing was to pay for Eve’s care,” Jodoin says. “Whatever we were going to do, it was with this mentality. My interest was not to come in and call it ‘Nic’s Studio’ and make it whatever I wanted. It was going to be Valentine Recording Studios, like it has always been.”
In an age when home recording has never been easier, Jodoin is optimistic there’s a future for Valentine Recording Studios as an alternative to those contemporary techniques.
“I hope I’m carrying out the Valentine legacy — I’m a fan,” he says. “I haven’t met Jimmy, but I would like to think that he would appreciate what’s going on.”
When you’re coming up there are a lot of opportunities and what will seem like shortcuts to success. There’s a lot of decisions to make and a lot of opinions being thrown your way. You have to keep the cap on your goals and stay true to your vision.
I’ve learned that making mistakes is part of the process. That’s how you learn and sometimes that’s how you discover and create amazing things.
The great thing about music is that it’s forever. It will outlive you. It’s history. So that said, you’re better off working on something you can be proud of than chasing a paycheck.
What’s tough is how hard it is to keep a good perspective when you’re working on something for a long time. I find that often the first idea and how you instinctively do it has the essence of what it’s all about. It’s easy to lose that perspective once you work with it over and over.
Most people don’t understand how many hours (and days) can be spent in the studio just to make a three-and-a-half-minute song. The whole process from writing, to arranging, to setting up, to getting performances, and mixing. The back-and-forth between the band members and their producers, managers and labels. There’s a lot that goes on and sometimes, when we’re lucky, it seems like it all falls into places perfectly and effortlessly. Those are special moments, the rewards.
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