Exclusive: A private tour of Capitol Records’ historic 60-year-old L.A. studios

As Capitol Studios in Los Angeles prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Ron McMaster, mastering engineer at Capitol Studios for over 30 years, told Steve Marinucci that he's seen the resurgence of vinyl first-hand. …

The historic Capitol Records tower

As Capitol Studios in Los Angeles prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Ron McMaster, mastering engineer at Capitol Studios for over 30 years, told Steve Marinucci that he’s seen the resurgence of vinyl first-hand. Capitol Records is long known as the label of the Beatles in the U.S. as well as the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and others. And the Capitol Studios will open their doors for an unprecedented two-day event this weekend that will allow the public to go inside the same building where Sinatra, Dean Martin, the Beatles, Gene Vincent and many others once roamed its halls.

The Capitol Records building near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles.
Steve Marinucci

“I came in the building in December of ’76, “ he said in a phone interview. And just how different were things back then? “It was a complete analog world, so it was quite different,” he said. “All the procedures were different and it took a lot longer because you had to run a tape copy or everything was in real time, no copy-paste situations at all, so to speak where you had a file or just checked it. So it was quite different.” This weekend, during the studio’s huge public two-day event to celebrate the milestone on May 21 and 22, he’ll be giving demonstrations of how records are cut.

McMaster says the uptick in popularity of vinyl caught him by surprise. “I would never have thought I’d still be cutting vinyl in 2016. I would have lost that bet for sure because I kind of felt it had petered out before this resurgence came about. I was cutting a few dance records here and there. And before the hip-hop group went digital, I would do some of those records. But that was primarily it. When the resurgence came along, people were licensing stuff from other companies, then our own company wants to put all their stuff back out on vinyl. It’s just overwhelming to the point where it’s pretty much all I do now. I do a few CDs, mastering sessions here and there, but most of my work is vinyl. I’m getting stuff out for my label and independents.” As we spoke to him at the beginning of May, he was remastering a previously released Christmas album for re-release so consumers could have it for the holidays.”

You can’t miss the Capitol Records building as you drive on the freeway. “Iconic” is the obvious word, but that’s really an understatement because the building, designed by Walter Becket and opened in 1956, is made to look like a stack of records. The studio’s first client was Sinatra, who was to record what later was released as “Frank Sinatra Conducts His Tone Poems of Color” album. The Capitol Studios and Capitol Records, which are both under the Universal Music Group umbrella, are two separate brands. The Capitol Records label will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year.

These days, the building is still filled with history. The Beatles were a huge part of the legacy of Capitol Records, but they never recorded in the studios there. They did, however, meet the press in the building in 1965 and 1966. Today, the Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for each of the Beatles are just outside the door, as are those for Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. And just inside an archive room, you can’t help but notice several boxes of tapes for the Beatles “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” album, as well as other Beatles albums and albums by Sinatra and the Beach Boys just resting quietly on the shelves.

The walls inside the building don’t appear to have changed much, though the studios, of course, have because of advances of technology. A recent tour of Capitol Studios revealed that many historic items are still around, including a microphone and podium used by Sinatra. We also walked into the room where Paul McCartney’s “Live Kisses” session was held. One of Capitol’s most famous assets, its echo chamber, was put in danger in 2008 when a high-rise was planned next door to the Tower but the project was shelved and the chambers were saved. But just being in the building is an incredible experience.

The two-day event this weekend will feature not only an open door event but a Wax Record Fair on the Capitol lot. There will be special tours and different live performers each day. On Saturday, it’ll be Mike Watt & the Secondmen, Milo Gonzalez, War & Pierce, Pastilla, Girl Is Tough, Slimkid3, Black Shakespeare and Ned Leamer. Sunday will feature Pearl Charles, Howler, Isaac Rother & the Phantoms, Gold Star and Luke Top.

Ticket prices are $50 for the general admission tour of Studios A, B and C, access to photo opportunities and entry to the Wax Record Fair. VIP Passes are $100, which also include an interactive studio experience, hi-def audio and surround sound demonstrations and vinyl cutting demonstration. Vinyl Fair admission is $10. Tickets are available from the Capitol Studios website. Capitol Studios also says it plans additional events, including an evening event that will include a “meet and greet” with Capitol Records recording artists for VIP ticket holders, plus it’s also selling special 60th anniversary merchandise available to the public. Details are on their site.