by Jeff Touzeau
When Electric Lady was completed and opened its doors for the first time over 37 years ago, it was a beacon for creativity and innovation. For starters, it was one of the first artist-owned recording facilities in the world, designed and built to exact specification for none other than Jimi Hendrix. This is a very interesting fact to note since the tables have turned: we now find ourselves in an age where the number of artist-owned facilities vastly outweighs the number of commercial studios. Jimi’s vision for Electric Lady was very concise: he wanted to build a studio that could compete with any other studio in the world both technically and acoustically, but he wanted an environment that was inspiring and comfortable to create music—a stark departure from the more clinical looking studios of the day.
Jimi and his manager Michael Jeffery entrusted their wishes to a young architect from Princeton named John Storyk. It was Storyk’s first design and one that would spark the trajectory for a career that would have lasting effect in the world of acoustic design. When Electric Lady opened in 1970, there was great fanfare in the music community. A flyer described Storyk’s design as “…promoting a feeling of casual comfort bordering on informal luxury.” Electric Lady went on to host countless influential artists from both sides of the Atlantic; legends like Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to name just a few.
With such an illustrious history, one might be led to believe that the studio’s long-term success was all but guaranteed—however, this was not to be. A slowdown in studio rentals permeated the entire recording studio industry during the 1990’s and by the time 9/11 came around, Electric Lady had quietly become a technically outdated artifact of the past. Bookings were down and the facility was in desperate need of care and attention.
From Graveyard to Beehive
Lee Foster grew up on a farm in Tennessee. Following graduation from college, he wanted to come to New York to pursue his dream in music. Serendipitously, he was offered a job sweeping floors at Electric Lady Studios and after doing his time, was eventually offered a job as studio manager–which he graciously accepted. While speaking to Foster today, it becomes immediately clear that working at Electric Lady was never a job—it was his passion and he was prepared to fully commit himself to the ultimate success of the studio. “When I started here, I felt there had been a great deal of neglect—changes happening within the industry certainly weren’t helping. I just tried to make it a solid recording studio again,” he modestly recounts.
Foster and Mary Dandola, his business partner who handles the finances and legal aspects of the business, wasted no time assembling a dynamic young team around them to help bring Electric Lady closer to what Hendrix likely would have wanted it to be: an innovative, creative ‘beehive’ for artists. One of the first things Foster did was to hire two renowned techs from New York’s Hit Factory, which had recently closed its doors several blocks away. He and his crew then began carefully renovating and upgrading the facility from the ground up, while leaving its hallowed infrastructure fully in tact.
When the work commenced, Electric Lady went into a sort of ‘strategic hibernation’–this afforded them time to refurbish the facility so it would be ready for the clients, who they felt would surely be lining up at the door soon enough. “We sort of went black,” Foster recalls. “I didn’t take any bookings until I knew that we could handle it. We needed to get the place cosmetically and technically ready, as well as work to get our new staff up to speed.” For Foster, the worst possible outcome would have been for an accomplished producer to arrive, have a less than perfect session, then leave thinking, “They’re not ready.”
‘Going dark’ was necessary to accomplish the refurbishing, but it also had a very positive effect on the studio’s public relations. “I made sure to take every phone call — telling them each that we had no availability,” Foster says. “Soon, a buzz began; ‘Electric Lady is booked all the time. You can’t even get in!’ people would say.” Little did they know, each of the facility’s three SSL 9000 series consoles were being gutted and cleaned by the techs while interns were frantically painting the walls of the interior.
The First Test-Drive
Once Foster and his staff felt Electric Lady was to the level it needed to be, he got a phone call. It was Ric Ocasek, the respected producer and former front man of The Cars; he heard through the grapevine that Electric Lady was open for business and wanted to book a project for a group he was working for on called The Pink Spiders, who were signed to Geffen. The pressure was on and this was the real deal. “I knew we had to get everything right,” Foster says, recognizing the pivotal importance of the session for the studio’s future. All the hard work appeared to pay off: “It went amazingly well and Ric was very, very pleased.” Following the success of that session, Foster and company knew they could handle anything so they wasted no time bringing in other artists. Albert Hammond, Jr. album came in and recorded his critically acclaimed album Yours to Keep. Muse came in to record part of Black Holes and Revelations. Even Axl Rose came in to record for the deeply mysterious Chinese Democracy (yes, apparently it exists and Foster insists it is quite good).
Electric Lady was on a roll—and was on its way to becoming much more than just a ‘village’ studio. Soon Steve Earle, Foo Fighters, Interpol, Patti Smith and Ryan Adams all came in. Many of these and other artists originally intended to book two week tracking sessions, but ultimately extended their sessions. “People will initially book two weeks, or so, but almost always extend by several weeks; if not months — Hell, Ryan Adams stayed for two years [laughs].” These days, no matter when you walk into Electric Lady, there is very likely a major project underway in any of its three rooms.
Re-Invigorating a World Class Facility
Technologically speaking, it was a long road before Electric Lady could get ‘back to the future’ where it belonged. Even in 2003, they were well behind their peers when it came to utilizing digital technology. “We were actually renting Pro Tools rigs for every session that came through–ridiculous for 2002 or 2003. So quickly we acquired Pro Tools rigs that were decked out with all the plug-ins anyone would ever need. Now we have a very good hybrid of the old and the new,” Foster says.
As far as consoles, Electric Lady still has its classic SSL 9000Js in every room accompanied by Augspurger monitors. Each room is also decked out with a dedicated Pro Tools HD3 system. “Where upgrades are concerned, our priority has been to keep the Pro Tools rigs up to date.” However, Foster is quick to note that some substantial acquisitions have been made with respect to outboard preamplifiers and equalizers. “In the past six months alone, we’ve acquired 14 vintage Neve pre/EQs [ten 1081s and four 1066s] in order to build our front end for the rock clients.” While Foster doesn’t consider himself to be a technical person, he is keenly aware of what artists crave: “I listen to the clients. If three of them consecutively come in and say, ‘You know, I really wish you had this,’ then I’m probably going to buy it.”
Don Dowdye, Chief Technical Engineer, ensured that all the equipment worked it should. “As a perfectionist, my approach is that everything has to be on, up, running 100% and rung out. That’s what I had to do for all the gear.” The SSL J’s needed some finessing but Dowdye contends they were in really good shape overall. “Our console in Studio B, which is our oldest, needed the most work which mainly involved tightening up a lot of wires and connections. We did not need a recap, but we needed to make sure that all the modules were fully functional.” Dowdye also oversaw a complete console calibration and a software upgrade to the latest SSL automation software. “Now you tell it to go to zero, it goes to zero and out comes +4.” The technical staff performed similar maintenance on the other consoles, which were slightly younger and therefore somewhat easier to deal with.
In addition to helping with key equipment acquisitions and dusting off its existing vintage outboard gear, Dowdye has taken great pains to develop a comprehensive library of manuals and schematics to advance the studio’s maintenance and repair capabilities. This is to ensure that