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Audio Rents Faces Changing Times, Industry

HOLLYWOOD, CA—Audio Rents, co-located with Hollywood Sound Systems in a building of some significance to the film and television audio post production community, could soon face the wrecking ball.

HOLLYWOOD, CA—Audio Rents, co-located with Hollywood Sound Systems in a building of some significance to the film and television audio post production community, could soon face the wrecking ball. The building, once home to Group IV Recording—reputedly the first music scoring facility independent of any film studio—may well be the next victim of the city of Hollywood’s current high-density growth.

Bob Burton, chief engineer at Audio Rents, shows off a stack of vintage Pultec EQP-1A EQs topped by a rare Pultec MAVEC channel striptopped by a rare Pultec MAVEC channel strip. Audio Rents inventory amounts to a pro audio museum. Co-owners Angel Balestier and Dennis Sands opened Group IV Recording, located on Wilcox Avenue at Sunset Boulevard, in 1976, at a time when film and television music was recorded and mixed live, typically to film. The facility’s credits included network shows such as Cheers, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, and numerous major films, including On Golden Pond, Back to the Future and almost every movie in the Rocky series.

The interior remains largely intact. Hollywood Sound warehouses gear in the live room, which once could accommodate a 60-piece orchestra (composer Bill Conti’s Rocky 24-tracks are still stored in the back), while Audio Rents occupies an area previously divided into edit bays. The original machine room and live chambers have been given over to office and storage use, and Hollywood Sound’s demonstration Yamaha Nuage and nearfield monitor selection sit in a former mix room.

According to Bob Burton, chief engineer at Audio Rents, the building is currently in escrow, the potential purchaser a Chinese investment group that plans to raise a multi-story hotel. That said, several previous prospects have fallen out of escrow, he reports. But with hotels, as well as a dormitory for one of the local performing arts schools, going up all around the building, it seems only a matter of time before the demolition crew moves in.

Burton has been with Audio Rents for just over four decades, from the time when it was run out of Sunset Sound’s studio complex by then-company owner Salvatore “Tutti” Camarata, the late father of Sunset’s present proprietor, Paul. Some of the equipment has been around as long as Burton.

A couple of glass cases just inside the door hold a few choice pieces from what is practically an audio equipment museum. There is a Sennheiser VSM-201 Vocoder, one of two owned by the company; only 30 were built. Various Battlestar Galactica productions have rented the unit over the years: “People debate, did they use the AMS or the Sennheiser for the Cylon voices?” says Burton, referring to the show’s robots. “We don’t know, because they always rented both.”

Audio Rents’ Sennheiser VSM201 Vocoder, which was often rented to create the Cylon voices on numerous Battlestar Galactica productions. Above the VSM-201—and a Roland Space Echo—sits Eventide’s first Harmonizer, with the keyboard modification and two-octave keyboard. Beside that is a UREI 965 metronome, modified by Burton at the request of Camarata, who was musical director of Disneyland Records.

“The LinnDrum used a VCO that was just horrible for its timing; it would speed up or slow down depending on the temperature,” Burton recalls. “I looked at the back [of the 965] and it had a tape sync. It used FSK [frequency shift keying], like a modem.” Burton had a crystal custom-ground, added some circuitry and—voila!—the Linn kept perfect sync with the tape machine.

“We had 14 of them that we rented out all over the place. We added outputs for Oberheim and some of the other synthesizers, with a switch.”

Also on display, a Simmons Clap Trap, a digital handclap popular in the 1980s. “We rented the heck out of it,” he says, noting that Camarata, who founded Decca Records’ offshoot label, London, had an affinity for the UK. “We were the first company in the country to have AMS, because of that connection,” says Burton, also noting that there was an Audio Rents London branch for a time. In an adjacent display case, a Survival Projects quad panner used by Pink Floyd sits below a Stylophone of a vintage similar to the one played by David Bowie on his 1969 hit single, “Space Oddity.”

Also at the front counter is a Universal Audio 550-A filter. “This is pre-1957,” says Burton. “According to Wikipedia, that’s when Putnam moved from Chicago and changed the name from Universal to UREI.”

Some of the gear in the warehouse, an Aladdin’s cave of new and vintage gear, is no longer in demand, such as SQ and QS quadrophonic codecs. Shure recently exchanged some new microphones for Audio Rents’ HTS surround sound codec, blueprints and promotional materials, which the manufacturer apparently plans to put in its museum.

Then there is the Model S-27 four-band splitter/combiner. “It was like a super [Dolby] Cat 43 [noise processor],” says Burton, who engineered the device. “One hundred percent stolen ideas, everything borrowed from ADR, Skywalker, dbx. It took off like gangbusters; we had a couple dozen.” Burton won a Technical Achievement Award for the device from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1993.

Times have certainly changed since the heyday of audio equipment rentals. “According to Dolby, we were their largest customer at the time of SR; we had thousands of channels,” says Burton. “We used to have over 20 employees. We used to have five delivery vehicles always on the road. Now we have two.” And now, there are five employees.

If there is any good news related to the impending relocation of Audio Rents, it is that the company can at least lower its overhead. “We’re going to have to shrink, because we have more space than we need,” says Burton.
Audio Rents