SANTA ANA, CA—Punk rock musician Dan Balistreri and his wife, Nicole, also a musician, went looking for a music-related business a couple of years ago and got lucky. “We stumbled on a goldmine,” he says, surveying the live room at Blue Velvet Studio, which opened at the beginning of this year.
Pictured here (left to right) are Darin Frandsen and Dan Balistreri (business partners in Blue Velvet Studio along with Balistreri’s wife Nicole) with Los Lobos recording engineer Shane Smith. The trio are behind the restored MCI console anchoring Blue Velvet’s control room, which also features Tannoy mains and Focal nearfields for monitoring. The Balistreris were looking for a rehearsal studio or a space where they could do some recording and video shoots. What they found was a ready-made recording studio, located in a commercial neighborhood in Santa Ana, CA, about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
Formerly known as Sound Affair, the facility was built in 1978 by pro audio dealer and studio design and construction company Express Sound of Costa Mesa, CA. The original studio, owned by mastering and recording engineer Ron Leeper, morphed over the years from 16-track to 24-track then diversified into audio post and sound-for-picture before focusing on mastering.
Balistreri, a veteran of the local construction industry, used his expertise and connections to remodel the facility, turning an office space at the front of the building into a mastering suite in order to entice Leeper to return. “We were able to streamline the building and the cost. We didn’t cut corners, but we were able to get some better deals,” says Balistreri.
“We wanted to make it more of a complex. We’re able to go from recording to mixing to mastering, so clients can walk out with a record— and we want to get into direct-to-disk recording.”
The husband and wife team, along with business partner Darin Frandsen, funded the lengthy remodeling project out of their paychecks and their savings. One of the longest projects was the restoration of the 48-channel MCI JH-556D analog mixing console that now takes pride of place—and a lot of space—in the control room.
“We bought the board from a guy in Dallas, TX, Harvey Gerst, who bought it in 2001 from Belmont University,” Balistreri reports. Gerst, a songwriter for artists such as The Byrds, was a member of Sweetwater, one of the opening acts at the Woodstock Festival, and now owns and operates Indian Trail Recording Studios. MCI originally built the desk for the Nashville-based university’s recording arts program in 1984.
Balistreri’s construction connections came in handy when Gerst delivered the console in a U-Haul trailer. “I was building apartments in Costa Mesa, three miles up the road,” he recalls. “I brought 10 guys from the job site and Darin brought a couple of guys; it took 14 guys to get it into the control room. That thing is huge.”
Ken Rains of Rains Audio Engineering in Newport Beach, CA, who also consulted on the design and acoustics of the mastering suite, provided a list of components and materials so that the team could refurbish the console themselves. “It took nine months to go through every channel strip and recap everything. We removed all the Molex connectors and direct-soldered everything. It was like raising the Titanic,” says Balistreri.
Frandsen had been operating a studio out of his house, where he had previously recorded one of Balistreri’s bands. “But with a home studio, with people in your house, and the trash, you don’t feel like you can get away from it,” says Frandsen, who was happy to partner with the Balistreris and move his gear into Blue Velvet.
The facility’s equipment list offers something for everyone, with an emphasis on analog gear. In addition to the MCI console, clients have a choice of Pro Tools or a 3M M79 two-inch 24-track tape machine. “We have Dolby SR24, so we can run it at low speed with no noise,” notes Frandsen.
Outboard racks house 16 channels of Grace M801 mic preamps, a pair of Manley Voxboxes, an Avalon Vt737sp, a Urei 535 Stereo Graphic EQ, and various compressors and limiters from Tube-Tech, Empirical Lab and Mohog. Monitoring is provided by vintage 15-inch Tannoy Gold mains and Focal Twin6 Be nearfields.
The biggest worry for any studio owner is that bookings will be hard to come by when they open for business. Happily, Blue Velvet hit the ground running, thanks to Leeper’s longtime friendship with Studio Referral Service’s Ellis Sorkin, who called looking for time for three-time Grammy-winning band Los Lobos.
“They were in here for January, February and March, three or four days a week,” says Balistreri. Between sessions, the band has been touring and performing at events such as MusiCares, during Grammy week.
Recording engineer Shane Smith, on his second album with the band, comments, “I like this place because the console sounds so great. There’s a lot of analog love available to us and a nice mic closet. It’s a collection of gear after my own heart. And the room sounds really good; I had a string section in here on Sunday and it just sounded phenomenal.”
Blue Velvet Studio