The Automatt

The Automatt 1977.jpg

The Automatt was a sound recording studio in San Francisco, California, promoted for its early mix automation system. During its eight active years, 1976 to 1984, it was one of the top recording studios in the region. The Automatt was founded by producer David Rubinson and opened in an existing studio subleased from Columbia Records, who continued to record in the same building for a few years; thus it was sometimes referred to as CBS/Automatt. Rubinson leased the whole building in 1978 and from that point, operated three rooms for recording and mixing, a mastering room, a rehearsal room, and offices. The studio complex was known for its top-notch equipment, for the hit records it produced, and for the famous artists who recorded there. Under Rubinson and chief engineer Fred Catero it served as the training ground for respected recording engineers such as Leslie Ann Jones and producers such as Scott Mathews.[1][2]

Beginnings

Coast Recorders

The first recording studio built at 827 Folsom Street in San Francisco was a brand new location for Coast Recorders, one of many recording studios Bill Putnam operated in U.S. cities. Putnam leased the Folsom location from its aging owner, John Vitlin, a Russian immigrant who co-founded Global Merchandising, an import/export company in San Francisco. To replace an obsolescent building housing Coast Recorders on Bush Street, Putnam designed a two-floor studio complex containing all the necessary record company elements under one roof: three recording and mixing rooms, a mastering room with a disc-cutting lathe, a high-speed tape duplication room, and office space for label and studio management.[3] Unusually, five echo sends were available for use throughout the facility, two of them stereo echo chambers normaled (connected by default) to the main two studios.[4] Francis Ford Coppola leased space on the second floor for his American Zoetrope film studio. The first session was taped on June 23, 1969, in Studio B, and the grand opening was held later that November.[5] Less than a year later, on September 15, 1970, Putnam sold majority control of the building to Columbia Records, a division of CBS.[6]

CBS

Columbia Records under Clive Davis wished to cater to San Francisco artists who were less willing to travel to Los Angeles or New York to make records. Davis hoped that the new location would be more open to musician creativity and less constricted by union rules. CBS took control of Studios A and B with Roy Halee—known for experimental recording techniques that conflicted with union rules—brought in from New York as chief engineer.[6] Roy Segal also came in from New York to serve as engineer and to manage the facility. A&R-man and producer George Daly developed performing artists. Shortly, engineer Glen Kolotkin came up from Los Angeles, and San Francisco-based George Horn joined as mastering engineer, working out of Studio D with its Westrex cutting lathe, under lease from Coast. Coast Recorders continued in business, working out of Studio C, fitted for quadraphonic projects.[6]

CBS found it difficult to attract San Francisco artists who were instead booking time at Wally Heider Studios because of its casual vibe and its string of hits. Successful engineer Fred Catero, a New York native, doubted the wisdom of by-the-book CBS operating in the laid-back atmosphere present in the Bay Area. Years later, he said, "Columbia was a very conservative company ... It was all-union and everything was done by the clock. There were very strict rules about how long sessions could go and, of course, about drugs and things like that."[7] The first album recorded at CBS in San Francisco was the fourth one for the New York-based band Blood, Sweat & Tears, produced and engineered by Halee. Subsequently, New Yorker Paul Simon flew out to record his first U.S. solo album which sold over a million copies. Segal was more successful bringing in local artists; he recorded Big Brother & the Holding Company, Sons of Champlin, and Sly & the Family Stone.[6]

Tasked with both studio maintenance and record mastering, George Horn brought in Phil Brown to help. For a few years, CBS owned the only stereo lacquer mastering equipment in San Francisco, and it was kept busy. Paul Stubblebine joined CBS recording studio in 1973 as an intern, later advancing to second engineer, then mastering engineer under Horn.[8] Between the three of them, Horn, Brown and Stubblebine operated the mastering suite day and night.[6]

The studio recorded and mixed works by Columbia artists and also by non-Columbia producers and artists such as the Grateful Dead, who recorded Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel; a 1974 release that was named after a rundown residential hotel a block and a half away on 4th Street.[9] (The hotel was demolished six years later to make way for Moscone Center.)

Rubinson

David Rubinson worked as a producer for Columbia Records until settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969. He encouraged his favorite CBS engineer Fred Catero to leave his job—and a newly completed home in New York—to bring his family to the West Coast and to partner with him on recording projects. The two intended to open a recording studio with rock promoter Bill Graham and entertainment attorney Brian Rohan, but the resulting umbrella organization The Fillmore Corporation with its two record companies, Fillmore Records and San Francisco Records, instead booked artists at Pacific Recording in San Mateo, California; the only 16-track studio in the area at the time. Rubinson and Catero made several hit recordings there over the next five years, at first for The Fillmore Corporation and then after it folded in 1971, for Rubinson's own promotion company: David Rubinson & Friends. In 1973 after repeated bad experiences with the studio owner, Rubinson severed relations with Pacific Recording.[10] Instead, he paid a discount price in advance for 3,000 hours of studio time at Wally Heider's Studio A, to be used at night and on weekends. Rubinson asked Heider to install a four-channel musicians' headphones monitoring system, and an automation system for the mixing console, but Heider refused.[11]

Frustrated first with Pacific and then with Heider, and enticed by the new CBS 16-track studio, Rubinson began bringing his artists to CBS Recording in the early 1970s. He moved his operations to offices on the second floor, above the recording studios; his own large office was formerly used by Coppola.[12] For some time, Rubinson had been shuttling between recording sessions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and he felt that his schedule was too hectic. He determined to make recordings only in San Francisco, in a studio that he could use as he saw fit.[13] He made an offer to CBS to take over Studio C, paying an annual lease on the space to Vitlin's son and heir, attorney Victor Vitlin. CBS would supply the infrastructure, the microphones, and studio maintenance and reception services. To differentiate his business, Rubinson decided to install a new mixing console as well as multitrack recording equipment. Catero would be the chief engineer for the new room. In late 1976, Rubinson and CBS signed the deal and Rubinson began bringing clients to the Automatt.[11] Rubinson also leased a rehearsal room on the second floor which once housed Coppola's film studio.[12] He selected the name "the Automatt" as a play on the old style of coin-operated food vending restaurants in New York called "automats", and because his mixing console was equipped with an advanced new feature: the first practical recording studio automation system in San Francisco.[11] Rubinson bought a Harrison 4032 mixing console with programmable mute keys, and he had a Michael Larner-assembled Allison Research Memory-Plus Automation System based on the Zilog Z80 microprocessor.[12] The Allison system was capable of handling 40 microphone inputs mixing down to 32 tracks on tape, and it could store 65,536 separate functions.[12] Larner also assembled for Rubinson an interface called Autopunch which automated the controls of the MCI 24-track tape machine.[11] As well, the Automatt offered a 4-track monitor system for the musicians, a revolutionary development which gave each performer greater freedom to optimize his or her own headphones mix.[11] The studio monitors were Big Reds, popular boxes based on the Altec Lansing Duplex 604 coaxial speaker, powered by McIntosh MC75 tube monoblock amplifiers.[11]

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