There’s a unique Culver City business that maintains and repairs record-cutting lathes, tape recorders, and other analog recording machines– seemingly antiquated in these digitized times–but critical for some professional musicians.
For now, The History of Recorded Sound (HRS) is behind an unmarked door in an unremarkable commercial building in Culver City’s Arts District.
Owner and Palms’ resident Len Horwitz explains, “We support the current analog record business with service and materials for that purpose. This is one of the two or maybe three places in the world to get recording equipment serviced like that, disc recording equipment specifically, and some tape recorders. It requires a lot of specialized tooling, drawings, and a knowledge of it, almost an apprentice’s knowledge of it.”
His nephew Jake, who helps with the business, adds: “Len started the company in the ’80s, but it’s been around much longer. He put a name to it in the ’80s and kept vinyl going through the dark ages of the ’90s and 2000s. Now it’s spurred back to life and our services are in demand to a slightly higher degree.”
According to Len, “Most of our clients are independents, but we service Erika Records, Capitol Records, we service Bernie Grundman… Those are major manufacturers and mastering engineers for the vinyl industry.”
He explains the company’s origins: “It’s a story about Americana and American business more than anything. This is the record division of Western Electric. I bought it in 1996, when the last owner passed away. Western Electric was split up by the government in the late 1950s and became a satellite company for Litton Industries.
Western Electric, because it was a utility, was attacked by the government many times for being a trust and monopolizing things, and because it was a utility, people knew what was going on with it. Finally, in 1948, the government got them again for trying to get into the record business, the film business, the phone business…so they broke it up and Western Electric stayed as the phone company and Westrex was Western Electric Export, another division. But, in 1957 when the stereo record came out and was developed by Western Electric or Westrex, they said ‘you’re not going to be in the record business, the cartridge business, the film business, and the phone business. Not going to happen.’ So, Litton bought it, and Litton stripped it of its assets really, and it became a very small operation, but a necessary one.”
In addition to caring for indispensable vintage gear, HRS does direct-to-disc recording in a small studio on-site and transfers recordings to vinyl from other formats for clients ranging from individuals who want an unique disc for a gift to hip-hop DJs who want a recording originally made digitally pressed on vinyl so they can scratch it.
They also digitize analog recordings, but Len is a strong believer in the superiority of analog, especially vinyl: “It’s a funny thing about records: somehow, through all the endeavors of digital and everybody else, it manages to keep a step ahead in the sound quality, for some reason. It’s just the way it is. The DNA of it allowed that to happen almost from Day One when Enrico Caruso screamed into the horn and people fell in love with it. In its crude trappings it still was compelling, and that hasn’t changed.”
Len, Jake, and their team are also making their way through HRS’ accumulated collection of recordings: “There’s a very vast, kind of unusual film, tape, and disc library here. A lot of the things we have were thrown out by the industry years ago when they were abandoning buildings, leaving lockers full of media, and we’re slowly going through that to see what is happening. There’s commercials, there’s radio airchecks, there’s independent bands… and all this goes back to the 1950s and ’60s. It’s not going to be things you recognize, even though the studios did The Beach Boys and they did The Shirelles, these are going to be independents, publishing companies, startup bands, things like that.”
The Beach Boys and Shirelles recorded at Gold Star Studio, a home base for Phil Spector and the Wrecking Crew which closed in 1984 and has been replaced by a strip mall. Gold Star’s discarded tapes, now at HRS, promise to be an exciting resource for LA music history.
While HRS does not have the rights to commercially release any of these recordings, they plan to use them as part of the work of the History of Recorded Sound Foundation. HRS recently added this 501(c)(3) nonprofit arm to support their educational programs. During the last few Arts District Artwalks, they have opened their doors, screening archival videos and allowing local musicians a chance to make free direct-to-disc recordings.
This nonprofit element may help HRS survive. Len says, “Basically, the building has been sold and we’re trying to figure out if they’ll let us stay or if they’re going to renovate it, do something where we can’t be in it. The rent is going to go a little through the roof for us, where we won’t be able to stay.” He hopes that “maybe someone reading an article, someone interested in this may have some ideas how to move us to the next step.”
In the 1990s, when Len bought the record division of Westrex, the film sound division was sold to his colleague Simon Daniel, who maintained it as Simon Daniel Sound. A future museum could reunite these companies to pursue their educational and preservation missions, and Len hopes it can be in Culver City.