The nondescript building at 6000 Sunset Blvd. that was once Western Studios has hosted its share of legends over the decades, but it will forever be known as the place in where Brian Wilson created his masterpiece, Pet Sounds. When visitors to the facility—which was renamed Cello after being purchased by its present owner in 1999—ask to see the room where Wilson worked his musical alchemy, they’re invariably startled by the modest size of Studio 3, which measures just 15 feet wide and 32 feet long. How did all those musicians (21 of them on one session) and their gear fit into such a tight space? And how did Wilson get such lush sounds out of such a miniature environment?
According to Mark Linett, Wilson’s present-day studio collaborator, the diminutive size of Western 3 contributed to the perception of bigness. “In those days,” Linett explains, “you didn’t cut a huge-sounding record in a huge room. Because you were cutting everybody live, you wanted to be able to open up any mic and have whatever came through it be pleasing, whereas in a big live room, the bleed would be detrimental to the sound. And 3 just worked well that way. The other thing is, it was an age when players knew how to play together, to interact without headphones or baffles, with everything isolated—y’know, modern recording.” Also contributing to the impression of aural spaciousness was Wilson’s extensive use of Western’s brick-lined echo chambers (which are sill in use).
By the beginning of 1966, when he began recording Pet Sounds, the 23-year-old budding auteur was regularly coming up with elaborate instrumental arrangements he conceived on the fly and shaped into sophisticated, almost orchestral pieces in the space of three or four hours with the aid of a crew of world-class session musicians anchored by drummer Hal Blaine — the same players Phil Spector used to create his Wall of Sound. Under Wilson’s leadership, the unit was able to consistently generate what bassist Carol Kaye calls “room spirit.”
“All we heard of the melody was Brian sitting down at the piano, playing it and singing it once or twice to give us the feel,” Kaye remembers. “The rest of the time he spent in the booth. After Chuck Britz set up the board, Brian did it all. He’d give out directions for some rhythmic styles maybe to the guitars, to Hal, and maybe he’d change the bass parts, back and forth like that, as we’d run down the tune. After quite a while we’d do a take. Later on, when I heard the vocals, I thought Brian was a genius for being able to put all that together.”
The Pet Sounds vibe is still present in the old building, according to Matthew Sweet, who recorded his 2000 album In Reverse in the adjacent Studio 2. “Cello is probably my favorite professional recording studio ever,” he says. “One day during In Reverse, Brian came over from 3 and visited us, and we nervously played him our track in progress. At the end he jumped up and yelled, ‘I love it! I f---ing love it!’ Needless to say, we were psyched.’”
Cello’s owner put it up for sale last year and all those approached passed, including Paul Allen, Rick Rubin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty. But at presstime we learned office manager Candace Stewart and tech head Gary Myerberg had found an investor, enabling them to buy and run the operation themselves. If the deal goes through, their first order of business will be to change the name of the studio back to Western.
To read about other classic sessions and the studios that shaped them, take a look at our feature, Just For the Record.