Making Tracks

O`ahu's recording studios have laid down everyone from Kanye West to the kid next door
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Olivier Koning.

Thunderous bass pulses through massive speakers, filling a crisp, clean room with sound waves that penetrate to the bone. It feels like enough bottom end to shatter car windows, but the room’s walls are padded with thick, soft foam and nobody on the other side of the glass seems worried. Hundreds of tiny lights flicker across a sea of knobs and buttons as a technician makes adjustments.

This is the main control room of Island Sound Studios, one of the most advanced and well-equipped recording studios in the world. When rap star Kanye West sat down at the mixing board during a studio session, listening to playback of a freshly recorded track that would soon make its way onto a multi-platinum-selling album, oblivious shoppers were next door strolling the aisles at the Longs Drugs in Hawai‘i Kai Shopping Center.

“We’ve seen a lot of interesting things here,” says Gaylord Holomalia, the studio’s manager and chief engineer. “Definitely there are some good stories to tell. And maybe,” he adds smiling, “some that can’t be told.” Perhaps one of the best stories is how this first-rate recording facility came to be hidden in a shopping center in east O‘ahu in the first place. The studio—formerly known as Avex Honolulu—originally opened as TK Disc Studios in the summer of 1999. It was founded by Japan’s mega-star pop music artist and producer Tetsuya Komuro, whose projects have sold a reported 170 million albums. Komuro’s vision was to create a resort-style world-class recording studio in a relaxed, tropical setting with access to a dock where he could park his massive yacht.

He got the world-class recording studio part right, repurposing a former restaurant space with help from a studio architecture group that designed the DreamWorks Animation audio studio, the Sony Music Entertainment recording studio in Japan and the expansion of Hollywood’s legendary hit factory the Record Plant. TK Disc Studios offered everything a recording artist could want, including multiple isolation, tracking and control rooms; lounges and recreation facilities; a fully furnished hotel-style suite with king bed and all amenities; and perhaps most importantly, a secluded location away from gawking fans. Unfortunately, Komuro couldn’t moor his yacht because he couldn’t secure permission from the state to install a mini-drawbridge that would allow adequate clearance for the vessel. Komuro left the picture soon after and the studio’s ownership has changed a few times in the ensuing years, but Holomalia has remained the manager since the beginning. “We’ve seen every type of act you can imagine,” he says, “from young, unknown local artists having their first music recording experience to major international stars.”

Mix it up! Thirteen-year-old ‘ukulele wunderkind Aidan James, seen here and on the opening spread, recorded his EP Live Again at Hawai‘i Kai’s celebrated Island Sound Studios; James is seen here with the studio’s manager and chief engineer Gaylord Holomalia, who started out recording Marvin Gaye and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Holomalia might be best known locally as keyboardist for the Hawaiian music group Kalapana, but he’s been deeply involved in the local music and recording industry since the early 1970s. “I started late, picked up a Rhodes piano and kid’s book of scales when I was 22,” he recalls. “Pretty soon some friends asked me to sit in with their band Country Comfort, and from that night I became a member of the band. I was asked to produce a recording for a band called Hawaii at the old Sea West studio in Hau‘ula, and that got me hooked on engineering.” Holomalia began an apprenticeship at Sea West with renowned record producer and engineer Rick Keefer, who engineered hit records for acts like Heart and who was responsible for many popular Hawaiian music records of the ’80s and ’90s, including artists like Kalapana and Brother Noland. “Once I knew the ropes, Rick took a three-month vacation and left me in charge,” says Holomalia. “Within months I was assisting on sessions with folks like Marvin Gaye and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.”

The roster of past customers at Island Sound Studios reads like a who’s who of music industry heavyweights: Jay-Z, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Japanese artist Atsushi from the band Exile and of course Kanye West, who has been known to book the studio for months at a time. But the studio also has a strong local clientele that makes up about 40 percent of its customers. Holomalia relishes the opportunity to mentor and nurture new local talent and give them a taste of what top Mainland studios offer.

Case in point: 13-year-old singer/songwriter Aidan James, who today is at the studio listening to the playback of his song “One of the Ones,” a track from his recently recorded EP. James is part of a new generation of artists whose songs get international exposure through the Internet: A video of James at eight years old playing an ‘ukulele cover of “Sweet Soul Sister” already has nearly twenty million views on YouTube. “It was an amazing experience for a young artist like me to record at this kind of a studio,” says James. His EP is exactly in line with Holomalia’s mission at the studio. “We get kids from Hawai‘i exposed to this level of professionalism, so when they venture out into the world and encounter a high-intensity studio in New York or Los Angeles, they can say, ‘You know what? I’ve been there and done that.’”

Across town and nestled deep into Mānoa valley, a more intimate recording studio welcomes all types of musicians, from Hawaiian to reggae to punk rock bands as well as solo singer/songwriters. Rendez-Vous Recording, which marks thirty-four years of music production this year, is Hawai‘i’s oldest recording operation. The eclectic studio is built into a multilevel residence set against a forested valley wall. Its entrance sports a 102-year-old grand piano, and everything is done up in Island décor.

Owner/engineer Pierre Grill, a tall, animated figure with a huge smile and healthy handshake, minces no words in describing his approach to recording. “We are not urban … at all!” he exclaims in a thick French accent. “If it’s not like an LA studio, that’s fine with me. If it’s not like New York, that’s fine, too. This is Beaumont Woods in Mānoa!”

Grill is not kidding about the contrast between his operation and typical recording rooms. Rather than the slick black-and-gray look of standard studio soundproofing, Rendez-Vous employs bamboo and lava rock. The vibe inside is as tropical as the view of avocado, papaya and banana trees outside. “Concrete doesn’t float my boat,” Grill says, explaining how his tiki-meets-tech ambience helps facilitate the creative process. “Integrity is always the most important part in art. We designed this place to foster the creative spirit.

An electrical engineer with a degree from France’s prestigious École Centrale de Lyon, Grill studied mathematics and engineering in college but found his ultimate passion in music. At Rendez-Vous, Grill’s ability to compose, arrange and engineer allows him to help new artists build on their musical ideas, complementing and encouraging creative expression and providing the additional instrumentation needed for a songwriter on a budget to move up from a solo track to a full band sound—with Pierre providing the entire backup band. “I can do drums, horns, everything on the keyboard,” he says. “But actually this room is especially good for recording big bands. When we want to capture the spirit of a live band, everyone comes in and we record the whole group at once.” Many loyal and longtime Island musicians have been recording at Rendez-Vous regularly for decades. In fact, Grill’s been in business so long he sometimes finds himself running sessions for the grandkids of some of his earliest clients.

“In the ’80s it was heavy metal,” Grill says of the days when Hawai‘i’s rock music scene was thriving and his studio was located near Ala Moana. “They had the hair, big amps, everyone wanted to make their own cassettes and CDs. I remember one kid who used to come record a lot; we did about three CDs. His name was Marty Friedman. You know what happened with him, right?” Rock fans will recognize Friedman as the virtuoso guitarist from Hawai‘i who went on to fame with the multiplatinum-selling metal band Megadeth.

“In the ’90s it was mostly Hawaiian and reggae music,” says Grill. “We could fit the whole band in and lay down enough tracks for a whole album in a single day sometimes. Everyone was making CDs, selling CDs. But by 2000 the whole music industry was turned upside down. Computers changed everything.”

“CDs are pretty old-school these days,” agrees David Tucciarone of Seventh Wave Productions in central O‘ahu. “Of course we still produce them, but now it’s all about digital distribution, downloads and streaming.” Tucciarone’s Seventh Wave operation includes an extensive home-based recording setup with high-end pro microphones and audio processing gear. “The technology has changed,” he explains. “Now we can do things in-home that used to require a major studio. But the art of recording is still the same. It requires good ears, good gear and the ability to balance instruments and voices. That’s what mixing is really all about.”

Tucciarone’s shelves are lined with Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards from the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts. Bands and solo artists usually lay down individual tracks at Tucciarone’s place, recording each instrument and vocal separately. Tucciarone, an accomplished engineer and producer, then mixes everything together to create a final track that gives just the right amount of volume and presence to each individual part. “There’s a big difference between engineering and producing,” he explains. “An engineer has to know the equipment intimately, understand how to set up the right gear for the session, what type of mics to use and where to place them. The role of the producer is to listen … listening to every minute detail, ensuring that the artist’s vision is brought to life.” Four of his projects have been nominated for Grammy Awards. “Artists come into the studio with a vision,” he says, “and we have to transform it into a reality. Sometimes we have to try more takes, different arrangements, other instrumentation. As a producer, when I can help musicians find their muse, good things happen.”

Back in Honolulu at Pacific Music Productions, the work is a family affair with founders Kit and Jerry Ebersbach running the operation and their son Max holding down the role of lead engineer. Although the studio does a lot of commercial ad work these days, Kit is happy to spend time recording musical acts, too, including his own, the popular neo-exotica Island groove band Don Tiki. “We have a lot of fun here,” says Kit, whose musical credits as a keyboardist range from the local new-wave pioneers The Squids to the quintessential Hawaiian show group The Aliis. “As long as there are artists, there will be recording studios,” he says. “Musicians, by their nature, need to get their music heard. And whether it’s a commercial jingle or a hit song, we try to make sure that what starts off in the artist’s head is what ends up coming out of the studio.”

Whether it happens in a big studio or a smaller, more intimate space, the recording experience is central to a musician’s craft, even as the landscape of the music business shifts. “The whole model has changed for artists,” says Barry Flanagan, who has been performing as half of the award-winning Hawaiian music duo HAPA since the early 1980s. “We had one of the strongest regional music scenes in Hawai‘i for twenty years, and now instead of buying albums, people buy singles.” Flanagan notes that in some ways music has come full circle, back to the 1950s and ’60s when singles were popular on 45-rpm phonograph discs. “Most people these days want singles they can buy online. You still have to release new material, but as an artist now you have to adapt and fit your creative model into the new model of the industry. The record companies and management aren’t as big a part of the picture anymore—but everyone still needs a place to record.”

For Flanagan there’s magic in the studio recording process that can’t be found elsewhere. “When you walk into a recording studio, there’s a reverence for the art, a vibe that makes you act differently, think differently,” he says. “I’ve written things in the studio that I never would have come up with in my own living room.” HH

Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Olivier Koning