Dan Balistreri's quest for the Holy Grail of OC sound engineering lasted almost four years.
"My wife and I–she's a musician, I'm a musician–were looking for some type of music business to get into," Balistreri says in a throaty rasp, a side effect of his years spent fronting punk bands. "What we found is a gold mine. This thing is built like a castle, the sound is just incredible, and it's got a great history."
Balistreri found his "castle" in 2013, five minutes from the Observatory in Santa Ana's industrial sector. Today, the Blue Velvet Studio is a high-end recording complex that officially opened for business at the beginning of this year. In this one-stop recording complex, artists can record and mix their songs on site, then walk down the hall for mastering services and a "direct-to-disc" vinyl acetate. And thanks to the impressive vintage recording equipment that fills the building, multiple-Grammy-winning Chicano rock band Los Lobos is currently crafting their next album at Blue Velvet.
"Having Los Lobos here is basically our christening," Balistreri says. "It's taken us two years of hard work, scraping nickels together and riding the bus, robbing my wife's savings account, whatever we could do to get this thing going."
The studio first opened in 1978 and was built by Express Sound Company, a top studio-construction outfit at the time. When the space became available, Balistreri and his wife, Nicole, couldn't believe what they had stumbled into. Balistreri assembled a team that included longtime friend and recording engineer Darin Frandsen, now a co-owner of the Blue Velvet. "We wanted to have all the [recording] services in one building so people don't have to go all over–or try to do it in their bedroom, and then go somewhere else for mastering," Frandsen says.
Balistreri used his expertise in apartment construction to spearhead a two-year, top-to-bottom renovation of the studio that included modifying and upgrading the control room and recording areas. "We're all blessed with pretty good day jobs, which is one of the reasons we were able to get into this," Balistreri says. "We can offer these services to smaller bands–and do it within their budgets."
To complete the vision, the team tracked down Ron Leeper, a previous tenant of the studio with his own business, Sound Affair Mastering. "Ron was in here for all those years recording, and then he ended up just doing mastering, and he didn't need the space, so he moved out," Frandsen explains.
Leeper returned to a new, customized mastering suite built by Balistreri's team that was designed by an acoustical engineer. Sound Affair continues to exist as a separate entity, but it now lives comfortably within Blue Velvet's walls.
"We're fortunate to have Ron's expertise–we've been able to utilize him as our Mr. Miyagi," Balistreri says. "This studio has the best equipment and the best sound anywhere south of LA."
Just like the fabric itself and the David Lynch film with which it shares its name, Blue Velvet is cool. Ten steps through a narrow hallway ends at an 11-foot-long MCI JH-556D mixing console. It's the centerpiece of a room filled with flawlessly restored analog recording equipment. A glass window looks over a wood-and-fabric-paneled recording space, which is softly lit and (if you're lucky) full of ace musicians.
The refurbished 48-channel console and the sound quality in Blue Velvet's recording rooms made it a natural choice for Los Lobos. "The [MCI] board that they have is pretty rare, and I produced a bunch of records on boards like that in the '90s," says Steve Berlin, Los Lobos' keyboard and saxophone player. "The ones I've worked on in the past were often broken, or half of it worked and half of it didn't. Seeing one in such amazing shape was great–the tech crew over there is second to none."
Custom-made for Nashville's Belmont University in 1984 at MCI's Fort Lauderdale plant, the large-format console is the last unit the company made before Sony bought it. Recording magazines at the time carried ads featuring the Bee Gees and Lynyrd Skynyrd posing with the board.
Balistreri found his MCI through an online message board, and the owner drove it from Texas to Santa Ana in a U-Haul trailer. It took 14 people to move the 1,400-pound mixing board into the control room, then countless hours of soldering and repairs to make it fully functional again. "It was like raising the Titanic to get the sound back," Leeper says.
Blue Velvet's inventory also includes a modern Pro Tools rig, as well as a 24-track 2-inch-tape recorder made in the 1980s by 3M, better known today for Post-It notes and office supplies. Artists chasing pure quality can record to tape and get the warm tones missing from digital-only sound.
"The sound of tape has more low-end and better high-end sound on it than Pro Tools," Frandsen says. "A lot of people will track some stuff onto tape and do guitars in Pro Tools nowadays. We'll be able to incorporate the tape sound and dump it into Pro Tools, so everything will line up. It's the best of both worlds that way."
Los Lobos are so pleased with Blue Velvet that their sound engineer is recording additional projects there on the weekends while the band is playing shows. After trying the studio out by cutting a track with Italian artist Vinicio Capossela–"He's like the Tom Waits of Italy," Berlin says–Los Lobos committed to several weeks of writing and recording. "It was everything we wanted," Berlin says. "There were three or four places that I looked at that kind of fit the bill . . . but Blue Velvet was just a head above the other places."
Completing the "one-stop shop" experience from track to turntable includes a visit to the Sound Affair mastering suite. Leeper's industry credits over the past 35 years include rock, country and Jean-Claude Van Damme film soundtracks.
A polished black contraption that resembles a steampunk sewing machine stands in a corner of the studio-within-a-studio, surrounded by 14-inch thick walls specially designed and treated for maximum audio. Sound Affair's 52-year-old Scully 600 lathe system, a "direct-to-disc" machine for cutting vinyl acetates, requires an expert hand to transfer audio information from a tape–or computer file–to a lacquer disc. "It took me five years to find this thing," Leeper says. "I traveled from LA to Brooklyn looking for it."
Leeper found the Scully in Needham, Massachusetts, and brought it back to Orange County for an exhaustive restoration process. The lathe is one of only two in Southern California that Leeper is aware of (the other is at Capitol Records in LA).
Now that the equipment is in place and the doors are open, years of hard work and sleepless nights have made Blue Velvet a destination for artists ranging from Orange County punks to national touring acts.
"It's turned into a gem," Balistreri says. "The sound quality of this studio is incredible–like I said, it's built like a castle."
Blue Velvet Recording Studio, 2727 S. Croddy Way, Ste. G, Santa Ana, (714) 553-2600; thebluevelvetstudio.com.