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Fantasy Studios Alive and Well in Berkeley

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					Fantasy Studios: Alive and Well in Berkeley
by j. poet

                                                              Mark Twain once wrote, “Reports of my demise
                                                              have been greatly exaggerated.” The same is
                                                              thankfully true for Fantasy Studios, the legendary
                                                              Berkeley facility that Billboard called the number
                                                            one Recording Studio in America. Situated in the
                                                            Zaentz Media Center (formerly the Fantasy
                                                            Records building) at the corner of 10th and
                                                            Parker, Fantasy is known for the landmark
                                                            albums it captured, including work by Creedence
                                                            Clearwater Revival, Cal Tjader, Robert Cray, En
                                                            Vogue, Green Day, Chris Isaak, Journey, the
Donnas, Kronos Quartet, and Santana. When the building was sold to Wareham Development in 2007, it sent
shockwaves through the local recording community. Bay Area studios battered by the rise of cheap digital
recording technology had been closing for several years. The loss of Fantasy would have meant the end of an
era. People wondering what Wareham planned for the building were relieved when the company announced
plans for extensive renovations of the studio to preserve the sound quality that made Fantasy famous.

“We never had plans to close Fantasy,” says Chris Barlow, a partner in Wareham Development. “We saw the
Studios as an integral part of the Zaentz Media Center. We’ve put millions of dollars into renovating the
building and Fantasy Studios. Studio B has a new soundboard and we’re tweaking the acoustics a bit; it’ll soon
be up and running. We’ll continue to do voiceover and film post-production, make records, and work with
video game creators and sound engineers. It’s not conventional music, but it’s how we can access the new
digital markets. Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Monk all recorded there, as well as Green Day, who made Dookie
there. The role Fantasy played in American music is incredible. We’re delighted to have purchased the
equipment and the rights to use the name.”

Fantasy Studios wouldn’t exist without a little East Bay band from El Cerrito once called the Blue Velvets—John
and Tom Fogerty, Doug Clifford, and Stu Cook. They signed with Fantasy Records, a small indie label
operating out of a warehouse in Oakland, in 1964. Fantasy was a jazz label, but after pianist Vince Guaraldi’s
single “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became a surprise pop hit, John Fogerty thought they might take a chance
on a local rock band. They were signed, and Max Weiss, one of the label’s owners, suggested they change
their name to the Golliwogs, which he thought sounded more British. The Golliwogs released seven singles but
failed to find a national foothold.

Meanwhile, Weiss and his brother Sol sold Fantasy to Saul Zaentz and his business partners. Zaentz liked the
band and suggested another name change. The band chose Creedence Clearwater Revival. The moniker was
an amalgamation of the first name of Creedence Nuball, a friend of Tom Fogerty, and “clear water,” a phrase
from a popular beer commercial. The band was hoping the new name would revive their flagging career, hence
the revival tag. In 1968, the first CCR album spawned a number 11 hit with “Suzie Q”, an old Dale Hawkins
song given a swampy remake by the band. Their second album, Bayou Country, cut at RCA Studios in
Hollywood in late 1968, included “Proud Mary”, which remains a rock radio staple. It quickly went platinum.
CCR’s next five albums were also blockbusters, giving Fantasy the cash they needed to build their
headquarters at 10th and Parker. The building had three recording studios, A, B, and C, with Studio C built
expressly for CCR, with a separate entrance, exercise room, and sauna.

The money CCR made for Fantasy allowed them to buy the catalogs of
Prestige, Milestone, and Pablo, all East Coast labels that had substantial
back catalogues of blues, folk, and, most importantly, jazz albums. In
1972, after Riverside’s catalog was purchased by Fantasy, co-founder and
legendary jazz producer Orrin Keepnews moved to Berkeley and settled
into Fantasy Studios as director of jazz A&R.

One of the things Fantasy offered artists they’d signed was free recording
time. The studios were always busy cutting sides on Country Joe McDonald,
Cal Tjader, Bola Sete, Sylvester, Cannonball Adderley, Hampton Hawes,
Pete and Sheila Escovedo, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Bill Evans, Joe Williams,
Flora Purim, and dozens more.

In 1975, Zaentz produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It won five Oscars and provided the money to
build a seven-story structure besides the existing Fantasy building. This included the addition of Fantasy
Studio D, with state of the art post-production capabilities. In 1980, the studio started accepting outside
clients. Fantasy became the studio of choice for acts as diverse as Robert Cray, Sammy Hagar, Bobby McFerrin,
Aerosmith, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Counting Crows, to name just a few. Santana recorded his
blockbuster Supernatural there. In 2000, Billboard named Fantasy the number one recording Studio in
America. In 2004, the Concord Music Group bought the Fantasy label and sold the studios and all their
equipment, including a vintage microphone collection, and rights to use the name to Wareham Development in
2007.

“One of the first things we did was take down the wall in front of the building so it’s more open to the public,”
Wareham’s Barlow says. (A two story high concrete wall and a formidable automatic iron gate enclosed a small
parking lot in front of the building.) We landscaped the property to create an open area for the community to
use and enjoy. We have a shuttle that links the building to the nearby BART station. It’s free to tenants and
available at a small charge to local people. Zaentz and his partners let us have some famous gold and
platinum albums and gave us access to Fantasy’s photo archives. That artwork is on display in the new
entryway, which is considerably lighter and brighter than it was.

“Most of the key members of the staff of Fantasy Studios have joined us, and Jeffrey Wood, who has a long
                                  relationship with the studio, took on the role of studio director. The
                                  continuity in terms of staff helped keep the operation up and running
                                  during the renovations. The music industry is in the midst of a huge
                                  change, but there’s always going to be a role for a top quality studio that’s
                                  backed by a first class staff.”

                                    Before Jeffrey Wood came on board as studio director, he used Fantasy for
                                    many of his own projects and knows the studio well. “When Concord took
                                    over, they didn’t put a lot of energy into the building,” Wood explains.
“Until recently, people thought Fantasy had closed. We need to get the word out that we’re alive and well and
booking time. There is a lot of life in the studio business in the Bay Area.”

Jeffrey Wood entered the business as a musician and songwriter. After learning to produce and engineer, he
worked for a decade in London and LA. His credits include projects by Giant Sand, Luka Bloom, the
Housemartins, and Penelope Houston. In the recent past, he’s been doing world music albums with artists
from Japan, Serbia, France, India, and Kazakhstan. He helmed Erika Luckett’s Unexpected, which won Just Plain
Folks’ Female Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year in 2006. He relocated to the Bay Area 14 years ago. When
Fantasy asked him to become a producer-in-residence, he agreed to base all of his work at Fantasy. When the
studio c
hanged hands, the previous studio manager left and Wood took over.

“I’ve been manager during the transition and renovation of the building and since we took over, in December
of 2007, we’ve been booked solid. Once clients are in, we take care of all their needs. Some acts are very self-
contained. You don’t hear from them till the session is finished. Others you hear from every five minutes. ‘Why
are there no pimentos in the olives? What’s that strange hum we can’t locate?’ Since we’ve been here so long,
people expect high quality. Everything has to be right all the time and we always pull it off.

“Because of the digital recording revolution, people in a band often bring in a home recoding, or maybe
they’ve started the record at another studio and they bring it here and want us to fix X, Y, or Z. We now work
with people in different stages of the recording process, which is a new challenge for a studio manger.”

To stay competitive, Wareham made sure Fantasy Studios had the best equipment possible, even though a bit
of history was lost in the process according to Wood. “Studio C [the room built for CCR] will be taken over by a
new tenant. It would be nice to keep from a historical perspective, but when we asked people which studio to
upgrade, it didn’t make the cut. The sauna and exercise room actually weren’t in Studio C as legend had it, but
in the main building. They were taken out during an early ’80s renovation.

“Studio A and D have 48-track analog capability and we still do a lot of analog sessions, requested mostly by
young indie bands. We have the largest collection of analog machines in Northern California and do a lot of
media transfer work. We’re helping the Stanford Library and Monterey Jazz Festival transfer their archives to
digital. If anyone has two-inch tapes in the closet, we get the call to bake the tapes and transfer them to Pro
Tools.

“Studio A and Studio D can still accommodate small concert audiences. We recently did a concert for the San
Francisco Jazz Festival in Studio D with an audience of 100 with [trumpeter] Dave Douglas and [sax player] Joe
Lovano.”

Fantasy also has a large collection of vintage and new microphones. James Gangwer, chief technician, is a
renowned microphone expert who keeps everything in top shape. Other toys include custom pre-amps,
compressors, digital delay, reverb, and other plug-in effects, and ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network],
which permits voice, data, text, graphics, music, video, and other source material to be transmitted over
existing telephone wires. Members of Duran Duran recently stopped in to use the ISDN to listen to mixes
someone sent them from London.
“People may think we only work with major acts, but that’s not true,” Wood continues. “We work within
individual budget constraints and have many affordable packages. Where
it’s necessary, we educate clients about the recoding process. Even with an
A&R guy from a major label or big act, there’s an educational process
about making efficient use of studio time. We’ll work with people to get the
best result and be more lenient within the constraints of the budget. It may
not just be studio time. Maybe they need more pre-production and
rehearsal time. They may realize they don’t know [what they’re playing] as
well as they thought they did. As bands produce more projects themselves,
there’s more need for that education. How do they prepare for studio time
to use it in the best way? It’s more than just playing songs and listening
and saying, ‘We sound like that?’ People are starting to realize the value of
bouncing things off of external ears that can hear it in a new way.

“Since 1999, when the digital home recording thing really took off, we’ve been working with a lot of indie
bands. A lot of the bad sound young artists get is due to operator error. When bands come here they always
ask us, ‘How come when we do it, it sounds like a demo and when we do it in the studio it sounds like a real
CD?’ They realize that people who have been doing it for 25 years actually know something about recording.
The home gear is sold with a ‘be your own producer, be your own engineer’ manual, but it helps to work with
people who have done it for a while. The joy of playing together as a band, rather than alone in your bedroom,
is important. It brings out an emotion in the song that can be communicated in the recording.”

				
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posted:10/29/2011
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