Mix Magazine Talks With - Sonic Fuel Studios
By: Matt Hurwitz
Film and TV composer Christopher Lennertz wraps up a cello overdub for a recent project and then announces the next track, a guitar overdub. But instead of sorting through contact lists and contractor recommendations, he takes a shortcut: upstairs at his studio at Sonic Fuel to knock on the door of a colleague, Aaron Kaplan, also an accomplished studio guitarist, to ask him to play on the track. Much easier.
The approach isn’t one either he or partner Tim Wynn could have taken even a few months ago, prior to the June opening of their new facility in El Segundo. The new Sonic Fuel, unlike its predecessor in Marina del Rey, has nine composing rooms, mostly occupied by talented cohorts with whom they’ve crossed paths on previous projects. “This facility has enabled us to bring in other people who have their own specialties who are also able to rent the studio space,” Lennertz says. “We’re really able to help each other out.”
He and Wynn, who met while studying music at USC with the legendary Elmer Bernstein, founded the company 10 years ago, after working separately for five years alone at home. “We both realized we were sick of not talking to anybody, of being solitary. Plus, we would do sessions late at night, and that’s just not feasible with home and family life.”
The two then built their own studio in an industrial part of Marina del Rey, with space for two composing rooms and a 13x18-foot recording room. “We could get about 12 people in there,” says their longtime engineer/mixer, Jeff Vaughn. “It was sort of tight. It had a sound lock, so you could put a guy out in the hall and leave the door open, if you needed.”
Lennertz recorded seven seasons of score for the TV showSupernatural there, video games (including The Simpsons) and many other projects, as did Wynn, for nine years. But after three three-year leases, they decided to buy their own building and create an environment that would better fit their needs. “We wanted to make sure we had the space to do what we were really getting asked to do a lot, which was multi-stem 5.1 mixes for film, TV and video games,” Lennertz says.
With both composers living in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, they looked for a 5,000-10,000 square-foot site in that region, eventually settling on a two-story building, three times their previous studio’s size, in Smokey Hollow, an industrial section of El Segundo just south of LAX. “Aircraft noise isn’t a problem,” says Vaughn. “The runways are east-west and a half-mile north of us. To be honest, we were more worried about trucks outside. Thankfully, none of our neighbors are running any big stamping machines!”
Vaughn helped lay out the building, having worked with Lennertz and Wynn since 1995. “He’s been around the film and TV world for much longer than we have,” Lennertz says. “We trusted him and his experience.” The engineer worked closely with Frank Glynn, AIA, of El Segundo-based Saga Architecture. “We wanted a local architect, first, because we wanted to support the community we were moving into, and, two, because he already had established relationships with the city’s building department, which helped streamline the process.”
Lennertz wanted a live room that could hold 30 to 40 people, for a typical rhythm section or even a string section. “If you get any bigger than that, then you’re talking about a full orchestra, and we weren’t looking to compete with a Fox or a Warner Bros.,” Lennertz says. The team does record separates, when needed, such as for Lennertz’s score for the pilot for NBC’s new Revolution.
The studio, constructed by studio builder Progressive Design, features loads of eco-friendly materials, including reclaimed scrap, light tubes and reclaimed carbonized bamboo flooring in the live room and two iso booths. “We call it ‘Industrial Zen,’” notes Lennertz. For additional protection from noise intrusion, the studio floor is built up on 4-inch rubber isolators, and its walls are stud-separated from the exterior walls.
As in the studio, Lennertz wanted a control room that could comfortably handle a larger group—directors, producers and the like—who often visit a composer at work. “There’s sometimes 13 or 14 people that need to be there to watch and make comments,” the composer explains. “Plus, we knew were going to be there 24/7, so it needed to be a place we would want to spend weeks on end.”
The team opted for a used Avid System 5 recording console, reconditioned by the company to include the latest operational system. “We looked at buying an old Neve or SSL, but the heat and power issues associated with those were prohibitive,” Lennertz explains. “Plus, we’re not making records. We’re doing film scores that are sometimes 64 tracks wide with multiple stems, so the Euphonix was the best fit.”
The team records to a Pro Tools 10 HDX rig, using Euphonix MADI A/D converters, as well as a Euphonix 727 format converter. The studio’s collection of microphones, including Neumanns, Sennheisers, Josephsons and Coles, are fed through a range of high-quality preamps—Avid’s own, as well as units from Grace, Millennia and Neve—to produce as warm an orchestral recording as possible. “We wanted to make sure we have a mic closet and rack of gear that other mixers and composers are used to using and will feel comfortable with when recording here,” says Lennertz.
While not yet fully implemented, the composing rooms (six upstairs, three downstairs) will eventually be connected via tielines to one of the studio’s two iso booths, which will operate at times as a secondary control room. “You’ll be able to record to any room in the building, recording from any of the live spaces downstairs,” Vaughn explains. “We’ll be able to be mixing in the control room while recording’s going on on the other side of the glass.”
Besides the expansive new recording and control room capabilities of his new studio, Lennertz is already enjoying the camaraderie of additional artists to bounce things off of or get advice, if desired. “Everybody thinks composers like to be sequestered and alone, and that’s not the case,” he concludes. “It’s really nice, after working for three or four hours, to open your door, get a cup of coffee, and be able to play a piece for someone and get a reaction. It’s a nice change.”