Capitol Studios Shutters Its Mastering Division

The most visible face of Capitol Studios, 30-year veteran Paula Salvatore, a VP, is also described as taking on on a different, as-yet unrevealed role.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock (10677366y).Capitol Records Building.Music Venues, Los Angeles, California, USA - 11 Jun 2020
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

The mastering department at the famed Capitol Studios in Hollywood has been shut down, with several employees laid off, Universal Music Group confirmed Tuesday night after word of the closure began to circulate on social media.

The recording studios themselves, a tourist site as well as magnet for top recording artists since opening in 1956, will remain open. But Capitol Studios’ mastering rooms, which were nearly as venerated by engineers and producers, will not, as those spaces will be converted into recording studios — presumably much smaller ones than Studio A, where Frank Sinatra used to record with a full orchestra.

Said a Universal Music Group spokesperson: “At Capitol Studios, while demand for recording studios remains high, there has been an overall decline in requests for mastering services — to the point where we have decided to close Capitol’s mastering facility and focus on other areas of the recording process that are in higher demand by artists, including using the space to build additional recording suites.”

Also being closed: Capitol Studios’ tape restoration department, where older recordings from the UMG catalog were digitized. According to UMG, much if not most of that work had already been outsourced to Iron Mountain in Hollywood in the last several years.

UMG did not confirm the number of employees cut, but the mastering department had four employees. But one key employee affected in the changes taking place this week was not connected solely to the mastering or tape restoration departments, but Capitol Studios at large: Paula Salvatore, a vice president at the studio who recently celebrated her 30th anniversary with the company, and who was widely considered the face of the entire facility.

Salvatore will no longer continue in that role. Word had spread in the music community Monday and Tuesday that Salvatore had been laid off, with growing consternation over the potential departure of an institutional fixture that many considered the very face of Capitol Studios. UMG sources say that she will continue with the company in a different role, yet to be defined. It remains unclear, on the outside, whether she will continue as a staffer or be a consultant. Variety was unable to reach Salvatore for comment.

All recordings have to be mastered for release, so it’s not entirely intuitive why the demand for studio sessions would continue to be at a premium but mastering work would have slowed to the crawl that UMG’s statement suggest. It could be that additional recording studios at such a famous location may command more of a premium than mastering work, which can be outsourced. UMG has outside facilities it uses for mastering in Los Angeles that are expected to take on work that was previously done in-house. The company projects no cuts at mastering facilities in the studios it owns in New York, Nashville, Canada and Mexico.

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Capitol Studios’ mastering rooms, with since-retired Ron McMaster at work in 2018 Chris Willman / Variety

Top engineer Steve Hoffman, who oversees the popular Hoffman Forums message boards, was one of those taken aback by the shuttering of the mastering department. On his Facebook page, he expressed relief that the recording studios would reopen, contrary to initial rumors that they, too, might face permanent closure. “I hope it is true,” he wrote, “but why fire and close mastering? Aren’t they going to ever release music?”

Capitol Studios as a whole was shut down in the initial stages of the pandemic, then reopened under COVID protocols, with a slowdown in activity, as fewer people were allowed on site and extensive cleaning had to take place between sessions. The entire facility was temporarily shuttered again recently when the county of Los Angeles imposed new restrictions on entertainment production due to a severe spike in COVID infections; there are hopes the studio may be allowed to reopen if cases slow down  in late January, although that looks less likely as the days go on and hospitalizations increase.

Capitol Studios’ mastering department was particularly renowned in recent years for its part in the vinyl revival, although CD mastering was also done there. The studio’s website, which has not been changed to reflect the department’s closure, still boasts: “Capitol Mastering proudly boasts the living legacy of lacquer mastering for vinyl with two legendary Neumann lathes in full-time service. We cut lacquer masters for all formats including 7”, 10” and 12”.”

Sources say the lathes and other vintage or analog equipment will be kept on site and not sold off, although it will be moved out of the mastering rooms as they are converted into recording spaces.

The longest-serving veteran of the department, Ron McMaster, made headlines (including a Variety profile) when he retired in 2018 after 38 years in the Capitol Tower. He said then that he was retiring because the influx of requests for vinyl masters was so intense — sometimes involving cutting four lacquers a day — that he no longer had the energy to keep up that pace.

Rumors continue to circulate about the future of the Capitol Tower, which was sold in 2007 and then leased back to the Capitol label group. The building has landmark status and the studio floors, at least, are believed to be safe from conversion to other uses. UMG has maintained that any rumored conversion to condos remains off the table.

Salvatore’s tenure with the company had not gone recently unnoticed in-house. In November, another tenant of the Capitol tower, Capitol Records, posted a video to its Facebook page of Salvatore giving a tour of the famed basement studio, with a caption noting that it was “in celebration of Paula Salvatore’s 30th Anniversary” (below).