Sounds of Hawai‘i: ‘Ae Kai, the Smithsonian, and Recording Studios from Honolulu’s past

From July 7 through July 9, 2017, the Smithsonian Asian American Pacific Center will host ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence at the former Foodland space in Ala Moana Center. The 3-day art exhibition features 50+ artists and practitioners from Hawaii and beyond. This is a markedly different project for us, and as participants we are honored to have this opportunity to find new ways of presenting Aloha Got Soul and the stories behind this music we’ve been digging over the years.

Learn more about ʻAe Kai at http://smithsonianapa.org/aekai.

We’ve entitled our ‘Ae Kai contribution “Sounds of Hawaii”, a photo series documenting recording studios that once existed in the Kaka’ako, Ward, and Ala Moana areas.

This is an ongoing project that Leimomi and I started working on after returning from Japan in late May. As a disclaimer, I must add that this project does not attempt to encompass all of the studios in Hawaii, nor does it attempt to cover all of the recordings that were made at the studios in question. Instead, we’ve focused on the main studios responsible for the music that I’ve written so often about on this blog.

I believe this is the first time Aloha Got Soul has looked so intently into studios. Up until now, it’s been about the musicians.  But studios are where musicians, producers, engineers, ideas, and time converge to create a finished product: a record. Without studios, these records wouldn’t exist.

Five weeks has not been enough time for us to dig deeper into the stories of these studios. Some owners no longer live in Hawaii, some were on vacation during the month of June, and some have been rather difficult to get in contact with (if anyone can put me in touch with Herb Ono’s son, Dean Ono, please email me!). Following the ‘Ae Kai exhibition, we intend to continue this project, spending more time with studio owners, engineers, and former managers to bring further context and deeper understanding to “Sounds of Hawaii”.

We often look to the preeminent independent reissue label Numero Group for inspiration in running Aloha Got Soul. Numero’s mission to preserve and perpetuate soon-to-be-lost American music is “urgent as hell. Time kills off precious bits of passed-over sound, story, and ephemera every day”. This is truer than ever in Honolulu where new condominiums, artist “lofts”, shopping complexes, and mixed-use developments rise skyward.

Time won’t wait. Ala Moana, Ward and Kaka‘ako neighborhoods are so physically different than they were five years ago. Landmarks of Hawaii’s recent past have begun to fade from our collective memory. The stories are fading quickly, too.

Audissey’s recording studio once existed where SALT at Kaka‘ako now stands.

The records I’ve concerned myself with since starting this blog in 2010 are mostly from a tiny slice of time in Hawaii’s musical past. Just by glancing at the cover of last year’s Aloha Got Soul compilation on Strut Records, that time frame is roughly 1979-1985. Several of these recordings were made at a handful of studios in Hawaii, namely: Sounds of Hawaii, Commercial Recording Studio, Audio Media, Audissey, Sinergia, and Broad Recording Studio.

It’s 2017 now, and that music — and the studios — are mostly long gone. LPs and 45s have been long out-of-print (we’ve been reissuing some since 2015). The buildings that once housed places like Sounds of Hawaii or Commercial Record Studio have changed hands several times, been gutted completely, or have been replaced by a towering condominium complex.

Ironically, Sounds of Hawaii is now an independent Porsche repair shop, and Commercial is a warehouse for Porsche of Hawaii’s service department.

There are several reasons why these studios are no longer in operation. Perhaps the biggest reason is technological evolution. Digital recording capabilities began to change the industry in the 1980s, with equipment becoming smaller, more powerful, and more portable with each innovation. Anyone with a garage could set up a studio with minimal investment. Now, anyone with a laptop or an iPad can create high quality recordings — with a fraction of what it would’ve cost when these recording studios first opened.

Gordon Broad opened Broad Recording Studio in 1976 with about $150,000 in equipment. “Today, everyone and everyone’s brother has a studio”, Gordon told me over the phone earlier this week. Engineer Wayne Carvalho, who worked with the late Peter Coraggio at Sinergia Studios when it was at 1229 Waimanu Street and later in a 1,100 square foot space in Kaneohe, told me over email that “a million dollar studio in the 80’s is realized today within a desktop computer.”

Broad Recording Studio, located at 1 N. King Street. You had to climb a flight of stairs behind this door to reach the studio’s reception office.

Earlier today we met engineer Rick Stanley and Donn Tyler, the owner of Commercial Recording Studio, for lunch at Highway Inn in Kaka’ako. The restaurant is located a block from where Donn’s studio once was: 333 Cooke Street. He opened the studio in 1965 when he was about 26 years old. Back then, Honolulu had about two other recording studios: Sounds of Hawaii, House of Eric, and a transistor radio shop that had a tiny recording booth that, according to Donn, didn’t fully satisfy what it takes to qualify as a studio.

Donn owned one of the (if not the) top recording studios in Hawaii. They recorded everyone from Neil Young and The Beach Boys, Martin Denny and the Baja Marimba Band, the Sons of Hawaii and Sunday Manoa. They also did a lot of commercial work, hence the name. Back when he first opened the studio in 1965, Cooke Street had no sidewalks and Gabby Pahinui lived a few blocks down the street. Donn recorded Gabby’s timeless “brown album” at Commercial.

In 1968, Billboard Magazine wrote a multi-page feature on the state of Hawaii’s music industry:

With just three companies located in Honolulu, Hawaii’s recording studios are geared to minimal service and minimal output. Of these three studios only two, Sounds of Hawaii and Commercial Recording, have had any impact among local people… Hawaii’s tiny record industry does not produce enough activity to keep three studios humming in any normal fashion… And with Los Angeles just five hours away by jet, the availability of top West Coast studios, engineers and musicians is a tempting lure which attracts some of the local business.

Gordon Broad idolized Herb Ono, the owner of the oldest recording studio on the island, Sounds of Hawaii, located at 1084 Young Street. Herb was booking artists like Don Hon, Mackey Feary, Herb Ohta, The Krush, Hal Bradbury, Gabe Baltazar, and Country Comfort — to name just a few. “Herb was the guy in the recording industry in Hawaii. I used to hang out at Sounds of Hawaii, talk story, have dinner with Herb. If Herb travelled to the mainland, I would go with him.” Gordon recorded his own album, Broad Way, at the studio.

The building once home to Sounds of Hawaii is now an independent Porsche repair shop.

Gordon Broad spent enough time at Sounds of Hawaii to eventually decide he wanted to open his own studio. In 1979, after unsuccessfully trying to convince Herb to invest in a 24-track setup, Gordon gathered everything he needed to open Broad Recording Studio, located at 1 N. King Street. It was Hawaii’s first 24-track studio (Herb One eventually had upgraded to a 24-track by 1978). Broad opened right around the same time disco was happening. There were plenty of local artists looking to record contemporary music that would compete with national acts. Lemuria, Aura, Mike Lundy, Phase 7, Momi, Paramore — all excellent examples of the music Aloha Got Soul is centered around, and all were recorded at Broad within the time period that Gordon was involved with the studio, from 1976 to about 1980.

Audio Media‘s engineer Ed Roy was busy recording contemporary acts too, including his own band Roy & Roe. The studio was located in suite C on the ground floor of 1232 Waimanu Street, below Tom Moffatt Productions and Moffatt’s Bluewater Records, which were owned by Hawaii’s most influential radio disc jockey and concert promoter, Tom Moffatt. Roy & Roe album, recorded with his bassist friend David Rorick, caught the attention of Moffatt upstairs and subsequently saw a release on the Bluewater label. Notable artists who recorded at Audio Media include the Makaha Sons, Hui Ohana, and Ed’s favorite Hawaiian album, Pacific Tunings by Na Pali.

While Audio Media owner Dunbar Wakayama maintained the studio’s commercial recording services and wasn’t too involved with the music industry, one of his commercial clients introduced producer Bill Murata to the studio. Several of Murata’s releases were done at Audio Media, as well as Sounds of Hawaii. Audio Media was also mostly responsible for recording a series of compilations from a local songwriting competition called Home Grown, which helped launch the careers of contemporary Hawaiian artists like Nohelani Cypriano, Brandon Bray, and Bart Bascone. Donn Tyler’s Commercial oversaw post production of the Home Grown series.

Nohelani Cypriano also recorded at Audissey, which once had a recording studio where the SALT at Kaka‘ako complex now exists. Owner Rick Parlee noted that Audissey and its engineer Jim Linkner rose to fame with the recording of Olomana’s first album in 1976, Like a Seabird in the Wind. The album remains an iconic classic from the era, representing a time when artists were beginning to blend contemporary ideas with traditional Hawaiian music in order to create a new identity and for the islands. Other artists on the Aloha Got Soul radar who recorded at Audissey include Seawind (then known as Ox) and ʻĀina.

Audissey crew circa 1978 in front of their building at 679 Auahi Street. The Keith Tucker mural in the background was huge, spanning the entire front of the building, predating by many years the current trend in Kakaako. Jim Linkner and Tracy Clay were the ones primarily involved with the studio, Jim is standing on the far left with Tracy knelling in front of him, founder Quentin “Sam” Holt is standing on the far right, Rick Parlee is standing in the middle. (Photo courtesy Rick Parlee)

Billboard took note of the surging studio scene with a 1978 article entitled “Studio Competition Brisk, Business Bright in Hawaii”. The article features interviews with the top five studios on Oahu: Sounds of Hawaii, Broad Studios, Audissey, Commercial Recording Studios, and Sinergia (which by 1978 had moved its operations to Kaneohe):

Recording studios in Hawaii are generally thriving and expanding, capitalizing on an artistic explosion of traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music. The unprecedented proliferation of local talented and island music consumers means a corresponding proliferation of studio time for local recordings.

But even though the studio owners were generally optimistic about business picking up — Herb Ono said “The future looks good for us. We’re building a new complex with two studios next year”; Donn Tyler talked of going after national and foreign markets “vigorously”; Broad’s general manager John Dudley remarked “Things look promising. We think we’re a new frontier that will attract many artists from the mainland [and Japan] — Sinergia’s owner Peter Coraggio saw a big change coming: “I think we’ll see more people getting their own studios — like 4-tracks. A person can probably set one up for under $5,000.”

Today, none of these studios are still in operation. Donn Tyler decided to close Commercial in 1997 with the sentiment seemed to be that the recording business was no longer a viable one to remain in. Dunbar Wakayama closed Audio Media in 2009 to move his family to Utah. Audissey operates today as an A/V consulting and installation firm, but it hasn’t had any recording facilities since its moved from its location at 679 Auahi Street.

The buildings that once housed Sounds, Commercial, and Audio Media are still standing. In fact, there’s a recording studio called Studio Ala Moana in Audio Media’s old space. But the original location of Sinergia is now the Waihonua at Kewalo condominium, and where Audissey’s studio once operated is now SALT at Kaka‘ako.

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This is an ongoing project that considers how time and the physical landscape around us affect the society and culture we exist in. We hope to continue working on “Sounds of Hawaii” after ‘Ae Kai wraps up.

In the meantime, please join us and 50+ other artists and practitioners ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence on July 7-9, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. The exhibition will take place in the former site of Foodland in Ala Moana Center.

Learn more about ʻAe Kai at http://smithsonianapa.org/aekai.

3 thoughts on “Sounds of Hawai‘i: ‘Ae Kai, the Smithsonian, and Recording Studios from Honolulu’s past

  1. Chris N. says:

    After Sounds Of Hawaii and before the Porsche repair shop, it was called Audio Resource Honolulu. This was circa 1992-4. I knew an assistant that worked at the studio and I did a DAT transfer there in December 1993. I believe the owner was Tony Hugar. Milan Bertosa engineered there.

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