How One Tenderloin Recording Studio Shaped the 'San Francisco Sound'
The year was 1974, and it was a late night in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Behind an unassuming door at 245 Hyde Street, at the front desk of Wally Heider Recording studios, sat 28-year-old Susie Foot.
A former wild child who had spent her early 20s partying with Jimi Hendrix and the Moody Blues in London before landing in San Francisco, Foot would go on to engineer some of the most acclaimed records of the late '70s. But she’d only been at the studio a few months, and for now, she was a “gopher.” She ran errands, coiled cables, and looked after the tape vault. After hours, she sat at the studio’s front desk -- the only line of defense between thousands of dollars of studio equipment and the notoriously seedy neighborhood -- and answered phones.
It was on one of these nights that a drunk Grace Slick ambled out of the first-floor recording room, Studio A, where Jefferson Starship was busy recording Dragon Fly. She peered at Foot from across the desk.
“I know who you are. You’re a JAP,” she told Foot matter-of-factly -- meaning, of course, the pejorative ‘Jewish-American Princess.’
Recalls Foot, some 42 years later: “I mean, I was raised in a well-off Jewish family in Miami Beach. It seemed like she had somehow recognized my inner self. But then she just said ‘Well, my name’s Grace, and I drink a lot. If you see me passed out on the couch, don’t wake me up, because I’ll probably punch you in the face.’”
Foot nodded. Stranger things had happened in her short time on the job. It was a small price to pay for being at the center of the most exciting music scene in America.
There’s a handful of rooms in San Francisco whose walls, could they talk, would have no shortage of stories to tell. But none, perhaps, are quite like the acoustically treated walls at 245 Hyde. Those walls would sing. They’d slur. They’d throw nitrous parties with Jerry Garcia. They’d blast records by Neil Young, Herbie Hancock, Santana, the Pointer Sisters, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -- and then Tupac, Digital Underground, Cake and Green Day.
Those walls might very well never shut up.
At a time when the vestiges of Free Love-era San Francisco are all but relegated to museums, the former Wally Heider Recording studios, now known as Hyde Street Studios, feels preciously rare: it’s an artifact of a bygone era, a recording studio credited with helping to birth the famous “San Francisco Sound” -- and a studio that’s kept up with a changing industry, quietly thriving where so many others of its generation (Sausalito’s Record Plant, San Francisco’s Automatt) have fallen.
Founded in 1969 by a savvy, eccentric recording engineer and businessman named Wally Heider, what's generally considered the Bay Area’s first high-tech studio was also one of the first to offer almost complete creative control to the musicians who booked it. All told, the studio played a vital role in establishing San Francisco as a hub for independent recording artists, a musician’s city that could hold its own with -- and even offer some advantages over -- New York and Los Angeles.
Nearly a half-century later, under the name Hyde Street Studios and the ownership of Michael Ward, it’s also one of a handful of studios from this era still left in the Bay Area. Strolling through the Tenderloin, you could be forgiven for missing it -- unless you happen to be looking at the sidewalk, in which case you’ll see a modest commemorative plaque. Past the heavy gray doors, every wall of the two-floor studio -- from the hallways to the cozy lounge area where Grace Slick napped to the kitchen -- is lined with records that were created here, from Third Eye Blind to George Clinton to David Crosby.
“The records that came out of this place were absolutely what drew me here,” says studio manager Jack Kertzman, who started out as an intern at Hyde Street in 2011. It’s a rare moment between sessions, and he’s seated in an office chair in Studio A, before its sprawling, vintage Neve console. Beyond the glass, the room most often used for full-band recording features a Hammond B-3 organ and a white Yamaha grand piano rumored to have once belonged to Frank Sinatra.
As an engineer, Kertzman appreciates that the studio’s history means he can offer clients an impressive range of options, from state-of-the-art modern equipment to gear from the '70s: Hyde Street boasts a functioning live echo chamber, a tape vault, plate and spring reverbs.
But on a personal level, it was the '90s-era recordings that first drew Kertzman here.
“I grew up on Green Day and Cake records that were made here. There’s such rich history, even just from the Michael Ward era onward,” says the engineer. “And then I started to dig deeper, and realized that in the early '70s this was the room where the Grateful Dead recorded American Beauty and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded Deja Vu, all that good stuff from the San Francisco psychedelic scene. Anyone who is a real music fan loves those records too.”
Today, a lone lava lamp perched next to a vintage amplifier is the only explicitly psychedelic object in the room. The casual observer would have no way of knowing, for example, that the isolation booth directly to Kertzman’s right is the location where Eric Burdon, with War, recorded the famous spoken-word vocals for “Spill the Wine” -- while high on acid.
“Oh yeah, that was in the first six months of opening in 1969, when Wally was cutting all these deals to get business up from L.A. and New York,” recalls former staff engineer Stephen Barncard, one of the first employees Heider ever hired. “So he made a weekend deal with this old-school producer Jerry Goldstein to produce this new band.”
A Latin-soul outfit led by the Animals' former lead singer, the band showed up to the session, got comfortable, and got high. "Spill the Wine" became their first big hit.
“With ‘Spill the Wine’ and all the other tunes [on that record], it was live vocals -- Burdon was in this tiny booth with the lights out. I didn’t know he was tripping his mind out on LSD,” says Barncard.
“But he had his rap together; there was not one fix, not one edit. That record basically mixed itself. And it was very educational to me about the importance of liveness, which is what that studio encouraged. You don’t put people in little boxes -- aside from the vocalist, which was necessary, because they played pretty loud. I imagine for him it must have looked like he was looking down from a tower.”
Barncard’s girlfriend at the time, Ellen Burke, also served as his assistant; he says she was actually the first woman to work at Heider's studio, but she wasn't on the books. Burke would also meditate in that vocal booth, which added, the engineer believes, to its magic.
“Anyway,” says Barncard. “Jerry got his money’s worth.”
Stephen Barncard owes at least some of his success to the Yellow Pages.
Now 69, the recording engineer and producer is a legend in the industry, known for his work on records by the Grateful Dead, Harry Nilsson, David Crosby, CSN&Y, the Doobie Brothers -- the list goes on. But at 22, he was just a hippie DJ from Kansas City with an obsessive interest in home recording techniques. He had been in San Francisco a couple weeks, crashing with friends, when he decided to look up “recording studios” in a phone book. Wally Heider’s was the only one within walking distance.
So he walked over and got a tour from then-chief engineer Mel Tanner, whose openness impressed the young engineer. “I had hair down to my shoulders, I was wearing a headband, and here was this professional engineer who’d worked with Bing Crosby, and he treated me with respect,” recalls Barncard. Tanner told him to write Wally Heider a letter, so Barncard did just that.
Months later, by which time he was living in Los Angeles, he got a call from Heider. His interview consisted of running an errand in Heider’s T-bird and coming back with the right change. Two weeks later, he was back in San Francisco, working as an assistant engineer on CSN&Y’s record Deja Vu, making $10 an hour -- which, in 1969, was pretty darn good. The following year, he worked on the Dead's American Beauty. By that time, it was pretty tough to faze him; it wasn't terribly surprising, for example, when he found himself capturing audio from an impromptu nitrous party Jerry Garcia decided to throw upstairs in Studio C. (These tapes, much to Barncard's amusement, are currently in a library at UC Santa Cruz, being treated as objects of great educational importance.)
Barncard’s primarily known for his work on records by some of the greats. But he’s also one of the last people who can tell you about Wally Heider, who died in 1989.
“He was this really big, tall guy, and he was fast-talking, though he had a stutter,” recalls Barncard. “He knew how to play ball with the top artists.” His people skills and sense of timing both played key roles in Heider’s success, says the engineer.
“He appeared right when a lot of artists were dissatisfied with the restrictions of the big label studios, which were unionized. You know, [rules like] you can’t touch the console, the echo chambers go off at 5 o’clock. That was the standard up until then, when you had a major label sign you. You went to their studios and followed their orders and made a record with their producers,” says Barncard. “So you have Jefferson Airplane setting up tents and smoking and doing LSD at RCA studios in Los Angeles, and they got a lot of crap for it.”
Heider had opened an independent studio in LA with a different atmosphere, one that put the artist in the driver’s seat, to great success; investors soon took notice. After working the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 -- in concert footage, he can be seen running onstage to rescue expensive microphones as Pete Townshend and Keith Moon begin to destroy their instruments -- he had an eye on San Francisco.
So when 245 Hyde Street, a building that had previously been used by 20th Century Fox for film storage, came up for rent, he jumped. He set up its studio rooms using measurements he'd gotten working with Bill Putnam ("the father of modern recording") at Hollywood's United Western Recording, where Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds.
Heider would spend the next 11 years going back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco, his studios shaping the sound of the West Coast.
As far as Susie Foot knows, the roster of female sound engineers in the United States in the early '70s consists of two people: Herself and Terry Becker, who unsurprisingly became a close friend. (Leslie Ann Jones, now an acclaimed sound engineer at Skywalker Sound, joined them in 1978 with a job at the newly opened Automatt.) It’s an imbalance that, unfortunately, has only slightly improved since the 1970s.
But to hear Foot tell it, she rarely experienced sexism during her time at Wally Heider Studios, where she began as an unpaid intern in 1974 and worked her way up to first engineer by the time the studio closed in 1980. (At the request of new owner Michael Ward, she also returned in Hyde Street Studios' early days as studio manager; she's responsible for acquiring that prized Neve console in Studio A.)
Foot’s interest in sound engineering grew from learning simple home recording techniques to help her husband, the guitarist Jimmy Foot, who was then leading a psychedelic band called The Magic Mind in the tiny North Bay town of Cloverdale. She soon fell in love with the process -- and as her skill grew, so did her desire for more sophisticated equipment. A friend set up an interview at Wally Heider’s, and she brought some of her home recordings.
“We were really poor at the time. We were on welfare, actually,” says Foot from her home in Humboldt County, where she runs Bongo Boy Studios with her husband. “And I brought in what I’d been working on, and the studio manager said ‘You did this on what? That’s incredible.’ I had good ears, good instincts with no training.”
Within a couple years, Foot was working on albums by Santana, Herbie Hancock, and Patti LaBelle.
“We were a really good team,” she recalls, of working with Carlos Santana on the album Amigos. “He had a vegetarian restaurant back then, and his wife would come bring us these beautiful vegetarian lunches for us. Or we’d all go out to dinner and they’d protect me since I was the woman: we’d walk around the Tenderloin with me in the center.”
But the thing that stands out most about that album for Foot was Santana’s use of color. “When Carlos went into do his lead guitar, he’d say he wanted the sound to be ‘red,’ so he’d blend the lights in the studio until he got the color he felt good about,” she says. “He’d set up an altar, there would be candles burning, and it would take you on a journey -- even though you were working.”
Other memorable clients include Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who once had to be nearly forcibly removed from the studio after overstaying the time he’d booked; he left, finally, after staff threatened to call the police. (In one version of this story that's passed around the grapevine, Hart hired a Hell’s Angel to stand guard at the door with a samurai sword and prevent studio staff from entering; sadly, no one could quite confirm that for this piece.)
On the other end of the spectrum: One of the “nicest” musicians in the business, says Foot, was Herbie Hancock, who recorded his pivotal record Head Hunters there in 1973. “He was a gentleman, super classy. He taught me about how important meditation was, how necessary it was to clear your mind.”
For a Hancock session, Foot says, she and engineer Dave Rubinson kept two 24-track tape machines running, so when Hancock was improvising, they could switch over to a second reel without stopping. Then began a complicated cutting process, in which they taped together the sections of reels Hancock liked, jigsaw puzzle-style.
One night, someone accidentally threw out a couple of “keeper” reels -- so she, Rubinson, engineer Fred Catero and Herbie Hancock spent the night “rummaging through the wastebasket, taking out tape, piecing it together and playing it, and going ‘Nope, that’s not it,’” Foot remembers with a laugh. “There’s no vocal cues in jazz either, to help figure out where you were!
“Thank god Herbie knew what everything was supposed to sound like.”
The forward march of technology has been notoriously tough on recording artists over the past two decades, as streaming and download counts replace physical record sales. So it's not surprising that professional recording studios have been hit hard as well. It's also no secret that, in the days since Stephen Barncard was living comfortably on $10 an hour, the Bay Area has been home to skyrocketing housing prices. In turn, many formerly local musicians have fled for greener pastures, and untold numbers of would-be rock stars simply stopped moving here in the first place: it's a tough sell, if you're an artist.
All told, it starts to seem somewhat magical that anyone's been able to keep a state-of-the-art recording studio going in the heart of the city for nearly 50 years.
If you start asking around about that magic, however, those in the know will point to Hyde Street Studios' Michael Ward.
"I got into things just as the whole industry was falling apart," says Ward, who's kept Hyde Street open for the past 36 years, with a half-hearted laugh. "But it's certainly never been a sensible or straightforward business."
By 1978, when Wally Heider sold the studio and its name to the production company Filmways, a lot of the financial bottom was already dropping out of the recording industry on the West Coast, says Ward. "There was this short period where [music] was a glamour industry, and somehow there were corporate people putting dollars behind Heider, and this studio he created out of that was seminal," he says. "But it was a never a comfortable arrangement between the suits in L.A. and the hippies in San Francisco. Eventually the bottom line just didn't add up; glamorous records weren't being made there. The light started shining elsewhere."
In 1980, when Wally Heider Recording officially closed for business, Ward was a young songwriter and musician who had been running a successful home recording room for three years out of his house in the Sunset. When he heard the studio was available to rent, he and his business partner Tom Sharples went to tour the place; Ward says his only goal, from the beginning, was to have a place to record his own work.
"I had been involved in building a bunch of studios by this point, and it's just so arduous to start from scratch and achieve [acoustic] isolation. So to have access to this 10,000 square-foot facility, with four completely built studios -- it was fatally attractive."
Filmways let their lease expire in 1980, at which time a partnership composed of Ward, Sharples, and sound engineer Dan Alexander rented the studios and moved in. The rent was $2,200 a month.
In the three and a half decades since, according to Ward -- who's been the sole owner since the partnership dissolved in 1984 -- Hyde Street has had a lot of personalities. "We were punk music central there for a while -- Dead Kennedys, Flipper," muses Ward, though "it was never really my thing." Joe Satriani was one of the studio's first clients; Chris Isaak was also a regular.
In the late eighties and early nineties, as the Bay Area's hip-hop scene was becoming a national force, the studio attracted the likes of Digital Underground, whose record Sex Packets was recorded at Hyde Street. Their young backup dancer, Tupac Shakur, returned to record his solo debut 2Pacalypse Now. Soon after, Ice Cube booked "like two months" of time for his up-and-coming cousin, Del the Funkee Homosapien. "Then he didn't show up for five weeks," recalls Ward. "That was a different time." The following decade brought Green Day, Cake, Train -- and more recently, Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moon, whose critically acclaimed record Benji was recorded at Hyde Street over the course of six months in 2013.
For those wondering how operating a recording studio in the year 2016 could possibly be a smart business choice, Ward has a candid answer: it isn't. There have been months where he's had to borrow money to pay the rent. Hyde Street has never been profitable, says the musician; it's only become solvent, even, the past couple years.
"I gave up 25 years ago thinking I was ever going to make money on it. Survival was the thing," he says. "And somehow, if I got to record there and not have to pay anybody else, that would justify it."
In addition to Hyde Street's independently functioning studios (engineers serve as co-owners, and pay rent), Ward currently rents out various rooms out of the 10,000-square-foot building to some 12 different vendors, including Cutting Edge, a recording equipment supplier whose co-owner also recently took over what had been Studio D.
But perhaps the most generous benefactor to Hyde Street Studios' survival is also the most maligned, or certainly the most misunderstood: its surroundings.
"We've been blessed with a particularly noxious social situation. We're right on the fringes of the epicenter of the Tenderloin," Ward says. "Between that and how much work someone would have to do to take this place over, and the crack and heroin that's always been kind of swirling right outside the door...
"If it was in a nice neighborhood, we'd have been gone decades ago."
In June of this year, there was a show at Studio C -- the live room that once served as the Grateful Dead's practice space. Hosted by engineer Scott McDowell, it was a farewell show for (formerly local) electro-pop musician Katie Day; alt-country singer Michaela Anne, on tour from Nashville, served as opener; other San Francisco songwriters, like Max Lockwood Porter, played a few songs to kick off the night.
There were maybe 40 people there at the show's peak, standing, sitting cross-legged on the floor, spilling out into the lounge, visiting the ever-popular vending machine with the one unmarked button that delivers a mystery-brand can of beer, or looking up at the walls, where certified gold records like 2Pacalypse Now and "The Humpty Dance" are encased in glass. Word had spread on Facebook, and attendees paid $5 at the front desk, where Susie Foot once sat, to get in. Grace Slick wasn't there threatening to punch anybody, but it was a pretty damn good party.
"There's a community there that you don't get in other studios," says Chuck Prophet, a prolific San Francisco troubadour who made use of the studio's '70s-era offerings, like the live echo chamber, on his forthcoming full-length, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins. (Prophet's history with the studio dates back to the early '80s, when his high school band paid $5 an hour to practice in one of the rooms upstairs.)
"You do a record there, you're gonna run into people in the hallways, in the break room, the kitchen. And that's what music in the Bay Area has always been about."
The sentiment circles back, unsurprisingly, to what Wally Heider knew along: you can't underestimate the importance of cultivating a comfortable atmosphere for musicians.
"They treat people with respect," says Prophet. "For a lot of people booking studio time, maybe this is the first time you've sung into a microphone. You're standing there naked, baring your soul; you want to feel like you're being taken care of. Studios that do that are a dying breed."
As for the future, it remains -- as it does in the music industry -- uncertain.
Ward seems sanguine. "I still feel very invested in this project," he says, "bringing it to successful fruition, not being driven out of the business. But the main motivation for all of this is to write music. That's what I told Jack [Kertzman]. That's what has justified it so far, and that's what will guide me in the future."
So no, after 36 years, he's not planning on selling Hyde Street Studios anytime soon. He has, however, recently moved most of what was in Studio D to his home in the Sunset, and is enjoying having a studio in his house again. It's nice to just go downstairs in his socks when he wants to record.
And there's this: lately it's gotten difficult to book studio time at his own studio. Business is, well, busy. Which should serve, maybe, as a small source of comfort to those who weren't around for the so-called golden age, who didn't hear the birth of the "San Francisco Sound" up close.
"I love that there's such history at that studio, from [CSN&Y's] 'Teach Your Children' to the Dead Kennedys," says Prophet.
"But it's also important to remember: People are making history here every day."