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Illegal professional music studios thrive in Los Angeles

Producer Maurice at the board in his home studio that began life as a 1920s garage.
Producer Maurice at the board in his home studio that began life as a 1920s garage.
Peter Gilstrap/KQED

When is a garage not a garage? When it’s a professional recording studio. Tucked away among the quiet neighborhood streets of L.A., there are untold numbers of them. From these discrete refigured spaces come the scores, soundtracks and songs that feed the insatiable appetite of the entertainment industry.

For the California Report, Peter Gilstrap reports on how zoning laws make many of these spaces are illegal. 

“You know, I’m breaking the law right now. I’m an outlaw, but it’s perfect. It suits the rock and roll mystique,” says producer/engineer/musician Maurice, who’s not using his real name for this story as his studio — like the majority of them — is flying under the legal radar. He has garnered gold and platinum albums for production over a 20-year career, and currently works out of his recently converted 1920s garage in Pasadena, which took him six months and $10,000 to turn into a studio.

“The reality is that there’s less money running around the music industry to make records with,” Maurice offers. “I’m sure that Lady Gaga doesn’t have trouble getting a budget to make her record, but for bands that play real instruments — rock bands, folk bands, country bands —anything that includes a drum set and a guitar, those people are really hard pressed to get a record deal or a record budget.”

And when wallets are slim, the home studio is a musician’s best friend.

“The only way for me to make it affordable for bands is to own my own facility so that they don’t have to go to a commercial studio and pay $1,200 or $2,200 a day to rent the studio and then pay an engineer a day rate and a producer.”

But that’s where the risk of running a business where you’re not supposed to comes in. The biggest fear of any home studio owner is coming under the scrutiny of the city.

“A professional recording studio is not allowed in a residential zone,” says Luke Zamperini, the chief building inspector for the city of Los Angeles. “The zoning code specifies it needs to be in a commercial zone, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t have a recording studio in their home for their own personal use.”

When he’s not inspecting buildings, Zamperini likes to strap on a guitar himself. In fact, in the mid-‘70’s he toured in the band Sparks. Maybe you recall its song, “Angst In My Pants,” which was featured in the film “Valley Girl.” Or maybe you don’t.

In theory, Zamperini is the pro home studio owner’s biggest nightmare, but the chief inspector says his department isn’t out hunting down offenders.

“We’re not really interested in going around dictating what people can and can’t do in the privacy of their own home,” he says. “I’ve been at this for 23 years and I can count all the complaints we’ve had on recording studios in residences on one hand. We just don’t hear about it.” 

In fact, the studios do such a good job of not being heard that no one really knows how many exist in L.A. That includes Zamperini. “There’s probably 650,000 parcels in the city that are in residential zones,” he says, “so your guess is as good as mine as to how many have converted their garages or parts of their home into a studio.”

The best way to avoid appearing on the city’s complaint radar is simple: Keep your neighbors happy. It’s something that producer-composer Pete, who’s using his first name only, appreciates. Though he permitted his Studio City add-on to his home, that doesn’t make running a business there legal. He made sure to curry favor with the folks in his ‘hood.

“When I moved in, the first thing I did was introduce myself to all my immediate neighbors,” he explains. “Then I started doing construction, and when I finished I gave everybody cupcakes, all of them. And I find that that goes a very long way because they think I’m a nice guy. If you have a neighbor who has too much time on their hands and for whatever reason doesn’t like what you’re doing, they can make your life miserable.”

Avoiding a neighbor’s wrath is a matter of survival in today’s music business.

“Everybody has to have a space if you want to make a living,” he states. “I write, I produce, I engineer, I mix, I master and I didn’t used to do all that stuff but I do it now, and everybody that I know does the same thing.”

The fact that Pete permitted the 900-square-foot addition at least allows him to claim the space if he decides to sell. Homeowners who spend big bucks building off the books are faced with a grim truth if they put their pad on the market.

It’s a situation that real estate agent Rozz Gallaher is familiar with. He’s the proprietor of L.A. Houses That Rock, a company that deals exclusively with homes that offer studios. Before his current gig, Gallaher was a 1980s hair metal practitioner with a band called Liquor Sweet. He still has the piercings and tats to prove it.

“Unfortunately, for the sellers, it doesn’t create a lot of value,” he explains. “It’s not like remodeling a kitchen. The average Joe obviously isn’t going to see any value in a pre-existing studio.”

Musician Vincent Jones has worked with names like Morrissey and Alanis Morissette, and has been Sarah McLachlan’s musical director since 1997. He also co-wrote, arranged and recorded the theme to “Parks and Recreation,” using only a laptop on a dining room table.

Jones’s current workspace is a bit more elaborate. Part of his rented home, the 900-square-foot studio, began life as a guesthouse. Now “it sounds as good as any studio that I’ve been in with the exception of Abbey Road,” he says. “They spent a lot of money on it.”

No matter how much a home studio costs, how good it sounds or how vital it may be to the artist in today’s cutthroat music business, there are certain aspects of the commercial spaces that can’t be replicated.

“The thing about a big recording studio that I always miss is the interaction with other people,” Jones says. “In random conversations, you can be creatively inspired by other creative people. And then also recording in a nice, big space where the actual air is moving around the microphones more. Nothing sounds like that.”

As audio software gets better and cheaper, the next chapter in professional home recording may stretch the definition of professional. As Pete says, now any kid with a computer, a credit card and a bedroom can call himself a producer.