Len Horowitz’s eyes are wide open, as if a mad scientist solving a tough equation. An educator, archivist and engineer, he’s playing to a favorite crowd — audiophiles seeking the tangible artifacts and stories that span the history of recorded sound, which has been History of Recorded Sound’s shared business moniker and mission since 1987. Located in Culver City, HRS is an active community member, frequently participating in local events such as annual Record Store Day in Los Angeles and the Culver City Art Walk.
For decades, Len has opened HRS’s doors to collectors, whom he affectionately calls “hunters and gatherers,” hosting various student and civic groups — artists, producers, label owners and music lovers — who’ve sought live performances captured direct-to-disc, or to listen to pristine recordings from the vault. Some are already familiar with HRS, having received audio transferring, mastering and repair services, handled at “The Shop,” on the studio’s 2nd floor.
On that beautiful Fall day, HRS welcomes a Swedish Tour Group of 40, who’ve journeyed from Northern Europe to Southern California, not for the weather, but to witness America’s rich recording legacy. After a morning visit to Capitol Records in Hollywood, the travelers assemble on the ground floor of HRS, filing into the two main studio suites: the Mastering Room, with its 1940s Scully Lathe, and the Piano Room, featuring a 1948 Steinway grand, and enough Jukeboxes, 1950s-vintage TV’s, and rare artifacts, to qualify as a museum.
There is also enough wattage to mask the sounds of Washington Boulevard’s changing landscape, which includes new development and bumper-to-bumper traffic, in an area branded as “Culver City’s Arts District.” Ironically, now priced out, creative enterprises have fled the scene. An invaluable resource for record companies, artists and collectors alike, HRS now faces what surely must be every studio’s worst nightmare — the loss of its leased space. As the last business remaining in its building and home-base of 20 years, HRS’s reality has shifted, far from “what once was,” to the more daunting “what will be?”
In the beginning, there was a class that Len Horowitz taught in the 1980s on the “History of Recorded Sound (HRS)” for Columbia College in Los Angeles. But, the tale of Len and the company he founded late in the last century, began earlier in the 1960s, as a kid with a keen ear, a $3 a week allowance — most often spent at L.A.’s westside record stores — and an insatiable appetite for the history of recorded sound.
Len Horowitz describes himself as “a music-obsessed nerd,” but it was curiosity and serendipity that led the then 16-year-old through the doors of Westrex, the record division of Western Electric, Internatonal, while walking home from Beverly Hills High School. Len befriended the staff, particularly Otto Hepp, who would become Westrex’s last surviving engineer and Len’s mentor in a relationship lasting a quarter of a century. Len worked at Westrex for many years. He completed his B.A. in Motion Picture Technology from Cal State Northridge, and would go on to purchase Westrex in 1995, in order to preserve Otto Hepp’s work and legacy.
The legacy continues with Len’s capable technical apprentice and cousin, Jacob Horowitz, whose early studies were in architecture. At roughly half of Len’s age, Jacob is simply referred to as “nephew,” to avoid confusion. They’ve clearly established a bond through their shared obsession with music and technology, which Jacob admits was sealed when “Uncle Len” heeded his 15th birthday plea, in 2000, for a “stereo with a turntable,” along with the Beatles’ newly released compilation album, 1. Not surprisingly, both men have found their mates in women passionate about music and analog technologies.
No doubt, Len and Jacob have enough content to fill up a century (in real time!), beginning with Thomas Edison’s first recording in 1887 of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Len has amassed a vast collection of early recordings, some original masters, with telling examples of audio successes and foibles, from various creative, technical and marketing perspectives. Music legends, many known from motion picture and record companies based in L.A. — Duke Ellington, Louie Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier, The Everly Brothers — come to life at HRS in pristine recordings played on vintage equipment. Quality comparisons of 78s, 45s and 33 RPM mixes in both mono and stereo versions demonstrate the value of mono recordings. Examples of this included the harmonies of Peter, Paul and Mary (the stereo version mixing Mary’s voice alone on the right channel) and some early Beatles’ stereo recordings imaging voices on one side and instruments on the other. Manipulative effects were heard in the mega-hit “Johnny Angel,” adjusting Shelley Fabares’ vocals to make the then almost adult sound younger, during the record’s mastering.
A personal vignette is often added, as was the case with the first Top-40 stereo record hit in 1958, Roy Hamilton’s “Don’t Let Go.” The song, written by Otis Blackwell, was recorded on the machine invented by mentor Otto Hepp, the very machine, which Len purchased in 1995 and which now plays back its record in 2018. The session draws to a close with a comment offered that sums up the day: “The digital world may be able to rewind itself to a more recent past, but it will never sound as good,” and all agree.
Len’s discussions on the influence of music are both historical and philosophical, sharing that even Thomas Edison publicly expressed concern that his record invention stole away precious opportunities for music to be performed live, a shared experience in the home. It was fitting that he also traced “Those Were the Days” back to its Russian origins, with recordings of Theodore Bikel’s singing “Darogoy Dolnoyu,” well before Paul McCartney produced Mary Hopkin’s version became a huge hit in 1968, exclaiming: “This is not just the history of records, it’s the history of the world! This is really the humanities!!
Len has always been enamored by live recording. In the mid 1980’s, together with Dan Cytron, his partner back then, Len captured many of the artists who were performing live at At My Place, a nightclub in Santa Monica, CA. Some of the acts recorded include: Jimmy Witherspoon, Jack Tempchin (known for writing the Eagle’s hit “Peaceful Easy Feeling”), Marie Cain, Shelby Flint (of “Angel on my Shoulder” fame), and Big Daddy, a 1950’s mash-up group that the partners recorded at At My Place and also brought to Indigo Ranch in Malibu. This recording session, mixed live, produced lacquer masters on HRS’s own Westrex/Scully lathe. The resulting text from the cover jacket is telling: “We produced Big Daddy as if recording hits made during the 1950’s: one take, one engineer, all musicians performing together. These recordings of Big Daddy are a relevant source of High-Fidelity sound. Whether you’re born into a three-speed society or never heard of a vinyl record, we offer the following technical advice: turn up loud… use big speakers!!” Live recordings at the club ended with the closing of its doors in 1991; fortunately, some of the records exist.
Having amassed a vast collection of audio (including vinyl found at many estate sales), Len’s advice to collectors is straightforward: “Be careful about over paying on E-Bay (use Goldmine Record Guides, for reference); invest in a VPI Record Cleaner (although expensive), as most records have been abused; be a gambler — if you see something of interest for under $5, get it!”
A special moment at HRS, recently, was in witnessing children relating to live direct-to-disc recording, and their intrigue in seeing themselves broadcast live on a RCA-Victor Tube, a black-in-white television. It was a pleasant reminder to the “grown-ups” that “everything old is new again.”
Thomas Mitchell, from TimeWarp Records in Los Angeles (and, formerly with Record Rover), shared that “Len is a perfectionist, who takes everything to a whole new level.” No doubt, Len is always prepared for teachable moments!
For now, HRS continues to master tapes, transfer legacy recordings in all formats, hold seminars, often with a direct-to-disc recording of a performance, and services analog equipment of all kinds. Adding to HRS’s long list of mastering credits is Glen Campbell Sings for the King, songs written by Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne for Elvis Presley, released in November by the UMe label. Analog activist Barbara Leung and filmmaker John Coyne are in the early stages of developing a documentary about HRS, and other projects are in the works.
Len Horowitz is deeply invested in mentoring the next generation in carrying on audio preservation and restoration, its treasures and technology — as Otto Hepp once did for him.
In looking to the future, the 30-plus-year enterprise is headed in a new direction: The History of Recorded Sound is developing a board of directors and strategic plan as a non-profit, 501(c)3, in order “to preserve the legacy of audio.” Hopefully, community partners will prove effective in keeping HRS and its mission alive.
HRS will be open to visitors on March 3 as part of CicLAvia. For further information, contact Len Horowitz directly: (310) 204-4911.