Dom Camardella and Santa Barbara Sound Design
Musical careers are full of turning points, some of which hold greater relevance than others. What if John and Paul had not met at a Liverpool church fete? What if Jeff Buckley had not gone swimming in the Mississippi River on that fateful May evening? And what if Halogen actually listened to me when I managed them back in Australia? Who is Halogen, you ask? My point exactly.
For producer, engineer, and musician Dom Camardella — who these days owns and operates the internationally renowned Santa Barbara Sound Design studios on Haley Street — the turning point in his career came via a chance meeting with Jim Messina. But rather than thrusting Camardella and his band into fame and fortune, the experience instead directed him into the realm of musical production and, as fate should have it, a chance to make an even greater musical impact.
After accepting an invitation from a former East Coast band mate to join him in Santa Barbara in the mid-’70s, that friend’s subsequent departure left Camardella musically marooned in California. But it didn’t take long for Camardella, a keyboardist, to cross paths with some of S.B.’s best musicians and the result was the formation of the band Passage. Featuring such emergent names as Randy Tico, Tony Moreno, Lorenzo Martinez, and Jeff Elliot, Passage was soon enjoying life as the house band for longtime music institution Baudelaire’s.
“It was at Baudelaire’s that Jim Messina discovered us,” recalled Camardella recently. “After jamming with us for a few weeks, we became his backup band and would eventually record a CD — at the very studio I now own — under the name Oasis. Unfortunately, he would first replace Randy and later replace me and within a few months the band fell apart. We were a great band and extremely creative. I believe we would have succeeded on our own, but the allure of a proven rockstar was too much for the band and he eventually took control and eliminated the people who had power to keep the ensemble independent of his own goals.”
With the advent of the personal computer, Camardella temporarily turned his back on music and established one of the first computer sales companies in Santa Barbara. But when the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), evolved shortly thereafter, Camardella was pulled back to music. The digital evolution in music meant his engineering degree from MIT and technical expertise had become an attractive proposition and, by the mid-’80s, he was working in a recording studio. After a stint managing the facility, Camardella purchased both the building and studio and Santa Barbara Sound Design was born.
Dom Camardella didn’t just jump in and take over. Rather, he used the opportunity of owning the studio to learn all aspects of sound production, assisting in every project, and diligently coupling his technical prowess with practical know-how. Since Santa Barbara Sound Design always attracted major players, it was the perfect schooling. By working with the likes of Joe Cocker and Kenny Loggins, Camardella was afforded the opportunity to learn from the best.
“In 1989, I finally got my break to step into the main chair,” said Camardella. “The Maynard Ferguson Big Band was in the midst of a new CD for Warner Brothers and their engineer had taken ill the morning of a session. Maynard arrived and asked where the engineer was and I said, ‘He called in sick.’ Maynard then asked if I could handle it and at the end of the day he told me to take over. Shortly thereafter, Higher Octave Music sent me a newly signed flamenco artist — Ottmar Liebert — and the rest is history”
For five years, Camardella and Liebert lived the musical dream. They delivered Higher Octave their very first Grammy nomination before Liebert signed with Epic. Camardella continued working on the evolution of Liebert’s sound as it opened up to myriad tangents. Carlos Santana cameoed and a second Grammy nomination followed suit.
The early ’90s saw the ensemble constantly touring — Camardella spent more time on the road playing grand piano and keyboards than he did in Santa Barbara. It wasn’t until he and Liebert went their separate ways that he could fully concentrate his efforts upon the studio once again.
Like any small business, Santa Barbara Sound Design has encountered more than its fair share of ups and downs. But, throughout its 30 years in operation, the success of the studio has rested soundly upon its foundations — literally. When the studio was built in the mid-’70s, it was designed to reflect the finest facilities of Nashville, New York, or London. The acoustic recording space — particularly the room where drums and vocals are recorded — has always kept the studio both vital and relevant within an ever-changing industry. And Camardella’s embracing of the latest technologies over the years has ensured that the studio remained state-of-the-art.
The ever-changing nature of the recording industry has recently seen the demise of some historic studios. But the facilities that have disappeared were larger, costly, multi-room operations, which is partially why the more intimate confines of Sound Design are even more in demand — 2005, in fact, was the studio’s most successful year to date. Diversity helps too: in addition to the musical projects, Camardella’s studio records audio for television and feature films, and also does books on tape, which has proven to be a valuable niche. It certainly doesn’t hurt that many mainstream directors, actors, and authors live nearby and have come to depend on the facility.
“Take an actor such as Rob Lowe,” explained Camardella. “He will be out on location acting in either a movie or a television series and there will always be some lines that need repairing. Having a local facility where he can spend three or four hours retaking the lines as needed and not having to commute to Los Angeles is very reassuring. We have similarly worked with the likes of John Cleese, and Diane Ladd, Fannie Flagg, and Jack Canfield with the occasional visit from Michael Douglas, Dennis Miller, Dennis Franz, and even Robert Mitchum when he was still alive. These are all celebrities who live in our community and have come to depend upon a facility like ours.”
On the musical side of things, location is also an important factor in Sound Design’s continued success — Santa Barbara is a rather enticing destination for international musicians in search of a place to spend some working time. And with Camardella and his team ensuring that the facility features all the tools and support that might be required for any given project, the city itself is an alluring destination. The fact that a quality hotels, fine restaurants, and the beach all reside just around the corner doesn’t hurt business either. But it is not just those from out of town who see such virtues.
“When we originally decided that we wanted to work here in Santa Barbara, we went around looking at the various studios that are on hand,” said Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore while rehearsing at Sound Design. “We simply liked this place the best. It was not just the size of the studio or its equipment, but also its location that played a part in the decision. When you’re recording, there is a lot of time in the studio that you find the experience to be quite tedious and it is good to get out and go for a walk. And if you are in the middle of nowhere, that can be really depressing. So not only is Santa Barbara home, it is also a very nice alternative to experiences like that.”
Along with Depeche Mode, an array of music’s greatest have recently visited Sound Design. Radiohead, Beck, David Crosby, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Flora Purim and Airto have recorded there. Yes spent three-and-a-half months tracking a new album. After recording their last album at Sound Design, Blues Traveler wanted to return for their subsequent recording, but was blocked by Depeche Mode’s occupation of the studio. And, this past spring, Live set up camp. The group had just parted ways with their record company and was self-financing a new recording. Setting up as Depeche Mode were moving out, the recording came out so well that Live are now signed with Epic, which will be releasing Songs from Black Mountain on April 11.
All of which only makes me wonder all the more about musical turning points. What if Jim Messina had not crossed paths with Dom Camardella and Passage had not evolved into Oasis then died way back in the ’70s? What if Passage had followed a path to world musical domination? Chances are that Dom Camardella would not have entrenched himself down at Santa Barbara Sound Design, which — for Santa Barbara, the nearby and faraway music worlds, the film and television industries, and everything in between — would have been a very sad turning point indeed.