Christopher Lennertz and His Musical Refinery

by Tim Greiving

“In general, composers tend to be locked up in their little cell,” says Kraft-Engel client Christopher Lennertz. “If that was going to be the case, then I wanted our cell to be as open and inviting as possible.”

That “cell” is Sonic Fuel Studios, a customized 7,000-square-foot workspace and world-class recording and mixing studio from the imagination of Lennertz and longtime studio partner Timothy Michael Wynn. For the past decade the two worked out of a rented studio in Marina Del Ray, but a growing desire to build a dream studio—and work closer to family—turned their gaze farther down the coast.

Perched along the Santa Monica Bay, the new musical refinery puts Lennertz much closer to his wife and four-year-old daughter. The film composing lifestyle often means isolation, and Sonic Fuel was deliberately conceived as a place where composers and creatives could work in the same space and break down some of the social barriers of the profession.

In its former life the building was a manufacturing shop, with the distinction of building cinema’s most famous shark. (Lennertz considered the ghost of Jaws a “good creative omen”). Construction began in June 2011. The shell of the building was preserved, but everything inside was crafted from scratch. Local artist Nick Such and architect Frank Glynn helped turn Lennertz and Wynn’s vision into the gorgeous end result—sculpting custom metal doors, sandblasting the white brick to its original finish, and laying down tiger stripe bamboo flooring in the live room. Lennertz moved in while the studio was still under construction, and the proverbial ribbon was cut in June 2012.

For recording, Sonic Fuel is outfitted with a live room for more than 30 musicians, an expansive 20-person
control room, and two isolation booths. The control room is equipped with a Euphonix System 5 digital console, and the state-of-the-art setup represents a “dream list” Lennertz, Wynn, and engineer Jeff Vaughan concocted, based on their own wants as well as the input of colleagues and other industry professionals. With the ability to mix in 5.1, source connect internationally, and operate the live room remotely from several rooms in the building (making it possible to mix one project and record another simultaneously), the studio is essentially a one-stop shop for film, television, and game music.

“It’s a facility built by film and TV composers,” says Lennertz, “rather than a facility built merely to make rock records. The idea was that everything we designed, every comfort, every piece of equipment we ended up buying and investing in, is all geared towards film and television music. I think because of that, as a director or producer, if you bring your production to score or mix or both at our place, I think you’re going to feel that the language spoken is right, and that we’re ready to do the kind of mix you expect on the show.”

With the capacity to record everything shy of a symphony orchestra, Lennertz and his fellow Sonic Fuel composers can record small to mid-sized ensembles, rhythm sections, string sections, soloists, and overdubs with ease and on their own time. But the biggest advantage may be the fact that the recording and mixing areas neighbor the writing rooms.

“If we’re working on a cue, and we’ve got a rhythm section working away, and something’s not feeling like it’s clicking right with picture,” says Lennertz, “the director and I can walk 20 yards through the lounge and end up in my room. So while the engineer’s continuing to make progress on a mix, I can pull a guitar off the wall, or pull up the piano sound, and go right back to the creative process with the director for ten or fifteen minutes, then walk back into the room and continue to produce at a high quality level.”

“Once in a while you get that magic moment,” he says, “where the inspiration hits, and it’s you working with your director and all of a sudden you’ve got a great idea. If you can’t quickly get to your writing room, or conversely run into the studio and open up a microphone and start recording, you may miss the magic.

“There’s something about being in that creative space—there’s an energy. It’s like being in a theatre or being in a concert, where you can really do whatever you want very quickly.”

In that way, Sonic Fuel is a filmmaker’s dream. Directors and producers have abundant space in the control room for them and their assistants, as well as their own internet rigs, and are treated like visiting royalty by staff. The warm “industrial Zen” design is a wonderful blend of technology and organic calm—an approximation of Lennertz’s approach to music—and the overall atmosphere is part den, part study, part spa.

“I’m really into eastern philosophy and meditation,” says Lennertz, “and trying to be a little creative and spiritual in that sense. We wanted a place that didn’t feel cold and calculated, so all the colors, fabrics, textures, and woods we picked were in a warm, lush kind of vibe. Which I think is a lot like the music I write. I tend to like things that have a blend of the technological aspect, but always are enveloped in a sense of organic quality, and a sense of natural warmth.”

Recently Lennertz hosted IRON MAN director Jon Favreau at Sonic Fuel when they were working on the pilot episode for NBC’s Revolution.

“Jon would grab a ukulele off my wall and goof around,” Lennertz says, “and I would say, ‘Hey, that little part right there is kind of an interesting sound. What if instead of ukulele—because we’re back in sort of a feudal society—what if we went back to a dulcimer, but still do something strumming to add to the score?’ And it would be a creative environment for that.”

Eric Kripke, the creator and executive producer of REVOLUTION (as well as SUPERNATURAL, another Lennertz-scored series), wrote to the composer afterwards. “Your shop KICKS ASS,” Kripke wrote. I’m honored that we were the first large group to play there—the first of many. Really, it blows me away!”

Sonic Fuel Studios was built with filmmakers in mind—by composers, for composers—and optimized for collaboration. The relaxed environment makes it so you never want leave.

“Because of what having the studio allows me to do,” says Lennertz, “in terms of the way I collaborate with a director or producer, I think it makes them want to come back. Because it’s a really comfortable, great experience, and they realize we have time to experiment and perhaps be more creative.

“I don’t think they would know that unless they had the experience. I may get the first job based on my music, and then the second job will come, perhaps more enthusiastically, because the director and I were allowed to work in a really comfortable and effective way.”