Many cities are home to historic recording studios, but Vienna is perhaps unique in boasting a studio that is almost exactly as it was in 1965. Located in an 18th Century palace, the Casino Baumgarten has recently reopened after a long and thorough renovation.
The Palace Baumgarten, close to the famous Palace Schönbrunn, was built in 1779 for the Austrian field marshal Andreas Hadik von Futak. In 1892, a commissioned officer's mess ('Casino') was integrated into the building, and the large hall, which would later become the studio's biggest live room, was also built in this era. The palace was partially destroyed during World War II, but was subsequently rebuilt with a simplified frontage. Finally, in 1954, the Casino was acquired by a labour union associated with the Social Democratic Party of Austria, SPÖ. Since then, the SPÖ has occupied office space on the first floor of the building, where there is also a restaurant which sometimes uses the large Casino hall for special events.
The recording studio itself was founded by the record company Polyhymnia, which handed the keys over to Preiser Records in 1964. Preiser rent the studio rooms to this day. The large Casino hall was shared between the studio and the restaurant in the '60s, and today it serves as a venue for concerts and other cultural events. The studio itself, however, was in permanent hibernation until recently; a few people in the know would record there from time to time, but the studio was never advertised, and seemed almost forgotten until the entire building was renovated in 2009-2010, when the studio officially reopened its doors.
When the company was founded in 1952, the main focus of Preiser Records was classical music and opera, but both label and studio have also played an important role in the Viennese cabaret scene. Over the years, the studio has not only been used by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, but also by Austrian jazz legend Fatty George. Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his first CD recordings at this studio, Friedrich Gulda recorded here with the Eurojazz Orchestra, Paul Badura-Skoda and Jörg Demus have played the Bösendorfer Imperial piano, and Gilbert Schuchter recorded his entire Schubert and Mozart repertoire here.
Casino Baumgarten is probably the only classical recording studio in the world that is still based mainly around original '60s tube gear. The control room is still in its original condition from the second half of that decade — down to the tiniest of details, like the old telephones! The heart of the studio is a console that was built by WSW (Wiener Schwachstromwerke), a company that emerged from what was Siemens Austria prior to World War II. This console routes 16 input channels to four output busses, with three-band EQs in every channel, and a couple of direction mixer modules for M/S decoding. Interestingly, it is one of the very few hybrid designs in recording history: the microphone inputs are tube-based, but all other sections are solid-state, from the EQs to the summing amplifiers.
Besides the WSW console, the other equipment consists of the finest recording gear available in the mid-'60s. The tube-based Studer C37 and J37 tape recorders were considered cutting-edge at the time, and no fewer than three Fairchild limiters found their way into the studio. Besides the Fairchilds, the studio owns a pair of rare WSW Dynamikbegrenzer ('Dynamic Limiters'), which hold their place among the first transistor-based limiters in history. Three Altec 604 speakers serve as monitors — two for stereo, and the third one for mono playback — and they are still being driven by tube-based WSW power amps.
Classic tube microphones of the era, such as the Schoeps M221B, AKG C28B and Neumann SM2 stereo mic, are available, but arguably the studio's biggest treasure is a set of no fewer than seven Neumann M269s — the U67's broadcast equivalent, employing the AC701k miniature output tube — all with consecutive serial numbers! All microphone power supplies are mounted on a cart which can be rolled into the live room. The equipment list is completed by a pair of EMT 140 plates and an impressive Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano located in the studio's second largest live room, the Weißer Saal (White Room), which, at 60 square metres, is impressive in its own right.
Since its reopening, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra have recorded at Casino Baumgarten, as has mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, while former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones has played a show in the large Casino hall. Casino Baumgarten is not merely a time capsule that takes us back into the era of tube-based recording, but a working environment that is still making good use of its beautiful rooms and all this legendary equipment — which is, by the way, said to still be serviced by Mr Josef Kaminowski, the engineer who built the studio more than 50 years ago!