Hit Factory/Criteria



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Last winter, I had a speaking engagement that gave me the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds in Miami. Back in the early '80s, Criteria Recording Studios was my home away from home. Actually, it was a madhouse, but a fun madhouse. Nowadays, it's Hit Factory/Criteria Recording. I thought I'd drop by to check out the current state of tech at the shiny new facility and fill you in on a top-notch install.

I wanted to see what a well-funded, state-of-the-art install looks like and hopefully discover some ideas for future purchases and upgrades. My HFC tour guide was Simon Soong, whose journey into audio madness began with an undergraduate stint at the University of Miami's Music Engineering program, where an undergraduate EE degree also earns a BFA in Music. He had heard about an opening at Criteria and was eventually hired, joining a team of two other techs; for the past 18 months, he's been chief engineer, supervising a staff of three.

My tour started with infrastructure, specifically the wiring: All harnesses were preassembled in the UK by White Mark and installed on-site. Mogami-to-Elco connectors were specified for analog carriage, with Category 5E from Belden for data connectivity. All rooms, save one, have floor troughs, but each machine room has wire trays coming in. All cable types — analog audio, analog video, data and digital audio — are in individual bundles but share the same raceway. Initially, one room had a digital desk that didn't require a trough, but it was yanked. The replacement, an SSL 9000, required trough wiring and so one had to be cut into the slab. Simon decided to go deep, cutting a 3-foot trough so that he'd never have to worry about carrying capacity.


The photo above shows an example of patch panels in each machine room. The rackspaces shown are:

A) Motionworker (firmware Version 5.0), Audio Kinetic Synchronizer ES1.11 and ES 1.12;

B) EDAC/Elco patchfield for analog audio;

C) BNC patchfield for analog video, video house sync, AES/EBU workclock and MADI;

D) Sigma SS2100 audio distribution amp and video-sync distribution amp, NVision NV5500 sync generator, NVision NV1000 wordclock distribution amp and TT patch for AES/EBU.

In addition to the pipes above, there are two remotely patchable video feeds into each control room, along with ISDN access in each machine room.

Performing the master clock duties is an NVision 5500, which generates both video house sync and wordclock. When a session needs a combo analog/ digital mix, house sync feeds an Audio Kinetics ES-Lock synchronizer in conjunction with a Motionworker machine-control interface, which then feeds analog slaves. Of course, that same house sync feeds a Pro Tools USD (Universal Slave Driver), keeping everyone on the same page.

Hit Factory/Criteria has the luxury of keeping many Digi drives online, so Simon sticks with FWB's Hard Disk Toolkit when tweezing the beasts, even though the SCSI HBAs are from Atto. His team performs drive maintenance once a month, a high-level format before it's rotated back into service. If the drive's been “naughty,” then the drive gets a low-level format instead. Though FireWire drives usually ship with installable OS 9 system extensions, these are always disabled prior to joining the in-service pool. Simon still finds that the current implementation of drives, bridges and drivers yields a maximum of 48 channels on FireWire, whereas a modern SCSI drive will reliably yield a satisfying 64 channels.

All rooms have Ethernet on the same phone-line-combo wall plate that is fed from a Cayman Systems DSL router/Firewall, which provides DHCP services for the 100BaseT network. That, in turn, is fed from an ADSL bridge with services provided by the local ILEC, Bellsouth. Future plans call for an upgrade to SDSL (symmetrical DSL), as well as an in-house OS 10 server because, as Soong says, “out of the box, it comes with everything!” Simon also adds, “The license costs are very reasonable.” They use Xdrive Technologies for now to move MP3 or .WAV files but not to move session files. “We haven't had much call for that [shipping whole sessions over public networks], so it suffices.”

When Simon first started out as a tech, the gear was fixable but remarked that, “you can't troubleshoot anymore. The circuitry is all surface-mount so repairs become very difficult.” Upon reflection, he laments that, “it's very hard to find a good maintenance person.” After racking up huge college debts, “You don't want to start as an intern! A great thing about the Hit Factory family is we take maintenance and the technical aspects of the business very seriously.”

On the subject of classic analog gear, he continues, “We have four EMT 140 plates, all with Martech [retrofit] electronics, but very few clients request them. Despite their sound, engineers increasingly rely on emulation rather than the real thing.” Weird shit, sez I. They still have my fave old-school vocal processor, a Cooper Time Cube, though it lives in storage. Speaking of old school, analog decks consist of straight-up Studer A827 multitracks, a few are Gold Edition, along with stock Ampex ATR-102s and Studer A820 two tracks with a full range of head stacks for all.

Because Miami is a wee bit south of Duluth, HVAC is a serious issue about 10 months out of the year. Air handlers are a mix of Rheem and Carrier. The 30 existing roof-mounted air handlers were either remounted or put on slabs for proper mechanical isolation, so now the units don't contribute to structurally borne noise.

Speaking of noise criteria, general manager Trevor Fletcher related a great story about Studio C during its construction phase. He had booked in a string date as the very first session in the new room, and it turned out that parking lot renovations right outside coincided with the same time slot as the recording. He sat by his phone, dreading to make the call to hold up excavation of the coral bedrock that underlies all of southern Florida, but the call never happened. The room was dead quiet, the date went off without a hitch, and nobody was the wiser.

Studio F, a small and really comfy tracking and mixing room, has a unique “tram” feature for near-field monitors. The wicked cool, custom-aluminum track system devised by White Mark allows optimal placement regardless of operator position. Small but sturdy speaker platforms ride on rails that wrap around the room so that mini-monitors can be placed anywhere in the horizontal plane; amplification for minis is by Bryston. Crown M5000s are used for the mains and BGWs for the subwoofers in all rooms save Studio C, which is space-constrained. A gaggle of Haflers are used for foldback, which are fed by 16-channel Intelix Psychologist mixers.

That's all I have for you this month. I hope this deviation from my standard techie fare was appetizing. Let me know if you'd like more back room tours or specific topics. Write me at bitstream@ seneschal.net. Till next month, keep on tweaking!

OMas was an iterant tweaker as a youth, particularly after he discovered Nikola Tesla and the joys of high-voltage electricity. This column was created while under the influence of Trevor's mojitos, ObliqSound Remixes and the satisfying acoustic pop of The Vessels.

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