New York Metro

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By David Weiss


Education Guide

Mix is gearing up to present its longstanding annual Audio Education Guide in its November 2014 issue. Want to have your school listed in the directory, or do you need to update your current directory listing? Add an image, program description, or a logo to your listing! Get your school in the Mix Education Guide 2014.

Is there life beyond the recording studio? For the legions of experienced audio engineers who find themselves in a world of highly capable personal facilities, there had better be. In New York City, where new sounds and production techniques are created every day, new business models were bound to be close behind, and as some metro-area pioneers are finding out, there's a world of opportunity for anyone with audio expertise, niche marketing acumen and just a touch of the mad scientist inside.

For XII Audio's president Dan Williams and producer/chief engineer Suketu “Kato” Khandwala, an interest in boosting client creativity spurred a microportable concept of packing up the recording studio and taking it directly to their rehearsal space, home or any other comfy location to make music. Equipped with Mac laptop-based Digidesign Pro Tools|HD rigs and mobile gear racks custom-designed to fit in the back of Khandwala's Volkswagen Jetta, XII Audio can quickly establish a high-quality recording environment virtually anywhere, without the bulk of a remote truck.

XII was born when Williams, an experienced live sound engineer, and Khandwala, who had been producing voluminous jingles for New York City's North Forty Music and mixing front of house for Moby and Kool & The Gang, had a brainstorm. “I said, ‘We make records in the studio and we're always trying to capture the live feel,’” Khandwala recalls. “We started talking about using my Pro Tools rig on live shows, so we developed this mobile Pro Tools|HD rig. We were already getting called out to do stuff on the road with bands, so we said, ‘Let's make a record while we're doing it.’

“Sometimes, it's complicated to get a band together for weeks at a time to go somewhere else other than where they live, so instead of that, let's bring the studio to them. A commercial facility is always preferred, but if that's not possible, let's not tell those guys no. This is all a means to an end, and the end is we love to make music. We try to give our clients the best product we can and have it be fun.”

Traveling with a select list of Class-A gear such as Neve mic pre's, Ampex tube mixers, vintage compressors and Langevin passive EQs, along with small-footprint NHT monitors, Williams and Khandwala can get the mics set up and the room ready in as little as 45 minutes, depending on conditions. Using the DVI out of their Powerbooks, XII connects to a travel-ready 17-inch Studio Display monitor and they're ready to record. “This is low impact,” Khandwala says. “We can walk in and turn a space — warehouse, gym, garage — into a commercially viable recording studio. This is at a huge cost-savings for my clients. I don't have to charge what commercial facilities do.” Once tracked, mixing can be completed at XII's personal studio headquarters in Fort Lee, N.J., or any other mix facility their clients choose.

XII doesn't claim to be the only company working like this, but they're not aware of any local competition, either. “If there is someone [else] doing this, I don't know them!” Khandwala says. “This is a viable business model because this is how I want to do business. It puts the focus back on the artist rather than on the production.”

Enhancing a process was also on the agenda for Steve Puntolillo, creator of the Sonicraft A2DX Lab ( in Freehold, NJ. A dedicated multichannel A/D transfer facility, Sonicraft's objective was to design a system capable of performing the ultimate A/D transfer, bringing out extreme levels of quality and clarity from the tape not heard since the original material was recorded.

Puntolillo first got started on his unique path, which would soon become an all-consuming quest for perfection, in 2001, when he was preparing to mix and master some early 1970 recordings for 5.1 surround. Not set up himself to do the transfer from 1-inch analog tape, he innocently advised his client to take it to the best place he could find in Manhattan. The ensuing nightmare of logistics and sound quality showed Puntolillo the need for a facility committed to performing ultrahigh-quality A/D (as well as A/A) transfers, and that he would have to be the one to fill it.

“I believe in any business you want to solve a problem — isn't that why someone comes to you?” Puntolillo says. “My thought here was that, when the need arose, there would be a place that people could take their tapes to that wouldn't be a dragged-out machine stuck into a corner next to a Pro Tools rig with questionable converters. I don't know how to get it any better than the A2DX Lab.”

With painstaking attention to detail, Puntolillo and a skilled team of experts fully restored and extensively modified two Ampex MM1200 24-track 2-inch tape machines (one optimized for playback, the other for recording). Performing thousands of man-hours of research, testing, prototyping and comparing, Puntolillo's group changed components, upgraded signal paths and added myriad new innovations that would help to noticeably improve analog playback. Next, Puntolillo applied his findings to 1-inch, 4/8/12-track machines for total format coverage. The sound is captured into the computer via Mytek 8X96 converters capable of up to 96kHz/24-bit sampling.

“We're talking about small improvements and how they accumulate,” explains Puntolillo. “For instance, by adding tape rollers to the tape paths where static guides used to be, you get a little bump in clarity. Add that to all the other things that give a bump in clarity, and all of a sudden, you don't need that EQ any more, or as much of it.

“Where I sit is between the audiophile camp and the pro audio camp. The audiophile is going to spend an inordinate time on one piece of wire to make his stereo sound better, and you have your pro audio guy who might simply tweak his EQ a little bit to be perfectly happy. By combining those two philosophies, I'm basically getting the purest, clearest, sweetest sound possible off the tape and making sure every bit gets captured into the computer.”

While XII Audio and Sonicraft are focused on solutions to current audio quandaries, the future is unfolding at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. A small art, architecture and engineering school known for its extremely selective enrollment and hip East Village campus, it also has a well-equipped acoustics lab and an inspired professor, Jim Abbott, who isn't afraid to use it. Armed with a doctorate in physics from MIT, a night-time DJ career and a past profession of designing live sound systems, Abbott has the ears and the vision needed to produce audio innovators and innovation.

“Cooper Union is known for having incredible students, small classes and project-based learning,” Abbott says. “At the acoustics lab, I interact with artists, architects and engineers. What we end up with is a one-of-a-kind curriculum and my three interests are brought together as one discipline. Our downtown location in the center of the world's music industry completes the picture.”

Besides the expected sound-analysis workstation, Abbott has something that he believes makes his lab stand alone in New York City: a full-coverage anechoic chamber that he and his students use for loudspeaker design, psychoacoustic measurements and extra-extra-dry vocal recordings. “It is echo-free down to about 150 Hz and very quiet,” says Abbott. Meanwhile, a binaural headset with microphones on each side allows students to prepare some intriguing compositions in Pro Tools for Abbott's Sound and Space course. “They were derived from sound recordings they made themselves with the headset, recording things like jet flyovers at LaGuardia. The students built acoustical physical sculptures with some unique sonic features, and that class culminated in an exhibit here called ‘Aural Fixation.’”

The result at Cooper Union is a fast-moving think tank that's already having an impact on how progressive audio hardware and software are evolving. “There are a number of places where our program can contribute and give back,” Abbott says. “On a project-to-project basis, we are available to do prototype development and psycho-acoustic experiments that are too laborious for the industry. We've already gotten started, and I'm looking to really involve some industry partnerships.” With corporate sponsors including Native Instruments and Designatronix, word is already getting around.

Abbott hopes his initiatives indicate where the next big ideas in music are going to come from. “I think that the next generation of engineers is going to have an increased sensibility to musical issues and an increased ability to integrate the two disciplines in their work. The idea that the artist and the scientist can become one person in certain pursuits is not a new idea, but it seems to be, in my opinion, a revolutionary idea.”

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