New York Metro

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


Education Guide

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Street-level producers, engineers and musicians are buzzed about the next wave of production techniques, and a lot of them are wondering where big recording studios fit in. In New York City's flagship studios, owners are constantly asking the same question, and the high cost of square feet demands that they answer it quickly — month after month, year after year.

With everything from well-equipped personal studios to make-music-yourself software such as Apple's GarageBand impinging on what used to be their exclusive turf, you'd think large facilities like Avatar (, Right Track ( and Sound on Sound ( would be getting creative with ways to compete — and you'd be right. “The reality is that our studios, as well as other studios, are a part of the industry that's going through some changes right now,” says Kirk Imamura, president of Avatar Studios. “The labels are restructuring and budgets are being sized to what should be reality.

“I think there is room for innovation: If you're trying to make better use of your time and resources for a given budget, there's probably things that you could do. They can be as small as trying to work a console in an ergonomic fashion, because time is money and you're trying to cut things down to be able to do them quickly. And maybe some things are preparation for a session: You don't come in disorganized; you come in prepared. It's not just a technical issue; it's organization and it's ergonomics.”

Although excellent acoustical spaces and the ability to properly facilitate advanced techniques like DSD and 5.1 surround recording are a premium draw for large studios, such services are still out of budgetary bounds for many of their clients. The solution at Right Track is to make their considerable expertise available in the form of two new production rooms — P1 and P2 — at their 38th Street location. Equipped with niceties such as Blue Sky 5.1 monitoring, Yamaha DM2000 digital consoles, Digidesign Pro Tools and Tube-Tech EQs, the rooms offer a more affordable option (under $1,000 a day) to serious producers who need to mix and add overdubs in a high-quality environment. “They're important for a place like Right Track because they keep our client base close to us and provide a more full-service facility than when we just had high-end rooms,” explains Barry Bongiovi, general manager of Right Track. “So far, a very broad spectrum of our client base has used these rooms: Mariah Carey, Pat Metheny, David Bowie. They're not just for lower-budget projects — they're for a segment of projects that fits comfortably in a room like this.”

At Sound on Sound, its fully dedicated Pro Tools|HD3 Studio D has been addressing a similar audience for several months, and is also part of one of the studio's latest business model concepts. “We've forged bonds with producers that we're trying to get off the ground, and it's like the old-fashioned spec deal from the jingle world,” says Dave Amlen, president of the studio. “We're going to give half-a-dozen people these tracks to demo, and the one that we like the best gets the gig. So we're basically forming a production company model with these known quantities so they don't reach into their pockets and they don't get compensated unless they get the gig. If we have a paying gig in those rooms, naturally that supersedes any of that kind of work.”

In Amlen's opinion, DAW-based production is going to cast a larger and larger shadow over the huge desks that most major studio control rooms are built around. “I think the large-frame consoles will still be there in the future, but they'll be the ones we have now — Neves or SSL 9000 Js in various phases of rebuild. So you're looking at a lot of technology that peaked in the mid- to late '90s. You might find third-party developers coming out and turbo-charging the ones out there now. Instead of buying an SSL K Series, someone will buy a J and a box that allows them to do auto-panning the way they want.”

Imamura points out that in larger studios, with their steady stream of different clients, dedicated maintenance staffs and organized communications, the potential, at least, is there to create such improvements in-house. “Our front-line people, so to speak, are the assistant engineers who actually do the work, understand what clients go through and experience the difficulties in-session. They are the people we talk to to find out how to improve things in the control room — we do that on a constant basis. If our chief engineer Roy Hendrickson sees a way to make something better, he can implement it. In the old days, studios were known to build gear and come up with circuitry for their own sound effects.”

That doesn't mean that Imamura is planning on getting Avatar into the gear business. “I don't know how much studios are responsible for pushing the envelope on technology design, because most of the innovation is going toward improving the home and project studios,” he says. “Some people here feel that we have enough equipment to do what we need to do. We don't necessarily need new equipment, because there's plenty of equipment already, and in some cases, a digital plug-in is just replicating what an analog piece of gear already does.”

With their demanding clientele, however, large recording facilities can often help get feedback to hardware and software designers that helps shape the next generation of products. “I think the studios are a main source of information for the manufacturers,” Bongiovi notes. “At the end of the day, the studios are the ones that are able to communicate on a professional level. We're close to Yamaha on these consoles, for example.”

Because, by nature, top New York City studios have the sexiest compressors, consoles and mic pre's available to them, it's not surprising that the areas they'd most like to see targeted for change lie in more basic realms. “If someone would build a better backup system, I'd invest in it tomorrow,” Bongiovi says without hesitation. “Backup is horrendous in the digital domain. It's time-consuming, unreliable — you name it. Clients don't realize that they spend eight or 10 hours in a session, and then it takes three to four more to back it up properly. It's not just time, but the reliability of what comes back is 50 percent at best. We built these rooms to do economical work, and when the production portion of the project is completed each day, the nightmare of backup begins.”

Imamura has similar needs: “Hard drives fail — that's a fact of life. If we could reduce the odds of hard drives failing and develop a backup system, that may be worthwhile. Compared to computers and hard drives, the odds of a tape machine or console failing are probably a lot less.”

Likewise at Sound on Sound, the focus is on constantly developing methods of organization commensurate with the quality of their acoustical spaces. “File management is a skill set that we've had since we were keeping track of physical tape,” Amlen notes. “A big part of our existence is being able to play back something that we recorded six months ago. So to push the envelope, we're figuring out a way to help make the major labels' job easier when it comes time to get everything together. They actually see that a part of getting people to record in studios is that they have more control over file management.”

For major facilities, too, one of the biggest jobs is monitoring the demands of the consumer market for sound experiences like DSD and 5.1 surround, and matching those up with the expectations of labels, artists and engineers before purchasing the necessary gear for themselves. “For studios, it's very difficult to be on the bleeding edge unless you become a beta site for a manufacturer,” says Imamura. “It's got to be tested, accepted and enough engineers and clients have to be requesting it, especially if it's a hefty price tag investment. If they come in and say, ‘I want to use this,’ and you get enough requests, you're going to be doing that.”

Keep in mind, however, that not changing too fast is also an important part of a major studio's strategy. Many of New York City's most storied facilities are famous for their distinctive sound, and they plan on keeping those sonic qualities intact. “A studio like this has a long tradition,” Imamura points out. “Prior to being Avatar, it was Power Station, and we try to uphold the traditions of Power Station. Things were done in a certain way, but we're constantly reassessing and re-evaluating not just placement of gear, but making things easier and quicker for our clients.”

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