May 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Maureen Droney
Mixer Matt Gruber invited me over to Studio City on a rainy morning for a tour of Media City Sound, where I found a busy staff turning out eight to ten television soundtracks, and more, per week, specializing in reality-based series, advertising and promos. The facility, which recently upgraded its Studio A to 5.1 capability, regularly provides sound for The World's Funniest, Kids Say the Darndest Things, Guinness World Records: Primetime and Intimate Portraits, among other shows, running the gamut of networks from CBS, Fox and Lifetime to Disney, The History Channel and Animal Planet.
The company, which began when music composer Alan Ett started fielding requests from clients to handle more aspects of the soundtrack business, moved to its Studio City location in 1997. Before that, Ett, who had teamed up with Scott Liggett to create the Alan Ett Music Group, was doing music composition and editorial for various television outlets.
"Media City developed when Alan realized that they needed a separate company with separate expertise to do post," explains Media City VP Donna Walker. "He was very wise and said, 'If we're going to do it, let's do it right.' He took on this facility in Studio City, which was large enough to have three mix rooms and to provide the editorial suites necessary to do the work."
Presently, the facility's three mix rooms are staffed by mixers Gruber, Sam Kaufmann and Mark Jensen. All are equipped with voice-over booths, Pro Tools workstations, access to the central sound effects server and ISDN lines. There are also four editorial suites. Staff and associate personnel number approximately 30.
"Basically, people bring us a show and we handle all the audio," Gruber comments. "We do the whole package: original music, music editing, voice-overs, sound effects and mixing. We also have an offshoot company, Opus One, that licenses seven music libraries, encompassing 400 CDs."
Gruber-who honed his chops in the record business working with producers such as Ron Nevison and Desmond Child at studios including Criteria, Record Plant and Ground Control-usually works in Studio A. "Studio A is a great room," he continues, "which we've just set up for 5.1. All of our consoles here are Otari; Studio A's is a Concept Elite, with moving fader automation. It's an analog board with digital control that's surprisingly musical; it has a very warm, Neve/API kind of sound with a nice, smooth bottom. The other rooms have Otari Status boards, which also serve us very well."
Gruber gives a rundown on the process: "Say, for World's Funniest, we're working in parallel as they're assembling the show visually. Due to the time frames we're on, we get a lot of soft-lock roughs to work with while they're putting picture together. We start with that rough cut, then someone will come in and voice it. Meanwhile, we're assembling the sound design and cutting sound effects. Then, usually when picture is locked, we'll pick up an OMF [Open Media Format, an Avid/Pro Tools compatible file exchange] off their Avids. We'll bring a hard drive over and pull the OMF off their Avid. At that point, the editors start cleaning up whatever production elements are to be kept from the original sound, and augmenting and putting in sound effects. Everything is done in Pro Tools here, locked to 31/44-inch, with mixdown generally to DA-88 stems. So, there are all these little hives of activity going on, and then they start cutting it together. On the day of the mix, I see it for the first time, which is a nice, fresh perspective. We don't have time to do predubbing, so I'm predubbing and mixing at the same time on the stage. I mix it and lay it back, generally to DigiBeta, in stereo with separate tracks for M&E. That way, if it goes overseas, they have all the elements and just have to revoice it."
Gruber appreciates the pace of the projects he works on. "It's very cool," he laughs. "For instance, this week, I finished a show Monday evening that aired last night [Thursday]. It's immediate feedback."
Most of the staff at Media City has a musical background, including Gruber, as a guitarist, and Walker, as a singer. "It does seem like almost everybody here is a musician," says Gruber. "On weekends, you'll often find people in here with guitars cutting the next cue!"
"We started out doing a lot of reality-based programming because it was an easy intro to the business," Walker notes. "Then, as the production companies doing those programs grew, we did, too. We expanded along with them into bigger projects, and now we're providing pretty much soup to nuts. We do anything from a network series to The Learning Channel to an informational series and everything in between. That diversity allows us to work without the traditional seasonal hiatus. We've got a whole-year-round philosophy, which allows us to process a lot of product."
While the basic philosophy at Media City has been to supply whatever services a client needs, there's also been a conscious effort to be discerning about which services the company can realistically provide.
"We don't make a commitment to things that we wouldn't do well," continues Walker. "And making those decisions really is an everyday challenge, because we all want to please and to take it all on. But when some clients came to us and said, 'We know you have an Avid bay for the independent production work you do-would you want to incorporate that into the packages that you offer?' I said, 'Absolutely not,' because I do not want compete with the video facilities out there. We'd rather work with them. We plan to stay completely in audio; there's enough of a challenge there.
"Our clients need to know that whatever they're preparing today is going to work for them with international distribution into the future, and that's really where we're going with the company. A lot of the services that we're developing now are distance services; we'll be doing more than just ISDN with our out-of-town clients. We're working on a broadband network so that we deliver picture and sound to our clients in other locations. These services will work for our in-town companies, as well. With budgets and schedules tight, people want to go one place to do it all. They can do it all here, now, but we're taking them one step further: Imagine that producers can sit at their own desk and have access to the same experience as if they were here."
Design FX Audio has come up with the simple but brilliant idea of opening a new division to offer equipment repair along with their well-established rental and remote recording services. Since the company already has experienced technicians, a well-equipped shop and a fleet of vans making daily rounds all over greater L.A., it just made sense to offer repair of both classic and contemporary gear with free pickup and delivery. And of course, when Design FX picks up your malfunctioning AMS reverb, they can drop off a replacement rental so that your session won't have to do without.
"Right after we sent the postcards out, our chief tech, James Tunnicliffe, was deluged with calls," says Design FX Audio owner Gary Ladinsky. "Everyone said, 'Great idea!' It's good for us, and it's good for everybody else. There are so many people who always have a DA-88 or something that needs repair. This gives them an easy way to get their equipment fixed. We don't do service calls, although that's something we're considering for down the road. Right now, our techs work in-house, where we're set up. And we do offer discounts, when we can, if someone needs a replacement."
A core staff of 21 keep the four divisions of the company humming. In addition to the repair division, Design FX Audio is the main rental operation, and Design FX Systems specializes in the latest hard disk and editing systems. Remote Recording, headed up by Scott Peets, stays busy with projects from the Soul Train Awards, and Grammy week's special Musicares show with Sting, Melissa Etheridge and Phil Collins, to lots of work for MTV, including a pilot for a new show featuring Buckcherry recorded at L.A.'s Roxy.
The company's mainstay rental business, of course, has to roll with the punches of the times. That means committing to purchases that facilities may not yet be ready to acquire for themselves. These days that means stocking up on hard drive recorders. "Obviously," Ladinsky states, "there's a strong trend toward computer-based recording. For the recording industry, it's primarily Pro Tools, although the RADARs are also doing very well, and I'm sure when the other manufacturers are ready there'll be a market for them, too. For the film and post industry, we rent Fairlights, Pro Tools, digital dubbers like the Tascam MMR8s and MMP16s, hard drives and lots of backup media like AIT, DDS and DVD/CD-R.
"A-to-D converters, especially Apogee, are also very popular items; people use them for front ends on everything from Tascams to Sony 48-tracks," he continues. "The AD 8000 is probably the most used box, although the film guys use a lot of the dB Technologies converters, which are a bit more high end."
According to Ladinsky, Distressors are another hot item, their recently acquired Alan Smart compressor is very popular, and they're eagerly awaiting delivery of the new Lexicon 960L effects box. "We're constantly buying stuff here," he concludes. "It can drive you crazy, but that's the nature of our business, to stay on top and out front of what our clients need."
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