New York Metro
Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By David Weiss
Even though the calendar says that it's fall, it feels more like springtime to me. Why? Because with this column, I kick off what has got to be one of the best jobs in the world: writing for Mix about the recording scene in New York City. There have never been more amazing possibilities for sound creation in the five boroughs and beyond, or more agonizing doubts about the economics involved. I'm looking forward to letting you all know how things are unfolding here, month by month.
First off, allow me to give a shout-out to my predecessor in this post, Paul Verna, who did such an excellent job covering the New York City scene in these pages for the past four years before leaving to work for Avid Technology. I was a serious and longtime follower of Paul's writing, and he stands as one of the premier journalists in the audio field. It's an honor to follow in his footsteps.
No question, it's been an interesting road for me on the way to this point. When I left my hometown of Detroit 10 years ago for New York City, my objective was to be a hot-shot session drummer and pen the occasional record review. Somewhere along the way, however, I got hooked on more than just holding a pair of sticks and trying to outdo Stewart Copeland. I started writing about drums, audio technology, music production, HDTV, fiber optics and software. Next, I got my first sampler, took an audio engineering course and put together a personal studio in my apartment. Recording, which had always seemed like such a magical process to me, became an art, a science and a personal obsession.
These days, if I'm not writing, I'm recording. Or is it the other way around? At this moment, my tastes and career guidance are inspired by artists like Moby, Mozart, The Melvins, BT, Bach, Fela Kuti, They Might Be Giants and a smattering of Gregorian monks. Composing, recording and performing as my electronic-music alter ego, Impossible Objects, has taken my musical skills and engineering chops to extremely satisfying places that would have been unthinkable if I'd just stayed planted on the drum throne. In addition to my next album, I'm at work on my first CD library of music for television, an arena where the competition is intense and your signal path had better be clean.
Like a lot of people, I hit a full-fledged studio when I can, but when I can't, I'm having a blast with what I've crammed into my Manhattan one-bedroom pad. It's now packed with some standard tools and a few secret weapons that are perfect for an electronic artist flying solo. I'm in love with my Yamaha AW16G recorder, a Roland XV-5050 synth, Roland HandSonic, Yamaha A3000 sampler and Korg Electribe serving as hardware sound sources, plus a lovely Electrix Repeater for live looping and TC Electronic M300 and Aphex Aural Exciter 104 for effects. Once inside my beloved computers, the audio cycles constantly through Cubase, Reason, Acid, Recycle and Sound Forge until I declare it baked to perfection, or at least listenable.
Taken together, the unique convergence of New York City's always buzzing undercurrent and the fast-accelerating improvement of audio hardware and software has proven to be an exhilarating combination for me, and I know I'm not the only one. Just like more mystical places such as Sedona, Ariz., I believe New York City is a true energy center, attracting highly ambitious people for highly illogical reasons. But rents are high, the rules of the music industry have dissolved into a haze of unpredictability, and running a recording studio or mastering facility for all of the talented musicians who live or visit here is not the same as it was, or as it will be this time next year.
Staying in business has been a huge challenge for many facilities; impossible for others, and a breeze for yet another group. Happily, the consensus from the studios I checked in with is that after two tough years, business is gradually improving in the Big Apple. “2003 is definitely better than 2002,” says Kirk Imamura, president of Avatar Studios. “It seems like there are more projects and more activity this year. Besides a slight dip during the summer, which is normal, the fall looks pretty busy.
“I believe that major or indie labels still need music to put out to the market, and — let's face it — they're looking for something that's going to sell. In some cases, they're experimenting, and in others, trying to bring back some artists that may have been absent for a while. During the past couple of years, our client base has diversified. We have our share of the major-label work, but we also work with a lot of independent labels and people who fund their own projects.”
“The year started pretty slowly, and as the year has gone on, the work has grown,” confirms Zoe Thrall, general manager of The Hit Factory. “Looking through the fall, it's gotten progressively busier. There are a lot more independent projects: Artists or production companies are booking the rooms themselves.”
The outlook is also positive for Lou Gonzalez, CEO of Quad Recording Studios. “I think it's the best it's been since 9/11,” he states. “I have the business. There's still dead times, but they're a lot shorter, and the good times are a lot longer. It's still a roll of the dice, but it's better overall.”
Gonzalez attributes the turnaround to a few factors. “All of this digital stuff came out that made it cheaper for people to have a rudimentary studio at home. The record companies — because everyone's trying to save money — bought into it, and then they realized that the product is not as good, and it's beginning to hit home. We have years of experience with people that know what they're doing, and the record companies are just beginning to figure this out. Also, the piracy issues are being addressed: They're on top of it, with the help of the film industry. Film is starting a new campaign to stop piracy, record companies are hitching a ride, and it's going to work. And people are finally beginning to listen again.”
Besides being able to get a pastrami on rye at 3:00 a.m., Imamura points out that running a recording studio in New York City has its own unique bright spots. “New York, first of all, is where all of the major labels are; that's certainly one advantage,” he says. “Second, New York City is home to a community of musicians, artists, producers and engineers. There is a critical mass of people here that make it an attractive city to be in. Besides recording, artists come here because they like the ‘New York City sound.’ John Mayer and producer Jack Joseph Puig came here to do his upcoming album because he was looking for a ‘New York City sound.’ Puig selected Avatar to do the Mayer project, and John was pretty happy with the sound that he got.
“The challenges are that New York State is tough with the budget deficits and property taxes going up, so there is a reality that expenses will continue to go up. Our challenge is to cover that cost in some manner, and doing business like we have been is probably not enough. For us, it means providing more services, looking at other similar business activities; a specific example is a new separate company that is a record label, 441 Records.”
To Gonzalez, the cost of all those square feet is the sole liability that comes with his territory. “The real estate, that's the one that's unique to New York City,” he says. “You're trying to make it go when you're paying double or more for the real estate than somewhere else. But if you're somewhere else, you're out of the loop. When you're here, you're here. Everything you want is here.”
Still, the difference between the New York City studios, large or small, that live to see 2005 may be rooted in some more universal concepts. “The key is just being in tune with the client's needs and being flexible enough to adapt to those, in terms of equipment and service, in general,” Thrall points out. “The relationship is still the most important factor: staying in touch before the session and asking what their needs are, and after the session, asking them what they think of the results and making sure they were comfortable. That goes a long way.”
Well, I know I'm comfortable here in the New York City seat for Mix. How are you doing? If you're in the city, across the river or upstate, with one room or 10, recording sound for human, animal or plant consumption, you should get in touch anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks! Catch you next month!
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