The Road to Angel Mountain

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny

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It is always inspiring, no matter the industry or field of creative endeavor, to find a story of someone who is living his or her dream. Some of those stories are rags to riches, some are blind luck. Some are the result of years of toiling. Others happen completely by accident. For Gary Sloyer, living the dream is simply a way of life, a life devoted to music. And as he sits in his office/composing room in the stunning new studio complex called Angel Mountain Productions, his story is a lesson for the thousands each year who aspire to a career in music and recording.

Located in Bethlehem, Penn., in the heart of the Lehigh Valley, Angel Mountain may have been four years in actual planning and construction, but it was 20 years in the making, its genesis in the tiny bedroom jingle/demo studio Sloyer put together as a music and communications major at Taylor University in Indiana. In 1982, he returned home to Bethlehem with a TEAC 80-8, Model 30 mixer, JBL 4301 monitors, Crown D75 power amp, Korg Lambda keyboard and a Yamaha CP30 piano in tow. He set up shop upstairs from his father's dentist office, intending to “shoot for rock 'n' roll and big-time jingles.”

He had a small, marginally successful business, but the majors weren't exactly beating a path to Bethlehem. So he supplemented his income by giving piano lessons and directing adult and youth choirs at a local church, a job he thought would be temporary, but ended up lasting 10 years. Meanwhile, he upgraded the studio to a Tascam MS16 recorder, added some outboard gear and a few more keyboards, and then moved the facility to his new home.

In 1992, Sloyer left the choral director job to concentrate full time on the studio and writing. A year later, he met George Hajioannou, a man who, in a roundabout way, would have a profound influence on the development of Sloyer's career. “George was selling Pro Tools, essentially out of the back of his station wagon, for a music dealer in Ohio,” Sloyer recalls. “He called me one day and said he had a client in the Philadelphia area who was having all sorts of MIDI problems. Could I help out? I did, and over a few years, I migrated from doing just MIDI to helping this guy and a few others with Pro Tools situations. I became George's customer service department!”

When Hajioannou left for a job with Digidesign, he turned his Pro Tools dealership over to Sloyer but stayed in touch. One of Sloyer's early Pro Tools clients was a nearby studio/theater organization known as Sight & Sound, a massively successful production company that puts on original shows based on biblical themes and plays to 3,000-seat capacity five days a week. Sloyer became friendly with the owners and engineers, and opportunities soon arose to do some original compositions — first rewrites, later full-blown productions.

It would be simplistic to say at this point that Sight & Sound, a true anchor client, bankrolled the facility that sits on this month's Mix cover. But that wouldn't be true. Yes, they were steady, and yes, they paid well, but more than anything, Sloyer learned that while he was devoted to Sight & Sound, he was all tied up and had to turn away business. His facility, he decided, needed to grow. And to differentiate himself from competing home studios, he wanted a proper acoustic space.

Soon after deciding to expand, Sloyer met studio designer/acoustician Martin Pilchner at an AES convention. Pilchner, of Toronto firm Pilchner Schoustal, built him a control room, a small studio and an iso booth in a converted garage. The dealership was going well, the production arm was going well, but within a couple of years, Sloyer was already dreaming of a bigger space.

PRE-PRODUCTION AND WORKFLOW

When you walk into a finished facility as functionally efficient, aesthetically stunning and acoustically accurate as Angel Mountain, it's easy to forget the amount of creative and physical labor that goes into creating an 18,000-square-foot technical complex. The newest incarnation of Angel Mountain began in 1999 with a phone call to Pilchner.

“Gary sent us a wish list of all the different sizes and types of spaces he wanted in a facility,” Pilchner recalls. “We started doing an area analysis and attaching costs and came up with a big number for that size of facility. I sent it back to him, and he was like, ‘Whoa!’ It was much more than he anticipated. But his frame of reference was the smaller studio in his house, and here you had much more infrastructure and other pieces that are required.”

Pilchner sent back a scaled-down proposal to fit the budget; Sloyer returned volley with a “what if we saved costs here?” Pilchner modified, Sloyer compromised and before long, they were back to nearly the original size. Pilchner says he looked for ways to “systematize functions to make them less costly.” Sloyer jokes, “I watched every cost, right down to the plastic forks!”

While plans were being drawn in 2000, Sloyer began hiring staff, among them Mike Horvath, then international sales manager for Martin Guitar, as director of sales and marketing; and Kim Fallon, who had no studio experience but Sloyer knew was a perfect fit as studio manager. “I hire the person, not the job,” Sloyer comments. (That philosophy has served him well. On this writer's visit, despite being wowed by the facility, the lasting impression was of how friendly, capable and enthusiastic the entire staff was. These people like their jobs.) A few years prior, he had hooked back up with Hajioannou, who was now running the pro audio dealership.

The plans Pilchner came up with included Studios A, B and C; a large scoring stage with three iso booths; a smaller, adjacent 21×17-foot studio with Foley pits; two video edit suites; composition and sound design suites; a writing room for the owner that houses more technology than most full-blown studios; and a 30×40-foot THX-certified mix theater, which Sloyer refers to as the “you gotta be kidding me!” room. (He ends most tours there, and after being overwhelmed by the rest of the facility, visitors often utter that.) Because of the way Sloyer works, where up to 30% of the business comes from his “soup-to-nuts” compositions and arrangements, workflow issues were of primary importance.

“All of the spaces are connected through a spine,” Pilchner explains, “this major cable troughing system that runs through the building, branches off to each room and connects to the central machine room. All of the technical wiring happens at floor level; all of the actual power wiring runs from the ceiling down. And the spine, to a certain degree, reflects the circulation path.”

On a first walk-through, the hallways and connections between rooms appear labyrinthine. On a second walk-through, it all makes perfect sense. Control rooms can share studio spaces; glass hallways, with four pieces of glass and six feet of airspace, surround Studio A, providing visual synergies and ingeniously dealing with transmission loss; writing rooms, right through the back wall, feed Control Room A. “Circulation was very carefully planned,” Pilchner says. “You now can have these discrete areas everywhere in the building so that you feel on your own. At the same time, as you walk through, you feel a strong sense of connection between spaces.”

STUDIO A

Because he is a relatively large pro audio dealer (the building includes a Pro Audio wing, with demo rooms), Sloyer knew that he could save costs on equipment. He outfitted each room with Quested monitoring, added some favorite pieces of outboard gear, and put in Studio Network Solutions' Fibre Channel drives to assist workflow. But he still had to meet budget, so he made compromises, opting for control surfaces rather than digital consoles in Studios B and C. The one place he would not compromise was Studio A, with its 72-channel SSL 9000 K Series console, five soffit-mounted Quested 412s (with two subs), Pro Tools|HD and iZ RADAR 48.

“If you're going to jump, you better not fall short,” Sloyer laughs. “Let's face it, to roll a $150,000 board into a room you've spent several hundred thousand dollars on, or a 60k set of speakers instead of an 80k set, to put up two layers of wall material instead of three, or six inches of insulation instead of 10 — to do all that would be to land in no man's land. The big guys say, ‘Well, that's a nice little room, but I can't work there,’ and the little guys say, ‘I could never afford to work there.’ That was a scary proposition. I thought that if I have this one heavyweight room, we can get people's attention; we can bring people into the building and get them curious about the rest of the space.”

Studio A is a beautiful-sounding room, with a relatively high ceiling, sloping back from the front at about 12 feet to a rear-wall height of about 18 feet. The hard shell of the front wall actually tilts at a slight angle; about midway back, the angle lessens, providing for the volume in the rear. A combination of Helmholtz resonators on the back wall and absorbers in the ceiling help control the low frequencies. But the attention to Studio A is perhaps most evident beneath the walls.

“It's framed out of 14-gauge metal studs on 1-foot centers and reinforced every four feet vertically,” Pilchner explains. “So the raw framing was absolutely rigid, and we did that to get an absolutely stiff shell. Using conventional framing, the stiffness is based on the height. And if the wall is flexible, it becomes diaphragmatic and the room starts to become a low-frequency absorber. If you make the room super-rigid, the low frequencies you produce stay in the room. We took a structural criteria of L over 720, which is diagonal over length, with deflection at mid-span, and we actually went up from there. The framing is beautiful and it all gets covered up. No one ever gets to appreciate that. That type of framing ran through the entire audio portion of the facility.

“Another nice part of the design of Studio A is what we call our controlled-reflection geometry, where we can take the angles of the walls and control specular reflections,” Pilchner continues. “For every speaker in every direction, the actual soffit faces as an extension of the front and back speakers are identical. So as you sit at the listening position, the radiating surfaces from the wall and speaker are identical in all directions.”

BRING ON THE MUSIC

The shakedown session for Studio A, which can hold up to 50 pieces, was a local jazz band featuring jazz trombonist Bill Watrous, who was flown in from L.A. The shakedown for Control Room A was producer Jeff Glixman and the 5.1 remix of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, due out this month. On playback from Pro Tools, the raw voice out the center with the lush strings all around — music magic. Glixman is already a repeat customer.

While music production forms the core, Angel Mountain was set up to be a full-blown media production facility, reaching out nationally. “We essentially cover three core markets,” says Horvath, director of sales and marketing. “Corporate media production, audio post for film and television, and music recording. One minute I'm on the phone with Sony A&R, the next minute I'm working with the Philadelphia Film Commission, and the next minute, I'm working with a local corporation who's looking to do their DVD and CD-ROM presentation. That's a typical hour out of my day!”

Still, everyone involved is fully cognizant that Bethlehem is not on every producer's destination short list, but they plan on changing that. “I think the industry today is much more transitory,” Horvath says. “People will pick up and go almost anywhere for recording if they have a good experience. And we're very much about the experience here. That said, we're only an hour from the Lincoln Tunnel up Interstate 78; we're an hour from Philadelphia. L.A. just added a direct flight to Allentown. We're looking at the advertising market in Chicago and the Christian and gospel market in Nashville. From the day plans were being drawn, we thought of this place as reaching out nationally. If we can get people in and show them the space, the experience will keep them coming back.”

With the dealership, the in-house projects and the three-prong multimedia productions, success is almost guaranteed. But financial success is only one measure of a life lived in music. “Quite honestly, I do this because I can't quit it. It is me,” Sloyer says. “I can't conceive of ever saying, ‘I've had enough.’ There's no such thing as too low a point, because I've probably been there a dozen times in my career. I'm just too dumb to quit. There is no way to fail because you don't acknowledge success or failure. You're a success just by virtue of the fact that you're doing what you love and you can't quit it.”


Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.


Studio C, a ProControl room


Studio A's custom Helmholtz resonators, combined with surface acoustic treatment


Angel Mountain's Avid video editing suite


A classy place to kick back and relax

Learn about power and grounding issues at Angel Mountain, from studio designer Martin Pilchner.






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