On the Cover: Levels AudioREALITY TITANS KEEP ROLLING 8/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern
Founded in 1998 by producer and recording engineer Brian Riordan, Levels Audio has drawn nearly as many accolades for its eye-catching 3-year-old Hollywood headquarters as it has earned through seven seasons of intensive work on American Idol. Skylit and set off by brick walls, exposed beams and myriad modern accents, the 13,000-square-foot space has a feel that's both functional and inviting.
“I think Levels turned out really well,” says nonzeroarchitecture's Peter Grueneisen, who created the building in partnership with Riordan. “It was a great collaboration. And because we were doing the whole building, it allowed us to keep the open space and organize it so that it felt good and not cramped. I like it because it's more architectural, but I also just like the vibe of it. It's a nice size, and a very fun group of people.”
“Above being a great architect/studio designer, he's a brilliant artist,” says Riordan of Grueneisen. “And that's what I needed — a guy with a vision outside of just blueprints and calculations. He was fantastic to work with, and we were able to work with a fresh canvas once we took the building back to its masonry shell. But beyond the appearance, it was very well done acoustically. I have a lot of mixers and producers come through here, and they're all just incredibly happy with the way the rooms sound.”
According to Riordan, Levels was the first all-Digidesign ICON post house in town. “That was a no-brainer for me,” he says, sitting in Mix 1, the largest and most pimped-out of the five mix rooms, where he does his thing. “It was really a matter of speed and simplicity. I don't like mixing much with a mouse — I'm a fader-and-knob guy — so that was my biggest thing. I wanted to find a way to use Pro Tools and be able to still have all the automation data carried through. It's a lot quicker — I can reach down and grab knobs instead of paging through stuff.”
Mix 1's centerpiece is its 32-channel Digidesign D-Control console (the other four rooms are outfitted with D-Commands), with a Stewart film-projection screen taking up most of the front wall, a Sony VPL-VW100 HD projector recessed in the back wall and Tesseract LMH-1 three-way dub-stage speakers designed by Tomlinson Holman serving as the big monitors. “They were designed specifically to fill the void of small to medium dub stages that need to sound like a large theater,” Riordan explains. “They're amazing speakers. In fact, we pretty much designed the room around them.”
All the rooms boast ADAM S3A near-field monitors and JBL 8340 surround speakers. Hardware choices include BSS Blu-80 signal processors, TC Electronic Gold Channel mic pre's and RTW surround meters.
Along with Idol, Levels' slate of reality shows includes ABC's The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Shark Tank and America's Got Talent; Fox's So You Think You Can Dance? (they're doing back-to-back seasons, the second starting in September); and History Channel's Expedition Africa. Awards shows include MTV's Movie Awards and Video Music Awards, VH1's Rock Honors, Spike TV's Guys' Choice Awards and, for the past several years, the Academy Awards. On these shows, the company typically mixes the packages, short films and roll-in pieces up-front, and following the taping handles the post audio remixing for broadcast.
While Levels' rep may be predicated on reality TV, Riordan's background is in music, and Levels does more than its share of high-end, music-intensive projects. These include both seasons of HBO's Flight of the Conchords and the Peter Bogdanovich-directed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream. The company is doing a similarly ambitious rock doc for Warner Bros., but Riordan is not yet at liberty to reveal the identities of the subject and director.
The jobs keep coming despite the economy, but budgets are tighter than in the past, putting an additional premium on speed and efficiency without compromising quality — the very qualities on which Levels has built its business. “I'm a firm believer in keeping everything as simple as possible,” says Riordan, “and as quick as possible because we generally charge by the hour, so we need to keep clients happy and work as fast as we can.
“We're slammed pretty much until the end of the year, and then the Idol train starts again. So, fortunately, we've been able to stay busy. Part of it is based on our extremely loyal clientele, and part of it is just that people like the vibe that we have here. I definitely couldn't do this without the hard work and talent of my loyal staff. This place has a family feel. I don't have much turnover and I don't use many freelancers, so clients all know who we are — this group of people that's always here. Clients walk through the door and they feel like they're home. Out there in the grind, a lot of them are working in some cubicle, and it's a relief for them to come here. They're like, ‘I just wanna stay here for another four hours and then I'll go back.’ That's exactly how we want people to feel.”
Bud Scoppa is Mix's Los Angeles editor.