Recording

The Road to Angel Mountain

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. 9/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

It is always inspiring, no matter the industry or field of creativeendeavor, 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 arethe result of years of toiling. Others happen completely by accident.For Gary Sloyer, living the dream is simply a way of life, a lifedevoted to music. And as he sits in his office/composing room in thestunning new studio complex called Angel Mountain Productions, hisstory is a lesson for the thousands each year who aspire to a career inmusic and recording.

Located in Bethlehem, Penn., inthe heart of the Lehigh Valley, Angel Mountain may have been four yearsin actual planning and construction, but it was 20 years in the making,its genesis in the tiny bedroom jingle/demo studio Sloyer put togetheras a music and communications major at Taylor University in Indiana. In1982, he returned home to Bethlehem with a TEAC 80-8, Model 30 mixer,JBL 4301 monitors, Crown D75 power amp, Korg Lambda keyboard and aYamaha CP30 piano in tow. He set up shop upstairs from his father'sdentist office, intending to “shoot for rock 'n' roll andbig-time jingles.”

He had a small, marginally successful business, but the majorsweren't exactly beating a path to Bethlehem. So he supplemented hisincome by giving piano lessons and directing adult and youth choirs ata local church, a job he thought would be temporary, but ended uplasting 10 years. Meanwhile, he upgraded the studio to a Tascam MS16recorder, added some outboard gear and a few more keyboards, and thenmoved the facility to his new home.

In 1992, Sloyer left the choral director job to concentrate fulltime 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 thedevelopment of Sloyer's career. “George was selling Pro Tools,essentially out of the back of his station wagon, for a music dealer inOhio,” Sloyer recalls. “He called me one day and said hehad a client in the Philadelphia area who was having all sorts of MIDIproblems. Could I help out? I did, and over a few years, I migratedfrom doing just MIDI to helping this guy and a few others with ProTools situations. I became George's customer servicedepartment!”

When Hajioannou left for a job with Digidesign, he turned his ProTools dealership over to Sloyer but stayed in touch. One of Sloyer'searly Pro Tools clients was a nearby studio/theater organization knownas Sight & Sound, a massively successful production company thatputs on original shows based on biblical themes and plays to 3,000-seatcapacity five days a week. Sloyer became friendly with the owners andengineers, and opportunities soon arose to do some originalcompositions — 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'sMix cover. But that wouldn't be true. Yes, they were steady, andyes, they paid well, but more than anything, Sloyer learned that whilehe was devoted to Sight & Sound, he was all tied up and had to turnaway business. His facility, he decided, needed to grow. And todifferentiate himself from competing home studios, he wanted a properacoustic space.

Soon after deciding to expand, Sloyer met studiodesigner/acoustician Martin Pilchner at an AES convention. Pilchner, ofToronto firm Pilchner Schoustal, built him a control room, a smallstudio and an iso booth in a converted garage. The dealership was goingwell, 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 goesinto creating an 18,000-square-foot technical complex. The newestincarnation of Angel Mountain began in 1999 with a phone call toPilchner.

“Gary sent us a wish list of all the different sizes and typesof spaces he wanted in a facility,” Pilchner recalls. “Westarted doing an area analysis and attaching costs and came up with abig number for that size of facility. I sent it back to him, and he waslike, ‘Whoa!’ It was much more than he anticipated. But hisframe of reference was the smaller studio in his house, and here youhad much more infrastructure and other pieces that arerequired.”

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

While plans were being drawn in 2000, Sloyer began hiring staff,among them Mike Horvath, then international sales manager for MartinGuitar, as director of sales and marketing; and Kim Fallon, who had nostudio experience but Sloyer knew was a perfect fit as studio manager.“I hire the person, not the job,” Sloyer comments. (Thatphilosophy has served him well. On this writer's visit, despite beingwowed by the facility, the lasting impression was of how friendly,capable and enthusiastic the entire staff was. These people like theirjobs.) A few years prior, he had hooked back up with Hajioannou, whowas now running the pro audio dealership.

The plans Pilchner came up with included Studios A, B and C; a largescoring stage with three iso booths; a smaller, adjacent21×17-foot studio with Foley pits; two video edit suites;composition and sound design suites; a writing room for the owner thathouses more technology than most full-blown studios; and a30×40-foot THX-certified mix theater, which Sloyer refers to asthe “you gotta be kidding me!” room. (He ends most toursthere, and after being overwhelmed by the rest of the facility,visitors often utter that.) Because of the way Sloyer works, where upto 30% of the business comes from his “soup-to-nuts”compositions and arrangements, workflow issues were of primaryimportance.

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

On a first walk-through, the hallways and connections between roomsappear labyrinthine. On a second walk-through, it all makes perfectsense. Control rooms can share studio spaces; glass hallways, with fourpieces of glass and six feet of airspace, surround Studio A, providingvisual 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 buildingso 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 buildingincludes a Pro Audio wing, with demo rooms), Sloyer knew that he couldsave costs on equipment. He outfitted each room with Questedmonitoring, added some favorite pieces of outboard gear, and put inStudio Network Solutions' Fibre Channel drives to assist workflow. Buthe still had to meet budget, so he made compromises, opting for controlsurfaces rather than digital consoles in Studios B and C. The one placehe would not compromise was Studio A, with its 72-channel SSL 9000 KSeries console, five soffit-mounted Quested 412s (with two subs), ProTools|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 aroom you've spent several hundred thousand dollars on, or a 60k set ofspeakers instead of an 80k set, to put up two layers of wall materialinstead of three, or six inches of insulation instead of 10 — todo 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 workthere.’ That was a scary proposition. I thought that if I havethis one heavyweight room, we can get people's attention; we can bringpeople into the building and get them curious about the rest of thespace.”

Studio A is a beautiful-sounding room, with a relatively highceiling, sloping back from the front at about 12 feet to a rear-wallheight of about 18 feet. The hard shell of the front wall actuallytilts at a slight angle; about midway back, the angle lessens,providing for the volume in the rear. A combination of Helmholtzresonators on the back wall and absorbers in the ceiling help controlthe low frequencies. But the attention to Studio A is perhaps mostevident beneath the walls.

“It's framed out of 14-gauge metal studs on 1-foot centers andreinforced every four feet vertically,” Pilchner explains.“So the raw framing was absolutely rigid, and we did that to getan absolutely stiff shell. Using conventional framing, the stiffness isbased on the height. And if the wall is flexible, it becomesdiaphragmatic and the room starts to become a low-frequency absorber.If you make the room super-rigid, the low frequencies you produce stayin the room. We took a structural criteria of L over 720, which isdiagonal over length, with deflection at mid-span, and we actually wentup from there. The framing is beautiful and it all gets covered up. Noone ever gets to appreciate that. That type of framing ran through theentire audio portion of the facility.

“Another nice part of the design of Studio A is what we callour controlled-reflection geometry, where we can take the angles of thewalls and control specular reflections,” Pilchner continues.“For every speaker in every direction, the actual soffit faces asan extension of the front and back speakers are identical. So as yousit at the listening position, the radiating surfaces from the wall andspeaker 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 wasflown in from L.A. The shakedown for Control Room A was producer JeffGlixman and the 5.1 remix of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, dueout this month. On playback from Pro Tools, the raw voice out thecenter with the lush strings all around — music magic. Glixman isalready a repeat customer.

While music production forms the core, Angel Mountain was set up tobe 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'mon the phone with Sony A&R, the next minute I'm working with thePhiladelphia Film Commission, and the next minute, I'm working with alocal corporation who's looking to do their DVD and CD-ROMpresentation. That's a typical hour out of my day!”

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

With the dealership, the in-house projects and the three-prongmultimedia productions, success is almost guaranteed. But financialsuccess is only one measure of a life lived in music. “Quitehonestly, I do this because I can't quit it. It is me,”Sloyer says. “I can't conceive of ever saying, ‘I've hadenough.’ There's no such thing as too low a point, because I'veprobably been there a dozen times in my career. I'm just too dumb toquit. There is no way to fail because you don't acknowledge success orfailure. You're a success just by virtue of the fact that you're doingwhat 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 acoustictreatment


Angel Mountain's Avid video editing suite


A classy place to kick back and relax

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