Studio Designers | Form & FunctionTOP STUDIO DESIGNERS BUCK TRENDS 6/01/2011 5:00 AM Eastern
Tastes and technology evolve, but the principles of acoustics remain the same.
Another immutable reality: “Sooner or later, you need some kind of facility to create content,” as 40-plus-year studio designer John Storyk says. And though the music recording industry has never seen stranger times, there seems to be no end of public demand for “content.”
Many of the most established studio design firms have adapted to shifts in their business by finding niches where they fit, expanding their services or both. We reached out to a handful of designers to find out what they’re working on now, what they’re excited about, even how they feel about the way Mix covers their industry.
Our panel includes respected designer, acoustician, monitor designer, musician and producer Chris Pelonis; busy designer/acoustician and Zero Reflection Acoustics® developer Hanson Hsu; renowned architect/designer Peter Grueneisen; and the president of the Walters-Storyk Design Group, John Storyk.
We’d like to understand where the work is now designers. Please list a few current projects.
Pelonis: I’ve had an ongoing relationship with Sony Computer Entertainment America, who do all the PlayStation titles; I’ve done 45 or 50 studios for them. I just finished a 1,500-square-foot facility in Ashland, Oregon, for a guy who added onto his house. I’m working on another one in Fullerton, [Calif.]—two control rooms, a couple of live spaces. I also do nightclubs and theaters and high-end home theaters.
Hsu: There’s been a diverse stream of projects for years now: A 7-room facility for Universal Mastering (Hollywood); a private composer’s studio (L.A. Westside); 20,000 square feet of architectural/interior/acoustical design for Laser Pacific (Hollywood), including three theaters; Westlake Audio Studio C (Hollywood); Pagewood Sound (Sydney); Serenity Studio B (Hollywood) in the Music Grinder Building; and Masque Entertainment’s (Sante Fe, N.M.) 24,000-square-foot post facility featuring ZR Acoustics and 3-D CGI. Our clientele is diverse by nature.
Grueneisen: We’ve been working with Dreamworks for quite some time; they have a project under construction now. Another aspect of our business is composers. We did a home studio for A.R. Rahman, who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and another for Steve Jablonsky; he did all the Transformers movies, as well as Desperate Housewives. We’re still doing a lot for Remote Control and Hans Zimmer, too.
Storyk: For the past few years, much to our surprise, we have been very busy. Typically, we are managing between 35 and 40 projects in one phase or another: design, pre-construction or construction. These projects range from major audio education complexes like the $6-plus-million NYU Steinhardt Center in Greenwich Village, to much smaller facilities like World Harmony Studios in upstate N.Y. and large destination or urban recording studios such as the new multi-million-dollar Jungle City on New York’s High Line.
What do you feel your business offers that keeps the work coming?
Pelonis: When I finished the first round of studios for PlayStation, the guy who runs the creative department and one of his engineers mixed a piece in one of my rooms, and he came out with a big smile, and said, “I just mixed something in four hours that would have taken me three-and-a-half days, and it’s the best mix I’ve ever done.” These guys come in early and they leave late. An acoustical workspace has enhanced their lives and they get more work done. If we do something right, it’s about the performances and the happiness of the people.
Hsu: Quality of product driven by a deep love of audio, turnkey design/build projects and ZR Acoustics. Studios with reproducible, excellent acoustical performance and enervating architecture/interiors develop a life and reputation of their own. We find that quality of work and word of mouth continue to be the strongest advocates.
Grueneisen: One asset is we’ve started doing more design/build projects where we are basically acting as the designer and architect, and a lot of times we transition into the actual delivery of the whole construction. The whole recession has affected construction in general, but I think overall the way things have developed to where we are now in terms of offering really turnkey projects puts us at a good point.
Storyk: Diversity is one of the things that’s worked well for us. If somebody had told me 10 years ago, “This is what’s going to happen: You’re going to have five different offices, including Europe, South American and Miami, and you’re going to [take on] other design fields such as home theaters, conference rooms, architectural acoustics, isolation acoustics and A/V systems design, and, oh, by the way still doing recording studios—a few thousand of them—I would not have guessed that. But that is what happened to us, and when one end of our business sank a little bit, another part would pop up. As a company, we are very fortunate and appreciative of this.
How do you design for smaller spaces?
Pelonis: I’m having to get clever about how to fit a lot of stuff into one space, and that’s where really accurate, detailed design work is paramount. You’ve got to know that when you open the door, you’re still going to pass code and you’re not going to walk into a desk. You need to really get involved in furniture and equipment location and placement, and I do a lot of custom desk design because off-the-shelf stuff often doesn’t fit certain purposes.
Hsu: After careful scientific study of the physical and psychoacoustic challenges inherent to studio design, we identified the roots of the acoustical issues and removed them via the design process. ZR Acoustics has solved the small room issue: 10 feet by 4 feet or 100 feet by 140 feet sound the same. Every dimensionally challenged project we design performs superbly using ZR.
Grueneisen: From a physical point of view, designing small spaces gets easier over time. It’s complicated technologically, but from a physical standpoint, equipment becomes smaller and disappears into a computer more, so that’s a huge advantage that allows us to be more free with the environment than we were when we had to work around huge consoles and other pieces of equipment.
Storyk: A number of years ago, we recognized a shift toward smaller studios and we saw that equipment was growing less expensive. We witnessed the evolution of the “project studio” (as we used to call it) into the norm in our industry, essentialy the democratization of the audio production community. As a global company, when we saw this happening, we determined that we needed to create scalability in our designs and in our deliverables to accomodate this brave new world. Although not instantly obtainable, we ultimately figured out how to do that, of course with the help of great digital tools in architectural and acoustical design, prediciton and document production. I can’t tell you how many calls I get that start off, “Oh, this project is probably too small for you.” And I have to say, “Wait a second, that might not be true.” And 30 minutes later, we’re still talking!
Has competition become more fierce in your business with new players entering the game?
Pelonis: Competition might not be the right word to use in terms of how I feel about people out there who are doing it well, like Francis Manzella, who I have a lot of respect for, or Pilchner Schoustal—there’s another company that studies the science of acoustics, and they’re also musicians and engineers. Or Russ Berger or Vincent van Haaff. The thing that concerns me is, anybody can make a Website look amazing and make it look like they’re the ultimate system designer or acoustician or whatever. If somebody gets a job and they’re really good, I feel good about that. If somebody gets a job who’s not very qualified, that makes me feel like maybe I didn’t do a good enough job to promote understanding of our industry.
Hsu: Competition is healthy. It’s inspiring and energizing to see what everyone’s doing—to be reminded that there are many ways to solve a problem. Increased competition demands greater ingenuity from all of us. Education and critical listening help to limit subjective hyperbole, while in the end the field of acoustics benefits, evolving in classic Darwinistic fashion to the demands of the consumer.
Grueneisen: One distinction between us and our competitors is we are architects who do buildings, not just studios. Studios are our specialty, but we look at the building as a whole, which automatically gives you a longer view than a competitor who is just building a room. We focus on timeless issues like what makes a space comfortable, whether it’s a studio or a living room or an office or a concert hall.
Storyk: I’m honored to be in this industry. I’m a member of a very exciting community. I see other studio designers and acousticians at shows and throughout the year. We often share ideas. Another way we actually meet is through the manufacturers, who, as you think about it, are the conduits for our designs. It is the manufacturers that are the ones that often take our ideas and convert them into products.
How important are visual aesthetics in studio design, and how do you think Mix’s “Class of” feature affects readers perception of your field?
Pelonis: I’m always happy to make things look really great. When I did Jeff Bridges’ studio, I worked with his interior designer who had just finished Jack Nicholson’s place. But at the same time, just the other night, I was in the studio where Michael McDonald and Robben Ford were recording. It’s in a converted guesthouse, and it feels like a funky bungalow. The control room is part of the kitchen, and somehow he manages to make it really work acoustically. This is what I grew up in—somebody’s funky garage or back bedroom or barn, where musicians would all get together. There’s something very comfortable and creative about those kinds of spaces as opposed to things that look like a new hotel lobby in a casino. It’s all driven by what the client is looking for.
Hsu: With studios, acoustics is paramount. That being said, it’s well documented that psychologically, everything sounds better when it looks better. Acoustics, architecture and interiors are inexorably tied together. A comfortable, vibey environment that feels good enhances the creative process. Twenty years ago, we did a 5.1 “A/B” blind-listening test using the same soundtrack but two different video aspect ratios. One hundred percent of the subjects said the wider video had better audio imaging and clarity. Mix is a print magazine. The nature of the beast is that no one can hear what a picture of a studio sounds like. We aim for all our projects to be aurally and visually stunning. At the end of the day, we’re pleased that our clients are delighted with our work.
Grueneisen: We always look at the visual aesthetics of a room as part of the architecture, rather than just the interior design. We take a comprehensive approach that doesn’t depend on fashion, but is more a function of the client’s needs and the philosophy of the project as a whole. The “Class of...” feature is always a valuable tool for readers to evaluate what they like, and we welcome input based on visual examples. Each project has to develop from its own internal logic, and the final look needs to come from many sources, including the client’s preferences for finishes, colors, textures, lighting, et cetera.
Storyk: Aesthetics are as critical an element of studio design as acoustics. The look and feel of a creative environment can’t help but make a significant inpact on an artist’s performance. We have always taken as much pride in the way our studios look as in how they sound. We have also made a point of having the best possible photos to illustrate our work and enhance our ability to educate people about their options. We have been rewarded for this commitment by literally dozens of covers in Mix and other major publications. Being selected for the “Class Of” is a welcome reflection of our peer’s appreciation of our work.
I’ve designed many schools and many studios, the basic process is still the same. There’s still a programmatic or ergonomic problem that has to be solved. But it’s a little different for teaching. For instance, what happens when you want to make a “world-class” control room environment but you also want to put 15 kids in the room? That’s not a natural agenda for a commercial studio. Most commercial studios don’t have that need so how do you make that work? How do you deal with surround sound in that kind of environment? How do you deal with visual sight lines, cameras, display boards? There’s a different set of requirements. I don’t know if they’re any more or less difficult, but they’re unique to teaching environments and I enjoy it. It’s a challenge.
Are budgets for school projects usually sufficient and similar to other projects?
They are, actually. There are the private schools, the for-profit schools like Full Sail or E’xpression or the Art Institutes, Mediatech in Dallas. You’d be surprised. They’re actually prepared to have very robust budgets because they have to compete for students. That’s their sale. The money guys are prepared to spend the money because it’s a marketing tool. They also want our name on it because it because they consider it a marketing tool.
The not-for-profit schools like American University, for instance, a school based on endowments and stuff, they’re also prepared to spend money. Or Union College because, generally speaking, when it’s renovation time, the initiative for the renovation has come from within, from teachers who actually know what they’re doing and they know the industry. So, yes, the budgets are there, much to our pleasant surprise.
But the schools also have unique needs. There’s often more serious code compliance, ADA compliance, occasionally specific school requirements issues like timeline requirements, things have to open by a certain date. It’s different from when you’re dealing with a private studio like Electric Lady or Jungle City for Anne Mincieli where things can be flexible. With schools, you’re dealing with institutions, so you’re dealing with bureaucratic and sometimes legal issues requirements; these can be curious and challenging, but it’s part of the deal.
Did you decide to develop your own monitors because of a need you perceived in the industry?
Absolutely. It was so frustrating back in the '80s when I would build a room and I knew it was dead-on—the decay times were perfect as they could be across the whole frequency spectrum, and I knew the response in the room was right—and the monitors would make it seem that something was wrong. But what was wrong was that the monitor was not showing the room in its true light. People initially would say, “The room sounds a little this,” “The room sounds a little that.” And I’d do a real hard-core analysis of it, and everything they would be describing was right there in black and white on the analysis of the monitor. So I’d have to go back, and say, “It’s not the room; the speaker’s doing that. And they’d say, “It wasn’t doing it so much in this other room,” and I’d say, "That’s because the other room wasn’t really accurate, and the inaccuracies of the room happened to be beneficial to the inaccuracies of the monitor." That sounds a little complicated, but it happens. It happens a lot.
This goes back to the early '90s, when I started tweaking and messing around with speaker systems and off-the-shelf monitors—modifying them and working with different companies until finally working with Tannoy quite a bit. I was a big fan of the point-source speaker system, which has the tweeter inside the woofer: All the information arrives in time—the high frequencies and the low frequencies. That philosophy and technology is really, in my opinion, far superior to when you separate those two things in time. The phase information and the time-domain information stay intact.
So I really focused on working with that company till finally, some time in the '90s, after bouncing back and forth about what I wanted and what I needed, the president of the company said, “Well, why don’t we just do your speaker? Why don’t we just do it your way, and it will be your speaker?” Now I wasn’t quite sure if that was like, “We don’t want to put our name on this because we’re not sure you know what you’re doing,” or if he was legitimately saying, “You’re directing this; let’s honor that.” But that is what happened. I went right after the biggest, baddest-name monitor system I could find, and now it’s a main monitor system that some people use exclusively.
It used to be like, “We listen to the main monitors for loudness and height, but then we go down to these little ones for accuracy.” Well, I didn’t believe that was the way it should be. I thought that if the room is right and the monitor is a part of the room, the main monitors should be dead-on and that should be your main reference. And that’s what I achieved. So whether it’s mastering rooms, tracking rooms or mixing, they just use the big speakers for everything.
And then from there, I got a lot of heat: “Well, not everybody can afford $50,000 a pair!” So I progressively worked my way down to a 10-inch system, which was still a little spendy but more affordable—down into the $5,000 to $6,000 range. And then I got complaints like, “What about something really small for $1,000 a pair with that same philosophy that you used in your other speakers that I can take with me everywhere?”
And I felt like saying, “Would you like a magic carpet or anything else? And would you like them delivered by Angelina Jolie? Maybe we could demo them for you in a limousine with some single-malt scotch?” I was also concerned because I also knew that for me to compete on that level, I was not going to be able to build them here in America the way I had been building; I had been building pretty much everything in Canada, Scotland and America up to that point.
Finally, I got enough pressure from clients and friends and a lot of recording artists and it got under my skin, and I developed the Model 42s, which are $999 a pair and I’m having to build them overseas. We did do all of the engineering and development and design work here in California, but they’re manufactured in Asia, and it’s really filled a void.
I’m on my way right now to do a clinic at Westlake Audio; they’re having their grand opening and invited me to do a clinic on monitoring and acoustics and introduce the Model 42. They’re light, they’re easy, and you can carry them around with you. And they do have a similar characteristic and approach to voicing that my big guys have. I tried to get some of that accuracy and musicality in something you can buy for under $1,000.