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The Big Trucks Keep Rolling

These are challenging times for every aspect of the audio business, and none more so than for the hearty souls involved in remote recording. The issues

These are challenging times for every aspect of the audio business, and none more so than for the hearty souls involved in remote recording. The issues facing this group look familiar to anyone who owns or works in a conventional recording studio, including the need to stay current with gear, staying profitable in a tough economic climate, continually looking for new revenue sources and adjusting to changing market conditions, and dealing with an unending stream of new competitors — some armed with semipro equipment, others with millions to spend. But the remote business also has its own unique pressures; among them are space limitations of remote trucks, interfacing with video companies on broadcast and DVD projects, dealing with the quirks and inconsistencies of different venues, constant travel and long, long days (and nights), and the fact that most of their work involves live performances, so they often get only one shot to get it right.

Recently,Mixspoke with eight of the top players in the remote recording field about issues they face individually and as a group; then, we constructed a wide-ranging “forum” from the separate interviews. Our cast of characters: Steve Remote, Aura Sonic Ltd. (Flushing, N.Y.); Peter Yianilos, Artisan Recorders (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.); Greg Hartman, Big Mo Recording (Silver Spring, Md.); Randy Ezratty, Effanel Music (New York City); Gary Ladinsky, Design FX (L.A.); Kooster McAllister, Record Plant Remote (Ringwood, N.J.); David Hewitt, Remote Recording Services (Lahaska, Pa.); and Richard “Vance” Van Horn, Sheffield Audio-Video Productions (Phoenix, Md.). It’s interesting to note that nearly all of these owner/engineers have been at the top end of their field for two decades or more, weathering the vagaries of the fickle audio business. And, indeed, that’s where the discussion begins.

What does it say about the remote business that it has been dominated by so many of the same companies through the years? What is the field’s enduring lure?

David Hewitt: It’s a funny thing about this business — it’s a niche and it isn’t one that any sane person would get into, so already you’ve eliminated a lot of people who might get into it. I mean, the time and travel requirements are so extreme. And now, it’s also something that’s rather difficult to get into. It costs a lot to build and maintain a good truck, and I’m not sure there’s the work out there to support too many more people.

Still, there are more players these days. The lower end of the market has come up — there are a number of smaller trucks out there — but the question from the producers and the artists is always, “What has this guy done before?”

Greg Hartman: You look in the Mix Master Directory Remote Recording section and what used to be four pages is now 14 pages, so it’s not that new players aren’t coming along, but because it’s so specialized, people tend to call on the guys they trust to make it work because of the experience. You’ve got one shot to get it right and one shot only, and a lot of people don’t want to take a chance with the smaller players.

Almost everyone knows somebody with an ADAT, DA-88 or Pro Tools rig. Most musicians can — and some do — call a local recording studio or a friend with machines, but our clients choose to call us, or any of the reputable remote trucks, because they know the difference. Clients understand that we offer more than a rack of multitrack machines. They want our mic package, our mic preamps, our splitters, our monitoring environment, and more importantly, our clients want a company that has a deep understanding of mic placement, interfacing with P.A. companies and video trucks, power issues and a long track record of getting it right.

Gary Ladinsky: I came from the studio world: slugging it out for days on end and doing things over and over and over again. The live thing is so refreshing by comparison. You do the show, you pack up and everyone goes home, or on to the next gig. And there’s definitely an adrenaline rush when you’re doing a live show that’s being broadcast across the country. It’s like bungee jumping or something…with a pack of gear on your back!

Peter Yianilos: It’s a labor of love; there’s no other possible explanation. It’s all-consuming — you can never seem to get away from it. I think some of it is that a lot of people in the music business are really, really in love with music. And there’s a certain amount of irrationality involved. I know that applies to me personally. I have somebody managing the business side [Natalie Eckart] to prevent me from making stupid choices because of my love for music. At Artisan, we’ve elected to just stay in music because it’s what I really, really love, and I know I can do it as well as anyone, and I’d rather not get into other sources of revenue just because they’re revenue. But like I said, it’s irrational!

Besides pressure from the lower end, there’s pressure from above, too, from the new generation of super video trucks.

Kooster McAllister: That’s right. What’s happening is all of these new trucks [the video industry] is putting out now, they’re spending the money to put in an Oxford or a Libra or whatever to make it so that they’re a self-sufficient truck and don’t need to pull a separate audio truck anymore.

Randy Ezratty: The video trucks are attempting to eliminate the need for us, and I think that’s a big mistake. These video trucks are putting these very powerful digital desks in their trucks, and in some cases, they can do a decent job of providing audio and video in the same truck. But in most cases, it’s kind of a sham: It looks good on paper, but it doesn’t quite have the attention to detail and the actual expertise to really get the job done. Effanel took the plunge six years ago by putting a Capricorn in the truck, and we sort of went through the learning process in front of lots of people and helped make it safe for that concept to be accepted on the road. I’m all for evolution, but the one thing I do have a problem with is the concept that these small closet-sized control rooms in a video truck with someone who doesn’t really record music for a living thinking that they can do a respectable job — that I have a problem with.

McAllister: The thing is, the people that video trucks tend to pull from are production mixers, as opposed to music mixers. And it’s gotten to where All Mobile [a video company] at this point has sort of seen the light and now they will hire me — even if they don’t need the truck — to come in if they have a music show, because they realize they don’t really have the expertise to make a good music mix.

Steven Remote: One way we’re responding to the challenges of the super trucks is diversification. We provide a wider scope to the entertainment community, which includes rentals, audio support, engineering services and, in 2003, our new (dual-expanding wall) truck will be online. It’s not your ordinary remote truck; it’s a totally modular design. One day, it can be set up as a mastering room; the next day, it can become an on-location Foley room or video-assist for a film shoot. The idea is to cater to all production ventures. It’s the prefered situation for engineer/producers with their own gear that need a great room on-location. They can hire the truck, fill it up with gear from our huge inventory or bring in their own stuff. You can mix and match as you want. There’s no need to have “rock ‘n’ roll” equipment on a classical date, etc. The infrastructure is what makes this work — it’s all there: speakers, monitors, patchbays, computers, distribution communications, proper power, HVAC, lighting, etc. For big TV shoots, we can set up to four 48-channel consoles — two music mix consoles, a broadcast desk and the “guest” position, which could be a Pro Tools rig or a playback desk. After that date, change it again by placing a small console and a bunch of couches if applicable or transform the room into a rehearsal space or whatever floats your boat.

Yianilos: Video trucks have been getting richer and richer. Sports have been a real solid market for them. They’re about the only people in the business that can afford a $700,000 console. Audio trucks cannot support that investment. So they put that console in there and then the next step is to throw in some tape machines. My experience is that very, very few video trucks I’ve been in — and I’ve been in the best — have really what I would call a mixing environment. They have noisy power supplies, improperly placed speakers; they just don’t have the audio side down. So I’m not worried about that in terms of my own business.

Vance Van Horn: At Sheffield, we have video and audio trucks and we keep them separate: The audio truck is almost all entertainment, and the video trucks are almost all sports. We have just started to combine both trucks as packages for people. We just did a DVD for Jimmy Eat World where we used both. The audio truck is almost always paired with a very high-end video truck. Oddly enough, some of these big video truck owners of these $6 or $7 million trucks are still saying that they want to bring in an audio truck even though a lot of them now have nice audio sections in them. I think when those trucks came out, everyone said, “Yeah, you can do the audio in here,” but now I think there’s a little bit of a backlash and reality check on that.

It seems as though with the broad range of projects you all do, you have to be ready with any media, from Pro Tools to MDMs to 2-inch.

Remote: We own most of the popular recording media and don’t have to rent much stuff. The formats we make available include DA-98HRs and 78HRs, MX-2424s, 3324S machines and our 2-inch analog machines. We still have 13 DA-88s — they are solid workhorses.

Not everyone has upgraded to 24-bit yet, so when recording 16-bit, I prefer to use the DA-88s. Keeping them in good condition with proper maintenance is the key to their success.

Hartman: We do have to be ready. We have 96 tracks of MDMs, 48 tracks of hard disk and 48 tracks of 2-inch with SR. We also have all of our harnesses ready so that if a client wants to run Pro Tools, RADAR or DASH machine, it can be wired in quickly and neatly.

The MDMs will last if you do all of the right things every single time — day in, day out — if you really look at the maintenance seriously and treat them like your first-born. That also means running backups everytime.

There are more and more live albums being made from bands carrying their own MDMs on the road with them. Pearl Jam put out an entire tour’s worth of live CDs that way.

Ezratty: They made pretty good MDM recordings with really good mic preamps onstage. Pearl Jam was a client of mine, and probably still will be if they do a big live concert [broadcast], but when it came time to doing live CDs, they made their own recordings. Same thing with Phish. We just did Phish’s DVD mixdown, but we didn’t make the recording; they did it themselves on the road, and I have to say, it sounds good.

Van Horn: At the beginning, there was a lot of resistance [to MDMs in the remote community] and they said, “We’re not going to run the DA-88s and DA-78s.” I’ve got news for you — everybody’s running them. The thing you have to explain to people is those are semipro consumer machines and they work great and they sound great, but the reality is, a DA-78 is not going to hold up against a Studer 827; that’s a fact. You can’t always convince someone of that, though, and, of course, we’ll run whatever format they want. We always run a Studer 48-track digital as backup.

Ladinsky: The customer is always king; we’re here to help and advise. We’ll do whatever they want, but, of course, you have to back everything up. We do a lot of Sony 48-track stuff. They’re safe and reliable. But not everyone wants it. If they want DA-88, that’s fine. If they want MX-2424, we’ll do that. When we did the Santana Supernatural [DVD], we did it to RADAR with a 48-track backup. They originally wanted to use two RADARs, but I said, “Let’s back it up with tape.” Same with Pro Tools. We’ve never had any failures on any of the live shows we’ve done with it, but we always back up on tape.

Yianilos: We’ve been printing everything to 24-bit MDM Tascam. It’s as simple as this: two-hour tape load. Then what we generally do is transfer the tapes into Pro Tools for posting. We have the HD system, and it sounds beautiful. It changed everything when we updated. Before, Pro Tools was a convenience. Now, it’s a really damn good-sounding format.

We still have analog machines, and, in fact, I converted mine to 16-track because now that they’re not requested much, I’m keeping them as the ultimate for those that really care. We can always put a 16-track on and record their favorite instruments to that, and then bounce it into Pro Tools from there if that’s what they want.

Hartman: We demo’d a lot of hard disk systems — we looked at the RADAR, the Mackie, Tascam. We ended up going with the MXs because the client can walk away with the drive and plug it into their Pro Tools rig. There’s no question that hard disk recording is catching on, but everybody’s still a little queasy about it. We always run a linear tape backup.

I think we’re looking at a day, probably not too far down the road, when we finish a show, we won’t hand anything over to the client; instead, when they pay their bill, we will e-mail them a password and say there are your files, take them away! That’s coming sooner than we all think.

McAllister: I’m definitely getting a lot more requests for hard disk-based recording, and that’s a scary avenue to go down in a location recording show. We just did a Barry Manilow project, recording it to Pro Tools|HD. Each show was over two hours long; we did three shows. And at the end of each show, when the operator would hit Stop, the whole system would crash. Luckily, I had it backed up with DA-98s, but we really didn’t know until they got back into New York and had to extricate all of the audio if the files were even savable. Pro Tools does not like writing huge files; you do a three- or four-minute song and that’s fine. You put it into record for three hours and the system doesn’t like it. But I’m taking the hard disk plunge and getting a RADAR because it seems to be the most stable; and the new software version makes it so that the files are compatible with Pro Tools, so a transfer can be done.

Has the rise of 5.1 and DVD added much to your business?

Ezratty: These days, we assume that most of the projects we work on are going to have multiple format versions. Even if we’re doing a live radio concert, the concept is that if there’s a visual component, there might be a DVD. If it’s a TV thing, it’s almost a given that it will become a DVD.

We’ve done quite a bit of DVD work. We did U2’s DVD, Brian Wilson, Santana, Madonna, Korn. The good thing about the Capricorn is that we also have a Capricorn studio, so the tapes we generate in the recording we can take back in the studio and pick up where we left off. So what started out as a four-day U2 project in Boston turned into a five-week mixdown afterward. Santana was a couple of days, followed by weeks of mixing.

It’s a healthy thing for me to be able to go to the client and say, “You might not have all of the contractual stuff in place right now for a DVD, but I think you better assume that it might happen, because the extra few thousand dollars you might spend, plus a little more attention to detail, will pay for itself.” It also tells the client that you’re going to give the project as much attention to detail as you possibly can.

Hewitt: For us, DVD has been the extra that gets plugged in on top of our regular work. In some ways, it’s like the way video came onto the scene in the early ’80s; it’s something that’s now a part of the package. Maybe we get a live CD, a home video; now, we’ve got a DVD.

We did a Lenny Kravitz DVD from the last date on the tour, and in a situation like that, we don’t do all that much differently because we’ve always been interested in delivering the proper ambience for a live show, and that’s really what the surround is. We already use a Soundfield mic, generally in the most favorable ambient position we can find, and hopefully a couple of omnis in the far corners and some additional audience mics so that the mixer has full options when he takes it back to the studio. What we’ll often do is put those on the 8-tracks and really spread them with individual mics and all that, and then print a stereo submix of the audience on the 48-track, but give them the option of going back and starting it up for the DVD.

McAllister: In the past, I used to mix my audience down to two tracks; now, I’ll just run a separate DA-98, broken out to at least eight audience mics, so that whoever mixes it can dial in whatever depth they want when they go to post it.

Did September 11 affect your business much? What does the current climate look like?

Remote: For us, 1999 was the year to beat economically. At the beginning of September, I looked in my books and noticed that we exceeded ’99s numbers. Since we booked solid from September 3 to October 17, with just a couple of days off and had plenty of dates for November and December booked, I was convinced 2001 was going to be our best year yet. Well, it didn’t happen. 9/11 wiped out much of the rest of the year for us. Thanks to a few solid dates, we hung in there. Things slowed down dramatically until the middle of March [2002], then it mushroomed, and has been pretty busy ever since.

Van Horn: 9/11 affected us quite a bit on the video side. We were supposed to do a show at the White House the next day, so obviously that one went away. And for the video trucks, a lot of the sports shows slowed down. The industrials and commercial work we do — the big conventions we fill in the week with — completely went away for a while, too.

But we just had one of the best years we’ve ever had, mainly because the video trucks have done well in spite of 9/11. I like to think, too, that the digital console [an Axiom MT] in the audio truck has continued to be a draw. As I say to the rest of [my remote recording colleagues], when we have a great year and they don’t, usually the following year is just the opposite: They have a great year and we don’t. That’s the pattern I’ve seen.

Ladinsky: For Design FX, the remote business is only one aspect of our operation, and we’re doing fairly well. We’re getting some DVD work, but I’d like to get more. We do some big awards shows — like we always do the Soul Train Awards — and there always seem to be more awards shows! There isn’t as much live album work as there once was.

Personally, if I had a record company and I had a roster of artists, I’d make sure I got something in the can live from every tour. Down the road, I want to pull something out, use it as a promo, put out a record or just get it for posterity.

Of course, no matter how much or how little work we do, we still have the problem where we book a show and then someone else calls for the same day!

Yianilos: We’ve been more affected by the general economic climate than by 9/11 specifically. We’ve found that our rock-steady clients are still great clients, but the projects that just fly in the door are way down. In times like these, it’s nice to have regular clients, like we’ve been doing the Tom Joyner Morning Show for the past four years, and we have steady work with both Univision and Telemundo doing music production and mixing.

Hewitt: For us, the business has been erratic. I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there. Budgets are smaller.

Shortly after 9/11, we did the “Concert for New York City,” and that’s certainly one of the most meaningful things we’ve done in recent memory; that was really a very, very special show. We also did one on the anniversary this year. We went out to Liberty State Park, across from the Statue of Liberty, and they built an outdoor stage for a public television special with a classical orchestra and various singers and so on. We did the dress rehearsal the day before and then September 11 was going to be a live telecast. Well, that day, these 40- or 50-mile-an-hour winds came up, and they actually had to pull the plug on the event. You can’t put 90 people onstage when things are blowing around. What was interesting is that rather than not showing anything, they aired the dress rehearsal. These performers are so good that the rehearsal was good enough to put on the air. About the time I got home from packing everything up, I turned on my TV to the special and they had this big crane shot that showed all of the empty seats. The camera sort of zoomed into the soloist and you had that New York skyline and the space where the towers used to be. It was very effective. It was like they were playing for the people who had died; there was no one in the audience. It made my hair stand up.

Blair Jackson isMix‘s senior editor.