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Boston’s Soundscape Books ‘Em

How big can a project studio get and still remain a project studio? Soundscape tests the limits of the definition, with as many as seven employees and

How big can a project studio get and still remain a project studio? Soundscape tests the limits of the definition, with as many as seven employees and no fewer than five Sonic Solutions SSP and USP systems under one roof, all linked via a MediaNet server.

Packed into 5,700 square feet of loft space in Boston’s Fort Point Channel district – Beantown’s equivalent of Manhattan’s downtown Silicon Alley – Soundscape’s warren of studios has evolved under the ownership of Michael Moss, a jazz saxophonist-turned-entrepreneur. His niche is audio books, now a multimillion-dollar-a-year enterprise in the U.S.

“It’s the perfect business for this type of studio,” says Moss. “A regular studio couldn’t provide the kind of comprehensive services that audio books require. It’s not a matter of just studio time; it’s a matter of being able to do all of the things that each project needs.”

But even Moss needs other facilities from time to time. He recently booked The Audio Department in Manhattan to record Irish film star Liam Neeson narrating the popular children’s book “The Polar Express,” and has booked new Boston-area facility The Studio for an 18-piece orchestral scoring date for another book project.

“That gives you an idea of how sophisticated audio book productions have gotten in the past few years,” Moss says. “I don’t know that you would have seen a session that big even a few years ago. They’re getting very elaborate in terms of music and sound effects, as well as going for celebrity narrators – I’ve done voice-over sessions with Robin Williams, James Earl Jones and Jason Robards, as well as high-profile authors like John Updike and Philip Roth reading their own works.”

The studio was opened 15 years ago by Moss and an erstwhile partner, whom he later bought out. The design was ad hoc and evolved on a “back of the envelope” basis, as Moss puts it. As the amount of work and its complexity increased, Sonic Solutions systems were added, along with items such as microphones and mic preamps, though Moss notes that none are particularly vintage nor venerable. “You need good, quality equipment for this market, but you don’t need a huge number of classic tube microphones,” he says. “We have a U87 and a TLM 170 and an A-T 4060, but tube microphones can be inconsistent for narration work.” Other gear includes a Yamaha 02R digital mixer, 16 channels of Tascam DA-88 (often used as the transfer medium when Moss uses other facilities) and “lots and lots” of DAT decks, the final format for much of the facility’s output. Three years ago, Moss revamped the facility’s design once again, using the services of Boston-area systems integrator Professional Audio Design and its owner, David Malekpour.

The budgets that Moss works with are typical for a project studio, which is to say, they’re all over the place. Budgets from top-line publishers, including Houghton Mifflin and HarperCollins, can keep all five workstations humming, but the majority of audio titles have significantly lower budgets. Moss, who played sax for seven years with the late Cab Calloway’s orchestra and has a master’s degree in jazz saxophone from the Boston Conservatory of Music, applies his talents as a producer, composer, arranger and musician to the bulk of the studio’s output. Other employees and freelance engineers work on sound effects, sound design, narration recording, editing and mastering.

Moss is often the sole human involved in many of his scores, typically building tracks on MIDI systems and then tossing in a live sax or clarinet to enhance realism. One collateral benefit is that Moss has built a significant library of music over the years, which he resells and licenses to other productions. “That’s another reason why this market works so well for proj-ect studios,” he notes. “It’s the only way to keep it cost-effective enough to make a profit. If you were doing projects like this using a commercial studio, the studio time alone would eat up most of the budget.”

Soundscape is currently in the path of what many city planners have dubbed the biggest, costliest and longest-running urban renewal project in history, the Central Artery project. The city is threatening to evict many residents of the Fort Point Channel area, and Moss and his wife Claudia Ravaschiere, a graphic artist whose studio shares space with his, have been active in organizing the resistance movement led by neighborhood artists’ alliances. “We’re looking for a more permanent place to put all of this,” says Moss. “There are about 400 or so artists of various types living in this immediate area, and all of them are threatened by this [highway] project. Maybe someone will write a book about it. Then we can do the audio version.”