MUSIC ANNEXA SURROUND SHOWCASEAt the long-anticipated opening party for Music Annex's Studio 5 in late February, a DDB Needham producer walked through the airy, well-appointed kitchen, down the boldly colored, curvilinear hallways, poked her head in the spacious, plush new surround suite, and exclaimed, "I can't believe this is a Dave Porter room!"
She was not alone. Porter, who founded the company in a San Jose garage in 1973, built his two-city music and post empire on a diversified business strategy and a no-nonsense approach to facility design. Dave Porter rooms are working rooms - functional, with little flash and impeccable acoustics. He's built a few dozen over his three decades in the business, both in Menlo Park for music and games and in San Francisco, where the emphasis is on audio post for commercials and long-form. It's safe to say that he's never had a suite like Studio 5.
"We are the final step in a creative process," Porter says, "and oftentimes we are playing host to our client's client. They need to be in an environment where they can host their client much like they were taking them out to dinner in a fine restaurant. They expect the amenities. At the same time, we had a need for a better-quality room for one of my top mixers, Jon Grier, who's been working here for 11 years. It was time for him to move into a better environment, one similar to what Patrick [Fitzgerald] has in Studio 1. The concept is that Studios 1 and 5 are both 5.1, `no-excuses' rooms - in terms of amenities, technology, the mixer himself and the product."
For various reasons, many of them having to do with strict San Francisco building codes and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the ground-up build-out turned into a long process. Porter, Grier and chief engineer Roger Wiersema began discussions in early 1997. Soon after, they brought in acoustical consultant Michael Blackmer, and after working out the geometry for 5.1, contractor Dennis Stearns came onboard to build it. Finally, to impart a contemporary look for the entire third floor, they hired Daniel Oakley, an architect and protege of Zaha Hadid.
The resulting Studio 5 features a spacious, multipurpose control room, with two sets of rear monitors to accommodate the relatively long throw. Grier insisted that the 1911 building's original rear brick wall remain, along with skylights over the producers desk. (The entire rear area is raised 7 inches so that clients can see directly into the booth.) Flat-screen monitors, with Internet access, rest on the desk, and if clients need privacy, they can retreat to a booth in the left rear while maintaining perfect sight lines to the mixer and the talent in the main studio.
Grier also insisted on the more traditional center glass, not the left or right that is currently in vogue. "When you're mixing, you're looking forward," Grier says. "You lift your head up, you ought to be able to look into the booth. It's pretty straightforward. If an actor's having problems with a line, body language tells you as much about the performance as what they are actually reading."
From a designer's perspective, center glass can be problematic in a 5.1 room because of the need for a video monitor and a center speaker at the correct height. After initially considering a projection system and a speaker rising out of the floor, Wiersema and Stearns came up with a plan to have the center speaker roll in from the side and disappear from sight into a cavity behind the left speaker. A chassis was constructed above the glass, and Wiersema found what is essentailly a garage-door-opener mechanism. When Grier presses the button, the speaker rolls in and locks for playback; he presses it again and he's ready for tracking. The left and right mains are in dampened soffits, but Grier says that Genelec shot the room, and with a slight EQ adjustment, the LCR speakers match.
The centerpiece of Studio 5 is a 56-input Euphonix CS3000 console, similar to the one in Studio 1. To his right, Grier has his trusty Synclavier/NED PostPro combo; to his left, Pro Tools. All of the audio guts sit in a third-floor machine room, with video ties to the second floor. The 5.1 monitoring system is all-Genelec, with two subs.
The main studio is equally spacious by modern standards - at well over 200 square feet, it's able to hold four or five actors comfortably. Grier is a big fan of radio drama, and he does a lot of looping, so he wanted room for a director and a large projection screen. As an afterthought, because they didn't need all the volume to make the main booth acoustically correct, the builders added a secondary iso booth within the vocal booth. It's a nice touch and has turned out to be extremely practical.
"Oftentimes, when we're doing group reads, we'll want to process one of the voices after the fact," Grier explains. "It makes editorial a lot harder if that voice has been overlapped into the off-mics. By having the secondary booth, the actor can stand in there, maintain eye contact, read at the same time, and we get the separation.
"The other thing we put in the booth were Foley pits," he continues. "Even though we're primarily a television and radio production room, we have Foley needs like everyone else. For me to run in there and do nine footsteps is a heck of a lot easier than running to a sound effects library, grabbing the CD and playing the steps off the Synclavier. And it's more fun and more creative. I have to give credit to Stewart Sloke at World Wide Wadio, who put some Foley pits in his radio room and took the time to show them to me. Great Foley can be played loud, bad Foley gets hidden. Nothing beats great Foley. We do clothing, body falls, steps, the whole business. But we don't do car and we don't do wet work [laughs].
"We also use the room for our film sound editorial department, which does lots of long-form animation in here, and it has Foley from stem to stern. They tieline our room to their edit room and cut the Foley directly into Pro Tools."
Not all of the amenities are of the cosmetic variety, though Studio 5 and the entire third floor is on par with the best that either coast has to offer. An offline Avid Express room is available to clients who want to make picture changes on-site, or begin work on their next spot. Wiersema was expected to have a Pro Tools network, based on Fibre Channel technology, ready by the time you read this - an Avid Express and seven Pro Tools systems available. And for clients like KRON-TV, Wiersema has developed a system for delivery of KRON's sweeps radio spots via a Music Annex-hosted secure FTP site, which allows radio stations to easily download the spot, trafficking information and everything else formerly handled by ISDN.
After 27 years in the biz, Porter and company are obviously not content to sit still. They built Studio Five so that when 5.1 becomes commonplace for spots, they are ready. In the meantime, their work on documentaries and long-form has been a part of three Sundance Award-winners in the past three years, and long-form work for the Discovery Channel, History Channel and the like has increased to about 15 percent of the business.
"It may not be as much money," Porter says of the long-form work, "but I like a broad base. I've always been reluctant to get too deep into any one area. Every time I've ever allowed one segment to become a huge percentage of the business, it scares me. I like the diversity."