The AES show is about gear, baby, new and exciting products, blah, blah, blah…But exit polls after several recent tradeshows all yielded ho-hum comments. Perhaps we have become jaded, or addicted to rapid growth, or we haven't stopped long enough to realize that progress is still being made fresh daily.
There's nothing like a little reflection to help put things into perspective. So, for this month's column, I've reached back into my memory to identify a sonic mile-marker and/or professional growth spurt for each of my 19 years in Manhattan. The idea is that a lot has happened technically in the past almost-20 years, and a lot's still happening. Perhaps one of my tales will trigger a memory or two for you. So, sit back, enjoy the latté and have Sherman set the Way Back Machine to 1-9-8-0.
I arrived in New York City 21 years ago with cassettes of my best work, a duffel bag of clothes, a small tool case and a 1963 Plymouth Valiant (Fig. 1). No matter how big my dreams were, New York City had a way of narrowing my focus to the essentials — like eating and paying the rent. Regardless of the number of audio career choices that may have been available then — certainly there are many more options now — my perspective was refined by the desire to engineer and produce the ever-elusive “hit record.”
1980: TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOUR FEET, PETE!
On “Easter Monday” of 1980, New York City was in the middle of a transit strike. To cover a mere 50 blocks took several hours by car, drastically reducing the potential number of job interviews per day — as well as a great many brain cells killed off by automobile fumes.
Lesson One: New York City was made for walking. Be flexible. Learn how to make the most of challenging situations. Ditch the car. Bring comfortable shoes and extra socks. Most of the time, it is not the resumé that gets the job, but being in the right place at the right time. Same with finding a cool restaurant away from the tourist traps. Eat well for less.
1981: DEPTH OF FIELD
Nothing puts pressure on a freelance engineer like a studio full of musicians and a ticking clock. However, when I found myself in an unfamiliar control room and focused more on balance than EQ, my rough mixes sounded better on more systems than they did when I had more time to tweak.
Before MIDI and samples, engineers were always made to feel responsible — if not guilty — especially for drum sounds. On one memorable date, session drummer Andy Newmark sat down in front of the same “house” kit I had tuned and used on countless sessions. Within 15 minutes, the tape was rolling. The drums were as consistent while I was tracking as they had been when I was getting sounds. My jaw was on the floor in amazement, and I stepped up to the glass to observe his technique — it looked as if the skins were barely being touched.
Lesson Two: Less is more. Better-sounding sources require less tweaking. I humbly acknowledge all the great musicians who make our jobs easier. Aim high!
1982 LATO-A: AUDIO ARMAGEDDON
On the flip side of that coin, recording a few power-metal pop bands led me down a dark and mysterious path. Each subsequent referral became heavier and heavier until I was asked to finish a Plasmatics record and “do sound” for them on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show.
- An electric chainsaw with a contact pickup sounds just like a vacuum cleaner that is similarly outfitted.
- A real “floating wall” moves when explosives on the other side blow off the hood of a car. This was not your average union TV gig.
- Contrary to her wild and ferocious stage persona, the late Wendy O. Williams was as gentle as a kitten in the studio. I once bumped into her at a health food store.
1982 LATO-B: DIGITAL FANTASY
My first digital experience was at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif. With only 10 days to complete an overdue project (with Snakefinger stepping in to produce The Mutants, a Bay Area band), the option to go digital via Mitsubishi X-80 became attractive, even compared to the opportunity to use an Ampex ATR-102 — my favorite analog machine. Using minimal EQ to save time and avoid sonic sand traps, I found the X-80 to be brighter and punchier — typical for digital at that time — yet complementary in this instance; the X-80 won out over the ATR.
Had time allowed the tracks or the mix bus to be EQ'd as “competitively bright” as other music of that time period, I might have joined the “digi-phobe” bandwagon early. Digital audio technology has made incredible progress since then, but so have we all, learning to treat it differently from the way we use analog tape. When once we struggled to keep a mix bright, now the focus is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Bright is easy; “warm” is the goal.
1983: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
My official transition back to geekdom began with a project for Atlantic Studios. CDs had just entered the mainstream, and the studio had just received a Sony PCM-1610 editing system. While interviewing veteran mastering engineer Sam Feldman about his specific requirements for a transfer console, I noticed initials on some documentation. The “sf” script seemed so familiar — almost musical — I soon realized it was Sam's initials that appeared between the lead-out grooves and the label of some of my favorite records (as shown in Fig. 2); right next to it is the “Bell Sound” stamp. (I was quite the record fanatic before joining the profession.) Imagine being recognized for your initials! I sure made a friend that day.
Bell Sound was a hot independent studio in the '60s, along with Fine and A&R studios. Just as we struggled with digital in the '90s, Sam Feldman and his peers had their own beasts to tame: For example, the transition from mono to stereo, and the quest to push levels on 45 rpm records to make them competitively louder on jukeboxes and at home. (Sound familiar?)
Atlantic was my night job. During the day, I did wiring at Photomag, a sound-for-film facility on the East Side. I had never seen magnetic film recorders, let alone racks of them — all interlocked with Selsyn motors, and each representing one or three tracks. One floor below, the sound of the electromechanical synchronizing equipment was frightening. We've come a long way, baby! The beginning of the MDM revolution was still seven or eight years away.
1984: WATERING THE PLANT
I joined Record Plant with more experience than discipline. Because mentoring is an important aspect of this business, I'll mention one of mine. Paul Prestopino was the spiritual leader of the maintenance department, and he taught me the value of patience, organization and humility (though it still took a decade or so to acquire these skills). Paul's multiple talents include woodworking, metal work, engraving and tailoring. How can you argue with someone who is a master of all trades and a musician (currently on tour with Peter, Paul and Mary)? Be sure to thank your mentors, and be one when the opportunity presents itself.
Occasionally, when the studio was short-handed, I was called out of the shop to assist. Some of the engineers were surprised that a technician could actually do this job. Having scaled the walls rather than climbed the ladder, I knew what was expected. On a Miles Davis date, I “accidentally” stopped the multitrack after seeing his hands in the air, thinking it was a signal to stop. (Actually, that's all I ever saw of Miles during the entire overdub session.) The engineer turned and said, “Don't stop the tape even if he falls on the ground.” Miles, always a bit more succinct, asked, “What the !@#$ did you stop the tape for?” (See Fig. 3.)
1985: PHREE AT LAST
Before leaving Record Plant in Spring of '85, I told owner/engineer Roy Cicala about my plans to start a freelance maintenance biz and cater to the growing “demo” studio scene. (That's what project studios were called before digital sperm fertilized the analog egg.) I could see Roy was not comfortable with this topic, but I couldn't see how a 1-inch, 16-track “closet” studio might threaten the existence of a multiple-room facility with two remote trucks, a collection of vintage gear to die for and a formidable track record. Perhaps Roy saw the writing on the wall, or maybe it was just bad coffee…
Once I left, the freelance gigs doing tech support for Record Plant's remote trucks were cherry — Eric Clapton was particularly impressive at Live Aid. At Farm Aid, an overweight policeman a la Boss Hogg misinterpreted my response for attitude and told me “This ain't no Miami Vice!” A mindless wiring job at a video facility was paying better than my gig at Record Plant. I saw the writing on the wall, and the coffee was better…
In Manhattan and other urban areas, the biggest challenge for most semi-pro gear was RF and TV interference. (Digital products are generally more noise-immune because they have to be!) My apartment was line-of-sight with the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, a situation that made cassette deck alignment impossible. However, the location served as a good test site for problematic equipment, even after I set up a dedicated shop space.
Cassette decks were difficult enough to maintain — speed and azimuth being their Achilles' heels — and fighting interference only added sand to the Vaseline. Sure glad we don't have to deal with cassettes anymore. Hate digital all you want; I'll take a CD over a cassette any day!
1986: SEARCH AND DESTROY
Two great remote gigs followed: one at the Kennedy Center in D.C. (a Martin Luther King birthday celebration featuring Stevie Wonder), and the other at the Statue of Liberty Celebration in New York Harbor. Applying wireless technology to in-ear monitors reduces stage levels, protects hearing and ultimately improves the FOH sound. I used the Japanese version of the FM Walkman because it differed from the American FM spectrum, allowing more available “clear” channels. Stevie also gets cues so he can move around onstage.
Wireless can also be absolutely frightening technology, especially when the Secret Service used it to “sweep” Governor's Island for potential bombs. Every level meter on every tape machine and console was momentarily pegged. Had there been a bomb, the audio and video geeks must have been considered expendable, as opposed to saving a guy who thought ketchup was a vegetable.
I was especially taken aback when a gentleman showed up in our sound truck with a custom high-speed, multiple-cassette playback rig used to “augment” the audience response during President Reagan's speech. This was before someone thought to use a sampler for subversive mind control. A Sony 1630 editing system cost about $80k.
1987-1991: INSTALL THIS!
Until the '90s, the typical project studio had eight to 24 analog tracks on either narrow format or second-hand 2-inch machines. Synchronizers were not uncommon, but not much fun either. Think about this: Three Otari ½-inch, 8-track decks and two synchronizers cost approximately $20k, about $5k more than three ADATs at their original list price. The MDM seeds were being planted…
Before the minds at Mackie ever thought about marketing a 32-input analog 8-bus mixer, a 32-input 4-bus Soundcraft Series 200 desk was $8,000. (Now, digital consoles with Total Recall and signal processing are falling into that price category.) Installation with three patchbays was a similar amount. A Sonic Solutions editing system cost about $100k in 1991, the NoNOISE option was about $20k, and the CD burner was $10k. Blanks were $25, about the cost of DVD blanks now.
1992-1993: SKATING AWAY
Just after I paid off a small business loan, Alesis introduced the ADAT and everything changed, nearly overnight. The narrow-format analog machines that formerly were the primary source of income for both users and service facilities quickly disappeared.
The writing was on the wall, but it was graffiti this time. Cassette decks were fussy enough, but early DAT recorders required the patience of a Swiss watchmaker after all the layers were removed to reveal the transport. Few people come to New York City with this skill hoping to make it big. Affordable mixers put pressure on installers to streamline the wiring process. Who wants to pay three-times the console price for wiring and patchbays? Most budget project studios were being user-assembled with premade wiring harnesses.
1994-1996: THE SYSTEMS ANALYST
Large-scale integration assisted the digital transformation, changing the service business in the process. Equipment was becoming more powerful and more reliable — yet less serviceable. I freed myself from the role of employer to pursue more “interesting and challenging jobs,” such as providing vacation relief in a video facility. The audio project studio was in full swing then; affordable technology soon allowed video to make the equivalent transition. Interestingly, although it's more technically challenging than audio, video quickly embraced digital technologies, some of which did not operate in real time — even then.
Service of high-tech equipment at the hardware level primarily consists of board swapping, otherwise known as mail-order maintenance. Understanding signal flow via block diagrams is more important than parsing circuitry in “the black box.” Microprocessors in each black box require the former hardware specialist to zoom out and take the “Systems” approach to maintenance.
To overcome the hazards of software and hardware collisions, it is necessary to interrogate the user, remain calm and show no emotion when pressing the Reset button or flipping the Power switch. Live remotes were good training for achieving this state of “nerve-ana.”
THE TECHO-INTERROGATION PROCESS (SOME SAMPLE QUESTIONS)
What were you doing when it failed? When was the last time you saved? Assuming a power cycle resolves the problem, do you understand that anything not saved will be lost? Okay. Let's power everything down and start again. Back online.
NETWORKING THE FUTURE
The same forces that made audio gear more affordable and more powerful have shaken the whole foundation of video. Then, the capital investment for video gear was staggering. Now, it's still more expensive than audio gear, but less so than the early Sonic Solutions workstation.
In order to create the many frames for any animation project (think A Bug's Life or Toy Story), several Silicon Graphics workstations were networked together. These cost tens of thousands of dollars plus extra $$$ for a yearly support contract. Each “box” renders a single frame that is exported to an external hard disk recorder via network. Only then can it be transferred to tape in real time. The workstations could not display full resolution moving images in real time. Now, well-endowed, off-the-shelf dual-processor PCs can do the same job.
Until the video facility gig, I had never really considered networking but quickly applied the knowledge to my shop PCs. Networking is easier now and more affordable than ever. Earlier this year, I added a four-port gateway ($90) between the cable modem and the rest of the network. Now, all of our computers — Macs and PCs — can access the Net for software updates and registration.
1996-1998: THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW
Not real comfortable around advertising and marketing types, I bailed on the video gig and returned full-time to digital tape machine repair. Working alone is soothing. An ISDN connection was all I needed then, except for this Aeron chair and that frothy cappuccino…
The consumer DVD arrives. I'm mixing 5.1 surround on a workstation, and burning a reference DVD will be $15k with programming. Blanks are $50.
1999-2001: THE GREAT ESCAPE
I loved New York but got tired of paying rent. I'm completely virtual now and living in the Twin Cities.
Thanks to the Internet, I can:
- Write for this excellent magazine without licking a stamp.
- Advertise via my Website to anyone in the world.
- Accept all major credit cards.
- Relocate a business and have “work” waiting for me.
- E-mail customers about the progress of their repairs.
- Post rough mixes on my Website for clients to hear.
- Consult globally.
I never imagined owning a studio, but I always fantasized about having enough gear to overdub and mix. Before digital, the paradigm was miniaturized analog. After I reviewed two workstations, the future was clear.
At this year's AES show, my mission is to seek out workstations that support dual-processors and compatible file-exchange formats as well as affordable DVD authoring for non-feature film applications.
Enjoy the show and appreciate the progress we've made. As with any construction project, it takes 20% of the time to accomplish 80% of the work. The converse is true for the job of “finishing the details,” aka, refining digital technology.
Eddie Ciletti became a father for the second time in the middle of writing this article. Visittangible-technology.comfor Web cam views of early snow.