The year was 1975…
- Communist forces capture Saigon, ending the Vietnam War.
- Jaws, The Godfather Part II, The Towering Inferno.
- Carlton “Pudge” Fisk's home run delays the inevitable: Reds win World Series in seven.
- “The Hustle,” “At Seventeen,” “Lyin' Eyes.”
Those days seem so far away. So much has changed. But there are constants, and Howard Schwartz is one of them. While the country was preparing to slip into a post-war party phase that would last for a decade, Schwartz was making his way up the chain as a recording engineer in New York City.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., who started out as a musician, gravitated to law and spun discs as a service jock during his Army days, Schwartz thought he deserved a raise from his employer and walked into his boss' office at 12 East Recording one day in 1975 to ask for it. When his request was denied, Schwartz decided to implement a plan he'd already been considering. On August 21, 1975, Howard Schwartz Recording (now HSR Studios) opened its doors with one studio, one engineer (Schwartz) and a receptionist. Within a year, he added a second engineer and embarked on a new construction phase that has yet to end.
Today, HSR Studios has 45 employees, a worldwide list of clients and a reputation as one of the best audio facilities anywhere, period. Affable as ever, Schwartz sat down and spoke with Mix about his background, 25-plus years as a studio owner and the future.
What were your business goals back in 1975?
I wanted to make $300 a week and not have to worry about being fired! That's why I opened my own place. I had no business plan, I was a true entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs don't have business plans?
I didn't! We didn't do business plans in those days. I begged, borrowed and stole $125,000 to build the first studio.
And then you just waited for work to show up?
We were busy the first day. In fact, we opened the day before we opened, before the glass was installed! I was the new restaurant in town, people wanted to try my cuisine.
People liked my mixing, and I had some loyal friends. I'd only been in New York for three-and-a-half years, but I had a solid following. But it was tough going. The J. Walter Thompson Agency had been one of my main clients at my previous employers, and I expected them to become my biggest client here. But Stan Turner, who was the head of the music department at JWT, didn't give me the work I thought I'd get; I became his Number 2 guy, not his Number 1. That's okay, his son now works for me! By the way, figuring that I'd get the JWT account was the reason we opened in the Graybar building [located in midtown Manhattan, directly over Grand Central Station]. But we did get a lot of out-of-town work quickly, especially in the jingle area of the business.
No one was used to having rock 'n' roll technology being applied to jingle work. Remember, after I got out of the Army, I went to Hollywood looking for fame and fortune. I worked at Wally Heider's place and got to work with lots of great rock acts — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, Leon Russell. That reminds me of a funny Leon Russell story. When you worked for Wally, you did anything and everything, including breaking gear down, driving it all over the place in trucks, setting up wherever you had to, it didn't matter. You'd get a call at three in the morning and the next thing you know you're on the road! Wally's motto was, “Just get it done!”
Leon Russell used to have a home on Sky Hill Drive, just a big split-level, wacky house. He used to rent Ampex 16-track machines that we had to schlep up the stairs. Leon would have us set the stuff up in a room on the main floor. The drums were in the den, the keyboard sat in the living room and we used the bathroom as a reverb chamber. The rule was, whoever took the gear was the engineer for the day! Anyone might drop in. Tom Scott became a friend during those days. You might work all day at Leon's and then head over to Santa Monica to record Steve Miller, maybe the James Gang would be opening or Elton John would show up. It was a great time.
Where was I? Oh, the point that I was making was that no one in New York was using this kind of engineering experience in the jingle business, and the fact that I had it made me attractive. I put in all MCI consoles designed for rock 'n' roll, whereas a lot of the consoles used for jingles were clunky old Neves. There was no SSL back then, just Neve, Autotronics, MCI and API. My board was brand new!
Who were some of your early jingle clients?
Ed Labunski came in here to track. So did Kevin Gavin — he did a lot of work on the McDonald's account. A drummer named Jimmy Young told Ed Friedner about our place. Ed mixed for Labunski. When Ed started coming in regularly, I stopped mixing to build our second studio. When Labunski Music was working in Studio 1, I sat outside and took care of everybody. This was less than six months after we opened. In 1976, I built Studio B and hired Roy Latham, who's still with me.
How long did it take for people to realize your formula was having some success and begin to go after your business.
By 1979, Ed Labunski's business had grown quite a bit. I was competing with Sound Mixers. They were on the second floor of the Brill Building and are now part of Sound One. Their place was similar to my facility, but it was much bigger, and I lost business to them. Automated cut into my business, as well.
To stay in business, I built two more studios, which we called Park Ave. East and Park Ave. West, because the 60 or so windows looked down on the park — you can see all the way up to 96th Street. I almost went out of business during that expansion. But my philosophy has always been the same: Do whatever it takes to stay in business. I took no salary for a while and borrowed more money.
When did you begin augmenting the traditional services offered by HSR Studios?
Around 1980, I bought a 1-inch videotape machine, hired George Meyer from ABC and went into the television business. Fred Collins was a voice-over talent who was coming in here regularly. He recommended George, right after George had won an Emmy for his work on the miracle hockey game at Lake Placid. You remember, the game where the U.S. beat Russia.
We started doing audio post work on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. All of the audio. Other music studios hadn't made the shift to audio post work, so we had a clear advantage. I started out in radio and some TV, then went into jingles, then went back to radio and TV. That's my history!
We stopped doing jingles around 1985 to focus on post work, but we were still recording a lot of albums in the off-hours. The Rolling Stones mixed Tattoo You here. That was a compilation of the previous eight or 10 albums the Stones had done, plus some extra stuff.
Besides the attraction of working with a major personality, what brought the Stones to HSR Studios?
Like I said, Tattoo You was primarily a compilation album. They'd tracked in studios all over the world, and the material was in every format you could imagine — 4-track, 8-track, 16-track, dbx, Dolby IEC, just about every format that existed at that time. The stuff would be delivered in a big, red, coffin-like thing that had the tongue on it.
Word got to the Stones that we could handle multiple formats, in addition to having an excellent mix room. We'd do our regular work during the day, and the Stones would come in at around 10 or 11 at night. Bob Clearmountain did most of the album.
We did other records, as well. I remember when Roy Halee came in to produce and engineer a Dan Hill record. We had just bought a set of brand-new chairs the day he came in, and he burned a hole in one of them! That was around Thanksgiving. I brought him Thanksgiving dinner; my mother cooked for everybody!
What kind of learning curve did you have when you got into tape laybacks and other areas of the video industry?
From an ego standpoint, it was very hard. I wanted to learn all about that stuff, but I realized that I didn't know anything at all! So I hired people, and I empowered them to be as successful as they wanted to be.
Is that philosophy the essence of your formula for success?
Absolutely. We hire attitude, not skills. It's all about the human condition; providing an opportunity and letting people run with it. The video area is a good example.
Bob Liftin was the owner of Regent Sound. He invented layback and was the godfather of timecode. Whatever Bob Liftin did, I copied! When I bought my first million-dollar console, I met Mack Emmerman, the owner of Criteria in Florida. Joe Tarsia owned Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, Chris Stone owned the Record Plant in L.A. We all became buddies. Eleven of us started SPARS back in '79. That's where I learned everything. I watched what they did, copied the good stuff and avoided the bad. Back then, I was 33, my company was four years old. I was a baby in the business, hobnobbing with these big guys. They'd worked with the Bee Gees, KC & The Sunshine Band, people like that, and had been recording for more than 20 years already.
Video-wise, Bob Liftin was the expert. We'd have dinners every five or six weeks, our own inner circle. Liftin was always late; he'd regale us with stories about some crisis at NBC that had to be fixed. This was the time when Saturday Night Live was just getting going. Bob worked with the live bands, applying our stuff to TV. I listened to his stories all of the time. They were great! House sync — those two words changed my life! Every machine has to run at the same speed; what did I know about that concept before then? That was SPARS for me. Unfortunately, Bob passed away about 10 years ago.
Anyway, the point about HSR Studios is that we hire people who have the right attitude, who are eager to learn and pleasant to be around, and teach them what they need to know to be successful.
In some cases, maybe too successful? How do you feel when talent you've developed leaves HSR Studios and goes into competition with you?
Proud. Of course, no one's put me out of business yet, or affected my business in a way that's affected my lifestyle. I love it when they go out to California and become successful! Seriously, we probably have about 600 graduates of Howie Schwartz University working in the business, from the owners of Broadway Sound, to the chief mixer at Fox in L.A., a mixer at Margarita Mix, one owns his own audio business in San Francisco, another is an English teacher in Japan!
The funniest moments are when I hear stories like, “Twenty years ago, you let me and my band come in to record, and I never forgot that” and the person telling the story is now a client! Joan Osborne was a receptionist of ours. Melissa Fenley, who has a dance company, worked here, and we've got a couple of alumni who are now doctors who worked here while they were going to med school.
Do clients leave when engineers depart?
Engineers rarely leave! One engineer has been with me for 26 years, another 15, and we've got some 12s, 10s, nines and fours. We also have three new guys.
HSR Studios has at least one of everything. What's your philosophy regarding equipment purchases?
We used to buy everything. Now we have three editing formats: Pro Tools/Avid, Fairlight and AudioFile. We do have a variety of consoles; SSL, Soundtracs DPC, Harrisons and a bunch of Pro Control surfaces. We no longer have any 48-track machines — we got rid of them all — but we do have five 24-track digital machines and one 24-track analog machine. We also have D1, D2 and D3 machines.
But we don't have one of everything! The rule is, after five requests, we start buying! We haven't purchased any high-def video machines, for example, because none of our clients has asked for them. We have five rooms that are capable of doing surround sound mixes, but surround isn't being used in commercials yet.
Are large-format consoles becoming obsolete?
No, as long as the price point stays somewhere near the number I've given the manufacturers. It's like a Mercedes SL500 and a Honda. They both have engines, but the price points are different. Sometimes the choice is made on the basis of the engineer's ego. My engineers live in their rooms. We allow them to choose the equipment they want.
How about the future of stand-alone digital audio workstations?
Multiple formats will last. Digidesign is not the be-all and end-all, and people need to have choices. Interchangeability, file-format transfers, that's a big problem. We've put in a network that has the ability to convert files between formats. It's also important to have redundant systems. All computers crash. You just don't want to be down for a very long time.
What technology would you invent if you had the time?
Hmm…. maybe the very last TV format ever! I can't tell you how many machines I've bought over the last quarter-century. The consumer has the same problem. I've resigned myself to spending between a half and a million dollars a year on equipment — and we're just an audio studio! That's why I like the fact that we have 15 mixers here. They talk amongst themselves, read articles, go to conventions and speak with other people in the industry. That gives us the ability to step outside our own little microcosm and analyze situations more clearly.
Oh, and I'd invent something that would let me eat steak and cake, drink all I want, and not gain weight!
How would you assess the current business climate in the audio post market, in New York in particular? How does the mentality differ from the freewheeling climate that existed in the advertising industry in the mid-'80s?
Business is good, but not for everyone. The people who are waiting for business to turn around won't be around for the turn. We've always taken aggressive measures, finding the right people and taking care of our clients, no matter what the climate. People don't remember good exposures as well as they remember bad exposures. They go where they're having fun. But we're a far cry from the party days of the '80s.
My business is consistent, but it changes. We used to do two major sitcoms, now we do none, because none of this work is currently being handled in New York. That's a lot of lost income. So, you go out and find other business. That's my job — finding business. We have a good reputation, and the people who work here like the experience. They become our best salesmen!
How do you feel about adding services in a down economy? Do you risk spreading yourself too thin?
One man's misfortune is another man's fortune. We will probably buy another facility that's in trouble. We built a studio in Studio Cup Studios, a motion picture studio out in Long Island City, for the work we do on Sex and the City, The Sopranos and several other TV shows.
New York has lost a lot of work to outer areas, particularly since the Actor's Guild strike. How do you deal with the new business realities?
The people who need to work cheaply have headed to outlying markets — Canada, for example. Some people are trying to legislate against this loss of work, but you can't force people to spend more money than they want to. You have to try and give them added value, a reason to not go cheap. Movies of the week have to go cheap. There's a lot of unionization in New York and L.A., and that drives costs up. I'm not a union facility, though.
The bottom line is, whatever the reason, when work dries up, you've got to bring in other work. Make deals, dig, scrounge, scrape, do whatever it takes. My philosophy is to have the best people on staff and work at creating relationships, not jobs.
What lasting lessons have you learned over the 27 years you've been in business?
I guess there are two: If you tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said, and no matter what it costs, just do it! Some day you'll get it back!
It makes me a little teary eyed, just saying those things. I stand behind both statements. I tell the truth, I've always been fair, and I've given people the opportunity to be whatever they wanted to be and make themselves whole. For example, in this business, you run into people who owe you money. I don't want to sue anyone. I always say, give me $5 a week, make us both whole! I want to be treated the way I treat other people.
I take pride in being an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur will do anything to make sure the company stays open and thrives. I've lost money plenty of times in the last 27 years, but here I am. If you walk through this place, you wouldn't think it's 27 years old. It's new, fresh and young. Every day I love coming to work. Everyone needs a safe place, and my office is my safe place.
Do you consider yourself an icon in the industry?
I'm proud of myself, but I don't think of myself as an icon. I still have to get over thinking of myself as a chubby Jewish boy from Buffalo!
Still, we've had three presidents — Ford, Reagan and Clinton — in here. Schwarz-enegger, Schwarzkopf, John Belushi to Jim Belushi, so many characters have walked in these doors! You get to see major stars being themselves. Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Walken did their voice-over work for the Dreamworks film Ants here. Walken loves to take his clothes off when he records. No shirt, no socks, belt off! That's what I love — working with people, seeing them for what they are and giving people a chance to succeed.
Gary Eskow is a Mix contributing editor.