Even during advertising's recent down- market, Chris Bell & Co. Music and Sound Design has been thriving. Located in Santa Monica's hip Bergamot Station media neighborhood, the firm has expanded over the past six years from a three-person operation to 19 employees in four divisions: Chris Bell & Co., Mike Recording Services, Sky-Efx and Tonedog.com.
Composer and sound designer Chris Bell has had a long history of success with commercials for companies including Sprint, Honda, Lexus, Budweiser and Taco Bell, for which he's won numerous MOMA, Clio and Belding Awards. A composer for picture since the mid-'80s, he's also penned music for television shows including Santa Barbara, Hard Copy and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It was CB&Co.'s move in 1995 to its current 10,000-square-foot location that opened the door for diversification, something Bell credits as key to the company's continuing success.
The two-story facility was designed by Brett Thoeny at Boto Design, known for his work at Prince's Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis and L.A.'s Pacific Ocean Post, among other projects.
“When we started here, it was a big, empty warehouse,” Bell comments. “We spent a lot of time planning. Brett designed the layout, and our executive producer, Andrea Andrews, and I worked with designer Jackie Fabritz on the colors, the cabinetry and the furniture.
“In our business of advertising, where the clients are so particular, you have to consider every little aspect,” he continues. “How comfortable is the couch, how big is the table, where are the phones? A session can have nine people, with six of them on the phone; you need places for them and plug-ins for computers everywhere. Sometimes we'll be doing a session with a phone patch to New York and Chicago and everybody needs to listen; demands like that require very intricate systems.”
Central to the complex is a live recording room surrounded by iso booths and shared by Bell's studio and three audio mixing bays, part of Mike Recording, a branch of the company started in 1996. “Recording for commercials goes quickly,” Bell explains. “We only use the recording space for an hour or two per session. Soundproof real estate is very expensive to build, so the savings is significant when it's shared between numerous bays.”
Mike Recording's bays, staffed by mixers Bob Greemore, Bruce Bueckert and Tor Kingdon, use the same rooms for voice-over or ADR. The mix bays, which each have visual contact with the recording rooms, are almost identical. All are fitted with Pro Tools as well as Digidesign Pro Controllers and Yamaha 02R consoles, except for Bell's personal composing room, which houses a Sony DMX-R100 desk.
Mike Recording was the first outgrowth from the core music and sound design business. “I always had the concept of doing everything in one facility,” says Bell, who began his music career as a bass player. “Typically, our jobs went to a post audio house to be mixed, but there was no real reason not to do it all here. Now, our post audio facility has four rooms total.”
The third division, Tonedog.com, is headed by Andy Snavley. Specializing in music and sound design for Websites and other Internet and interactive applications, Tonedog.com enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the Internet concerns of many of Bell's existing clients, and it has managed to keep busy, even through the dot-com crash.
Sky-Efx, the newest endeavor, is a video post suite where Flame artist Mark Leiss creates commercial graphics and visual effects. “Mark was already working with most of our Mike Recording clients,” notes Bell, “so it made sense to bring him in under our umbrella. It all works together. We have a central machine room, and everything is tied together. All of the companies work to video; we use Doremi V1 Digital Video Recorders that track with Pro Tools for nonlinear video.”
Bell was one of the first composers to offer both music and sound design to his clients, so a multimedia approach to business comes naturally for him.
“It's much more interesting to have so many different kinds of work going on around here,” he says, “not to mention how convenient it is to have a great post audio facility to mix my own work in, just one door away.”
Musical consoles: Hollywood's Music Grinder Studios has installed a 100-input SSL G+ desk into Studio A, and moved the 72-in SSL 6000 G-Series desk formerly in A to Studio B. “We were in the market for a new console for Studio B to replace the Neve 8108,” explains studio co-owner and manager Ron Filecia. “But when we found a 100-input G+ available, we decided to get it. With so much Pro Tools work, people need more and more inputs. There aren't many rooms that can accommodate a 100-channel desk, but we're fortunate. Studio A has a very large control room, and it fit in nicely.”
The new acquisition, originally installed at New York's Right Track Studios, was completely refurbished by Dave Malekpour's Professional Audio Design. “We were very happy with their work,” comments Gary Skardina, Grinder's other co-owner, an engineer who has logged plenty of hours behind a desk himself. “We've already had a client in mixing from Pro Tools who used 98 channels of the board. These giant sessions are becoming the norm.”
Except for relocating the patchbay from beside the console to a convenient eye-level location in the wall, few changes were necessary in A to accommodate the new desk. Installation took a mere 10 days, with only Studio A shut down. Once A was back up and running at the end of October, work began on B, where a much more extensive remodel was required, including a new air-conditioned room for console power supplies. A dedicated, climate-controlled Pro Tools closet that provides noise insulation while maintaining meter visibility was added to the control room, and the main monitors were reconfigured to match up with those in Studio A.
Next up for the Grinder is a third room. Studio C, scheduled to be online this month, will be a small recording space and a dedicated Pro Tools suite, which will house one of the two Pro Tools rigs already available at the facility.
Although they almost can't believe it themselves, Skardina and Filecia have been in business together for 27 years, 12 of those at their current location. They attribute their longevity in the business to a bottom-line mentality that ignores trends and places a premium on value. “Music goes in cycles,” muses Filecia. “Whatever is popular at the moment is what we're doing here. Right now, that's a lot of control room tracking. We've also just done several medium-sized string and horn dates. That's great because it's a change of pace and an opportunity for our staff to keep their live instrument chops up — to remember how to mike an oboe!”
“I think something that's helped our business is that we've tried to avoid being enslaved by any particular equipment trends,” adds Skardina. “Like, ‘Oh, here's the latest console that you can get for almost nothing.’ Because the accelerated payment schedule will kill you later. There are a lot of studio owners who bit on that carrot. But they were only around for three or four years, and then they were out of business. We've seen a lot of that come and go, and sometimes we've had to compete against it. Staying in business for a long time requires a lot of different things: the right location, the right personnel, wise purchasing decisions; there are a multitude of factors. And you have to listen to your clients. We've tried to make Music Grinder a studio where we give people an excellent value for their dollar.”
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