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Man Made Music, New York City

Composer, producer and Man Made Music founder Joel Beckerman says that the transformation of his business, and the ideas behind the artfully designed, versatile studio complex on this month’s cover, began eight years ago.

“At that time, a lot of people who were scoring for TV were starting to create libraries of music, where people took 10, 20, 30, 40, up to 100 tracks of music and developed almost a stock-photo way of working, but I was not that interested in that,” Beckerman says. “Realizing that was a watershed moment.”

Though Beckerman had already been growing Man Made for more than 10 years at that point, he changed direction, taking his cue from an inspiring project. “I had worked on Anthony Bourdain’s [Travel Channel program] No Reservations. For that, there was time and budget to bring in artists like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and we produced them to create the show theme, while we created episodic themes and underscores for each episode. Each episode for that show was like a little movie, and we used music and sound to make it feel like a movie score. They also needed indigenous music from different countries around the world, and we didn’t want to fake that.

“That show was an interesting hybrid for us because we were sourcing music, and producing artists and creating original music at the same time,” Beckerman continues. “That was eye-opening. It was an opportunity to step back and say, ‘What are we best at, and how are we going to change with what the market is doing, but stay to a higher level of creativity and storytelling?’ It was a big shift for us.”

Man Made’s response to this challenge was complex: They developed their approach of creating music/sound libraries that were specifically composed and designed for individual clients. In other words, rather than establish a Man Made Music stock library for purchase or license by multiple users, they started to develop unique sets of musical elements for clients such as IMAX. Man Made not only composed music for the IMAX theatrical countdowns that are shown in theaters around the world, but also they compiled elements of that music into a custom library that they, or IMAX, can pull from to compose other related pieces of music.

Beckerman and his staff have also developed different ways of addressing shrinking schedules; they get involved in their long-form projects as early as possible, requesting scripts and storylines for feature films and episodic series, and beginning to develop musical ideas while picture is still being produced. They will also assign multiple groups of composers and recordists to work on narrow aspects of a broad project simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, this shift to multiple teams and increasingly individualized composing required staffing up and gearing up. Eight years ago, Beckerman led a staff of six people; today, Man Made is 32-strong. Eight years ago, the company was fairly comfortable in a one-studio office, and rented commercial studios when needed. Today, they’re celebrating a year in their current four-studio complex.

“Man Made had been a client for years; we had done renovation work at their previous facilities, and they told us a couple years ago, ‘We’re going to reach a point where we’ll need to move,’” says Fran Manzella of FM Design, which provided architectural, acoustical and interior design services for Man Made’s expanded headquarters in Manhattan.

“We spent about 10 months searching for the right space,” Manzella recalls. “The irony was, the building we ended up with was the first one we looked at.”

The new home that they found is the top floor of a 20-story building, where Beckerman’s company occupies about 10,000 square feet, and 2,600 square feet are sublet. The floor plan is shaped somewhat like a lower-case “h,” where the curving bottom of the “h” houses Man Made’s facilities, and the upper stem that is sublet is available if the business keeps growing.

Four studios offer different dimensions and functions: “A” can accommodate an orchestral session of up to 40 pieces. The B room, with its own control room and booth, also abuts the Studio A tracking room, offering flexible space planning. Rooms C and D are what Manzella would call “midsized premix rooms,” with “C” wired to share access to Studio B’s tracking space.

“In the two primary studios, it’s the highest-end isolation we do, with completely decoupled floors and multilayered box-inside-a-box walls,” Manzella explains. “They did not want to mess around with drum isolation and have issues with their neighbors. The people downstairs do video production. They’ve been in there for a year now with no problems, so I guess we’ve passed that test.”

Control Room B features an Avid D Command and Genelec 5.1 monitoring.

Beckerman’s vision for Man Made also included several producer/composers’ writing rooms, designed for inside-the-box work and limited overdubs. Whereas the studios are equipped with Avid D Command controllers and Genelec monitoring, as well as a full complement of audio gear, the writing rooms are plug-and-play spaces for composers working in Logic and Pro Tools HDX, each with a dedicated soundproof booth.

“We also created an industrial-strength storage area network like video companies use; they’re pushing much more data than we are, but we were thinking about how vital it was for us to have the ability to pick up a project, jump into another room, plug in and be able to pick up exactly where you left off,” Beckerman says.

“A producer can walk into our Studio A, record a 20-piece string section, take a laptop into the kitchen, and plug in there and work off the same storage area network and be able to start working on editorial right away. So if someone wants to work in the kitchen and look out the window, they can do that. Or if they want to work in their office, they can work there. And then if they decide to do an overdub of a solo instrument, they can plug into one of the writer rooms where there’s a booth where you could maybe fit three horn players. It’s about the flexibility to plug and play these very large projects, and always be able to pick up where you left off.”

The complicated infrastructure that connects all of these functions was realized by Manzella’s frequent system integration specialist, Matt Marinelli of Coral Sound, through conversations with Beckerman as well as Man Made’s chief engineer, Dennis Wall, and technology director, Brian Scherman. The modular nature of the spaces, and a carefully organized Outlook scheduling system, allow all of the creative types at Man Made to move a project through the studio’s recording, mixing and intricate editorial processes.

Some of Man Made’s latest projects include NBC’s upcoming dance competition show World of Dance, starring Jennifer Lopez; the Lionsgate film Cook-Off, which Beckerman describes as being like “Best in Show meets the Food Network”; and virtual reality 3D Soundscape audio for NBC’s 2016 Olympic coverage.

However, what elevates this facility even further, to something like a sonic playground, is the inventiveness that went into getting the most from of every single space. “Joel said to me, ‘I want there to be a surprise around every corner in this place. I want it to be creative and inspiring, and I want it to be fun,’” Manzella says.

So, in addition to the recording studios and composing rooms, connecting spaces and public spaces are designed to inspire. “In the Studio A environment, which is our largest studio with the largest control room and tracking room, there’s a pass-through which is really a vestibooth—a floating floor-isolated space that we can use for three woodwind players, for example,” Beckerman notes. “It’s a functional pass-through that’s isolated from the control room. That’s one small example.”

Common areas: To the right of the living wall is a view into the lab/conference room. All areas can be used for recording.

The largest examples of this approach are the facility’s café/creative lounge, and its laboratory/conference room. “The lab/conference room, which has a lot of glass so everybody can see into it, is where and they brainstorm and present to clients,” Manzella says. “The whole place is designed to present their musical and sonic branding ideas to their customers, so we wired the whole place up for 20-plus channel programmable immersive audio system featuring Genelec speakers and Dante-controlled surround, because many of their projects are environmental.”

By environmental, Manzella means that whole environments can be simulated, to demonstrate a movie theater or stadium experience, or even a healthcare environment: Man Made is developing, with hospitals like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, ways of using sound design to help hospitals minimize alarm-fatigue and improve the sonic environment for patients and caregivers.

“When you talk about something like theme parks, or scoring music and sound for a giant stadium, or the VR work we do, you really can’t create or judge work effectively with two speakers or even 5.1 surround sound,” Beckerman says. “That’s not how people are experiencing it. They’re experiencing it in massive, multiple-channel theatrical sound systems. Fran designed suspended cloud solutions that allow us to put up multiple speakers of a particular type and simulate that environment.”

“We also hooked up all of the LED lighting in the place to a DMX system, so they can program a light show along with a sound show. We’ve talked to customers about doing this kind of thing before, but we actually did it with Man Made,” Manzella says.

The architect is also quick to add that Man Made’s project involved close collaboration between his architectural/acoustical team and interior designer Dustin Malstrom of the coincidentally named firm reMADE. Malstrom also recruited the artisans who hand-built studio racks and other custom furniture. The two design pros collaborated on unique elements such as the living wall pictured, and the industrial but warm and artful look of the rooms.

Manzella doesn’t commonly get involved in interior design to this degree, and Mix doesn’t usually report on furniture design, but at Man Made, sonics and technology seem to be of a piece with the look and feel of the rooms.

“Fran and Dustin were an incredible team, and at the end they also did an amazing amount of work on value engineering,” says Beckerman. “Our expectations eventually blew up our budget, but they just fearlessly went in and they figured out how to get us all the benefits we needed.

“I don’t feel like we made any compromises, and if you see this place, you would probably be surprised when I tell you they may have saved us as much as 35 percent on the budget, through some really brilliant thinking.”