Table for one band, please: Blue Ribbon Sound’s live room
Photo: James Cantwell
Sometimes, understanding the music business is only half the story. In the fight for survival in New York City, which is still overserved when it comes to the current demand for music facilities, knowledge of best practices from other industries can be just as important as having the best live room or producer’s desk.
For the founders of Blue Ribbon Sound, success in New York City’s cut-throat restaurant industry has been a portal to the city’s cut-throat recording studio sector. Studio/restaurant co-owners Bruce Bromberg, Eric Bromberg and Sefton Stallard attended France’s prestigious Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and then went on to open Blue Ribbon in 1992, a New York City culinary institution famous for its relaxed vibe, late hours and daringly pleasing menu items like beef marrow with oxtail marmalade.
As their reputation took off and led to five more restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Brombergs never lost track of their deep musical roots. “In the beginning of Blue Ribbon, we were so slow late at night that we’d set up in the prep room and our band would jam,” Bruce Bromberg recalls with a laugh. “Then the manager would run down and tell us we had customers!”
The Brombergs and their cohorts kept jamming and recording, and as their culinary empire grew, they realized in early 2004 that the time was finally right to create a serious studio in which everyone could feel comfortable. Built into two solid floors below a late 19th-century building in the historic financial district, Blue Ribbon Sound boasts a sizable live room ideal for big drums, Pro Tools|HD3 with a Digital Performer front end, reasonable rates and the great taste that is equated with all things Blue Ribbon.
“We decided that we had an amazing opportunity with the space to create a perfect recording environment,” says Bromberg. “It’s not a big business concept where it’s got to be making money on every project. It’s an environment where artists and musicians can go, be comfortable and do the best job they can. At the same time, like our restaurants, we didn’t want to have that total upper-echelon manner where it has to be expensive and you have to behave a certain way. The Blue Ribbon concept is about being casual and having fun.”
Overseen by studio co-owner/engineer Roderick Kohn, Blue Ribbon Sound is a basement and sub-basement hewn into an unusually open-feeling bi-level structure that capitalizes on its old fieldstone construction. “There’s some really cool tonal situations in that space,” Bromberg notes. “We have a huge live room with 18x30-foot dimensions. Drums are supercool in that room now: It’s pretty much like [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘When the Levee Breaks’ if you want it to be—like you’re in some castle in the hills of England.”
According to Bromberg, there are some definite parallels between the music business and the competitive Manhattan restaurant scene that he knows so well. “The studio industry right now reminds me of 1992 when we opened our first restaurant,” he recalls. “There were all these incredibly expensive, high-powered French restaurants, very fancy and severe. Then there was this downscaling and people got sick of three-hour meals. Their businesses weren’t paying for everything anymore, so people were looking for a different feeling.
“Twelve years later, that’s a little more similar to the recording studio situation,” he continues. “Studios are going through a hard time, and everyone said, ‘You’re nuts. There couldn’t be a worse time to open a studio.’ Our point is that there couldn’t be a better time to open a studio that we want to open. People aren’t interested in spending a lot in a studio. We know a ton of musicians in this city who are all looking to record, and we’re more interested in doing the projects than ringing the tab. It’s like at the restaurant: We’re all interested in the experience and we have zero benefit from someone walking out the door unhappy. I think that needs to be brought back into the recording industry.”
Pictured from left: EastSide Sound’s Lou Holtzman, Marc Urselli-Schaerer and Fran Cathcart
Photo: David Weiss
At EastSide Sound (www.eastsidesound.com), co-owners Lou Holtzman and Fran Cathcart know about running a business or two. Originally opened by Holtzman in 1972, the facility was a pioneer in the now-too-hip neighborhood, servicing downtown musicians at a time when everyone operating below 32nd Street was thought to be in need of a serious headcheck. But bookings stayed consistent, gradually growing during the next three decades to the point that Holtzman decided a move to a larger, 2,000-square-foot purpose-built space at 150 Forsyth St. in 2003 was warranted.
One of the keys to managing the transition to the new facility was Holtzman’s considerable real estate and construction acumen, acquired from his many years as a New York City tenement owner. “If you’re going to build a studio, you should have some knowledge of how to build a studio,” Holtzman notes in his entertainingly salty manner. “I built two of the rooms in my first studio myself, and I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. You need to find people to build it for you who know what you’re saying so they can’t walk all over you and think, ‘This is a money pit.’ The rents are going crazy all over New York City, so we invested in other buildings and real estate to augment what we’re doing.”
“In this current climate, you have to keep your overhead low, especially when it comes to rent so you don’t have to worry every month and break your back,” adds Cathcart. “Lou’s real estate ventures gave us access to space and great construction crews, and those are the things that allowed us—even on a grand scale like this—to still keep it reasonable so we can weather this storm that we’re all in now.”
The EastSide Sound control room—which has hosted clients ranging from Mariah Carey to Aaron Carter and jazz saxophonist Vincent Herring—is a first-class storm shelter designed by Frank Comentale (Hit Factory, Platinum Sound) with Augspurger monitoring and centered on a fascinating Harrison Series 10B 96-input console. “This is a hybrid board: digital surface, analog electronics,” says Cathcart. “It has a high level of automation, like ProControl, but this is analog and audio is passing through the console. You can sweep the EQs, aux the compressors and it even has a little scribble strip for each channel so you can save your setup: When you walk back in the studio and hit the mix page, everything comes back in a second.”
Equipped with a flat-screen monitor that floats above the console on an Ergotron swing arm, a wireless keyboard and a built-in AC-cooled rear cabinet that holds the Pro Tools|HD3 Mac, the control room was constructed with DAWs in the forefront. “I wanted to build a studio that would be designed from the ground up with new technologies in mind,” Cathcart says. “There are a lot of rooms that weren’t designed when computers and Pro Tools attained the level of capability they have now. I would always go to rooms where those things would be off to the side, and you had to go back and forth between the console and workstation. In this space, you can be at the center, in the sweet spot, while you’re editing.”
Cathcart’s digital leanings and lightning-fast abilities on Pro Tools are complemented by Holtzman’s unabashedly old-school analog tastes, which result in the presence of classic gear like a pair of Ampex 351 mic pre’s from the late 1950s. “It used to be a quarter-inch tape transport, so they’re set up to handle the bias of a tape deck,” explains Holtzman. “You find these, clean them up and they have their own active preamp in it. They’re very silky, fat and great for vocals, so we run room mics at line-level right off of them. A lot of this old stuff really augments Pro Tools.”
The creative thinking extends to the 1,000-square-foot live room, which features no fewer than five iso booths, plus an “airlock” booth and the talents of engineers Marc Urselli-Schaerer and Stephen Joseph. “There’s a lot of great mixing rooms with just a vocal booth—they can’t accommodate a drum kit or a band,” Cathcart says. “The isolation we can get on seven people is really kind of remarkable.”
At EastSide Sound, the pressure is on to make great music, but thanks to the best practices and the cushion they’ve picked up from an equally intense industry—real estate—that doesn’t translate into unhealthy pressure that demands big, immediate profits. Fortunately, the lessons that Holtzman has learned are simple to translate. “Own your real estate, own the shell,” he urges. “So many studios were forced out because the landlord wanted more money. But the key to survival in the recording business is that you can faithfully reproduce what people are doing, do it fast and not carry on like what you’re doing is brain surgery.”
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