After 38 years of fighting the good fight on the side of the dwindling army of analog diehards, Walter Sear was ready to throw in the towel. He felt defeated by the digital masses, so he put up his historic recording studio for sale and decided to go into the design business. But a funny thing happened on the way to the sale. A like-minded client booked Sear's studio for a year, with an option to renew for an additional year. Sear couldn't bear the thought of turning away a kindred spirit, so Sear Sound is staying open — at least for now. The client — who has asked Sear to remain anonymous — is “going absolutely analog and acoustic,” according to Sear. “It restores my faith in recording.”
When Sear, who is 72, put his studio on the block in late 2002, many of his clients protested that they would have no other place to go. He says, “I got a lot of calls from people who heard the news and said, ‘You can't do that! Where will we go?’ Then this client came along, and I changed my mind about selling.”
Sear's mystery client will take over Studio C, a sprawling room with a sunlit, 2,500-square-foot tracking area and 1,000-square-foot control room featuring a 60-input, Flying Faders-automated Sear console with custom Avalon components. Studio C occupies an entire floor of the building in which Sear Sound resides, offering maximum privacy and security. In addition to the tracking and control rooms, it features a musician's lounge and a production room. “The clients can take over the whole floor and lock themselves off from the world,” says Sear.
The contract between Sear and the client does not preclude the veteran engineer from selling the studio. However, Sear says that he is debt-free and able to carry the financial burden of his facility even without major bookings, so he does not expect to sell unless a serious buyer makes an attractive offer. So far, Sear has entertained only “tire kickers.”
Sear Sound will continue to operate its other floor as a commercial studio. The facility's flagship room, Studio A, features a Neve 8038 with Flying Faders; Pultec, Manley and MagnaTech preamps; and a trove of gear that, in Sear's words, was “vintage before it became vintage.”
Sear Sound, which claims to be New York's oldest studio, has hosted such global rock icons as Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Eric Clapton; jazz artistes Wynton Marsalis, Ron Carter and Norah Jones; and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega. Producers, too, have made Sear their top choice over the years: The list of regulars includes Phil Ramone, John Leventhal, Hugh Padgham, Kevin Killen and Craig Street.
The studio has been in its current location at 353 West 48th Street for 15 years. Prior to that, it spent 17 years in the Paramount Hotel building, and 16 years at the old Great Northern Hotel site to 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, also home of the legendary Fine Recording, where Sear was trained.
A self-described maverick and admittedly part of a vanishing breed, Sear is old-school to a fault, shunning virtually all digital technology, though he does admit that Direct Stream Digital is “promising.”
“Digital sounds so lousy, people keep going back to vacuum tubes,” says Sear. “I was right about vacuum tubes. I've been yelling about them for decades, and they're back.”
One of Sear's most cherished tube items is a Studer 1-inch 4-track recorder used by The Beatles at Abbey Road. Sear has converted it to a 1-inch, 2-track mastering deck. Other equipment highlights at Sear include a collection of nearly 250 vintage microphones, an Ampex MM1200 recorder with 16-track and 24-track heads, and Studer C 37 tube recorders. The studio also houses a Steinway C grand piano built in 1894.
Before his turnabout on the sale of the studio, Sear was so discouraged by the state of recording that he wanted no part in running a facility. The event that triggered his decision was a live jazz-trio session. Sear recalls: “This group came in and set up live, with no headphones. They really seemed to want to go for a live feel and capture the acoustics of the room, and then I turned around and saw that they were recording to three DA-88s. I said, ‘That's it, brother.’”
Sear has also gone into the studio design and construction business with partner Michael Block, building custom facilities for producer/musician/entrepreneur T Bone Burnett, hip hop artist Scarface and producer/engineer Mike Mangini, among others. Burnett's studio features a classic Neve console, which Sear says sounds “beautiful.” For Mangini, Sear built a small room and is about to build a new one in a new location. And the Scarface project is a work in progress.
“Some of these studios have minimal acoustic treatments,” says Sear, “because everyone is working with near-field monitors, so the room doesn't matter as much as it used to.
“I've built so many studios over the years, it seemed like a logical thing to do,” continues Sear. “I like building stuff. I just finished a preamp, and I'm always messing around on the bench.”
Sear, who has degrees in metallurgy, chemistry and music, is also a respected maker of brass instruments, with some 2,000 models to his credit. A tuba player by training, Sear performed with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra before moving to New York to play in the pit at Radio City Music Hall. “It's been downhill from there,” he says, laughing.
Sear approaches all of his endeavors — whether it's building tubas, running his studio or designing rooms for others — with an unshakable commitment to quality, as evidenced by the mission statement of Sear Sound: “In a time of faster, smaller, cheaper, poorer quality, Sear Sound strives to maintain integrity and good workmanship. Sound recording is a blend of technology and art. We attempt to provide a totally unique recording experience by blending the musicality of our staff with the best of old and new technology.”
An old-fashioned approach, to be sure, but one that deserves special mention at a time when the recording industry seems overwhelmed by change.
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