SENDING OUT AN S.O.S.
After a slow spell from turmoil and consolidation in the record business, a soft economy and the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the New York studio industry is picking up steam. All around town, facility owners and clients are reporting increased activity and a brighter outlook.
Sound on Sound, a five-room complex in mid-town Manhattan owned by industry veteran Dave Amlen, is a good barometer of the renewed vigor in the recording industry. “I was looking back over our bookings a year ago,” says Sound on Sound COO Chris Bubacz, “and we're doing a little bit better than last year — and last year we did better than the year before. The whole industry seemed to explode in May and June of this year.”
The return of business to the New York area comes as a welcome relief to studios like Sound on Sound, which took a huge hit in September of last year and have been reeling ever since. “Things stopped for a while around that time and then picked up again,” says Bubacz. “A lot of labels put projects on hold in the fall, either because of September 11 or because they had to push back albums that weren't going to make their deadlines by the end of the year. We had a pretty good January and February doing sessions that were left over from 2001, and now that labels have released more money for other projects, we're feeling the positive effects of that, as well.” Def Jam, Loud, J Records, Elektra, Jive, Interscope, Atlantic and Arista are just a few of the labels that have booked major projects at Sound on Sound in the last few months, according to Bubacz.
Another factor in Sound on Sound's recent success has been SOS Management, the company's engineer/producer-management division. Manager/production coordinator Mira Tabasinske reports that SOS has added Chris Trevett to its roster, a London-born engineer who was most recently on staff at Jive Records, where he worked on many of that label's mega-hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and Joe. Trevett joins a roster of engineers with similarly strong hip hop/R&B backgrounds: Cortez Farris (Steven Marley, Mary J. Blige, Angie Stone), Richard Furch (Jay-Z, Meshell Ndegeocello, Mya), Steve Hardy (Carlos Santana, Jay-Z, Cassandra Wilson) and Jason Standard (Li'l Kim, Mya, Cam Ron).
Besides those five engineers, SOS Management also represents the Pro Tools|HD system owned and operated by up-and-coming engineer Britt Myers. “Britt put together quite an amazing system, with 48 inputs and 72 outputs, five 192 I/Os and five process cards,” says Bubacz. “We're representing that system to clients who want to use it, whether it's here at Sound on Sound or at another studio. Right now, the system is being rented by producer Michael Brauer, who's using it for a long-term project at Quad Studios.”
Sound on Sound is in the process of upgrading its own Pro Tools rigs to the new HD system, but Bubacz does not expect any of those in-house setups to have the kind of I/O and processing capacity of Myers'. Accordingly, it made sense for both Sound on Sound and Myers to work together to market his system, according to Bubacz.
When it completes its current phase of construction, renovations and upgrades, Sound on Sound will boast four full-service recording/mixing studios, including a Pro Tools|HD suite equipped with a Pro Control surface. In addition, Sound on Sound operates a small mastering division, run as a joint venture with engineer Eric Enjem.
The main rooms feature the current state-of-the-art in analog and digital consoles: two Solid State Logic 9000 J Series boards in Studios A and B (whose control rooms feature virtually identical equipment) and a Sony Oxford digital console in Studio C. Studio D, still under construction, is expected to become Sound on Sound's flagship Pro Tools|HD studio — even though Pro Tools systems reside in the “other” rooms as well and will be upgraded to HD.
As all this activity unfolds at SOS Management and Sound on Sound Studios, the company embraces the era of connectivity with an investment in the Dolby Fax ISDN codec and Rocket Networks' “Internet studio” concept.
“The ISDN and Internet links are big selling points for our clients,” says Bubacz. “With so many projects these days moving from studio to studio, engineers can now connect to another facility and have their files quickly imported. There have been times when a producer or engineer goes to open a project here and realizes that he forgot, say, a shaker track at a studio in Atlanta or L.A. With Rocket's new software, we can transfer files back and forth, whether they're Pro Tools format or not.”
As far as ISDN is concerned, the system has been used to conduct remote monitoring sessions with the likes of J Records boss Clive Davis, who auditioned a Carlos Santana mix from his office.
“We're doing pretty well at this point,” says Bubacz, reflecting on the varied activity at both the studio and management company. “We're keeping our eyes and ears open and staying optimistic.”
PETIT BUT MIGHTY
Like many in the recording industry, musician/engineer George Walker Petit had a dream and a determination to make that dream come true. Actively a jazz guitarist with his own, self-titled quartet, and seasoned as a studio engineer who has worked on numerous music and advertising sessions, Petit left a safe, lucrative job as the in-house engineer at an ad agency to open his own music studio in Manhattan, Walker Recordings.
As if it weren't risky enough to launch a new commercial studio operation at a time when even longstanding facilities are struggling, Petit's dream was nearly squashed by an accident of timing: his studio opened September 9, 2001. “This is a speculative business to start with, and I opened two days before the World Trade Center got hit,” says Petit, noting the irony of the timing, and the fact that his fledgling operation was nearly stillborn as a result. But almost a year later, Petit says that he has survived and is on his way toward fulfilling the original vision for Walker Recordings.
“Since I opened, I've done a lot of advertising work for clients like Alitalia, Cadillac and Sony-Loews Theaters, but I'm trying to push the studio more into doing what I really love, which is recording live jazz,” says Petit.
In a short time, Petit has cultivated a strong following among independent but active musicians who operate just under the radar of big labels like Blue Note and Verve. These include Scott Lee, a bass player for Joe Lovano's band, who has brought a few projects to Walker Recordings; and Eric Rasmussen, an up-and-coming alto sax player who has cut one album and plans to do two more at Walker by year's end. Not that Petit's purview is strictly limited to jazz. Recently, the studio hosted a full-length flamenco project by San Francisco-based guitarist Paul Mousazi.
Given the competitive hurdles that any startup has to overcome — competition from other commercial facilities, as well as home and project rooms, tight label budgets, etc. — how has Petit succeeded in attracting a music clientele to Walker Recordings?
For one, the room itself is naturally conducive to recording and mixing in an organic, stress-free environment. The walls are uncharacteristically colorful for a New York studio, with bold splashes of red, blue and yellow animating a space that many might have painted white or gray. The design was done by renowned industry architect Francis Manzella, whom Petit hired to do the in-house studio at his old ad agency.
Located on the top floor of a building on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets, Walker Recordings' control room has an odd but alluring shape, with a ceiling that starts at 18 feet at the front wall of the control and slopes down to five feet at the other end, providing what Petit calls an “instant compression” effect. Because there's nothing above it, the room boasts skylights, which are a rarity in Manhattan. Besides the control room, Walker features two good-sized tracking spaces that are acoustically adaptable via sliding walls.
Equipped with a 64-channel Rupert Neve-designed Amek Media 5.1 console, Dynaudio monitors, a Pro Tools 3 system, and a healthy assortment of hardware and DSP processing, the control room is as technologically advanced as it is open and comfortable. Petit comments, “Everybody who comes in here says, ‘What a great vibe!’ We have this natural light thing happening, and you get the sense that time stops when you enter the room. There's no hurry in here, no clock ticking all the time.”
There's also Petit himself, a fixture on the New York jazz circuit for years, with a reputation as a producer (a Columbia album by the Terence Blanchard-Donald Harrison Quintet in the late 1980s), an engineer, a composer, a sideman and a bandleader.
“Because I've been around for a while and am active on the scene, I'm able to draw people in here,” says Petit. “It's a slow building process, but I'm happy that the studio is becoming a center of activity for a lot of jazz players.”
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