Even though the calendar says that it's fall, it feels more likespringtime to me. Why? Because with this column, I kick off what hasgot to be one of the best jobs in the world: writing for Mixabout the recording scene in New York City. There have never been moreamazing possibilities for sound creation in the five boroughs andbeyond, or more agonizing doubts about the economics involved. I'mlooking forward to letting you all know how things are unfolding here,month by month.
First off, allow me to give a shout-out to my predecessor in thispost, Paul Verna, who did such an excellent job covering the New YorkCity scene in these pages for the past four years before leaving towork for Avid Technology. I was a serious and longtime follower ofPaul's writing, and he stands as one of the premier journalists in theaudio field. It's an honor to follow in his footsteps.
No question, it's been an interesting road for me on the way to thispoint. When I left my hometown of Detroit 10 years ago for New YorkCity, my objective was to be a hot-shot session drummer and pen theoccasional record review. Somewhere along the way, however, I gothooked on more than just holding a pair of sticks and trying to outdoStewart Copeland. I started writing about drums, audio technology,music production, HDTV, fiber optics and software. Next, I got my firstsampler, took an audio engineering course and put together a personalstudio in my apartment. Recording, which had always seemed like such amagical process to me, became an art, a science and a personalobsession.
These days, if I'm not writing, I'm recording. Or is it the otherway around? At this moment, my tastes and career guidance are inspiredby artists like Moby, Mozart, The Melvins, BT, Bach, Fela Kuti, TheyMight Be Giants and a smattering of Gregorian monks. Composing,recording and performing as my electronic-music alter ego, ImpossibleObjects, has taken my musical skills and engineering chops to extremelysatisfying places that would have been unthinkable if I'd just stayedplanted on the drum throne. In addition to my next album, I'm at workon my first CD library of music for television, an arena where thecompetition is intense and your signal path had better be clean.
Like a lot of people, I hit a full-fledged studio when I can, butwhen I can't, I'm having a blast with what I've crammed into myManhattan one-bedroom pad. It's now packed with some standard tools anda few secret weapons that are perfect for an electronic artist flyingsolo. I'm in love with my Yamaha AW16G recorder, a Roland XV-5050synth, Roland HandSonic, Yamaha A3000 sampler and Korg Electribeserving as hardware sound sources, plus a lovely Electrix Repeater forlive looping and TC Electronic M300 and Aphex Aural Exciter 104 foreffects. Once inside my beloved computers, the audio cycles constantlythrough Cubase, Reason, Acid, Recycle and Sound Forge until I declareit baked to perfection, or at least listenable.
Taken together, the unique convergence of New York City's alwaysbuzzing undercurrent and the fast-accelerating improvement of audiohardware and software has proven to be an exhilarating combination forme, and I know I'm not the only one. Just like more mystical placessuch as Sedona, Ariz., I believe New York City is a true energy center,attracting highly ambitious people for highly illogical reasons. Butrents are high, the rules of the music industry have dissolved into ahaze of unpredictability, and running a recording studio or masteringfacility for all of the talented musicians who live or visit here isnot the same as it was, or as it will be this time next year.
Staying in business has been a huge challenge for many facilities;impossible for others, and a breeze for yet another group. Happily, theconsensus from the studios I checked in with is that after two toughyears, business is gradually improving in the Big Apple. “2003 isdefinitely better than 2002,” says Kirk Imamura, president ofAvatar Studios. “It seems like there are more projects and moreactivity this year. Besides a slight dip during the summer, which isnormal, the fall looks pretty busy.
“I believe that major or indie labels still need music to putout to the market, and — let's face it — they're lookingfor something that's going to sell. In some cases, they'reexperimenting, and in others, trying to bring back some artists thatmay have been absent for a while. During the past couple of years, ourclient base has diversified. We have our share of the major-label work,but we also work with a lot of independent labels and people who fundtheir own projects.”
“The year started pretty slowly, and as the year has gone on,the work has grown,” confirms Zoe Thrall, general manager of TheHit Factory. “Looking through the fall, it's gotten progressivelybusier. There are a lot more independent projects: Artists orproduction companies are booking the rooms themselves.”
The outlook is also positive for Lou Gonzalez, CEO of Quad RecordingStudios. “I think it's the best it's been since 9/11,” hestates. “I have the business. There's still dead times, butthey're a lot shorter, and the good times are a lot longer. It's stilla roll of the dice, but it's better overall.”
Gonzalez attributes the turnaround to a few factors. “All ofthis digital stuff came out that made it cheaper for people to have arudimentary studio at home. The record companies — becauseeveryone's trying to save money — bought into it, and then theyrealized that the product is not as good, and it's beginning to hithome. We have years of experience with people that know what they'redoing, and the record companies are just beginning to figure this out.Also, the piracy issues are being addressed: They're on top of it, withthe help of the film industry. Film is starting a new campaign to stoppiracy, record companies are hitching a ride, and it's going to work.And people are finally beginning to listen again.”
Besides being able to get a pastrami on rye at 3:00 a.m., Imamurapoints out that running a recording studio in New York City has its ownunique bright spots. “New York, first of all, is where all of themajor labels are; that's certainly one advantage,” he says.“Second, New York City is home to a community of musicians,artists, producers and engineers. There is a critical mass of peoplehere that make it an attractive city to be in. Besides recording,artists come here because they like the ‘New York Citysound.’ John Mayer and producer Jack Joseph Puig came here to dohis upcoming album because he was looking for a ‘New York Citysound.’ Puig selected Avatar to do the Mayer project, and Johnwas pretty happy with the sound that he got.
“The challenges are that New York State is tough with thebudget deficits and property taxes going up, so there is a reality thatexpenses will continue to go up. Our challenge is to cover that cost insome manner, and doing business like we have been is probably notenough. For us, it means providing more services, looking at othersimilar business activities; a specific example is a new separatecompany that is a record label, 441 Records.”
To Gonzalez, the cost of all those square feet is the sole liabilitythat comes with his territory. “The real estate, that's the onethat's unique to New York City,” he says. “You're trying tomake it go when you're paying double or more for the real estate thansomewhere else. But if you're somewhere else, you're out of the loop.When you're here, you're here. Everything you want ishere.”
Still, the difference between the New York City studios, large orsmall, that live to see 2005 may be rooted in some more universalconcepts. “The key is just being in tune with the client's needsand being flexible enough to adapt to those, in terms of equipment andservice, in general,” Thrall points out. “The relationshipis still the most important factor: staying in touch before the sessionand asking what their needs are, and after the session, asking themwhat they think of the results and making sure they were comfortable.That goes a long way.”
Well, I know I'm comfortable here in the New York City seat forMix. How are you doing? If you're in the city, across the riveror upstate, with one room or 10, recording sound for human, animal orplant consumption, you should get in touch anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.Thanks! Catch you next month!