Is there life beyond the recording studio? For the legions ofexperienced audio engineers who find themselves in a world of highlycapable personal facilities, there had better be. In New York City,where new sounds and production techniques are created every day, newbusiness models were bound to be close behind, and as some metro-areapioneers are finding out, there's a world of opportunity for anyonewith audio expertise, niche marketing acumen and just a touch of themad scientist inside.
For XII Audio's president Dan Williams and producer/chief engineerSuketu “Kato” Khandwala, an interest in boosting clientcreativity spurred a microportable concept of packing up the recordingstudio and taking it directly to their rehearsal space, home or anyother comfy location to make music. Equipped with Mac laptop-basedDigidesign Pro Tools|HD rigs and mobile gear racks custom-designed tofit in the back of Khandwala's Volkswagen Jetta, XII Audio can quicklyestablish a high-quality recording environment virtually anywhere,without the bulk of a remote truck.
XII was born when Williams, an experienced live sound engineer, andKhandwala, who had been producing voluminous jingles for New YorkCity's North Forty Music and mixing front of house for Moby and Kool& The Gang, had a brainstorm. “I said, ‘We make recordsin the studio and we're always trying to capture the livefeel,’” Khandwala recalls. “We started talking aboutusing my Pro Tools rig on live shows, so we developed this mobile ProTools|HD rig. We were already getting called out to do stuff on theroad with bands, so we said, ‘Let's make a record while we'redoing it.’
“Sometimes, it's complicated to get a band together for weeksat a time to go somewhere else other than where they live, so insteadof that, let's bring the studio to them. A commercial facility isalways preferred, but if that's not possible, let's not tell those guysno. This is all a means to an end, and the end is we love to makemusic. We try to give our clients the best product we can and have itbe fun.”
Traveling with a select list of Class-A gear such as Neve mic pre's,Ampex tube mixers, vintage compressors and Langevin passive EQs, alongwith small-footprint NHT monitors, Williams and Khandwala can get themics set up and the room ready in as little as 45 minutes, depending onconditions. Using the DVI out of their Powerbooks, XII connects to atravel-ready 17-inch Studio Display monitor and they're ready torecord. “This is low impact,” Khandwala says. “We canwalk in and turn a space — warehouse, gym, garage — into acommercially viable recording studio. This is at a huge cost-savingsfor my clients. I don't have to charge what commercial facilitiesdo.” Once tracked, mixing can be completed at XII's personalstudio headquarters in Fort Lee, N.J., or any other mix facility theirclients choose.
XII doesn't claim to be the only company working like this, butthey're not aware of any local competition, either. “If there issomeone [else] doing this, I don't know them!” Khandwala says.“This is a viable business model because this is how I want to dobusiness. It puts the focus back on the artist rather than on theproduction.”
Enhancing a process was also on the agenda for Steve Puntolillo,creator of the Sonicraft A2DX Lab (www.sonicraft.com) in Freehold, NJ. Adedicated multichannel A/D transfer facility, Sonicraft's objective wasto design a system capable of performing the ultimate A/D transfer,bringing out extreme levels of quality and clarity from the tape notheard since the original material was recorded.
Puntolillo first got started on his unique path, which would soonbecome an all-consuming quest for perfection, in 2001, when he waspreparing to mix and master some early 1970 recordings for 5.1surround. Not set up himself to do the transfer from 1-inch analogtape, he innocently advised his client to take it to the best place hecould find in Manhattan. The ensuing nightmare of logistics and soundquality showed Puntolillo the need for a facility committed toperforming ultrahigh-quality A/D (as well as A/A) transfers, and thathe would have to be the one to fill it.
“I believe in any business you want to solve a problem —isn't that why someone comes to you?” Puntolillo says. “Mythought here was that, when the need arose, there would be a place thatpeople could take their tapes to that wouldn't be a dragged-out machinestuck into a corner next to a Pro Tools rig with questionableconverters. I don't know how to get it any better than the A2DXLab.”
With painstaking attention to detail, Puntolillo and a skilled teamof experts fully restored and extensively modified two Ampex MM120024-track 2-inch tape machines (one optimized for playback, the otherfor recording). Performing thousands of man-hours of research, testing,prototyping and comparing, Puntolillo's group changed components,upgraded signal paths and added myriad new innovations that would helpto noticeably improve analog playback. Next, Puntolillo applied hisfindings to 1-inch, 4/8/12-track machines for total format coverage.The sound is captured into the computer via Mytek 8X96 converterscapable of up to 96kHz/24-bit sampling.
“We're talking about small improvements and how theyaccumulate,” explains Puntolillo. “For instance, by addingtape rollers to the tape paths where static guides used to be, you geta little bump in clarity. Add that to all the other things that give abump in clarity, and all of a sudden, you don't need that EQ any more,or as much of it.
“Where I sit is between the audiophile camp and the pro audiocamp. The audiophile is going to spend an inordinate time on one pieceof wire to make his stereo sound better, and you have your pro audioguy who might simply tweak his EQ a little bit to be perfectly happy.By combining those two philosophies, I'm basically getting the purest,clearest, sweetest sound possible off the tape and making sure everybit gets captured into the computer.”
While XII Audio and Sonicraft are focused on solutions to currentaudio quandaries, the future is unfolding at The Cooper Union for theAdvancement of Science and Art. A small art, architecture andengineering school known for its extremely selective enrollment and hipEast Village campus, it also has a well-equipped acoustics lab and aninspired professor, Jim Abbott, who isn't afraid to use it. Armed witha doctorate in physics from MIT, a night-time DJ career and a pastprofession of designing live sound systems, Abbott has the ears and thevision needed to produce audio innovators and innovation.
“Cooper Union is known for having incredible students, smallclasses and project-based learning,” Abbott says. “At theacoustics lab, I interact with artists, architects and engineers. Whatwe end up with is a one-of-a-kind curriculum and my three interests arebrought together as one discipline. Our downtown location in the centerof the world's music industry completes the picture.”
Besides the expected sound-analysis workstation, Abbott hassomething that he believes makes his lab stand alone in New York City:a full-coverage anechoic chamber that he and his students use forloudspeaker design, psychoacoustic measurements and extra-extra-dryvocal recordings. “It is echo-free down to about 150 Hz and veryquiet,” says Abbott. Meanwhile, a binaural headset withmicrophones on each side allows students to prepare some intriguingcompositions in Pro Tools for Abbott's Sound and Space course.“They were derived from sound recordings they made themselveswith the headset, recording things like jet flyovers at LaGuardia. Thestudents built acoustical physical sculptures with some unique sonicfeatures, and that class culminated in an exhibit here called‘Aural Fixation.’”
The result at Cooper Union is a fast-moving think tank that'salready having an impact on how progressive audio hardware and softwareare evolving. “There are a number of places where our program cancontribute and give back,” Abbott says. “On aproject-to-project basis, we are available to do prototype developmentand psycho-acoustic experiments that are too laborious for theindustry. We've already gotten started, and I'm looking to reallyinvolve some industry partnerships.” With corporate sponsorsincluding Native Instruments and Designatronix, word is already gettingaround.
Abbott hopes his initiatives indicate where the next big ideas inmusic are going to come from. “I think that the next generationof engineers is going to have an increased sensibility to musicalissues and an increased ability to integrate the two disciplines intheir work. The idea that the artist and the scientist can become oneperson in certain pursuits is not a new idea, but it seems to be, in myopinion, a revolutionary idea.”
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