Street-level producers, engineers and musicians are buzzed aboutthe next wave of production techniques, and a lot of them are wonderingwhere big recording studios fit in. In New York City's flagshipstudios, owners are constantly asking the same question, and the highcost of square feet demands that they answer it quickly — monthafter month, year after year.
With everything from well-equipped personal studios tomake-music-yourself software such as Apple's GarageBand impinging onwhat used to be their exclusive turf, you'd think large facilities likeAvatar (www.avatarstudios.net), Right Track (www.righttrackrecording.com) and Sound on Sound (www.soundonsoundstudios.com) would be gettingcreative with ways to compete — and you'd be right. “Thereality is that our studios, as well as other studios, are a part ofthe industry that's going through some changes right now,” saysKirk Imamura, president of Avatar Studios. “The labels arerestructuring and budgets are being sized to what should bereality.
“I think there is room for innovation: If you're trying tomake better use of your time and resources for a given budget, there'sprobably things that you could do. They can be as small as trying towork a console in an ergonomic fashion, because time is money andyou're trying to cut things down to be able to do them quickly. Andmaybe some things are preparation for a session: You don't come indisorganized; you come in prepared. It's not just a technical issue;it's organization and it's ergonomics.”
Although excellent acoustical spaces and the ability to properlyfacilitate advanced techniques like DSD and 5.1 surround recording area premium draw for large studios, such services are still out ofbudgetary bounds for many of their clients. The solution at Right Trackis to make their considerable expertise available in the form of twonew production rooms — P1 and P2 — at their 38th Streetlocation. Equipped with niceties such as Blue Sky 5.1 monitoring,Yamaha DM2000 digital consoles, Digidesign Pro Tools and Tube-Tech EQs,the rooms offer a more affordable option (under $1,000 a day) toserious producers who need to mix and add overdubs in a high-qualityenvironment. “They're important for a place like Right Trackbecause they keep our client base close to us and provide a morefull-service facility than when we just had high-end rooms,”explains Barry Bongiovi, general manager of Right Track. “So far,a very broad spectrum of our client base has used these rooms: MariahCarey, Pat Metheny, David Bowie. They're not just for lower-budgetprojects — they're for a segment of projects that fitscomfortably in a room like this.”
At Sound on Sound, its fully dedicated Pro Tools|HD3 Studio D hasbeen addressing a similar audience for several months, and is also partof one of the studio's latest business model concepts. “We'veforged bonds with producers that we're trying to get off the ground,and it's like the old-fashioned spec deal from the jingle world,”says Dave Amlen, president of the studio. “We're going to givehalf-a-dozen people these tracks to demo, and the one that we like thebest gets the gig. So we're basically forming a production companymodel with these known quantities so they don't reach into theirpockets and they don't get compensated unless they get the gig. If wehave a paying gig in those rooms, naturally that supersedes any of thatkind of work.”
In Amlen's opinion, DAW-based production is going to cast a largerand larger shadow over the huge desks that most major studio controlrooms are built around. “I think the large-frame consoles willstill be there in the future, but they'll be the ones we have now— Neves or SSL 9000 Js in various phases of rebuild. So you'relooking at a lot of technology that peaked in the mid- to late '90s.You might find third-party developers coming out and turbo-charging theones out there now. Instead of buying an SSL K Series, someone will buya J and a box that allows them to do auto-panning the way theywant.”
Imamura points out that in larger studios, with their steady streamof different clients, dedicated maintenance staffs and organizedcommunications, the potential, at least, is there to create suchimprovements in-house. “Our front-line people, so to speak, arethe assistant engineers who actually do the work, understand whatclients go through and experience the difficulties in-session. They arethe people we talk to to find out how to improve things in the controlroom — we do that on a constant basis. If our chief engineer RoyHendrickson sees a way to make something better, he can implement it.In the old days, studios were known to build gear and come up withcircuitry for their own sound effects.”
That doesn't mean that Imamura is planning on getting Avatar intothe gear business. “I don't know how much studios are responsiblefor pushing the envelope on technology design, because most of theinnovation is going toward improving the home and projectstudios,” he says. “Some people here feel that we haveenough equipment to do what we need to do. We don't necessarily neednew equipment, because there's plenty of equipment already, and in somecases, a digital plug-in is just replicating what an analog piece ofgear already does.”
With their demanding clientele, however, large recording facilitiescan often help get feedback to hardware and software designers thathelps shape the next generation of products. “I think the studiosare a main source of information for the manufacturers,” Bongiovinotes. “At the end of the day, the studios are the ones that areable to communicate on a professional level. We're close to Yamaha onthese consoles, for example.”
Because, by nature, top New York City studios have the sexiestcompressors, consoles and mic pre's available to them, it's notsurprising that the areas they'd most like to see targeted for changelie in more basic realms. “If someone would build a better backupsystem, I'd invest in it tomorrow,” Bongiovi says withouthesitation. “Backup is horrendous in the digital domain. It'stime-consuming, unreliable — you name it. Clients don't realizethat they spend eight or 10 hours in a session, and then it takes threeto four more to back it up properly. It's not just time, but thereliability of what comes back is 50 percent at best. We built theserooms to do economical work, and when the production portion of theproject is completed each day, the nightmare of backupbegins.”
Imamura has similar needs: “Hard drives fail — that's afact of life. If we could reduce the odds of hard drives failing anddevelop a backup system, that may be worthwhile. Compared to computersand hard drives, the odds of a tape machine or console failing areprobably a lot less.”
Likewise at Sound on Sound, the focus is on constantly developingmethods of organization commensurate with the quality of theiracoustical spaces. “File management is a skill set that we've hadsince we were keeping track of physical tape,” Amlen notes.“A big part of our existence is being able to play back somethingthat we recorded six months ago. So to push the envelope, we'refiguring out a way to help make the major labels' job easier when itcomes time to get everything together. They actually see that a part ofgetting people to record in studios is that they have more control overfile management.”
For major facilities, too, one of the biggest jobs is monitoring thedemands of the consumer market for sound experiences like DSD and 5.1surround, and matching those up with the expectations of labels,artists and engineers before purchasing the necessary gear forthemselves. “For studios, it's very difficult to be on thebleeding edge unless you become a beta site for a manufacturer,”says Imamura. “It's got to be tested, accepted and enoughengineers and clients have to be requesting it, especially if it's ahefty price tag investment. If they come in and say, ‘I want touse this,’ and you get enough requests, you're going to be doingthat.”
Keep in mind, however, that not changing too fast is also animportant part of a major studio's strategy. Many of New York City'smost storied facilities are famous for their distinctive sound, andthey plan on keeping those sonic qualities intact. “A studio likethis has a long tradition,” Imamura points out. “Prior tobeing Avatar, it was Power Station, and we try to uphold the traditionsof Power Station. Things were done in a certain way, but we'reconstantly reassessing and re-evaluating not just placement of gear,but making things easier and quicker for our clients.”
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