Are you capable of fighting a heated battle for survival with a smile on your face? If so, then the audio post industry for commercials, TV shows, film and radio in New York City wants you. In this city packed tight with competition, a shakeout has been going on since 9/11 and continues to this day, spurred by ad agencies increasingly moving their business in-house, video editing facilities that have added audio and shrinking budgets, among other factors.
The New York City facilities that will get ahead or stay afloat in the increasingly complex business of audio post believe that they'll make it based on their talent, first and foremost. “People who don't treat their employees right are the ones who will go out of business,” observes Howard Schwartz, founder/CEO of hsr/ny (www.hsrny.com), one of Manhattan's largest audio post facilities. “I've been saying for 25 years that it's all about the people. People are attracted to creative talent.”
According to Rex Recker, post-production mixer/owner of downtown's audioEngine (www.audioengine.net), there are reasons why quality people and services are particularly important in post. “In this age of the Internet and doing things remotely, it's still an old-fashioned process where every-one — composer, editor, writer, director — comes into a room and works on a mix,” he points out. “Client services and a comfortable facility are still very important because we're still dealing with human beings — clients that are on the premises. Everyone has Digidesign Pro Tools, so it's not about the hardware anymore, it's about knowing how to run a session, the concerns your clients have and just being able to interact with people.”
For the post industry's ad agency clients like Peter Greco, executive music producer/senior partner of Young & Rubicam New York, that assessment rings true. “I can't stress enough that it's really the person behind the console — their instincts and ears,” he says. “Having another great pair of ears is tremendously valuable, and when it's someone who knows what you and your agency are looking for, it's great to have a co-pilot. The film mix is the final make-or-break step in the production chain. I've seen really great commercial films with great music and sound design completely die with a terrible film mix. That's a calamity.”
Young & Rubicam is not one of them, but several ad agencies have eroded New York City's core post business by building their own in-house facilities. “There are a number of large advertising agencies that have decided to do a lot of their test commercials and presentations in-house,” says Schwartz. “They can buy similar technology to what we have, but they certainly don't have the expertise that our mixers or mixers from other prominent facilities have. One ad agency used to do about $800,000 worth of work in-house, and now the $12 million they do in-house came out of the supply side, which is us. Do they have the best editors? They have good, comfortable editors, and at some point, they may become stagnant creatively because there's no reason for them to excel. They're not competing — they're just in normal jobs.”
From left: Creative Group's Troy Krueger, Doug DiFranco, Charlie Suydan and David Jaunai
Photo: David Weiss
Depending on who you ask, another great threat in New York City to dedicated audio post houses is the growing number of video editing facilities that add audio services to give their time-starved clients an “everything-under-one-roof” solution. While sometimes that might mean a spare office stocked with Pro Tools and last week's intern, it could also be something that advances the field. That was the case at Creative Group (www.creativegroup.tv), a video editing company that brought in mixer/sound designer Troy Krueger in 1999 to supplement its visual services and ended up getting much more than they bargained for.
Today, Krueger, with sound mixers David Jaunai and Doug DiFranco, share three 5.1 studios — networked to the teeth with each other and multiple SD and HD video editing suites — in a new facility built from the ground up by chief engineer Charlie Suydan to maximize audio and video synergy. “It's New York City: Time is money,” Krueger explains. “Here, ESPN can be on the Flame, and then I can put those visuals to Digibeta and move it to Flamebox. At 10 a.m., David can do a voice-over and dump it to Smoke through our Intranet. Now they can cut their picture against our VO, and they can download all the music cuts from our database, which is approaching 400,000 cuts of music from libraries all on a hard drive. So they come up with a great cut of video, add the audio — boom — done. People are blown away by the audio rooms; these are the jewels of the facility. Video is just as strong in terms of booking, but these are more pleasing aesthetically and the most instantly gratifying.”
Capabilities like that are just the tip of the iceberg in an industry that has come to mean much more than just mixing to picture. “Before you come in to do the mix,” says Schwartz, “we do voice casting. We have a gigantic stock music library, the largest in New York City, from mSoft, with 15 terabytes of audio and 900,000 MP3s available online 24 hours a day. We have sound design, and we are all involved in your project from beginning to end.”
For straight-up mixing, however, the stakes are getting higher, as evidenced by the recent completion of audioEngine's Studio D, a ground-up 5.1 room that is 100-percent Dolby-approved. “The whole thing about how to deliver your advertising message is taking off in the theaters,” says Recker. “That's a captive audience that's expanding, so we needed to build a room that simulates theater-style mixing. This is a hybrid room, like a mini-theater, and the speakers are JBL, which are the ones actually used in small theaters. So the majority of stuff I'm doing right now in 5.1 is commercial cinema stuff, but HDTV is a trend that eventually will happen. Right now, the HDTV programs are in 5.1 but the commercials are mostly in stereo. For audioEngine, stereo commercials are our focus. It's expensive to work here, so the advertising budgets can support the price points of the rooms.”
Creative Group's Jaunai attaches even more importance to surround. “The way the industry is going, surround mixing is going to be the key to a lot of facilities because the consumer is becoming more aware of it and DVDs are becoming so cheap. People are expecting to hear what they hear in theaters, so the production facility to service that end of the business needs to be up, running and understanding it. Surround used to just be for film; it's not anymore.”
Whether he wants stereo or surround, Greco is an example of a client with high expectations of the mixer and the mix. “It's the person behind the console who can make it or break it,” he reiterates. “One of my pet peeves when I hear stuff on the air is that I find there are a lot of very, very dense film mixes without a lot of clarity. Where I find the ‘A Team’ separates themselves is that they take mixes with a lot of different elements and broad frequency ranges and you can hear everything. Everything has a place. That's one of the things the young guys don't understand: finding a place for everything in the mix.”
In the search for the next generation of audio post pros, Krueger acknowledges that traditional standards of quality are changing. “It's getting to be a rarity that up-and-coming designers and mixers have experience with acoustic anything — be it acoustic bands, voice, et cetera,” he says. “It has helped me a great deal to have studied at a conservatory of music, understand how to count bars and that things have pace. The current generation is very good with technology but not good with listening. They can run the computer, but that doesn't mean they can mix well.”
For Schwartz, there are two kinds of people ideally suited to do post at his facility. “Someone with a million dollars' worth of a following or someone with a great attitude and we show them what to do — those are the two ends of the spectrum,” he says frankly. “We develop from within, and we have mixers here that started out as messengers. They come with street smarts, and we hire people with great attitudes and then train them to be great mixers.”
Between hiring the right people and giving them the right tools, the real trick to making it in this tough, crowded town may be having exactly the right amount of each. “There's been a lot of turnover in the last couple of years,” Recker admits. “The trend is that the independents are surviving and the giant ‘we-can-do-it-all’ companies, like Tape House that had nine divisions, went out of business because they couldn't survive any downturn in demand. You have to be lean and mean now, so if business dips, you can hunker down and glide through it.”