“Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy…if you try.” What's not quite as easy — at first — is wrapping your head around the innovations of the Manhattan Producer's Alliance (MPA,
www.manhattanproducersalliance.com), a group that's successfully deploying a different business model for New York City music-makers. And while the alliance is at it, it just may be able to help you with a thing or three to successfully migrate a pro audio studio to OS X — but more on that in a minute.
From left: Steve Horowitz, Paul Special, Don Henze, Wade Tonken, Rick Baitz (on floor), Kevin Joy and Manhattan Producer’s Alliance founder Joe Carroll convene at the alliance’s headquarters in New York City.
photo: David Weiss
Consortiums have come and gone in Manhattan through the years, as producers and engineers have searched for a way to group together and conquer the high cost of working and living in the city. While more than one winning formula is certainly possible, the MPA is one of the first in a while to go public with its own: form a cooperative, be highly selective about the membership and experiment with new ways of working.
“A couple of years ago, I had the idea that I didn't want to have a studio anymore,” says MPA founder Joe Carroll on the transformation of his former business, TV music house Manic Moose Music. “I said, ‘How can you be able to just write music?’ All the guys in L.A. had their portable rigs, but in Manhattan, having a studio still counts for something. We said, ‘How can we be in the middle of everything with the best of both worlds? Everyone working together with a nucleus, but we have our own business.’”
The MPA is a cooperative business model that works like the board of a luxury co-op building, approving its members based on their qualifications. Once a member is accepted, he/she pays dues to the MPA as that member continues to operate his/her own businesses. For those who make the cut, membership has its privileges: full access to the MPA's infrastructure and resources, which include office space, a staff, a suite of networked, fully outfitted production studios and, most importantly, fellow MPA members.
“This is a natural fit,” explains renowned advertising music veteran Kevin Joy of his decision to join the MPA. “You're pooling resources, real estate and knowledge. We're in the same business — providing music for our clients — and what we have in common is the New York mentality. Being one of the mega-centers, I think it's natural that the genesis is here in Manhattan.”
The association — which currently includes Carroll, Joy, Rick Baitz (The Vagina Monologues), Steve Horowitz (Super Size Me), Stuart Kollmorgan (Kenny the Shark/NBC) and Wade Tonken (Disney, Nickelodeon, Fox) — enables infinite combinations of talent and solutions that benefit both the composers and their clients.
As a result, Baitz, for example, can (and has) gotten an assignment to do a TV country music score, walked down the hall to find Tonken available to produce a guitar part and then watched the collaboration grow from there. “In 90 minutes, we had this entire song,” Baitz recalls of the PBS-commissioned project. “I sang vocals, he played a few tracks of guitar and did some high-level sampling, and it sounded great. That revealed to me that this was going to be a really good way to work, so I formally asked Wade to join me on the project as my producer.”
Besides providing the MPA composers with another avenue to bring work to each other, the arrangement also benefits the client. “In that case,” says Don Henze, business development director of MPA, “for a project on an indie-film budget, Rick didn't have to rent a high-end studio and pay an outrageously high hourly rate to do film-style mixing, and he didn't have to hire a producer. He was able to just go into the other room.”
“The normal production process would require a separate facility for composing, mixing, sound design and audio post,” Tonken adds. Here, the benefit is that the client is hiring us all as a single entity. In today's environment, we're all being challenged to meet ever-shrinking budgets and our clients are also being challenged to get more music for film and TV on those budgets. With the alliance, producers and directors get the benefit of this pool of talent in a streamlined cost structure.”
The MPA hopes that there's another group that can benefit from its existence: the entire Mac-using music community.And the MPA is willing to carry out a bold experiment to make that happen. With all three of its networked studios equipped with systems such as Digital Performer, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, multiple FireWire drives and Gigasamplers using MIDI over Ethernet, the MPA was running into the same nasty meltdowns, freeze-ups, plug-in malfunctions and bugs as everyone else attempting to transition to OS X. But not only is the alliance determined to make the switch from OS 9, these lion-hearted pioneers are going to document the whole process in the hope that they can ease the transition for the large number of music professionals nervous about the question marks currently inherent in such an upgrade.
According to the MPA, the “OS X Project” comprises three stages: facility-wide transition from OS 9 to OS X; then to the G5 platform; and then to a fully centralized, multi-user, SAN-based environment. The process is already underway and will be followed up by a public database of technical documents, participant interviews and other media.
“In putting this together, we talked to a lot of composers and heard about who's working with Macs and how,” says Carroll. “What becomes clear is that there's not a lot of people running OS X in the world we're dealing with — it's maybe one in 10.”
“Going down the road to the centralized studio for the future, we know we have to go through the OS X wall to get there,” Tonken adds. “We said, ‘There's no available data, no step-by-step manual for what you do [to upgrade to OS X] on these things we all use. Let's do it and document it.’”
Making things even more interesting is the fact that the alliance members have no intention of interrupting their busy workflow to make it happen. While the potential of a workstation system crash is certainly there, the cooperative situation and availability of additional, identically equipped studios down the hall mitigates the risk — somewhat. The presence of Digital Performer, Logic and Pro Tools on each workstation has made the MPA even more convinced that the OS X Project is a responsibility it has to take on. “Most people when they're upgrading have just one platform,” points out engineer Paul Special, who frequently works at the alliance studios. “But if you say, ‘I have to make Digital Performer, Logic and Pro Tools work together in one room with the same hardware,’ that's a bigger kettle of fish.”
While there were a number of choices for systematically carrying out the alliance's test, according to Tonken, there really was only one true option: “To drop everything, turn on OS X and G5s, spend an incredible amount of money, buy only approved products and change everything would take a lot of time — that's a fantasy,” he says. “We just upgraded one computer and that took a week of getting authorizations. In effect, we've decided to do dual-boot Macs that boot in both OS 9 and OS X. So when we're in X and we come up with issues, we may say, ‘The fastest solution is overnight shipping. Let me get back to 9 and finish what we're working on!’”
By documenting the process the MPA undergoes for the OS X audio upgrade path, Carroll figures the alliance can bolster the decentralized principles that it was founded on. “Because we're so focused on the idea that composers can work off-site, then also come [to MPA's studios] and do their job, we see that the potential benefit is that we can run everything off a server with a SAN, let off-site people have field access and work toward our goal of a seamless environment.”
As challenging as the OS X Project may be, Manhattan's hearty band of producers know that there really is no other choice. “Unless you think your computer will last forever,” Tonken points out, “you have to move on.”
New York City update: As this column was finalized, New York City's legendary Hit Factory announced it would be closing its doors for good at the end of February. In operation since 1968, the Hit Factory served not only as the facility of choice for the world's top recording artists, but as a vital flagship of the New York City recording scene while at its peak. The significance of this news will be examined in-depth here next month.
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