Julie (left) and Rob Harari of HarariVille
photo: David Weiss
To those who sniff at the recording scene in the state of New Jersey, that dreary-looking land Tony Soprano drives through on the way home, we say, “Ever heard of Menlo Park?” That's right, Thomas Edison made the world's first audio recording — reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into a phonograph — in New Jersey in 1877. The cradle of audio engineering is in the Garden State.
The evolution of Bennett Studios (www.bennettstudios.com) in Englewood, N.J., is a perfect barometer for why operating just west of New York City is an increasingly attractive option. When Mix first visited Dae Bennett's expansive facility four years ago, the Grammy-winning engineer had just opened the doors on September 6, 2001. World events and the recording industry both got scary soon after, but Bennett's location and relentless business savvy have helped him out. “In New Jersey, the advantage here is that there's a lot less overheard than in Manhattan and we get to pass that on to the clients,” he explains. “There's just not as many 60-day album projects as there used to be. But the way I look at it is a day sold is a day sold — that's our strategy and it works.”
While only several minutes away from the George Washington Bridge that connects New Jersey to northern New York City, Bennett can afford to continuously expand his operations. In addition to his world-class North (Neve VR60) and South (SSL 4080) music studios, hosting recent clients Trey Anastasio and Rob Thomas, Bennett's converted 100-year-old Victorian railroad station accommodates live TV production and a DVD production suite. Upping the ante is a 64-channel fiber-optic link to the 1,400-seat John Harms Theater a block away.
“We built this place with foresight and a diversified approach,” says Bennett. “Going into this, I didn't think the studio-as-a-room-for-hire on an hourly basis would cut it anymore, so we came in with this diversified business plan, which is paying its dividends now. We produce DVDs and sell them through our Internet store. We've also a done a couple of QVC music productions; they just pulled the truck up and we had my father [Tony Bennett] come in here and perform while they sold $500,000 worth of stuff in an hour. I'm always thinking outside the box in terms of music delivery, and infomercials are something with a lot of untapped potential. Why the music industry isn't using that I have no idea.”
Bennett acknowledges that although New Jersey carries a blue-collar stereotype with some New York City sophisticates, those attitudes usually melt away after the first visit. “You say New Jersey, they think ‘Podunk,’ and then they realize it was quicker to get here than to downtown. Sometimes you have to physically get them out here first and then they see that the ancillary costs of producing a TV show or a record is 20 to 30 percent less than in Manhattan. There's tons of parking, and with so many great restaurants here, you don't even need to do catering — just per diem everybody.”
With his mile-long track record, Bennett could work anywhere, but New Jersey feels just right. “There's a lot to be gained from coming out here,” he says. “There's a few of us with studios on the Hudson River who have sustained really well. You've got the quality product and it's just so much more cost-effective.”
Moving downriver from the GW Bridge to the Lincoln Tunnel is another ambitious New Jersey facility, HarariVille (www.harariville.com). Originally designed by producer/engineer Rob Harari in 1998 as a place to fulfill his own production needs, the spacious skylit studio in Weehawken has steadily developed a reputation for technical excellence, as well as a relaxed atmosphere that can be hard to find in The Big City.
“I knew any studio I built had to have an aesthetic value that allowed a lot of creative freedom,” Harari says of the atmospheric space housed in a former furniture factory. “It's very clean and has an open feeling. I wanted to build a space where every part could multitask, so it didn't matter where you were in the studio, you felt like you belonged there.”
A meticulous audio expert, Harari worked with acoustic designer Steve Vavagiakis of Bang Zoom Productions to make the 20×24-foot control room exactingly accurate. At the center of things is a serious Mad Labs Neve VR60, extensively modified by John Musgrave in 2001. “Neves of this generation bring power to the first bucket, so by the time it gets to the sixth bucket, it's anemic,” says Harari. “[Musgrave] split all the power distribution from the center section so it went to every bucket, then put a capacitance circuit behind every EQ circuit on every module so there's the same punch in every channel. Ultimately, some of his designs went into the 88R, and he used my board as the R&D for some of those modifications.”
Whether mixing or recording from the 20×24-foot live room with 16-foot sloped ceiling, the Hararis are glad they've opened their intensely inspirational New Jersey space to the world. “This studio was always meant to be a personal studio, but it's so creatively energizing that we felt this was something we needed to share with the larger musical community,” Harari says. “It was born out of the need for a production tool, which became such a wonderful place that it became a business.”
John Noll of Retromedia Sound Studios—an analog haven
photo: David Weiss
Moving down past the river and toward the even deeper New Jersey territory known as “The Shore” lies the artistic town of Red Bank, where the audio obsessions of Retromedia Sound Studios (www.retromedia.net) are satisfied. Founded by John Noll in 1984, Retromedia has been in its current location since 1998, offering artists a haven where analog is clearly king and the aesthetic is uniquely compelling.
“We're in it for the sound,” Noll says. “We've always had a thing for analog recording and vintage equipment. Nowadays, why do people use Pro Tools? Because of the convenience. You can do incredible stuff, but you have to work harder to make it sound good. People are always using plug-ins to emulate, but our theory is that if you want to use the real thing — tape, vintage mics and outboard — we have it.”
For those who want to feel good while they're working with goodies such as Telefunken/TAB V72a or …clair Electronics Evil Twin mic pre's, Melcor GME-20/SME-20 or Siemens W295b EQs, or an EMT 140 stereo plate, Noll's sharp interior design instincts make the 24×26×11-foot live room an extremely inviting place in which to create. “There's a lot of stuff in there, but I make it so the room feels as big as possible. Everything is thought-out and very comfortable and synergistically correct. It is a feng shui thing, although I don't think of it that way.”
With Philadelphia, New York City and a thriving local music scene all in proximity, Noll knows that Retromedia is in a state of natural balance. “We offer a peaceful atmosphere, but it's an urban environment near the beach and parks,” he says. “Red Bank is a cultural and artistic center of the Jersey Shore, and there's a very vital scene. There's a lot of stuff going on here other than Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi.”
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