Legacy’s Chris Bubacz (left) and studio manager Matt Carter
Like Bentleys and Ferraris do for serious drivers, major recording facilities serve as an elite source of inspiration to musicians, engineers and producers. But their foundation in the music world, once solid as a rock, has shifted as the changing music business and production techniques wreak havoc on their business model.
In New York City, these truths have spelled the end for some classic rooms (R.I.P. Hit Factory), but they have also led to original approaches in the fight for survival. In the case of two of Manhattan's other big rooms, Right Track and Sound on Sound, the move was highly unusual: a merger. First put into effect a little more than a year ago, in November 2005, the story of their quick transformation from fierce competitors to blood brothers now known as Legacy Recording Studios (www.legacyrecordingstudios.com) offers a revealing look into the evolving world of large studios in New York and worldwide.
Spearheaded by former Sound on Sound president Dave Amlen and former Right Track president Simon Andrews, the idea behind the merger germinated in 2004. Earnings were way off pace at the 11,000-square-foot Sound on Sound space on West 45th Street, and Right Track, headquartered in Times Square on 48th Street, was still reeling from a multimillion-dollar cost overrun incurred in constructing its masterful, 4,600-square-foot Studio A509 on West 38th Street.
“In June 2004, cash flow was miserable,” says Amlen candidly, now CFO/COO of Legacy. “Business was down considerably from the year before, and we'd fallen months and months behind on our rent. We had a new landlord in the building; they were not nice people and the previous 18 years of Sound on Sound there were meaningless to them. So we looked at our options, and the only one we had was to restructure: Do a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and have the federal courts protect us while we figured out a way to make things work and hopefully see the industry turn around.
“Meanwhile, back in 2001, Right Track had opened up their huge scoring room,” Amlen continues. “The original budget was supposed to be $6.5 million, but there were many complications leading to serious overruns, and when the whole thing was done, the budget came out to be about $13 million. It put a severe strain on Right Track. During the next four-and-a-half years, the studio got further and further in the hole, financially.
“So two big companies in the industry had fallen on tough times for different reasons, and because Sound on Sound's filing was public, Simon made the overture to me. We had known each other for 16 years, we started to get to know each other better, and after a long conversation, he threw out the idea that maybe we should merge our businesses. Part of what made the synergy so nice is that the majority of the business we were doing was record album work, but a lot of what Right Track was doing was film and Broadway.”
Right Track's unforeseen construction expenditures notwithstanding, Amlen cites a number of factors that had put the two facilities in a world of hurt: “Both facilities rely on the record industry for the majority of our income, and they've made countless mistakes since the Internet age took hold,” Amlen states. “Downloading took off, and they were so slow to react in a way that made any difference — that was one problem.
“Next, in reacting to the extensive illegal downloading, the record industry pared down its budgets, cut the rosters it had and stopped new artist development, which were all short-sighted ways of working. Rather than finding creative ways to package their artists so they weren't relying only on physical medium sales, they pulled back so that's all they were relying on. They killed themselves, and as a consequence, adversely affected large studios' ability to sustain business.”
Amlen also cites the increasing popularity of all-in budgets, which give producers a lump sum to complete a record and can therefore potentially give them the incentive to retain more in their pocket at project's end — cutting corners along the way. He also readily acknowledges that the growing number of DAW-based home/personal studios have had an impact, as they alter the perceived need for larger, more completely equipped and staffed facilities. Last, but not least, Sound on Sound and Right Track had the built-in cost of New York City to offset. “What's unique to New York City are the rents and the cost of doing business,” he says. “They're prohibitively expensive as compared to L.A., Nashville, Miami or Nebraska.”
With the agreement for the merger reached and scheduled to commence on November 1, 2005, Amlen, Andrews and their management teams next had to implement a plan that would make the most of both facilities' personnel, real estate and gear. The retention of Right Track's Studio A509 and adjacent space was an obvious decision, and there was a more stable tenant/landlord relationship at Right Track's 48th Street location, making it logical that Sound on Sound would be the studio surrendering its beloved rooms and moving to new quarters.
Before the move, Amlen held a high-level focus group with his top six clients to find out how he could best retain their business post-merger. “We talked to them in confidence before the merger, asked them what concerns they would have and what we would need to do to make the transition pretty seamless,” he recalls. “It made sense: You have to talk to the people that bring in the most revenue, and we asked, ‘What would you like/not like/want to change?’ The presence of Augspurger monitors going forward, for example, was a huge thing for all six of them.”
What resulted was a unique opportunity to bring together the crème de la crème from two of the city's top facilities. Sound on Sound's two SSL 9072 J consoles from its Studios A and B were transplanted to Right Track's Studios A and C, both supplemented by custom Augspurger mains. Twenty-four Neve 1081 modules add to the audio interface options in Studio A, along with a wide array of choice gear and microphones now combined at both facilities for a concentrated, extremely high-quality collection. “Excepting Sony, which is a corporate entity, we are the largest independent entity on the whole East Coast,” Amlen says. “We're capitalizing on that, using the best of what that entails.”
While gear doesn't care much about what moves into the adjacent rack unit, mixing up the humans from two studios is more complex, starting at the top. General manager Chris Bubacz studied these issues while getting his M.B.A. degree, “the clash of cultures when two companies come together,” notes Amlen. “A year later, the results have been that the Right Track client base has stabilized and the Sound on Sound client base has made the transition. Sound on Sound stood for the hip hop and R&B crowd: That's not going away, and it's here with rock, pop and everything else. Right Track always stood for the bigger artists — David Bowie, Mariah Carey; artists with these legacies. That was in part the inspiration for the joined facilities' new name, and it's a brand that we expect will definitely evolve as we move forward.”
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