The world keeps shrinking, all the way into the computer and back out, and studios in New York have had to keep abreast with the changing work methods of musicians who have their own project studios-and that includes just about everyone in town these days. Initially terrified when low-cost tracking options became available to the everyman, savvy studio owners are now finding that they can offer artists services that can turn them into clients, not competitors. That's what happened recently when Manhattan native Keith Levenson came to Charles de Montebello, the owner of CDM Sound Studios, with a project.
Levenson prepares scores in his Pelham Manor studio on a rig that includes, get this, seven computers blown out as fully loaded DAWs. Lest this give you the impression that Levenson is a MIDI nut unfamiliar with writing for real musicians, this composer/arranger's resume includes all of the orchestrations for British Rock Symphony, a volume of classic songs featuring performances by Eric Burdon, Roger Daltrey, Alice Cooper, Paul Rodgers, Ann Wilson and Thelma Houston, backed by a full orchestra. This work, like many of his compositions, began on manuscript paper, moved into the computer and ended up being recorded in London, L.A. and "wherever one of our vocalists might have been at a given moment."
After graduating from high school in 1978, Levenson headed uptown to Columbia to study theater. His keyboard chops led to a variety of gigs, and in less than a year, he was out of Columbia and into the club scene as conductor for-Eddie Fisher. "I like Eddie. He's certainly out there," Levenson says. "It's funny. I was conducting for him at 19, but I couldn't go into the casinos where we were appearing! I wrote the charts for an album he recorded in '82, and the 12 people who listened to it liked my arranging, I think, because I ended up getting more gigs." Assignments for Sandy Duncan, among others, led to jingle jobs and eventually a bunch of Broadway assignments.
"I became known as the theater guy who knew synths and rock," he says. "I worked the pit on Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, She Loves Me, Chess and Annie Warbucks, among others. It was a lot of fun." In the mid-'90s, Levenson conducted the orchestra on a Roger Daltrey tour, and Levenson says they remain "mates-Roger's a really sweet guy." When producer David Fishof came up with the idea of tracking orchestral arrangements of classic Brit pop, Daltrey recommended Levenson.
Levenson bears the torch for a new generation of arrangers, a class that is thoroughly knowledgeable when it comes to the time-honored method of applying pencil to paper, and razor sharp in the application of computer-based recording techniques. But seven computers and multiple MIDI sequencers? "I find that different sequencers handle specific tasks better than others, so I'll fire up Digital Performer for some things, and Cakewalk for others, for example," he says. "Extending that philosophy, I think the Mac is more appropriate for certain tasks and has the development to back it up, and the PC is more appropriate for other stuff. For example, I got into Gigasampler very early on, and that's only available for the PC. I'm now very impressed with the software that's coming out of Bitheadz. They're available for both platforms, but their PC stuff is ported over from the Mac side. I'm also a big Sonic Foundry fan, and their products are only available on the PC."
As experienced as he is, Levenson learned a few things working on British Rock Symphony, which will be released on Point Music. "This project was an amazing journey. It started out here in my place. Stop two was Metropolis Studios in London, where we recorded a rhythm section that [Ringo Starr's son] Zak Starkey put together. By the way, he's an absolutely amazing drummer; there's no patronage involved in his success." After completing drum tracks on more than a dozen tunes, Levenson trotted over to CTS Studios in Wembley to record the orchestra on a pair of Sony 3348s.
"Ron Nevison was brought in as a co-producer on the project. We needed the kind of singing talent that he had access to, not to mention his great engineering skills," Levenson explains. "We made 24-track slaves and tracked vocals everywhere. Then we took the entire mess to the Record Plant in L.A. to mix. This is where I got a kick in the pants that I'd like to share with Mix readers.
"At this point in the process, we're nine months past our orchestral dates in Wembley. The tracking at CTS was done to a very high standard, but with an orchestral date mind-set that is in opposition to the isolation way of thinking that most of us rock guys work in. We'd been working with submixes during the interim and not worrying about exact balances. When we put everything up on a 96-input SSL and found that the oboe was softer than we wanted, we discovered that it was impossible to isolate it! Damn! How could we fix the problem?"
At about this time, computer CPu speeds were getting fast enough to make the concept of software samplers and synthesizers a plausible notion. "I was intrigued by the unity DS-1 sampler made by Bitheadz and checked it out early on," Levenson says. "The Brit Rock album was the first project I used it on, and it helped enormously. After transferring all of my Akai sample libraries over to the computer and selling the hardware samplers themselves, I set out beefing up the reeds, some string parts, percussion and French horns using samples triggered within unity DS-1. What we did was transfer our original tracks over to a Pro Tools rig. I then doubled parts using the Bitheadz software. The results were fantastic!
"These days, I don't leave home without three things: my passport, my G3 400 Powerbook and my Bitheadz software, especially unity DS-1 and their keyboard library Black and White," he continues. "I also carry an Alesis QSB controller, which I plug into my Opcode MIDI Port 32, which is their uSB interface. With this complement of tools, voila, I have a Steinway in my hotel room. I also plan on using the unity DS-1 on gigs in the near future.
"I don't want to sound like a Bitheadz endorser, but I'm a big fan of theirs. The unity editor in particular is a remarkable achievement. You can add effects in real time, and it's extremely intuitive to use. For my money, unity DS-1 played back on a Mac with a MOTu 2408 interface sounds better than Gigasampler on the PC with a Layla interface, although I'm not really sure why.
"Anyway, my bottom-line message to fellow composers who work on projects like the one I've just described is this: Think about isolating instruments in advance. Also, if you plan on adding synths after the orchestra is laid down, leave sonic space for them!"
When Levenson was tapped by Dave Chaimson of Sonic Foundry to compose four demos to highlight the capabilities of their Vegas native hard disk recording software, he turned to de Montebello to help complete the project. "In order to fully show off this software, I wanted to have some live guitar and horn parts. Simply laying down a bunch of MIDI tracks would not have revealed the fact that this is a true recording system. I can't record players in my project studio the way they can be tracked in a dedicated live room, and so I went down to Charles' studio to track these parts and mix."
CDM is based on a new mode of thinking. Specializing in voice-over and post-production work for spots and a lot of audio-book work, de Montebello does more tracking and mixing inside the computer than he does using outboard gear and a traditional console-based environment. "I have a custom PC Pentium 2 that was built for me by Waves Distribution, and I do 85 percent of my work inside this box," says de Montebello. "I use a pair of Yamaha O3D consoles and some outboard gear, but most of my processing, including the extensive mastering work I do for project studio clients, is handled in the PC.
"Keith's Vegas project was interesting," de Montebello continues. "We worked in several different ways. On one or two of the tunes, he brought in his own computer, and we used the Yamaha consoles as a digital throughput path to get his tracks into my computer. Once the material was residing in my box we were able to go ahead and add live tracks.
"On the other pair of tunes, Keith simply brought down DATs that had stereo mixes of .WAV files, which I loaded into my Vegas software, and on we went. One point I'd like to mention is that people are, in my view, way too caught up with timecode issues. The flexibility that comes with working in a nonlinear multitrack environment is such that all you really need are your ears, and maybe a two-beep! It's so easy to slide tracks around until they feel right."
De Montebello has a piece of advice for those who want to record native and use plug-ins. "It's true that the computer can get bogged down when you start adding lots of Direct X effects in real time. Remember: The old adage that less is more is sometimes true! Also, you can always print tracks with effects and go on working. If you later decide that there was too much reverb on your backing vocal comp track, for example, you can simply trash that file and recall the original."
Levenson continues to look forward. He's currently working with a multitude of manufacturers, including Korg, Sonic Reality and Apple, developing new forms of entertainment for Internet and multimedia applications. (Keith can be reached by e-mail at Kleven1111@aol.com.)