Leading New York facility Clinton Studios turns 15 this month, and though president and chief engineer Ed Rak is happy to discuss the past, his thinking tends to gravitate toward tomorrow. If you want to visit Clinton, head on over to 10th Ave. and look for Hell's Kitchen. This midtown area used to strike fear in the hearts of suburban types, but the area is changing. "Let's not give people the impression that this is Beverly Hills," Rak laughs. "We want to keep our edge!"
Clinton is particularly well-known for Studio A, a large soundstage-style room that can hold up to 85 musicians. Studio A has a unique sound diffusion system that immediately grabs the eye. "We were initially concerned with standing waves that can bounce between the floor and the ceiling," Rak says, "although we made them unparallel and treated the surface of the ceiling with six to eight inches of cotton and Fiberglas. We put in a highly polished hardwood floor for a lively sound, and we didn't want that sound to get absorbed by the ceiling, but of course you don't want waves bouncing back and forth between the two surfaces."
Rak and company consulted nature for a solution. "We could have used angle reflectors," he says, "but we thought about the fact that the perfect response to a stimulus can be found in the way a calm pond handles a pebble that's dropped into it. The waves that result from this action fan out from the center and perfectly diffuse the impact. Sound operates the same way; a single 6-foot plaster globe, with three concentric plaster circles emanating from the center with a 40-foot diameter results in a beautiful 'sweet spot.' We place soloists, drum kits, our Steinway D piano from CBS 30th St., and conductors-who need to hear or project their sound with maximum clarity-right in the sweet spot. It must have worked-we've had lots of repeat business from some of the top film scorers and record producers in their fields." Recent projects include the score to Playing With Heart, composed by John Barry, recording of a pair of Stevie Nicks songs (produced by Sheryl Crow) for the film Practical Magic, and the George Fenton score to You've Got Mail.
Looking back over the past 15 years, Rak divides the history of the New York recording business into distinct periods. "When we opened, there were no project studios, and MIDI was a minimal factor. I had been an assistant, and then an engineer for Phil Ramone at A&R Studios [first A-list project: Billy Joel's The Stranger] and was eventually going all over the world tracking for him and others. At each stop I would note what I liked about every studio, always with the thought that one day I'd like to open my own place.
"Communication-visual as well as aural openness-was critically important to me," Rak explains. Pointing to the wall of Control A (behind one of the two vintage Neve 8078 boards that Clinton owns), he adds, "We have floor-to-ceiling glass between the control room and the recording space. Anyone in either space is visible at all times to everyone else, and that's important. We're about breaking down the barriers that separate people, and creating spaces where creative ideas can commingle. Of course, putting in the best equipment and staffing the place with highly capable and sensitive people was important as well, but everything was based on the fact that getting a great ensemble sound down was the way records were made. Overdubs were just that-a separate layering process that went on after the basic tracks were recorded by a group of some sort."
MIDI came. It begat project studios. There came a time when individuals, isolated and lonely, would endeavor to create works of art on their own. The concept of overdubbing as a secondary part of the recording process gave way to something quite different. "When ADATs entered into the picture, you'd have guys sending tapes all over," Rak says, "so that a horn player could solo for eight bars, or a guitar player could add some parts. Studios like ours were getting a lot of pressure to mix these projects at rates that were competitive with project studios located in someone's apartment. We had to hold the line in the belief that our way of working was valid."
Eventually, Rak notes, musicians began to tire of the fragmented-sounding performances that come when parts are laid down consecutively. "Moving air together, at the same time, that's always been an important part of the creative process," he says. "I think the better players and producers began to miss the collaborative process of working together in a great room. Don't get me wrong-MIDI rigs and sequencing have given us some great results, both in terms of the sounds that can be generated and the way the compositional process has been expanded. That way of working still has a valid place in the recording business. However, we've noticed a pronounced return to the classic way of working, and it's a trend that has been very positive for us."
In addition to Studios A and B, with their Neve 8078s, Clinton has a third room. "Studio C is used for mastering and editing," Rak says. "We've got a Studer Dyaxis IIi hard disk recording system in this room. We also record voice-overs and instrumental overdubs in C. It's a superior acoustic environment."
Rak says that he's currently looking at the new crop of digital consoles. "There are times when we don't need all of the functionality that our Neves offer but could use the power and flexibility that the smaller digital boards are starting to offer. We're taking a hard look at the Mackie Digital 8 Bus in particular. Although the Dyaxis has faders and can be used as a console, we often record live to DAT or a digital multitrack. The D8B seems ultimately flexible and mixable. It would be useful in that room, and as a sidecar device in the big scoring room, and it has 5.1 capability.
"I'm also very excited about the advancements in higher-fidelity storage that are going on these days," Rak continues. "With 24-bit, the technology can now store more clearly what we send it. 96kHz sampling-and possibly beyond-will help us more clearly represent the song, the score and the magic we intend to capture."
After all this time, Rak is still amazed at the way recorded sound affects people. "I'm still surprised by how touched people are by music," he says. "It thrills me and makes me realize that I'm in the right place. I get to show up at work every day and participate in the expression of this great universal language."
On a personal note, Rak's wife, Kacey Cisyk, lost a five-year battle with cancer last year. One of New York's top session singers, Kacey was a special person. I first met her long ago, when we were both students at the Mannes College of Music. A gifted coluratura, her talent, ability to adapt quickly in the studio and kindness propelled Kacey to the top of her field. She leaves behind her husband, their 8-year-old son, Eddie, her extended family and countless friends.