Let's face it. These aren't the easiest of times for owners ofrecording studios. With costs escalating, label budgets shrinking,and more and more work being lost to home and project studios,proprietors of top-flight commercial facilities are having to workharder than ever to keep their rooms booked and draw ancillaryrevenues from studio-related activities like management and sounddesign.
In New York, the rigors of the recording studio business areexacerbated by skyrocketing overhead. However, in true New Yorkstyle, studios here are toughing it out, determined not to let alittle thing like an economic slowdown or an inhospitable businessclimate break their stride.
At Sound on Sound Recording — a four-room, midtownManhattan facility that has weathered numerous financial stormssince opening in 1987, starting with that year's stock market crash— staying afloat means simply doing what the studio hasalways done: giving clients their money's worth, plus a littlemore.
Sound on Sound founder/owner Dave Amlen says, “It hasbecome more and more of a creative gambit of, ‘How do you payfor the million-dollar room — which is more than a million,by the way — charge a rate that people think is fair, payyour staff, pay your vendors and still make money at the end of theyear?’ The answer is, you've gotta be really careful. You'vegotta watch what you're doing and treat your clients well so thatyou don't have too much down time.”
Giving customers want they want involves providing them with theequipment they need. In the not-so-distant past, that meant alarge, state-of-the-art console, 48-track digital recorders,24-track analog recorders, an ample supply of outboard gear,top-notch microphones and preamps and a crack maintenance team thatcould keep the gear running fault-free.
Today, ensuring client satisfaction involves all of the above,plus Pro Tools. Lots of Pro Tools.
“One of the things we noticed about Pro Tools is how itbecame integrated into the professional environment,” saysAmlen. “When we picked up on that, we decided to make aserious investment in the technology. We now have three systems forfour rooms. One is a Pro Tools edit room that you could mix in,with a Pro Control and up to 48 channels of I/O. Then we have onein our AMS Neve Capricorn digital room, and another system thatgoes back and forth between our two analog rooms, which have NeveVR and Solid State Logic 9000 J consoles.”
Sound on Sound COO Christopher Bubacz notes that Pro Tools hasinfiltrated areas that used to be dominated by analog recording,such as jazz — traditionally one of Sound on Sound'sfortes.
“There are more and more jazz sessions being done in ProTools,” says Bubacz. “Even some of the diehard analogfans are, if not recording to Pro Tools, at least editing andsequencing in the format before they go to mastering.”
Even though Sound on Sound is committed to Pro Tools, it has byno means de-emphasized the many other formats it offers.
“For most home studios, Pro Tools is their console, theirmultitrack, their outboard — everything other than, maybe,what they burn their CDs on,” observes Amlen. “On theother hand, we have Sony 3348s, Studer A827s and A820s, racks ofDA-88s and Sony PCM-9000s. There really isn't anything you couldwalk in with that we wouldn't be prepared to handle.”
The Sound on Sound staff's approach toward Pro Tools mirrorstheir attitude toward the MDM movement of the early ’90s.Rather than fight the trend, as some professional studios did (andcontinue to do), Sound on Sound embraced the new technology withoutabandoning core products.
“Years ago, when ADATs and DA-88s were such the rage, wewere sitting here with our A827s and 3348s, trying to figure outwhat to do,” recalls Amlen. “We decided to buy DA-88sand make them available to our clients. We told them, ‘Herethey are. The rate's the same whether you use an A827 or a rack ofthree DA-88s or ADATs.’ We thought to ourselves, so manypeople are using this technology, and they're not going to payextra to rent it from outside or inside. But we, being astate-of-the-art studio, can afford to embrace a technology that ahome studio is totally based upon and can't build upon. To us, it'san add-on — a value-added item that our clients can use andintegrate into the larger picture, as opposed to it just being thebeginning and end unto itself.”
The technology mix at Sound on Sound includes a healthyassortment of outboard gear — and a punctilious approachtoward how that gear is positioned in each control room. Amlenexplains: “My former employee [engineer] John Siket used tocall this the Noah's Ark of studios, because we have two ofeverything,” says Amlen, laughing. “He always teased meabout it, because we even reached the point where the gear is inthe same position in the respective racks.”
Bubacz adds, “It allows our clients to move from room toroom and not have to think, ‘This room doesn't have a Lexicon480L, but the other one does.’”
On a recent visit to Sound on Sound, Amlen and Bubacz weregathered in Amlen's office while the studios hummed with activity.Contemporary jazz guitar icon Mike Stern was doing overdubs in theCapricorn suite, while rock act the Verve Pipe had the two analogrooms locked out. The band was mixing with Chris Shaw on the NeveVR in Studio A and with John Holbrooke on the SSL 9000 J in StudioB. Producers Brian Malouf and Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains ofWayne and Ivy fame) were overseeing the project.
Among the topics on Amlen's and Bubacz's agenda were theancillary businesses that Sound on Sound is exploring in an effortto supplement the revenue from its rooms. Like many facilities withexperienced, well-connected owners and dedicated staffs, Sound onSound has ventured into management, with clients including mixingengineers Matt Hathaway, Mark Partis, Jason Standard, Joe Pirreraand musician/producer Ted Cruz.
“We're trying to diversify from the main core of justbeing a recording studio,” says Bubacz, who joined Sound onSound after managing Bear Tracks Studios in Suffern, N.Y., fornearly a decade. “We're trying to put together a situationwhere the main members of the company are actively involved inthese new revenue streams.”
Besides the management wing — which goes under the nameSOS Management — the company has launched a masteringdivision aimed at servicing indie clients who are looking for amore affordable alternative than New York's world-class masteringstudios.
“We're not trying to compete with Sterling orMasterdisk,” says Bubacz. “It's an entry-levelmastering operation for regional and local acts.”
In addition, Sound on Sound has entered into an alliance withsound designer/composer Fred Samalin, who runs New York-based EaglePeak Music. Operating mostly out of the Capricorn room —which is equipped for 5.1 channel mixing — Samalin brings tothe table a long trackrecord of writing original music for film andTV hits (including The Sopranos and Dharma &Greg), as well as extensive production music and sound effectslibraries.
“The goal,” says Amlen, “is to not be at thebottom of the food chain where you get told what you're going to beable to charge, but to be more high up and have more discretion asto how things are going to be done.”
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