Vintage analog continues to be in high demand in New York, but savvy clients are also looking to integrate the sound of classic Roland synths and Ampeg bass amps with the control and possibilities afforded by a hard disk recording environment. New studio Stratosphere Sound is emblematic of this development, offering an A room that centers around a classic Neve 8068 console and a fully loaded Pro Tools Mix Plus system.
Stratosphere partners include Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, engineer/ mixer/producer Andy Chase, and Adam Schlesinger, whose title song from the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do earned him an Oscar nomination. Located in the meat packing center near the Village, Stratosphere is large and homelike. It feels like your first apartment might have if a cleaning crew came by every other day or so.
"The studio has a really relaxed, comfortable feel to it," Schlesinger says. "It's like recording in your living room-that is, if you happen to have a vintage Neve in your living room. The place developed in a very organic way. I write and produce, and I play bass and guitar in two bands-Ivy and Fountains of Wayne-and I live very nearby. Originally, the space was where my bands worked out ideas. As time went on, we began talking with the previous owners and eventually decided to take it over." (Smashing Pumpkins band members reside and record most of their tracks in the Chicago area, but Iha spends a lot of time in New York, and he wanted to establish a musical home here, especially for the projects he develops on his own.)
Engineering consultant John Klett was putting the final touches on Stratosphere's 8068 when I met with him. "I remember when this board first went into White Crow up in Burlington, Vermont," Klett says. "They did a number of good upgrades to it, including group muting, a redesigned monitor panel and associated 'communications' rack. The monitor-communications upgrade gives the console a more flexible cue system and adds bidirectional and simultaneous communications like the V3 and VR consoles have. The producer can lean on the button and carry on a two-way conversation.
"At some point the board made its way to Sweetfish, a recording studio up in Argyle, New York," Klett continues. "At Sweetfish the original Neve patchfield was retrofitted with nine new nickel-plated bantam bays made by Manhattan Audio Consultants. That was maybe three years ago. Sweetfish wanted to scale back, and they sold the console to Stratosphere at the end of December 1998. The board has GML moving fader automation-GML has the VME cards now and is going over them for us. This board is set up with the latest software and a Mac front-end for those who don't like the old command line interface. There are four wild faders for grouping, and all the faders are being cleaned and lubed.
"By the time your article goes to print the console will be completely recapped using high-quality, low-impedance parts," Klett says. "These are actually superior in some respects to the original parts. We are checking every amplifier for distortion and bias. All the switches are being cleaned, reconditioned and re-lubricated. Whatever switches, pots, etc. don't clean up will be replaced-the console will be in tip-top shape."
Being able to work regularly on an 8068 was a dream come true for Schlesinger. "This is really my fantasy console. We had an Allen & Heath board previously, and I enjoyed that board as well, but the Neve is a huge step forward. When we were mixing our last Fountains of Wayne record in Boston, we worked on an 8068, and I fell in love with it." Schlesinger's other band, Ivy (in which Chase also plays), recently finished work on Utopia Parkway, their second Atlantic album, which should be released in the near future. (To date, Ivy's best known track is "This Is the Day," which received a boost when it was used in the film There's Something About Mary.)
Everyone makes mistakes. If you sold your Roland Juno 60 synth, don't feel bad; so did I. I can't help but wonder if Stratosphere's Juno 60 once sat in my studio. Schlesinger laughs. "Anyone who has heard 'That Thing You Do' knows that I have a real affinity for '60s music. I also love the early '80s synths and effects from that era. We have an Arp Omni II, a Moog Prodigy, a Farfisa Syntheslalom, as well as things like a Roland Space Echo hanging around. And no digital guitar amp simulator competes with the vintage Marshal JMP 50W, or the Silvertone Twin Twelve and Ampeg B-15 Protaflex amps we use when we want that authentic tube amp sound." The early century 9-foot Steinway also makes an impression.
Schlesinger knows that tripping down nostalgia lane could lead to limited bookings if this equipment freezes out modern technology. "Integrating the vintage gear with Pro Tools is a key to what we're doing here. I've used Pro Tools to track, fly vocals around to create arrangements, and automate mixes, and it's a tremendous workstation. We're upgrading to a Mix Plus system, and it will sit right by the console. Of course, there are always going to be clients who want to stay 2-inch throughout a project, and we can accommodate them as well, since we have an Otari MTR-90 II."
Staff engineer Geoff Sanoff's resume includes a stint at Sony Records. He says that the feel of Stratosphere fits his working style. "They make great records at Sony, but the corporate environment isn't for me. There, every project has to be seen in terms of how many dollars it can generate. That's fine-I respect the fact that it has to be that way. Down here we work differently. Like Adam says, we have a family atmosphere going. We're offering our clients the best combination of analog and digital technologies, but in a looser, more relaxed setting. Our connection to the Pumpkins opens up doors that could one day be very exciting."