Purists may argue that tracking and mixing on analog tape still yields a superior product, but digital audio workstations have become necessary equipment. Many clients - especially the younger ones who grew up in front of computer monitors - simply will not book time at a facility that doesn't have at least one computer-based workstation. And although a variety of platforms have entered the ring, Pro Tools is still the undisputed market leader.
This month, we visited a pair of studios in the greater metropolitan area with long tape-centric histories. Both IIWII Recording Studios and BearTracks have recently acquired Pro Tools in order to keep up with client expectations.
Mix readers may recall, from an earlier profile in New York Metro, that the name IIWII comes from a comment John Lennon made when co-owner Roy Cicala pointed out a pitch problem during a session: "It is what it is." The facility opened its doors in 1993, when Patti Smith tracked and mixed Gone Again at the Weehawken, N.J., studio. Cicala's partner John Hanti speaks frankly about his continued preference for analog and the pragmatic realities that have resulted in the company's purchase of a Pro Tools|24 MIX Plus system.
"I must admit that I'm one of the last to get in line with the new technology," Hanti says. "We've prided ourselves on the sonic quality of our recordings, due in large part to all of the tube gear we own, our API console and, of course, the 50-by-50-foot room we use to track. I can still hear the `digital' in digital recordings, but I must admit that as the sampling speeds have gotten faster, the quality has improved.
"I recently read a review of Todd Rundgren's recording of the group Bad Religion, which explained that the entire project was executed within Pro Tools," he continues. "Todd convinced the guitar players, apparantly, to use the Amp Farm plug-in instead of miking amplifiers or taking them direct into a board, and the record was made almost all, if not entirely, within the digital domain. I went out and purchased the CD knowing nothing about the band, simply on the basis of the respect I have for Todd's talent and experience. I figured that if anyone has this process down the right way, it would be him.
"I got halfway through the record and had to stop listening!" he exclaims. "Like I said before, I hear the digital compression, and it bothers me. But I can see the up side; you can work very affordably in Pro Tools, and it offers ease of use and tremendous editing capabilities. I have to say that Pro Tools feels like an SSL to me; it's so intelligently laid out and functional."
IIWII recently handled sessions for Montell Jordon and the Burrell Brothers. "These people showed me how the young guys who are making music today do it," Hanti says. "I realized that if I created the best of both worlds in a harmonious way, it would make life easy on everyone. My intention is to record everything at 15 ips on Dolby SR-XT and then drop into Pro Tools using Apogee converters." Hanti is convinced that working this way allows his staff to retain much of the analog warmth he misses on records tracked and mixed entirely within Pro Tools. He plans on tracking all vocals, guitars and drums on a Studer 2-inch deck and then moving back to Pro Tools for overdubs, editing and mixing, a work method many other studios have adopted as well.
BearTracks has been in operation since the early 1980s, when Jay Beckenstein took some of the profits he'd earned as a member of Spyro Gyra, and, along with business partner Richard Calandra, went looking for studio space outside of Manhattan. The pair found an old, stone farmhouse in Suffern, N.Y., where the studio lives to this day. Beckenstein looked at other digital workstations, but settling on Pro Tools was not a difficult decision. "Frankly, Pro Tools is the industry standard. It is what projects bring into our studio when they come there. It's sort of the expected digital system and it's also currently the best, if perhaps not the least expensive. As a studio owner, I don't see much choice other than to work with Pro Tools."
All audio hits the studio's Focusrite console before moving into Pro Tools, says Beckenstein. "The best method at this point is a hybridization. Our studio's Focusrite has wonderful preamps and EQ, so the sound entering the digital realms has already gone through some analog processing. I find that working in both realms gives me the best end product."
Chief engineer Doug Oberkircher says that "it's really important to consider using digital technology. I've always preferred analog to digital, but now that we're into 24-bit land, the sound of digital recording is getting closer to analog." Freelance engineer Gary Tole has been logging quite a few hours at BearTracks with client Nile Rodgers. "There have been many fine records made for the most part in the digital realm. Would they have been better having hit analog tape along the way? I seriously doubt it would have affected record sales. Did the fact they were in the digital realm make things easier production-wise? Probably. Do I miss analog tape? I used to a lot more in the earlier days, but with the advent of better A/D converters and 24-bit/high sampling rates, I don't miss it at all anymore. I try to use the right tool for the job. If that means tracking to analog and then transferring to digital, then so be it."
General manager Phil Brennan says, "The previous manager of the studio had his personal Pro Tools setup here, and though its capabilities were in its early stages, it was obvious that there was a need and demand for the technology. When Jay asked me to oversee the running of the studio in 1998, one of the first things that I felt I needed to address was getting Pro Tools back up and running in a stronger and more up-to-date way than we had ever had here before. The extra benefit to me was that in a way it addressed an opportunity that I had to maximize the revenue stream from a one-room facility. This really was a practical way to have another space of the building generating traffic and billing."
We asked Beckenstein and his staff to compare the sound of a session tracked and mixed exclusively within Pro Tools to one executed using analog tools (maybe a digital reverb or two, but let's not get picky) only. "Now that the sampling rate is up, the sound of Pro Tools is really good," says Beckenstein. "In order to hear any difference between Pro Tools and an analog recording, I'd absolutely have to A/B it, and even then I'd probably be furrowing my brow trying to hear the difference. I think over the last few years, the sound has improved to the point where it is very, very good."
Resident engineer Steve Regina has his own take on the subject. "I'm finding that for myself as an engineer, as well as for some of our clients, mixing on a TDM bus, as opposed to an analog bus, just doesn't cut it, especially on the rock stuff. I've worked on other digital mixers that sound better than Pro Tools as far as mixing. Our role is still to be a great front end: a big, good-sounding room with 72 Focusrite preamps and EQs, a good mic collection and a ton of outboard. More and more of the mixing that is done here is off of Pro Tools and is still done through the console because of the sound of the desk and the outboard gear. As of now, the analog sound still outweighs the ease and recallability of DAW-based mixing. So our role is integrating Pro Tools with our system rather than replacing it."