Drummer Mark Ambrosino has worked with some of the best, including Michael Brecker, Whitney Houston, Leonard Bernstein, Michael McDonald and Michael Bolton. The amount of session work in Elmont, N.Y., where he lives and operates his own project studio, is limited, however, so Ambrosino recently formed Global Groove, a company based on ISDN technology that lets him hook up with studios anywhere on the planet.
"It's amazing how quickly people get acclimated to working this way," he says. "I do a fair amount of television and jingle work, and head into the city [N.Y.] to track regularly. Once my clients work via ISDN they realize that I have more drums and percussion in my place than your typical room has, and they enjoy the flexibility of working with all of my toys. The distance factor seems to be a barrier that people forget about the first time they work this way."
We decided to put Ambrosino's chops and technology to the test. Having recently tracked an alto sax ballad using Digital Performer, we made a couple of two-mixes (with drum machine reference tracks, without, etc.) and saved both the sequence and associated audio to a Jaz cartridge.
We then hauled over to Doug Hall's house in Montclair, N.J. Along with partner Andy Messinger, Hall operates a successful commercial production facility, MessHall. Like Ambrosino, MessHall needs to communicate with the greater world in an "invisible way," according to Messinger. ISDN has given them the ability to instantly send mixes to clients anywhere.
"It really can be a deadline beater," says Messinger. "Let's say you have a Monday deadline. We might work all day on Saturday and send different ideas out throughout the weekend. When Monday comes, we'll have the spot nailed."
Using any technology for the first time brings the expectation of thorny problems, but guess what? Having Ambrosino cut live drums and then create a series of custom loops was a breeze.
To achieve full 0 to 20kHz bandwidth, three telephone lines are used. We worked on a Sunday afternoon and there were no latency problems beyond the 11-frame delay that we expected. To get around this problem we simply sent our two-mixes to Global Groove, where they were captured on an ADAT system. From then on, Ambrosino was laying down parts in time to the tracks at his studio, and we were able to hear him as he worked.
Point No. 1: This guy can play. Point No. 2: The sound we took back-two tracks at a time-was quite good. "I have a large collection of microphones," explains Ambrosino, "including Neumann U87s and KM184s, AKG C-12s and 461s, and CAD E-200s for the room/overheads/hat; Sennheiser 421s and Shure SM57s for the toms/snare; and an AKG D-112, EV RE20 or Beyer M88 for the kick. If the client has a particular sound in mind, they have the option to choose what microphones they would like me to use.
"As far as mic pre's go, they can choose from a selection which includes Neve, Summit, JOEMEEK, ART and Focusrite. On our session I used a GMS kit with 57s on the snare, 421s on the toms, a 461 on the hat, KM184s for overheads, and two U87s for the room. For the percussion overdubs I used a matched pair of CAD E-200s, which I find to be great all-around microphones. I've been using them for the room a lot recently. For mic pre's I used JOEMEEK VC1s, a Summit TPA-200B and the ART Pro MPA, which I find exceptional for its price range."
As we said, Hall has used ISDN extensively to send mixes to clients. However, this was his first experience laying overdubs to a sequence, and we made the mistake of taking Ambrosino's parts back wild (you can only pull in two tracks at a time), rather than locking them to SMPTE. When I loaded the parts back into Digital Performer, I discovered that lining up ten drum tracks is a chore, notwithstanding the fact that DP 2.5 has a sample-accurate audio editing environment. Achieving a dead lock between parts is possible, but avoiding a tiny flamming when so many tracks contain leakage of the kick, for example, is rough.
Instead, Ambrosino sent me the ADATs themselves. I took the first eight tracks into DP as a unit, soloed the kick and lined it up to sample accuracy with the sequence. I then copied this track's start point to the other tracks. The last two tracks were handled in a similar fashion with excellent results. Next time we'll send Ambrosino timecode in the layback process. In fact, to guarantee that this works, Mark sent tracks to Doug using SMPTE and the procedure was flawless.
The real question is this: How many project studio owners are likely to own, rent or have easy access to the ISDN equipment that will allow them to interface with players like Ambrosino? Time will answer that question, but if ISDN turns out to be a tool of the masses, entrepreneurs like Ambrosino will be an important part of the story. Hall and Messinger say that the experience of tracking with Ambrosino has opened their eyes as well. "Next time we need a dobro player, I may not be calling around Nashville," says Hall. "Using Global Groove was a lot easier than I had expected."