The Microsoft Studios audio team. Back row, L-R: John L. Ball, Scott Anderson, Nick Holman, Mike Allen, Ryan Potteiger, Levi Seitz, Andrew Kawamura, Dave Gross and Scott Spain. Front row, L-R: Jason Bilveu and Rick Seneschal.
They've never recorded a hit album there or done post for a blockbuster film, but it seems as though the 65,000-square-foot Microsoft Studios complex in the software giant's Redmond, Wash., campus is humming year-round. That Microsoft would have state-of-the-art facilities at its disposal is not exactly a surprise — after all, technological innovation is the company's bread and butter. And when you think about it, there's a lot for a studio to do for a mammoth company like that.
“I'll give you a snapshot of what we do here,” says Microsoft Studios' audio lead, Rick Senechal. “Right now we're doing a music mix for a video that will be launching an upcoming product — with full sound design. Microsoft puts on large events where they rent out stadiums and arenas, and we'll record the original music for those here. Not long ago we finished all the UI [user interface] sound for Windows 7. We do surround mixes for game trailers that are shown on TV and in theaters. We've done national TV shows — we used to do one with MSNBC called Connected Coast to Coast, which was one of those political bickering shows. [Laughs] We recently did The Rachel Maddow Show [here] and we've done Larry King Live. Tomorrow morning I have two guys who are loading up equipment and we do remote broadcasts. By the end of this year, we'll have done over 2,000 separate sessions — it's an immense amount of production. And when you offer a lot of services, you have to be very flexible and you have to be fluid in all those different arenas.
“We're a production house, as well as a post-production house, and what I mean by that is we have four soundstages, we have eight edit bays, I have four audio rooms, and a mobile Pro Tools HD rig we use for going out to events to do on-site post and music scoring and sound design, as well as a couple of other portable [Pro Tools LE] rigs. Our audio team is unique here in that we're not really specialized in one type of service. The audio team is sort of everything to anybody, so we do everything from sonic branding to broadcast to music production to sort of general radio-style production.”
Adds Microsoft Studios general manager Jeff Singsaas, who also heads up the company's Worldwide Events Marketing wing, “We're seeing a lot of new business in other areas. For instance, we've become a really strong encoding source, helping people get content delivered to the Internet. In partnership with our Silverlight Product Group, we provided encoding support and engineering support for the Democratic National Convention, and also the Summer Olympics with NBC for their Web presence. In fact, NBC was excited enough about it that they've committed to working with Microsoft for the Winter Olympics next year. And, of course, the people who were at the DNC last year are in the White House now, and we're anxious to work with them in the future, as well.
“Another thing we've been involved with is virtual events — this is a rapidly emerging trend in the event industry, where instead of going somewhere and holding an event, it's broadcast over the Internet,” Singsaas continues. “An example is our Small Business Summit where we actually broadcast for several days — there was programming all day long, there were guest hosts, there were subject matter experts for small-business people to listen to. That's all produced out of the studios, and the people who want this information don't have to spend money on travel and hotels and so on. We've had awesome success with it so far — with the number of people that are [watching] that stay connected for the programming, the number of leads the small-business sponsors get from being an advertiser. It's been very encouraging and we can do it all out of here.”
Microsoft Studios has been in its current home for 12 years, expanding, upgrading and refining the operation all along the way. The extensive complex contains three video-ready stages, two green rooms, engineering and electrical shops, editing suites, space for a high-end graphic design team, a screening room, kitchen and, of course, dedicated audio areas: Initially, its two large, virtually identical audio control rooms (out of four audio rooms total) were equipped with SSL Axiom consoles, but for the last four years or so they've housed 36-fader Digidesign D-Control ICONs and Pro Tools HD6 systems that support 80 AES and 80 analog I/Os with 5.1 surround capability. “I know we're among just a few places that go live-to-air with ICONs,” Senechal says. “They've worked out really well for us — for broadcast, post-production and music.”
The Pro Tools rigs are Fibre channel-connected to DataDirect Networks' 100TB S2A Extreme storage platform and the Shared SAN file system solution, which are integrated with the Quantum StorNext file system and hierarchical storage management. Project content is archived from the SAN to a North Plains Systems TeleScope DAM solution with more than 7,000 physical assets (tapes, CDs, media) kept on-site and 30,000 kept in another building. Digital assets are kept on a 34TB Quantum SAN.
The rooms also have Avid Mojo, Genelec monitors (as well as custom “laptop” monitors using OEM Dell speakers) and plenty of outboard gear, including Lexicon 480L and two 300s, four Focusrite Red Series and one ISA 215 processors, and much more.
The facility differs from many other corporate audio/video studios in a couple of ways. First of all, Senechal notes, “We run like a small business inside of Microsoft. We compete for business. Realistically, we act like we're a regular production house. We just happen to be at Microsoft, but it's the same level of client interaction — we have a front concierge desk, it gets people lunch; we still do all that kind of schmoozy stuff.”
“We have our own P & L,” adds Singsaas. “We're required to recover the costs of our operation and also compete with small, nimble commercial entities, as well. The way we've structured our business, we do a pretty good job of that. In-house production facilities typically have to make the case to in-house users to use them. But we've done a lot of work over the past couple of years to make sure that our services are what they need to be, our service level is what it needs to be and also what pricing needs to be. In all those areas we're very, very competitive.”
“Some people have it in their minds that we're just this big corporate facility,” Senechal says, “but because we're so attached to marketing, we're also very much a creative group. I like to think we can do pretty much anything here, and I think that day-in and day-out we prove that to be true.”