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Valhalla Studios Jumps into Analog Immersive Mixing

Valhalla Studios owner/Manowar founder Joey DeMaio collaborated with Grammy-winning mastering engineer Darcy Proper and top engineer Ronald Prent to upgrade the facility’s main room to handle all immersive formats.

Valhalla Studios - Studio 1
Studio 1, aka The Church, is the crown jewel of Valhalla’s studios. A former church, this 2,500-square-foot studio stands out with remarkable acoustics and technology including PMC QB1 monitors and a 64-channel immersive audio-ready console able to seamlessly pan from bottom to top—the first of its kind in the world, specially designed for and co-developed by Valhalla Studios New York’s engineers.

Auburn, NY—About five years ago, Joey DeMaio, founding member, bassist, composer, lyricist, engineer and producer for heavy metal stalwarts Manowar, bought a property in central New York state to house his Magic Circle Entertainment company and production facility Valhalla Studios New York. Fast-forward a few years and the 20,000-square-foot studio facility, previously the exclusive domain of Manowar and its Magic Circle label mates, is now available commercially. It has been outfitted with the first analog console capable of mixing in all current immersive audio formats.

To help take Valhalla Studios into the immersive era, DeMaio enlisted the expertise of Ronald Prent, a recording engineer whose credits are a veritable who’s who of global artists, and Darcy Proper, an 11-time Grammy-nominated mastering engineer and the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album, in 2008. Prent and Proper are a married couple. Previously working out of Wisseloord Studios in the Netherlands, and Galaxy Studios in Belgium before that, the couple relocated with their son to New York’s Finger Lakes region, which includes Auburn, in 2019.

“I’ve been working for Joey for about 30 years and have done most of the Manowar records,” says Prent. “About three years ago, he told me about The Church and said, ‘I’m putting some speakers in. You’ve got to come here and try a mix.’”

From left, Ronald Prent, Darcy Proper, Dirk Kloiber and Luke "Jono" Johnson
From left, Ronald Prent, Darcy Proper, Dirk Kloiber and Luke “Jono” Johnson

The Church, the name by which the 2,500-square-foot flagship Studio 1 is better known, had been restored over a period of years by DeMaio and his team, who replaced the roof and repaired the all-wood interior. “It has a really interesting acoustic,” says Prent. “When you walk in, it feels great.”

DeMaio is a fan of big speakers—his touring bass rig is rated at 25 kW, offering considerable headroom. He installed a pair of PMC’s big QB1-A main monitors in the room early on in the configuration process. He invited Prent to Valhalla to experience them, and on the drive back to the airport, just before Christmas 2018, he made a proposal. “He said, ‘What if you and Darcy move out here, help me sort this out, and then you work from here? We’ll build Darcy an immersive room as well and make it a business concept. We need to do this the right way, with the highest possible quality we can achieve,’” Prent recalls.

Proper has moved into a stereo room to start. “She’s working with PMC Fenestria passive analog speakers—they made a special mastering version for her with different crossovers. She’s using the new Mark Levinson monoblock amplifiers. Then she’s got the SPL console.

Valhalla Studios - Dolby Atmos Grid
Valhalla Dolby Atmos grid.

“Now that we’ve finished that, there’s another space close to here that we want to acquire so we can build her an immersive mastering room,” says Prent. They hope to complete that room in June. “She’ll be able to master in any immersive format and be able to hear it. There’s a need for mastering engineers more than ever now so that when you stream, it makes sense level- and sound-wise.”

DeMaio has reportedly been a fan of immersive music since Prent mixed a Manowar album for him in Auro-3D. “He believes strongly that it’s the future of music,” he says.

But Prent had no desire to mix immersive music on a DAW or a digital desk. “Joey said, ‘Why don’t you call up Paul Wolff? That’s what you did last time.’” And Wolff, now operating under the Fix Audio Designs moniker, came up with a version of his modular Fix Console to handle today’s immersive formats.

“I’ve got the first one here, a prototype, and it’s analog. It solves a lot of problems for people who hate mixing Dolby or Sony in-the-box—and there are many of us who don’t like that workflow,” says Prent.

Wisseloord Studios 2.0, by Frank Wells, Dec. 15, 2010

Valhalla's PMC QB1 Rig.
Valhalla’s PMC QB1 rig.

In a nutshell, the 64-input Fix 360 Console supports any format from stereo through the various surround sound configurations to immersive Dolby Atmos, Sony 360RA, Auro-3D and DTS. There are panning facilities for both the lower and upper horizontal planes, as well as between those planes, plus a dedicated LFE send. There are eight object sends per channel, and the desk accommodates Sony 360RA’s two front floor speakers. A separate simultaneous stereo mix can be generated alongside any other format. The comprehensive monitor section supports three 24-channel-wide configurations, each with trim.

“We brought the console down to the bare necessities of what you really need in the analog domain. The rest you can do other ways in today’s world,” continues Prent.

The setup includes four Antelope Audio Orion 32HD Gen 3 interfaces, an Orion Studio Synergy Core effects processor, and 10MX and Isochrone OCX clocking. “I go digital and into a recording system, and I use a DAD and Dante to hook everything up, but the front end is analog,” he says. “You can pan anywhere you like in 7.1 on the bottom, or four or six channels above you, and you can pan between the upper and lower horizontal planes. The panners are phase linear, unlike in the digital domain.”

Mastering engineer Darcy Proper with her modified PMC Fenestria passive analog speakers.
Mastering engineer Darcy Proper with her modified PMC Fenestria passive analog speakers.

Henszey Sound Gets Immersed in Immersive, by Steve Harvey, Aug. 27, 2019

During several visits to Valhalla Studios prior to relocating, Prent worked with an acoustician to iron out some of the anomalies in the room. “We got the flutter out with little acoustic panels,” he reports.

To create an immersive monitoring environment within the massive space, the team installed an aluminum frame to support the surround arrays and overhead speakers, which are all PMC models. Theater drapes help create a room within the room. “It’s like mixing in your living room, but it’s still a control room,” he says. The room is certified for both Dolby Atmos and Sony 360RA projects.

D.A.S. Teams with Manowar for Tour Musikmesse, April 4, 2011

“I’ve done mixing and repurposing, and mixing from stems just to figure out if it all works. I started mixing and sent stuff to clients in Europe without telling them I was here. Everybody said, ‘This sounds great. Where are you?’” says Prent.

“It’s important, I think, that people can just come here and be creative. Then they will use the complicated formats—and Dolby is complicated, but it’s really good and it works.”

Valhalla Studios New York •