It wasn’t the fire itself that caused most of the damage, as John McGleenan would learn over the first few hours of surveying the site at One Union Recording, the San Francisco audio post facility he owns and operates. It was the smoke and water. He had just been through Studios 1, 2 and 4, and they “just stank,” he recalls. The other three rooms seemed “okay.” It was now 5 a.m., and he was on his hands and knees in a hallway with a ShopVac, trying his best to get a start on cleaning up the puddled water. A San Francisco firefighter looked over at him and just shook his head: It was a waste of time.
The call had come just two hours earlier, at 3 a.m. on Monday morning, July 9, 2017, with the alarm company letting him know that there had been a “breach” in the building on Union Street, a steel-concrete-brick structure in the heart of San Francisco’s Media Gulch off the Embarcadero. The fire department had been called and it had gone to two alarms. McGleenan threw on some pants and made the 30-minute drive from his home in the Oakland hills in about 12 minutes.
“I remember driving down Embarcadero and thinking in the back of my head that maybe a window or door had been left open,” McGleenan says today. “Maybe a smoke sensor had picked up something. I wasn’t believing what I was hearing. I was convinced that it was a false alarm.
“Then I turn onto Union and there are two fire engines, with their ladders out, lights going, hoses everywhere,” he continues. “They let me through and I drive in my garage and it’s raining in my garage. I’m now dazed and confused. I go into the building, and I walk into a smoky hallway. The studio is smoke-filled. The blown-out back end of Studio 1 is dripping in water. It is the Hollywood scene of a fire aftermath—the crackle of radios, flashlights. I’m thinking, ‘What the f -%*.’”
It’s hard to imagine that feeling. One Union Recording was McGleenan’s baby. He, Jeff Roth and Eric Eckstein had opened it as a single room in 1995, quickly growing to six. Roth got out early, and then Eckstein sold his stake in 2007. For the past ten years, McGleenan had been owner and president, and things were clicking. They had survived and grown through the dotcom implosion of 1998, the recession of 2008, the real estate craziness of the past decade, and emerged as San Francisco’s leading audio post facility.
Clients included the top of the ad agency world as the foundation and a new breed from Silicon Valley, the likes of Apple, Google, SalesForce, Uber, LinkedIn and many others. There were new types of jobs, including multichannel onsite and event productions, movies and corporate web projects, to go with their bread-and-butter voiceover and spot work. There was much more sound design, and plans were already moving along for the upgrade of one of the studios to Dolby Atmos within a few months.
Just a year earlier, the company had gone through a massive overhaul of its Pro Tools systems, increased its security and streamlined its workflow. Two Avid/Euphonix System 5 consoles were in place and working. Four more had just been purchased and were awaiting installation. The company was completely debt free and the rooms were packed. Life was good!
Then the fire hit.
DECISION TO REBUILD
“I was on vacation in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and I get a call at 7 a.m. I’m still in bed,” recalls senior engineer/chief engineer Andy Greenberg, who has been on staff at One Union for 21 years. “It’s John, and he wants to know how to turn off my console. I think, ‘It’s 4 in the morning on a Sunday there, why does John want to turn off my console?’ He told me that he wanted to protect it from the water. Kind of started off my day a little freaked out—36,000 gallons of water in my studio.
“That was a low point of the day, when I spoke to him that morning,” he continues. “Then there was a high point at the end of the day when I got hold of John and we were already talking about what we were going to build. He was already thinking about the next best thing. The Atmos room. So there was a low that ended in a high.”
Still, at this point they had no idea of the extent of the damage. When McGleenan assembled his nine-person staff, five of them engineers and most of whom had been with him a long time, he thought that they would be rebuilding three studios, maybe 12 months max. He told the staff that they would all remain on salary, with benefits, a commitment he stuck to even after learning in the following month that all six studios would have to go, and 12 months turned to nearly two years.
“Anytime you put water into wire and equipment, it’s going to be pretty severe,” Greenberg says. “What we didn’t realize at the time is how severe toxic smoke is. Water is detrimental to cable, but smoke is detrimental to PC boards. The smoke seeped into all of our PC boards. Then, of course, what water does to drywall is pretty bad, too.”
By August 2017, it became clear from inspectors and the insurance company that the place would have to be gutted, though three of the rooms could remain functional for awhile. This allowed the team to juggle clients and schedules, while embarking on a rebuild. Joe Montarello of the Recording Studio Insurance Program, McGleenan says, was a huge help.
“We went from six rooms to four rooms, then three, then one, then none, then back to one, then three and four, and finally to five,” McGleenan says. “Over a 22-month period, we turned them off and turned them on. We did triple time, double time. I might have had guys starting at 7 a.m. or 7 p,m., 12–16 hours a day. The engineers were tag-teaming in and out of the rooms. We waived overtime for our clients. The entire staff was amazing, and so were our clients. Everybody pitched in.”
BIGGER AND BETTER
The first weekend after the fire, McGleenan contacted studio designer Carl Yanchar, who built the original space back in 1995. He told him about the fire, the three damaged studios (at the time, that’s what he was aware of), and the desire to start right away on a rebuild, with two of the new main studios to incorporate Dolby Atmos. Matt Levine and his team at Bug ID handled the integration.
“Our timing couldn’t have worked any better,” Greenberg says, noting the irony. “Right before the fire we came across four brand-new System 5s, and we love those boards. They’re so powerful, and they have EQ and dynamics inside them. It’s still a console. And the monitoring section is excellent, but it’s only up to 7.1.
“Then, right at the same time, Avid came out with MTRX, the DAD version,” he continues. “With that and MADI in the S5, it was no-brainer to go with MTRX across the board. Each room has MTRX and MADI to the console, mic/line boards, and D-to-A for the Atmos rooms, which are 9.1.4. The others are 5.1 and all work great with the MTRX. We got rid of our 64×64 AES router, which was the heart of our facility for years. Now each room has a 64×64 Dante built into each MTRX.”
The facility has included all Genelec monitoring since it opened in 1995, and the systems have all been updated, supplied by Cutting Edge Audio & Video Group. For Studio 4, on the cover, three Genelec 1237A active monitors are used as the room’s L-C-R array, while eight Genelec 8341A Smart Active Monitors constitute its rear-surround and overhead monitoring arrays, with a Genelec 7380A Smart Active Subwoofer for the .1 channel. Same for Studio 5.
The crown jewel of the facility, however, just might be the central machine room, with its 300 TB jukebox and enterprise-level security systems. With the types of clients that come into the facility, switch-level security systems were a requirement, and their systems are audited regularly, both on a file-transfer level and in the wiring and cabling. If you walk in the door, your cell phone is noted. This month the facility goes on total lockdown for a client; that’s simply part of today’s world. The clients demand it.
“There are some fundamental requirements to work with some of our clients,” McGleenan says. “After the fire, we had the opportunity to solve certain issues by adjusting the layout and flow of the facility. Then it also enabled us as part of the rewiring to go to enterprise-level security. We decided to go dual or triple enterprise, in terms of our power and wiring, which was an immensely fun exercise. I was in hog heaven.”
BACK IN ACTION
One Union Recording is back clicking on all cylinders, the rebuild finished and the rooms full. It would have been easy for McGleenan back in August 2017 to say, “I’ve had a good run, I’m at a good point in my life, I think I’ll just take the insurance money and call it a day.” But he couldn’t, though he admits it was tempting…
For one, the changes rippling through the industry are just too darn exciting for a guy like him. But, more importantly, he felt a commitment to his staff and to the larger Bay Area post community.
“When I sat the staff down, the main focal point for me was based on two things,” McGleenan says. “First, the staff. Many of them have been with me a long, long time. I’m loyal to my staff to a fault. And second, One Union had sailed under the radar for 23 years with an exemplary client base. I’m proud of what we’d done. There was a huge pressure to continue delivering the product to the Bay Area. Because I went from Ireland to Gooby, to TLA, to One Union, I had worked with all these clients. There’s a connection and commitment. I know their kids! If One Union folded overnight in August of 2017, I do believe that there would have been a gaping hole in the local post community. Clients would have to go to L.A. in a lot of cases. The consequences would have been big.
“Plus,” he says in summary, “when I left Ireland a little more than 27 years ago, my dad said don’t be embarrassed to come back home. I’m Irish! I couldn’t do that. It took two years out of my life, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, but we’re back. And I’m glad to be back.”