The Walters-Storyk Design and Build Team
Principal Architect: John Storyk
Chief Architect/Project Manager: Romina Larregina, Judy Brown
Mechanical/Plumbing: Marcy Ramos (with Storyk since 1969)
Electrical/Lighting: Robert Wolsch (with Storyk since 1969)
Acoustic Analysis: Dirk Noy, Gabe Hauser
Client Project Manager: Jack Leahy
Construction: Red Horse Construction
Interior Design: Christine Witherspoon
Tell me a bit about the [the initial discussions you and the other company founders had] about opening a production facility. Did the idea start small and grow? Or did you have this concept from the beginning? What was Jack Leahy’s role?
All of us who founded Talking House—me, Pete Krawiec, pc munoz, Paul Ruxton, Stephen Smith, Marc Weibel and Steve Luczo—had worked on musical projects with each other for years in various combinations on different projects. Between us, we’ve worked on a lot of different things, from film and TV scoring and commercial music to Grammy-winning pop, garage bands, jazz, R&B and edgy art-for-art’s-sake projects. We all have a lot of respect for each others’ work.
The idea to start a production company came naturally out of that mutual respect and a desire to work together more; we all had projects that needed producing and were always helping each other anyway.
From that thought process, we also had a shared sense of what we’d like to see happen in the local scene to help our Bay Area comrades get their projects off the ground. A lot of great local composers and performers just need someone to believe in and invest in their projects—to help them develop their work, help them maintain their highest standards without compromises—and also to help them bring it to the right channels in the industry. The development side, investing in an artist’s work for the long term, these are some of the things record labels used to do decades ago. So we set out to figure out a business that would fill that need. There are a few goals the company’s founders all share that shaped the business. We want to be known in the entertainment industry as a high-quality content creation and production house. Whether we’re doing film and TV scores, commercial music or local artist development and production, everything we release has to meet the industry’s highest standard, no compromises. To do that, we need to be free to act on inspiration and creativity, without unnecessary constraints. That’s why we designed such a flexible studio.
We want to nurture the development of local artists’ work and the various projects our own producers come up with .
We want to look beyond great production to success in the market, adopting strategies designed to bring more opportunities for success to our artist partners and our scoring partners .
We want to succeed by developing the most artist-friendly and musician-friendly business model that exists.
Comes down to it, we were just looking for a way to invest in good music, whether it’s our own creation or other interesting artists, just as we’d always wanted people to help us when we were struggling to make our own projects work as writers, bands, singers—whatever.
We have some inspired composers here, too, with more and more opportunities for scoring work, so we wanted the space and tools and the time invested at our disposal to help us jump on those opportunities, to know we always have the resources to turn them around and deliver the highest-quality product, to leverage the shared and disparate strengths of the various writers and producers here so that we can always put together the right skills and the right approach for any project.
Several of us had done projects over the years at Jack Leahy’s studios—both Russian Hill and Crescendo!—and Jack’s a good friend; I named my youngest boy after him. He’s been a kind of a mentor to us for a long time now and advised us a lot on how to achieve the program and the vision we defined. He’s been a crucial part of the team designing and realizing the studio to serve that program.
The space. I understand you moved from wanting to purchase an exisitng studio to wanting to build out. When did the concept form for a central tracking room ringed by three control rooms and two booths? I’m thinking here that form follows function…
Actually, we looked at both options from the start—building a studio from scratch or buying an existing studio. We would have been happy to buy a studio if we had found one that fit our needs and work style. There are certainly many great studios out there, but the ones that would have fit what we need weren’t up for sale! Yes, form definitely followed function in this design. We have six producers, each working on a huge variety of projects: MIDI-focused composing and commercial work, tracking live jazz ensembles led by the greats, orchestral scoring for film, tracking pop songwriters with all the latest digital tools and sounds, or punk bands straight to 2-inch tape.
Because of that, above all, we need flexibility in what each room and the tools can do, and we need the rooms to be available at any time when the inspiration hits or when an artist is available.
The flex design of the studio is awesome. We can choose whichever control room suits the producer’s style or the specific needs of the session, whether it’s 80 channels in live or mainly MIDI plus a vocalist. Then we can use any of our tracking rooms from that control room—every control room is linked to every tracking room, and with every other control room for that matter. So any control room can record our large echo-y live tracking room called The Gallery, the main large live room, the four main iso booths of different sizes and the isolated amp room, which is mainly dedicated to cranking our ’69 Marshall cab or ’65 Vox AC30 or the vintage B3 Leslie cabinet or what have you.
We had looked at a lot of different buildings, some smaller and some larger, and those buildings would, of course, dictate to some extent what we could do with the studio. We realized that with so many different kinds of projects that we were all pursuing, we needed not only several control rooms and plenty of tracking space to accommodate the workload, but also a breadth of tools that could handle the breadth of styles and markets we were serving. So we started looking for a space that would be the right size to enable that.
But beyond the sheer amount of space, equally important was the ability to set up and record quickly whenever we needed to, with all the right tools in place, whether it’s because inspiration hit or a commercial or scoring project needs a quick turnaround. So when we had the Bryant Street building, we must have spent about three months considering how to use the space and how to configure the rooms. We described to John Storyk the need to be able to use every room with any other room, and that ideally we’d like to be able to visually interact with every room, but how we nevertheless needed complete isolation between all the rooms. That was a very tall order, and I think John will tell you that this level of integration combined with isolation has never been achieved before. But John came up with the semi-circular arrangement of the rooms, which gives us the visual connection between all rooms. And then he set out to figure out how to totally isolate the rooms from each other, so that in one room we could be recording live drums and Marshall stacks with the great San Francisco punk band Mud or the amazingly tuneful metal band A Band Called Pain, and next door we could record a dobro part on the Sarah Aili solo debut, or a live piccolo for a film score.
Your equipment purchases seem to reflect a new style of working, one that allows you to be nimble annd yet bring in the battleships when needed. Can you tell me about the first plans to outfit the studio, and how that evolved?
Nimbleness is exactly what we were looking for. And I think it’s less a matter of “nimble versus battleships” than it is that each project demands specific tools, and we need to be able to attack all these projects at will. In fact, I think having the “battleships” available to us is a big part of being nimble. Whatever and whenever the inspiration of the composer, the band, the artist—or whatever the need of our scoring or commercial partners—we can go old school with the SSL board and its particular affect on the signal, go onto 2-inch tape when we want to (whether for tracking or mixing or both), we can dump to Pro Tools or start with Pro Tools, we can start with improvised live jams in the live room and add carefully edited and affected textures via our Pro Tools and MIDI-focused rooms, we can sit and compose in MIDI for two days and then add that one critical live element. We can do any one of these or all of them seamlessly because all the rooms are tied and work together.
I don’t think it’s strange that the artistic side of us believes it’s crucial to have a vintage B3, Rhodes and Wurlitzer keyboards and also crucial to have the new Muse Receptor that gives us incredible flexibility and broad palette of sampled MIDI sources in one dedicated box.
The gear is a perfect complement to the style of the in-house producers and the way the studio was set up. It’s flexible, it’s all accessible from anywhere.
Beyond the style of audio we need to record, we also need plenty of flexibility with what we can do with a product. Since we’re doing scoring, of course we outfitted the place with surround, but we have it in all the rooms, so again, as each audio project brings many outcroppings of other market opportunities with other media, we have plenty of flexibility to include a surround mix of anything we do, and to add video to audio projects, as well as adding audio to our partners’ video projects. In fact, keeping in mind that in today’s word all content is multimedia content, we’ve spec’d an integrated video system that can capture video of all our sessions in real time regardless of any or every room the session is occuring. The benefits are obvious: Whether we simply need quick promotional video of our artists or decide to expand our Blueprints of Jazz Series into a full-blown educational documentary, we’ll have video ready that has already captured those magic moments in the studio. When you think of all the areas video is used with performers, it’s obvious the value this can have: video reels as concert backdrop, video feed to music news reports, combo CD/DVD releases, creating music videos with real studio footage. And as video podcasts and mobile phone video become more popular and accessible, we can easily become a supplier to those channels, with just the kind of behind-the-scenes video of real performances and between-takes comments that fans clamor for, with multiple camera angles and ready to go in advance of the audio recording even being done.
I loosely use the phrase “a producer’s collective” when I tell people at Mix about your place. How do you describe the personnel and the talents each brings to the party—what makes you confident that this type of production arrangement will work?
”Collective” probably represents our attitude toward helping each other on projects and leveraging each others’ strengths to create more opportunities for everyone in the group and the company as a whole. It might also describe the fair amount of weight the company places on each producer’s vision as part of our decision-making process. But the company is not really as loose as a “collective”; that word might suggest that each producer brings his own individual projects into the building and just shares the resources, but that’s not the way we operate. We have a single, shared vision, and all potential projects are considered by the team to determine whether they fit the strategic goals of the company. Because we start with our heads already pretty close to the same place, and because we respect each others’ passions and vision, often we do green-light projects brought in by one producer. But not always. There are company goals and a company standard each project must adhere to.
I understand that Talking House Productions is about much more than simply recording an artist and trying to find a deal. What other types of creative and business services do you plan to push?
I think the biggest difference we’re trying to make is really a rather old-fashioned one: artist development, long-term personal investment in creating great works. We believe great art—even pop art—needs nurturing and time and space to flourish. If we have a single purpose—the reason we built the studio, the reason we organized into a company of producers who together invest our energy into shared projects—it is to spark a reinvestment in the development of music and artists. That investment includes ourselves, as writers and producers, and all the artists we partner with as part of the Talking House Productions roster.
To get at the other part of your question, promoting the projects that result from the vision of our artists and ourselves, I think naturally we’re very aware and in tune with the many new ways music now enters the market or finds an audience. As writers and performing artists ourselves, we’ve all “grown up” immersed in the emergence of the new D.I.Y. age. We’ve been active as artists and marketers during the recent period of rapidly evolving methods for promoting artists and distributing music, so, of course, we immediately assume we’ve got to employ very broad promotion strategies for our projects and our artists’ works using whatever means necessary to find a channel partner and an audience, including the newest tools.
We immediately assume that one medium—audio—begets multiple media opportunities, so we begin every project with that in mind: We look at the market opportunity for every project assuming we will go after multiple media. Right away we do things like capture video of sessions that can be used for video blog updates, mini artist documentaries, cell phone videocasts, video podcasts, full-blown special features on DVD, For that matter, we try to capture and catalog extra audio during sessions that might be used in an audio blog or exclusive fan club podcasts, or, of course, with our studio.
Of course, this is nothing unique to Talking House—a lot of the D.I.Y. artists on the street have pioneered instant distribution of D.I.Y. video. But we hope we can bring it to our channel partners with as much high-quality multimedia inputs as possible given our infrastructure and in a way that enhances the value of the musical product and makes it easier for our artists, for us and our distribution partners, to get that work of art out there to mass audiences.
Besides capturing and editing content, yes, we are working on ways right here to provide complete ready-for-sale packages to new media partners, those companies who are providing great content packaged in new ways and delivered in new ways to young consumers on the go. We have our own series of exclusive audio content in the works, in small form and designed as quick entertainment via download—exclusive content for one of the online audio/video retailers. We’re also working now on original scoring for some 60-second mini-episodes with a video content partner—short, humorous cartoon clips that can download to your phone and help pass the time on the bus or train to work, much like handheld videogames have occupied kids for years.
And there are the more traditional multimedia channels we pursue such as film and TV synch licensing; we’re a content company, but we have so much flexibility with our studio and staff available to us that it makes the task of providing for the special needs of those media partners a lot easier. Of course, a good song is a good song; high-quality content can find audiences in a lot of ways that either bring in revenue or help our artists get exposure or both. So we’re pitching the entire gamut of good uses for any good piece of music we create. Do we need a new mix to fit a film synch opportunity? It’s part of the plan. Can we offer three cuts of an artist’s song to make it more easily fit a commercial client’s video cut? We’ll think that way proactively.
Tell me a little bit about your take on San Francisco’s music scene. Where do you see your operation fitting in, both on a large scale and a small scale?
The music scene in S.F. is exploding right now! There’s is such a huge pool of talent and it’s blowing through the roof; so many talented bands and songwriters are giving it a go, the club scene is growing again—it’s a real renaissance. I think there are artists here writing great material who can use the partnership model that we’re offering. There are artists here looking for someone who believes in their songs and has a philosophy that content is king, that content takes time and nurturing and ears and support to develop and reach its potential, and that artists deserve to be treated like partners for the long term.
We go to a lot of clubs and see and hear a lot of bands. And, of course, we’re constantly checking out artists on the Web. When we work with an artist, it’s always because we’re passionate about their work and believe in them as people. We can’t bring everyone in who wants time in the studio; we couldn’t do that and have proper time and energy to invest in the work. We need to love someone’s work before we start working with them, because we’re in it for the long haul with a goal to help the artist make their music the best it can be. We aren’t bickering over how much time in the studio or whether product is due; if we believe in the work, all we care about is doing whatever’s needed to make it shine, and then we expect to do everything we can to make that product a success in the market. I think that’s what artists want.
Obviously, the film and commercial markets are hot and very creative in S.F. The composers at Talking House are really glad to be here in S.F.; we like the way San Francisco’s film community focuses on creative risks, looks at film and music as art and not only commerce, which often results in market success in the end. It’s a great match for the approach we take in scoring, our focus on inspiration driving production and our ability to do that with efficiency.
San Francisco is an incredibly creative place to make music and we’re honored to be part of that, and we just want to keep taking it there, bringing out the best content the city has to offer, always the highest-quality work and no compromises. This goes to the heart of why we teamed up with The Recording Academy to throw this huge tribute to San Francisco music, past and future, on October 6 at The Warfield. A slew of S.F. greats and stars from all over are performing: Camp Freddy, Scott Weiland, Mark McGrath, Stephan Jenkins, Mark McGrath, Lars Ulrich and tons more, all coming to show respect for the amazing music coming out of San Francisco..
What else should Mix readers know about Talking House?
Check our current list of artist partners and projects at http://thpro.com/projects