Friday, September 19, 2008

Gear: Quantity or Quality

This post is a guest editorial by one of our top engineering staff member.


QUESTION: Which is more important with studio gear - quantity or quality?

What's the use in having piles of gear in a room if half of it doesn't work? A recent excursion to the Battery Studios auction, and some stories we've heard about other studios broken gear, really drive the point home. A well-maintained, modestly equipped studio is way more valuable than a well appointed, poorly maintained one. The frustration and potential for failure during recording are not worth the glam and glitter of hundreds of blinking lights and shiny knobs.

We have never been known as a studio on the cutting edge (even going back to Power Station's heyday). We've always been behind the curve with having the latest groovy toys (and lots of them). Take for instance the AMS DMX1580S. Back in the 80's this box was probably the hottest thing since sliced bread (maybe even hotter!!!). Not only was it a high quality digital delay and pitch shifter, but it also allowed the engineer to sample as well (not just in mono...but in STEREO!!!). This doesn't seem too impressive today with our 96 input, 192 track Pro Tools rigs, but back then this was simply amazing. This allowed a new level of creativity and actually saved enormous amounts of time by providing a way to "fly" parts around in a song. By this I mean sampling one section of music (perhaps a large bed of stereo background vocal parts) from one part of the tape and triggering it to record at another section of tape. Remember, back then, there were no workstations. Tape is a linear based storage medium.

So there we were, in the 80's, with the introduction of a piece of gear that every pop/rock producer wants access to (if for no other reason than to brag that they are at a studio that has one). As you might imagine, demand for such an item would be high and it was certainly priced to match (I think they probably originally sold for close to $10,000). The fact that 15-year-old units are still routinely selling for over $2,500, tells you something. At the time, Power Station bought just one unit. This unit was floated and shared among the 3 or 4 rooms in the facility. Other studios may have owned one for each of their rooms whereas Power Station only owned one unit for four rooms. The point being, that at least that one unit was kept in working order and was available to any session in the building. People shared and reserved in advance. As opposed to a studio having one bolted into each room where only 2 out of 4 or 5 units may be working at any given time.

Many people enter our control rooms and wonder where all the outboard gear is. Our in-room gear list is fairly lean (with the exception of Pultecs) when compared to most other world-class rooms (and yes, we have directly compared ourselves to many). What they aren't always aware of is the selection of complementary outboard we have on the second floor. Need to have a dbx 902 de-esser? We don't have one available in the room, but we can have one added to our gear complement in about 3 minutes.

We engineers are an opinionated lot. What one engineer loves, the next thinks is a piece of junk. There are only a few, select pieces of gear that most of us can agree on. Al Schmitt might scratch his head and wonder why you would ever want to use something aggressive like a Pye limiter. Someone like Jason Corsaro might think that same Pye limiter is his favorite piece of gear in the room!!! It's hard to please everyone. Our in-room outboard gear selection is just enough to keep you out of trouble. Would it be nice to have six 1176's, two LA-2A's, four LA-3A's, four dbx 160VU's, two 33609's and a Fairchild 670 in every room? Sure, but with all that sonic infrastructure comes the responsibility maintaining it all (and that's just the compressor selection!!!). How many sessions will use that much outboard during tracking? The answer is possibly less than fifty percent, perhaps slightly more during mixing. Even still, a younger engineer might come in to the studio hoping to find a Distressor. Maybe he's just comfortable using that and feels that it would be the best choice for the task rather than one of those old classics. Perhaps, the singer has an enormous dynamic range and he made that choice due to noise figures. A Distressor would certainly have a much lower noise floor than any of these classic designs. Choice is key.

Again, you can't please everybody. Having a few classic, bread and butter pieces will cover most situations. For the guy who comes in and wants 8 channels of Neve compressors.... we have floating Neve compressors. We CAN make that happen. It's kind of like building your own customized outboard rack, based on the needs and preferences of a session. Are you mixing and need access to some wacky or unique effects? Try adding some MXR flanger/phasers, the Quantec QRS, or the Accessit Spring reverb to your outboard complement. Need a ginormous reverb sound for your thunderous tom overdubs, try pulling the Sony DRE-S777 out and load up the St. John the Divine preset or even the Grand Canyon preset. Better yet, send it through one of our 2 live echo chambers first. You never know, you might stumble across something unique and new.

So, while we may not have huge piles of outboard immediately visible, with a little extra setup time and advance knowledge, you too can achieve the ultimate pile of WORKING gear for your next rock session. Just a thought.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Saying Goodbye to a Mythical Pool

Recording studios are highly specialized spaces that require a lot of raw space to begin with to carve out rooms that sound decent. There are some noteworthy studios that adapted available spaces to suit their needs. Some examples are Columbia 30th Street Studios which was an old Armenian church, Village Studios in West Los Angeles a Masonic Temple, and Mediasound an old Baptist church. Aside from the fascinating things that happen inside studios, sometimes the building that houses studios have interesting past lives of their own.

The building that Avatar Studios is in is over 100 years old. Before Avatar Studios, it was The Power Station and before that, it was a television studio called LewRon Television where the gameshow Let's Make A Deal with Monty Hall was taped. Before that, the building served as a Consolidated Edison substation (thus the name Power Station), which supplied DC power to the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. We've had Consolidated Edison engineers / historians come visit to tell us where the generators were and how the power lines fed through and out of the building. Being in this kind of environment, you cannot help but wonder about all the things that transpired here throughout the years.

Sony BMG Music Studios, which was located next door to us at West 54th Street and Tenth Avenue, was another building with a long and interesting history. The studio closed at the end of August 2007 and was just recently demolished to make way for another condominium. Before Sony purchased the building in 1993, it was Camera Mart where you could purchase or rent photographic and film gear. Before that, it was Ceco Studios (where reportedly many of the interior scenes for The Exorcist were shot) and before that, it housed Fox Movietone Studios - a movie studio that was in business from the 1910's.

New York used to be the center of film production up until the 1920’s. The building on West 54th and Tenth was used as a production space, initially for silent films and then with the advent of Movietone sound system, for sound feature films. The facility may have been one of the first major soundstages in the U.S. that was built specifically for motion pictures. According to Wikipedia, the "Movietone sound system is a sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures which guarantees synchronisation between the sound and the picture. ... All of Fox's sound feature films were made using the Movietone system until 1931, while Fox Movietone News used the system until 1939." The building served as a center where Movietone newsreel footage was edited and archived. When Sony purchased the building, the Movietone library was still being stored on the fourth floor of the building. Shortly thereafter, the library was moved to a location in New Jersey.

During the 1930’s, the facility was used as a broadcasting studio in front of a live audience for such programs as the popular radio show Your Hit Parade. John Williams, the film composer, fondly remembers being taken to the studio by his father, who played for the house band, to meet Frank Sinatra there.

Because they were adjacent to our building, we were witness to the painstaking demolition progressing slowly day after day. It was sad watching the building slowly disappear floor by floor and by July 2008, it was pretty much gone. We always heard about how there used to be a pool buried underneath Sony’s soundstage, once the site of popular music programs like Sessions at West 54th (PBS), MTV Unplugged and Hard Rock Live (VH-1). In preparation for the foundation work, excavation of the grounds began where the soundstage stood and on the morning of August 29, the pool reappeared again for one brief moment in the sun.

The pool was used at Fox Movietone Studios primarily for underwater camera shots and Esther Williams was reportedly filmed in the pool for some of her films. The pool that resurfaced was 20 feet by 10 feet and roughly 6 feet deep. The surface of concrete had a blue coating on it that rubbed off when you ran your fingers over it. On the east end along the short side, there was a 4 feet by 4 feet “protrusion.” After observing a 2-inch by 2-inch brass L-shaped bar along the edge between the main pool and this protrusion and hearing accounts about how filming took place, we concluded that the protrusion was where the camera and operator was situated. The camera space was separated from the pool, and thus the water, by two glass panels, which allowed the camera to look directly into the water.

After they purchased the building, Sony covered over the pool with a layer of concrete to better utilize the space. It remained hidden there until last August. Once uncovered, the pool was broken up, but not before we had a chance to take pictures and take a closer look. We saved a few fragments of the pool, but the rest of it was quickly hauled away and was gone without a trace that afternoon. It seemed important to us that this information was documented somewhere for posterity.

I’d like to thank Bob Belden and Marc Kirkeby for sharing historical information about Sony Music Studios.

Additional References:
For people who are interested in disappearing New York Cityscapes and culture:
Jeremiah's Vanishing New York