Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Avatar, A Resource Center for Indie Bands

On October 20th, 2009, Avatar Studios hosted a pre-CMJ panel discussion called "Ask The Producers" with Steve Lillywhite, Kevin Killen and Roy Hendrickson. We held this event in the spirit of CMJ to open a dialog with independent artists and to share some of the knowledge we utilize daily as a professional recording studio in the hope that the information might be helpful to artists.

People were asked to submit their questions for the panel in advance when they registered for the event. There were basically three broad categories of questions. The first type of questions had to do with production - e.g. trends, lo-fi, workflow, home vs. studio recording. The second had to do with how technology impacts production - e.g. the use of click tracks, Autotune, grids, ...etc. Finally, the third had to do with the role of a producer and how he or she interacts with the artists.

I won't repeat the specific questions here, but you can watch the six-part video series of the panel discussion on Avatar’s YouTube channel.

The panel discussion was followed by a one-on-one consultation session between the lucky participants and one of the panelists. It was not unlike "speed dating" where the artists were given 15-minutes to ask any questions or pitch any project they have worked on. It was a unique event and presented a rare opportunity for artists to interact and receive advice directly from experienced producers. It also gave us a glimpse into how resourceful and creative artists are in getting their projects done.

When I asked Kevin Killen for hints on how artists should prepare for a consultation session like the one we had, he gave me the following pointers. I thought Kevin's hints were a good checklist for artists in evaluating their own production direction and would like to share them with you.

In no particular order.

1. How should you maximize your budget?

2. How should you record with your budget?

3. Can good production or arrangement alter your song for the better?

4. How can you maximize the assets (i.e. gear, space, instruments, …etc.) you have?

5. Who should you collaborate with for the best results? – e.g. producer, engineer, songwriters, arranger, other musicians

6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your act?

7. Do you have a sound or are you searching for a sound?

8. Where do you want your musical career to be in a year? What do you need to get there?

9. Are you truly motivated for success? Will you do whatever is necessary to achieve it?

In the past, we as a studio did not get too involved with specific production issues other than how to set up, get gear that was needed and record the session well. We felt that production concerns should be addressed by the producer and/or the artist. Based on the questions we received for the panel discussion, we found that we could offer a lot of suggestions based on our experience so that artists are aware of what options they have. Production decisions will still have to be made by the producer / artist, but at least they can do so armed with more information.

As stated in past entries, artists should view us as a resource center. We strongly encourage you to tap into our knowledgebase and have an interactive dialog with us. Avatar happens to be a vibrant community of professionals working in the industry. We have tenants in our building who are musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers (including mastering) and people involved with specific expertise from record distribution to music for advertising and films. We deal with session musicians, freelance engineers, arrangers, gear manufacturers, guitar & drum techs, rental companies and other professionals who provide support us on a daily basis. Part of the value we bring (included in the cost of our rooms) is the opportunity to pick our brains for your session. You should take full advantage of it.

Check out our Indie Zone page where we will post info specifically of interest to indie bands.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Secrets of Avatar

What makes Studio A sound good?

Another AES Conference in New York has come and gone last month. The last time AES was held in New York in 2007, it was the 30th anniversary of our studio (Power Station + Avatar). To commemorate the occasion, there was a Grammy Recording Soundtable with the founders and staff from The Power Station as panelists.

During the panel discussion, Tony Bongiovi, the designer of the studio, explained how Studio A was conceptualized and designed. During the '70s, most studio live rooms were designed to be dead mainly because of the need to do multitrack recording. In these rooms, musicians had a hard time hearing themselves or each other when they performed. Tony's design goal was to create a reverb time based room for multitrack recording. If you look at Studio A's live room, the dome shaped surfaces are curved in to create a space where reflective distances are no greater than 30 msec from the sound source. The space was designed specifically for musicians to hear each other play and not have them play hard, all for the sake of capturing a better performance. That is why the room is great for horns and strings and the players like it.

To preserve the need for isolation, booths were added to the side, which was being done at Motown Studios in Detroit at the time.

The great drum sound that the room became known for was an accidental by-product of the design. The drums were originally meant to be placed and recorded in the rear "rhythm room" isolation booth. One day, as an experiment, the drums were brought out into the main room (“string room”) and that is when the massive room sound was discovered.

As for the control room, the common control room design at the time was to build a concrete bunker with lots of bass traps, which effectively made the space smaller. The Power Station control rooms used a diaphragmatic absorption technique where the rooms adjoining the control room, e.g. lounges, machine shop in the rear, were used as bass traps. Instead of being sound barriers, the sound passed through some of the walls by design. Yet the control room still maintained a 35dB separation from the live room.

All control rooms - A, B, C and G – share the same design philosophy and dimensions. The idea was to be able to hear the tracks the same way from room to room.

Want to get the "Motown Sound"? Do it with Avatar's Chamber #2.

In the '60s, everyone was fascinated by the "Motown Sound" including Tony Bongiovi. In fact, it was what got him interested in audio engineering. He wanted to unravel the mystery of that distinct sound. He knew part of it was the live echo chamber they used, which had an extremely short decay time. He suspected that it was "designed wrong" or they made a mistake when it was built. To prove his theory, he built a 4-channel mixer in the garage and tried to replicate the sound by adding the echo to an already existing Motown record modifying the signal going into the garage. When Tony discovered that one of the bathrooms in the basement of the then Power Station had a short decay time, he took what he learned from experimenting in his garage and was able to recreate the Motown live chamber sound pretty closely. The bathroom is still an active live chamber today and is used a lot by clients who know about it. If you want the "Motown Sound", just ask for Chamber #2.

The audio recording of the Grammy Recording Soundtable panel discussion from AES 2007 was available from the AES site (cannot seem to find the item since the site redesign) or you can watch the video at the Grammy Web site under the P&E Wing section.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

When is the Best Time to Record?

Radiohead's Thom Yorke recently announced that they have no plans to release another long-playing album. Instead, they would release instantly available singles and quick EPs.

With the exception of artists with an expansive vision to record a cohesive concept album, there are several reasons why this approach might make sense. Not all bands are like Radiohead, with an established name and track record that can afford to make an album by themselves and sell the completed product to the highest bidding record label. Many bands are unsigned, and even if they are signed, production budgets are shrinking by the minute. By reducing the number of tracks to record at any moment down to one (single) or just a few (EP), the up front production costs due at any given time do not have to be large. Some of the production cost can be recouped right away by making the tracks available for download. The cycle would thus be shortened from the time the recording investment is made to when the recordings can start being monetized.

Another benefit is that bands are not forced to come up with more than ten tracks or 50 minutes of music for an album. Instead, they can focus their efforts on their strongest tracks and maybe take a little bit more time and care in polishing the production (including recording), arrangement and performance. Buyers probably would not mind paying for quality tracks and the complaint of paying for "fillers" would become a non-issue.

As for the timing of when to record and when to release the completed recordings, there is no longer a set rule. Instead of a band touring to support their record, a band puts out a record to support their tour. Of course, a band wants to have a record to sell, preferably one that contains some of the songs that were performed, when they tour. The concertgoers' need for obtaining mementos of the performance and to get instant gratification means selling records (CD, EP or vinyl) at the venue. At a very minimum, you want to make sure the tracks are available for download and the fans know where to get them.

It is not uncommon for bands to "test" out a new song during live shows. In fact, the more times a song is performed, the band has the opportunity to work out all the kinks with that song. A different key / tempo may be tried, a different arrangement applied and instrumental solos can be perfected. Better to work out the bugs this way than in the studio. Re-recording for these reasons is wasteful.

It is interesting to watch a well-rehearsed band come in to record. We have seen many such examples during the sessions that we host for World Cafe and Lillywhite Sessions. Wilco recently came in during a hole in their tour schedule and performed five songs live in four hours from their new album. The performances were great and the recording came out fantastic. Goldfrapp performed their atmospheric songs live and did them well in one or two takes. A well-rehearsed band could save a ton of time in the studio, especially one that is in the midst of their tour or towards the end of their tour.

If a band is well rehearsed, it is not inconceivable that an entire album worth of music can be recorded in a day. It only took Ron Carter and his Quartet five hours to track 7 songs, recording over 50 minutes of music. By the end of the day, the entire album was mixed and in the can. They rehearsed the day before they came in, but the band also had performed some or most of the songs many times during their tour. I know what you're thinking - you can do that because it was Ron Carter, that it was jazz. Admittedly, it is a somewhat different process for rock or pop, but the point is that preparation and rehearsal can shorten the time in the studio significantly.

That begs the question, when is the best time to record? That answer might be before a tour and after a tour. As stated earlier, a band wants to have a recording to sell during their tour. A single, an EP or a few downloads could do the trick. Then, after many live shows, the band might be ready to record tracks for posterity, perhaps document the polished, definitive version of a particular song. Another answer might be frequently and often in order to have a constant stream of material to keep your fan base engaged.

Doing shorter, maybe more frequent sessions may be the way of the future. How many tracks should be recorded per visit? If you are going into a recording session, there is probably a sweet spot in terms of number of tracks to record to take advantage of economies of scale. You might as well spread the cost of the session over a few tracks since you will be going through the time and trouble to set up a session. From our experience that number is somewhere between three and six depending on how well rehearsed you are, how different the set up is for each track and how much overdubbing you need to do.

Investing less in album creation is not altogether a bad idea. It is financially a healthy strategy for bands. For studios, it would mean shorter and hopefully more frequent recording sessions. Our hope is that whatever investment is made for production, more consideration be given to the quality of recording and not just the quantity.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Short Survey of Resources About History of Recording Studios

Maybe because I am reminded every day by ghosts of so many sessions past, I have an appreciation of other studios with long histories, particularly those that came before us. I suppose we are just one link from a long chain of recording history that is still evolving right before our eyes.

It is not easy to operate a studio, much less keep it running for many years. I hear a lot of stories from the "old days" from clients, engineers, musicians and vendors reminiscing about their experiences and memorable sessions they've had here and at other studios in town. New York used to have so many studios.

Are any of these stories documented? There have been a few books written specifically about recording studios and I'll introduce some of them in this entry. I feel there has not been enough documented and many people who actively participated in the "golden age" of recording are getting on in years.

I am by no stretch a historian or an archivist, but I am an enthusiast and would like to share with you what information I have collected.

The book that covers most of the famous recording studios throughout the country is Temples of Sound by Jim Cogan and William Clark. The book covers the late '40s into the '70s and includes studios like Capitol, United Western Recorders, Stax, Sun Studios, Chess, Motown, Sigma Sound, Atlantic, Columbia, Criteria and others. I would say it is required reading.

Starting regionally with New York, one of the best and concise history of recording studios in New York that I have run across was a September 1999 article in Studio Sound magazine written by Dan Daley called "New York New York." Unfortunately, the magazine no longer exists and I cannot provide links to the article.

The best book (the only one I know of) dedicated to New York recording studios is Studio Stories by David Simons. The book covers the period of the '50s through the mid-'70s. At the AES Conference held in New York in 2005, there was a historical panel called "History of the Grand Recording Studios of New York City" (scroll down a bit) which featured representatives from many of the studios highlighted in the book including Mira Sound, Fine Recording, Columbia 30th Street, Bell Sound, A&R, Record Plant and Mediasound. The audio of the panel discussion can be purchased from the AES store. The recording is a little disjointed and you have to guess which panelist is speaking, but it is still pretty interesting. I recreated the map of studios (circa 1962) from the book in Google Maps and updated it with a few more studios.

To AES' credit, they run great historical panels, which are recorded, and they serve as a great source of information. There were two other historical panels at AES 2005 and AES 2007 that covered the history of other New York recording studios. Also at AES 2007, a Grammy Recording Soundtable panel on The Power Station was held. This event was videotaped by The Grammy Foundation. The video can be seen here. It is fascinating to watch and listen to Tony Bongiovi explain in his own words his philosophy / approach behind the design of the rooms.

For Nashville, there is a book called How Nashville Became Music City, U.S.A.: 50 Years of Music Row by Michael Kosser. It is on my list of books to read. Another source of information is an AES 2007 historical panel which traces the history of The Quonset Hut and RCA Studio B.

As far as the Los Angeles scene, I am not aware of any publications specific to that area. There is certainly a lot of rich history there. Maybe someone ought to write a book. There is a memorial / archival site of A&M Studios that is maintained by Stephen Barncard where you can browse Web pages as it were in 1998.

San Francisco Bay Area's recording studio history is lovingly and painstakingly detailed in Heather Johnson's book, If These Halls Could Talk. The book is very thorough and comprehensive of the studios in the area.

For books on overseas studios, there is Abbey Road by Brian Southall, Peter Vince and Allan Rouse. At AES 2006, there was a historical panel called "The Abbey Road Sound - 75 Years in the Making". Of course, a number of books about The Beatles have been published recently, the most notable among them is the monumental and definitive Recording The Beatles by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew.

Just as a side note, you can also hear Malcolm Addey's own version of his time at Abbey Road as well at Bell Sound and A&R Studios on our Oral Studio History podcast. I think oral histories are a great way to document studio history. A great application of this methodology is AES Historical Committee Oral History Project where experts in the audio field are videotaped talking about their expertise.

By no means is this list exhaustive and if you know of more resources about studio history, please send them in. I'll add them to the list of resources as I get them.

Other Resources:

Too Hot to Handle: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Recording Studios of the 20th Century by Randy McNutt

AES 2003 Panel "Temples of Sound" with Cosimo Matassa from J&M Studios in New Orleans and Joe Tarsia from Sigma Sound.

AES 2006 Historical Panel "San Francisco Studio History"

Monday, June 29, 2009

Masters of Thriller

We stared in awe at the contents of the opened box that was just delivered. In the box were several masters of Michael Jackson's Thriller. They were sent here for us to do digital transfers from 2” tape as preparation for the remixes for the 25th Anniversary edition of Thriller.

The client in charge of the process was verifying that the transfers were done properly in our Studio B when we checked in with him. He asked if we would want to hear some of it. Who would say no? He played us the track "Beat It." He soloed the famous Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, then just the lead vocal (which was fantastic!) followed by a lot of other individual tracks giving us an idea of how intricately layered the song was with a lot of different types of sounds and instruments. It was a song we have heard a thousand times, but the experience was still eye-opening and hearing how meticulously crafted it was.

I am always intrigued when a hit song is deconstructed as sometimes demonstrated in the video series, Classic Albums. It would be great to see one for Thriller. Each show has the artist and/or producer & engineer replay tracks from the hit album with running commentary on how much care and craft that went into the playing, shaping and mixing of each song. Showing more of this process would certainly raise the amount of appreciation people have for what professionals do in the studio. Think of the PR value that would have.

When I get the chance, I always ask engineers who have worked on hit songs / albums whether they knew at the time they were working on something special. (If you ask the producers, they'll always say yes). Most of the time, the answer I get is that they knew the music was good or the performance special, but most of the time, they were too busy making sure that everything was being recorded properly and the clients were happy. How can you foresee that the project you are working on will become a mega-Platinum hit? Sure, if the artist is currently hot and their career is on an upswing, you can predict that it will do pretty good, but for the songs on the album to become a sound track to the lives of thousands worldwide and become a cultural phenomenon, that is a little bit harder. That is why you have to treat every session like it will be a hit, because it just might become one. You never know.

Despite the splintering of attention and overabundance of content to consume, it is really encouraging to see that the experience of music can be ubiquitous. This certainly has a lot to do with the genius performer that Michael Jackson was. The sad thing is that people do not realize how important a part of life music is until an unfortunate event such as this occurs. It is a sign that with the right music and performer, there is still value in music and its impact can be powerful. Many people are saying that this phenomenon - the magnitude of talent, the mass appeal and worldwide reach, the record sales, the timing in history - can never be repeated. I would like to believe otherwise. You never know which masters in a box will change the world, again.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cell Phone Etiquette

Besides the nuisance of phones ringing during takes or the distraction that texting and message checking can cause, there is another reason for requiring everybody involved in a recording session to actually turn off their cell phones. Switching cell phones to vibrate mode will not help in this case.

It is bad enough that studios have to contend with all sorts of RF in the air that show up on microphones and other recording gear. It certainly does not help matters if the RF sources are cell phones of the players in the session.

Every cell phone emits a "homing" signal to the nearest cell tower on a regular basis to let the tower know that it is still within range. When this happens, the cell phone will boost its RF output power up to 1W to make the connection. Normally, the output power is much lower at around 1mW.

If the cell phone is in close proximity to a microphone, it will result in noise. If the cell phone is left on top of or near the recording console, it might show up as noise on one of its channels. Cell phones have been known to interfere with outboard gear as well.

The last thing you need is somebody's cell phone ruining a perfect take. We understand that people want to be accessible so they do not lose a gig, especially in this economy. You can always retrieve and reply to messages during breaks. Most of the time, cell phone reception can be spotty anyway, e.g. in a building like ours that used to be a Con Edison power substation.

As a business that provides room and service, we cannot force people to turn off their cell phones. Unlike smoking, it is not against the law. We can only recommend that they do so. Enforcement will have to come from the producer or someone who is in charge of the session. Don't say we did not warn you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lessons from Kitchen Nightmares

I don't watch a lot of television and shockingly, I don't have cable at home. I see what I need to with a Netflix subscription and a digital converter box at home. However, I do see snippets of programming in passing at the studio where we have 200+ channels of DirecTV. One show that has captured my attention is Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (the UK version) that is shown on the BBC America channel. The appeal of the show to me is how Gordon Ramsay, a successful restaurateur and chef, forcefully points out some of the basic principles of business management that is critically lacking in failing restaurants he visits.

Watching how restaurants are run, even as small as a two-person operation, you can see a microcosm of all the things a business has to deal with and do well. The show offers insights on leadership, teamwork, delegation, communications, streamlined operations, quality control, customer service, market research, product mix, differentiation, marketing, promotion, entrepreneurial spirit, change management...etc. The resistance to change that Gordon encounters, even when the restaurant is on the brink of bankruptcy, is fascinating to watch. If a small, handful of people dig their heels in and refuse to change their ways even when they are about to lose their livelihood, imagine what a large corporation has deal with when management wants to enact change in strategy, organization, mind set, ...etc., especially if the employees are too comfortable. I can attest to how difficult that can be having personally witnessed it working at Sony for many years.

There are plenty of lessons here that are valuable and should spur you to take a closer look at how you are running your own studio. Making changes against status quo is always a challenge, especially if you have been doing things a certain way for a while. If this economy does not force you to review everything about your business, the large scale changes occurring in the music industry will certainly test your business acumen, adaptability and resolve in running any kind of recording studio today. The small tweaks suggested in Ramsay's show may not be enough to weather large tidal changes. It makes you wish for a show called "Studio Nightmares" except I think we are operating under conditions much tougher than what restaurants are facing. It might be time to think outside the box of the box.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Herd Mentality and Other Musings

It never fails. One week, the studio can be slow, even dead, and the following week everybody is clamoring to get into the studio all at the same time on the same day. Is there a conspiracy or some secret pact between those who want to record? Or is it some form of weird competition where everybody waits until one artist decides to record and then all follow suit trying to out-muscle each other? I don't think it is just us. From our conversations with producers, engineers, instrument techs, rental companies, even other studios, that is how it seems to work. If one artist broke ranks from the pack and decided to record one week earlier or one week later, they would have the pick of the rooms and get a great deal to boot. Are you listening out there?

Being someone who won't believe an anecdotal statement without supporting data to back it up, I decided to go back and take a look at monthly bookings from the past six years to see if there really is some sort of trend or seasonality to when people prefer to record. Actually, I get asked the question often whether there is a pattern to recording activity. My usual response is that every year is different, and it is. Each year, there are different circumstances in terms of what is happening around the world, how the economy is, what is happening in the music industry, down to what individual bands are doing. The result of my simple analysis is indicative of our experience and our experience only. From a studio standpoint, it is a sample size of one - not something I can say is statistically significant.

At a very macro level, conventional wisdom says that in general, most artists want to finish recording before summer so they have something to sell when they go out on tour. Post-July summer and the months sandwiching the year-end holiday season were considered to be slow times. The data seemed to support the existence of a pre-summer bump over 80% of the time with May and June being the best months of the year - that is up until 2007. Since then, we have seen a completely different recording behavior with peaks occurring in February for the last two years. The rules have seemed to gone out the window. It is hard to explain why since there are too many factors that could play into this. As a business owner, especially in a downturn, you need to be able to forecast and take corrective action as quickly as possible, but it has been hard to predict what will happen this year or the next. I am already seeing that this year is even more different, but then this year has not been like any other year in terms of the state of economy. What made the herd change it's mind?


In the last post, I mentioned that almost 80,000 new releases came out in 2007. It takes time and effort to put together and finish an album, which is no small task. Regardless of how many units each release sold, the good news is that there were 80,000 artists who were resourceful and driven enough to produce their albums.

I was talking to a well respected producer, who was telling me that he has been inundated with more projects recently. The reason was that people who had been let go recently by major record labels have approached him with their own projects. These people - lawyers, A&R, publishing and promotions people - were now applying their trade and lending their expertise to help expose artists. Music people are pretty passionate - that is why they got into it in the first place, but they have to eat as well.

As soon as we see the light at the end of this recessionary tunnel and the credit market loosen up a bit, we should see funds become more readily available to these independent projects. We might even see more recording activity. There does not seem to be any shortage of people wanting to record. With talent to attract investors and funding to allow more options for production, we may see more artists needing help from experts. That is reason to be optimistic. I guess that is enough crystal-balling for now. Got to get back to work...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What Price Audio Expertise?

Michael Porter, a renowned expert and scholar on competitive advantage and competitive strategy, states that an organization can compete either by differentiation or by price. To put it more simply, the question is do you want to be like Apple or like Walmart? If you continuously strive to offer a superior product, you can command a premium because you gain a devoted raving fan base of consumers.

There is another economic principle called the law of supply and demand. If you look at professional studio services, history shows that there are now less studios operating. As I stated in an earlier post, studio rates have not really changed over the years. If anything, there seems to be an almost irrational rush to lower them. There are now alternatives, or what Porter may call substitute services, namely home studios powered by less expensive, feature rich modern "prosumer" audio gear. Yes, there is still a need for large spaces where people can play together and there is a need for a no-nonsense place where people can go record and get what they need done professionally.

On the demand side, you can say that CD sales are down, labels are struggling and recording budgets are smaller. Yet, in the last six years, the number of recording releases per year has increased by leaps and bounds. In the U.S. in 2003, over 38,000 albums were released. In 2007, that number reached almost 80,000 (31% of that was digital releases)**. There are a lot of tools available now that make it easy to create and produce your own music. The volume of sales per any single release may be dropping (80% of releases sell less than 100 units) but the total amount of music being generated seems to be greater than any other time in history. The cumulative total number of SKUs in the U.S. is about half a million. The total number of SKUs handled by one record retailer’s system is about 16,000. You can begin to understand how logistically difficult it is to carry inventory that caters to a wide and diverse range of consumer tastes.

With better tools and the Internet, it is the age of democratization of music making, filmmaking, broadcasting, news reporting, ...etc. If a work captures the imagination of the masses for whatever reason, it becomes a viral hit, even if it was produced on a shoestring budget. Whether a hit like that generates any sustainable business remains to be seen. Popularity aside, people can clearly tell if a program was professionally produced or done on a shoestring budget. Just because more money was spent on production, it does not equal or guarantee quality. A lot has to do with the core quality of the song, the story, the writing. But when all the stars align and the content and the presentation are both done with quality, then the end result may transcend the medium and become art.

The other more troubling question is how much value is placed on art in general? With so much content being generated and assuming you can find a nugget in your Google gold pan, how long will the impression that song, book, movie, blog entry made on you last? Will you covet those items and go back and re-experience them again? Will it be relevant in 5 years, 10, even 50?

Yes, there are a lot of technological and cultural factors that affect what we do. It affects the marketplace where we conduct our business. The sorry state of the economy is not helping either. Like any other profession, there is a value to expertise. If a business is run right, there is a value associated with that. If the user experience is superior, there is perceived value. Not all of this is tangible. How do you put a price tag on all of the above? Yes, the price is what the market can bear, what the customer is willing to pay, ...etc.

Is an hour in the studio a commodity - one hour at Avatar is no different than an hour anywhere else - like a sack of potatoes? Is a better maintained studio worth an extra $25 per hour, a better trained staff who is attentive, competent and has pride in what they do an additional $5 per hour, an engineer who can successfully run your session and get a great sound no matter what the situation $15 per hour? We submit to you that there is a difference. If we did not believe it, we would be doing something else.


** Source: Nielsen Soundscan State of the Industry 2007-2008

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tips on Using Analog Tape

This post is a guest editorial by our highly experienced maintenance staff member.


QUESTION: What should I watch out for if we decide to record to analog tape?

So....if an engineer wants to record to analog tape today, here are some suggestions to make the session go off without a hitch.

First, the engineer or producer should estimate how many reels of tape they will need and ask the studio far enough in advance to order enough reels cut from the same batch for the entire project. Today, batches or production runs of tape are much smaller because of the lower volume of analog tape production. Therefore the acceptable deviation or inconsistencies between batches of tape can become more apparent if a project uses reels from different batches in the middle of a project.

Second, it is always good practice for the engineer and assistant engineer to check the alignments of tape machines PRIOR to recording music. It is quick and easy to send 100Hz, 1kHz, and then 10kHz DIRECTLY to tape (no inserts or effects between the oscillator and the tape machine) and look at the level on INPUT and then throw the machine into RECORD and look at the level coming back from tape in REPRO. All that matters is that the level on INPUT and REPRO are the same! You only need about 30 seconds or less of blank tape on each reel to just check the consistency of the batch(es). That is considered acceptable deviation between reels and what is not acceptable can be decided by the engineer, but at least there will not be any unpleasant surprises.

If you have no choice but to work with reels from obviously different batches, there are always options that will enable you to work around the inconsistencies. One option - for very minor differences - is to call the technical engineer and have them tweak the record alignment once you start working with the new, differing batch. For more serious deviations, the machine can be re-aligned and new tones can be printed on reels from different batches of tape. This latter, worst case scenario can be time consuming and bring the creative process to a grinding halt, which is why we recommend getting tape that has the highest probability of consistency (reels from a single batch) for your project.

Lastly, you should remember that the imperfections of analog recording (called "non-linearities" by electrical engineers) are the reasons people find analog appealing to begin with. By non-linearities I do not mean a high noise floor (hiss) and high-output tape slammed with signal. These are not examples of the limitations of the analog recording medium, but are symptoms of unintended use of tape. When you record to analog, you cannot expect the precision and consistency that today's digital recording systems boast in their technical specifications. The analog system should be relatively flat in its frequency response (+/- 1-2dB from 50Hz-15kHz) with a consistency of +/- 0.25dB between channels and a consistency of +/- 1dB between batches of tape.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Paying Your Dues

QUESTION: How long does it take to get really good at recording?

I recently read a couple of books - one called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and the other The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen. The former talks about attaining excellence and the latter talks about the spread of mediocrity. I recommend reading both books. Later, I will have a post about The Cult of the Amateur. One of the main points in Outliers - that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something - has been mentioned and referred to a lot lately in the press and in many blogs.

I wanted to offer our take on this 10,000 hour principle from the perspective of how our staff members develop from being interns to freelance engineers.

As mentioned in a previous post, people join our staff as interns. After three months of internship, those that show dedication and the right fortitude, they are hired as production assistants (PA). Historically, it takes about 3-4 years to be promoted to assistant engineers. After about three years as an assistant, people start getting a little restless and consider becoming a freelance engineer. I put together a chart that plots the number of years since becoming a staff with the estimated time people actively practice their craft of recording, shown below (click on the chart for a better view).

I did not consider the years of schooling that people have before coming to the studio. You may think of the hours counted as a craft practiced on-the-job. As an intern and then a production assistant, many of the hours are spent running around getting coffee, cleaning, moving things, printing labels, ...etc. Not a lot of time is spent learning the craft other than studying manuals, learning the rooms through practice time, help setting up sessions and watching and listening to engineers. This happens mostly during off-duty hours. However, during this time, one learns what goes on in the studio and how to behave around other people, which is very important.

Toward the end of being a PA, one gets a chance to sit in on sessions or "second assist" and shadow another assistant engineer. This is preparation for becoming an assistant engineer.

Once one becomes an assistant engineer, a lot of time is spent in sessions working with a variety of seasoned engineers. Working at Avatar, this means working with James Farber, Al Schmitt, Kevin Killen, Paul Northfield, Niko Bolas, Dave O'Donnell, Roy Hendrickson and many other talented people. One gets exposed to many different set ups, approaches and techniques and this is where a lot of knowledge is absorbed. This exposure and experiential learning is the invaluable part of working at a large studio. When assistants leave prematurely, they miss the concentrated learning that occurs during this phase. Another benefit is that artists, producers and engineers will remember a promising assistant and this established connection leads to future gigs.

After about three years, assistant engineers get the opportunity to engineer sessions when clients come in with no engineers specifically assigned. At this point, assistants have seen what worked well and they have a few ideas of their own on how they would approach a given session. During this time, assistants have to start thinking about creating their own "rolodexes" of future clients.

Once the assistant makes the leap to become independent and join the ranks of the freelance engineer, which is a major deal, one is free to practice their craft pretty much full-time or as much time as they can get gigs to make a living or work with artists they believe in. After doing this for three years, the cumulative hours spent in perfecting one's craft has gone over 10,000 hours.

If you had a choice of using someone who claims to know the craft versus someone who can show you this kind of a track record, which one would you hire? There would be a difference in quality when someone, who had paid his/her dues to get to this level, works on your project. Let me tell you, it is worth it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Recording A Large Broadway Cast Album

QUESTION: How do you record a large Broadway cast album?

With The Hit Factory Studios and Legacy Studios A509 closed, there are not many large rooms left in New York City to record Broadway cast albums, particularly ones that require an orchestra and a group of singers to be recorded at the same time. Our Studio A is large enough to accommodate both in one room and have a proven track record to do it successfully. Sure you can do it split across two rooms, but why pay for two when you could do it in one and why add the additional complexity and heighten the risk of something going wrong?

Avatar Studios has recorded many cast albums over the years including Les Miserables, A Catered Affair, Avenue Q, Cabaret, Grey Gardens, The Pajama Game, Spelling Bee, Sweeney Todd, Little Women, Next To Normal, Xanadu and many others. The most recent cast album we tracked was Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show. By doing many of these types of sessions, we have accumulated experience in carrying out what some might describe as a pressure cooker since there are many actors / actresses / musicians involved, who are all on the clock, and the sessions are often attended by producers, songwriters, other production personnel and sometimes VIPs.

The important factor here is to be able to isolate the players. There will be some leakage, but minimizing the effect is the key. Taking a session we did in Studio A for Les Miserables, the set up that worked well is shown below (click on image for a larger view). In this session, there were a dozen singers and the orchestra was made up of a dozen string players and a woodwind and brass section.

Studio A has two large isolation booths in the rear – the piano room and the rhythm room, which can be closed off using sliding glass doors. Studio A also has two smaller iso booths next to the control room. The multiple singers and chorus section were all situated in the piano room with eight microphones. The rhythm section consisting of percussion, drums and guitars were in the rhythm room. The principal singers were in the small iso booth closest to the main live room. The main live room was split down the middle using a wall of tall gobos to isolate string players from the horn players. Looking out from the control room, the string players were on the left side and the horn players on the right all facing away from the control room. The conductor was at the edge of the main live room facing towards the control room. The Fender Rhodes player was right in front of the conductor. All the singers and players had a clear view of the conductor as did the people in the control room.

Some variation of this set up was used in other cast album sessions. Sometimes the conductor stood in front with his back against the control room glass with all players looking towards the conductor / control room. Sometimes, the singers / chorus and rhythm section swapped rear iso booths depending on the sonic and size preferences, i.e. one booth is more lively and slightly smaller than the other larger and drier rhythm room.

Another important point is to be organized and have multiple cue mixes go out to each subsection and make sure that everyone with headphones is comfortable. Typically in these sessions, we assign two experienced assistant engineers with one or two additional runners. We usually spend a few hours preparing and setting up either the day or night before the session. After a while, the set up goes fast.

This type of session is quite hectic and often lasts one full day, but once the session is done, there is a great sense of accomplishment of having successfully dealt with so many people and any unexpected hiccups (countered by quick workarounds). It is all about working quickly and you cannot do these types of sessions unless your equipment is well maintained and your staff is right on the ball. It also helps to have thick skin. I know these are not the kind of things one thinks about when listening to cast albums, but hopefully you now have an insight into how it was recorded.


More Recording Tips
For relatively inexperienced bands, here is a helpful list of studio recording tips.
10 Tips for Success in the Recording Studio
(From KnowTheMusicBiz.com)

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Love NYC Hotel Rates

QUESTION: When is the best time to record in New York?

RIGHT NOW! If you ever wanted to come to New York and record, now might be the best time to do it. With the ailing economy, everyone is pretty much holding back on spending, including travel. Consequently, businesses from airlines to hotels are scrambling to offer bargains to fill seats / rooms. Even in New York City, where you don’t typically ever see hotel rates under $200 per night (unless you are an avid Priceline addict and even then), rooms are going for fire-sale rates.

Since January 5th, hotel occupancies have dramatically gone down, partly because the New Year revelers went home and partly because a few major Broadway shows have shut down. Some hotels have reported that New Years started with a 30% occupancy rate and it may not reach even 50% this month. This condition is not expected to improve in February either where some chilly weather is expected. Consequently, hotels, like many other businesses, may be forced to layoff workers.

If you live outside the city, State or even the country and have contemplated recording at one of the studios in New York, the best tip I can offer is that this might be THE time to do so because these kinds of low accommodation rates are rare. Go ahead and call us and don’t be shy about asking for lodging arrangements. We’ll make it happen.