Friday, December 23, 2011

2011: Year in Review

Not all of the following info made it into SonicScoop's year-end list for NYC Studios, but we feel the projects below are significant and noteworthy. They also represent the kind of services New York can offer and handle.

Looking back at 2011, there are two distinct groups of projects that stood out for us at Avatar Studios.

The first group involves album projects.

The first project is Tony Bennett’s Duets II album recording sessions with producer Phil Ramone and engineer Dae Bennett. In March, Tony Bennett and Sheryl Crow recorded “The Girl I Love” in Studio A (assisted by Fernando Lodeiro). In July, Tony Bennett sang and recorded “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” with Aretha Franklin in a memorable session in Studio C (assisted by Fernando Lodeiro and Tim Marchiafava). At the end of July, Tony Bennett recorded “The Lady is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga in Studio A (assisted by Fernando Lodeiro and Tim Marchiafava). All of these sessions were filmed. The details of the duets session with Lady Gaga was captured and documented by Gay Talese in his article for the New Yorker magazine. The album, released on September 20, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts (dated September 28, 2011). The album also garnered a Grammy nomination for the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category.

One of the highlights of 2011 was hosting Paul McCartney in a session held in Studio A recording a Buddy Holly tribute, Rave On Buddy Holly, with producer David Kahne, engineer Roy Hendrickson assisted by Fernando Lodeiro. The details of the session were written up in a Mix magazine article. There were additional sessions on a separate project and the resulting album will be released next February.

Ingrid Michaelson worked on her upcoming project throughout the year at Avatar. In April, she was in Studio A working on basic tracks with producer David Kahne, engineer Roy Hendrickson assisted by Fernando Lodeiro and continued working in Studio G. Ingrid was back in September in Studio A for horns with producer David Kahne, engineer Robert Smith assisted by Charlie Kramsky. The resulting album is Human Again scheduled for release on January 24, 2012. Her single, “Ghost”, has already been released.

The second group of projects involves music for TV & film.

One of them is more about a very talented artist, involved in multiple projects, who he is uniquely gifted. The artist’s name is Vince Giordano and his (big) band is the Nighthawks. Because of his expertise of music from a specific time period, he was key in making the music for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire authentic and alive. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks recorded music for the show in February in Studio A with producer / engineer Stewart Lerman assisted by Rick Kwan. They came in again in April to record with Regina Spektor in Studio A again with producer / engineer Stewart Lerman assisted by Bob Mallory. The music has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media category. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks also recorded music for HBO’s mini-series Mildred Pierce in Studio A with producer Randy Poster, engineer Stewart Lerman assisted by Charlie Kramsky. Vince has been written up in the NY Times and NY Daily News.

The next notable project was the film score to Moonrise Kingdom, a new Wes Anderson film. The music, composed by Alexandre Desplat, was tracked in Studio A and mixed in Studios G and B. The sessions were produced by Jeremy Dawson, Alexandre Desplat and engineered by Gary Chester assisted by Tim Marchiafava and Tyler Hartman. Moonrise Kingdom, which stars Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand, will open May 25, 2012.

The last mention is a TV project that is still under wraps. It is NBC’s Smash, which will debut right after the Super Bowl. In October, music for the show was recorded with Nick Jonas in Studio C with producer Jim Black, engineer Andy Zulla assisted by Bob Mallory. Since then, additional music has been recorded in Studio B with producer Marc Shaiman, engineer Brian Garten assisted by Charlie Kramsky and orchestral recordings in Studio C with producer Marc Shaiman, engineer Todd Whitelock assisted by Charlie Kramsky and Tim Marchiafava.

From the most recent session news for December, T Bone Burnett was in producing a couple of songs for the soundtrack to the hotly anticipated film The Hunger Games in Studio A with artists Punch Brothers and Secret Sisters. The session was engineered by David Sinko assisted by Bob Mallory. The Hunger Games, directed by Garry Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth will open March 23, 2012.

We consider every project we are entrusted with to be important and we pride ourselves in giving our best whether it is a 60-piece orchestral session or a simple overdub. We want to thank all our clients for making 2011 a very special year for us. Happy Holidays and we hope to serve you again in 2012.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

From the Field: Word of Caution on Drives

It seems that lately, we are hearing more incidents about not being able to retrieve data from portable hard drives. The problems encountered included inability to mount, dead power supply and seek errors (with clicking sounds). It doesn't seem to be limited to just one manufacturer. Maybe there happens to be a bad batch of parts or a bad lot of raw drives. The price of drives have come down dramatically and the capacity have at least doubled while the overall size has shrunk. One has to wonder if manufacturers are pushing physical limits or are we seeing a quality issue? Perhaps the floods in Thailand which has affected manufacturing of key parts might have some effect.

As professionals utilizing many musicians and countless hours of work, should we trust storing valuable assets we created to a drive costing less than $200? Drives will fail eventually. If we were smart, we would not skimp and back things up on several different drives or different types of media. There are now solid state drives on the market costing around four times the cost of a regular hard drive. The issue with these drives are the write speed and the number of times you can write. The pros are that playback is fast and if they are used as WOTRM (Write Once or Twice, Read Many) drives, they might serve as another option for safeties. At least, the probability of having physical issues with the drive, especially if you are clumsy, might be somewhat reduced.

Whatever you decide, we are urging you to pay more attention to how you back up and store your precious data.

A smattering of solid state drive specs to look at:
Glyph PortaGig 50 SSD
Lacie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt Series 240GB SSD
Oyen Digital MiniPro 240GB SSD
OWC Mercury SSD

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Success for Honor Society

The band, Honor Society, got a recording deal from demos that were mixed at Avatar by engineer Claudius Mittendorfer. They were previously called Airbourn. They were recording a new EP here and are now touring nationally.
From Left to Right:
Tim Marchiafava (back row, assist eng), Jason Rosen (HS), Andrew Lee (back row, HS), Michael Bruno (HS), Alexander Noyes (HS), Adam Blackstone (producer - Maroon 5, Jay-Z, Joss Stone), Jon Smeltz (engineer)

The following is a note we received from the band.


Obsessing over music as an adolescent and teenager, I would spend hours listening to music and reading liner notes. Even down to who the assistant engineer was on my favorite records. One constant in my favorite recordings was the phrase "recorded at Avatar Studios NYC."

Years later, in 2006, when my band HONOR SOCIETY got the opportunity to scrape up the money to mix our first EP at Avatar it felt like a rite of passage. Even being a young band with nothing proved yet Tino the studio manager (who is still there today) was extremely cool with us. Just being there was so exciting for us knowing how many great artists came through those rooms.

That EP, and a ton of hard work, got us a record deal, a debut album on Billboard, three national headlining tours, and two years of incredible memories.

So as we finally had some downtime in Los Angeles after the whirlwind we knew two things about our follow-up. A) it had to be at least partially recorded in New York, for that NY vibe and B) it had to be done at Avatar. There was unfinished business to actually record there.

Finally the full realization came true and on May 4th 2011. We set up in the live room and rocked a 12 hour lockout in room B. It was exactly as awesome as we thought it would be to get that vibe we needed in the initial drums, bass and guitar tracks. And now when our album comes out for whoever still reads liner notes it will say "recorded at Avatar Studios NYC."

Thanks Tino!

Michael Bruno
May 12, 2011 Los Angeles

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mics used in The King's Speech

© 2011 Malcolm Addey
From left to right: Marconi/Reisz carbon mic,
BBC AXB ribbon, STC 4017 moving coil (dynamic)

I recently had a chance to watch The King’s Speech, winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar. The film was good and deserved the award. Being involved in the recording business, I could not help but notice the interesting looking microphones that the King spoke into and wondered what kind of mics they were. Most of the mics seen throughout the film were puck-shaped and spring mounted. There was one mic that had a sideways teardrop shape, also spring mounted. I turned to someone who might know about these things - Malcolm Addey.

“The movie itself was very well done except for the accuracy of the mics and broadcast equipment. … All the mics used in the film were mock-ups of carbon mics, spring mounted in rings - a type which had gone out of use long before King George VI came to the throne. In fact, ribbon mics, the BBC-Marconi type AXB, had come into general use by 1935. For outdoor use, the STC 4017 moving coil was the standard during the period the motion picture covered. Either type would have been accurate for the final speech scene”

So the mics you see in the film were carbon mics. The only problem is that they would not have been the mics used by the King.

Malcolm continues, “By the mid 30s the use of carbon mics had been completely discontinued by the BBC. The teardrop (or bomb) shaped mic you mention was, in fact, an early condenser mic manufactured by Western Electric used by the BBC between 1931 and 1935. Condenser mics were largely experimental at the time, proving to be very unreliable and subject to going noisy under even moderately humid conditions.

The following are comments from an email by my friend and colleague Chris Owen, a BBC engineer. We are both historians and collectors of vintage broadcast equipment.”

Malcolm’s colleague’s comment:

“Have now seen the King's Speech. Great film, but so many mistakes on the equipment and microphone front. George V's Christmas Broadcast at the start of the film had the Engineers using OBA/8 (not invented until 1937), The microphones in front of George V were the later ones c1936 that were used for the first time for Edward VIII's broadcast in 1936. The mics BBC stands were all STM/11 or STM2/1 and date from just post WW2. The microphone used for the speech at the end of the film were just SO wrong. There is no way any broadcast would have been done using a carbon mic in 1939. It would have been STC 4017s and two of them. Cue lights were all wrong. They had a 1950's wall cue light (same as on our Gent clocks), but badly mounted on a wooden box. Finally (for now), the Western Electric / STC Bomb condenser microphone was obviously a replica, but the nearest thing to being correct. So sad when they could easily have got it all right.”

There you have it.

Suggested sources for more information:

1) BBC Engineering 1922 - 1972 by Edward Pawley, published in 1972 by BBC Publications. According to Malcolm, the book has become rare and much sought after and is considered to be the bible on the subject.

2) BBC Year Books published annually from 1928 to 1987, e.g. The BBC Year-Book 1934

3) Howard Tremaine's Audio Cyclopedia (USA) is another good source for professional audio information.

Thanks to Malcolm Addey and Chris Owen for the historical information.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Using Live to 2-Track

Malcolm Addey came in to record Nanette Natal on February 11, 2011. He used live to 2-track to analog 1/4" tape to record her and her band in Studio B. Malcolm and Nanette were kind enough to allow us to share how their session was recorded.

The instrumentation was electric upright bass (sometimes known as a pogo stick), drums (drummer also played bongos and bell tree), electric doubling acoustic guitar, and Nanette who also played acoustic guitar and sang vocals. The session layout in Studio B is shown here.

I asked Malcolm a few questions about the live to 2-track recording method.

1. What is a live to 2-track session (definition)?

The actual real time mix of the live performance is stored onto the 2-track medium of choice with no possibility of further post session remixing. Although the mix is final, however, corrections are possible by editing. Live to 2-track stereo (except for mono) was the only recording method available before the advent of multiple track recording using 3 or more tracks. The introduction of which increased recording budgets enormously because of tape cost, extensive use of studio time and the ability for performers to overdub and remix ad infinitum.

2. What preparation / setup do you like to use for this type of session?

The acoustic isolation on instruments or vocalists essential on a multi track session is obviously not such a consideration as on a live 2-track date. Therefore I am able to place the musicians much closer to each other. Sometimes this obviates the necessity of using headphones - a situation I always prefer as musicians play much more naturally when they can hear themselves acoustically in the same room. All situations are different, of course, and my decisions would be based upon, among other things, the type of music involved, the studio space and the comfort of the musicians themselves.

3. When is live to 2-track a good option?

There is something exciting and immediate about this form of recording not enjoyed in multiple track techniques which rather tend to produce a "we can overdub that" or "we can fix it in the mix" mentality. But, of course, this is the only option when the multiple track technology is an integral part of the creative process as in pop and rock. Essential ingredients to success are an engineer who has much experience in this form of recording and a producer with a full understanding of both the limitations and advantages of direct to stereo.

4. What are some (notable) examples of a live to 2-track session (that you worked on)?

A difficult question. I would estimate that about a third to half of my working life's output of more than 50 years was recorded in this format. I do not subscribe to the view that a given recording's association with super star names is any measurement of that recording's note. Too subjective and for others to judge.

5. Do you have a favorite live to 2-track session story you would like to share?

Not specifically but the most common is the reaction when a performer who asks to "punch in" something is told it is not possible!

6. Was there something special or different about the way you engineered the Nanette Natal session in Studio B?

Nanette likes the warmth and natural dynamics of the sound I produce for her. Contributing to that, I'm sure, is my choice and placement of microphones and avoidance of EQ. As mentioned above the musicians are placed as comfortably close to each other as possible with minimal use of screens. Nanette herself stands freely among them and not in a booth. Avatar's Studio B is the perfect room for her and if one listens carefully, the sound of the room can clearly be heard. In no small measure is this due to the lack of need for acoustical isolation.

One final point. Direct to 2-track stereo recording is not to be confused with stereo recording with only two microphones. That is an entirely different subject!


You can watch and listen to a short clip from their recording session. Malcolm Addey was assisted by Avatar’s Aki Nishimura.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Dancer Films Project

In the early summer of 2010, jazz composer / artist / educator Jane Ira Bloom was recording and mixing at Avatar Studios, as she has done for so many years. Upon the suggestion of her engineer Jim Anderson, she and Jim approached me about a very unique project. Jane’s childhood friend was working on a new film and asked Jane to compose music for a series of six three-minute films based on Jules Feiffer's beloved cartoon character, the modern DANCER - with a live dancer. I was somewhat familiar with Feiffer’s cartoons and was a fan of Little Murders, a play (later turned into a film with Elliott Gould) that he wrote so I was intrigued.

The director was Judy Dennis, a veteran of the film world working on her second short, who was aided by her twin sister Ellen Dennis as co-producer. The intent was to have the films exhibited in public - for free - throughout New York, US and abroad. It was a very “New York” project and very much a labor of love. We decided that we wanted to participate in the project as well by donating studio time to record the music.

The music, composed by Jane Ira Bloom, was recorded in late October, 2010 in Studio B, her favorite room. The series of short films, now collectively called THE DANCER FILMS, was completed recently and the 9-minute compilation version was first shown at The Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference in New York in January 2011.

It was interesting to be associated with such a unique, artistic project. I conducted a brief interview with Judy Dennis and Jane Ira Bloom about THE DANCER FILMS.

Q&A with Judy Dennis:

1. How did this project come about?

Lightbulb. Had the idea of creating a series of very short films, and Feiffer's Modern Dancer appeared in my thoughts. I arranged a visit with Jules, and he was open and eager. Discerning, too. He is excited by the imagination, and loves dance. Ellen (my producer and twin sister) and I assembled dream collaborators for a two-week artist residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center to see if the drawings would alchemize into live dance for film. Our first collaborators were Andrea Weber - you may know her from her work with Merce Cunningham Dance Company - and choreographers Susan Marshall and Larry Keigwin (who each worked separately with me). Everyone fell quickly into the Feiffer groove, and we finished the residency with 8 dances (6 of which we've filmed), voice narration by Jennifer Dundas, and perfect theme music by Jane Ira Bloom.

2. What was your motivation for doing this project? Why go through all this effort to put together something and not enter any film festivals or go through any theatrical releases and make it available (for free) as performance art pieces? What is your plan in exposing this work to the public?

Though the Dancer is a true original, I feel I share her worldview, and her view of her place in the world. She has been pretty much off the scene since Jules retired from The Village Voice, but I'm not alone in this! There are generations nostalgic for her; and a generation sure to be captivated by her and by Feiffer's bracing point of view.

We aren't averse to theatrical release. We hope the films will reach a cinema-going public, and will be broadcast internationally. But we'd love to see them exhibited in theater lobbies as well as in theaters; in public atriums, parks, piers, across campuses, in museums - wherever people wander. We hope the films will reach the broadest population possible - for free, wherever possible - to bring a bit of effervescence to anyone who encounters them.

3. What was Jules Feiffer’s reaction when you told him about this project?

Jules was enthusiastic at the beginning and has been delighted ever since.

4. In what way do you think this project is uniquely New York in flavor?

Feiffer's Dancer is based on a modern dancer seeking an artistic life in New York in the late 50s, and she's got the City running through her nervous system. Our artists are all New Yorkers. In addition to filming the dances onstage at SUNY Purchase, we filmed in iconic locations throughout New York City: the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. But we believe the films will hit the heart and funny bone of anybody, not just those of us lucky enough to live in NY!

5. You used to gather funding for this project. How did you find the experience of raising funds this way?

We raised a fraction of our budget through kickstarter. Kickstarter invited the participation of friends and art supporters for whom $10 and $100 contributions were significant.

6. Can you describe what the six cartoons used were?


Our film A DANCE TO THE NEW YEAR is based on Feiffer’s A DANCE TO 1967. We updated his cartoon simply by slugging "Afghanistan" for "Vietnam" into a short litany of the Dancer’s concerns.

7. Can you explain the process of filling in the action between each drawing?

We used the drawings as choreographic blueprints. Each choreographer and I selected Dancer cartoons that most excited us from Feiffer's 40 years of work. We discussed gesture and text, the narrative, arc and comic moments of each piece, talked generally about the psychology, tone and spirit of the dancer, and set to work.

Susan Marshall and Larry Keigwin each have a unique approach to choreography. Andrea Weber (our Dancer)'s work, improvisatory and otherwise, was significant in the evolution of each piece. In the end, all 6 dances feel - and look - true to the gesture in Feiffer's drawings.

8. As a director, how did you approach shooting six different dance vignettes?

I set out to create six individual very short films. Each film includes a dance and a "coda" - footage of the Dancer on location in New York, linked thematically to its dance. Often, the Dancer dances to celebrate a milestone - seasonal, emotional or political. Each film has its own short story, its own meaning.

We filmed all the dances on one set - a very large continuous cyc (background and floor) designed by Neil Patel, with a subtle metallic paint surface that takes a range of light and color beautifully. The idea was to evoke the rapturous place the Dancer "goes to" when she dances.

Jane Bloom created theme music, which is incorporated, with some variation, into each of the 6 films.

So, THE DANCER FILMS have continuity in structure and setting, but with changes in choreography, tone, color and light, story and meaning, the films individuate. (There are also surprises in some of the dances– just as in Feiffer’s strips, our frames are magical places into which small children can wander, or out of which the Dancer can fly.)

9. Would you like to talk about any item that really stood out or was unique about this project?

A couple of things:

1) Silver linings
Here's one story to illustrate. We were scheduled to film the coda to A DANCE TO SPRING in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on a specific date in Spring, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. (In this cartoon, The Dancer dances to celebrate the arrival of Spring... and then it snows.) Our Director of Photography had flown in from Santa Fe, crew was assembled, gear packed, permits set, trees blossoming. Then... news of volcanic ash arrived, but Andrea, our Dancer, did not! She was stranded in Monaco, on tour with Cunningham. So, that was that, DP back to Santa Fe, etc. When Andrea finally returned - during a sudden cold snap - we ran with her to the Botanic Garden with our residency videographer, gear we could grab, and winter coats. And just as we rolled camera, the wind stirred and the last cherry blossoms began to fall, just like the snow in Feiffer's cartoon! A perfect ending for the film.

2) Giving
Creativity, time, facilities, funds. We were able to create the films on the concert hall at SUNY Purchase, at Avatar, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art - because of the openness and generosity of old and new friends, our artists and supporters. Many of our supporters gave outside their customary range of giving. Our collaborators are the world's tops. We hope they'll find their gifts in every frame of our films.

Q&A with Jane Ira Bloom:

1. How did you get involved with this project?

I worked with Judy on her previous short film “Patriotic.” Aside from the fact that we’ve known each another almost our entire lives, we’ve developed a good working relationship on these creative projects.

2. What was your approach in composing music for this project?

It’s always hard to see into your own creative process but I guess I could say that I always value my first instincts when I experience a new idea. I try to feel what the dance is about as opposed to describing it with the music.

3. How did you approach composing for six different dance vignettes?

Judy’s direction and Andrea Weber’s movement and demeanor were often my guides. I tried to internalize the wry quality of Feiffer’s voice in the cartoon captions for the character and just let the humor fly.

4. Given that you could have used any kind of music, was there a particular style of music or music from a certain period that you used for this project?

Early 60’s cool beat with the flute, bass, and congas was where I started from.


After watching the film, I can now understand the intent of the filmmakers. By showing the film in a public space and surprising unsuspecting passerbys, perhaps changing their outlook for the day or just bringing smiles to their faces, erasing even if for a moment, any worries they might have had just by watching a very short film. That is a worthwhile endeavor to be sure. Just remember, that work such as this might be consumed for free, but a lot of people spent a whole lot of time, energy and considerable amount of money to bring this work before the public.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why Preparing for Mixing is like Preparing to do Taxes

Now that 2010 has come and gone, you know that you’ll have to start getting your financial stuff together in order to file your tax returns. This may be the most appropriate time to bring up how preparing for mixing is like preparing to do taxes.

By equating the process of preparing your tracks for mixing to the annual ritual of preparing for tax returns, artists out there may be offended. How can you confuse a step in the artistic process of audio production to something as mundane as accounting (now I’ve offended the accountants)? Aside from the fact that accountants can be creative (now I really have insulted them), the reality is that both processes require the owner of the information to be organized.

If you have someone doing the taxes for you, you would not hand your accountant a shopping bag full of receipts, would you? I suppose you could, but someone has to go through the receipts and categorize them by the type of expenses. That will naturally drive up the cost of filing the tax return because of the labor involved to sort through the receipts, even if a junior accountant does the work. If you happen to do your own taxes, you would be the one having to spend the time doing this task.

It is no different when it comes to handing over all your recorded tracks to a mixer. In a world where there are hardly any limitations on the number of tracks you could have, without some discipline or systematic way of organizing your tracks, you could easily end up with a whole bunch of tracks in no particular order or grouping, not to mention with any sort of half-intelligible descriptions. The mixer being handed a “shopping bag full” of tracks, would have to go through and figure out which tracks are what and how they fit in timing-wise and in what context of the song. In many cases, that takes hours, sometimes days if the track count is high and depending on how unorganized the entire package is.

If you are an artist that just spent a whole lot of energy dreaming up and playing the notes and took the trouble recording them all, why not go the extra step to arrange what you have so that it is closer to how you envisioned the music, even if you are handing it over to a mixer. After all, it is your creation and you should take ownership of it. Each component of your creation should be treated with at least some measure of care. By doing so, your mixer will reward you by being able to fully concentrate on the business of mixing, the reason your hired him or her in the first place.

Here are some simple guidelines on organizing your tracks:
  1. Make sure you label each track. Use descriptive wording. Don’t use trk1, trk2 or audio1, audio2, …etc. (Don’t laugh, it happens more often than you think).

  2. If you are using Pro Tools, use the comment field to mention any additional details about the track.

  3. Group by instrumentation, e.g. drums, guitars, vocals. Color-code them to make it visually easier to tell them apart.