NYC Studio Tour: Queens Recording Studios, Part I

August 11, 2011 by  

The studio scene in Queens is often overlooked, but perhaps not for much longer. Long Island City is home to a burgeoning musical community, while Astoria has been the home of one of NYC’s busiest production facilities since 1921.

Today we take you for a tour of a few of the most active studios in Queens, stopping to focus on one of the borough’s biggest, and one of its most compact.

KAUFMAN ASTORIA MUSIC AND SOUND
www.kasmusic.com

At first glance, the music studios at Kaufman Astoria can seem intimidating to the average musician.

The halls of this landmark building are filled with history in a literal sense:

Original theatrical posters line the corridors leading to the recording studio, and remind visitors of 90-years worth of films produced here, from The Cocoanuts (The Marx Brothers’ first feature) through Men in Black III (which wrapped shooting just before our visit).

Joe Castellon, Creative Director of the Music and Sound division, says that new musicians are sometimes worried about where they fit into all this. But according to him, “you’ve got to throw that all away.”

“The most important thing is to be relaxed,” he says. “I like to make it so the musicians feel like they’re playing in their living room, or singing in the shower.”

KAS Music and Sound Studio A

And Castellon might be the perfect person to put players at ease in a production complex that spans a full city block. He walks these halls with the comfort of a man in his bathrobe, cracking jokes with brawny guys building sets for Bourne Legacy, waving at every custodian he passes.

As a producer, engineer and arranger, Castellon has used this studio to record orchestras and big-bands, rock groups and R&B singers – and not just for the films and TV shows that shoot here.

In addition to serving TV shows including Nurse Jackie and Law & Order, and hosting filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese, the studios at Kaufman Astoria have attracted recording projects from Alison Krauss, R.E.M., Tony Bennett, Itzhak Perlman, Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis.

Studio A at KAS Music and Sound is a remarkable 2,400-square foot music space capable of housing a 70-piece orchestra.

“It’s one of the last studios of its kind in the city,” says Castellon, continuously smiling through owl-eyed glasses and a Frank Zappa mustache. “The main room has 2.7-seconds of reverb.”

“[Using gobos] we can re-configure it in all sorts of ways. Each section can have its own sound. You can have the strings players sounding really wet and live on one end, while the horns stay completely dry at the other end. All the things you might do with effects you can do right here in the room instead.”

Two conjoined isolation booths that tie into the room are larger than many pro studios in their own right. They’re also a shielded by a Faraday cage, which was built into the walls by the U.S. Army when it used the building throughout World War II and the years that followed. This hidden metal meshwork keeps out radio-frequency interference – and communist spies.

Unsurprisingly, the studio is at no loss for gear. Although Castellon clearly enjoys the Neve console, multiple tape machines, Pro Tools HD rig, outboard compressors and vintage microphones at the studio’s disposal, he can be dismissive of them:

“Great records are made, not by great recorders, but by great performances.”

“When you come here, you’re going to get a great recording, of course. It’ll be as good as or better than anywhere else on the planet – There’s no reason to worry about it. The other part of our job is making musicians as comfortable as possible so they can give it the best they have.”

He even makes recording great music seems like a quasi-religious experience. “That’s what really captures people,” he says. “When musicians get together and make some truth come through those speakers.”

If there’s anything here that helps make Castellon himself comfortable, it’s the listening environment:

Joe Castellon at the Neve V-60 in KAS Studio A

“It’s a true dead-end, live-end kind of control room,” he says. “There’s no reflections coming from the speaker-side of the room. The corners have deep traps that break up standing waves, and the back wall has a diffuser that makes it completely invisible to your ears.”

“When we had [blind tenor] Andrea Bocelli here I asked him: ‘Hey Andrea, can you hear that wall right behind you?’ Blind people can usually tell where they are in a room just by listening. But he said ‘no way, it just sounds like the room keeps going and going straight back.’”

“This way, you hear the sound only once – when it’s going from the speakers to your ears. There are no reflections anywhere to color the sound, so you can always trust what you’re hearing.”

Taking a tour of the building, scale starts to become apparent. The half-million square feet of production space are better described in acres (11-and-a-half of them) or, if you prefer, hectares (over-four-and-a-half of those).

We walked by soundstages the size of small town centers where film companies construct and destroy virtual cities. Other rooms showed that they could encompass a suburban high school, an entire floor of an inner-city hospital, the Cosbys’ house, an entire block known as Sesame Street.

By the time we sat back down in the control room to recap, the world had somehow become small and manageable once again. Like Castellon, the building itself seems to have a sense of humor. For all the memorabilia Kaufman Astoria has on display, only one film was honored with what I might call a “shrine”.  If you look hard enough on your next visit, you might just find an entire hallway intersection  adorned with bold and ornate set-pieces. They come from the Ishtar – a film known almost exclusively as one of the most high-profile flops of all time.

Also in Queens…

THE BUDDY PROJECT
www.thebuddyproject.com

Kieran Kelly’s Buddy Project studio is an uber-affordable personal favorite located in Astoria, Queens.

The Buddy Project, Astoria

Although its entire floorplan could make a restroom at Kaufman Astoria look like a gymnasium, The Buddy Project is a surprisingly great-sounding, absurdly budget-friendly space that comes well-appointed, featuring a Pro Tools HD system and several flavors of custom-made 500-series modules from Eisen Audio.

The live room, blessed with high-ceilings and ample natural light, is where Sufjan Stevens recorded much of his sonically-elegant Illinois – using only an Audio Technica 4033 and his own Roland VS 880 digital multi-track.

The studio comes equipped with several well-kept drum kits and a pair of iso cabs for pre-production and basics, has a more-than serviceable mic locker and acts as a great space for acoustic overdubs of any kind.

SPIN MUSIC STUDIOS
www.spinmusicstudios.com

Owned by Pete Benjamin, LIC’s Spin Studios is a multi-room, 4,000 square-foot recording facility located at the foot of the Queensboro bridge.

Studio A features 68 channel SSL 4064 G / G+ console, while Studio B houses a 52-input Amek console and is designed with a “wide-open, loft-like feel.”

A BLOODY GOOD RECORD
www.abloodygoodrecord.com

A Bloody Good record is an affordable Pro Tools HD studio in Long Island City operated by Mark Law. It features Pro Tools HD, a Dangerous summing system, two sound-treated recording booths and a surprisingly expansive control-room and lounge.

SOUNDWORKS RECORDING
www.soundworksrecording.com

Soundworks is an Astoria studio run by Sandra & Kamilo Kratc. It features “four individually floated spaces” and a Yamaha G7 Grand piano.

THE WILD ARCTIC
www.thewildarctic.com

The Wild Arctic is an affordable Pro Tools HD studio in LIC specializing in both indie pop and punk rock.

The studio encompasses an ample live room, control room and two iso-booths. Clients include The Hold Steady, Agnostic Front, Bouncing Souls, and Kill Your Idols.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

On The Road With Flight of the Conchords

September 8, 2009 by  

New York, NY — Fans of the HBO series Flight of the Conchords might have a hard time imagining slacker-heroes Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement racing between the show’s stage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and recording studios city-wide to get all of the show music fully written and produced and albums of it recorded and mixed. But, that’s exactly what they did during both seasons of the award-winning series.

Their second full-length record, I Told You I Was Freaky, comes out on Sub Pop in October, produced by Mickey Petralia and recorded by NYC-based engineer Matt Shane: the production team responsible for capturing all of FoTC’s musical antics for TV.

It’s a compilation of songs from season two — including the R. Kelly-inspired “We’re Both In Love With A Sexy Lady” and club anthem “Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor)” written/produced during the show’s production.

Shane describes, “As opposed to season one, most of the songs for season two hadn’t been performed live, so instead of starting out with two guitars, we were starting out with these full-up beats they worked up in the studio with Mickey, and then they’d add elements later to make it fit or change genres.

“The guys would do 12-hour days shooting during the week and then we’d be in the studio at nights and on the weekends. We split the work between a handful of studios — Mission Sound and Metrosonic in Williamsburg, One East, Looking Glass and Chung King in Manhattan, and A Bloody Good Record in Long Island City.”

In appropriate contrast to their TV persona, Flight of the Conchords is a highly active band, releasing singles via iTunes during the seasons, albums post-season (including a Grammy-winner) and touring in support of all. For their U.S. tour last Spring, the Conchords tapped Shane and My Morning Jacket FOH engineer Ryan Pickett to help them take the show on the road

BIGGER SHOWS, BIGGER PRODUCTION

“We were going to be doing way bigger houses than we did on their first, smaller tour last year, so they stepped up the production as well,” explains Shane. “They share management with My Morning Jacket, who happened to not be on the road at that time, so Ryan and Marc (Janowitz), MMJ’s lighting designer, were available to get involved.”

Matt Shane at the Neve 8048 in Williamsburg's Fluxivity Recording.

Matt Shane at the Neve 8048 in Williamsburg’s Fluxivity Recording.

Being so familiar with the material, having recorded all the music, Shane took on monitor duties on the road. Orientation took place at Soundcheck in Nashville, where the crew staged the show and Shane and Pickett put their heads together on how to best present this unique act, live.

FoTC enlisted fellow kiwi and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Collins to fill in musically on cello, background vocals, keyboards and percussion. “The second season had just finished airing and the songs had been created in the studio and never played live,” says Shane.  “With only a few days of rehearsal, the guys used the first couple weeks of the show, during sound-checks and even the actual concerts, to sort of reverse-engineer some of these fully produced tracks and bring it back down to two guitars and vocals.”

Technology helped them genre-hop and do their best Prince falsetto or T-Pain croon. “They use a lot of effects in some of their songs — like in hip-hop tunes where they copy the AutoTune effect, and they wanted to be able to do that, live,” says Shane. “So, we researched and found the new ElectroHarmonix Voicebox, a vocal synth processor pedal that matches whatever reference signal you send to it. With that, they were able to do all kinds of things — harmonies, vocoder, etc.”

RULE ONE OF COMEDY CONCERT: EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL

Though rehearsal got everyone in gear, the FOTC shows were largely dictated by band-audience interplay and therefore quite unpredictable. “It was very common that songs would not be done the same way twice,” explains Shane. “Jemaine would play an Omnichord on a song in sound-check and then during the show, he’d stay on guitar for that song.”

Pickett adds, “I’ve never had to be on my toes quite so much; for having such few musicians on stage, it was pretty intense.  I never knew where they might go, because of dark-outs and things like that, which kept it fun.”

The variable set-list became a joke with the crew. “It was just a list of 30 songs, but they hardly ever went in order and rarely played them in the same order twice,” describes Shane. “That improvisation added to the comedy routine. So, if Marc didn’t bring the lights up or didn’t change the colors in time for a sad song, they’d ask, ‘Can you make it look like we’re inside a tear?’ They’d make us part of the show. I’d become part of the bit if I had to run out and fix something. Everything is material.”

RULE TWO: THEREFORE, EVERYTHING HAS TO BE HEARD

Allowing for audience interaction in large halls, Pickett had the band on wedges. “In-ears just wouldn’t have worked for this show, since every song came out so different each night, in terms of tempo and instrumentation,” he explains. “And sometimes one of the guys would lay out and then come back in — if they were on in-ears and the levels were locked in, and there were no ambient levels or they couldn’t hear the other guy’s wedge or bleed, etc. they’d be alone, out in space.”

Diction and comic timing were key show elements that needed to come across as much as the music in these large halls. “I’ve done a few acoustic arrangements, but the whole comedy factor of this show really adds a whole new element to what we’re doing,” adds Pickett. “Every little corner of the room needs to hear what’s being said, and their accent is a bit of an obstacle for the audience to begin with, so you really had to be on your mark.”

Shane elaborates, “It took a lot of tricky microphone placement and EQ to give us the most headroom before feedback possible. We never knew where they were going to go during any given song, so we had a lot of mics open all the time and since they were on wedges, there was a lot of foldback that Ryan had to deal with.”

Never a dull moment during this tour, Shane also ran sessions with the guys on days off to finish the next album. “We’d be doing vocal overdubs in dressing rooms so that we could send stuff off to Mickey who was re-mixing the songs for the record.”

Look out for the Flight of the Conchords’ record, I Told You I Was Freaky, in October.

Matt Shane lives and works in NYC and is currently working on a new record by Robbers On High Street and on mixes for Hamacide and The Woods. Get in touch with him via www.mshane.com.

A live sound and recording engineer based in North Carolina, Ryan Pickett is often on the road, mixing FOH for My Morning Jacket and, most recently, The Decemberists.