Op-Ed: And Another One Gone – What We Lose When Studios Close

October 1, 2013 by  

It’s part of the cycle of life that things have a life and then move on. So it happens with studios, many of which we have come to enjoy working in. With the recent closing of BiCoastal Music I find myself reflecting.

The live room at the now-shuttered BiCoastal Music.

The live room at the now-shuttered BiCoastal Music.

My first studio was Mediasound on west 57th Street in Manhattan. Starting out it was a great opportunity to learn from world class people as they made records and national jingles.

Part of what made a studio like Mediasound a great place for them to work in was the environment and the staff. There were dedicated assistants and the people in the production office often knew what you needed on your session before you had time to mention it. The maintenance team was world class, and beyond fixing gear they were often building new pieces.

The studio in the mid 80’s had two Neve consoles (also a Harrison and a Trident) and Studio A (the original West 57th Street Baptist Mission church) was a great tracking space. The collection of mics was extensive and you had a few flavors of tape to choose from.

Owning a studio was a risky venture back then, and it’s only gotten harder to make ends meet in today’s environment. While our digital toolbox has grown tremendously, studios today present fewer options on the capture side and rely more on the fix-it-in the box mentality.

The Workings of World-Class Spaces

In David Weiss’ recent article interviewing Hal Winer, owner of BiCoastal Music, Hal states, “Unfortunately, if you’re in this business to make money as a commercial studio owner, there’s almost no justification for building a world-class space because the budgets as they are now won’t support it.”

Modern budgets don’t allow for the large support staff any longer, but BiCoastal was a world class studio that in many ways surpassed the grand old studios in what it had to offer as a facility. Modern treatments and construction techniques under the direction of Russ Berger made for a large, open, airy feel that sounded spot on. Acoustically the room provided various tight and roomy-sounding spaces within the main studio space and three iso areas with great line of sight. Monitoring was accessed by individual 16-channel mixers. The gear was all world class and it was located in a rural setting that leant itself to being focused yet relaxed.

What do you do when you get stuck for ideas? Whenever I have worked in a multi-room facility I’ve always hung out for a bit with people from other sessions. Along the way I have picked up insights, ideas, and inspiration. Once in a while I even picked up some great side musicians that were needed for the project I was working on. The whole scene just made you want to go back to your room and be creative!

Stratosphere Sound's Studio A, which went silent in December, 2012.

Stratosphere Sound’s Studio A, which went silent in December, 2012.

Today I see people bringing their laptops to one guy’s home rig and sharing ideas, but they are all working on the same project. Differences sometimes make, well, the difference. I have been inspired by an R&B project while making a retro rock EP, by a hip hop project while mixing a singer/songwriter, and re-amped an ill-fitting collection of drum samples through a Fender Twin for a hip hop mix I did.

So now we have it all in our computers and we have emulations of all that expensive gear. Why do we need the big high-end studio with its expensive price tag? What are we losing anyway?

If you are making a record that is what I call “production music” (virtual instruments and a vocal mic), you have no need for a dedicated studio other than ego. Unless of course you take into account all the support staff that made it possible for the artists, producers, and engineers to focus on their craft.

Of course if you are in a group that features live music, you have a whole different set of concerns.

Big Room ROI

There are many things about record-making I am willing to admit I can be flexible about. The fact that band records are more exciting when the rhythm tracks are tracked together is not one of them! There is no quicker way to suck the life out of a track then by recording the instruments separately. The studio therefore needs to be of a size that will allow for all the musicians to be setup with enough isolation, and still maintaining good lines of sight amongst the players.

I once read an interview with T-Bone Burnett where he stressed the importance of how what you are going to record needs to sound good in the room you record in. Well he is dead right – it’s becoming harder and harder these days to find these rooms that just work as a good-sounding space.

Artists may feel that the expense of these rooms is out of their reach, but when you add up all the time spent piece-mealing the rhythm section track by track (to say nothing of trying to fix tracking issues in the mix) is it really that expensive?

When I work with a band we rehearse until we have all the parts and tempos worked out. When we track, we can lay down an album worth of basic tracks in 2-3 days. After that, the home studio might be perfect for overdubs, but first we had access to a great-sounding space and mics, along with processing gear beyond most artists’ ability to assemble. I’d say that’s great return on investment.

Collaborative Continuity

These types of rooms were a great training ground when I was coming up. Sure you can find a lot of information (and some disinformation) on the Web, but nothing beats sitting in the room and watching what people do, both good and bad.

The mega music-for-picture facility Sound One ceased operations in October of last year.

The mega music-for-picture facility Sound One ceased operations in October of last year.

Coming up, I could compare rare tube mics or versions of ribbon mics and learn how to create a desired sound. If there was downtime we all tried to get in there and experiment. It was magical and it inspired us.

My hope is that as some of us discuss these aspects of studio life, it will inspire the next generation of engineers to reach out and share ideas with their colleagues. Perhaps they will find a way to retain the spirit of those studio days.

Working at BiCoastal Music was inspiring and I will truly miss working there and the opportunity to collaborate with its owner Hal Winer, who loves making records with a passion, as do the many people I have met through the studio. Good luck to Hal, and good luck to us all as we boldly venture out into the new world of record making.

Rick Slater is a NYC-based producer/engineer who’s recorded and/or mixed with Chuck D, Robben Ford and James Chance, and worked in NYC studios such as Mediasound, Quad and Sony. Learn more and get in touch with Rick at SonicSearch.

NY Studio BiCoastal Music Closes: Hal Winer on The Economics of World Class Rooms

August 11, 2013 by  

Adventurous. That’s the way to describe BiCoastal Music, the world-class studio in Ossining, NY that closed this week.

THe inner expanse of BiCoastal Music.

The inner expanse of BiCoastal Music.

Built by the exacting engineer/producer Hal Winer, BiCoastal was a pioneering resource for the just-upstate area, and the musical world beyond. Debuting in 2004, it got attention right away for its seemingly contradictory name: How could such a Northeastern studio, set as it was on a scenic NY rural hillside, also be a Western possession?

Winer’s six years producing hit records in LA might have had something to do with it – part of an impressive career where he’s recorded hit records with John Patitucci, Clifford Carter, David Spinozza, Bill Evans, Rob Thomas, Kaya, Robert Randolf, Allen Toussaint, Steve Miller, KJ Denhert, Joe Bonadio, Russ DeSalvo, Thalia.

But the name of this remarkable 2,000 sq. ft. facility, which was built into Winer’s circa-1800’s house, also seemed to speak to something else. It also nodded to a kind of international view of American recording, with advanced recording sensibilities that indeed were informed by his experiences from coast to coast.

Environmentally Accurate

Designed by the Russ Berger Design Group, BiCoastal’s comfortable and accurate control room focused on an SSL C200 digital production console. Together with custom RBDG Precision Kinetics monitors, the 5.1 room was adventurous and advanced in its workflow as it maintained a completely digital signal path, from console to crossover to amplifiers.

Even more transporting, however, was BiCoastal’s live room: a 25’ x 30’ ft. live room with a 22-foot vaulted ceiling. Sweet and silent all at once, the space was a cathedral of sound, one which would help welcome a wide range of artists over its nine years. Early fans of the studio included nearby elite engineers Mick Guzauski (Daft Punk, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson) and Neil Dorfsman (Bob Dylan, Dire Straits).

Technically impressive in every respect, naturally inspiring surroundings, and Winer’s commitment to his studio and clients kept the place busy right up until the last day earlier this summer. So what forced BiCoastal to close?

Def and Taxes

Mick Daryl Joy Neil Rob Hal

Winer joins Mick Guzauski, Daryl Bornstein, Joy Rose, Neil Dorfsman, and Rob Thomas at the piano.

As picturesque as Winer’s oasis – which was less than an hour outside of Manhattan by train or car – appeared, it was an expensive place to do business. According to Winer, property taxes alone on the house were over $30,000 a year. Put that together with a mortgage, and profitability was a huge challenge as long as Winer kept his day rates competitive to those in nearby NYC – which of course he had no choice but to do.

“Even though my room was sonically and ergonomically superior to most spaces, I couldn’t charge what I thought the room was worth, so it made sense to let the property go,” Winer says frankly. “I developed a specialty in acoustic music, singer/songwriter production, jazz, chamber and classical. It was usually live ensembles multitracked – real musicians playing together. We did very little highly-produced pop. It was mostly organic production with high-level musicianship.”

Any artists and visitors who experienced the beautiful surroundings, or merged with the holistic vibe that permeated BiCoastal, drew no shortage of ideas from the place. “From Day One, it was always an inspiring space, both visually and acoustically,” says Winer. “That was probably the most consistent comment I got from clients: That when they played their instruments in the live room, they were inspired. Whether it was voice, an electric guitar amp, or cello, any instrument would bloom in that space.

“And the listening environment was neutral in the control room,” Winer continues. “It was very easy to hear what was going on both in tracking and mixing, and I owe that to Russ Berger. He designed a space that was value-added for everyone who worked there.” Inform your own ears on BiCoastal’s capabilities by listening to the Yellowjackets’ 2008 album Lifecycle, the Neil Dorfsman-produced eponymous 2005 album by the East Village Opera Company, and the Rob Thomas solo albums Something to Be (2005) and Cradlesong (2009).

BiCoastal's live space had uncommon head room.

BiCoastal’s live space had uncommon head room.

Like many destination studio owners, Winer saw how his facility’s rural attributes could be a double-edged sword.

“Any time that you have a studio outside of the metropolitan areas it’s a challenge, because musicians from the city are reluctant to travel too far,” he notes. “That said, Paul Antonell from The Clubhouse in Rhinebeck does excellent business, and he’s twice as far from the city as me. But then again, there are tons of musicians in Westchester who appreciated that they could work here, in a professional environment. So it was a good location, but again, the competition dictates the rates. And with the overhead, and the studio business as tough as it is right now, things got challenging.

“If I had to do it again, I would probably do it differently,” Winer continues. “As much as I appreciated the world-class environs, it’s questionable whether or not money spent on that will be returned in a ‘for hire’ room.  In other words, I really wanted a world-class room, and I paid to have one built. But many of the clients can’t afford a world-class room, so in a way I was underwriting a lot of these projects. It’s not that I minded doing that, it’s just that it took away from my bottom line.

“Unfortunately, if you’re in this business to make money as a commercial studio owner, there’s almost no justification for building a world-class space because the budgets as they are now won’t support it.   If the space is for your own personal production needs, the proper acoustics and ergonomics actually save you money in the long run because you can work more efficiently.

“I’ll be working with Russ Berger going forward as his LA representative.   I’d like to use my experiences to help some people with private facilities make the most of their space.   And it really makes sense to hire a qualified acoustical design firm so that you get it right the first time without wasting time or money.”

Go West

Back on the West Coast starting in September, Winer will be serving as the LA rep for Russ Berger Design Group. In addition, he’ll be covering that same territory representing Guzauski-Swist Monitors. On top of all that, of course, Winer will keep producing and engineering for a dedicated clientele, as he sets up a cooperative new shared studio.

“I think it makes sense to share front office, utilities, infrastructure, instruments and equipment,” says Winer. “Those are all major outlays, and if you have to support them with your personal clientele … unless you have artists with huge budgets, that could be a tough haul.”

A studio owner through and through, Hal Winer sounds positive about the productive life span of BiCoastal Music, and his return to the Golden State.

“I had been wanting to move back to the West Coast for a few years now, and how many chances do you get in life to reinvent yourself? So this was a real blessing,” he says. “I spent six years out there in the 1980’s, and now I’m going back. That’s where BiCoastal comes from. I think that every major metropolitan area has its share of singer/songwriters and jazz musicians who are underserved. That’s my wheelhouse, and I think I can find a niche for myself doing what I do there.”

– David Weiss

(l-r) Eddie Kramer and Hal Winer at BiCoastal.

(l-r) Eddie Kramer and Hal Winer at BiCoastal.

Drums under quality control.

Drums under quality control.

Bjork

(l-r) Winer with an unidentified session musician, Bjork, and her engineer Valgier Sigurðsson‎.

A long view of the live room.

A long view of the live room.

Mark Dobson, Matt Serletic, Rob Thomas, and Winer onsite.

Mark Dobson, Matt Serletic, Rob Thomas, and Winer onsite.

Hal KJ Francois Etienne

Me, KJ Denhert, bassist Francois Moutin, and keyboardist Etienne Stadjwijk.

Hal Winer & Rich Breen

Winer with the Yellow Jackets’ Rich Breen at the console.

Steve Miller

Steve Miller in BiCoastal’s iso booth.

Yellow Jackets

Yellow Jackets group shot in the live room, including Mike Stern, Rich Breen
engineer Hal Winer and his dog Sam, assistant engineer Kyle Bates, (photo credit: KVon and his assistant)

Guitar-Amp

Precision miking on a guitar amp.

In session with a legend, Roger Nichols.

In session with a legend, Roger Nichols.

The aerial view in the live room.

The aerial view in the live room.

(l-r) Kevin Killen and Mick Guzauski at the SSL.

Kevin Killen and Mick Guzauski, listening to Killen’s 5.1 remix of Peter Gabriel’s “So.”

Wilkins Reunion Group

Scott Harper, Winer, Jeff Barone, Jack Wilkins, Eddie Gomez, Randy Brecker, and Jack
Dejohnette at the  kitchen table.

On the wall: Les Paul.

On the wall: Les Paul.

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