Studio engineers in search of fresh ideas for signal flow: Ready to get an education?
Then go inside the intriguing design of the freshly minted Studio I at The Blackbird Academy in Nashville, which was designed from inception by its dedicated audio educators to do what no other teaching facility can do. In the process, Blackbirds principals John McBride, Kevin Becka, and Mark Rubel built an incredibly flexible new room that not only other schools can learn from, but also any studio that wants to dramatically renovate its workflow.
Launched in 2013 to provide students with an experience-based education within one of the world’s most in-demand sound facilities — McBride’s famed Blackbird Studio – the academy’s curriculum is taught by an all-star team of “musical mentors”. In addition to the expert staff, visiting mentors so far have included Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics), Ken Scott (engineer/producer), Ben Wysocki (The Fray), Tim McGraw, Bob Olhsson (engineer), Nick Raskulinecz (engineer/producer), Viktor Krauss (bassist), Dave Morgan (live sound engineer), Julia Sheer (artist), Dave Pensado and Herb Trawick.
When Becka, a veteran engineer and elite pro audio journalist (Mix, Pro Audio Review, Audio Media) got the rare opportunity to design a new studio from scratch – well, let’s just say you didn’t have to twist his arm.
At The Blackbird Academy, you’ve had the rare opportunity to start an audio education program from the ground up. What’s that experience been like so far?
We’re on a rocket ship. When I first started meeting with John (McBride) and Mark (Rubel), we had these intense brain storming sessions and it got very exciting. We quickly realized that because of the foundation that Blackbird Studio offered, plus our individual talents, we could offer something unique.
Students have access to incredible facilities, ideas, world class instruction and guest lecturers, all styled in a mentor-based curriculum that is literally changing their lives. I really mean that – we’ve seen incredible progress in just the first 10 weeks of the program.
What are some examples of that?
For example, in week 4, the students spent a week tracking and mixing a band, then in week 7, they spent 3 days with producer/engineer Nick Raskulinecz who worked with them specifically on tracking drums in Studio A. We did 10 setups and teardowns on a drum kit with different mics and placement techniques in two days. It was a mind blower.
The following week, recording artist Julia Sheer came in and we tracked and mixed a great band in studios D and C, all filmed for an upcoming YouTube reality show debuting in February. The students nailed the drum setup and sounds. I remember going out to the room to fine-tune the placement, and it was spot on. Students took the knowledge they got from Nick and used it on another project with perfect execution. It was a lightbulb moment.
It’s one thing to think of something in an idea session with the founders, but once you see how fast students are learning, and how the industry, and even other established colleges want to be part of what we’re offering, it’s really quite something. People are getting what we’re doing, which is great.
As the school has gone from a concept to reality, how has that affected your awareness of what the school needs in terms of facilities, and the gear that you equip it with?
It was great to start the school on the foundation of Blackbird Studio. In my years as an audio journalist and product reviewer, I’ve seen many facilities worldwide. Judged just by how busy it is, Blackbird is inarguably one of the top 5 recording studios in the world.
Then when you get to the mics, instruments, rooms, consoles, OB gear and staff, it jumps to the top of the list. I’m not exaggerating. So this was our base.
Once we established the curriculum and how it would flow into the existing facility, we moved on to designing the classroom and Studio I, both completely new builds and concepts.
The classroom is literally a working studio with two iso booths, an API 1608 console, patchbay, Dynaudio mains, Emotiva minis, OB racks, Pro Tools HDX, Logic 10 and seats for 30 students. Each student station is tied to the main patchbay so we can send eight channels to each station and get two back. This allows the instructor, and all the students to record simultaneously.
Then the instructor can patch mixes back from each station for playback onto the main system. The student rigs each have a Universal Audio Apollo interface with every UAD-2 plugin, Pro Tools, Logic, Shure headphones and more.
The desks were designed by Setco, a company that does a lot of custom builds for touring here in TN. Then we were fortunate enough to interest NY designers Bob and Cortney Novogratz in our project who came down and knocked the finish of the room out of the park. We were featured on the Katy Couric show twice last year.
Both the tech and trim makes for a great way to teach in a great-looking studio environment. Each student can swap live audio with the teacher and trade audio files with each other across a network – everything works together.
On the visual side, Blackbird IT guru Nick Shasserre has pan/zoom/tilt cameras placed in the isos, above the console and the back of the room which we can push to our three 65” flat screens. It’s very immersive.
Tell us about the design concept behind Studio I — what are the unique needs of a studio designed specifically for audio education?
Studio I was a pet project of mine. I wanted to build something that was very different from a traditional studio, which we already had nailed.
To get the students up to speed with modern production, they should be exposed to every kind of working environment, especially desktop. So with John’s blessing I put together a summing-based, desktop production room that can jump from tracking, to mixing, to mastering.
In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have built two studios where I literally worked construction – bricks and mortar – to a home studio for Kenny G, to the Esquire House in 2010 where we put a high end tracking room into a house in the hills above LA. In 2011 I built my own space at home which is more like Studio I, except scaled down.
With Studio I, we had a chance to take the idea to the nth degree by using Blackbird rental gear as the front and back end, and integrating it through Dangerous Music’s summing, monitoring and processing gear recording to Avid’s latest for Pro Tools. The room was a former lounge with a large, glass front window that looked down into the tracking space – beautiful.
Please tell me about the signal path that you designed – how are the equipment choices fitting in with your academic plan?
For starters, the summing concept is elegantly played out with the Dangerous 2 Bus. It’s a hands-off approach that adds no color to the signal and lets us hear all the great Blackbird mics and gear just as they sound. That was very important.
Next, the Dangerous Liaison lets us A/B compare processors in a quick fashion. We place much emphasis on listening skills at The Blackbird Academy – starting each day with an “Ears On” session. So being able to compare gear through quick relay switching with memory is fantastic.
The Dangerous Monitor ST is a great way for us to hear exactly what we’re getting out of our converters, processors and summing system. Once again, it’s relay switched and clean. Plus it’s future proof. Although we didn’t start this way, the room is large enough to support a surround setup. With the Monitor ST, we can easily step up to that workflow – we won’t have to gut and re-invent the room to jump into a multi-channel setup.
Lastly, the BAX EQ is a versatile tool that can be used when mixing and tracking. I’ve used it across my overheads when going to Pro Tools HD during a tracking session, then turned around and patched it on my 2 bus when mixing. It’s subtle, clean, and lets us demonstrate the power of filtering out the extremes of the spectrum to increase our headroom.
Besides the Dangerous gear, what are some other choice pieces of hardware and/or software that you specified for the room, and why?
We’ve got 32 channels of Pro Tools HDX with the new IOs from Avid which sound great. Preamps are a revolving cast from rentals but now include units from GML, Shadow Hills, John Hardy, Millennia Media, Grace Design, Chandler Ltd., and Radial Engineering. The outboard racks include something old and something new including an AMS RMX16 reverb, NTI EQ3, Bettermaker EQ502P, Empirical Labs FATSO JR, Alan Smart compressor, ATI mixer for talkback from the floor and gates from Keepex.
In the computer we have a UAD-2 Quad card and all the UAD-2 plugs plus the usual cast of plugin characters from the rest of the industry. We’re listening on ADAM S3-A monitors and are using an Aviom A16-D Pro headphone system when we track and overdub.
That’s an intensive setup! So what has been the faculty and student response been to the room so far? Are you finding that it is enabling you to do things beyond what you had planned on when you designed it?
We’ve had a range of sessions in I and it’s been a blast. The students are grouped in workflows of five each per class so there is a lot of focus with their hands on the gear, and they can book the room for projects.
As with the rest of the program, we’ve written interactive books for the patchbay and another for room operations so you can hold the Rosetta stone in your hand on the iPad and work through all the gear until the ideas and workflow is solid.
It’s a great way to learn! Concepts first, then soon after, execute over and over. That’s what we’re all about here.
– David Weiss
WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN: You don’t have to know all the heartache that went into the making of the album Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays to appreciate it. But there’s something about understanding the bitter joy that pulses through one of 2011’s most intoxicating rock albums that makes it all the sweeter.
The debut full-length from Brooklyn four-piece The Veda Rays, Gamma Rays is the artful application of music as a saving source. For the band — guitarist/vocalist/keys James Stark; bassist Tyson Reed Frawley; guitar/keys/vox Jimmy Jenkins; and drummer Jason Gates (aka Jason Marcucci) – the intense production events of the album were just one more reflection of the urgent songs that it comprises.
You can hear it in the frantic guitars and time-shifting howl of “Our Ford”, the delicious tension and release of “Long May She Roll”, and the haunting psychedelia of “This Time Tomorrow”. Sweeping six strings, emotional vocals, and driving drums are everywhere, courtesy of a band determined to deliver on the promise of its dense melodies.
With everything from immediate family suicide and South Florida black magick practitioners fueling their dark sides, The Veda Rays went to equally painful lengths to complete Gamma Rays. With a highly accomplished producer/mixer in residence via drummer Gates/Marcucci (White Stripes, Dean & Britta), the band raced to complete guerilla tracking and mixing sessions, frantically completed as Marcucci’s studio moved amidst the massive blizzards of late winter, 2010.
Released last week, Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays is arresting from the first millimoment. Here, Stark and Gates went deep – truly deep – in their recounting of the record that brought them all back from the brink.
Q: Your bio says: “The Veda Rays began in late 2008 when Stark and Gates, who had been hatching plans, playing gigs and making 4-track recordings since grade school, resumed their collaboration via long-distance after a several year span of inactivity.” What was the creative spark and mutual inspiration that was rediscovered when you guys got back together?
James: It was not really so much rediscovered as it was re-enlivened — from a cryogenically frozen dormancy. But with us I think it has always been something very natural and complementary, this most likely being the case due to us having grown up playing together, making 4-track demos and collaborating on this whole vision for so long and through such formative phases.
The period of inactivity was simply due to a case of “life happening”, as they say. And the way we came back ‘round to working together was largely due to the same. There is a lot of back-story here… Suffice to say, the gist of it involved heavy drug use, obsession, suicide, accidental death and the westernmost point of the Bermuda Triangle. Seriously.
For me, I feel like I had finally whittled out an authentic voice. My own particular brand of “distilled spirits”. What I mean to say is that the “me” in my personal hodge podge of influences finally asserted itself and I started recognizing something that went beyond mere pastiche.
I guess some people are gifted — or maybe seriously deluded — but for me it took a long time to feel like what I was doing was legitimate. So, just recognizing and being comfortable with a bona fide identity was a great boon. That is the plainest way I can explain how I feel I had evolved as an artist/singer/songwriter during our hiatus.
Jason: I’m not sure either of us were ever inactive. I’m a real busy body, crazy energy kind of person when it comes to working on music — we both are really. We were just separate for a bit, after playing pretty much daily, growing up and into musicians together. When we were unable to work together, we both kept going. I know Jim was working his craft as a songwriter and he put together some great bands. I kept busy playing and wound up doing a great deal of engineering and mixing here in NYC.
In 2009 there was a period that I was very busy. I had just finished mixing a few tracks for Dean & Britta, which would later appear on their Warhol record. I was also producing two records at the same time, both completely opposite ends of the spectrum in every musical and vibe type sense. One was Bloody Panda’s Summon and the other Scott Hardkiss’s Technicolor Dreamer. At that time it hit me, “Fuck, I really need to start doing my own thing!”
I reached out to Jim. It didn’t take long for us to discuss how we could work on a project together. That was probably the first seed of The Veda Rays.
Hear the single “Our Ford” from Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays right here:
Q: Jason, what got you into production and the NYC studio scene?”
We had been living down in South Florida working on music, we had our own little 4-track studio and we were constantly recording. Jim had some troubles and all hell really started breaking loose down there.
I took off to NYC to have a little break. That was supposed to be a three-day trip, but a cousin of mine convinced me to stay a few extra days and see some family. I spent most of my time bumming around the village, and after a week I met up with Judah Bauer (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Cat Power). We became friendly, started jamming together, and I wound up making a record with him in his apartment which was absolutely crammed with gear. At first he had an Otari MX 5050, moved on to a Tascam 1” 16-track, and eventually we had a Studer A80 16-track 2-inch, all in this tiny studio apartment.
I played drums on a few tracks and did most of the engineering. He had a bunch of people coming through to play on tracks — the late Robert Quine (legendary guitarist of Richard Hell & The Voidoids), Matt Verta-Ray, and many others.
From there I worked at a bunch of studios working my way up the ranks. I got to briefly work at and witness Greene Street just before they shut down. I worked at Excello in Williamsburg for years, and really made a home at Dubway. I started doing live sound a bit around the city and got very into remote recording. I think I’ve recorded/mixed over 300 bands for MTV and all the while working on sessions in the studio. Anyway I think I just really got lucky and fell into it. I also just went nuts, I mean, there were a few years straight that I was in a control room probably 350-360 days a year!
Q: Are the Veda Rays part of something new, something old, or something in between? Where does the music of this band sit in the time continuum?
James: Something in between would probably be most accurate. We are endeavoring to help evolve a particular current, and to do this well I believe it must be done in an attitude of reasonable reverence for and acknowledgement of what has come before. I would most optimistically state that we, in fact, aspire toward sitting at the “zero point” of the space-time continuum!
In plainer language, we are first and foremost about the songs. And the songs are set in the context of modern rock and roll music which is strongly informed by post-punk, shoegaze, dark psych, electro and many other micro-genres past and present. We try to have it never be boring, trite, redundant or otherwise sucky in any way. We want to be one of the ones trying to push the collective envelope. As in, how experimental can a pop song be and how “pop” can modern experimental rock get? And note: when I say “pop” I most definitely, in no uncertain terms, do NOT mean anything resembling modern mainstream drivel!
Jason:The music is rather cinematic. I would feel good if this was perceived as being here and now, traveling future-forward with some connections to the past.
Q: The new album is a real journey. To you, what is the sound and feeling of this trip?
James: For me, the intention of this record was to sort of provide a context and framework for future output. I feel like it is an attempt to claim certain lands, cultivating the fields for what will grow, showing some of the soil, the roots and seeds.
What I mean more specifically is that it unabashedly references many influences, in its own way, sitting them as the bricks that make up the road upon which the rest of the journey will take place. It starts off pretty densely layered but progressively strips things back eventually arriving at the last track which is an acoustic version of the opener.
I’d say lyrically and emotionally it is a bit of a roller coaster ride, in that a lot of it accurately reflects the personal circumstances from which it was borne out of. One of my best friends — and bass player — died of an accidental overdose, another was forced out of the band by his family and sent half-way across the country to a rehab — I am talking about Slo Club, the band I began in South Florida in 2007. Jason’s (Gates) sister committed suicide after many years of battling psychological problems and substance abuse, a five year relationship I had been in fell apart in the worst and most dramatic sort of ways, I had legal issues…things seemed really fucking grim, to say the very least. I literally lost everything during that time. Slo Club House, my former band’s HQ was over after my mate Jason Vargo passed.
Next I shared a place in Palm Beach with a Guyanese pothead who suffered from PTSD and a former skinhead whom I met through my loose association with an errant quasi-masonic black magick sect. I believe the place was under the influence of a malevolent entity. Lucky for me the bottom fell out when it did.
My long-time friend Matthew Ian ( brother of famed hip hop producer Scott Storch) took me in and I stayed with him in Bal Harbor (Miami Beach) for awhile. We were both slumming as he was basically waiting to be evicted. His world was going south at that time, as well. Those were troubled times.
I started writing a lot of what ended up on this album there. We were contemplating the end of the decade, the ends of a lot of people we knew, the ends of many naive and misguided ideas we had about things having grown up in the insulated, drug-drenched suburbs of South Florida, the ends of a many great and varied things…
These songs really came out of a weird sort of twilight world of so many things ending and dying, and such uncertainty as to what the inevitable “new beginnings” would actually turn out to be. In the end The Veda Rays still turn it into a party though, for sure.
Q: Amazing, but true. What’s unique about the way these songs were recorded?
James: Damn, some of the bits on a few of these tracks started off as entirely different pieces, some from years ago. There’d be musical bits that Jason remembered and wanted to bring out, but I’d say, “No way, that song was shite!” but then I’d think, “Well, actually the guitar figure or drumbeat or whatever is quite good, it just needs to live in a new song…”
Jason: The technical stuff will bore most people, but for the folks that like that kind of thing, lets just say we weren’t afraid to run a signal through any piece of gear we could get our hands on and there was a fair deal of experimenting.
One thing I can say that might be unique, though the bulk of it will have to do with our next release(s), is that as we were mixing, the studio where I worked was moving. It is a huge ordeal to move a four-room recording studio. It’s terrifying really.
Anyway, everyone who works there was getting fried and it was holiday season so people were taking a break. We spent a few days during Thanksgiving, and then again during Christmas when no one was around, basically living in the studio. Occasionally trekking back and forth through the crazy snow storms and blizzards. We tracked drums to something like an additional 23 songs. We even had Julee Cruise stop by and sing on one! I guess that’s all talk for the future, but it comes to mind because during this same time we were finishing mixes on Gamma Rays.
See the video for The Veda Rays’ “All Your Pretty Fates”.
Q: If you slogged through that December 26th blizzard, that was true dedication! Jason, what was your philosophy/approach for mixing this record?”
Jason: The only philosophy for me would be to try to make a great-sounding record. Try to keep it in check and have it sound unique. The approach was to do it in a way that we could recall quickly and easily: We had to be ready in case we got kicked out of the studio and had to return later. We would print back any analog effects and we summed with a Dangerous 2-Bus rather than use a big console.
Q: How would you say all your mix experience informed your work on Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays? What are some good habits you picked up, and conversely what are some of the ‘rules’ you decided to ignore when mixing this album?
Jason: Well I’ve made enough mistakes that I don’t want to repeat so experience probably helped us avoid a few pitfalls.
A lot of the projects I’m on, I have to finish within a certain budget and deadline. I am often kinda keeping everybody feeling good about things and I’m ready to solve problems. There was some of that for sure, but it is hard to do that when it’s your band.
Q: Understandable. In the tracking and mixing, what are a couple of examples of creative engineering that you did?
James: I’ll chime in here being that I did a lot of processing on the fly, which I printed during tracking at mine and Tyson’s home studio in Atlanta. We were using a Digi 003 with a Black Lion Sparrow ADC as a front end.
On the song “Just Dust” I had two vocal passes for the lead verses which were both good takes. I piped one out to my ‘71 Fender Deluxe and re-amped it with a little of the amp’s spring reverb, as well as a bit of nice tube amp scuz for good measure. I used the other, un-re-amped take as the main vocal for the lead verses but took the re-amped track and nudged it slightly behind which created a really nice, resonant, almost tape-like doubler effect but cooler, since the “double” or echo is actually derived from a different take. I think I nudged it to the relative milliseconds of a dotted 64th note value. That is the vocal effect that is heard on the verses of that track.
I did a lot of experimenting throughout the whole tracking process…before, during and after. We tried it: whether it was trying multiple stereo mic configurations to achieve the perfect dimension for that ultimate atmospheric guitar tone, or using MIDI thru to write MIDI on a track, trigger patches from synth modules like a Roland JV-1080 or Novation A-Station AND trigger soft synths like Reaktor or Arturia Moog in order to create the ultimate, layered sounds I was after.
Another part of my treatment process for electro elements included sending stuff through stuff like the Lexicon LXP-15 for a certain ethereal, “cascading octaves” delay effect I’m fond of, or through my old PC rig where I have a few secret weapons like Kantos and tons of other older, now obscure VST effects that I don’t have in Pro Tools.
BTW, the huge, wall of sound guitar tones heard on the second half of the track “Deleted” were played by guest Juan Montoya (formerly of Floor and TORCHE, now of Monstro). We came out of his pedalboard stereo into two old tube amps, ‘71 Deluxe and ‘50-something Gibson Explorer. I mic’d both cabs close to cones but slightly off-axis (with a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser 421), I set up a pair of Rode NT1-A’s in an ORTF configuration, and I used two other room mics: an AKG 414about six feet back from the amps and another about 12 feet back, both set to omni-directional.
Jason: We also did some nice things running effects returns into effects returns into other effects returns. We have a Roland Dimension D and sending the plate and a couple delays back into that really made things start swaying.
As for tracking, there’s a track named “Ellipsis” that I really love what we got with drums. I have some old cassette decks that have lo-fi omni mics and insane compressors built in them. We had them setup out on the floor in front of the kit — thanks to Michael Judeh from Dubway who helped me record a lot of the drum tracks. The tempo of that track really locked in perfectly with the release time, and the attack clamps down like an alligator! At the mix I panned them opposite to the rest of the kit and rooms, and it has this effect of subtly moving side to side throughout.
Q: That is a PLETHORA of recording and mixing tips – were you listening boys and girls? You seem like thoughtful guys, so switching gears from the technical to the philosophical…Why is music important?
James: For me, it is important because it has the capacity to convey otherwise indefinable subtleties…to affix moments in time…nuances of impression. It provides a means to render something tangible from ones’ own unique experience, in a way that others can interact with and proliferate creatively…a way for these vagaries to take on a lives of their own.
Q: Heavy! And why is it important to you to be the ones making the music?
James: My life just doesn’t work at all without it. I tried to stop for a while…thought maybe I’d just write. I walked around in a daze for a few years with a leather-bound journal and a pen…thought I was Rimbaud. Ended up insane and thoroughly depressed. For me, there is only the hoosegow, the madhouse or death…unless I am walking this road.
Jason: Not to sound silly, because I’ve heard others say this and I’ve kinda rolled my eyes, but honestly I have to fucking do this. I’ve been obsessed with music-making and production my whole life. It’s probably just completely selfish and a bit of a safety mechanism, because if I’m not working on music, I start to go crazy. I know what kind of trouble I’m capable of getting into and this keeps me preoccupied. I have a very addictive personality and I’m very hyper. Literally I bounce around like a top, so this is good for me: Our hellbent path.
– David Weiss
Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays is available now on iTunes and all digital outlets, or at www.thevedarays.com.
GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN: There’s no substitute for experience, a fact that Anthony “Rocky” Gallo is taking firmly into account as he expands the buzzing Brooklyn studio scene by another degree. His addition to the Broken Land’s soundscape: Virtue and Vice, a just-right room that he’s growing in Greenpoint.
Gallo has set up shop as he exits his position of Chief Engineer at Manhattan’s Cutting Room Studios, his professional home since 2003 (he was also briefly partnered in Williamsburg’s 1.6 studios, before it changed ownership and became Three Egg). In the process of working with major names like John Legend, Carrie Underwood, Jon Bon Jovi, Yeasayer, The XX, and KRS1, along with scores of indie artists, Gallo became convinced that there was a need for a New York City tracking/mixing room that wasn’t too big, and wasn’t too small.
Instead of investing in a massive gear list, Gallo has stocked Virtue and Vice with a tight but superior inventory of the components he knows best, and wired them into a naturally light space that facilitates comfort and creative flow. Filling out 800 sq. ft. in a Greenpoint commercial loft building close to the L train, Rocky G believes V&V can excel and succeed in NYC.
What kind of space were you looking for to go into business?
The big thing to me was creating an accurate, great-sounding listening environment. I was looking for windows with good light, a very clean design and affordability. This building had all of those things — and I spent two or three years looking for a room before I settled on one.
My theory is that the old way of making records is completely dead: control rooms, live rooms, machine rooms…the way they did it for 40 years isn’t working any more. I wasn’t trying to create this super-isolated environment with a control room and a live room – instead there’s a large vocal booth with a large control/main space. I was talking to a colleague who said he thought that around $500 a day with engineer is the magic number, and that was my main goal.
In Brooklyn, that approach can work out well for my clients and for me – you can break even without having to be booked every day of the month. I also have two or three other guys that come in, and they can charge a little less if I’m working in Nashville. It’s a flexible thing.
What niche did you design Virtue and Vice to fill?
The reality is that artists spend a day or two doing drums — that’s what it’s been for most of the records I’ve done. So why spend money for a buildout and treatments for a room you’ll use one or two days a month? For the gear, it’s the same thing: I’m buying pres and compressors that will never go down in value. If you’re going to buy something, you should never have to say later on, “That was stupid.”
So really the idea is to get as clean of a signal as you can get for overdubs and guitar tracking. This is a place where you can set the amp up, run the speaker cable and actually hear what you’re doing — all the things you should be capable of that a lot of people ignore, as far as the indie market goes.
Good feng shui was obviously on the top of your mind when laying this studio out.
A mentor of mine told me once that a great couch can mean more than a $15,000 microphone. As sad as that is for me as a gear head, I’ll realize that that’s true, and I’ll stop myself from buying a new compressor all the time.
As soon as you can make a client feel that they’re not in a recording studio, and feel like they’re in a living room instead and completely relax, they can focus on doing work. The studio environment freaks people out. Back in the day, that was the office for studio musicians, but now it’s a rarity. Making records might happen more often, but a lot less time is spent in the process.
So I was going for a more comfortable environment, rather than saying I had three Telefunken microphones — it’s the reality that it doesn’t matter as much as the feel of the place. Not to say the equipment can’t be good, but I realized that where to put your energy was in a really clean, comfortable environment. Because 90% of the time the project will require one microphone – three tops – for overdubs.
You expect to be doing a lot of mixing here as well, right?
Mixing is most of the work that I do, as far as my clients go, but production, mixing, and overdubs are all my main personal workload. When it comes to mixing, for me the Dangerous 2-BUS has definitely added a huge dimension to the stereo image. I come out of Pro Tools HD3 into the Neve 1081 channels or compressors – which I use like a strip of the console — then back into the Dangerous again. The amount of clarity and overall fatness the combination creates was a huge, noticeable difference.
You’ve been steadily building up an impressive portfolio in NYC and beyond. What would you say is driving your evolution as an engineer/mixer?
The whole Manhattan music production scene has changed more in the last in the last year or two than in the previous twenty years. The way people are releasing and recording records is transforming: Now you can work in Pro Tools on your laptop without an interface. Five years ago that was never even thought of – you were carrying around an Mbox at least.
As far as my approach, I figured out how you can make a record for very little overhead, and still make it sound really great. You should be able to make a major release for $10-15K. Those live KEXP sessions at the Cutting Room really opened my eyes. Great bands like Yeasayer were coming in and saying, “This sounds better than the record,” and I was thinking, “I just spent 25 minutes on this, and you must have spent at least two months making your record. What’s wrong here?”
So you don’t need everything in the world — just experience and doing it time and time again. The theory is just you knowing what you want to hear in the end. I would love to work on a big console today, but I just started to realize you don’t need it. It’s really not important. And time after time I found myself using the desk less and less, based on the short amount of time I had with the client.
On that note, what type of clients are you appealing to with Virtue and Vice?
Pretty much any stage of their project. If someone’s looking to do a record and they hit us up, we’ll find a place to do the drums for the day. We take a strategic approach to production, rather than saying, “Show up for your first day, we’ll set mics up, and see what happens.”
As a staff engineer, for example, I was constantly seeing that people were coming in with problematic drums – they didn’t have their time signature noted, their tempos weren’t set, etc…. I’d rather go over that with my clients in advance, because it will make things challenging for me if I’m the one mixing it down the road. I think the best thing to do is spend some time before you come in, so you make the right decisions before you go in to work.
Overall, the target audience is someone working on a budget, but who still needs to make something really great. I know I’m not the cheapest, but I definitely have the experience and probably work faster than most people, being the product of a Manhattan studio. When your client is getting charged up to $175 an hour you have to be fast and not think twice about what you’re doing. And that’s how I was trained.
You had your choice of boroughs and neighborhoods to set out a shingle. What’s going on in Greenpoint that made you select it as the home for Virtue and Vice?
A lot of my colleagues are in Manhattan and they’re saying to me, “You’re going to have trouble getting people out here (in Greenpoint).” Some of them say it’s like going to New Jersey, but I tell them that all my clients live out there.
The only people still living in Manhattan are label heads, and how much longer will they be working at that label? The clientele has really moved out here, and the people that have been making music here for the last ten years are growing up, and getting much more developed in what they’re creating. The people doing this for a living are not afraid to spend money to get the right person to do the job. Young guys see how it’s going, and how records as are being made.
Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Bushwick areas are becoming a mecca for making music: The artists are there, and the studios are there because it’s less expensive to operate. The whole Manhattan recording scenario to me seems bizarre: high rent and a small room to work in. The people who are doing volume recoding are out in Brooklyn. There’s a lot of great places coming up, with guys coming from Manhattan studios who are super-experienced and putting together really tight rooms, like Kevin Blackler who came from Sony (and established Blackler Mastering in Brooklyn). I think the mastering guys like him have it the best, because they can be anywhere.
There are a lot of options already for artists and producers working at that level you just mentioned, as we’re sure you aware. What made you decide to look past that and open another NYC audio facility?
My next door neighbor across the hall is doing the same thing in his off-time, and when I moved into this building, he basically said the same thing, “Another studio?” I said, “I know…” But this is not a hobby for me. This is the way I live. It’s the way I purchased my equipment: I didn’t give up my old job and make a bunch of miscellaneous purchases with my severance package. I learned how to make records from guys doing it for 20 years, and then I made records in order to buy this gear.
Yes, it seems like the market is flooded with studio choices. and I know a lot of great guys are getting out of doing it, because its flooded with more kids coming out of recording school than there are bands to record, and the young kids are the ones doing it for a six-pack and a pizza. It’s a funny thing, how many people are opening up studios: They think it’s affordable – that they can charge $300 a day in exchange for making an investment of $15,000 and make it right back.
But it’s not an easy job, and it’s not for somebody who’s in it for the short term. I think I’m finally getting a real grasp of what to do and how to do it, and I’m talking to people who have been doing it for 25 years who are getting their minds blown with the recent developments, and changing what they’re doing.
There’s always been people who are good talkers and will get the gig, but this is a long, slow, steady course. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it, and the better records you’ll make. That’s the best way to approach it.
– David Weiss
Join us at Flux for food, drink and a night of audio geekery with your engineer, producer and musician peers.
This will be a great opportunity to hear how Dangerous gear can “dramatically improve your mixes,” be privy to some exclusive special pricing (offered only at this event) and giveaways, as well as networking and schmoozing in a top-notch recording studio.
At this event, you’ll experience the monitor switching systems — Dangerous Monitor ST and the D-Box — learn how summing really improves your sound with the Dangerous 2-Bus, 2-Bus LT, & D-Box — and bask in the warm glow of the new Dangerous BAX EQ.
See you there! And please be sure to RSVP to Alto NYC’s Shane Koss at email@example.com.
Flux Studios is located in the Lower East Side. Visit www.fluxstudios.net for more info!
The Williamsburg facility Grand Street Recording announced that they have completed multiple upgrades.
Improvements there include new Lynx Aurora 16 A/D D/A converters, with a total of 24 ins and 32 outs. Meanwhile the Dangerous D-Box has been replaced with a Dangerous 2-Bus and a Crane Song Avocet monitor system, for a total 32 channels of summing. Xtreme tech heads can check out the full gear list here.
In addition, an early 1930’s Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum is now available at the studio.
Recent projects for Ken Rich (owner/producer/co-head engineer) and Tomek Miernowski (co-head engineer) include:
– Mixing for Mike Errico’s new album.
– Mixing for Lucinda Black Bear’s next album.
– Tracking drums for Ira Elliot of Nada Surf.
– Recording with Madison Square Gardeners for their new EP Taste The Thunder.
– Ken Rich is currently recording and mixing Morley’s new album. The sessions have hosted top a number of top musicians including Kenwood Dennard, Fred Cash, David Anram, Gil Goldstein, Gene Lake, James Genus, and Joan Wasser.
– Recording and mixing Greg Tannen’s new album. Featured players include Tony Mason (drums), Tim Luntzel on bass, Matt Beck (guitars), and Andrew Sherman (keys).
– Recording with Kayo Dot.
– And last but by no means least, recording with The Spring Standards.
HELL’S KITCHEN: Dig Art Deco? Most definitely, and we could always do worse than to be in the majestic polychromed lobby of The Film Center Building on Ninth Avenue – especially if we’re visiting Beat360.
Evolution is the solution at this extra-comfy facility founded by the busy English music producer Mark Saunders in 1997. He was in town then to produce Cyndi Lauper’s Sisters of Avalon, and never really left. With a production/mixing/programming discography that includes The Cure, Neneh Cherry, Shiny Toy Guns, David Byrne, Tricky, and A-Ha, Manhattan has been more than happy to take him.
The addition of Ollie Hammett as Director came in 2007, and Beat360 has grown out beyond just being a great place to track and mix. Today, this flexible sound concern takes on everything that touches artists and producers – management, synch, publishing, distribution and more. Corporate clients have been attracted too, including Nike, Reebok, L’Oreal, Chevy, Motorola and Microsoft.
With all that going on, they seem as eager as any of us to see what’s next, as Hammett made abundantly clear in a recent convo.
What kind of group are you and Mark working with at Beat360?
It’s essentially just the two of us, and we have a pool of assistants who help with the day-to-day running of projects. As a small team we cover as much as we can in-house and for larger projects we outsource to additional engineers as and when needed.
Mark came up in the industry as an engineer, producer and mixer. Recently he has been establishing a name for himself as an exceptional co-writer working with artists/writers such as Teddy Geiger, Cathy Dennis and PNAU (production duo behind Empire Of The Sun).
My time is equally split between studio work as an engineer/mixer and project management/business development. Projects I’ve worked on include Idris Elba’s High Class problems v1 (engineer/mixed), The Sounds’ Crossing the Rubicon (engineer), A-Ha’s upcoming Farewell single (engineer & additional production), and So So Glos‘ self-titled debut album (mix engineer).
That’s a small but diversified and accomplished core team. From there, how would you explain Beat360 as a business today? Is it a recording facility? Mix facility? Producer/songwriter haven? All of the above, or is it something else entirely?
I would say we’re all of the above. We market ourselves as a “full service music and audio solutions company.” It was originally established as a private recording, production and mixing facility for Mark’s projects. We now work with a whole array of different clients – bands, brands, digital interactive agencies, management companies, record labels — less and less — and independent artists more and more.
While diversifying, it’s really important for us to continue to try and bridge the artist development gap we now see in the music industry, so I think this is something that’s integral to everything we do. We’re always looking for opportunities for the artists we work with through our network of contacts and relationships.
I’ve had a couple visits to your studio HQ in the landmark Film Center Building, and it seems like a very productive place to work. Can you fill us in on the design philosophy, plus the hardware and software goodies?
Beat360 is a 2000 sq. ft. facility with two mix/production suites, one live room, a kitchen, lounge and chill out area. Our philosophy is for artists/clients to feel as comfortable and creative as possible.
Our main production/suite is a hybrid system – no mixing board in sight. The main DAW is an Apple Quad Core/Logic/Apogee symphony system with X series converters, and a Mackie Control. We have a Dangerous 2-Bus summer and a selection of outboard gear that can be integrated into Logic sessions as insert plugins. We both use Pro Tools but prefer Logic so we have a Pro Tools LE system for converting projects that come to us in that format.
We have software, hardware and musical instrument toys in serious supply. See the full list here. But here’s a taste: Logic 9, Waves Platinum v7 bundles, Sonnox plugins, Arturia Collection, a Ludwig 1968 Drumkit, Soundelux U95S, Neumann U67 (1960’s), Telefunken SM2 stereo (1960’s), Urei 1176, Manley ELOP leveling amp/compressor, Night Nt3 mastering EQ, Telefunken V72 (2 channels) racked by Dave Marquette, John Hardy M-1 (4 channels), Neve 33122 (2 channels), Neve 33115 (2 channels) and API 312 (5 channels) racked by Brent Averill.
Ooooo, tasty. So what niche does Beat360 fill in the NYC spectrum of facilities? And globally for that matter, since you’re doing international services like FTP mixing.
I would characterize our studio as a full-service professional recording, production and mixing facility. In addition to the hiring the studio and services out to NYC clients, we also offer remote mixing and mastering solutions for independent artists all over the world through www.beat360-master-mixing.com.
Clients upload sessions to our server and we mix/master the tracks working closely with them on revisions to make sure they’re 100% happy with the end results. More than just an online service, it’s an artist development vehicle. A number of these artists we have gone on to help find management, legal representation, sync placements, TV show appearances, etc…
Our niche is that we are centrally-NYC-located with a great-sized space by today’s standards, have a diverse client base and work with both high-profile established clients, as well as helping to build the careers of indie artists.
I think that sounds like a real indication of where “music companies” are going. The model is comprehensive but light on its feet. But would you say you’ve been high-profile or under the radar? Is this by accident, by design, or a little bit of both?
I would say we’re in the process of establishing ourselves. As of September, I will be managing a small producer/writer management division of a new international music group, rocketmusic.com. The starting roster in the US is Mark Saunders, Dan Romer and a couple of others to be determined — if you’re the next Quincy Jones feel free to get in touch! This exciting new venture will be integrally linked to BEAT360 and will no doubt help to put us more on the radar. I think the next few years should see our business become a more visible part of the New York studio facility and music production landscape.
Ambitious – we LIKE. Can you tell us a few projects you’ve got in the hopper right now?
We have been working with phenomenal talent Teddy Geiger for the last few months, Mark is producing his new album. I can’t tell you how excited I get when I hear his work. It reminds me why I followed a career in music. He really is a prodigious talent.
Mark is in the process of mixing music in surround sound for a forthcoming Luc Besson film. We’re beginning production of French singer/songwriter Emilie Gassin’s debut E.P this month. We’ve been recording Idris Elba’s features for several UK artists including Ty and recent XL signing Giggs. Also, we’ve been producing/recording audio assets for a multinational brand website.
That sounds like a solid spread. Would you agree you have to be a constant innovator in this business today?
Yes, I think you have to be creative with how you approach business and you have to pay attention to the market forces/technological advances that affect us all and try to stay one step ahead. Technology aside I think there’s something to be said for consistency: If you do something consistently really well, people will hopefully pay attention.
I’m a big believer in good old-fashioned customer service, the value of genuine win-win relationships and being proactive.
Aye! On the growth tip, how do you strive to publicize/promote Beat360, and successfully diversify your revenue streams?
A lot of our business is word of mouth and referrals. Luckily we get to work with some very cool talent that automatically creates visibility and awareness for what we’re doing in the right circles.
We promote our facility and services through various mediums, the obvious ones being Google/Facebook and relevant local business and directory listings. We normally attend events such as SXSW, NMS, Billboard and CMJ helping us keep up-to-date, hearing great new music and building relationships with potential partners and clients.
What or who is keeping you motivated right now?
I’m inspired that the music industry — as unstable and tough as it is seems to be – is moving towards a more transparent place where there is less room for monopolies. It’s more about passionate people doing stuff really well and building authentic relationships around it.
I’m inspired by independent artists doing it for themselves without record label backing. April Smith just made an awesome album independently and has had several significant TV placements after raising $13,000 through Kickstarter.com, and Jenny Owen Youngs has raised over $30,000 through the same platform to record her next album. Wow!!
Some key influences for me are entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, and Chris Blackwell who have managed to enrich lives through brilliant music and art-based ventures. Thought-provoking writers/bloggers such as Chris Anderson, Seth Godin and Bob Lefsetz help me get perspective and try to stay on top of what’s relevant to the ever-changing business we’re in.
How would you characterize the overall studio scene in NYC today? What’s making you determined to be a part of it?
It’s difficult for me to characterize the scene in NYC today, actually, but it’s certainly great to see a website like SonicScoop helping to build a community around the facilities and professionals who work in them. I just try to stay in the loop with people, companies, technologies and music that excites me.
Thanks for those props, Ollie! Last off, what makes Beat360 an only-in NYC story?
I think we’re probably one of the only 100%-British-run music studios in NYC – I could be wrong! — and as you would expect we make a killer cuppa tea!
The advantages of being in NYC surrounded by so much talent, ambition and competition is that it drives us to constantly better ourselves. The main disadvantage is that there are not enough hours in the day to stay on top of any reasonably sized to-do list.
We know how you feel, OLD CHAP.
– David Weiss