441 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019
ph: (212) 765-7500

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Great Recordings

Cell Phone Etiquette

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Price Audio Expertise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips on using Analog Tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying Your Dues

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

I recently read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book talks about attaining excellence and I recommend it highly. One of the main points in Outliers – that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something – has been mentioned and referred to a lot lately in the press and in many blogs.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Recording a Large Broadway Cast Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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441 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019
ph: (212) 765-7500
fx: (212) 765-7450