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A Digital Playroom

by Larry Zide

TWENTY YEARS AGO ROSE WAS an unemployed film editor, staring at a pair of consumer two-tracks in his living room. Today, Rose works out of a brand-new digital audio post room ten feet from his living room. He believes that both technical and business developments over the past few years have combined to make the electronic cottage studio fully competitive. His most recent clients (including Abbott Pharmaceuticals, AT&T, Blue Cross, and Group W Broadcasting) seem to agree.

Rose's new room is both a culmination of his career and a reminder of his roots. "I worked at radio stations and film companies for a couple of years, but the first studio I could call my own was a bedroom in my apartment. Tascam, Fostex, and similar personal use studio equipment didnt yet exist, but 4-channel home sound had just run its course and I was able to find a used Teac quad recorder and modify it for sync. I traded with a hardware store -- they got some commercials and I got cork and acoustic tiles -- and I was in business."

A decade later, his bedroom studio had become an advertising-oriented multi-studio complex in a downtown Boston office building. When the building was torn down to make room for a skyscraper, Rose shut the operation down and became principal sound designer at mega-facility Century III (now Editel/Boston). There, he created program openings for NBC and ads for major national clients. But he was also working fourteen-hour days. "The Clios, Emmy, and New England Best of Show awards were nice, but my kids were growing up and I was missing the Daddy awards." So he left Century III and built a half-inch eight-track facility in his attic (profiled in db Magazine's September/October 1989 issue).

By last winter he had added a digital workstation, four keyboards, and a large mix/pix monitor: There wasn't room for clients, and stereo imaging had gone out the window. "In fact, even the window had gone out the window: I had blocked over the opening for soundproofing, and the HVAC wasn't adequate for all the equipment. I knew I needed first-class space again." Fortunately Rose's Victorian home still had rooms to spare. He appropriated a child's former bedroom, and this summer built a comfortable edit room... downstairs. "My 1972 studio became a nursery when my first kid was born. This 1991 room was my second kids nursery. Either I've come full circle, or I'm starting the darned thing all over again."

THE FACILITY

Jay Rose's Digital Playroom is modeled after a video post-edit suite rather than a traditional recording studio. That's because advertising sessions tend to spend more time editing voices and effects than recording them. While the new space is acoustically fine for recording, Rose prefers to book outside rooms for his basic tracks. "There are some excellent studios in Boston for voice and dramatic recording. Since I'm not tied down to any one facility, I can book the best room large or small, live or dead for the project at hand. I do my own engineering, so I can be sure of a technically-consistent product." He's been known to use two or three different rooms for the same project, to take advantage of different acoustics.

Rose records direct to DAT, using either the studios recorder or his Panasonic SV-255 portable. Location interviews and effects are also recorded on the SV-255. He lays down tracks without any limiting or equalization, relying on the DATs wide frequency response and dynamic range. All processing is done in the comfortable monitoring environment of his own studio.

CONSTRUCTION AND LAYOUT

Accurate monitoring was a primary design goal for the new space. The room couldn't be made symmetric -- a staircase to an upstairs office cuts into a rear corner -- so Rose uses nearfield monitors and lots of absorption to control room reverb. "Nearfield monitoring is an excellent idea that's seldom done well. A pair of NS-10s or Auratones are stuck on the console, and that's it. Sure, you don't hear room nodes any more, but you also don't hear mistakes and problems. You just can't pump full bandwidth without distortion through a seven-inch speaker."

Rose uses JBL 4410s rigidly mounted four feet from the prime mixing position. These speakers -- designed for digital mastering -- usually aren't considered nearfield monitors, since they weigh fifty pounds each. A custom speaker switcher (see Figure 1) switches between them, two home hifi speakers, and the ubiquitous Auratones. The switcher uses VCAs and trimmers to compensate for sensitivity differences. "I can bounce between any pair, including the 3-inchers in the video monitor, and the only differences I hear are detail and bandwidth. The stereo field and overall level remains the same." Room nodes were controlled by dropping the ceiling slightly and adding eighty square feet of strategically-placed 2 acoustical fiberglass faced with 3 wedge tiles. Almost anywhere along a wide center line, the client can get a good idea of the stereo mix.

More space also meant the room could be more comfortable than the attic. Unobtrusive air conditioning, glare-free lighting, and a producer nook with a separate telephone is provided. (There's also a Jacuzzi in an adjacent bathroom, but Rose reports that so far no client has asked to use it.)

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PRE-PRO AND PHONE-PRO

Unlike some sound designers who tolerate advertising work while waiting for film or record jobs, Rose has built his career around commercials. He says he enjoys the creative partnership involved: "Some years ago I heard a world-class art director at a photo shoot. She turned to the photographer and said 'If all I hear from you is the camera clicking, next time I'll rent just the camera.' Good agency people hire suppliers who can actively contribute to making their ideas work, rather than just operate the equipment."

Extensive pre-production and planningis a key to success in the commercial world. "I talk to the writer about the script long before a session, frequently even before the client sees it. Its amazing how a one- or two-word change can influence sound effects and music, or how the proper effects and music can eliminate the need for some of the words."

With this extensive pre-production, writers are often willing to let Rose do much of the work unsupervised. "It's more than just trust: it's also having a good phone patch. Agency people can work productively in their offices while I edit, knowing that if I run into a problem or have an inspiration they'll hear all the options immediately. I frequently do phoneme-level editing with writers who are across town. Then when its time to mix, they grab their clients and come over" The speed of the workstation, which lets Rose make final edits while the client is listening over the phone, contributes a lot to this working style. Phone-patch editing in sync with picture is slightly tricker, but Rose claims to work with at least one producer willing to do that... as long as things can be slid during the mix.

FUTURE OF THE ELECTRONIC COTTAGE

This year is probably not a good one for building a studio in Boston. During the past twelve months, three major local facilities have either downsized or shut down entirely. Despite this fact, developments of the 1980s have made first-class home operations possible. Computerized audio has reached the point where moderate-priced workstations can do more than a 24-track and console of a few years ago. DAT recorders sound far better than analog decks costing four times as much. Rose believes the trend has as much to do with the music industry as with advances in technology: During most of the 1980s, companies like Yamaha and Roland were doing everything they could to put new keyboards under the fingers of part-time musicians. Other manufacturers saw a need for low-cost, good-sounding effects, mixers, and recorders. This created a lively and competitive retail scene. If youve got technical knowhow and decent capitalization, vendors will fall over themselves helping you build a studio. He acknowledges the phenomenon might be short-lived, as cash and client budgets dry up. "But, hey, that's the beauty of a cottage industry: When things are hectic, I can work fourteen-hour days and still see my kids. When they're quiet, I don't have to look busy for anyone."


 

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You've reached the new home for Jay Rose's “dplay.com” articles and tutorials!