Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Quick Conversation with Joe Tarsia

This year marks a very special moment in the 32-year history of SPARS. The SPARS Board of Directors has selected recording legend Joe Tarsia as the first annual SPARS Legacy Award recipient. Joe was one of the original founders of SPARS in 1979 and the group’s first President. From Cameo/Parkway Records to founder and owner of the legendary Sigma Sound Studios, Joe Tarsia’s career has spanned more than 50-years of extraordinary music recording.

One of Joe’s highest professional achievements was his hand in creating the “Philadelphia Sound.” From the mid 60’s to the early 80’s, the unique sound that came to life in Sigma’s studios dominated the world’s airways. The success of Sigma regulars, Gamble & Huff, Tom Bell, Tom Moulton, Bobby Martin and Baker, Harris & Young attracted a stream of top artists and producers from around the world, all coming to capture the “Sigma Magic.” Some of those many hits were songs like “You’ll Never Find” by Lou Rawls, “Betcha by Golly, Wow” by The Stylistics and “For the Love of Money” and “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays.

We had a chance to ask Joe a few questions to seek advice for those running studios today.

What concepts, ideas & customs would you like to see passed down to future practitioners of the recording craft?

The appreciation of what a good acoustical space can contribute to recording. Lost in much of today’s electronic, highly processed music is the natural organic sound of a rock band in a live room or the lush sound of strings as they reverberate off the walls of a good room. I was never one for too many booths, blankets and baffles, and it seems to me that today’s electronic productions personify the ultimate isolation booth.

What can studios do to help facilitate successful recording sessions?

The mission of a good studio and its staff is first and foremost to faithfully capture what is taking place in the studio and to do it with the least distractions to the producer and to the creative process.

What do you think are business success factors for today’s studios?

The reason the independent studios came to be and replaced the big label corporate owned facilities was because of the independents caring service and non-corporate creative atmosphere. Even more important than its gear, a successful studio must be friendly, clean, and comfortable and most of all provide an unpressured creative environment.

Based on many years of your experience and the changes you have observed in today's music industry, what advice do you have for studio owners?

Recognize that the only constant anyone can count on is change. The days of commercial studios with ceiling tiles covered walls and speakers hanging on chains are gone. So too are the young producers, artist and bargain hunters who sought their low end rates and now record in their friends garage. While today the number of commercial studios is fewer, there will always be a need for the excellence that only a truly professional recording environment can provide.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Offering Customized Protection for Recording Studios

Insurance is one of those business matters that studio owners would rather not think about, until it is too late. Not all insurance policies are the same and the good news is that there is a customized solution available specifically designed for recording studios. You can say Joe Montarello pioneered and perfected the art of protecting recording studios with his unique Recording Insurance Program by Capital Bauer Insurance Agency. We sat down with him to find out more about it.

What led you to dream up such a program?

As an insurance professional for over 35 years and also an active musician for 40 plus years, a number of years ago I put these two talents together. Working with one of the strongest insurance carriers in the world and created a policy that is specific to the recording industry that I am so familiar with.

It started back in the mid nineties, having built a project studio, I decided it would be best that I look into insuring it and called upon a dozen of the largest insurance companies that my agency represented and inquired about how they currently handle insuring recording studios. The majority of underwriters I spoke with all had a hard time understanding how to classify my gear. I explained I wanted the same type or similar coverage's used for the recording studio industry and every one of them said the same thing: "we don't have a specific form that is special for recording studios." None could even recommend anything other then the typical "cookie cutter" policy forms used to insure your typical main street businesses. Most could only equate the gear as "high end stereo equipment" and that's when I realized something had to be done; to make a long story short, The Recording Studio Insurance Program was created.

What’s different about the Recording Studio Insurance Program from regular business insurance options?

In addition to all the “cookie cutter” coverages found in regular business insurance, The Recording Studio Insurance Program is specific to your industry and goes beyond regular business insurance. Here are a few of the unique coverages & provisions included:

• No-Coinsurance
• Computer Viruses
• Equipment Breakdown Coverage
• Coverage for Borrowed/Rented Gear
• Theft by Any Party
• Electrical Disturbances
• Coverage for Damaged Media/Data Recovery
• Coverage for Gear in Transit and
Away from the Studio
• Flood and Earthquake Coverage (Available in most states)

...along with many more unique coverages.

What is tailored toward recording studios?

The unique way replacement value is determined & settled: In the event of a total loss we will replace your gear based on the original replacement value or if you are unable to find a replacement for your original gear, as a bonus, we’ll allow you to upgrade your gear based on the original replacement value plus an additional 15%!

There seems to be a lot of natural disaster in the news lately with instances of tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. What can I do to protect my studio and business?

First, make sure you have the correct insurance to cover the perils that you’re concerned about. Second, make sure you have the proper limits of insurance to be able to replace everything. As for general exclusions in regular business insurance, both earthquake and flood are excluded perils. The Recording Studio Insurance Program provides coverage for these two perils.

Besides natural disasters, can you share other incidents where you have helped a client get back on their feet?

The Recording Studio Insurance Program covers any type of water damage; we’ve had studios who suffered water damage from a broken pipe, where they not only lost gear but suffered severe damage to their build-out. Last year The Recording Studio Insurance Program responded to several of our Nashville studio clients who suffered severe damage to gear and build-out from the flood. These types of claims can take several months to rebuild. In addition to being covered for both gear and the build-out, we’ve also provided lost income for the studio's downtime! We’ve also covered major fires and numerous electrical disturbance claims, where a studio's gear was damaged either by an on premises lighting strike or some type of equipment failure due to an internal electrical issue either on or off premises.

For small project studios, what is the minimum coverage I should have?

That’s not easy to answer. A studio owner, whether large or small, needs to determine the replacement value for all the property. In addition to all the property / gear coverage, don’t forget about enough liability coverage to protect against a law suit from someone being injured on premises or injured during the operations of the studio both on and off premises.

How do I handle coverage for studios at home?

Pretty much the same considerations are used as if insuring a large studio. Same coverage issues exist if there is gear and liability issues to be concerned about.

How many studios are covered by your program?

Currently somewhere around 650 studios nationwide.

What states are you doing business in?

Currently doing business in 26 States.

What if I am in a state not covered by your program?

As a professional insurance agency, we are required by law to hold either a residence or non-residence license in each state we do business in. This license carries an annual cost. What I highly recommend is to call me (888-869-3535 x807); I would love to find out more about your studio and other recording studios in your state. This is how we’ve grown into new areas, by listening to current studio owners; this helps determine if the number of studios in your area will outweigh our annual licensing expense.

What can I do to keep my premiums down?

Being insured with an established industry insurance program, the benefits in both coverage and premiums are cost savers; higher deductibles, this helps keep all the small nickel and dime claims from effecting premium costs; having protective devices such as alarm systems, can provide additional credits.

For more information about The Recording Studio Insurance Program, please contact Joe Montarello.

Monday, May 9, 2011

2nd Annual National Recording Studios Open Day in New Zealand

New Zealand's National Recording Studios Open Day, first covered in this blog last June, is back for its second year. It will be held on Saturday, May 28 this year. Based on the successful response they had the first year, more studios are participating this year. So far, there are 12 confirmed studios opening their doors.

Organized & coordinated by the New Zealand Musician magazine, the afternoon event provides a rare opportunity for musicians, artist managers, music students and other enthusiasts to find out more about local studio facilities, as well as the audio quality benefits of recording in a professional studio environment.

National Recording Studios Open Day Press Release

Updated Event Page

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Conversation with Blaise Barton, President of E.A.R.S.

I had a chance to talk with Blaise Barton, President of EARS (Engineering And Recording Society) of Chicago about their organization. Blaise was elected President in November 2009. It seems fitting that Blaise got his first break when he was hired at Chicago's ACME Recording as an assistant engineer for EARS founder, Mike Rasfeld in 1988. He attended some of the earliest EARS meetings. Over the years his career grew from being assistant engineer, to chief engineer at ACME Recording, to owning and operating his own studio business, JoyRide Studio. This year, Blaise won his first Grammy along with Chicago producer / engineer (and EARS co-founder) Michael Freeman for work on the Pine Top Perkins / Willie Smith album Joined At the Hip in the "Best Traditional Blues Album" category.

EARS was founded in 1986 as an independent non-profit group dedicated to the advancement of excellence in audio production. A handful of Chicago engineers gathered at an AES show in New York in 1985 realizing that they met more away from home than they did back at home. The idea of EARS was born - a monthly social get-together where competitors could meet in an atmosphere of friendship, talk about gear, business, and music. The creed or motto on their logo says, “Deaf Before Dishonor.” (Another logo has the additional saying, “Don’t Shed On Me”.) EARS is a 501(c)3 organization.

As the music industry changed, so did EARS. The organization evolved to become truly music-centric and has opened their doors to all members of the community to create a group that encompasses every aspect of the music industry.

In a nutshell, the focus of EARS can be summed up as “fun, industry, and education” – that is have fun, discuss issues regarding the business, attend educational events, visit other studios and bring in high-profile guest speakers. In 2010, EARS guest speakers included Eddie Kramer, Bob Clearmountain, and Jim Gaines. At the February 2011 meeting, Russ Berger was the guest speaker.

There are approximately 180 members with 4-5 new members joining every month. Members consist of recording engineers, studio owners, musicians, students, manufacturers and pro-audio representatives. The Chicago market is diversified with post production work (for ad agencies such as Opus and Leo Burnett), a thriving music community and of course blues. Many new members are students from local audio programs. In Chicago, the main schools that offer programs are Columbia College, Flash Point Academy, DePaul University and more recently Northwestern University.

EARS meets monthly to discuss techniques and issues facing the recording industry. EARS meetings are held on the last Tuesday of every month (unless otherwise noted) at various studios and establishments around Chicago. Last November, Genelec's Paul Stewart along with distributor Spoiled By Technology demonstrated setup and fine tuning of Genelec's advanced 8260A monitors configured in a 5.1 arrangement at Chicago's world class studio Chicago Recording Company. Using Genelec's finely tuned system, EARS then conducted a master class on mixing in 5.1 Surround led by CRC's Chris Steinmetz and American Mobile founder, CRC manager, and EARS member Chris Shepard. Besides the monthly meetings, activities include an annual holiday party, an annual summer BBQ and the occasional EARS Roast. EARS puts out a very well edited newsletter called EARDRUM.

One of the issues EARS has been discussing is the proliferation of studios started by recent graduates who were unable to find sustaining work – an issue not unique to Chicago and a common thread seen throughout the country.

EARS is well organized and is a very active organization. Please visit the EARS Web site to find out how you can join their group. You can also find more information about them on their facebook page or LinkedIn Groups.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Q&A with Philadelphia Recording Community's Mike Tarsia

1. When and how did your group come together?

The group came together in the summer of 2010. When Sigma Sound, the studio my father founded in 1968 began, there were only three recording studios in the Philadelphia area. I had noticed from word of mouth and Internet searches that there are now ten times that just within a few miles of me. I decided to hold a meeting in the back of a small local bar/restaurant on a Monday morning when I knew most traditional studios were slow and find more out about the phenomenon and how we could work together.

2. What is your group’s mission?

Our mission is cooperation, education and dynamic interface. Studios come in many sizes, shapes and abilities today. Some have more ability in certain areas, such as tracking of drums, cutting vocals or mixing. Many are musician or band project rooms. To meet, see each others facilities, discuss ways we can work together using the best elements of each studio, have the group opportunity to see the latest hardware and software from manufacturers while seeking out new revenue streams and marketing concepts, drives our mission.

3. How many members do you currently have and can you describe the makeup of your group?

It’s really a loose dynamic group. At most meetings there are between 40 and 50 people, plus the guest speakers. On Facebook there are over 250 people who joined the page. We have colleges who are members (as well as) larger professional studios, mid and small sized facilities and independent producers.

4. Do you meet regularly and where?

We meet once a month and we go to different facilities in our area. It gives us a chance to see who has what to offer and where.

5. What kind of activities does your group engage in?

The meetings usually start out with people filtering in and getting into informal discussions. It’s surprising how many studio people just want to talk to their peers and mentors. Then we have a formal discussion of issues concerning the community; I usually lead that part of the meeting. Finally a manufacturer demonstrates its wares and engages the group. George Hajioannou from Studio Logic Sound is the person who invites the manufacturers to the meetings.

6. How would you describe the Philadelphia recording scene?

It’s very active but faces the same issues as most recording scenes in tertiary markets.

7. What do you think are some key issues your members are facing or grappling with?

Well ever since the advent of low cost DAW based recording systems. The line between “home hobbyist” recording and professional recording has blurred. Novice people seeing out a place to record need to be educated about what it takes to make a great sounding record. Conversely studios need to know when it’s best to pass off parts of their projects to more capable facilities and how to best utilizing their place for things like tracking if they have a hot sounding room for that.

8. How do you think your group can address some of these issues?

By face-to-face interactions at changing venues. It’s great to see people who are in essence “competitors” so open and candid about their concerns and feelings. Also there is power in numbers so on issues with manufacturers and such, a group has more influence.

9. Can you share with us any info regarding upcoming events?

Our next event is Febuary 23rd at “The Studio.” Telefunken is bringing down their microphone arsenal and recording a one-man band, layered instrument by instrument. We’ll also be discussing Converse’s “FREE” recording studio Rubber Tracks.

10. Where can people in your area find out more about your organization?

They can visit our website and our Facebook page.

11. How can SPARS and PRC work together and/or help each other?

As you know, my father was a founding member and the first president of SPARS. Years later I became president of SPARS also. So there is some history there. I see a relationship where SPARS acts as a national conduit for the common concerns of the community based recording groups like the PRC, which are cropping up in cities around the nation.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Introducing Recording Session Metatags

We’ve all complained about incorrect credits listed on All Music at one time or another. Pretty soon, you can do something about it. A tool will be available shortly that will aid in capturing credits and other production specific information.

On August 17th, 2010, the P&E Wing of the Recording Academy presented the Content Creator Data (CCD), the new recording metadata standard, and accompanying software application called the CCD Collection Tool at their New York office.

After several years, the folks at BMS/Chace, in conjunction with The Library of Congress’ National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program, came up with an open schema (a standardized data structure for informational exchange) that defines recording session specific metatags.

Since the late ‘90s, schemas have been developed for a multitude of industries and uses, including electronic business transactions, retail industry, human resources, financial information, geographic applications, customer information, elections, emergency data, office documents, content syndication (e.g. RSS) and many others. The music industry joined in on the effort in 2006 by forming an organization called DDEX (Digital Data Exchange), which is developing standards for new release notification, digital sales reporting, licensing and other related items. CCD was developed to make sure it is compatible with existing standards by DDEX, SMPTE, AES and other relevant standards organizations.

The CCD Collection Tool is a free, cross platform utility that will soon be available. Through its user-friendly interface, anyone can input album / project and song specific information in the form of metadata that includes names of performers & recording personnel, the type of gear or instrument used, the recording media and settings used, and other details about sessions to help in documentation, master delivery and archiving. The output of the utility is a XML file.

In order for the standard and tool to be truly useful, there are a few conditions that have to be met.

As some philosopher (actually an IBM technician / instructor) famously said, “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” The critical stage in the process is at the point of data entry where the validity and accuracy of the data is determined.

The theory goes that data should be entered where it is generated. Presumably, that is why this tool was developed and why people are being encouraged to use it in the studio. It was suggested at the meeting that assistants in recording sessions could enter this data. This is certainly possible, but assistants are already taking care of a lot of things during the session.

Trying to get names correct and standardized (e.g. Jim, James, Jamie, Jimmy, Jimmie, ...) is a very big challenge. One solution that is being suggested is to have each person register and use a 16-digit ID number called the ISNI (International Standard Name Identifier) that will become available in the spring of 2011. It is a universal ID for a public identity.

In practice, sometimes we don’t know the full names (or how to spell them) of some of the musicians who come in for sessions, especially if it is a large session. However, that information would be known to whomever hired them or whomever will have to get them to sign contracts / releases. Another problem is that some song titles have not been finalized at the time of recording,

In the “old” days, there were people attending from the labels or coordinators hired by them to collect this type of information, at least during the session. The reality is that data that needs to be kept is being generated not just in the studio, but throughout the entire production process of the project, which leads to…

More and more recording or mix sessions are being conducted in multiple locations by multiple parties – in some cases, concurrently. How data generated in multiple instances is collected and combined will be critical in making sure the data is complete.

From what we have seen in practice, there is already a lack of organization and documentation of session data. Adding metatags to the list will be a challenge, especially in smaller productions where very few people are doing pretty much everything. Only discipline and diligence by those involved will ensure that the data is complete.

Once the data is collected or while it is being collected, there has to be a safeguard to prevent data from being altered or deleted intentionally or inadvertently. Different levels of access and authorizations might have to be implemented at some point. The developers talked about implementing a simple security scheme by allowing people to enter data, but not change it. A better mechanism might be to track any and all changes, much like tracking changes in a document, to be sorted later on.

The other issue is privacy or the need to know. I don’t think it is any business of studio personnel to know what the writer splits are for a particular song.

Data Administration
In the end, all the data will have to be deposited in a centralized location somewhere and reviewed. Who will oversee and ensure that the data was accurately and completely been entered? The logical answer is that it should be the one who owns the “assets”, which is the record label and/or the artist. On a more practical level, it will have to be the person who has the most complete view of the project, whether that person is the producer, the designated project manager or the artist. What do you actually do with the data? That will have to be worked out as this tool get wider use. Ultimately, this metadata file will become a component of the masters to be kept as part of the project archives.

Adoption (Integration with Existing Tools)
A key factor in adopting this standard is whether manufacturers will support it by embedding the metatagging capability into existing tools such as Avid’s Pro tools. This would certainly be more convenient and conducive to compliance. The manufacturers will have to be convinced that this is a good idea.

A good thing about this open schema is that for those who like to have fun with data, the schema is extensible since it is XML, which means you could expand the data set to include other items you feel is relevant to what you do and develop applications around those data sets. Unforeseen, supplemental tools may emerge to address other needs that currently exist in tracking production data.

I’ve outlined a few issues that I’m sure will get addressed over time. In the final analysis, the use of metatags is 1) something that was probably long overdue; 2) still in the early stages and is expected to evolve; and 3) is a good idea in principle, is the right thing to do and will need a lot of support from you to really become useful.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recording as Therapy

I came across an article on April 25, 2010 titled “‘American Idol’ judge Kara DioGuardi hosts charity golf outing for Phoenix House.” It contains excerpts from an interview with Kara DioGuardi from Golf Digest. She speaks about how she partnered with Phoenix House, a substance-abuse organization, to build music-recording studios for teens and women in recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction.

Ms. DioGuardi says, “I have seen the impact on kids who've had trouble divulging things in normal clinical therapy. When they go into the studio instead, it's the kind of safe haven that allows them to talk about things that they wouldn't otherwise talk about. It's very helpful to their recovery.”

I wanted to find out more specifics about how the recording process helped in recovery and so I contacted the Phoenix House.

Since 1967, Phoenix House has grown to become a leading provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention services operating over 150 programs in ten states. Currently, the organization cares for a case load of more than 7,000 through residential drug treatment for adults, residential Phoenix Academies combining long-term drug treatment and schooling for teens, outpatient care, after school, and day programs.

Arleen Kropf, Deputy Director for Marketing & Communication for Phoenix House Foundation in New York, got me in touch with Brian Edwards, Deputy Director at the Los Angeles studio and licensed therapist and John Morabito, the engineer at the studio.

Both are from the Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles located in Lake View Terrace in California. The Phoenix House there deals with youths, 13-18 years old, with serious substance dependency issues. Most come out of the California juvenile justice system where 70% receive residential treatment, 20% medical treatment and 10% treatment from private pay insurance. Phoenix House provides residential treatment for these youths. There are about 100 kids at any given time at the site who can stay up to a year.

American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi originated the idea of building a recording studio for Phoenix House 3-4 years ago. It was her way of giving back to the community. She was interested in building an effective facility that yielded results. The first studio was built at the Lake View Terrace location.

The program integrating recording activities has been refined over the years and has been running in its current form for the last 2-3 years.

Music has played a key role in reaching troubled youths to get them to open up about what is really troubling them. When kids come in, they are offered several different kinds of programs to engage them ranging from music appreciation of all styles of music to guitar instruction, vocal choir coaching and the recording program. Personal interests and preferences are taken into account when proposing an activity for each person. Each activity takes up a block of 2-3 hours at a time, typically in a group setting.

In the recording program, almost all the kids have never handled a microphone or know how it works, yet most are willing to give it a try. The idea of spending time in a recording studio is intriguing.

The studio is equipped with an Apple computer with Apple Logic as the main application program. Much of the gear such as the Rode tube mics, AKG headphones, and EVENT speakers were donated by each manufacturer. Kara, along with West L.A. Music donated equipment as well. The computer is loaded with over 100,000 beats, courtesy of one of the main sponsors, Big Fish Audio.

Typically, 8-10 kids are involved at a time per session in the studio. The recording space is small but sufficient to accommodate these kids, recording engineer and staff members. Before a session, kids are given 6-days to put their “heart on paper” and tell their stories. The living quarters that these kids stay in offer communal interaction. During the writing stage, peers act as sounding boards and aid in the creative process. They are focused on writing so they help each other despite their differences, even when they are from rival gangs.

99% of what is recorded is rap. On the day of the session, the engineer plays an assortment of beats until one of the beats catches someone’s fancy enough to try to rap what they’ve written down to that beat. Each person takes turns in rapping to the selected beat and then after a few tries, records the performance.

There is no vocal booth. The recording is done with everyone in the same room. This setting keeps everyone engaged. They listen to their peers rehearse as well as to the stories being told, provide suggestions and comments, stay quiet during the recording and think about what they are going to say when it is their turn. This is when the magic happens.

According to the engineer, John Morabito, the high point is watching the faces of the kids light up when they hear themselves on play back. “You have to understand that these are kids who have never used or even held a microphone before. They did not even know that they had it in them to be able to accomplish this (one) feat.”

Many kids who have trouble adjusting to treatment have found the music program to be their emotional outlet. They come out of their shells and become open to change. The staff has seen many challenging kids, who have had years of difficulty dealing with their emotional issues and substance abuse issues, become more involved in the treatment process via the music program.

There is a girl, a Ms. L, as tough as they come, who upon going through this process, opened up (during the session) and rapped about her relationship with her mother. The experience had a lasting effect. Even after graduating a few years ago, she still talks with some of the staff members on a weekly basis.

Another boy, a Mr. J, who had never rapped in his life prior to the program, completed 26 songs during his stay. His parents were so impressed, they came to the studio and asked what they could do to help their son continue. Upon receiving some advice, the parents bought some studio equipment a year ago and Mr. J converted his closet into a booth and continued to write and record songs. He has been clean to this day avoiding any cigarettes or alcohol.

Hundreds of recordings have been made ranging from just one verse of a well-known song to completely original songs showcasing hidden talent. The kids leave with their own recordings as reminders of their experience during their stay and as something they can point to as their own accomplishments.

Going through the recording process peaks their interest and appreciation for other forms of musical expression. The kids get the opportunity to attend concerts and to be exposed to different kinds of music. Recently, they were invited by MusiCares to attend the Grammy Awards show rehearsals and non-alcoholic gatherings to talk to people in the music industry.

There are now recording studios in Los Angeles and Yorktown, New York with plans to build more in Austin and Florida. Future plans include the addition of a DJ’ing program due to popular demand. The studios need more guitars and Discmans (when kids are going through difficult times, Discmans are given to them with music of their choice to help them get through the rough patches).

It is a wonderful thing to be able to operate a studio when you know that each recording has the potential to change someone’s life in a big way. Now, that’s a studio worth running!

NOTE: Special thanks to Arleen Kropf for arranging the interview and providing photos.