Nineteen (or so) New York Stories
2709 words as of 20 June 2001
The Tech’s Files for October 2001 MIX
by Eddie Ciletti
The AES show is about gear, baby, new and exciting products, blah, blah,
blah… But exit polls after several recent tradeshows all yielded similar
ho-hum comments with few exceptions. Perhaps we have become jaded, or addicted
to rapid growth or haven’t stopped long enough to realize that progress
is still being made fresh daily.
There’s nothing like a little reflection to help put things into perspective.
I tried to find a sonic mile-marker and/or professional growth spurt for
each of my nineteen years in Manhattan, 1980~1999, because so much happened
during that time. So, if you haven’t yet run into an old friend but need
to find your way out from the gear fog, sit back, enjoy the latte and have
Sherman set the Way Back Machine to 1-9-8-0.
I arrived in New York City twenty-one years ago with cassettes of my
best work, a duffel bag of clothes, a small tool case and a 1963 Plymouth
Valiant (see Figure-1). No matter how big my dreams, New York City had
a way of narrowing the focus to the essentials — like eating and paying
the rent. Regardless of the number of audio career choices that may have
been available then — certainly there are many more options now — my perspective
was narrowed by the desire to engineer and produce the ever elusive "hit
This image can be as small as you want
(unless you want readers to read the license plate).
Figure-1: The stock 1963 Plymouth Valiant
was equipped with a 220 cubic-inch slant-six engine, push button automatic
transmission and an AM radio with Class-A output amplifier. Fuel consumption
was at least 20-MPG highway.
At first I avoided exploiting my technical skills, but geek pay was
so much better than engineering sessions that it eventually became hard
1980: Take good care of your feet, Pete!
On "Easter Monday" of 1980, NYC was in the middle of a transit strike.
To cover a mere 50 blocks took several hours by car, reducing the potential
number of job interviews per day as well as the number of brain cells from
Lesson one: New York City was made for walking. Be Flexible. Learn how
to make the most of challenging situations. Ditch the car. Bring comfortable
shoes and extra socks. Most of the time it is not the resume that gets
the job but being in the right place at the right time. Same with finding
a cool restaurant away from the tourist traps. Eat well for less.
1981: Depth of Field
Nothing puts pressure on a free-lance engineer like a studio full of
musicians while the clock is ticking. In an unfamiliar control room, focusing
more on balance than EQ can yield rough mixes that sound better on more
systems than sessions where more tweak time is afforded.
Before MIDI and samples, engineers were always made to feel responsible
— if not guilty — especially for drum sounds. On one memorable date, session
drummer Andy Newmark sat down in front of the same "house" kit I had tuned
and used on countless sessions. Within fifteen minutes the tape was rolling.
The drums were as consistent while tracking as they were when getting sounds.
My jaw was on the floor in amazement stepping up to the glass to observe
his technique — it looked as if the skins were barely being touched yet,
as Michael MacDonald of Algorhythms Mastering recalls, the drums being
hit very hard. (Michael was my assistant on the date, which was at the
now defunct Skyline Studios.)
Lesson two: Less is more. Better sound sources require less tweaking,
a humble acknowledgement to the great musicians who make our jobs easier.
1982 Lato-A: Audio Armageddon
On the flip side of that coin, recording a few power-metal pop bands
led me down a dark and mysterious path, each subsequent referral becoming
heavier and heavier until I was finishing a Plasmatics record and
"did sound" for them on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show.
1982 Lato-B: Digital Fantasy
An electric chainsaw with a contact pickup sounds just like a vacuum
cleaner similarly outfitted.
A real "floating wall" moves when explosives on the other side blow
off the hood of a car. Not your average union TV gig.
Contrary to her wild and ferocious stage persona, the late Wendy O.
Williams was as gentle as a kitten in the studio. I once bumped into her
at a health food store.
My first digital experience was at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA.
With only ten days to complete an overdue project (with Snakefinger stepping
in to produce The Mutants, a Bay-Area band), the option to go digital
via Mitsubishi X-80 invited comparison with an Ampex ATR-102 (my favorite
analog machine). Again using minimal EQ to save time and avoid sonic sand
traps, I found the X-80 to be brighter— the typical complaint about digital
especially at that time — yet complimentary to the mix and punchier than
the ATR in this instance, the X-80 winning out.
Had time allowed the tracks or the mix buss to be EQ’d as "competitively
bright" as other music of that time period, I might have joined the "digi-phobe"
bandwagon early. Digital audio technology has made incredible progress
since then, but so have we all, learning to treat it differently than analog
tape. Where once we struggled to keep a mix bright (not to mention the
chemicals that anesthetized some ears), now the focus is at the opposite
end of the spectrum. Bright is easy, "warm" is the goal.
1983: Across the Universe
My official transition back to geek-dom began with a project for Atlantic
Studios. CDs had just entered the mainstream and the studio had just received
a Sony 1610 editing system. While interviewing veteran Mastering Engineer
Sam Feldman about his specific requirements for a transfer console, I noticed
initials on some documentation. The" sf "script
seemed so familiar — almost musical — soon realizing that it appeared between
the lead-out grooves and the label of some of my favorite records (as shown
in Figure-2), right next to it is the "Bell Sound" stamp. (I was
quite the record fanatic prior to joining the profession.) Imagine being
recognized for your initials? I sure made a friend that day.
While the other images are expendable
if there is a space crunch, this one is not. It should be large enough
to read the text between the grooves.
Figure-2: Vinyl Mania! This is something
not found on CDs, the signature of the Mastering Engineer.
Bell Sound was a hot independent studio in the sixties along
with Fine Sound and A&R Studios. Just as we struggled with digital
in the nineties, Sam and his peers had their own beasts to tame — the transition
from Mono to Stereo, trying to push 45 RPM record levels to make them competitively
louder on juke boxes and at home. (Sound familiar?)
Atlantic was my night job, wiring during the day at Photomag, a sound
for film facility on the eastside. I had never seen magnetic film recorders,
let alone racks of them — all interlocked with Selsyn motors and each representing
a track or three. One floor below, the sound of the electro-mechanical
synchronizing equipment was frightening. We’ve come a long way, baby! The
of the MDM revolution is still seven or eight years away.
1984: Watering the Plant
I joined Record Plant with more experience than discipline. Since mentoring
is an important aspect of this business, I’ll mention one of mine. Paul
Prestopino was the spiritual leader of the maintenance department, teaching
me the values of patience, organization and humility (though it still took
a decade or so to acquire these skills). Paul’s multiple talents include
woodwork, metal work, engraving, musician (currently on tour with Peter,
Paul and Mary) and tailor. How can you argue with someone who is a Master
of all Trades? Be sure to thank your mentors, and be one, when the
opportunity presents itself.
When short-handed, I was occasionally called out of the shop to assist.
Some of the engineers were surprised that a technician could actually do
this job. Having scaled the walls rather than climbing the ladder, I knew
what was expected. On a Miles Davis date, I "accidentally" stopped the
multitrack after seeing his hands in the air, thinking it was a signal
to stop. (Actually, that’s all I ever saw of Miles during the entire overdub
session.) The engineer turned and said, "don’t stop the tape even if he
falls on the ground." Miles, always a bit more succinct, asked "what the
did you stop the tape for?" (See Figure-3.)
Figure-3: A Record Plant schedule sheet with setup details for
a Miles Davis session. The "S/S" refers to SelSync, as in "overdub."
1985: Phree At Last
Before leaving Record Plant in Spring of ’85, I told owner / engineer
Roy Cicala about my plans to start a free lance maintenance biz and cater
to the growing "demo" studio scene. (That’s what project studios were called
before digital sperm fertilized the analog egg.) I could see Roy was not
comfortable with this topic, but I couldn’t see how a one-inch 16-track
"closet" studio might threaten the existence of a multiple-room facility
with two remote trucks, a collection of vintage gear to die for and a formidable
track record. Perhaps Roy saw the writing on the wall, or maybe it was
just bad coffee… The most valuable lesson I learned from him was to always
replace burned-out light bulbs, especially on gear.
Once leaving, the free lance gigs were cherry — Eric Clapton was particularly
impressive at Live Aid. At Farm Aid, an overweight policeman a la Boss
Hogg misinterpreted my response for attitude telling me "this ain’t
no Miami Vice!" A mindless wiring job at a video facility was paying better
than my geek gig at Record Plant. I saw the writing on the wall and
the coffee was better…
In Manhattan and other urban areas, the biggest challenge for most semi-pro
gear was RF and TV interference. (Digital products are generally more noise-immune
because they have to be!) My apartment was line-of-sight with the Empire
State Building as wel as the World Trade center making cassette deck alignment
impossible. The location served as a good test sight for problematic equipment
even after setting up a dedicated shop space.
Cassette decks were difficult enough to maintain — speed and azimuth
being the Achilles Heal — fighting interference only added sand to the
ointment. Sure glad we don’t have to deal with cassettes anymore. Hate
digital all you want. I’ll take a CD over a cassette any day! (Does anyone
even use them anymore?)
1986: Search and Destroy
Two great remotes, at the Kennedy Center in DC (a Martin Luther King
birthday celebration featuring Stevie Wonder) and the Statue of Liberty
Celebration in New York Harbor. Applying wireless technology to in-ear
monitors reduces stage levels, protects hearing and ultimately improves
the FOH sound. At the time, the Japanese version of the FM Walkman was
chosen because it differed from the American FM spectrum, allowing more
available "clear" channels. Stevie also gets cues so he can move around
Wireless can also be absolutely frightening technology too, especially
when the Secret Service used it to "sweep" Governor’s Island for potential
bombs. Every level meter on every tape machine and console was momentarily
pegged. Had there been a bomb, the audio and video geeks must have been
considered expendable in exchange for saving a guy who thought ketchup
was a vegetable.
I was especially taken aback when a gentleman showed up in our sound
truck with a custom high-speed, multiple-cassette playback rig used to
"augment" the audience response during President Reagan’s speech. This
was before someone thought to use a sampler for subversive mind control.
A Sony 1630 editing system costs about $80k.
1987~1991: Install This!
Up until the nineties, the typical project studio had four to twenty-four
analog tracks on either narrow format or second hand two-inch machines.
Synchronizers were not uncommon, but not much fun either. Just for fun,
think about this: three Otari ½-inch 8-track decks and two synchronizers
weigh in at $20k, about $5k more than three adats at their original list
price. The MDM seeds were being planted...
Before Mackie ever thought about marketing their 32-input analog
8-buss mixer, a 32-input 4-buss Soundcraft Series 200 desk was $8,000.
(Now digital consoles with total recall and signal processing are falling
into that price category.) Installation with three patch bays was a similar
amount. A Sonic Solutions editing system cost about $100k in 1991, the
No-Noise option was about $20k and the CD burner was $10k. CD blanks were
$25, about the cost of DVD blanks now.
1992-1993: SKATING AWAY
Just after I paid off a small business loan Alesis introduced the adat
and everything changed nearly overnight. The narrow format analog machines
that formerly were the primary source of income for both users and service
facilities quickly disappeared.
The writing was on the wall. Oops, it’s graffiti this time. Cassette
decks were fussy enough, but early DAT recorders required the patience
of a Swiss watchmaker after all the layers were removed to reveal
the transport. Few people come to NYC with this skill hoping to make it
big. Affordable consoles put pressure on installers to streamline the wiring
process. Who wants to pay three times the console price for wiring and
patch bays? Most budget project studios were now being user-assembled with
pre-made wiring harnesses.
1994 ~ 1996: The Systems Analyst
Large-scale integration assisted the digital transformation, changing
the service business in the process. Equipment was becoming more powerful,
more reliable yet less serviceable. I freed myself from the role of employer
to pursue more "interesting and challenging jobs" such as providing vacation
relief in a video facility. The audio project studio was in full swing
then — affordable technology allowing video to make the equivalent transition
since. Conversely, while more technically challenging than audio, video
quickly embraced digital technologies, some of which did not operate in
real time then.
Service of high-tech equipment at the hardware level primarily consists
of board swapping, otherwise known as mail-order maintenance. Understanding
signal flow via block diagram is more important than parsing circuitry
in "the black box." Microprocessors in each black box require the former
hardware specialist to zoom out and take the "Systems" approach to maintenance.
To overcome the hazards of software and hardware collisions, it is necessary
to interrogate the user, remain calm and show no emotion when pressing
the reset button or flipping the power switch. Live remotes were good training
for achieving this state of nerve-anna.
What were you doing when it failed?
When was the last time you saved?
Assuming a power cycle resolves the problem, do you understand that
anything not saved will be lost?
OK. Let’s power everything down and start again.
Networking the Future
The same forces that made audio gear more affordable and more powerful
have shaken the whole foundation of video. Then, the capitol investment
for video gear was staggering. Now, it’s still more expensive than audio
gear, but less than the early Sonic Solutions workstation.
In order to create the many frames for any animation project (think
"A Bug’s Life" or "Toy Story"), several Silicon Graphics workstations were
networked together. These cost tens of thousands of dollars plus
extra $$$ for a yearly support contract. Each "box" renders a single frame
that is exported to an external hard disk recorder via network. Only then
can it be transferred to tape in real time. The workstations could not
display full resolution moving images in real time. Now, well-endowed off-the-shelf
dual-processor PCs can do the job.
Until the video facility gig, I had never really considered networking
but quickly applied the knowledge to my shop PCs. Networking is easier
now and more affordable than ever. Earlier this year I added a four-port
gateway ($90) between the cable modem and the rest of the network. Now
all of our computers — MACs and PCs — can access the net for software updates
and registration. It's almost too easy.
1996~1998: The Straight and Narrow
I am not real comfortable around Advertising and Marketing types. I
bail on the video gig and return full time to digital tape machine repair.
Working alone is soothing. An ISDN connection is all I needed then,
except for this Aeron chair and that frothy cappucino…
The consumer DVD arrives, I’m mixing 5.1 surround on a workstation;
burning a reference DVD will be $15k with programming. Blanks are $50.
1999 ~ 2001: The Great Escape
I loved New York but got tired of paying rent. I’m completely virtual
now and living in the Twin Cities.
Thanks to the Internet, I can:
I never imagined owning a studio but I always fantasized about having enough
gear to overdub and mix. Before digital, the paradigm was miniaturized
analog. After reviewing two workstations the future was clear.
Write for magazines without licking a stamp.
Advertise via web to anyone in the world.
Accept all major credit cards.
Relocate a business and have "work" waiting for me.
E-mail customers about the progress of their repairs.
Post rough mixes on my web site for clients to hear.
Think Locally, Consult globally.
At this year’s AES, my mission is to seek out workstations that support
dual-processors and compatible file-exchange formats as well as affordable
DVD authoring for non-feature film applications.
Enjoy the show and appreciate the progress we’ve made. As with any construction
project, it takes 20% of the time to accomplish 80% of the work. The converse
is true for the job of "finishing the details," a.k.a. refining digital
Eddie became a father for the second time in the middle of writing