2709 words as of 20 June 2001
HEY NINETEEN Nineteen (or so) New York Stories

The Tech’s Files for October 2001 MIX

2001 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 record." 

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 to resist. 

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 the fumes. 

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. Aim high!

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.


  1. An electric chainsaw with a contact pickup sounds just like a vacuum cleaner similarly outfitted. 
  2. A real "floating wall" moves when explosives on the other side blow off the hood of a car. Not your average union TV gig.
  3. 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.
1982 Lato-B: Digital Fantasy

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 beginning 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 on stage.

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. 

Sample questions:

  1. What were you doing when it failed?
  2. When was the last time you saved?
  3. Assuming a power cycle resolves the problem, do you understand that anything not saved will be lost?
  4. OK. Let’s power everything down and start again.
  5. Back on-line.
Sound familiar? 

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: 

  1. Write for magazines without licking a stamp. 
  2. Advertise via web to anyone in the world.
  3. Accept all major credit cards.
  4. Relocate a business and have "work" waiting for me.
  5. E-mail customers about the progress of their repairs.
  6. Post rough mixes on my web site for clients to hear.
  7. Think Locally, Consult globally.
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.

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 technology.


Eddie became a father for the second time in the middle of writing this article.