By Chris Walsh
Prosound News Interview
I do home theaters also, but as far as studios, home studios is my specialty. I’ve got a school coming up, but that’s what I like doing. I’m really good at small spaces. By background—I had a commercial studio for 18 years and that was a small place. I just know how to deal with the ergonomics of a small space.
Recording Arts was small by necessity or design?
It was in a cottage. I had it for 18 years, kept bumping it up ‘til finally I ordered a brand new SSL G+. Total insanity. Luckily I got out really well, and sold it to Sheryl Crow about four years ago.
That experience helped a lot in your current business.
Yeah, it’s my specialty. The other specialty I have is PhantomFocus monitoring. That’s what makes me unique and distinguishes me, because I can take the worst room in the world, I can put it in a guy’s bedroom and still give him a sweet spot from God. I do these things in multimillion dollar studios too, and my own.
Doesn’t matter what speakers are used?
It’s so subjective. I don’t tell people what to do unless they ask me. If a guy loves a pair of speakers, I do too—with the occasional suggestion. I’ve got a client now that I’m suggesting to him, ‘why don’t you get five sets of monitors and make the decision.’ That way, it gives them some sense of control, which is important.
How did you come up with this?
At Recording Arts – it was many years of going from a demo studio, keep bumping it up, finally I started putting big monitors in there, kept tweaking them, and near fields, and eventually came up with this system. It wasn’t totally developed at that point. It wasn’t until after I sold it, and started doing theaters and other people’s studios that I came up with this unique tuning protocol. It’s about a two-day process. I have an assistant. It’s a proprietary angle that I use. There are some very careful measurements I use. I’ve done AES lectures, where I can teach people a lot about maximizing their monitors. But when you get to the tuning part, they’re never going to be able to do it, even with an experienced guy with an EQ. It’s not going to do what I can do, which is what I’ve developed with the subwoofer systems, the processing and phase control, all that. Usually, if it’s within their budget, they say yes on the spot.
In personal spaces, is this is more critically needed than ever?
Yeah, good point. Because the nodes and the boundaries. Although, it’s not just small rooms, I did a test at a multimillion-dollar studio with six different pairs of monitors on the meter bridge of a big Neve console. I have all those graphs and I’ve used them in lectures. None of these speakers—they were all good speakers—none of them have much consistent energy below 90 Hz or higher. This is because of various console, floor, ceiling and front wall reflections/ frequency cancelations. So you’ve got a lot of engineers—and engineers don’t know about this stuff; they’re experts in what they’re doing, but not at this—making decisions at 50 Hz, 60, whatever, down there, and making comments. It’s not there. The fact is, it’s like the “Emperor’s New Clothes” and if they add a subwoofer then they just end up with inaccurate speakers with some low end. That’s why it’s so dramatic when they actually hear the real thing, which you can do, which the PhantomFocus System™that bats 1,000. The worst room I’ve done so far, seven feet wide, nine feet deep, the front wall was four feet high, kind of [angled] up. But if you sit in that sweet spot, you can’t believe it: it’s an accurate 20 Hz. Room It’s called The Cockpit, part of the Grip. We’re building the new Grip right now. It’ll be the Grip II, but we’re building sort of another Cockpit, except it’s probably three or four times the size of the Cockpit. It’s still a very small room. It’s in a new house that Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts purchased and this is a much more difficult project, because the Grip was pretty much over a garage away from the house. This one’s in the basement. There’s not going to be any windows. Isolation was a huge issue, HVAC was a huge issue. It was considerably more difficult; plus, this one has a screening lounge. Five screens: a 65-inch plasma, and four LCDs on a wall, and an 11-foot screen comes down in front of it and covers it all. I’ve got six subwoofers floating on concrete pilings underneath in the crawl space, not touching the floor. They will all be individually parametrically tuned. Then time-aligned as one subwoofer, and time-aligned to the JBL synthesis system. I’m doing another one for Joe Don Rooney, the guitar player in Rascal Flatts – The Panic Room. This is the new Panic Room, which is much bigger than the old Panic Room.
One gig led to the other?
Yeah. They both bought new houses and called me up again. Dann Huff, their producer, recommended me originally because I had designed a studio for Monty Powell, a songwriter that he works with. They liked that.
Anyone who can have a home studio has a home studio.
Yeah, it’s the new paradigm. There are just a handful of commercial studios. Many of them are owned by wealthy enthusiasts who just have hobbies. There’s always going to be a need for people to track. You don’t want to track in your house (but you can). So they’ll track, and everything else can be done at home. Before, it used to be, ‘you can do all your overdubs at home.’ But now you can mix at home, and that’s where I come in with the PhantomFocus System™.
Other advantages, from a design or sonic standpoint, to a personal, smaller space?
Cost, I guess. It’s not like building a big complex. It depends. I’ve done them very inexpensively, to over a half-million dollars. It depends how good they want them to be. Isolation is a huge issue. If isolation isn’t a big issue, it’s usually much cheaper. One I’m building now, it’s under the master bedroom. We spent $30,000 just on a custom barrier product I had made. I still have to tell him; don’t expect it to be perfect. The kind of energy—this is going to be a PhantomFocus System™ One , with 2,500 watt subwoofers. Big monitors. You’re going to hear something, so don’t get mad at me!
If a half-million is the high end of the range, where is the other extreme?
The other extreme is just like the guy I got off the phone with. He’s got a bedroom someplace. First I’ll send him a price list of the PhantomFocus System, the entry level to the top one, to see if they’re in the ballpark in their budget. If they’re enthused—and nine times out of 10 it’s word of mouth—and that’s what they want to do and are committed to it, we proceed by them sending me photographs of the room, dimensions, drawing. I can specify, if I see something wrong, I’ll correct it, I’ll tell them ‘we need to put a panel here, you need to do this.’ If they’re handy or have someone who can do construction, it’s as simple as that. And then I fly in and implement the system. That works out really well. I just finished a studio in Olympia, Washington, and did the whole thing long distance. Just photographs, drawings and phone conversations. It takes a certain kind of person—they’ve got to be upbeat, and nice people. But if they have friends who are contractors, whatever, everybody seems to get excited about it, and wants to do a good job. There’s things where I have to bite my tongue where I see they’ve screwed something up, and I wouldn’t have done, but then I say to myself, it’ll still be great. It’s a lot cheaper to do that than to fly me in and build an actual studio.
What’s an entry-level budget?
We’re talking two things. One is a PhantomFocus System. There’s a price of that, and usually there’s not a charge for my advice, as far as ‘you need to do this before I come.’ I just do a lot of groundwork to make sure everything’s right so when I walk in there, there’s not going to be any problem.
Then actual studio design probably starts… it depends on how complicated it is. I’d say, 5, 10, $15,000.
It really is in reach.
Right. The other thing I should point out is, you can make a tracking room as wacky as you want it and usually it works in your favor, but the control room is a serious space. I design the control room with the idea that there’s going to be a PhantomFocus System. I design it around the PhantomFocus System. I know how much energy is going to be in there; much more than a pair of near fields, or even bigs. It’s a very powerful system. I can tell you, as good as I think I am, no matter how good you build a studio, I don’t care who it is, or what, if you put up a pair of monitors, they’re not going to be that great. They have to be tuned, and you can’t just stick some EQ on it. I’ve got some proprietary things I’ve developed in the rooms. Two of the rooms I’m doing right now, because of the isolation issues, are very rigid, which is the last thing you want in a studio, in a control room. I’ve developed a couple of spring systems that dampen the entire room. One using heavy gauge sheet metal, another using sheetrock, depending on the budget and the application. It allows the room to breathe and has a wonderful bass absorber – very natural sound.
What gear has been introduced that allows people to mix at home?
I don’t get too involved in the gear, although I do advise, and recently advised a client, when I saw him going down the wrong trail but I don’t sell that gear, I bring other installers in. But it’s still under my specifications. The gear, that’s between the client and the vendor. In this case I recommended the SSL AWS 900+ – a proven thing, bang for the buck because I knew what his goals were for the studio.
Again, I wasn’t selling that, I just said ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, but based on what you’ve described to me, this will be you best choice and then you can add some Neve and API outboard stuff. But you’re going to be able to mix on the SSL. Again, that’s one type. And a lot of people just mix in the box; don’t have a console at all. That’s fine, a lot of times I prefer that. What I don’t like is, sometimes they’ll have an Argosy desk—and I use a lot of Argosy desks—but it will be the wrong one – they’ll have the Control24, they come up so high that it screws up the ear height of the monitoring. So I’ve designed a console—the console holder—you can see it in the original Panic Room. Normally that desk is as high as the rest of it, but it wasn’t going to work with the monitors. You see that all the time—people have monitors way too high, and it shoots over their head.
Even very top guys are mixing in the box now.
It’s true, see Willis Sounds, see that picture? That’s an Argosy console I recommend a lot, the Dual 15 or Dual 15 K 800. He mixes in the box, has his keyboard there. I’m doing that in the new Grip, in the small room, called the Wine Cellar, because that’s what it was. I like that console, it’s good for a monitoring setup. But that’s their call. Joe Don is getting an AWS. I’m going to design a custom console for it to fit in and get Todd from Sound Construction to build it, because the room wouldn’t hold that big Argosy thing, which we are putting into the new Grip.
Any other trends?
Obviously, more home studios. There are also small studios in commercial buildings: not everyone wants one in their house. I’m seeing more people appreciating what great monitoring can be with the PhantomFocus System. There are a lot of things you can do—I can tutor people, give them graphs, mode calculators. But you’ll only get so far; you really have to go to the next step with the monitor tuning if you’re serious.
Do you often do a studio and a home theater in the same building?
Not often, but I am doing it for one of Rascal Flatts, for the Grip II screening lounge. Also I put a PhantomFocus System in the Grand Ole Opry and The Ryman Auditorium. The Opry had Genelec monitors and a Euphonix console. They had a front window, this 1/4-inch glass that was acting like a drum. All this low frequency was coming off the stage; they had no idea what they were doing. So we put in a real double window, serious window. Once that was done, we implemented a PhantomFocus System. It’s the funnest thing I do, because you can say ‘now listen to this,’ and look at their face. Not only does it sound great, but the idea is that the mixes travel, they’re accurate.