Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Good Sound at the new Helzberg Hall in Kansas City

The $413 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO, opened to delighted audiences on September 16 with performances by Placido Domingo, the Canadian Brass, and the Kansas City Symphony, among others. Designed by architect Moishe Safdie, the Kauffman Center houses the 1,600 seat Helzberg Hall, a terraced concert hall-in-the-round that is home to the Kansas City Symphony, and the 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre that will serve as the performance home of the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

The two venues have been described as the yin and yang of the Kauffman experience—the exuberant Muriel Kauffman Theatre with its proscenium and illuminated acrylic balcony fronts ringing the hall stands in marked contrast to the sleek and ethereal oval-shaped Helzberg Hall, that some visitors have likened to the interior of a wooden ship, with its warm, muted wood tones that recall the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Noting this resemblance in both form and material, critic Steve Paul wrote in The Kansas City Star, “One important connection between these two concert halls was the work of Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, whose choice of shapes, wood and physical components was paramount in creating the aural experience.”

Toronto consultants Engineering Harmonics worked with Nagata Acoustics in both Kansas City and Los Angeles, designing performance sound systems to integrate seamlessly with the natural acoustics. Judging from the critical acclaim that followed last month’s inaugural performances in Helzberg Hall, the result is a resounding success. The amplified sound is “ambient and natural-sounding,” wrote David Mermelstein in Musical America.

Paul added, “Insiders will argue whether Helzberg exceeds even Disney, a slightly larger hall, though time—plus word of mouth in the music community—will tell.”

“This was our second foray into the design of a sound system in a terraced hall with Nagata Acoustics,” noted Engineering Harmonics president Philip Giddings. “In Kansas City, we further developed and refined our approach to this type of venue, and we are more than encouraged by the response of performers, audiences and critics alike,” he said.

Monday, July 11, 2011

If your glass is more beautiful than the wine, change the wine

So says noted wine writer Tony Aspler.

Owners of smaller home and project studios who are tempted to hire top-notch professional recording engineers to help ramp up their business risk seeing clients follow these engineers to better studios.

I've seen this happen time and time again. Home and project studio owners need to understand that this is almost always inevitable when their reach starts to exceed their grasp and they want to compete with the big boys.

It may be prudent for smaller studio owners to consider a significant upgrade of their rooms and equipment before enlisting the services of established outside recording engineers.

It won't be the engineers' fault if clients seek to follow them to greener pastures.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

When a studio won't release the tracks you've paid for

Songwriters and musicians who use the services of small, home-based studios—and, for that matter, established commercial studios—would be well advised to establish the terms, conditions and policies of the studio before undertaking any recording.

I’m writing this because a beginning songwriter has come to me for advice. He is having a hard time getting a home studio owner to release his tracks, even though he has paid his bill in full—over $13,000! The songwriter wants to take the basic tracks of three songs that he recorded at this particular home studio to another, larger commercial studio for editing, mixing and mastering, but the owner of the home studio is refusing to release the material.

By way of explanation, the home studio owner wrote to me saying that he is “not going to let him take the files out of this studio in the condition they are. How he is going to come up with a better mix than any one of our engineers is beyond me to imagine. The files simply aren't ready to be exported or given away. Many guitar and other instrumental parts remain unedited and comped so even if he wanted them they are in no condition to give away.”

(The songwriter has made it clear that editing and comping are among the tasks he wants to complete at the new studio.)

The home studio owner then goes on to say, “We are not willing to give the files out. This is not normal practice. If he really wanted the files he'd have to buy us out but at this time I am not willing to even consider this.”

I’m not sure I understand why the owner thinks that releasing tracks that have been paid for is not “normal practice.” It’s also not clear to me what he means about the songwriter having to “buy us out,” given that he paid his bill in full over six months ago!

The studio owner concludes, “If this project goes out of the studio I have no guarantee if it will be mixed to a certain standard and I've brought in some heavy players that [the songwriter] got at cost.”

Why the studio owner considers it his business that the songs will be “mixed to a certain standard” is beyond me. That is not his responsibility. And the part about providing players “at cost” seems to indicate that the studio owner is in the habit of marking up session players’ fees and then taking a piece for himself. Maybe that’s how the cost of three unfinished demos climbed to beyond $13,000!

This might never have become an issue if the songwriter had clearly established the ground rules at the outset. At this point, it looks like a case for small claims court.

Songwriters be warned: Make sure you know at the outset what policies, practices or procedures a studio considers to be normative before you record a single note there. Second, make it your business to pay session players directly. Don’t accept an all-in deal with the studio, where you pay everything to the studio. In fact, it should be your job—or your producer’s job—to hire the session musicians in the first place.

I know of one instance where a guitar player was unable to attend a session because his wife went into labour that morning with their first child. I was there when the studio owner actually called the rental department of a local music store (Long & McQuade in Toronto) to find an on-the-spot replacement. When the replacement guitarist arrived, it became painfully apparent that he couldn’t read the chart. In fact, he couldn’t even tune his guitar, and he was sent away with return cab fare paid by—you guessed it—the songwriter!

At that point, the songwriter should have called it quits, but he was too cowed by the studio owner to voice his displeasure.

My final recommendation is that songwriters should bring a USB drive—preferably 8 GB or 16 GB—to their sessions, so that they can take a backup of their recordings away with them—provided, of course, that their account with the studio is paid up to date. After all, possession of the recorded material is the only security a studio has against non-payment for services rendered.

I have not named the offending studio in this blog entry, but readers who wish to continue the discussion can email me at buzz@abcbuzz.com.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sgt. Pepper at 44

June 1 marked the 44th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' landmark album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hailed by many as the first concept album, it was based on the seed of an idea that Sgt. Pepper's band, as the doppelgänger Beatles, could be sent out on tour instead of the Beatles as a way around the problem of their not touring anymore. At least that's the way producer George Martin remembers it in his book, With a Little Help from My Friends.

But it didn't quite turn out that way, as the Sgt. Pepper concept was soon abandoned after the title song (and its reprise) and the introduction of Billy Shears. As Ringo Starr said in a TV interview, "It was going to be a whole show, but after two tracks everybody started getting fed up and doing their own songs again."

I think the concept is a bit deeper than that: with Pepper, we are being invited into the fantasy that there is a band there at all—after all, it begins with the sounds of an expectant audience at a live performance. But Pepper is anything but live.

The Beatles invited us to imagine this band playing, then offered up all sorts of other imaginings, some more literal than others: "Picture yourself in a boat on a river"...Or that there is a 41-piece orchestra accompanying the band.

In 1967, the practice of overdubbing wasn't new, but what was new was the idea of replacing one of the most exciting live four-piece bands ever to take the stage with this time-shifted collection of takes and other sounds, and then offering the whole thing up as a performance, complete with introduction of a "band" (albeit a tongue-in-cheek fictitious one).

This was the revolutionary idea of Sgt. Pepper: the concept of the album as performance rather than the live show as performance, something the Beatles themselves no longer wanted anything to do with.

With Pepper, performance occurs at the moment of hearing, rather than the moment of execution. Indeed, in multitrack recording there is no single moment of execution. The work is time-shifted—in some cases even place-shifted—for every contributor and comped track.

By extension, the concept is also that there is a "band" there at all. In fact, the band—two guitars, bass, drums and four guys singing—had been winding down for some time. As George Harrison said on a plane back to London after their last concert in San Francisco a year earlier, "Well that's it, I'm not a Beatle any more."

Multitracking allowed the Beatles to perpetuate the fantasy of the band's continued existence. Multitracking on their albums wasn't new. It was there in the double-tracked vocals on their earliest albums, the addition of strings in Yesterday, and George Martin's keyboard contributions to Rubber Soul. But it began in earnest on Tomorrow Never Knows, the first track recorded for Revolver in the months just before they quit touring for good: "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream..."

George Martin has said that this is one track that could never be reproduced live, or even mixed the same way, because of all the random movements of the faders made by 10 people during mixing and the relative positions of multiple tape loops all playing at the same time. And even though they were still touring at the time, "Revolver was the first album from which no song was ever performed...they couldn't do them on stage," Martin said.

But with Sgt. Pepper, the fantasy was made explicit, and the enthusiastic reception the album received immediately on its release showed that the world was more than willing to accept this revolutionary new model.

Sgt. Pepper ushered in a new paradigm of musical creativity along with a new era in rock, and helped launch an industry to bring this recording technology first to the studios and later to our homes, so that we could all participate in the conceptual fantasy of the recording-as-performance.

Forty-plus years later, the pendulum is finally swinging back in the other direction, as the bottom continues to fall out of the record industry and money drains away from recordings as articles of perceived value in and of themselves, and back toward live shows. The concept of the live show as the real moment of performance appears to be regaining centre stage.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How Not To Treat a Client

Dwayne (not his real name) runs a DJ company, with several trucks and operators doing multiple jobs each weekend, and many week nights as well throughout the year. His company had been retained by a local high school to DJ two dances a year, at a cool $2,200 each. Over the past 4 years, Dwayne billed the school for over $17,000.

The school authorities loved him, not least because he respected their wishes to keep the maximum sound pressure level in the room below 95 dBA (monitored by a teacher-chaperon with an SPL meter, in an effort to protect the students' hearing in their capacity in loco parentis), and he was lined up to do the prom again this year—until he made a really idiotic and short-sighted mistake.

Dwayne claimed that at a school dance earlier this month, a student (the president of the student council) making an announcement to the crowd through Dwayne's sound system blew out a loudspeaker in one of his cabinets, and that the school now owed him $1,000.

Now before we go any further, let me state the obvious:

1. The operator, not the client, is responsible for the care, maintenance and proper operation of a sound system;
2. All professional sound systems are configured with adequate protection (i.e., limiting or fuses), so no loudspeaker without a pre-existing fault would have been damaged operating at such a low sound pressure level;
3. Surely Dwayne carries business insurance to cover such situations.

Dwayne threatened the principal with a small claims action if she didn't pay him $600 to cover the repair, plus close to another $400 to cover his cost of renting a replacement cabinet for a gig the following evening.

The principal acceded to his request and paid him off, simply because she didn't have the time or energy to investigate whether the equipment was already faulty, or even to counter with objections such as those outlined above. Since most clients don't request DJs to respect a reasonably low sound level, it's my guess that the loudspeaker in question was already well on the way to failure.

Needless to say, Dwayne won't ever work for that client again, and the story of his hissy fit will no doubt get around.

From a business perspective, Dwayne's action was just plain dumb. To throw away a client with guaranteed future business, along with all the goodwill built up over four years is incomprehensible to me, regardless of the amount of money involved.

And he knew it, too. His parting words to the principal were, "I guess you won't be hiring me again." A sad and classic case of how not to treat a client.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Message to You by Catherine Bacque

Here's a track co-written with Catherine Bacque and produced for her upcoming release, inspired by the script for the short film "More Than Words," in pre-production by Raindance Canada's James Cooper, screenplay by Yaw Attuah and Zachary Herrmann. (Members of our creative team are featured in this slide-show video.)