Sorcerer Sound: Alive and Well! By Paul Verna
Our March issue erroneously reported that New York City's Sorcerer Sound was out of business. They are in fact, alive and well. Mix regrets this error. Check out the studio at www.sorcerersound.com or better still, call 212/226-0480 and book some time.
Up in the new stratosphere: Andy Chase, Adam Schlesinger and James Iha had a lot going for them when they opened Stratosphere Sound Studios in 1999. As musicians, they were members of some of the industry's most commercially and critically acclaimed groups: Smashing Pumpkins (Iha), Fountains of Wayne (Schlesinger) and Ivy (Schlesinger, Chase). As producers, they were on the rise, with a hip clientele that included Tahiti 80 and Meg Hentges. As studio entrepreneurs, they were armed with tons of nifty gear — including a Neve 8068 and Studer A827 — and enough smarts to build a business around their own, label-funded projects. That meant that they didn't have to rely exclusively on outside work, as many studios do.
Yes, it was as perfect a picture as you could paint for a group of young, enterprising artists with a love of the studio, proven track records as hit makers and a collection of killer gear. However, before Stratosphere could fulfill its owners' vision, it went up in smoke — literally.
An overnight fire in a bagel shop downstairs from Stratosphere damaged the studio's gear and forced the closing of the building. Fortunately, no one was injured, the equipment was reparable, and all master tapes were safely recovered. However, Stratosphere's momentum was broken at a time when it was on the verge of establishing itself as a choice New York recording venue.
“We would have liked to have another year,” says Schlesinger, noting that he and Chase were in the midst of an Ivy project when the fire broke out, and that PJ Harvey had committed to locking out the room after Ivy was scheduled to finish. Shaken but not deterred, the Stratosphere principals had their equipment cleaned looked for a new site. They found it at 239 11th Ave., not far from their old premises on West 14th Street.
The new Stratosphere is bigger, better and closer to its owners' intent than its predecessor. A two-room facility featuring the vintage Neve from the earlier studio, plus a Trident B Series board in Studio B (both purchased through Rockland, Mass.-based Professional Audio Design), Stratosphere is equal parts funky and state-of-the-art.
“It doesn't feel like other big studios I've been to, where you have secretaries with headsets and all sorts of people walking around in collared shirts,” says Iha. “It just feels like a very homey, cool, grown-up version of the old place.”
Chase adds, “How do you make a studio that's funky and cool and seems off the beaten track, but will impress people used to working in high-end studios? So we came up with something that's not too overdesigned and overdetailed, but is definitely designed and detailed.”
This mixture of collegiate casual and Chelsea chic may suit Stratosphere's owners, but they know as well as anyone else that no amount of vibe or vintage gear guarantees a studio's success, particularly in this uncertain economic climate. “A lot of people thought we were crazy for doing this now, when so many studios are having a rough time,” says Schlesinger. “But I think that, in a weird way, it could work to our advantage. There's always going to be some demand for people who want to record in Manhattan. We're really aiming for this mid-level range of people who don't want to work in some demo studio but don't want to pay $2,500 a day either.”
It helps that the three principals and their circle of friends bring in a steady stream of projects, but Stratosphere does not subsist on “inside” projects alone. Like any commercial studio, it sees plenty of “outside” work and depends on word-of-mouth to keep such projects coming through the door. For instance, Arto Lindsay recently worked at Stratosphere and ended up referring Me'Shell Ndegéocello.
When clients enter Stratosphere, they walk into a lounge area that leads to the control room for Studio B, a cozy but fully professional room that houses the Trident, an Otari MTR-90 and a Pro Tools rig. Further into the space, Studio A greets visitors with its ample dimensions and inviting decor (by Francis Manzella of FM Design).
The tracking space adjacent to Studio A is another of Stratosphere's highlights. Featuring complex angles, high ceilings and ambient light courtesy of a second-floor window that looks down into the room, the studio is a musician's dream, stocked with vintage keyboards (including two Farfisas, a Fender Rhodes and a Chamberlain that was under repair during a recent visit), and amps ranging from a Sears Silvertone to an Ampeg SVT II bass head to the obligatory Marshalls, Fenders and Voxes.
As they juggle their various recording projects, productions and such other ventures as film scores (Ivy wrote and recorded the score to the Farrelly Brothers' Shallow Hal), the members of the Stratosphere team are ready to do business at a time when the New York studio scene is still reeling from the soft economy and the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“We say unto thee, come record,” says Iha. “We welcome any artist.”
Let's get small: Effanel Music, New York's leading mobile studio operation, is complementing its giant L7 truck with a smaller vehicle aimed at budget-oriented clients and modest-sized venues. Designed to go, literally, where the L7 can't, the new unit — dubbed OB/U for “outside broadcast unit” — is a 15-foot Ford cube van outfitted with a Neve analog broadcast console, Otari Radar II digital recorders, and Aphex and John Hardy preamps. Its power-consumption and staffing needs are minimal, allowing it to capture a segment of the market currently underserved by the big rigs.
“We were getting lots of calls for nice projects that didn't justify L7, so I'd send out our portable system,” says Effanel owner and founder Randy Ezratty, noting that such projects as Our Lady Peace (six college dates and small club gigs), Nine Inch Nails' latest live project And All That Could Have Been, Jay Z's MTV Unplugged, and Brad Mehldau's Live at the Vanguard were all “non-L7 gigs.”
But a portable system has its drawbacks, according to Ezratty. For instance, the crew is dependent on the host venue for a monitoring environment, which opens the door to a level of uncertainty that can sometimes throw off a production. By contrast, a small truck offers a higher degree of comfort and control without the trappings (and expenses) of an outsized trailer.
To that end, Ezratty kept OB/U lean but ultra-professional. The unit is equipped with a 36-channel Neve 5336 broadcast console plus two Neve 5452 12-channel sidecars. Recording media include 48 tracks of Radar II hard disk recording, 48 tracks of Tascam DA-98, and transfers to Pro Tools, all at 24 bits. On the front end of the rig, OB/U provides a choice of three mic preamp systems: John Hardy, Millennia (discrete) and Aphex (remote-controlled).
Launched in February 2002, OB/U's maiden voyage was a live recording of acclaimed classical percussion troupe Bang on a Can All Stars at Montclair State University in New Jersey. According to Ezratty, it was exactly the kind of gig the OB/U was built for — a project that could never had afforded the L7, but that needed a good, solid setup and an expert crew.
Although OB/U is clearly an alternative to Effanel's flagship L7, the small truck embodies the spirit in which the company was founded two decades ago. “Some of Effanel's fondest moments and best projects have been on the modest side,” says Ezratty. “U2, Effanel's biggest client of 2002 — with numerous projects, including the Elevation 2001 DVD and the Super Bowl appearance — started its relationship with us in 1982 when they could never have afforded the bigger units at the time. They would have been an ideal OB/U client.”