Building a new facility from the ground up is the dream of many an engineer, and mastering engineers are certainly no exception. Jim Jordan shares such a dream with us.
A fixture on Division Street for nearly 15 years, Nashville’s MasterMix is one of a handful of mastering studios that serves this busy music center’s varied needs. Hank Williams (no, not that Hank Williams) built the facility in 1983, after leaving Woodland Recording. The original MasterMix was designed as a two-room remix and mastering operation. The mastering side quickly expanded to become a round-the-clock operation, with Hank and engineer Ken Love simply passing each other on the way to and from work.
One client, constantly booking the mix room, was so enamored by the sound of the Calrec console that he finally offered to purchase it. Hank obliged, and the mix room was modified to serve as the main mastering suite. An office was converted into a third studio when Ronnie Thomas joined the crew in 1988. Over the years, the somewhat crowded but highly efficient facility built a loyal clientele, successfully navigating the technology changes from cutting laquers to prepping CDs, replacing the Neumann consoles and lathes with highly customized Daniel Weiss-Harmoni Mundi Acoustica digital mastering systems.
The only area in which the facility fell short was physical space, and Hanks’ studio dreams centered primarily on having more of it. Enlarging the building was not an option, and after investigating available buildings in the Music Row area, he determined that a brand new facility was in order. He purchased some property nearby to build on and set about designing his dream studio.
With DVD approaching maturity and HDTV approaching reality, Hank saw a need for a new type of facility, one that would not only solve his space situation, but would also serve the audio needs of new and emerging technologies. To accommodate the video and future media aspects of the operation, he formed a new company, MasterVision (see sidebar), and allocated space for the operation in the new studio design.
Nearly two years of careful planning has resulted in a mastering engineer’s dream come true – an impressive example of efficient design that should serve the needs of MasterMix and MasterVision well into the future.
INTEGRATION OF THE OLD AND NEW
The new MasterMix is still in the old neighborhood, just down the block on Division Street, and clients can expect business as usual. “Most of the technology that we have in place was already in use,” says Hank, “the only thing that’s changed is the physical space. Clients will still receive the same quality and service they’ve come to expect, but in a much more pleasant atmosphere.”
From the start, it was a given that the Russ Berger Design Group would handle the design of the new facility. Berger had performed the mix-to-mastering room conversion at the old studio, and Williams was quite impressed with the company’s ability to integrate structural, architectural and acoustical design. He was also quite pleased with their willingness to cooperate fully with him in the design of such a specific facility. Williams: “They listened closely to us, interviewed the staff members to see exactly how everyone worked. From the start it was obvious that they would build what we really needed, not simply what they wanted to build.”
The rather small site did not allow extensive construction, but careful study of the workflow and attention to detail resulted in a facility that serves as a model of function and efficiency.
The basic floor plan is a large rectangular loop, with a central client lounge opening into both the front and rear hallways, and a design which allows easy access to any area within the facility. Two identical mastering suites are located in the rear corners of the building with their back walls facing a common machine room. All recording and playback devices are mounted in a series of equipment racks that are recessed in an alcove along the rear hallway, their front panels visible through a wood and etched glass wall. A well-equipped shop and maintenance area is located behind the racks, permitting direct access to the business end of all of the computers and tape machines.
One of the primary complaints about the old studio was the lack of storage space, and the new building offers several features which should simplify access and management of the large amount of material that passes through the facility. A media storage room is located directly across from the machine alcove, and material storage carrels are built into the hallway outside the door of each mastering suite. The right side of the rectangle houses offices, more storage, and the main MasterVision suite – identical in design and only slightly smaller than the ‘big’ rooms.
Two identical DVD and CD prep suites occupy the left wing, one dedicated to the MasterVision side of the operation. Specifically designed as computer workrooms rather than audio monitoring environments, they feature large work surfaces and an abundance of shelf and equipment space, ready to accept any future advancement in computer-based mastering and authoring equipment. Whereas the primary rooms are typically booked weeks in advance, the MasterMix prep studio will be used for sequencing, general production, and the ‘last-minute’ work that inevitably comes up. The production rooms are ably staffed by Donnie Bott and Robbin Gheesling.
The HVAC and a large Electrical Center are located in the two front corners of the building, close to the street and utility entrances, and as far away as possible from the monitoring environments. Offices and the reception area span the front of the building, with the large foyer leading directly into a well-equipped and appointed client lounge. Spacious and comfortable, the lounge includes a 5.1 surround Audio/Video system, complete with a 40-inch direct view video monitor for client entertainment and reality checks. Complete kitchen facilities are also included, separated from the lounging area by a wood and glass divider. The overall décor is light and airy, with an abundance of natural woods, white walls, and beige-toned carpet with a calm, flowing design – a relaxing and neutral color scheme quite suited to a mastering facility.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
The two main mastering suites measure approximately 18 feet wide by 28 feet deep, plenty of space for both clients and equipment, and it is in these rooms that the Berger team’s coordinated efforts are best displayed. Johnson Knowles, self-proclaimed propeller head, was responsible for the acoustical design of the space, and he is quick to credit architect and interior designer Robert Traub for making his theorizing as pleasant to sit in as it is to listen to. Along with Richard Schrag, who handled the structural and mechanical engineering, and project architect Cristy Meadows, the team was able to use a very direct, minimalist approach, as there were no existing obstacles that required compromises or corrective design.
The mechanical, structural and acoustical elements were viewed as a single system, and this is best illustrated by the design of the rear studio walls. Pre-fabricated, two-dimensional quadratic diffusers from RPG are arranged in a grid to form a low-frequency diffusing series, and this array is, in turn, built into a wall structure which provides low-frequency absorption and venting of the room. An array of high frequency diffusers is located in the front of the room, and there are no built-in monitors. Rather, ample floor space is available to accommodate engineers’ or clients’ specific requests.
The focal point of each mastering suite is the elegantly sculpted, wood-trimmed control islands at the engineering positions. Extensive 3-D modeling was employed in the design of these enclosures for both aesthetic and acoustical considerations, and they have been designed to house the mastering console control panel, the Harmonia Mundi control surface, two large-screen monitors for NTSC/PAL video and the Sonic Solutions workstation, and all of the analog signal processing electronics. A credenza behind the engineering position contains all of the digital converters and signal processing. This provides physical isolation from the analog electronics, and it also serves as a work surface for the raised seating area behind the engineering position.
The rooms are identical in all respects, with the exception of the monitor speakers and some of the ancillary equipment, which reflects Ken and Hank’s personal preferences. Hank’s room, trimmed in cherry, currently uses a massive PMCBB5 system, while Ken’s room, trimmed in maple, utilizes a custom speaker system by Ed Long.
In addition to the workflow considerations, signal flow throughout the facility was also a major concern. Jim Kaiser, of StudioTex (another long-time associate of Williams), was given the formidable job of designing and installing separate systems for the distribution of power, analog audio, digital audio, two computer networks and a large phone system.
Tech power is provided through a 75kVA isolation transformer, and a master, uninterruptible power supply circuit, available throughout the facility, ensures that all of the computers can remain up for at least 45 minutes following a power outage. There are two separate computer networks which run throughout the building; the PC network allows Manager Barb Commare to keep a handle on the scheduling and administration, and a MediaNet system allows all of the Sonic Solutions Workstations to share files and resources. The Macintoshes, used with the Sonic, also control custom Zsystems AES/EBU routing switchers with plenty of capacity – a 32 x 32 matrix in each mastering suite and a 64 x 64 matrix in the machine area make it possible to route digital audio anywhere in the facility without resorting to physical patching. Master clocking for all of the audio and video operations was required, and NVision equipment was chosen for its ability to synchronize the wide variety of formats that will be encountered in the MasterMix and MasterVision operations, including PAL, NTSC, word clock, and AES/EBU. Rounding out the communication is an extensive phone system with ports available in the client areas for modern connections and ISDN service, available for Internet access or audio codec use.
5.1 AND BEYOND
It is obvious that Hank is excited about the emerging surround sound market, as he’s gone to great lengths to provide his clients with access to the new technology. The surround sound bug has definitely bitten Nashville, and several DTS and DolbyDigital music projects have already been produced. Only a very small percentage of the area’s recording studios have been designed with 5.1 monitoring in mind, however, making it difficult to check mixes across a variety of systems. MasterMix, when fully up to speed, will offer four surround environments, providing some unique monitoring opportunities: two identical rooms with different monitoring systems, a third, acoustically compatible control room, and a typical high-end consumer system in the lounge.
“It reminds me a lot of the old stereo-cutting days when we had to teach clients what was possible to put on a record, says Williams. The more they know about what we can do, the better their mixes will sound. The whole industry benefits.” Hank and his staff are decidedly prepared to further the art of surround and to help their clients with the implementation of these exciting new options. No matter how fast technology advances might change the way in which we work, one thing is certain – MasterMix has certainly built a wonderful place in which to do it.