Russ Berger: Full Service, Texas-Style

Russ Berger’s design philosophy, developed during 30 years of experience in the audio industry, is based on the theory that the perfect acoustic space is the one that’s appropriate for the needs of the people who use it. That human touch has served him well in his work designing projects both large and small. His firm’s credits include broadcast facilities all over the U.S., including production control rooms and support facilities all over the U.S., including production control rooms and support facilities for Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman in New York, and National Public Radio’s 152,000-square-foot facility in Washington, D.C., as well as music-recording, video-editing, and mastering studios for Sony Music Entertainment’s multi-room complex in New York, home studios for Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton, and even some acoustic design for Woody Allen’s Manhattan apartment.

Known for architectural as well as acoustical design, Berger and his Dallas-based company, Russ Berger Design Group, have more than 1,000 studios on their resume. RBDG truly fits the description “full service” -their work encompasses site analysis, including evaluation of environmental noise, interior design, lighting, power and HVAC systems, wire management, budgeting, construction administration, and final testing and acoustic tuning.

Mix caught up with the constantly on-the-move Berger on a Sunday evening a few hours after he’d flown back home to Dallas from Tennessee. In addition to being immersed in several construction projects, he’d been teaching a seminar on studio acoustics, facility design and HVAC noise control.

Which came first for you, music or electronics?

Both together, I guess. I’ve always loved music, and audio has been a passion of mine since grade school. My grandfather loved opera and my great-grandfather was chief recording engineer for Columbia Records in NYC during the ’20s. Growing up, I’m the one that used our stereo system more than anybody else, wearing it out until I got my own. I was also fortunate to have a tape recorder to experiment with, which was a rare item to find in a home in the early ’60s! Once, when I was 8 years old, I even tried to press my own record. At that time, when you bought a 45, oftentimes the flip side would be blank with unmodulated grooves. I thought I understood how records were pressed, so I hooked up the output of my tape recorder into the input of my amplifier, ran the output of the amplifier to the output of the turntable, then with a little propane blowtorch, I tried heating up the vinyl.

How’d it work?

Well, I ruined the cartridge, the head and, of course the blank side of the record. So, I guess you could say my first attempt at mastering was a failure. I also had some experiences with a toaster and a lawn mower that I won’t go into, but…that’s how my childhood was.

How did you get interested in architecture and design?

My dad was an aeronautical engineer, and also an accomplished sketch artist. And my grandmother, on his side, was a well-respected artist. When I was 4 years old, she showed me how to make a box by folding and cutting a flat piece of cardboard. That was a whole new world for me, creating three dimensions out of two. So, I guess I got a love for design and drawing from my parents and grandparents.

Did you pursue those directions in school?

I started my direction toward physics in school, heading into oceanography to pursue my second passion, the ocean and scuba diving. But I got sidetracked into electronics when I found that to get into any of the good programs in oceanography you had to have, not only four years in the Navy, but also a doctorate in physics. I couldn’t see spending an additional 20-odd years of my life in school, so I switched majors into electronics.

Meanwhile, you were also playing music.

I started playing piano in the second grade, but in fourth grade, I moved over to playing drums. My parents were saints to put up with it; they encouraged my drumming, and I played in a number of bands. In high school, I got hooked up with a band that was significantly older than I was; they’d actually cut some records that had charted. I traveled around with them on the weekends, and it opened my eyes to a new level of performance. All through college at the University of Houston and SMU, I continued playing drums and percussion, in a 12-piece orchestra, a jazz band, a three-piece power rock band, a country swing band…

Somewhere about my first year at college, I started getting involved with record engineering and really developed a love for it. I was working as a session musician and making pretty good money.

Wait a minute-you were making good money as a session musician in Houston?

You’d be surprised. Even way back then, there were quite a few studios in Texas. I did work with local bands, then I connected up with a producer who was doing this KTEL-type of product, called The Sound Alikes. For a while, I was in one of the bands that was called the Original Artists. Because they were marketing the music as by…

Oh, no! The Original Artists.

That’s right. [Laughs] That was my first experience with session recording and also with creative marketing. It wasn’t like cutting a record with the Stones, but I was working in the studio, and I was in heaven. I was very interested in the equipment and the recording process.

Were you one of those guys who are always going into the control room and making suggestions on how to improve the drum sound?

No, no, no! I went into the control rooms and sat at their feet, asking them, “Why are you doing that? How come it sounds this way?” And there were some patient people who put up with me. Then, some friends and I put together a little studio out in the country. We wired it up and put in a bunch of old 2- and 4-track hand-me-downs. From there, we got an investor and built a bigger place and had one of the first 3M 16-tracks and a 24-input Auditronics console.

You were engineering while you were still in college.

I was carrying a load of courses in college, playing on weekends and sometimes evenings, and helping run a studio. It’s like anybody who wants to break into this business -unless you really get some breaks, you have to work 26 hours a day to get anywhere. Some people have great talent; for me it’s always been more like competence gained through years of experience.

Eventually, I moved back to Dallas, and started working at a company called Arnold & Morgan, which in the mid-’70s was something like the second largest music store in the country. I helped start up their pro audio division. I also built another studio in my house, just for myself and friends, and slowly but surely, people started doing steady work out there. Business also really built at Arnold & Morgan, to where the pro audio division got to be quite well-respected. And I started designing studios.

It’s an obvious match: You were selling equipment, and people needed advice about the studios they were going to put it in.

I couldn’t find anyone else to design my studios, because at that time acoustics was still an emerging science. At the universities that were offering course work, it was all about large-room acoustics -concert halls and theaters. I was interested in recording studios -small-room acoustics.

I was buying every book I could get and calling people on the phone -acoustical consultants, noise control engineers and architects -trying to expand my knowledge and get answers to questions. Also, I connected up with Synergetic Audio Concepts [Syn-Aud-Con] and Don and Carolyn Davis, who provided knowledge and encouragement that added new direction to my life and career.

Eventually, I joined Joiner Pelton Rose (that later became JRG), which was a classical acoustical consulting firm in every sense -noise control, room acoustics and electroacoustics -but no studio design.

It was a collection of the most talented people that you can imagine, and they’d been in business for many years, so there was a wealth of information there. I joined them specifically to design studios and develop that business. And they, in turn, wanted my experience in new measurement techniques and small-room acoustics.

Over time, I became a vice president and helped build the company into one of the largest acoustical consulting firms in the country. We were involved in the design of stadiums and churches, noise control, all kinds of work. Although I participated in a variety of projects, I specialized in recording and broadcast facilities. In 1990, I left to start my own company. There were 5 of us who started RBDG, and there are 13 of us now.

You once said, “Until our testing and analysis techniques advanced, most everything we knew came from building full-scale models with someone else’s money.” What did you learn from those full-scale models?

I learned that a lot of things that we thought were true weren’t. Acoustics is not an exact science, and the design and the construction process is often chaotic. We learn something new on every project -better, cheaper or faster ways of doing something. You can only control the multitude of variables in the design and construction process to a point of predictability. The ability to manage the process determines a project’s success.

Can you explain TEF (Time, Energy, Frequency) and its uses?

TEF opened what is really the third dimension to audio, which is time. It’s a measurement technique and also a specific product. Dick Heyser, a staff scientist with the Jet Propulsion Labs at Cal Tech, was the one who developed the patent for Time Delay Spectrometry and introduced it to the AES in 1967. It wasn’t until 1978, when Syn-Aud-Con began training seminars demonstrating the new testing technique, that its benefits became well-known. As one of the first licensees, I was one of only a handful of acousticians who took the time and spent the money to assemble the collection of equipment -spectrum analyzers, offset oscillators and a custom “black box” -required to perform the measurements.

The original equipment complement took up an entire table and cost in excess of $40,000. However, that turned out to be the single best investment I made in my audio career. I had a Ferrari of a measurement system, an endless set of acoustical questions, and I was testing everything I knew about audio. Of course, now you can buy a significantly more sophisticated TEF system from Gold Line for a fraction of that.

Many of the original pioneers of control-room design were trying to promote techniques that basically said, “If we build all these rooms exactly the same, using the same monitors, etc, then they should sound the same.” But unfortunately, when you stood in a control room, and you moved right or left or sat down, it sounded completely different. When you went from room to room, it sounded completely different. And no one knew why. So they tried putting in active equalization, trying to use electronic means to correct an acoustical problem that they hadn’t yet identified.

What we eventually discovered was how much a series of short reflections can convolute the frequency response of a speaker. We knew that when you combined two signals slightly out of phase, or out of time, from one another, you got destructive and constructive interference. But nobody really thought about what that meant in a control room, because most people were thinking along the classical acoustical lines of a large concert hall.

In a large room for live performance, what you want around an instrument is a good, hard floor reflection and control over the supporting lateral reflections that arrive with the direct sound into the listening position. You want to give the listener a sense of envelopment, space and placement for the instrument onstage.

We mistakenly translated the large-room techniques directly to the control room, substituting the studio-monitor source for the performer. When it didn’t sound quite right, we adjusted our room finishes to direct more and more short reflections off the ceiling and sidewalls. Then we tried to soak up all the stuff reflected off the back -pretty much like we did in the large rooms.

But, when you’ve already captured a performance, you have all these short reflections, from whatever environment you recorded in, encoded into the recorded signal. And when you play this back, in essence decoding it through this acoustical filter of the control room, it sounds like a smeared, unfocused mess.

These days, we take it for granted. Virtually every major designer realizes that short, uncontrolled reflections are detrimental to sound quality and monitoring accuracy. But back then, a few of us were out there getting arrows in our back trying to figure this out while some others were defending the status quo.

What are some things you do to control all those reflections?

[Laughs] What we do is require all engineers that use our studios to wear fiberglass hats and fiberglass jackets -that seems to help. But seriously, there are all sorts of things. Control of room shape, volume, and configuration, coupled with appropriate acoustical finishes, is it in a nutshell. However, there’s no cookbook answer to that. Or you can do something as simple as moving the near-field monitors off the console and mounting them on pedestals. By just moving them back slightly, you can start to control at least some of the unwanted reflections that come off the console.

Satisfactory bass response must be the number-one problem in most control rooms.

Getting the bass right is everything. Visualizing how high-frequency sound behaves in a room is sort of like playing Ping-Pong, at 1,130 feet per second. It reflects geometrically. Controlling bass is like standing out in a river and trying to redirect it with a piece of cardboard. Low-frequency sound bends around you. Traditionally, we’d envisioned low-frequency behavior in small rooms as pretty much the way they are in large rooms: This wave train coming out of the speaker propagates across the room, distributing itself. But, a 20-Hertz wave doesn’t traverse a room that’s 10 feet wide, since the room’s dimension is less than a full wavelength.

In conversations many years ago with some very knowledgeable people, it was stated that low frequencies couldn’t even exist in small rooms. They believed that if the room won’t support a full wavelength, that frequency can’t coexist in that room. Our ears tell us that isn’t true, and we have come to identify this frequency range in the pressure zone. What’s happening to sound when the room is smaller than a significant fraction of a wavelength is a pressurization or rarefaction of the entire space. When a low frequency of that type is emanating in a small room from a speaker, it’s like squeezing a balloon on one end so that it bulges out on the other end.

So you still have all the energy. In fact, the pressure is significantly higher all over the room at these frequencies -when you’re starting to develop more than a small fraction of a wavelength. There’s an acoustical crossover range of frequencies dictated by a room’s volume, where we’re changing from one set of physical acoustics to another.

With all that you’ve learned, from testing and experience, you perhaps could have come up with a design for the perfect control room. But, even if you did and you could duplicate it, it wouldn’t matter because everyone today wants something different. I don’t find that one set of control-room ideas will fit everyone’s needs. There are certain things that we know will work, but tailoring a room so it has a frequency response and feel, an ambience and a vibe, that’s appropriate for a client and their product is equally important.

Architecture, physical limitations of the structure, building codes, interior design, acoustic design -each one of these areas alone is a world unto itself. Yet, in your projects, you have to deal with all of them.

That’s what makes it fun and challenging. When somebody says, “We want to build a control room,” usually what we’ll do is listen a lot to what they have to say. We try and find out who our clients’ clients are, what they want to accomplish, and why they’re building the room. We want to know what kind of music they like and what kind of music they make their living with. What do they see five years down the road? There are dozens of questions, and every one of the answers branches to another batch of questions. I’d like to think that we’re sensitive listeners and good at finding out what our clients want and translating that into bricks and mortar, because there aren’t perfect control rooms, studios or building types. There are only appropriate ones.

What are some of your thoughts on designing for surround sound?

I love it. I’m just so excited about the opportunities this is going to offer to engineers and musicians. Of course, like most anything new, it’s oftentimes feared, and there are always the naysayers and those who dogmatically lock into a standard too quickly without letting ideas grow and concepts develop.

We’ve been building rooms to accommodate surround since the days of quad. It was a pretty cool idea then -just before its time- and I hoped the concept would catch on some day. And now look where we are, with very mature and sophisticated surround encode/decode systems. But you have to have an appropriate listening environment to fully appreciate it. Sometimes renovating to surround is hard; sometimes it’s easy. We just finished renovating three studios for Downstream Sound in Portland, Oregon, that we built 13 years ago; they were ready for surround then. We completed the renovation last December without needing to move one wall.

You’re a proponent of side-looking “English-style” control rooms.

We’ve been building side-looking control rooms for about 15 years. Glass in front is problematic, functionally as well as acoustically, and only a few of our clients request it anymore. And now, of course, it’s almost impossible to accommodate with all the equipment that wants to live in the front of the room. You’ve got LCR monitors, and you don’t turn a monitor on its side and expect it to sound the same. It doesn’t have the same polar response, and that means it won’t sonically match the left and right monitors in timbre or frequency. Many manufacturers are coming out with new configurations of their center channel with a wide and short profile to sit above or below the video monitor. And although many sound surprisingly good, they still don’t have the same character as their vertically oriented siblings. That center channel is absolutely critical to a successful surround experience. It’s also critical to maintain an even soundstage across the front if we expect the mix to translate.

Another intractable problem is the video monitor in front; virtually all audio today has some video component to it. Either you want to see your Pro Tools up on the screen, or your console automation, or watch for the pizza delivery guy on the security monitor while you watch the football game. [Laughs] And that screen wants to occupy the same space as the center channel. So either you’ve got to fly that thing up in the breeze where you’ll have a stiff neck from looking up or you’ve got to relocate your audio monitor to a place where you’ve compromised audio quality. This is why we’ve moved to using projection screens on the front wall.

Side-looking is wonderful from a technical sense, since now we’ve got all three speakers exactly where we want them. We’re projecting an image that’s easily read from the back of the room. And, our clients love the windows on the side that go all the way down to the floor. They feel like a part of the studio, and the studio feels like a part of the control room.

What projects are you working on now?

The NFL Films project is very exciting. They’re a long-standing client that we’ve worked with for over 15 years. Now we’re building their new national headquarters. It’s a 200,000-square-foot, ground-up facility. We’re doing it all, right down to the landscaping.

They actually shoot over 600 miles of film a year. All the film that’s shot each week at every game is flown to their facility from all over the country. Then it’s transferred to HD video and passed on to the producers who create the segments and shows. Editing and post finishes the product and marries it with graphics and audio, consisting of custom written, scored, and recorded music, sound effects, dialog, and field production audio.

In the new facility, there are four main audio control rooms, with studios off of each, one sized for orchestral scoring. There are three SSL-equipped audio premix control rooms, two large soundstages, a theater with 7.1 sound; in fact, all their rooms are able to monitor in surround, including the video edit suites and many of the 50 Avid rooms. We’ve been working with NFL Films on the design for over two years. It’s under construction now and should be completed by fall of 2001.

We’re also currently working on a music production room for Patchwerk in Atlanta that’s sporting an 18-foot-wide SSL 9K console. They have some very talented people working there that are just great to work with.

And we’re working with the World Wrestling Federation, which is expanding their audio capabilities in Connecticut with a new ground-up facility to better support their existing video production capabilities. The only thing more amazing than their production operation are their people -it’s a very clever and talented staff that can manage to generate the amount of broadcast hours each week that they do.

What are your goals for the future?

We’re always testing our rooms, and we’re always trying to find new ways of doing things better and less expensively. I want to find ways to make the design process more pleasant, fun and productive for our clients and the guys here in the office. But, you know, I just returned from the trip of a lifetime with my wife, Elisa, who runs RBDG with me, and my daughter Danna. We were on a boat in the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, scuba diving with hammerhead sharks, dolphins, sea lions and whale sharks. And to be honest, right now I’m trying to find someone who wants to build a studio out there on Darwin Island.