View From The Top: Sound By Design

Specializing in acoustical and architectural design for recording, broadcast and entertainment facilities throughout the country, the Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG), located near Dallas, has established a reputation as one of the top teams of problem-solvers in the industry. Fielding a multi-discipline staff offering experience in acoustics, architecture, electrical and mechanical engineering, interior design and all aspects of the recording industry, RBDG has been involved in more than 2,000 projects since its establishment in 1990, picking up a host of honors in the process.

Russ Berger, president of RBDG, established the company partly out of frustration with the studio design process, which, at that time, required him, as an acoustical designer, to educate the architects on every project on small room acoustics. “It was a bit frustrating having to encounter fluctuating guidelines for aesthetics and ergonomics on every project, constantly reinventing the wheel and bringing engineers and architects up to speed every time,” he says.

Berger had initially been headed in another direction: becoming an oceanographer. Instead, he chose to major in physics and electrical engineering. During his studies, a passion for drums turned from a hobby into moneymaking sessions, bringing a closer involvement with recording studios. Devouring every piece of literature available on acoustics, Berger began building studios for himself and others. Having helped Dallas-based music store Arnold & Morgan build its pro audio department into one of the country’s most successful, he subsequently found himself at the Joiner Rose Group, an acoustical consulting firm, where he specialized in commercial recording and broadcast studio design.

When Berger left to establish his own design firm, several colleagues followed him, including Richard Schrag, currently RBDG’s project manager. “We started the company with my name on the door,” Berger points out, “but Richard and I worked together for many years, since 1983, so it was very much a group effort.” Realizing his ideal of combining the acoustical and architectural disciplines under one roof, Berger invited design principal Robert Traub, AIA, to also join.

“That’s really where we are today,” observes Berger, “by marrying architecture and engineering, we promoted harmony and avoided conflict. The truth is, facilities have to function for their intended use and provide sonic accuracy, but we’ve found that a good-looking facility always seems to sound a little better.”

Berger, a pioneer in small room acoustics, notes that classical acoustical information available at the time he got into studio design related only to large spaces. As studios started proliferating in the early ’70s, people began to realize that they didn’t all sound the same, he recalls. “It turns out that the one thing that hardly anybody was paying attention to was the time aspect of sound. We had ways of measuring and determining frequency and amplitude, but not the sequence of when the acoustical events occurred with precision.”

Ever the pioneer, Berger was one of the first to license the TEF (Time, Energy, Frequency) machine developed by Dick Heyser at Jet Propulsion Labs. “The TEF measurement technique stood the industry on its ear in many ways. All of a sudden, we had a whole new view of how audio and acoustical events behaved and interacted. Finally we were able to identify and quantify many of the anomalies that we were hearing.”

RBDG has grown to now comprise a staff of 13 professional acousticians, architects, designers and project managers. The team brings to bear many years of practical and first-hand experience in the business, notes Berger. “We’re all musicians. Practically everybody here plays an instrument or sings professionally, and a few of us have owned and worked in studios before, so we have a real-world perspective. It’s not just theory.”

Family life is important to Berger, who also encourages a relaxed atmosphere at RBDG’s offices. That extends to the firm’s relationships with its clients, too. “It’s a very personal sort of thing that we do for them,” he says, “whether they are large corporate clients or individuals moving out of their garage and putting everything they’ve saved and earned into their project. The success or failure of a project has far reaching impact; you have to think about all the families that are involved.”

” We become part of their family,” chimes in Schrag. “We become friends with them and take an interest in their successes. Our goal is to match performance, budget, aesthetic — every aspect of the project — to the owner’s expectations and desires. When you can make those meet, you have a satisfied client.”

” We’re always in touch with them,” confirms Traub. “We’re always making sure we’re not too far away to resolve something that may have come up way beyond what anybody ever anticipated.”

Since every studio must have some fundamental functional elements, certain aspects of the architectural process are somewhat programmatic. Beyond that, however, it’s mostly subjective. The staff at RBDG, with their vast experience, can point the client in the right direction, says Schrag. “We’ve been in this industry for 25 years or so, so we know that there are certain things that work and certain things that don’t work, so you try to go through that with them and give them a range of options. Throughout the design process, the concepts are continually refined and the facility tailored to their needs.”

Berger agrees, “That’s the real criteria for success, that their expectations are in line with what we’re delivering. We try to provide them with perspective on the reality of the marketplace.”

That perspective may sometimes lead Berger to advise against a project, he says. “It’s not unusual to actually talk a potential paying client out of building a studio. We’ve sometimes encouraged them to wait when it would have been easy to take on their project and pull dollars out of them.” Berger cherishes those relationships just as much, he says. “Oftentimes these same people will call back three or four years later and say, ‘I’m ready now, not building at that time was the best advice I could have received.'”

With major projects such as NPR’s headquarters in Washington DC, Sony Music Studios and Whitney Houston’s personal studio to his credit, Berger reveals particular satisfaction with NFL Films‘ recently completed technical complex in New Jersey. “We started working with NFL Films more than 15 years ago,” he recalls, “helping them design their first major technical facilities. They called us back periodically to do additions.”

Out of space again, NFL Films recently called with plans for another addition and ended up relocating, says Berger. “We took on responsibility for the architectural and acoustical design of the entire facility, from landscape to technical facilities to the offices. It really transformed our office, because literally everybody was working on this project. It’s been a labor of love for almost five years.”

The people at RBDG certainly love their work. “Obviously we’re in it to make a living,” says Traub, “but you know that when your client is happy because of what you did — it’s very satisfying and makes our job worthwhile.”

Berger concurs, saying, “Every project has real meaning and a real personality because it’s about people and music and creativity and science and sound and architecture. We love coming to work every day, because the teamwork is inspiring. That’s the way it should be.”