“In the last ten years, the new-music scene in New York has completely exploded,” says Ryan Streber, composer, recording engineer and co-owner of Oktaven Audio.
“It’s unbelievable how many ensembles there are now, and how many new venues and labels there are for performances by those ensembles, playing music by not only living composers but by young composers.”
For the uninitiated, “new music” is a genre defining the intersection of contemporary classical, acoustic and experimental music. It’s a high art performed by virtuosic musicians whose influences span the ages, embracing the work of the European masters, the neo-classical and the post-modern minimalist composers, and a wide spectrum of everything else from American folk and blues, to German electronica to modern indie rock and popular music.
As a Millennial Juilliard-trained composer, Streber has been immersed in this scene as it’s grown, going back personally with influential composers like Nico Muhly and Jefferson Friedman and groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), ACME, and counter)induction. He caught the recording bug as a composer striving to capture the best performances of his own compositions, and along the way, saw a growing need for a recording facility tailored to this music community.
Two years ago, Streber and his partner – visual artist/designer Jessica Slaven – opened Oktaven Audio, a recording studio located on Main Street in downtown Yonkers.
As a location recordist, prior to opening Oktaven, Streber would often be hired by Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music students producing their own CDs, or in need of audio for professional auditions.
“It killed me because we were getting into whatever space we could find which usually was pretty compromised,” he says, looking back. “And almost harder than finding a good sounding space was finding a good sounding piano.”
Oktaven came about when Streber and his partner, visual artist/designer Jessica Slaven, began looking around for space to build a modest “demo studio,” and found a large commercial space up in Yonkers, a former dance studio that had been vacant nearly a decade. Located conveniently around the corner from the train station in a much larger space than they’d expected to find, they saw potential for more than a demo studio. And then, again to their surprise, they found an amazing piano.
“It was one of those wonderful strokes of good luck,” Streber says. “We walked into Klavierhaus thinking nothing would be within our reach, and we struck up a conversation with a man named Arlan Harris, who wound up becoming a close partner with us. He was interested in what we were doing and we loved the work he did on these pianos. We ended up with this beautiful 9’ Hamburg Steinway D concert grand piano that was completely rebuilt by Arlan and Klavierhaus. It’s just a fabulous instrument, a wonderful sounding piano. That, in itself, is a big attraction.
“And then, having space – a live room that’s able to accommodate up to 14-person ensembles with percussion setups and piano all playing in the same room – that’s also something that’s become rare in the city.”
Streber, too, though he may not consider himself one, is also a rarity. The contemporary classical, jazz and acoustic ensembles that Streber had in mind when building Oktaven needed more than just the space and the piano. They needed a kindred spirit to construct and run it – someone who would create an environment to suit their sonic and personal aesthetics and to then engineer recordings accordingly.
Streber and Slaven built Oktaven, named after Brahms’ published notebook Oktaven und Quinten (Octaves and Fifths) – a symbol of the composer’s obsession with advancing his craft – to address this contemporary group: players with particular sensitivities, refined ears, and often very specific plans in the studio.
A NEW STUDIO EXPERIENCE
In concept and practice, the professional recording studio is not necessarily the ideal venue in which to record a classical or new-music performance. Many of the musicians are unfamiliar with the studio recording process, or have been turned off to it.
“In a perfect world, you’d always be recording in the Academy of Arts & Letters or something,” says Streber. “Most artists have cultivated their sounds to work in a big hall. But with a lot of the projects we do, either the budget doesn’t allow for that, or they actually need more control and precision – ability to do recalls, etc. – for whatever reason.”
The lack of budget-appropriate halls and negative experiences in the plan b recording studios has been a huge issue, according to Streber.
“Some classical musicians come in and have done session work, or they like the process, but I would say they are the minority. Most classical musicians I deal with are skeptical of any studios – they’ve either had bad experiences in studios, or they don’t like playing without an audience. Classical music is in a lot of ways designed to be live music and the studio environment can psyche a lot of people out.”
As a Juilliard-trained composer (BMA 2001; MMA 2003) and performer, Streber himself can be a positive first impression for skeptical clients. “I can sit and read scores and be a part of the process on that level, which – there are definitely some wonderful engineers in the city who do classical music, but it’s not the majority by a long shot.”
Oktaven will also look and feel unlike many traditional recording studios. Filled-to-the-brim bookshelves line two walls of one end of the 1,000-square-foot live room. Sitting at the grand piano, you could be playing in someone’s living room.
“The environment is very comfortable, and the tracking room itself is ‘live’ enough that the musicians will get some feedback. So they don’t feel like they’re playing in a completely dead studio, which is what a lot of them have experienced playing in other studios (this is especially hard for string players and singers).
“I designed the room to be live in a way that’s useful for the performer, but controlled enough that I can shape it. I almost always use some kind of artificial reverb to flesh out the sound.
And the books – we learned – are not the classical equivalent of the X-Box console for downtime entertainment. They make up Oktaven’s library covering much of the classical standard and contemporary repertoire, and including music historical, biographical, musicological and theoretical texts. And they have significant acoustic qualities.
“Part of my approach to getting a diffuse and nice live space that’s controlled was using all these books that we had,” says Streber. “Without the books, the space is very ringy – although I did break up the surfaces in ways that would cut down on any kind of anomalies. The books are not perfect diffusers, but they break up reflections and randomize things a bit. It smoothes out the sound of the room. And the nice side effect is that it made it feel a bit less like a studio, more homey.”
Streber makes use of absorbent panels and baffles to gain even more control over the room, and has equipment to make up the difference. “I’ve been able to find ways of matching the sound of the room with artificial reverbs that I like that I think make for a very natural final product. Winds up sounding more to the performer like what they would expect from a concert recording.”