Vacation Island: What It Really Means to Record and Mix in Williamsburg

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WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN: It’s fun to imagine what Matt Boynton, founder of the thriving Williamsburg studio Vacation Island, might do if someone presented him with a marketing plan.

Start each session the Vacation Island way: with colorful plastic figurines of George, Paul, George and Ringo! (all photos by David Weiss)

He might make it into a little hat. If it had a lot of pages, he may be able to construct some type of makeshift shelter. With the addition of some glue, perhaps he could sculpt a papier-mâché statue of the Beatles.

But that would be about it, because apparently all Boynton needs to do in order to bring business to Vacation Island is keep showing up. Since he started the studio in 2007, word of mouth from his client list has seen the creatively-freeing space consistently booked.

As evidence, just ask Bat for Lashes, Beirut, Black Dice, Kurt Vile, MGMT, Suckers, Vietnam, and many more from across the indie rock spectrum. There’s a reason they return to record and mix with Boynton at Vacation Island – and it ain’t because he’s slick.

Instead, Boynton has a pretty simple explanation for his consistently expanding client base. “People like to work with me,” he says. “They call me up. They keep coming back. I don’t feel competitive with other studios – I just want the place to be booked, and I just want to be working on things that I like. That’s what I do.”

Student of SoHo

Although there seems to be a studio on every other block in Williamsburg these days, not all of them sport the pedigree of Vacation Island.

Boynton built up his engineering chops at the Magic Shop in SoHo, working for years under the highly respectable tutelage of Steve Rosenthal. Hired in 2002 at the revered downtown facility by accident (it’s a funny story), Boynton gradually went from being an intern to an indispensable member of Rosenthal’s crew. By the time he rose to chief engineer there, Boynton had become thoroughly immersed in the science behind great audio.

After four productive years, Boynton felt ready to start working freelance, and struck out on his own in 2006 with a studio that also happened to be his apartment…that also happened to be an ex-storefront in Williamsburg — but he quickly soured on rolling out of bed straight into the sweetspot. In search of some headroom, Boynton eventually used CraigsList to find the 1000 sq. ft. space that would become Vacation Island.

While Boynton didn’t have much of a marketing plan in his head, what he did have was a sound strategy behind this calculated risk. “I thought, ‘The way the music business is going – which is not well – I have to be cheaper,’” he explains. “I figured I’d build a studio and be less expensive for bands. I record my friends, but it just so happens my friends are in MGMT and Gang Gang Dance.

“I guess it’s like any other local scene, but it’s Williamsburg – it’s NYC,” he continues. “It’s larger than any local scene going on in a small town in Oklahoma. Local bands here are famous.”

Designing a Brooklyn Studio

Five years after occupying the space, Boynton has built it and thoroughly broken it in. The Vacation Island vibe starts out in the large control room outfitted with a Neotek Series 1E 24-channel console. Manning the faders, you look through large windows into the two live spaces that have been set up railroad-style, designed specifically to accommodate full rock bands that want to play together live, but in spacious isolation.

Matt Boynton set Vacation Island up so he could listen in.

Directly adjacent to the control room is the Island’s “Dead Room”, a 12-foot x 11-foot x 9-foot-6-inches space that comfortably holds a white Schumman 5-foot baby grand piano, with plenty of space to spare. Next over is the significantly larger “Live Room,” which sports 16-foot x 19-foot x 12-foot dimensions and enables highly musical sounds for drums and live instruments. It also accommodates a Farfisa Bravo, Wurlitzer Organ, 1928 Crown Upright piano, red 1970’s Yamaha Organ, and many more creative tools.

“My studio is somewhat rare in that a whole band can perform live here, and still be isolated really well,” says Boynton. “With the Dead Room, I can do acoustic instruments and drums at the same time – usually those have to be done separately. The railroad-style layout was the best way, in my opinion, to occupy the space. I like the musicians to be able to see each other, and overall it just seems practical and compact – I’m getting a lot out of a little bit of space.”

An avid reader of informed audio resources, Boynton learned about the “Golden Ratios” of recording as detailed in the books “Building a Sound Studio on a Budget” and “The Master Handbook of Acoustics” by F. Alton Everest and studiously applied them to the Live Room’s design.

“In that formula,” he explains, “you take your most limited dimension, which is generally ceiling height, and then multiply it by certain numbers (1 : 1.28 : 1.54) to come up with the width and the length. Sticking with that allows for more even distribution of lower room modes, which reduces the frequencies that can make it sound muddy. If you start from this Golden Ratio, it’s much easier to treat a room. The idea was to have a really dead room to do vocals, drums, anything…and have it be just the opposite of the live room.”

Personalized Workflow in the Control Room

After letting it all hang out in the Live Room, Dead Room, the Iso booth, and/or two amp closets, bands are happy to join Boynton in the wide open control room, which was also designed using the aforementioned Golden Ratios.

“I laid out the room to work for me, and the way I track and mix,” he says. “I decided to get a Neotek board because they’re really simple in the way that they’re built. I thought, ‘I can’t afford a $75,000 Neve console, so I may as well get something that’s clean and almost surgical so I can shape it and color the sound outside of the console. that’s clean and almost surgical so I can shape it and color the sound outside of the console. Although it turns out I really love the sound of the series 1E, especially when it’s pushed and the peak LED’s light up.”

A fan of the sound of vintage transformers breaking up musically, Boynton modified the Neotek with UTC LS-141 transformers to make a balanced master output for the board. “They weigh four pounds each,” notes Boynton of the transformers. “It’s a ton of iron to send the signal through. You push these and get a little bit of distortion in a nice way.”

Listening primarily via ProAc Studio 100 or EV Sentry 100a monitors, Boynton uses the Neotek board in combination with a Euphonix MC Mix controller to mix in Pro ToolsHD2. With a carefully constructed workflow, Boynton feels that he’s built a seamless bridge between his analog and digital tools.

The Neotek Series 1E24-channel console is part of the heart of Vacation Island.

“When mixing I basically use Pro Tools I/O sends and hardware inserts to get in and out of the analog world instead of doing everything on the board in a traditional sense,” he says. “Then I sum all the tracks in Pro Tools to the last 16 channels on the console. When the mix is done I print all the outboard processing back into Pro Tools and write down the bus compression and reverb settings so I can instantly recall a mix in the future. When I track, I do all the compressing and EQ along the way, which makes it easy for me when I mix.”

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  • Kathy Boynton

    Awesome article Matt. Very proud Mom. Kathy

  • Crecia

    yay matt!!! great article, miss you guys so much xxx glad things are going well 

  • Janet

    Great article Matthew!! Very proud Mom also.

  • Ike

    Hey Matt,
           Great write-up. Love the “Happy Apple” in the mic shot!

  • Anonymous

    Great Article – Love the insight into the design nd sound artitechture behind their work.

  • Cristag

    Great article.  Like all the tech specs and the photos.

  • Chris Chernobieff

    Well done article thanks for the tips.

    Antique
    Piano Emporium