FLATIRON DISTRICT, MANHATTAN: Can you feel it? The 4th of July is just past…but revolution remains in the air.
The uprising is stemming from a sonic sector that seemed to have grown more or less predictable – to the comfort of clients and facilities alike. But even audio post has its time to change, and make a jailbreak from the mold. In New York City, that time is now.
The epicenter for what may be a welcome new era? It’s in the Flatiron District, in a new set of mix suites that calls itself Heard City. What they do – mixing and sound design for TV, commercials, and film — may be familiar, tried and true, but how they go about it is another story entirely.
While Heard City’s revisionist workflow may not be the shots heard ‘round the world, it points to a new direction in an industry that, frankly, could use some shaking up.
Timing is Everything
In NYC’s busy but embattled audio post scene, news flashes of late have been pretty much confined to one of two storylines: a) Mixer switches to a new facility, or b) facility goes out of business.
With the increasing need for established audio post houses to recruit mixers with a “following,” i.e. a devoted and dependable clientele that would work with them wherever, crosstown moves by the city’s most talented pros come as no surprise. And with what’s politely called “downward pressure” on pricing for audio post services – caused by everything from in-house mix suites at ad agencies to reduced production budgets – mass casualties of decades-old post houses have been a fact of life.
So eyebrows raised this past January when the in-demand mixer Phil Loeb left behind his partnership position at Sound Lounge, along with top Sound Lounge mixer Keith Reynaud, and announced that they would be starting their own audio post venture with another industry veteran – Gloria Pitagorsky – as Managing Director. The scale of their plans appeared as grandiose as they were counter-intuitive: a 7,000 sq. ft. multi-room facility in the fashionably expensive heart of the Flatiron.
But just seven months later Heard City has five fully-equipped suites, six mixers, a staff of 12, a beautifully appointed habitat, and – most importantly – a bustling schedule of blue-chip clients including Budweiser, IBM, NFL, Google, ESPN, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Microsoft, American Express, Dish Network, and Target.
Now it looks like this ambitious trio’s timing wasn’t insane. It was right on.
“It was a perfect confluence of human energy and technology,” says Loeb of the group’s decision to go their own road this year. “Now is a good time because we’re young – except me, I’m the adult! — we have a lot of energy, and there were a lot of sharp people we knew waiting for an opportunity. And with the Pro Tools HDX system, technologically, it couldn’t be a better moment.”
Loeb was a member of the original Sound Lounge team since 1998; Reynaud was on board there since 2002; and Pitagorsky had turns at audioEngine, Nutmeg, and HSR before a stint at Sound Lounge introduced the executive to her future partners. So this is a crew that understands full well the perils of opening a large audio post facility when others are closing.
“What’s risky about this move?” says Loeb. “Of course, there’s the overall economy: Everyone in this business worries something could happen which would be destabilizing to our corporate clients. The ad agencies, film and TV production companies, and editorial companies are also building in-house facilities. And simply being involved in such a big investment, in both time and money, would feel risky to anyone.
“But I feel if we continue to do the quality of work that is both creatively and technically great, our clients will continue to work with us.”
“Whether the medium is TV, film, or the Web, directors still want to produce a high-quality product,” Pitagorsky adds. “When it comes to graphics, visuals, or sound, they still want to reach out to people who can deliver the high end, and we like to think we’re on that list. The demand for that will never diminish. Budgets may be all over the place, but the desire to be involved in great work is why we do this.”
Classic sentiments, to be sure, and quality never goes out of style. But at the core of the Heard City founders’ desire to start their own boutique was their recognition of room for innovative new angles – by evolving some of what had been unchanged in audio post for decades, Loeb, Pitagorsky, and Reynaud also sensed a tantalizing opportunity.
The first thing that meets the eye at Heard City’s expansive space is the clean, natural lines of architect Wayne Turett and Brooklyn-based design firm Brook Landscape. Sunlight, natural wood, unconventional wall surfaces, custom furniture, and reclaimed materials distinguish the expansive loft boutique as a particularly comforting place to work.
But the feng shui is strictly a complement to Heard City’s highly flexible workflow, which sees six mixer/sound designers constantly rotating through five identically-equipped suites. The result is an environment that ditches the top-heavy star-mixer system in favor of something far more democratic, where collaborative audio teams spring up spontaneously around a project and speed their way to an inspired result.
“In Heard City, we are all ready and willing to pitch in on any project — each mixer is not his or her individual business,” says Loeb. “In a creative environment, we believe that our clients will get the best product if we collaborate, cooperate, and share projects. In our system, people bring their best to a multifaceted project – one person does the music editing, another does the dialogue editing, another does sound design. We can put our best three or five mixers on one job. Clients who come here realize it’s a team effort, and that’s what makes our place special.”
Mixer/sound designers Jodi Levine, Evan Mangiamele, Cory Melious, Brian Scibincio, and Eric Warzecha all demonstrated that they were on the bus before being hired full-time at Heard City.
“We want mixers and sound designers who are flexible, who understand our way of working, and understand they’ll be moving from room to room,” Loeb explains. “They get that this isn’t about the owner of the company having the biggest room and the nicest console – it’s about what’s best for the clients. The engineers are putting their egos aside, so we can do the best possible work.”
Picks to Mixture
After an optimum software/hardware workflow was agreed on by the Heard City team, Mangiamele stepped up to implement a uniform configuration in the mix suites.
The result is Avid Artist Control Surfaces in all the rooms (except the “Cinema Room,” which has a 24 fader D-Command) running Pro Tools 10 HDX, and plugins including the Waves Mercury bundle, Izotope RX2 noise reduction suite, Altiverb Convolution Reverb, Audioease Speakerphone, and Native Instruments Komplete Ultimate. Meanwhile, outboard includes GML 8300 Transformerless Mic Pres, Empirical Labs Distressors, and Avid Eleven Rack.
“Our philosophy from the beginning is to have rooms with total parity, so that everyone has all the same tools as everyone else – 100%,” notes Mangiamele. “A project may start in one room, but it can move very easily to another one if needed. Every room is set up the same – all the buttons are in the same place, and Input One is Input One no matter which suite you’re in. So you don’t have to think about it all. You’re just at home.