By David John Farinella
Issue: August 1, 2002

Upgrading Your Audio Studio

L.A. Studios has upgraded its consoles to Sony DMX-R100s, which are geared for mix-to-picture work.
It's a necessary evil for every audio post production facility - upgrades. From new consoles to software upgrades, new room designs to the latest and greatest dubbing machine. Even as technology continues to evolve, thus making the post production process easier, facility owners, mixers, engineers and the like are wondering when it's okay to stop.

How much is enough?" No one has had a chance to ponder that question because it's actually the wrong one to ask. Rather, the question many post houses are looking at these days is, "how much do we need?" And that, because of the technological unknowns, is practically impossible to answer. Remember, if one place opts to stand pat, another studio - perhaps even a house where work is shared - is going to take the leap. That leaves the original house behind and in serious jeopardy of not being able to deliver the proverbial goods.

Mainframe, creators of the 3D ReBoot, recently upgraded its AMS Neve AudioFile SC units with Starnet and Media Toolbox.
Then some facilities feel that upgrading is part of the business model. Take L.A. Studios as just one example. "We never give [our equipment] a chance to become obsolete," explains president Jesse P. Meli. "This place has been open over 21 years, and this has been the fourth or fifth redo. It's an expensive proposition but it's one that works. Our growth is consistent every single year."

This year has been an especially tough year for many post houses for a couple of reasons: the fallout from 9/11 and the overall slowdown in the economy. That said, those studios that have seen a lull in business are still finding ways to bring in new equipment in the hopes that things will soon improve.


L.A. Studios ( saw the need to upgrade their boards to Sony R-100s when they opened a facility in Santa Monica and started to share work with their Margarita Mix Hollywood studio. "Historically, the market here at L.A. Studios was primarily radio and animation recording," explains president Meli. "Conversely, Margarita Mix has historically been solely a mix-to-picture facility. So, as business started to cross pollinate, I had a need to redo the ergonomics to make the rooms at L.A. Studios more video friendly." Though they loved the sound of their Sony analog boards, they needed to push into the digital domain completely. Meli adds, the facility had to take a hard look at the ergonomics of each room at L.A. Studios where small control rooms and large booths, which were used for group ADR, looping and recording, ruled. "So, to make these rooms more video friendly, I needed to scale down wherever I could," he says. "Clearly, scaling down a huge board would help."

Mi Casa president Brant Biles and CEO Robert Margouleff (L-R) recently had John Storyk design a quality control room.
The process of upgrading these boards started some time ago, yet most of the wait was identifying the appropriate console for the higher demand for mix-to-picture work. To date, three of the rooms have been upgraded with three to go. In addition to adding the new boards, L.A. Studios has been completely redesigning the rooms, putting video monitors at appropriate heights, changing the room's profile by moving walls and making them feel more like living rooms than control rooms. They are also upgrading their Pro Tools systems.

Their existing living room is pictured.
The facility saw a benefit to the new rooms almost immediately. "It's now much easier to send Margarita Mix Hollywood business over here, because we do have rooms now that are more comfortable for video clients or mix-to-picture clients," reports Meli. "Our clients have loved what we've done, because we've created these sonic living rooms. It's hard to quantify if business increases as a result of happy clients, but it's safe to say that perception is a huge factor, especially in California, and if the perception is that our clients are happy, that translates to doing well."

Meli then adds, "A big percentage of our business is ISDN business, so in essence a lot of our clients will not even benefit visually from what we've done with the rooms. Sure, you could say the recordings are now 100 percent digital, but they're not really going to see that. Our talent will and it's just as important for our talent to be as comfortable as our clients."


CEO Robert Margouleff and president Brant Biles of Mi Casa Multimedia have a tough challenge on their hands each time they decide to upgrade their studio facilities - they are based out of Bela Lugosi's former home in Hollywood. "It's a 1928 Spanish revival home and the detail of the house was very well preserved when we got it," explains Margouleff, who now lives there. "We sought to preserve the quality and the humanity of the home." So, when the Mi Casa team looked to add a quality control room - called The Study - to check their DVD mastering work, they turned to noted studio designer (and 30-year Margouleff friend) John Storyk of Walters-Storyk Designs for assistance. Not only did Storyk give Mi Casa ( a good overview of what needed to be done to make the room work, he also looked for issues to solve because the room is small. "He designed a unit to go into the corner with the speakers and TV in it," Margouleff reports. "He designed it as a built-in, I put it on wheels so we can move it out from the wall to maintain the back of it. Together we problem solved a lot of issues in here."

Having the extra room was crucial to the Mi Casa staff, mainly because it freed up their workspace in the two other studios - The Living Room and The Dining Room. "We use it also for loading, conforming, noise reduction and clean-up," Margouleff says. "And we prepare a lot of materials up there for work in the two mixing rooms. We also use it for post to do printing and back up, everything that surrounds the mixing functions, critical listening and pre- and post production."

Specifically, he adds, "we get these multi-region DVD players and we check out the DVDs for all the foreign territories. We also check out all the emulations and we get Digi Betas in here." Though the room was designed for quality control, Mi Casa has stocked it with a full SADiE system, a 24-track Artemis and a pair of TC-6000s.

Mi Casa has just finished mastering Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Blade II and is in the process of restoring eight James Bond movies.


According to Advantage Audio ( co-owner and president Bill Koepnick, the facility is tackling two upgrades at once, the first being a move to Pro Tools HD and the second coming as they replace their Studer D950 M2 consoles with the new Vista 7. He moved to Vista 7 for the user interface, he says. "It's a huge leap forward, It gives you so much more information and it's a much easier interface for the mixers to work on. I think it's a faster and far more intuitive."

While he'll wait until October for the new boards to arrive, he's been sitting on the HD upgrade until Digidesign delivers the back ordered DigiSnakes. The move to HD was predicated by the fact that Advantage Audio needed to pack more output channels into the same amount of physical space. "The 192 interface allows us to get as many as 32 digital channels of AES I/O on one two-rack-space unit," Koepnick explains. "The real problem is that we had these custom racks built and if we want to add more channels, the easiest way to do that is get more interfaces. We didn't want to buy older 888s and put them in there to expand, so we just traded in some of our old 888s and got the 192s. It allows us greater density in input/output."

The combo HD-Vista 7 upgrade enables the company to accomplish a number of things. For one, the tandem allows them to increase the number of channels they can use - Advantage Audio is at 48 channels now and this brings them up to 80. "All our editorial is done in Pro Tools and then we just mix straight off of Pro Tools stations," he explains. "Each of our mixing stages has four full Pro Tools systems in each one - separated out into music, dialogue, Foley and effects. Currently we have two mixing stages: one of them is set up for 5.1 and the other is just stereo. So, we're going to make the second room also 5.1 surround." By putting in identical systems, Koepnick's team will be able to push their audio-for-picture post production for television work from room to room without a concern. "Bigger projects, higher track count, better mixing environments, 5.1 in both rooms and consoles that should make things go faster and better," he summarizes.

Mike King
Audio Recording Unlimited's co-owner Mike King added a 7TB Fairlight MediaLink Server Sound system to his Chicago-based facility to make some duties easier, including those of studio manager Betty Rake. As King explains it, Rake is one of the best at finding and delivering needle-drop music to answer client demands. Yet, because of ARU's ( situation in the historic Wrigley Building, Rake would have to jaunt between floors to deliver the goods. "With the MediaLink, there will be a file and we'll just go get our pick list and plunk 'em and play 'em," he says. "This is like when I went from analog reel-to-reel tape editing to my first digital workstation."

Of course, the MediaLink will also help ARU organize their vast sound effects library above and beyond a search engine that was developed by Dan Bayes at Commercial Recording in Cleveland. While that system is good, King explains, it requires mixers to record the effects into a Fairlight before being able to use them. Again, speed and ease of use was the requirement, which is especially important as ARU works on Ford and Chevy dealer spots, as well as commercials for McDonald's, Allstate Insurance and Toys 'R' Us for agencies such as Needham and Leo Burnett.

Audio Recording Unlimited installed Fairlight's MediaLink server sound system along with its FAME MFX3 plus.
With a laugh, King points out that this upgrade was not a plug-and-play situation, and infrastructure had to be in place before the server could be installed. First off, the studio spent $19,000 to install air conditioning that will run while the building is off. Also, an independent power source was also brought in to ensure there would be no power bumps and each of the studio's Fairlight FAMEs is being networked.

Since studios bill clients by the hour, it would seem that investing to make your studio more efficient would cut down on the profits, a glaring Catch-22. Thankfully, King notes, clients are experienced enough to notice and appreciate the improvements. "I think what it really does is, from a client relation standpoint," says King, is "you look better to them if this stuff just flies into place. Also, a lot of our clients could care less. They come over, they want to do a session, they understand the steps that it takes and they don't really care. I think it will make our lives internally here a lot easier."


When Vancouver's Mainframe Entertainment ( decided to upgrade to four AMS Neve AudioFile SC units with Starnet and Media Toolbox they started from scratch. "We just ripped the other systems right out, so we didn't have to integrate them with any older stuff," explains audio supervisor Marcel Duperreault. "It was a complete rebuild." Their previous systems were Macintosh based, which became a problem once the memory started to fill. "They started wiping out and crashing, and we were in jeopardy of missing deliveries," he says. "Our turnaround is pretty quick - some shows we'd have to turn around in a couple of days."

Because of the show's frenetic pace, the Mainframe team felt like the AudioFile was the way to go. "It's just the most elegant solution," Duperreault says. "The boxes are so specific to what we do every single day. There are other boxes that people use and it's almost like you're operating with one arm behind your back." Before a decision was made on AudioFiles, they tried out both Pro Tools and Fairlights for a month. The Starnet system helps with archiving the studio's sessions, especially if a client calls back and needs to make a change.

According to Duperreault, this upgrade was done both to appease client demands and to make their job easier. "I don't want to have to think about housekeeping when doing a show. As far as the clients go, I don't want to look like a fool fumbling around on a piece of equipment."


Frank Jones, owner of Castle Oaks Productions ( in Santa Monica, has been in the process of upgrading his studio for almost two years now. One of his first steps while trying to become a full service facility, where he could package services such as Foley, ADR, scoring and dubbing, was to purchase a Yamaha DME routing system. "I bought it with the intent of using it in a 5.1 post production dubbing facility," he explains. He also put in a 5.1 monitoring system, Pro Tools Mix Plus with ProControl, a Mackie digital console along with a Neve console and a pair of TASCAM MC-24s. But something happened on the way to becoming an audio post house - he started to get a number of calls for record projects. "What happened is that Pro Tools became such a thing about recording. I used to do it all analog, but now every project that comes through my door is Pro Tools. The room has become very popular with my record clients, I haven't been able to do any film work in this room. So, here my DME has been sitting, waiting to be used," he explains.

So, Jones upgraded to Pro Tools HD and is building a new room to house his record clients while he gets back to post work. He's optimistic there's demand for the services he wants to offer. "Because post production budgets are getting tighter and tighter, they are looking for a facility where they can send one sound supervisor and get it all done," he explains. "They want a fixed price. They don't want to go all over town to one facility for the Foley, one for the score, one to ADR and one to dub. Then they're moving tapes around and directors are going to different locations. They don't want that - that's wear and tear and loss of time."

As soon as Jones gets to that point, he can see the value of the DME. "The application of the DME was to monitor 5.1 and handle all my stems and do different formats," he explains. "There's a monitor matrix if I wanted to hear mono, or if I'm print mastering it would handle all these different things and route all the signals to wherever I wanted to go."

Avenue Edit upgraded its audio offerings with three new studios featuring Euphonix System 5 consoles.
It took the Chicago-based Avenue Edit ( team just over two years - from taking over another 6,500 square feet of space for three other studios to completion - to complete their most recent studio upgrade. As audio engineer Cory Coken says, "We really needed to take our time, and there was no rush because we kept our two rooms up and running. We made sure everything was done right the first time."

One thing the extra time enabled them to do was wait while Euphonix finished developing the System 5 console for use in commercial post production. "We bought the Euphonix CS3000 consoles before we bought the System 5s, because when we saw the System 5s initially, they weren't ready yet," Coken says. "They didn't make it in a commercial post model yet, they only made the film size, and it was just too big. They didn't have a lot of the features that we needed. It was well worth [the wait], no patch bays need to go in the rooms because the System 5 handles that internally. It made the rooms a lot cleaner and a lot more streamlined."

The pair of System 5 consoles (which were installed along with a DSP Postation II) installed with an eye toward the future. "We wanted to get the technology to where we were ready for what was coming down the pipe with HD and 5.1 and eventually 7.1. We wanted to be prepared," Coken says. The boards were chosen for the flexibility they provided. "Our clientele doesn't know right out of the gate where we're going or what we're doing, and to have a console that's not very flexible limits what we can do and what we can't do," he says. "One minute you're mixing stereo, the next you're mixing in surround and the next they want foreign versions. With the Euphonix System 5 you can just hit a button and all that happens."