By Christine Bunish
Issue: February 1, 2002

RMS: small but talented

Studio C, a live room, can host a 40-voice choir. It is outfitted with Pro Tools 5.1.1.
BIRMINGHAM, Mich. - The sophisticated music, sound design and audio post facility which RMS Productions inhabits in the upscale Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich. is a far cry from the basement of the house where co-owners and partners Randy Stephenson and Bob Stewart recorded Stewart's songs on a Radio Shack cassette deck more than 20 years ago.

"Bob played piano, I played drums and Jeff Carter, the mutual friend who introduced us, 'engineered' the just-for-fun sessions," recalls Stephenson.

At the time Stephenson was working in production and as on-air talent in Michigan radio while Stewart had been writing songs and playing piano from an early age.

When Stephenson decided to leave radio in 1988 and team with Stewart, who was studying for a mathematics degree at the University of Michigan, in a jingles, original music and radio production business, an upgrade to the studio in the basement of Stephenson's Southfield house was a must. They built a 16-track analog room, investing in a Fostex E16 machine and an Allen & Heath System 8 console. Their first clients were primarily area car dealerships, contacts Stephenson had developed during a brief stint at an advertising agency a few years earlier.

Today RMS Productions has a diverse client base. Its credits include an upbeat party song for a Greektown (Detroit) Casino spot; a heartland theme for a Marathon Oil commercial; a funky vintage post score and sound design for a Spirit Airlines spot; jingles for The Detroit News/Detroit Free Press's classified marketplace; a haunting original score, sound design and audio post for the supernatural thriller Dark Heaven, which just debuted at Sundance; a high-energy post score, sound design and audio post for a Visteon chassis system corporate video; and an original score for a Ford Motor Company speaker intro.

Owners Randy Stephenson (front) and Bob Stewart, in Studio A, have been together since 1988.
While remaining small in size - Stephenson and Stewart are joined in the company by engineer Joel Porter and studio manager/engineer Amy Clark - RMS Productions has enjoyed "steady, controlled growth from the beginning," says Stephenson. About 60 percent of its work is for television and radio spots with the balance divided between corporate clients and recording artists like Bob Seger, for whom the company has done digital editing on several occasions, and Rivers Cuomo of the hot alternative band Weezer for whom they've done demos. Stewart has a deal of his own with a Nashville music publisher.

"Our third room has allowed us to stretch more into working with music talent, which is unusual for a Detroit commercial audio facility," Stephenson notes.

"We're able to do it because the principals come from both worlds: Bob from music and myself from radio and advertising."

RMS Productions moved to its present location in late 1994. Stephenson, his brother and Stewart did all the initial construction on the old industrial complex by night while Stephenson and Stewart kept the business running by day. The company opened with its 16-track analog gear and the first Digidesign Pro Tools 3 in Detroit. "We started using Pro Tools on a jingle for a TV station while our studio was under construction," Stephenson recalls.

"The dealer told us we could record the jingle right into the computer. We were a little skeptical. We knew we could edit in Pro Tools, but it was a while before we were confident enough to track into it."

Once Studio A was online, business picked up, and the partners found they needed a second room to handle the overflow. They added an auxiliary Pro Tools room in 1997 for radio spots, voiceover recording, distribution and duplication, and expanded Studio A to be more client friendly. Two years later Studio C debuted with a large live room, which can accommodate a single voice to a 40-voice choir.

The three studios currently are outfitted with Pro Tools 5.1.1 Mix 3 systems which operate on a Rorke Fibre Channel SAN that ties the three rooms together and makes it possible for Stephenson, Stewart and Porter to access each other's sessions. The studios have Digidesign ProControl surfaces; AMS Neve, Manley and Focusrite preamps; extensive outboard gear and numerous plug-ins.

Stewart uses a standalone Roland sequencer for composing. He often writes in his home studio, which features a Mackie 32-8 board and 24 tracks of Alesis ADAT.

He lays tracks to ADAT and dumps them into the Pro Tools in Studio C. Stephenson frequently writes lyrics, and both partners do sound design. Stephenson and Porter have also done voiceovers and Stephenson has recorded character voices for animation.

A CDQ Prima ISDN line links RMS Productions to other studios nationwide. The link enables voiceover talent Ed Victor to continue to do Spirit Airlines spots with the company following his move to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Although the partners have a sizeable music library, which they often tap for run-and-gun radio spots, they're pleased that people are starting to realize the value of original music for commercials. "Some still shy away, though," Stephenson says. "They think it will cost too much. But it's surprising what you can get for a reasonable amount of money."

"And you won't see your commercial and three others with the same music behind it," adds Stewart.

RMS Productions broadened its scope recently with its turnkey audio for the independent feature Dark Heaven. "We did everything you hear," says Stephenson. "Bob did the score, we did all the sound design, Foley, ADR and Amy and I did some of the voices for ADR."

The company is also about to go on the air with a series of two-minute radio programs, "Thoughts From The Front Porch," based on Mark Dutil's weekly column in The Detroit News. Dutil, a creative director at The Berline Group and a longtime RMS Productions client, writes and voices his observations while Stephenson and Stewart handle production, recording, mixing and distribution and provide library and custom music as needed.

"Considering the economy, our business has been outstanding," Stephenson reports. "We had no work slow down anytime last year, and we hope that trend continues."

The partners attribute their success, in part, to building strong client relationships which have lasted over time. "Our repeat business is extremely high," says Stephenson. "Once we get people in the door, we're good at keeping them around. We're very service oriented, and I think that's missing at some facilities."

But perhaps the key to RMS Productions' achievements is that Stephenson and Stewart are still the same guys who had fun with piano, drums and a cassette recorder in the basement two decades ago.

"We enjoy what we do, and I think it's infectious," Stewart concludes.