I’d like to commend the Audio Engineering Society (AES) for the depth and choice of topics that online attendees of October’s AES Show Fall 2020 were offered. The tent-pole attraction was unquestionably the “7 Audio Wonders of the World” series, which gave virtual studio tours of some of the audio world’s best facilities. The series kicked off with a tour of Skywalker Sound. Let’s look at more of what AES 2020 had to offer.
Galaxy Studios Tour
The second stop on the “7 Audio Wonders of the World” tour took us to Belgium, home of Galaxy Studios. The brainchild of musician/producer Wilfried Van Baelen and his brother, engineering design whiz Guy, Galaxy Studios is the inventor of Auro-3D immersive audio processing and a prime example of how innovative engineering can influence aesthetic imagination.
Galaxy Studios took its name from the custom Galaxy analog organ that Guy built for his brother more than 40 years ago to take on concert tours. Envisioning a self-contained studio where Wilfried could create, record, and experiment with music and sound without time constraints, Wilfried and Guy built the original Galaxy Studios in 1980 over a chicken coop on family owned-land. Within one to two hours from Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne, Galaxy’s reputation for cutting-edge gear, excellent sound and the demand for Wilfried’s finely-attuned ear made the initial studio a success. However, Wilfried wanted to take the concept to the Nth degree and in 1990 a greatly expanded facility, designed by Guy, was launched.
Comprising 15 separate concrete bunkers all suspended on a series of isolation springs (each bearing over three tons of weight), the Galaxy Studios’ rooms each have a specially-designed acoustic environment separated by multiple 330-lb. doors, resulting in an isolation value of greater than 100 dB between each room at < 3 Hz (in low-frequency isolation) – making these among the most silent rooms on the planet.
The Van Baelens designed every Galaxy room for maximum interactivity. Wired cable connections and special 4-1/2-inch soundproof glass panels (weighing more than a ton each) allow for a clear view line of sight through multiple rooms. Guy needed to design a special hydraulic lift machine to mount each of the panels.
Galaxy’s Auro-3D signature is probably Wilfried’s crowning achievement. Auro-3D is an immersive sound mixing system that processes the direct overhead “Voice of God” channels (as the surround-sound height channels are known), to seamlessly blend with an immersive audio system’s 7.1 or 9.1 front and rear left and right, and center channels. Auro-3D creates a correct, coherent sound field for the vertical axis for a natural sonic 3D effect, as opposed to other virtual audio systems that only function on the horizontal axis. All of Galaxy’s control rooms have Auro-3D capability.
Wilfried explained that Auro-3D maintains the integrity of the surround mix across all types of surround monitoring systems when collapsed to smaller-channel-count formats such as 9.1, 7.1, 5.1 or even stereo.
Galaxy also commissioned the first custom console built for 3-D audio from AMS Neve in 2007. It has 500 channels (!) with 96 kHz sampling rates and 250 channels with 192 kHz sampling rates. Galaxy prefers custom built Genelec monitor speakers for their Auro-3D rooms. Their 3D-audio cinema mixing room comprises a 180-seat theater and dubbing stage with a 45 foot by 9 foot 4K projection screen and Meyer Sound loudspeakers. The console is on a platform with a hydraulic lift that allows it to be elevated or sunk to floor level, enabling the mixing engineer to hear the mix literally from different locations to assess what the 3D mix would sound like from a theater’s floor or mezzanine, for example. The cinema mix room’s co-designer was former Galaxy Chief Technology Officer Robin Reumers.
Galaxy’s mastering room was completed in 2002. The console offers +30 dB headroom with an astonishing zero (!) measurable distortion. Bob Ludwig was reportedly so amazed at its design that he had it re-created at his Gateway Mastering Studios.
Guy Van Baelen also designed Galaxy’s innovative energy-neutral HVAC system. Pumps and a boiler powered by running groundwater fuel an electric generator and the air conditioning and heating systems; it is a green-energy engineering marvel.
The incredible architectural and acoustic design aspects of Galaxy Studios notwithstanding, their control rooms all contain pretty much everything one would ever need equipment-wise, with custom AMS Neve consoles (including the first Capricorn console ever built), Neve preamp racks, Tektronix, Fairchild and Pultec vacuum tube compressors and EQs, state-of-the-art digital gear, and a collection of mics from Neumann, Telefunken, AKG, Beyer and Schoeps that would be the envy of any studio. They also have 48-track Studer analog tape recorders, digital tape and hard-drive recording machines, Pro Tools HDX digital workstations, and a full complement of film and HD video equipment.
Galaxy also houses Wilfried’s personal keyboard collection, including Guy’s hand-built analog Galaxy and digital Atlantis organs and a mind-boggling selection of vintage Roland, Yamaha, Moog and Oberheim synthesizers and grand pianos. They also have an extensive selection of vintage and modern guitar amps.
Galaxy’s superb acoustic environments made it the studio of choice for George Massenburg to record his Superior Drummer samples collection and for Yamaha to record the piano samples for its electric piano models and synthesizers. Artists such as Santana, Rammstein, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and others have recorded over twenty platinum records at Galaxy. And now, Galaxy’s Auro-3D technology has made the facility a natural for audio production for movies.
George Lucas used Galaxy for Red Sails, the first movie mixed in 3D, in 2011. Galaxy has a relationship with DreamWorks and has facilitated complex mixes for blockbuster features like Jumanji, Spider-Man 2, John Wick, Transformers, Blade Runner 2046, Jason Bourne and countless others.
In keeping with cultural tradition, Galaxy also has its own band of Belgian beer available at its fully stocked bar. Sounds like an unforgettable European experience!
The Trinnov Optimizer, and JBL 3-Series MkII Studio Monitors
Dale Pro Audio hosted a number of online product showcases including two from Trinnov Audio and Harman/JBL that addressed the issues of monitoring and mixing in sub-optimal environments.
Trinnov’s Optimizer software is used in its Altitude32 and Altitude16 audio/video preamp/surround processors. Working in conjunction with DSP-equipped loudspeakers, Optimizer measures the acoustic response of a particular room and the placements of the speakers in the room and uses proprietary algorithms to calculate, calibrate, and fine-tune the speakers for time, level, and EQ alignment as well as correct phase and group delay, with optimization of all the active crossovers in a system. The PC-based units can store multiple rooms, mix positions, and different engineer preferences in memory. Engineers who often travel to work on projects in remote locations or even mixed in residences or places other than a professional studio might find Optimizer invaluable.
Harman’s latest JBL 3-Series MkII compact studio monitors address the need for such products because of the growth of home studios. Harman’s David Tewksbury explained the engineering behind the 3-Series MkII, much of which is based on JBL’s M2 Master Reference Monitors. 3-Series MkII loudspeakers are specifically designed to deliver a wider and deeper “sweet spot” in less-than-ideal listening situations, and deliver transparent sound at higher output levels. These attributes also make the 3-Series MkII a good choice for mixing immersive audio on a budget.
The Village Tour
While Skywalker Sound and Galaxy Studios’ gear, technology, and architectural achievements create a serious “wow” factor, West LA’s The Village, number three on AES’s “7 Audio Wonders of the World” tour, has a mojo that comes from an alchemy of artistic vibes, their rock and roll recording aesthetic, and an uncanny streak of lucky breaks and timing.
The Village was founded in 1968 by Hormel meat packing heir Geordie Hormel as a private studio (later to become the current Studio A). The Village went commercial soon after, giving birth to landmark recordings like the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup, Aja by Steely Dan, and Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves. Manager Tina Morris recalled that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers decided to become a band after a jam session in Studio A, and they went on to record Southern Accents there.
Studio B has also been the site of many hit records including Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, and albums from artists such as Pink and Miguel. The studio’s many film and TV mixing projects include Crazy Heart, The Hulk, Finding Dory, and Nashville.
The Village’s largest room, Studio D, is best-known for being built at the request of Fleetwood Mac in order to record Tusk. Other artists preferring Studio D include Eric Clapton, Weezer, Elton John, Sting and Selena Gomez. Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born and its Oscar-winning “Shallow” was recorded in Studio D, and scenes of Cooper’s and Lady Gaga’s performances were filmed there.
The smallest room, Studio F, is used mostly for overdubs, voiceovers and podcasts. Even so, Studio F fans include Lady Gaga (The Fame), Janet Jackson (Danita Jo) and Melissa Etheridge. It also serves as a control room for the adjoining Moroccan Ballroom, which is used to host and record live events, streaming concerts, and private parties.
The equipment in the studios sport Neve 88R and Avid S6 consoles (with a vintage Neve 8048 in Studio A) and all have Pro Tools HDX digital audio workstations, Ampex ATR 102 recording decks, Augsberger speakers, and a host of vintage and modern outboard gear.
Built in a former Masonic Hall, The Village’s rooms are key to its funky vibes. The Tahiti Booth (named for its tropical decorations) is a large isolation booth built for Stevie Nicks, and is equipped with a movable ceiling and an echo chamber copied from Capitol Studios. The aforementioned Moroccan Ballroom has a Middle Eastern décor and it inspired John Mayer’s writing and recording of Continuum as well as Coldplay’s “ A Sky Full of Stars.” Chris Martin’s piano part was played on Oscar Peterson’s personal 6-foot Steinway baby grand piano located in the studio.
The old linoleum tile floor and multiple reflections inherent in the Moroccan Ballroom and in Studio D give them a unique character that has become part of the highly sought “Village Sound.” In a Q&A with The Village’s owner, Jeff Greenberg, Tina Morris, and producers T-Bone Burnette, Larry Klein, and Ross Hogarth, the latter three waxed rhapsodically about the unique sound of The Village. One of the techniques deployed by both Burnette and Hogarth was to set up drums in front of the live room and open a door to leak out into the larger Studio D room and mic it as an echo chamber. Burnette also cited Studio D as creating the sound of his Grammy Award-produced Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, The Union by Elton John and Leon Russell, and the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?.
Hogarth and Klein explained how the vibe and history of The Village was inspiring for Hogarth’s work with Van Halen and Keb ‘Mo and Klein’s with Shawn Colvin and Joni Mitchell - which was so crucial for creating the intangible magic that was impossible to replicate in a plug-in.
Greenberg also related how he was approached in the early 1990s by Hormel’s daughter to take over and restore The Village. Once Geordie Hormel relocated to Arizona, it fell to Greenberg, with the help of legendary producer Al Schmitt, to bring The Village back to its former glory. However, The Village’s close association with classic rock bands became a marketing albatross with young grunge and alt-rock bands who didn’t want to record “where their parents’ music was made.” Greenberg credits Billy Corgan with bringing street credibility back to The Village when the Smashing Pumpkins recorded their multi-platinum Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness there.
In the final AES Show Fall 2020 installments we’ll cover the highlights of the final week and talk about the other stops on the “7 Audio Wonders of the World” tour, including Blackbird, Abbey Road Studios, Capitol Studios, and United Recording in a separate article for a bang-up conference finale.