HEDDEN MUSIC LLC
Right Track Recording
Mid-Town Manhattan, NY, NY
Music Row in Manhattan is a place that captures the imagination, at least on some level, of most everyone who makes music. However, like the rest of the retail world, it has changed a great deal over the years. At the moment of its greatest gravitas, it was pretty impressive: store after store of the best instruments and gear, each one with it’s own reputation and specialty. If you stood in Manny’s or Sam Ash for 15 minutes, you could pretty much count on a famous musician walking though the door. The thing that made this block such fertile ground for music stores was the fact that there were famous recording studios in nearly every building and being at the heart of Broadway, a theater or two nearby as well. Rockefeller Center is half a block away in one direction and the theater where they shot Letterman is about the same distance, the other way. So, we’re talking about the home turf of The SNL Band and The CBS Orchestra. While Lincoln Center is the performance space for the Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera and The Village has certainly pulled live music for smaller ensembles to the south, Times Square remains the center of life for the “big time” aspect of New York’s music scene.
Right Track (it became MSR Studios at some point in 2008 or 2009) sat dead center in this sweet spot of the musicians’ universe. 48th Street is where the big boys play and you don’t survive here without doing a lot of things well. Right Track was known for being a little cleaner and more client-focused than many of its neighbors. The big room is versatile and sounds good with a rock band or an orchestral brass section and Studio C is a nice mix room with access to a small but functional recording space of its own. I’ve never worked in B but that room enjoys a good reputation as well. There was also a satellite orchestral room built near the convention center but having never had the pleasure, I can’t really comment.
I have two favorite Right Track stories and because I’ve been a bit lax about this blog of late and since Barry Bongiovi (one of the owners) was always good with studio advice and wine recommendations, I figure I’ll tell them both.
Here’s a trade secret: being the producer on a mix session is not the most taxing job. Engineers usually like to take a few hours to find their way through a track and during this period, being quiet is the key facet of the producer’s responsibilities. I think most mix engineers would agree that a few key sentences of clear direction could best be delivered over the phone, by text, telegram or frankly any other device that meant you weren’t actually staring at the back of their head while they work. It was during one of these moments at Right Track when a woman walked into the control room and offered a free massage to anyone who thought that might be a good way to spend the next fifteen or twenty minutes; it was a service the studio provided for their clients. I was reluctant but my engineer obviously wanted me out of his hair and I gathered that the clients in the other studio hadn’t taken her up on the offer so I agreed. She had a table set up in the lounge and as I walked into the room she said, “So, you’re a Virgo”. I was taken aback; she had met me only about 25 seconds earlier and we hadn’t really spoken. Laughing at my surprise, she said, “It’s easy. Everyone in a recording studio is a Virgo.” I once read in an on-line horoscope, lampooning the various signs of the Zodiac, that Virgos make good bus drivers and pimps. Ah, perfectionism. In defense of Virgos, I would like to add that there are a fair number of Leo’s in this business as well. Just sayin’…
My second story involves a very humble-looking instrument. I was doing a last-minute piano overdub on a score; it was just before we started mixing. One of my favorite collaborators over the years is a piano player with two defining characteristics: he’s a brilliant musician and an incredibly nice guy. It turned out that he was available to play for me on the day before we were to start mixing at Right Track, so I called Barry and asked for the big room to do the piano session. It wasn’t available. He said he had a piano in the small room where I was mixing and that we would be very happy with it. I was a little worried because the strings had been recorded at Abbey Road and I didn’t want the ambience on the piano tracks to be too small. The engineer and I discussed it and Barry assured us we wouldn’t be disappointed. Knowing that this particular musician wasn’t going to be put off by the space and would deliver a great performance even if we had him play a Fender Rhodes in an closet, we decided to roll the dice.
It’s important for me to stress that this particular piano player is a very experienced cat. He’s a heavyweight in Nashville, both as a session guy and bandleader and in NYC, is one of the few people I know who can claim to have held the title “staff record producer” (he did that for the biggest names in the biz). I’d love to name drop here but I kind of promised at the outset… My point is that he knows a good piano.
So, back to the humble little piano that was tucked into the smallest recording space at Right Track. Things started as usual with the player warming up and the engineer placing mics and getting a sound. To be honest, I wasn’t really paying much attention to the piano. It was a Steinway, but it looked a little bit like its best days were behind it. The finish was kind of dull and I don’t recall it being very big, maybe 6’ 8”. I was standing in the studio, a bit concerned that the piano took up most of the floor space, listening and explaining how the session would run when I started to realize that things were not at all what they seemed. The player was arriving at the same thought and the engineer was moved enough to get up from the board and come out to the studio. This was no ordinary instrument: it was oddly familiar and sweet with that classic, silky mid-range that the best Steinway’s all have but it was also just edgy enough to slip through the upper register, a quality that meant even very soft playing would float on top of the track. It only took about ten seconds for all three of us to fall head-over-heels in love with this piano. As the session went along, our affection just grew. While my friend at the keyboard couldn’t stop talking about how well it played and how responsive it was, in the control room we could hear how warm it sounded and how perfectly it blended into the tracks. It was truly gorgeous. The really cool thing about an instrument like this is how inspiring it is to the musician and I could plainly see that this was happening and my recording was getting the full benefit of that magic. At some point, Barry stopped by to make sure we were happy and the piano player surprised us by asking him, in all earnestness and candor, “How much for the piano?” Barry just smiled and apologetically demurred. He couldn’t sell it; it wasn’t his. It belonged to Pat Metheny. So yes, we HAD heard it before… quite often really.
Thanks, Pat. Nice axe.