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Philosophy

WHY PIETY STREET and OTHER THINGS YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN… april 9, 2013
by Mark Bingham

WHERE ARE WE?

For those of you who have never been to New Orleans, Piety Street Recording is in the downtown New Orleans neighborhood known as the Bywater.

The Mississippi River borders Bywater and the boat horns can be heard all through the day and night. (The studio is quite soundproof so you need to go outside if you actually want to hear the boats.) The studio is on the corner of Piety and Dauphine Streets on the original route of the Desire streetcar line, now the bus named Desire.

Piety Street Recording is housed in one of the many Leonhard buildings scattered around the Bywater. Built in 1927, the building was originally a US Post Office and more recently, the Louisiana Center for Retarded Citizens. We still get mail for them. We actually have 2 postal addresses:  the original 3240 Dauphine and our new 728 Piety, which is now our main entrance with doors facing Piety Street.

WHAT HAVE WE DONE?

We’ve tried to combine the best of all possible audio worlds so as to have a great place to work without leaving town: doing this in 2001 might have pleased Pangloss, but that’s what we did. 11 years later and we’re still here – and it’s 13 years after the NY Times declared the end of studios. Why have 300+ SSL/Neve rooms gone the way of the dodo but we’re still here?

That’s a whole ‘nuther story.

What we have is a huge A playing room with 8 large windows providing natural light. Both playing and control rooms have natural light. You can pull the thick beautiful curtains over the windows if you like it dark. The windows are thick, too, and only f-15 fighters flying low over the Bywater looking for terrorists will break the sound barrier and get into the room. Since Katrina (we lost the original roof) we have had to re-seal the building, put on a new roof, caulk every seam and hope for the best.

We’re capable of recording an orchestra or more typically, being able to get mics 50’ away from the drums if so desired.

I’d describe the décor as a cross between an elegant Cajun fishing camp mixed with a turn of the century Storyville bordello or maybe your favorite grandmother’s living room. Comfort combined with sound quality was the goal. The superb acoustics of the 26’ x 65’ x 17’ playing room are complemented by four adjacent iso booths. Each iso room large enough to handle a drum set, with two iso rooms capable of housing either in- house Yamaha grand piano. Acoustically, the iso rooms can be live, dead or neutral depending upon what you like.

We put rough cypress on the playing room walls, added chandeliers that were thrown out of an old Masonic Temple, and found lots of vintage furniture. We left the rusted tin ceilings in the big playing room because they looked great and sounded good, too. We have lots of packing blankets and rolling bass traps and gobos.

Both control rooms are comfortable and accurate, with lots of room for visitors without bugging the engineers. There’s lots of room to roam around and get away from the session, too. There’s also a computer in the lounge and wireless internet throughout. There’s a TV room with a few hand weights and a rowing cycle if you need instant exercise. The back yard has ample parking and a basketball court.

Beyond amenities, this is simply a great space to play and record music, with variable acoustics and flexibility from session to session. Piety Street is one of the last great studios left standing.

SOME SESSION BASICS:

We keep the studio open ended, rarely leaving the same set-up from one session to the next.  We try to deal with each session individually, so the technology can serve the musicians, not force them to serve our habits. We also have a deep engineer/producer pool with people like John Fischbach and me who learned on analog and young engineers such as Wesley Fontenot who learned to record digitally without consoles before they ever worked on analog.

The musical and recording aesthetics at Piety Street will certainly vary wildly depending upon the artist and the producer. I still use analog guitar boxes, spring reverbs, 2” tape, plate reverbs, 70’s drum machines, overdriven cassette decks, cassette tape echo, 1/4″ and 1/2″ inch tape echo along with the Pro Tools.

I am in love with Sound Toys Plug-ins, UAD plug-ins and a variety of others and love to mix and match with “hardware” outboard gear.

We often track to tape and transfer to Pro Tools for overdubs and mixing. Many people swear by this, many others make fun of it. Whatever. We keep the analog 2″ tweaked and ready.

About John Fischbach: he is a meticulous engineer who uses microphones, mic placement, acoustics and mic pre amps to make some of the most open and natural recordings you are likely to hear anywhere. John has actually gotten better since his seminal 70’s work on Songs In The Key of Life with Stevie Wonder. His experience is priceless. These days he is largely a mastering engineer, where his great ear has helped many the mix in need. The new Cassandra Wilson record John produced is out as of July 2 2012.

For basic discography information on any of the Piety Street producers or engineers, please go to allmusic.com or to ENGINEERS heading of this web site and click on individuals. Much of the stuff John and I did in the 70’s is not even listed on amg, but it’s still a good reference to check on anyone in the music biz.

WHY PIETY STREET?

What we really offer the working band or producer is a sonically upscale environment where they can work as quickly or as deliberately as they want, have everything they need, and not spend a fortune.

We encourage people to come into the studio and record with the best mics and processing in a great sounding room with an experienced engineer and then take the results home or elsewhere to do overdubs and pre mixes and edits.

When it’s time to mix, you can use Piety Street with its massive processing power. Even bringing in your finished session and “bumping up” to a better sounding format is now a standard use of a modern recording facility. The SSL console will often do wonders for your “no console” mouse mixes.

A caveat: I have recently mixed a few records “In the box” and I can testify that there is no longer a vast difference between console mixes and in the box. Up to PT HD 7 and 8, I had found “in the box” mixes to be inferior, with not so good imaging and lousy depth of field. My recent experience brings us to this: if you know where you are going and what you are doing, if you have all the right plug-ins, a good room and good speakers, mixing in the box is an option.  Also, the summing buss is a great idea. I know, some folks will say Pro Tools Mix plus was good enough as it was 10 years ago. The storage medium never stops any of us from making good work or bad work, it’s just a storage medium. Once I finish an “in the box” mix, I often hit 1/2″ analog tape. Most everyone prefers the analog versions to the straight up “in the box”.

Just did a mix for a CD where it was clearly more focused not hitting tape, tape made it mushy… go figure.

Mixing to 1/2” analog will typically add the last bit of ooomph to any digital or analog multi-track format. I myself use tape with the machine set to repro and send it directly to 24/96 (or 88) digital via a good convertor back into PT, thus getting the best of both worlds minus tape cost.

Then again, I know people who get good results on any medium and others who can have the best gear in the world and make terrible sounds. Such is life.

We have hosted a growing generation of snotty engineers- mostly from Los Angeles I’m afraid, who thumb their noses at consoles. They look at Piety Street as “3d World” for having analog outboard gear. Well, 3d World and proud of it as the bumper sticker says.

In this day and age, when I can get on a plane and compose and sequence in flight with a laptop, it does beg the question why hire a studio when you can do so much at home or anywhere?  With all the great records being made on laptops, in kitchens and bedrooms, why bother with “professional”?

I’m not sure I have a good answer for that anymore except most people don’t have organs and grand pianos and sound isolation. In many cases, having the means and the equipment to record music does not equal having the skills to record and it is not an easy task. The louder the music, the harder it is to record properly.

To attempt to be the artist, the producer, the engineer, the arranger, the PR person, the label, the designer and the roadie is now possible and more of the norm after the demise of the old music biz. I am consistently bummed by the vast numbers of “bands” who are all about marketing while saying nothing with their music. I glaze over each time someone tells about their songs being optimized to become commercials or get into TV shows. Really?

Everyone must do the maintenance to keep day-to-day life going, but slighting your music in favor of promotion is getting it backwards.

The music has to be good or what good is all the hype?  As the joke goes, “why did the moron go into the music biz?”

For the money.

A Selmer sax does not make you John Coltrane nor does an Akai sampler make you Dr. Dre either. (should I update these references? Maybe not, Pretty Lights sure knows who John Coltrane is)

Reality still dictates, despite what some equipment manufacturers and software designers may have you believe. Some of the best stuff I hear was made on Acid or Garage band… It’s about talented people.

While we all love the great new equipment that is generally less expensive than equipment has been, working with other talented people is often a better solution than trying to buy cheap and do everything yourself.

By the time we buy the latest stuff and learn to use it, it’s obsolete. Good mics, mic pre amps, compressors and eqs – the guts of a studio – never become obsolete. Storage mediums and postproduction options will continue to change but the recording of music has not changed much for 50 years.

There is an incredible talent pool in New Orleans. It’s there, even if it’s smaller than it was 4 years ago.

I try to bring an intuitive quality to every project, walking the fine line, using rudiments and improvising.

I continue to try to make available a place where people can move ahead artistically and add to the language of popular music. The slagheap of music is certainly big enough and there’s no reason to make it bigger.

Thank you for your time.

Mark Bingham