INSIGHTS: Interview with Jeremy Koch
president of Sound One, New York
Interviewed by Mel Lambert in January 1998
Established in 1969, Sound One is considered by many of its regular clients to be the East Coast's pre-eminent film post house- and one of the best known in the world. In an average year, this New York facility handles sound editorial and dubbing for some 100-plus motion pictures, in addition to countless documentaries and commercials. Recent successes have included "Deconstructing Harry," "Fargo," "Flirting With Disaster, " "Get Shorty," "Interview With The Vampire," "Kundun," "Men In Black," "Michael Collins," "Sense & Sensibility," "Slingblade," "The Boxer," "The First Wive's Club" and "Ulee's Gold." And at Sundance 2004, the facility had been involved with several innovative productions, ranging from Paramount's "The Real Blonde," directed by Tom DiCillo, and starring Matthew Modine and Daryl Hannah; through "Affliction," directed by Paul Schrader, with Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek and William Dafoe; "The Spanish Prisoner," directed by David Mamet, with Ben Gazzara, Campbell Scott and Steve Martin; to "Safe Men," directed by John Hamburg, with Sam Rockwell and Harvey Feirstein.
"On any given day," offers Sound One president Jeremy Koch, "upwards of 400 people might be actively involved here in film post production. It has been said that if a bomb were to be dropped on Sound One's annual Christmas party, the New York film industry would be wiped out, and the industry as a whole severely damaged!"
Sound One's reputation for service and creativity, Koch considers "has been earned by a unique corporate philosophy that combines dedication to meeting the client's needs, the encouragement of new talent both in-house and in the field, and conservative, scientifically-based ongoing research into evolving technologies."
In addition to established directors and film producers, Sound One actively seeks out the newcomer. "First-time filmmakers and film students are afforded the opportunity to work in a premier post-production facility in New York. Although Sound One is first and foremost a service organization," Koch considers, "it has continually nurtured its community, providing it with encouragement and education. Despite our size and complexity, we strive to maintain the feeling of a small, cottage industry."
Sound One occupies six floors of the historic Brill Building in mid-town Manhattan. On the seventh and eighth floors, the Digital Duplex is centered around an Equipment Room ("ER-8"), equipped with the latest in digital technology from Sony, Akai, Tascam, Sonic Solutions, Digidesign and Dolby. In ER-8, a Sonic Solutions network is connected to four Re-Recording Studios and one Digital Editing Suite. The re-recording stages are identically equipped with Neve VR consoles with Flying Fader automation and a proprietary monitoring matrix. Each studio can access multiple workstations during the course of the mix. Akai Digital Recorders are used throughout the facility, linked via Ethernet to a Digital Controller in each studio.
The Digital Duplex also houses the facility's audio transfer suites, film-to-tape transfer suite, optical transfer laboratory, sound effects library and 20 editing suites. All 85 picture and sound editing suites located throughout the facility are maintained by Sound One's Editorial Equipment Rental and Maintenance Department.
The Film Center Duplex, located on the second and third floors, features 28 editorial suites, plus two additional Re-Recording Stages that feature Neve 51/V Series consoles with Flying Fader automation. Two ADR stages are equipped for film and video projection and can be linked, via a facility-wide network. Two Foley studios are supported by one of the world's largest prop collections, and offer an assortment of surfaces.
Unlike post facilities here on the West Coast, which normally comprise single-story buildings on a large lot, Sound One occupies several floors of the Brill Building. How do you manage all that traffic in a more congested environment?
In certain ways, that closeness and intimacy works for us. First, we save a lot of time. I believe that we're the largest vertically integrated facility of its kind in the country. We have 85 editing rooms and dubbing studios; the way the facility is laid out means that people move very quickly through from the edit rooms to the transfer room to the mixing rooms to ADR room. It seems to work very well.
Film producers are happy because if you have to send out an assistant, you could easily lose an hour. But here, they can reach their location within a matter of minutes using the stairs; things happen very quickly.
What is the mixture of sessions that come through Sound One? Is it primarily film soundtracks? TV commercials?
The majority is feature films and documentaries. We occasionally do a TV series, but there aren't many that are posted in New York. And when they are, the budgets are so low that oftentimes we just don't have the space to commit for it. The last two series we did were "New York News" and "Central Park West." And we occasionally do high-end commercials where they want the very best.
We also supply facilities for picture editing here on site; we lease rooms to production companies that either rent our equipment, or bring in their own. A picture editor works very tightly with our sound crews, so they tend to be operating contiguously in the same space.
Back in the Eighties there were union problems in New York, and a lot of productions moved out of the city to places like Toronto, amongst others. How did that basically come about?
It was a combination of events. New York is still a niche market. The majors felt that the labor costs and union demands were too much- at least that's what they said. At the same time, Canada developed a very favorable tax structure for the film and post business; it reached a point where it almost didn't cost anything to build a facility; [Canadian business] got $1.90 in tax benefits for every $1 [they] invested. Basically, it became a state-supported industry. There was a certain proliferation [in certain Canadian cities], but the business came back to New York. During the boycott, there was a real drop-off in business that was mostly on the production end. At the post end, we experienced maybe a 5% drop in revenue because there were less shoots- so we were selling less [mag and tape] stock, and doing less transfers for dailies.
How do you market Sound One's facilities to the film and TV community?
That is a tough question. Our strategy here is that if you built a facility to be the best, and give clients the best service with the best talent ... they will come. That is our marketing strategy. We have such a minimal advertising and sales budget as to be almost comical!
What does Sound One offer over other New York- based facilities?
First, it's the talent of our craftsmen, which creates a good vibe. Over the years we've thrown everything back in to make this place so very special. The Brill Building is an extraordinary environment. I can't imagine anyone going anywhere else, except if they can't get in here because we're too overloaded to meet their schedules. Or because the director has a very tight budget, and we can't do it for the price. In the past, we've tried to accommodate everybody from student mixes because we believe what goes around comes around; they may be the next Joel and Ethan Cohen, the next Spike Lee, or the next Martin Scorsese.
What do you think Sound One offers over West Coast-based facilities?
First, I don't think we compete with West Coast facilities. We service a very different culture; people that work here and prefer to post here on the East Coast.
But the normal philosophy is that "A production follows the negative home;" a lot of film companies are based on the West Coast.
I don't know if that's true. It does happen with directors and producers that don't have sufficient clout when they cut their deal. But with film makers that live in and around New York City, they'll go to Katmandu to shoot a film, but when it comes time for post production they want to come home. There's an awful lot of talent here, including directors, producers and writers- I read in an "Esquire" article that something like 65% of all writers and [film] directors live in and around New York, or declare it as their home.
What was the thinking behind the move to all-digital editorial during the early- to-mid-Nineties, and the investment in Sonic Solution workstations?
We had reached a certain level of growth; and we believed that there was a revolution coming. The question was: When is it going to come? How many corpses were going to be on the battle field in the process of getting there? We knew we were at a point where we needed to grow, yet to maintain our market share we decided to look at all of the options. After much discussion, argument and research, we decided that we would build towards an all-digital environment.
We saw it as two separate cans of worms: one, inside the studio; the other being the backroom. We decided to develop the digital recording and playback sector first, with what we refer to as The Equipment Room. In 1993 , we looked at what was coming down the pike- there were so many options- and decided to build it as flexibly as possible. In that way, whatever come along would be compatible with the infrastructure we built.
You were looking for file-transfer compatibility at both at the media level and at the networking level?
Right. To transfer material we set up a very modular digital complex, the theory being that all of the equipment would be in the backroom, with only the control surface in the studio. And we wanted it to be connected to our sound-effects library. We selected Sonic Solutions workstations, which are modular and flexible.
What was the thinking behind selecting Sonic Solutions DAWs?
Two members of our technical staff- Jonathan Porath and John Purcell- spent a lot of time working with Sonic, which was willing to design [custom systems] for us. Sonic was successful in the music-editing business, and was willing to work with John Purcell to develop a system that would work for film sound editing. We have what we believe to be the largest Sonic network in the film post-production world.
We put a Sonic in each dubbing studio and two edit facilities that were all a part of the network. Now, in the middle of a mix an editor could jump into an edit suite if they needed another effect, pull it off the server, lock it to picture, and then fly it into the mix- without leaving the room. We were also able to set up lines so that clients could work directly out of their edit room into the mix- we did that on a big scale with "Men In Black."
You've just installed some 60 of these new Akai DD-8 Digital Dubbers What made you go with Akai?
We were already using the DD-1500 workstations. That was a separate collaboration; there was nothing on the market that could replace the original [Sony PCM-3324/48] DASH-format machine we went with in '93. Akai was ready, willing and ultimately able to jump in. They worked with our Technical Director Jonathan Porath, our Research & Development Engineer Avi Laniada, as well as our Project and Development Chief, Alan Hale for about 13 to 14 months to develop operating software to make this digital dubber work in full synchronization. We went with it both for playback and recording [on the stages].
You pre-load to the dubbers and use them like you would mag elements?
That's exactly what we're doing.
And then pre-dub to multitrack DD-8, and record your 6/8-track final stems?
Correct. There's no generational loss. After much suffering, it is working very well; we've already done dozens of film on [the DD-8]. You can use it like a digital dubber and move tracks [against timecode]; the mixer has much more control.
Several other New York facilities have gone with DD-8.
The same thing happened when we went with the Sonic [Solutions workstations]. New York, being this divine niche society, tends to want to work in sync. So, when we went with the Sonics, New York went Sonic. And now New York is going Akai because it doesn't do any good to fight each other.
Sound editors work together as a close community. I guess people need to provide you with material in a format you can handle easily?
That's what's happening. Sound files are coming in on MOs and hard drives.
The DD-8s are on a Ether network so that they can be controlled from any mix station?
Yes. That gives us great flexibility and speed. The mixer has complete visual control. At any time, he can address any of his playback or record machines, and make fast changes. The whole chain becomes one integrated system. We're going to expand that as we go.
What drives the compatibility envelope? Did you involve the sound editors and directors in the decision to go with the Sonic and the Akai?
We had discussions mostly with editors, but we went at it somewhat alone. Most people were still working on older technologies. Incorporation of the Sonics was quite a labor-intensive task for us as we started training people outside of the company. By the time they were becoming ubiquitous, the community was computer literate and very much in favor of doing it. But the decision was one of "How do you survive in this business?" You make a wrong choice and you may not be able to get a second chance for "X" number of years. You've got to pay it back.
Do you also record ADR and Foley direct to hard drive ?
Yes. We've been doing Foley for quite some time now, and ADR is now going right to the Akai DD-1500s.
Then the elements are edited and flown back to the DD-8 dubbers?
You have four re-recording stages equipped with Neve VR consoles, Flying Fader automation and your proprietary monitoring matrix. What was behind the choice of those boards? They're not really film boards are they?
They are now! They were modified by our staff. We put in the VSP [film-monitoring] panels and added special motion controls. They sound wonderful.
But remember that during the past five/six years, since we made the decision to move into the digital domain, we have been building the infrastructure to install and test these [workstations and dubbers]. We built the digital equipment room, and on the floor below a room full of analog technology. Then we connected that through a routing system so that we could deploy all our assets- digital or analog- seamlessly in any combination to any of the four studios. If our clients wanted to gradually introduce digital into the particular structure of their film post production, they could.
You retained the separate analog machine room to bridge these two technologies, since not everything will be done in the digital domain.
Are each of your re-recording stages run as two- or three-person operations?
All of our stages basically run with one person handling everything. We've always done that, and it's worked for us. We actually do most of our projects- especially the larger ones- in less studio man-hours than Hollywood.
Do you offer film and/or video projection?
We offer film projection and overhead video projectors in most of our rooms.
Do you use random-access, non-linear video playback?
Yes. We've tried it and have it available. However, we feel there's no point in [non-linear video playback] as long as people keep bringing in playback elements on Tascam [DA-88, etc.] or mag. When everything becomes non-linear in the playback chain, we'll be the first to change over.
You also have two large stages fitted with Neve 51/VR Series consoles. They specialize in large-scale film re-recording, I assume.
Yes, they are the two biggest studios. "L" is Lee Dichter's room, and "D" is Tom Fleishman's room. These are the stages that did "Men In Black," "Deconstructing Harry," and on and on. "Kundun" [by director Martin Scorsese] was just competed in "D." "The Boxer" [directed by Jim Sheridan] was dubbed in "L."
What about the future of digital consoles?
Our desire at the moment is to finish the equipment room and the entire recording process. From the way we work in New York, we don't feel that the all-digital console is ready for us. Nor are we ready for it. From the point of view of the control surfaces, some of the digital consoles are still very clumsy. And others- where the control surface seem less cumbersome and more user friendly- are not yet fully digital. Our feeling is that we should wait until we feel they're ready.
We're working with several firms- Otari, SSL , Sony, Harrison, Studer and the others- but we don't feel the time is yet right. It's getting close; another generation or so will bring some of them in line with what we're doing. The feeling here is that we may be a year and a half away from selecting a console; then, of course, comes the learning curve. Our mixers very often move from one studio to another, so they can work quickly.
You have some 85 sound editorial rooms, plus several dozen rooms that can be configured for sound and picture editing?
Right. Everything now follows a modular approach, so that if a client needs five rooms, in most cases we can set them up so that editors can move between all of these rooms without going out into the hallway. We rent them whatever they need- Avid and Pro Tools, for example- or they bring their own equipment.
Talking about manpower, how do you attract mixers to occupy the #1 seat in these dubbing stages?
It's a small market and at that level of talent there are very few individuals who can do the job. When I joined Sound One, there were only two mixers in New York of any significance; now we have nine. Mixers are intelligent; they want to work in a great environment. Again, it's a matter of: "You build it and hope they will come." Half of our mixers started here in lesser positions, and were brought up over the years.
If a hot mixer came to you and said that they had a lot of films booked, but were not really happy where they were, could you find a slot for them?
Certainly. But you don't know New York, because basically they're all here now. But if a mixer came along with a lot of work, or a lot of clients, or just a lot of skill, we would certainly want that person.
What do you think was the best-sounding film dubbed at Sound One last year?
I'm going to play the absolutely proud father and say that every one of them was wonderful. They were some extraordinary films- "Men In Black," "Kundun," "The Boxer"- so many of them that it's not fair to name a favorite. And there were some low-budget films that came out sounding so wonderful too.
You yourself are not a mixer nor a sound editor; you're a business man. Do you think that it would have been an advantage or a disadvantage as President of Sound One to have had some hands-on experience?
I would certainly have had less sleepless nights! I agonized quite a bit in the early stages, feeling that it was somewhat of a handicap. The man who brought me here, Elisha Birnbaum, was my mentor and hand-holder on the equipment end. I think that after all the agony and insecurity, it was an asset to not be a maven at the engineering level, and to admit it to myself It allowed for a lot more dialog in a facility like this.
I did not have an ego to impose; all I wanted people to do was to prove it to me. I was constantly pitting one theory or concept, against another. I fell in love with none of them. Even though it was time consuming, I think we avoided a lot of errors. I was once trying to acquire a company. When I asked the [CEO] what I was paying for, he told me I was paying for him. He was an engineer and knew the business from the engineering end. I responded by saying that most of the people fail because they fall in love with their own ideas. People at Sound One are free to tell me what they think, and tell me when I'm wrong. This is a company that debates. Dialog is an important asset.
How do you keep yourself up to date with technical requirements? Do you share ideas with owners of other New York facilities?
Yes, I know Howie Schwartz and Bill Marino [co-owner, with Ken Hahn, of Sync Sound]. We service different markets. Howie does not service [the film] market; Sync Sound really doesn't service our market. The advantage of being in New York is that I'm also on very good terms with [post houses] in Hollywood. We don't threaten each other, and there's a lot of give and take. My attitude towards life is that if you keep an open environment, it's healthier. So, if the people at Fox, for example, want to come here and see what we've doing, we're open.
Is there room for growth in the New York film-post community?
I think we're okay right now. Having this level of market share is enough. Every once in a while we get a client that we can't accommodate- Neil Jordan wanted to do his recent film here, but we were too busy, so he took it back to England. I would like that not to happen but, on the other hand, if we keep growing we can all too easily implode.
I'd like to add that this is predominately a people-oriented company. We went way out front with the digital revolution- one of the few times that Sound One actually went first. I've always tried to not go first, but I still see that whenever we talk about technology, it's also about people.
Years ago, Arturo Rubenstein was being interviewed by Mike Wallace, who asked the Maestro: "How do you feel about the students you're getting today?" And Rubenstein responded: "Students today play better than I've ever played in my life. They play better than I have ever dreamed of playing." And Mike Wallace asked him how did it make him feel? Rubenstein responded: "I tell them all , 'So now make music'." We cannot let technology take precedence over the making of music. At the end of the day, it's the people here that make the music. But technology helps!
Blockbuster Films Mixed at Sound One
"Before & After," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Copland," "Deconstructing Harry," "Desperate Measures," "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Fargo," "Flirting With Disaster," "Get Shorty," "Grace of My Heart," "Il Postino," "I'm Not Rappaport," "Interview With The Vampire," "Just Cause," "Kundun," "Marvin's Room," "Men In Black," "Michael," "Michael Collins," "Money Train," "Nobody's Fool," "Picture Perfect," "Sense & Sensibility," "Slingblade," "Some Mother's Son," "Surviving Picasso," "The Big Lebowski," "The Boxer," "The Devil's Own," "The First Wive's Club," "The Funeral," "The Ice Storm," "The People vs. Larry Flint," "To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar," "Ulee's Gold" and "Velvet Goldmine."
Lee Dichter Highlights:
"Men in Black," "Get Shorty" and "For Love or Money," with director Barry Sonnenfeld.
"The Boxer," with director Jim Sheridan.
"Sophie's Choice," and "Devil's Own," and with director Alan Pakula.
"Deconstructing Harry," "Mighty Aphrodite," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Husbands & Wives," "Crimes & Misdemeanors," "Radio Days" and "Hannah & Her Sisters, " with director Woody Allen.
Tom Fleischman Highlights:
"Last Temptation," "After Hours," "Color of Money," "Cape Fear," "Good Fellas," "Casino" and "Kundun," with director Martin Scorsese.
"Something Wild," "Married to the Mob," "Swimming to Cambodia," "Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia," with director Jonathan Demme.
"Kiss of Death" and "Desperate Measures," with director Barbet Schroeder.
"Interview with the Vampire" and "Michael Collins," with director Neil Jordan.
Dominick Tavella Highlights:
"Ulee's Gold," with director Victor Nunez.
"The Real Blond," with director Tom Di Cillo.
"Fast Cheap and Out of Control," with director Errol Morris.
"Affliction" and "Touch" with director Paul Schrader.
Other staff mixers include Michael Barry ("Fargo," "Hudsucker Proxy" and "Lone Star"); Reilly Steele ("Copland," "Ice Storm," "She's the One," "The Brothers McMullen" and "If Lucy Fell"); Peter Waggoner (""White Man's Burden," "Fathers and Sons" and "Roger and Me"); David Novack ("Velvet Goldmine," "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "Money Train"); Jonathan Porath ("Grace of My Heart," "Invasion of Privacy," "Casino" and "Pret-a-Porter"); Robert Fernandez ("Manny & Lo," "Finding North" and "Thicker Than Water"); and Mel Zelniker ("Passion Fish" and "Raising Arizona").
Sound One Plant and Equipment
7th and 8th Floors: The Digital Duplex:
The nerve center of this Duplex is the Equipment Room ("ER-8"), an ultra modern clean room equipped with the latest in digital technology from Sony, Akai, Tascam, Sonic Solutions, Digidesign and Dolby. Connected by a custom-designed routing center, ER-8 serves four Re-Recording Stage and one Digital Editing Suite. The four stages are identically equipped: Neve VR consoles with Flying Fader Automation and a computerized film/video monitoring matrix designed by Sound One. The Digital Editing Suite and four stages are linked to ER-8's Sonic Solutions file servers via the largest FDDI digital audio network in the world. Each studio has the capability of using multiple digital audio workstations during the course of the mix. Akai DD-8 Digital Recorders can be used throughout the facility, linked by Ethernet. Each studio features its own Akai Digital Controller. In addition, each studio is linked through the routing center to a separate analog machine room.
The Duplex also houses the facility's Audio Transfer Suites, Film-to-Tape Transfer Suite, Optical Transfer Laboratory, Sound Effects Library, Accounting, Executive/Administrative offices and 20 individually tailored editing suites. All eighty-five editing suites within the facility are maintained by the Editorial Equipment Rental and Maintenance Department, which offers clients the latest in digital and analog editing equipment, including Sonic Solutions, Akai, Avid, and Pro Tools workstations. Many of the suites can be instantly reconfigured into single- or multiple-room environments, each specially equipped to a client's specification.
2nd and 3rd Floors: Film Center Duplex:
Sound One's Film Center Duplex features two additional Re-Recording Stages centered around Neve 51/V Series custom consoles equipped with Flying Fader automation. ADR is performed in two studios, both of which are equipped for film/video projection and utilize high-speed systems. ADR, as well as other audio functions at remote locations, can be linked to studios via facility-wide ISDN connections. Two Foley studios are supported by one of the largest prop collections in the world, and contain a complete assortment of surfaces including water. A total of 28 editing suites are arranged in close proximity to these studios.
6th Floor: Editorial Complex:
Sound One's Library and short-term storage facility feature barcode inventory management. Editorial, stock and office materials can be purchased from the Supplies Department, which also assists clients with mail and facsimile services. This Complex also houses 12 custom tailored editing suites.
Penthouse: Editorial Complex:
The 3,000 square foot, trellised Penthouse terrace overlooks Broadway, Times Square, Hudson River, East River, Queens, and New Jersey. Tables and benches provide a sunny spot for lunch, casual gatherings and relaxation. Some 20 additional, custom-tailored editing suites can be configured as multi-suite editing departments.
Secure long-term storage is warehoused in the subterranean Vault, which is situated adjacent to Sound One's carpentry studio. Much of the facility's custom, technical cabinetry and furnishings are designed and manufactured by its Facilities Management Team.
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