Making it all up as I go along

I started composing this while lying in a sleeping bag, wedged next to my 8-year old, in a hammock strung between the upper rails in the back of a 16 foot Penske Truck, parked at a rest stop about 30 miles east of Toledo.

Unfortunately for both of us, late November in Northern Ohio isn’t terribly good weather for what we had just named “truck camping.” Plus, the two trucks idling on either side of us were really loud. And, to be frank, we can’t really sleep in a single hammock together any more – he’s gotten too damned big.

So, we drove our big truck to the next exit that advertised hotels, and spent the night indoors.

But how did I, who forever swore off trucks (ever since the Incident of the Police Lieutenant’s Bumper back in ’02) end up driving a truck across the country?

Well, you see, my wife’s sister’s husband has a friend who teaches guitar lessons. He ran into a Russian pro audio guy who had a studio that’s been sitting empty, ever since the dude who was renting it had gone off on tour as a drummer. So my wife’s-sister’s-husband’s-friend went to check out the space, and brought my brother-in-law along. When they got there, they saw this giant console, which, upon inspection, turned out to be a Sony Oxford R3.

(We’ll pause here a minute to geek out. Back in 1988, a group of 5 audio engineers working for SSL, which is one of the highest quality console manufacturers in the world, broke off on their own to investigate the creation of a large format digital studio console. They became the Oxford Group, and their work was so exciting that they were hired by Sony in 1993 to begin manufacturing the Sony OXF-R3 AKA the “Sony Oxford.” 50 of them were made; they retailed for between $500,000 and $1,500,000 each. Peter Gabriel bought one for Real World Studios. George Massengburg bought one and began to develop custom EQ’s for it. Eventually, the company shifted away from hardware into creating software plug-ins, which are used in computers without any external hardware at all. Today, they’re called Sonnox Ltd, and their plug-ins are industry standards.)

Sorry.  So, at first the friend was all “Woah, this is cool!” Then he started thinking about his workflow, and how everything he does is basically recorded through a small interface and then looped and processed inside his computer, and the fact that this console is really made for far more than recording a guitar-and-voice setup, and he started to freak out a little bit. Then, he hear a rumor that the Russian pro-audio guy actually broke his hand installing this console (which turns out not to be fully true – he actually broke his hand trying to drill a hole in the wall for the cables to pass through, but that’s another story.) And so my brother-in-law says, “Let me check with my brother-in-law. He’s just built a studio. Maybe he’d be interested.” And he texts me a picture of the Oxford.

Now, we all know that I do theater. I don’t need or run a serious recording studio. In truth, we built the studio on the first floor of my house mainly because I used to live in 370 square feet of Brooklyn, and then we lived together in 490 square feet of Hell’s Kitchen, and when we found a house with about 2000 square feet of space that wasn’t the living space here in Philly, we bought it. And I said “I can finally have studio space!” and my wife said “I can finally have rehearsal space” and off we went down the garden path of home re-construction.   We didn’t make a business plan, or study the economics of any of it. We just kind of rolled with it. And then we got excited, and built a sprung floor, and people started loving rehearsing here. For lighting, I put up the traffic lights that our previous tenant had obviously stolen and left in our back yard. I ran power, and soundproofed walls, and invited neighbors over. Then one of them told me that this spot, this very spot, was where Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith used to throw their dollar parties.

And people were really digging the vibe.

And then, like I say, my brother-in-law texts me a message with pictures of the Oxford.

Now, I had about two thousand bucks I had saved up towards the purchase of a small digital desk for doing simple sessions. I wanted to be able to put a dozen people into this awesome new studio and record them. No big deal. We could keep renting the space out as rehearsal rental space, and I could do sessions for my plays, and maybe for friends on occasion for far less than the price of the other local studios. My band could jam here when it wasn’t rented out for rehearsals. Simple. No life changes on the horizon, just my life made more convenient. And enough income from the studio for it to pay for itself.

And I’m looking at these pictures he sent me on my phone.

So, I think, “What the hell. Why not try.” And I ask my B-I-L to see if he can’t track down the owner. And maybe 10 days later, I get a text. It’s the owner. He wants the console to go somewhere where it will be used. He’ll take a deeply discounted price for it, and help me disassemble it, if I can get myself out to Madison, WI, and truck it back myself.

Well, my son is always happy to visit his cousins. My wife is in the middle of directing a play (which, btw, rehearsed very happily in the studio), so it’d be fine with her if we disappeared and gave her some headspace. Tickets from Philly to the Midwest are oddly cheap right now.

The new renter wants it all out before he takes over the space on December 1, so my son and I fly out stupid early on the morning after Thanksgiving, an old friend swings over from Chicago, and by the end of the day on Saturday, this amazing object is in the back of a rental truck.

While we were packing it up, I learned that this was Oxford #49 of 50, bought in 1997 by WTTW in Chicago.  Its primary role was mixing the live broadcast and digital recordings of the TV show “Soundstage.” Robert Plant played through it, as did Tori Amos, Joan Baez, Tom Petty, BB King and more. (Just Google “Soundstage TV Series WTTW” – every band from 2003 through 2010 on that list played through this console. You can buy the DVD’s. Really.)

Something else happened while we were packing it. My friend TJ said to me, “1997 called. They want their console back.” I laughed, and dropped something heavy on his foot “by accident”, and we kept packing.

And then I thought, as I drove across the country, “1997.” The year I stopped doing anything but sound for a living. The year of my last set and lighting designs, my last stagehand calls in any other department. The year I ended my first marriage and bought my first property. The year of my first real, legit Off-Broadway designs.

Did I make choices then with more vision than I do now? Or did I just move as my life moved me, finding work that was exciting and engaging that also paid my bills, and diving into it? I never set out to become what I became. I just became. I never planned to get a divorce at 23, to buy a studio apartment that was designed to keep me single for as long as possible, to build sound designs using three tape decks and a radio shack mixer, to assist, to learn how gear worked and how shows got put together, to mix, to work for a shop, to work for shows at shops, to grow and change and evolve and become someone who not only was designing major plays and musicals but even occasionally teaching sound design. Never. Never planned on any of it.

And here I am. And maybe I’ll just keep doing exactly what I have been doing all along, just with a really big, super cool, utterly beautiful new tool in my studio.

Or maybe I’m about to start a recording studio in West Philadelphia. Maybe I can create a space that is the opposite of the tiny project studio that is in all modern musicians’ basements, where a solo musician plays every instrument, recording one track at a time in their computer, tweaking and re-taking over and over again. A space where a whole band plays at the same time, messy and loud and filled with mistakes and truth, where we can record 16 or 20 piece orchestras, where those string lines and drum parts in rap tunes can be played by real strings and real drums.   A space where magic has happened before, and can happen again.

I guess the scary part is, I’m not really in control.   And the wonderful part? I’m not really in control.

4 thoughts on “Making it all up as I go along”

  1. How wonderful it all is. And how wonderful to see you both. Can’t wait to see the magic machine in its new home. I predict great things.

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. I love this blog, Rob…as I have all the other blogs you have written. This one has so much of you in it. I love how you have become you and the risks you have taken and your joy of life and your belief in yourself.
    And what a wonderful role model this adventure has been for N. Think of all he learned on this trip…all that and he also got to see his cousins!
    I love you more than you can ever imagine.
    With very big smiles and great pride, Mom
    Sent from my iPhone
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