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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the July 2003 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses my visit to Miami’s Hit Factory Criteria studios…

Tech Report — Hit Factory Criteria

Last winter, I had a speaking engagement which give me the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds in Miami. Back in the early ’80s, Criteria Recording Studios in North Miami was my home away from home. Actually it was a madhouse, but a fun madhouse nonetheless. Nowadays, it’s Hit Factory/Criteria Recording (HFC) so I thought I’d drop by, check the current state of tech at the shiny new facility and fill you in on a top notch install.

I wanted to see what a well funded, state-of-the-art install looks like and hopefully give us all some ideas for future purchases and upgrades of our own. My HFC tour guide was Simon Soong, who’s journey into audio madness began with an undergraduate stint at the University of Miami’s Music Engineering program, where an undergraduate EE degree also brings a BFA in Music. He had heard about an opening at Criteria and eventually got hired, joining a team of two other techs. Promotions followed and, for the past 18 months, he’s been chief engineer, supervising a staff of three.

My tour started with infrastructure, specifically the wiring: all harnesses were pre–assembled in the UK by White Mark, and installed on site. Mogami to Elco connectors was specified for analog carriage with Category 5E from Belden for data connectivity. All save one room have floor troughs, but each machine room has wire trays coming in. All cable types; analog audio, analog video, data, and digital audio are in individual bundles but share the same raceway. One room initially had a domestic digital desk that didn’t require a trough but it was yanked. The replacement, an SSL 9000, required trough wiring and so one had to be cut into the slab. Simon decided to go deep, cutting a 3' trough so he’d never have to worry about carrying capacity.

Patch Panels
Figure 1 — Patch Panels

Figure 1 is a representative example of patch panels in each machine room. The rack spaces shown are:

A - Motionworker (firmware version 5.0), Audio Kinetics Synchronizer ES1.11 & ES 1.12

B - DL patchfield for analog audio [All SSL consoles use DL–style, ZIF connectors made by ITT Cannon, for their patchbays]

C - BNC patchfield for analog video, video house sync, AES/EBU work clock, MADI

D - SIGMA SS2100 audio distribution amp & video sync distribution amp, NVISION NV5500 sync generator, NVISION NV1000 work clock distribution amp, TT patch for AES/EBU

Simon adds that, “On rack D, the AES patchbay is just for AES/ EBU between the machine room and control rooms. There are 16 channels of AES ties between each control room and machine room; there are 4 control rooms total. In addition, each control room has its own AES patch bay for DAT, CD-R, 480L, some other AES gear and AES tie lines. Of course, we use Mogami AES patch cords.” In addition to the above pipes, there are two remotely patchable video feeds into each control room along with ISDN access in each machine room.

Performing the master clock duties is an NVISION 5500, which generates both video house sync and word clock. When a session needs a combo analog/digital mix, house sync feeds a Audio Kinetics ES-Lock synchronizer in conjuction with a Motionworker machine control interface, which then feeds analog slaves. Of course, that same house sync feeds a Pro Tools USD (Universal Slave Driver), keeping everyone on the same page.

HFC has the pleasure of keeping many Digi drives on line, so Simon sticks with FWB’s Hard Disk Toolkit when tweezing the beasts even though the SCSI HBAs are from Atto. His team performs drive maintenance once a month, a high level format before it’s rotated back into service. If the drive’s been naughty, then the drive gets a low level format instead. Though FireWire drives usually ship with installable OS 9 system extensions, these are always disabled prior to joining the in–service pool. Simon still finds that the current implementation of drives, bridges and drivers yields a maximum of 48 channels on FireWire, whereas a modern SCSI drive will reliably yield a more satisfying 64 channels.

All rooms have Ethernet on the same phone line-combo wall plate, being fed from an Cayman Systems aDSL router/firewall, which provides DHCP services for the 100BaseT network. That, in turn is fed from an ADSL bridge with services provided the local ILEC, Bellsouth. Plans call for an upgrade to SDSL (symmetrical DSL) in the future along with an in–house OS 10 server since, as Simon says, “…out of the box, it comes with everything!” and, he adds, “the license costs are very reasonable.” They use Xdrive for now to move MP3 or WAV file but not to move session files. “We haven’t had much call for that (shipping whole sessions over public networks), so it suffices.”

When Simon first started out as a tech, the gear was fixable but, "you can’t troubleshoot anymore, the circuitry is all surface mount so repairs become very difficult.” Upon reflection, he laments that “…it’s very hard to find a good maintenance person.” After racking up huge college debts, “you don’t want to start as an intern!…A great thing about the Hit Factory family is we take maintenance and the technical aspects of the business very seriously.”

On the subject of classic analog gear, he continues…“We have four EMT 140 plates, all with Martech (retrofit) electronics but very few clients request them. Despite their sound, engineers increasingly rely on emulation rather than the real thing.” Weird shit sez I…They still have my fave old school vocal processor, a Cooper Time Cube [a fixed acoustic delay line with two taps - OM], though it lives in storage. Speaking of old school, analog decks consist of straight up Studer A-827s multitracks, a few are Gold Edition, along with stock Ampex ATR-102s and Studer A-820s two tracks with a full range of head stacks for all.

Since Miami is a wee bit south of Duluth, HVAC is a serious issue about 10 months out of the year. Air handlers are a mix of Rheem and Carrier. The 30 existing roof–mounted air handlers, were either re–mounted or put on slabs for proper mechanical isolation so the units now contribute no structurally–born noise.

Speaking of noise criteria, General Manager Trevor Fletcher related a great story about Studio C during their construction phase. He had booked in a string date as the very first session in the new room and it turned out that parking lot renovations right outside coincided with the same time slot as the recording. He sat by his phone, dreading the call to hold up excavation of the coral bedrock that underlies all of South Florida but, the call never came. The room was dead quiet, the date when off without a hitch, and nobody was the wiser.

Simon Soong and Trevor Fletcher
Figure 2 — Simon & Trevor

Studio F, a small and really comfy tracking and mixing room has a unique “tram” feature for nearfield monitors. The wicked cool, custom aluminum track system devised by White Mark allows optimal placement regardless of operator position. Small but sturdy speaker platforms ride on rails that wrap around the room so mini–monitors can be placed anywhere in the horizontal plane. Amplification for minis is by Bryston. Crown M5000 are used for the mains and BGWs for the subwoofers in all rooms save Studio C, which is space constrained. A gaggle of Haflers are used for foldback which are fed by 16 channel Intelix Psychologist mixers.

That’s all I have for you this month. I hope this deviation from my standard techie fare was appetizing…

Bio

OMas was an iterate tweaker as a youth, particularly after he discovered Nikola Tesla and the joys of high voltage electricity. This column was created while under the influence of Trevor’s custom mojitos (just rum, fresh mint and fresh cane juice…yeow), the ObliqSound Remixes and the satisfying acoustic pop of the vessels.