CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: No one can say Ari Raskin hasn’t paid his dues. This in-demand freelancer engineer may regularly make the rounds of NYC’s top studios today, but it’s only after he’s sweated it out for a decade-plus, making a name for himself in the city’s fiercely competitive studio scene.
Raskin can contribute in many ways to a project – tracking, mixing, editing, drum programming, and even the occasional master – and has done just that for a wide range of artists: Whitney Houston, Wyclef Jean, Meshell N’Degeocello, Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, J.Dilla and Illa J — Yancey Boys, and Justin Timberlake among them. His career got moving after he departed Berklee College of Music with the goal of being the next Brendan O’Brien or Andy Wallace, then went from being an intern at Chung King to House Engineer.
Today, no longer afforded his home base that was Chung King, Raskin makes music all over Manhattan and beyond – a positive vibes traveling man that makes him the perfect subject for the return of our Nomad Engineer series.
How would you describe the ups and downs of a New York City freelance audio engineer in 2011?
The real benefit of freelance engineering and traveling is getting to choose which studio is right for the project — be it the sound of the live room, the sound of the control room, the vibe of the control room, the gear, the rigs’ plugins, the budget, or just how late the staff stays — so that you can comfortably make a great recording that fits the music. Also, having clients agree that you suggested a good studio for them is a nice thing too.
If you’re a staff engineer at a small Pro Tools studio with a 5′ x 8′ live room, and a rock band is introduced to you by the studio manager, you’re never going to be able to tell them, “We should do the rhythm section at Avatar or Skyline. You’re never gonna get real big drum sounds here, and these reissue mic preamps and 414’s just don’t have the real rock-star vibe you’re after.” Although of course most of us now would just shut up and do the modern thing and use Drumagog or SoundReplacer.
I’d like to note, though, that when I first stepped into the major-label part of the recording industry when I moved to New York 10 years ago, there were LOTS of freelance engineers working from studio to studio. It seemed much less common for labels to use house engineers unless it was for a transfer session. Engineers definitely used to be more highly regarded before everyone and their sister had Pro Tools, so I think that’s why hiring the respected freelance guys was much more the norm in the day, whereas now labels just want a house engineer who knows how to use Pro Tools and isn’t expensive.
Lately, whenever I run into former Chung King clients at other studios, I constantly get told “Oh, I didn’t know you were still working since Chung King closed,” or “You work here now?” as if the idea of a tracking engineer being freelance is now an unknown concept.
We’re glad to get the inside track from you on your fave NYC recording spots. What made you say “Yes” to this article, rather than keeping your top studios close to the vest?
Seemed like a fun topic, and I do work around, and do have opinions on a number of various rooms. I just wish there were more large-format rooms in this city, with all the standard vintage outboard gear and mics. Five years ago there were a lot more real-deal pro-studio choices, and 10 years ago a lot more than that. It’s getting hard now, especially when your first choice-room is already booked, and you’re actually trying to do a serious recording and not just track vocals. Therefore…
Downtown Music Studios, Studio A; SoHo, NYC
Many positives about this place. For one, there isn’t a vibe like they are dying for business and need to squeeze every penny they potentially can out of your clients. Also, the ProTools rigs have more plug-ins than any other rigs I’ve seen. Unlike so many rooms, the studios at Downtown were planned and configured by good working engineers, so things make a lot of sense in real world practice.
Studio A there is possibly the most accurate-sounding control room in the city that I’ve worked in, and has no room EQ on the mains. The almost-mint Neve 8014 console they just installed is not only amazing for its sixteen 1084 pres for tracking, it’s also possibly the best summing amp in Manhattan for Pro Tools in-the-box mixing. There’s also a ton of clean vintage and high-quality modern gear — they won’t let someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing assist in sessions.
The live room in Studio A is very clean and neutral-sounding, great for tracking vocals, instrument overdubs, or a live band. You can easily get a dry drum sound, or put up some far room mics, 1176 them, and get a big rock sound. Studio B has a great rig as well, with good external converters, a totally different vibe from Studio A, and is probably the most-equipped room for the money in Manhattan.
Some of my recent sessions there include Sean Paul, Black Thought, Kat Deluna. I’d recommend this studio to any type of client, other than a gigantic orchestra or those craving a huge castle drum sound, or those wanting to mix on an SSL. The Neve console they have has no automation, but for mixing a jazz, acoustic, or a small production, it sounds incredible.
Platinum Sound Recording, Studios J and K; Times Square, NYC
The “sexiest” of the big studios in NYC. I think it’s the only studio I know of — not that I claim to have worked in every studio — that has a designated receptionist and interns always ready for runs, 24 hours a day. That might seem like a minor detail, but for those who have clients who like to work past midnight, it’s a major concern. Very cool vibe, cool staff.
They have a real live K, and a J — and unlike most SSL’s in NYC, they get used for mixing regularly still, so the assistants aren’t new to that: big board mixes with old-school engineers who use lots of gear are often the most demanding type of session for an assistant. Also, I haven’t heard the new Augspurger speakers in studio K, but the J room has the HEAVIEST bass of all time — although Studio C at MSR is quite thumpin’ too.
Some of my recent sessions there include Wyclef, Kat Deluna and Ritz Crackers. This is a good studio for SSL board mixing; good studio for late-night artists/producers; decent-sized live room with some good mic pres, so it’s not a bad choice for producers who like live instruments. The best for those who like it so loud their faces melt and eardrums shred. Great for those who like to vibe and create.
Premier Studios, Times Square, NYC
Premier is the former Studios A and B of Quad, renovated and heavily cleaned up, with two newer, very good Pro Tools “writer’s” rooms, very fairly priced. Studios A and B were both recently tuned and both sound accurate and get quite loud. The live room in B is great for a clean drum sound, and great for any vocal or instrument overdub.
The staff there is eager and friendly and understands the concept of working towards the future — in other words, they don’t take the clients that come in for granted. They have real LA-2A’s in most rooms — which didn’t used to be unusual anyway — and they are maintained.
Another great thing — they have four rooms, all with excellent Pro Tools rigs with all the necessary plugins, so if a room is booked, there’s still likely others open. How many other 3+ room studios are left and commercially-bookable in NYC today? Also, so many other studios are opening now with gear you can also easily get at Guitar Center, and not enough real mic pres or compressors in the room, forcing clients to rent every little thing (which, along with today’s tight budgets, can make a freelance engineer seem needy). Instead, Premier seems to be constantly investing and trying to improve their gear arsenal to impress engineers and producers. The recent addition of two perfect vintage Neve 1073’s and the overhauling of their Studio A Steinway piano are both welcome improvements and important tools for making great recordings.
My recent sessions there include Oh Land, Duane McLaughlin, Rich Hil, Kat Deluna. Premier is great for J9000 mixing, Pro Tools in-the-box mixing, instrument and vocal overdubs, pop songwriting sessions, and jazz and rock bands that want some real isolation but don’t want to pay for one of the city’s massive rooms.
Grand Street Recording, Williamsburg, BKLYN
I only worked there once, but I think it’s by far the best studio for tracking instruments for the money. Amazing selection of vintage mics, pres, keyboards, amps, and drums — nothing I used there seems modded or overly repaired, and none of the current reissue stuff (that doesn’t actually have any magic. I’m a snob about having the real vintage stuff, clearly).
The staff is knowledgeable too. The ceilings aren’t that high and live room isn’t terribly ambient, but for plenty of bands it’s perfect. You can make a real, classic-sounding, proper recording there for not a lot of money. And their vintage mics may be in better shape than any other studios I know of.
I recently did a tracking session there for the jam/rock band Moose Convention. I think Grand Street is great for rock or jazz band tracking — live and overdubs — and vocal tracking.
(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to this studio as Grand Street Studio. It should have referred to Grand Street Recording.)
jrock Studios, Chelsea, NYC
I saw you guys did a piece on Jamie Siegel and his studio recently, and I will second that it’s a cool spot. Great location, nice dry-sounding live room that has some breathing space so it doesn’t sound like you’re tracking in a closet, some nice pres, and a real chill pleasant vibe, good for getting work done. And of course, not nearly as pricey as the big SSL rooms.
Recently I did some vocal and percussion sessions there with singer/songwriter Erin Barra. Recommended for anyone who wants a relaxed spot to do overdubs, writing, or Pro Tools mix sessions.
Next Week! Return of the Nomad Engineer Part II: More finds, from Midtown to Greenpoint.