So many of the people we talk to have had a similar story to tell. You know, they were in a band, built a studio, started recording local artists and made a few records people noticed. The story of Todd Perlmutter might start out in a similar way, drumming in bands in Boston, but somehow he ended up the Creative Director of Music and Sound for Blue Man Productions, Inc., the company behind the worldwide "creative organization" known as the Blue Man Group. BMG is known mostly for their theatrical performances featuring music, comedy and multimedia playback, but the company has also recorded scores for television and film, albums of their own music, DVDs of their shows and even designed a children's museum exhibit. I had visited Todd before at BMG's Third Street warehouse location in New York City, but when I returned for this interview the Music and Sound division had just purchased and moved into the former LoHo Studios space. Eddie and Victor Luke's former studio had a rich history of artists working there, but now the space will be devoted to the work of Blue Man Group. I sat down with Todd in April of 2008, days after they'd moved in and tried to figure out how the heck he ended up with such unusual employment.
How did you end up with this job?
I was in a band called Orangutang and we signed to Imago Records, which was sort of a failed major label experiment. We toured — we were big in Boston. Don Zientara did our first record, Sean [Slade] and Paul [Kolderie] mixed it. Sean and Paul produced our second record.
When I was 22 I was wondering who was going to produce our record. We were listening to Fugazi and we were like, "We're going to Inner Ear!" [laughter] Anyway, the band broke up and the label was crappy. I knew I had to figure out what to do. I had been in a bunch of bands, but that was the best one by far that I had been in. I knew I had to figure out how to be more in control of my destiny. So, I started producing records.
How do you just start producing records?
Right out of college I worked at a place called Anything Audio, which was Dave Malekpour's pro audio business before Pro Audio Design. I was a horrible, horrible employee. I didn't sell anything! [laughter] One day I just stopped going to work, but I worked there long enough to know how to put a studio together from the vendor's perspective. I worked on a few projects brokering studio gear. I'd taken a couple of audio classes in college — I was always interested in recording. When we were making records I was always very interested in the process. When the band I was in after Orangutang, Jocobono decided to do a record in Boston, we did it at a studio called New Alliance. Do you know Mudrock [Andrew "Mudrock" Murdock]? It was his studio and Billy [O'Malley, the singer from Jocobono] helped him out with building some stuff. He handed us the keys and said to come in when no one was around and finish our record. Billy and I would go in at 2 a.m. and wait for people to leave. We'd drink a bunch of vodka and then figure things out.
You could sit there for hours trying to figure out how to get a headphone sound. [laughter]
Yeah. Andrew helped us out a lot. He was a mentor. He put the studio together himself and he knew how to do everything. By the time that was finished I felt like I could make a record — even though we did everything wrong! [laughter] I started working at New Alliance as an engineer. Andrew made a Godsmack record, and he went out to L.A. and started doing the heavy-duty thing out there. He still owned half of the business, but his partner helped run things. I was the engineer there for a while. Then I left and Andrew Schneider [Tape Op #89] took over engineering at New Alliance. I started playing drums for Blue Man Group. After playing in Blue Man Group for a while and being in Boston and my bands drying up, I figured that I wanted to move to New York. I told the guys that had founded the show that I could help them make a record. They had made a couple of attempts to make records before and it hadn't worked out. I came to New York and I helped them do a couple of projects. One was directing sound, designing things — they liked it and said, "Okay, you're going to move to New York next week and you are going to produce the record." I packed my bags and was there the next week. We built the original studio at Third Street to make the first record, Audio. That's when I finally got Dave Malekpour back — I bought the gear from him. [laughter]
It all comes around!
I called Carl Plaster, the drum master, to come down from Boston and help tune the drums — there are so many drums! Andrew Schneider from New Alliance engineered the record. It was the first time the founders of the show focused on music and recording — really concentrated for that period of time. When it was over I became the Music Director. And from there on out, because there was a studio there was need — more material for the shows, we needed to record songs for the commercials, we needed sound design. When I got Pro Tools, Blue Man flew me to L.A. so that Mudrock could teach me how to use it. I worked on Pro Tools for two years and then hired an intern, Matt Werden, from Berklee. Immediately he knew way more than I did! And now he has so much experience engineering and mixing such a wide variety of things here that he has fast become one of the best and most versatile engineers I've worked with. I'm lucky to have the engineering staff that's here — these guys are great. We were on top of each other in the old space — the composers, the different recording projects — Blue Man is always doing so many things. At the other facility right now, an engineer is working on translating the "How to Be a Megastar Tour 2.0" into Korean. She already did it in French. I've got a guy making an opera song on the mezzanine [upstairs]. It's amazing. I'm so psyched to have a facility that's working.
Could you run a tie line to the room up above us?
We could probably go down to the basement and then come back up here. The long-term plan is to put the SSL up there and use that as a mix room — also we would track on the SSL from that room also. This has always been my favorite studio. I recorded bands here a few years ago. Anytime we needed a piano I would do it here. If we were overbooked at the old place, we'd buy time over here. It's really close to the Third Street space, so for the Orlando show [at the Universal Orlando Resort] we trained the musicians over here. It's a great vibe in here — really old school.
How long have you had the building?
We've only been in here for a month or so. We really just moved in last Monday.
Upstairs I saw three editing stations in a row. There are another two studio spaces set up down the hall from that...
Yep. Jeff Turlik and Chris Dyas have Pro Tools composition rooms upstairs.
The scope is bigger than anyone would imagine, just the amount of work that has to be done.
There are things for gigs. Because there are ten Blue Man shows all over the world, there are different needs for different places. We have a show that opened in Tokyo in December and that show needed full translation — voice-overs in Japanese and there were new pieces. There was a new video piece that went to Tokyo that needed sound design and music. We do a gig where we play with an orchestra in Japan, so we need a demo of it — every kind of detail.
There are a lot of unusual instruments here, like the PVC-tuned percussion things...
Now we have an upstairs room dedicated to the weird things. Chris Wink, one of the founders of Blue Man — that's his playroom. He gets to go and play the PVC and the cimbalom — the gigantic Hungarian dulcimer-thing. There's a shop in Brooklyn that's making two new instruments that Chris has [envisioned]. The Tubulum, 4-inch PVC pipe that has a deep, rich tone with reeds. The Drumulum is a new design — it will be built just for that room upstairs. It's eight tubes that collect around two floor toms. You play the toms and you record the mics at the end of the tubes. You get a drum sound, but it's making a note depicted by the length of the tube. But it's not a live instrument — because every note is recorded and every mic is on. You have to mute the mics for the notes you're not using. It's an interesting thing about Chris, Matt [Goldman] and Phil [Stanton] — the Blue Man founders — it might be a lot of work to get to this one precious thing, but it's a unique thing.
You've got to take that path to get there.
Live they're really impossible. They're microphonic instruments. They basically amplify all of the sound that's around them. You've got three of these instruments. Each instrument has four mics on it — behind them there's four drummers playing as hard as they can. A guy I knew from Boston who was my band's first tour manager and live sound guy, Ross Humphrey, was the first guy to manage to get the instruments to sing out without feeding back. There was a small period of time when live sound was in my jurisdiction and I knew I had to leave it to the professionals. [laughter]
What work do you have left to do on this place?
Today we were wiring up so that we can track Blue Man instruments in the upstairs room. They're bringing all the new instruments in next week that I mentioned. So, that's got to be ready for tracking. It's a temp situation until we move the mixing studio. We literally just today put some more foam up in one of the booths to make it a little more dead.
For a voice-over booth?
Yeah, it was a pretty live booth. I imagine they did a lot of vocals out in that main room when this was a music studio. They probably had a lot of instruments back there.
I like cutting the music vocals out in a room and having more of a halo around it, but when you're doing the voice-over...
It's got to be dead, totally dead. So we're filling the room with foam. It's great because we've got another booth and an iso-booth that's upstairs also.
It's looks like it's all totally live in that booth.
The whole thing is pretty elaborate. We ran out of money. I'm selling gear to pay back for some of the studio purchase.
In order to get the gear?
In order to get the gear for all this great stuff, they really wanted to get rid of everything. There was no money for it. I had to promise to sell (of the stuff that was here) a big enough of chunk for a third of what we paid for the gear.
The corporation's not going to let you just keep piling it up? [laughter]
No, no. You know, whatever, it was fine for me. We've sold a bunch already. We have an Otari MTR-90 at the other place that I'm going to put in here.
How many people are working on staff for the audio part of Blue Man Group?
Every show has a mixer, all kinds of live sound stuff. It crosses over.
How many people work for Blue Man Group as a whole?
I don't even know. It's huge! At one point, all of us that were working here were heavily involved in the shows. We've all played in the show at some point and we've all been directors for the musicians in the shows. I'm still sort of overseeing the music direction, but I hardly do the hands-on stuff anymore. A lot of the other guys I work with were part of the Boston rock scene. Two music directors, Dave Steele and Chris Dyas (staff composer as well), were in Orangutang. Jeff Turlik was in Stompbox.
Plus you know them as people and know they are reliable and they will deliver the goods.
Jeff's an amazing guy to have on the staff because he was in a rock 'n' roll band, then he got married, moved to the 'burbs and taught music in elementary school. He learned every instrument in order to teach. Now he can pretty much play anything — even if he hasn't played it before, he'll go online, do some research then he's able to play it.
That's a good resource. So, what would a possible week be as far as projects you're personally responsible for?
As of this year my job title changed to Creative Director of Music and Sound. I was a Music Director and Record Producer, now I'm sort of on the creative team at Blue Man. Part of my job is working with the rest of the creative team on new material, bits for gigs, and then there's the job where I oversee all the music directors and musicians for the live shows. At the studio, I'm the Music and Sound Producer. Then I play drums as much as I can.
And that's the fun part! [laughter]
Yeah, it's fun. And my voice is the voice of Blue Man, so I do most of the voice-overs. That's fun too.
How did that come about?
When we were doing the first record, there was a piece in the show that Chris Wink recorded a voice-over for on tape and they slowed down the tape to get the right sound. When we were working in Pro Tools, the pitching and slowing didn't sound right. So I went in and tried to imitate his slowed down tape sound and they were like, "That's great! That's it!" So, from then on I started doing all the voice-overs. It's just me trying to impersonate him doing his slowed down voice.
I kind of oversee all the recordings. Chris and Jeff are in their production rooms doing great stuff.
Did you have to submit a budget of how the studio move was going to work?
Yeah, and this was not budgeted for. We were lucky to get into this situation, because we needed to. The thing is that the budgets work in a strange way for Blue Man. A lot of times, say if it's a new European show and they need sound design, we just make it and give it to them. There's no money coming in. There's money coming in from the shows, but it's a separate thing.
There's no revenue, directly.
Exactly. A lot of it is like that. No direct revenue for the projects that come through here, so it's hard to assign a budget. We're serving as production facility, and we don't have to pay to go to a studio to do the post work, which saves money. But it's not like the studio is a show that's making money. There are a few records out and DVDs and stuff. They do okay, but they wouldn't pay for a facility like this on their own. Everybody knew that we wanted to expand the creative bandwidth. Our ability to create material in the old space was becoming very challenging, because they were doing so much other stuff there.
In the other location, there would be video shoots...
It's the biggest open space Blue Man has — there'd be big meetings there, photo shoots, work on material, they'd have rehearsals. So, you couldn't leave anything set up studio-wise or instrument-wise. They kind of knew we had to do something. This was not in the plan. It's a lot easier than where I've been working for the past nine years. You saw my office was in the control room — my desk, my phone — as my engineers are working. Now I have an office. It's insane! Even that one detail has helped the productivity level. I can leave these guys to do something and not make them wait until I'm off the phone. It's really great. It's got a great vibe. The dudes that owned this place are really cool guys. They wanted us to have it and they wanted to keep it a studio.
I thought that was interesting that they wanted to keep it as an operating studio, instead of just having someone take all the gear and sell it.
The guys had spent so much time getting things together, like the plate reverbs downstairs.
And they built this place up an extra two stories?
This building was cheap when they bought it. This was a ghetto neighborhood. They bought the building and did all the work themselves. They spent a lot of time finding classic, go-to gear.
Yeah. This Neve 8048 console is pretty ridiculous.
When something like this falls in your hands, are you going to need outboard mic pres really?
I brought the Avalon over from the old place for the voice-overs and things like that. But if you put instruments through the Neve and get them hot, get them really humming, they're really musical sounding.
Will this studio be open for other folks to use?
We are going to open both studios to the public part time. We will have the Neve tracking room at LoHo with all of the analog glory and an Otari MTR-90 II. The Studer 820 that was at LoHo was moved to the SSL room in the other building. Our SSL 6000 there has been modified for surround, so we will be able to offer surround mixes from tape. I doubt that will be a lot of business, but maybe a few people will be into that. We will still have Pro Tools in both places as well, but I'm leaning on the analog as our specialty.
It's going to be fascinating when this place is finished.
I'm waiting for the day. I'm waiting for the time when we slow down work-wise a bit. I keep saying that we're going to take half-days on Friday and we're gonna go there and rock out. Make some music, get a head start on things. Play music in this place! That will be great! Right now, we're working like crazy. To go from the point where I was thinking, "This is the best band I'm ever going to be in" and I still can't keep a gig — I'm pretty happy to be doing this. I still get to play. I'm in my favorite studio. Everyone is so enthusiastic here, that the quality of everybody's work has gone up.