I've been a fan of Audiotree's video webcast for a couple of years now. It's by far my favorite live-music program available online and, in my opinion, it's the best sounding and best looking one too. But it wasn't until I saw a series of tutorial videos on YouTube featuring Audiotree's music engineering team that I became interested in how the show is put together. Audiotree's office and studio are located in Chicago. Luckily, I had a tracking gig in Chicago, so I set aside a weekend morning to sit down with Rick Fritz and Patrick DeWitte at Audiotree's studio. Since then, Patrick has moved on (he's a software/web developer now), but Rick is still Audiotree's chief engineer. Hearing about Rick and Patrick's strategies, in regards to facilitating a comfortable, creative environment for the visiting musicians, as well as listening to Rick's stories about working with Brian Wilson, Destiny's Child, and other demanding artists in the past, made it clear to me why the performances on Audiotree are so special. Discussing the business of distributing music and promoting bands in today's world of media streaming and online discovery was also enlightening.
Tell me about how Audiotree was started.
Rick Fritz: I think the original idea was that Michael Johnston, the owner, and Adam Thurston, the co-founder, just wanted to do something in music. They thought they were going to be a record label, at first. Then they decided they wanted to help bands build this "tree" of managing, recording, promoting, and tours. They wanted to make a website that a lot of things could come through, like a hub to help people find managers or be managed, recorded, or whatever – a hub for everybody involved to help indie bands. Then the brainstorming started. They came to our studio downtown – not this one, but a previous studio we were in – and they were kicking around the idea of recording, or doing some kind of streaming. It evolved from that. I was like, "I used to do live sound over the airwaves for WXRT [a radio station in town]." Famous bands would come in, and we'd do on-air broadcasts. It was just radio though – not TV or video. I threw that idea out there to Michael and Adam. Like everything, you just try it. The first time we did, it was kind of a mess.
How many years ago was that?
RF: I met Michael and Adam in July of 2010.
Did they seek you out because you were already on the radio?
RF: No. They just happened to show up to talk business with Ira Antelis, who is part of Jira, the music production company here. When they came in, Michael and Adam were sitting in the back of the room talking while I was doing a mix. Then Ira said to me, "Hey, you should meet these guys." We started having conversations about it.
You had experience doing radio broadcast, but what about video production?
RF: I studied video more than audio at the beginning of my life. When I used to work for a record label, video people were always coming around in the '90s. I'd work on album projects, and people were always saying we should document this or that. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, "This is silly. We're recording bands, but we don't have anybody filming or taking pictures." Somehow that idea got thrown out there to do this. Jon LeClerc sought out videographers from Columbia College. Three or four bands were in the studio right away; we were bumping each other around, and trying to figure it out. They were documenting it – making the videos. We weren't broadcasting the video, at that point. We were just doing the audio through a little portal in the website.
When did you start doing the video broadcast?
RF: How it started was, we were broadcasting through this webcast portal using Adobe Live for the audio. We're encoding it, and I'm looking at this stupid little picture on the window. I thought, "That's a video picture. Where is that coming from, anyways? What if we just plugged in a USB camera? Would something happen?" I went and bought a USB camera, plugged it in, and the video showed up in that window. I was like, "That's crazy!" We put one USB camera out there, and that's how it started. Then people thought we could plug in more and switch them. Ustream started making a producer program, and we got more USB cameras and started switching. I instigated the broadcasting side of it with my laptop and USB cameras. Then everyone started getting into it. "Oh, we can type little bumpers and overlays." We just kept pushing with, "Hey, when are we going to tether the cameras? How can we split them off?" Michael suggested that we put GoPro cameras on them – all these ideas and thoughts. Eventually other websites were doing nice broadcasts. "Why can't we do that?" My friend, Bill Allan, he does all this TriCaster [live video switcher] work – he was doing it for Comcast, and teaches it in school. I was like, "Bill, how can we do this?" He said, "Oh, it's this TriCaster thing," – which was the same thing Adam said we needed to get....