Fran Manzella, designer of East Hill Studios, Masterdisk, Sterling Sound, Stratosphere Studios and many, many others, learned studio design through his inquisitive nature and determination to understand how acoustic properties work. I visited the designer in his office in Northern Westchester, New York, where he had sketches, photographs and computer printouts strewn all over his workspace in delightful chaos, a testament to his tireless efforts in making his clients' visions become reality dozens of times over. Manzella doesn't shoot from the hip. He is informed, deliberate and always looking to identify and solve the problem, no matter how big or small.
Could you describe the difference between designing for mastering rooms versus mixing environments and recording studios?
My first mastering studio was Absolute Audio, which was the place that Murat Aktar, who is the president of Sterling now and had started back in the early '80s with a couple of other partners, Tom and Jim Brick. That was the first mastering studio I did. There are obvious differences between mastering studios and recording studios. There is no microphone work in a mastering studio. There is no place for musicians needed in a mastering studio. Typically, mastering studios are based on more of a hi-fi mentality and less of a "pro-audio" mentality. And the two are very, very different. Things that pass as top end in pro audio, up until very recently, most people in hi-fi or audiophile land would laugh at. And vice-versa. You don't walk into recording studios very often and find $5,000 speaker wires. That's fairly common in a mastering studio. You don't walk into a mastering studio and find, you know, a $300,000 console. The monitoring system is probably the single biggest difference.
Don't you build your own speakers now?
We do now. Having the opportunity to listen to audiophile monitors in an audiophile environment of our own design, and experience the kind of depth of imaging, and the 3-D experience of audio that you can very rarely get in recording studios — I strive to design recording studios that sound like that. I don't think there is anything wrong with things sounding really good in the recording studio. There's an old '60s, '70s and early '80s mentality that studio monitors should sound crappy, because if you make it sound great on crappy sounding monitors, then you really got something going. I subscribed to this theory for a long time. I still believe there are playback monitors and there are studio monitors. Studio monitors are generally hyped in the low-end and have a little bit of roll off on the top end so that you can listen loud and it doesn't hurt. Playback monitors, audiophile monitors, deliver a flatter frequency response when in the appropriate environment, and give you a more three dimensional audio experience, by the way they're designed. So, with the Griffin Speaker, we've tried to design a mastering quality loudspeaker that works in both mastering rooms and recording studios. We've been lucky enough to place the first pair that we ever built in Tony Dawsey's room in Masterdisk. And he's really thrilled.
You don't build them to spec, correct?
No. There's a freestanding model for mastering, and an in-wall model for recording studios. Interestingly enough, the only ones sold at this point are the freestanding model, but we originally designed it as an in-wall recording studio monitor. These recording studio projects that we had completed — and had put in very expensive pro audio monitor systems that will remain nameless — were, in our opinion, disappointing. The client was happy. We tuned the speakers, in other words equalized them and made them sound nice. But we were wondering where the $40,000 went. You know, a $40,000 monitor system, that's a lot of monitor. Using components that cost $20, using inexpensive cabinets, using off the shelf crossovers, nothing built custom for the system, off the shelf amplifiers. I challenged the guy who was my associate at the time, who had a hi-fi speaker building background, and I said, "You know, I really think these XYZ monitors we put in at so and so's place were very disappointing. Do you think you could do better?" He says, "I know I could do way better." So I bankrolled it, he designed it, and we built it.
Can you talk about bass traps a little bit, and how they're deployed both in the project and professional studios?
I think that bass traps are the things that are sorely missing from most homemade or tight budget studios that I see. And bass traps can take many, many forms. What I talk about when I say bass traps are broadband bass traps. Not tuned Helmholtz resonators, not tuned membrane traps, both of which we use. I mean broadband, porous absorption bass...