Ted Rothstein Designer On Call
Way back in the late '60s, when recording studios rode the crest of psychedelia into the multitrack, multichannel great new millennium a strange breed of studio cat appeared. These people, who often had monikers like Doctor Decibel or Gonzo Solder Man, were not really of this Earth. But they could rewire a temperamental console in an hour and a half, or make a direct box out of aluminum foil and Chinese food cartons. There was a famous one in New York named Duffy, who looked like the professor in Back to the Future and once powered a session during a blackout with stolen car batteries. And then there was Ted Rothstein.
Ted Rothstein was the greatest of the studio doctors. First of all, he wouldn't go out for lunch and come back on Tuesday. Second, he could do much more than fix things; he could change things. When he arrived at Albert Grossman's Bearsville Studio as chief engineer in the early 1970s, he completely rebuilt Studio B's high-priced console and top-of-the-line Westlake monitor system, often introducing aerospace components or his own improvised ingredients. "But I was totally intimidated by Albert, who had managed Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin," Rothstein recalls. "[Grossman] had been away for a few months. On the day I finished, he walked in, saw the three-tiered parametric EQ and bar graph VU meters I had built, and said, 'What the hell have you been doing?' I said, 'Um, making some improvements?' Fortunately, when I turned everything on, we had about 12 more dB of headroom and incredible bottom. Instead of firing me, he asked me to redo Studio A, as well."
Today, Ted Rothstein is a media systems designer and a global enterprise unto himself. He's been involved in the audio and monitor system design of more than 30 studios, including a makeover of Pink Floyd's Britannia Row and his most recent, Johnny Yuma Studios in Burbank, Calif., for the ultrahot producer/songwriter Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Brian Ferry). Also, as systems consultant to the Hard Rock Cafe empire, Rothstein is putting the finishing touches on the Berlin Hard Rock and beginning the next three Planet Hollywoods. He is just back from three days in Paris, consulting for Euro Disney, and he's prepping his veteran tech crew for a week in Hong Kong.
The project board in his Park Avenue apartment/laboratory already shows a few assignments for early 1993, and his personal assistant is urgently looking for him to approve a revised AutoCAD drawing for his meeting tomorrow in L.A. But at the moment, Ted Rothstein is in a friend's apartment in Greenwich Village, wrestling with a $90 amplifier. "I know I can fix this puppy," he says, "just give me ten more minutes."
Dr. Rothstein, paging Dr. Rothstein...
Mix: You have a reputation as a studio doctor, of being able to make studios sound better and of getting the most out of equipment. How did you acquire your reputation? If you can lift the veil of confidentiality, tell us about some of your patients.
Rothstein: Well, a lot of this studio magician thing comes from the fact that in the late 60's very few people knew what they were doing, and the technology was pretty new. Studios were putting in the first generations of multitrack recorders, multichannel consoles and powerful monitor systems, and then discovering that all this gear didn't always work right.
I had come out of the aerospace industry, and I had a handle on sophisticated circuit technology, which gave me a bit of an advantage. When I started at Media Sound in 1969, I was working with Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, who were doing all of Stevie Wonder's recordings. At that time, Stevie was as advanced as anybody in his technical requirements, so I started to dig into Media's console and tape machines to modify the system and reduce the noise. I just got fascinated with the idea of making the sound as quiet and clean as it could be, and trying to make the equipment do more.
In 1971, I moved over to Electric Lady, Jimi Hendrix's studio, which was the absolute state of the art in those days. Eddie Kramer was there doing Led Zeppelin, Kiss and the Stones. As good as the Lady was, there were always problems. I remember that I spent months creating the perfect pan pot so that Kramer could do these full-spectrum pans without losing gain across the spectrum. Later, while I was at Bearsville, I started to get calls from other studios, from engineers and producers who knew something was wrong with their system but didn't know how to fix it. I developed a methodology for testing rooms so that I can walk in and within about an hour tell you what's wrong. Nine times out of ten, studios are underpowering their monitor system, or building too much noise into their audio chain with excess EQ.
Mix: Did you ever lose a patient?
Rothstein: Not really, but I was once called into A&R to consult on their monitor systems. At that time, their main room, I think it was Studio R2, was pretty much being used exclusively by Phil Ramone, who was working with Billy Joel, people like that. He was the hottest producer in the world turning out: incredible-sounding records. I discovered that acoustically the room was a nightmare. An analysis of the room equalization looked like a stock market chart. But it was working for Phil; he just instinctively knew how to compensate for its idiosyncrasies. I decided not to tinker with greatness.
Mix: It's always interesting to know what different people use to establish a reference point for control rooms. What do you listen to, to get the feel of a room?
Rothstein: I used to listen to Hendrix and some Todd Rundgren, both of whom used a lot of the audio spectrum. Lately, I've been using Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick and Kim Wilde's version of "You Keep Me Hanging On." Also, Dave Sanborn's A Change of Heart, Roger Waters' The Wall Live in Berlin, and Patrick Leonard's group, Toy Matinee.
Mix: How did you get involved with Pink Floyd and Roger Waters?
Rothstein: I met Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer, in Woodstock in 1979, at a little studio I had done for jazz musicians Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. They had a first-generation MCI 440 console, which I had extensively modified --creating extra sends, panning between buses, things like that. Pink Floyd had the same console at their Britannia Row Studio in London, and Nick asked me to "have a peek" at it. I saw that they weren't getting very much out of their console; they were pretty much using it as it had come out of the box. So I kind of kidnapped their console for the next two days. I walked out on the third day, handed Nick Griffiths, their producer, a bag of parts I had removed, and said, 'Try it now." It seemed like a parlor trick, but I'd increased their dynamic range by about 15 dB. Over the next three years, I continued to customize their room, and I think helped them to create some of the resources they used on their records.
When Roger Waters left Floyd in 1986, I did a complete upgrade on his home studio monitor system. It involved taking his existing Westlake monitors, pulling out the stock crossover network and creating a "tuned" crossover by customizing a Rane three-way variable electronic system with circuits I designed, adding my own highpass filters. I augmented the system below 150 cycles with low-frequency reinforcement cabinets, into which I put two dissimilar JBL woofers, loaded to get the best of each. For the high end, I used a JBL 2405 tweeter and kept the classic Westlake midrange wooden horns. I then rettuned the existing White 1/3-octave EQs, drove that signal through the new crossover system and then into the power amplifiers, which I beefed up with additional Yamaha amps. We ended up with considerably wider bandwidth, better stereo imaging and better clarity. I think the first project Roger did afterward was Radio Kaos.
Mix: Describe your most recent project, Johnny Yuma Studios, in the context of recording trends of the '90s.
Rothstein: The clear trend of the '8Os and '90s is toward smaller studios and larger control rooms, in many cases more than 2,000 cubic feet. Johnny Yuma, for example, is almost 4,000 cubic feet.
At Yuma, more direct recording is occurring in the control room. There is both more equipment-synths and such-in the room and more people who need to be hearing the same thing. It used to be the case that I'd he aiming for a narrowly dispensed, very focused sound, to create a sweet spot-an optimal listening position for the engineer and producer near the center of the console. Yuma's existing UREI S13s, with their highly directional configuration, were fine for that. But you need to get the same accuracy of sound to people who may be ten feet away from the console at a MIDI mixing station or a secondary console. Johnny Yuma's main console, two Neve 8068 consoles custom-fitted together, is almost 12-feet long So the requirements are for a monitor system that delivers wider dispersion a room that's capable of maintaining smooth diffusion and minimal reflection characteristics, and a power capability that can fill a large area. For Patrick Leonard, who monitors at a very wide range of levels and who is all over the control room, the challenge was to make the room totally transparent, everywhere.
Mix: How was this accomplished?
Rothstein: I started with the front wall, most of which had to be rebuilt to accommodate the larger physical dimensions of the monitor system. I wanted the speakers down on the wall, closer to optimal ear level, and the wall had to be very solid and not absorptive at all in the lower frequencies. By the way, although many people like to mount speakers on rubber isolators, I've found that isolation of the speaker from the wall hurts low-frequency response. Some Fiberglas is incorporated in the wall as a mid- and high-frequency absorber, to soak up any bounce. The system is a highly customized speaker matrix, mostly using JBL components and my customized crossovers, which I pre-curved. I chose URFI 6290s as the power source.
There's a bit of controversy about control room windows these days. Those big, sexy glass windows look great, but they can create all kinds of acoustic problems. Basically, I think it's a question of visibility vs. monitor placement, and, ultimately, it's the owner's choice. Patrick wanted to keep the original window, which is a sliding glass door, but I reduced the side windows and lowered them beneath the speakers.
After the front wall was pretty much done --live at low frequencies and dead at high frequencies- I invited John Storyk to work with me on the ceiling and the side and rear walls. You see, I've always had the idea that the whole control room is really an extension of the monitoring system; all the wall treatments, the placement of equipment, even the look of the room is governed by the monitor system. John used a new configuration of RPG Diffusers and other materials to create the exact distribution of reflection, absorption and diffusion that we wanted. When we tested the room, it was, ahem, perfect.
Mix: How do you feel about nearfield, console-top speakers?
Rothstein: They have their value, but I can't get into the current hype. Meyers, Auratones, NS-lOs, KRKs-- ultimately, they're all too small to let you hear the full frequency range. You never get an accurate picture, especially of the bass. Studios forgoing big, serious monitors are making a mistake.
A more interesting question is whether to use point-source, directional monitors, such as URBI 8l3s, Tannoys and Altec 604s, or multiway systems with high-power handling characteristics, like Westlakes and JBLs. The point-source option gives you precise imaging and mixing control but can't handle level without distortion, so they're fatiguing; the multiways have plenty of headroom, but who knows what you're hearing. The TR-1A system I created for Johnny Yuma synthesized the two schools of thought: It's accurate across a wide listening area with precise imaging, handles power easily and doesn't get hansh after a couple of hours of listening. Patrick Leonard calls it "the friendly monitor system."
Mix: How about auxiliary machine rooms? Pro or con?
Rothstein: Pro, definitely. Get the noise, the heat, the hum and the reflective surfaces out of the room. The sensitivity of digitally recorded information makes us pay more attention to every noise source, because nuances, or problems, at the ends of the audio spectrum can be masked by extraneous noise.
Mix: You've been creating media systems for Hard Rock Cafes around the world. What's the sound philosophy of the Hard Rock Cafe?
Rothstein: The Hard Rocks are about music, and the attitude of the organization is to create a quality listening environment for people. Consequently, I'm using the same approach I use in studios; no matter where you are in the restaurant, you're going to hear stereo, and it's going to be as close to the original mix as we can get. I've designed a system that uses about 10,000 watts of power and between 8O to 120 speakers, usually the JBL Control 1 or S-4, with woofers strategically hidden throughout the room and a very complex interfacing network, which I've designed to allow the house engineer to control sound. And were using studio tricks to smoothly disperse sound and eliminate standing waves. It's really very sophisticated, much closer to a studio than to a jukebox.
Mix: How many Hard Rocks have you done?
Rothstein: I think Berlin is my twelfth in the last five years. St.Thomas and Dublin are on deck, and we've got Planet Hollywoods in Barcelona, Chicago and Cancun in the design phase. My passport is in its second printing. It's a good thing I like working abroad.
Mix: Any special problems working overseas?
Rothstein: The travel and the logistics are the greatest challenges. Local currencies, voltage irregularities and contractors can all drive you crazy. I've designed systems for studios in Bogotá and Reykjavik, and sometimes it's easier to use local materials like lava or hardwoods (non-endangered), but for the Hard Rocks we try to use American-sourced products wherever possible. This leads to some intriguing customs maneuvers. Most interesting countries for customs? Thailand and Mexico, definitely.
Mix: With all the changes in recording technology and the audio business, is it still as much fun as it was when you were digging into consoles at three in the morning?
Rothstein: It's much more of a business. Until a couple of years ago it was just me running around with a Hewlett Packard analyzer and a toolkit. Now I have a design team, traveling road technicians, a bad back and an enormous fix bill actually, I enjoy it more now. I've always been obsessed by audio fidelity, and that hasn't changed. For me, every project is about making signal move through electronics as cleanly and as accurately as possible, so that people can hear music at its best. Because the science that goes into that equation is better now than it used to be, I'm closer to my goal. And I still like to drop into studios, unannounced, and point out to the engineer that the monitors are out-of-phase.
Joe Schick is a New York communications consultant and writer. He's trying to get Ted Rothstein to modify the graphics board in his computer.