March 31, 2013 by David Weiss
Whether you’re an indie band, platinum-selling artist, busy side man, composer, producer, engineer, this location is traversed – at one point or another — by all. If making music and sound is part of your business, it’s nearly impossible to not have a reason to visit this buzzing Manhattan location: At least one recording session, rehearsal, audition, or friendly visit is de rigeur for all at some point.
While many are merely passing through the Music Building, of course, others are in residence within the 12-story Garment District building of rehearsal rooms and studios –since its founding in 1979, past tenants here have included such luminaries as Madonna, Billy Idol, Metallica, Interpol and the Strokes. Today, the vividly painted halls serve as home to audio professionals of all levels, from small studios with floated floors to major label artist writing rooms to barebones recording rigs.
One highly effective multipurpose workspace in the Music Building is The Atelier Music Studio, founded by composer/producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Zé Luis Oliveira. Spend some time inside, and you’ll see the beautiful thing about this studio isn’t fancy amenities or a big board – it’s the way it allows its founder to build his music career.
To get into the flow of Zé Luis’ space, where instrument storage, DAW station, and live room are all one out-in-the-open unit, it helps to know the definition of “Atelier”. It’s the French word for “workshop” – specifically one of an artist in the fine or decorative arts, where a principal master and a number of assistants, students and apprentices work together.
“It’s like a place where a painter works – when you go to visit Picasso, you’ll see canvases all over the place,” says Zé Luis, in his engaging Brazilian accent. “Music is like sex: When you look at Playboy, everything is nice. But when you’re really doing it, the makeup gets in your ear – to really do the music, you have to get down. You know?”
An NYC resident since 1990, when he moved from his native Rio de Janeiro, Zé Luis originally got a foothold in the city working as a freelance composer. Although he specializes in flutes and saxophones, he also has a high comfort level with guitar, percussion, bass and keys.
It’s a remarkably diverse skill set that helped Zé Luis to earn credits that include work with Bebel Gilberto, Sabina Sciubba, Brazilian Girls, Ivy, Pull, Verve, Cannes Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Independent Lens, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Monster-in-Law, A Raisin in the Sun, sessions for original music house Tomandandy, and collaborations with the oft-synch-licensed Orba Squara.
A Place to Go All-In
At first, Zé Luis’ bedroom studio in his Chelsea apartment was cutting it just fine. But with the birth of his son in 2001, that arrangement came to a screaming halt. So Zé Luis travelled the road that really does lead to the Music Building – 8th Avenue – signed a lease on a suite, moved in his gear, and has never looked back.
13 years later, the space is his own personal atelier. While it can serve as a commercial studio to track for select friends, the facility’s primary purpose is to give Zé Luis a place to get it done, whatever musical it that may be.
“I brought in my preamps, and became an aficionado of recording,” he explains. “I thought, ‘I don’t need a studio to record. I can bring it here.’ From my experience of over 25 years as an arranger, musician, and producer, I know where to place a mic, and — most importantly – how to arrange things, so they come out pretty well.
“Most of the time,” he continues, “I do what they call ‘all-in’, where I get hired as a producer, arranger and composer on a project, and I’ll have the studio as an asset. Depending on the budget, we might do everything here. Or if it’s a bigger production, we can do pre-production here, go record at a bigger studio, and then come back here for some overdubs. From there, what I really like to do is send it to a guy to mix in a real room, so that he can listen to it differently and bring it to the best place.”
Elite People, Select Gear
A recent project that illustrates the workflow include writing a soundtrack for the Cannes-screened film Beyond the Streets, which was written and recorded entirely at Atelier. Then slated for release in the near future is the musically rich Brazilian music collaboration Sambismo, an international producer supergroup that includes Zé Luis, Béco Dranoff, and Simone Giuliani.
Atelier is one of those places where, the longer you occupy it, the more musical instruments you begin to see: a well-tuned drumset, guitars, basses, and classic Fender and Ampeg amps are all on hand, while percussion and esoteric instruments emerge from everywhere. All there to play to the biggest strengths of Atelier – the players it attracts.
“We have a great selection of mics and instruments,” Zé Luis says. “Most important, we have an incredible crew of musicians. These guys work with me on a project, but many of them are bandleaders in their own right, like in the case of Mitch Davis of Orba Squara, Andy Chase of Ivy, or Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne.”
While Zé Luis has his priorities in order – putting the song, arrangements, and musicians first – he’s developed an equally discerning ear for gear. Mic pres at the Atelier include Vintech, Earthworks, Manley, and API, supplemented often by standby boxes like the dbx 160x compressor. “I love the dbx compressors, because they are very simple, and a familiar sound,” Zé Luis says. “When you listen to the old stuff — like Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, George Benson, Weather Report, Led Zeppelin – all used that.”
Conversion comes in two flavors. A Digi 002 modified by Black Lion Audio in Chicago, and a MOTU 2408 interface whose converters have been wired to run directly through Atelier’s ADAT machine, circa 1998. “After a lot of research, I found that the ADAT is closer to a tape type of sound, which I really love,” Zé Luis notes. “Instead of running the MOTU into the computer via FireWire, I use a PCI card which helps the processor, has a better-quality sound, and it’s faster.”
Although Logic is loaded and ready to go, Zé Luis’ front end of choice for his DAW rig is Digital Performer. “For scoring, it is my favorite,” he comments. “It has a nice, quick scribe. If I write violins, for example, I can read it right away in DP, print it from there, save it as a standard MIDI file, or open it in any other notation software that you’re using.”
While Zé Luis has solid confidence in his ability to arrange and capture the right sounds, an important attribute is a firm knowledge of Atelier’s limitations. While he could probably get away with mixing all of his productions there, he prefers to farm that stage out to fresh ears.
“The best shot is I capture the sounds here, then I mix someplace else,” says Zé Luis. “Sometimes I sent it to Brad Leigh of MSR Studios, or sometimes Patrick Dillett, Dave Darlington, or Mitch Davis. This way another artist gets involved: They take my files that are really neatly recorded, and then they sit with it with a Neve or something like that, in a more quiet environment than the Music Building.”
How to Record in a Busy Rehearsal Complex
While the congenial and professionally-run Music Building offers myriad benefits for its long-term tenants, soundproofed studios are not among them.
Riding the elevator at 8 PM on a weeknight serves up a sonic stew like none other in NYC – as you pass each floor, you’ll hear indie rock, electronic, punk, metal, folk, funk, and more being rehearsed and recorded in the 69 spaces that comprise all 12 stories. Most of the rooms have minimal acoustic treatment, usually sufficient only to tame the soundwaves within their walls – so those who choose to track or perform critical listening at peak hours do so purely at their own risk.
For a working audio pro like Zé Luis, the tradeoff that comes with the Music Building’s convenient location (at 8th Avenue and 38th Street) and relative affordability is knowing that serious tracking has a strict time window. “I deliver my kid to the school bus at 7:45, and I’m here at 8:00 AM,” he says. “I can do a string session at 9:00 AM while the other drummers are hungover and still asleep. I compare it to a gym – if you go here at off-hours it’s empty, but if you get here right after rush hour, there’ll be a crowd.
“So I never record at 5 PM, but rather either after-hours or really early. When it’s noisy here, it’s noisy – it is what it is, and I can’t do anything about it. That’s why I have other studios I can go to when there’s no hit-or-miss possible.”
For Zé Luis, The Atelier Music Studio is essential to do his job — it’s one very flexible means by which he makes a living in his risky/rewarding occupation.
“It’s a big asset for me,” states Zé Luis. “Because as a producer, arranger, and composer, I have a studio — so I don’t have to hire a studio. My career would be completely different if I didn’t have it. I’d be playing sax for $100 a pop, or on the road playing for $500 a week. I don’t have to do that, though, because the studio gives me a tool to do an arrangement for a producer, produce a track for a singer, or compose for a film. It’s much better than if I were working from home, or in someone else’s studio.”
Zé Luis has his eye on more luxurious digs at some point, but until the Massive Hit breaks everything wide open, his multipurpose suite on the border of Midtown suits him just fine. Like scores of producers and engineers working today, he may not have the most glamorous studio in the city, but what he definitely has got is an Atelier – a trusty workshop – that helps him to stay in the game.
“It’s really helped my career evolve in so many ways – I’m attaining production values that weren’t possible for me before,” Zé Luis reflects on his musical room that he’s grown to love. “Just as important, I’m enjoying myself. If you don’t enjoy what you do, then it’s not happening, right? So you better have fun when you’re working.”
- David Weiss