Reaping The 5.1 Harvest

With the help of public broadcaster Thirteen/WNET, composer Peter Fish has successfully developed his audio post facility into an active 5.1 surround mixing studio. As part of the makeover, the studio, formerly known as Cool Beans Digital Audio, has been given a new name÷Tonic. "Musicians know the tonic is the home note of a musical scale that all of the other tones resolve to. That's how we see our position as music makers and mixers," said Fish. Managing the relationship with WNET successfully and evolving the facility to its current state has required a keen understanding of the business aspects of audio post with an eye toward the state of the current economy.

The relationship between WNET and Fish began when WNET wanted to make the transition from being an audio post client at outside rooms to owning its own in-house production facility. Key to the move was the longstanding relationship many of WNETâs producers had with Fish, according to Ken Devine, vice president and chief technology officer at WNET.

Devine said that his relationship with Fish developed over the many years that the composer worked out of National Sound. "Peter was one of our primary service providers during those years. He worked extensively on the series Nature, and did other work for us as well. He's been very well known as a composer and facility operator to all of our producers.

"When Peter's relationship with National Sound ended, I saw an opportunity for us, and we started talking. That led to a partnership between us. Peter brings a lot to the table for us in terms of his staff and his marketing ability, particularly with regard to helping us liquidate our excess inventory of audio hours."

Fish, who began his musical career as a jazz piano player, was producing stars like Judy Collins and Carly Simon by the time he was in his early twenties. Record producing requires a savvy understanding of how to spend dollars in the studio as well as musical chops, and Fish absorbed these lessons well. Today, heâs combining both skill sets as a partner with WNET in Tonic. To accommodate the diverse needs of WNETâs producers as well as of outside clients, Fish, Devine, and studio designer John Storyk designed a pair of identical audio suites. One of these suites is used by Fish, and the second is available for other Tonic operators. When these operators are not using them, Tonic books them to outside clients.

"Peter's ability to market and sell billable hours is a critical part of the deal," said Devine. "We're not a competitor to any audio post house, but we are interested in keeping our rooms full. He takes all of the risks regarding personnel and staffing. There's very little down side for us."

Fish has received praise as a composer as well. For the last three years he has won the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) award for Most Performed Themes. He's also snagged a pair of Emmy awards. Does he have a compositional style that is his signature? "I know where my roots are,ä he said. "But I'm glad they donât show! Whatever you need, I can do. I can handle any style, using an orchestra, electronica, even a Polka."

Fish divides his time between composing and administrating. "The way the new relationship between Tonic and WNET works is that I'm essentially a client of the facility," he said. One of my responsibilities is to bring business to these rooms. Jim Heffernan, a fine guitarist and engineer, is our other staff composer. We've worked together since 1996. We both have Pro Tools and Libra consoles. John Arrius is our chief engineer. "Thirteen/WNET has been a major client of mine since 1991. When they were looking at the idea of building an in-house facility we began talking about how I could help. This is really unique, in that it blends a private sector enterprise with a public sector organization. They didn't want to operate their facility, but they wanted the financial benefits of having an in-house facility."

Essentially, whatever inventory the station doesn't use for its own projects is available to Fish, who pays for the privilege of using this space, but at a favorable rate. "The deal saved me from having to go out and buy real estate on my own,ä he noted.

Several factors went into WNET's decision to build its own digital audio rooms at this time. "We're about two years into an entire digital conversion," said Devine. ãWe have a large production company, and that production business creates a huge demand for post production. We built 32 video editing rooms, and digital audio post is a logical extension.

"We're firmly committed to working digitally. We were an early adopter of high definition video technologies, we had one of the first rooms capable of executing high definition video editing. The content on our digital channels will be seen by up to 20 million people. We know weâre a quality provider of television content. Now we have the capability to do surround sound audio."

Does the relationship with Tonic represent a change in the long term strategy of WNET with regard to audio? "Not so much in terms of audio formats. Our decision to build a digital pathway for audio was based more on the way we work. As our video post has moved more and more into the nonlinear realm, our approach to audio has changed as well," said Devine.

Fish said that the move to 5.1 mixes for broadcast pieces has accelerated over the last several months. 'We're mixing a film about a Connecticut Indian tribe, The Mark Of The Uncas," he noted. "John Arrias is mixing in Pro Tools in 5.1. We're finding that lots of the new work is being mixed in surround, including theatrical, record, and television projects. I wouldn't feel comfortable extrapolating based on the 5.1 activity we've seen in the last six weeks or so, but we've been saying that 5.1 is coming for some time and it looks like that time may have arrived!"