Johnny Zvolensky (left) and Tom Davis at the Avid S6 recently installed at SeisMic Sound in Nashville.
The mid-1990s saw a migration of a significant number of music production professionals from Los Angeles to Nashville, a migration hastened by a literal shake up—the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Tom Davis, a post production audio specialist with stints at Post Logic Studios (a TEC Award-winning, six-room, 12,000 sq. ft. Hollywood post house that Davis designed and built) and 525 Post Production (where Davis oversaw the development of the formerly picture-only facility into an audio powerhouse and took home numerous awards over his tenure as Director Of Audio) joined that migration, bringing his ample experience into a town where post production audio was a minor part of the overall production scene.
Armed with his technical prowess, an affable nature and calm confidence, Davis’ has become a big fish in the small pool of Nashville post pros, shaking up the market with his facility, SeisMic Sound. As a post production facility in a market known for music production, it’s hardly a surprise that much of the facility’s work is music related, such as television events (CMA Awards, CMT Awards, CMT’s Crossroads and broadcast music specials) and concert DVDs. That live productions are a major part of Davis’ expertise was most recently evidenced by his spending most of November in NYC working on NBC’s Peter Pan Live broadcast.
In Nashville, Davis first brought expanded audio capability to the video house, Post Masters, then established his own facility on Music Row. Davis’ lease had gone south at the time when Speer Communications (established by Home Shopping Network co-founder Roy Speer) built an ambitious 150,000 sq. ft., $65 million broadcast and satellite complex in a former Sam’s Club building in North Nashville. Davis moved SeisMic Sound into the complex 17 years ago, taking over an unfinished audio post studio. The Speer vision was never fully realized. Three parent companies and several name changes later, the Davis’ landlord today does business as NorthStar Studios, offering uplink (including rural America network RFDTV) and streaming along with live event origination and video production services. In the early years, with more multi-track production a part of SeisMic’s business, “there was some synergy,” says Davis. “We do very little of that anymore but the facility’s really great because there’s great security here. It’s 24-hour security. We never lose power; it’s fully balanced power through this place and being a broadcast facility, all tech power’s on the UPS.” With the UPS providing transition to onsite generators (with an eight second start-up), even if the house lights go out, “We’ll just keep on going.”
SeisMic Sound was originally built around a Euphonix CS2000 digitally controlled analog console, with a 24-track Fairlight hard disk system; Davis was a pioneer in the introduction of DAW technology into post while in L.A. Late last year the CS2000 was retired, an Avid S6 taking its place, intertwined with the latest generation of Pro Tools hardware. The selection of the S6 was facilitated by Avid product specialist Rich Nevens, who originally sold SeisMic the CS2000. “He’s like my real estate agent,” says Davis, “the only guy I go to to buy audio gear.”
“When I came here my vision was to be a post guy. I’d done a little bit of everything in Hollywood but the last probably 8-10 years of my life was primary post-production—video oriented post-production. I was doing some concert things and music videos, a lot of audio sweetening. I was doing sound design for commercials. That didn’t really exist here in this market. When the Nashville market started to take off—of course in ’94 that was right after the big Northridge earthquake, so a lot of people were fleeing L.A. for Nashville—my thrust was, ‘Well, let me be a post guy, because they don’t really have that here.’ I did have a built-in series that was part of the new country explosion, a syndicated show called The Road that would feature three musical artists per episode.” That High Five Productions series provided Davis a work cushion for his migration.
Attracting film business and dubbing stages to Nashville is a recurring discussion topic, Davis lending his perspectives to the Film Commission board for a time. That dream has never panned out, the infrastructure and the business to sustain it being somewhat a chicken and egg scenario.
“I started to find that, as many as studios and as many engineers there were here making records, there were very, very few, if any, of these guys that really understood the post side, understood mixing to picture and locking to picture and dealing with offsets and more clocks and pull up and pull downs. I started to get a little annoyed with getting music remixes for some of the shows we were doing that were either not done very well, or done incorrectly, or not running in synch. I got so annoyed with that and I realized that there was an ignorance in that part of the business. With some of my clients, I said, ‘I know how to do this. Why don’t you let me start doing the music side, too?’ Over the course of years the clientele didn’t change so much. It was really about who was getting what projects. Once we made that transition we kind of became known as the guys that were cradle to grave. One of us could go out, which we do, and either help or at least supervise the tracking. If it’s a remix show it’s always good for one of us to be there.”
Armed with observations from performances and rehearsals, “We can do the music mix. And repairs, because we’re both musicians so we understand that side of it. And fix-up vocals and make the call if somebody needs to re-play or re-sing something. We can do all that and then we can assemble the show to the new timeline and do the audio sweetening and do the little mastery stuff and do the dialogue—we can do it all. That was kind of new for this town.”
The “we” in SeisMic Sound for most of the past 17 years has been the team of Davis and Johnny Zvolensky, the latter an MTSU grad who interned with Davis, then returned as a full team member. “Johnny came along and he’s become a huge asset to what we do and he takes care of stuff that I don’t even want to think about,” says Davis. “We’re a pretty good marriage that way. In fact, he’ll slap my hand if he sees me starting to update something. ‘Let me do it.’ Davis adds that adding that Zvolensky “has become a damn good remix engineer as well.” While Davis was in NYC working on Peter Pan Live, Zvolensky did the remix for the CMA Country Christmas broadcast and a Crossroads episode featuring Bob Seger and Jason Aldean.
“After a course of a few years, we got to be known as people and facilities that could be counted on and relied on. The list of who we haven’t worked with, artist-wise, in this town, is tiny.” That roster ranges from Brad Paisley to Garth Brooks to Jason Aldean, and outside of Nashville, artists ranging from Barry Manilow to U2.
Most typically, Davis works as the audio producer for SeisMic’s broadcast production work. “I will get involved up front and start making some of the initial plans on how it’s going to go. And then one of us will go out and supervise what happens on the stage or wherever it is for the event. Then we bring the projects back here. People have gotten to know that we won’t let something go out that’s embarrassing.”
For remix work of live performances, the original mix is not where SeisMic sound begins. “In this day and age, it’s either live or it’s not. There’s no such thing as almost live,” says Davis. “The CMA Festival is a good example. That’s four nights, it’s 20-plus acts plus a couple of little club things they’ll do off and on. It’s a lot of material.” Armed with the live tracks, “We’re just going to start over. We always start with the audience. That’s one of our little secret sauces. Put the audience mics up, pan them out and tweak them, make that sound nice. Not only is that important because it’s part of the vibe you’re creating, but it also starts to get your sensibilities into ‘What’s the size of this?’”
SeisMic uses two multichannel monitor systems. There are JBL 6300s in the front wall with companion JBLs as rears. The second system uses five Behringer Truth nearfields. “We mix on the mains a lot because we’ve learned that we can trust them, it works,” says Davis. “I use the Behringers for two things, because they’re a little funky. I use them to make sure the low end in a bass is coming through higher than just 60 cycles. And I use them for just nice low level, ‘Is the vocal sitting where it needs to be?’”
There’s not a lot of outboard in use at SeisMic. “We kind of decided that if we’re going to go in the box we’re going to go in the box so we’re doing all plugs,” says Davis. “Recall is a huge thing in this business. We’re always recalling stuff and tweaking and revisiting,” something facilitated by reliance on plug-ins and automation. Seismic runs Waves, Altiverb, Izotope, Slate, Avid, and Fab Filter plug-ins on Avid’s Pro Tools 11 on a tricked out HDX system, controlled by the S6.
The HDX system solves another issue that SeisMic was facing with their analog desk: “We we’re kind of running out of room on the Euphonix, didn’t have the bussing that we needed,” says Davis. He adds that delivery stem counts have gotten large—networks want additional mixes that include a two-channel music mix, two-channel effects only, separate dialog, separate voiceover mixes and “promos, a lot of promos. It’s a 12 to 15-track delivery.
“We don’t worry about mono anymore,” he continues. “If anybody’s listening to mono then they’re not going to care. It used to be a big deal. The down mix happens in the TV and the cable box now. We deliver stereo because they’ll maybe burn DVD’s for internet streams, they still want it, but on like CMA’s, they go live with embedded 6 channels—the down mix has to work because you can’t deliver a separate one that’s going to go anywhere.”
The mixing approach depends on the targeted medium, explains Davis. “For TV, we lean towards stereo. For DVD, I’ll lean towards 5.1 because I figure that if somebody’s going to buy the DVD they probably have a neat little system and let’s give ‘em the thrill. Let’s let it fill the room. And the stereo will still sound okay.”
The S6 footprint is about the same as that of the CS2000 it replaced. Zvolensky says that the physical size of SeisMic’s scalable, modular S6 implementation was chosen in part to yield ample metering and 32 faders, with some room for future expansion, but also in part based on perception, the S6 offering a substantial presence when clients do visit.
“This desk is the best of both worlds,” say Davis. “I’ve been a console guy my whole life. I want to know that my vocal’s always right there. When you get used to where everything is and you start moving things around, you go, ‘Where is it now?’ I watch Pro Tools guys do that all the time.”
Zvolensky cites the S6 layout mode and VCA Master views as “brilliant.” Davis adds that the “fader section is great for tweaking; you can pull anything up there. The touch screen that they did is great.”
Davis complements the console metering (and loudness measurement with Dolby’s Media Meter plug-in) with a Tektronix meter package he found on eBay. “It takes SDI video, embedded video or AES, so we just have the I/O’s ported in so that all the AES outputs, that also feed our analog outs for monitoring, hit that meter—I wanted to have a full time meter that wasn’t a plug-in.”
Davis confesses that he likes “the immediacy and the energy of live. In the studio, you’re creating a performance, you’re overdubbing and cutting and pasting, whatever. In a live project, you’re capturing a performance, you’re interpreting it. It’s a feel thing more than anything. It’s all about energy. I can’t tell you how many record guys would be horrified when they soloed a vocal mic and they hear all the drums in it.”
Zvolensky adds that the bleed “becomes part of the drum sound.” Davis offers an example, where one might say, “that snare drum’s really dull, it needs work.” A push on the vocal mic and, “Oh, there it is! I know that’s going to happen there before before I get there.” The SeisMic approach is to “put some life in it and don’t make the performance too perfect. [For example] you can tighten background vocals up like crazy to a point where it sounds too right.” Making a live production sound live is the goal, concludes Zvolensky, “We have a lot of pride in tuning or editing and not going overboard.”