By mid 2009 I received a call from a good friend and client, Marlo Baker; at the time, she was the Executive Producer for Lopez Negrete Communications. She wanted to talk to me about creating a multimedia post production facility that could handle workflows for agencies and other clients.
As an engineer the project captured me immediately, I’ve designed and integrated many music and post production studios before but not a five room multi-purpose work horse from the ground up. Yet another creative space to materialize the mind’s power to create. YES, I was in!
The requirements were simple, they needed to post-produce anything and everything from A to Z; ingestion, editorial, color correction, online, visual effects, audio recording, sound design, music production and mix for an average of five teams at a time. What did I say? The requirements were simple, NOT!
The first order of business was to define where to build the studio. Lopez Negrete’s executives chose the top floor of their building as the desired location. This was a challenge for most commercial buildings in Houston have very thin metal floors that allow much sound transmission or no isolation at all. This was something we would have to compensate in the build out. I began scouting the building, taking sound measurements to find the quietest spot away from the massive building’s air handlers and mechanical installations such as compressors, transformers and air ducts, away from street noise.
I found 12,000 SQ FT of space on the North West corner of the building, all open office space to renovate, sound proof, isolate and decouple. In the middle of my scouting I got called into the war room with another request “we need this running now”. Of course this was not something that could be done quick and easy, so I stopped my big studio facility building tasks and started looking for reasonable empty offices away from noise. I found a cute little corner on the opposite side of the building and away from the air handlers with a central hall and three open offices. The central hall became our operations office and each little office a make-shift studio. So, the mission turned out to be three temporary audio and video rooms where we could cut, sound design and mix while we built a massive five room facility with recording performance areas.
There was much to figure out before even thinking about the system integration, the request for temporary studios made me think about a scalable system that could later be moved to the facility over a weekend. It is well known that once a studio starts working it seldom stops- even for maintenance – so it was important not to disrupt production once the facility was ready to house the system.
Audio and video, can they co-exist in the same machine? We like to think they could but in practice it’s a different story. Keep in mind this was 2009, systems and standards changing, models can be obsolete in a couple of years, one doesn’t know which way technology might go. So it was safe to assign a machine for audio and another machine for video per room. This allowed me to have fully discrete systems that could be upgraded any way desired without conflicting with its counterpart. So one audio Mac Pro with one drive for sessions, one for systems and one for sound effects did the trick in each office. Auralex came to the rescue with their famous kits for sound control. Panels to hang on the walls, wedges for corners and dissipators for the ceilings made the office cube a little bit more bearable. We did great work in those cubicles, there was some kind of magic in them.
The video Mac Pro was running Final Cut Pro and Kona video cards, this allowed for full HD. The monitors were JVC broadcast and Panasonic of course full HD and calibrated. We did many offline sessions with great editors and great clients that didn’t seem to mind the temporary nature of the make-shift facility. We operated like this for a period of a year while construction took place on the other corner of the building.
All equipment was supplied by Kurtis Ewing at the time working for GCPro. Kurtis is the best in the business!
The design was a long process, it started with me defining the size of the spaces we would be working on, making sure they were functional and acoustically sound. I managed to fit two large studios with performance areas and three editing and mixing rooms without performance areas. This seemed to be decent since one of the main requirements was to have a large enough performance area to fit a small orchestra which left 3 rooms without recording areas. Also, all rooms were to connect to one central hub, a centralized machine room that would hold all noise making equipment under heavy refrigeration. This meant we had to account for pathways to run audio and video tie lines to and from each studio. Then of course some offices were needed, a reception and a dining area for clients was a must.
I drew many many sketches over the floor plans, went back to the floor and walked the space; I sketched, created many options, layouts and ridiculous scenarios before handing them to the architect for finishing touches. One of the main requirements for the rooms was no parallel walls or rectangular angles so the options were endless. Then, I just built a 3D model and rendered a walk-through to get a feel of the space.
The architect in charge of making sense of my layouts was Mark Goulas, he did a great job in making the place flow; my technical drawings were a bit stiff and of course all functionality, Mark introduced form to the project. He made sure each studio didn’t meet the next so the clients could work on their project without anybody else knowing what the project was. One client never crossed the other except at lunch time, if they so desired.
Here is the revised plot plan by Mark, total genius!
This was probably the trickiest task of all, in order to fit the mechanical requirements we had to adapt or find a compromise between form and function. Air conditioning was the biggest issue. It was impossible to use the buildings air handlers, they gave us no control on temperature of air exchange rate, so we needed to set up a new dedicated system on the roof away from the studios. The trick was to fit the flexible sound proofed ducts through the roof without affecting the sound-proofing. Our mechanical engineer did a great job, he installed four 2 ton compressors one for the machine room, one for each big studio and one for the three remaining rooms while the common areas were handled by the building’s handler.
We ran new clean power to support the load of all machines throughout the facility and separate circuits for audio devices, lighting and monitoring.
All rooms had several phone lines, network outlets and optical cables for KVM extensions.
The built was handled by Camp Wampum headed by Greg Bartley as the General Contractor. The team was remarkable, Greg was very knowledgeable about construction and techniques and very open to learn new ones to fight sound transmission, a task he mastered in no time without any effort. Our Master Carpenter was Jonathan Smith, capable of constructing anything the imagination can concoct. This was the core team that was extended with workers and a mechanical engineering firm.
The main idea was to divide the space. With plans on hand and a tape measure we proceeded to mark all the divisions on the floor, this would become the main walls of the space. This was simple and the techniques used were no different than the everyday framing job with one little difference, the framing needed to be pressured treated wood instead of the typical commercial aluminum studs. This helps much to hermetically seal the rooms after applying acoustic caulking to all crevasses and edges. Unfortunately, this was not possible given the city construction codes in the area so we had to do some extra work to fill them up with mass. Once all divisions were framed, it was the time for cables. Thousands of feet of electrical, audio, video and optical cables were weaved throughout the framing without conduit to minimize sound transmission. With this we took care of all appliances like video monitors, speakers and everything attached to walls. The rest of the cabling would flow through channels on the floor.
The outside of the framing was covered with one layer of sound-board and two layers of drywall perfectly caulked and sealed. The empty space in between the studs was filled with high density insulation. The inside was also easy, the only trick was to mark where the studs sat so one could keep layering the soundboard and drywall and of course the cables, it was important to make sure the cable wasn’t dilapidated behind a sheet of drywall. Once the walls are up there is a great feeling of accomplishment but little did they know this was only the beginning.
Now to the tricky part, building the box within the box. The first thing to do on the inside walls was to cover everything with acoustic vinyl. This was not an easy material to work with, it is heavy and comes in big rolls. All walls needed to be covered with this vinyl leaving no gaps at the seems, even the ceiling needs to be covered with this. Not an easy task for the unaccustomed who went home happy after a long days work only to come back to an undone ceiling that collapsed during the night.
The box would be floating, no fasteners bolts or connections can be holding this in place, only rubber decouplers. So we started with the floor, laying the studs side by side and creating a frame for it wedging the decouplers between the existing vinyl covered walls and the wooden studs. The walls followed in the same manner as well as the ceiling which could not have any recess lighting for such holes would completely defeat the purpose of sound proofing.
Once the box framing was finished we layered all with one sheet of soundboard, one inch of empty resilient channel and two layers of drywall of two different thickness, all had to be perfectly caulked and sealed.
The windows to the recording areas were made of two different gauge glasses positioned at an angle to avoid a drum effect. This basically means that in the frame the glass will sit closer to each other at the bottom than at the top forming a “V” shape within the window frame with its rubber sealant around. this avoids harmonic resonance. In this case it was really important to use silica gel in between the two glass sheets because Houston has a high humidity index and the silica absorbs it.
This concluded the studio building process, the machine room was a lot easier as it did not need the sound proofing although the floor needed to be reinforced for the weight of the equipment. Now it was time for Steven Klein to do his magic. Steven from Sound Control Room did the acoustic treatment of the place, making sure the room had the flattest response possible to conserve pristine sound in the control rooms and recording rooms.
Before we were able to move the equipment from the make-shift studios to the final facility, all wiring needed to be in place and terminated with the proper connectors, so we proceeded to run all multi-pair wires, video lines and optical cables from the machine room to the studios and in the studios from the back island to the console and recording areas. Thousands of feet of cable were laid to account for all possible connectivity needs. This allowed for incredible flexibility once all was completed. All studios are capable to interlink with each other making it possible to record from one into the other or share outboard gear without the need of moving it.
For this process Westlake Audio was hired, Erick Mena and his crew flew in from Los Angeles with the sole mission of soldering all terminations for all equipment in the studios, machine room and isolation booths. This process took us 15 days to finish, with the constant support of Edmundo Gomez going at it steady. Long hours and tight spaces were a constant during that time, but once done all there was to do was fill up the racks with the new equipment, plug it and test.
The system design and implementation was thought in advance, this was done while the construction was taking place and before the cabling was laid. I prepared equipment lists and wiring schematics for all the systems, this was the blue prints everyone followed for the installation. This process is a bit daunting for it is massive and all needs to be taken in consideration.
The video machines would be running Final Cut Pro, Adobe Creative Suite, Smoke for Mac, and miscellaneous 3D software like Maya, Vue and Blender. This was the heaviest workflow, so all video was running off the SAN via fiber channel. The SAN was backed up to drives per project and LTO.
The audio machines would be running ProTools to its latest stable version with HD3s on every room, a wide variety of plugins added. The audio drives were backed up to a redundant raid 6 every day via Cron.
The interior design was masterfully handled by Cathy López Nagrete and all furniture supplied by Blue Leaf Houston. Every piece, a work of art carefully placed to accentuate the impeccable architecture that made Zapboombang a magical place to work in.
The result of all this work is stunning in every way, Zapboombang Studios.
During this adventure, I had the pleasure to work with amazing professional people that gave their all to achieve the collective dreams of their clients, community and leadership. Same leadership that allowed me to build a dream facility, their dream facility, our dream facility, Zapboombang. Gracias Alex y Cathy López Negrete for allowing me do my job in the most fun and exciting way. Howard Brown, thank you for your guidance and business classes I needed so much.
All my thanks and gratitude to an amazing team:
• Ruth Villatoro, Operations Manager
• Mark Goulash, Architect
• Gregg Bartley, Contractor
• Jonathan Smith, Head Carpenter
• Steven Klein, Acustician
• Edmundo Gomez, Wiring and Termination
• Erick Mena, Wire and Termination
• Cathy López Negrete, Interior Designer
• Blue Leaf Houston, Furniture and Accessories
• Kurtis Ewing, Equipment Supplier
• Diego Arrieta, Studio Runner
• Howard Brown, VP and General Manager (Lopez Negrete Communications)
For further inquiries about studio design, construction and integration please contact Matias Lanzi.