FEATURE

Boston's Sound Techniques:
Blending The Art & Science Of Sound

by Holly Madden


Control room for Studio A,
where the bulk of our big music
sessions take place.

When most people think of the Fenway area, they think of the Red Sox. The myriad pool halls and bars. Student-centric shops and fast-food joints. But what a lot of people don't know is that the area is also home to a nationally-respected, world-class sound recording studio. One that is frequented by Aerosmith and other national recording acts, Hollywood production teams, as well as local filmmakers and film production houses. Its name: Sound Techniques.

But while Sound Techniques may seem like a well-kept secret to some, it's long been part of the vocabulary of local filmmakers . According to Bestor Cram, an award-winning director at Northern Light Productions in Boston, "It's the premier place to do sound engineer work. I used to go to New York, but there's no need anymore. They're first-class all the way - a unique blend of talented artists who also happen to be engineers." Cram has worked with Sound Techniques for ten years, mainly on his 5.1 surround sound audio mixes. They've collaborated on several visitor center presentations, such as Mt. St. Helens, Minute Man, and the Salem Visitor Center.

"I can do things at Sound Techniques that I can't do in my own facility. They give us the capacity - particularly when we're using 5.1 surround sound - to replicate theatrical environments and create very complex soundscapes. They also happen to have a wonderful foley studio that lets you make some wacky sounds. For the Mount St. Helens presentation, we blew straws into yogurt to mimic the gurgling sound of volcanoes about to erupt," Cram explains.

From Cram's perspective, the advantages for Northern Light don't stop with the technology and facilities. He also depends on Sound Techniques for their artistic instincts.

Our Mix One suite (also 32 tracks
and fully digital) with sound designer
Jim Sullivan at the helm.

"We work mostly with Chris Anderson over there, and I always ask him for directorial contributions, for his feedback on an actor's performance," says Cram. "He's a real ally in terms of ensuring consistency of performance, as well as coming up with ideas as to how to reach deeper into an actor's capacity. The work just gets better after Sound Techniques has touched it. They're great at interpreting emotion and knowing when enough is enough."

Sound Techniques has been riding the sound wave since the '80s, when musicians Jim Anderson and Lance Duncan first met and eventually bought out the original owner of Sound Techniques. They moved their studio from Watertown to their current space - a former taxi garage and bowladrome in the Fenway. Originally, the space was geared mostly toward album recording, with two large control rooms and two performance rooms as well as a smaller control room. This isn't too surprising since both Anderson and Duncan both started out as composers with backgrounds in scoring and jingle writing. But as they built out the studio and assessed the marketplace, they decided to incorporate post work to their repertoire of services.

Today, the company does anything related to sound. They still have music recording rooms and continue to attract household name talent such as Aerosmith, who were in the Sound Techniques studios recently working on their latest album. Sound Techniques also does a lot of post work for FRONTLINE and the Discovery Channel. In addition, whenever Hollywood production teams are in town, they often call on the studio to provide various kinds of sound support, including dialogue replacement. Erik Per Sullivan (the character "Dewey" on MALCOM IN THE MIDDLE and a Massachusetts resident) is also frequently in the studio for dialogue replacement.

According to Chris Anderson, supervising sound designer/editor (no relation to Jim Anderson), what attracts music, TV and film professionals to Sound Techniques is its passion for having the latest, most advanced technology combined with its staff of artistic engineers.

"As far as technology, we were the first in the country to buy DSP workstations which are technically and ergonomically much more advanced. We were also the first studio in Boston to install foley pits," explains Anderson.

Sound Techniques has two DSP 32-track systems and a 16-track system with full-blown editing and mixing, as well as a hard-disk video store that allows you to cue instantaneously. They also offer 5.1 mixing, as well as regular Dolby stereo mixing which is used for most 35mm prints.

Mix One's Foley pit
(Boston's first), with
(L-R) Jim Sullivan,
Austin Powers, and staff
audio engineer Don Goonan.

According to Anderson, it used to be that only true audiophiles got excited about the intricacies of sound design and mixing. But now with the advent of HDTV and surround sound, more and more filmmakers have become tuned into sound design - and how to use it to enhance their films.

"In general, filmmakers are getting very sound savvy. High Definition is making them think about sound in ways they haven't before," Anderson explains. And that couldn't make Anderson - a self-professed preacher of the gospel of sound design - any happier. "At B.U., I teach a course on sound design for TV and film and I always tell my students to think of sound as the third dimension of film. You can take an okay film and make it much better with a good soundtrack. At the same time, sound design is a bit of a masochistic profession, because if you do your job perfectly, nobody notices. Good sound design is not supposed to be noticed."

Personally, Anderson has a passion for working on independent film - something that the staff at Sound Techniques seems to share.

"We're indie-film friendly," says Anderson. "Of course we do promos, commercials and industrials. But when a film comes in - especially one with a lot of talent behind it and care put into it - we all get really excited about it. We'll do whatever it takes to make it happen."

Over the past few years, Sound Techniques has worked on local independent films such as BLACK WHITE AND RED ALL OVER, on which they did the sound design, music scoring and mix. They've also created and mixed soundtracks for shorts such as GAS HUFFIN' BAD GALS and most of the student films that were screened at last year's B.U. Redstone Festival. Recently, Sound Techniques completed work on Wil Lyman's MOVING THE EMPIRE, a documentary about the relocation of the Empire Theatre in Times Square, which just won honors at the TamBay Film Festival. And now they're getting set to work on ABOVE AND BELOW, produced by CS Films, which was shot last fall in an old state hospital in Belmont and will have a late spring/summer release.

As far as Sound Techniques' longevity and stellar reputation locally and around the country, Anderson chalks it up to the fact that "we're jacks-of-all-trades, yet each of us has our favorite areas. Jim Sullivan is into documentaries. I'm the indie film guy. David Porter's passion is music. Don Goonan's forte is talent direction. He possesses and uncanny ability to squeeze a professional performance out of even the most amateur-sounding voice. In total, we've got 13 people who each bring something unique to the party and who are all into working as a team. Which is probably why our turnover is next to nil. We're an odd combo of techno-geek and creative, using both sides of our brain - not just to get things done fast, but to get them done right. The key to our success is always asking each other and our clients, "What can we do to make this better?"

Holly Madden is a creative director at Leo Burnett/Boston and a 13-year veteran of the Boston advertising industry. When she's not writing for print, radio and TV, she's working on her various screenplay ideas.


Holly Madden is a creative director at Leo Burnett/Boston and a 13-year veteran of the Boston advertising industry. When she's not writing for print, radio and TV, she's working on her various screenplay ideas.