‘There’s more music happening in Princeton than there are engineers to record it. I know we’re filling a need,” says baritone Robert Bullington, who holds two degrees in music and is an expert on information technology. Bullington has finally managed to bring the double passions of his life together in one place. Until February his daytime haunt was Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, where he was assistant vice president for information security; and he devoted his evenings and weekends to practicing, performing, and pursuing the holy grail of flawless musical recording.
Bullington’s studio, Front Row Seat Productions (FRSP), a recording venue using advanced technologies selected to serve Bullington’s vision of quality recording, is now open for business, and for hospitality. A two-day open house takes place on Thursday and Friday, May 15 and 16, to show off the facilities and welcome the public. The public is invited to a reception on Friday, May 16, 7 to 9 p.m. FRSP is located at Looking Glass Pond, 800 Alexander Road, and Princeton Junction. The site is a ranch house tucked away from the road, between office buildings, on a small piece of land, evocative of the area’s pastoral days.
Musicians are invited to make a free 15-minute test recording during the two-day period open house. Recording sessions are by appointment only from 1 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, and from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday; other times may also be available. Beth Ertz, a collaborative pianist with experience in varied musical genres, provides piano accompaniment for musicians who need it.
Interviewed by telephone from his home in Hamilton, the 43-year old Bullington, a native of New Orleans, says, “This is the right time for me to open the studio. As a person with two music degrees who has paid the rent working in information technology, I never abandoned my passion for music or the desire to perform. I wanted to put my technical skills to work for fellow musicians. I’ve been collecting recording equipment for eight years.”
Bullington is the sole recording engineer at FRSP. His business partner is Princeton music impresario Rob Tannen, founder of Salon 33. “The recording studio is a long-time dream of Rob’s and mine, where high quality recording s with all the characteristics of a live concert could be made,” Bullington says. “We’ve been talking seriously about this for at least four years.”
A mountain of minute details went into making the space ready. “At one point we realized that the room was not as noise- proof as we thought,” Bullington says. “That set me to designing Plexiglas inserts for all the windows. I had to revive my carpentry skills.
“I executed the signal wiring for the microphones and monitors,” Bullington continues. “So I had to get up on a ladder with a soldering iron. I spent time minimizing clutter and reducing the number of wires on the floor. I planned the space so we can hang microphones from the walls and ceiling, or install them in the front of the room or at the back.”
The studio boasts a seven-foot Mason and Hamlin concert grand piano, and also a smaller Yamaha console, which can be used when there are lots of people to put on stage. “We decided on a 1998 piano that had been at Zanzibar Blue, the Philadelphia jazz club. The club had to close its doors. After nine years in a jazz club a piano can get kind of beat up, and Zanzibar Blue sent it back to the Cunningham Piano Company for rebuilding. Rob [Tannen] and I listened to it in the factory and bought it before it found its way to the showroom floor. We heard its potential at various stages of rebuilding.”
Acquiring the grand piano was only the first chapter in making it useable in the recording space. “After the piano leaves the showroom, a piano technician has to regulate the action and evenness of the instrument,” Bullington says. “Peter Reichlin is our piano technician. We work together to make the instrument sound optimal in the space. We’ve been applying acoustic treatment to the walls, trying to create a recording space that sounds like a concert hall. As I fine tune the room, Reichlin works to tune the piano to the space. It’s an ongoing process.
‘I’ve been doing test recordings for months with Arthur Wilson, a long-time friend and musical collaborator. We check the sound of the piano, the acoustic properties of the room, the placement and number of microphones, and optimal recording levels.”
Bullington’s philosophy of recording sound is at odds with that of many recording engineers. “We want to make musicians as comfortable as possible in the space,” he says. “Artists will not give their best performance in an acoustically dead space. Many recording engineers like to use an acoustically dead space and add room ambiance electronically. There’s a delicate balance between acoustically dead and unmanageably live.
“What I did in outfitting the room as a recording studio turns the traditional recording model on its head. Most studios have large control rooms with couches; I have a tiny control room only big enough for the engineer. I place myself, the recording engineer, in a small vocal booth. Traditionally, the vocal booth is used to isolate soloists during a recording session. I want to preserve as much of the natural acoustic of the room as possible for recording. My emphasis is on performers and the performance space.”
Bullington parts ways with traditional recording also when it comes to number and placement of microphones. “Many studios mike artists individually,” he says, “but I use mikes in pairs to capture the natural blend of voices and instruments.”
Bullington was already convinced of the benefit of using pairs of microphones when this newspaper interviewed him more than three years ago (U.S. 1, January 26, 2005). “You’ve only got two ears. If it’s done right, all you need is two mikes to capture what you hear.
“AT FRSP we carefully chose microphones to capture the beauty of the piano, the distinctive qualities of other instruments, and the beauty of the human voice,” he says. “We use an AEA R-88 stereo ribbon microphone. That’s 1930s technology making a resurgence. The ribbon in a ribbon mike is a metal membrane less wide than a fraction of the diameter of a human hair. It’s not that different from air itself, so it captures nuances that no other mike can distinguish. But ribbon mikes are fragile and their signal is low.
“You have to baby this kind of a mike. I keep it in a padded velvet case, and only remove it when I’m about to use it. If you left the mike on a table, it could pick up metal shavings because its magnet is so powerful. And you have to store it upright so the ribbon can’t sag.”
Bullington says that to correct for the low signal output he uses a new generation of preamplifiers that boosts the output to a level appropriate for modern digital recording. Most studio preamps boost to 60 decibels, but FRSP’s AEA TRP can boost to over 80 without creating noise. “We’re taking advantage of the artistic qualities of early technology, and beefing it up.”
FRSP is likely to entice a wide swath of musicians. “It’s suitable for recording jazz, folk, classical, and world music,” Bullington says. “It’s right for everybody who wants to record the way they perform in a live space.”
Still, it does not suit every purpose in the world of music, Bullington says. “Musicians who use a lot of amplification are not likely to use my studio much,” he says. “It’s not a multi track studio that records voices or instruments in isolation. Our studio conveys the energy and sound of a real performance.”
Neither is the studio large enough for mammoth musical endeavors. “We top out at chamber music,” Bullington says. “We’re a little small for full orchestra.”
Bullington expects FRSP to make profit. “It’s my new livelihood,” he says. I left the investment banking world to do this; it probably prevented someone else from getting laid off.
Open House, Front Row Seat Productions, Thursday, May 15, 1 to 7 p.m., and Friday, May 16, 3 to 6 p.m., Looking Glass Pond, 800 Alexander Park. Reception open to the public on Friday, May 16, 7 to 9 p.m. Call 888-243-1797 to schedule a recording session.