by Pete Caldwell (SPARS President 1990-1991
Founder, Doppler Studios (Atlanta, GA)
©1999, All Rights Reserved.
Table of Contents
- Beginnings: 1979
- SPARS Defines Itself: 1980 – 1981
- SPARS under the Founders:: 1981 – 1986
- Redefining of SPARS: 1986 – 1993
- SPARS as an Audio Industry Mirror: 1994-1999
- A Future of Possibilities
The audio recording industry of the early 1970’s was a much smaller place than it is today. During this era, individual studios were working in a vacuum. There were few manufacturers of pro audio equipment, there was little to read, and not many people to talk to. Most consoles were custom built or were modifications of equipment designed to do something else, and most studio owners who had gained any success at all were guarded about their secrets.
By the mid-70’s some of these early facilities had matured, and the pro audio landscape was becoming populated with manufacturers, dealers, magazines and consultants. But in 1979 when SPARS was born, there were still only about 50 large, successful, U.S. studios, mostly in New York or L.A. These facilities fell roughly into two groups. The first group comprised those studios that began small and ignorant and grew through the tenacity, talent and drive of their owners, who more often than not spent their nights behind consoles and their days on their knees wielding soldering irons. The second group was comprised of large companies or well funded enterprises like the record companies who at some point along the line had simply bought into the industry as a matter of need for services. Despite the financial impact of this latter group, the industry in those days was driven by the tenacious, maverick breed of studio owner. Not only were these men guarded about their secrets and their customers, they were suspicious of any new, smaller studio enterprise partly because they knew how little they had known when they began and how hard practical knowledge had been to come by.
This was the professional audio industry in 1979, and for the most part, the founders of SPARS were these mavericks. What they did not know was that the industry was in the process of changing forever, and that what they were creating was about to become obsolete before it began. What they also did not know was that, in SPARS, they would create a living, breathing entity that was beyond their control, an organization able to change as the industry changed. They would create an invaluable industry mirror into which everyone could gaze.
Although no one knew it at the time, SPARS began in The Pacific Dining Car in downtown L.A. during the AES Convention in the fall of 1979. Only months later would the spirit of that evening beget an organization and be given the name, The Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios. Certainly at the time none of the revelers at Kent Duncan’s (Kendun Recorders / L.A.) and Billboard Magazine’s dinner bash were thinking in the lofty terms of industry wide communication, leadership and direction. Nonetheless, the guest list was impressive: Harry Hirsch (SoundMixers, NYC), Howard Schwartz (Howard Schwartz Recording, NYC), Dave Teig and Tom Cahill (Atlantic Records, NYC), Ham Brosious (Audio Techniques, NYC), Mack and Danny Emerman (Criteria, Miami), Jeep and Joyce Harned (MCI, Ft. Lauderdale, FL), Chris Stone (Record Plant, L.A.), Jim Stern (Fantasy Records, L.A.), Ike Bedouin (Audio Industries, L.A.) and Carl J. Yanchar (Kendun Recorders / Sierra Audio).
‘Everybody was having a whopping good time,’ Mack Emerman (Criteria Recording / Miami) would later remember in an interview for R/EP Magazine, ‘the discussion got into, ‘Mr. Manufacturer or Mr. Studio Equipment Supplier, none of you are giving us what we want. You don’t listen to us.’ And it sort of got heavy. Jeep Harned of MCI was there. He was the only manufacturer I remember. It was mostly studio owners from the L.A. area. But Jeep got riled up. I can’t say that he got angry, but he got up and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! We always listen to you. Why don’t you guys come down to Fort Lauderdale, we’ll have a big confab about this thing and we’ll see what it is that you really want.”
SPARS was born among those cocktails, out of the good natured and often witty ranting of a hand full of men and women who were enjoying an unfamiliar feeling: that they were among friends; that they were more alike than they wanted to admit; that they shared a rare bond – they owned and operated recording studios. That night it seemed that their problems, their fears, and even their dreams were the same.
Jeep Harned made good on his invitation, and on June 15th, the spirit of the Pacific Dining Car moved to Ft. Lauderdale where it would flourish as Kent Duncan’s dinner party was expanded by MCI invitation to a representative guest list which included the owners of 15 of the top U.S. recording studios of the time:
A&R Studios/NYC, Atlantic Studios/NYC, Criteria Recording Company/Miami, Flyways-Header Recording/Hollywood, Group IV Recording/Hollywood, House of Music/New Jersey, Howard M. Schwartz Recording/NYC, Canteen Recording/Burbank, Larrabee Sound/Hollywood, Media Sound/NYC, Record Plant/Los Angeles, Regent Sound Studios/NYC, Sigma Sound Studios/Philadelphia, Sound Mixers/NYC, Studio 55/Chicago.
As in L.A., these guests were unaware that they were about to become part of recording industry history. In truth most of them were thinking about the cost, configuration, and availability of future recording console technology. The first evening in Ft. Lauderdale, Jeep had arranged a little outing, a boat trip on the New River. MCI played host to the studio owners on the 98 foot pleasure craft, Pilgrim II. Chris Stone (Record Plant/L.A.) recalls, ‘It soon became clear that we had an opportunity to do a great deal more for the industry than design a console.’ In fact, it soon occurred to almost everyone aboard Pilgrim II that the productive and satisfying atmosphere of cooperation and mutual endeavor that everyone was experiencing might be continued. The possibility of future meetings was much discussed. By most accounts, it was Kent Duncan who favored a formal organization from the very beginning. According to Stone, Kent was the original ‘mover and shaker’ for organized action. It is ironic that so much impetus for an industry-wide organization of studio owners came from a man who was very soon to disappear from the scene.
So on Saturday morning, June 15, 1979, the organizing meeting was held for what was to become The Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios. Within the space of two or three hours a basic structure for the organization was hammered out. There was then considerable discussion of the qualities of leadership the first president should have, and after much generalizing, Kent Duncan nominated Joe Tarsia (Sigma Sound/Philadelphia) for the position, which would later be labeled Interim President. Chris Stone seconded the nomination.
The choice of Joe Tarsia tells us a great deal about the founders and the industry climate of the late 70’s. Many thought Joe was ‘safe,’ meaning neutral, neither New York nor L.A. Many thought Joe was ‘safe,’ meaning mild mannered. Many thought Joe was ‘safe,’ meaning that they perceived that he would be easy to influence or even manipulate. About this, they could not have been more wrong. The truth of the matter is that Joe Tarsia was ‘safe,’ not for any of these reasons, but because he was (and is still) a great guy. Chris Stone recalls that Joe tried to decline, ”No, no, no, not me, Joe kept saying, but I saw that spark in his eye.’
After Tarsia’s election, there was a great deal of discussion as to what the qualifications for membership ought to be. Little did anyone know how explosive and sensitive an issue this would later become. Tarsia felt that there should be levels of membership, thus creating a more open organization. Although this vision was a long way from a classless society, it was the most egalitarian position. It was generally felt that membership qualifications should have something to do with equipment and the capital investment levels of prospective members, but no decisions were reached. Certainly there were those who wished a totally exclusive society of only the top studios. One opinion suggested that 50 members was a comfortable goal.
The dues structure was agreed upon. This was not discussed under the heading of membership qualifications, but as it turned out nothing did more to limit membership and to alienate the middle level and small studios. It was decided that each studio member would pay $2000 per year. This was unanimously passed.
David Teig (Atlantic Studios/NYC) was elected Secretary and Kent Duncan was elected Treasurer. The country was to be divided into four regions, and an Executive Committee was selected. The duties of this Executive Committee were defined to include the drafting of By-Laws; various announcements, advertisements and press releases; the drafting of a budget; the establishment of a checking account; and the hiring of a full time administrator. August 11 was set for the first meeting of the Executive Committee in L.A. It was Chris Stone who suggested SPARS, The Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios, perhaps in the tradition of the then fledgling APRS, Association of Professional Recording Studios in England. Joe Tarsia confides, ‘I didn’t like the name SPARS. It sounded to me like we would all have to wear little sailor suits.’ Nonetheless, the name was approved unanimously, and the founders returned to the work of designing the ‘Super Console. ‘SPARS was born, and the fat was in the fire.
Certainly if there is a hero in all of this it is Joe Tarsia. To say the least, Joe did not know what he was getting into when he accepted the nomination for the presidency. He remembers the weeks following the Ft. Lauderdale organizing meeting. ‘I was on the phone every day for hours with Chris (Stone) and Kent (Duncan). After a while I began to tape the conversations because they would tell me one thing one day and something different the next.’ Joe saw all of this as well meaning but over zealous help, and it was coming in disorganized and independent bursts from many of the men who had attended the Ft. Lauderdale meeting. It did not take Joe long to realize that if anything at all was going to get done, he was going to have to do it alone, in spite of all of the ‘help’ he was getting from both coasts.
Joe Tarsia initially acted as a filter for all of the diverse input, but in the end what he tried to do was implement what he perceived to be the consensus of the June 15 organizing meeting. By June 25th he had summarized the rambling notes describing the Ft Lauderdale meeting into the short minutes which were later presented to the first meeting of the Executive Committee. These minutes list the elected officers and the dues. They also describe a membership process whereby prospective members would be approved by a membership committee, and they also detailed the agenda for the August 11 ‘Executive Committee Meeting,’ which was later referred to as the ‘Board of Directors Meeting.’ Tarsia also included a summary of what he thought the goals of the organization should be according to the best ideas of the various founders:
1. To establish a forum for professional audio studios.
2. To achieve excellence in the craft.
3. To comment on and evaluate professional audio equipment.
4. To promote good engineering practices.
5. To act as a voice to address important issues confronting the industry’s present and future equipment needs.
6. To publicize technical innovation.
7. To provide technique of studio management.
8. To educate the membership in matters affecting professional audio.
In accordance with the mandate that membership be tied to technical capabilities, the qualifications for membership stated that a studio must have at least two 24-track machines. On July 18, Tarsia wrote an open letter requesting applications for membership. In July, Pro Sound News published Tarsia’s request in an article outlining the aims of SPARS and the two 24-track criteria for membership. This along with the $2000 annual fee hit the industry like a bomb shell. Several more large studios rushed to join including Ardent in Memphis, Automat in San Francisco, The Hit Factory in New York, Masterphonics in Nashville, and Universal in Chicago bringing the total membership to 23 by the August 11 meeting, but across the country the reaction of the rank and file middle and smaller studios ranged from anger to indifference. Many found the ‘two 24-track’ rule an arbitrary standard by which to judge professionalism. Few commented on the $2000 fee, but, if the truth were known, that was probably what separated the players from the non-players.
On August 11, the Interim Board of Directors, as the Executive Committee was now being called, met at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in L.A. In an eight hour meeting they approved the interim By-Laws, revised the two 24-track stipulation down to one 24-track, redefined the four regions, and set the date for the general membership meeting at the New York AES (Thursday, November 1, 1979). There was also discussion of SPARS seminars to be held during the New York AES, and a seminar committee was appointed.
By the week of the New York AES Show the membership had grown to 32. Several weeks prior to the convention each member received an impressive ‘Itinerary for the First National SPARS Convention.’ Beneath the new SPARS logo there appeared, for the first time, the SPARS slogan, ‘Dedicated to Excellence through Innovation – Education – Communication.’ This was the brain child of Joe Tarsia, and in later years he would say that, of all the things he did that first year, the creation of that slogan was the one accomplishment of which he was most proud. The invitation expounded on an impressive list of events at New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel including the Wednesday Board of Directors meeting, the Thursday General Membership meeting, and several weekend ‘symposiums.’
The first General Membership Meeting was held the next morning in the Barron North Suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. After Tarsia’s opening address and a review of the By-Laws, there was a politically charged discussion of the qualifications for membership, especially the one 24-track rule.
The meeting continued with the election of officers. Joe Tarsia was unanimously elected first President and Dave Teig Secretary/Treasurer. The Regional Vice Presidents were all also elected by acclamation: Chris Stone, Bob Lifton, Mack Emerman, and Murray Allen (Universal Recording/Chicago). Several committees were organized: technical, membership, business, newsletter, education, finance, seminars, and credit procedures.
Riding the wave of success of the first ‘convention,’ SPARS chapters met in New York and in L.A. In early 1980, the New York group would begin the annual luncheon meetings first held at the Chinese Pavilion and later that year at Gallagher’s Restaurant where SPARS has gathered ever since. The details of these meetings and other SPARS news were disseminated to the membership in DATATRACK, the organization’s newsletter which was appearing as often as weekly in the early days.
All in all it had been a tour de force. Tarsia and the founders had outdone themselves the first time out of the gate, and much of the industry was impressed, but what about the rank and file? At best the jury was still out. At worst SPARS was seen as an ‘elitist drinking club.’ Perhaps they were elitist. Certainly there was little love lost between most of the SPARS founders and a good stiff drink or two, but with the first general membership meeting and the following two-day ‘Symposium,’ SPARS had arrived in style and was obviously on the scene to stay.
SPARS DEFINES ITSELF: 1980 – 1981
This was all pretty heady stuff, but the New Year would bring with it a sobering dose of reality for SPARS. The first hint of this foul tasting medicine surfaced at the Waldorf Astoria meeting in the Treasure’s report. The expenses for the operation of the organization to date were in excess of $40,000, mostly from costs incurred as part of the New York Convention. Bills from that affair were still trickling in. Revenues to date were $64,000 from 32 members. But the board, which had been targeting and hand picking prospective members, had only five more prospects on the line and, after the initial rush to join by many of the nation’s top studios, the growth of SPARS was suddenly alarmingly slow.
It is important to note here that these men were dedicated to making SPARS work, even if it had to come from their own pockets, and to be sure some of it did. For the most part they had traveled and met and dined and drank with their own money. It has been confirmed by several of the early SPARS leaders that the presidency of SPARS in those days personally cost the president or the president’s studio about $10,000. Few Board member expense reports had come to SPARS, and in Nashville the entire Board of Directors individually pledged to waive reimbursement for expenses incurred on SPARS business. This is a tradition, which remains even today.
Despite these problems, Tarsia and the new Board remained undaunted. They planned and executed another world class event dubbed The Second National Convention to take place at the Biltmore Hotel in L.A. during the Spring AES show (back in those days there were two AES Shows each year). It began with the usual Board of Directors Meeting, and an all day General Membership Meeting in which the membership controversy raged full force in heated discussion. All of this was followed by two days of symposiums covering a wide array of technical and business topics the center piece of which was ‘Recording Studio Design and Acoustics’ featuring George Augspurger, Jeff Cooper, Tom Hidley, and John Storyk. Over two hundred people attended the symposiums and enthusiastically inhaled the wisdom of panelists like Bob Liften, Phil Ramone and Wally Heider. For SPARS members the most memorable event of the Spring AES Show was the incredible ‘Cinco de Mayo’ celebration at the home of SPARS V.P. Chris Stone (The Record Plant).
But after this grand bash, it was time to take a sober look in the mirror. The organization’s first complete financial statement showed $83,000 in expenses against revenues of $72,000. There were few new members on the horizon, but the SPARS public position on membership remained unchanged. Despite this seemingly inflexible public stance, the newly elected Mid-America Regional Vice President, Murray Allen (Universal Studios/Chicago), was anything but set on keeping the status quo. Later that year in Chicago, the Board would meet to further discuss new solutions. But it was in a private meeting at the SPARS headquarters in Philadelphia that Joe Tarsia, Murray Allen, and Chris Stone made the first move to open up SPARS. Interestingly enough, this meeting did not deal with the rank and file but with yet another category of members, the manufacturers.
In the beginning, it was felt that the inclusion of the manufacturers as SPARS members in any category would diminish the organization’s ability to influence this group. It was Murray Allen who first pointed out that this had the odor of an adversarial relationship. Stone and the others were quick to see his point. If the manufacturers were included in a specific, non-voting category, perhaps they would feel more a part of the process, perhaps the lines of communication would be shorter and more cordial, and last, but far from least, SPARS would have their desperately needed financial support. A few of the larger manufacturers were contacted, and each expressed enthusiasm for the idea. By the General Membership Meeting that fall there were several manufactures ready to come on board. Ampex and MCI were the first to join, followed by 3M, Neve, Otari, and SSL.
The wisdom of this move has been demonstrated again and again. SPARS now had a more direct, convivial and formal conduit to the manufacturers. This would allow for the establishment of the manufacturer Interface Program, and would facilitate broader, more personal relationships among individual SPARS members and the sales and technical representatives of major manufacturers of audio recording equipment worldwide.
Still, the new Board was not finished sweeping aside the barricades. On October 30th, 1980, the General membership of SPARS voted to enact broad changes to the By-Laws. These changes incorporated a multi-leveled membership structure similar to the present [pre-’01] SPARS membership structure: Regular Membership ($1000 per year), Affiliate Membership ($500 per year), Advisory Associate Membership (Manufacturer, $2500 per year), Associate Membership ($250 per year). Here was a sudden, but not surprising, reversal of position: a two-class voting and studio structure, manufacturers were in as non-voting members, and most surprisingly so was almost everyone else.
It is certainly safe to say that much of this was financially driven. The Board was just beginning to get a general idea of what it cost to run a trade organization and what the cost of the kind of the quality programs they demanded would be. It is also likely that many of the Board Members were beginning to get some inkling of what the true potential for SPARS was. Perhaps they were beginning to envision a SPARS that was not only financially empowered, but also politically diverse: a more accurate mirror for the industry of the future.
Murray Allen (Universal Recording/Chicago) was elected to succeed Tarsia as President, and by the end of his term in the fall of 1981 the ground work would be laid for the even more sweeping 1982 By-Law revisions, including the $365 per year Regular Membership Category for the medium and small studios. Membership qualification continued to dominate SPARS politics well into the 1990’s as the organization worked to accommodate a rapidly diversifying industry. Still, the dialogues that characterized the membership issues of the 90’s would be mild and measured indeed compared the emotional exchanges of the early-‘80s, and the wounds from that initial controversy would be slow to heal.
SPARS UNDER THE FOUNDERS: 1981 – 1986
In the meantime, SPARS continued to stage high quality, topical programs for the entire industry. The October, 1980, meeting was followed by SPARS Audio Conference III, which was open to all, and included seminars on studio marketing, down-time management, and engineering practices. In January of 1981, despite continuing financial problems, the SPARS Board voted to stage the organization’s first independent event, SPARS Audio Conference IV, ‘Partners for Profit and Progress.’ The date was set for August, and Nashville was chosen as the site. Heretofore all SPARS seminars, conferences and panels had been held during AES. The success of these had been undeniable, but the SPARS leaders were soon to find that an independent event was more to manage than it appeared on the surface. It was hoped that the lure of a SPARS ‘stand alone’ extravaganza would boost awareness, membership and cement the organization’s position as a viable forum for industry issues, but advance bookings were slow to come, the hotels were demanding huge deposits and guarantees, and SPARS was essentially broke. By the May Board of Directors meeting, the sad handwriting was on the wall, and after consulting the Advisory Members who had agreed to participate and help finance the event, President Murray Allen announced the cancellation of the Nashville Conference.
It was decided that if the industry would not come to SPARS, that SPARS would go to the industry, so in the same announcement Allan announced the First SPARS Road Show, to be held first in Nashville, then in New York, L.A. and last in Dallas. This was billed, as ‘a nitty gritty look into the true state of the industry today.’
Despite the success of most SPARS programs, the organization was still facing serious financial problems. In early 1981, Nick Colleran (Alpha Audio/Richmond) had been appointed Comptroller. In addition to owning and operating recording studios, Nick was a CPA. He quickly put the books in order, and the dire reality of the financial situation became apparent. By mid-1982 SPARS could boast only 42 Regular Members, 6 Affiliate Members, 10 Advisory Members, and 30 Associate Members. The organization was more than $10,000 in debt and without a capable Executive Director. Additionally, there was growing uneasiness among some of the Manufacturer Advisory Members as to the direction of the organization.
Indeed, the direction of the organization was a problem. The fact was that in those days, there were about as many visions of the SPARS direction as there were Board members to envision them. At one end of the spectrum were those like Chris Stone who was elected as the third president of SPARS in October of 1981. Stone saw the organization as a powerful leader, and setter of standards for the manufacture and use of equipment, as well as for business practices. He envisioned an on-high, benevolent overseer of the audio recording world, whose job it was to guide, and educate and coordinate all within the industry. At the other end of the spectrum were those like Mack Emerman and perhaps even Joe Tarsia who saw the SPARS experience as more personal. This group saw a more modest organization, which would become a forum for ideas and for networking. In the middle were those like Bob Lifton who saw SPARS’s role as essentially technical, or Nick Colleran who saw the possibilities for SPARS as a beacon for the business side of the industry. In any case matching any of these dreams with the SPARS checkbook was no small feat.
With Chris Stones’s election to the presidency in late 1981, the SPARS office was moved from Philadelphia to L.A. and shortly thereafter the then-acting SPARS Executive Director, Ms. Bart DiGrazia, was replaced by a young graduate student from UCLA, Gary Helmers. The appointment of Gary Helmers was a key to the future, for he was to gently lead SPARS for the next five years through its formative period. In truth, Gary was more of the Chris Stone school in his vision of the organization’s destiny, still he had at least a loose grasp of the financial situation, and he was able to temper the Board’s grand vision with a degree of fiscal responsibility.
The history of this period was one of slow steady growth in membership, and continuing financial woes. The public perception of SPARS was always one of excellence – perhaps tempered with a little arrogance, for there were those who recalled the elitist image of the early days. Still, SPARS continued to put on quality programs through the presidencies of Mack Emerman (Criteria/Miami), Jerry Barnes (United Western/L.A.), Bob Liftin (Regent Sound/NY), and Len Pearlman (Editel/Chicago). During this period the groundwork was laid for many on-going SPARS programs: manufacturer interfaces, internship programs, testing program, business conferences, the SPARS digital code, and the database program. The diversity and perhaps inconsistency of the SPARS dream was evident in this array of programs some of which continue today and some of which have proved either too expensive or too unwieldy to manage over the years.
The largest and most ambitious of these programs was the SPARS National Studio Exam. In the early 1980’s, the educational horizon for prospective recording engineers was confused and bleak. There were few college and technical school programs available to prospective engineers, and the usual road to this career was via a series of internships and apprenticeships unevenly and often unfairly run by some studios. Accordingly, there was at that time a great need for studios to evaluate prospective employees and for prospective engineers and mixers to assess their own knowledge.
In 1984, with the help of a $50,000 grant from Sony, SPARS hired the Educational Testing Service to oversee the preparation, verification, and security of the SPARS National Studio Exam. Over its six-year life the test was taken by hundreds of students and professionals alike. By 1989 when the Board of Directors began to look into updating and reworking the exam, the educational landscape had changed dramatically, and the cost to update the test was out of reach. The Exam was discontinued in 1990, only to reappear in updated form in 1996.
Another early SPARS program was the SPARS code. This was the brainchild of Chris Stone and others, and it was designed for use with CD releases to delineate exactly which parts of the recording process were digital and which were analog. This program consisted of a series of guidelines set down by SPARS and given to CD manufacturers so that they might mark their product honestly and precisely. This program flourished until the early 1990’s. But by that time, the digital/analog technical scene had become so cluttered with conversions and algorithms for interface as to resemble rocket science, and many felt the SPARS code too simple to carry enough information to be meaningful. SPARS withdrew endorsement of the code in 1991. But many labels continued to use it, and the organization renewed its endorsement of the code in 1995.
A third ambitious project was the SPARS Database program, funded by a grant from 3M. An effort was made to collect financial and technical information about studios from coast to coast and to organize it into a database, which could be maintained and updated over the years. After a few years, costs began to prove unmanageable and a growing industry press, many of whom were beginning to publish annual studio directories of their own had access to more timely and more comprehensive figures, so the SPARS database ended almost before it began.
As early as 1981, the SPARS Board became interested in establishing a formal internship program. SPARS had been placing student interns in member facilities from an early date, but problems had arisen. Designing and executing a consistent program to fit the myriad needs of prospective interns and the diverse practices of the individual studios had proved difficult. The various studio members had wildly divergent ideas when it came to what an intern should be, do, and receive in return. Even the length of an internship was open for debate. Later on, as more colleges and universities began to offer formal commercial recording degrees, the situation became even more complex. It seemed that each institution had different requirements and expectations regarding internship. As a result, SPARS continued its rather ad hoc approach to its internship program, becoming a kind of clearinghouse to match the needs of member studios with the availability and inclinations of individual interns, and to put studio owners in touch with educators who had students ready for internship. Despite efforts to formalize the program including Gary Helmers’ three level scheme that was presented to the Board of Directors in 1984, the landscape proved too diverse to accommodate any strict form.
In 1983, SPARS began a program, which many would view as the personification of the organization’s purpose. The Manufacturer Interface Program began soon after the manufacturers were offered membership status. The idea was to create a forum, a two way street, for the flow of information, ideas, and industry attitudes and mindsets. A manufacturer could schedule an interface, and effectively spend a weekend with studio owners and operators from across the country. On one hand, SPARS members could have direct access to manufacturers to discuss new product development, service and pricing. On the other hand, manufacturers could assess the market place in a very specific and personal way. Early interfaces included 3M, Otari, Lexicon, SSL, Harrison, New England Digital, Sony, Studer, Dolby and others. Many SPARS studio members who participated in these meetings reported that they felt they had gotten more out of the exchange than the manufacturers. Still, the informational value of buyer perspectives and insights proved rewarding to manufacturers as well, not to mention the sales opportunities.
The early 1980’s saw the beginning of DATATRACK, the organization’s printed newsletter. At about the same time, the SPARS Hot Line or DATALINE was developed to act as a clearing house for industry questions on almost any subject. All the while, the monthly meetings in New York continued under the newly hired Northeast Coordinator, David Teig. These manufacturer-sponsored meetings at Gallagher’s Restaurant have become a New York institution and a model for SPARS chapters nationwide. Elsewhere across the country, SPARS’s efforts to establish local chapters had been less successful. The L.A. group had originally been an active chapter. But although a number of Los Angeles studios continued to support SPARS as a national organization, the local group soon lost momentum and disappeared. In Nashville, early efforts to form a SPARS charter there had come to nothing.
Perhaps the most successful of the early SPARS programs were the seminars, workshops, and conferences that the organization sponsored and the white papers and tapes with often followed these events. Notable among these gatherings were the Business Conferences held in Minnesota at 3M (1985); the Digital Conference held at the University of Miami (1984); a series of teleconferences linking participants in New York, L. A., Miami, Nashville, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and other recording Meccas (1983); and Business Conferences held in Anaheim (1984) and later in L.A. at UCLA (1986). These events were at the heart of the SPARS ideal. They were small, informal, open forums specifically targeted as to content, and brimming with information, controversy, opinion and insight.
Still, throughout the first half of the 80’s, SPARS growth remained slow and financial problems continued to plague the new organization. By 1985 membership had passed the 100 mark, with 81 studio members, 14 manufacturers, and 41 associate members. The operating deficit had grown to nearly $20,000 by this time with the year-end 1984 reporting a $14,000 loss on the heels of the festive fifth anniversary celebration at Studio 54 in New York.
REDEFINING SPARS: 1986 – 1993
In 1986, shortly after his election to the SPARS presidency, Len Pearlman announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer and resigned. Nick Colleran, the then First Vice President, assumed the presidency, and thus began a new generation of SPARS leadership. As the once beleaguered comptroller of the financially over-extended organization, Nick had had enough of spending, and under his presidency SPARS began to tighten its belt. Gary Helmers resigned to pursue another career and Shirley Kaye, a former SPARS studio owner and veteran SPARS Board member, took the Executive Director’s position in 1987. The national office was moved from L. A. to the Miami area where Shirley lived. Expenses were trimmed and membership efforts were redoubled.
Colleran and his successor to the presidency, Guy Costa (Motown- Hitsville/L.A.), were transitional. Although they had been with SPARS almost from the beginning, they were not typical of the founders. Tarsia, Allen, Stone and their followers had been giants in their day, men not only at the top of the recording business, but men heavily involved in what was then called, for lack of a better name, ‘the record business.’ Colleran had aspirations in ‘the record business,’ but his roots penetrated a broad spectrum of recording endeavors including audio for advertising and commerce. Costa was a ‘record business’ man all the way, but he worked for a large corporation, and accordingly his vision of SPARS and the recording industry was tempered with a careful institutional pragmatism.
Likewise, the SPARS presidents who followed Costa, Bruce Merley (1988-89, Clinton Recorders/NY), David Porter (1989-90, Music Annex/San Francisco), Pete Caldwell (1990-91, Doppler Studios/ Atlanta), Dick Trump (1991-92, Triad Productions/Des Moines) and Dwight Cook (1992-93, Cook Sound & Picture Works/Houston) were all men of practical vision. They saw the recording industry of the 90’s as a dynamic new place indeed, and they wanted to run SPARS like they ran their own businesses: prudently, confidently, expertly. Despite their personal individual successes, none of these men had any grand ideas beyond practical grasp. In general, some had their personal successes in ‘the record business,’ but all were well grounded in a more ‘full service’ vision of the audio recording studio including audio for video post production, sound for film and TV, custom recording, commercial and industrial recording, and advertising. Here again was a mirror for a quickly diversifying and even fragmenting audio recording industry and a reflection of the new technologies and mindsets that would be required to support it. In this spirit of diversity, SPARS changed its name in 1987 from The Society of Professional Recording Studios to The Society of Professional Recording Services.
This new recording landscape was baked in the heat of the so-called ‘home studio’ or ‘project studio’ controversy. As the industry fragmented, the technology and expertise, which many of the big studios had so carefully guarded for so long, was suddenly becoming widely available. Beginning in the 1980’s, many major American colleges and universities had introduced programs to teach ‘commercial audio recording.’ SPARS itself, with its technical and educational programs, certainly played a parallel role in the opening up of the recording business. But as small studios appeared in artists’ and producers’ homes and ad hoc operations sprang up on seemingly every street corner, some audio veterans were beginning to wonder if things hadn’t gone too far, too fast. Many pointed to the fact that serious problems of competition were arising. For example, some of these so-called ‘project studios’ had no business license, were in violation of local zoning ordinances and many operated in a naive vacuum ignoring conventional industry technical practices and even simple business ethics. Were these studios to be a part of SPARS? While many long-time audio professionals became incensed and controversy raged, SPARS presidents Merley, Porter and Caldwell stood by a view of a SPARS which would include all legal operations regardless of size, endeavor, or location. These men were opposed to any vision of SPARS as an industry policeman, and they rejected any mechanism through which the organization might presume to autocratically set and then attempt to enforce industry standards. The fact was that this kind of dialogue was not new to SPARS, for many of the organization’s original founders had envisioned exactly that.
Additionally, Merley, Porter and Caldwell believed that SPARS was trying to do too much, and that the quality of some programs was suffering along with the SPARS bank account. In 1989, just before the organization celebrated its tenth anniversary with a memorable and extravagant New York Harbor dinner cruise, it was resolved that SPARS would focus on a few meaningful programs and attempt to do them with precision and style. This eventually led to the demise of the original SPARS Test, DATALINE and other programs. Later, this strategy bore more contemporary fruit. Business conferences were reorganized, and held first at NYU and later at UCLA. DATATRACK was revived, and the internship program was revitalized with the help of a strong group of Educational Associate Members from major colleges and universities all over the country. In fact in 1992, SPARS won a grant from the TEC Awards to help support its intern programs. Through all of this Shirley Kaye proved both gifted diplomat and frugal pragmatist in her executions and insightful interpretations of the new Board’s policies.
Perhaps the most visible and influential new SPARS program of this era was the annual SPARS Digital Workstation Conference, with its timely, focused, and specialized analysis of disk based and non-linear recording technology. The first of these events was held in Chicago in 1989. Increasingly elaborate conferences followed in Nashville (1990), Orlando (1991), LA (1992) and New York (1993). The appearance of computer based products capable of flexible, high quality, digital recording, sound editing and other diverse manipulations had presented an enormous challenge for studio operators of the late 1980’s. Thus, the SPARS Digital Workstation Conferences were designed to clear up complex issues surrounding the quality, interface and application of this revolutionary new technology. Sessions were divided into two parts. The first day was devoted to extensive ‘head to head’ demonstrations of the different products and the second day to ‘hands on’ personal demonstrations.
Just as the digital workstation was redefining the recording industry, SPARS had been busy redefining itself. All through the early 1990’s ongoing efforts had continued to establish more local chapters built on the model of the successful New York chapter, progress in this area had been slow. L.A. seemed just to spread out both physically and philosophically, and Nashville remained a maverick town. Nonetheless, this period did see some success in this area as both Montreal and Toronto established acting local groups.
In 1993, Howard Schwartz was elected to the SPARS presidency. If anyone represented a truly a transitional figure, it was Howard. He was the last of the organization’s original founders to be elected president, and yet in many ways he reflected the new industry more than the old. Although Howard Schwartz had his roots in the ‘record business’ and operated a large studio complex, his professional success in New York had come largely in the area of audio for video post-production. Like the founders, he dreamed big dreams, but like the new breed of studio owners, he is also a pragmatist. One of Howard’s first jobs as SPARS president would be to plan and preside over the organization’s 15th anniversary celebration.
SPARS AS AN AUDIO INDUSTRY MIRROR: 1994-1999
To honor the fact that SPARS was founded on a boat and to follow the tradition of the 1989 10th anniversary trip on New York Harbor, the organization’s 15th anniversary was also celebrated ‘at sea.’ Out in San Francisco Bay on a beautiful October night in 1994, few of the revelers were reflecting on the staggering changes that the industry had witnessed over the organization’s short 15-year life. Still, the fact remained that, owing to a growing diversity of endeavor and a new generation of digital tools and techniques, the audio recording scene in America had been forever changed. Its landscape was no longer the domain of giants alone, and the terrain was quickly becoming quite varied. Many of the inhabitants of this new land were unlike anything out of the past. The history of SPARS in the five years following that memorable boat trip was indeed a clear reflection of the profound changes that our industry had undergone. We can see it clearly in an increasingly diverse membership, in dramatic changes in the composition of the Board of Directors, in the varied nature of many new SPARS programs, committees and events, and even in the careers of the SPARS presidents of the late 1990’s.
Steve Lawson (Bad Animals/Seattle) succeeded Howard Schwartz as the 1994-1995 SPARS president, and although at the time of his election, Lawson operated one of the premier music studios in the Northwest, his career had been spawned in voice-over and in advertising. In fact, Lawson’s Seattle core business grew out of a diverse array of audio services designed to accommodate an increasingly sophisticated and diverse marketplace. Likewise, 1995-1996 SPARS president John Fry’s Ardent Recording in Memphis was defined by a broad spectrum of audio and video services even though it included one of the city’s most successful and most celebrated music recording facilities. Tom Kobayashi followed Fry, and Tom’s career is perhaps the best example of the changing face of the audio industry. When Tom first joined SPARS in the early 80’s, he managed the vast audio facilities at George Lucas’ famous Skywalker Ranch in California. By the time he became SPARS president in 1996, he had supervised the construction of Lucas’ extensive audio complex in L.A and then branched out on his own to form EDNet (Entertainment Digital Network), a pioneer in the transfer of digital audio worldwide. New Yorker Lee Murphy was next. Murphy’s well-known boutique, Briggs Bakery, had a long history of creating sound for a select list of television clients. But by the time of his election to the SPARS presidency in 1997, Murphy’s award winning facility was typical of a fragmenting audio industry, which was suddenly overflowing with talented specialists. The 1998 SPARS president, Paul Christensen, followed in the same diverse mould. Christensen’s career had evolved out of live concert recording. Like the rest of this industry, his endeavors had their roots in the recording of music concerts, but concert venues have since become well known for its wildly varied spectacles.
Likewise, the composition of the modern Boards of Director also reflected sweeping changes in the industry. In the early days, the first Boards had been filled primarily with owners and operators of large studios, mostly in New York, L.A. and Chicago. In the 1990’s, a comprehensive geographical cross-section characterized the SPARS Board. A close look at this group reveals members from Montreal to Houston, from Seattle to Miami. To be sure, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were still well represented, but in between, virtually all of the secondary markets were included as well: Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Seattle, Miami, Tampa, Houston, San Francisco, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, and even Richmond and Des Moines. Similarly, the diversity of professional endeavor represented by the SPARS Boards of the 90’s reflected the detailed specialization that was appearing in the audio industry. Where early Boards were composed of the industry giants and ‘golden ears,’ who worked primarily in ‘record business,’ modern Boards contained small studio owners, post production pros, duplicators, concert sound specialists, even ‘sound designers,’ a term that did not even exist when SPARS was born.
Just as the diversity of the SPARS Board of Directors began to reflect an increasingly diverse industry, the variety of late 90’s programs also mirrored the industry’s complex needs. Certainly the most visible of these programs were the SPARS BizTech Conferences. By the mid-90’s, most audio professionals had begun to come to grips with workstation technology. Most studios had made their initial investment, conventions for use and interface were beginning to solidify, and the vast array of professional products was at last settling into definable categories regarding issues like quality, speed, and flexibility. Thus, it was decided that the annual SPARS Digital Workstation Conference would be replaced by an annual ‘Biz Tech’ Conference. This concept called for nothing less than broad band, comprehensive programs to address the on-going problem of continuing education for audio professions. The first of these conferences was held in North Hollywood in 1996. It was followed by BizTech ’97 in New York, BizTech ’98 in Nashville and BizTech ’99 in Chicago. Topics at the two-day seminars embraced myriad industry topics ranging all the way from marketing to digital file transfer.
Meanwhile SPARS made its appearance on the worldwide web. The SPARS home page went ‘live’ in 1995, and by 1999 the organization’s web site had become a comprehensive clearing house and jumping off place for scores of professional audio issues. With the success of the SPARS web site, DATATRACK, the organization’s newsletter, was discontinued in favor of a more direct, concise and frequent publication called DATAFAX.
But these high-visibility programs were not the only agenda that SPARS entertained as the 90’s evolved. By the early part of the decade, the ‘SPARS Educational Associate Members Group’ had grown to include representatives from almost every major U. S. colleges and universities offering serious professional audio curriculum. Inspired by this increasingly zealous and vocal presence, SPARS sought to create a point of liaison between these educators, their students and the real world of professional audio. Two major efforts ensued. Each was designed to aid these schools and the swarms of audio engineering and commercial recording graduates that were flooding industry job markets in the early 90’s. The first of these was an inventive white paper and database begun in 1992 by SPARS past-president David Porter (Music Annex/San Francisco). Porter first worked to create a comprehensive index of job descriptions employed by SPARS member studios. He then attempted to plug into this index a list of skills, techniques and core-knowledge that prospective applicants would be expected to possess in order to be seriously considered for each of these jobs. The end result was a white paper, which proved an invaluable tool in designing pro audio curriculum. SPARS then approached the problem of the quantifying the quality of this curriculum. Again with David Porter at the helm, the SPARS Test was brought out of mothballs, updated and revitalized. In late 1996, the new test was released for evaluation, and the SPARS Test was back in use by early 1997.
The diversity of other SPARS programs in the 1990’s was even more impressive. Purely technical matters were addressed as well as business related issues. On the business side, the SPARS Guide to Audio Industry Professional Practices was first published in 1993. This handy booklet was based on a similar publication of The International Telecommunications Society (ITS) and on a survey of SPARS member facilities. It included suggested guidelines for a broad spectrum of business issues ranging from cancellation policies and debt collection to sales tax issues and the ownership of master recordings. On the technical side, The SPARS Time Code Primer was published in 1995 and has become a vital reference tool for students and industry professionals alike. The model for The SPARS Time Code Primer came in the form of a pamphlet, originally published in French, by members in Montreal. This was later translated into English and then expanded by SPARS Director, Steve Davis (Crawford Communication/Atlanta) to create a comprehensive technical manual. The final product went a long way toward unraveling and explaining the mysteries surrounding the ubiquitous SMPTE/EBU time code and its myriad applications. Such an extensive document was long overdue in the audio and video industries, and it took SPARS to provide this much-needed overview.
Despite all of its diverse leadership and varied programmatic accomplishments in the last five years of the 20th century, the true test of SPARS as a mirror of the audio industry at the beginning of the 21st century is the diversity of its membership. When the organization began, there was only one kind of member, a ‘Sustaining Member,’ operators of large studios. But as the organization progressed, the leadership soon realized the need to include smaller studios, and the ‘Regular Member’ classification was added. At about this same time manufacturers were included as non-voting ‘Advisory Members’, and another non-voting class of ‘Associate Members’ was soon included to accommodate individuals. This was followed by the creation of a second class of Advisory Members to accommodate the increasing number of small manufacturers who were beginning to populate the recording landscape of the late 80’s. In 1995, a new class called ‘Individual Members’ was created to open the organization to a growing number of audio professionals providing industry services but not neatly fitting into any existing membership category.
Throughout the late 1990’s SPARS continued efforts to organize active local chapters. Progress was slow. In this period efforts centered on establishing local groups in L. A., Nashville, Minneapolis and Miami. At this writing, these efforts continue, and a number of local meetings have been held in these cities. Still, ongoing stable local chapter organizations have yet to fully emerge from these meetings.
SPARS began in 1979 with 32 members. In 1989, when the SPARS 10th Anniversary cruise boat left the wharf in New York, the organization had 138 members (17 Advisory Manufacturing, 72 Sustaining and Regular Studio members and 49 Associate members). On September 25, 1999, as the SPARS 20th Anniversary cruise boat leaves the wharf in San Francisco, about 250 members will be on board, including 132 Sustaining or Regular studio members, nearly double the 1989 total. Most importantly a cross-section of the 1999 SPARS membership reveals a constituency every bit as diverse as professional audio itself, a true mirror for the recording industry on the eve of the millennium.
A FUTURE OF POSSIBILITIES
The challenges for the future are many. Most the building blocks needed to realize the original founders dreams are today in place, but financial problems still plague this small and highly focused organization. This is nothing new. SPARS does not exist to make money. It exists to serve the industry, and the organization has always found ways to do just that.
Toward the end of its twenty-year history SPARS withstood serious challenges driven in part by ongoing controversy over the direction of the organization. The SPARS Board for a time seriously considered folding the organization into a larger and more financially successful group like The Audio Engineering Society (AES) or The International Telecommunication Society (ITS). Serious talks ensued especially with ITS. But many feared a loss of identity and/or control. After some gut-wrenching reflection, it was decided to continue the organization’s historically independent course. The truth was that, despite its growth and success, SPARS was still a maverick, and its members still represented a maverick breed of professionals no matter how sophisticated and diverse they had become. The professional audio industry requires a special kind of trade organization, one that is lean and agile enough to respond to blinding change.
The history of SPARS is particularly unusual because, in many ways, the organization was built from the top down. In the 70’s giants dominated the recording industry. These sometimes larger than life characters put together an organization, which reflected their recording world. Despite the fact that the industry was changing beneath their feet, their dreams for a SPARS that would serve studio members as an advocate, a teacher, a mentor, and a forum of the exchange of ideas and information have remained inspiring. Still, in an industry that was just beginning to discover its own ‘grassroots,’ it took a second generation of leadership to look into the mirror and build a firm foundation from which to launch the lofty dreams of the founders. And it will take a third generation of leaders to begin to fully realize those dreams.
SPARS is a small organization, and even if it were to double in size in the next five years (an ambitious but reachable goal), it would still be small. This is what the founders wanted: a lean, flexible body, responsive to changes in the industry; responsive to its own membership; and dedicated to excellence through innovation, education and communication. SPARS is poised in the exact right place in history with exactly the right tools and skills to become something even more forceful – something very useful indeed to every single member. SPARS can be just about anything it wants to be. The realization of this dream will require only two things of those of us in the audio recording industry: membership and participation. If you are not a member, join. If you are member, participate.