The Sparty Spark: Can Lansing Become an Entrepreneurial Hotbed?
Lansing, Michigan is still in the very early stages of its evolution, with entrepreneurs setting the stage for future economic success.
Remember the guy in those commercials who would show up in strange places with a phone stuck to his ear and ask, “Can you hear me now?” At Creative Sound Concepts, in Atlanta, Georgia, that’s never been a problem. Because since 1982, Spencer Herzog and the crew at his studio have been producing, recording, editing, and basically specializing in sound design for television, film, radio, interactive, and corporate communications.
For more than 33 years, Creative Sound engineers have watched corporate bigwigs, television and movie personalities, politicians, NASCAR drivers, even a baseball king, among others, step up to their microphones and deliver their messages. People like Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy; actors Stephen Baldwin, Zac Efron, Ryan Seacrest, and Louis Gossett, Jr.; former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes; and Hank Aaron have kept things interesting and busy.
“It’s a fun business,” says Herzog. “I do have to say that one of my favorites was Tom Kane. He’s the current voice of Yoda. And when he came in for another project, I asked if he’d do a greeting to my two kids as Yoda. He was more than happy to oblige, and I got to be a hero for at least one night at home.”
From humble beginnings, through a devastating fire, then a forced displacement courtesy of Atlanta’s rapid rail system, the studio found its current location in the northwest section of town in 2001, with no plans to ever move again.
“We started in a friend’s basement,” says Herzog. “My original partner and I had both been in bands, and when he joined the Army I went into the record business. When he got out, he still wanted to do something in the audio world. So we just thought we’d make a living recording bands.”
Quickly finding out that wasn’t going to pay many bills, they began marketing their audio services to corporations, productions companies, and advertising agencies. Their long list of clients includes Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, UPS, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche (“We don’t discriminate when it comes to luxury cars,” laughs Herzog), Kimberly-Clark, Nike, Eli Lilly, and a host of other corporate entities.
They’ve also done audio work for Disney/Univision, Weinstein Films, Hawaii Five-O, and movies such as The Blind Side, which filmed several scenes in and around Atlanta. And most recently, Creative Sound has recorded some of the voices for The Walking Dead video game.
In the beginning, “It was a tape and LP kind of business,” says Herzog. “It was all razor blades and grease pencils. People were still driving around with cassette and 8-track tape decks in their cars. CDs were just starting to change the recording world. We had libraries of music and sound effects, all on vinyl. And you had to be kind of dexterous to make everything work at the same time. The LPs had to be cued live. That meant perhaps you recorded a voice on a 2-track machine, and music on another. Then you got the LP ready by hand, listened for the voice, released the playing arm on the LP, and faded it up at just the right time.”
Changing technology, of course, has been and continues to be a constant in the business. “We’re always looking for new plug-ins to add to our bag of tricks, but not necessarily to make major investments on a regular basis,” says Herzog.
Not that there haven’t been extensive overhauls. “The way Avid (Pro Tools) has designed their program and support, we end up buying new computers and hardware every three to five years,” he says. That’s been more than a little frustrating from the start. “They stop supporting legacy products and force you to buy into newer technology even though the older products still perform well.”
New options are often discussed with other audio and video engineers along with the distributors of the products. Today, tutorials for just about everything are available online, but it wasn’t always thus. “When we adopted Pro Tools in 1993, there weren’t any training programs or schools that I was aware of,” says Herzog. Creative Sound was fortunate enough to have an audio guru in town that mentored them through the transition. “That was probably the biggest total overhaul we’ve gone through.”
As might be expected, changing and updating is never cheap. “I’m typically not the first in line for new technology,” reports Herzog. “I prefer to let the early adopters pay the higher price for R&D and work out the kinks.” That still doesn’t mean that keeping up isn’t expensive. “The digi beta video deck is a perfect example,” says Herzog. “We paid over $60,000 for that but it was a ‘had to have’ to keep the then-current business and attract new clients. It was the right thing to do at the time and it worked well . . . until the next latest and greatest device came along to replace it. The deck is still in our machine room but its only real use at this point would be a door stop or boat anchor.”
Herzog moved the studio into its first real location in about 1984. His partner went on to do live-to-television sporting events while Spencer stayed with the recording and editing side of the business. One year later, there was a fire – next door. “Our neighbors, an Atlanta Journal and Constitution warehouse, burned to the ground. The smoke damage to the studio ruined all of our equipment.” Besides that, though, all was good until one day in 1998. “March 9th,” recalls Herzog. “My son’s third birthday.”
Creative Sound and about 100 other businesses were informed by letter that MARTA was about to expand and come right through the area they occupied. Some closed shop and walked away. Others, like Creative Sound, found great new space, but at a cost.
In what Herzog can only describe as great timing, “We officially moved the week after September 11, 2001. We were bleeding money with all the set-up costs, and we were in a beautiful new facility. But there wasn’t a piece of work to be had. The day after 9/11, everybody stopped their projects.”
In the ensuing successful 14 years, the business has seen not only technological changes, but attitudinal and quality differences in the field. Everything, of course, is now digitized. “You can see everything on the computer screen,” says Herzog. “And you can kind of ‘eyeball’ where sound effects, music and voices are supposed to be. I can play with sub-frames within 1/30th of a second.”
All of which should make the whole process go smoother and quicker, right? It would, says Herzog, “if people could make up their minds.” Because the technology to change things is quick and accessible, clients can explore every option. “Way back when, we had to do every piece of the puzzle physically. It wasn’t easy to change. You had to commit to an idea and where you were going. Now, maybe there are just too many options.”
What keeps Herzog showing up at the studio every day is the variety of projects. On one recent typical day, “We were finishing up a piece for Porsche for the opening of their North American headquarters here in Atlanta. Then a new client from Baltimore came in to record some radio spots for a local Nissan car dealership. That also involved mixing music. After that, we moved onto a project called Wings of Flight. It’s a simulator ride where you get in a room that moves, you see the film, you’re surrounded by sound, and can trace everything from the Wright Brothers through the planes of today. It’s always something different.”
What’s changed the most in 33 years is the advent of basically home videos. Everybody has a camera and a microphone of sorts. “Frankly,” says Herzog, “the bar as far as quality is concerned has fallen dramatically because we’re living in a YouTube world. Everybody with a computer can be a competitor. Younger members of the creative field can sometimes be okay if the finished product looks and sounds like something you’d see on Facebook.”
Fortunately, there are still many who demand high quality, and that’s the work that stands out in the marketplace. “We do have a lot of people who come in with video or audio and say, “Can you fix this?” I always tell them, “Well, I can make it better, but I can’t make it right.”
Despite the changing dynamics, with a long list of satisfied clients over the years, Creative Sound Concepts is still making joyful sounds every day. The studio’s tagline is “Sound starts here and goes everywhere.” And you can bet that if a fire, YouTube, and an entire light rail system haven’t stopped the show, there’s nothing that will. Can you hear them now?