Saturday, March 08, 2008

Richmond's Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom

I like living in Virginia because there are so many different places to visit, all with their own unique character. You've got the famous sites like Colonial Williamsburg, Jefferson's Monticello near Charlottesville, Bull Run Battlefield near Manassas...beaches, mountains, valleys, cities, and no shortage of historic sites everywhere you turn.

The capital of Virginia is Richmond, about 2 hours from where I live in Harrisonburg. Richmond is...complicated. In a city that would have been the capital of the Confederate States of America had the south won, there's a lot of baggage, as you might imagine. Richmond has a higher crime rate than many other parts of the state. It also is a place where ancestry carries a certain weight. A friend once told me that First Family of Virginia (FFV) status isn't even enough to stop the line of questioning that begins with "who are your people?" "My people are the Taylors" might just as well be answered with "the John Q. Taylors or the Samuel P. Taylors?" Even before we became a family through adoption, I viewed these status transactions for what they are, a substitution of past bloodlines for present accomplishment. I can't help but think that the racial tensions that flare up in Richmond aren't helped by people who take so much identity and status from ancestors who chose aristocracy over meritocracy. Richmond is a very conservative town, as you might imagine.

But to be fair to Richmond, it's not a time capsule of the Old South. It's a thriving city, growing fastest at the periphery but slowly reinvigorating the central downtown. Richmond has a lot of young professionals, a lot of young families raising kids, the events calendar of a big city with the feel of a smaller town. I have several friends who've settled in Richmond since college and they love living there. I've been to rock concerts on the James River and a great Greek festival, and suburban Richmond has Short Pump mall, which is nicer and easier to get to from Harrisonburg than Tysons Corner in northern Virginia.

There are some major corporate headquarters there, including Circuit City and several banks. Big Tobacco is also a major player in Richmond. One of the biggest ad agencies in the country, The Martin Agency, is in Richmond. Their clients include UPS and Geico (yep, they came up with the Geico gecko). Richmond has a minor league baseball team that draws sellout crowds in the summer. It also has the Museum of the Confederacy and the Children's Museum of Virginia, University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University. It has an amazing grand old theatre which used to be called The Mosque, but which is now called "Richmond's Landmark Theatre." Built in 1926 as a meeting place for Shriners, the Landmark is the largest proscenium theatre on the east coast, with room for and audience of 800. If it were up to me, I'd still call it The name a great jazz player, and they played The Mosque...the concert albums would say "live from The Mosque, Richmond" on their album cover, and now that connection is broken. But ah, controversy. Baggage. Richmond.

I was in Richmond yesterday for a recording session at Rainmaker Studios, which is in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Richmond (goes back to the 1700's), Shockoe Bottom had a major setback when a hurricane caused flooding in 2004, and it's still awfully quiet down there, many buildings unoccupied or boarded up. Some buildings had to be condemned because of the flooding. It doesn't look as though the neighborhood is in a hurry to fix itself up again.

My appointment at Rainmaker wasn't til 12:30, but I got down there about 10am just to make sure I could find both the building and a parking spot. No problem there, so I followed my friend C's advice and headed northwest on Main Street to another old neighborhood called Shockoe Slip, with its cobblestone streets and old tobacco warehouses converted into cute boutiques and restaurants. The Martin Agency's oh-so-cool headquarters are down there too. I decided to grab some tea and a muffin in the coffee shop right next to The Martin Agency, figuring it would be fun to see a bit of that beehive. I wasn't disappointed. The coffee shop was almost an advertising archetype of its own: exposed brick walls, a tin ceiling painted off-white, big old rough-hewn support beams from the building's warehouse days, wood floors, and of course intimate little seating areas, where Martin Agency higher-ups were strategizing over sleek laptops, discussing demographics and focus groups and niches and images. How do I know they were higher-ups? Because the assistants and interns can't hang out in a cool coffee shop at 10am on a Friday!

I hung out at the long wooden counter, sipping tea and reading the Richmond Times-Dispatch. People were buzzing about the fact that Tom Hanks is going to be in Richmond this weekend for an HBO premiere party for its new John Adams miniseries. One guy at the bar got us all going with his deadpan question, "is Tom Hanks a basketball player or something? Who is that?"

About noon, I headed back down to Rainmaker and parked near a sign posted by the Richmond Police, warning me to secure my valuables to avoid becoming a victim of larceny. Lovely. I rang the Rainmaker doorbell and felt the excitement starting to build. For months, I have been working toward a demo for my voiceover business (voiceover artists narrate everything from tv commercials to movie trailers to audio books), and yesterday was The Big Day. Basically a demo is a sampler of different styles of voiceover you can do. It's your calling card for potential clients to hear how you sound and how far you can stretch vocally. It's a big deal.

A woman buzzed me in, came to greet me, and asked "who are you here with?" I guess they are used to working with groups of people...teams of musicians working on movie post-production, Martin Agency people coming in with voice talent to record a commercial, etc.

I just said "I'm" My audio engineer, J, came out to meet me and led me back to the control room, which was designed by a London-based acoustic architectural firm. It was beautiful! J and I talked about the ways in which the room was very typical of a London sense of style, and I agreed that one of the cool things about European design sensibilities is the marriage of the very old with the very new. Somehow it feels even more modern to me when something really old is thrown into the mix...otherwise I feel like I'm in some Stanley Kubrick movie, no rootedness. The control room has indigenous-feeling materials...lots of brick, as well as hickory floors, but it also has unmistakably modern shapes and colors: deep blue walls, bright orange accents in Dr. Seuss shapes (meant to absorb certain sound frequencies), copper-covered doors that weigh 450 pounds each, faced in copper to reflect certain sound frequencies. Perforated copper panels on the ceiling prevent "standing waves" from forming between the floor and ceiling, which would prevent the audio engineer from hearing certain frequencies. It is an unbelievably cool place for a recording session. Oh--and J said he'd just recorded William H. Macy there on Thursday...wish I'd had a chance to shake that hand!

Soon it was session time, and I walked into my booth. The soundproofing makes the room into a veritable bank vault for sound. Two brick walls, with soundproofing between them, surround the space. A 450-pound door from the hallway leads to a second 450-pound door into the actual booth, making a "sound lock" between them. Inside, hickory floors, soundproof panels on the ceiling, perforated copper panels and sculpted foamy sound baffles on the walls and in the corners. In the center (cue the celestial choir) a Neumann TLM103 microphone, worth several thousand dollars, a music stand, a stool. Through the magic of technology (more on that in a moment), we were soon connected to a recording studio in L.A. and my teacher/director N was able to talk to me in my Richmond headphones.

Then, technology let us down. An hour into the session, our digital connection went down. For an hour. I was only supposed to have two hours in the studio, and N had someone waiting to record via SourceConnect from Tennessee right after my session. J and I sat around chatting some more, waiting for SourceConnect to get their server back up...I had a cup of hot & sour soup that the Rainmaker gofer was sent to pick up from a nearby Chinese restaurant. Finally we were connected again and finished up, and that was it. I can't wait to hear how it all turns out...all that training, preparation, excitement and money will result in about 90 seconds of audio that we're betting is going to leverage more voiceover work. Hope it works!

Maybe someday I'll have a Neumann in my own sound vault. And who knows? Maybe next time I'm at Rainmaker, I'll be with the group from The Martin Agency. Here's to that.

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