How Recording Studios are Adapting to the Pandemic: an Interview with Pollen Music Group

It’s hard to think of an industry not impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in the last year. Live concerts (in their traditional format) are essentially out the window, studio recordings pose constraints on time and collaboration, and creatives across disciplines are being forced to rethink how to both create and share their art with the world.

For the purposes of today’s conversation, well be ‘sitting down’ with San Francisco based Pollen Music Group to discuss their adjustments to the pandemic and how they’ve made their studio, Decibelle Recording, a covid-safe facility for artists. Built in Noe Valley in the mid 70’s and acquired by Pollen in 2006, Decibelle can be used for making and scoring music for streaming, broadcast, and theatrical productions.

L-R: Alexis Harte, JJ Wiesler, and Scot Stafford of Pollen Music Group

Since covid hit, Pollen remodeled Decibelle to make it safer for continued use throughout the pandemic. In addition to introducing new software (like Soundwhale) to sharpen audio quality, they’ve added Hepa air filters, which clear the air during and after sessions, and a collapsible stage that allows for the studio to become socially distanced office space.

As for the work, Pollen is a full service music production company and team of engineers, data scientists, and audiophiles under one roof. They produce custom scores, curate their own library of music for licensing, and specialize in animation and immersive audio.

In the spirit of new forms of live entertainment during coronavirus, (like Travis Scott performing in a Fortnite map) much of Pollen’s work involves “intuitive sonic experiences” in interactive spaces like virtual live concerts or games. In our interview below we talk recording studios during covid, immersive sound and VR music, optimized workflows, and a bit about creative routines.

Inside Decibelle Recording Studio

Some of Pollen’s past projects include: Back to the Moon, Gorillaz: Saturnz Barz, Bonfire, and The Simpsons: Planet of the Couches. They’ve also used Decibelle studios for the recording of the Netflix children’s show Trash Truck, and upcoming Tribeca film Baba Yaga.

Andrew: How have you been adapting to the coronavirus pandemic and staying productive when physical spaces present risks?

JJ: Pollen’s niche is in animation and immersive projects (VR/AR). Fortunately animation is more a distributed production that doesn’t require teams to be in the same room, so while we did have some delays in our timelines, the productions we were working on continued to completion.

At the studio, we did cancel our music sessions, and focused our energy on building out our mix stage to include Dolby Atmos. Once complete we hosted remote sessions, using a really clever piece of software called Soundwhale. It’s still sort of in beta, but their service was amazing and got us to a workflow that worked for us. I do recommend it.

Andrew: What sort of long-term changes in the music and recording industry do you think will result from the pandemic? (That is, short-term changes potentially having relevancy long-term.)

JJ: I believe more remote work will be supported going forward. Distributed teams, especially in animation have been around for a while, but workflows have become more optimized and collaboration tools are getting better and better. Pollen also has a research department where we support engineering teams that are wanting to use spatial audio in their products or experiences.

L-R: sketching, in the studio, and speaker installation in Decibelle Recording Studio

One of the things we’ve been working on are building some tools to improve audioUX in communication platforms. Pollen has its own ambisonic decoder that is optimized for fidelity and musicality. Other decoders use a series of filters that attempt to recreate the physics of how humans hear, but this can degrade the quality of the sounds. Instruments sound unnatural and sound design can suffer.

We are attempting to solve this with our decoder. We also have some other projects in the shop that look at creative ways to use spatial audio and spatial awareness to create better and more intuitive sonic experiences in communications and other interactive experiences like virtual live shows and games.

Andrew: How does the role or significance of music in cinema or video games change when brought into a VR space?

Scot: VR and other immersive formats can put you in the middle of a full 360º sphere of sound. At the same time, we can differentiate between sounds that are external — all around us — and internal — inside our heads, in a way that really isn’t possible in any other format. Whether music or sound design, the creative possibilities are pretty exciting for creators and their audience.

And other than heightening the sense of immersion, musical score plays the same role as it does in film and video games. Sound design takes on a different dimension in VR. Because we give our audience the camera, creators need to give cues and otherwise tell the story all around us. Since we can only see a small portion of the world at any time, but we can hear everything, sound plays a much bigger role in VR.

This is the reason we’ve been invited into the creative process much sooner than in other types of media where sound can be more of an afterthought. In many projects, it’s been a director’s most important tool, so understanding all of the technical and storytelling aspects of immersive sound is key.

The idea for Sonaria was conceived by Scot Stafford, creative director of music and sound for all the Google Spotlight Stories projects. Stafford co-directed the short with L.A.-based animation studio Chromosphere.

Andrew: Do you (as a group, or individually) have any creative routines or habits you’d like to share?

JJ: I am looking forward to returning to a world in which we have the space to focus our time on more singular tasks. Having a studio outside the house has been essential for me. I am also taking this time to better optimize how I record in the studio. I am trying to get to a more Motown set up, where all the instruments are mic’d up and ready to go at all times. A place where it’s not about infinite options. The drums have a sound, piano and B3 are available by just record enabling the tracks.

Musicians are encouraged to use the house instruments, and amps. Recordings that come from Decibelle will have a definite sound, not only from the room, and recording equipment but from the workflow.

Scot: Full-time working parents with young children have had it rough. I’m lucky in that both of my kids are a bit older and adapted surprisingly well to remote learning. While embedded in the Google Spotlight Stories team (Creative Director of Music & Sound), I worked on 17 of the coolest projects happening. But I was also a “megacommuter” which killed my creativity and threw my life out of whack.

This pandemic has been terrible, but forced focus, and kept me in my home studio. If I get an idea, my instruments are right here. And I’m making dinner and seeing my wife and kids every day. I’m writing the best music of my life. It’s something I hope to hold onto as the world gets back to normal… if I can. TL;DR: DO NOT COMMUTE.

Andrew: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JJ: Thanks so much for speaking with us. Pollen has some really exciting creative projects coming up in this year and some slated for the years to come. These include other Netflix productions and our first animated feature film. We are looking forward to being able to announce them when they are official. Check out www.pollenmusicgroup.com for the latest news!

Resources / For Creatives

*This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity. All images provided courtesy Impact24 PR.

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.