Did you ever play a house concert that was so well received, that folks wanted to take some of your music home? Who you gonna call? Did your band kill it on stage last night, and the sound man handed you a board-recorded CD with the comment that you should copy this? Who you gonna call? Do you have a really super batch of self-penned material that you need to get on a CD for your buddy in Nashville? Who you gonna call? Were you ever out on the road and need just a few more CDs for the merchandise table? Who you gonna call? Are you finally ready to record that award-winning album of original material that is going to put you up there with the A-list fellows? Who you gonna call? Well, recently, the Publisher called me and told me to grab my notepad, pencil, and tape recorder and join him on a road trip down to Front Royal, VA to the National Media Services facility.
One Stop Shop
National Media Services (NMS) is a full service operation that has a big heart for the weekend warriors who pick and sing music for the rest of us to enjoy. NMS is the only short-run manufacturer that will mix and match pricing for artists, for record labels and for companies that have multiple titles. They do it all, record and mix the studio master, design customized art for the packaging, duplicate CDs in large runs or as few as 50 pieces. Did I mention that they do all this in house?
Mike McCool began his long and winding road to NMS in the US military where he was taught a bit of electronics and given ample opportunity to put his skills to use. Mike put it this way, “You know how you’ve heard that when you are in the military never volunteer for anything? Well, that is wrong. What you really should do is volunteer yourself for everything. Trust me, when you volunteer for different things you get to try different things and find what suits you best.” This constant volunteering for special assignments eventually led to an assignment where Mike worked on complex tape recorders in air traffic control towers—Mr. McCool says that this assignment is where his interest in audio recording actually began. Following this long winding path of volunteerism led to Mike doing a stint as an on-air radio announcer; doing repair of various audio and audio/mechanical equipment; and gaining more and more training along the way. He ultimately joined the Command Services Unit, which is the military’s version of a publicity agency. At the same time, he garnered a side job of repairing tape duplicating equipment. The publicity part of the job led McCool to joining the Air Force band as a recording engineer where he produced, recorded, and distributed their shows to radio stations across the country.
By now, you can see where this long and winding path of expertise and experience is leading can you not? After 12 years, Mike retired to civilian life in 1979. He was already servicing commercial audio related equipment as a sideline while fulfilling his USAF band duty, so it seemed natural to continue that course full time for commercial duplication customers.
From Cassette To CD
One company proposed that he take the audio duplication equipment that he was servicing back to Front Royal and use it to do their duplication work there, which he did. Mike said, “He sold me the equipment, offered financial help, and a contract for me to do all his cassette duplication for him. So, I was suddenly in the tape duplication business as well as working on the equipment for others. All this led to me building a recording studio for a public service company in DC and this company in-turn employing me to duplicate and mail their recorded material from my Front Royal location. That is how we got started, we were duplicating tapes and mailing out tons of stuff. I tell people the new post office in town came about because of the volume of mailing we were doing.”
Alas, with the advent of the internet, rules changed for the distribution business. Mike said, “In six months that business was gone—wiped out.” He held on doing cassette duplication for 25 years but along came CD technology and the cassette duplication business dried up as well. Those notebooks filled with six cassettes and a workbook that he was producing and distributing for companies were no more.
Mike told me that most of the work that they had done up to that point was spoken-word and very little music. The in-house studio for the spoken word recordings was modest. Mike then said, “The music people found out about us and we started doing some packing and printing for that market. At that time, the minimum number of CDs one could order was 1000 to 2500 units. This meant that the small independent artist could not make those numbers pay out. This provided a niche market for us because most of our work was already hands-on and in small quantities.
More Than Duplication
“The problem with any of this work is not the media but the packaging. That means that this small artist that is trying to compete with the big guys has to have packaging that matches or is better than the quality of the big guy’s packaging. So, we made the capital expenditure needed to purchase quality packaging equipment. It paid off in increased business,” Mike added. The next step in the evolution of the business came when McCool obtained digital offset printing equipment and was able to produce high quality labeling for his product. He said, “This purchase changed our business completely. We were the only duplicating company in the country at that time to have this technology. With it, we could make our product look just like the big boys’ product. We then added the equipment needed to enhance the appearance of our discs.”
It is important to realize that with the addition of all this technology, NMS is one of only a couple short-run duplication companies in the country with this capability and technology, NMS is producing a short run product that equals the quality of product from high volume companies, and can do it faster. Here is how Mike puts it, “Once upon a time a customer needed to pick between speed, price or quality but now with our company you can pick all three.”
I asked Mr. McCool what prompted him to take the giant step into having a music recording studio. He told me that in the quest to be a one-stop shop he needed that last part. His take was, “We always had some recording capability in the form of a small booth but when a five piece bluegrass band came in to record and they couldn’t cram themselves into the space, we knew we needed a bigger audio booth. The big part was getting someone other than me to be the sound engineer.”
Mike continued, “There was a retired guy in the area that had a studio in his house and did some recording, and he knew some people in the bluegrass business. He came in here one day and asked if we had a recording studio. When I told him we did, he said that he’d like to work in it. The next thing I knew he brought his friends and they brought their friends and these folks told others and here we were with a steady stream of recording clients. Basically, my first engineer walked in the door with a customer list. So, we tore out some walls, set up shop, and kept expanding the thing as business grew. Eventually, he wanted to retire again. I thought, ‘what am I going to do now as good sound engineers are very hard to find’. The day George told me he was going to retire, Will Shenk, who is a Shenandoah University grad, walked in the door looking for a job. This had to be divine intervention to have two great sound engineers just walk in the door. Will has been here for 10 years now. Everything is great and he loves being here. That is how the studio got to where it is today, and it is booked solid 50 weeks a year.”
An artist can walk in the front door of NMS with a guitar; cut a carefully mixed and mastered recording of his work; and walk out the back door with a box full of professionally reproduced CDs that have been artfully labeled and packaged for his fans to enjoy. Sure sounds like a one-stop shop to me. Mike injected, “Anything you want done, we do it; and if not, we know a guy who does.”
Anual Holiday Project
I asked Mike if he would tell me a bit about the Christmas album that I had watched Will work on in the studio. He told me that this is the 10th year for NMS to do such a project. Here is how Mike tells it, “It started out as an idea for something meaningful the company could send to their customers as a special and unique Christmas card. At first we had some local folks come in and do some traditional seasonal cover songs. People loved it. So we thought that we would do that again the next year. For the first two or three years, we had some local people come in and record some material. The project became quite successful after about five years, and we needed to set some limits as to who would be featured on the CD and their quality as performing artists. We decided that the performers on the CD must be NMS customers and be professional artists who actually play in front of audiences. We want willing artists who want to be a part of this project and can see the value in being a part of it. Our Christmas albums have become well accepted, and in the past have featured some big name artists in the acoustic and bluegrass world with this year being no exception as it will feature Circa Blue Bluegrass Band.” It is worth noting that NMS pays for all the studio and production costs; and produces a sizable quantity of CDs that NMS uses for their own marketing purposes as well as 150 copies, which the recording artists can use as they wish.
So back to the original question of Who you gonna call? I think I would certainly call National Media Services in Front Royal, VA.