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Noises Off

The sound and the fury at a Queens recording studio.

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Twenty-four years after Lou Reed released his electronic-noise opus Metal Machine Music, the rocker's recording schedule has been disrupted by a giant, all-too-literal metal machine -- a 640-ton rock-eating monster.

In late April, just one month before Reed was slated to begin work on a new album at Astoria's Master Sound, engineer David Merrill was recording the New York Chamber Orchestra when he noticed a low-pitched rumble in Studio A1. "It sounded like a jet plane," he recalls. "Really far away." To Maxine Chrein, an owner of Master Sound, the noise was more ominous: "Like you were on the Titanic."

All recording studios are, of course, constructed to minimize unwanted noise. But Chrein's 2,400-square-foot facility was designed to be even more impervious than most. Housed in the basement of the Kaufman Astoria film and television studios, Master Sound's control-room floor is filled with sand to add vibration-deadening mass; the building's pilings, sunk all the way to bedrock, insulate the studio from traffic noise. "For people who are really fussy, it makes a huge difference," says Chrein. When Master Sound opened in 1984, it made the covers of Science News and several audio-engineering journals. Plácido Domingo, Keith Richards, and Itzhak Perlman are a few of the perfectionists it has satisfied.

Over the next few weeks, the mysterious sound erupted at irregular -- but always inconvenient -- times, baffling engineers and scotching more than one recording session. "We thought it was the air-conditioning," says Merrill. The situation was becoming distressing -- and costly. Then someone noticed a crew from the city's Department of Environmental Protection working near the studio. Construction on City Water Tunnel No. 3 had reached the neighborhood, and 700 feet below, a tunnel-boring machine -- a Brobdingnagian drill with a bit 23 feet in diameter -- was chewing its way through the ultra-hard layer of gneiss that lies beneath Queens. Ironically, vibrations from the digging were being telegraphed into Master Sound by the very pilings that normally isolate the studio from external noise.

The water tunnel, under construction since 1970, is the largest public-works project in city history -- when finished, it will snake 60 miles beneath four boroughs, carrying 1 billion gallons of water per day. Despite the scale of the endeavor, though, its progress had gone largely unnoticed by surface dwellers -- until the vibrations began plaguing Master Sound. "It's embarrassing for us," admits DEP chief of staff Charles Sturcken. "We're the agency you go to with noise complaints."

The official contrition is little comfort to Chrein, who had to cancel Reed's big-money session only a week before it was to begin. Master Sound is in deep financial trouble, with all employees laid off indefinitely. "I am rapidly going out of business," Chrein says matter-of-factly. "There's no money for payroll." She has filed a claim with the city for the income she lost on Reed's session and two other bookings -- an amount "in the six figures," she says. But her business may get buried before she sees the money. For his part, Reed (who has moved to another, unnamed studio) offers vague, if sincere, condolences: "It's terrible what the city did to them."

Sturcken, while sympathetic to Chrein's plight, notes that the tunnel is an even bigger New York phenomenon than Lou Reed. "Even if we stopped," he maintains, "we'd have to start again eventually, and she'd have the same problem all over again. We're between a rock and a hard place."


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