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An inside look at Belgium’s DAFT Recording Studios

A genius example of what a modern and client-friendly recording facility should look like, says Marc Maes

After 18 months of research, planning and building, a new residential studio has risen from nothing in the tiny Belgian village of Gerómont, 24km west of the German border. The brainchild of Stijn Verdonckt, the DAFT site includes spacious recording facilities and a 14-room lodge.

The story begins in late 2015, after seven years of studio management at La Chapelle and GAM studios, engineer and producer Verdonckt decided to invest in a new project. Backed by years of experience and an extensive network of clients, brands, engineers and bands, his plan was to build what is now one of the country’s biggest recording facilities.

He needed an accessible location for his project. Gerómont seemed ideal: set in the Belgian Ardennes close to both Germany and the Netherlands, the village is within two hours’ drive to Brussels, Antwerp and Cologne.

The ‘Manufacture de Malmédy’ umbrella was founded to finance the two buildings on the site, with investment fund Meusinvest and private investor Jean-Marc Bricteux joining majority shareholder Verdonckt. Management of the operation is handled by ‘Anothersound’ BVBA.

Verdonckt started building the studio at the end of 2015. In order to maintain contact with his target clients, he brought in creative projects such as the ‘insta-vinyl’ tram studio (see PSNEurope March 2016). As planned, DAFT Recording Studios hosted the first trial recording session at the end of last year, and become fully operational in January 2017.

The thinking was ‘big’ from the word go: DAFT offers a huge 220sqm, 8m-high main hall (pictured) – making it one of the biggest recording wood rooms in Europe – plus four additional recording booths, and a spacious control room featuring the country’s first Rupert Neve 5088 console. “The whole studio was built as a box-in-box construction, offering plenty of daylight throughout,” explains Verdonckt. (A vast window looks out over the Ardennes forest, for example.) Dutch company AudioWorkx came onboard to assist with acoustic design. Verdonckt: “We covered all the walls with a variety of Akotherm noise absorption materials and 3.60 m high wooden panels with moulded 3D triangles to avoid parallel surfaces.”

A new Rupert Neve Designs 5088 discrete analogue mixer is the centrepiece of the 70sqm control room. “Stijn was on the lookout for a new large format console,” says Filip de Vos of (Rupert Neve Designs Benelux distributor) Jukebox Ltd. “The new 5088 console, equipped with 5051 and 5052 compressor and mic pre-amp modules, offers an incredible sound. The desk has been completely designed by Mr. Neve himself. Its single-sided circuit topology and transformer-coupled inputs and outputs produce 10dB more headroom and an [huge] dynamic range. But it’s a pure A to Z audio console, without features like ‘total recall’ and with less automation than, for instance, the [SSL] Duality.”

Verdonckt admits that the new 5088 console (pictured) was more expensive than a secondhand desk, but he’s convinced that the excellent sound will attract new clients. And of course, he expects it to be more reliable.

Like the analogue recording desk, all of the control room’s equipment is transformer-driven. “We’re probably the country’s only studio where every piece of equipment has its own transformer,” continues Verdonckt. “And that’s what you hear: we’re in a completely new building and there’s no interference, extremely high signal-to-noise ratio, no buzz or whatsoever. We have galvanic (complete) isolation throughout the building: there are no earth loops, the whole system is completely balanced.”

A major draw to the facility will be the impressive collection of vintage backline gear, instruments, microphones and so on, made available through Ives Mergaerts’ KICK APS rental operation. Verdonckt and Mergaerts are old friends. “We have formed a strategic partnership that will continuously be expanding our existing inventory from now on,” Verdonckt says.

Hence, there are some rare pieces in the outboard inventory: a hand-made Oram Sonics mastering EQ, a hand-made JoeMeek vintage compressor, four Pultec EQs, a Klark Teknik spring reverb, AMS reverb and delay, and Lexicon PCM reverbs and more. “Thanks to our partnership with Kick APS, we have been able to put this fabulous line-up together,” enthuses Verdonckt.

DAFT hosts a Pro Tools HDX system, a required standard in a modern recording studios. In addition, the control room is equipped with a direct recording vinyl cutter. “It’s nice to hand out a genuine vinyl copy to bands who come to mix here,” says Verdonckt. “We add a ‘material object’ to what we do. In these days of streaming, it’s a nice extra for the band, who, in the past, left the studio with a master-tape copy.”

The control room’s main monitors are B&Ws new 800D3 series, powered by a Lab.gruppen C16:4 4 x 400W amplifier: Verdonckt says he’s never heard speakers offering such high definition and yet so natural sound. “You even notice small imperfections in existing recordings, allowing us to work pretty much in detail, while maintaining a natural and agreeable sound, and that’s what counts.” However, he remains faithful to his favourite Quested S8 speakers as nearfields. “But producers are free to bring in their own main and near field enclosures if they want to – flexibility is key here,” he adds.

On top of everything, Verdonckt (pictured) has paid utmost attention to the comfort of studio clients. “Our baseline for the studios is ‘Welcome home’. “Instead of bringing the studio to their home, as many do today, we bring home to the studio, to assure artists can give the best of themselves during their stay.”

In addition to a top-floor penthouse with bar, kitchen and four bedrooms, Verdonckt built a 14-room lodge next door. The house bar, wellness area with indoor pool and a fully fledged cinema room can either be used for leisure, but also for bursts of creativity, writing sessions, pre-production and suchlike. “We used over two kilometres of Van Damme cable, Cat-6 and coax cabling and over 180 patch points to link up the recording area with the control room, the top floor residence and the guest house, allowing bands to work from almost any room in either building.”

Despite the substantial investment, Verdonckt decided not to raise the studio rates in comparison to La Chapelle. “We want to continue working with our existing clients,” he underlines. “I’d prefer a fully booked studio maintaining affordable rates rather than doubling the rate and have seven recording days per month. Today, nobody’s seen or heard the studio and we’re booked up solid until the end of April. People trust in what we do and the quality we stand for.”

Kicking off quickly in the new year, the first recording session at DAFT was with dark metal band Amenra (Levy Seynaeve pictured) and US producer Billy Anderson (pictured top), cutting an album before their world tour.

“This is the result of 18 months of building and supervising, but in the end, I’m convinced that the unique combination of the studio’s location, acoustics, control room, console and outboard gear – all top notch quality – will bring DAFT Recording studio to a higher level,” states Verdonckt. “I can’t wait to start working in the studio myself!”