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Analogue days are here again: British Grove at 10

A studio combining the best of old and new technology, Mark Knopfler's London studio complex is, 10 years from hosting its first commercial sessions, going from strength to strength

Located discreetly down a nondescript street in Chiswick, west London, British Grove has quietly but assuredly become one of the capital’s most highly respected studios. Opening for its first full-album sessions in January 2005 – specifically, the eponymously-titled second long-player by Razorlight – the two-studio facility has also remained consistently busy during a decade of decidedly mixed fortunes for the commercial recording sector.

Of course, its progress has hardly been hindered by the fact that its instigator and owner – singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Knopfler – has regularly occupied one or other of the rooms with his own projects. Bucking the general way of things, the former Dire Straits frontman has actually become more prolific with the passage of time, and this month releases his latest solo album to be recorded and mixed at British Grove, Tracker.

In interviews given at the time of the studios’ launch, Knopfler repeatedly spoke of a desire to mesh the best elements of old and new technology – and a spec that finds room for two vintage EMI consoles alongside a Neve 88R desk (main picture) and Pro Tools 11 rigs might reasonably be said to fit that brief. But the same might be said of the personnel, with studio manager David Stewart and consultant David Harries – both mainstays of the London studio scene – working alongside young engineers trained primarily in-house.

“We have grown very slowly and without making a great deal of fuss about it, but I think we have established our own particular niche. It’s served us well,” remarks Harries as he sits down with Stewart and PSNEurope to recall selected highlights from British Grove’s first ten years.

Low-key launch
A minimum of fuss – and, more to the point, publicity – is indeed characteristic of the British Grove story. Instead, word of the studios’ formidable inventory and distinguished staff has been allowed to spread incrementally – resulting in an increasingly diverse workload spanning ‘traditional’ band sessions, orchestral recording and film scores.

But fundamental to the studios’ initial development was Knopfler’s own vision of his (increasingly sizeable) band “to be able to record together. That meant that we had to have a double-height space and plenty of booths to be able to achieve isolation for all the musicians,” says Stewart (pictured, left, with Harries).

Identifying the right location, however, was easier said than done, and multiple spaces – including several existing studios – were considered before work got underway at the current site in 2002. Renovation and construction took two years rather than the initially predicted one, although a stretched timescale is hardly uncommon in “a building of this remarkable level of technical complexity”, notes Stewart.

British Grove looked to the past for one of its earliest and most successful projects – a 5.1 reissue of Dire Straits’ 1985 classic, Brothers in Arms, that subsequently won a Grammy Award. But ‘fresh’ work wasn’t slow in coming, and over the last few years Eric Clapton, Ellie Goulding, Tori Amos, Kasabian and Mumford & Sons have been among the major acts to make one or more visits.

Vintage volte-face
This isn’t hard to explain when to venture into either of the studios is to be surrounded by cutting-edge digital and vintage analogue equipment in abundance. Multiple acquisitions from the then-recently closed Master Rock in Kilburn represented “a decent starter-pack”, but were swiftly augmented by significant quantities of vintage outboard and – in particular – two classic EMI desks rescued from what might most kindly be described as ‘neglect’.

“The REDD.51 was found by Jon Jacobs in Italy and hadn’t been switched on for about 30 years,” says Harries, “whilst the TG formerly resided at EMI’s studio in Lagos and was used to record [Wings’] Band on the Run. Both of them required very extensive restoration, overseen by our chief technician, Graham Meek.”

Back then it wasn’t unknown for such vintage equipment to be directed towards the nearest skip, and it won’t have hurt British Grove’s prospects that the last ten years have witnessed a dramatic volte-face when it comes to all things retro. “No one wanted all that ‘old crap’ back then,” laughs Harries. “Now it is worth ten times the value of what it was.”

Occupying pride of place in Studio 1 is a custom-made Neve 88R, about which Harries remarks: “We looked at other desks, but Mark was a great fan of the 88R and had used it extensively at AIR when I was working there.” An API Legacy resides in Studio 2, while monitoring in both rooms is ATC in 5.1 configuration – although as Stewart reveals, an upgrade to 7.1 is currently in the works.

Multiple Studer A880 multi-track tape recorders (pictured right) and CLASPs (Closed Loop Analogue Signal Processors) – which put most simply, smooth the integration of analogue tape recordings into DAW signals and workflows – round out the picture of British Grove’s authentically vintage recording capabilities.

Gravity’s pull
Although the few years have seen Knopfler himself in the studios for an extended period to record Tracker – the eighth in a series of increasingly roots music-driven solo albums – there have also been several notable film projects, including award-winning science fiction thriller Gravity.

“They had something like 400 channels going, most of them in the digital domain,” marvels Stewart. “We had to hire in six MADI boxes to cope with that one. There were at least three Pro Tools rigs all satellite-linked and locked together, and ultimately something like thirty-odd 7.1 stems. The amount of printing going on was frankly unbelievable!”

The principal cast of newly-released fantasy movie Into the Woods were among other recent visitors. “Meryl Streep was in here laughing and drinking tea,” says Harries. “She was delightful.”

Although Harries and Stewart are unsure of exactly how the tenth anniversary is going to be marked – “a cake, maybe?” – they seem considerably more certain when it comes to explaining why the studio has managed to secure an enduring foothold in a declining market.

“Every time we get a project we look at what we had to do and think carefully about whether the infrastructure is there; the aim being to ensure that on the next occasion we have the bones in place and only need to do a bit of adaptation,” says Harries.

Stewart admits that “we could always have more work” and there is wider market pressure to lower rates. But he believes that British Grove’s quiet resistance to this trend in favour of an emphasis on quality has stood it in good stead.

“We have our price list that we stick to, and we don’t go out to undercut anybody. That is a rocky road and one that had led so many studios to close,” he concludes. “You can never be sure how requirements will change in the future, but we have our own position in the market and will continue to serve it.”