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Rockfield Studios: A family affair

Wales's Rockfield is where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody. Jim Evans catches up with Kingsley Ward and his daughter Lisa as the studio approaches 50 years of business

How is studio business at present?

Lisa Ward: Business has picked up particularly over the past month with enquiries and bookings into February 2011. I could fill seven studios with sessions from the end of November and have clients on first, second and even third hold, with others hoping that they can squeeze in a session at some point. Clients range from new artists recording their first albums to a couple of more regular clients, one with a successful 30-year and the other a 20-year career behind them.
How do you account for Rockfield’s longevity?

Kingsley Ward: Rockfield was the world’s first residential studio established by my brother Charles and myself in 1963 in the attic of the main house. It was a mono studio with a Phillips valve two-track tape machine, an Elcon mixer and miscellaneous outboard equipment. Reinvention has always been the key to our longevity and in 1965 the studio had progressed into an outbuilding. We had a new mixing console built by Rosser Electronics in Swansea, a second EMI TR90 2-track tape recorder plus more outboard gear and an EMT echo plate.
 By 1968 we had outlived this studio and opened another using the same mixing console in converted stables. By now we also had an added facility of an 8-track Lever Rich tape recorder finally progressing to multi-track media! Never wishing to stay still for too long, we opened a second studio in 1973 with both studios equipped with 24-track Studer tape machines and another Rosser console in the new studio.
 Having progressed to two studios we had the added problem of accommodating more artists, which proved a costly investment. Fortunately for us, Rockfield was well ahead of emerging opposition and one of the resulting successes was the recording of Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack and subsequently A Night at the Opera and Bohemian Rhapsody. These recordings, as well as a succession of earlier number ones, established Rockfield as one of the world’s leading studios. This was later reinforced by bands like Rush and Iggy Pop plus many more.
 LW: Many of our newer clients are drawn to working in the studios where some of their own favourite albums or artists have recorded in the past. One of the most frequently asked questions is, ‘Who has been in this studio in the past?’

We’ve also been able to work with the many changes to the business over the years, so at particularly tough times like now, we’re already half-way able to weather the storm as psychologically we know that the good times don’t always last. That said, the bad times don’t either. It’s far easier to change direction if you’ve done so in the past. Having change forced upon you, which happens often in business, is hard to accept. Once you have accepted that things are beyond what you may have planned it’s easier to diversify and roll with the punches.
Have you always taken a ‘different approach’ to studio design and technology?

KW: We have always mainly designed our studios ourselves, making sure there are enough separated recording areas to cater for at least six musicians without one compromising another’s sound. The essential ingredient to reinventing ourselves has been equipment change.
 The problem that we identified early on with large consoles was depreciation, running costs and that the more channels you have at your disposal the more maintenance there is, especially as large consoles run so hot causing all sorts of mechanical problems which unfortunately translate to clients complaining!
 We realised not just these shortcomings but also that with the onset of Pro Tools, large automated consoles were no longer as desirable to clients and we needed to change once more. Smaller vintage consoles were easier to maintain, cheaper to run, didn’t depreciate and, importantly, sounded better so we reinvented ourselves once again by going backwards and installing a 48-track Neve 8128 in the Coach House Studio and an MCI 500 Series in the Quadrangle Studio, a move that we have never regretted. Otto Garms [maintenance engineer] rebuilt both consoles and we have never had any of the problems experienced with the larger consoles.
Are you still a family-run business?

LW: Very much so! Kingsley is in control, I deal with all the day-to-day stuff and I am working on new ventures. Ann (my mum) still does all the accounts, and my sister Amanda looks after the housekeeping and residential duties. We don’t look at it as just the Ward family though. Otto has been the maintenance engineer here since the mid-’70s; Val Jones has been working with Amanda and cooking for the bands since the early-’90s and her daughter Hannah works here as well. Phil Ault and Simon Dawson are involved with the new ventures having both started working here as house engineers 20 years ago. All this makes up the Rockfield family atmosphere.
Why do you think so many other residentials have closed?

KW: The reason why so many other residentials have closed is probably due to over capacity – too many contemporaries jumping on the back of the Rockfield success without the knowledge of what makes a successful studio, especially when they base their designs not on experience but on the use of over zealous design consultants making many clones of each other.
Over 47 years, what have been the most memorable sessions?

KW: When I think of the many sessions done at Rockfield over the past 47 years it is impossible to identify one out of so many memories. Other than Abbey Road, Rockfield can claim to have sold more records than most of our contemporaries put together and could likewise claim to have bequeathed to the world some of the greatest records ever recorded – and possibly some of the worst!
How are the master classes developing?

LW: They’ve had an excellent response – so much so that we’re now planning further, more specialised master classes for spring 2011. We can’t offer any before then as we’re busy with studio sessions.
And the future?

KW: Like the past we have always seen forthcoming problems and this current one is no exception. We identified the demise of the music business a couple of years ago with the onset of the internet and free downloads. Rather than let the inevitable happen we moved on with other activities to reinvigorate the company with other income streams.By making use of our quite upmarket accommodation we have successfully launched a company called Rockfield Leisure offering holiday lets and self-catering accommodation. This has been very successful so we’re expanding into golfing holidays, gourmet weekend breaks and outward bound getaways.
 As with stately homes that for years kept the public away but that now survive as a result of the paying public visiting them, we are also allowing the general public to use the accommodation facilities here, enabling the studios to survive in what has become a very competitive world. Rockfield remains a music-based company with foresight and attitude!