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Sarm Music Village: ‘We really have gone from strength to strength’

Sarm Music Village has established itself as one of Europe’s leading recording complexes. Simon Duff takes a look around...

Owned and run by Trevor Horn, Sarm Music Village facilities include six top flight studios, residential rooms, an event room and online mastering. When Horn announced in 2011 that Sarm West was closing and a new complex was to be built at a nearby Ladbroke Grove site, the news was met with an air of sadness within the industry. Horn’s own unique sonic adventures were very much aligned to what he and Jill Sinclair had created at Sarm since 1983. However, those fears have been displaced. At the new facility the spirit of cutting edge production remains.

Jed Kellett, studio manager at Sarm Studios since 2015, has managed a number of the big London studios, including Metropolis and Miloco. Joel Peters, who started his music career as a drummer before gaining a degree in Music Technology and Audio Systems at the University of Huddersfield, joined Sarm West in 2012. He quickly worked his way through the ranks becoming an assistant engineer for clients including Rihanna, Jessie J and The X Factor and working on Trevor Horn’s projects. Since 2015 he has been Horn’s first choice studio engineer, overseeing all his projects.

Kellett summarises the first three years of business at SMV: “We really have gone from strength to strength at what is a hard time for recording studios. Bookings have come right back in the last year. When we left Sarm West we never took it for granted that our clients would follow us to the new building. So we worked really hard to rebuild our new brand. For a studio that is so steeped in music history we are very focused on new music and new trends. So we have done a good job of catering for both our old clients and new ones. We are more focused on the modern type of studio based on mixing, over dubs and highly efficient, sensitive data handling.”

SMV is based around six studios with full-time staff comprised of two engineers, three assistants and a maintenance engineer. The Blue Studio is the main studio, designed by John Flynn who created the original Sarm Studio 1. Situated partially below street level, both control room and live room benefit from panoramic views through specialist double-thickness privacy glass. The centrepiece of the control room is a 24-channel Solid State Logic AWS924 console, with full SSL AWSomation and DAW control of Pro Tools HDX 1 and Logic Pro X. Main monitoring is provided by Genelec 1237As and dual 7070A subs, with cutting edge DSP room calibration. Near field monitors are Yamaha NS10s powered by fully reconditioned vintage Studer power amplifiers, taken from Sarm West Studio 1.

Peters explains what he likes about the AWS: ”For vocals, which I record a lot of at Sarm, I mostly recorded in the box. But having the AWS allows me to return on an SSL channel, what is being recorded onto separate monitor outputs routed to the AWS. Then I will compress that on the AWS and this gives the artist an impression of how it will be heard on radio or other formats. That is important to me. All involved in the production can hear a well compressed SSL quality version of the vocal, separate to Pro Tools, as if it had been mastered. The centre section has a comprehensive metering, all round headphone mix controls and other quality functions. As much as possible we are trying to give the impression of a finished mastered version. The console flips easily between Pro Tools and the AWS at the touch of a button.”

Peters is also a big fan of the Avid Pro Tools S3, 16 fader control surface. He adds: “Using its EuCon protocol, I can balance up really big vocal sessions that might contain hundreds of tracks. Using the S3, within two clicks I can see a whole vocal layout and organise tracks intuitively.”

The second studio is called The Red Studio, also known as the ZTT Studio. Like The Blue Studio it has a wealth of natural light in the control room and a world class design, combining vintage with modern and replacing a console with a range of top analogue gear classics, including Neve 1073 and API 3124mb+ preamps, Tube-Tech and Urei compressors, plus a vintage Fairchild 670 compressor. Main monitors are Genelec as in the Blue Studio with Yamaha NS10s for near field. Vintage microphones from Sarm’s collection are available. A top of the range Pro Tools HDX rig runs on a solid-state 6-core Mac Pro.

The other four studios are the Yellow Studio, created for high quality vocal sessions and fast-paced production work, two Green Suites, for writing and production, and The Orange Suite, long-term let production room. Recent clients at SMV include Dua Lipa, Anne Marie, Mabel, Ray BLK and The X Factor, who block book rooms from October to December.

Peters, in becoming Horn’s first choice studio engineer, spends a lot of his working life at Horn’s personal home studio, close to Sarm. Based on Quested monitoring, a recent purchase for that facility is a new console in the form of a Wunder Audio Wunderbar analogue console – the company is the brainchild of Mike Castoro, based in Texas. Horn’s console is a 24-channel Wunderbar with in-line monitoring. There are 120 Western Electric style, hand-wound custom Cobalt mu-metal transformers, fully transformer balanced for very smooth top-end, big-bottom, and a wide-open soundstage. The summing has three vintage stereo bus flavours and symmetrically balanced discrete, class-A, for an ultra low noise floor.

“It’s an absolutely amazing sounding console,” adds Peters. “When I work with Trevor we mainly work in Pro Tools, but at times we will multi-track to analogue on a Studer A800 with a 16-track head block that we like the sound of. Using the Wunderbar we can stem mixes out of a DAW and use the console as required. It was installed in August 2018 by Steve Evans, Sarm’s long- standing maintenance engineer. It’s the solid centrepiece of the studio.”

Instrument-wise, Horn’s current home writing set up is based around an AKAI MPC touch sampler/controller programmer, Korg Kronos or Triton keyboards, bass, guitars and a Pro Tools rig. For vocal recording, Peters explains his ideal signal path. “We use a Sony C-800G. One of the best mics ever made in my opinion. The top end is so clear and all round it is so clean and rock solid. Compression-wise my ideal choice is a Tube-Tech CL1B. For vocal reverbs in Pro Tools I like Altiverb from Audioease. In fact, Arjen from Altiverb made impulse responses from the Sarm West rooms and the reverb plates in 2013 before it closed, so I can get the original Sarm West sound, which is amazing. I like EchoBoy as well. For mastering I use WaveLab.”

Horn’s recent production work includes music on a Japanese animation TV series for Stan Lee called The Reflection. Horn and Peters worked on songs with the Japanese girl band 9nine and did some live shows in Japan with the band. The pair also recently completed the re-issued version of the Yes album Fly From Here with new vocals from Horn.

Music Bank, Sarm’s sister company, is a rehearsal facility and backline hire firm, run by Jimmy ‘Mac’ McNally. The company has recently relocated from it’s previous Tower Bridge HQ to a new state of the art, purpose built Park Royal facility in West London. Kellett adds: “It’s an incredible facility with four large, top spec rehearsal studio spaces – probably Europe’s largest backline hire, writing rooms and storage spaces.”

Horn and his regular 13-piece band recently opened the new facility with a bespoke gig featuring an assortment of works from Horn’s illustrious career. SSE supplied the PA with Peters acting as production manager, overseeing all audio requirements.

“We have a great working relationship with SSE, who supplied a d&b V Series PA with D80 amps and the consoles,” said Kellett. Monitors were mixed by SSE engineer Kevo Moran, a Horn regular on monitors, using an Avid S6L, allowing for Horn’s Pro Tools plug ins to be used. FOH mixer for Horn is either Tim Weidner or Colin Walker with Peters on-hand for the mix as well. For the Music Bank gig the FOH console was a Digico SD6.”

So how does Peters think Horn has remained at the top of his game for so long? “I think because he cares so much about the song. Obviously he has been so influential in creating modern music production techniques but I think he will be the first to say that doesn’t matter if the song is no good. He would never dress something up that was not good enough. His production is a nod to the song, that it is good enough to have that level of production.”

Looking to the future, how will Sarm continue to stay at the cutting edge of music production? Peters concludes: “We are very optimistic and determined to stay at the forefront of music production. As a company we are highly dynamic with fantastic dedicated staff. There are lots of plans in the pipeline. We are looking at building new studios in the UK. Yes, the industry is changing a lot but we are very good at running with the times. Testament to that is Sarm Music Village. It’s an exciting time for us.”