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Studios: the art of survival

The professional/commercial recording studio has been on a bumpy ride in recent years, writes Jim Evans. In the first of two special reports, he assesses current trends in recording studio design and associated technologies.

The professional/commercial recording studio has been on a bumpy ride in recent years, writes Jim Evans. In the first of two special reports, he assesses current trends in recording studio design and associated technologies.

The heady days of the past century when record labels boasted seemingly unlimited recording budgets are long gone, along with many of the studios and, indeed, most of the A&R teams who oversaw the indulgences and the associated excesses.

Established studio design and build operations no longer rely solely on the music recording sector – post production, music for film and broadcast facilities provide the lion’s share of their turnover. But the commercial studio industry has proved more than resilient and there are still punters prepared to join the fray – and there’s business to be had for the designers, builders, equipment manufacturers and their associated distributors – albeit with a degree of cloth-cutting.

Perusing the pages of PSNE over the past year indicates that alongside the closures, there has been a good number of studio openings and refurbishments of established facilities. There has also been a swing towards smaller rooms, an embracement of new technologies and a serious moving away from consoles the size of the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise with equally mind-boggling price tags.

Eastlake Audio is currently working on recording studio projects in Milan, the Middle East, Singapore and the UK. “Our control room and studio projects over the company’s history have always been a mixture of practicality and vanity. At present, the state of the European recording industries finances is very powerfully directing projects to the former,” says MD David Hawkins. “The ‘hardware footprint’ that was required within a control room during the ‘80s /’90s – often a 68-channel analogue desk, two synchronised Studer A800 recorders and the rest – demanded considerable control room real estate not to mention air-conditioning.

“The equipment that is used to record today’s music is a fraction of the size previously required and, as a consequence, it can be – and usually is – comfortably housed within a more modest area than in past years.

“As surely as the size of the space required to construct a control room has reduced, the budget required for appropriate recording equipment has reduced in parallel. An exception to this is the cost of a good monitoring speaker system which has probably remained constant in real terms over the long period. There has not been any possibility of ‘large scale integration’ or economies of scale by using devices produced in their millions for the computer industry.

“The rise and rise of Pro Tools over the past years has been phenomenal and though this equipment is extremely affordable, we often see it centred around the recording/editing process with hands-on mixing being undertaken by more esoteric desks . A recent two-studio project in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia illustrates this well – it used Pro Tools in both rooms. In one, the Pro Tools was married to an SSL Duality and in the other, it was coupled to a lovingly restored Harrison S12 (digitally controlled, analogue circuitry). I expect that this trend of combining the practicality of Pro Tools with the ‘warmth’ or other perceived unique character of classic analogue equipment will continue.”

Roger that

Since its formation in April 1987, Recording Architecture, run by Roger D’Arcy and Hugh Flynn has designed and built more than 400 studios in more than 40 countries. Recent projects include the exotic Black Rock Studios in Santorini (main picture).

“It would be disingenuous to suggest that the past couple of years have been ‘business as usual’,” says Roger D’Arcy. “We have significantly fewer projects in design or physically under construction than is usual for this time of year and they are spread far and wide. That said, the projects are all larger than average and a major proportion are fully-fledged music recording studios – rather than post and film mix – music studio design is our true raison d`etre.

“There are two large projects nearing completion and about to open. One, a ground-up, large 5.1 control room added to an existing commercial, music studio just outside Liverpool, UK – Analogue Baby. The second is another ground-up, two-studio complex (one orchestral, both 5.1 control rooms) intended for regional music recording in Doha, Qatar. Construction work is also just starting on a ground-up, residential music studio in Goa, India and a new music mix facility in west London.”

And D’Arcy, who is about to publish RA: The Book, observes: “A noticeable and somewhat disturbing trend is the mere lip service, almost cosmetic, apparently being paid to acoustic design in many control rooms which are increasingly becoming little more than spaces with equipment in. It is a fact that available budgets can make it increasingly difficult to properly address acoustic issues – both of sound isolation and acoustic control within spaces – but with equipment often taking the lion`s share at an early stage, the problem is that once the project is up and running, often with funds exhausted, the realisation dawns too late that there is no point having any equipment at all if you cannot reasonably accurately monitor and manipulate what is being recorded or mixed – and without disturbing (or being disturbed by) the neighbours.”

D’Arcy stresses that not all of their work is at the top end of the scale in terms of both physical size and budget. “One of the roles of a studio designer is to offer successful cost-effective solutions,” he says “Naturally, there are occasions when a fully specified, architecturally complex project is beyond the reach of a budget, or is inappropriate for other reasons – perhaps the downtime required is simply not available. For these occasions we developed Black Box, a highly efficient and cost-effective demountable acoustic conditioning system.”

Also on that last theme, Munro Acoustics is developing an economically priced modular studio system. “Our Media Pods will consist basically of six panels – four walls, a roof and floor that you bolt together,” says Andy Munro. “The acoustically treated pods will also come complete with built-in pre-calibrated monitoring systems. This is a joint venture with a company called Office Pod and our first units will be available from this summer.”

At the other end of the music recording scale, Munro Acoustics recently completed a major refurbishment of London’s Sphere Studio, while its first projects for 2011 include the new SAE building in North London, with a wide range of purpose-built studios, closely followed by the new building for MG Sound in Vienna. This is a large-scale project with music, film and television facilities. It will feature an orchestral recording studio and a full-scale feature-film mixing theatre.

“We are all aware of how the music and recording industries have changed,” says Munro, “but there is still a role for the ‘traditional’ commercial recording studio. Much of it is about money and what you can afford. Maybe it’s time to start rethinking – get away from the interior design element. There was a period in the ‘80s and ‘90s where studios were too indulgent and this set a precedent for studio design that made them more expensive. Along the line somewhere, the economics of studios fell out of sync with the business. Now it’s gone too far in the wrong direction and needs redressing.”

Making a Mark

White Mark’s current portfolio includes major projects in Moscow and Cairo. “What continues to be in demand is what we term the boutique studio – such as Kore in Chiswick and Modern World in Tetbury, UK, and Troy Germano’s Germano Studios on New York’s Lower Broadway,” says the company’s MD David Bell. “These places are smaller than the major commercial studios of old, but offer very high-quality facilities and acoustic spaces with lower operational and staffing costs.

“These studios are not catering to the year-long lock-out session work, but work in tandem with the ever-increasing number of home or project studios.

“We’ve also done a number of high-end facilities for well-known producers and composers where they will typically have a large Pro Tools set-up, but they will come into the boutique studio to do the things that are impractical or not possible at home –like recording a drum kit or a brass section. Or perhaps to meet socially round a larger-format console to do a remix session or listen to recordings on decent quality monitors at high levels. Highly accurate acoustic monitoring is essential.

“Clients often ask us a lot what monitors they should use. We try to steer away from advising, but what we try to do is show people the monitors in other rooms that we have built. There is one make that sticks out head and shoulders above the others in terms of our newer facilities and that’s Exigy designed and built by Matt Dobson. We’ve also had good experience with the French Focal and I rather like the latest Adams.”

The monitoring market has never been more competitive. Neumann has recently joined the ranks with the launch last year of a professional monitor series based on the products of Klein + Hummel. Their monitors have an excellent reputation in German-speaking countries and a few others, but are less familiar internationally.

“That will certainly change in the near future, because the Neumann brand is well-established in the international studio world. We anticipate a strong synergy effect here,” says Wolfgang Fraissinet, president of marketing/sales at Neumann Berlin. “In the history of the company, Neumann stands for far more than microphone technology. Over the decades we have also produced record-cutting equipment and studio consoles, for example. Our expertise in transformer design – for the microphone – as well as in signal processing and digital audio technology, has already been demonstrated.”

Maintaining genius and focus

Also joining the fray is Munro Acoustics, which is developing a range of oval-shaped monitors in conjunction with SE Electronics. Previewed at NAMM, they will be heard for the first time at Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt.

It’s fair to say the studio operator is spoilt for choice in all price ranges. GavinMiller at Kazbar Systems shares David Bell’s enthusiasm for Focals and Adam. “The Focals simply sound amazing,” he says. “And the latest Adams are also proving popular. And, of course, Genelecs continue to be in demand.

Genelec main active monitoring systems continue to be favoured by studio operators with medium to very large control room environments, while the Finnish company’s compact tri-amplified systems enjoy increasing popularity. And they continue to raise the technology bar with the 82060A three-way system which has landed an unprecedented number of industry awards. Most recently, at NAMM 2011, it added another with the TEC Award 2010 for outstanding technical achievement in the studio monitor category.

“We are justifiably proud of the success the 8260A has achieved,” said Lars Olof Janflod, international sales manager at Genelec. “It is gratifying to see the product get recognition worldwide from our industry peers. We knew we had something special when we launched this product but the overwhelmingly positive reception the product has received has significantly exceeded our expectations.”

At Genelec’s UK distributor Source Distribution, Alex Theakston reports steady demand for the full Genelec range. “The studio monitor market is very positive at present,” he says. “Simply put, they sound good and people know they can rely on them. And the new AutoCal automated room calibration system – included in the 82060A –has been well received. The technology is useful, practical and really does make a difference.”

Asked why Focal monitors are proving so popular, the company’s Nicolas Debard says: “The core know-how of Focal consists in developing and manufacturing hi-end drivers which we have been doing since 1979. Focal has many patented technologies that make massive differences compared to regular drivers Thus, we can develop and manfacture very specific drivers depending on the new studio monitor under development. This results in a highly neutral monitor that offers the high dynamic and an impressive clarity that sound engineers are looking for to achieve the best result be it during tracking/mixing or mastering.

“We recently brought a new patented technology in our studio monitor range – the Focus mode. Used on the upcoming SM9, this allows the sound engineer to benefit from a top end three-way monitor along with a two-way monitor by engaging or not engaging the Focus mode. This innovation is highly efficient to check the mix transfer quality on bass challenged systems while avoiding having two or three pairs of monitors in the same room which always results in compromising the monitors positioning.”

KMR keeps it coming

Studio supplier KMR was the main equipment supplier for the recently opened Arcadium Studios in West London.The monitoring system there features“one of the most flexible and versatile monitoring setups in a recording studio”. Known as ‘the Arc’ the monitoring options feature main monitoring by ATC SCM 150s, nearfield speakers from Focal Twins, 5.1 Surround Sound using five Mackie HR624 with a HRS120 subwoofer, and reference monitoring that includes a pair of Yamaha NS10s and AKG LSM 50s studio monitors.

“We wanted to design a state-of-the-art studio where musicians can also be inspired and relax with their music,” says studio owner Sam Kennedy. “Too many recording facilities are designed for engineers and producers without taking into account the needs of the artist, who is not necessarily interested in the technology. Stefan Pope from KMR was the business. He helped us specify the whole studio and arranged for us to try out anything we wanted. The result is really outstanding.”

Arcadium’s studio design centres around the Audient ASP8024, an analogue mixing desk known for its ergonomic design. “While digital and analogue recording technologies have often been seen as separate entities, many recording studios are now adopting a hybrid approach to utilise the benefits of both,” says Audient’s Matt Howell. “The flagship large-format ASP8024 console continues to sell well to recording studios and educational facilities, both of which value the logical design, excellent sound quality and value that the desk offers.”

Console manufacturers that have developed their designs to meet the changing trends in recording and production are reaping dividends. The prime example is Solid State Logic where its three leading brands – Duality, AWS and Matrix – address different audiences while all being dual DAW controllers and consoles.

SSL’s head of marketing, Dan Duffell, reports that business in the music production sector is “thriving” and comments, “Duality tends to be favoured by the larger scale more traditional studios that offer a live recording environment; AWS offers a similar footprint and is aimed at the mid-scale studios and Matrix is designed for smaller – often private – production facilities where it is linked with boutique outboard gear.”

The recently refurbished Dean Street Studios Studio 1 features an SSL Duality. “We believe that today’s modern recording needs require a different approach on both sides of the glass,” says studio manager Jasmin Lee.“So running alongside our 48-channel SSL Duality we also have 30 additional mic pres including 16 vintage Neves as well as racks and racks of comps, additional EQs, FX and other signal processors.”

The two main studios at the rebuilt SAE in London will incorporate theSSL4000 and Neve VR from the old facility. The latter was introduced in 1988 and is still strongly favoured. Greg Burnell at the soon-to-open Analogue Babystudios near Liverpoolhas opted for the Neve 88RS. “We decided that the only console worth buying is the Neve 88RS, this is because of its unparalleled audio performance and versatility. We could have bought an 80 series vintage console but the only desk choice in a world-class commercial facility is the 88RS. The desk marries together sonic quality with a format that any professional engineer recognises, not to mention DAW control.”

Finally, a few words from the proprietor of a thriving studio. James Stringfellow of Brighton Electric Studios observes: “There’s a viable business now for recording studios, so I don’t really see why that should change – whatever’s said with regard to artists completing records at home, it’s still hard to beat mixing through a large-format console sound-wise, also it’s pretty difficult to record a full drum kit at home. I think the future will herald different business models, studios will be forced to meet wider production requirements for their clients.”