INSIGHTS: Vincent van Haaff,
Vincent Van Haaff, president of LA-based Waterland Group, is a renaissance man who puts the quality of his designs above all other criteria. As he readily confesses, his studio designs are based on equal amounts of aesthetics and acoustical science, with a focus on the specific tastes and personality of the facility's owners. For van Haaff, a recording studio or post facility is more than just a space in which we record or mix a project. "It is," he concedes, "a carefully crafted environment in which we witness the creation of sonic art."
Since starting his career in his native Holland, first as an architectural student and then as a film student, Van Haaff soon discovered his true destiny: designing studios for a variety of clients. Since his auspicious beginning in 1976 at Kendun Recorders/Sierra Audio in Los Angeles, Van Haaff has been involved with a cornucopia of studios around the world, including Conway Recording, Los Angeles (many original designs and upgrades since the early Seventies, as well as a new studio complex); A&M Studios, LA (several remodeling projects, plus design of the new Studio "C" for DVD and surround sound mixing); Sony Music Studios, NYC (control room and studio. plus mix room); Project 50, Bedford, NY (residential studio); Philips Interactive Media, Los Angeles (recording and digital mastering suites); Capitol Records, Los Angeles (Studio "C" Mix room); Herb Alpert Foundation, Santa Monica, CA (recording studio and artist's studio); Richard Landis/Loud Music, Nashville (studio and mix room); writing studios for West Side Sound/ David Schwartz, Aaron Zigman and Eli Gabrieli; Burnish Stone Studio, Tokyo (studio and control room, plus two studios as expansion on existing facility); The Castle Studios, Nashville (studio and residence); Woodstock Studio/A I M Corp., Karuizawa, Japan (resort recording and A/V studio); Ocean Entertainment, Burbank (studio and offices); 525 Post Production, Hollywood (post room for video/film); Samuel J. Scott Productions, Las Vegas (post and sweetening studios); Post-Logic, Hollywood (audio-video post and recording); Music Grinder Studio, Hollywood (Studio "A" and offices); Trebas Institute of Recording Arts, Hollywood (studio, control room, offices and teaching-spaces); Soundcastle Recording, Los Angeles (studio and control room); The Complex, West LA (studios and control rooms); Madhatter Studios, LA (studio and control room); Manta Sound Studio, Toronto (studio and control room); Post Logic, Hollywood (audio-video layback, post and Foley); Ground Control, Santa Monica (two studios and a control room); Skip Saylor Recording, LA (mix room); The Village Recorder, West LA (studios, Control Room "A" and "B"); Rubber Dubbers, Glendale (Foley Stage and control room); Monterey Sound, LA (control room and studio); Rusk Sound, LA (control room and studio); plus many more.
Current assignments include Lobo Recording, New York; project studios for Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Michel Colombier; Bouquet Digital Studios, Port Hueneme, CA; and 99 Attorney Street Studios, New York.
Tell us a little more about your background.
But, by the time I got out of architecture school, the prospect of sitting behind a drafting desk in Holland for the next 15 years, working underneath some famous architect, wasn't really appetizing. So, I went to film school in London for half a year to see if there were any other avenues for me - and, yes, I was intrigued with making movies. Nothing to do with architecture; just something adventurous and completely different.
I was usually walking around with a 16 mm camera on my shoulder. Summertime in London can be a very sticky; it was a bear to carry around this heavy equipment. There was a guy with a microphone boom and a Nagra around his shoulders. At one point I turned and said: "You have the greatest job because at least you can put your stuff down while we're shooting!" So I went from camera to sound again.
I then met a filmmaker in Amsterdam who told me that he had a friend working with Stevie Wonder in New York at Electric Ladyland [during the 1974 recording of "Fulfillingness"]. "Why don't you just go visit him, and see if you can get a job." he suggested. And that's what I did. I then met Malcolm Cecil [with Robert Margouleff, partners in Tonto's Expanding Headband, and developers of a sophisticated early synthesizer], who said I should go visit Roy Cicala at Record Plant, where I got a job soldering and sweeping the floor - I was basically assisting and making copies.
Then The Troupe sort of split off from Stevie Wonder, and went back to Los Angeles with them. I had various jobs here; lived in a macrobiotic commune . . . remodeled a guest house in back of a villa in Beverly Hills as a carpenter. One day Bob [Margouleff] called and said there is a job available at Kendun Recorders. So the next day I went over to visit [owner] Kent Duncan, who hired me. He put me together with Carl [Yanchar, now president of Wave:Space]; I ended up that same morning sitting in the shed next door to the studio, wiring connectors.
That was the era of Donna Summers [working at Rusk] with [producer] Giorgio Moroder, and a bunch of other sessions. It was a really nice room, and very well isolated; we had traffic on La Brea Avenue going by day and night. Somewhere near the end of that project, Buddy Brundo from Conway Recording came around to say that he had just bought his partners out, and wanted to remodel the studio. The site was a little slice of land with a building that was the front office and a small studio. We expanded it out and the rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back at the designs you completed in the late Seventies and through the Eighties, I'm struck by the fact that you were working with most of the leading facilities in Hollywood and Los Angeles.
How do you secure new business?
Herb Alpert is a perfect example. As a musician and a studio Alumnus he was involved in turning that [former film and TV shooting stage] into somewhere he was happy to record in. It was as if he was galloping creatively ahead, and I was just holding on for dear life! Making sure that all the technical and necessary parts would fit, as well as lighting, air conditioning and so on.
A great recording studio is a joy for mankind. In the middle ages, people build cathedrals; in this day and age we build beautiful studios. They can have a similar kind of effect, because the product - whether it's a sermon or a piece of music in a Lutheran church - is meant to be memorable. People who listen to a CD by someone that was inspired to bring about this greatest work, can be inspired themselves.
So you meet with your client for the first time. They say: "Here's $1 million dollars; build me a studio." How do you find out what it is they're about?
An engineer in Japan had been working both A&M and Conway, and had told somebody in Tokyo that if they wanted to build a studio then they should go visit Vincent. After we had hung out for a couple of days, the first thing I said to him, was: "You have a piece of land that you want to build on. And you want to build the most beautiful studio in Japan and attract all these great artists. Let me come to Japan for four or five days. I want to see the land. I want to smell the flowers. I want to trudge around in the mud, and feel what it's about there. [Woodstock was built on the site of former farmland, near one of the Japan's most famous summer and winter vacation resorts some 95 miles from Tokyo.]
I had not only get to know the person and his dreams, but to personalize that dream. That is one of the most essential parts of the process - I would want to work in that studio. If it is the best studio in Japan, then it's the best studio for me to work in Japan; I design it for myself, in a sense.
Session players are probably the most critical of all because they do this day after day. Some studios become their favorites because not only is the coffee hot, but they can actually work there. In general, they've a 9:30 downbeat and two and a half hours is heavy concentration. They see the music for the first time when it comes out of the arranger's briefcase.
I like to use natural materials, and not get to fancy in the colors. And not get too crazy in the shape of things. It is easier to walk past a table with rounded corners than with corners that have spikes in your direction, right? It's just a natural form; natural shapes of things are incredibly important. At the same time, you don't want to be everything to everybody. There has to be a sense of personality about the space that speaks for itself but which can be easily adapted to.
We're literally going to suspend these new floors off the construction that is going to be built on the inside of the building without disrupting any of the workings of the ground-floor studios. This is where all these little tricks that I've learned over the last 20 years are all coming together.
Have you done anything like this before?
At the same time, Glenn decided to move his studio from Aspen, Colorado, back to Los Angeles. I got in touch with Glenn through Elliott Scheiner, who I happened to be chatting with at Conway Recording while Elliot was mixing some live Fleetwood Mac tracks. He very kindly congratulated me on the efficiency of Conway, and how he liked to work there. A couple of weeks later I got a telephone call from Glenn Frey, saying: "I just spoke with my man Elliot; you're on." I had lunch with Glenn, and I immediately got a good sense of what he was about.
Let's look at Burnish Stone Studio, at Setagaya, Tokyo, where you designed three studios over a period of four years in the early Nineties. The basement, first and second floor of an apartment building have been outfitted with isolation and interior acoustical treatment.
Woodstock Studios was also part of that exposure to Japanese clients. That facility was a challenge because it w as more than a just a studio; more an environment. It has a very Japanese form - a certain austerity, with floating tapered beams across the larger common areas. We liked the idea of being able to see from pretty much every space the local volcano peak, which is towering over the location. Oddly enough, on one occasion I had just visited Bearsville Studio in upstate New York, which is close to the town of Woodstock. I said to my Japanese client - while standing there on the volcanic slosh and melting snow - that it reminded me of Woodstock. They liked idea so much that they called the studio "Woodstock." Originally, it was called The Karuizawa Project, because if you say "Woodstock Studio" everyone always thinks that it's in upstate New York. However, in Japan, everyone knows it as "Wood-Stock-Ku."
Control rooms are designed by geometry. If you start from the stereo approach, and admit that there is a left side and a right side, there is a symmetry to the room. You need to maintain that symmetrical sound field between left and right. Then left and right can be assumed, mathematically, to be identical.
There are two other factors in a control room. Is the before-reflection and after-reflection sound field direct or diffuse, and will it be from the front of the room or the rear of the room? So there are essentially three elements [to be considered] every time we design a control room. The left/ right symmetry; the front/back balance; and also the left-top and -bottom or right-top and -bottom intersecting areas. If we take a cube and you slice it perfectly in half three times, you end up with eight little cubes. Those eight cubes have to be intersecting and balanced with one other, depending on where you choose the intersection of the slices. That's my job. I see a lot of rooms that get the gist of what is a van Haaff or Waterland knockoffs, in appearance, but they don't take care of the geometry and those important relationships.
5.1 is more than just a buzz word. There is a fantastic market for archival materials being re-remastered to DVD-Audio, in a way that has more emotional impact. Bob Margouleff has been working a lot with DTS people, and Elliot Scheiner is working on Eagles remixes. DVD is an exciting medium. A&M had the opportunity to put together a specialized, 5.1-channel room with a Euphonix [CS3000] board, which is ideal for them. [A&M's recently remodeled Studio C is intended for multi-channel mixing, DVD pre-mastering, mix-to-picture and related sessions.]
It was quite a challenge, given the narrow space we had available. I tried to maintain the sense of it being able to reach everything from the console - a bit like being in a yacht galley - so the engineer doesn't have to walk anywhere. Maybe it's a lazy man's dream!
There's a very pragmatic approach: Tack up a piece of sound board in the place where you don't like the reflection from a wall. And don't go and buy $500 manufactured pieces of equipment to counteract the reflection. Sound board is available at Home Depot for $5 a sheet. There it is; it's done. You can use Sonex and other acoustic foams if you really want to spend lots of money. There really isn't much more difference; it maybe looks more professional - some people get off on that. If you want bang for the buck, go look around your local hardware store. We really don't need highly-paid acoustical engineers to tell us to adhere to precepts that are pretty intuitive.
Symmetry is a good plan. If [the space] is not symmetrical, but comfortable, let the comfort override the dogmas. Don't expect it to get outrageously loud. Anyone can give me a call. (Laughs). Such a deal! I do design by fax, or I call it the "Napkin Treatment."
It's made of strand-board foam sandwich custom panels that are camlocked to the rigid frame. All the active and reflective acoustic surfaces are positioned in a proven geometric relationship within the room. Outstretched wings are guy wired to the rafters to provide maximize mobility.
We think that Frontwall is the smart way to go in many situations. Not only does it broaden the owner's choices as regards to leasing or buying the building, it also shortens the time required for construction. It also provides a precise acoustic form that otherwise only specialized construction teams could provide. and, since it can be leased from Waterland, the design broadens the client's budgetary options. We've actually sold three of them during the last two years. It's an intermediate between a recording studio and a live setup. They cost around $60,000; we rent them for around $2,500 per week, which is 20% of the cost of actually renting a recording studio. We installed one at Bryant St. Studio, San Francisco, in 1994.
Interestingly, Peter Maurer [partner with Peter Grueneisen in studio bau:ton] and George Newburn [one of the partners in Studio 440] originally worked for Waterland. Just as I decided that I could stand on my own two feet and didn't have to work for Sierra Audio anymore, their moment came [to part company]. I think its wonderful to actually leave a trail.
But my philosophy is to proceed carefully; I'd rather go slow than hurry and not maintain the quality. My adage has always been: "To hurry takes too much time." If you rush into a project and you're over-enthusiastic, it might fizzle out or bite you in the ass!
All photography courtesy of and ©2001 of Waterland Group.