UK Recording Studios

 INTERNATIONAL UPDATE: Recording in London

Emphasis on Client Services and transition to 5.1-Channel Mixing

Written in 1997 by Mel Lambert

London has always been an important center for the international music industry. What began with Four Lads From Liverpool in the early Sixties has blossomed into a major crossroads of creative influence and technological advance. And, despite a downturn in studio bookings during the mid- to late-Eighties, the majority of this fair city's leading facilities tell me that business is good, and getting better; new themes include DVD Mastering and 5.1-channel mixes, plus diversification into film and post sessions.

      The UK's Association of Professional Recording Services serves as an effective trade organization. "The Association plays a vital role in three ways," offers Mark Board, APRS Chief Executive. "Firstly, we promote standards and awareness of our members' expertise and concern for quality; we also provide an interface between hardware manufacturers and users; and, finally, by representing [our industry] to government and relevant industry bodies, we seek to encourage healthy market conditions."

   By way of an example, Broad cites recent meetings he's had with members of various licensing organizations, including the MPCS and BPI [British Phonograph Institute], to ensure that members are kept fully aware of any changes in various laws. He is also in regular contact with similar interest groups, particularly on questions of education and training. "We are all part of the same industry," he stresses. "It is not only the interests of producers, engineers and sound designers working in British studios that overlap and coincide." Last year the APRS celebrated its 50th anniversary.

   Business for the UK studio industry is reasonably healthy, Broad concedes, with extensions being made by a growing number of facilities into film soundtrack and post production. "The music-recording side fluctuates from month to month. Many record labels specify leaner recording budgets. That's okay just so long as the labels understand that 'You Get What You Pay For!'

   "In addition, we are seeing an increase in the number or artists and producers that begin a project by programming or writing in a pre-production studio. They then move into a full-scale facility for overdubs and mixing. We expect these two types of facility to complement one another, rather than compete for budgets."

   A case in point: last November the APRS awarded its prestigious "Most Exciting New Production of 1997" award to producer Jim Abbiss, in recognition for his creative and technical work with the band Sneaker Pimps. (Sponsored by SSL, the award carries a handy cash prize of 5,000/$8,500!) The "Becoming X" album project, Broad explains, began as a demo session that was put together using ADATs and a Cuebase hard-disk system. "They then took the bits and pieces into The Stongroom [a multi-room, London-based facility, profiled later in this feature], to finish the project, yet still retaining the basic elements and qualities that he and the band liked so much."

   As Abbiss explained in a recent interview for the APRS NewsLetter, "Sounds and structures developed along the way, but for me a great part of the challenge was in preserving the original 'Lo-Fi' charm; a certain magic which the demo had, whilst building the tracks up to a level of power they need for radio play." Abbiss acknowledges to being influenced by the work of Ultravox, Japan and, recently, Portishead, whose sound, he says, "fascinated me, with its peculiar balance of 'posh' and grunge,' in that closed, muddy atmosphere."

   "Project Studios are not necessarily a threat to commercial facilities," Broad concludes, "as Jim Abbiss can attest."

A London Tour: EMI's Historical Abbey Road, with multiple recording environments.
Founded in 1931, Abbey Road is the elder statesmen of London's facilities, with a track record that's second to none. Owned by EMI Music Group, the complex comprises three primary recording suites, a number of post-production suites plus two classical mobiles. It employs some 70 full-time staff. Creature comforts include an on-site restaurant, and two apartments.

   Recent clients have included Oasis, Spice Girls ("SpiceWorld "album), Doctor John, Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Spiritualised, Jamiroquai, Soraya, Tom Robinson (a live, one-hour TV broadcast in late-March), John Williams and Paul Weller. Acts such as Pure Essence, Kottonmouth Kings, Superfurry Animals, Hothouse Flowers, Papa Wemba, Tanita Tikarum, Ultrasound and Robbie Williams have been booking time in the post-production suites.

   "Studio One is our flagship," offers Chris Buchanon, the facility's director of operations. Used primarily for orchestral and scoring sessions, the control room boasts a 64-channel/72-frame Neve VRP console with Flying Faders automation. Recent film scores recorded in Studio One include "Braveheart," "Lost In Space," "Virus," "Merlin" and "Quest for Camelot."

   Studio Two also features an AMS Neve VRP with Flying Faders, in a control room that looks directly downs into a spacious tracking area. Home for many of The Beatles' sessions tracked and mixed at Abbey Road, Studio Two's control room was remodeled and enlarged a couple of years ago. "Jimmy Page and Robert Plant worked in #2 for several months to complete their new album," reports bookings coordinator, Collette Barber.

   Studio Three boasts a large, flexible tracking room linked to a control room that houses a 72-channel SSL SL-4000 G-Series console that was installed some five years ago. The Penthouse specializes in stereo and surround-sound remixing, and boasts a recently installed 48-fader/60-path AMS Neve Capricorn digital console with full 5.1-channel surround-sound monitoring.

   Finally, a total of 18 post-production rooms are available, including three vinyl mastering suites, a DVD Authoring Suite, an Enhanced-CD and Web Authoring Room, plus various classical-music editing rooms and remastering suites. The facility's 13 Sonic Solution workstations are networked to ensure fast and efficient data sharing.

   Room rates for Abbey Road's prime-time studios, in line with the majority of London facilities, are around 1,200 per day (approximately $2,000), including an analog multitrack and second engineer.

   Regarding the facility's operational philosophy, Buchanon is quick to acknowledge that Abbey Road's reputation may have worked against it. "Yes," he agrees, "Clients often have the wrong perception about us; that we are an 'Establishment Studio of the Sixties.' That is a total misconception. We are fully up-to-date with technology, and attempt to create a friendly, open environment in which we can support the creativity of our artists and producers.

   "In terms of the future, we are venturing into the multimedia arena. With the official European launch of DVD players this summer, we are seeing an increase in demand for 5.1-channel mixing, and have made a move into post production."

Air Studios: The House that George Martin (and Pioneer) built.
The original Air Studios, built in 1970 across several floors of an office and retail complex located in London's Oxford Circus, was forced to move when the lease expired in the early Nineties. Finally re-opened in 1993 within Lyndhurst Hall, a Victorian chapel and lecture hall located in the Hampstead suburb of North London, the facility now comprises four studio areas, two post-production suites and pre-production rooms. The complex, which cost a reported 15 million (just over $25 million) to renovate, is jointly owned by The Chrysalis Group, AIR Ltd. (Associated Independent Recording, founded by Sir George Martin and his partners) and Pioneer. (For a full rundown on the history of the move, see my feature article in the November, 1994issue of "Mix.")

   The new studio complex comprises two main areas. The original lecture hall become The Hall, Air's largest recording area, with a companion control room. Three identically-sized control rooms were built one above the other within the core of the main building, with corridors and recording areas leading off. (In this way, all load-bearing walls could be laid out in the same plane, which simplified the design of foundations and support walls.)

   "The Hall serves as our main orchestral recording environment," says general manager Malcolm Atkins. "We have added a 5.1-channel monitoring panel to the control room's 72-channel AMS Neve VRP Legend console to handle surround-sound mixing." Recent film scores completed at Air include "The English Patient," "Emma," "Mark of Zorro" and "City of Angeles."

   "The Hall provides over 5,000 square feet of recording area," Atkins continues, "and will easily hold a 100-piece orchestra. Three large galleries can accommodate up to 300 people, either as an audience or standing in a choir." Apparently, an agreement reached in the early Nineties with the country's Musicians' Union resulted in more sessions being recorded in the UK. "It has brought back the big orchestra, which are our bread and butter. We've had a wonderful year!"

   But Air has also attracted other musical genres. "We've seen session with Oasis [recording the 'Be Here Now' album], plus Radiohead ['Okay Computer']. Our calendar is roughly divided into equal thirds, with film scoring, general sessions and video/mix-to-picture. Our philosophy is simple: 'Give the client what they want.' Ours is definitely a client/service industry; we always put the artist and producer first."

   Studio 1 feature a large recording area capable of accommodating up to 60 musicians, linked to a control room equipped with a vintage 72-channel vintage Neve/Focusrite console - "The Montserrat Board" - with GML automation that was originally installed in Air Studio #1 at Oxford Circus. Studio 2 serves is a Remix Suite, and features an 80-frame/72-input SSL SL-8000 G-Plus console, with Total Recall and Ultimation moving-fader automation.

   Studio 3 is music and film/video post room, with a 48-channel/four-layer AMS Neve Logic 2 digital console with AudioFile Spectra Plus and 5.1-channel monitoring. Dub A is designed primarily for TV/video post, with a 20-channel/four-layer L2 with Spectra Plus and LCRS monitoring. "We handle a lot of long-format dramas and episodic television for BBC Television and Hatrick Productions," Atkins confides.

   Finally, the Prep Room features a 32-channel Logic 3 digital console, and is used primarily for pre-laying material from timecode DAT to AudioFile hard disk. Analog/digital multitracks available in various machine rooms include Sony PCM-3348 and -3324As, a Mitsubishi X-850, plus Studer A800 Mk III and Otari MTR-90 Mk II analog decks.

   Air has no immediate plans to upgrade its analog music consoles to digital, Atkins offers, "since analog still sounds better. And until we can offer 100% reliability - 99% just doesn't make in for music producers - we'll stay with what we have."

   Regarding the future, Atkins considers 2004 to be "The Year of the Enthusiastic Amateur. Audio-DVD will let us rediscover surround sound. Since we have a lot of experience working in 5.1-channel film sound - and with DVD offering promise as a delivery medium - we expect Air to maintain a creative edge for our clients."

Metropolis Studios: Space-age Technology with a Twenties Theme.
Located within a former London Transport power-generating station in the Chiswick suburb of West London, Metropolis was opened in 1989, and currently operates five rooms. Overall aesthetic look and feel is true to Fritz Lang's silent movie from which the facility derives its name: spare, minimalist decor, with high-tech piping, steel and wood surfaces in the control rooms. On the lower floor are located two self-contained pre-production rooms equipped with a variety of synthesizers, sequencers, keyboards, Mackie consoles and Pro Tools editors. "We can also provide sound design and mix-to-picture, if the client needs it," explains John Goldstraw, the facility's technical manager.

   Studio A features a72-input Focusrite console with Mackie sidecar (to provide either monitoring during track laying/overdubs, or additional inputs during double-machine remix), while Studio B offers a 64-channel SSL SL-4000 G-Series console. Both Studios A and B include large tracking areas, and offer private lounge areas.

   Studio C is intended for overdubs and mixdown, and features a 72-channel AMS Neve VR console capable of accommodating 144 inputs - three synchronized multitracks - during remix. Studio D is a small mix suite equipped with a 48-channel SSL SL-4000 E-Series dating from 1982, while Studio E offers an 80-frame/72-channel SSL SL-9000 J-Series console. On-site multitracks available in any room include four analog Otari MTR-100s and one MTR-90, plus a Mitsubishi X-850 digital machine. Genex GX8000 MO recorders in each room are provided with Prism A-to-D and D-to-A converters; also available are Ampex ATR-100 half-inch mastering decks.

   "We also offer three Mastering Suites," Goldstraw continues. "Two are equipped with Neumann VMS-809 cutting lathes, while the third was recently refurbished to accommodate 5.1-channel mixing, with a PMC surround-sound monitoring system. We also have a number of Editing Suites equipped with SADie and Octavia systems, as well machine rooms."

   The majority of sessions at Metropolis are booked by domestic clients, with 30% from European or Japanese producers or artists. "While our 'Fritz Lang' look was pretty radical for the late-Eighties, now it is considered extremely modern. Our philosophy is that 'People are the Key to Success.' Anybody can buy the equipment; the trick is to get the right staff, with excellent maintenance and a reliable traffic department.

   "In terms of the future, we are investigating new forms of recording media. We have found that DASH-format digital tape can be unreliable - our PD-format Mitsubishi is much more forgiving of tape damage, for example. But our industry needs a reliable, removable medium. Hard disk is too cumbersome; maybe these new optical formats might hold the answer?"

Olympic and The TownHouse: The EMI-Virgin Group in West London
Comprising one division of the EMI Studio Group - the other being the multiroom complex at Abbey Road - The TownHouse and Olympic Studios are located in, respectively, the Shepherd's Bush and Barnes suburbs of West London. Richard Branson's Virgin Studios Group opened TownHouse in 1978 (as an urban companion to The Manor in Oxfordshire), and purchased Olympic a decade later. In 1993, the entire operation was purchased from Virgin by Thorn/EMI.

   "Our primary clients are bands and artists producing live music," says operations director Ian Davidson, responsible for overseeing both facilities "They like our large, spacious tracking areas. But we also have a great selection of outboards when it comes time to mix!"

   Celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, The TownHouse comprises three SSL-equipped music-recording rooms, plus a quartet of mastering suites, located within a former film studio. Studio 1 houses a 72-channel SL-4000 G-Plus, Studio 2 a 72-channel SL- 9000 J-Series, and Studio 4 a 72-channel SL-4000 E-Series with G-Series automation. (Studio 3 used to be the former Ramport Studios in nearby Battersea, which was purchased from The Who in the Eighties but since closed.)

   Four mastering suites and copy rooms are available, the former equipped with a trio of Sonic Solution editors and a Fairlight FAME system. "Between 25 and 30% of our capacity is for EMI Music," Davidson reports, "The remainder is booked by outside clients. We also plan to upgrade the Sonic units to 96 kHz/24-bit operation. And we are considering converting the FAME room to handle sound-for-picture, which would be a better use of that system!"

   Founded in the early Sixties, Olympic Studios comprises an additional three - soon to be four - SSL-equipped tracking and mixdown rooms in a former Edwardian music hall. Studio 1 features a 72-input SL-9000 J-Series, Studio 2 a 56-input SL-4000 G-Series, and Studio 3 a 64-input SL-4000 G-Series. Multitracks available throughout TownHouse and Olympic include Studer A800 and A820 analog decks, plus three PCM-3348s, four PCM-3324s, two Studer D827s and two Mitsubishi X-880s. (For a full rundown on Olympic Studios, see my spotlight in the unknown, 199X issue of "Mix.")

   "In August of this year," Davidson reports, "we will be completing Studio 4 within the garden area at Olympic. The new room, to be designed by Sam Toyoshima, is a joint venture with [producer/mixer] Mark 'Spike' Stent; we will build and operate the studio for him, and maintain the hardware.

   "Spike is such a great fan of Studio 3 - he's been coming here for 10 years [including remix sessions for the last two Spice Girls albums] - and is buying the console from us! We will replace that with a new 80-frame/72-input SL-4000 with G-Plus computer and Ultimation. It's a great opportunity for all of us!"

   Davidson says that his philosophy in running Olympic and The TownHouse is simple. "When we build studios, they are always designed and equipped to the highest possible standards. No compromise! Client service and good staff are the key. We are 100% dedicated to providing the highest possible service to our clients, including in-house catering, secure parking, and 24-hour security."

   "Our biggest challenge," Davidson concludes, "is to maintain the service level that clients expect. Recently, [the UK trade magazine] 'Music Week' voted The TownHouse runner-up to Olympic as the 'Top Studio' in England, according to a poll from A&R executives at the record labels. As you can imagine, we are particularly proud of that #1/#2 honor."

RAK Studios: Vintage Technology with a Nineties Client-Services Edge.
Founded in 1976 by famed session producer Mickie Most, RAK Studios currently comprises three rooms located in the fashionable North London suburb of St. John's Wood. According to studio administrator Trisha Wegg, "We specialize primarily in live recordings for album release." Studio 1 houses a 48-in/48-out vintage API console, linked to a "large tracking area that has a great reputation for its live drum sound," Wegg says.

   Studio 2's control room, which features a vintage 24/24 API, is located above and looks down into a slightly smaller tracking area than #1. Finally, Studio 3, equipped with an 56-channel SSL SL-4000 E-Series console installed in 1985, specializes in remix, but also features a live tracking area.

   Recent clients have include producer Stephen Hague working with The Pretenders, James and New Order. "Producers and engineers like the fact that we have two vintage API consoles," Wegg acknowledges, "together with a modern SSL. All of our rooms have natural daylight; and we have a great cook!

   "After all, we are a service industry," she stresses. "Apart from the client services, all studios are the same." Rates at RAK are in keeping with its location and hardware: between 900 and 1,000 per day ($1,500-1,700) for 48-track analog in Studio 3; 750/day ($1,300) for Studio 1; and 550/day ($925) for the smaller Studio 2. (This rate includes an assistant; session engineers normally cost 100-150/day.) Multitracks include several analog Studer A800 MkIIIs and two Sony PCM-3324 digital machines.

   "We have targeted major producers from both the UK and overseas, particularly Japan and the States," Wegg continues. "We recently had the American band Remy Zero mixing their latest album here for Geffen, primarily because their engineers, Alan Moulder and Clive Morton, are British and were familiar with RAK. We have a strong return business with clients."

   RAK has accommodation that comprises separate apartment which will accommodate four people, as well as three other bedrooms within the studio complex. "In this way,' Wegg considers, "we can help make recording in England a more attractive and cost-effective process for overseas clients."

   In terms of the future, Wegg concedes that the vintage hardware might be in line for replacement. "But the API name on the console is one of the main reasons why people come to RAK," she emphasizes. "What do we buy? Our 4k has been ultra-reliable - it's been overhauled regularly. So we might look at an SSL J-Series - which is definitely a plus for selling studio time in London - but the high cost should mean that we'd need to raise our rates significantly."

Real World Studios: Peter Gabriel's Out-of-Town facility with a Hint of Digital
Opened in 1986 as a commercial facility plus Project Studio for Peter Gabriel and his nefarious projects, Real World currently consists of a four-room complex, with an additional multimedia authoring division within the spacious grounds located in the village of Box, close to Bath, some 90 freeway minutes west of London. Recent clients have included Placebo, James, The Beautiful South, Stereophonics, Electronic, Sister Soleil and Donal Lunny.

   The Big Room - aptly named because of its gigantic control room and flexible tracking areas - houses a 72-input SSL SL-4000 G-Series console with AMS Neve Prism alternate mic inputs. Monitor speakers are located either side of picture windows that look out into the studio's grounds, at eye level with the surface of a mill pond. The main rig comprise a Neil Grant-designed Boxer system, with companion NS10, ATC50, AR18LS and AR18BX near-fields.

   The Production Room houses a 48-channel SL-4000 G-Series, while The Work Room features a 48-channel SL-4000 G-Series with eight additional stereo modules. Multitrack machines available throughout the complex include a pair of Sony PCM-3348HR 24-bit multitracks, two Mitsubishi X-850s, five Studer A820 analogs, Ampex ATR-100, Studer A820 and A807 mastering decks, plus Sony PCM-7030 and Panasonic SV-Series DATs,

   According to studio manager Owen Leech, in the Fall of last year Peter Gabriel's personal-use Writing Room - in reality a self-contained shack located away from the main buildings - was enlarged to double its former volume and outfitted with a Sony OXF-R3 "Oxford" digital console. "It's a major deal for us," Leech confesses. "We wanted to turn the Writing Room into a full-blown studio - rather than a small-scale writing/pre-production environment - and the Oxford was the only way to go."

   "Real World broke the mold for residential studios," Leech considers. "In contrast to dark, subterranean facilities, we have lots of natural daylight in all our rooms, and large, spacious tracking areas. Also, each studio is totally self-contained, so that the artist, producer and engineer can develop their own creative environment."

   The Big Room has a book rate of $1,400/day ($2,480), including two A820 analog decks; the Production Room costs 950 ($1,600) with a single A820, while the Work Room rents for 1,200/day ($2,000). In addition, the complex is host to WOMAD and Real World's various record labels, publishing, artwork design and multimedia divisions. "Of the 75-80 people who work on site," Leech estimates, "around 30 are employed by the studio." Recent CD-ROM projects include "Ceremony of Innocence," "Eve" by Peter Gabriel, and "Explorer."

   Regarding the future, Leech concedes that the facility's equipment roster is more than adequate. "We don't yet have a clear picture of the future, " he offers. "But we respond to market requirements, and the need of producers."

The Stongroom: State-of-the-Art technology in a Jamie Reid-designed Atmosphere.
In complete contrast to convention studios, The Stongroom was set up in 1984 by former manager Richard Boote, and currently offers 14 rooms within an old furniture factory in the Shoreditch suburb of East London. "I hated boring studios," Boote stresses, "and didn't want to repeat that sterile, clinical atmosphere, with gray bricks and fish tanks!" Boote used to manage a number of bands, including The Yachts and OK Jive, and originally opened the facility with a small Amek Angela console to record demos. "I soon realized, however, that if the facility was going to be a success, it would need to be run professionally. We grew from there."

   Over the years, the complex has expanded to its current compliment of five studios, plus nine Programming Rooms that are leased year-to-year to a number of artists and producers, including Gareth James (Depeche Mode), plus Phil Harding and Ian Curnow (Boy's Own and 911). Studio 1 houses a 60-channel AMS Neve VR Legend; Studio 2 a 96-fader Euphonix CS3000; Studio 3 a 56-channel SSL SL-4000 G-Series; Studio 4 a 56-channel Mackie 8-Bus; and Studio 5 an Octavia editor linked to a Dolby AC-3 encoding system for DVD mastering.

   Each control room feature natural daylight, and is equipped with an Otari MTR-90 analog 24-track, plus a RADAR 24-track disk-based recorder. "The RADARs are being used on more and more sessions," offers managing director Rob Buckler. "Now, as much as 50% of tracking dates are to hard disk. The system is extremely fast, easy to use and offers a great sound quality."

   "By the late Eighties, I decided that it was time for a change at The Stongroom," Richard Boote recalls. "We needed a look that would set us apart from the competition. So I brought in designer Jamie Reid [responsible for The Sex Pistols' album artwork and posters) to add a different look. I gave Jamie a free rein, and love what he has done here."

   The results are nothing short of spectacular. The walls and ceilings of each room feature paintings plus symbolic images on silk-screened fabrics and canvases generated by Reid. Studio 1, for example, features an etched bronze Celtic logo on the effects rack, while Studio 2 was favored with Astrological Theme, and others received a Druidic design approach. In a recent interview, Keith Flint from The Prodigy is quoted as saying that Studio 1 is "totally inspirational to the brain. The colors and lighting in the room can wake you up but they can totally chill you out; it's quite strange."

   Turning to the future, Boote feels that equipment is not the sole ingredient for a successful studio. The environment is critically important," he stresses. "However, we are looking to DVD and 5.1-channel mixing as a wave of the future. Last year, we replaced a CS2000 in Studio 2 with our new CS3000, which offers more powerful surround-sound panning and monitoring.

   "Currently we offer to make a 5.1-channel mix at the end of a session for our clients, so that we can all gain invaluable experience of the emergent surround-sound format. I would except that, within three years, Stongroom will offer a fully-digital, DVD-compatible studio, with companion authoring suites and a dedicated re-mastering room."

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