Animal House Studios
You may not find a 24-track recorder in this London studio, but you will find two synchronised Fostex E16s and a veritable Aladdin's cave of hi-tech paraphernalia being put to some very interesting uses. Read on and discover how...
The Animal House is an extremely odd recording studio, having a resident toucan certainly takes care of that! However, a searching glance beyond the in-house wildlife shows up even more odd features, namely the absence of 2" magnetic tape reels and a 24-track tape machine in a normal working day. Animal House's non-conformist approach to its multitracks is one that at first often confuses record company A&R departments and unsuspecting engineers, but has very specific applications in mind...
By far the majority of recording at The Animal House is done on two Fostex E16s fully synchronised by means of a Fostex 4030 Synchroniser and 4035 Controller. The studio does work standard 24-track when required, but has found since opening in December 1987 that the unusual 32-track set-up is more in demand, and not just by bands recording on 16-track who have run out of room for bounces and overdubs.
"The E16s are permanently set up as master and slave machines via the 4030," explains Russell Raisey, Head Engineer, "but the use of two multitrack machines gives far more flexibility than just the additional tracks."
The myth surrounding the use of the E16s is that only 30 tracks are actually available for recording, two of the potential 32 having been striped with SMPTE timecode for synchronisation purposes. Far from being a limiting factor, however, it is SMPTE which ensures that 16+16 does not necessarily have to equal 30 or 32.
Making use of the basic fact that a reel of ½" tape is capable of recording about 30 minutes of music, Animal House has set about establishing a working system of slave reels. If the song being recorded lasts for four minutes, all the basic parts such as the drums and guides are recorded onto the master reel. As the 15 audio tracks on the master reel fill up, a stereo bounce of the song thus far is made onto the first two tracks of the slave reel, in sync. The cunning technique of setting up SMPTE 'offsets' is then employed to build up the song's parts.
Moving down the length of the master reel to a time of, say, five minutes, the Fostex 4030 is then instructed to synchronise 5.00 on the master reel with the 0.00 start-time of the song on the slave reel. This gives the opportunity for 15 tracks of backing vocals to be sung into this second section of the master reel and then spun into the slave reel as a stereo pair. Clever stuff indeed! Obviously the backing vocals may only be for a chorus part, in which case they need only be sung once and spun into the slave reel at the relevant points by programming in the time offset required. Thus a chorus which started at 1.30 on the first master reel section (and therefore at 1.30 on the slave reel bounce) will occur at 6.30 on the second master reel section. If a session singer sings a part from 6.30, this can be spun into the slave reel using a five minute offset. To spin the same part into a second chorus at 2.30 on the slave will require a four minute offset, and so on.
Animal House has since developed this technique further to cover using up multiple reels of tape, with one reel for guitar takes, one for backing vocals, a third for harmonies... Session players in particular have found this multiple slaving extremely useful. It gives them the opportunity to have several attempts at a part, in different styles, without worrying about using up tracks.
The Fostex 4030 feeds SMPTE timecode to a Steinberg SMP24 SMPTE/MIDI Processor to provide an interface between the traditional analogue recording and the computer MIDI-based side of the studio. The Animal House was designed and constructed at a time when the Steinberg Pro24 program was first being launched at the professional audio market. Clive Mitten, Animal House Studio Manager, remembers selecting the equipment in early 1987.
"I approached setting up the studio system here very much from a user's point of view. Having been in a rock band signed to a major label in pre-Animal House days, I had developed contacts with various engineers and producers who were setting up home studios. The Steinberg software was appearing in many of these. It made sense to incorporate it here so that these people could bring in their pre-production from home on disk and get straight to work on compatible equipment. It has also given artists the chance to retain in their singles some elements of the original demos contained in the program."
Mark Spencer, Animal House's computer specialist, sums up the use of software in the studio: "We basically use the Steinberg Pro24 as a tapeless, digital recording machine, rather than strictly as a sequencing package. It has come into its own far more as a recorder of performances, which can then be edited later."
Mark spends a large proportion of his day working closely with drummers and keyboard players to build up the programs while work on more traditional ambient recording goes on in the studio, which results in the computing being carried out in an essentially off-line situation. Few of Animal House's clients have so far made use of the extensive keyboard programming or visual editing facilities available. "Unless people bring in their own sound libraries which they know well, they tend to rely on us to access an appropriate sound quickly from our own disk library, or else head straight for factory preset sounds," explained Mark. "My days off tend to be spent staring at D50 editors in search of the ultimate warm string sound!"
The vast disk sound libraries needed to fuel multiple visual editing programs, samplers, sequencing, and desk automation has proved a problem, to the extent that the studio has recently negotiated a sponsorship deal with a disk manufacturer. Such libraries do make it important to have engineers who know the sounds well, particularly for clients who may not be used to working so extensively with computers or samplers. A lot of the record company work completed so far at The Animal House has been for new signings and young acts in just this position.
Animal House is fortunate in being able to make use of the Steinberg Pro24 to run drum and keyboard parts live in the mix, a feature of the studio which visiting engineers sometimes find difficult to appreciate for its creative possibilities.
"The classic problem which my band used to face when recording, was committing keyboard parts to tape and then finding that the sounds chosen didn't quite fit with the guitar," explains Clive. "Because Pro24 records the performance, this can be quantised and edited, then sounds selected later. Keyboard players don't have to think about the accuracy of their performances and the sound simultaneously. It removes a lot of pressure."
The Animal House in-house equipment list includes as standard two Akai S900 samplers, Yamaha DX7II, Yamaha RX5 drum machine, and a rack of keyboard modules for starters. Keyboard modules have been around in significant numbers from the outset at Animal House, as has the Pro24 program, as Clive explains.
"We started out with just the DX7II and Russell's old MIDI retrofit Juno 6, but discovered the Roland MKS70 last year. Since then we have added a Yamaha TX81Z and the rack mounted version of the D50, the Roland D550. Everyone agrees that the D50 units really are the main synths of the moment."
All these MIDI instruments have made their mark on the layout and wiring of the control room. "Our set-up relies on the two MIDI Ins, four MIDI Outs of the SMP24," explains Mark. "Most of the instruments tend to be run live in the mix here, so we need all the MIDI channels we can lay our hands on."
The studio is currently using Pro24 Version 3.0, the new features of which have come in very useful precisely because of the huge amount of MIDI manipulation involved. The permanent display of the MIDI channel of every track on the main page of Version 3.0 has given the duty mouse a well earned rest, and the new 'Drum Edit' feature has proved itself invaluable when transferring MIDI channels and note numbers from different drum machines. Many long hours have apparently been spent assigning kits across the keys of the DX7 before the arrival of Pro24 Version 3.0!
Housing all of these instruments in standard 19" rack units has enforced the design of a large control room, to give space for musicians and all the staff. Clients at The Animal House not only have the assistance of a house engineer and tape operator, but also a computer operator used to all the programs. A member of the staff usually has to be on hand to grapple with the complexities of the MIDI patchbay. Animal House has a huge conventional Post Office type jackfield of over 400 holes, used in conjunction with four interconnected Akai ME30P MIDI patchbay units.
"Patching has proved to be one of the most difficult areas in setting up the studio, and massively more expensive in terms of wiring and man-hours than we had originally imagined," reflects Clive. "I spent many hours on my hands and knees re-plugging MIDI equipment to get it to work as it should. One of our major problems was eliminating MIDI clock information from patches - it seeped in everywhere and caused havoc. We now use one ME30P as a dedicated carrier of clock information."
Such an extensive use of MIDI instruments has also made unique demands on the outboard gear and effects units used at The Animal House. Back in early 1987, the studio's first major purchase was an AMS RMX16 digital reverb, a truly excellent machine, but nevertheless lacking in that magic ingredient - MIDI - required of the studio's main reverb. As a practical measure, this was replaced by a Yamaha REV5 and a Roland DEP5 as the MIDI system developed. The racks are also full of other toys: Lexicon PCM70, Yamaha SPX90 II, Aphex, Drawmer gates and compression to list but a few.
All this equipment eventually leads to the mixing console, custom built for The Animal House by a small British company called Platinum. It is a semi in-line desk which Animal House describe as "Basically, an in-line console but with groups", and an unusual choice in a market currently dominated by the big names of SSL, Neve, DDA and so on. The Platinum may not be fashionable but, like the Fostex E16 multitracks, has proved itself to be a good workhorse. Its most relevant feature is its provision of 124 inputs in remix mode, all necessary with the amount of MIDI instruments on the go. "We are currently considering adding another 16 channels to the desk as, even with all these, we have been known to run out," Clive pointed out. Since its installation, the console has also been fitted with Megamix automation on 40 channels.
So, has The Animal House suffered for not sticking to the 24-track format? In a fully-trading life of only six months, the studio has already completed projects for MCA, Rough Trade, Illegal, Virgin and Red Rhino.
Film companies and advertising agencies are also regular clients, and demos completed early on in the life of the studio have already earned the artists concerned recording deals with major labels. The only door that looks likely to remain closed is that of full membership of the APRS (Association of Professional Recording Studios - see page 14), on the grounds that the APRS minimum tape standard for 16-track work is 2". This the staff at The Animal House consider unrealistic at a time when record companies are increasingly using low-budget studios which tend to be poorly maintained and run down through lack of re-investment, and more and more commercial projects such as jingles and television scores are coming from unregulated home studios.
"The format of the tape machines has not been a barrier to us getting good quality work. We have clients in at the moment who are recording at The Animal House with the intention of transferring from our E16s direct to 32-track digital for mixing tracks in an SSL-equipped studio. Our clients have come to realise that, on the whole, the most prestigious console or the most expensive digital multitrack are not really necessary for all the stages of a recording project. We are always prepared to work to our limitations," says Clive, summing up this success. "For instance, we do bring in outboard EQ units for those clients who particularly favour them, say for live drums or a particular vocal sound. This is mostly for producers used to working with Neve or SSL desks. Orbans and the Ear spring to mind. We're also looking at buying some high-class modules, Neve Prism or Focusrites, for permanent use in-house."
If the purchase of outboard equalisation seems odd for a computer/MIDI studio, all the engineering staff protest that they have not taken leave of their senses, or their microphones. Amongst all the floppy disks, the traditional engineering skills still come into play. Russell Raisey's background is very much one of careful compression, good mic technique and thorough gating, one reason why the studio was not constructed purely as a programming suite. There is a generous-sized live room, overflowing with tie-line boxes and a wide selection of, yes, microphones. All the old chestnuts are there: Neumann, AKG, Sennheiser, Electro-Voice etc.
In amongst all the shiny new MIDI gear are a few relics from a less hi-tech era. One of Animal House's most prized possessions is a set of Moog Taurus bass pedals, which are often pulled out to give the studio a good rumble. Moog Taurus have soul, and a slider marked 'Loudness' to boot! There is also an extensive collection of guitars and basses in-house, by Manson, Fender, Gibson, JayDee and Shergold, which are available for client's use at no extra charge.
"I have a lot of admiration for the work done in smaller studios," remarks Russell, who was Studio Manager at Matinee Music, a 24-track in Reading, before joining The Animal House. "Dave Stewart was named Producer Of The Year for the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams album. A lot of the Eurythmics material was recorded on an 8-track. I don't believe that the best creative work is necessarily done in the big-budget suites, or that hi-tech equipment can create a good song. Let's face it, if sonic quality alone sold records, then Ben E. King for one would not have made it into the charts recently."
Animal House try hard to provide the kind of service normally associated with the household name studios, and have even had re-bookings based on the quality of the biscuits served! "Small things like fresh fruit, woolly towels in the shower room, and arranging for maps and directions to the studio to be sent to clients beforehand all add to the success of a session," explains Angela Gibbins, who enjoys the rather nebulous job title of Head Keeper and looks after staffing, catering and the animals.
"One of the major problems we have is the lack of sensible recording budgets. Bands do produce better results in professionally-run studios with good service, but record companies are increasingly unwilling to pay heavy studio bills. We have had to structure our prices to eliminate as many extras as possible, that's part of the reason for carrying so much outboard gear as standard here - to cut out hire charges."
Many of the clients have remarked on the strange phenomenon called "The Vibe" at The Animal House, and this is something that everyone concerned is most proud of. Head Engineer, Russell Raisey explains: "Certain studios just have a very good feeling about them, like Abbey Road has a buzz about it. We like to feel that The Animal House is a friendly place for musicians to work in - not a sterile laboratory." Having equipment which is familiar to the clients is one way of creating this vibe. Then again it might be the toucan, or the macaw, or any of the other animals.
Contact Angela Gibbins, Animal House Studios, (Contact Details).