A close up on the stationary and mobile aspects of recording
It's not much to look at from the outside. If you approach from the south, the whole place looks a bit vulgar — like a giant lump of black cake, attached to a church, of all things. But this complex, situated on Basing Street in the heart of London's cosmopolitan Ladbroke Grove area, houses one of Britain's leading recording studios - Basing Street Studios.
Originally known as Island Studios, the present complex ceased to house the head offices of Island Records two years ago, when the record company moved to Hammersmith. Although the current set-up remains a subsidiary of Island, since May it has officially been known as Basing Street Studios.
Managing Director Muff Winwood has been involved with the Island concept since its inception in 1967. He began working with Island Artists, after leaving the Spencer Davis Group, and moved progressively into management, promotions, and head of A&R, where he signed such Island stalwarts as Kevin Ayers, Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, and Sparks.
In his present capacity, Muff divides his time between producing a variety of artists, both Island and independent, signing new acts and administering the studio and its staff of 19. "It's funny," he grinned, "last year I must have spent almost 12 months of the year in the studio. This year, a lot more of my time has gone into seeing to the running of the studios, and also into getting the mobile studio into its present condition. I think it's the best mobile in Britain now."
The 24-track Island mobile unit came into being in 1972, a brainchild of Island's Managing Director, Chris Blackwell, but it wasn't until the last 18 months or so that things really began to work out. "At first," Muff told IM, "we thought we might take it to the U.S., but too many of the specifications would have had to be changed to satisfy the American regulations — minor things like the size of the wheel base and so forth."
So there was a massive rethink, spearheaded by Muff Winwood. The right crew was recruited, the old monitors were replaced with JBLs, two echos were put in, phasers and digital delays, graphic equalisation was added — in short, a complete overhaul of both technical and personnel was carried out.
The result? "We've had tremendous success with the mobile," Muff added. "It has literally been working every day of the week for the last six months. It was used down at Shepperton recording the soundtrack for Ken Russell's film on Liszt, and now the Who are using it. Bad Company are scheduled to use it, and then Rick Wakeman will be recording with it, the Yes gig at Queen's Park Rangers was recorded with it. The Elton John and Beach Boys concert at Wembley, the Osmonds, the Kinks — they've all used it."
Ironically enough, the high standard of this mobile studio is perhaps a reflection of Muff Winwood's own grave reservations about using a mobile studio. He told IM quite candidly that "As a producer, I would never use a mobile studio if I could use a studio — it's too much of a gamble. You gamble with the rooms you're recording in, the atmosphere, everything.
"Not long ago, a group booked our mobile unit and took it out to Essex, to a beautiful place. They set up, and there was a terrible buzz coming off the amps.
"The mobile is self-contained and runs off a generator, so we knew that wasn't the problem. We took all the gear out and drove into the town and set up again in a pub, just to see if the same thing would happen, and it did - again, this terrible buzz.
"It turned out that about three miles away, there was a top-secret, American satellite tracking station which was creating the buzz.
"That is admittedly a rare occurrence, but when you reckon it all up, the group had lost five days, plus the cost of the mobile. Groups can't afford that."
Especially not in the current economic climate. But Basing Street Studios are in a better situation vis-a-vis the recession than many studios. "There are too many studios in this country now, and only two kinds are going to survive: the best and the cheapest, and I think we're one of the best."
With record companies reducing the number of signings and in many cases cutting back on their total number of artists, the recording studios are beginning to feel the pinch. "On the average, it takes one artist ten hours a day for three weeks to record an album. If a record company reduces the number of its artists by three, that means that, well, it could mean that a studio will have as much as three months to fill."
As a result of this, Basing Street Studios have seen an increase in the number of outside artists using their facilities. "That's really why we became Basing Street Studios," Muff added. "When the Island Offices were here, I think a lot of people who wanted to use the studios were a bit reluctant to record here when the heads of a rival record company were sitting only a hundred feet away."
So Basing Street Studios is just a studio now — albeit one of the best in Britain. Muff Winwood has worked in a handful of other studios, but he is more than pleased with his current set-up. "It takes two things to really make a great studio: the best engineers and the best equipment. I don't think that any one studio has 100% of both, but that is the aim, and we're close in both categories.
"Frank Owen, who also works on the mobile, started at Olympia and has been here from the beginning. He has a lot of experience, as do our other engineers — Phil Brown, John Burns, Rhett Davis, Howard Kilgour and Phil Alt."
The studio's technical specifications are also impeccable. Both studio One and Two boast new Helios 32 input, 24 output consoles, 3M 24, 16 and 8 track recorders, 24M series Dolbys, UREI graphic equalisers, UREI limiters and filters, two Pultecs, six Keepex expanders, EMT digital delays, and a choice of Tannoy, Altec or JBL speakers.
Studio One is 60' x 40' x 25' and can hold 80 musicians, while studio Two is more intimate, measuring 20' x 30' x 10' and holding 20 musicians.
The construction and design of the studio attracted a good bit of attention when it was completed in 1969, receiving write-ups in both the music press and semi-learned journals such as The Architects Journal.
A sandwich of rubber and steel was inserted between the studio and supports holding up the exterior walls of the church, and tons of concrete and lead were used to ensure the proper acoustic properties.
An added novelty is that the control room is in no way structurally connected to studio One — there is a buffer zone of air and double glazing between the two.
All this, of course, meant that the church — which fortunately had been deconsecrated awhile ago — was essentially gutted and an entirely new interior put in its stead (the bit of "Black Cake" mentioned before houses the offices).
All in all, it worked, and Island seem better prepared than many studios to face the challenges of the next half of the decade.