In The Heart Of The Country
The Wool Hall | Tears for Fears
If you earn a fortune in royalties from record sales and you want your own recording studio, what do you do? If you're Tears For Fears, you build The Wool Hall. Paul Tingen reports.
...Lies a new residential studio that specialises in the hi-tech. It's called The Wool Hall and it belongs to Tears For Fears, but it's far from being a private facility for the band and a few friends.
SOMEWHERE DEEP IN the heart of rural England, on the edge of the West Country, a new residential recording studio is beginning to make a name for itself — in a market that many believed was already overcrowded. In fact, if things continue to go as they are right now, the studio will be one of the longterm recording facilities in the country.
Of course the latest technology is involved. There's a 56-channel SSL desk, and all the expensive outboard gadgets which every self-respecting studio simply must have. Yet on top of that, the studio focuses on elaborate service, ("making people feel at home"), has a programming suite with Fairlight, Synclavier and Emulator to cater for synthesiser-oriented artists and, lately, has been channelling its energies towards providing special acoustically designed studio rooms.
We're talking about The Wool Hall in Beckington, near Bath. Expensively constructed and extensively marketed, its main claim to fame is that it's Tears For Fears' studio - the house that 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' built.
Yet studio manager Pete Dolan is quick to point out that it is by no means a private studio that's occasionally open to others when the owners are on holiday. No, sir. This is a serious commercial enterprise.
"Obviously we used to be known initially as the Tears for Fears studio. It puts you on the map and gives you some opening credit, but we're now starting to move beyond that, as we're getting repeat business, and making ourselves a name through word of mouth."
The studio came into being during 1984, when TFF's Roland Orzabal and Ian Stanley were looking for a place to store their equipment, and perhaps develop a recording studio, while they were recording Songs From The Big Chair in Ian's front room in Bath. They found The Wool Hall, an "historical curiosity" which in medieval times used to be a wool market. They then asked Pete Dolan, a music business veteran with experience as a musician and as a manager in the recording industry (he worked for Virgin for eight years, setting up the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, and also started up several independent labels in the US and UK) to take charge of the process of renovating the building, designing the studio, and installing the hi-tech equipment in a way that would retain the original atmosphere of the building. It was felt that history should be married to technology, rather than be abandoned by it.
The task was not an easy one, though it had its rewards. The walls of the building were in good condition and didn't need too much work, but rotted floorboards needed attention. One especially creative solution to this problem involved the building of a steel cage in which the control room was fitted. With the studio room positioned underneath the control room, absolute acoustic isolation between the two was needed, and the steel cage provided just that. With several tons of sand in the floor, the cage structure is completely independent of the rest of the building, and the control room therefore well isolated.
A residential and relaxation area was then built, intricately designed and sympathetically decorated. In the studio room, walls were installed with a slight angle upwards, to reduce the amount of direct sound reflections which might cause nasty resonant frequencies. Not surprisingly, the royalties from Songs From The Big Chair had by now come in rather handy...
The renovation work took nearly a year, and ended in April 1985. Enter the studio now, though, and there's nothing to indicate the metamorphosis of the building took place so recently. The place feels comfortable, relaxed, bathing itself in a tranquil atmosphere that is a huge relief after the pressure of London. The remote location of The Wool Hall is seen as one of the studio's assets by Pete Dolan, though he acknowledges it has its disadvantages, too.
"People can work in complete concentration here, undisturbed by anything else, since we only house one project at a time. The local people are very friendly and have no problems suddenly seeing a celebrity turning up at their bar.
"Yet one thing we had to take care of was maintenance and repair. Obviously being a hundred miles from London can be a drag if your equipment breaks down. So we have John Fredericks as a full-time maintenance and repair engineer."
Fredericks, who's on 24-hour call and who trained with CTS studios in London, sees his job mainly as "preventative maintenance".
"I have a good stock of spare parts, which is an absolute necessity when you're as far from London as we are", he says. And apart from his maintenance work, Frederick also designs and builds equipment modifications — like a computer protection assembly which puts the SSL out of action whenever it gets overheated.
Basically, though, for musicians who want quietness, somewhere they can concentrate without disturbance, and beautiful countryside, The Wool Hall is an oasis. The interior has been deliberately decorated in pastel colours, and there are various acoustic instruments (restful on the eye after all the LEDs and LCDs) adorning the house, like a sitar, a marimba and a zither. There's even the odd bit of fine art hanging on the walls.
The control room has natural daylight coming in through two large windows, highlighting the dominant features of the SSL.
"At the time we bought it the SSL was the best thing around, and really it still is", says Dolan, "although we're closely monitoring the ripples of resistance which are starting to show against it. Because everyone has SSL, records are starting to sound a bit the same, so we have a large outboard equalising section to give people a range of choices."
Also in the control room is a SycoLogic 16-channel MIDI routing system, which can organise and link large amounts of keyboards. Expert here is assistant engineer Steve Williams: "That routing system is brilliant. Lately we had Ryuichi Sakamoto in here with Virginia Astley. Sakamoto was using virtually every keyboard you could think of — Emulator, Fairlight, Prophet, even an MC4. The system saved us lots of time and trouble."
Williams is basically available ("apart from pouring cups of tea and juggling with mics") to help people get to grips with the advanced technology in the studio. And though producers usually bring in their own engineers, his engineering skills prove very handy when "a producer comes in who engineers himself. I then often sit in and engineer while he can concentrate on other things."
For projects that demand another level of hi-tech jiggery-pokery, the studio's programming room (complete with programmer) can be hired as an extra. "The Keyboard Club", as the room is affectionately called, was initiated and is run by Paul Ridout (for an interview with Ridout, see MT February 1987). It features a Fairlight, a Synclavier, PPG Wave 2.3 and Waveterm B, an E-mu SP12 percussion sampler, a Yamaha TX rack and a Macintosh computer.
A second Macintosh should soon be installed in the control room, which will have a direct link to the Mac in the Club. When it's up and running, clients will be able to program patches and sequences in the Club and send them directly to the control room, where they can be used instantly.
Obviously, The Wool Hall is extremely well-equipped for dealing with synthesiser-orientated bands, having seen the likes of Latin Quarter, The Colourfield, Ben Orr (Cars bassist who spent several months in the studio working on a solo album produced by Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell's husband - Joni is said to be considering recording her next album at The Wool Hall), and of course Tears For Fears, though curiously, their use of the studio has so far been very modest. If all goes according to plan, 1987 will see the recording of their new album as their first major recording project in their own studio.
So as it stands today, The Wool Hall is a refreshingly designed residential studio with a definite bias towards the hi-tech. But, as Dolan explains, the ever-present twinkle in his eye growing even more intense, things are changing. Apart from the considerable effort which had already been put into making the studio room sound good, work is now in progress to convert the barn into a piano room of 18' by 28'. Dolan elaborates.
"...And we will be building a live stone room, which will give us three acoustically designed studio rooms. The stone room will be 15' by 26' at its longest point, but it will have no parallel walls for acoustic reasons. The whole thing should be ready by August.
"We're trying to cater for all tastes, and really, there is no substitute for a great-sounding room. We've got all the major reverb units - Lexicon, AMS RMX 16, EMT valve plates, Yamaha REV7 - but it's the rooms that give the studio its individuality. A producer once discovered that our laundrette sounded very good. So he laid cables to the laundrette and recorded the guitars there. That says it all really, doesn't it?"
Reading between the lines, it's clear Dolan believes that it's no longer equipment lists which make the difference between top studios. Apart from the live rooms and the idyllic location, there's another weapon he throws in to separate his studio from the competition - an extensive, seemingly unstoppable service to create the right ambience for his clients: the sort of ambience that will allow them to feel completely relaxed, and which will allow their creative energies to flow. When Van Morrison came in to record, he wanted to have the whole band playing live in the studio room - so Dolan and his crew rolled in palm trees and other plants to create a "front room atmosphere".
"Basically our attitude is that the place is yours for as long as you rent it", says Dolan, "and we will do everything within reason to accommodate people." "Within reason" once stretched as far as organising the arrival of a hot-air balloon after a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from a guest. Dolan just did it to see whether it could be done. And it could...
The Wool Hall, (Contact Details)
Feature by Paul Tingen
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!