At one time it was a pottery studio. At another it was the home of Edward the Confessor. Now it is Millstream Recording Studio. Owner Dik Cadbury tells all.
It's hard to believe that this peacefully situated studio is only two minutes walk from the centre of Cheltenham. Owner Dik Cadbury tells the story and chief engineer Mick Dolan fills in the Technical bits.
I moved to Cheltenham in 1973 to join a band called Decameron which lasted about three years before splitting up, and two years later I played with Steve Hackett's band which kept me busy for a couple more years. It was then that I noticed a certain property up for sale which I subsequently bought to use as a rehearsal studio. This was an ex-pottery studio that had at one time been inhabited by Edward the Confessor according to the plaque on the wall. Although I originally intended to use it just as a rehearsal studio, I soon installed an 8-track recorder and from there on it just got out of hand; the recording studio took over. We gutted the building and fitted it out as a working studio and by chance ended up with the first production Solid State Logic desk, though it doesn't have the total recall facility. It's starting to show its age a bit now, with noisy pots having to be replaced now and then, but it is in many ways very similar to the SSL desks currently in production except for differences in the routing - it's even wired to accept some degree of automation. The 8-track was replaced by a 3Ms 16-track recorder and that was really the beginning of Millstream Studio.
The layout here is a little unconventional as the control room is actually located above the studio.
There's a window in one wall which overlooks the studio and there are a couple of strategically placed mirrors so that we can check things like how far singers are from their mics, but there's no real communication problem because we have a good 2-way talk back system. I think a lot of performers actually prefer this arrangement as they are not constantly under scrutiny from the other side of the glass; they find it easier to relax.
Our chief engineer is Mick Dolan who was the guitarist with a band called Hard Meat in the late 60s. In the mid-seventies he founded Bell Sound PA Hire which handled a lot of top bands and then he freelanced with us here at Millstream before coming to join us permanently in 1982.
What sort of work is the studio now handling?
We're finding that our workload is being split three ways. We have bands doing anything from demos to albums, we produce jingles under the name of Orijingles which is a company affiliated to the studio, and we're also involved with audio-visual soundtrack production which we got into by approaching an agency in Swindon who prefer to use original music rather than library material. We have a team here that can produce what they want and we've already done work for British Airways, Castrol, the Daily Mail and so on. In the conventional band department we get everything from local bands doing demos to people mastering albums. Recent clients include the Albion Band and the Johnny Coppin Band.
What equipment do you have in the studio?
The desk as I mentioned is a Solid State Logic A4000 which is configured as an 18:16 though it's capable of accepting more channels if we decide to upgrade to 24-track as it's wired for 32 channels. The multitrack machine itself is 3M M79 16-track with CM50 autolocate. There are two Studer 2-track machines, an old Revox A77 which gets used for everything from echo to spinning in, and a Teac A3440 4-track machine which comes in handy for the audio visual work.
By way of monitoring we have a pair of Auratones for near field monitoring and a pair of Tannoy 15" HBD dual concentric main monitors in custom built cabinets powered by a Turner amp. These give a nice even coverage if you're sitting behind the mixing desk but for customers sat right at the sides the sound is less than ideal. John Acock was responsible for the cabinets and he was originally our engineer before he moved on to production.
The control room walls are treated with rockwool behind a hessian covering and some of it is covered in polythene to give a more random surface characteristic. The control room itself measures 18x12 feet and we did have a bit of a problem at around 60Hz; there was insufficient space to install conventional bass traps, but a little equalisation on the monitors has given us a set-up that works well. Because we hear our jingles on the radio so often, we get the feedback we need to tell us how well our mixes are working.
Outboard gear consists of a Rebis rack system containing compressors and gates. The gates are usually used for cleaning up tracks rather than anything clever. There's a Scamp rack with ADT/Flanger and noise gates and we have one of the first Scintillators which we are very pleased with. It works something like an Aural Exciter and really comes into its own on jingle production where you want the sound to stand out. There's also a Drawmer DL221 dual compressor/limiter which is pretty impressive and we're hoping to get the Rebis sampler when it comes out, though I must say that the Akai S612 that H&SR reviewed looks interesting. There's also an Eventide DDL/Harmoniser but that's currently away being repaired.
For reverb we've got an EMT plate which has been around for quite a while but pride of place must go to our new Klark Teknik DN780 digital reverb which now finds itself in constant use. We really are very pleased with the way it works. Because it has various effects apart from normal reverb, you can use it whilst laying tracks to add depth and ambience without adding what you would recognise as normal reverb. You can put each instrument in its place within the sound picture, creating a much more natural sound for each instrument and it leaves the normal reverb type of effects free for us to use at mixdown.
Do you use any of the special effects programs in particular ways?
We use the ADT but not in the five voice mode which is what you get when you first punch it on. Two or three voices are good for getting a punchy funky bass sound. We're always experimenting, but at the moment the studio is so busy that playtime is limited. That causes problems for Adrian, our assistant because he doesn't get as much chance to play as he should so Mick and I sometimes bring our guitars in and run a little session for him to work on.
Doesn't using the reverb as you're laying tracks restrict you to a mono reverb effect?
It can do, but quite often if you're adding ambience using short reverb times to create space, you can add more of the conventional reverb at mixdown to give it width and depth. I generally bring up the nearest program to the effect I'm looking for and then use the remote to tweak it up until it's just right. The only thing you can't do on that is alter the room size without the decay changing because the decay is a function of the room size. You can however set up the room size and then change the decay time afterwards. The HF decay parameter is very useful and one trick is to set up a reverb with an accentuated HF end to extend the crash cymbal sound from the RX11 drum machine.
You don't seem to have a discrete digital delay in here for echo.
Well we do normally; it's part of the Eventide. It's a great mixing aid for creating the impression of stereo from mono either using a bit of pitch shift or delay, or even both delays set to different times and panned to both sides of the stereo.
When doing jingles or soundtrack work, we tend to record the drum track first or at least record the clock with a guide drum part. Afterwards I may record the drum parts again separately so that I can add the right type of reverb or ambience to the individual drums.
"...if you use two identical mics, one at the front of the cab and one at the back, roughly the same distance, you get a really good sound even though you'd expect phasing problems."
For the jingle work we are using the QX7 and the RX11 drum machine with a TX7 expander. This is an efficient way to work as one of us can program all the time consuming bits without tying up studio time. We now have a Roland JX8P which produces the analogue sounds that we need and it complements the FM sounds we get from the TX7 which is just like a DX7 without the keyboard. At the moment everything locks up to the drum machine but we'll eventually sort the system out so it all locks to the QX7. One thing that's very useful with that is that you can treat the system as a recorder and even bounce synth parts down without actually using up any tracks on your tape machine. I should imagine this would be particularly useful in a home studio environment, though we use it mainly for jingles or AV work. I also see this type of system as a compositional tool, and even if you end up replacing the synth part by a string quartet, it's helped you to work out the arrangement and given you an idea of how it will sound.
How is the studio area itself arranged?
It measures 28 x 12 feet and has a live end and a dead end so that we can get a nice live drum sound if we want to. There's an upright Bechstein piano tucked away down at one end and the whole place is air conditioned of course. It's been treated in much the same way as the control room in the dead area and at the live end we've put in a hard floor so that if we face the acoustic screens hard side in, we can create a really live drum area. Again we use the screens to build a vocal area rather than having a committed vocal booth. Thats another area where the Klark Teknik comes into its own as the room simulations are so good, you can create just about any sort of room ambience you could want. We've started to use the plate again because for the first week or two after we got the Klark Teknik, we never used it at all. When you compare the two machines side by side, you can tell the difference but some of the plate simulations get pretty close; it ust seems silly to tie up the DN780 simulating a plate when we've got one here already.
How do you go about miking up the piano; uprights can be a bit of a problem?
We have a very good piano tuner who also maintains the instrument which helps considerably when you are trying to get a good sound. We usually mike the piano up from behind with an AKG414 or 451 and occasionally use ambience mics at the other end of the studio but you do have to be careful to avoid pedal noise. There is a specially maintained squeak-free stool. We sometimes put a PZM mic inside if we want more of a percussive sound. If the piano is only a minor part of the arrangement we may record it in mono to save tracks but if it features heavily, we would of course record it in stereo.
What treatments do you use to modify the piano sound once it's recorded?
Chorus works well and there's the Scintillator if you want a brighter sound. This old Boss mains powered pedal unit is particularly effective but I don't think they make it any more. It's also interesting to double track it with a bit of detuning (using the varispeed) to fatten up the sound.
Do you ever use a dedicated vocal booth for recording or do you always use the screens?
We would tend to use the screens if we're recording a solo vocal part but not if it's a multi-vocal part. If there are three people doing backing vocals we put them out in the studio and again the 414 is a good mic to use. For rock vocals we might even resort to the old SM58 and we've even got good results using PZMs. It really depends on the sound you're after. We like to experiment but the pressure of work means that we tend to use methods that we know work.
Do you have any special approach to miking up the drum kit?
I can hardly remember when we had a real drum kit last. Even drummers come in and ask to use the RX instead these days. In a perfect world where the kit's tuned well and sounds good, we tend to use a PZM on the bass drum which some people might find unusual. The only problem is that the mic is omnidirectional above the plate and so spill is a problem. The mic is positioned on top of the blanket used to damp the drum and then the front of the drum masked out with a blanket. A little gentle gating and we end up with a good sound.
Theory would suggest that you might not get a very good low frequency response out of a PZM if it isn't mounted on a large boundary plate. How does this work out in practice?
Well, it depends what you call bottom end. Generally I don't think that there's much below 30Hz that's worth having; it just takes up the energy and muddies up the sound and a lot of modern sounds aren't really that bottom heavy. Also I think that the drum shell acts as some kind of boundary to extend the bottom end. Anyway it works so that's all that really matters in the end. We use Sennheisers on the toms, and on something that's not very rock orientated we might use the 414s if we can trust the drummer not to hit them. For ambience there are a couple of the Tandy PZMs that we've modified as in the old HSR articles and these work well on the top kit. For snare drum we'll use as often as not an SM57 or a condenser depending on the type of music. With a modern jazz trio you have to approach the kit in a different way to a rock band's kit.
There are a couple of interesting points about the way in which we mike up guitar cabs. Both Mick and I have traditional open backed combos and the sound seems fatter if you mic it up from the back. Strangely though, if you use two identical mics, one at the front of the cab and one at the back, at roughly the same distance, you get a really good sound even though you'd expect phasing problems. As it happens, the sound actually gets worse when you invert the phase of one of the mics but don't ask me why. Perhaps it's a peculiar quality of guitar cabs.
I notice that you have two mastering machines that look very similar - what is the story there?
They are PR99s which sound good though the tape path is a bit awkward for editing. The first one is a Mark 2, NAB version and the second one is a Mark 1 which we use for radio mastering as it's got IEC equalisation. The EQ is not switchable; you have to change cards, so we bought two machines which still worked out cheaper than the alternatives available to us at the time. We also have a couple of Dolby A units that we can patch in when mastering if the session demands it.
You seem to be getting a lot of work so do you have any definite plans for future expansion?
There is the option of going 24-track which wouldn't take up any more space, but the immediate requirement is to give ourselves a bit more space on the site that we have. A second studio is planned to cope with the editing of the visual side of things and also to enable us to construct a small voice booth and a small editing suite where we can do voice-over sessions without tying up the main studio. With the audio visual work on the increase, we'll be able to edit the visuals as well and have a far closer link between the two sides of the operation. Ultimately we will have a true video editing suite but this will really be subservient to the music side of things. If it all works out, we will glaze over the garden area completely to give a covered courtyard where clients can sit and relax and we also want an office and a service/repair shop. That will take a lot of pressure off this particular room as clients tend to congregate in the control room when they're not actually recording. At least we're in the fortunate position of being almost in the centre of town and so there is no shortage of pubs and restaurants if clients want to give their ears a rest and have a drink or a meal.
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
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!