West 3 Studios
Rebuilding a studio control room is not a task for the feint of heart, as Dave Buckley of West 3 Studios in West London reveals in this amusing case study...
Rebuilding a studio control room is not a task for the feint of heart, as Dave Buckley, of West 3 Studios in West London, reveals in this amusing case study...
"Never again"... The familiar words which apply to so many things - a blind date, moving house, holding a birthday party for eighteen 4 year olds (or four 18 year olds?!), getting married, divorced, rebuilding a control room...?
Ah, but rarely in the last instance are these words uttered with any degree of conviction. What if, next week, Ron Obvious Acoustics Ltd hit the market with their revolutionary 'topless' control room, whereby noise can escape upwards but falling leaves and bird-droppings are kept out by a 5000kHz force-field which can be assigned to any channel? What if, this time next month, yours is the only studio without a platinum-coated high frequency absorptive door handle? What if yours is the only one still with a door?
Permanently being the acoustic 'flavour of the month' would require a control room so ludicrously flexible that, firstly, it would never be finished and, secondly, it would be financially disastrous for all but those with the deepest of pockets.
So what options are open to XYZ Recording Studios once the realisation finally dawns that their 'pride and joy' is no longer the ultimate listening environment?
First things first... If you are one of the pitifully small minority who aren't living off the royalties of their last seventeen Top Ten hits, then you have got to concern yourself with money. If we spend 'x', are we justified in charging 'y'? And, more importantly, will we get it? Whether you intend just a basic tart-up or a complete refit, the equation has to balance or your project will be unviable from day one. And be warned, a complete refit, professionally done, costs a lot!
The estimates we obtained for our refit varied between each other by up to £50,000 (this is not a typing error) - from the simple "tart up the walls/scrub the carpet and equalise the room to Honolulu and back" approach (I am informed there is a more commonly used phrase), to the "let's rebuild Acton High Street for starters" type. All the estimates we obtained were from professionals whose work has been successfully tried and tested. They all had different ideas, all of which had merit and innovation, and choosing the right new room (on paper) seemed an impossible task. So which one was the right one for West 3?
Well, after a bit of acoustic pin-sticking, and with the aid of the occasional 'ibble-obble black bobble' etc, we instructed Professional Audio Ltd to carry out the work required. Actually, a lot more went into making the decision than just that. Their estimate seemed realistic, the time-scale viable, the cost of the new monitoring system frightened us a little but it was crunch time, and so West 3 Studios closed for its first ever refit.
We can all remember where we were when England won the World Cup or when John F. Kennedy was assassinated (or am I showing my age?) and I can remember exactly where I was when the control room that we had so lovingly and painstakingly built was attacked by two psychopaths with hammers and a pickaxe! I was in the pub with my partner, Ian Smith, revelling in the fact that other people - yes folks, actual third parties - were doing the work. Out came the effects racks, the loudspeaker support plinths, the old stud work, the wall coverings, the lighting (for those with high blood-pressure, rest assured, the mixing console and machinery had been removed the week before), and the serious work commenced.
We had briefed Professional Audio to move the front wall further into the room and to mount the new monitors in a wrap-around front wall. So the speaker wings were installed along with the front bass trapping. The speaker pods themselves were constructed of 22mm marine ply supported but isolated from a 3x2" timber frame; the voids were then filled by hanging plywood clad in a sound-absorptive quilt attached at specific centres across the front wall. This was then clad with a layer of plywood, checked for absence of resonance (sighs of relief all round), and eventually finished in tongued and grooved timber which, to our amazement, was done very tastefully, angled up to the centre-point of the ceiling. The fact that the 'chippy' concerned has now emigrated to New Zealand can in no way be connected with anxious studio owners constantly peering over his shoulder and taking bets as to whether or not the bit he was working on would fit. (They always did!)
The ceiling presented no problems... (spots appear rapidly on the writer's tongue) ...well alright, the ceiling nearly didn't present too many problems, how's that? The idea was to taper the ceiling from the front and the back of the room down to a point directly over John McGowan's head (he's the studio engineer). Third time lucky (hasty veil drawn over the first two attempts); the angle was spot on with the right degree of rake to the front. The ceiling was then finished with fabric.
The back wall had a bass trap fitted and the lower part was fabric finished with a sympathetic shade. We opted for a 'blue' room, a pale washed-out arctic sky colour and a rich aquamarine with purplish overtones, and as more of the fabric went up, the excitement grew. The side walls were re-battened and then covered in the light blue fabric with a dark stripe running up the wall at a forward angle, straight across the ceiling and angled back to come down the other side. Here, Professional Audio proved again that conceptual ideas can work in practice, as this stripe actually does give a forward lean to the room, concentrating the eye on the new Harrison mixing console, and through the glass and into the studio itself.
"They've forgotten the floor," I hear you cry... Oh no we hadn't. The existing main floor was concrete with a four inch high raised area on which sat the console, tape machines and assembled throng. This had to be cut away to leave sufficient space for the new wiring which extended from the studio to console, console to multitrack and back, console to effects rack, tape-op to kettle, etc.
The cables were laid in ducts, taken out again for that important last check that the right colours appeared in the right places, then re-laid and decked in, leaving inspection hatches at critical points. The parquet floor surface of the now enlarged plinth was finished and lacquered.
While this was happening, the Harrison MR4 console had arrived along with the new Court Signature Series monitors, FM Acoustics amplifiers and crossovers, and a man asking if we could move the van as it was blocking the car park. We were halfway down the corridor before anyone remembered that we hadn't got a van, and anyway the system was about to be powered up for the first time.
False alarm! In the excitement over the new goodies arriving we had forgotten a vital part of the master plan - namely, a 'Synth-plynth', custom built at Professional Audio's workshops and due to be parked on the raised area behind where the engineer sits, but raised slightly so as to fall smack-bang in the middle of the main monitor path, giving any keyboard player an exact, uncoloured monitor sound. Beneath this plinth are four bays with 15U high of rack space each for the outboard gear.
Although the finishing touches still remained to be done, we were all champing at the bit to hear our new monitors; so out came a CD player and we sat back to thrill to the sounds...
Thirty seconds later, we were fighting for the service revolver (it seemed the only honourable way out). The room sounded like an aircraft hangar. "Don't you think it's possibly just a touch too bright?" I enquired of Richard Kelley, Professional Audio's MD. To my amazement, he laughed and told us to wait in the car park until tomorrow.
After a sleepless night we arrived the next morning to find a carpet layer at work. Down went the thickest underlay I've ever seen - we all thought it was the carpet itself until he started laying a grey, all-wool, carpet with blue flecks in it that exactly toned with the wall-covering.
"Quick, light the wick in the monitors!" went up the cry and, desperately trying to look nonchalant, we all listened...
The rest is history. The room sounds great; what a relief to sit in a plush A&R man's office, have your cassette played and actually hear the mix you did in the control room...
But "hit us with some technical stuff', I hear the editor cry. OK, here goes...
Our old Allen & Heath Brenell Syncon B console had surpassed itself and continually surprised both us and the manufacturers with its versatility, but the time was right for a move to a more sophisticated automated console. Professional Audio's advice was most helpful here and we eventually chose the Harrison MR4, for its reliability and very low noise floor, along with an Audio Kinetics Mastermix as a very efficient extra.
The Court Signature Series monitors are newcomers to the industry. We chose the Dual 15" bi-amped version to cope with the extra low frequency response required for Fairlights, Synclaviers etc, as well as the extra headroom needed. The HF driver is also soft domed to give a more even distribution of high and high-mid frequencies right across the listening position, and to reduce listening fatigue. FM Acoustics amplifiers were chosen on merit and 800A and 600A models were supplied along with a 236x100 two-way active crossover. The monitor system crosses over at 250Hz with a 36dB/octave roll-off applied to virtually eliminate any intermodulation distortion from the adjacent drivers in the system. The Signatures also feature an internal passive crossover between the mid and high frequency drivers.
But what advice can we pass on to you, dear reader, as you chew your pencil thinking, "Shall I refit or simply commit suicide?" Here are some of the things we have learned:
1. Everyone in the entire world is an 'acoustics expert' - including your tax inspector.
2. Make sure that the cost of the new control room is within your budget to allow for any unforeseen extras.
3. Take up all the carpet, as things do get spilled.
4. Listen to as much advice as possible but, whatever you do, don't take all of it.
5. Make sure the contractor is fully briefed as to what you expect him to do and, just as important, what you expect him not to do.
6. Don't be afraid to get involved in the supervision of the project. After all, it's your control room, and some of your crazy suggestions might just be right.
7. Don't be misled by jargon. (I used to think the 'Haas Zone' was where the producer sat!) Make sure things are explained to you in simple English (unless you are foreign, that is). If they can't be, then they won't work, and you won't be able to explain to your clients why the room sounds wrong.
8. Be realistic in the amount of time allowed, and then add some more. That little bit extra may make the difference between 'good' and 'sensational'.
9. Don't skimp on things like the carpet. We paid a fortune for ours but it was worth it. It not only looks good, it forms a vital part of the room acoustics.
10. Practice writing large cheques.
Ian Smith and Dave Buckley originally built and opened West 3 Studios in 1982. They are both surprisingly still alive and well and working in Acton. Most of their work is rock and pop mastering with TV music and voice-overs to provide the odd welcome change. The Studio room itself, by popular demand, has remained the same - large, with a live end/dead end (LEDE) environment and space for the odd choir or orchestra. (Actually, the truth was that they couldn't face the thought of moving out the Bluthner grand piano.)
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Feature by Dave Buckley
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