On The Flight Deck at Terminal 24
If you've the tenacity to take on and beat the (ex-)GLC, then putting together an upmarket 24-track studio is a piece of cake! Tony Hastings visited this South London studio to glean the details of how it came to be and what it offers.
About 18 months ago Tony McGrail and Charlie Barrett, partners in a South London rehearsal complex called Terminal, decided to open a recording studio. Not just an 8-track tacked on the side of an old room, nor a budget 16-track, they wanted to go for a master quality 24-track studio!
A dangerous move you might think, in a world where technology and studios can become out of date in the time it takes to write an article like this. But here we are, one and a half years down the road, sat in the lounge area of Terminal 24 with Tony and Charlie telling me of profits and big names...
I first asked Tony to divulge a little of the history of the Terminal empire.
Tony: "I was playing in a band called Portraits with Charlie about 5 years ago and I decided to leave and put together my own gigging band. But, like everyone else, I could never find anywhere to rehearse. So Cindy (Tony's wife) and I hit on the idea of opening our own place. We looked around for premises and eventually found this railway arch just off the Walworth Road. It sounds so easy now, but it wasn't. It took a lot of time and commitment.
A week after we opened we were panicking about business, but an American girl with her own band called Holly And The Italians came in and booked the place solid for 6 weeks. We breathed a sigh of relief with the knowledge that we had the rent for the next 6 weeks at least. Then it just went from strength to strength."
When did Charlie get involved?
Tony: "Charlie came to work here about 3 years ago. I used to ring him up twice a week and ask when he was going to get a proper job and leave that silly band. He wouldn't have it for 6 months, then he eventually gave in."
The band Portraits became The Fixx after Tony left, and Charlie stayed with them long enough to make the first Fixx album. He left under the time-honoured banner of 'musical differences' to join Terminal.
Charlie: "Luckily that first album sold enough to give me the money to put into the studio and become a partner with Tony.
Tony had always had this studio idea in his head and it seemed appropriate that now I had the cash I should sink it into the venture."
Tony: "It was my initial concept but Charlie was involved from the very start.
I wanted this particular property for two reasons: first, because it's right next door to the rehearsal rooms, and second, because it's just a fantastic place.
We had to fight tooth and nail to get in here, the landlord didn't want to rent it to us. I managed to stop him letting it to the GLC! They had planning permission to move a maintenance depot here and I wasn't told. I put a lot of time and money into researching this place only to be 'gazzumped' at the last minute by the GLC. In fact, the landlord had no intention of letting it to us, he just had us around in case the GLC did go out of business and he needed another tenant in a hurry. Luckily the planning officer tipped me off and I went up to the meeting and had my say. Basically, the premises were built to boost employment in the area but the GLC were going to use it as depot space which would have meant only one job being created. Anyway, justice was done, we got the lease and planning permission and that gave us time to track down all the equipment we needed."
So you beat the GLC to it and were underway, but why build a studio in the first place?
Tony: "It is a money-making venture. We wanted to have a successful studio. We already have one of the best rehearsal set-ups in London and we wanted the same for the studio. We didn't want a low-key image by just putting an 8-track machine in a rehearsal room. We wanted to go straight in to the middle range market with a well-designed, well-equipped, master quality studio. Not a budget 24-track or a top of the range digital.
It was a dream, because we had a blank piece of paper and we used to sit down and work out what would be the best. From our experience as musicians we knew how important it was to have space in the right proportions and a room with character."
Charlie: "There are a lot of cowboys in this business who don't always use sound acoustic principles and who end up having to re-design their studio at a later stage, costing a fortune in builders and lost time. We built this studio from a musician's point of view."
How did you know that what you were doing was correct?
Charlie: "Well, we had to have expert advice is the answer to that. We knew nothing about it to start with so we went to Cliff Lake at Lake Audio and got his advice. We also did a lot of heavy research by speaking to manufacturers and reading endless magazines and promotional pamphlets."
Tony: "And of course we had Martin Rex, our engineer, who helped build the place with us. He chose the mixing desk - an Amek Angela."
What was your budget for the studio?
Tony: "The budget allocation was £60,000 on money that we could actually spend. We have also recently got some AMS effects units on finance, but we went from an empty shell to an operating 24-track studio on £60,000."
Charlie: "We chose to build the studio ourselves because it would initially save money, but also because we wanted to know that it was being done properly. It was also great fun!!
It took us two months to finish it, from ordering the bricks to testing the machines, and we didn't work on Sundays. Looking back, it was a giant task but I think we were lucky all being optimists, otherwise it might never have got done."
What equipment did you start with?
Charlie: "We initially had a Bel delay and an MXR reverb but we soon realised that in the particular niche in the market that we were aiming for, all our competitors had quality AMS or Lexicon devices. So the first thing we did was ditch them and get several AMS units on HP, which set us back £10,000. Then we had to get more mics! We had originally budgeted £1500 for them but now we have about £10,000 worth.
We also used to have a Lyrec multitrack machine which sounded great but was unreliable with a dodgy transport. It cost us a lot in down time (unusable studio breakdown time) and aggravation, so we called a hasty meeting with our accountants and bought the new Otari MTR-90 which is the best analogue machine around at the moment. We've had that for a year now and it's behaved perfectly.
We master on a Studer 2-track or on Sony digital. Monitoring is via JBL 4350s, Yamaha NS10s, AR-18s and Visoniks."
Since opening their doors to an unsuspecting world, Terminal 24 has had an almost solidly booked diary, including some very big name clients: Specimen - Shriekback - King Kurt - Charlie - Woodentops - Captain Sensible - Pet Shop Boys - Manfred Mann - Bucks Fizz - Trevor Horn - Cutting Crew - Vince Clarke - The Fall - to name but a few! Terminal, it seems, has gained quite a reputation for getting great vocal sounds (which is principally why Bucks Fizz, Vince Clarke and Trevor Horn went there). For a new and largely untried studio, the names Trevor Horn and Bucks Fizz as customers look most impressive, so I asked Tony about the Bucks Fizz set-up and how it came about.
Tony: "Before the session started Andy Hill (the group's producer/mentor) sent his engineer up to look at the studio and check the desk, because Andy was going to bring in his own Sony digital tape machine and he wanted to make sure that the desk would be quiet enough.
His engineer couldn't believe that there was no noise and he eventually picked up on a tiny sound coming from one side of the monitoring. He asked our permission to take the monitoring apart and try and fix it by lifting earths etc. He ended up making it twice as bad so he promptly put it all back together again and said 'yes, that's fine'!! Most of the stuff they recorded has been vocals for the Bucks Fizz single (New Beginnings) and stuff for the album."
Although the Amek desk is not normally computerised, Tony told me of a modification that their engineer, Martin Rex, had developed for the Amek (and any other analogue desk) that would give computer-assisted mixing from a home micro.
Tony: "We have faced a few limitations on the desk mainly because of the mute buttons and not being able to reach them quickly and easily enough. Although it doesn't compete with an SSL desk for automation, we tried to think of a way of making things a lot easier.
Martin came up with the basic idea. Most automated mixing concerns channel muting anyway, so Martin developed some software for the BBC micro that would be triggered from a code on tape or from the clock output of the Otari MTR-90 multitrack. It allows you to set up 10 different groups of muting matrices and put them in at any point during the music. We don't want to talk too much about it because the system will work with any desk and any computer (provided the software is rewritten) and Martin is currently negotiating a patent for it so that he can market it. To convert the desk would take less than a day and the cost of it all would be very cheap."
What are you looking for next in the way of studio equipment?
Charlie: "We had a look at new stuff at the recent APRS show, but I don't think we'll be able to afford a new desk for a year or so. What did interest us greatly was the new Dolby SR noise reduction system which we had a demo of. It's supposed to be as good as digital if not better in certain areas. I think that it's going to turn the whole concept of digital machines on its head...
Actually, we are quite happy as we are for the moment. What we really want to do is to get some more great music coming out of the studio."
To finish off with, do you have any advice for anyone who might be thinking about starting their own studio?
Tony and Charlie (together): "DON'T DO IT!!"
Charlie: "Think very carefully about how you are going to spend your money. Do lots of research into the type of equipment that you will need for the studio and check also if the studio site is right... in other words, do your homework! Three or four studios in the same vicinity as us, who opened at the same time, have subsequently closed down because of too much investment in the wrong areas."
Tony: "Don't build it as a toy that you can earn a bit of money from on the side. We felt a little bit like that when we first built the place, but the novelty of having your own studio soon wears off and to be honest, there isn't that much dead time these days."
Charlie: "When people hire a studio, they need and deserve more than just the fabric of the place. We try to operate with good and friendly engineers, reliable equipment, reasonable prices, and a professional service. After all, when you open a studio to the public and take their money you are running a business, and to be the tops you've got to be the best, at whatever level you want to start at."
I finished my tea and had another quick look around the studio including a tinkle on the Yamaha grand in the corner (although nobody noticed!). What a pleasure to find an in-tune piano that feels good.
Before I finally left to find the next bus back to Clapham, Tony and Charlie told me that the rehearsal complex is getting a big face lift as well at the moment. So there you have it, the Terminal empire. I look forward to Terminal North!!
Feature by Tony Hastings
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