Bringing A Dream To Life
There can be few home recordists who haven't spent a few idle moments thinking about how nice it would be to run their own professional 24-track studio, Mick Belford of Patchbay explains how determination can turn such a dream into reality.
Question: How do you take the step from sitting in the local pub with just enough money for another two halves to opening one of the biggest, plushest and most acoustically refined studios in the north of England?
Answer: It's simple - you just have to be slightly crazy, with total belief in yourself, determination, and no comprehension of words like "pessimism", "can't" and "no"!
This, in any case, is true of Patchbay, a new 24-track facility situated on the outskirts of Leeds, and the brainchild of long-time musical collaborators Dave Creffield and Steve Cree.
One evening almost three years ago the pair were sat in their local, bemoaning the poor quality of most northern studios and the attitudes and expense of many southern ones. Having experienced the draining effect of both, they were inspired by the idea of building their own studio. Engineer Dave, who had already spent some time working in studios in London and the Republic of Ireland, and Steve, a man with a sound head for business, had the idea - but how to turn it into the reality that is now Patchbay?
The next two years were spent deciding exactly what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it, and securing the necessary money. Both men felt that what they wanted, and what was needed in the area, was a studio that could combine the upmarket plushness of southern studios with a more open and flexible attitude towards its clients. A keen pricing policy was a must, but the studio must still run as a commercial enterprise.
This meant utilising the studio to its utmost, and also exploiting their own skills. Steve would capitalise on his writing abilities, to enable the studio to specialise in the production of radio and television advertising soundtracks, jingles etc, as well as providing a high quality recording facility. It was at this stage that Steve and Dave decided to introduce Steve Pickering, a former colleague of Steve Cree, as Commercial Director with the task of acquiring and expanding that side of the business.
Money was the next problem, and without any great commercial reputations behind them, the trio had to formulate a very convincing business plan to raise the necessary capital. They then formed Patchbay as a limited company, and set about selling shares in a business they had yet to build.
Suitable premises were the next requirement. After a good deal of searching, and a certain amount of hostility to the idea of a recording studio - one landlord pulled the plug on a deal just as they were about to move in - premises were found. A 19th Century stone mill complex on the outskirts of Leeds and Bradford filled Patchbay's requirements nicely, and in January of this year (1989), with money starting to come in and the support of the bank secured, Patchbay started building.
With the exception of all but the top facilities, it seems that most studios were built to appeal to a colony of termites. Musicians need a certain amount of atmosphere, but most attempts to create it seem to produce gloomy and restrictive environments that become uncomfortable after a few hours work. This was emphatically something that Patchbay wanted to avoid. With this in mind, and faced with the empty shell of a factory unit, Patchbay had a lot of construction to do.
In order to keep capital costs down, nearly all the building work was carried out by Dave and the two Chris's, barring a number of specialist jobs. In the end, this may have saved somewhere in the region of £100,000, but the work itself was one big headache - not least for Dave on the day when a carelessly dropped hammer rendered him unconscious!
Some of the real lowlights of the 4½ months building period included things like: demolishing an old washroom; rockwooling; sinking a new drain for the installation of a toilet; rockwooling; cleaning down all the walls with a wire brush before damp-proofing and sealing them; more rockwooling; discovering halfway through that the electricity supply for the mill was 250 volts, which required the purchase of a stepdown transformer; more rockwooling... on and on it went, with a seemingly endless stream of problems presenting themselves.
It would have been easy to fall into the trap of spending huge sums of money on equipment, leaving every other aspect of the studio's design as an afterthought. Patchbay, however, always intended to pay great attention to the studio as a whole, of which the equipment was just a part, albeit one of the most important. The acoustic design of the studio was therefore always going to be the single most important task. Initially, the intention was that it would be done by outside specialist designers, but after some very expensive quotes, Dave took on the task himself. This called for some very heavy reading, and it proved to be a time-consuming job, but the end result surpassed all expectations.
The studio and control room are housed in the lower part of the building, with the lounge area, offices, kitchen and toilet located upstairs. With its stonewall construction and isolation from other units on all but one side and above, soundproofing wasn't a major problem, except for the ceilings. The major design problem was the unfeasibility of turning one large open space into a control room and several playing areas. The solution was to build a single large live area, a large control room, and one small isolation room.
This live room is one of the largest, if not the largest, in West Yorkshire at 510 square feet. It employs single skin plasterboard and stud construction, mounted on wood batons, as opposed to the more widely used double skin construction. This allows the wall assembly itself to provide bass trapping, and variations in the spacing of batons help create randomness in the reflective characteristics of the room, thus reducing flutter echoes and waves. It also improves sound absorption across the full frequency range.
A bare brick wall separates the studio from the control room. There is a pine cladded ceiling, pine woodblock floor, and the remaining three walls are wallpapered. Apart from the single skin and the brick wall, the rest of the construction is much as one would expect in a live area - no parallel surfaces, and all walls and the ceiling are separated from each other with neoprene blocks and silicon sealed. The visually stunning ceiling is an adaptation of a design from one of Yamaha's studios in Japan. It slopes gradually from back to front, with a sharp slope at either end, and is mounted on large cross timbers. With a construction that involved a single main steel girder giving support, cross batons, double thickness plasterboard, and pine cladding with about two tons of rockwool for soundproofing, creating the ceiling was possibly the single most difficult job in the building of the studio.
The control room, at 470 square feet, is intended to be spacious and comfortable. Acoustically, it is built on the same single skin principle as the live room, with a sprung floor and a standard commercially available suspended ceiling. To create as 'normal' a listening environment as possible, the only acoustic treatment in the room is two acoustic tiles directly above the mixing desk, and one at head height on each side wall, level with the engineer's chair. The main monitors are mounted in the walls either side of the studio window, and are acoustically isolated from it.
The results of this design are an acoustically superb live room, which has already proved extremely popular with drummers. It has a big sound - crisp, but not boomy - and is very easy to mike up in. The consistency of the monitoring system, often a major problem for studios, is borne out by the fact that mixes sound good out of the studio - on a car stereo, for example - as well as in the control room, and by the fact that no clients have returned to remix with actual balance problems.
Choosing the equipment for the studio took a great deal of thought and planning - with so much invested in the rest of the studio, the choice/budget equation was always very much in mind. Whilst Patchbay believes there are no compromises in audio quality of the chosen equipment, the selections may present a few surprises, the first being in the choice of tape recorders...
24 tracks were a must, and Patchbay decided at an early stage to use a pair of Akai MG14Ds, with an Adams-Smith Zeta 3 synchroniser. This decision was made a good 12 months before the combination really became recognised as a 'system', and it wasn't made on budget alone - it was a cheaper option, but it also performs exceptionally well. Patchbay are convinced that it is comparable to 2" tape, being particularly impressed by the way the dbx noise reduction works on the system, and by the fact that it doesn't waste tracks on sync codes. With the flexibility of the autolocator, it turned out to be an obvious choice.
However, since the studio actually opened at the end of May, there has been a certain amount of resistance to the Akai system. The industry has generally reacted very snobbishly to the idea of two MG14Ds as a professional system, and with Soho Soundhouse hailing it as the new 24-track home recording setup, there have been some reactions along the lines of "why is such a big studio using a semi-pro recorder?" Consequently, Patchbay has recently installed a 2" Soundcraft 760 Series III recorder alongside the Akai system, for no other reason than to satisfy the obvious demand. Consideration is also being given to the Akai ADAM digital system.
The next major decision to take was the choice of mixing desk. Having chosen a new Allen & Heath Saber console (just recently replaced by a 20:24:24 Sigma) a degree of automation was added by hardwiring a Yamaha DMP11 mixer into two of the effects returns, allowing any eight channels or groups to be extracted and fully automated. The whole system is locked to MIDI, allowing automation of the desk's MIDI mute system via the Atari ST and C-Lab Creator with Export - a high level of automation is therefore achieved at comparatively low cost, and with all MIDI compatible outboards also linked into the system, the arrangement proves to be very flexible indeed.
Monitoring is via JBL4412 main monitors, which provide a clear, detailed sound without being too big. Tannoy DTM8s were chosen as nearfield monitors in preference to something like Yamaha NS10s, because they do not colour or flatter the sound. As engineer Dave Creffield says: "If it sounds good on these, it will sound good on anything." This combination of main and nearfield monitors makes mixing more realistic, and contributes to the consistency of Patchbay's output.
As one would expect, Patchbay offers a comprehensive MIDI setup. The choice of a Casio FZ1 sampler over an Akai unit is a surprise to some, but if the studio equipment list is not the most conventional, it doesn't lack quality or flexibility. The usual range of outboards is available, with Drawmer gates, the new Drawmer dual noise filter, a variety of reverbs and delays etc.
As for microphones, with the Ramsa S2 clip-on condenser mics being used for toms and the Electrovoice ND308 as one of the main vocal mics, choice again is not conventional - but Patchbay are less interested in having what everyone else has than having what works best for them. All mastering is to DAT, and the studio has local access to AMS AudioFile editing, and the option of ¼" editing.
A good deal of care was taken in the placing of equipment - getting around most control rooms can be like an obstacle course, but this is not so at Patchbay. A large console houses the desk, autolocator, DMP11 and a patchbay, with the rest of the equipment being mounted into the right-hand side wall. An air-conditioned equipment room behind this provides a visually appealing setup that also makes maintenance and access to the rear of the equipment extremely easy. All wiring runs under the floor - in the two metres between the console and the equipment room alone, there is around 1½ miles of foil screened cable. Access to this is available through entry points along the control room floor. The end result is a user-friendly, comfortable environment for everyone. Dave's personal feelings are that having designed the layout himself, the result is very much an engineer's studio, with a character missing from studios designed by consultants who don't understand the needs of a studio engineer.
The full Patchbay team also includes Julia Watson, the company's administrator, and myself (Mick Belford) - another local musician who first met Steve and Dave a few years earlier when playing on the same billing at a local festival. I joined at a time when Patchbay were addressing the problem of having only one in-house engineer. Patchbay now has an engineering, production and composition team of three people, with a variety of skills and experience - the flexibility of the studio's personnel matching that of the studio itself.
From the beginning, Patchbay intended to provide a comprehensive professional facility, thus hopefully preventing the exodus of bands from the north to London when a serious project is on the go, and this requires a certain amount of innovation in the way things are run. Firstly, Patchbay does not operate an hourly rate, unless musicians are bringing in outside engineers or producers whose work styles cannot be accounted for. This is because they feel that hourly rates are often the thorn in many musicians' sides, leading to clockwatching and below-par performances. Their alternative is to offer a full job quotation that takes into account all the needs of a particular project. Within the allocated time, clients are free to work as many hours per day as they wish, the idea being to allow flexibility and ease the pressures of hourly rate deadlines. It is a system Patchbay's clients have responded positively to, and it is more than competitive with other 24-track studios' rates.
This approach reflects the attitude of Patchbay generally - they recognise that everything that comes out of the studio reflects on them as well as the client, and making life better for the client in as many ways as possible makes for a better final product. In addition, Patchbay is more than keen to take on peripheral activities, such as tape duplication and organising pressings, as well as offering advice and assistance to clients wherever possible.
As far as recording itself is concerned, the way in which the musicians want to approach a session governs how the studio works, with full production assistance being offered at no extra cost to those people who feel they want it. Each session's requirements are assessed individually, and unrealistic expectations largely avoided.
Since opening at the end of May, the studio has impressed commercial clients and musicians alike. The studio has completed commercial work for several advertising agencies and radio stations and has already produced music for a Channel Four documentary. Patchbay also recently completed a recording for the Phoenix Dance Company, the internationally renowned Leeds-based contemporary dance group. Their performance, complete with Patchbay's recording of the backing music, will soon be appearing on TV.
As far as bands are concerned, the studio has not only attracted a number of local groups but is also beginning to interest record companies. They are currently recording the second album by John Peel favourites Cud, who are now attracting major interest. Rose Of Avalanche and Summerfield, also hot property at present, have also recorded tracks - not bad for a studio only six months old.
In the future Patchbay hope to do more record company work, and in order to accommodate this along with expansion of the advertising work, the studio already has the shell of a second control room with tie lines to the main live area, which will be equipped as an 8-track or possibly 16-track production suite. It all looks like a very promising but busy time ahead, which just goes to show what a quiet night at the local can turn into!
Patchbay Recording & Production House Ltd, (Contact Details).
Feature by Mick Belford
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