Rags To Riches
Rich Bitch Studio
From rehearsal room to recording complex. David Bradwell tells the story of a Midlands musician who hopes to open a nationwide chain of recording studios.
If there's one predictable aspect of the music business, it is its unpredictability. Take the case of the man who formed a band and found himself with a 32-track digital studio.
GETTING RICH QUICK in the music business, part 86. How does this one sound? You form a band and discover a handy little rehearsal room in a nearby basement. You hire said basement out to other local bands in need of somewhere to practice. You start providing backline equipment and a four-track tape machine. The scheme takes off, and clients are booked solid, 24 hours a day. You decide to spend all of the cash on a 16-track tape machine, and buy larger premises from which to operate your booming new studio. Within three years this grows to encompass five, yes, five rehearsal suites, a dance studio, a guitar shop and, of course, a 32-track digital recording suite, which you can hire out at £50 per hour. You have plans for opening similar complexes in five other major British cities, and you will shortly be able to retire, a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur. Sound easy enough?
The only problem with this otherwise foolproof scheme is that somebody else got there first. His name is Rob Bruce, and he is responsible for the blossoming Rich Bitch complex in Selly Oak, Birmingham. It's a classic case of rags to riches - even more appropriate considering the original basement was below Bruce's clothing warehouse. In 1980, Rich Bitch was his band, by 1981 he hardly had time to book them in for rehearsals ...
During the following year, Bruce decided to forget the fashion industry and concentrate on the studio full time. Disaster nearly struck at the end of 1985 - a proposed road widening scheme, with compulsory purchase orders, meant the destruction of the warehouse where the studio was based. An outlay of £60,000 secured new premises. Once a busy factory, it was Selly Oak's first 16-track recording studio when it reopened in 1986. Since then it's grown considerably. The additional fully-equipped rehearsal rooms and professional dance studio will soon be supplemented with gym and leisure facilties, coupled with a business advice centre, offering a complete service to local musicians. It's an impressive list, and one which prompted further investigation.
Rob Bruce is an affable man, with a soft (if such a thing is possible) Birmingham accent and a weakness for large cigars.
"We've had a knock-on effect with other rehearsal rooms in the area", he explains. "They've had to put paint on the walls and carpets on the floor. The same has happened to other recording studios, who have had to raise their standards."
This is no idle boast, as a walk around the complex reveals. The five rehearsal rooms are kept immaculately tidy, each is fully air conditioned, and each comes equipped with a drum kit, three microphones and a Bose PA system. The largest also has professional lighting and room to seat 110 people for showcase gigs, seminars and so on. Furthermore, bands are offered storage facilities for bulky instruments between rehearsals - a useful, if often overlooked, resource.
Upstairs, in the Gallery recording studio, there is similar attention to detail. An Atari 1040ST offers Steinberg Pro24 and C-Lab Creator sequencing software, although it is obviously compatible with other systems, such as Hybrid Arts' Sync and SMPTE Track. Two Akai S900 samplers are soon to be joined by the new S1000, and these will be working alongside a Yamaha TX802, FB01 and DX7s, Roland RD300 digital piano, Octapad and MKS50, and even a vintage Korg Poly 800. While this may not be as all-encompassing in the high technology arena as some of the big London studios, it is still comprehensive enough to keep the punter happy.
"The two Akai samplers are very useful", Bruce continues. "When we're using the Roland piano, we can load two slightly different acoustic piano samples into them. Then we pan one to either side with the Roland up the middle, and we produce this enormous layered piano sound." Other production tricks include triggering drum samples from an acoustic kit - the acoustic sound is gated, and when it crosses the threshold, a MIDI signal is outputted to the sampler.
BACK TO THE plot. Bruce believes he can explain the reason for the studio's success: "For the last two years the studio has been working for 18 hours a day and consequently we have managed to grow extremely quickly. Despite the digital transformation, we are going to try to keep our rates affordable so that bands will still be able to knock out a budget to record here."
Against the trend of many producers, Bruce is willing to place his faith in the clarity of digital recording against the warmth of analogue. Consequently Rich Bitch are soon to become the first totally digital studio in the Midlands. However, precautions are being taken to prevent accusations of a cold sound from the Mitsubishi 32-track machine.
"I really appreciate being able to record something and then hear it coming back off tape with no colouration at all", he explains. "The desk is still analogue, and the warmth can be got from that. We've got valve microphones and valve equalisation which are also helpful. But with digital recording, what you monitor is what comes back off tape, so you don't gain or lose anything, which is crucial to the way I work. Having said that, I find I have less and less time for engineering these days as the business side becomes increasingly time consuming."
"I think we will he a nationally known company within two years, doing for the music industry what McDonalds did for the hamburger."
The upgrade to digital recording will increase the studio rental price from £24 per hour to around £50, although this comes down for block bookings. In many ways it's a gamble, as it seems to be taking Rich Bitch into a different market, possibly away from the smaller local, self-financed bands. On the other hand, the appeal for record companies is the saving in recording and accommodation fees compared with the nearest similarly equipped studio, which in this case is in the great metropolis.
As we begin the descent to ground level from the first floor control room, Bruce explains the business thinking behind the changes.
"One of the problems we were faced with was that acts like Black Sabbath and Ruby Turner were coming in for rehearsals, but when it came to recording, they were going to where the equipment was. Now, however, there's no reason why they shouldn't stay here, because we can match those other studios and give the bands anything they could possibly want technically from a studio."
In keeping with this all-under-one-roof policy, the Guitar Connection is an on site equipment shop from which clients can buy or hire that essential piece of equipment, needed in an emergency. Although plans are currently being formulated for a similar keyboard shop, Bruce believes that technology is finally catching up with the beleaguered guitarist - which could be bad news for bank managers around the nation.
"For a keyboard player to get a decent setup and get his sounds he has to spend around £3,000. He needs two keyboards for a start, including a sampler. But if you ask a guitarist to fork out that much he'd rather commit hara kiri. You actually have to drag guitarists in here and show them what technology can do for them - have sequencers changing guitar sounds and so on. You really have to show them what it's all about. For a lot of them, if it hasn't got a knob on it's not right."
CONTINUING OUR TOUR of the complex, we arrive at the dance studio. Its features include 980 square feet of totally sprung morroc hardwood floorspace, a 16-channel mixing desk, with 20 tie-lines to the recording studio and 20kW of lighting.
"We only really called it the dance studio so that people would know where it was within the complex. It's a multi-purpose room - bands can use it for showcases, and we now have gigs here every Friday night, which we record for the local radio station. The room has changeable acoustics, because we can lay carpets and alter the ambience. In fact, we've used it for recording a 60-piece choir and also produced some really great live drum sounds."
The leisure facilities are currently under construction, and as I'm shown to where they are being built, the sharp contrast between old and new becomes apparent. Away from the plush recording, rehearsal and dance studios, the building still looks like a warehouse. Funnily enough, Bruce's home is a caravan amongst the building work, although he is looking forward to the day when it is all finished and he can move out. Meanwhile, assessing his achievements so far, he estimates that he is about halfway to his target. Suddenly it becomes apparent that Rob Bruce is thinking big.
"I think we will be a nationally known company within two years, doing for the music industry what McDonalds did for the hamburger", he says, grinning. "This is going to be our headquarters, and there are going to be another five of these complexes built in major cities throughout Great Britain. I think I can physically cope with five before it starts to get too big. Obviously I can't say which cities we're looking at, but there seem to be five prime locations, in areas which are sparse for studios. And then with 1992 looming, Europe becomes a distinct possibility. Who knows?" Coming from many people, you'd be justified in nodding politely or smothering a giggle, but Bruce exudes confidence.
Musicians in the Midlands are fortunate to have such a resource at their disposal, but a long wait seems inevitable for the rest of us. And even then, what can be the guarantee that we live near to one of Bruce's chosen cities? It would seem that the expansion of Rich Bitch can only be a good thing for the music industry in the provinces. As for Rob Bruce, he probably smiles even when he's asleep.