Stronger Than The Rest
Hidden in the centre of London is a recording studio with MIDI very much in its heart. Dan Goldstein talks to its directors about technology, producers and prejudice.
A stone's throw from the hurly-burly of The Big Bang lies The Strongroom, an individual 24-track studio that's just been made home to one of the most comprehensive MIDI programming rooms in London.
IT'S THE HOME of that modern-day genre known as Very Important Capitals. It has produced such fine examples of the genre as The Square Mile, The Bank Of England and The Big Bang. In short, it is The City Of London. The bite-sized chunk of the metropolis in which a good percentage of the world's business deals are done, where office space costs more than almost anywhere in Europe, and where trainee brokers can earn £50,000 a year.
Yet on the northern edge of this chunk likes a fairly seedy collection of abandoned warehouses, some of them awaiting revitalisation, others already benefitting from it. I'm visiting one of the latter, and if its exterior does nothing to distinguish it from those that surround it, its interior is something else. Huge iron doors and feet-thick walls that make the air damp on one of the summer's hottest days, contrive to make this a good site for a TV cop shoot-out, hut not much else.
Hold on, though. Those doors and walls are doing more than making the place secure from intruders. They're there to provide isolation - the one thing you need most if you've built a recording studio in The City Of London.
For this warehouse is now home to The Strongroom, a mid-price 24-track studio that's built up a tidy reputation for itself in the two-and-a-half years or so since it opened its huge doors to the public.
On one level, there's a spacious, control room and a slightly shambolic main studio area - Strongroom is in mid-session. Upstairs from that, an enormous attic houses the administrative wing: a comfortable space for co-directors Dave Formula and Richard Boole. They sit facing me, an accommodating smile on their faces. They're successful, and they know it.
"We wanted to create a demand for a type of studio that simply didn't exist", says Formula. "Something between the cheap 'n' cheerful 24-tracks and the West End facilities that charge over £1000 a day. Well, it's worked."
"We were convinced there were people spending £1000 or £1500 a day on a studio who could do a vast proportion of their project in a studio costing half the price", adds Boole. "All they needed was a decent mixing console, tape machines and outboard equipment that all worked properly, and would give people a noiseless, trouble-free studio where they could put down their basic tracks.
"It took a bit of persuading A&R people at record companies that they didn't need to spend the first three weeks of a project at an SSL studio, that they could come and do it here instead. But bit by bit they've decided to book us, and now we've heard of a couple of really big studios who are thinking of building recording rooms 'like the one at Strongroom'. Obviously clients are coming to them to mix master tapes that have been recorded here, and the people who run those studios are thinking 'this stuff used to be recorded here, so why are people going to Strongroom instead?'"
Formula: "We established ourselves at a time when London really needed another 24-track like it needed a hole in the head. So we designed a studio that didn't look like any of the other studios that were around at the time."
BETWEEN THE OFFICES and the main studio area lies the scene of a new venture. It's a cosy room, no more than about 12 feet square, in which thousands of pounds have been invested in MIDI technology. In short, it is a modern-day programming suite par excellence. And though the people who run the Strongroom hadn't finalised a name for it at the time of our meeting - hence their references to "the MIDI room" - it now goes by the name of Strongbank.
First of all, why the move into MIDI? Boole explains.
"A lot of studios thought that if they ignored new technology, it would go away, but we've always seen that as a very dangerous attitude to adopt."
"From the start, we've welcomed new recording technology and things like MIDI. A lot of studios thought that if they ignored it, it would go away, but we've always seen that as a very dangerous attitude to adopt.
"We actually started planning over 18 months ago, and there isn't one piece of equipment in there now that was on our original list. Everything has changed completely, so I think if we'd built this a couple of years ago, it wouldn't have been much use."
The original list hasn't been revealed to me, but Strongbank's current inventory makes scintillating reading. There are machines that synthesise: Roland JX10, Yamaha DX7 and TX81Z, Casio CZ3000 and Sequential SixTrak. There are machines that sample: Akai S900, Oberheim DPX1 and Casio FZ1. And, to control it all, an impressive array of music software for both Atari ST and Apple Macintosh computers - both of which are in permanent residence; there are sequencers from Steinberg (Pro24), Mark of the Unicorn (Performer and Composer) and Southworth (Total Music), along with editing/librarian programs for the DX7, JX10, CZ3000 and S900.
Everything is patched in to a TAC Scorpion mixing console which dwarfs everything else in the room, and the wiring has been arranged so that future hardware arrivals can be added without tears. Outboard effects include three Alesis Microverbs, a Roland DEP5 and Drawmer gates and compressors, while there's also a healthy complement of sync units and patchers; the Bokse SM9, US8 and MH5 are all present, as is a Sycologic M16R MIDI Matrix.
Finally, a "vintage corner" of less contemporary equipment ensures that musicians with old allegiances aren't put off by the new technology. If you've ever felt married to your Prophet 5, Minimoog or Roland TR808, you'll find your spouse accommodated at Strongbank.
Was choosing the gear difficult? Obviously so, as Boole explains.
"On the MIDI side, it's more difficult to evaluate which machine to get than it is with established multitrack recorders and outboard effects. You can go out and ask 50 engineers what they want out of a mixing console and get a pretty broad idea of what people like to use, but with MIDI gear, very few people have used it in the way we want to, so very few people can really say what they'd like to see there."
Nonetheless, after a six-month gestation period in which Strongbank has evolved from a collection of ideas into a full-blown music production system, Boole and Formula have created a collection of gadgetry that is as well-integrated as it is well-specified. And that's important, since the room's creators are anxious to see a broad range of artists using the suite.
Formula: "If people have got a couple of synths and a drum machine plus an Atari or a Mac at home, they can do a lot of preliminary programming there, so they've got the outline structure of their music fully worked out before they come here. When they come here, they can refine what they've got and finish it off, with the help of a larger range of keyboards and so on.
"I hope we'll see people with no experience emerge with a finished product. They might not have any idea how it was done, but they'll have got what they wanted."
"We might be surprised and find that people come in and start a project from scratch. But I think the bulk of our work will come from people who know what they want and what they're doing, and who just want to take things a stage further than they'd be able to at home. They might hire the MIDI room for a week, and then go into the main 24-track for a few days to transfer, mix in some live sounds and get it all down on tape."
Boole adds: "We find more producers are more computer literate these days, too. We've had some working in the main studio who've seen the programming room being built and said: 'Oh great, when that's ready I'll be able to come in and finish off some drum tracks I've been working on'.
"Another important point is that, with the experienced programmers and engineers that we've got in there, it should be possible for someone with no knowledge of recording to go in with an idea, and have it recorded. In the same way that you don't have to know how mixing desks work to use one, you don't need to be computer literate to use our MIDI room.
"I hope we'll see all sorts of people like jingle writers and songwriters, people with no experience of computers at all, go in there, get any sound they want in a fraction of the time it would take them in an ordinary studio, and emerge with a finished product. They might not have any idea how it was done, but they'll have got what they wanted."
Formula picks up the point, indicating that Strongbank might end up playing an educational role, as well as a professional and artistic one.
"Some people might go in with no knowledge and stay that way, in much the same way as some producers have been working in 24-track studios for a decade without knowing what a compressor is. But other people might go in with no experience at all, and come out feeling that here's something they ought to find out more about - and possibly end up with a basic version of the system at home."
THERE IS NO TAPE at Strongbank. In that respect, it's a fine example of the way in which MIDI technology - with the help of powerful computers like the Mac and Atari - has made disk-based recording a possible replacement for the tape machine. But with everything in the programming suite permanently patched into the main studio control room, transferring work from one to the other is a doddle - and the studio's owners are not about to predict the decline of analogue tape.
Formula: "There have been a lot of broad statements issued - especially over the last 18 months - about 'how the recording industry is going to be'. But people are still very cautious, and although we're seeing a lot of big-name producers and engineers saying that, for instance, digital recording is the greatest, we're also seeing some other producers saying they don't like it at all. It's crazy to say 'this is the future', because it's obvious that lots of different techniques and technologies will continue to coexist"
Meanwhile, Strongroom as a company continues to diversify. They've set up a music publishing company, begun managing a couple of new bands, and started to look into other fields in which their experience could he put to good use.
"It's all too easy, when you're working in a studio every day, to think of nothing but studios", Boole admits. "I think that's wrong. I think the studio is just a creative tool with which you can be creative.
"Now, I'm into building studios and I want to get interested in more new technology, but I don't want to spend my whole life doing it. I want to use the knowledge I've got to develop other areas, rather than have the best studio in the world."
And so say all of us.
Feature by Dan Goldstein
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