Spaceward Studios, Cambridge.
Spaceward Studios is the brainchild of two people - Gary Lucas and Mike Kemp, who came together in their student days at Cambridge University through a shared fascination for recording. From their initial involvement with a pair of borrowed Revox tape recorders they quickly aspired to running their own studio, be it only the basement of their rented Victorian terraced house. A healthy affiliation with up-and-coming Punk bands led to plenty of bookings and a growing reputation for no-nonsense, quality recordings that successfully captured the essence of that late seventies style of music.
In January 1981 Spaceward made the quantum leap from a two track to a fully-fledged sixteen track facility aided by the acquisition of new premises — an old school in a quiet, little village called Stretham, some 10 miles outside of Cambridge. Having realised the need for a viable alternative to the money-grabbing studios of London, they plunged into debt in order to re-equip the studio and graduate to full 24 track status, which they did soon after setting up in Stretham.
The Old School itself proved an ideal choice, there being ample facility for expansion at a later date.
The studio and control room areas were designed by Gary and Mike themselves and have changed little since the opening days. Acoustically the studio area, which is some 350 square feet and 11 feet high, provides both 'live' and 'dead' ends, with a false ceiling towards the control room window end. Large acoustic absorbers adorn each non-parallel wall, which can be covered by thick curtains when a less reverberant sound is required, as when recording commercial voice-overs.
The whole studio is built upon the 'room within a room' philosophy and isolated from the main old school building. This naturally acts as insulation for sound and also prevents the occurrence of structure-borne sounds to a large degree. It obviously works because outside the studio, the sleepy village goes about its business blissfully ignorant of the existence of one of the country's most successful independent recording studios.
Back inside, there's the control room which is some 250 square feet and air-conditioned. Pride of place in the equipment stakes goes to the custom-built 32/24 microprocessor controlled mixing desk situated directly in front of the control room window for visual feedback from the studio. The desk itself was designed by both partners, as early as 1979. They sat down and drew up a list of requirements of all things a desk should have on it and then designed and built it. Unlike most current automated desks the Spaceward unit does not have programmable faders. Each channel has four way parametric EQ plus variable high and low pass filters to protect against sub-and supersonic frequencies, twin stereo foldback, 4 auxiliary sends with five stereo mix groups. Penny and Giles faders complete the features which will drive Allison VCAs when automation facilities are eventually connected up.
The uniqueness of the desk lies in its versatile microprocessor control as Gary explained. "The computer controls the general 'housekeeping' functions on the desk which enabled us to design the desk in a very simple way to use. For instance, if you want to route input 2 to track 4 you simply press a button on input module 2, then press the button on track 4 and it's done. Whereas on a conventional desk you'd still have to check that nothing else was inadvertently routed to the same track. The computer takes care of that for you."
"Most of the time on our sessions isn't taken up with getting the technicalities right, but just in deciding, artistically and musically, what you want to do. And that's the way it should be because we've designed our desk and control room very much along the lines of technology doing what you want it to do."
Control room equipment is as equally impressive although Gary stressed the fact that Spaceward was not a studio stocked with gimmicky effects, rather each unit had been specifically chosen for its usefulness. Even so the following should satisfy most users: Ursa Major Space Station, Master Room Reverb, Eventide Instant Flanger, Marshall Time Modulator, a Scamp Rack and Drawmer DS210 Dual Noise Gates.
The most recent purchases have been two AMS units — the DMX-15-S stereo digital delay, with a full 18kHz bandwidth and maximum 3.2 second delay time, and the RMX-16 programmable digital reverb with the latest software for Plate, Hall, Ambience, Non-Lin, Reverse and Room programs. Gary reckons that the 'plate' program is far superior to any real echo plate whose bandwidth is severely limited in comparison.
A mark three Studer A80 24 track and custom-designed 2" 16 track recorder handle the multitrack work whilst mastering is achieved on a Studer B67 or the ubiquitous Revox B77 with varispeed. Once again the custom remote control devices for both multitracks emphasise the practicalities of a design intended for one man studio operation. As Gary says, "the remote designed for the Studer gives you Line In when in record mode, Line In when you stop, but when you want to drop-in you just press a single button to ready it. If your deck's in record, you then listen on tape, off the sync head, and when you select the drop-in it automatically changes the monitoring to Line In. Until recently machines didn't do that. Now they do, but we designed that system eight years ago!"
For a long time Spaceward relied on the unusual choice of B&W 801 speakers for monitoring purposes, but have recently opted for a pair of bi-amped JBL 4343B studio monitors to handle the trend for very loud monitoring levels. The 801s and Auratones have been retained though and are instantly switchable as alternatives (or in case of failure!).
A forward-thinking feature is the offer of digital mixdown using the fabulous Sony PCM F1 onto a 5850 U-matic VCR.
As would be expected from a studio of Spaceward's standing, a wide range of microphones are carried including Neumann U47 and U87s, AKG, Beyer, Calrec and a pair of Schoeps U54s. There's also an Amcron PZM which stays fixed to the control room window for ambient pickup if required.
Spaceward these days are moving more towards the highly lucrative video market, although most video work is for business clients, for which Spaceward provides the library music too. Equipment includes a Sony U-matic Series 5 edit suite, JVC SEG KM2000E vision mixer-cum-effects generator and JVC/Sony cameras, augmented by Mike Kemps' wonderful computer graphics terminal.
Rates for the studio are extremely good, with a 14 hour 24 track session costing around £300. Now where in London could you get a deal like that? Accommodation is available for up to seven people on the premises, although the majority of studio time is booked by new bands wanting to produce quality singles in preference to albums, so lengthy sojourns in Stretham are rare.
As always Spaceward is a hive of activity and this was the case when I visited the studio. Work was already in progress on 'Studio 3' - a large, high room at the front of the building that was being converted into an acoustically 'live' chamber suitable for drums, a small string section or even choir. It will also double as a video studio, as most of these are currently shot in the recording studio when a controlled environment is required rather than a location shot.
Well that, in a nutshell, is Spaceward Studios; living proof that a studio can thrive outside of London, and not just on local trade, for Spaceward receives bookings from groups and artists all over the country, as well as abroad.
For further info contact Gary Lucas at Spaceward Studios, (Contact Details).
Feature by Ian Gilby
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