Studio Reproduction (Part 2)
PART 2: Last month's article saw Reproduction Studio in the early stages of construction. This month, in the final part, the finished project comes under scrutiny.
The new studio, a private facility for the Jolley-Harris-Jolley production team, is now fully operational and since completion has been in use every day. During the initial settling-in period, it became apparent that all the planning, effort and investment had not been in vain. Technical teething troubles were minimal and only very minor adjustments of the monitoring system were required.
"The room sounded good from first switch-on," enthused Mark Jolley, "and was every bit what we were expecting. Without any tweaking at all, the sound was superb and a little fine-tuning brought our monitoring up to the best standards available. We chose Quested monitors, having worked with them in other studios and having always been satisfied with their performance. In fact, we have come to the conclusion that our new studio is every bit as good as the top studios - and they charge £1500 a day. The advantages of having our own facility are obvious and we've been running all day every day so far - that's already quite a saving!"
Although the audible success of a new studio naturally takes top priority, the way it looks and feels is also an important part of the overall picture. The aesthetics need to be carefully considered, so that they enhance rather than hinder the working environment, whilst at the same time it does no harm if they are impressive to the casual visitor. Reproduction opted for a cool grey-green colour scheme.
"We deliberately specified something quiet and restrained," explained Brian Harris. "High contrast schemes that hit you between the eyes were definitely out. You spend enough time staring at the walls and you don't need a design that keeps you pinned to the back of your chair."
"Blue was also out," added Mark, "as we had worked in several blue studios and, quite frankly, fancied a change. The effect had to be relaxing, without being dull or boring."
Lighting was also a crucial part of the design brief. The control room lighting, supported by natural daylight entering through several windows, is capable of being very bright and was a deliberate move away from the dim conditions often encountered in recording studios. As Mark Jolley commented: "We were adamant that we did not want to end up with the usual 'peering through the gloom' syndrome. It's tiring, and we prefer a light, bright working atmosphere. You can see what you are doing more easily and run less risk of falling asleep too quickly during a long session!"
The other aspect that completes the formula for a comfortable working environment is the temperature. Reproduction's air conditioning was prudently specified with plenty of capacity in hand, the atmosphere remaining cool with summer '89 blistering away outside and the system set on hardly more than a tickover.
KFA Associates, who have designed and built Reproduction, see a quiet and efficient installation as an integral part of their brief. "A few years ago we used to use sub-contractors for the air conditioning," said Mick Fitzgerald, KFA's managing director, "but we ended up solving problems that they never seemed to have encountered before. Now we specify, source and install the plant ourselves, often more or less buying in bulk. Considerable savings in expenditure are achieved, which our clients enjoy. It's now got to the point where we sometimes get called in to existing studios solely to advise them on how to improve their air conditioning. From studio designers to temperature control consultants - an unexpected development!"
Installation of the recording equipment took place over two days, the pre-wiring of the loom helping to shorten the timescale. The 56-channel Amek Mozart mixing console is the main feature of the control room, the automation system providing control over fader levels, mutes and gating, with an available choice of eight programmable 'soft' buttons per channel.
Otari tape machines feature heavily at Reproduction, with two 24-tracks - an MTR90 and MX80, along with an MTR12 stereo machine. "Having recorded with Otaris frequently over the last two years and always been pleased with the results, they were the obvious choice," explained Mark. "Their long-term reliability and eventual resale value were also important considerations. A future upgrade to digital machines is our intention, and when that happens we would like the transition to be as financially smooth as possible."
The three-way Quested monitoring system is backed up by a choice of two secondary systems, using Acoustic Research AR18s and Yamaha NS10s, and Reproduction's complement of outboard gear is extensive, with much of it having been accumulated over the last year. Up-to-the-minute digital equipment sits alongside valve limiters and compressors to provide a good choice of processing and effects.
With the monitoring system performing more than satisfactorily and all the recording equipment installed, the remaining design aspect awaiting appraisal was the soundproofing. In view of Reproduction's intention of eventually building a programming suite above the main control room, the sound leakage through the new ground floor ceiling had to be very well controlled.
The design of the ceiling incorporated an innovative concept to save both space and cost, and had to allow sufficient headroom above the control room for the future programming suite. Using the tuned and treated void as a means of stopping the vertical sound leakage appears to have paid off, the only alternative being a solid concrete slab several inches thick. Budget and headroom would then have both suffered severely.
Reacting to the results, Mick Fitzgerald commented: "We are particularly pleased with the ceiling's performance; it achieves exactly what it was designed to. The control room itself also measures very well and in spite of the re-orientation of the room at the start of the project, giving us less than ideal dimensions from an acoustic point of view, the results are excellent. We have managed to hold the room response virtually flat all the way down to 25Hz, and I dread to think what effect another 5Hz would have had on the budget! Although it's comforting to have respectable measurements to support what your ears are telling you, it really all comes down to whether the results sound good, both inside and outside the studio."
"And they do," replied Mark Jolley. "We are very satisfied with the consistency of quality when our tapes are played elsewhere. It's the acid test, after all."
As mentioned earlier, since first switch-on Reproduction have been using their new room almost relentlessly. "We had a lot of projects in the pipeline," explained Anna Jolley, "and obviously preferred waiting for our own facility to be completed, rather than spending out on other studios. Our first task was to record four tracks for a new 18 year-old female artist called Jonell, who we have recently started working with. We had already pre-programmed two of the songs, and two we recorded from scratch."
The Jolley-Harris-Jolley team have written and produced all the songs and it will be interesting to see how this first project from Reproduction's new home develops.
Next was a recording for Reproduction's 'Collision' dance label, with a band called Innocence. The track is entitled 'Natural Thing' and pre-release copies are already receiving a good response. JHJ have also been working on tracks for a member of Sade's band, who had just finished a deal with Motown and is now signed to Reproduction for co-management. The most recent signing is female soul artist Cheri Amadi, adding to the excitement of the company's first few weeks in their new premises.
"This is the first time we've all been based in one unit together," said Anna. "Communication is now much smoother and we have the luxury of our own studio available any time we need it. The move here also means we can consider one-off projects, which previously would have been difficult to accept. We often get asked questions like: 'Can you write a new song for Karen White by the end of the week?' or, 'Could you write, record and produce a dance track for Evelyn King by Wednesday evening?' Deadlines like these are a problem in themselves, but having to risk paying for studio time as well meant that rapid one-offs were not worth considering."
Management of other producers and engineers is also now a possibility for Reproduction and would be a natural development of their artist management activities.
Whether or not a studio design can be considered successful depends on how well the original objective was met. Reproduction's brief, calling for a world class private studio facility, appears to have been satisfied. The results prove that accurate monitoring, when properly integrated with the room acoustics, is the correct point of origin for a design.
Mick Fitzgerald commented: "Somebody asked us recently if we ever get bored designing studios - I think our honest answer is that it's the clients we work for who make life interesting. They are the ones who each have their own special requirements and circumstances, which in turn dictate the variations. No, I don't foresee studio design ever becoming boring!"
Reproduction have already achieved a lot within their new set-up and it will be well worth observing the progress of the company, its artists and its productions during the coming months.
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