Riverside Recordings — from bedroom Revoxes to 16-track slickness.
The purpose of Studiofile is to present an overall detailed examination of one recording studio. The bias of these items will be towards the user: visiting musicians, roadcrews, engineers and producers, and we will be concentrating primarily on the smaller studios. Few of the studios we visit will be larger than 16-track, as it is the smaller studios that are generally under-publicised. We are only too pleased to hear of studios in all parts of the world that we can consider for Studiofile, and if readers who are potential users of this feature have any comments on the type of information provided in these articles, we'd like to hear from them too. In our first visit of this series Richard Elen looked at Riverside Recordings in Chiswick, West London.
All in all, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon at Riverside Recordings, an intriguing little studio situated in the back streets of Chiswick — not to be confused with the Riverside Studios art centre in Hammersmith, a couple of miles away. The studio's present location is an ex-bakery, and in the initial stages a considerable amount of effort was required converting the building to its new role. But even more interesting than the building is the original location of the studio — in Adam Skeaping's attic.
Adam Skeaping is the genius behind the whole operation, and under his care the studio has had several different incarnations. Adam got interested in sound at the age of six, and in a few years had several wind-up gramophones which he had modified to run forwards, backwards and at many different speeds. But he didn't get much further than that for several years until, failing more or less everything at school except music, he obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. This, says Adam, was a total waste of time. Instead he would hang around the original Olympic Studio in Baker Street, sit in on sessions and generally get in the way. He bought an early Vortexion VWB and began to experiment with tape.
Eventually he was offered a job at Olympic, doing odd chores around the place — for the princely sum of £5 a week. He turned it down and went off to seek his fortune at the BBC, and after going for the much-coveted post of Studio Manager, was eventually offered the job. He found out about the pension scheme, and the promotion scheme... and stopped. Wasn't there a chance of promotion on the recording side? Oh no, he was told... you get promoted to a really important desk job... Adam walked out once more. He auditioned as a cellist for the Northern Symphonia Orchestra, and got it. Pay was £20 per week, quite a fair wage in 1960. This gave Adam the financial resources to start a recording studio in Newcastle, where he resided during the couple of years of his stay with the Northern Symphonia. The studio, complete with Ampex tape machines, was in his back-street flat. With a few friends, he rapidly built up a thriving business, recording the Orchestra and, amongst other things, tapes for TV.
But it was all too much. Eighteen months of recording and playing day and night left Adam with a nervous breakdown. He sold his gear and returned to London to recover. Two years later, however, he was back in action with a studio in his parents home at Kingswood in Surrey. Then he got married and moved to Barnes in 1967. Once more, the house was taken over by the studio. The attic became a control room, with lines running to a downstairs bedroom for recording purposes. Adam bought some of the first Revox A77s, six in all, and linked them up with a control unit. This box enabled him to run all the machines at once in any mode. With the aid of specially-home-constructed spools and measured lengths of tape with transparent leaders he began multitrack work. The inherent stability of the Revoxes enabled him, without modifying the machines or linking servos together, to run up to 12-track! The running time per section was limited to 4 minutes before sync became a problem, but he recorded several albums with the system, generally using up to ten tracks and mixing down on the last machine. Riverside Recordings became a reality.
With the aid of a home-built 12/4 mixer, and the later addition of first one, then a second Teac 4-track, Adam produced several albums, primarily classical or purely acoustic, but with the odd rock LP, notably the first Gryphon album for Transatlantic Records. Soon the staff increased, with another engineer, maintenance man, and eventually a studio manager. But it couldn't go on. An ultimatum was presented from the domestic department: either the studio had to go or Adam's wife would. A long process of searching and assessing by Viv Griffiths, the then studio manager, yielded new premises, an ex-bakehouse in Chiswick, and eventually the move was made.
The studio by now included a Brenell Type 19 8-track one-inch machine. This machine presented a few problems, notes Adam. The pinch roller was secured from the bottom only, and a day's banging against the capstan tended to bend it away from the tape. Lineup every morning included taking a length of copper tubing that fitted over the pinch-wheel and physically bending it back. And when the machine was set to ready, signal was applied to the head regardless of record bias being present. Drop-ins thus consisted of pushing record and simultaneously bringing up the appropriate group to avoid signal being recorded on the tracks without bias. Despite these design problems, however, Adam was pleased to tell me that the machine never ever went wrong. He also has a great deal of respect for the modern Brenell range. An Audio Developments 8/4 mixer was also purchased around this time: with one of the best 'simple' equalisation systems Adam has ever encountered.
The move to Chiswick was finally accomplished, and Adam remembers the first session well. It was a classical album, recorded with the gear lashed up in the control room. The smell of paint was so strong that the singers got sore throats, so a boiling kettle was kept in the room to alleviate the problem. Unfortunately this presented a few more nasties: the window misted up, and by the end of the session it was covered in obscene comments. The album was never released.
Another ten channels were added to the console, and then along came a windfall in the shape of Dave LeNeve Foster, a brilliant young engineer. He contributed an Ampex MM 1100 sixteen-track and a Studer B62 stereo mastering machine. Riverside was upgraded almost overnight. A Master Room MR3 echo unit was brought in, as was a new studio manager, Simon Mortimer. Under Simon's expert guidance, the studio flourished, and was almost impossible to get into by early 1977.
But then, in March of that year, disaster struck. The great enemy of smaller studios, a cash-flow crisis, hit Riverside Recordings, primarily because of bad debts from clients. A special meeting of the staff was called (the studio has always been democratically run — an idea that other operators might like to consider, because it works), and three of the then seven staff fired themselves. Simon, Paul (the maintenance engineer) and Dave left, leaving the admin side in the hands of Ruth Low, the present manager. Unfortunately Dave also removed the Ampex and Studer machines, and the studio was suddenly back to 4-track. But gradually, under Ruth's guidance, the studio equipment and work was built up again to its present well-solvent status. New gear was purchased and the studio is once again fully booked, but without the previous hassles.
Riverside have learnt the hard way, from their mistakes. One such, notes Adam, was the acoustic design of the present studio. Riverside did all their own design: a mistake, he reckons. There's so much you can't learn from books that can only be given by a good acoustic designer. Eddie Veale, a reputable studio designer and acoustic consultant, has recently redesigned the studio's acoustics with excellent results. "If only we'd got him earlier", says Adam, "we could have saved ourselves a lot of money. Instead, we did it ourselves, thinking we would be able to do it cheaper. We were wrong."
The present staff is four. Adam deals with classical recording (he is also one of the Britain's few Viola da Gamba players). John Gill, an accomplished folk musician, deals with most of the 'traditional' output of the studio, whilst Nick Glennie-Smith, ex-keyboardist with the now-defunct Wally, looks after the heavier stuff.
The studio itself is about 280 square feet in size, as is the control room. It includes a Bechstein grand piano (free) — other instruments, including a couple of Minimoogs, a Fender 73, and Roland string machine are available for hire at reasonable rates. The rooms are both almost square and the studio is complete with several well-built and efficient screens, essential for loud music in this comparatively small space.
The control room is dominated by the Soundcraft 24/8 console, with eight special sweep-eq modules as well as the standard equalisers and PPM metering. The desk is fitted with Penny and Giles conductive plastic faders. Nick tells me that the desk has been remarkably trouble-free, apart from the odd dodgy switch. 16-track mastering is performed on a 3M M56, with varispeed. Generally this is used without noise reduction at 30 in/s, but the installation of dbx noise reduction is currently under way. The stereo mastering machine is a Studer B67, replacing a Leevers-Rich Proline which is now used for auxiliary functions. Other machines include the omni-present A77s, now used for special effects (most have full varispeed) and copying. Other tape effects are provided by a Roland Space Echo unit. Reverberation is supplied by an AKG BX20 stereo system; auxiliary equipment includes an Audio & Design Scamp rack system, presently comprising three compressor/limiters and two noise gates. Nick comments that these are very effective, although sometimes he wishes the gates were just a little faster. He finds that gating drums, for instance, is far better accomplished on record rather than off-tape: perhaps this has something to do with the transient response of tape machines. The compressors, Nick finds, are very good indeed; it's impossible to hear them working even when they are compressing hard. He has a bit of trouble with noisy pots, however. Also sitting on the top of the console is an Audio & Design F760 stereo complimiter, and in the rack is an old UREI unit which performs very well — better in fact, says Nick, than the new ones!
Also available for special effects is an Eventide flanger. Nick has mixed feelings on this: he finds the sound very useful but reckons that it's a bit noisy. He also wishes he could turn the 'bounce' off, and that it was fitted with some kind of input meter, as it is easily overloaded. He wonders if it isn't time for Eventide to come up with a new one, as there are several other devices on the market today which perform as well for less money.
A Klark-Teknik 10-way stereo graphic is also very useful. This has been in the studio since its 'attic' days and is very highly thought of, although it is limited in its application by the number of frequencies available.
Dolby 361s and a 301 are attached to the stereo machines. Nick doesn't usually use them on rock music, but they come in handy for quieter stuff.
The studio also runs an 8-track mobile, with an Otari ½in machine and Soundcraft 16/8 console. This is one of the few London 8-track mobiles.
Microphones include Neumann U87s (2), KM84s (5), AKG D12, 414s (2), D202s (2), D224 (1), C451 (6), Calrec 1050s (8), and a Calrec 2050 omni. Also available is a Lustraphone stereo ribbon pair.
Studio Monitoring is provided by Quad 405 amps, driving Tannoys or JBLs. Newly installed in the control room is a Neal 302 cassette recorder, which Nick has high praise for (we will be reviewing this shortly). His only complaint is that he would prefer separate input level controls rather than the ganged input control and separate balance knob that is provided.
I asked Nick about the kind of recording techniques he uses in the studio. Surprisingly, separation is not a problem. He usually places drums and bass in opposite corners of the room, thus gaining good clean sounds but without placing the members of the rhythm section too far apart. On drums he tends to use the D12 for bass, KM84 with -10dB pad on snare, and Calrec 1050 mics on the toms. Nick uses either 451s or occasionally 202s for overhead, with the Lustraphone pair higher up if greater ambience is required. Most sessions require a tight sound, so Nick is not averse to close miking, though he does like to place the mic carefully for the best result, rather than sticking it up in front of an instrument and trusting to eq.
On bass, Nick often finds himself using an 87, or one of the ubiquitous Calrecs, with a di as well if required. If there are few overdubs he puts both down on separate tracks, and uses up to 6 tracks for drums, although more usually it'll be four. He uses the other 87 for guitar, if he can, otherwise another Calrec is brought in. But the 87 is always in use as a 'wandering mic' for overdubs. Calrecs too are used on electric piano, but more often one or two of the Riverside-constructed di boxes are slotted in. On the Bechstein (shortly to be replaced by a Steinway because of punk-damage) Nick prefers to leave the lid down and use a pair of 451s mounted on foam pads, one pointing down the bass strings, and the other aimed at the high-mid region, positioned at the point where the bass and top strings cross over on this 'Boudoir' piano. He'll often limit it for a hard sound on a rock session. The vocal mic is exclusively an 87, set to cardioid configuration, except on backing vocals where one of the other settings may be used. Nick always limits vocals as a matter of course in usual recording setups, using the Scamp compressors on slow attack and fast release. Medium attack is used on bass, whilst the 'auto' release function which gives a fast initial decay which then levels off, is used on electric guitars, where required.
Ruth and Nick were pleased to tell me about a few of the clients who use the studio. A lot of jazz is recorded, recent clients including Incus records and a German label, Vinyl. Keith and Julie (nee Driscoll) Tippetts were in the studio recently for this latter company. The other main source of released material is the punk field. The Sex Pistols did many of their early demos at Riverside, several of which appear on the bootleg album (although the studio wasn't responsible). Radio Stars recorded their hit Nervous Wreck, and a string of other bands have been through cutting albums and singles, including the Boyfriends.
Demos are another source of revenue, and the studio deals with several record companies as well as with individual bands. The day I was there two writers were recording demos for A&M, Alan Tarney and Trevor Spencer. Both have been using the studio for some months and are very pleased with the results; they are in every couple of weeks. Mike Thorne was recently producing demos with Wire for a forthcoming album. Ruth points out that Riverside are very interested in helping new bands get off the ground: they will often suggest record companies or publishers who are worth approaching with a given sort of material.
Other work includes advertising jingles: a major client here is Air Edel, one of the top jingle-makers in the UK. Richard Harvey (ex-Gryphon) has been doing a lot of work for them, along with an album for KPM, one of Britain's best-known recorded music libraries. Steve Marriott was also in the studio recently and Nick did a good job of transferring his Jamaican 4-track tapes to sixteen.
Why do all these artists come to Riverside? Well, the obvious reason is the atmosphere. Nick put it all down to efficiency, cleanliness and 'no bullshit'. All the gear is studiously maintained and aligned, and the studio is cleaned every morning prior to lineup. It all goes to produce a studio which, though small, is destined for the big-time.
Feature by Richard Elen
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