A close look at the Manor's astonishing new studios
Whatever they did, whatever it cost, it was worth it for the improvement in sound. — Richard Digby Smith, freelance engineer
Re-doing a recording studio is no easy task, particularly if the studio is well established, popular with a number of artists, and identified, even vaguely, with a particular "sound" and feel.
The Manor have recently overcome all the difficulties inherent in their previous status as an almost cult recording studio. The result is a studio which can accurately boast that it is the best in Europe. A combination brain and love child of Virgin Record's Managing Director Richard Branson, The Manor has been fully operational for the past three years. Closely identified with such Virgin acts as Slaphappy, Henry Cow, Robert Wyatt and Mike Oldfield, the studio also attracted a formidable selection of bands which warmed to the studio's serene setting in rural Oxfordshire.
"In the past," says Kevin Coyne, one of the first artists to use the original Manor, "there was what you could call a unique Virgin-Manor sound. It wasn't always what it should have been; it lacked bottom, depth..."
The problem underlying the reconstruction was to keep the best of the original studio's feel and to improve the technical quality.
The mixing of the latest Gong album at The Westlake Room in Los Angeles provided Phil Newell, resident engineer at the Manor, a first hand opportunity to see what the American firm had to offer. The reaction was highly favourable.
Bruce Elliot, of Scenic Sound, U.K. representative of Westlake Audio: "We went out to have a look around (at The Manor), and they asked us if we could do the same thing for The Manor's studio, and we told them no, not the way it was.
"The control room was up where the gallery is now, and it was obvious to us that the control room would have to be where the studio is now, and the studio would have to be where the control room was."
That was only the beginning. Tons of sand went underneath the floor to trap the sound. One of Westlake's major tenets, is that a sound should pass by a mike only once, thereby avoiding (unintentional) out of phase.
To further ensure this goal, a lot of trapping was put into the walls as well. "Essentially," Elliot added, "the trapping works as a giant acoustic vacuum cleaner. It attenuates middle and high frequencies, and the low frequencies as well, but in different ways, depending on their wave lengths."
The right side of the redesigned studio is heavily trapped, as is the ceiling. This ensures a minimum of "leakage" from drums and piano. In addition, a drum cage in the right hand rear corner attenuates the sound.
The left-hand side of the studio is bright, offering a very live ceiling and stone-faced walls. At the very back of the studio, there is still a gallery. Heavily trapped, with a low ceiling, it is ideal for acoustic instruments.
Surprisingly, the demolition and rebuilding of the studio's interior required only 30 days. Westlake's chief designer, Tom Hidley, flew over from the States to oversee the repairs.
Mike Patto, lead singer and producer of Boxer, was among the first producers to use the new studio. "Tom Hidley showed me around the place and he pointed out the design features — the use of wood, cloth and stone, but none of it was used for decoration. It was put there for its acoustic properties.
"Ollie (Halsall, lead guitarist in Boxer) is a very loud guitarist, and he was playing right up against the stone walls without any leakage into the drums or bass."
Kevin Coyne was also among the first artists to use the new Manor. "I found it much easier to use, more practical and more accessible for recording, in the past, recording on one level and being away from the mixing room (previously, the Manor's control area was at the rear of the room: on a gallery overlooking the studio), I felt a bit removed from the actual recording process. I think it's now the best studio I've ever worked in."
Richard Digby Smith engineered the Trevor Lucas and Sandy Denny sessions, the first ever done in The Manor. He also worked on the Boxer sessions, the first done in the rebuilt studio. "There's been an improvement, no doubt about that, but it's more than the actual 'West-laking'.
"The desk is new, and everyone's going to want one. It's the first one I've ever used which offers complete parametric equalising on every channel.
"The control room is good too — all anyone wants is a guarantee that when you take the tape out and play it elsewhere, there won't be a difference in sound." Mike Patto agreed, "The speakers and the power are both designed to fill the playback room, but provide a very flat sound."
Much of the credit for technological improvement in the studio must go to Helios, who built the control console.
A 32—input, 24—out desk with four quad outputs, the desk boasts four section parametric equalisers on every channel. There are API/Allison computerised faders on the channels, groups and groupers. The limiters used are Tektronix LA3A, UA 1176, Neve 22S4A and A & D F760X. There are four Kepex expanders, UREI graphic equalisers, a Little Dipper, a Wattnot Product Generator and an Eventide Phaser.
The Manor have continued to rely on Ampex machines, both 16 and 24 track, with search and cue. All their machines have Varispeed with digital readout on all machines.
Echo is provided by two EMT 140 ST plates, two Master Room units, and a Time Line digital delay echo effect. Dolby units on 34 channels round out the technical specifications on this, the newest and most advanced studio in Europe.
For all the modern improvements, the tranquil character of The Manor remains unchanged. A full time staff of six is headed by Barbra Jeffries. In charge since April of last year, she previously served as studio manager for Alvin Lee's home studio.
The Manor's philosophy remains unchanged. With attractive and comfortable bedrooms sufficient to accommodate bands, wives/girlfriends, children and roadies, a cordon bleu chef who has mastered culinary masterpieces (including macrobiotic food) from every continent, and a collection of animals ranging from rescued cats to pedigree Afghans, The Manor remains a comfortable retreat for people who want a sympathetic environment in which they can get down to their work. All that has changed is the improvement in the technical quality of that work. That is indisputably a change for the better.
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