The Rockfield Files
Rockfield has a long and colourful history stretching back to the era of hippies and free festivals. Paul White finds out what goes on there now.
Located on a farm near Monmouth in near idyllic country surroundings, Rockfield studios are almost a legend in British recording history. Co-owner Charles Ward relates the story of Rockfield, interspersed with observations on the politics of the music industry.
It all started, as these things so often do with a band. Back in 1965, after releasing a record in the states, it seemed an attractive proposition to get some recording equipment of our own so we could work here. We started out with an old industrial Ferrograph and a locally built mixer and things escalated from there.
You originally built the studio for your own use. How long was it before you realised that it was going to be a viable commercial concern?
Business was building up all the time and when the pop festival hippy era came along, it made more bands want to get out of London and record in the country. In 1969 we moved up to 8-track and Dave Edmunds did the demo here for Sabre Dance with Love Sculpture which did us a lot of good. The 8-track machine was a Levers Rich. Harold Wilson was in power and it was buy British at the time, but I think that although they had a good reputation for audio gear, they had bitten off more than they could chew with the 8-track, and as a result we had a lot of problems with it. In spite of that, Dave Edmunds came back and recorded 'I Hear You Knocking' on it later in 1969. We then progressed very quickly via 16-track to 24-track, which is what we are today.
You have two studios here now; which came first?
The original studio is the one now known as Studio Two, and although the studios are almost identically equipped, Studio One has an additional live room which is very popular for its drum sound. There's also accommodation available for the bands, mostly with en suite bathrooms, and we have a rehearsal studio which is also very popular with many name bands.
The monitoring in both studios uses JBL 4250s with White 27-band EQs to equalise the room. Eddie Veale comes down from time to time and checks it over for us.
Power amps are either HH MOSFETS or Crown, and both studios have Trident desks simply because they were the best around at the time. These are TSM series; 40in, 24out, and on the occasions that demand it, we can hire in a SMPTE unit and run the system as 48-track.
All the tape machines are Studer and we offer a choice of half or quarter inch mastering. Half inch seems to be gaining in popularity, however.
Have you ever felt that you needed to get a Solid State Logic desk to compete against the current 'SSL studios only' attitude?
It's a good desk; there's no doubt about it, but I still maintain that if you compare the finished product with a mix done on our Trident desk, you won't actually be able to tell the difference. Total recall is all very well if you are in a London studio with different clients working in the studio every day, because you often want to pick up a project later. Here however, people tend to book up a fixed block of time, and the session progresses from beginning to end without interruptions. Also, total recall doesn't remember what you were doing with your outboard gear so you can't always get back to the same sound, even if you do have an SSL desk. It's largely a matter of politics and people protecting their jobs. When punk arrived, A&R men were being pressured into booking bands into cheap studios, but now it seems almost as though the reverse is happening and they are afraid to book anyone into anything less than the most expensive studios. I'm sure it's really all due to politics rather than practicalities.
Both of your studios seem very well equipped from the outboard gear point of view. What exactly do you have and why did you choose it?
There's the AMS stuff of course. Each studio has the delay unit and the digital reverb. We got this originally because the customers and their producers wanted it. As it turns out, it's done really well. We have the Harmoniser card for it which works better than the Eventide we had previously and of course you can continuously update the things with plug-in cards and new software. The reverb too is very impressive as well as being easy to operate and it rarely goes unused, even though we have plate reverb, a live room and our plate glass reverb chamber. We're very pleased with their stuff.
In both studios there's a rack full of Keepex gates which engineers still like to use. We now have Drawmer gates as well and our older compressor/limiters are supplemented by the new Drawmer models which are very popular at the moment and certainly perform well.
Have you been tempted by the new Drawmer valve compressors?
What, at nine hundred quid?
The reverb room seems to be unique. How did you come up with that idea?
Actually, the BBC were doing a similar thing with hard panels mounted on easels in a live room, so we decided to go one better. It's a long live room that can be split into two using a double curtain arrangement so we can vary the reverb time considerably. The plate glass reflectors slide on tracks fixed to the ceiling and each panel can be rotated to give the desired effect in terms of the reflected sound. Sound is injected into the room via a conventional loudspeaker system and then picked up using a strategically placed stereo microphone pair. Even though we have the digital reverb and the plates, many people still like to use this room for certain effects, in spite of the fact that they have to spend a certain amount of time and effort setting up the room. If they could get the same thing in the control room by pressing a few buttons they would, but in fact they can't.
The set-up here is a little unorthodox in that you have no resident engineer as such; does that tend to cause problems?
On the contrary, it's a very good arrangement. We have four very good freelance engineers, or engineer/producers in the area who do a lot of work for us, including Paul Cobbold (interviewed in HSR July 85). Many of the acts using our studio bring their favourite engineer along with them so it's really just a case of one of our chaps helping them to find their way around the studio and then letting them get on with the job.
Even though there's a slump in the music industry, we find that we're booked up almost continuously and we don't do any demos here; everything is intended to be master material, although what the record companies eventually do with it is obviously up to them.
Why do you think that the record industry is in such a bad state. Do you blame home taping on cassettes?
That must have some effect on the situation of course, but I don't think that it's the main factor. There are so many more entertainment media on which people can spend their money nowadays: video, computer games and so forth. This, accompanied with the lack of money available for non-essentials will have an effect but I think that the quality of the music is also to blame. Production techniques have improved immeasurably over the past few years, but how many of the songs recorded in the seventies would you want to play now? The songs from the sixties and even the fifties still stand up as good songs but so much of what we get now is so forgettable. Everyone seems to be falling into the technology trap where they think that this instrument or that studio will give them success. They forget that the basic product has to be worth it.
One aspect of this situation may be attributed to the record companies themselves where the A&R men seem unwilling to stick their necks out to promote a band that they believe in. They would rather play safe to protect their jobs by picking something bland that won't rock the boat. You always hear stories of bands like the Police and Dire Straits who were turned down by nearly everyone, yet these two bands are part of the minority that actually have something to offer musically.
What sort of bands does the studio attract?
Queen did a lot of work in the studio, as did Rush who recorded their A Farewell To Kings album here; the list is almost endless. Robert Plant did most of the work for his last three solo albums here and Phil Collins did his drum parts in the live room adjoining Studio One. We've recently had Magnum in here, who as you probably know are a heavy rock band and the band currently in Studio One is Conflict: we're in no way limited to any one musical style. People seem to like the relaxed atmosphere out in the country, but they all come here to work and they do tend to make economical use of their studio time. I think the days when bands could afford to hire a studio just to write songs are over.
Moreover, one nice aspect of the place is that we're just a few miles from the river Wye and all its beauty spots. The rest of the band can always get out and enjoy themselves whilst the vocalist is finishing off his overdubs if they feel the need to get away.
Anyone wishing to sample these delights at first hand should write to: Rockfield Studios, (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul White
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