In the dog-eat-dog world of professional recording studios, the Strongroom has proved that you don't necessarily need an SSL mixing desk to stay in business! Paul Calderon pays a visit to this thriving centre of creativity.
Paul Calderon pays a visit to this thriving centre of creativity.
The question is very simple: what makes a good studio? It's asked many times a day by A&R managers, producers, artists, bands and engineers, trying to decide where they will record their next venture. The answer, however, is not so simple. For a start, requirements have changed tremendously over the years, especially over the last decade. Until the early '80s it all came down to a good mixing desk, good monitors, good outboard gear and some good microphones. In short, the criteria for a 'good studio' centred largely around the presence of good equipment.
Other factors were less important. Studio rooms were considered OK as long as they were reasonably dead acoustically; control rooms often small, ill-lit and uninspiring. The idea of the studio as a creative environment, with the management doing everything to ensure that nothing would get in the way of their client's creative expressions, would have had most studio owners laughing. As far as most were concerned, they were renting out a pile of equipment - the rest was up to the client. As a result, the simple act of pouring their paying guests a cup of tea was already too much trouble for many a studio manager.
Several things changed during the '80s, including some seemingly opposing developments. First of all there was Hugh Padgham in 1981 with his 'live' drum sound, as exemplified on the Phil Collins' track In The Air Tonight. Suddenly, live sounding studio rooms were in demand and producers and engineers were rediscovering the joys of natural, unprocessed reverb. At the other end of the spectrum there was the advent of computer-based technology and, a little bit later, MIDI. Here the demand was for larger and larger control rooms, in many studios realised at the expense of a good sounding live room.
Interesting things happened in terms of more traditional studio working methods, too. First of all there was the introduction of affordable home recording equipment, taking away the monopoly on professional recording gear which studios had enjoyed until then. Feeling threatened by this development and by the rise of MIDI, which also allowed musicians to do far more of their recording work at home, the pro-audio industry's answer was as simplistic as it was obvious: the introduction of a new generation of very expensive and supposedly superior gear. Recording budgets were pushed skywards as 'SSL' and 'remix' became the new record industry hype words, but the whole thing was described by one of the main exponents of computer and MIDI technology, J.J Jeczalik (Art Of Noise), as "a big marketing plot", and many people agree, silently or openly.
So the challenges for today's studio world are many: a booming home recording industry, MIDI technology which democratises recording facilities to a high extent, and the threat of immense overheads by going at it the SSL and digital way. What's more, record companies are becoming tighter and tighter with their money and many studios are suffering financial problems. So what can professional studios offer that will take them confidently and healthily into the '90s? What makes a good and attractive studio today?
One studio which appears to have found the answer is the Strongroom in the City of London. Their approach to these modern challenges is both versatile and creative: rather than battle against new developments they integrate them, improve on them, and somehow manage to offer even more. "We've always tried to look at what will happen next," says studio owner Richard Boote. "Rather than avoid new things because they might be a problem, we prefer to tackle them head-on and see what use they have for us. Take, for example, MIDI. At a time when many studios still saw MIDI as a threat and didn't want to know about it, we built a MIDI programming suite called the Storeroom. It gave us a headstart in that area. Today, many studios are finally building in-house programming suites but it's too late, because too many people have the MIDI stuff at home now."
Anticipating this latest development, the Strongroom went one step ahead of the crowd and opened a new studio earlier this year. Strongroom 2, which integrates all the MIDI technology and know-how they have built up over the years with a more traditional recording environment, including a live room. What remains of the Storeroom is rented out on a permanent basis to Rhythm King's Beatmasters. Co-studio owner Dave Formula explains: "With our new studio 2 we cater for people who do most of their programming at home. They can come into the studio, get the computer and the keyboards running, add audio tracks and/or mix."
With Strongroom 2, Boote and Formula are also responding to a new development in music. Formula: "What's been happening over the last years is that all approaches to recording and making music are getting more and more integrated. MIDI and audio recording are less separate areas, but seen as complementary sides of the recording repertoire. Dance music will probably always use predominantly MIDI equipment, because it's so ideally suited to that genre, but in other music forms people are now using MIDI and audio recording side-by-side. They're layering real brass with synth brass, mixing machine drums and real drums or getting back to recording their own samples, rather than just using factory presets. What we're trying to do here is give people as many options as possible, side-by-side and easily available, so that nothing stands in the way of them instantly realising any creative ideas they have. That's been our philosophy over the years."
It all sounds impressive and to the point, and that's what visiting artists like James Brown, Carmel, John Cale, Erasure, Then Jericho, Alison Moyet, Living In A Box or Sugarcubes must have thought, too. But before delving into more detail about the secrets of the Strongroom's success, let's dive into the past for a moment and look at how it all started.
The two main players in the Strongroom saga are co-owners Dave Formula and Richard Boote. Formula is a keyboard player and songwriter who made his claim to fame playing in bands like Magazine and Visage. In 1983 he was walking around with plans to build a 24-track studio in his house, where he could work on his own songs. He ran into Boote, who had plans to build a studio in a warehouse, and so "we stuck our heads together, our plans became grander and grander, and we started building this place in June 1984," recalls Formula with a smile. Boote explains some of his motivations: "I had been managing bands for a couple of years and one thing that frustrated me was that I always had to go to record companies to get money to improve on the demo tapes we offered them. That led me to want to build a studio where I could actually create a finished product and take that to the record companies, and not be dictated by them so much."
The Strongroom opened in February 1985, featuring an Amek desk, and was aimed at the better side of the middle market. It proved so successful that both Boote and Formula had their hands full running it and expanding all the new projects which they started. Boote: "There were too many studios in the midrange market that weren't properly run, so a lot of people came to us saying 'This is what we really want.' We were snowed under with work. Since then we've been upgrading and upgrading, and now we're also getting a lot more mixing work, which is an indication of the standing of the studio today."
Some of the assets which put Strongroom ahead of the pack from day one were and are an excellent technical service, which makes sure that the equipment always runs perfectly; well-trained engineers (managed on a freelance basis by Richard Boote's and Mick Shiner's SCAM management); and a good creative working atmosphere - all of which results in lots of return business. Producers like Pascal Gabriel, Pete Wingfield and Brian Eno are to be found time and time again within their walls.
Another strong point is Strongroom 1's famous live room, which even brought producer Dan Hartman over from the States to record drum overdubs for the James Brown album Gravity. Add to that the luxury of natural daylight, and it is surprising that they ever felt the necessity to upgrade, especially since the aforementioned Storeroom, one of the first comprehensively equipped MIDI programming suites in the country, had only opened in 1987. Formula: "We went into it thinking that it might be the biggest disaster ever and came out feeling that it was one of the best things we ever did. It attracted a lot of customers and helped us to understand and learn about MIDI technology. Our engineers became experts at it. It puts us at the MIDI frontline."
And now there's Strongroom 2, which Formula describes as "a fully-equipped recording studio, incorporating all possible MIDI facilities with good engineers, good monitors and a good desk." It caters for the needs of musicians and producers with lots of home-based MIDI equipment and parallels the present integration of MIDI in the 'regular' recording procedures.
On the equipment side Strongroom 2 certainly has a lot to offer: it features an Amek Mozart 56-input mixing console (the first in the UK), which has an astonishing 16 auxiliary sends per channel and is equipped with Steinberg's Mimix automation. The automation runs on an Atari Mega 4 ST computer, which can interface with the MIDI information that comes from the sequencing side. Tape machines are Otari MTR90 MkII 24-track, Otari MTR12C ¼" 2-track (with CTT), and there is a Sony DAT for mixdown. There are also video facilities with Sony U-Matic multi-standard, video monitors, and an Adams Smith Zeta 3 synchroniser. Audio monitors are the standard Yamaha NS10s, plus ATC100A mid field monitors and AR Rockpartners. On the MIDI side there is an Atari Mega 2 ST running Steinberg's Pro24 sequencer (a Macintosh is kept on stand-by for American customers), Akai S900, Casio FZ1, Kawai K1M and R100 drum machine, and plenty more.
Strongroom 1 is also equipped with an Amek desk, but here it's the G2520 44-input, with Mastermix automation. It features Neil Grant's Boxer Two monitors and a RPG wideband sound diffuser to enhance the room's capacities as a mixing suite. The outboard gear selection is well served with various Lexicon, AMS and Yamaha processors. There's an Atari 1040 ST with Pro24, RTL Event SMPTE-MIDI timecode controller, and the live room features a Kawai grand piano, which apparently is a favourite of Brian Eno and producer Pete Wingfield. Whilst Strongroom 1 focuses more on mixing and audio recording, and Strongroom 2 has a bias towards MIDI, the two studios are designed to be both compatible and complementary. Clients can swap between both studios depending on the kind of work they need to do, retaining major MIDI and technical facilities in both studios.
It sounds like a formula that can't go wrong. Strongroom's answer to the diverse demands placed on studios these days is simply to have it all - MIDI, live rooms, automation, top outboard gear, audio-visual facilities - at a reasonable price, which is achieved by being sensible on the hi-tech side. Dave Formula puts it like this: "The equipment competition game is silly. As long as you've got technically excellent equipment, it's the other things in a studio which are more important. That's why we've avoided jumping on the real hard-edge technology bandwagon. We could have bought an SSL, but prefer Amek desks. They're flexible, reliable, and have a good sound - and our clients have nothing but praise for them. You can hire some SSL-equipped studios cheaper than us, but we've never had problems getting customers in."
The man responsible for the technical side of Strongroom, and who has applied the experience gained from the Storeroom in the making of Strongroom 2, is technical manager Nick Price. He's the man behind the immaculately serviced equipment and he also trains Strongroom's tape-ops and assistant engineers: "I find it a real shame to see engineers come in who don't take full advantage of MIDI. Things like MIDI program switches on effects units are often totally ignored, and yet there's hundreds of useful and interesting facilities available. So I make sure that our tape-ops and engineers know all the ins and outs of MIDI, enabling them to add to the vocabulary of the producers and engineers who come here to record. It often opens up a new world for them, and there are people who keep asking us for advice months and months afterwards."
Yet, although he's hot on MIDI, Price says he's glad about the increasing integration of MIDI with more traditional recording procedures: "I'm pleased to see that the separation between MIDI and other things is vanishing. I try to keep away from the attitude that MIDI is the be-all and end-all of everything. It's not. It's a tool. It's extremely versatile, but it isn't going to solve everything. You still have to write the music. On the other hand, there are people who believe that MIDI can't do any good for them. That's absurd, too. We try to go for a balance and I think we've achieved that with the Strongroom complex."
So what kind of know-how accumulated in the Storeroom have they incorporated into Strongroom 2? Price leans forward: "The way we built the Storeroom programming suite was to have audio and MIDI points all around the studio. You could plug anything in anywhere and patch into your central location. On the MIDI side we had the Sycologic MIDI Matrix patchbay as our nerve centre, and the Atari with Pro24 as the brains. We've kept all that in Strongroom 2, where there are now a large amount of MIDI inputs and outputs hardwired to the Sycologic patchbay. There are also MIDI points in both live rooms, which means people can set up their gear anywhere they want. It's very versatile. Everything can be changed with the minimum of fuss, and we've done away with masses of leads everywhere.
"Another thing that we were very concerned about is MIDI locking properly to tape. We did a lot of performance tests on SMPTE-to-MIDI boxes. You can buy a £200 SMPTE-to-MIDI box which works well at home, but is not necessarily ideal for a studio environment, where it's used time and time again for precision recording. We wanted to keep the system standard throughout the building, making sure that all SMPTE devices would trigger from a 30 ips tape exactly in sync all the time. Unfortunately, some of the cheaper machines we tested drift in and out and can sometimes be two or three bars out by the end of a song. We ended up opting for the RTL Event in Strongroom 1 and the Adams Smith Zeta 3 in Strongroom 2. The Zeta 3 also controls the Sony U-Matic, the master and the multitrack, so you can have the multitrack recorder locked to MIDI, video and the 2-track."
It's obvious that Strongroom have left nothing to chance as far as equipment goes, but what are these "other things" which, in the words of Dave Formula, are "more important as long as your equipment is technically excellent"? Surely Strongroom makes a good cup of tea for their clients, but there must be more to it. Boote asserts that it's got a lot to do with "looking after clients. It's about realising that you're not just providing a pile of equipment, but are actually offering a service. That requires a certain attitude from the staff. You're also offering a service to creative people, and that requires a special sensitivity. Your studio is a creative environment, not a laundrette."
Studio manageress Siobhan Paine is responsible for Strongroom's service side. Amongst other things she deals with bookings and ensures that the studio service attitude is transferred to their tape-ops and assistant engineers. As Strongroom's main interface with the outside world, she describes the essence of her job as: "Making sure that the client gets everything they want when they want it, so that nothing gets in the way of their creative process." Producer Pascal Gabriel summarises it all very simply: "Strongroom is a great studio, run by very nice people who help to create a wonderfully relaxed working atmosphere."
But there is more to developing a creative environment than just the attitude of the people in the studio. Strongroom have realised that the visual aspect is equally important. As a result, there's plenty of artwork around. Strongroom 2 is wide, light and spacious, and features a number of drawings and paintings by Jamie Reid, who was once responsible for the Sex Pistols' artwork and is exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. His paintings are what could be called 'slightly intriguing': their presence in the background is soothing and inspiring, without being intrusive. Apparently, Reid integrated ancient mystical symbols into the paintings which are said to enhance one's musical creativity, and although it sounds farfetched, Stephen Taylor (one of the engineers managed by SCAM) insists that he can actually feel their positive influence whilst working in Strongroom 2. Strongroom 1 has recently been re-decorated and now features a relaxing and inspiring design with shades of green, which work well in conjunction with the natural daylight.
Not surprisingly, there are more moves afoot to build three air-conditioned, soundproofed rooms, designed as pre-production rooms for producers, production teams and bands who can bring in their own equipment and feed off the creative vibe of the whole place.
With so many projects and extensions going on, will Boote and Formula ever be able to realise their original aims for the studio: Boote to record his own bands and Formula to record his own songs? Boote sees the future as being very bright: "Yes, I think we are starting to create the time and space for that now. The studio just grew and grew and we had to keep feeding it, so our original aims got a bit lost. But I'm now planning to get back into management and use the studio for that, too. And Dave is writing songs again. But really it doesn't matter that much, because the whole thing is about making music, whatever way you turn it."
Strongroom Studios, (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul Calderon
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