You Can Make It If You Try (Part 1)
Dave Simpson relates the saga of how his recording dreams became a reality. The Thatched Cottage sixteen track studio must be every home recordist's idea of a success story.
In only two short years, Dave Simpson has built up his studio from just a handful of ideas to the point where it is now a commercially viable 16-track facility working full time. Dave tells HSR how positive thinking and careful investment enabled him to realise what must be every home recordists dream.
Towards the end of 1983 I decided to open a recording studio, believing that despite the many small home recording set-ups being constructed, there still remained a demand for a cost effective, professional studio situated some distance from London. Several factors lay behind my decision. On the personal side, leaving University with an English degree and being unable to get a job might have had something to do with it! Obviously too, it is by any yardstick a pleasant way to make a living. However, I still considered that it was a practical proposition. Although I had been warned that many small studios cease trading every year, and many more struggle on visited by only a handful of customers, I had an idea that this was the fault of the studios, rather than local apathy from the musical community.
The seed of this belief was germinated some years earlier, when I was a partner in a small eight track studio. Following its opening there was a three month period while the number of customers gradually climbed until it reached a fairly respectable level - certainly enough to sustain the studio. However, after some eighteen months of this, the level of response gradually dropped until eventually it went the way of many small studios (helped along by the fact that the landlords planned to knock down the building and redevelop it).
At first, along with many other disheartened studio owners, I too blamed local apathy, the recession and a fickle music scene. Being fairly objective though, and I had plenty of time to ruminate on the collapse of my studio during the three years at University which followed, I finally reached the conclusion that by far the most significant factor in its demise was simply that it wasn't very good - not good at all in fact. I became convinced that when any studio opens, local bands and musicians will come out of the woodwork to give it a try, using its appearance as an excuse to record some of their latest material, and within a given period, say a year, every local musician will have given the studio a workout.
The continued healthy existence of the studio depends though, not only on customers using it once, but on those same customers returning to use it again at some stage - no business can run indefinitely on different customers every day (except perhaps an undertakers). If a band does not like what they get, not only will they not return, but you can bet that they will tell everyone who will listen not to go there either.
All I had to do then was to start a good studio, and the clients would return, telling everyone within earshot that my studio was the only place to go. What though makes a good studio? After some research, and a tip from a friend in the business, three things predominated. Firstly, it had to be situated in a pleasant or unusual place - somewhere different. Secondly, some judicious investment was needed. Modern studio techniques have reached the point where in many cases, the song is subservient to the production. Bands entering any studio demand the sounds they hear on their favourite records and the ability to duplicate them can prove expensive, despite the recent cost effective units available. Thirdly, and most critically, the studio must be spectrum analysed, and have a graphic equaliser over the monitor system, in order that any deficiencies in the control room and monitoring system can be corrected. Thus when mixing, an accurate sound is heard, so at least the client can be aware of deficiencies in the recorded sound and institute corrective action, thus eliminating the all too common complaint that; "it sounded great in the studio but lousy when I played it at home." (see article on choosing a studio).
Finding premises was the first priority. Since rented premises can be expensive and uncertain (as I had discovered to my cost) I decided to incorporate the studio into my own house. Unfortunately the house I was living in was surrounded by other houses, so I looked around and finally bought a small thatched cottage quite literally miles from anywhere!
The price I had paid for the privacy and glorious views though, was space, or a definite lack of it. Even compromising as much as possible on the living accommodation, the final area I could allot to the studio was 10'6" x 14' - this left a control room of 10'6" x 6' and a working studio area of just 10'6" x 8'. Pretty small, eh?
Converting these two small rooms into a workable studio area proved unbelievably expensive. It finally cost me well over two thousand pounds in double glazing, carpets, blinds and furniture, not forgetting a coffee machine, an extra outside door and the soundproof wall and door separating the two rooms. In fact, for all practical purposes the door, wall and window do not have to be totally soundproof. I built a stud partition wall, filled it with rockwool and covered it with plasterboard, and originally fitted two doors, one of which is beefed up with more rockwool, but I find I only close one of them, this gives sufficient separation. The window consists of two sheets of glass, set into rubber seatings, situated either side of the stud partition. I thus ended up with two small rooms separated by a semi-soundproof barrier (see diagram).
Before this was finished however, I began buying equipment. When I first considered setting up the studio I had naturally assumed that it would be eight track, budget being the factor prohibiting me from going further. The Fostex B16 had recently come on to the market though, and despite the fact that it was much more expensive than a cheap eight track, as well as being untested in terms of quality, the luxury of having 16 tracks to play with preyed on my mind. Two things made me decide to buy one. Firstly, I read a couple of glowing reports on the B16, and secondly, I calculated that the extra custom generated by having 16 tracks as opposed to eight would make the gamble pay off. In addition, I could still offer an eight track facility using half the tracks on the B16. In retrospect, this turned out to be the best decision I made. In a year of offering 8 track at £6.00 per hour and 16 track at £8.00 per hour, only one client has used the eight track facility - all the rest have preferred to pay the extra to obtain the greater flexibility of 16 tracks.
The mixing desk was next on the shopping list. I finally opted for the RSD 16:16:2. Two things convinced me to opt for this one; firstly, I had to look at every eventuality, and if a five piece band consisting of drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and vocals was to play all at the same time (assuming I could squeeze them in!) then I had to have a desk capable of outputting more than eight signals to the recorder at any one time. At the time, the only desk designed to link with the B16 offering 16 full outputs (as opposed to eight outputs with 16 track monitoring) was the recently launched RSD. As an added bonus it offered some nice features and was quite well designed. The second thing which made me decide to buy it, was that I obtained a good price! (motto - haggle with dealers, and try manufacturers or importers first).
So far, so good. Next decision to make was what outboard gear to purchase. I decided to hock everything I owned and sell one of the kids, in order that several items could be purchased at once. In the first place, I could get a much better price on each item by making a bulk purchase. In the second place, I had to start off with the best and greatest array of gear I could afford. If I bought it piece by piece as I went along I might lose valuable customers by not being able to provide an effect or technique they required.
After much study, I concluded that five ancillary units were indispensable. Firstly, a dual ten band graphic equaliser was needed to take care of the monitoring system, and when all the studio had been installed I borrowed a spectrum analyser. By putting a quantified noise source through the monitors, the analyser plotted a graph showing the frequencies that needed to be cut and boosted in order to obtain a flat response. The graphic equaliser was then set in accordance with this information. Although at the time it broke my heart to have several hundred pounds tied up in a unit which sat passively on a shelf apparently doing nothing, a quick look at the graphic equaliser shows how wildly out the room was, and my broken heart has been more than merried by the favourable response of my clients to the accurate monitoring system.
A second dual graphic - this time a fifteen band was next on the list. Although the quasi-parametric equalisation on the RSD is very capable, the ability to have greater control over the eq especially on 'difficult' sounds like bass and snare drums was essential. Larger studios use desks with very flexible control of sound and so might not need extra graphics. I decided to play safe in case they were needed, and I'm glad I did - there has yet to be a session on which they were not used.
My third indispensable item was a dual compressor limiter. MXR was the best I could afford, and despite the limited compression settings, it has served me well. There is no need for me to justify a compressor in my list - I use it on everything. Useful things compressors...
The first two processors on my short list of five were firstly, a digital delay unit, and secondly a chorus unit. The delay line needs no further explanation; suffice it to say that it had a bandwidth of 12Khz and a delay time of over 1 second, both of which I found to be adequate. It also has stereo outputs, which have proved useful on occasion. In addition the unit also flanges, doubles and choruses. In fact the chorus unit (MXR pitch shift doubler) is rather more than just a chorus. As well as providing more natural chorus effects than a DDL could, by utilising pitch-shift technology, it can shift the pitch of a note up or down by about a semitone (handy sometimes) and it also flanges, all in stereo. Between the two units I reckoned I could cope with most eventualities.
So much for the goodies (and a lot of my hard earned cash). Most of the other major items I either already owned or bought second hand. There were several choices when it came to a mixdown master two track. I had previously owned a Teac 322B which I had been very happy with; at the same time the Revox B77 was a good machine and widely available second hand. In the end though, I plumped for the Revox PR99, which I found second hand. Its performance has been impeccable and although at the time it cost more than I could really afford, it has more than repaid my investment.
To some extent, the monitor amp and speakers were not as crucial as they might have been, due to the existence of the graphic equaliser, which compensated for deficiencies in speakers. My monitor amp was an upmarket Hitachi hi-fi amp capable of delivering 50 watts per channel (I say was - it still is, and very loud it is too). The speakers were homemade cabs with small Tannoy drivers. Other bits and pieces included three cassette decks, purchased through small ads in the local paper, odd mic stands and various effect pedals. The reverb unit was a Mark 1 Great British Spring - a good unit providing a natural sounding reverb (though not without problems - more of which next month).
The foldback system comprised a pioneer hi-fi amp delivering the massive total of 20 watts per channel, and six pairs of the cheapest headphones I could find - they really were awful! An accessit headphone distribution box provided the link. I must admit that I have had many complaints about the quality of this system (hardly surprising really) but they diminished significantly in number when I recently bought some nicer headphones.
The final major purchases were the microphones. Determined not to skint on what represented an extremely important part of the recording process, I bought an AKG D12 for the bass drum, three Beyer M69's as all purpose mics, two rather nice Suzuki Shure SM58 copies, and a few cheap electret condenser mics. In addition, I decided that at least one really good mic was essential, and bought a second-hand Neumann KM84, for use mainly on vocals and snare. Two DI Boxes, one active and one passive represented most of the rest of the hardware.
I could not afford multicore and a distribution box; nor all the plugs and sockets such a system would necessitate. What I did was to buy, beg, steal and scrounge as much mic cable as I could and cut the resulting tangle into 16 equal lengths. These went from the mic inputs of the desk, through the partition wall and into the studio. I screwed hooks to the wall and hung a lead upon each. When I need to use a mic I take a lead and plug it direct into the mic. This method both cuts down on the chances of bad joints, by reducing the number of connectors in the line and reduces the cost pro rata!
When I bought the mixing desk, there were no cheap stands available to stand it on, so I built one out of rather natty housebricks. Since I was also having problems in siting and securing the speakers I built two brick pillars, each crowned with a proprietry speaker stand, which allowed the speaker to rock very slightly (but only if you push it!). This combination led to minimal bass transmission, even at high levels.
Having festooned the control room with shelves and cupboards I dragged in all the gear, and proceeded to arrange it in a manner designed to be ergonomically efficient. This task was to some extent made easier by the small size of the control room - everything ended up wherever I could fit it! After standing for ten minutes admiring my new studio, I started wiring it all up. I will not go into detail concerning the trials and tribulations of getting a signal to flow exactly where I wanted it to; I will however point out that the cables and plugs and sockets cost me considerably more than I had budgeted for - such things are not cheap!
Even with the studio all wired up and working there was a lot which had to be done before the first customer crossed the doors. Although I had some bookkeeping experience, I visited an accountant recommended to me (one used to dealing with musical activities), who told me which books must be kept and how. He also advised me upon a subject which had been worrying me - whether or not to register for VAT. To register meant that I could not only claim back the VAT I paid on any equipment I bought, but I could get back all the VAT I had paid whilst setting up the studio (a not inconsiderable sum!). This was obviously most desirable. What was less desirable however, is that I had to keep detailed records (which turned out to be very easy) and also charge people VAT. These days though, most customers accept that VAT is a necessary evil and expect to pay it. The accountant also reassured me that I did not have to have a turnover of however many thousand it was (about twenty I think - it changes with every budget) in order to register - I just had to anticipate such a turnover during the first year. With hindsight, registering for VAT was a good decision.
The accountant also advised my local tax office of my venture and generally tidied things up in the financial department. From him, I visited my friendly bank manager. There's no getting round it - this guy is the most important person (apart from yourself) when it comes to setting up a new business. For some years previously I had dealt with one man at my local bank and the relationship I had built up with him stood me in good stead. He was willing to listen to my proposition (some of my original capital had been from the bank) and his comments proved constructive and helpful. I have made a point of never asking for anything that I did not think he would give me, always backing up my case with detailed figure breakdowns, and always completing my side of the bargain. This involves never going over my agreed overdraught limit without asking permission, and always paying any monies to the bank I had agreed to. Over the past year the personal relationship has paid dividends, and it has reached the stage where I can ring up and chat about how business is going, knowing he will take an interest.
Two main tasks remained. Firstly I organised the stationery I required, including cards, notepaper, cassette labels, inlay cards etc. Secondly I rang the local paper to place a small ad in the classified section. At the same time I spoke to the editor, who turned out to be a young gentleman who just happened to be a talented musician in his own right. Over lunch (which I bought!) he offered to run a double centre page spread on the opening of the new studio. Money could not have paid for the free advertising this article represented, and the friendship which resulted has been an added bonus.
Following publication of the article and the placing of the ad, enquiries began to trickle in, at first slowly, then with gathering momentum. I made a point of encouraging prospective customers to have a look round before they recorded - that way they would know what to expect when they actually arrived. This practice has proved very successful, and in one year only one client who actually looked around failed to book a session.
Although there was no direct competition in the area, in order to attract custom I made my prices as low as I could - £8.00 per hour for 16 track and £6.00 per hour for eight track. Although I am now booked seven days a week and possess as much outboard equipment (if not more) than any other 16 track in the country, I have yet to put up my prices. I keep meaning to, but I'd have to get all the stationery reprinted!
Feature by David Simpson