You Can Make It If You Try (Part 2)
Dave Simpson concludes the saga of Thatched Cottage Studio and how it came about.
The second and final part of this short series in which Dave Simpson tells the inside story of how his studio grew from a simple idea to a professional 16-track in just two years.
In the few weeks prior to taking the first booking I had experimented as much as possible with the gear I owned and made a few trial recordings. The first few sessions though, taught me more than any practice session could!
If my theory was correct I could not afford a single dissatisfied customer, in case other potential customers were dissuaded from trying out the studio. I remember how nervous I felt after the first few sessions, just in case the client was unhappy with the result. I need not have worried - with the graphic equaliser safely in place, every musician was pleased with the recording (at least as far as I am aware). Some were not happy with what had been recorded (ie. the musicianship), but all were realistic enough to appreciate that this was not a fault of the studio.
As the sessions rolled in and I grew more experienced and acquired more sophisticated equipment, I came to believe that in a small studio, my job was not only to engineer but also to produce, where required. This involves advice to clients on any subject from song structure, playing techniques and what effects to use to where to send the completed tape. Luckily, I am able to play keyboards, guitar, bass and drums to a decent standard, and besides giving me an insight into the musicians point of view I play any instrument on a session free of charge. This is an advantage when singer/songwriters want a complete service.
Within a few weeks, two grave drawbacks of my system became obvious. Firstly, although the desk had three auxiliary sends, it had only two returns. This meant that on mixdown I could use either stereo echo, or stereo reverb, or stereo chorus, or any two of the three in mono only. Since I had the devices sitting there in front of me, this proved very frustrating. Wiring up the returns in parallel did not work, so I concluded that two choices remained to me. I could either buy a different desk, or purchase one of the add-on 4 input modules that RSD produce. Out came the cheque book and back came the module!
The second deficiency of my set-up concerned the lack of comprehensive patching facilities. The desk had a single patch point for each input channel, but it was impossible to patch in more than one device at a time. Nor was it possible to patch into the output or master output channels. At the same time, I got pretty fed up with all the plugging and unplugging of wires necessary to record a typical session. Sadly, RSD couldn't help me this time. The add-on patch bay connected at the wrong end of my desk and I would have had to knock down a wall of the house in order to accomodate it. This I considered would be to say the least, inconvenient, and so four Accessit Modpatch jack patch bays found their way into The Thatched Cottage. I wired these in line with every input, output and effect I could think of, (I still come out in a cold sweat whenever I remember the amount of work this entailed) and was rewarded with a comprehensive patching system that has made life incalculably easier. I should raise an interesting point here. It was about this time that I read my first copy of HSR (left in the studio by a customer). Thumbing through it, I discovered an article on patchbays. It advised readers to place all the receive sockets on the top row and all the sends on the bottom row. This I duly did, and stood back to admire the professional job I'd made of it. A month later, I happened to glance at the next issue, and a small apology was printed regretting the unfortunate mistake in the previous month's article on patchbays. It should of course have read; 'sends on top, receive sockets on the bottom'! Mine stayed where they were.
Sessions came and went, and I began to look round for ways of improving the recordings I was making. To this end, two opposing ends of the signal chain came under scrutiny. The first concerned the actual instruments played in the studio. Many of them; keyboards, guitars and drums were of atrocious quality, and with the best will in the world, it is difficult to produce top quality recordings with such tools. To help remedy this, and also to aid in my own songwriting, I bought a Korg Poly 61, a Fender Precision bass (which I have made half fretted and half fretless), and an MXR Drum Computer, with the full range of digital drum chips, congas, rototoms, timbale and percussion. This last purchase, although expensive, has proved a great asset. Many bands, upon hearing the quality of the real drum sounds and its programmable versatility dispense with a real drum kit altogether. Others tend to use it to overdub percussion or handclaps.
When I first bought the instruments I charged a nominal £5.00 session hire fee. I have even dispensed with that now, because the added sound quality onto tape is more than worth it.
The other end of the recording chain which concerned me was the hiss and noise, present during all stages of a recording. The Fostex B16 was equipped with inbuilt Dolby C, and this certainly helped to reduce noise directly on the multitrack, but by the time the signal has passed through the desk, reverb, effects, stereo mastering machine and on to the cassette, the hiss was formidable. Since drum separation was also becoming a problem, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, and buy a pair of Ashly noise gates. This at least helped prevent guitar amp buzz, off-mic vocals and so forth from contributing to the 'wall of noise'. To be fair, the customers did not usually notice it, but after sitting behind a mixing desk for months on end you become paranoid about the slightest unwanted sound. In addition, several parties were beginning to express an interest in mastering discs, so I knew my sound had to be good!
Although the Ashly proved very useful (I subsequently bought another two) the hiss still remained. To make matters worse, my local music rep (who by now was taking a keen interest in my purchasing power) loaned me an Aphex Aural Exciter. This was incredible. It was as though I'd put 'sound spectacles' over all my recordings. Everything became sharper with more clarity which gave a really professional sound that until then, I had been unable to achieve. My joy was short lived however. It did not take me long to realise that the hiss was all the more painfully clear and so evidently another form of noise reduction was needed. Unfortunately, an encode/decode system was not the answer because it had to lie after the outputs from the mixing desk, and before the Aural Exciter in the signal chain in order that all recording and desk noises be eliminated, but that the sparkle of the Exciter be allowed to remain.
The problem was, where was I to find this magical device? Once again, this hallowed chronicle came to my aid. I happened to be idly glancing through it, when I noticed a small feature on a new product recently arrived in this country - the Symetrix 511 single-ended noise reduction system. This consists of stereo filters which sense the highest frequency of the signal content and hover just above it, clamping down only when low frequency or no signal is present, and a downward expander which has a similar effect on the bass end. Putting this after the main outputs and before the Aphex provided blissfully silent noise free tapes with professional high end sparkle.
However, there was still one problem remaining. The only possible source of noise left in the whole chain was the master quarter inch - a Revox PR99. I could push the levels onto tape by an amazing degree, using the Agfa PEM 468 tape, but there was still some top end hiss, especially on very quiet passages.
Easily solved. A DBX stereo noise reduction unit soon took care of the offending noise. All clients might not like their master tapes DBX encoded, but at least they had the choice. At last I was able to offer perfectly quiet, professional quality tapes.
At this point I must make one thing perfectly clear. All this equipment was paid for by the studio from the studio bank account. By now we are five months into the first year, but I had borrowed no more from the bank than it originally cost me to set up the studio (and that first loan was under £4000)!. I expanded on the profits of the sessions I did - not on borrowed money. That could be the reason that I am still in business.
All this spending though was testament to the success of the small studio. Many clients were by now coming on the strength of recommendations. In addition, perhaps 30% of my work was return sessions; bands coming in for the second or third time. My theory was being turned into hard cash.
Also, given the professional equipment I amassed, I could tackle jobs that I might otherwise not have been able to attempt. For instance, one record company brings me old scratched manky records and I am able to process them, clean them up and reduce their noise, put them into a quarter inch tape and they are then recut into new sparkling singles.
The next thing that started bothering me (there always seems to be something) was the reverb. The second hand GBS I used was old and noisy and so I changed it for a brand new Mark III model. This was much quieter and brighter, but I still couldn't get that 'big' drum sound that was so fashionable. A lot of hard thinking followed, and despite the fact that it was only a few weeks old, the GBS went, to be replaced by the Yamaha R1000 digital reverb. Suddenly a whole new world of sound was open to me; crashing drums, singing strings, throbbing toms and vibrant vocals. With the noise gated I could control the rather limited delay time (to some extent) and make my recordings come alive. It was like heaven on earth. Except...
It was all in mono. If you've ever heard reverb in stereo, it's like the difference between kissing the Angel Gabriel's sandal buckles and having your kneecaps run through with a Black and Decker. I'd experienced stereo reverb back in the old days of the GBS, and its rather like being given an enema - the memory never quite goes away.
I was not fortunate enough to be in possession of the circuit diagram printed in the January 85 issue of HSR giving a simulated stereo output for the R1000, and once again a period of hard thought ensued. It was a forgone conclusion; away went the Yamaha, and back came the MXR programmable digital stereo reverb. One software update later, I will never regret that arm and leg I paid for the beautiful machine. Even after hundreds of mixing sessions, I am still honestly amazed to hear the transformation it creates with every sound I send to it. I'll not say more than that, but it is worth reading the HSR review.
Since the studio opened, many bands had expressed a desire to monitor the mix on a pair of micro-monitors. Although I had used a transistor radio as a rough guide I could see the sense in having small speakers, provided that the graphics were correctly set and that their limitations were respected (ie. a light bass). A pair of AKG LSM50s mounted upon wall stands served this purpose well. An additional bonus lay in their almost perfectly flat response when spectrum analysed.
The dual 15-band graphic equaliser was proving so useful that I bought another, and supplemented it with a mono 31-band MXR graphic for fine control of any given signal. I have often considered buying a parametric, but I feel more at home with graphics because the EQ is visible in the frequency curve, and thus easily duplicated.
As my equipment is gradually upgraded, and following the appearance of more demanding clients, (Coast to Coast of 'Hucklebuck' fame have just recorded their latest single here) as well as local radio (Chiltern, Orwell and Cambridge), the limitations of my single echo unit began to manifest themselves.
Since my main complaint was now only the fairly limited 12kHz bandwidth, I decided not to change the unit but to supplement it. Accordingly I bought a Deltalab Effectron II, with a 17kHz bandwidth offering clean noiseless stereo echo, with a variety of sub-effects, as well as an MXR 380ms digital delay. This gave me three full echo units - enough for most eventualities I imagine.
Yet despite all this equipment, there were some small problems with which I was still not satisfied. For instance, a lot of separation between bass drum, snare and hi-hat is necessary for high quality recording, but the lack of a front panel frequency conscious facility proved an irritant. You would think that with all the graphics and gates I had I would have patched in a graphic to make one of the Ashly's frequency conscious. A Drawmer dual gate proved an easier option and despite the Ashly's smoother response, the Drawmer still proves useful. I use it almost exclusively on drums. The only thing it cannot do is make poor hi-hat cymbals sound acceptable, but I have bought a good pair, and use them when necessary.
I must mention that drum mixing had been made rather easier when I sold most of my mic stands to replace them with the little Connectronics clip-on mic stands which save a lot of space.
To date, two more signal processors have appeared on top of my ever growing racks. Firstly, the DOD compressor adds another useful writer whilst at the same time de-essing vocals when needed. Secondly, that old workhorse the MXR flanger/doubler provides analogue flanging (usually deeper than digital) as well as ADT when needed.
That is all the outboard equipment I have purchased. Other bits and pieces have found their way into the control room of course. Fairly recently I bought a colour television and video recorder, planning at some stage to add digital mastering to my services (as well as watch the odd film). With the launch of the recent Sony budget digital mastering machine I thought that my plans would succeed, but they took it off the market (apparently because it was too cheap!) before I had a chance to buy one.
Two other items have proved useful. An answering machine is a must for a small studio. Not only can I not afford to lose any customers ringing up, but during mixing sessions it saves answering the phone. The second item was a hi-fi mini rack system with two dedicated two-way speakers. This system is not analysed or equalised, and serves to represent a typical small home system to monitor the quality of cassettes I record.
A word here about tape in general. I use chrome cassettes only. The reason is simple. If a band spends a lot of time and money recording, the last thing that they want is to take away some cheapo cassettes with their songs on. Chrome cassettes represent the highest quality easily available, and I take time and trouble not only recording them, but also maintaining and lining up the decks.
Earlier in the recording chain, I have found that using any tape other than the recommended Ampex 456 on the B16 a false economy. Given the half inch tape width, I have to squeeze every dB onto tape that I can, but this is less critical on the Revox. Although both the machine and the Agfa PEM468 tape I use can handle high levels, the DBX unit makes saturation recording unnecessary.
It is also worth mentioning the fact that ancillary and hidden costs continue to poke their unwelcome heads over my horizon. Telephone bills, electricity bills and insurance all take large bites out of my income, as well as the upkeep of a couple of hungry Dobermanns (for that extra peace of mind!). What's more, the services of an accountant are far from cheap.
Having said this, there is no doubt that the studio has been surprisingly successful. I have been astounded by the number of good musicians who have poured in. Beneath the surface lay a thriving local music scene, which only needed a little encouragement, and what better encouragement is there than to hear your music well recorded onto a tape you are proud to play to other people.
Surprisingly, my relationship with the home recording scene has been symbiotic, rather than antagonistic. Over 50% of the clients have already recorded their songs previously, either on 2- or 4-track, just to test it. Many use portastudios to make a pre-demo tape, which they then use as a guide whilst recording a master version on 16-track.
Music is primarily about ideas, and coming up with ideas in a studio can take time and be expensive. It's far better (and cheaper) to try out ideas in the comfort, privacy and atmosphere of your own home before recording it in a well equipped studio.
I took advantage of the studio as a focal point for the local music scene by contacting the paper and offering to write a monthly column on the bands and artists who had used the studio, using information and photographs provided by the band. This too has proved successful.
And the future? Expansion is an obvious point - certainly in size and possibly in equipment. The bank have expressed sympathetic noises with regards to making the studio larger, and I am thinking along the lines of a two storey affair with the main studio downstairs and the control room upstairs with a video monitor link. If this happens I will certainly upgrade the desk. A little bird tells me that in August, RSD are introducing a new range of digitally routed desks that could prove interesting. What may seem surprising to some, is that I have no plans for doing the usual thing and going 24 track. Sixteen tracks have proved very flexible, and there are too many good 24 tracks around for me to prove worthwhile competition. The B16, after a few teething troubles has proved a good investment, and I will probably run it until it breaks down for good and then look around for something else. At present I feel that my ancillary gear will cope with most eventualities, although I'll still keep trying out new products (and buying them if they are good). I hear that DOD are introducing a new DDL with sample hold facility and a delay time of around 8 seconds - might be worth checking out. I might even review it in HSR if it's good!
If anyone reading this article is considering opening a small studio (and be honest - how many readers have not considered it at one time or another) then I would advise them to go for it! However, a few more words of advice might prove useful. I do not think that there is any point these days in opening an 8-track studio. It is better to risk the extra gamble and go 16-track. Secondly, choose your area carefully. If possible beware of any other studios in the immediate area - competition is fine once you're established but can be fatal if you're just starting out. Buy the best you can afford - it will pay dividends in the long run, and above all, consult your customers whenever possible - if they are not happy with something, find out why, and do something about it!
Well that's the story of the first year at the Thatched Cottage. Bits of the article might prove useful - at least I hope so. With the way the British economy seems to be going perhaps next year I'll be writing articles on selling used gear and finding a liquidator!
Further details on the Thatched Cottage Studio from Dave Simpson, (Contact Details).