At Home In The Studio
Paul Nash relates the saga of Holly Community Centre Studio.
Running a studio that is a service to the community rather than a money making concern may well appear to be nothing more than an ideological fantasy. However, one group of enthusiasts in the West Midlands have turned this idea into a reality.
Our original idea was for a talk studio, and that's how it began, but from that beginning it grew. We built a partition across a small classroom and filled it with rockwool. Next we put battens on the walls, filled the spaces with more rockwool and covered it with hessian. We carpeted the floor and fitted a double glazed window, a bench for the equipment and we had a good studio for schools' projects, such as plays, speeches, solos on the euphonium and so forth.
We had acquired a Teac A3440 in a roundabout way, to which we had added a Seck 10:4, a Quad 303 amp, a pair of Tannoy Stratfords, an Accessit 6W mono amp and some education issue headphones. We also had Radio Spares microphones, and stands, all linked with a home-made patchbay using Radio Spares parts. We hadn't heard of normalising so there were a lot of plugs and wires, in fact the whole set up was about as un-normalised as you can get, but it worked.
One day a group of people came to see us saying that they had heard that we had this studio and could they record in it. (A group in our studio, what an idea!) We agreed and they recorded and the outcome was terrible. However, it set us thinking and that's when the studio really started to grow.
The first thing I investigated was balanced lines and low impedance mics. We modified the Seck so that six channels had transformers and we invested in some Sennheiser K3Us with ME40 heads. For our needs these were very good basic mics as they offered bass roll off and interchangeable heads to meet a variety of requirements, and were very economical. Things somehow started to sound different - dare I say real? Perhaps the next most significant discovery was the insert points. Have you ever spent ages wondering what four sockets are for and never quite sussing it out?
It's worth saying at this point that the powers that be had been very patient and generous, especially considering the climate in educational circles, and for that I will be eternally grateful. I mention that now because it was at this point that our big break came. This involved us in an 'Urban Aid' scheme to provide extra facilities for the community. We had learned a lot and were in a position to suggest some extensions to the studio, now that we knew what the insert points were for and had discovered normalising. The result was the Holly Lodge Community Music Centre which provides facilities for young (and not so young) musicians to learn, rehearse, perform and record music.
A large proportion of the money made available to us was actually spent on performance facilities and musical instruments, but nevertheless it did enable us to buy a Teac 32 mastering machine, a SOTA patchbay (normalised) and a rack to put things in - and then we filled this with Accessit noise gates, compressors and a reverb. Suddenly things started to sound like the sort of thing that you hear on records.
The school hall, which is being modernised and having a PA fitted to help with the performance facilities, has a nice Victorian, curved roof. The acoustic is great for choirs, brass bands and that so forth. (Yes, we were into acoustics by now.) Additionally, some of the money has been spent on putting in tie lines to the hall from the studio and on getting a pair of Calrec cardioid microphones. All of a sudden we found ourselves with a studio of vast proportions and potential.
Then came the bonus. There was a little money left over, not a lot, but a little. We decided to buy a Boss digital delay, an analogue delay from Rebis and a DBX unit for the A3440. I can hear some people say why spend that much money that way? I agree, but you see when you work in this sort of system you very rarely get a large sum of money to spend how you like: you get a little at a time and you have to assess the priorities as you see them at that time and spend what money you have there and then. The Boss is great for sampling and triggering. It's easy to use and provides some very respectable repeat echo effects for the price. However, the restricted bandwidth at longer delay times and its tendency to quantisation noise on some effects make it unsuitable for some up front work. Enter Rebis. This is a local firm and I cannot say enough in praise of them. They have time to talk to you and appear genuinely interested in what you are doing. The quality of the product is first class. We use it for flanging, ADT, chorus, pre-delay, psycho-acoustic panning - the list goes on.
That's about the size of it. We operate only two nights a week. It's fully booked until the end of July and we're planning our own label. Some of our tapes are finding there way into local radio stations. It's not perfect: the control room acoustic is abysmal, the Seck is showing its age, I could do with some new compressors and I've never got enough tape, time or insert points.
We record everything and anything: reggae, rock, electro, classical: it's varied and good experience. Considering we started out as we did three years ago, I don't think that's bad. I must briefly mention Turnkey who provided a lot of the early equipment and put up with some very silly questions from me in the early days. Also, John Gluck at Audio Services who has provided most of the later equipment and lent a sympathetic ear as well as battling the bureaucracy. H&SR has been a great help, it's informative and written at a level that I can understand.
I find, the more that I get into it, that it's a fascinating industry. Of course it has its wallies and ivory tower dwellers, but on the whole, people are interested and willing to offer help and advice. I wonder sometimes at the determination of some people to pass the output of a microphone through as many processors as possible. Working in a modest 4-track studio you learn to keep it simple and add to it only when you gain something positive: don't flange a sound just because you've got a flanger or gate a drum just because you've got a gate. When you spend half of your week with a reggae band who want to squeeze ten instruments on to four tracks and then decide to add echo to the saxophone; and the other half of the week listening to a choir through a stereo pair direct to tape it does broaden your horizons.
Where now? I'd like to add to the Rebis Rack: their compressors are very tempting. We need a new foldback system though. The Seck will go a little longer but I'd like to know how to put insert points on the outputs (send us the circuit diagram and we may be able to tell you - Ed). A wider range of microphones would help. The Sennheiser K3Us are very good as a basic mic but I feel we need something a little more specialised. Then again I must do something about the control room acoustic. Eight tracks would be nice...
Do you have this problem? The money is all spent now and the realities of running a studio are coming home. Salaries are paid and that's nice but repairs are home done and replacements or improvements are non-existent at present. As a community organisation we don't charge members of the local community so at this point in time we don't have any income. Hopefully the proposed label will solve that.
Economics is as much a part of the studio industry as equipment, I've done costings for all sorts of schemes and the figures can be frightening. It's all very well suppliers offering eight tracks with mixer plus wiring loom at so many thousand, but you then have to think about premises, rates, phone bills, never mind acoustic treatment, mains supply and studio wiring. When you sit down with paper and pencil and try to do that cash flow diagram it becomes very daunting, especially when you think that you've got it right then realise that you haven't paid yourself.
Holly Lodge Community Music Centre, (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul Nash
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