In at the Deep End
For all of you that have ever thought, 'If only I could build my own 24-track studio, I'd have it made', we present this cautionary tale.
From humble beginnings Danny Sullivan went on to build his own 24-track studio. But did his ultimate dream of hiring it out live up to his expectations? David Pickering Pick discovers...
Many Portastudio owners while away idle moments dreaming about owning a 24-track recording studio. Danny Sullivan did more than dream - he went out and did it. But after a year of running In-Voice studio, he closed it down. Why? I first interviewed Dan in October 1987. When I met him at his brand-new, purpose built 24-track recording studio he arrived riding a push-bike. In many ways this seemed to sum up the philosophy which has resulted in the change of status from Portastudio-in-the-garage to 24-track in the centre of Cheltenham. A great deal of investment has gone into the studio, but there has been no waste and there are no unnecessary frills. I asked Danny how he originally got interested in recording.
'I was in a band, and I found I was always wanting to stop and record, on a cassette machine or whatever. It used to annoy the others as they just wanted to get on and play. The turning point was when I found that I couldn't do both jobs, record and play, something which is still true today.'
You are a musician then?
'I play keyboards, but I'm not a musician! We had a Tascam 244, a Carlsboro Mantis echo unit and a Fostex compressor. We converted the garage into a studio - it was good for the experience. We had quite a few bands through there, and some of them are still around now and come in here.'
Were you ever making a living out of the four-track?
'I was working at GCHQ (the government's communications headquarters in Cheltenham) and that's where I learnt electronics. Then I went to work for my stepfather's company and that's when I bought the Portastudio. It was just a hobby, and in fact in many ways it still is. I don't work full-time for the studio, I also design electronics for the Oil industry a couple of days a week, and this is also under the banner of the studio.'
There is obviously quite a lot of money tied up in this building. How did you raise it?
'Through a member of the family who wanted to invest in property. Basically this is a dual-purpose building. It was purpose designed as a recording studio, but if at some stage in the future it doesn't work out, it can easily be converted into offices. For example, although the windows are bricked in, they have lintels and could easily be opened up. So the owner of the building is not taking any big risk, and I am paying a commercial rent. I paid for all the furnishing and equipping of the place out of savings, though, so we don't owe anybody for anything.'
Why did you decide to go to 24-track?
'I was thinking originally about 16-track with the Fostex machine, but to be honest we went for 24-track because it just sounds more impressive and attracts customers. Also, it means our tapes are compatible with other studios, being 24-track on two-inch tape. They can come here and lay tracks very cheaply and if they want more up-market outboard gear they can take the master to a big studio somewhere else. This doesn't happen all that often though. We are aiming very much at ordinary bands and musicians, most of whom can't afford to go anywhere more expensive. We charge £10 per hour, and that includes VAT and tape.'
Did you consider converting an old building rather than building from scratch?
'Yes, but there were always houses too close. We didn't want to cause problems for other people, so we did it all properly. It took a year to get all the planning consents, then another year to build it. We've been open now just nine months.'
Were there objections to the plans from your neighbours?
'Not really, surprisingly. The house across the road wanted to know if it would interfere with their hi-fi! The Environmental Health people laid down all kinds of regulations about noise at such and such a distance from our boundaries, which were quite impossibly low. We employed a consultant, Dr David Fleming from London, who designed the rooms. He was quite pricey, but very good because he would talk to the planning people whenever they got worried. As well as the studio we have a rehearsal room; you can have a band going flat out in there with the studio going too, and there's only a muffled sound outside.'
How did you achieve the necessary sound insulation?
'By building a structure within a structure. The floors are floated using strategically positioned jack-up mounts (mainly near the walls). They are shaped like a bell with a hole in the top. Under the bell is a large disc of neoprene rubber. The builders shutter around the walls and, with careful calculations, put in the concrete reinforcement mesh, followed by four inches of concrete up to the holes in the mounts. There are rubber bungs to stop it going into the holes. You then wait for the concrete to harden thoroughly, which takes about three weeks, then you take out the bung and there's a steel screw which screws into the hole and eventually meets the neoprene. You go around the screws in order and literally jack the floor up. It's rather like tightening the cylinder head on a car - you have to do it very evenly or else it cracks and the whole thing's ruined.'
Are you jacking the walls up with the floor?
'The walls are built afterwards. There's a gap of an inch underneath the concrete. After that's done the walls are built, then the ceiling rests on the walls.'
What's the ceiling made of?
'Woodwool slabs, which are a mixture of wood shavings and cement. They lock together, and then the ceiling is plastered. We finished the ceiling with foam-contoured acoustic tiles, which are done by Studio Spares. They're like the Illsonic tiles but cheaper, about £3 each, but they don't match up to each other!'
Was it all rule of thumb; you just thought, 'We'll stick some tiles up...'
'What I'm saying about the studio is that most of what we have here does not match up to the quality of the building. We thought we would do the groundwork and soundproof the building first. You can always buy the equipment, and you can change the acoustic treatment later, but if you haven't got the building right there's nothing you can do about it.'
Danny showed me around the premises. The whole building is shaped like a parallelogram, when viewed from above. It is far from being square in shape. This apparently had more to do with the shape of the building plot than any acoustical considerations. On entering, the corridor and stairway are dominated by a system of bright yellow ventilation ducts, which are fairly noisy in the corridor, but tolerably quiet in the other rooms. With no outside windows, the building clearly needs the powerful system which is used.
'We would like air-conditioning, but both the capital and running costs are prohibitive. The system has two large fans, one blows and the other sucks. Air is blown into all three rooms (studio, control room and rehearsal room), vents into the corridor and is then sucked out of the building. This is the weak link in the soundproofing: we've created three very soundproof rooms then joined them together by punching holes in them.
'Having got the basic shell, we really did not have enough money to have it fully treated acoustically. The consultant offered to do it but we couldn't afford it. One problem is that when you float floors the bass end has nowhere to go. The whole room just resonates. We have done what we can for the time being and it is very usable. Apart from the ceiling tiles and the carpet, the walls have heavy velvet drapes which can be drawn back to vary the reverb time of the rooms. Having spent hundreds of pounds on these drapes we found that curtain rails were going to cost hundreds more, so we ended up making our own out of cheap shelf brackets and clothes line. It looks OK and only cost a few pounds.'
The studio itself is the largest room, at about seven-and-a-half metres one way, going down to about five metres. It is occupied by an upright piano of uncertain origin and a black Simmons SDS9 electronic drum kit. There is also a Korg Poly 6 and the inevitable DX7. There is also a, well, large isolation screen with window.
'Simon, who works here, was asked to design it and it's a bit over the top. The window is double-glazed and if we need to move it it has to be dragged. We sometimes use the piano instead because it's easier to move!'
Through the heavy double doors is the control room, dominated by the large 30:24 Aces console. It is very impressive looking, and stands on a raised platform about nine inches above the rest of the control room floor.
'When I ordered the console, they actually said they could make it a bit longer if we liked! The platform is to discourage people from standing behind me and breathing down my neck. It works very well as people feel very self-conscious if they stand on it when I haven't asked them to.'
How have you got on with the Aces 24-track recorder?
'One of the problems with going straight up to 24-track is that you don't really know what to expect. When I first got it, some time before the studio was finished, it was much better than what I had been used to. I ran it at 30ips and the quality seemed fine. Then gradually I began noticing a certain, quite subtle distortion if I wound up the levels too much on certain sounds. I had the man from Aces down and he said it was alright, so it wasn't until I had a producer in from outside who had worked with Aces before that I could be sure, as he said it wasn't right. When I investigated I found all the replay amps had some incorrect components fitted! The trouble was that the distortion did not show up on a sine wave, which is what it had been tested with.'
You seem to spend much of your time recording bands with conventional drum kits - what mics do you use?
'We always experiment - with mics, positioning, room acoustics and effects. We have one Neumann, a U89i which is supposed to be slightly quieter than than the U87. It's also slightly cheaper - we got it before we had overheads...'
'No, financial overheads! We've got four Calrec 652s which we got for £25 each, a DI2 for bass drums and a couple of Sennheiser 421s. We also have some Shure SM58s which we tend to use for guitar amps, as well as the Tandy PZMs which everybody recommends. For drums, we tend to use a SM58 to open a gate on the snare drum then one of the 421s some distance away. You have to have some distance, say about a foot away.'
Do you usually go above the snare, or below it?
'Again we experiment. I read recently someone saying he never mics a snare drum from underneath, but at the next session we had I got a really good sound from underneath, so I thought. I'm not going to believe everything I read... this was a top producer.'
"Originally I wanted just what I've got here, but in many ways now I'd prefer to have a little place in my house, and be able to pick and choose."
Do you use the Simmons kit much?
'Most bands who come here aren't biased towards technology at all - they hate the idea of using things like that. Even if you play them a tape and ask them to identify the drums and they think they're acoustic. Plus, the Simmons kit requires a certain technique which is different from the kit they are used to and that introduces a bias into the session which needn't be there. The only time we use the Simmons is if people want more of a production job done. We tend to use the toilet upstairs to record the snare drum. In fact we are so impressed with the sound in the toilet we are thinking of recreating it in the corner of the studio here - putting urinals in and so on... '
When you are recording the Simmons, do you record the whole kit in one go, cymbals and all?
'Normally we do, although Simon, who is also a drummer, recently wanted to get a really ambient snare (a la toilet) with an acoustic bass drum, so he sat and overdubbed all the kit. It's difficult for drummers to do though, like a keyboard player playing chords and leaving certain notes out. Your run-of-the-mill local band wouldn't want to cope with a situation like that.'
The studio represents a fairly massive investment - is there a reasonable return?
'The money you have to put into a studio and the money you get out don't equate. This is 24-track, for £10 per hour including tape and VAT! But if you had a 24-track here in Cheltenham and tried to charge £25 per hour, you wouldn't get any customers. My original idea was that if we could attract local bands we would have a safe base from which we could expand. It takes a lot to attract bands away from London because there are so many good studios there. If we overcharged not only wouldn't we get much work, we wouldn't get much experience. If we got one customer a month, we wouldn't be very good!
'The whole studio could not exist without the rehearsal room. It is fully equipped with a drum kit, PA rig and so on, and it goes out at £4.50 per hour. At present it gets used 50-60 hours a week, so it's pretty popular. As for the studio, there are always odds and ends we would like to have, perhaps to upgrade the desk and the tape machine. But if we did that we would have to put up our rates and then we would risk losing most of our customers. At present we are looking at getting a sequencer, but apart from the money it's doubtful if many of the bands would know what to do with one.'
Do you think you took the right decision, getting new Aces equipment rather than something more up-market second-hand?
'I'd like to say that the quality of the gear you're using doesn't matter, it's how you use it, but sometimes I think I'm just making excuses for the gear! I'm now always a bit frustrated with the sound quality. We recently got a Sony PCM 501 digital recorder, and you wish you had 24 tracks like that.'
What outboard gear do you have?
'We have three reverbs now, a Lexicon PCM60, a Roland DEP 5, which also handles chorus and echo, and a Midiverb. We have two Powertran samplers, which I built myself some time ago, and which are mainly used for the echo facilities. The sampling quality is only eight-bit, and it's inconvenient to use because there's no way to trim the start of the sample. Then we still have the Fostex Compressor from the Portastudio days, and a Drawmer gate. We could do with a whole rack full of those. We don't have the huge selection of outboard goodies that some 24-tracks have, but for those that need those effects they can always record basic tracks here very cheaply then take the two-inch tape somewhere else for mixing.'
You've got some fairly massive monitors (Tannoy SRM ISX Super Reds) - are you happy with them?
'Yes, but they're a bit over the top. It's to do with the fact that we wanted to look the part. People expect big speakers. They do give a true sound and that enables you to not make mistakes whilst you're recording, but I really don't like the sound! Plus people haven't got these in their living rooms. We never use them for mixing, instead we use the KEF 104ABs and Auratones. It's all down to how good your ears are. When I mix I like to start off with it so that I can hear everything, then let the band make suggestions. I'm not right all the time!'
Do you get problems when you reduce the listening level - like the bass and treble disappearing?
'The bass doesn't disappear in here! Actually I think that a lot of what people put down to bad monitoring is actually bad mixing. If the mix is about right it should sound good on any speakers.'
Are there any inherent weaknesses in the room which you have to compensate for?
'The bass is a bit of a problem. We have fitted a resonating panel type of bass absorber, which we knocked up very quickly, just to see if it works. It does, and we're going to do it properly next time! We followed the equation in Paul White's recent article in H&SR. We had a session booked and the band were about a half hour away from arriving, and there we were banging nails into bits of wood!'
What are the main differences between the way you used to work with the four-track and the way you work now?
'Having 24 tracks allows you to make decisions very late on, but that's what takes the time at the mixing stage. If you had to decide as you went along, say putting a drum sound down in stereo, everyone accepts that's how it is, whereas with the drums split across 10 tracks...'
Do you normally record the drums dry and then add reverb later?
'I tend to record everything dry bar the snare, which I record on one track dry, and on two tracks in stereo with a reverb that everyone has agreed on. It's really so as not to tie up the reverb on that one sound. Even though we have three reverbs it's nice to have them available at mixdown. Recording effects with the track does save a lot of time, and that's important to the bands who come here. We show them what's possible, then go for it, and we don't tell them they should have spent two hours deciding on a reverb for the snare drum at the mix stage. It's wasting their time.'
Have you learned any useful production tricks from people coming to the studio?
'The main thing I learned was I'd never really edited ¼" tape! One producer showed me that when you've got an intro with only one or two things on it, and then everything comes in, it's best to mix the intro first with all the other tracks muted so that they're not contributing any noise. Then you stop, open up and mix the rest and finally splice the two together. It's simple but effective.'
Now for the $64,000 question - what's it like having a 24-track studio? Is it like you expected?
'Yes and no. Yes in terms of running it, but the psychological bit wasn't quite what I imagined, actually dealing with the people. It's worse than I thought. You're spending many hours with people you probably wouldn't speak two words to on the street, and you have to be diplomatic. When I first began, I was running the rehearsal room as well as the studio and it was unworkable. Every hour, I had to take ten minutes out to book the next band in. I'm not one to get depressed but after a week I was really down. It's strange - you have this dream and it comes true and you're totally depressed about it. Now Simon handles all the bookings and it's much better.
'Half of it is the wanting, rather than the getting. Originally I wanted just what I've got here, but in many ways now I'd prefer to have a little place in my house, and be able to pick and choose. It's not that I regret it, but you have to go through an experience to see what it's like.'
Dan did in fact close In-Voice in April 1988. Ironically, his main local competitor, the well-established 16-track Millstream Studio, also closed within a month of its demise. Most of the equipment went back to Dan's (not particularly large) living room, and some was subsequently sold. The building is currently being fitted with windows, and will shortly be available as office space. I asked Dan what were the main reasons for closing.
'Firstly financial. When we started we had to guess what the rates would be. The garage business that was on the site before us paid £750 per annum, so we guessed about £2,500. We were out by a factor of two - and although we are appealing against the £5,000, you have to pay pending the appeal. Prior to getting this bill we were just about making ends meet.
'Secondly, the social reasons if you like. What I enjoyed greatly as a hobby was very different as a business. People expect a lot when they are paying, even if they are not paying very much. That would be OK, but you don't get much positive feedback - people's attitudes changed. They gave us a lot of hassle, particularly in the rehearsal side. Equipment got broken and no-one owned up, and people would smoke even though we had a strict non-smoking rule. You had to keep checking up on them. I really lost faith in people at one stage.
'Also, I was working very long hours, particularly at the start - 9am through to midnight, seven days a week. After a while I started to get very depressed, a thing which has never happened to me at any other time. I remember years ago when I was in a band at school, we went down to Portsmouth to record at a studio there, and I was well into the technical side. I asked the engineer whether he thought it was a good job to be in. He advised against it, and he was right as far as I'm concerned. I can see why people in the recording business get into drugs, it can be very pressurising.'
Would you open a studio again, perhaps under different circumstances?
'No. I am continuing to do stuff for friends and for myself. But I can't see me doing it for a living again. As I said to you before, you have to try something to see if it suits you - there isn't any other way to find out so I don't regret having tried it. The person who put the money up for the building has recently sold it at a very comfortable profit, so no-one has lost out financially. I have sold some of the equipment, the desk went last weekend, and I've replaced it with a Seek 18:8:2, which I am also using as a live desk for the band. It seems cleaner than the Aces was, but it is a little hard to see which solo button is down. I've still got the 24-track, and I may sell that, but I'm not going to give it away. I've now got a Steinberg Pro-24 which I am just getting into.'
What are you doing for a living now?
'Looking for a job! I was working throughout the time I was running the studio as a freelance in software, and I am just tidying up the project now. I would quite like to do that kind of thing in connection with studios, and I did talk to one company who were looking for someone to go in and service Synclaviers and things. The salary, however, did not really warrant moving to London. The bottom line is that I could always go back to work at GCHQ, but I'm not keen on that at present.'
There is a theory that everyone ends up getting what they most want in life, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee they will like it once they get it. Dan's experience tends to bear this out, although he does not regret having tried it. In recording, perhaps more than in other fields, there is always something new to try, somewhere new to go. Certainly there is always bigger and better (and of course, more expensive) equipment to do it with. It does no harm to ask occasionally 'Why am I doing this? What purpose does it serve?' The answers may surprise you.
Feature by David Pickering Pick
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