Production Lines - Stephen Tayler
Stephen Tayler raises some interesting points about studio equipment design and the ergonomics of the studio workplace.
Producer/engineer Stephen Tayler, who together with producer Rupert Hine, works with artists such as Tina Turner, Rush and Stevie Nicks, explains his desire for a flexible, user-friendly studio environment.
To me, the greatest attribute of a studio is flexibility. After a recent four-month recording project in a private house, where we positioned everything exactly where we wanted, I found it frustrating when I went into Metropolis, one of my favourite studios, to mix. Suddenly the equipment was all over the place again and I was having to cross the room to adjust something which I then couldn't hear properly. The problem with many modern-day studios is that flexibility doesn't seem to be taken into account by designers of control rooms and recording equipment.
When I started to record in the mid '70s, most sessions comprised the band in the studio and the producer, engineer and tape-op in the control room. This worked pretty well, as we faced each other through the dividing window. Then synthesisers became more popular, and suddenly we saw the movement from the studio floor to the control room. As technology has become more sophisticated, we now see keyboard players, programmers and guitarists with large amounts of equipment. Most control rooms are designed with the control room/studio floor relationship pretty well taken care of. However, when it comes to a control-room based recording environment, I have yet to come across a suitable design for the engineer/producer who, as a breed, are crucial to all aspects of the recording process.
Control rooms all have a few things in common: first and foremost, a console and monitor system(s). They are often designed with an optimum position for listening, traditionally where the engineer/producer sits. Why is it, then, that so often the person I am recording is sitting behind me? Probably because they also want to listen from the best spot in the room. Most of the time it feels as though I am driving in reverse looking over my shoulder. No wonder I go home with raging back-ache. Some people like to monitor loudly. If they are behind you, how do they communicate that they want to stop? It is important for me to be able to watch people's reactions, to always try to be one step ahead.
The second part of my twofold moan concerns the acoustic design of some control rooms, which have been so finely tuned as to render them almost unusable. One studio I was mixing in recently had changed the design of the room to accommodate a new monitoring system, which was fine while seated at the console, but if I stood up or moved back, the sound disappeared. The producer and band, listening in other parts of the room, said it sounded strange, which was because they were listening to something completely different to what I was hearing. This situation is only suitable for one producer or engineer doing a remix or totally controlling a session — but I look for input from everybody, and therefore feel it's important to make decisions based on what everyone can hear at the same time in the same way.
I have found a few examples of control rooms which sound the same from almost everywhere in the room. One is at Nomis, the most unique control room I've come across. The console is towards the back of the room with a lot of space in front of it, and the main monitors are an unusually long way away. From almost any part of the room the sound is the same. It's a big room, not particularly intimate, but as far as I'm concerned, probably the best control room environment I've found. Real World, which boasts the largest control room in the UK, has a wonderfully conceived layout; my one complaint is that I'd prefer to see the console facing the other way so that you could use the control room as a recording environment and still retain communication.
Although I can't offer any real solution to these problems, I have a few suggestions. More elements of the control room could be movable, including the console. Real World's control room would be more flexible if its desk were mounted on a rotating plinth, so that the control room or studio could be faced for sessions. Perhaps equipment manufacturers need to take a good hard look at the control element. I personally favour dedicated controls rather than assignable functions, as I need to lay my hands on small elements of control instantly, and frequently need more than one control at the same time. It would be ideal to have a unit combining tape controls, locator, about eight faders (VCAs), computer screen and talkback control in one package which could be moved anywhere in control room or studio. I don't feel manufacturers are even halfway to getting this right. Many are going in the opposite direction, making too much of multi-function systems which rely on one central portion to control everything.
As far as monitoring goes, maybe there should be more areas in the room where keyboards, computers and digital workstations could be set up, all with the user's favourite nearfield monitors. I have successfully set up home recording situations with a console at the back of the room, nearfield speakers on top and another pair in front facing the other way. This allows a keyboard or listening setup to face me, which is good for communication, and with minimum tweaking the room is filled with sound quite workable for recording, programming and overdubbing, though not ideal for mixing. It also keeps people away from the console and allows easy access to outboard. I had one very successful setup recently with the Mitsubishi remote to my left, desk in front, Mac Powerbook and editing controller slightly to the right and a free-standing outboard rack to the right. Producer, musicians and keyboard were directly in front of the console and I could adjust anything without moving. And a very interesting '70s design I haven't seen much recently was to have the outboard equipment in a rack above the console so all you had to do to change a setting was stand up, and still hear what you were doing.
Where does this lead? I'm not offering any solutions, merely suggesting different ways of looking at our recording environments. It's hard to design a room that can keep up with all the changes in technology, but maybe the key to the future is flexibility. This may all sound fairly selfish, but what I am really after is a space which will suit everyone involved, especially the musician and — ultimately — the music.
Opinion by Stephen Tayler
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