Grand Designs: Studio design special

Top studio designers and builders take us through the initial phases of planning and constructing a new studio and tell us why working with professionals is crucial to avoid costly corrections, or in a worst-case scenario, starting all over again further down the line…

"Anybody can buy great equipment, but you can’t buy the guarantee of a busy studio,” says producer and mix engineer Pete Hofman, who is also project manager and technical director of Miloco Builds, the studio design and building arm of Miloco Studios.

So how do you guarantee a busy studio? “It’s all about making the perfect environment for musicians to be creative,” he continues. “All the gear is there to buy and all the advice is online, so people just go for it without knowing how to set it up properly, although they may know something is wrong.”

Hofman’s not wrong about there being a wealth of advice online, with countless articles and opinion pieces on how to build a studio. While many are well researched and cover most aspects of building and fitting out your own studio, they can’t replace years of experience gained by acousticians or expert studio builders.

Fortunately, for those planning to have a studio designed and built from the ground up, there are highly experienced professionals who can see them through the process of constructing their dream creative space that sounds as good as it looks.

First things first

Led by Hofman, who works alongside respected acoustician Nick Whitaker and veteran studio builder Peter Russel, Miloco Builds has provided studio design and building services to the likes of engineers, artists, producers, post-production companies and education providers for over 15 years.

Miloco also benefits from an infrastructure of maintenance engineers, technicians and support from [the firm’s sales and distribution arm] Miloco Gear.

“We can do the whole AV design and specify, install, commission and teach,” explains Hofman. “Clients will come to me and I’ll sit down with them and try work out exactly what it is that they need.”

Recent projects undertaken by Miloco Builds include Sholto Ratcliffe’s Dock Street Studios (pictured above), a studio for former Kaiser Chiefs drummer Nick Hodgson and a recording studio for Bastille, amongst many others such as Paul Epworth’s Church Studios which it worked on with Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG).

After the initial process of discussing what the client is hoping to achieve with the new studio, Hofman says that he will then start looking at properties and carry out an acoustic survey, explaining to the client what short-falls in any particular property might be.

“We might then start sketching out ideas to figure out how many rooms they need and how they like to work,” he says. Then I’ll take that away and sit down with our acoustic consultant Nick Whitaker and he will do all the calculations and turn it into something that will work. I’ll then sit down with our builds team and cost it and work out how we are going to build it.”

Hot property

Hofman tells Audio Media International that finding a suitable building for new recording studios and post-production facilities is becoming more and more difficult, especially in London where “there are no big buildings left or they are too expensive”.

In fact, everyone that spoke to AMI for this feature cited the choice of building as one of the biggest challenges for anyone curently looking to take ownership of a custom-designed studio. “The problems are all around the building,” agrees Munro Acoustics’ Clive Glover. Founded by Andy Munro around 30 years ago, south London-based Munro Acoustics originally started as a design company, diversifying into studio building with the addition of a dedicated building arm called Form & Funktion.

“In the post-production industry for example, for a very long time it had to be in Soho, which meant that there are no suitable buildings in Soho for studios, so you are constantly fighting against the restrictions you are being given,” he explains.

“If you are going to put in an isolation shell you are going to have a floating floor. That takes up volume and that takes up space. Over and above that you have got to have air conditioning and ventilation. There are a lot of things you need to fit into that volume.

“The next issue can be when you are building a room within a room, you’re adding quite a lot of mass to an existing room. If the structural capacity is not sufficient to support the isolation shell then it’s a problem. You might end up having to reinforce the building. It can be expensive and get complicated.”

On the level

Level Acoustic Design founder Chris Walls says that the feasibility of building studios within a chosen property will need to be established before he becomes engaged in a project. “That is the first thing – establishing the feasibility,” he says. “Quite often we’ll get a call from a client looking for a property. We’ll go and view some properties with them, maybe take some acoustic measurements, background noise levels, vibration levels and appraise whether we think it’s going to be a suitable building to build studios within.”

Walls founded Level Acoustic Design around four years ago, having spent ten years working for Munro prior to that. He’s worked on over 1,000 projects since then, having designed studios for the likes of Abbey Road, NBC and Universal. His firm also provides design services to Justin Spier’s Studio Creations which, launched 14 years ago, has built studios for an enviable list of clients including Warner Music UK, Mute Records, Jamie Cullum and many others.

“Having quite a lot of collective experience, we can tell fairly quickly whether things are likely to work or not,” continues Walls. “We’ll go in there and we’ll take a thorough acoustic survey of what the prevailing noise climate is inside and outside the building. Then we carry out a dimensional survey to see what kind of space we’ve got to work with.”

Spier explains that if a building is deemed to be unsuitable after the feasibility study has been carried out, they will advise the client against building there.

“We both believe that to do it, it needs to be done correctly,” he says. “There’s no comeback if you skimp on it in any way, or if the noise figures are a bit lofty, or anything else is wrong really. It’s better to be upfront.”

He adds that one of the biggest problems in the studio-building world is that hopeful new-studio owners will turn to ‘cowboys’ who might agree to go ahead and build something rather than advise their clients that it might not be the best way forward.

“They’ll go, yeah, I’ll build you a studio! But it’s massively complicated and a lot of skill [is required] from the design perspective straight down to the actual builders themselves delivering something,” he says. “Someone will always tell them that they can do something and build it, and that’s where problems arise. Occasionally you get a call six to 12 months later, asking, Can you please fix the problems?

Clearing the air

After the choice of building, one of the first things that should be considered when designing a new facility is how to make the air conditioning work, suggests Munro’s Glover.

“Once you have that sorted, the rest usually falls into place,” he says. “That is probably one of the major things that can go wrong. People will have their ideas and they start building and they then get to a certain point where they think, Oh, we also need some air conditioning. You’re in trouble if you think about it in that sequence.”

Working alongside Glover is acoustician Phil Pyatt who also handles the custom speaker side of the business. “We’re still running the Dynaudio Acoustics name after all these years, making big custom systems,” he says.

One of Munro’s recent projects was the new Atmos mixing theatre at Abbey Road Studios. “We did the internal fit out and all of the acoustic treatment and acoustic isolation shell as well as using our speaker systems,” explains Glover.

“Dolby have several different degrees of licensing,” says Pyatt. “If you go for the Dolby Atmos Premier Studio Certification, they will spend several weeks measuring everything within a quarter of a dB. Over the course of several weeks they will be fine tuning things. That’s their standard and you get a trophy at the end of it.”

John Storyk, founding partner of WSDG says that “HVAC (heat, ventilation and air conditioning) is of course a concern,” and is usually one that can be resolved with adequate height for ductwork as well as access to outside air.

“It is rare for us not to be able to create solutions for this design element, but what we often find is that studio owners fail to account for these components in their initial studio construction budgets,” he says. “This is why it is critical that designers talk with their clients before beginning work on a new project.”