Studio Profile: Powerplay Studios

Jake Young looks into an 80s facility that has undergone refurbishment and reinvention to bring its facilities up to scratch for modern users.

Located in Maur, Switzerland, Powerplay Studios reinvented itself last summer after 30 years as one of the country’s top recording facilities. The studio has been in operation since 1983, but it had been operating on a small level and without all the residential services in recent years. A decision was made that all the rooms were needed to return the facility to its heyday of the 1980s. Powerplay now has four studios, between five and seven beds to offer, a lounge with a new pool table, and a totally new kitchen.

In January the refurbishment of the MCI JH-500 Series desk in Studio B was finished. Replacing it with an API console was a possibility, however the facility stuck to the concept of the house.

“Everybody has an API console, but keeping this MCI console is quite interesting,” says Christian Müller, studio manager, who joined Powerplay in 1997 as a runner, grew as an engineer, quit in 2000 to study jazz piano, and came back last summer. “We have an MCI console and an SSL console. We stick to that because that’s what the house is, that’s what we are, and that’s what we learned here.”

Also new to the facilities, Studio D is a mastering, pre-production, vocal, post-production, radio, and mixing suite. Christian Beusch, the co-founder of audio post facility Magnetix Studio, designed it. Studio C is kept by mastering engineer Ursli Weber, who is also Powerplay’s analogue technician. The studio is used for digitisation most of the time. “Studio C looks a bit trashy,” says Müller. “But it sounds great so at the end of the day that doesn’t matter.”

Powerplay is owned by Jurghe Peterhans who, together with UK guitarist Jim Duncombe, launched the whole facility in 1983 after the duo had outgrown their previous MCI-equipped studio in Horgen, Switzerland. The situation now is that Müller and Reto Muggli, the studio’s chief engineer, are running the facility in the name of the Powerplay Music & Studios association.

“Jurghe had acquired a parcel of land in Maur, an attractive lakeside (Lake Greifensee) then-rural location outside Zurich and he wanted to build – from the ground-up – a combined multi-room studio facility as well as an apartment for himself,” says David Hawkins of Eastlake Audio, who designed and built Powerplay.

“The Maur location’s only drawback was its proximity to a Swiss air force base from which appallingly noisy F15 or similar jets overflew frequently on exercises. The construction of the new Powerplay building shell therefore required much more built-in isolation than would have been the case in another location. Ironically, as the city of Zurich’s boundaries have marched outwards over the years since Powerplay’s construction, the air force base has had to cease to operate its noisy planes around Maur. Eastlake’s involvement was principally with the two main recording rooms A and B. The construction material for the fit-out of the two studios was sent from the UK by road together with the four-man Eastlake expat crew who completed the construction on-site well within the allocated timeframe.”

Studio D is small and intimate with acoustics designed by Christian Beusch

Raising the roof

Eastlake refurbished Studio A in 2008, lifting the ceiling and removing the windows between the live room and the dry room. The live room is now one big space, but drums can still be moved for wet or dry sounds. It has a rig with lights and a PA system where live sessions can be recorded.

“Following Jurghe’s recent (and quite inspired) idea to make the Studio A space a combined live performance/recording facility, Eastlake returned two operatives to site to open out the studio space and slightly increase the RT60 (reverberation time),” says Hawkins. “Once again, the work went ahead without any problems. As well as the opening out of Studio A, in both A and B, acoustically transparent fabrics were replaced, as these needed refreshing.”

Studio A has a Steinway & Sons B-211 grand piano, a Fender Rhodes, and a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie 251. In the control room is a Studer A800 DASH machine and a recently maintained Solid State Logic SL 4000 E desk with computer, which has Studer preamps.

Most of Powerplay’s clients like to mix in the box here, however in-house engineers try to work with outboard gear. Recently Tommy Henriksen, guitarist for Alice Cooper, mixed a band in the box but with the desk.

The control room of Studio B is almost the same size, but the live room is smaller. Studio B has an additional Studer A800, and Pro Tools rigs can be found in every studio. The facility can mixdown to 0.5in tape for a compression feeling, and is trying to bring back a live concept. “If I’m listening to recordings today I really feel if the band is playing live or not,” says Müller. “That stands out in all the productions we have. We really fight for this old sound. An R&B production from the States can afford a good production by editing and composing in the box without a band. If you don’t have this money, spend [what you have] on a real musician and you’re going to stand out too. With no digital development in the 90s it was quite difficult to run the studio for all the people here.

“A lot of people in Switzerland have a tape machine, a good analogue desk, or both, but they’re not running a studio with a daily service.”

Powerplay is offering a lot of new services including online mastering; a sample of string recordings; 5.1 mixing for small films; and Powerplay Academy, which comprises numerous educational concepts: “We want to have young producers back in the studio to teach them how to work on an inline desk,” says Müller.

The facility is also setting up a small label: “We’re not waiting for a lot of demos, if they come, they come. We’re going to have a really small catalogue of one or two productions a year,” he adds.

According to Müller, Muggli is up for working with clients all night long. “That’s why we are sharing this job,” he laughs. “You need a man who likes to talk and likes to sell and you need a guy who’s working continuously at the desk and has an ear for it. There’s always someone around who can help you out in the studio. Even if you’re just renting the studio without an engineer we’re going to provide you with permanent assistance all day long and all night long.”

Müller and Muggli just had B-Real (Cypress Hill) and Xzibit in the studio and Wu-Tang Clan last summer. “It happens quite a lot that a big selling artist is joining in because they are touring in Europe,” says Müller. “If they are in Switzerland and they need a studio to continue working we can provide the services, the studios, and the workflow.