Wisseloord StudiosCLASSIC FACILITY RETOOLS FOR THE NEW MUSIC BUSINESS 10/01/2012 5:00 AM Eastern
Reboot, reinvention, makeover, rejuvenation, 2.0. These are words that get tossed around so much these days that it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of real transformation, the kind that involves a company embracing its heritage and simultaneously reimagining its future, and then really making the change. Two years ago at the San Francisco AES, the principals of Wisseloord Studios, the world-renowned facility in the Netherlands, announced the beginning of their transformation. This month we’re back in San Francisco for AES, and the new Wisseloord Studios is up and running and booking time; that’s Studio 2 on our cover.
Considering the challenges facing today’s commercial studio market, the Wisseloord story seems rather improbable. The brief version: Opens in 1979, owned by Polydor/Polygram; creates a legacy and mystique with clients like the Rolling Stones, Elton John, the Scorpions, U2 and hundreds of others; changes ownership a few times over the ensuing decades, fails to maintain equipment, loses some key people, loses its luster; enters first stage of bankruptcy in 2009, with rumors of pending equipment liquidation. For all practical purposes, that should have been the end of the story. This was 2009, after all.
At the time, Ronald Prent, who began as an assistant at Wisseloord in 1981, and Darcy Proper were lead mixer and mastering engineer, respectively, at Galaxy Studios in Belgium. For a few years, Prent had been conceptualizing a new studio business model. Not drastically new, but built for the new music industry and involving everything from artist management to media delivery, picture and sound. It had to be a full-service, track-to-distribution facility, and it had to involve business development, both for emerging artists and emerging technologies/formats. It had to offer the highest-quality equipment, and it had to be a place where people want to be creative.
Then, he and Proper hooked up with Paul Reynolds, a man with a creative mind, solid business sense, a nose for financing, and a track record for developing cutting-edge formats and facilities. Within a year, the three partners had their plan and the financial backing, and soon after, Prent contacted Jochen Veith, a Munich-based designer/acoustician whose work he had admired throughout Europe.
STUDIOS 1 & 2
“Wisseloord was a four-studio complex, and we wanted to make it two mixing rooms and two mastering,” says Prent, a pioneer in both surround sound and high-resolution recording/mastering. “But we didn’t want to touch the walls more than we had to in Studios 1 and 2 because their sound is part of what made Wisseloord so great. The studios were more of a restoration, while the control rooms and mastering rooms are completely redone. A bit of the old and the new.”
In fact, while the wood was in decent shape, the tracking rooms were in disrepair. Traps had to be replaced, two new booths were added in the larger Studio 1, a “blue wave” was added to a wall in Studio 2, and high windows were installed to let in just a bit of natural light. They even found the original plans and the right wood wax. But the larger issue was the need for greater isolation.
“I knew they wanted to keep the studio’s vibe, but we also needed greater separation,” Veith says. “That’s why we had to jack up the whole recording room in Studio 2, including the room-within-a-room construction, in one piece—all together 38 tons—to get a new decoupled floor and footing in. We really did everything to keep the flair, but at the same time match today’s highest requirements.” The control rooms, in retrospect, seemed much easier to work with. After Veith proposed turning them 90 degrees to open up space, they removed the compression ceilings and gained height, then went into the walls, “down to the sand,” and started rebuilding. Except for the 48-fader Avid System 5 in Studio 1 and the 64-channel API Vision in Studio 2, they are geometrically and acoustically identical.
Prent was in charge of equipment selection, and other than the consoles, he wanted identical packages so that projects could move comfortably between rooms. Recording is to tape or Pro Tools HDX. Converters throughout the facility are Prism ADA-8XRs—19 in all, the largest single order the manufacturer has received. Throughout the facility, the analog lines are run using 55 kilometers of ultra-high-quality Grimm cable, a product the Dutch company developed for this project and now sells worldwide.
“Thanks to clean power and great cabling, it’s dead-quiet throughout,” Prent says. “The whole facility. Even when recording and listening at high sample rates, with inserts and cuts and everything in the audio path. It’s astonishing.”
The PMC 5.1 active monitoring system, powered by Bryston amps, was recommended by Veith and heartily endorsed by the partners. It comprises three BB5-XBD-A speakers across the front, a pair of MB2S-XBDs for the rear surrounds, and a set of the smaller AML2s for reference. There is no EQ across the front, just a tweak on the rears.
Prent and Proper have each been involved in award-winning surround projects, and Prent was an early tester/quasi-developer for Philips and Sony with SACD/DSD. They built for 10.1, knowing that they often live in stereo. They wanted volume in the rooms, and they asked for a wide sweet spot.
“The goal is to build control rooms with the best performance in stereo and 5.1,” Veith says. “We were able to soffit mount the front speakers, freeing up space. The stereo image width, then, is connected with the room dimensions—the listening position in the modal field—and this leads to the shape of the side walls with the window and its pendant on the other side, and further to the treatment of the rear wall. The rear speakers are placed a little bit closer together than in the standard specs, based on the experiences of everybody involved. The big thing is, it’s all in balance.”
L.A.-based producer/engineer Csaba Petocz, who has spent the last two months at Wisseloord, working with Ilse DeLange, says, “Working here has been a wonderful experience. The people are great, the API console sounds amazing and the monitoring is beautifully accurate.” Similar feedback on the physical space has been regular these past six months.
The plan wouldn’t really be complete, or all that new, if Wisseloord hadn’t added mastering/authoring capability. “All of the spaces and all of the elements have to work together,” Reynolds says. “That is the core of our business model. It starts with the creative team, and we consider the creative process in the widest sense—writer, artist, engineer, producer, video director, graphic artists. They all play a role. Then that creative process is supported by the technical and service elements.”
Mastering may be the last link in the recording process, but it’s the first step in the delivery chain. With the team’s experience in high-resolution format development, and looking ahead to alternate means of distribution, it was deemed crucial that mastering be kept in-house. So when they knocked down Studio 3 and its control room, they put in two spacious mastering rooms, well-equipped and well-positioned for a multiformat world, from vinyl to mobile. “We did have the luxury of space,” says Proper, “which is fantastic for the sound, especially the lower frequencies. Jochen’s treatment of the rooms is very even and non-modal as you walk around and listen. That’s more important than you might think when you’re with a client. ”
Mastering 1 is larger (roughly 32x20 feet with 10-foot ceiling) with a slightly bigger console and more outboard gear to accommodate 5.1 mastering in analog. Mastering 2 will handle stereo analog and the more DAW-oriented surround projects; it also has the two cutting lathes for vinyl and DMM.
As in the recording rooms, the equipment packages are essentially identical and based around a few key manufacturers: SPL mastering consoles and EQs; EgglestonWorks Savoy monitors, powered by Krell 400e mono-block amps; PMC AML 2 reference/height monitors; PrismSound converters; Lavry converters; Antelope sync and clocking; and all-Grimm cabling.
AND NOW, THE FUN PART
Well, the facilities are in place, so the real transformation at Wisseloord Studios can officially begin. The plan to create a new model is ambitious, reaching far beyond the physical studios and into production and distribution. It won’t always be easy, as the partners well know, but they seem well-positioned for the unlimited-bandwidth, high-res delivery systems that are coming soon.
“The essential elements will always still be: finding new talent, having the money and skills to develop it, making enough money to feed everybody, and then keep the cycle running,” Reynolds concludes. “That does not change, but the elements that make up the process are continually changing, so we have to change, too.”