For those who can't get past mandolins and Pavarotti, it may come as a surprise that Italy has a thriving, domestic rock scene. Granted, few artists — with the exception of Zucchero — have managed to build up an international following; this, in turn, may have stifled the domestic recording scene, as top Italian artists started a trend some years ago by recording and mastering their key projects abroad. A new facility, however, is hoping to reverse that trend by keeping homegrown talent at home and attracting an international clientele. The studio is the small, highly specialized Studio 58A, tucked away in Rome's residential Prati zone.
Studio 58A, opened last September by Filippo Olivieri, a 34-year-old ex-software house manager and semi-pro guitarist, features an impressive combination of vintage instruments and hardware, and cutting-edge digital technology. Olivieri's project was initially inspired by the tone and design of his vintage guitar collection. He's been crazy about guitars and their sound since he was a kid, listening to late-'60s and early-'70s blues-rock players, and to this day, he's convinced that some vintage equipment is still unmatched in character and quality by new instruments.
“When I was a little older and could afford it, I began buying guitars and amps, starting with those of my favorite players,” he explains. “When I had quite a few, I decided to do something with them. I want to provide the best guitar sound possible, and I'm aware that we're focusing on a niche market to begin with. But it's something so special that I'm happy to start here, enter this huge market a small step at a time and then see what else can be accomplished.”
The studio's mission is to offer a comfortable, creative environment in which artists can achieve the best musical quality in guitar recording using highly selected vintage instruments and amplifiers, along with analog and digital recording and processing equipment. A studio assistant knows the equipment inside out, and a guitar technician can prepare specific instruments to suit artists (string gauge, action, pickup settings, etc.). The decision to open such a specialized facility was made after in-depth market research showed that guitars are not only coming back in rock music but in other genres, too.
“I decided to invest now and exploit this opportunity,” Olivieri says. “Building a place provided a variety of choices, including for the instruments, themselves, because, although pro guitarists obviously have their own, they're usually interested in trying out others, which could inspire them in new ways. This is the very core of what I'm trying to do.”
Other vintage analog gear ranges from mics (Neumann U47 and U67, AKG C 12 and such) to keyboards, including a 1958 Hammond C3, with Leslie, Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes and a '72 Minimoog. Recording equipment includes a Studer A80 and analog mic preamps, EQs and compressors. The idea wasn't to reproduce a vintage studio for the sake of it, but to use old gear in a modern context, merging it with the best of new technology wherever possible.
“We've hooked up old outboard units with new ones,” Olivieri says. “They're all wired with either Pro Tools or Logic Audio and their relative hardware controllers, such as Pro Control for Pro Tools, which is our sole ‘console-like’ choice to date. Again, all this with the idea of providing as many options as possible, such as playing any real instruments and/or software ones, with processing and recording on either 2-inch tape or hard disk — getting the best of both worlds.”
During the planning stages, Olivieri wanted to design an environment that would make artists want to stay, working in the most efficient, productive yet comfortable way. The challenge of designing a facility to international standards in just 70 square meters was accepted by Dino D'Ambrosio Associates, one of Italy's top firms. Dino D'Ambrosio explains: “Our first survey showed that the main walls couldn't be modified to any great extent, as the building dates back to the early 1900s. As was often the case in those days, structural perimeter walls are in coursed rubble. This, however, was also a positive factor, as they're high-mass and extremely thick, so it didn't necessitate particularly complicated work, as the rooms' isolation was already very good.”
Floating floors and ceilings were necessary, and reinforced concrete floating on a resilient base and specially pre-bonded lead, polyester and perlite-fiber sandwich were used, respectively, and floated in such a way to ensure that there were absolutely no acoustical bridges. Great care was also taken with the doors, which were designed to ensure the utmost visibility and livability. The cavity formed by the spacer bar in the double-glazed units is filled with sulphur hexafluoride for improved acoustic performance, and each pane comprises interlayers of polyvinyl butyral film between three sheets of annealed glass. Following in-depth talks with the client regarding the facility's acoustic target, priority was given to maintaining instruments' typical sounds, an indispensable aspect because, apart from acoustic instruments, it would have been a crime to flatten the amplified guitars' widely different sonic features with insufficiently discriminating acoustics.
D'Ambrosio continues: “The design involves a combination of diffuser panels, which don't affect the acoustic nodes, and single- and multiple-cavity Helmholtz resonators to give the room a linear response. Room correction was completed by a ceiling in which slots of Tecnodens were installed.” This is thermally bonded, inorganic wadding developed to replace asbestos on railway carriages; it behaves exactly like organic material with the same density but is fireproof, nontoxic and recyclable. It also eliminates health and acoustic problems associated with Fiberglas and mineral wool, which deteriorate through time and emit airborne particles that are a health risk and cause variations in acoustic response due to changes in density. The slots are positioned for quarter-wave absorption and form a correction zone that enabled “live” flooring such as cherry parquet to be used.
The end result is a particularly lively acoustic color for the dimensions of the room, with accurate reproduction of the original sonic details and excellent response to acoustic pressure. The latter was of key importance, as some vintage amps give their best at very high volumes.
Control room linearization was optimized by means of slots/bass traps installed in the ceiling and a multiple-cavity resonator in the node behind the engineer's chair.
“I build a lot of large studios with plenty of space for recording and control rooms,” D'Ambrosio concludes. “We achieved great linearity and sonic precision even for 5.1 work, as is heard when the facility does justice to a vintage Gibson wailing through a Vox AC3O!”
D'Ambrosio also spec'd the industry-standard hardware for this type of project — things the studio had to have — such as the Studer A80, chosen as ideal to record guitar bass and drums. Olivieri selected preamps, EQs and compressors that are able to give the most characteristic sounds, looking at vintage outboard equipment and bringing in brands such as Pultec, UREI and more on the constantly expanding equipment list. Looking for specific items that he wanted, such as Neumann U67 and 47 mics, he contacted Boston consultancy/sales firm Sonic Circus.
“David Lyons was extremely helpful, and I was able to take all of the stuff he suggested, which was about 80 percent vintage and 20 percent new gear,” Olivieri says. “We opted for the old stuff because it's so ‘musical,’ no matter what its function. For example, the RCA BA6A limiter/compressor has a very characteristic tone and was built without cutting corners or scrimping on components, as was the Fairchild 660 — the most expensive, heaviest compressor ever built — using the best components available and cramming almost 20 tubes into one mono unit! Worth a mention among the ‘newbies’ is Summit Audio's Rupert Neve-designed MPE200 preamp/equalizer. Being digitally controlled, but with an analog core for sound processing, makes it ideal for integration in a fully automated recording system.”
Olivieri makes it clear that his pursuit of vintage character wasn't borne of necessity or a snobbish desire to collect fancy, expensive stuff. “I still look out for ‘virtual instruments,’” he says. “If we find them professional, user-friendly and reliable, we'll get them, as clients sometimes need to run off a quick recording, and these things optimize your time frame, even if quality is a compromise. But if it's what the client wants, we can deliver that, too!”
Mike Clark is a UK journalist based in Italy. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.