If you prowled Manhattan late at night in the early '80s, chances are you remember the John King and the Cats posters that were slapped on nearly every lamppost in the lower half of town. King, who still plays, turned his indefatigable energies toward studio design as a way of staying in the music industry when stardom seemed distant.
His own studio, Chung King, first established itself as the home of hip hop early in this decade when Def Jam founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin tracked early hits by LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and other rap stars there.
When we caught up with King, he was moving like a tornado through his soon-to-be-completed new construction space on Varick Street. His ability to retain a sense of humor and humanity, even while barking orders at dozens of people via land line, cell phone and intercom, made an impression. "This isn't a business!" he says. "I call up my accountant at the end of every tax year and ask two questions: How big a check I should make out to the government, and is there anything left for me to spend? Everyone who works for me has to share my love for music-making."
King, who says that "there's always room at the top, the middle gets crowded" in New York, stresses that Chung King is now home to a wide variety of recording artists, as well as a loyal rap clientele. "Pavarotti has recorded here, and we've worked with Smashing Pumpkins. If you've got good-sounding rooms and the amenities that top talent requires, there are no stylistic barriers to the kinds of music you can track and mix."
The new Gold Room will have enough space to record a medium-sized orchestra. Like all of the other recording and mixing areas at Chung King, a premium is put on natural light. Fresh air is important as well. "People overlook how important fresh air is," King says. "You have to stay healthy in a room. The air conditioning requirements in New York studios are so severe that most people don't want to throw out the cold air, but you have to!"
The Gold Room, like the rest of the facility, imparts a casual elegance, with rich woods and marble adding to the regal feel. I asked King how he goes about designing a studio. "I start with no plan at all," he replies. "Just boxes the size of the console and racks that I place in the studio where the real stuff will go. I strap on a carpenter's belt and just start working. I've been in plenty of rooms, where a fortune has been spent in design fees, that sound terrible. I've also walked into basement studios that sound great. You have to use your ears throughout the construction process. Plans are meaningless-a room takes on a sonic character as you work on it. Are there too many high frequencies in one area of the live room? So build a column, or whatever, somewhere in the space to absorb some of them. It's a constant tuning process."
The Gold Room will feature an SSL 9000 console. "All of the digital consoles have their own markets and uses," King explains. "The Neve Capricorn is my favorite board of all time. It sounds great, and once you get to know it, it's easy to use. But the SSL is even easier, and lots of engineers are comfortable with the SSL architecture. We're seriously considering putting an Axiom MT in one of our rooms as well. We also have a Euphonix CS 3000 board. We want to be able to provide the tools to service mixers who feel comfortable with different consoles."
Although he still loves analog recording and has Studer machines sprinkled throughout his facility, King has embraced digital recording completely. "We have a Pro Tools room, but I'm much more in favor of renting these systems when they're required, because Digidesign comes out with new versions of Pro Tools so often that the effect is one of planned obsolescence," he says. "We have invested heavily in the new Euphonix R1 hard disk recorders, which I highly recommend. They're easy to use and sound better than any digital recorder on the market. The sampling rate currently maxes out at 48 kHz, but the system is upgradeable to 96 kHz."
King considers the Gold Room a summation of all he's learned about studio design to this point. "It's built in the style of the great studios," he says. "I've taken all the brute force technology I've learned over the years and applied it to this room, from the isolation systems to the sizing of the rooms to the monitor systems. We're using Augspurger dual 15-inch monitors as our mains, and we have a roomful of near-fields. A client can just go have a look and grab whichever ones he or she wants.
"A good-sounding room should be loud and yet still clinical enough," King continues. "The Gold Room is a prime example. I built the subwoofers as part of the room itself, and so they integrate really well. Avalon built me some custom crossover curves. Speakers can sound good in one room and terrible in another. You've got to keep listening to the space you're creating, as I said. We crossed over the subwoofers at the right frequencies and tuned the room very well. Loud and clean!"
New York sustains characters who can absorb the city's energy and not bow to it, and King fits the profile. "Look, everyone knows that rap reached a point where artists showed up with a huge posse, and for a while, gangsta rap meant you had to carry a gun," he says. "We wouldn't stand for any of it! We charged $25 for every nonessential person who came to a session and had our own security people maintaining order. There were times when we got comments about our inability to understand the black culture, but we wanted no part of that argument-no studio can survive when equipment is getting trashed. We made it clear that we respected everyone who respected us, and we had very few problems as a result of the stand we took."
King describes himself as a single-minded person and radiates an almost fanatical intensity. What's King going to do when construction on the Gold Room is finally completed? "Collapse! Then I'm giving everyone three weeks off, including myself. After the rest, I'm going to turn back to producing. There are a number of artists I'm interested in working with. What's the point in putting this great space together if I don't get to have any fun in it?"