A celebration of Strawberry Recording Studios, Stockport,
1967 - 1993.
|Studio Sound and
1974, July, pp68-71
By John Dwyer
PETE TATTERSALL says people thought he was mad when he said he was going to open a studio north of Wormwood Scrubs. Quite a way north, actually - Stockport. 'Who's going to record there?' they asked him. 'We will', he said. We then being himself and Eric Stewart, now with 10cc.
Eric and Peter now run Strawberry Studios. Eric's career had started with Wayne Fontana's Mindbenders. Their first hit, you may remember, had a lot of 'Urns' in it and went into the charts on the last day of October, 1964. It eventually went to number five. When Wayne Fontana went solo in 66 the Mindbenders did the same. Successful, too. Before the band split towards the end of 1968, they had had hits with A Groovy Kind of Love and Ashes to Ashes.
Graham Gouldman, another member of 10cc, is also a partner in Strawberry, and 10cc's agents, Kennedy Street, have an interest in the studio. Graham is a talented songwriter and began by writing 'For Your Love' for The Yardbirds, a big hit for them in March 1965. After that he wrote many more hits including 'Bus Stop' and 'Look Through Any Window' for The HoIlils, 'No Milk Today' for Herman's Hermits and 'Pamela Pamela' for Wayne Fontana.
Before Graham joined the band, 10cc were known as Hotlegs. They had a hit with 'Neanderthal Man', and then they did a tour with the Moody Blues after which nothing seemed to happen. Graham had joined them by this time and the band wrote 'Donna', which they took to Jonathan King. King relaunched the band, changing their name to 10cc, and 'Donna', good girl that she is, earned them a silver disc.
Which brings me back to Strawberry, where 10cc do all their recording. When I was there - I must confess it was a long time ago - they were in the process of finishing an album, which many regard as one of the best albums in years, perhaps because it was conceived as a collection of singles at a time when people had had pretentious 'concept albums' up to the back teeth.
Pete Tattersall used to work for Brian Epstein. 'I got interested in recording when I was down in London with him. We used to spend a lot of time at Abbey Road. I left Brian Epstein, came back up to the North and said "There ought to be a studio up here". I took over a tiny little demo studio above a record shop which only had mono and stereo and a right joke of a desk'. He had known Eric when he had been with The Mindbenders and they talked about having a proper mastering studio. 'He came in with me, then we left that
got four track in, and a guy made a desk for us. We had a big hit with 'Neanderthal Man', which was very helpful, because we got eight track, as soon as we got a hit'.
Strawberry have all the ground floor, half the basement and half the first floor of a building in Stockport's Waterloo Road. When they built the studio the building had been occupied by offices. They stripped back to the walls, floor and ceiling. The building has had a long and varied career. At one time, long ago, it was an illegal boxing ring. After that they built parts of Sir Hemy Seagrave's world record breaking speedboat in it. During the war the building was used to make detonators for shells. Pete Tattersall told me that an extra wall had been built all around the building to strengthen it when they were making the detonators. The floor is just as sturdy: on top of the main joists are two sets of floorboards and a layer of red asphalt. The asphalt only partly covered the floor when they Came to build the studio, and they put down a final layer of black asphalt 25 mm thick when they moved in. On top of that they put the carpet, leaving one corner with a hard floor for the string section.
Eric told me they had rebuilt the studio a number of times now. Initially the control room had been in what is now the studio, and what is now the control room, had been two
rooms: a disc-cutting room and a largely unused directors' office. They hadn't liked their first attempt so they had put in a false ceiling and better soundproofing. When they went
eight track they did it all again. Then when they decided to install 16 track they thought it better to take no chances. They called in Sandy Brown and asked his advice. He tested the studio and Pete told me he (Pete) had been surprised by how little needed changing.
The walls are now covered by 11 cm of Stillite, and two layers of plasterboard, plus acoustic absorbers. The studio 'was shut for five weeks while the necessary gear was
installed and the studio redecorated. Eric, Pete and Rick designed the colour scheme and did it in industrial-grade fireproof paint. They reopened on March 28 last year.
Pete is proud of the fact that they went from mono to 16 track in just four years without anybody's help. And since changing to 16 track Strawberry have had through their doors such people as: Paul McCartney, Neil Sedaka, Barclay JaIlles Harvest, Scaffold, The Strawbs, Syd Lawrence Orchestra, 10cc, The Drifters, Hot Chocolate, Lindsey de Paul, Tony Hatch and Roger Coor.
Not every studio has an Eric Stewart, though, and I asked Eric why (a) he didn't like working in other studios, and (b) he had a studio up here. 'I worked in studios down in London and the atmosphere was really bad. There's the big time-factor thing and you're herded in and out'. This explains why, at Strawberry, there isn't a clock in the place.
It must be a great attraction for a client to know that a musician of the stature and experience of Eric Stewart is not only involved with the studio but may be manning the faders.
Neil Sedaka recorded his last two albums and singles at Strawberry and he persuaded 10cc to work with him. Pete is pleased about that: 'When you think about it, he could have any rhythm section or studio in the world'. Sedaka also likes the Strawberry Sound. Pete said he couldn't explain the sound, though clients are aware of something special. Half seriously he wondered if it might be something to do with the moist air - Strawberry is, after all, not far from Manchester. 'We always try and get a good sound in the studio, the way we arrange the guitars and amps and so on. Plus, we set up brass differently, I think, to everyone else. We set them two and two, facing one another, and we sling a U67 in the
middle on figure-of-eight. Then we take a section balance. All the MD has got to do is get the band to playa built-up chord and then say "Lead, move out a bit" or "Third, move in a bit" or whatever and, once they're sitting in the right positions that's it'.
This was a technique, Pete said, that Strawberry had developed over countless sessions with the Syd Lawrence Band. Up to a year ago they had made eight albums with Syd-all the big band revival albums including the first, in the Glenn Miller style, for which Syd got a gold disc. The separation in the studio is obviously good (Sandy Brown saw to that). For the Syd Lawrence Band they would put two half screens around the drummer, next to him the acoustic guitar and the bass, then the trombones, arranged two and two, the trumpets, arranged two and two, and the saxes, arranged two and two and one-the baritone at the end. 'Now, virtually because the trumpets and the trombones are blowing at each other, blowing directly at the mic, one sound counteracts the other. The musician himself is acting as a screen in a way, so we don't screen between them at an. Of course the separation isn't perfect. The only way to get absolutely perfect separation is to put each musician in a soundproof booth, but you can't do that because they can't play that way. This way they can hear themselves properly and consequently the timing and rhythm are just spot on. I can't remember which one of us thought that up'.
The control room is between the reception area and the studio, so the studio is a good distance from the road. When I stood in the studio I didn't hear a sound from outside even though Pete told me they were more or less on the flight path of Manchester airport.
Pete and Eric have nothing but praise for Dick Swettenham: 'our favourite man', as Pete called him. Dick had given them a great deal of help when they went eight track. He redesigned their old four track desk for them. The new 24/16 Helios desk curves round the engineer, with channels one to 16 in front of him, 17 to 24 to the right and echo, pre and post fade and an the other insertable ancillaries on the left. Pete told me they normally used the right hand channels for strings and acoustic instruments.
The desk has a number of extras, including special equalisation. Pete told me that whereas the normal treble boost starts at 10k Hz, they had other curves put in at 12 and 15k Hz. They also tried out different curves at the top end which they put on channels 17 to 24 to try out. They liked them and had them put on the other reamining channels. Pete said they were sharper than the curves normally used. For extra equalisation two Audio and Design equalisers are available on the patch bay, from which you can plug in two Kepex units. Pushbutton routing is fitted so that one channel can be routed to as many tracks as they want.
The 16 channel monitoring mixer allows them to record straight from the monitor: 'By the time you've finished your 16 track recording you've usually got all your monitoring faders set to a fair balance, so to do a quick mix down you can listen to it and record from monitor, which is a great idea instead of having to set up for a mixdown . . . We've used it quite a bit. You can put echo on it or pan pot echo on the monitor without it going on to the track'. All you had to do for mixdown, Eric added, was flick over a switch and the whole desk was ready to mix without any patching.
The echo units also have equalisation, and Helios designed a unit for mixing tape echo and plate echo. Various degrees of tape echo are available at various delays. There are
also two EMT stereo plates. The tape loop can be fed into the plates by plugging into and from the stereo machine via the tape delay module. Machine playback is selected on a monitor board: 16 track, four track, stereo one, stereo two, stereo mono comparator switch, two mono machines and an external source, for a disc player. Other features of the desk include a digital clock, a cassette recorder, an automatic phasing unit, an oscillator, a variable fuzz unit, a wa wa unit, a tremelo unit, a cigarette lighter and a device for opening the front door.
The desk has jack sockets for direct injection, which Eric later used to great 'effect to do a guitar overdub for the 10cc album. While he was doing it he also made good use of the remote locator control for the MCI 16 track machine. Pete described this as their 'deaf and dumb tape jockey', and Eric said he couldn't imagine life without it. 'It's wonderful', Pete said. 'Set your logic, finish your tape, press autolocate and forget it. It winds back, stops, and starts itself, which is marvellous because you can get on with doing other things'. He told me he had once left the control room during a session having set the machine to wind back. He had peeped round the corner at the frightened faces of those left in the control room, who were waiting apprehensively for the tape to come flying off the end. Then the machine just stopped and started to play. 'They all stood and looked at it in amazement' .
The monitoring is in stereo, and all the foldback comes off the monitors as well as the channels if required. The speakers here and in the studio are JBLs. The desk is also fitted with two squawk boxes which Pete told me they used every mix. He said they were going to get a number of speakers so that they could switch from one to the other on various units between the JBLs and the squawk boxes. All the meters are ppms. Eric designed a unit for mounting the Dolbys. All the amplifiers they use are by Crown-for foldback, talkback and speakers.
The studio, as you will see from the floor plan, is big. Peter told me it would hold 35 musicians but I would have thought that was an underestimate. There are 24 mic lines, arranged in four groups. One group of eight is in the drum/vocal booth, another group of eight is in the hard-floored string section of the studio, and there are two more groups of four each in the main part of the studio. An additional feature is the main microphone board near the control room. All the microphone points round the studio come up on this one board, and then to patch in you simply use a link. Or you can go straight in there. On every mic board round the studio there are headphone sockets. Altogether there are 36 headphone points, including a set on a floating board that could be moved round the studio. There are two fold back groups and, when I visited the studio, they were thinking of installing separate foldback mixers for each musician.
Some years ago Keith Wicks wrote a piece in this magazine about Strawberry's ring fold back system, whereby an electric loop went round the studio and everybody within the loop could pick up the fold back in an earpiece. This avoided the necessity for any trailing wires. Pete told me they had had to think again about the scheme, which had been devised by Formula Sound's Tony Cockell to provide 10cc's drummer/vocalist Kevin Godley
with foldback during stage appearances. 'We tried it, and experimented with it. It worked. But it picks up everything within the loop and in the end we were redoing the studio and we thought "No, let's just do it as per normal", we may try it again. . . but I would hate to put something into the studio and rely on it alone - I think that's fatal. It worked great on stage', he added. Really great for groups. I can't think why other people don't use it'.
The foldback headphones are Beyer DT480. They have been modified by the fitting of a heavier cable and a plug and socket at the headphone end fitted with a screw. Thus they can stand up to a great deal more rough treatment than they used to. The amp used to drive the foldback is a Crown D60, so there's plenty of headroom there. Two JBLs provide speaker foldback or playback from the control room. These can be wheeled about the studio on little trolleys. They can be plugged in at two points, and the aim in buying these was to let lazy musicians stay in the studio and hear their tracks played back.
The microphones are the usual Neumanns U47, U67, KM88, KM86, Beyers-M160, M88, M201 and AKG-C28, C451 and D202. Pete told me they were particularly pleased with the Beyer M201 'You wouldn't believe the sound that comes out of it. We use it on snare a lot, because it gives a certain edge'. They used the D202 on bass guitar and bass drum.
The ground at the back of the studio slopes away about 2m to the ground at the back of the building. A good sized, fully soundproofed, lift carries musicians and their gear right into the studio.
There is some spare land next door which Pete told me they were keeping their eye on for future expansion, but it was well into the future. 'We're happy enough at the moment'. There was also the possibility of moving into other parts of the building. One of the reasons they chose Stockport instead of Manchester was that parking here is so easy. There is the waste ground nearby and a garage forecourt they could use at night. Pete didn't think the studio was too remote: 'It's 3t hours drive from London, 2t hours on the train, and 35 minutes by plane, ten minutes from the airport and two minutes from Stockport station.
There's only one thing Pete envies the London studios-the large pool of talented session musicians they can draw on. Not that they're doing badly in Stockport with the Halle Orchestra, the Northern Symphony Orchestra, the Northern Dance Orchestra and the Syd Lawrence Band-they have a pretty good selection. But he told me there is a shortage of girl backing vocalists.
Pete enjoys working with professionals and particularly the recent Paul McCartney sessions. 'Paul was so into studio techniques, it was a pleasure to work with him'.
'I like this business, you know', said Pete. Because everyone in it is so friendly and always trying to improve things. We all more or less had to start at the bottom and work our way up. It is a weird business though, the hours are crazy and if you didn't really enjoy it, it would drive you mad. Everyone is enjoying it at Strawberry and we've all got a lot in common. That means we're happy. I think it's one of the best businesses anyone could possibly work in'.