Air Lyndhurst

A LONDON LANDMARK WITH A NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

When George Martin finally realized that his services as a producer were worth a heck of a lot more than he was earning as a staff producer for EMI's Parlophone label in the mid-'60s, he formed Air Ltd. (Artists Independent Recording). Having established a base from which he and his Air partners could embark upon independent productions, the next step was to build a facility that could serve its a" home studio" for their projects.

Image placeholder title

In 1970. the team opened Air Studios in London's Oxford Circus, followed nine years later by Air Montserrat, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1989. During the late '80s, with the lease on the original central-London site due to expire, Martin and his partners began the search for a new location. High on his wish list was a large recording area for symphonic and orchestral sessions, with enough space to provide multiple rooms that could handle film and TV post-production as well as music recording. After a great deal of searching, Air settled on Lyndhurst Hall, a Victorian chapel and lecture hall located in the Hampstead Suburb of North London.

Given the high costs involved with such a conversion project-the fabrication of five state-of-the-art production environments, plus accommodations, in a listed Victorian building-Air, now owned by The Chrysalis Group, soon realized it was going to need some financial assistance. According to Air partner John Burgess, "Through Kazanaga Nitta [former managing director of EMI Records, Japan], George secured an introduction to Pioneer, the consumer electronics manufacturer. After many meetings with the company's president, Seiya Matsumoto, including visits to the new site, Pioneer agreed to become 50/50 partners with Chrysalis in the project."

The new studio complex has cost a reported £115 million (just over $23 million U.S.).

"From the very start, we realized that we were faced with a formidable project," recalls Dave Harries, Air Studio's sales and technical director. "The site had been allowed to fall into a poor condition; there was lot of restoration work to be done so that we could retain the overall look of the building. Also, because it is a Grade II-listed building, we were limited in the number of changes we could make to the exterior. In the end, we decided to essentially gut the insides of the hall and side buildings and-within the shell-build floating control rooms and recording areas. We retained the outside walls with their stained-glass windows, but they are really just decoration. The internal studios and control rooms are completely isolated from one another and the external structure."

The new studio complex comprises two main areas. The original lecture hall has become The Hall, Air Lyndhurst's largest recording area, with a companion control room. A new basement area for the power, air-conditioning and related systems now forms the bottom level of the four-layer tower of control rooms occupying the core of the main building. Each control room in the tower is of identical shape and dimensions, with corridors and recording areas leading off the core. In this way, all load-bearing walls could be laid out in the same plane, which simplified the design of foundations and support walls. The large basement structure also provides mechanical isolation for the control rooms, which are laid on floating slabs above it.

In conjunction with designer Angus MacPherson, Air set up a separate company, Macademy Ltd., to design rooms and monitoring systems for the new complex, with acoustic consultancy by Richard Galbraith and Ian Knowles of Sandy Brown Associates. The studio monitoring systems were designed in close collaboration with Andy Munro of Dynaudio Acoustics. In addition to The Hall, the three new control rooms in the main building were laid out (in ascending order) as Studio 1, Studio 2 and Studio 3, with video dubbing and post-production suites located above Studio 1's recording area.

The Hall is arguably one of the world's largest recording venues. "The room is over 5,000 square feet in area and capable of accommodating a 100-piece orchestra," Harries explains. "The hexagonal floor area is covered in reclaimed pitch pine blocks from the hall's original floor. The original architectural curves within the domed roof ensure that the acoustic performance does justice to any symphonic recording. And we have found that artists and players like the fact that the double-glazed, stained-glass windows let in lots of daylight, if that's the producer's preference."

The Hall's recording area is supplemented by three large galleries capable of accommodating up to 300 people, either seated as an audience or standing in a choir. To allow rigging for televised events, the hall is prewired for lighting and video cameras. In addition to conventional orchestral recordings, The Hall has been used for film scoring and related functions. Remote broadcast vehicles can connect from within the car park via a simple power and audio connection panel.

Image placeholder title

The vintage Neve 8078 with Focusrite modules in control room 1

A large control room flanked by four isolation booths is situated below the central gallery. The two larger booths, each measuring 500 square feet, are fronted by a tracking system capable of fully isolating the enclosed areas with acoustic doors, or opening fully to extend the main recording area. The doors run on guide tracks set into the floor and are capable of offering a reported 40 dB of sound attenuation. "This versatile space is augmented by a variable acoustic system," Harries adds, "capable of adjusting the reverberation to an absolute ideal for every recording combination.

"The Hall's versatility has been underlined by the many varied events that we've successfully accommodated," he continues, "from large parties, rock albums, motion-picture scoring, classical music [recording and TV concerts]. Midrange RT-60 in the main recording area is around four seconds, a value that can be varied down to two seconds if we cover the gallery with acoustic absorbent drapes.

"For a recent recording of Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance' with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, we had 95 musicians on the main floor, a 100-voice choir in the center gallery, plus an organ. It was quite something!" The very first session in The Hall, in January 1993, was a film score conducted by (the late) Henry Mancini for Son of the Pink Panther.

The 500-square-foot control room is located centrally between the galleries and faces the main hall recording area; it provides excellent views of the recording area through a large window. To the left of the control room is an artists' lounge, and to the right is the machine room. The console is a 72-channel Neve VRP Legend equipped with Flying Faders automation. The room is fully equipped with LCRS monitoring, using custom-designed Dynaudio, TAD and Tannoy speaker systems.

"Although The Hall is obviously our new showcase," Harries concedes, "we are proud of Studio 1, which has been designed to encompass many of the attributes from Air's original Studio 1. The functional plaster walls have been replaced with curved glazing that reveals the original stained-glass windows."

The floated floor covers 1,600 square feet and is capable of holding up to 60 musicians. A sliding-door system enables the space to be divided into two acoustically separated areas at any one of three alternative points in the room. Three guitar amplifier booths and a single mobile isolation booth are also available, as well as a Bosendorfer grand piano with a MIDI Forte system.

"We modeled the 'acoustic signature' of this new room on the sound we liked so much in Studio 1 at Oxford Circus," Harries explains, "but with the ability-thanks to the movable sliding doors-of making it slightly deader or more live-sounding, depending upon the type of music being recorded."

The control room measures 600 square feet and commands clear views of the studio through a large window. The control room features the vintage Neve/Focusrite console originally installed in Air Studio 1 at Oxford Circus.

Image placeholder title

Studio 2's 80-input SSL 8000 G

"This desk is unique," Harries confides, "having been specially designed by Rupert Neve during the late '70s to George Martin's and Geoff Emerick's specifications. The board is based upon the original 8078 modules and was Rupert's last design before leaving the company. With 72 channels and its renowned remote mic preamps, this console has been recently updated by Air's technical department and now features a GML Moving Fader automation system." (For details on Air's modifications, see sidebar.)

"Studio 2 was designed specifically as a state-of-the-art mixing room with the highest acoustic integrity," Hurries says. "During the initial design stages, the room dimensions were computer-calculated to optimize the minimum standing-wave interference. At the same time, room treatments were specified and selected to ensure perfect reverb characteristics. The monitoring system was installed to fully integrate with all of these acoustic elements."

The control room features an 80-input Solid State Logic 8000 G Plus multiformat production console, fitted with 72 channel strips, Total Recall and Ultimation moving fader automation. A separate 80-square-foot live area is available for vocal overdubs.

"We consider that the combination of the SSL's superb sound quality, the no-compromise room acoustics and the sonic accuracy of the monitoring in Studio 2 present the engineer and producer with the ultimate in mixing environments," Harries boasts.

Like Studio 2. Studio 3's control room measures 500 square feet, with a compact, 80-square-foot isolation booth. The room features an AMS Logic 2 digital console fitted with 48 four-layer channel strips and integral 8-output AudioFile Spectra Plus hard disk recorder/editor. Storage capacity on the AudioFile is eight track-hours, extended to 10 hours with a magneto-optical update. The room is used for music recording and film/video post-production. A full-function LCRS monitoring system is also available.

Designed primarily for TV/video postproduction, Dub A's control room measures 300 square feet, with a 60-square-foot voice-over booth. An AMS Logic 2 digital console is fitted with 20 four-layer channel strips and integral 16-output AudioFile Spectra Plus hard disk recorder/editor, plus LCRS monitoring. Dub A also offers various video playback formats, including Beta SP, U-Matic, S-VHS and one of the first installations of the new Pioneer VRP-1000P recordable laserdisc system. Other hardware includes a computer-based CD Jukebox sound effects library and Fostex D-20 time code DAT machines.

A sixth room, currently referred to as the "Prep Room," features a 32-channel AMS Logic 3 digital console with integral AudioFile hard disk recorder/editor. The area is used primarily for prelaying material from time code DAT to hard disk, prior to mix-to-picture sessions.

All monitor speakers throughout the new studio complex were designed by Air and Munro Acoustics, using Pioneer/TAD and Dynaudio speaker components. A mixture of Hill Audio Chameleon, Chorus and Crown amplification was specified, with both BSS analog and Yamaha digital crossover units. A variety of analog and digital multitracks are available in the machine rooms, including Sony PCM-3348 48-tracks and PCM-3324A 24-track DASH-format transports, Mitsubishi X-850 32-track PD-format decks, plus Studer A800 MkIII and Otari MTR-90 MkII units.

"Every studio has good and bad things about it," George Martin offers. "You think to yourself: 'If I designed and built a studio myself, then it's bound to be exactly what I want.' When we built the first Air Studio in Oxford Circus, I was very pleased with the sound of Studio 1. At Lyndhurst, we've got the biggest, the most expensive and the most complicated-but also the most beautiful-studio I've ever had. It'll certainly be my last one; I won't do any more after this!"

AIR LYNDHURST STUDIOS
A Brief History

In 1876, a group of local parishioners, led by missionary R. F. Horton, raised enough money to buy a site at the corner of Lyndhurst Road and Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead, London. Having disposed of the Rosslyn Hill frontage for housing, they then had the corner site free of charge to build a chapel. They chose architect Alfred Waterhouse, who was by then at the height of his architectural prestige. He had built the famous Manchester Town Hall in 1877, and in 1880 had completed his most famous building, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. In 1876, he had completed the first part of an imposing red-brick building in Holborn, central London, for the Prudential Assurance. It was something of a coup for this tiny congregation in Hampstead to obtain such a distinguished architect.

What he built for them in 1883-84 was a hexagonal chapel that could hold up to 1,150 people, with a lecture hall attached, costing £30,000 (approximately $46,500 U.S.). Like most churches, Lyndhurst Chapel was a thriving concern up to World War II; thereafter, attendance declined until 1978, when it was forced to close.

Air purchased the building in 1990. Under the leadership of George Martin, the firm began a restoration and construction program to create a new home for Air Studios, which had been forced to close due to an expired lease in Oxford Circus. Maintaining many original features, including the superb stained-glass windows, the main hall of the church has a gallery running around three sides and is capable of seating an audience of more than 600 people. This hall also includes a large control room. The rear part of the building, originally a school, houses another large recording studio-Studio 1-two overdubbing/mixing studios (Studios 2 and 3), a post-production suite (Dub A), plus residential accommodations with in-house catering.
—Mel Lambert

A VINTAGE NEVE 8018 FOR STUDIO 1
"The Story of A7971"

According to studio manager Malcolm Atkin, the story of Air's much-prized Neve console began in 1978, the year that George Martin decided to build a studio on the small Caribbean island of Montserrat. "For some years," Atkin recalls, "we had become increasingly concerned about the sound of the consoles that Neve had supplied to Air. The monitor mixes sounded great, but, when it came up the input side of the console, something was missing." The cause was soon identified as phase errors being introduced by the many transformers used in consoles at that time.

When confronted with the evidence, and the risk that "Air would go elsewhere for a console for its new studio," Atkin says that the manufacturer brought in the big guns. "At that time, [founder] Rupert Neve had not worked for the old company for some years. He immediately came up with the answer, saying that he could design a desk with an unequaled specification."

A year later, Neve and his design team had completed a 56-input console with a separate 32-channel monitor mixer. To reduce cable capacitance and resultant HF attenuation, the board featured remote-controlled mic preamps. "Most of the offending transformers had been removed," Atkin says. "The remaining ones were a new toroidal design utilizing an innovative tertiary feedback circuit. For the first time, the active circuitry used a new op amp [TDA 1034]. The cut switches were also ramped to remove clicks.

"The original bandwidth was an enthusiastic 170 kHz! However, to reduce blue-smoke problems, this was soon slugged to 60 kHz. Even the equalizer went through six revisions before our [then] chief engineer, Geoff Emerick, was happy with the result."

The new Neve Model 8078 was installed at Air Montserrat in 1979. "Reports soon started coming back from the West Indies about this fabulous-sounding console," Atkin remembers. "Within two years, Air had purchased two more consoles for the London studios. The third of our three boards, installed in Studio 3 at Oxford Circus in 1982 and code-named 'A7971,' utilized a different, all-input design. Then Neve decided that manufacturing by this method was too expensive and never made another console to this specification. By the late '8Os, it was becoming obvious that 56 channels was insufficient. With the help of Focusrite, an extra 16 input channels had been added, for a total of 72 inputs."

Although the Montserrat studio building was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the console was eventually purchased by A&M Studios, Los Angeles. Its other sister now lives at Bryan Adams' studio in Vancouver. The last of the trio-the in-line design from Oxford Circus-has been completely refurbished prior to installation during 1994 in Studio 1 at Air Lyndhurst.

"By then, the console was showing its age-it required a major upgrade," Atkin explains. "Our first requirement was an automation system; GML was the unanimous choice. The engineering was superb, and, because the faders are addressed remotely, there was no risk of scanning noise on the mix buses. The down side, however, was installing two miles of ribbon cable! Additionally, as we had already taken the decision to replace every front-panel pot and switch, there was a one-off opportunity to utilize the eight-event switches available within the Massenburg system.

"Obviously, console system design had come a long way in the intervening years," he adds. "Having made the decision not to change the electronics-in any way, in case we 'improved' the sound-Air's engineering department set about examining possible enhancements to the console. Any one-off system design suffers from the prototype problem. However hard you try to design a perfect console, the fact is you only get one chance to get it right!

"The original monitor bus soon became the mix bus," Atkin continues. "The fact that not all the channels routed to it was a major irritation; it had to go! We also realized that 24 groups going unused during mix mode was a total waste. We needed a routing switch from the auxiliary sends. Separate echo returns on the main facilities panel are unnecessary-give us a proper split-cues modification. Give us automation control on the aux sends; group trims on all the groups instead of faders on the first eight; SSL-style machine control status on the meters; recall on the patch bay. All the Air engineers input their ideas on the ways in which we could make improvements.

"After 18 months of hard labor, I'm happy to report that we got it all done, and a lot more besides," Atkin concludes. "My thanks go to Air chief engineer, Rob Haggas, and Harry Day of Westwick Installation, for a superb job. And to David Nally for dealing with GML and designing the event interface cards for us. And finally, all the wiring team for some of the neatest work I've ever seen!"
—Mel Lambert