Unique, unnavigable and steeped in history, the BBC's extraordinary Maida Vale studio complex exemplifies everything we love about our national broadcaster!
From the Beatles to Beyoncé, Led Zeppelin to David Bowie, from the Undertones to the swansong of the late Bing Crosby: over the last 75 years, one British studio can claim to have recorded more famous artists than any other. This studio also houses not only a professional choir, but also one of Britain's busiest orchestras, and has been responsible for some of the most influential developments in the history of music technology and electronic music. Less than a mile from the world-famous EMI studios at Abbey Road, this is the Delaware Road home of the BBC's Maida Vale Studios.
Maida Vale has been at the centre of BBC music since 1934, when it was taken over as a home for the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO). Built in 1909, it was originally the Maida Vale Roller Skating Palace and Club; with a seated capacity of 2620 people, and its own orchestra balcony, it was the largest indoor roller-skating rink in Europe.
The roller rink was a sadly short-lived concern, and in the years that followed, the building was taken over by the Ministry of Health for offices until, in 1934, over a hundred workers gutted the interior, preserving only the shell and the doorway arches. Inside they set out rehearsal and studio space for what was to become, under the leadership of Sir Adrian Boult, one of Britain's premier orchestras and, in the pre-war years, one of the pre-eminent orchestras in the world. Famous for the Promenade Concerts or Proms, it has boasted such illustrious conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham and Arturo Toscanini. Maida Vale was to be the orchestra's home, and consequently become one of the BBC's first permanent studios.
During the Second World War, the orchestra was evacuated to the comparative safety of Bristol, then Bedford, while Maida Vale played an important role in BBC radio news. The studio was damaged during the Blitz, but was repaired in time for the BBC SO to resume recording and broadcasting from Maida Vale in 1945. It continues to do so today — although the BBC SO is only one small part of this complex of studios, which has housed, recorded and broadcast some of the most important figures in British music over the last 75 years!
On the day we visit the complex, only three of the studios are in use. Studio One is a vast, 756-square-metre room with a seated balcony, and can accommodate an audience of 220 as well as a 100-strong choir and an orchestra of 150 musicians. Today, though, it's playing host to a much more intimate recording session with the BBC Singers and composer Sir Harrison Birtwhistle: a dual-purpose recording for Signum Classics and BBC Radio 3, for probable release in Spring 2013. The ensemble seem dwarfed by the size of the recording space, but their sound is filling the room easily! The session is being recorded by the BBC under the able eyes of Marvin Ware, one of the Senior Studio Managers. The BBC Singers are a permanent choir based at Maida Vale. Formed 70 years, ago they specialise in contemporary scores and have an international reputation for recording and performing many types of works, from Britten to Boulez.
As Marvin sits behind the splendid Studer D950 digital desk, a prototype of the popular Vista series, he explains how he approaches a session like this. "Well, I think about the repertoire — in this case, complex, multi-layered choral writing that needs detail, but at the same time a homogenous blend. The BBC Singers were either 24 or 18 voices for these sessions, and it's very easy to not get that choral blend if you get the miking wrong: the result is too spotty, with individual voices sticking out, usually sopranos!
"The main rig is four Schoeps MK22s in front of the choir and quite high, which helps to get the men on the back row, plus a main pair of DPA 4015s, a good compromise in a studio, and a DPA 4006 as in-fill to gel it all together. I run two Lexicon reverbs to blend it all together, not too long. Spots for the wind instruments were all Schoeps MK4s and DPA 4011s on the drum. It's all recorded to stereo on SADiE and backed up on SADiE multitrack at 24-bit.”
Like many of those who work at Maida Vale, Marvin references the sheer variety of the work as a highlight. "Although I work for a network that is predominately classical in output, I manage to work completely across the board. This includes world music, jazz, esoteric and slightly bonkers contemporary music, as well as opera, orchestral, chamber music and so on. I'm involved in all aspects of output on the network, including feature and music editing on SADiE, continuity and live studio shows too. I head up the sound management planning for WOMAD, Latitude, London Jazz Festival and the odd other ad-hoc festivals for Radio 3, and I'm often seen in the summer on some of the many Proms that crop up. I'm also lucky to be involved in a bit of field and festival recording around various corners of the world, either with an RME M32 at festivals, or Sound Devices eight-track and a bag of mics and bits and pieces. If you love music of many styles, then I have one of the best jobs around!”
Two Into Three
Studio Two suffered heavily during the 'Birt years', when then Director General John Birt introduced his policy of Producer Choice, a sort of internal market within the BBC. Some previously busy studios found themselves uncompetitive in this market and became increasingly under-used. This led to the decommissioning of several studios at Maida Vale, with the loss of the SSL desks in Studios Two and Five, and the closing down of one of Maida Vale's best loved departments, the Radiophonic Workshop, of which more presently. Studio Two is now used primarily as a rehearsal area by the BBC singers. It has a lively sound that suits chamber music and piano sessions better than pop music, and is used infrequently for recording these days, although it has recently been refitted with a small Roland digital console and some Dynaudio monitors.
Studio Three is our next port of call, and we're grateful for the geographical knowledge of our guide, Andy Rogers, who is Senior Producer of Live Music at Radio 1. Maida Vale is a warren of similar-looking corridors and staircases, which can lead you to a dead end or a fire exit as often as to a studio or office.
When pressed, Andy admits that Studio Three is his favourite room at Maida Vale, and so too does Marvin: "It's perfect for the sessions we do in there, and it's always nice to see the look on musicians' faces when they first come in!” It is indeed a lovely room, large but with a great acoustic — in fact, many Maida Vale staff think it sounds better than the similarly sized live room at Abbey Road Studio Two! Having escaped the threat of modernisation a few years back, it has retained its fern-green walls, laurel-green curtains and distinctive diamond-style parquet floor. The live area is large enough for small concerts with invited audiences, or medium-sized orchestras, and the control room features an SSL 9000 J-series analogue console and a decent selection of outboard.
Studios Four and Five have been home to Radio 1 sessions for many years, from the famous Peel sessions to more recent evening recordings for current DJs. Studio Five has a compact but nice-sounding wood-panelled live area and a huge control room; this once housed an SSL, but is now home to a rather more humble Soundcraft Ghost. Studio Four's live area is slightly larger and less lively, while its SSL J-Series desk is still present and correct in the control room. Like all the Maida Vale studios, they feature headphone monitor systems for the artists that have been custom-made by Maida Vale's technicians to meet the studio's specific needs — allowing musicians some control over their monitor balance, but not too much!
When we visit, Scottish metal band Yashin are recording a session for the Rock Show in Studio Four, to a fairly typical Maida Vale timescale: having arrived mid-morning, the band are just setting up when we walk in at lunchtime. When we leave again at five, they've recorded several songs, packed up, and are saying their thank-yous and goodbyes.
Simon Askew, who is behind the SSL for the Yashin session, records more artists in a year than most engineers do in their entire careers. As a result, he has evolved some very distinctive working methods to suit the particular challenge of capturing a band's sound in a short live session — methods which will interest anyone who has to work fast!
Simon's originality as an engineer is perhaps most obvious in his approach to drum miking. He works on the principle that the centre of the drum kit lies along a line connecting the centre of the kick drum and the middle of the snare drum. In other words, rather than treating its stereo panorama from either the drummer's or the audience's perspective, his approach in effect rotates things by 45 degrees.
The way in which Simon translates this principle into mic placement is also typically idiosyncratic. An AKG C24 stereo valve mic is positioned at eye level directly above the kit, while Coles 4038s are placed in front of and behind the drum set, with all three mics carefully positioned so as to be the same distance from the imaginary line between kick and snare. Although the C24's twin capsules are panned conventionally, both 4038s are narrowed by 50 percent, or even panned centrally, on occasion. The beauty of this approach, according to Simon, is that simply by changing the balance between the C24 and the 4038s, he can obtain a wide range of overhead sounds very quickly, without moving mics or running into phase issues. Simon explains that placing the C24 at his eye level (he is six foot four!) also ensures a good phase relationship between overheads and his kick and snare mics. The latter are usually an SM57 on top of the snare and a Beyer M201 underneath, and the bass drum is likewise double-miked, with an AKG D12 just outside the resonant head and a Sennheiser 902 just inside.
The newest mics in Simon's locker are also the most dented, no doubt because they often find their way onto the toms (although he prefers Maida Vale's two Neumann FET 47s if there are few enough toms). These Milabs are among the smallest large-diaphragm capacitor mics on the market, thanks to their distinctive rectangular capsules. The capsule shape gives them a polar pattern that is different in the vertical and horizontal planes: Simon prefers the sound of them positioned sideways across the head of the drum, and they get hit less often in this orientation.
Drum overheads are not the only role for which Simon Askew prefers to have two mic options available. On closed-back guitar cabinets, he'll mic separate speakers with a Shure SM7 and a Neumann U87, while for open-backed amps such as AC30s, he'll combine an SM7 placed right up against the grille, halfway between the cone and the edge, with a Coles 4038 a foot or so back, using Little Labs' IBP phase rotator to ensure that the two signals mesh.
Although the Maida Vale studios boast some very nice mics and outboard, resources aren't unlimited, and some lateral thinking is necessary on occasion. When we visit, for example, Simon is recording Glaswegian metal band Yashin. He explains that for their style of singing he would ideally use Shure SM7s on both vocalists — but with only two SM7s available, he's unwilling to move either from their position in front of the guitar cabs. Instead, both singers get an AKG SolidTube valve mic, with its distinctive yellow foam windshield, and Simon uses Antares' Mic Mod plug-in in Pro Tools to morph these project-studio perennials into something more expensive — in this case, a Neumann U47 and an AKG C12A.
The DASH To Digital
The BBC sessions that Simon records now get tracked to Pro Tools HD, but this is still a fairly recent innovation. Until three years ago, the primary multitrack system was the venerable Sony 3348 DASH digital multitrack tape recorder; Maida Vale engineers still regard the Sonys as great-sounding machines, but their reliability had become unacceptable after many years of intensive use.
Although Simon Askew is typically grumpy about the move to Pro Tools, it's clear that he has fully embraced the idea of working 'in the box', albeit in his own special way. He uses the SSL desk in Studio Four to provide monitor mixes, routing and talkback, but much of the actual mixing is done using plug-ins, and balances are handled within Pro Tools rather than on the faders. Indeed, he says that he much prefers the sound of the Waves SSL G-Series compressor plug-in to that of the hardware bus compressor in Studio Four's J-Series console! His master bus within Pro Tools also usually features the Waves Kramer Master Tape plug-in, and an L2 limiter set to take 3 or 4dB off the loudest drum hits — not so much to achieve maximum loudness as, he explains, to prevent Radio 1's broadcast limiters reacting badly to these transients.
When you have three or four tracks to mix in a couple of hours, there's limited scope for detailed fader rides, so with a hard rock act like Yashin, Simon uses a combination of hardware and software compressors to manage levels. There are three hardware 1176s in Studio Four's rack, and his Pro Tools session also features many instances of the Waves CLA version. Both are employed for the tonal changes they introduce as well as for level control. Simon often uses expanders rather than conventional gates on tom mics, meanwhile, and sometimes calls on Wavemachine Labs' Drumagog to layer tom samples over them, in effect pushing cymbal spill further into the background without any messing about with time constants.
One area where Maida Vale is well supplied is artificial reverb, with several nice digital units, including a Lexicon 480L, and no fewer than three EMT 140 plates. These are wired in such a way as to make them accessible from all the control rooms, and Simon Askew takes full advantage, typically employing the tube-based plate on vocals and one of the solid-state models as a general reverb. He also loves the non-linear reverb from Studio Four's Klark Teknik reverb on snare drums.
Simon Askew has been a fixture at Maida Vale since 1987, apart from a two-month sabbatical when he was tempted onto the road by Pendulum as their front-of-house engineer. "Never again!” he says of his stint in live sound. "We covered 38,000 miles in 21 days. By the end of it I was full of flu and my hearing was shot. The actual gigs were the easiest part. What kills you is the travelling, and trying to get a different broken PA system working every night.” The experience gave him a new appreciation of Maida Vale and its unique culture. "Live sound is very compartmentalised — everyone has their own job and they stick to that. Here, we work as a team, and everyone helps everyone else out.”
Next door to MV4, Studio Five has a smaller recording space and what was once a flagship control room, now sadly reduced to a shadow of its former glory. When the SSL was decommissioned, the studio was under-used for a while, until Andy Rogers managed to get a small budget to buy a Soundcraft Ghost analogue console and outboard rack. Asked why he hasn't gone down the digital route, he points out that many Studio Five sessions, such as Radio 1's 'Live Lounge', are live to air and set up very quickly. It's handy for more than one engineer to be able to work on the desk at the same time, as there are usually unrehearsed changes to make in a session.
The day we visit, MV5 is hosting the Radio 1Xtra UK Garage show's Lyrical Master battle for the title of hottest MC in the UK: a face-off between MCs NxtGen and Flameus representing the east and west sides (of the Midlands!). This is being filmed, as many of these sessions are, for Internet use. Engineer Jamie Hart sets the levels whilst the two MCs goad him into getting their mics to sound louder, and crisper than each other's, a taste of the lyrical banter due to commence. Jamie started his career at Trevor Horn's SARM Studios; again, his move to Maida Vale was prompted by the hope of a more varied musical diet.
Interconnecting doors between MV4 and MV5 allow larger projects to utilise not just their live spaces, but also two control rooms at the same time, thanks in part to an innovative patching system. A large panel of multi-pin connectors allows any or all of the many remote input boxes and audio or video tie lines to be connected to any control room. This comprehensive patch system is typical of the BBC's attitude to specifications. It allows engineers to set up microphones just about anywhere in the building, no matter which of the studios they are working in. Maida Vale also pioneered the use of digital networking: almost unbelievably, the studios have all been connected via MADI for nearly 20 years, though the system is only now beginning to be utilised to its full potential.
Off the corridor that separates the popular music world of MV4 and 5 from the more sedate classical world of Studio One lies what, for many, was the most famous part of Maida Vale. Andy Rogers admits that it was one department, more than any, that inspired him to want to work at the BBC. As a young boy, Andy had written to the head of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop asking what he needed to do to join their ranks. The workshop had kindly written back with suggestions of the exams and type of degree he would need, and that they were looking forward to interviewing him in 10 years' time. Andy duly did everything they asked — but by the time he got his job application in, the Radiophonic Workshop had been deemed unprofitable and a waste of resources, and closed. All that remains is the décor; the rooms themselves see sporadic use for archiving purposes.
Beyond MV5 can be found the drama studios, MV6 and 7. Only the former is still in use, as indeed it is when we visit. Although we can't interrupt proceedings in the studio itself, Andy gleefully shows us the sound effects store, a valuable resource that could be mistaken for a bric-a-brac shop. Shelves of tins, alarm clocks, door knockers and bells rub shoulders with bins full of swords, guns and chains that provide many of the sounds used for BBC radio drama.Andy shows us one of his favourite electrical items, a savage audio filter that he often uses to simulate telephone voices. Reels of magnetic tape are, we're told, not for audiophile use, but for walking on to simulate the sound of snow...
At this point, Andy is called away to manage a session, so, sadly, we don't get a chance to visit the underground river that trickles below the southern end of the studio, or indeed the room that houses its three vintage EMT plate reverbs. However, no trip to Maida Vale would be complete without mention of its canteen. This is, in many ways, the heart of the building, although at times it seems impossible to find! For many young bands, a meal in the canteen can be the cherry on the cake of a day at Maida Vale: hot, cheap food, usually picked up on a record company tab. For others, it is a meeting point to share expertise and BBC gossip. As Marvin Ware says, Maida Vale is "a superb complex of studios containing endless creativity, where you can have a cup of tea in the canteen alongside a famous actress, conductor, metal band and world music act — truly diverse and a reflection of what the BBC does best.” We couldn't have put it better.
Although the Radiophonic Workshop closed its doors at Maida Vale in 1998, it has recently resurfaced as a 'virtual institution' under creative director Mathew Herbert: "At its best, the Workshop was the most important electronic experimental studio the UK has ever had. Part of what made it great, though, was that it did some of its experimenting in the visible mainstream. With the launch of thespace.org, the free experimental arts platform run by the BBC and the Arts Council, it felt logical that the sonic and musical elements of this new site were shaped by some of those original principles of the workshop: experimentation and accessibility. It also feels right, for the moment at least, that it is in a virtual home now, and is free to imagine what it means to be the Workshop again at a time when everyone has a complex recording studio in their pocket.
"I grew up without a TV, so my big Radiophonic experience was listening to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy on Radio 4 in the late '70s. Their ideas, though, permeated through so much of our culture, from TV to technology, to music to radio.” Hopefully, that innovative spirit will continue on-line: check it out at http://thespace.org/items/s0000q7e
A Different Sort Of Engineering
Like many long-established studios, Maida Vale has permanent technical staff on site, and has a long history of building or adapting custom equipment to suit its own particular needs. A comprehensive team of engineers and technicians maintain everything from the SSL desks to the outboard equipment, the large collection of often vintage microphones, and even the internal computer networks. Their workshop houses probably the best-qualified repair department outside of the armed forces! Most have solid university engineering and science backgrounds, and have worked in industry before ending up at Maida Vale.
The combined knowledge and expertise of this group of technicians has led to many innovations at the BBC. If something is not available commercially, it is designed and made, like the headphone submix stations that are used in each studio. The PMC BB5A main studio monitors were designed by ex-BBC man Peter Thomas along with Adrian Loader of FWO Bauch. The Mitchell & Todd 301A monitors that sit on the SSL meter bridge were designed by a pair of ex-BBC engineers, Stuart Mitchell and Jason Vincent-Newson. Stuart started work on his speakers during down time, developing the prototype 101A speakers from an original design requested by colleague Jason's wife for her kitchen! All the Maida Vale engineers contributed to the project with feedback, evaluating and responding to any changes in design, as they still do. The 301As exemplify the qualities needed in gear used at Maida Vale: they are rugged enough to be used 24 hours a day without fatiguing the listener. When we visit, the same designers' 202As, which were installed in MV5 in 1996 have just been serviced and upgraded, having worked eight hours a day, seven days a week for the last 16 years!