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Reinventing Studio 4 at RAK

Published April 2023

Studio 4 at RAK, London.

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What would a modern, immersive studio look like if you had the opportunity to re‑invent it from the ground up? The answer, at least as far as the recently revamped Studio 4 at RAK is concerned, is very different to most people’s idea of what a professional studio looks like.

There’s no big console at the heart of the room, to start with — although envisaged as a multi‑use room, immersive mixing is a key component and exclusively a DAW‑based activity in RAK 4. And then there are the speakers, lots of them, everywhere, for this is a 9.1.4 Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 room. For anyone who has not been paying much attention for the last decade — yes, Atmos really is ten‑years old now — Dolby Atmos is a surround‑sound format that has made its way from post‑production for film and TV into the world of music production and consumer playback. Atmos expands on the common 5.1 surround format to include more surround resolution, and is able to position ‘sound objects’ anywhere within a three‑dimensional sound field because it also incorporates a real height dimension. To explain the numbers: in a traditional 5.1 speaker system, you’d have a frontal stereo pair, with a dedicated centre speaker also at the front, plus a stereo pair of speakers at the rear. The ‘point‑one’ then refers to the existence of an LFE (low‑frequency effects) or sub‑woofer channel (which may actually have more than one speaker attached to it, but will still be a mono source, hence ‘one’).

In a 9.1.4 Atmos room, however, you’d have Left, Centre and Right speakers at the front, Left and Right Wide speakers, Left and Right Surrounds, Left and Right Rear Surrounds (that’s nine, if anyone is still counting), the ‘point‑one’ low‑frequency channel, plus Left and Right Frontal overheads and Left and Right Rear overheads. You can have even more speaker channels in an Atmos rig — cinemas often do — but practicality probably tops out at about this many for a music mixing facility!

Studio Manager at RAK Emma Townsend.Studio Manager at RAK Emma Townsend.Monitor systems and room design for acoustics are highly inter‑dependent, perhaps even more than ever when you put a far greater number of speakers into a room than just the traditional stereo pair of ‘main monitors’. But the opportunity to develop and optimise both aspects together generally only arises with a new‑build facility, with large commercial studios understandably loath to endure the substantial period of down‑time needed for a major revamp involving building work. Changes to successful rooms therefore tend to become incremental when sometimes a more radical approach would have significant benefits. Studio 4 at RAK, however, was a bit of an outlier in their facility. RAK Studios was set up in its present London location by publisher and record label owner Mickie Most in 1976, initially opening with two large tracking rooms, Studios 1 and 2, before adding a third in 1985. Their fourth room was designated as Mickie Most’s personal studio, but never received professional design attention, although it did subsequently become a bookable room. “It didn’t really have that much of a purpose,” says Studio Manager Emma Townsend. “It was always the ‘problem child’ of all of the rooms. It was acoustically all over the place and went through several iterations of hand‑me‑downs of consoles. The best course of action, we decided, was to tear the whole thing down and start from an empty shell. In a project like this, you either do it properly, or you don’t do it at all.”

RAK had been considering converting Studio 4 into an immersive space for a number of years, but they also wanted a multi‑functional room that could adapt to any project that came through the door. Emma Townsend again: “What we wanted was a great listening room, mixing room, writing room, and it very much made sense to put Atmos in there as well. We were definitely seeing a massive increase in Atmos mixing rooms, and a demand for it as well. Immersive felt very different to the old 5.1 thing because it felt like it was something that was going to be in everyone’s headphones, so it did feel like it was going to be the next technological step for recording studios. If we were refurbing a studio, it seemed silly not to include the capability of immersive mixing. We didn’t want it to be only an immersive mixing room, but we did want it to have that capability. And that’s partly why we retained the windows — most Atmos rooms don’t have windows, because you don’t want the reflection, but we made our builders work hard to build a room that sounds great and also retains lots of gorgeous natural light.”

Maintaining the natural light in the room was one of RAK’s major requirements despite the challenge of needing to improve the acoustic isolation from the street outside.Maintaining the natural light in the room was one of RAK’s major requirements despite the challenge of needing to improve the acoustic isolation from the street outside.

Understanding Dolby Atmos

At its launch in 2012 Dolby described Atmos as “the most significant development in cinema audio since surround sound.” Incorporating real overhead channels coming from above, Atmos allows the listener to be immersed in a hemisphere of sound in a suitably equipped playback environment. Of course, not everyone is going to want or be able to have a theatre‑style installation in their living room, so more practical and affordable solutions are available that use a bit of audio trickery to create a similar, if the not quite the same, experience, so long as you have an Atmos‑encoded source.

But you can experience Atmos via headphones, too, using binaural headphone rendering. The latter relies on the phenomenon of head‑related transfer function, or HRTF, the short version of which is that your brain knows where a sound is coming from by the differences in the sound arriving at your two ears. A difference created by the fact that, no matter where the sound comes from, some part of the rest of your head will always be to some extent in the way! So, using headphones and ear buds, Dolby Atmos will even work on modern smartphones and tablets, which has helped fuel an ever‑increasing interest in immersive mixes for music. Recent years have seen Atmos tracks become widely available on streaming services thanks to Dolby’s partnership with Universal Music Group and adoption by major players such as Apple and Amazon.

But the production technology is not solely the province of expensive, high‑end studios, however, as the DAW software programs used by artists and producers are increasingly supporting virtual immersive mixing via headphones. ‘Sound objects’ positioned in 3D in a virtual environment, will play back in an equivalent position when the mix is played using a fully immersive speaker system. That’s one of the key components of the system and perhaps one that will ensure that it ultimately flourishes in the music market.

The acoustic design challenge

Matt Ward, Technical Manager at Level Acoustic Design.Matt Ward, Technical Manager at Level Acoustic Design.RAK invited acoustic architects Level Acoustic Design to initially consult on the acoustics and interior design work, while RAK’s engineering team set about evaluating different monitor systems. Matt Ward, Technical Manager at Level Acoustic Design: “We were invited to come down and see the room. We understood there were some challenges with the space as it was and I don’t think anyone had been happy with the sound of the room for a while. We had a listen and a look around and tried to identify what the challenges were. The room was orientated totally differently — there was a big SSL console, a vocal booth and a machine room in there. We knew that they wanted a world‑class room, with a drive towards an Atmos room that also could be used as a programming, production and writing space, so it had to have a feeling of comfort and not feel oppressive. And we also had to have a solution for when Atmos was not in use: to be able to take the speakers away or at least minimise their impact visually on the room. Emma also told us that she wanted it to feel like part of RAK Studios, so internally the design had to work from that perspective, too.”

Andy Bensley, Regional Business Development Manager at Genelec became aware of talk that RAK was looking at building a commercial immersive room and that a space had been earmarked for it. “It was all a bit hush‑hush at that point, but I started speaking to Emma and Engineer Robbie Nelson about what potential system could work in their space — there were rough dimensions being thrown around. I knew that Robbie and the engineering team were going out and visiting just about every variation of a larger Atmos space in London that they could — they did the rounds and had every demo on every system and every room permutation! So, although we were given a heads‑up early on, we were still made to sweat a little bit!”

The RAK engineering team’s diligent research included a visit to the immersive demo system at Genelec’s London Experience Centre. Lead Engineer for the new Studio 4 at RAK, Robbie Nelson was already a fan of Genelec monitors: “I’ve used Genelec 1032s and 1031s as my main recording monitors for almost 20 years. They are my go‑to and I don’t like to record with anything else to be honest. The 1032s are amazing for me. With those, I know that when I take a recording away, I’ll get back exactly what I’ve been listening to, but it’s been interesting moving from the old‑style design of the 1032s to the point‑source design of the new 8361s. It feels a lot more even. That’s one of the things we noticed when we went to Genelec’s demo room [London Experience Centre]: you don’t notice the crossover points at all. There’s a sub drop in one of the tracks we were listening to and it was just so smooth and continuous all the way down to the bottom, which you just don’t get with having a separate sub doing that low end. I’d heard these speakers before, so I knew that I liked them, but it was really helpful for me to bring the rest of the team in and just double check that what I was hearing was what everyone was hearing. The spread was a lot more with some of the other speakers that were suggested, but the Genelecs just felt more focused and you had a much better stereo image. Everyone was just sort of ‘wow, these are pretty special.’”

Andy Bensley, Regional Business Development Manager at Genelec.Andy Bensley, Regional Business Development Manager at Genelec.

“The engineers from RAK were quite taken with some of the technology that’s inherent in The Ones,” recalls Andy Bensley. “Things like the very consistent and controlled dispersion characteristics and stereo imaging. What was clear from RAK is that they wanted a ‘gold standard’ room. They were aware of the requirements of the Dolby guidelines and Universal Music Group had been quite clear about what was expected within rooms that would set them apart to be a gold standard room, so that’s what they were really shooting for. The question to us was: ‘you’ve got a blank canvas here; in an ideal world what would you put in?’ And our ethos just seemed to match theirs in terms of how they envisaged working in this format, and the studio’s engineering team reached a unanimous decision to choose Genelec.”

“This was the dream scenario for us,” Andy continues “because the majority of Atmos rooms for music that we had done up until this point had been added on to existing stereo systems. The room already existed and the studio’s outlook was ‘we’re not sure how long we are going to be mixing in this format, but we need to kind of make something work’, so there was always a compromise involved, whether it be the room dimensions, ceiling height or existing equipment that had to be accommodated. Whereas with the RAK 4 space we had free rein. It was one of those rare occasions where the system was going to be completely integrated into the room — building the room around the monitoring — and we hadn’t seen that in a long, long time.”

Andy was also really pleased to be working with Matt Ward and Level Acoustic Design’s founder and principal acoustician Chris Walls again: “I knew that the acoustic design was going to be special, and it was all going to look fabulous. Everyone involved in this went all out to make it as good as it could be. I think that Level Acoustics and Studio Creations, who did the building work, are among the very best at what they do.”

With a decision reached on what the speaker system should be, the project was then handed over to Level Acoustic Design to incorporate that in their plans. There were two or three concepts considered: whether to have a monitor wall, or go with a free‑standing approach because of the large W371s, and there were two or three subsequent iterations before finally settling on a configuration with a free‑standing L‑C‑R array and then having the wide sides and rears incorporated into a flush‑mount design.

The original Studio 4 had never received any proper acoustic design so the best course of action was to tear the whole thing down and start from an empty shell.The original Studio 4 had never received any proper acoustic design so the best course of action was to tear the whole thing down and start from an empty shell.

The challenges in the acoustic design for Matt Ward weren’t just internal: “We had to maintain the natural light into the room — that was one of RAK’s major requirements — but the outside of the building is listed, so we couldn’t change the window design and we had to keep the single‑pane glass. We had to improve the acoustic isolation from the street, which when we initially measured the room was really not performing very well, and also devise a system that would allow us to gain access for cleaning and condensation problems, so the window units ended up being quite complex in their design. The windows are also in the worst possible place in the room both acoustically, and also from the perspective of the way we like to design mixing environments, in that they are on the rear wall. That sacrifices some of our trapping and control, so we had to find different ways to make the room work acoustically whilst accommodating these large flat, rigid surfaces on the rear wall.

Acoustic and architectural design was carried out by Level Acoustic Design, whilst Studio Creations did the building work.Acoustic and architectural design was carried out by Level Acoustic Design, whilst Studio Creations did the building work.

“The original room also wasn’t floated, so we completely took it back to a shell, took up the floor and floated a complete new structure to get the isolation we wanted, because we also needed to dramatically improve the separation from the accommodation above, which is where producers and artists sometimes stay when they are working at RAK, and there were some challenges in getting that to a reasonable level.”

Studio 4 at RAK during the building phase.

Studio 4 with new floating floor installed.