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GAVIN HARRISON: The 40ft High Studio

Readerzone By Tom Flint
Published October 1999

GAVIN HARRISON: The 40ft High Studio

Name: Gavin Harrison
Studio Premises: Home Studio
Report by: Tom Flint
Main Equipment: Mackie 32:8 desk, Alesis ADAT XT digital 8‑track (x2), Apple Mac G3 running Emagic Logic Audio with MOTU 2408 audio interface, TC Electronic Gold Channel voice channel, Neumann TLM 103 mic, Lexicon PCM70 effects, Yamaha NS10 monitors, Roland JV1080 sound module, Akai S3000XL sampler, Pearl drums and Zildjian cymbals.

Gavin Harrison

Gavin's main outboard rack (from top, left): Akai S3000XL sampler, Roland JV2080 sound module, Alesis DM5 drum module, MOTU MIDI Express MIDI interface, Yamaha EMP700 multi‑effects, Lexicon PCM70 reverb, NAD amplifier, Apple Mac G3, (right) MOTU 2408 interface, Sony DAT machine, TC Electronic Gold Channel, Alesis ADAT XTs, Fostex DP8 converter box, Sony cassette recorder.Gavin's main outboard rack (from top, left): Akai S3000XL sampler, Roland JV2080 sound module, Alesis DM5 drum module, MOTU MIDI Express MIDI interface, Yamaha EMP700 multi‑effects, Lexicon PCM70 reverb, NAD amplifier, Apple Mac G3, (right) MOTU 2408 interface, Sony DAT machine, TC Electronic Gold Channel, Alesis ADAT XTs, Fostex DP8 converter box, Sony cassette recorder.

When you consider some of the problems involved in recording or even accommodating real drums, it's not surprising that many musicians and producers turn to drum machines or sampled drum loops to form the basis of their recordings. For a start, drum kits take up a lot of room and make an incredible amount of noise — and recording drums properly also requires a fleet of quality microphones, all carefully placed and routed to a mixer. Problematic or not, however, many musicians still want to have real drums on their recordings. Having worked asprofessional session drummer for almost 20 years, Gavin Harrison is well aware of the widespread need for good‑quality, complication‑free drum recordings, and in designing his new home studio in Hertfordshire, he has set out to create a workable solution. The combination of his skills as drummer and engineer, and the facilities of his studio, allows clients to add complete, well‑recorded drum tracks to their songs with minimal fuss.

Gavin's home is in a rather normal suburban street, and from the outside doesn't look at all different from the other family homes in the road. But despite its modest facade, the house does posses one quite extraordinary asset — a huge 40 by 50‑foot room, with a 40‑foot‑high ceiling! Originally constructed for use by a sculptor a century ago, the room is now part of Gavin's studio and home. "My girlfriend and I were very lucky to find this house," says Harrison. "We saw it advertised in the local paper as 'artists house'. Of course you don't imagine when you stand out on the street that there's a room like that in it! It was pretty run‑down. We had to change everything; all the plumbing, electricity, central heating, wiring, a new bathroom, kitchen, drains, roof — and that's before making considerations for musical purposes!"

Taking Control

The control room in Gavin's studio, with his Mackie desk and Yamaha NS10 monitors.The control room in Gavin's studio, with his Mackie desk and Yamaha NS10 monitors.

Transforming the house into an environment suitable for recording proved to be a huge job, costing over £6,000. Firstly, a control room was created by merging two small downstairs bedrooms. Gavin then installed sliding glazed doors to separate the control room from the large studio room. The next job was soundproofing the room, which was achieved by building a new roof and replacing the old windows. "All the windows are laminates, and have the thickest amount of glass I could get in one standard unit without having the window specially made," he explains. "In the ceiling of the big room there's 50mm of RW3 Rockwool between the joists, then there are two layers of 9mm plasterboard screwed up to the joist, overlapped so all the cracks are covered. It's then plastered and painted — and at that height you're talking about scaffolding and towers, which are really expensive."

To sort out the acoustics, Gavin hired a company to measure the reverb times throughout his studio: "They use this computer program which can tell you all the room's reverb times at different frequencies and what you need to attenuate. We had three seconds of reverb at first — it was like being in a church!"

The theory is that if you can make a recording sound good on Yamaha NS10s, it'll sound good anywhere, and I tend to believe that to be true.

The excessive reverb was tamed by attaching a number of acoustically absorbent panels to the upper walls and ceiling, which achieved the desired results, though not without difficulty: "We put the boxes up empty and then filled them with Rockwool, which kept falling in my face while I was trying to put the screen on the front. I had to make batons to hold it in before I could fix the screens. Rockwool is horrible stuff to work with, it's all glass fibres that cut your skin. You're meant to wear long‑sleeved shirts, gloves, glasses and a mask, but you can't work like that. Now we've got the boxes up I think we're down to about a second of reverb at 1kHz. There'll be another layer of panels to go on at the lower level, and that should bring the reverb down to about point seven of a second which, according to the acoustic guys, is the ideal reverb time in a room this large."

Although he had originally planned to use the large room as a drum/session room, Gavin has found that he gets the best results by playing drums in the acoustically dead control room with the glazed doors open, and a pair of mics placed in the large room, recording the ambience on to separate tracks. "If you put the drums out there [in the big room] you get a lot of live spill which you can never get rid of. In the control room you get completely dry drums, but you can still add the ambient tracks if you want. I might want to use my Lexicon PCM70 reverb instead of the room ambience, or I might simply want a dry drum — and I've got that."

Session Man

GAVIN HARRISON: The 40ft High Studio

Gavin is no stranger to the studio environment, having been taken to see his first recording sessions at the age of six by his father, a professional trumpet player. "He used to take me to these sessions at BBC Maida Vale. I really liked the idea of sessions — I used to marvel at the fact that there was a big band there playing to no‑one. A drummer called Paul Brodie used to put a seat near his drum kit for me. When you're that age, sitting in the middle of a big, loud band with four or five trumpets behind you, it's mind‑blowing."

Gavin was soon working on BBC sessions himself, and with this experience, coupled with his ability to read music, he found work playing in theatres, for big bands and dance bands. In the mid‑1980s Gavin began doing a lot of pop sessions, even going on tour as Iggy Pop's drummer in 1996, but his experience of time‑wasting pop session work soon got him thinking about creating his own studio.

"At the BBC we'd rehearse and record 10 songs within three hours. When they said start at 10 o'clock that meant they pressed record at 10 o'clock. I've sat in a really big expensive studios doing pop sessions while the engineers spend hours setting up the microphones. Once I sat there playing the bass drum for hours, thinking what the hell are these guys doing? I went up to the control room and they were all sitting there having a joint with their feet up. Eventually they moved onto the snare and got me to play that for 30 minutes.

"I'm sure there are hundreds of people out there who would like to have real drums on their songs but can't justify the experience of finding and paying a good drummer, going into a studio that's big enough with the right microphones, and then going through all that sound‑checking. Here it's all set up — if you want to start recording at 10 o'clock, you can come in here at one minute before and we can go into record. I've got six or seven snares and a garage full of percussion — I couldn't take that amount of stuff to a studio. Here, if I decide to put some Indian congas on a track, for example, it's only going to take two seconds get them from the garage and set them up. I can spend more time doing creative things and less time doing the physical things, like trying to park my car, unloading 20 boxes or playing the bass drum for hours."

Tools Of The Trade

At the heart of Gavin's studio setup is his Mackie 32:8 mixer, into which his two stage boxes and sound modules are patched. One stage box is assigned to the large room, whilst the other is used for drum mic inputs in the control room. "I've got 11 mic channels off the drums — bass drum, two snares, hi‑hat, five toms and the overheads," explains Gavin. "I'd be up to 13 if I miked up the big room with a stereo pair. The other stuff coming up on the desk is the Roland JV2080, the Akai S3000XL, and whatever other bits of kit that I'm using at the time."

Gavin's Apple Mac has now superseded his pair of Alesis ADATs as a main multitrack recorder, using MOTU's 2408 interface for audio I/O. The latter was chosen for its compatibility with the established home studio standards of TDIF and ADAT formats: "Someone could come here with ADAT or Tascam tapes. We can plug their recorder into the 2408 and transfer it onto the Mac hard drive to do the rest of the session, then at the end of the day we'd just spool all the drums back onto their tape."

Most of Gavin's processing work is done on Emagic Logic Audio, using a variety of plug‑ins for effects and processing. "You can manipulate so easily on the computer. I record drums to hard disk with very little processing — if I've recorded it with too much EQ, compression or reverb I can't get rid of it. I usually use a plug‑in limiter on the bass drum to fatten it up, and I use a compressor on the snare drum. That's my standard setup."

Despite Gavin's preference for processing at the mixing stage, his TC Electronic Gold Channel still plays an important role in the studio: "It has a great compressor in it. I use it to DI the bass and guitars. It's a very high‑end way of getting stuff onto your hard drive, and that's usually the critical moment when it's either going to sound great or not. The best thing about it is that you can store every parameter, so if I get a vocalist round here I can set it all up for the sound they like and name the patch with that singer's name, so if they come back six months later and want to add one line in the song, it's all set up."

Another one of Gavin's recent purchases is the Line 6 POD guitar preamp. "They're so bloody cheap! I haven't got an amp stack and I wouldn't know what would be good settings, so the POD presets are a good starting point for me," he explains. "If it was going to end up being something pretty serious I would get a guitarist round to play it."

Elsewhere in Gavin's rack are two Alesis ADAT XTs, rarely used for recording since the move to hard disk, but still a handy format to have for compatibility with other ADAT‑based studios. Also made largely redundant by the Mac is Gavin's Akai S3000XL: "I used it a lot as a hard disk recorder, but I don't feel very creative with it. If I get a creative idea to say, sample that saucepan that I've got in the kitchen, I find myself thinking, 'Oh God, I've got to write one of those bloody keyboard splits, chop up and trim every note.' I'd rather just stick it all on the Mac hard disk and chop it up that way. Recording on hard disk gives you so many options."

Gavin's only studio monitors are a pair of Yamaha NS10s, chosen because of their 'studio standard' status. "I like the NS10s a lot," insists Harrison. "I believe they were designed to represent the average hi‑fi speaker. They're not great‑sounding monitors, everyone moans about them. I recently did a mix on some Genelec speakers. I was so impressed — I thought it was the best bass drum sound I'd ever heard, but when I played the mix on the NS10s I couldn't hear it. We went to Los Angeles and mixed the record again with this guy called Chris Lord‑Alge. He's only got NS10s, and they're all he's used for about 12 years. I told him about the Genelecs and he said that he has to remix albums all the time that are done on those because they sound too good! If you've got a pair of those at home you're going to be the happiest person in the world, but played on your bog‑standard Dixons hi‑fi, the recording doesn't sound anything like that. The theory is that if you can make it sound good on NS10s, it'll sound good anywhere, and I tend to believe that to be true. Go into any studio in the world, and they've got NS10s. All my stuff's standard middle‑of‑the‑road gear. If you've got a Mackie desk, an Akai sampler, a Roland JV2080 and a couple of ADATs, people know where they are."

For the future Gavin has plans to add to his studio's facilities, with the installation of a grand piano in the studio room. Also under consideration is the possibility of recording drum sessions for people in different parts of the world by making use of the Internet. In the meantime, Gavin has an effective setup in one of the most unusual home studios anyone's ever likely to see, which is ideal for both his own recording work and for almost any session work. "Most people come here for sessions wanting me to play the drums," says Harrison. "Sometimes they've got well‑developed tracks, sometimes they're right at the beginning so I can offer them a sort of 'rhythmic facility'. It's not a full Metropolis‑type studio, it's basically a home studio that I can record drums in, albeit rather large!"

Choosing The Mics

When working in professional studios or on tour, Gavin has taken particular note of the mics he likes and has subsequently bought his favourites for the studio. Gavin explains his choices:


"Not many people use this in the bass drum because it's a primarily a vocal mic, but it has amazing bottom end. You have to be patient and find exactly the right position — a couple of inches either way and you've lost it. I first used this mic live with Level 42 and I was really impressed. When I go to sessions now I take it with me, and most of the time we end up using it in favour of their AKG D12s, D112s and Electrovoice RE20s."


"I use the '57s on the snare drum both top and bottom. They're a cheap all‑round mic, but everyone uses them. There's a nice thing you can do using a gate to 'duck' the bottom mic from the top mic on the loud hits — that way you can have the bottom mic quite loud and really hear all the ghost notes, without it sounding like a bag of crisps on the accents.

Another trick is putting reverb on the bottom mic. I've got about the quietest hi‑hats you can ever find, but they produce such high frequencies that they tend to end up in almost every other mic. Quite often you can take the hi‑hat channel down on the desk and nothing has changed, you've still got enough spill on the other tracks. It's usually the snare drum which picks it up, so it's nice to put reverb on the bottom mic of the snare, which has less hi‑hat spill."


"I use these on all the toms. They sound great and don't get in the way like the Sennheiser 421."

  • AKG CK391: HI‑HAT

"They're an expensive mic but have an amazing clarity of sound. I remember reading a Frank Zappa interview talking about a concert he was doing with a classical orchestra where he was using this mic on almost everything. He listed all the mics and about 75 percent of them were Shoeps CMC5s."