Can an Englishman's home be both his castle and his studio — or is it better to keep business and pleasure apart? Jay Kay of Jamiroquai clearly feels that building his own facility has paid off. Sue Sillitoe heads for his Chillington studio in Buckinghamshire to find out more...
"After recording two albums in London we decided to go residential for our third album, Travelling Without Moving," says Jamiroquai's front man Jay Kay. "That experience inspired me to build my own studio — I wanted to recapture the sense of community that had made the album such a success."
Rock stars buying country houses and building their own recording studios is hardly a new phenomenon. Sting's done it, so has Peter Gabriel — not to mention a whole bevy of bands such as Ten Years After, Status Quo and Pink Floyd, who began the trend in the 1970s.
Back then, building a studio at home was a valid accountancy ploy because artists could offset equipment purchases against tax. But these days, thanks to various governments' efforts in closing tax loopholes, building a pukka home studio is less about tax avoidance and more about retaining creative freedom and artistic control.
Jay Kay's decision to build his own studio was taken in true rock and roll style — mid‑flight, halfway across the Atlantic, where he used the proverbial 'back of a fag packet' to sketch out a rough plan of the kind of facility he wanted.
"It was 1997, and we'd just finished a major tour to promote Travelling Without Moving," says engineer Rick Pope, who now runs Kay's studio. "Jay was tired and wanted a break from the road so that he could work on the next album. He'd recorded Travelling Without Moving at the residential Great Linford Studios and had really enjoyed the experience, so after the tour he decided to look for a country house that he could use as both his home and studio. When we got back to the UK he threw himself into house‑hunting and eventually found Chillington, which is where we are now based."
Chillington, for those not familiar with its geography, is located in a tiny hamlet in Buckinghamshire, about an hour's drive from central London. You need a map to find the house, which is tucked away at the end of a narrow country lane. Once owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the house was built in the early 1700s and has stunning gardens, which were laid out by Capability Brown in 1754. Sadly, I didn't get to see much of the house or gardens because the studio, where I was scheduled to meet Rick Pope, is located in a relatively new building behind the property and next to the swimming pool.
"This was previously used as a leisure area for people hanging out around the pool," explained Pope as I poked about in the studio. "Jay found the house and decided it was ideal, because it was close to London where the rest of the band live and it had space to build a recording studio. When I came to see it I took one look at this building and said 'That's it — that's your studio.' He replied 'Fine — you do it, then.' I dropped myself right in it!"
For a man who happily claims no prior knowledge of studio building, Rick Pope proved to be a natural — with, he admits, a little help from his friends. "I'd never built a studio before, but I know plenty of people who do this kind of thing so I called on them for assistance. The main person I involved was Al Smart, who heads up Smart Research and had previously worked for Solid State Logic. I'd met him years earlier and we'd stayed in touch. I told him about the project and explained that, as project manager, I needed someone alongside me who had his set of technical skills and general know‑how. I was the interface between Jay and what we needed technically and equipment‑wise."
Kay's initial aim was to build a room that reflected the way he and the band work when they play live. "Basically, we wanted to replicate that," says Pope. "We approached the project with a view to building a studio that could capture the feel of the band playing live — somewhere that was large enough for everyone to set up and play together as if they were on stage. But, of course, things evolve as you go along so it didn't turn out exactly how we planned. We do have a live room that is large enough for the whole band, but our style of recording has evolved to the point where we don't always have everyone playing in there at once."
The studio has a large live room overlooking the garden, an equally spacious control room and a separate machine room housing, amongst other things, two Studer A827 tape machines. There is a kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor, while the first floor has been turned into offices.
Pope says: "The roof of the control room had to be raised by 1.6 metres to provide headroom for a new air‑conditioning system. The live room also needed work. We put in a new floor, treble‑glazed windows and a sliding patio door. Unfortunately the floor warped and had to be relaid very recently. Ironic isn't it — all the electrical stuff in the whole studio worked fine first time, but the bloody floor didn't!"
Given that money was presumably not an issue, it's surprising to learn that Pope dispensed with professional studio design consultancies on the grounds of budget. "We designed the studio ourselves, with Al Smart's help, because we were not prepared to pay a name designer to do it for us," Pope explains. "You can easily spend a million building a studio, but my budget was significantly lower than that and I wanted most of that money to go on equipment, not room design. Most of the equipment was bought second‑hand, although not crucial things like microphones and tape machines — I insisted on buying them new."
During construction the control room was tie‑lined, via 32‑way multicore, to the main house, where Kay has a writing room and a newly installed digital studio. "There is a video link running through to the house so that we can see what's going on from the main control room," Pope says. "The house has about 30 different rooms, so we have plenty of recording environments to choose from. There's a real mixture of acoustics, from high ceilings in some to cellars and attics. Having said that, we've only used three rooms so far. The drawback is the distance. OK, we have a camera link and a shout system, but moving a mic means running all the way over to the house, which gets very boring if you have to do it 10 times a session."
Construction work on the studio began in January 1998, and was completed in July of that year. During this time Pope searched for key pieces of equipment, including the console — an SSL E‑Series with G‑Series computer — which he bought from a studio in Paris. He says: "Easy maintenance is important, because we're not a commercial facility and don't employ 24‑hour maintenance staff. Jay wanted an SSL because they are very reliable — and because it makes sense, given that we are just down the road from SSL's head office. It took a while to track down the right console, which then went to Smart Research for a thorough overhaul. It was given such a good clean that we didn't recognise it when we eventually got it back because it looked brand‑new."
Another major acquisition was the monitoring. Rick Pope says the criterion for this was straightforward: he wanted something that could handle a bit of beef. "We looked at a few different models, but although they sounded great they were so expensive that I just couldn't justify the price. No‑one mixes on big speakers any more, but we still wanted something that was powerful enough to make you want to dance. Eventually we chose a system that is basically a revamped and souped‑up pair of Turbosound Floodlights. They're not true reference monitors but they cost £12,000, including amps and crossovers, compared to £20,000 for some of the others I saw. I was getting quotes from people like Genelec for £50,000! I said 'What, for a pair of speakers? Do I get a truck and crew as well?', because £50,000 to a live sound engineer is enough to pay for a whole tour's worth of audio equipment for six weeks. I wasn't paying that for a pair of speakers, so I went to see Tony Andrews at Function One and he came down, met Jay, did some listening tests and suggested these. They are basically live sound speakers, which goes back to our original concept for the studio — to have a place where we could record as though live."
While the studio was being built, Pope set up a writing room in the main house so that Kay could continue to work. "I'd buy stuff that was destined for the studio and stick it in the writing room," he says. "A DAT player was high on the list and was one of the first acquisitions. We also had an old Mackie 32:8 desk and two Tascam DA88s.
"At that stage we were doing everything 16‑track for demo and songwriting purposes only. I bought a couple of reverbs: an AMS RMX16 and an Eventide H3000. We didn't have many compressors, but I bought some gates and then gradually added other equipment as we needed it. We always aimed to collect things and even now we are not averse to adding new equipment when we see something we particularly like or need. The list is very comprehensive and we've got a flavour of pretty much everything."
One vital component of that list is the vintage AKG C12 valve microphone Pope recently managed to track down. "It's the perfect vocal microphone for Jay and he loves it," Pope explains. "When we were building the studio Jay was really keen to experiment and wanted to demo as many microphones as possible. I had a rack of them set up — all sorts of different mics — and he tried them all. The one that sounded like a million dollars was the AKG valve C12. We tried the cheaper, reissued version but it didn't have the same quality, so we set about finding an original. I've just managed to track one down and it took ages — eight months, to be precise. I finally got it through Crystal Pro Audio, a company run by Pete Brotzman who I used to work with at Britannia Row. It was a hassle, but it was worth the effort because it will last Jay for his entire career."
The first project to be recorded in the new studio was Synkronized, produced by Al Stone and released in 1999. Jay Kay, who until this point during my visit to his studio had been outside by the pool, stuck his head round the door to see what Rick was doing. Hearing that he was being interviewed for Sound On Sound, Jay decided to join in.
"For a number of reasons, the last album was completed in just five months which is not a lot of time to write and record an entire album," he explains. "But we did it, and when it came out it sold five million copies. As far as I'm concerned, Synkronized proves that it is possible to build your own studio and make the situation work. That was always my intention — to build a studio that we could all enjoy and where I could work whenever I felt like it. The trouble was some people didn't see it like that and there was jealousy, but let's face it, the real reason I bought this house was because it had enough space for a studio. Sure, it's got lovely gardens and a swimming pool but I bought it because it had a set of buildings where I could build a studio for the whole band."
Kay adds that the bulk of the recording is done in the studio, which is primarily analogue. But he also has his writing room in the main part of the house and a digital room, which was installed very recently so that he could be more experimental. He believes that writing and recording are best kept apart because they are two different processes. "With the last album we tended to write and record at the same time, which is an easy trap to fall into if you have a great facility like this," he says. "When you've got drums that can go down to 2‑inch at any time, there's a huge temptation to use material without really thinking about it. You're working on something simply because it's there, but you're not getting used to the track or getting the chance to assess it and play it properly, because it's all become too hurried."
That lesson learned, he is approaching his new album very differently. "I'm going to let it take its course instead of hurrying to meet deadlines," he says. "Naturally, we have a deadline — you need something to concentrate the mind — but I want to get it right and that means I want to take my time. The beauty of our current setup is that we can write in one room and record in another. This is important, as sometimes you have something on the board that isn't quite right and you want to be able to leave it where it is while you think about it."
So what about a producer? Al Stone was the man behind the desk on the last three Jamiroquai albums: will he be back for this one?
"We don't have a producer at the moment, because I'm doing it," Jay explains. "I'm not a button‑pusher, I'm a listener and a producer in the old‑fashioned sense of the word, in that I know what I want where. Eventually I'd like is find someone who is both radical and really good at listening to what we want, so that he can give us the edge we're looking for. There are times when a producer is applicable and I'm sure we'll reach that stage with this album eventually, but until I find the right person I'm happy to go along as we are. I have Rick and Paul working the desk and handling all the programming and for the time being that's all we need."
Jamiroquai's new album may still be a work in progress, but the studio in which it is being recorded is now complete. Three years after he first sketched it on the back of that fag packet, is Jay Kay still happy with his decision to become a studio owner? "Absolutely. It's a lot better than driving to London every day to sit in someone else's studio under time pressure, and being charged much more for the privilege. And anyway, if it all goes tits up I'll still have the studio — then I can make a living renting it out to other bands!"
An Audience With The Pope
Rick Pope's role with Jamiroquai stems back to 1994, when he toured with the band as chief live sound engineer. Having grown tired of handling massive stadium tours for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Pope was attracted to the idea of working with a band that was still relatively new on the scene. "I wanted to get back to smaller and more intimate venues, which were exactly the kind of venues Jamiroquai was playing then. The only problem was Jay. He had a reputation for being Mr. Angry, especially when he didn't get the sound he wanted, so I had some concerns about how our working relationship would turn out."
As time has proved, the relationship turned out just fine. Thanks to years of experience, Pope quickly realised that Kay's disillusionment with his live sound stemmed from the fact that he wasn't singing into the microphone properly. "No one had bothered to talk to him to try and discover what was wrong," Pope says. "I was the first engineer to tell him that the problem was his voice, which wasn't coming across clearly because he wasn't singing into the mike. Once we'd identified the difficulty it was an easy problem to sort out."
Kay was so delighted that he stopped being Mr. Angry and asked Pope if he would stick around for the last leg of the tour in Japan. "We hit it off, maybe because I was straight with him, so I agreed to go. After that, I toured with other acts for 18 months while Jay wrote another album, then I came back to Jamiroquai for the Travelling Without Moving tour and I've been with him ever since. I think I'm part of the fixtures and fittings now, which is probably the closest you get to a pension in this industry!"
In recent months Jay Kay has been investing heavily in vintage synthesizers, using Music Control to source many of the rarer items. The latest additions are a Memorymoog and a Roland System 100M three‑rack modular system with five modules in each rack.
"Our keyboard player, Toby Smith, got hold of a Memorymoog from Music Control and that inspired Jay Kay to go in the same direction," says Rick Pope. "We wanted some old‑school analogue synthesizers and when Music Control offered us the Roland it looked too funky to resist — the sort of thing you can imagine Stevie Wonder playing. It sounds great and I'm sure it will be used on quite a few tracks."
Kay adds that the Memorymoog is currently his favourite. "It's got some wicked sounds. Now, when I hear Jean‑Michel Jarre's Oxygene, I think to myself 'So that's how he did it.' I've come to realise that these vintage synth sounds dominate much of the material that I like — albums like Stevie Wonder's Inner Visions, where synths are used extensively. We knew it was part of their sound, so we started buying equipment that allowed us to emulate it. A lot of the older equipment is difficult to find, but we have held out for particular items because the sounds you get from them are not replicated on modern gear. Apart from that they are so much more tactile to work with — big buttons!"
Both Toby Smith and Jay Kay have a wish‑list of synths they want to add to their collections — which means buying in duplicate, as Smith usually takes his own gear home at night. "I need to make sure we have gear that matches Toby's," Kay explains. "We certainly had a Prophet 5 and a Roland M100 on the wish‑list, and we've recently bought an Oberheim OBX and old Elka string synth, which is blinding. It's got these mad, mad sounds that I really want to work with. No matter how many cards you buy, you can't find sounds like these on anything else.
"When we started using this type of equipment we were trailblazers, because very few people were going down this route. We've definitely had an influence on bands like Moloko, who I swear must have watched a Jamiroquai gig at some point. I see it as flattering that we have been emulated but I also think it's time for us to get radical and reaffirm our corner. That's why we are using these nasty sounds, along with live bass, strings and backing vocals which we're incorporating from the outset — something we've never done before. In the past we've spun backing vocals in later, but with this album we are bringing them in very early and including them in the writing process. It's a question of thinking the project through as a unit, rather than hitting little bits at a time."
The Digital Suite
The most recent addition to Jay Kay's current set up is the digital suite, which is equipped with a Sony R100 console and a Roland VP9000. Programmer Paul Stoney, who worked at Real World and Nomis before moving to Chillington, operates this room.
"It was Jay's idea to build a digital room, and he also chose the new desk," Rick Pope explains. "He saw a review of it in one of the pro audio magazines, and decided to take a closer look. We'd already decided to buy a digital console, and had looked at Mackie and the Yamaha O2R, but we felt this one was the right choice because it had all the features we wanted without being hugely expensive. Now that we have had a chance to play with it we know we've made the right decision. It has significantly speeded up the recording process, as well as making writing and experimenting so much easier."
Much the same can be said for the Roland VP9000, as Paul Stoney explains: "We're currently using it for writing and for guitars, using a few basic grooves that enable us to experiment when we don't have a guitarist in the studio. We play guitar riffs and Jay gets his guitar ideas down really easily to MIDI. It's very handy because you don't hear the sound difference when you play it across the keyboard."
Stoney adds that the Roland VP9000 has also proved very easy to use. "It's amazing. If you're dealing with an awkward drum loop, for example, you can mess about until you get it exactly how you want it. There are also some very good effects and, above all, it is simplicity itself. So far we've got some great sounds from it. We just did a Kool & The Gang track for their new album, taking all the brass they'd given us and using the Roland to speed it up. It handled this easily without losing any quality. Having a piece of equipment like the VP9000 changes everything because you can use material you wouldn't normally be able to use, and this gives you an opportunity to put down ideas that might previously have seemed impossible."
With all this investment in digital, one begins to wonder if Jay Kay is undergoing a fundamental change of direction. "Not at all," he says. "I don't want to lose what we're known for or what we do — and it's never going to be all machines. But at the same time I think we can afford to be more experimental. We've always fiddled around with old synths and to experiment with digital equipment is, in my view, a good thing because it is the way the business is moving. Not that I always like to move when everyone else does, but technology can be very exciting and I'm enjoying experimenting and using it in a way that suits us."
Kay adds that Jamiroquai will always consider themselves a live band and won't go in a musical direction that can't be successfully transferred to a stage. "I'm not going to walk on stage and wheel out loads of samplers, array them all up and sit their with a DJ while trying to do a gig — that sort of thing just doesn't work for us," he laughs. "But I do feel that because we are an experienced live band we can afford to mix some of these sounds in with our own sound. We did it a little with 'Supersonic' on the last album and it was great."