Consumer society teaches us that new things are cool and sexy, whereas anything old and used brings shame on its owner. That, of course, is what every high-street retailer would love us to think so that we continue purchasing their goods. But a salesman's worst nightmare is the person who keeps their 1966 Morris Traveller on the road instead of buying the latest VW Passat, or who use their old copies of SOS to make papier-mâché furniture instead of shopping at Ikea.
SOS reader Robbie Moore has found another way to make sales staff cry in their sleep: his studio is built almost entirely from salvaged materials, and it has cost Robbie nothing more than the price of his own labour. "You don't need lots of money to have a studio, just time and motivation," explains Robbie. "I found wood, rubber, paint, pipes, glass, carpets, rugs, plugs, wire, bulbs, lamps, mirrors, electric heaters, picture frames, insulation, a fridge, a television and a kitchen sink. The only things I bought were screws and a few plumbing attachments. My studio has a shower, a kitchen and a soundproof room, and I have just started to record here."
There can't be many people who have the vision to build a studio out of junk, but Robbie comes from a pretty creative family. Robbie himself took an Arts Foundation Course in Brighton before seriously taking up music. "I had a nightmare time at college," admits Robbie, "I'd studied ceramics at school and I wanted to continue making pots and nice little sculptures but Art School wouldn't let me do that so I got more and more into music. My friends began telling me that I was better at writing songs than I was at art and I thought 'Maybe I am, it's more fun, and I don't need to go to college and have someone tell me what to do,' so I just left the art behind."
- Roland VS1680 hard disk recorder.
- Apple G3 running OS X.
- BIAS Peak v3.1 audio editing software.
- Native Instruments B4 Hammond emulator.
- Lexicon MPX500 effects processor.
- Focusrite Penta compressor.
- 2x Oktava MK319 condenser mics.
- 2x Rode NT1 condenser mics.
- Gibson GA-30RVS guitar amp.
- Gibson ES125TC electric guitar.
After college Robbie formed a writing and singing partnership with a girl called Charlotte, and the pair gigged and recorded as a duo for a while. Eventually they decided to expand the format and, having recruited a drummer, keyboardist and bassist, they became the The Mores. "We did a little tour in the South of France," continues Robbie, "but when you put a band on the road, if there are any cracks they really start to show. Our bassist and drummer hated it and decided they didn't want to be musicians any more. Some time after that Charlotte left too. I was left with three albums' worth of songs, all of which are very reliant on vocal harmonies. I'm very influenced by the vocal harmony stuff from the '60s and '70s so I had the idea of having a female backing trio. I'm now rehearsing with three singers I've called The Three Graces. I've got 55 songs to teach these girls and I'm having to write new arrangements and add extra harmonies, but it's great fun. We're currently looking for a new bass player and drummer so we can start gigging."
Shortly after the band split up Robbie decided to concentrate on recording and writing new material, but at the time, he was living at his aunt's house where his ability to record was severely limited: his drum kit was stored in the loft and more of his equipment was languishing elsewhere in the home of his manager. Robbie needed somewhere more permanent to work, but his finances were limited, so he began to consider the possibility of building a studio himself. "One of my inspirations was a friend who gathers a lot of materials from skips to make sculptures. I wondered if I could do something like that and still make a place look really good. I also wanted a permanent setup so I could work all the time, and I wanted a soundproofed room where I could record bass, guitars and drums."
Robbie eventually found 370 square feet of floor space to rent in an East London studio complex which was once a huge sweet-making factory. Robbie: "As far as I could see, having looked at a few other places, this had the most character and was the cheapest studio complex in this part of London: it is only £85 a week including all the bills. It is very easy going because you just get left alone."
Like many similar industrial building conversions, the studio workspace offered nothing more than four walls, a door and window to begin with, so Robbie had the freedom to use the space in any way he wanted. Getting stuff in and out of the sweet factory was made easy by the building's industrial lift, and Robbie soon got hold of an old car to transport everything back and forth. However, he still had no idea where he would get the second-hand building materials he intended to use.
"You have to spend hours and hours driving around looking for materials," explains Robbie. "I ended up finding regular places to look. There is a wood yard in Tooting, and every Friday at six o'clock on the dot they have a big clearout of the week's offcuts. They just dump the wood outside for whoever is there to take away. There were quite a few other people who knew about it — some turn up with hand-held circular saws ready to cut stuff up — so I had to get there early. There is a real sub-community of scavengers.
"Most of the other materials I've found have been in skips at the back of the big chain stores. Habitat was a really good source — I guess it is because they are a chain and they can't be bothered to send faulty stuff back. The first thing I found was a sack full of little multi-coloured light bulbs, all in their boxes. I think they were from a window display but I guess the shop didn't want to store them so they chucked them out. There were about 300 of them, and that has got to be £100 worth of bulbs."
As Robbie found more and more good sources of recyclable materials he developed a circuit he could follow which included them all. "I tended not to go out when it was rush hour, although if I needed to go to the wood yard I had to be there at six, but other times I'd wait until about eight or nine and do a lap. First I'd head to the Maida Vale area, then I'd go down to Chelsea where there is a good Habitat store, then finally down to Earlsfield which has a good carpet place. It would take me a couple of hours but I'd usually end up with a car full of stuff. A lot of it I chucked away again but I gradually sifted out the good stuff.
"The rich areas of London are really good. I saw a woman putting a large colour TV out on the street. She told me it was in the way and she didn't need it any more, and yet it works fine. These people have a lot of money!"
A major feature of Robbie's studio is the soundproofed drum room that takes up about a quarter of the studio. The design is based around a standard frame structure, clad in various bits of plasterboard and wooden panelling. The frame is filled with carpet underlay which has been tightly rolled and then stacked in the spaces. The entire construction is double thickness so that there are two separate underlay-filled cavities within each wall. "The drum room is the only bit of this studio that is soundproofed properly," admits Robbie. "I thought about soundproofing the walls between me and next door but I would have lost quite a bit of space to do it properly. The artists who rent the spaces either side never make much noise and at night people go home so I decided I didn't need the rest of the room isolated.
"When I started constructing the walls I realised that there would have to be a cavity of some sort, but it was after I began work that I started finding rubbery underlay outside carpet warehouses. When carpet fitters return from a day's work they bring all the old underlay they have taken up and dump it in the bins back at the carpet shop, but it is often still in good condition. I'd read that rubber was good for soundproofing, so I started trying to ram the underlay into the cavities. I soon found that it gripped itself if I rolled it tightly and then I could board over it.
"All the wall panels are made from scraps of wood I've found and patched together, so invevitably there were some gaps, but I plugged those with loads of mastic filler, and I finished the whole thing off by painting it black.
"You can still tell that some of the panels are made from old cupboard doors, but I quite like the higgledy-piggledy way it looks, and recording studios should be inspiring places. From my experience at art school, I know that visual artists working with colour often prefer neutral walls, but for music you need to give your surroundings character, and when you build a studio out of salvaged materials it is always going to have character."
A major aspect of Robbie's design brief was to have a studio which had enough facilities to allow him, and visiting musicians, to work comfortably for very long periods of time. Robbie's solution was to install a kitchen, a shower and a bed in the remaining area, and to provide adequate seating for all visitors. Once again, Robbie managed to find what he needed. "The sink was in a skip and the sink worktop was sitting outside the house of someone who was having a clearout. I made all the sink cupboards myself and the music station desk was cut from a wooden box I found in Earlsfield. The kitchen cutlery, bowls and plates all came from the Habitat skips."
To keep the central area free for band recording Robbie installed a fold-down bed that springs up against the wall when it is not used. "Originally I made a fold-down futon but a friend gave me this, which is much better. It's like something out of James Bond; you just tuck in the sheets and then flip it up out of the way. The sofa is another thing that I didn't find, it was actually made by my mum and dad: my dad did the carpentry and my mum did the upholstery."
In the back corner of the studio Robbie constructed an enclosed shower fabricated from various bits of wood, perspex and shower parts. "The shower had been thrown in a skip but I took a chance that it would still work. It had to go in the back corner of the room because the building's hot water pipe runs along the back wall, but I also realised that it needed to be raised up so the waste water would drain down into the pipe underneath. I had to work out how to plumb and I had to work quickly because although there's a tap stop in the corner, it switches off the water for everyone else in this row too!
"I fixed the shower base up in a frame but then I needed some steps up to it. I found some drawer frames in the Habitat bins which were perfect because they were made from solid oak, so they became my steps.
"I cut strips of wood to make the lattice panel on the front wall of the shower so that I could grow a mass of ivy up the outside. I still might do that but I've been told that the hot water might kill the plants. I wanted a transparent wall on the other side, and although it took a couple of months, I eventually found the perspex to do that.
"I am proud that it has all been stuff that people have chucked out. The shower pipe is a little bit leaky and it's an easy thing to replace, but I'd like to stay faithful to the found material idea. I did buy a couple of plumbing elbows but they are something you can't really reuse. I started off trying to recycle nails and screws, too, but I soon realised that doing that was impossible because I've used about 10,000 screws. I would have spent the rest of my life trying to find them, plus the heads go on them after a while."
After six months of hard work and skip rummaging, Robbie completed his studio and was able to start recording and rehearsing using some of his many instruments that now decorate the space. Hung on the walls of the live room are several guitars and a banjo, whilst the floor space is occupied by guitar amps, a Leslie speaker cabinet and a drum kit. An XLR wall box allows audio connections from the live room through to Robbie's recording setup which is based around a Roland VS1680 digital recorder hooked up to an Apple Mac G3 running BIAS Peak v3.1 editing software.
Robbie explains how he came to choose his gear. "I used to have a Yamaha NT8X cassette eight-track, which I used to record an album's worth of material. Although there was cassette noise, I realised that it was possible to do it all myself and still get it sounding good enough for a demo, so I decided that the VS1680 would be a good upgrade.
"Using the VS1680 is as frustrating as hell sometimes but once you know what you are doing it's pretty good. I did have a lot of trouble getting a compatible CD writer. My dad had an old SCSI writer but that didn't work so I phoned Roland and they said they'd sell me one of the recommend Plextor ones for £400. I said 'no way' and carried on looking around. I found some for sale on various American web sites but they were out of stock. I guess Roland were buying them all up. I ended up paying the £400 to Roland, but when the Plextor arrived it didn't work. I discovered that I didn't have the right version of the software so I had to do a MIDI transfer. It felt like I was building a robot with all these MIDI leads hooked up, and getting it to work was touch and go. Why couldn't they just put a disk drive in? Now that it is working it is great and I have really fallen in love with it.
"Up until now I've been using the ART FXP multi-effects and Alesis 3630 compressor but they are not as good as my new Focusrite Penta and Lexicon MPX500. The built-in reverb on the VS1680 is still good on some material but I am still experimenting with the Lexicon and Penta.
"I don't have Logic or any audio sequencer like that, I mainly use the computer to run the Native Instruments B4 Hammond, but I also use BIAS Peak for editing because it is easier to do than using the marker system on the Roland. A lot of things I've been doing with The Three Graces have involved taking old recordings, removing the vocals, mixing a non-vocal version in Peak and then putting that back onto the VS1680 where I can add the new vocal tracks. I can do all the editing I need to do with this gear."
When Robbie isn't using emulations of the Hammond organ on his Mac he makes use of the real Hammond Cadette he has in his studio. "It only cost me about £40. There aren't any drawbars so you are stuck with the sounds, but it sounds very cool. I also have a Leslie cabinet. I know a retired guy who used to work for Leslie, and he has made me a custom switch controller for £20. You can plug anything into it so you are not stuck with the Leslie's six-pin connector. I can put the Hammond through it but I can also plug in any instrument and use the fast, slow, on and off controls."
Guitar sounds are also an important element of Robbie's music. His persuit of a retro sound to complement his '60s- and '70s-style vocal harmonies and compositions has led to a very particular amp and guitar combination. "I got the Rickenbacker because I wanted a guitar that would give me a crispy, jangly sound and would be good for rhythm and occasional lead, but it's not so good for lead. My Gibson ES125TC is much more of an all-rounder. I first saw one in Denmark Street for £1600 but from looking on the Internet I discovered that you can get them for £600 in the USA, so I went over and bought a 1962 model. It had a slight bend in the neck and there was a little crack on the back but I got all that fixed for £60 and it's as good as new now. So for the price of the same model on Denmark Street I bought the guitar, had it repaired and I paid for a flight to San Francisco with my girlfriend for Valentine's Day!
"My guitar amp is a Gibson GA-30RVS which is basically designed to be just like a vintage Trace Elliot Velocette except that it has two speaker cones rather than one. It's only 30 Watts but it goes quite loud."
Robbie's method of studio building is a valid and practical approach for anyone wanting to create a small studio on a limited budget, yet it does require a certain mode of thinking. Robbie explains the mechanics of working with found materials. "The design changes all the time because you are working with what you can find, but that's part of the process. It's a really interesting way of doing things and you end up with very unusual, original results. It's important to have patience but I found that whenever I needed something it seemed to turn up sooner or later. For example, I needed a new chair and then I found the swivel one by the bins downstairs where someone elsewhere in the studio had chucked it out. I also found a whole load of paint which was being thrown out by people clearing out their sheds. It often had a skin but it's usually still liquid underneath so once you've removed the skin it can be used. From collecting leftover paint I managed to mix 10 litres of my own colour I named Monster Green.
"Some things get thrown out because they really are useless so you have to be careful. I found an amazing-looking sink in a skip which had really fancy taps looking like something out of Star Trek. I installed it here but the taps leaked everywhere. There was no way to replace them with conventional taps because it was all moulded as part of the design so I had to chuck it out."
Now that Robbie has more free time to spend on musical activities he plans to bring in some money by recording other bands and artists. For the moment, however, he has to continue generating an income from the carpentry work which has paid the rent for some time. "I build wardrobes, paint houses — anything really. I can earn enough money in a week to survive on for a month but I hate doing it because I have to work late and I'm usually covered in paint or have a nose full of dust and fumes. If I could bring in some money by recording other people then I'd stop doing the carpentry. It's not a huge place but I've had a few bands here so far and it's been OK for demos."
But Robbie's primary motive for building the studio is so that he can use it to further his own music with the new Mores line up. Robbie reflects on the success of his studio building and the future of his next recording: "I spend about 80 percent of my time here, I can immerse myself in the music, and if I miss the last train I can crash here. When I stopped singing with Charlotte, it was very frustrating because we had been negotiating with lot of record companies, but I've still got a lot of contacts, and in this building there are several producers who have their own little studios, so when my next demo is done there are people I can take it to."