Art is anything you can get away with. Marshall McLuhan
After getting chased by Bedouins in Petra, being strip-searched in Tel Aviv airport, and getting lost in an Egyptian desert on Millennium eve; building my own studio is the most anxiety-inducing thing I’ve ever done.
And I didn’t even build it.
On my recent return to the UK, I decided I’d had enough of crawling into wardrobes and box rooms, and committed to converting the garden hidey-holey into a fully equipped voice studio. I took this task seriously, by nodding in appreciation as my designer husband meticulously planned this thing on paper. “Easy” he muttered. “We’ll have this thing done in no time.”
Ain’t no Muscle Shoals
I continued in this inspired, nodding vein as my husband commandeered the job in hand. And herein lieth the problem: planning, converting and sound dampening an outbuilding that sits in an English city garden, nestled in a space of open blue sky; with trees, chattering birds, and a road behind, certainly has its challenges.
Space is the place
Obviously, upgrading kit and stroking mics to bridge the wait of the new pad was the most important thing. But when we hosted a range of borrowed (beautiful, oh so beautiful!) mics in the unfinished space, we realised immediately that we had to get the sound dampened and the space treated first.
Takeaway 1: The space is the most important thing. Don’t get carried away stroking mics until you’ve sorted your sonic bubble.
This took considerable time. Hats off to my husband, who never, ever gives up on solving problems. We bought shares in Rockwool, stripped and rebuilt wall after wall with plasterboard and more Rockwool. We bulk-bought stacks of mass loaded vinyl. And clearly I’d painted everything, in my haste to have ‘Scandi-style’ black external walls. Which we then needed to strip off again. Whilst we added more walls…and more walls. And re-paint. The cycle continued.
Life from a window
We ended up building the inner soundproof window, separating the voice booth from the main office (the guys that quoted were clearly having a laugh and as usual, we decreed we could do it ourselves). We constructed an oak frame and initially, 2 panes of varying thickness of glass, set at an angle. It is a thing of beauty and the new object of my attentions. But I digress.
It still wasn’t soundproof.
So we cogitated a little more; scratched each other’s chins, built a double door, put seals on all the doors, added a third pane of glass to the window and built another oak frame, filled all the surrounding gaps outside with sand, ordered acoustic tiles, made our own bass traps by handcrafting 25 individual pieces of fibreglass, installed a floating floor and a second ceiling, got through tubes and tubes of green glue — and finally stood in the space feeling pleased with a job well done.
What had started out as an anticipated 2 month (part time) job, ended up taking 7 more, as we squeezed in the build between voice work, brand new startups, writing, kids, continual house renovations and living.
Takeaway 2: When building a new studio, do not underestimate the task in hand.
And finally, we were done.
If you’ve read this far, I salute you. I write this, not with the assumption that any sane person would be entertained, but rather as therapy — so I can stand back, re-live the experience and console myself with snaps of my own handiwork.
Of course, 99% of this is down to my supremely talented husband. And a few long conversations/email threads with long-standing colleagues — Simon 1, Simon 2, Nobby (RIP) and Hoody — who were on hand to deal with my calls, check my initial diagrams and offer their pearls. I thank you wholeheartedly.
Takeaway 3: Call in all the support you can get from family, friends and colleagues (who know what they’re talking about).
Life is short
Tragically, Nobby suddenly died recently — a complete shock to us all. I write this with a genuine tear in my eye and memories of some deep heart-to-hearts we had just the other week. He was passionate, principled and completely nuts and we will miss him terribly.
Takeaway 4: Thank people who help you from the bottom of your heart, each and every time, because life is short.
So the studio is done.
I should say I had a few things in mind when building it. I was lucky enough to be invited to Abbey Road studios many years ago, when I was a breakfast presenter for the GWR radio group. A friend of mine knew the producer and I was running a competition on air, so they offered me a private tour of the studios with the competition winner. Abbey Road will always be inextricably linked to The Beatles and George Harrison — who was a close friend of my Dad as a young boy — is most definitely my favourite Beatle.
George also released the best India Chants album ever, and I remember visiting the disused Ashram in Rishikesh, India, where he met the Maharishi Mahesh (the founder of Transcendental Meditation of which I am an avid practitioner). I remember walking round the blackened, crumbling meditation pods with an Indian friend, talking about George and all his music. The Daily Mail (sorry, it’s an interesting feature though) wrote this article about it.
Visiting Abbey Road was such an inspiration — experiencing the acoustics first-hand there and thinking of George and my Dad hanging out at Primary school, and the different paths they took, always stuck with me. My Dad visited him over the years and was always very fond of him.
The Plant & other places
There were also a couple of studios in California that were in my mind during the build. The first sat at the bottom of my road in Sausalito — a legendary recording studio called The Plant, where a whole host of artists cut records, including Prince and Van Morrison. I wrote more about it here.
The second belonged to a good friend — a consummate professional and long time voiceover in The States, who owned the most amazing studio space high up in the Californian hills. I would pop up for a cuppa and a chat, and quite often stroke his Zappa and Captain Beefheart vinyl collection. I can’t vouch that my UK version is anywhere near his wonderful space, but I certainly had it in mind during construction, and I hope some of those Californian vibes somehow made their way into the studio grooves.
I’m proud of the final result. I’ve learned more than I could have imagined about sound (slap echo, dampening, proofing, treated windows all spring to mind) and now, voicing late-night gigs for global clients is no sweat at all.
Be thankful for what you’ve got
The new studio isn’t just a garden building with a mic in it and lots of Rockwool. It’s a product of 9 months of mental and physical slog, in order to work out the best way to make it happen; it houses not only my perfectly formed vinyl collection, collected over the years and lovingly moved from place to place but also all my musical memories, from here at home and in places as far-flung as Japan, America and India. And it’s the only space in our house (including the loo) that feels like mine.
The studio overlooks our nascent veggie patch. The sun streams in first thing, and I sit in the space with a coffee in hand — doors flung open, remembering those who have left us, and feeling eternally grateful for the life I have.
For details on the new studio, or to come and have a nose and raise a glass to Nobby, go to https://www.melissathom.me/contact.
You’re most welcome. Any time.