Most people will have watched a film, programme or listened to a top 10 single made in a Level Acoustic-designed facility. Company founder Chris Walls has designed nearly 100 of the studios here at Tileyard London. We caught up with Chris to hear more about his past and future design projects and to get some tips on making the most out of a home studio setup.
For those who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?
My name is Chris Walls from Level Acoustic Design. I am an acoustician and I design music, film & TV studios.
How did Level Acoustic Design come about?
I studied degrees in music & acoustics and was lucky enough to get a job as an acoustician at Munro Acoustics straight out of university. I stayed there for about 10 years, working on some great projects including British Grove, the BBC Broadcasting House extension & a private studio for U2. I made the decision to set up Level in late 2013 with the aim of being a bit leaner and more agile than other designers to better suit music clients.
How did your relationship with Tileyard begin?
I first visited Tileyard in 2011 just as they were completing the first half dozen or so studios, directly above the café. Those studios were designed by another company and there were a few teething problems which I was called in to resolve. I spent a lot of time with Nick talking about his vision for the estate (he was far less busy back then!) and I ended up designing the next phase of studios there, which was a space for Basement Jaxx and the studios in Unit 8. I’ve designed every Tileyard studio since which I think totals about 100.
Tell us about some exciting projects you have worked on at Tileyard. What has been the most enjoyable and why?
Unit 8 was great fun; it was pretty much my first project at Tileyard and I think it remains the biggest phase of studio building we’ve done there. It was a chaotic, stressful and a lot of fun! You’re not meant to have favourites, but some of my favourite clients have studios in that phase, people who were particularly supportive when I set up on my own.
The projects for Spitfire, Liam Howlett and Mark Ronson were great too, and the work we’re doing now at Acorn (including the new facility for Platoon) is pretty exciting.
What are the basic steps involved in designing a studio?
Acoustically it breaks down in to two elements: 1) make the space quiet enough for the room’s purpose. That means making sure the sound insulation is up to scratch and that the AC is properly designed, then 2) making the room sound good. This involves getting the room geometry right, getting equipment in the right places and putting the right materials in the right place to control the sound.
Then there’s the visual side; making the space look and feel how the client wants it to whilst behaving acoustically how it needs to. Balancing the aesthetic and acoustic requirements is the real challenge in studio design – that’s what we’re constantly striving to achieve.
What’s the craziest/coolest studio requirement you have had to meet?
I was the designer for Alvernia Studios in Poland which is quite a distinctive looking place; the facility’s aesthetic is inspired by H. R. Giger. The owner built a load of massive concrete domes to house the studios, perhaps not realising a dome is pretty much the worst possible shape acoustically. So my job was to retain the sense of the dome but to mitigate its acoustic artefacts. I designed a huge motorised “Death Star” for the orchestral recording studio, which sort of started out as a joke but the owner went on and built it. The whole place is mad, well worth a visit if the opportunity arises…
How do you build a professional-grade studio in a small space? What are the challenges?
It’s much the same as designing a large studio really, we go through the same process. I suppose you need to work that little bit harder to get the acoustics right and the margins for error are smaller. Making sure the client understands the limitations of their space and what we can realistically achieve is very important – if they expect to recreate Abbey Road in a garden shed you need to disabuse them of that notion pretty sharpish!
Have you got any tips for someone building their own studio at home?
The questions I normally ask are whether this is a permanent space for the studio or might it move in, say, 5 years. And what do they want to achieve in the studio; sketching ideas & recording demos, tracking parts, mixing, mastering…? That will help to analyse how suitable the space is and how best to direct efforts and funds.
Going the DIY route is pretty tricky as there is a huge amount of terrible and conflicting advice available online and in books. I think it’s important to find reputable guidance (ideally from one source), make a plan and stick to it. Wherever possible, it’s worth getting input from a reputable studio designer as they should be able to get the best out of the space.
For those starting out, what’s the most cost effective and important thing you can do to set your space up correctly?
In my opinion (and others will doubtless have different ideas) it’d be to fire the speakers along the length of the room, set your listening position about 1/3 down the room and keep the speakers as tight as possible to the end wall (using the speaker’s in-built correction to attenuate the bass a little to compensate for the proximity). That’s all free.
From there I’d add significant absorption on the wall directly behind the listener, a little bit either side of the mix position and, if you’re feeling lavish, something above the mix position.
You’ve designed some pretty high-profile studios already but if you could design a studio for any artist or band in the world, who would it be?
Very predictable, but ignoring practicalities like time and mortality it’d have to be The Beatles or Brian Wilson. As for current artists it’d probably be Bruno Mars or Adele… Aim high eh?
Any exciting plans or projects for the remainder of 2020?
We’re in the midst of some large-scale projects for Netflix, Sky & Platoon and are about to begin a nice project for Marvel, continuing our relationship with the Disney / Lucasfilm / Marvel family. We are also in the early stages of a brand-new film post production facility for a US company which is setting up shop in the UK.
A couple of these projects are particularly important as we are taking care of the architectural design of the whole facility, which is a new thing for us.
Any Spotify playlists we should be listening to?
I’m pretty confident that if I revealed my true taste in music, I would never work again!
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