Studio design is big business, and we’re always hearing about the latest major projects and the gear selected in each case, but what about those doing all the hard work? Adam Savage speaks to the man in charge at Studio People, a true specialist in this field, about its many strengths...
I’m going to start this with a bit of a confession. We in the pro-audio press are perhaps guilty of focusing too much of our attention on the actual equipment when it comes to studio builds and refurbishments that we often forget about some of the great work that goes on behind the scenes with these projects.
I’m talking about studio design companies – the guys who do all the hard work setting everything up and putting the foundations in place before the gear manufacturers get involved, seeing their consoles placed on the ready-made work surfaces and their monitors performing in line with the finely-tuned acoustics before, let’s be honest, taking much of the credit.
So we’re putting that right this month by shining our spotlight on a company that for the past 20-plus years has assembled some remarkable facilities all over the world virtually singlehandedly, but has done so with next to no fanfare or self-promotion.
Now based just outside the town of Welshpool in Powys, Wales, since making the move from a rented premises to its own HQ recently – an old communications building that served an important purpose in World War Two – Studio People is one of the UK’s leading specialists in studio design and construction. Headed up by Peter Keeling, and with three members of his immediate family also in key positions – his two sons Jamie (contracts director) and Joe (manufacturing manager) along with wife Wendi (financial controller), the firm has been in the studio building game since 1993, but originally stemmed from Keeling’s earlier audio electronics business he founded in Shropshire in the late ’70s, which was when he developed the ‘one-stop shop’ mentality the company still lives by today.
“During those early years we designed 2in 24-track machines, large consoles and a whole host of audio electronic gear. The philosophy I had from the start was doing as much as possible in-house with our people and facilities,” Keeling recalls. “That meant doing our own metalwork, powder coating, spraying, circuit boards and obviously the electronics assembly side of it – even the wooden end cheeks for the desks.
“We started doing studios in the early ’90s, and the first gig we got was for Nick Murphy from The Bassheads – a private studio for him in his garage – and we just built a name for ourselves really. Looking back at that long list of projects that we’ve done, there are quite a lot of different projects. It amazes me sometimes, and I look back and go ‘did we really do that?’”
A bit of everything
What makes Studio People different from other studio designers is the sheer variety and completeness of services offered. The team can take care of acoustic treatment, the making of all the furniture and surfaces, the wiring, the construction, even the air conditioning – everything apart from the actual equipment itself, although Keeling jokes that “if I could make that then I probably would!”
Instead of having to put in numerous calls to get these jobs done on a build, Keeling’s clients only need to make one, and according to the owner, they can be confident of quality as well as convenience. That’s because they also don’t have to rely on outsiders to make the workstations, treatment products or even doors and booths – that’s all done in the workshop at their new home.
“When you’re on site and there are limited timeframes and critical end dates you’ve got to be able to push buttons and make things happen quickly. You can do that if you have your own facilities, but if you haven’t, you’re going to be going down into what other people’s idea of quality and service are like, and that’s not something we want to consider,” Keeling explains.
Studio People’s own catalogue of products is varied enough to suit projects of all sizes and kinds, but even if there isn’t something on the list that fits the bill, they’re more than happy to accommodate. “All of our products are what we already use on projects, but we extend that by saying to people ‘if you want something different, just tell us’. We’re actually better at customising than we are doing standard products. The reason for that is the whole existence of our joinery shop and the investment that we’ve made in that is to serve the studio projects that we do on site. We don’t want to buy doors from somebody else, we don’t want to get others to do the furniture or skirting, we want to do it all in-house because then we can react quickly, and I think that’s key.
“We’re not making 100 doors at a time – it’s not that kind of production process – every door and workspace we make is hand built by joiners; it’s not a big machine that churns them out every ten seconds. It doesn’t work like that in this business.”
Studio People's new facility is home to a workshop where doors, furniture, acoustic panels and more are made on site
Another thing that sets the company apart is its geographical reach. Whereas other design houses may be reluctant to travel too far for logistical reasons, nowhere is too far away for Keeling and his crew. Although most of the work takes place in the UK, roughly divided between education (40%) – including the stunning new studio facilities at the University of Westminster (see our November 2015 issue for the full report) commercial (40%) and private (20%), they have also been successful in places such as France, Germany, Switzerland – three major builds took place there – Malta and… Gabon.
No, that’s not a typo, and it’s just one example of a case where Keeling was called out of the blue by a potential client far from home thanks to a good word put in by a happy former customer.
Furthermore, it wasn’t just for anyone; this had to be a studio fit for a president. “When the guy phoned me up, he said ‘how much would it cost for the best studio in the world?’ That’s quite a difficult question to answer and they ended up spending three times what I quoted them on the phone,” Keeling reports. “It wasn’t about the money though; it was the location, the people and how the whole thing came about.”
“As we started to do studio builds we’ve been very lucky to pick up projects that are not in the UK. We’ve done stuff over in Libya – we did a big project for a company in Tripoli – and that was actually during the international flight embargo so you couldn’t actually get there by plane; we had to get a taxi across the desert, and that all interjected with what we were doing in the UK.”
To the ends of the world
Despite the obstacles they face on each occasion, the Studio People have left behind quality facilities wherever they’ve gone, and they’re not done yet finding new territories. Keeling has identified the US as a target, but there are more regions on his radar, and he’s also aware that they might not be able to deliver the full package wherever they go, even if they’re capable of doing so.
“The Middle East is a big market, and we know quite a few people out there now, so that’s an area we’d like to get into on the projects side,” he comments. “There’s the whole world really isn’t there! At the end of the day there’s logistical issues with travelling too far, but there’s partnerships to be made and that’s the point. If we just end up doing consultancy and design on a project on the other side of the world then that’s fine – that’s what we enjoy doing anyway and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve putting guys on site.”
The progress the firm has made over the past two decades wouldn’t have been possible without a great deal of ambition, and Keeling remains full of that. With a new base to work from and a growing reputation both in the UK and abroad, the MD has plans to take the business further still.
“[We’re looking to] continue to develop the business but at a much more accelerated rate; doubling our business over the next 12 months is one specific thing we’re looking to do, and alongside that, to expand the people that we actually want to reach to,” he notes. “We’re not just confined to doing studios for people. We want to do a lot more large spaces and theatres and a lot more for main contractors by providing them with solutions, such as customised acoustic products and other things they would use on projects. Acoustics are becoming more and more important in the building world and that’s something we want to capitalise on – we know about acoustics and we have the flexibility here to be able to do that.
“For me, I’ve never been frightened of getting out of my comfort zone, and getting in my car, or my plane for that matter [Keeling is also an avid flyer and often uses it for quick site visits] and seeing a client a long way away. I think there are a lot of people in the business who aren’t keen on leaving the M25 or travelling too far as there are a lot of logistical issues with doing remote jobs but our team over the years have got used to working away from home – that’s all we pretty much ever do and so for us it’s the norm really.
“You’ve got to want to do this stuff, and that’s where we come from. We get excited about doing a new project, entering a new area, dealing with a different type of client, or working in another country, especially if it’s on a beach somewhere warm!”
Main picture: (L-R): Studio People’s Kymberley Harley (purchasing assistant); Peter Keeling (managing director); Joe Keeling (manufacturing manager); John Holmes (technical sales manager); Jamie Keeling (contracts director); Chris Smout (design manager) and Lewis Gray (CAD technician)