A few miles from the concrete and glass of MediaCityUK is The Sharp Project – also home to TV. radio and post-production facilities, but with a more independent, almost unconventional air. Among them is recording and audio-for-picture studio 80 Hertz. Kevin Hilton pays a visit...
The Sharp Project could be seen as ‘the other’ media centre in Greater Manchester. MediaCityUK at Salford Quays grabbed the headlines during its construction and boasts high-profile tenants including the BBC and ITV, but the development just to the north of Manchester city centre is just as important and perhaps more notable for its nurturing of emerging facilities and freelancers working in television, radio, and new media.
It was conceived as a “digital content production complex” with the backing of the City Council. The building was at one time the UK logistics centre for the Sharp consumer electronics company. This massive space has provided room for sound stages, low-cost offices built into converted shipping containers, and an open-plan ‘campus’ area. And tucked away from the main thoroughfares, offices, and production areas is 80 Hertz.
This music recording and audio for picture post-production studio was the first business to agree a lease and move into The Sharp Project. Company director, engineer, and producer George Atkins had been looking for somewhere to re-establish his own studio set-up and took the opportunity to be part of the venture from the beginning.
Atkins graduated from Manchester University with a BA (Honours) in music, business, and IT and spent a year looking for a recording studio job. Eventually he decided against working for someone else at a “pittance” and began to put together his own recording operation. The first incarnation of 80 Hertz was established in 2005 in a “rabbit-warren” underground complex not far from the city’s fashionable Northern Quarter. During his time there Atkins worked with a band called Keith, which he had first come into contact with at university, and on tracks for Lilly Allen and Chase and Status.
This built 80 Hertz’s reputation and profile, but in 2008 the new management of the premises began “pushing out” the tenants and converted it into serviced offices. This left Atkins with “a load of studio gear and some clientele but no studio”. While freelancing at Blueprint Studios he “caught wind of the Sharp Project”, which was in its embryonic stages.
Atkins negotiated a lease and construction of the new home for 80 Hertz started in August 2010. The facility was completed in late April 2011, housing a music recording studio with a big live space, control room and vocal cubicle, and a post-production suite, featuring a main mix area and voice-over booth.
The main recording/performance space of the music studio is wood-lined and covers 1,000sqft (93sqm), large enough, Atkins says, to accommodate 30 to 40 musicians. This live space was designed by Atkins and acoustic consultant John Wood. The main area is floated and incorporates an isolated, solid concrete booth for drum sessions, with a smaller area “tacked on” to house what Atkins describes as “noisy amps”. A vocal booth is on the opposite side of the control room with, like the other areas, full visual communication through large glass windows.
“Essentially what a band can do is roll in at ground floor level, plug in, tune up, and record live but get the isolation as if they were tracking it,” Atkins says. “We’ve got enough mics, EQ, and channels on the desk to allow for an absolutely standout sound recording – as long as the engineers and producers are up to it.”
The control room is based around a 24-channel AMS Neve Genesys console, augmented with eight vintage Neve 1084 and 16 88RS equalisers. The combination of digital and analogue technologies is underlined by the incorporation of control units for the digital audio workstation system, total recall, automation, and onboard digital converters. The outboard selection veers more towards the classic, offering Manley Vari Mu valve compression and passive EQ, a Universal Audio 1176LN limiting amplifier, and Lexicon PCM91 reverb.
As is now almost standard today the main recording and editing set-up is Pro Tools, currently version 11 HDX. This is supported by HDX/MADI and Avid HD sync I/O systems. Other tastes in DAWs are catered for through Nuendo 5.5.6 and Logic 9 and X, plus a range of plug-ins and software. The more old school client is also catered for, with two reel-to-reel tape machines – a Soundcraft 24-track and a Studer A810 quarter-inch – lurking at the back of the control room. The monitor loudspeaker choice is wide and eclectic, with a Quested 5.1 surround system joined by Westlake Audio BBSM 12s, Adam S3x and A7x, Genelec 8030a, Yamaha NS10s, and Avatone Mix Cubes.
In some respects 80 Hertz is a throwback to the days of the big London recording studios such as Advision, CTS, and Olympic, all of which are now long-gone as technology and musical styles moved the business towards smaller but well-equipped ‘home’ studios owned by producers or musicians.
Atkins acknowledges this and says that as space in Manchester was cheap enough to invest in, he could capitalise on the decline of the studio market in London: “Because the big studios closed down in London, those places are becoming more sought after and people are willing to pay a premium to get the quality sound from the outset.
“With the technology that’s available now, especially in laptops, you can take away your data that you recorded in an optimum environment and do all the legwork at home and come back in and balance or mix on the console and still come out with a production that sounds a million dollars but you wouldn’t have to burn up studio time to get it.”
This, Atkins observes, was his “dream scenario”, partly based on his musical tastes and upbringing. Now in his early 30s, he says his attitude towards recording is “born from listening to old records”, which informed him about live sessions and vintage processing: “I just prefer the performance value. And the human error involved in those records lasts a lot longer than current pop, which has churned out the likes of X Factor and major labels that are looking to make a quick buck. But the old ways of working seem to be more popular again.”
Atkins’ choice of desk for the recording studio sees him straddling the modern, digital worlds and the more classic analogue domain. “The Genesys is very multipurpose,” he says. “It can accept a FireWire input, so someone could bring in a laptop and use the Neve desk as an interface. They’ve got 48 ouputs, 24 inputs, Neve A/D-D/A conversion, the flagship 88 RS preamps, 1084 EQs, full automation and recall, motorised faders and the ability to control a DAW like Pro Tools or Logic. So it’s almost three to four-fold worth of gear than a standard large-format analogue desk. And it does 5.1 as well. It was the best option because we wanted to blend the old school techniques with the new tech that’s available and faster ways of doing things.”
The multipurpose aspect has proved useful more recently because the music studio and control room have been used increasingly for post work, notably automated dialogue replacement. “We’re specialising in ADR at the moment,” Atkins explains. “We’ve upgraded the studio so it’s got picture capability as well, plus a MADI interface and connections through Source-Connect, a telephone balance unit, and ISDN.”
A recent session using this set-up was for the upcoming Ron Howard film In the Heart of the Sea, which involved the director coming in on Skype, the ADR mixer in New York and actors at 80 Hertz and De Lane Lea in Soho through ISDN. “They were all talking at the same time so that tested our mettle,” Atkins says.
The post-production studio is across the hall from the music area and is connected over a Cat5a network, so its control room can be linked to the live space. At the time of Audio Media’s first visit to 80 Hertz towards the end of 2011 the post suite was still being fitted out and an Avid C24 was part of the installation. That has been replaced with an Avid Artist Mix with touch-sensitive motorised faders and controllers for the DAWs. The room also features a Quested surround rig, plus Adam, Genelec, Avatone, and Bose Soundlink loudspeakers. A voice-over booth is at the back of the control room, with the picture for sound aspect provided by a Panasonic PTRZ370 HD projector and 174in screen.
The upper level of 80 Hertz’s premises within The Sharp Project includes a kitchen and what was originally intended to be the green room. Atkins says this is now more of a writing area and is being used by composers including Max Brodie, a member of the Audio Network stable.
From its original conception as a music studio with post-production capability, 80 Hertz has expanded in only three years to also offer ADR, audio dialogue clean-up and restoration, DVD commentary recording, and online mixing. It has also justified George Atkins’ decision to stay in Manchester and be part of The Sharp Project, proving that technology and a broad variety of skills will bridge distances and metropolitan boundaries.