Adam Savage discovers Alpheton New Maltings, a new orchestral recording facility in rural Suffolk that has positioned itself as a cosy alternative to the usual inner city options in the UK's South East.
Destination studios have always been a popular option in the music production world for artists wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and sample the creative benefits that often come from recording in an idyllic location, but that hasn’t always been a possibility in orchestral circles, particularly in the UK.
But this could now be set to change with the arrival of Alpheton New Maltings, a brand new purpose-built venue based just an hour and a half outside London that has now opened its doors.
Set in rolling Suffolk countryside, within the grounds of an historic Grade 2 listed Old Rectory, the building was constructed to look like a traditional maltings, but inside it’s very much “state-of-the-art,” according to its owner, musician Robert King.
The “warm, live” acoustic is the result of King’s appointment of renowned acoustician Bob Essert – whose previous projects include Sage Gateshead, KKL Lucerne, Koerner Hall Toronto and Singapore Esplanade – to work on the build, while the internal specification was carried out by Sound Space Vision.
I have always been really interested in acoustics
- Robert King
Unwanted external noise is a nuisance whatever area of audio you work in, but it’s an even greater hindrance in classical recording, where takes often incorporate long periods of silence and it’s not uncommon for a passing car, plane or hedge trimmer to appear on the recording when listening back to what would otherwise have been a perfect ‘phrase’. But Alpheton New Maltings claims to not have this problem, thanks to its multi-layered walls and roof, as well as triple-glazed windows that provide high levels of soundproofing.
“Having a noise ruin your best take sends musicians crazy – just when everything is going brilliantly, a lawnmower starts up outside the church, or a motorbike half a mile away suddenly appears in the master tape,” King says. “Even in the most rural church or hall which you are sure will be silent, suddenly you find it isn’t quiet at all. I must have lost weeks across my 30 years recording to external noises.”
King was involved from the very beginning and with each stage of the planning, spending hours with the architect and the acoustician. In fact, it was his priority to appoint the latter before the former, which is a rarity for any construction project.
“I have always been really interested in acoustics, having worked in hundreds of buildings, and this project has been fascinating, getting to grips with the tiniest details of roof construction, or how to design an acoustic labyrinth that will let air in, but not noise,” he explains. “Sound ingress is like water – it will always find the weakest point”.
An Instant Classic
Because he’s tried out so many venues, he’s been able to piece together ideas about what he did and didn’t like from each one. And there was one that stood out quite clearly from all the others.
“This is a small space so one of the things I said to Bob is that I’d like it to sound like Wigmore Hall but empty, which is a very different sound to Wigmore Hall full. That was one of my target sounds to get close to. You can never copy a sound but you can at least get a good direction,” comments King.
Another key requirement for orchestral recording is ample space, and there’s plenty of it in the 18m x 10m live room, with a ceiling that rises to 10m and is supported by 22 acoustic panels suspended in the roof area that give controllability to the acoustics.
“Part of the brief from the very beginning was to have a significant degree of adaptability,” notes King. “If you open the acoustic curtains completely you get an almost church sound, whereas if you close them fully you can dampen it considerably. We hope people don’t need to add artificial reverb because the building does it for them.”
Classical recording engineer David Hinitt was one of the first to try out the new space, and identified its flexibility as one of the main attractions: “If you’re recording solo piano versus a string quartet then you’ll want to take a different approach and the nice thing about Robert’s design is that you can change the sound of the hall with the curtains. You can have them all open and bare walls, which would give you a live acoustic, or close all the curtains and soften it and have a more intimate environment. That largely depends on the ensemble you’ve got in there and as an engineer that’s invaluable.”
And fortunately for Hinitt, this versatility proved invaluable for one of his latest projects, which involved a variety of musicians: “We were doing one CD but we had six different ensembles. We really gave it a test in different situations with different musicians,” he recalls. “You have the space to move them around the concert hall [where you get a different sound]. The oak wood floor also helps with strings. You get a lovely rich sound.”
On the other side of the glass, of course, is the control room, and what you’d find in there would depend on when you visit. This is because in the classical world, the tendency is for engineers to bring all their own equipment, including console/control surface, so on a day with no session you’d notice a lack of in-house kit compared to your typical contemporary music production facility, which as we know would likely already have most things that the engineer would need already provided.
The oak wood floor helps with strings. You get a lovely rich sound.
- David Hinitt
With that in mind then, what would Hinitt pick out when asked to list a couple of his gear choices for this particular project to go alongside his trusty Tascam US2400? “The mic preamps that I like to use are Neve 4081’s. I’m a fan of the vintage Decca sound – those lovely warm, open, baked, rich recordings – and one of their traits was to use Neve mixing desks and you can get the equivalent now with [these] so I go down that route,” he says.
“I bought a pair of Neumann KM 133’s, which use the same capsules as the M50’s, and again the M50 was a Decca microphone. I’m a real fan of that so I want the same kind of kit that a Decca engineer would’ve used. It was the first time I used those. I use mainly Neumann microphones – there were also some TLM 170’s out there.”
With three decades of industry experience now under his belt, King now has an extensive list of contacts from across the world of orchestral recording. After making almost 100 records for Hyperion, in 2012 he decided to go out on his own and founded the VIVAT label. This means that as well as hiring out the Maltings to established recording companies who can bring their own production teams, he can also offer a variety of packages to clients, comprising award-winning engineers, producers and editors.
“The aim is that an artist or ensemble can show up, concentrate wholly on their music, and we will create the finished master for them – we can even arrange artwork and design, sleeve notes and translations, as well as CD pressing. For artists who want to produce a top-class demo, or to produce physical CDs for sale at their concerts, we can produce the whole package, bringing the same quality of production as we do for our VIVAT label.”
And if all of this still isn’t enough? Well there is one more thing, says King: “The Hebridean sheep outside are very inquisitive, and will usually stop for a conversation, especially if you have a bucket of beet nuts.”