Lightship95 owner Ben Phillips has been consistently busy, recording nearly every day for the last year. Jake Young is welcomed aboard for a tour of a studio on a ship.
Arriving at the Trinity Buoy Wharf centre for the arts and creative industries, the site’s long and varied history is quickly apparent. Littered among the Wharf’s original buoy workshops, which have now been converted into gallery and artistic working spaces, are a number of new rehearsal rooms, a school, a classic American diner, and three of the sustainable Container City buildings built from shipping containers linked together.
Yet one of the most striking features of this thriving artistic community is the bright red 1939 lightship moored to the wharf that is home to the contemporary, self-built Lightship95 recording studio that owner and engineer Ben Phillips shares with producer Rory Attwell and engineer Jack McKenna, as well as the numerous other producers and engineers who hire it for its unique space and great-sounding live room.
After four years of trying to find an interesting, classic building that would fit his plans for a custom studio, Phillips found the decommissioned lightship on the River Medway. Disillusioned by the process and limitations of trying to convert a conventional building, the boat breathed fresh life into his quest.
“I just got really fed up with the constant wrangling with planners and local authorities, the tiresome waiting around for solicitors and agents, and all the suited people that go home at 5pm on the dot, have Friday afternoon off, and are on holiday every other week,” says Phillips.
With the purchase completed, Phillips made a trip out to David Gilmour’s Thames-based Astoria houseboat to do some initial research: “It’s beautiful but it’s not a boat, it’s a floating summerhouse,” he laughs.
“It’s very small; the live room is not much taller than me, but the control room is amazing. The stuff they’ve got in the shed on the land, which they don’t use, is probably more than most people have in most studios.
“It’s not a commercial facility. When I was there the guys were just testing cables and they had been for about three weeks. It’s a totally different thing for someone with an infinite pocket to get someone else to build a studio compared to someone who had to shower under a hose for a year and eat tuna and sweetcorn.”
The boat’s conversion took nearly two years, with more than 20 tonnes of steel having to be removed before any of the build could even be started. What is now the large, naturally lit control room started life as the ship’s diesel tank, with the even larger live room situated where the engine once was. The floor is essentially floating and the walls are built on the floor and supported by neoprene mounts all the way around, which join to the ribs of the ship.
What would have almost certainly been an impossible project was made viable thanks to the fact that after being automated in the 1980s the ship had been highly modified with a large amount of the original engines and mechanics removed.
While an API 1608 console was originally specified in the design of the studio, a year and a half later when the studio was finished and Phillips was ready to take-up his asset finance the recession was in full swing and he was only offered a third of what was originally promised. Opting for a Calrec console instead, it took Phillips a couple of years to get to the point where he could shell out the money for his long-awaited 1608.
“The API is the obvious choice for recording drums and guitar music. There wasn’t really any alternative anywhere in the price range.
“I’ve always wanted the space to be good for drum recording and that’s how I looked at it from an acoustic point of view. London’s bigger rooms are dwindling and certainly the ones that are affordable are not so great.”
Although he would prefer to use more classic recording techniques, the control room is based around the industry standard Pro Tools HD.
“It’s a tool and that’s it really,” states Phillips. “I’m not overly enamoured with working with software but there’s no way around it. Budgets and time constraints mean that it’s a necessity.”
For the live room, Phillips tried to keep the space as open and live sounding as he could. “There are definitely sweet spots for microphone placement but overall you’d be surprised just by how much separation you can get.”
A reverb chamber is in progress with Phillips experimenting with three diesel tanks that run along the middle of the ship, while an isolation booth has been built in one corner.
Phillips is also planning to build an extension on the front deck, which in time will be a second studio. “We’re too busy really and we need a second space to move into,” he adds. “It makes a lot of sense to use the space better. Originally there would have been a larger wheelhouse on the front deck, so it’s kind of reinstating it but it will be bigger than it was.”
Building an audience
Fairly early on in the life of his floating studio Phillips invited international recording studio group Miloco down to have a look at his space. “We’ve gotten really busy by ourselves, and because many of Miloco’s clients are major labels looking for a one-stop shop, booking fairly short notice we don’t do as much work with them as we’d like. To be associated with them is a really good platform for being advertised because they’re a very professional organisation and great to work with.”
The majority of Lightship95’s work is repeat work, which is why it has built and built in the past few years. According to Phillips it is getting clients in the first place, particularly producers, which is the tricky part.
“When looking for a studio you look for the safe bet, you don’t look for something that might cause a problem. So until you go somewhere it’s difficult to know. The word of mouth has worked really well for us as well. The whole of February is booked, most of March is booked, and half of April is booked.”
Phillips’ most recent sessions in the studio include psych/jazz band Melt Yourself Down, carrying out two or three sessions to make up an album, and prog/electronic geniuses Teeth Of The Sea.