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Beach Road Studios: DIY Done Right in Rural Ontario

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The article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Professional Sound magazine.

By Kevin Young

Photos by Rob Boyce

Owned and operated by producer/engineer/mixer Siegfried Meier, Beach Road Studios provides clients with an old-school atmosphere and a mix of vintage, custom modified, and modern recording technology. Located just north of Goderich, ON and overlooking Lake Huron, Beach Road Studios is pretty much the complete opposite of what you might envision as a producer’s project studio. “It’s definitely not your typical commercial studio,” Meier says. “I market it as my personal studio where I produce my records, but I also have some producer friends who come here to track sometimes. It’s a cool, retro kind of space in the vein of Dark Horse or what The Chalet or Morin Heights used to be.”

In all, the property includes three buildings: the 3,000 sq. ft. studio proper, a band house, and a smaller pre-existing cottage. “It’s actually my family’s land,” Meier shares. “We’ve been here since 1983. I was 16 or 17 years old when I first started recording – this was pre-Internet – and I remember thinking this would be such a cool space to record in.” At that point, Meier already knew about legendary studios like Morin Heights and dreamed of having a similar facility, a dream he’s since fulfilled with the creation of a full on destination studio – one he’s managed to maintain in an industry climate that often seems less than ideal for such a facility.

Meier actually started out as a musician in his early teens but soon began producing and mixing local bands. Realizing a career behind the desk would provide an opportunity for him to indulge his passion for music, recording, and gear, he began accumulating equipment and experience and ultimately attended London, ON’s OIART to study audio engineering and production. After working in various studios in Los Angeles, Toronto, and in and around London he returned to OIART as an instructor. He now works out of Beach Road as a producer, mixer, and recording and mastering engineer and has worked with artists such as Kittie, The Dunes, Tom Araya of Slayer, Chasing Mercury, Dayna Manning, The Salads, and many others.

control roomPreviously, Meier recorded in a variety of spaces, ranging from the studios at OIART to his London apartment. The hours he tended to keep, however, weren’t conducive to recording in the apartment and eventually the self-described gear head decided he needed a fully-equipped, stand-alone recording space – somewhere he could work day or night, for as long as necessary, without worrying about the neighbours.

Beach Road definitely fits that description. Perhaps best described as a recording compound, it’s designed and constructed as a place artists can “bring their best to the music,” Meier says, with little in the way of distraction besides the sun setting over the lake – a marked contrast to the average urban studio.

Layout, Gear & “Nerd Speak”

Like the band house and cottage, the studio itself emphasizes making clients comfortable, whether they’re tracking, mixing, or taking a bit of time to just mull over their process. Clients entering the studio walk directly into the kitchen area, which is right next to the 26-ft. x 18-ft. control room. “I did that purposely, because the kitchen is one of the main areas people get together,” Meier says of the layout. “I hate it when studios have kitchens so far away from the actual recording space that they feel disconnected.”

outboardFor tracking, a variety of consoles are available: a rebuilt TAC Magnum 26 x 24 Console with API mods, D&R Series 4000mkii 24/48-channel console, Soundcraft Delta SR 16-channel console and twin 1978 TEAC 5 sidecar consoles with 5e Expander for 24 channels. Multiple analog and digital recording platforms are also provided: Studer A 827 2-in. 24-track, Ampex AG440 1/4-in., and 3M Series 79 1/4-in. stereo analog tape machines, a Tascam DA-30 Stereo DAT recorder, as well as a Pro Tools HD 3 System with 32 I/O and Logic Pro 9 running on an Apple Mac Pro.

Monitoring options include Yamaha NS-10s, KRK RP6s, a Tannoy PS350B 15-in. subwoofer, or the classic Auratone 5C Soundcube. While Meier prefers to listen and mix on those, he’s also laid hands on a vintage loudspeaker system that provides a certain “wow factor” for clients.

“A lot of players track guitars in the control room and they like to feel like they’re in front of their cabs, so I got an old Quested rig from a gear broker friend. It’s got a Q412 custom 3-way studio monitoring system with a DX3000E 3000-watt LF power amplifier and two A900E 450-watt power amplifiers with BSS custom modified four-way crossovers. It was probably worth $40,000 back in the mid-‘80s, but I got it for dirt-cheap. It was working but needed some love and someone who actually knew what they were doing to put it back together. Each speaker weighs about 450 lbs. and I couldn’t soffit mount them because the room was already built, so they’re on pedestals on wheels so I can move them around. We use them for tracking and impressing and deafening clients, but no one actually uses them for critical mixing.”

When tracking, musicians may also take advantage of Meier’s own huge collection of instruments – guitars, basses, amplifiers, drums, and keyboards – amps, speaker cabinets, and effects.

Over time, he has also amassed an impressive amount of outboard gear, which includes many pieces he built himself. “I’d say well over half of what’s in the control room racks is custom made; Neve mic preamps, API pres, 1176s, SSL-type buss compressors, Trident 80b-style EQs and others.”

Off the control room is Beach Road’s 26-ft. x 30-ft. live room which features 24-ft. ceilings and rough pine walls. Bands are able to load in quickly through double doors right off the parking lot, which, Meier explains, inhabits the space of an old barn that once sat on the property. “I was actually here when the barn blew down one summer and when we built the studio, we just put gravel over the foundation and that became our parking lot.”

toysMoving up to the second floor, clients will find a roughly 26-ft. x 26-ft. lounge area that doubles as a meeting space and a separate writing/editing room equipped with an Apex SD2 desk, Apple Mac Pro dual 2.66 Quad Core, and 20-in. Cinema Display running Pro Tools 10HD and Logic Pro 9. Upstairs, there’s also a small office and a 13-ft. x 12-ft. dedicated mastering room featuring two custom audio workstations running Samplitude ProX & Pro Tools 10 for recording/capturing with three 27-in. displays. Here, too, there is a variety of custom outboard gear and monitoring options, including KEF Reference Series 201/2s, JBL L56s, PSB IIs, Avantone Mixcubes, and a Tannoy TS-10 Subwoofer.

With A Little Help From Your Friends

While the days of the dedicated, destination studio aren’t completely over, it’s fair to say that, with some exceptions, opening such a space – particularly well outside a heavily populated urban area – would generally be considered a dubious undertaking. Increasingly, music producers and mixers are building their own spaces to work in. For some, it’s an effort to keep costs down; for others, it’s a matter of comfort and the result of a preference for working out of a space designed and equipped exactly the way they like it.

Dreaming of owning and operating a destination studio a la Morin Heights is one thing; building it and running it at a time when many similar facilities have long since closed their doors is another, but Meier’s business model seems to work very well. And while it’s never been easier to make records in your own kitchen or basement, he’s found that many artists still want to experience the traditional recording process, tracking and mixing in a place where they can hunker down, shut the world out, and just work like hell.

Meier first broke ground on the property in summer 2006 and within a few months the space, though incomplete, was functional. “It was a basic warehouse building,” he recalls. “At the time, we had enough money to put it together, but I haven’t had albums that sold zillions of copies or made money in royalties. I’m not wealthy. It looked rough, but we were able to make cash and keep going. I set up a basic rig so we could continue to put money into the studio and survive.”

His ability to make it work, however, isn’t just a result of continuing to work through the construction process or the demand for such a space, but stems from the adoption of a decidedly DIY process that depended heavily on a little help from his friends. “Essentially,” he says, “we did as many little trades and barter deals as possible, because what else do you do when you don’t have money? You make it work and you figure it out.”

That’s where Robbie McCowan, lead singer/songwriter for the band Chasing Mercury came in. McCowan and Meier met in the early 2000s when Meier was still working out of his London apartment. “We had Sig produce five songs with Chasing Mercury when we first released music,” McCowan says. “Sig mentioned he needed a studio. I mentioned I did carpentry and one day he asked me to build him a place.”

“I hadn’t seen his work,” Meier adds, “but I based his skill level on his guitar playing. If he’d been a shitty guitar player I probably would have never approached him about it, but he’s an amazing player, so I thought, ‘There’s no way this guy sucks at anything.’ He’s very meticulous.”

tape machineThe deal was that McCowan and his brother, both of whom have a background in construction, would build the studio and Meier would provide his services to make the band’s debut record, Midnight at the Ball. After having plans drawn up by a local architect and breaking ground, the process took roughly three years, with Meier and the McCowan brothers working on the room when Meier wasn’t in it and when McCowan wasn’t on tour.

“One thing that made the process easier than it could have been otherwise was the location,” McCowan says. “Isolation between the indoors and outdoors wasn’t really an issue. The main issue was isolation between the control room and live room.” To keep costs down they built many of the acoustic treatments required for the project themselves, in some cases, from scratch. “It was a huge learning experience for both of us.”

Luckily, they had a good teacher to guide them in OIART’s Program Co-ordinator and Registrar Lee While, a friend of Meier’s who teaches acoustics and audio mathematics at the school. “Obviously Siegfried didn’t have infinite resources, but he really wanted to put some work into the acoustics and create a space that was going to be functional acoustically as well as aesthetically,” While says. “Initially, he approached me and said, ‘How can we do this on a budget and avoid the common problems people fall into when they’re designing a studio?’”

live roomJob one was coming up with the ideal dimensions and room ratio for the live room and control room. “One of the things that was an absolute must as far as Siegfried was concerned was that he wanted the recording floor to be as large as possible. He wanted a big, reverberant, but pleasant-sounding space. That’s why he ended up going with the rough pine, because that’s something we’d worked with before and, as far as acoustic properties go, it lends itself to a really nice reverberant quality – the right kind of RT 60 – for tracking drums.”

As far as the actual treatment was concerned, While continues: “For additional LF control we went with some passive absorption corner traps in the control room. For those we used the Rockwool 8-lbs. per cubic foot density mineral fibre and there’s also a bass trap/absorption panel we put right over top of the mix position.” All were custom-built, While explains, as was a quadratic residue diffuser with an effective range of roughly 400 Hz to 3,000 Hz for mid range and HF control they mounted on the back wall of the control room.

“The other challenge we had was isolation, which on a budget is incredibly difficult to do, but the studio is in the country and in the middle of nowhere,” While says, laughing. “So we weren’t so much worried about external noise.” They did need separation between the control and tracking rooms, however. “There are actually two walls with airspace between them, and each wall has a high-quality exterior patio door built into it, which doubles as the control room window.” While describes the control room floor as a “quasi-floated floor” comprised of a Canadian-made acoustic treatment called Sonopan loaded below plywood and a 3/4-in. oak strip.

As much as budget was a consideration, Meier’s DIY approach was also a product of his desire to make sure he would know his room inside and out. “He wanted to know how everything worked,” While says, “because it’s his space and he wanted to know exactly what the acoustic treatments are, what problems they address, and how to build them himself.”

The Bottom Line

masteringMeier’s insistence on creating a space like Beach Road is rooted to some extent in a passion for old and new school technology and recording techniques. “I’m a Pro Tools guy, but I love gear,” he says. “One of the things that’s pissed me off over the last few years is operating systems and plug-in upgrades. I’m not getting anything extra for the two or three hundred bucks I spend on a plug-in upgrade. I just get to keep using it. That doesn’t happen in the analog world. If I buy a piece of gear that sounds cool, unless it breaks, I get to use it forever. And if it does break, I’ll fix it.”

The business can be tough, he admits: “For better or for worse, people are going to record in their basements, but it’s cyclical and bands still want a place where they can record, get away from the city, hang out, really focus, and be creative. I’ve got a lot of colleagues who’ve lost their spaces – people who opened the same time we did but in leased buildings. I knew right away that there was no way I’d be putting any money into someone else’s building. When you do construction in a building you rent or lease, if you decide to leave or the business fails, you can’t take your construction with you.

“Studios like mine that are producer-run seem to be what more and more bands are looking for these days. When a band contacts me, I ask them first and foremost what they want to spend and then I tailor the session and the production to their budget. You just can’t have a place where you need to be making X amount of dollars per day to keep it running – people just can’t work like that anymore.” And that fits in just fine with the DIY ethic employed at Beach Road Studios.

Sounding Off On Sound

Sounding offOne special piece Meier loves to discuss is his customized Neve 1290. He explains:

“Basically it’s a 1073 without an EQ, which is called a 1290. I use it on the mix buss at all times. It’s a mic preamp, so it’s interfaced with a Folcrom passive mix buss, which drops the level to roughly -35dB and then needs to be matched with a mic pre for impedance reasons.

Any pre can be used, but I’ve always found my custom 1290s sound incredible here. I use them when mixing, but I’ve found that running a guitar or bass buss, when tracking through the Folcrom and 1290, adds an incredible thickness and glue that isn’t matched by anything. I only recently finished this unit although I’ve had 10 of my custom 1290s in heavy use on records the last five years. Using a resistive passive buss (copper traces and resistors only) and a Neve amp for makeup gain is essentially the basis behind the old vintage 80 series of Neve consoles. The only difference, in their case, was a 1272 line amp that did the makeup gain, and it was a line amp, not a mic amp; however, the mic amp has a thicker, meatier tone and three different gain stages. Having the output fader on these I’m able to increase the input mic gain to the desired tone and beef, and turn down the fader so as not to clip the next stage.

I also stuck a pair of VU meters on it as well for visual monitoring, which is a nice way to have RMS metering on the output of mixing in Pro Tools. The Dorrough works, too, but real VUs are real VUs. Nothing touches ‘em.

Okay, nerd talk over.”

END

Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.

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