Resolution Facility Feature: Marshall Studios
Posted on: Monday 14th of February 2022
Take a tour of the new Marshall recording facility with NIGEL JOPSON, who finds the iconic amp brand have turned the dial to 11.
This article first appeared in Resolution V21.5
When you’re recording rock music, there’s one classic amp topping the list: Marshall! The British backline mainstay is unusual as an MI manufacturer in that practically every process – from woodcutting and metal-bending through circuit assembly – is completed on-site at their factory in Bletchley, Milton Keynes. In recent years Marshall has added wi-fi speakers and headphones to the product line, acquired drum-maker Natal, and in 2017 started a record label — now the legendary amp-maker has built a fantastic recording studio.
Arriving to view the new studio, we were taken aback at the scale of the project. “This has been a passion project for the Marshall team,” said commercial director Alex Coombes, “our ambition was to build a versatile and flexible commercial multimedia facility to serve the modern entertainment market, and at the same time to promote young talent and give
something back to the artist and producer community.”
The facility is constructed on the site of an old hall behind the factory, with private car park adjacent. This is not just a recording or amp-demo room — this is a full-blown multimedia facility, with a live room capable of accommodating an audience of up to 250.
The entrance to the single-story building gives onto a spacious reception area, with video screens, a bar (complete with Marshall branded beer taps) and a reception area. It’s easy to imagine this space being used to welcome guests before a showcase performance or album launch event. A corridor links to the control room and huge recording space, capable of accommodating an orchestral ensemble or audience, with a stage at one end and a loading bay behind the stage. Adjacent to the stage is an artist green room, with the live area in front of the green room having a slightly lower ceiling height giving a more damped acoustic. The ceiling in front of the stage holds four lighting trusses, with sufficient space to accommodate film crews and cameras if required. The loading bay behind the stage has a large through-wall cable fap, enabling an OB or video truck to be positioned in the car park.
“I think we can do everything here,” says studio manager Adam Beer. “We’ve got a world-class recording studio, it’s a showcase venue and we can do video recording — for product reviews, podcasts, live streams — you name it! We’ve set up a place that can allow creative people to fulfil their potential, whatever they want to do. I think it’s a massive vote of confidence in the creative industry from Marshall themselves. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to run this studio — this is a ‘limitless’ building.”
Beer arrived at Marshall after a decade of experience in both recording and live sound, and has specified equipment with an eye on flexibility and connectivity.
“Every part of the building has a mic tie line, a speaker output, and an instrument output for guitar amps, plus you’ve got data via RJ45 for monitoring or remote connection via six Focusrite RedNet AM2,” explains Beer. “We can take any Dante mic preamp, put it anywhere in the building, it will come into our main network and we can record it directly. It means that the whole building is effectively the studio, even the office at the top!”
With an eye to the detail, we like the little Marshall logo on all the custom mic boxes — and the black elephant grain Tolex wrap on the panels.
Neve will rock you
Stepping into the control room, a massive vintage Neve 8048 40-channel console, with a separate custom analogue patchbay installed to the left side, confirms Marshall’s serious ambition with the facility. Making some final adjustments is Blake Devitt, vintage-expert par excellence, well known for his work in repairing and reconstructing all things Neve, and
responsible for many classic re-builds including Paul Epworth’s console at The Church studios (Resolution V13.8), ICP studios in Belgium, and Miloco’s Pool studio.
The Marshall console frame came from EMI Pathé-Marconi studio in Paris and is populated by a selection of Devitt’s hand-tweaked modules. To the left are 24 channels with 1093 modules, whilst the right 16 channels include an additional mix of 1065, 1066 and 2065 modules.
“The patchbay would normally be at the end, making these consoles in their original form incredibly hard to move,” explains Devitt, “but I have re-positioned it to be free-standing to the left side of the desk in this control room. I had the remains of a BBC console, and I changed the shape of it to house the patchbay. I decided that what was needed was a ‘co-pilot seat’; vintage desks would always have two positions, but nowadays the assistant tends to hover, so I made the patchbay match the Neve layout in style and everything else. The console now disassembles into three pieces, making it very easy to move. I’ve even made the patch section ‘plug in’ in blocks of eight by changing the sockets underneath to refect custom confgurations, so the mixer can be linked to Pro Tools without flling the patchbay with a nest of cables.”
The Neve frame arrived with no EQs or line amps; an empty shell that hadn’t done any recording since it left the legendary Pathé studios.
“After splitting it into three pieces, I did functional modifications — in what, I believe, is the same manner Neve themselves would have made them if requested in 1974,” Devitt continues. “So no modern parts at all, all period parts, I put my whole collection of rare bits that I’ve found all over the world into this console — only Marinaire transformers, no St. Ives, are installed; all-discrete circuit boards, the things you can’t buy!”
Modern working styles are more suited to having a screen and keyboard in the centre of the console, so Devitt has re-confgured the frame to accommodate this layout. Sliding plates are provided to cover some of the modules to the right, in order to support a full orchestral score if required.
“I used the same concept when I rebuilt the 1975-vintage Neve for Question de Son Studio A in Paris: it was the first trial of the idea of putting a screen/producer table in the middle of a vintage console,” Devitt reveals. “It’s a lot of work, and you can end up with a very noisy ‘Frankenstein’ console if you do it wrong!”
Splitting the difference
Devitt has actually provided Marshall with two separate vintage Neves in one frame — with obvious modern workflow benefits as regards monitoring and grouping within Pro Tools. His aim was to speed up the transient performance of the mix bus, and “get it sounding more like an EMI Neve.”
The 16-channel section (situated where the returns would originally have been) is a completely separate console from the 24 modules to the left side. Three new low-noise busbars — including one for solo-in-place – have been made for the summing system.
“You’ve got two ‘fast’ summing systems rather than one big mix bus. I’m pleased to say you could really hear it on the drums during the test sessions. I’ve been able to get much more control over the noise floor and dynamics of the console this way.”
The redundant 3+4 rear speaker buttons on the modules can select to listen to any pair of busses without interrupting signal flow (e.g., stems). The first 24 channels have also been equipped with pre-eq inserts, a goodie which no other 8048 console boasts.
“By a happy coincidence the monitoring section was a 32-line return specification, so I’ve added an insert point on the monitor summing section so it can now be used as a [third!] independent mixer. The monitor section picks
studio recording rockers Bad Touch.
“I love the new studio — a fantastic live room big enough to track a band — in fact, big enough to track a decent-sized orchestra comfortably,” Sheldon told us. “The vintage Neve desk sounds glorious — anything coming through those mic pres sounds, well, better! A great microphone selection to covers all eventualities and if you can’t see something you like, lots of equipment is pretty much two minutes away in the factory … what’s not to like?”
Over 100 microphones are available, and the entire facility is equipped with tie lines, speaker connectors and AoIP Ethernet links. Four Focusrite RedNet A16R 24-bit 192kHz
16-channel analogue interfaces feed the Dante digital network, with an Avid HDX card providing the workstation link to Avid Pro Tools Ultimate. When we visited, the studio’s digital network was happily interfaced with a small treasure trove of classic outboard in Tolex- covered racks next to the Neve. We spotted six Audio Developments AD055 compressors, a pair of 1176LNs, a couple of dbx 160a, a Smart C2, Teletronix LA-2A and (quite rare) rack of eight APSI 562 EQs.
Studio manager Adam Beer made the point that the confguration of the studio will develop in a synergistic manner: “We will always have something to do, always have an evolution, and that’s so exciting. We’ll take feedback from artists, feedback from the professionals doing video and photography, and feedback from people in R&D at the factory; they’re going to be bringing in some equipment for us to use, we’ll get artists to respond to it, how they like it, how they don’t – the studio will really be a melting pot for talent.”
As Beer explained, the new studio forms a cornerstone of the company’s holistic approach to music: “Marshall not only have a record label, they also have a booking agency. So this really is a part of the whole ecosystem of Marshall. The young talent on the record label is incredible. I see the studio as making the record label really soar — you know, why go somewhere else when you can record in the world-class studio right next to the factory?”
Twenty years ago, a hot topic of conversation for myself and recording engineer colleagues was: who will build the large studios of the future? It was pretty clear that the wonderful facilities my peers and I had worked in lacked commercial justification, and studios like them would never again be built. Producer’s ‘project studios’ were fine for mixing, but would there still be large rooms to record live acts? Mixed media facilities like The Hospital in Covent Garden (Resolution V2.6) gave a clue as to a possible future direction, but it remained unclear who would actually be using such facilities. To be honest, those of us involved in building and specifying studios 20 years ago still had our heads in the era of major label budgets.
Marshall Records boss Steve Tannett – who started his career playing guitar with punk- rockers Menace – has a story about Miles Copeland watching one of his gigs and telling the band ‘Hey, wanna make a record? Turn up at the studio tomorrow!’ It is this freewheeling musician-friendly approach – more common in the ’70s than the later big-budget era, which Tannett hopes to recreate in spirit.
“It’s all designed to be the best possible experience for the musician, for the artist — it’s not bound up with any onerous terms and conditions or anything like that. We really are trying to be a bit revolutionary in what we are doing.”
Tannett, who was formerly head of IRS Records, thinks the new facility is a real winner: “I have considerable recording experience going back to when I was working as an A&R
guy, recording The Alarm’s first hit album [Declaration] at Abbey Road Studio 2 in 1983. When I look at what Marshall has built, I feel we actually have a technical ability that is on a par with top studios… there’s plenty of amazing talent that will be coming through soon! An important part of what I will be doing is introducing international artists and producers to this amazing studio,” Tannett continues, “there are so many artists globally who will be interested to come and record in this space because of the brand.”
Early in my recording career, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Marshall (who passed away in 2012, the year his company celebrated its 50th anniversary). At the time, Jim had brought along a new amp for Jef Beck to try, and I thought he would have plenty of ‘amp man’ talk. Instead, Jim was keen to discuss music stores, his drum playing and teaching (he had taught Mitch Mitchell, drummer with The Jimi Hendrix Experience) — and to ask a much younger me how I thought recorded music related to what audiences wanted to hear live. Marshall, the man, was super-focused on what musicians of the day needed to succeed — the design of his eponymous amplifiers fulfilled a pressing need, in an era when other amps often had the sound (and looks) of something better suited to a lounge organ or country fair. Despite his dominant market niche, Jim was keen to understand new developments in music. His holistic view helped Marshall, the company, become incredibly successful.
What is in desperately short supply for live musicians and bands today is a supportive framework to connect with audiences.
Currently, labels are structured in a way that drastically tilts to helping those who’ve already been successful with fairly narrow-genre music. Live bands need help finding venues, arranging tours, recording, streaming, releasing and distributing music. “Nowadays you need to be providing something for everyone, you’ve got to do everything and you’ve got to do everything well,” says Adam Beer. “I think that the spirit of Jim Marshall really lives on in this place; from what people tell me, this is exactly the kind of thing he’d be wanting us to do.”