Gabon Studio

The best after dinner story that Studio People MD Peter Keeling has to tell begins with an unexpected telephone call posing the question: ‘what will it take to create the best studio in the world?’.

And it continues with, ‘the studio was to be a gift for the President of Gabon – it absolutely had to be finished on time because it’s for his birthday’. This is that story…

‘It caught me off guard a bit, as it’s not a question we get asked every day,’ Keeling recalls. ‘But I got some details about the technical requirements that would be necessary, what role the studio would play, the sort of projects that it would be used for. It quickly became clear that we’d need to start from the ground up – quite literally. We would have to start by putting up a building to house the studio…

Inside the temporary studio‘At that point, I had a figure of around £500,000 in mind, which would pretty much cover the building of the studio. Some might say that’s quite a modest sum given the brief, but if a client specifies quality, not quantity, it’s about selecting the right equipment for their needs.’

Submitting a quote prompted a speedy response: ‘It was a Tuesday and the client came back and asked if I could come over to Gabon the next day for a meeting,’ Keeling says. ‘Gabon is six hours from Paris by plane, so after looking at some flights I suggested Friday might be more practical.

Serious business

When a Business Class ticket arrived to meet the caller in Africa, he realised it was a serious enquiry. And when Keeling disembarked in Gabon, he discovered more about the project and why there were so few limitations…

‘When I arrived, I was met at the airport and whisked off to the office of the guy I’d been speaking to.

‘We were told that the president’s wife would like to sit in the living room area and watch him in the studio, so they would need a big TV for her. My client asked what sizes of screen were available, so I suggested a 103-inch screen would suffice. He asked if there was anything bigger so I got on to Matt who found out that Panasonic do a 150-inch screen, but the cost for one of those approached £500,000. At that point he quite reasonably opted for the 103-inch screen, but decided he’d better take two. He then asked if we could equip and supply a mobile studio as part of the package. After a little thought I said yes, so we added that to our growing “to do” list.’

Designing a recording studio from scratch with few limitations is not as easy as you might think: ‘I got on the CAD with a big blank screen,’ Keeling says. ‘If you are told that you can build anything you like, you end up looking at a big blank screen and wondering where to begin. So I started with co-ordinates 0:0 and kept working up and right, filling in all the details – control room in the middle, big desk, huge racks and a massive window through to a huge live room.

Assembling the temporary studio in the villa‘I did a drawing of a great studio and my technical colleague Matt Seymour put together a really brilliant wish list. I mean, imagine all the kit you would want to put into the perfect studio. Even if the project had not turned out to be legitimate it was a great exercise.

‘But we managed to put together a great list of the best gear you can imagine.’

This included desks from SSL; outboard from the likes of Empirical Labs, Neve and Maselec; monitors from Genelec and Dynaudio; a full Avid Pro Tools system; and mics from just about everyone.

A search for suitable premises began. Keeling recruited TSP’s Chris Smout to join the search and they decided to set the main studio up in a temporary villa location in time for the president’s birthday as, by this point, there wasn’t time to erect the actual building that would house the studio within it – and there was the mobile studio, which had to be completed alongside the main studio.

‘We all agreed that the villa would be a great place for the birthday presentation,’ Keeling says. ‘Chris was then taken to a new palace that was just being constructed, a huge building probably about the size of Buckingham Palace. Here he was taken down to a sub-floor level and into a huge room that the president had had built – the eventual permanent space for the studio.

The project began to take shape – the main studio would be given a temporary home in order to meet the looking deadline, and would be accompanied by a second, mobile, studio. When the deadline had passed, there would be a second phase of work to relocate the main studio to its permanent home.

Then there was the matter of funding…

‘At this point we hadn’t had any advance payment,’ Keeling reveals. ‘The final step before we could really pull out the stops was to sign a binding contract, which we did in Paris a few days later. We agreed that we would get the mobile studio plus the gear for the main studio out to Gabon by the 8 February. With the deal signed, we were told to expect the first down payment imminently.’

‘When we returned to the UK, we started on the project. We got the trailer for the mobile studio and had to work right through Christmas as fitting out a mobile studio with such high specifications in the allotted time was going to be tight. But we got on to the design, and got the kit organised.

‘The budget for the kit for the mobile and the main studio came to around £800,000. Can you imagine trying to organise that and buy it in the time we had? But we got all the Macs, the Pro Tools set-up, an SSL Duality desk, loads of outboard and all the kit for the mobile studio.

‘Then we waited for that first payment, which alarmingly didn’t come on the day promised. Nerves were getting a little frayed at that point, as we didn’t actually have a deal until the money turned up.’

Happily, the funds showed up the following Monday: ‘At this point we knew it was really happening,’ Keeling says. ‘So we cracked on and got the trailer ready to ship by 5 January – easily ready for delivery on 6 February.’

In the air tonight

The studio arrivesIn addition to the design and equipment procurement, there was transportation to consider. And with the deadline just weeks away, the original shipping arrangements fell through…

‘We got on to various air freight companies who all told us that our shipment was too large to fit – the studio gear was fine, but the mobile exceeded standard container sizes.’

Air Charter had a Russian Antonov AN124 transport at their disposal. Designed for strategic heavy lifting during the Cold War, it was perfect. And expensive.

A cool $550,000 would cover the charter flight from East Midlands to Libreville (Gabon) – a significant additional cost but one that would have to be paid in order for the TSP team to have any chance to hitting the deadline. The airlift was agreed and the operation was back on track. TSP got the kit, including the fully loaded trailer complete with studio pre-installed and set-up, on to the plane.

‘The mobile studio has an SSL AWS924 console in there, which we screwed to the floor for transport,’ Keeling explains. ‘All the doors had locks on as the truck was going to be moving around. Usually when you build a studio you don’t have to worry about it travelling at 35,000 feet – or even being driven across a road. Careful shipping meant that it all worked and got there in one piece, so all they had to do was plug some power into it and they were good to go. At the other end they had a lorry to come and pick up the trailer, so with the airlift completed we turned our attention towards installing the main studio kit into the villa.

‘At this stage we had just three weeks before the birthday deadline, but we didn’t actually have the authority to go into the villa. So we sat around for two weeks while permissions were sorted. Eventually we got the go-ahead, with just four days to complete the job. The next 96 hours turned in to one massive shift.’

The team worked night and day, but completed everything in time. Then it was time for the unveiling.

Gabon studio‘We got it all up and working and I must admit it all looked great, Keeling says. ‘The president turned up, walked in and just went “wow!” He shook our hands and was obviously pleased with what we’d done – he was a really nice bloke.’

‘Did we design and build the best studio in the world?’ Keeling reflects. ‘I would say that we did, but it’s not a question that can easily be answered. I don’t want to sound like a politician, but what do you define as the best studio? If you just take the mixing desk, the two products that you might consider are SSL and Neve. Which is best? Well that depends on what you are doing. And in terms of the other studios around the world, they all have their niche attractions – you wouldn’t record a teenage rock band at Abbey Road, for example. It’s all about the environment, the engineers, not necessarily the kit.

‘So the right question should be: did we build the best studio for that client and in that environment? And the answer to that is a definite “yes”.’

Right now The Studio People team is waiting for the palace building to be completed so that phase two of the job can begin. Keeling’s not sure when the call will come, but he’s confident that it will and knows that this time he will be ready.

‘I think we will get the call to do the final permanent install when the time comes, as now they have all this fantastic kit that they need to put in a proper space,’ he says.

‘When we were in Paris, waiting to sign the deal, I asked the client how they’d heard of us,’ Keeling muses. ‘He told us that it had come from another studio build company whose name he couldn’t remember. So another company, a competitor, had put them on to us, probably not believing that they actually would build this perfect studio. And it turned out to be the biggest job we’ve ever had.’


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