A young person's guide to greening the recording studio

How Real World Studios and Greenpeace are opening doors to green recording studios and gigs

Wikipedia – Open Source
From a certain perspective there's a veritable gulf between the music industry and the environmental movement. You rarely find discussion or action within the modern music corporation about sustainability and the environment. There's scant focus on the energy use of concerts or performance equipment. Nor, for that matter on the industries servicing music, from CD factories and record sleeve printer's, to those making and selling instrument and recording equipment. When it comes to touring one hardly hears anything about travel miles let alone sustainability relating to the backdrop in which music is consumed and organised from; the concert halls and buildings and offices of record companies, management offices, associated music media and the plethora of small operations are based in and work out of.

And yet, there's a case to be made that the seedbed of rock, jazz, punk, world and other music movements since the sixties have been underpinned by shared cultural energies to those which brought the coming of the greens. There's an overlap zeitgeist wise, between the high tide of rock music, the late sixties and early seventies, and the arrival of the green movement, from the early seventies onwards. Not dissimilarly, the crossover between the music buying public and supporters of Greenpeace, or Friends of the Earth is palpable. The ever-present popularity of the out-door music festival, closer to and in part, an unconscious celebration of nature, is explicitly symbolised by the Glastonbury Festival. One music related path, music technologies early years - from hi-fi technology to amplification systems - was a strand of - in perception at least, - the seventies Radical Technology movement, itself an expression of proto-green thinking. Related if askance to these overlaps, is the Indi music scene, a similar statement about scale, albeit in a different setting, to E F Schumacher's Small is Beautiful .

If you go looking for meeting spaces between the music industry and sustainability, they can, even if rare, be found. Consider, for instance, the greening of the recording studio. Although, so far, I didn't find any studio consciously highlighting its green credentials, there's definitely a few signposting the path to be taken. Easily the most highly visible opened in the small Wiltshire village of Box, Wiltshire a half dozen years ago, Peter Gabriel's Wiltshire Real World recording studio.

Eco Studios
This said, Gabriel's sustainability brief doesn't sound overly ambitious. During a phone interview, FCB director Peter Clegg, notes that there wasn't an ecological brief as such, before adding that both parties, "had a vague desire to do things properly." While the architects led the design Gabriel was very involved, contributing ideas as the process progressed.

Patrick Dougherty - Big Willow
For Clegg, the Real World studios contain four primary ecological characteristics: Energy use, material issues, the internal health of the building, and the buildings atmosphere, the 'ambience' as he calls it.

The first, energy, was addressed through a variety of reduction strategies although Clegg notes he feels 'a bit guilty' that he didn't consider this more seriously. A more detailed analysis of energy consumption could have been conducted, but wasn't. Noting the how low energy lighting and in some other domestic equipment reduce the energy running costs of Real World's domestic equipment Clegg notes that similar technology could be applied to mixing desks, such studio equipment as the mixing desk, you could begin comparable revolution. It could happen, says Clegg, "if the desire was there."

The recording studio is a mix of old and new, Gabriel having bought an old water mill building, to house the primary studio, with further studio space in a further new building bedecked in a zinc facade sitting beside a pond in front of the mill. For the seventeenth century mill's interiors there's a similar emphasis on a mixed material palette, though emphasising maintaining as much of the building in its original state as possible. The floors are from second-hand oak wood, while the above ground level walkways employ steel, Clegg describing it as a natural – " 'it doesn't pretend to be anything else'. In the new control room building there was a concrete frame, steel again, and core cork - as well as lead, with an oxidised coating to prevent the control rooms walls and roof degrading.

Real World/WOMAD www.womad.org complex is a watershed experiment in fusing green design practise with the musical world of recording studios and rehearsal facilities. Significantly underwritten by Gabriel's massive selling 1985 break-through album So, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/So_%28album%29 Box studios is arguably the furthest step any established 'star' has gone in greening the practice of recording, and is - so far - unique project in the music world. It is designed by FeildenCleggBradley www.fcbstudios.com, one of the pioneer first generation sustainable architecture in Britain, working out of nearby Bath.

Real World/WOMAD complex is a watershed experiment in fusing green design practise with the musical world of recording studios and rehearsal facilities. Significantly underwritten by Gabriel’s massive selling 1985 break-through album So, Box studios is arguably the furthest step any established 'star' has gone in greening the practice of recording, and is - so far - unique project in the music world. It is designed by FeildenCleggBradley, one of the pioneer first generation sustainable architecture in Britain, working out of nearby Bath. 

As for the internal health of the building, the focus was reducing air pollutants in the air conditioning. Natural internal materials, for instance, timber rather than formaldehyde panels were also chosen.
Eco studios
Eco studios
Eco studio
In conversation with the architects, Gabriel had said that he often felt ill and nauseous in many of the recording studio's he'd been in. The musician believed, though couldn't prove, that this was due to the air conditioning, citing materials of the air-con's duct work, and particularly negative ions. In response to Gabriel's request FCB researched and specified timber and clay ductwork, hardly obvious materials for air conditioning. The studio, stone room, workroom and mixing room were air-conditioned, whilst natural ventilation was adopted for non-acoustically sensitive parts of the buildings. With vitrified clay ducts in the studio and timber glulam ducts in workrooms, plus sheet metal ductwork where this could be tucked away out of view.

The studios principal design and engineering challenge was focused on delivering the quality of acoustics, which professional musicians assume are part of a recording facility. A number of proposals were tested to control the airborne and structure-borne sound, both from and to the studio complex in relation to the outside; acoustically suspended floors and walls, triple glazing, and silencing of inlet and exhaust ducts. As a result the main studio's floor and mixing room was designed to include a secondary floor independent of the main structure, comprised of a 200 mm reinforced concrete slab sitting on rubber anti-vibration mountings.

In relation to the studio’s feel or ambience, plastic was reduced as much as possible while the design sought to draw as much natural light as possible into the buildings, without any adverse affects on the balance of the air conditioning. Natural lighting goes against prevailing approaches to studios, which are often a series of rooms within larger buildings, far from any sources of natural light. Although complex due to natural lights effect on air conditioning, Box’s north-facing windows were built in, to look out at the Mill’s water pond, and provide a real connection with the outside world. The water coursing down the ByBrook River tributary and the watermill into the site, added significantly to studio’s appeal, even if there wasn’t any attempt at reviving a working watermill.

There is also a small timber-framed writing room, which has proved popular with musicians, although it is neither air-conditioned nor sound sealed from the outside noise. There were other problems, namely that it was a few yards from the main London to Bristol railway line (it isn't named Box for nothing) and when 125 trains thunder pass, the silence was deafening. Musicians had tried to get round this by playing in between the trains; in fact Nigel Kennedy apparently once timed his quartet to play movements lasting just short of the interval between trains.
Eco studios
Eco studios
Eco studio

Clegg parried a question about using local materials, such as Cotswold stone, and the provenance of the timber. Regionalism wasn't the issue, he said. Nor was it a matter of conservation of style either, and the conservation of materials. This wasn't part of the practise's remit. They were, he exclaimed, quite happy to import cheap timber from Canada, during times when global material was 'stunningly' cheap, and local materials' excessively expensive. Almost the entire architectural world, including the vast majority of ecologically motivated architecture and design, wouldn't be anywhere without the modern technology upon which global transport is predicated, Clegg continued. Tell that to the Permaculturists, I thought, but sympathised with the pragmatics of the example Clegg provided, the ubiquitous silicon in double-glazing. In a subsequent conversation with Owen Leech, Real World's studio manager Leech noted that a feasibility study for solar and water turbine power was begun – water power was a particular possibility as much of the studio stands within the river sited Mill. These energy sources hit a brick wall however, when it was realised how much the installation costs would be; £30,000 for the installation of turbines, which would go on to need regular cleaning and maintenance. As it is, the electrical supply is generated from a 300kVA substation at the grounds edge, supplying a main distribution board which in turn supplies lighting, small power and mechanical services control panel as well as offices, accommodation and store areas. All this, Leech pointed out made the electricity bill 'phenomenally expensive'.

In the aftermath of Real World' studio Box, FeildenCleggBradley undertook work for the Eurythmics Dave Stewart in the south of France, and one of Box's studio engineers carried out consultancy for a studio, but the notion of major league studios organised around elements of green design principles stalled. Box remains in a category of its own, a signal step in the confluence of ecology and music.

FeildenCleggBradley also designed the new Greenpeace building in London. And Greenpeace in turn are also experimenting with the crossover between music technology and green energy. Cyrus, Greenpeace's solar-powered recording studio is a mobile electricity generator, which can be transported to any site, from temporary studios in the middle of a forest to the heart of music festivals. Receiving its energy direct from the sun's light beams, Cyrus carries 40 one-foot-by-four-foot solar panels, plus a four-ton bank of batteries. When exposed to sunlight the panels charge the batteries up to nearly 2000 watts. They can store 100, 000 watt hours of electricity, allowing it to run an average British house for several days, or a hundred electric bar fires for one hour each. The generator can be hardwired into the distribution panel of any accessible building, and Greenpeace claim it is suited to amplification, video and recording, and computers, producing, one Greenpeace person involved in the project described as 'a particularly pure electricity.' The Cyrus trailer is pulled 5 by a diesel tractor converted to run on 'Biodiesel,' a soya-bean derived product.

So far, Greenpeace have used Cyrus to promote the idea of mobile alternative energy. The project was launched around the 1995 Alternative NRG compilation album, featuring famous and not so famous rock musicians. It's since gone on to help power 1995's Glastonbury Festival and a host of other Festivals and events around Europe, and also the States. Cyrus has demonstrated that such mobile generators are realisable, and can be used in a variety of energy-need situations, not only the rock context. The trance outfit Orbital recorded a recent album with Cyrus solar electricity powering their recording studio. It's easy to envisage a fleet of several dozen Cyrus's used for all sorts of purposes, such as television outside broadcasts. You do need sunny skies for the best results. If it's a summer thing, it's a suggestive summer thing, Cyrus adding another notch in this nascent role call of examples of how to cross-fuse one scene, the music scene with the other, the green scene.


This is a version of a piece, which originally appeared in the 1996, Floating World edition of Fourth Door Review, no 2/3. Things have moved on a bit since, although not that much really.