Based in Wiltshire, England, Real World Studios was conceived by renowned singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel and developed on the site of a 200-year-old water mill. Nestled in beautiful countryside, the studios not only offer state of the art equipment for recording artists, but also post-production and foley recording facilities. What´s more, clients of the studios can take advantage of onsite cottage accommodation and enjoy food cooked by RWS´s very own chef, granting them the freedom to fully absorb themselves in their creativity.
Staff at RWS are fans of iZotope audio software, so we got in touch with them to find out more about what the studios have to offer and how they are using iZotope´s award-winning products in their set-ups. Recording engineers Oli Jacobs, Patrick Phillips and Tim Oliver together with Andrew Wilson of Red Six give us the low down...
So, let´s start at the beginning, what were Peter Gabriel´s reasons for choosing this particular site for his studios and what was his overall vision for the design?
When Peter had finished the album So, he decided it was time to move from Ashcombe House to a permanent recording facility. The most important thing about the location for Peter was to be close to water. Peter, David Stallbaumer and Mike Large looked at several sites - usually old mills - in the Bath area and once they found this one with the river running under the building it was a no-brainer. It had the size and space they wanted, a lovely river and was situated in a beautiful part of the world, easily accessible from London with the city of Bath less than 8 miles away.
Peter’s vision was always of big spaces highly accessible to daylight where artists could look out as well as in. The vision of Real World is that everyone can work together in one space. The musicians have the option to record in an environment where they are not separated from the engineer/producer by glass. The aim is that people perform to the best of their abilities, in a less-pressured, more relaxed atmosphere where communication is instant and uninhibited.
What was the condition of the building/land like before the development work commenced?
The studio complex was originally a mill until the late 1950s. At that point, the buildings were turned into offices which had to be completely stripped and refurbished as studios. The old building didn’t have any foundations as there was loads of concrete being poured (for isolation) we had to underpin and put the whole mill on new foundations. The big room didn’t exist at all before we built it!
Were there any unexpected obstacles that cropped up as the work progressed?
Not really - though building with the river running through the site always had its challenges.
The studio hosts three main studio rooms, can you run us through the design and purpose of each of these?
We have several rooms, all of which can function in different ways. The Big Room is our largest space and also the largest purpose-built control room in Europe. It is designed to be a place where musicians and engineers can collaborate in the same space (alongside the numerous acoustic screens we have as well as two isolation booths). This room also doubles up as a 7.1 Dolby certified film mixing room.
The Big Room is often used in conjunction with the Wood Room and in this setup the Big Room functions as a control room with the Wood Room primarily as a live room. The acoustic of the Wood Room is far more characterful and it offers isolation from the Big Room as well as an amazing sound which has appeared on many great records. In recent years we have opened the Wood Room up as a stand-alone studio with a mobile recording rig situated within the room itself. This has become a very common way for the studio to be booked. A lot of people love working without walls between musicians and engineers.
We also have a film post-production/mixing room -The Red Room. This is a surround-sound equipped room designed for smaller music mixing projects, film mixing and ADR recording.
There are also smaller edit rooms/production rooms located on the site and the future is looking good. Who knows… there may be more rooms opening soon…
Which well-known artists have recorded in these rooms and why do you think they choose to record specifically at Real World Studios?
The list is fairly extensive so here are a few: Kylie, Tom Jones, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Robbie Williams, Massive Attack, Happy Mondays, New Order, Coldplay, Stereophonics, Joss Stone, Van Morrison, Rudimental, Paloma Faith, Robert Plant, Elbow, Sade and Goldfrapp.
As for choosing Real World; people come here primarily for the great sounding rooms and huge selection of impressive, well-maintained equipment; coupled with our friendly and knowledgeable staff. What sets us apart from the rest? Lack of distractions and the best sounding rooms. At Real World, food and accommodation are taken care of so musicians can focus on the music and only the music.
In terms of hardware, what key items of gear can be found in the studio set-ups?
The Big Room is based on a custom-built 72 channel SSL 9000K, surrounded by a mountain of vintage outboard equipment and pre-amplifiers. We also have a portable SSL AWS which often makes an appearance in the Wood Room; also with outboard and additional pre-amplifiers.
The Red Room is based on an Avid D-Control console and run by our re-recording expert, Andrew Wilson.
Our computer systems are based on Mac Pros running ProTools HD 11 with one or two HDX cards per rig.
Are you primarily Mac or PC based? Or both?
Mac… everything is mac (or analogue tape!)!
I can’t remember the last time we used a PC... maybe the security systems are PC though!
And in terms of software, which DAW/s are you using and why?
ProTools is still the go-to software for us. Its integration with other software and other studios makes it the only real choice. We are running 11HD with HDX cards and a mixture of the new HDIO interfaces and older 192 interfaces. However, we occasionally get requests for other DAWs, and are able to run most of them on our systems.
You also now have extensive post-production rooms – what facilities do these incorporate?
The Big Room doubles up as a post-production film mix room which is Dolby certified. It has an HD projector, custom Exigy 7.1 monitoring and a choice of console, normally centred around an Avid controller.
The Red Room is our smaller post-production room. It is equipped with 7.1 surround sound and an Avid D-Control control surface. It makes a great space for performing ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement), as it is fully equipped with all of the equipment (such as streamers) needed to do this.
We also have a Foley Stage run by Phil Jenkins with a team of exceptional foley artists. It is one of the largest and acoustically quiet spaces of its kind in the UK (noise floor 17dBA), and with a wide range of props, good surfaces and high-end equipment it’s possible to record foley to the highest standard.
Can you run us through some of the post-production projects you´ve worked on?
Response from Andrew Wilson, Real World Post/Red Six
Some of the more interesting projects I´ve mixed in the last few years have been natural history documentaries for the cinema, including "African Cats", "Chimpanzee", "Bears" and "Monkey Kingdom" for Disneynature. These films are shot almost entirely mute, and the sound effects have to be built up from nothing - many sounds come from scientists, libraries and wild tracks the cameraman has been able to grab. It´s a big ask to get everything cleaned up and matching in a way that´s believable to the viewer. There´s a huge amount of foley too. Prior to these, I mixed a great deal of the BBC´s natural history output, including "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth" as well as many other award-winning TV series.
I´ve also mixed the documentary features "The Legend of Shorty" and "Garnet´s Gold". Both of these were largely self-shot by cameraman-directors, and "Shorty" in particular had to be very covert when shooting. This led to some very challenging dialogue which needed extensive work to get it up to scratch. Other projects include features (8 Minutes Idle), TV documentaries (BBC, Discovery etc), Animation (Aardman, Wonky Films) and one-offs for museum and gallery installations. We also record ADR - the last session was with Nicholas Cage - and do nearfield /DVD remixes of movies.
What´s been the most unusual sounds that have been recorded in the foley room?
Response by Andrew Wilson, Real World Post/Red Six
The foley requirement for natural history films is huge. In particular we have to cover all sorts of bodily functions - which calls for some lateral thinking. When the footage shows predators eating freshly-killed prey we can´t be "method" and use a carcass for hygiene (and cost) reasons. Plus it never sounds like the sound you imagine you want to hear! As a rule if what´s being eaten is squishy you´re probably hearing oranges being mushed-up, or a wet chamois leather. If it´s crunchy it might be celery. If stuff is ripping it may just be an orange being peeled very close to a mic.
We also often shoot foley at 96 (or 192) kHz so as to be able to run it at half or quarter speed to get the effect we want.
Not strictly foley, but I also used iZotope Iris a fair bit to create atmospheres for a documentary detailing what goes on inside the sun.
The team at Real World Studios are great fans of iZotope software, in particular, RX 4 (audio repair and enhancement software). How long have you been using the software and how were you introduced to it?
We were first introduced to it via the Peter Gabriel team. Peter’s engineer, Dickie Chappell, had been using it to clean up old recordings. When we saw the power of RX we were keen to get our hands on it too.
On which type of projects do you use RX at the studios (music, films, foley work etc)?
All of the above really. Our film post department are probably the guys using it the most often, but we often use it in mixing and restoration projects.
Which features and tools of RX 4 do you primarily rely on and why?
Response from Andrew Wilson, Real World Post/Red Six
Spectral repair is a real godsend - the visual options make it easy to identify the problem sounds. A recent project featured animal calls which had been recorded in a zoo - the animal was too rare and elusive in the wild, and though it´s possible to film on a long lens you can´t get close with a mic as they just run off. The problem was the other animals nearby in the zoo are not found on even the same continent as the one in question! These calls - mostly birds - are so easy to spot and remove using spectral repair. In addition, the de-noise tools are used extensively. An unexpected technique has been to de-click or de-crackle foley involving leaves and grasses; it "freshens" the sound making the plant matter seem more alive, and makes it sound more like a field recording than a studio-shot foley.
Can you run us through some other real-life scenarios where RX 4 has ´come to the rescue’?
We’re quite lucky in that the studio itself is extremely quiet and clicks/noise is rare, so it’s infrequent that we urgently need RX 4 on projects that have been recorded here. However, RX has often come to the rescue in restoration projects.
One of our engineers recently remixed an album that was recorded 20 years ago, on analogue 24-track tape. iZotope was used to de-noise several sections.
We often mix projects that have been recorded outside of Real World (one route is through the e-mixing service we offer) and as such we cannot guarantee the quality of the recorded audio that we end up working with. RX can be invaluable in these instances for cleaning up noisy audio and the odd clipped file.
Finally, what would you say to someone who is considering purchasing RX but is yet to take the plunge?
RX is a really great tool because it is fast and very simple to use, with the option to explore more advanced controls for the more experienced user. Above all it does the job extremely well in many situations, especially when time is of the essence. So… take the plunge!