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article imageJohn Storyk, designer of Electric Lady — (Part 2) Special

By Paul Wallis     Oct 17, 2019 in Entertainment
Part 2 of the fabulous John Storyk interview. In this part, we learn about his meeting with destiny and jimi Hendrix. This was an almost folk tale, and it's truly astonishing.
Hendrix was always said by his friends to be a very shy, thoughtful and highly intelligent guy. The studio itself has been a subject of awe for musicians ever since. What sort of input did he give you about Electric Lady and what he wanted?
Jimi had hired me to do the club. His idea for the club and then the idea for the studio, were not really that different. Everything would more or less be white and the lights would change. That was exactly what happened at Cerebrum, which was essentially a white box that had floating platforms. Light changes and projections made the space change its environment. It was a crude sensorium. We did it with Kodak projects and lights so one night it could look like Africa, the next night it would look like New England. Jimi loved curves and he wanted everything to be very smooth. And if you think about it, what he was really telling me and Eddie to do was asking us to create a project studio — an artist studio — in an era where there weren’t really very many artist studios.
Most of the studios at that time were boring and owned by the record companies or big conglomerates. Now, of course there are 50,000 project studios and everybody has a project studio. The idea that your studio could be cool looking, have your own color, have a plant or aquarium in it and a couch, was not the case in 1968, it was not what studios looked like. This was what he was asking us to do, but to me, since that was my first studio, I said, ‘OK, that seems logical’. Jimi’s manager was pretty shrewd and made sure that the studio was built to commercial specifications. It was in a commercial building and not in a house, so it could become commercialized when Jimi wasn’t using the studio.
Jimi in fact only used it for a few months because he died prematurely. It was obvious that he would go on the road for months at a time, and the plan was to rent it. Over 50 years, that has saved the day for Electric Lady, because now it is one of the premier legacy commercial studios in the world. There are probably only half a dozen premier legacy studios in the world.
For me, at the age of 22, none of this made any sense because I had no perspective. I just made it the way Jimi wanted it. His intention was that he would move in for months at a time. As a person, Jimi didn’t say very much. He was actually a pretty quiet and on the shy side. The few meetings we had with him he was always very quiet and very polite. He didn’t read drawings very well, but knew what he wanted.
How much impact is digital technology having on recording, particularly acoustic needs?
Digital recording, which resulted in Pro Tools, changed the day. Anyone who what they were looking at knew that the minute you could record digitally, the entry price of studios was going to be reduced by an order of magnitude. We were at the beginning of the end of the giant analog studio era. The real question is that which side of the train were you riding on? Did you get pushed out of the way because you were in front of the train, or did you hop onto one of the passenger cars and enjoy the ride? We were lucky. I don’t claim to be a futurist, but I guess I correctly grasped what I was looking at and realized that this was not a threat. We were in this age of big studios collapsing, and people got hurt.
But I just viewed it as there is going to be 10,000 more studios. Not all of them are going to be interested in what we do, but many of them will. Along with that technology came other kinds of really cool tools that were useful for designing and predicting. For instance, we can now listen to spaces from drawings — this was not possible 50 years ago. This is called auralization and we use it all the time. The tools that we have are extraordinary, and this has come about obviously because of the digital era and the digital age.
This also has its drawbacks though. I get people that apply for jobs in our office and they just don’t know how to draw. They can use computers, but they can’t draw and they cannot sketch. We have people graduating from high school that don’t understand calculus, they just know how to push the buttons on the pocket calculators. So there is a flip side to technology advances — but if you can balance the two universes, then you get the best of both worlds. We have balanced the two very well and the digital world hasn’t frightened me at all.
Alicia Keys’ Oven Studio is also one of your designs. She’s well-known as a musical gem in her own right with an incredibly high, meticulous quality of sound. So - How do you see the generational changes from Electric Lady to Oven Studio? Is it a different world?
When you speak of Alicia, you really have to speak of Annie Mincieli, her co-producer, Grammy award winning studio person and the conceiver of Jungle City Studios. Together, the two of them have been making records in the studio for a long time. Alicia is pretty extraordinary and is really good technically. She is also a classically trained musician. Her first ‘real’ studio was The Oven and some of the things that were learned on that project were how the equipment gets connected, workflow, size of rooms – and a lot of that was carried on into Jungle City.
Now there is a Jungle East and a Jungle West, mirror images of each other. So the earlier work becomes the newer work, and it is constantly evolving. At the time Jungle City opened, Alicia was the first person in NYC to get an SSL AWS - which was one of the first hybrid recording consoles. Then she went and got the more advanced version of that, called the Duality, and then a vintage EMI console and fixed it all up and used it as a side car for submixes. Extraordinary thinking on Annie’s part. She comes up with these ideas based on her workflow and learning experiences from Alicia at The Oven — we don’t take credit for any of that. Our job is to figure out how things fit in the room, how the wires integrate and how to make the room sound right. I’ve learned a lot working with both Alicia and Annie.
You’re a professor at Berklee College of Music. Acoustics and acoustic materials have evolved a lot since the 1970s, from egg cartons to acoustic baffles, soundproofing and performance acoustics technologies. How do you see the progression developing? Is tech a major acoustic factor, or does it just come along for the ride?
The science of acoustics is physics, and the language of acoustics is math. Like everyone else in our last 50 years, we’ve just learned a lot more and gotten a lot better at it. What everybody thought was a science was actually mostly an art and a little bit of witch doctor voodoo. I think what has really happened is that it has actually become a science and it has become democratized.
So what does that mean? If you have a phenomenon in the universe and you can’t measure it or quantify it or give it metrics, it is always going to stay in some kind of witch doctor mode. It is my word against your word. But the minute we can measure something, like your car is going 40 mph because we have a clock, a speedometer and a way to measure it, we can compare 45 mph with 50 mph and we are much smarter. We can have rules, standards. We can give tickets. We can have roads that work with different speeds.
So imagine that in acoustics — as long as acoustics is ‘well, that sound is a little bit boomy, or bouncy.’ Words that mean something to the person saying them, but they mean different things to different people. But the minute we say, “I want that room to have a 1kHz reverb time of between .6 and .7 seconds, that is interesting. That is information we can use. We can compare it to other rooms, we can measure it and we can predict it.
This is what’s happened in spades over the last 50 years. For me personally, every time a paradigm breakthrough that happened at that technical level, that was fire and fuel for me to keep working. The minute these measurements become easier to do — and they have become easier — they have become democratized. So you take the witch doctor thing out of the picture and you replace it with thousands and thousands of people being able to repeat the measurements and have confidence in them. We mix the architecture and acoustics to create interesting spaces where people can make music. I can hardly wait to learn something from somebody else.
A lot of musicians would love to know – What’s the best acoustic soundproofing material you can use without actually building an acoustic structure?
It depends on the situation. The key thing that has to happen for people trying to make studios is to understand whether you are talking about isolation acoustics or internal room acoustics. These are two different universes, and you need to address both of them. They use many of the same principles, but they deal with different things. Isolation acoustics is how to make rooms quiet, and also how to make sure you don’t bother your neighbors. It would deal with things like room within room construction, decoupled floors, spring loaded ceilings, multiple layers of sheetrock and plywood, isolated doors, sound locks, and quiet air conditioning ducts. But very few of these things have to do with how a room sounds when you put a speaker in it. I can have a bunker underground with 2 feet thick concrete walls — nobody hears anything — and it is an echo chamber. And you of course would not want to mix in that room.
On the other hand, I can have the most accurate room that I’ve ever done with perfect frequency response and time domain control, but I have two windows on the side and I hear a siren every time it comes by. So if I had to give one piece of advice, figure out which universe you want to talk about before you use the word soundproofing because it means different things to different people. Acoustic behavior is frequency dependent — things don’t behave the same way through the entire frequency domain.
So carpet could be very absorbent at high frequencies, but it doesn’t do anything for low frequencies. You could put carpet on all surfaces and it would sound dead and dry and maybe it would work for speech or high frequency instruments. But if you put a bass guitar in the room, it would sound boomy, because at 60 Hz, which is not even that low, the carpet is not absorbing anything. So one needs to try to figure out what frequencies to tackle. In a music recording studio we need all of them, and that’s what makes music studios are so complex and so difficult to do correctly.
How do you find musicians now, compared to “back when”? Are they driven innovators or wandering souls in the recording jungle?
I think musicians are generally more savvy than before. We are smarter, we have more magazines, the information is disseminated in a much livelier fashion. Most musicians have a little bit of recording knowledge. A lot of them have their own rigs, whereas you go back 50 years ago, musicians were pawns in the record business. You put them on the other side of the glass, they made the records, they left. They never went into the control room. That was one of the breakthroughs in the ‘60s. Jimi’s studios was one of the first to do it. The control room was big — why?
Because it was supposed to be home to the artists AND the engineers. You go back to the earlier studios, artists went in, then they went out. Some of those records were made in two hours — they never went in the control room because they weren’t invited and therefore had no knowledge of recording. I would say in general that the level of studio skills and technology awareness is clearly higher among musicians in general.
…So that’s the first 50 years for WSDG and John Storyk’s incredible story so far. If you want a definition of the whole idea of “design”, start here. This is what design is all about. It’s a roadmap of the progress of humanity, media, tech, arts, science, design and physics. It’s also a beacon for designers, and a virtual panorama of forward vision for the future. Best of luck for the next 50 years, WSDG and John Storyk.
John Storyk at Electric Lady
John Storyk at Electric Lady
Hummingbord Media Inc.
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