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article imageJohn Storyk, designer of Electric Lady studio, marks 50 years Special

By Paul Wallis     Oct 17, 2019 in Entertainment
New York City - Imagine being 22 years old, and your first design job is to create Electric Lady studio for Jimi Hendrix! That’s how John Storyk got started. Since then, he’s seen digital music arrive and the whole story from the heart of modern music ...
John Storyk and his company (WSDG) have a stellar story to tell after 50 years. The story covers a jaw-dropping wealth of artist recording, TV and broadcasting studios, homes, and literally thousands of design projects of all kinds.
John Storyk in the early days.
John Storyk in the early days.
Hummingbird Media Inc.
This level and sheer diversity of design projects is of itself unique. It’s five-decade picture of a staggering range of design in the major league for some of the world’s best known venues and artists. Over that time, even the tools of design, the physics of acoustics, and the entire global market have changed and evolved, with a lot of help from WSDG.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with John Storyk. If you’re a journalist, it’s a bit hard not to have a lot of questions for someone with this fabulous story to tell. Then (thankfully) I realised that it’d be a whole lot better to let him tell the story, and he was kind enough to give me this fabulous response. He also provided me with an extraordinary picture of the present and future of design, particularly for media and recording.
Grab something nice to eat and drink, and enjoy!
Design is a lifetime of personal discovery. Your portfolio of projects covers everything from stadiums to universities to the Swiss Parliament to Jazz at Lincoln Center and Electric Lady in Greenwich Village. How do you view your progression as a designer, from the early days to now?
It’s still one step in front of the other for me and I never really think I’m working. I get up every day and think about architecture and sound and what we hear - that is called acoustics. Due to some quirky events to me that happened at a young age, it seems that my work, which is client based, seems to be the nexus or the intersection of those two subjects. Obviously over 50 years my styles and observations have changed. I love to travel so I am constantly seeing new things.
On the other hand, the field of acoustics can’t be discussed without paying attention to technology. So I guess the biggest influence there is just a constantly changing technology landscape. Every time there is a new paradigm shift in how we listen to sound, how we produce sound, how we record sound and in particular how we predict and measure sound, that then influences me considerably. But it is still one day in front of the next.
What would you say are your most satisfying architectural designs, and why? (A designer’s practical views and perspectives are always different to those of outsiders, who usually don’t get the whole picture.)
From a 22 year old designer to this! One of John Storyk s designs comes to life.
From a 22 year old designer to this! One of John Storyk's designs comes to life.
Hummingbird Media Inc.
Most of my work is client based. We are not poets with blank white canvases. Even when we are presented a blank white canvas, it is really not blank and it is really not white because there is always a budget, a client, time restrictions and site considerations. I guess the most satisfying moments are when you are finished and when you thought that was going to happen actually happens. Unlike actors who get to take a bow every night, we rarely get to take a bow and sometimes we don’t even get ‘thank yous’. It’s kind of a strange line of work for a number of reasons. Maybe we get to see our completed projects once, and other times we never get to see our work again — particularly for private, high profile studios. In fact, about 1/3 of our projects we can’t talk about. We sign NDAs, (non-disclosure agreements) or the projects just don’t lend themselves to being discussed publicly. So we gotta take our bows in different ways, what I call ‘quiet applause’.
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Experience Hendrix
On every project, there is always that ‘aha’ moment that we are trying to accomplish. It could be a curve that we’ve been thinking about for years, or it could be a piece of technology. For instance, we were trying to figure out how to get speakers at ear level but also have a big piece of glass — because people like to look into a live room of a studio. Finally, we tried different ways of doing it and one day I remember saying, ‘Why don’t we just make the speaker be the glass’. And then one day we said, ‘Why don’t we put the speaker in the glass’. And we’ve actually learned how to do it and have done it now about six times. We have a project on the boards right now where we’re doing it again. And those are quiet moments of applause. We talk about it a little bit as a group and it makes us smile.
Most people don’t design recording studios, so they need to know - What are the big issues in studio design?
I’ve spent 50 years at the nexus of architects and acoustics. We are putting architecture and acoustics in a blender all the time and we don’t put one on top of the other — we try to get them to dance together. We think of these two subjects at the exact same time when we are on a project. After the dance is over, we throw in a little technology, and now you have your apple pie. You put it in the oven and hopefully it comes out nicely.
A modern recording studio  designed by John Storyk.
A modern recording studio, designed by John Storyk.
Hummingbird Media Inc
It is a wonderful field, and I can understand why there are not a lot of people doing it. I think it is because to do it correctly, you need to be an architect or understand architecture, you have to have a love for technology, and you also have to understand physics and the science of acoustics. Finally, you have to understand how to build things, because studios are buildings. They are not ideas or poems — they are real objects that get built with real building codes, budgets, contractors, materials, and all that stuff. Put all these things in the hopper at the same time and you’ve got to really love them.
Electric Lady is one of the most famous recording studios of all time. How did it come about that you designed it?
I came to design Electric Lady through a series of very serendipitous events when I was 22 years old. First, I graduate in ’68 from architecture school at Princeton and, since I was in a band, I moved to NYC for fame and fortune in the summer of ’68. I ended up moving to Greenwich Village and got a day job as an architect, since I was very good with drafting and had been doing this for numerous summer jobs.
Then I’m waiting in line one night for an ice cream cone and I pick up a copy of the East Village Other. I saw an ad that said, ‘Wanted: carpenters to work for free on an experimental night club.’ It seemed like a nice idea at 10:00 on a hot August night. So I put 10 cents in the rotary phone, rang the number and 30 minutes later, found myself on the upper west side meeting these crazy guys who had this idea to make an experimental club in a loft in SoHo. I agreed to build this thing at night if they let me redesign it, which I did. It opens in November, it is on the cover of Life Magazine in February of ’69, and my life changed on a dime.
Alicia Keys at Espaço das Américas in 2013
Alicia Keys at Espaço das Américas in 2013
Flickr user Focka
Everybody who was anybody would go to this 64-person club because it was one of the cool things to do in New York. One of the people who went through it one night was Jimi Hendrix, who was in the process of buying a club on 8th Street called The Generation — a place where blues musicians used to go to. I literally got a call from Jimi’s manager one night, and I don’t even know how they got my number. ‘Do you want to design a club for Jimi?’ Of course I said ‘Yes’. I went up to his manager’s office on 37th street and listened to what they wanted to do, which was make this white club that changed lights and had circles and curves and what not. It seemed perfect for me so I did that design, which is dated February, 1969 - 50 years ago.
Of course the excitement was amazing. At the last minute, Jimi’s producer / engineer Eddie Kramer convinced Jimi to not open up the club, which would have had a small recording booth in back of the room. Eddie convinced him to scrap the club and make a full-on recording studio, because he didn’t want to have anything to do with clubs but needed a studio having just come over from England. He also reminded Jimi’s manager that he was running up tremendous recording studio bills. And so the club became a studio, and my first commission disappeared just as fast as it came. I wanted to strangle Eddie until he said, ‘You can stay and do the studio.’ I reminded him of one small problem, that I had never even been in a studio. He said, “That’s fine, see if you can learn everything you have to learn.’
So I quit my job and created my own internship with another acoustical engineer who was well known for his work on radio stations, Bob Hansen. Together we did all the isolation details. I did his drafting for free by day for free and studied at night. A year and four months later, Electric Lady got built and i was down there almost every single day. It was only in the middle of the project I realized that this basement location was right below a movie theater that I had admired for years, designed by my idol Frederick Kiesler, the Viennese architect who had come over in 1927 to do this building. Kiesler really only did two buildings in his life: this building, which was the first movie theater in the U.S. not to have a stage, very advanced for its time, in the ground floor of this building. I knew the building from pictures, but had no idea it was in the same building. The studio opens, and before it opened I had three more studio commissions to do.
Life changed in the summer of ’69 — Woodstock — and I have basically never looked back. I was introduced to Albert Grossman and was designing Bearsville Studios. Suddenly, I was in the same universe as world class musicians — guys like Leon Russel, Todd Rundgren. So I stopped playing music because I was intimidated by all these rock stars. I regret that a little bit, but I guess it worked out OK.
See part two of the John Storyk interview on this link.
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