The future of sound at Metropolis

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The future of sound at Metropolis

Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, will.i.am, Rihanna, The Verve, Mark Ronson, Maroon 5, The Cure, Justin Bieber and Lana Del Rey are just some of the high profile artists who have recorded or been mastered at Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, yet this is the first time in 10 years that it has made a profit. But it’s a big place in an expensive part of the world and according to CEO Ian Brenchley it was the studio’s record label that put them into the black. He also made the point that of the 76 multichannel capable professional studios in London ten years ago only 10 remain today.

It’s a changing world and one that Metropolis has responded to by upgrading its main monitors in studio A. These are now PMC QB1As, substantial soffit mount active designs that outgun anything else in PMC’s large armoury but also offer extraordinary precision and resolution. Four 10inch carbon Nomex coned bass drivers are allied to a 75mm midrange dome and a 34mm tweeter in a cabinet that’s over a metre wide and weighs 150 kilos. These beasts are powered by nearly 5 kiloWatts of class D amplification with 4,000 Watts going to the bass drivers, 550 Watts to the mid and 275 Watts for the tweeter. Which all seems a little excessive until you put them into a heavily damped and unusually large control room like Studio A and then try to impress geezers from the pro audio world.

Keith Tonge pumps up the volume via PMC QB1A monitors in studio A

These guys are not used to clean power and despite the extreme muscularity and stop/start dexterity displayed with Koan Sound’s frankly alarming krunked up beats (technical term!) they bayed for more to the point where your’s truly had to run from the room in defence of his hearing.

In Studio B by contrast, Scandinavian monitoring specialists Genelec were trying to explain the issues surrounding the so-called loudness wars. This they illustrated with graphics showing the dynamic range of various recordings, comparing a 1958 Count Basie piece with something by Demons from 2012. The graphic difference revealed plenty of variety in the peak level of the Basie and virtually none in the ‘square wave’ of the newer recording. The latter sounded as bad as it looks while the Basie impressed the studio types with genuine stereo, something that is obviously not that common outside our world. The problem lies with bands wanting to sound like other bands, if Metallica can sell millions of units with less than 3dB dynamic range then they want to do the same and the situation is self perpetuating.

Genelec's Lars-Olof Janflod demonstrates the benefits of dynamic range to the sound wars generation

Upstairs mastering engineer Tony Cousins explained that he has to deal with this sort of thing every day. He considers his job is to make music intelligible and played a few before and after pieces that revealed just how subtle the work is. He explained that people often make music in a studio with a given set of monitors and then bring it to him to playback through his rather more accurate PMC BB5/XBD behemoths, with active drive from custom Bryston amps, and discover that it doesn’t sound the way they thought. His job is often to bring the final product around to the sound that the artist was aiming for in the studio, a classic art meets science interface where commercial pressure means you rarely get much time to achieve a result. He does this largely with EQ on a small desk that’s crammed with Maselec control panels and, on the day, a device called a Spacecraft that can be used to vary the width of the soundstage. This desk is a small box of tricks by studio standards but Tony has mastered releases by Robbie Williams, Paul Weller, Elton John, Tom Jones, Genesis and Adele among others with it. When asked if he uses headphones he said that he doesn’t usually but that he was very impressed with Audeze LCD-X phones because it was possible to listen for so long without fatigue. On the day of the event PMC had smuggled a pair of their new twenty5.21 bookshelf speakers onto Tony’s desk and he used these to illustrate some of the points he made. The remarkable thing about them is that they have virtually the same character as the two metre high BB5/XBD monitors behind them, albeit not the bass extension as you might expect.

Mastering engineer Tony Cousins on the dials

It is probably the obsession with loudness in mainstream music that makes life so difficult for large, quality driven complexes like Metropolis. You would hope that the sales achieved by the high profile acts that have used the facility would counteract this but it seems that only through diversification can any business survive. There’s a lesson there for those of us who depend on the hi-fi industry for our livelihood, but lord knows what it is!

Jason Kennedy