High life: Getting it together in the country at Highfield Studio25 November 2015
Located in the picturesque Essex hamlet of Bartholomew Green (population: 42), Highfield Studio in many ways epitomises the increasingly diverse nature of the small, independent recording studio. Its owner, Elliot Richardson, is something of a modern Renaissance man – part producer, live engineer, drummer/drum tutor, graphic designer and videographer – and, like Stoke Prior’s Creative Design Studios, featured in PSNEurope in August, Highfield offers a range of non-recording/mixing/music production services, including a video production, a rehearsal space, a green screen, a photo studio and party experiences (“the ultimate gift for music enthusiasts”).
“[T]hese skillsets have been fundamental in earning me a living [since I opened the studio],” explains Richardson (pictured). “And the parties are a no-brainer…”
Richardson grew up in Bartholomew Green, near Great Leighs, and originally founded the studio – with a little help from dad – as a rehearsal and recording space for his first band.
“I think other studios generally start from the same place: either owned or run by someone wealthy whose hobby has spiralled out of control, or as a rehearsal room whose owner likes the idea of recording the noise that goes on,” says Richardson, whose current band, Missing Andy, have supported Madness, The Wombats, Pigeon Detectives and The Specials’ Neville Staple, were runners-up on Sky 1 talent contest Must be the Music and whose most recent albums – Guerrilla Invasion parts 1 and 2 – charted at №s 9 and 10, respectively, on the UK Indie Chart. “With Highfield Studio, when you walk in you’re entering into the history and development of my own musical career [and] the knowledge I’ve gained through the steps taken with Missing Andy, so I guess – in a good way – we can relate well to the artist and all the struggles they have to go through with the beast that is ‘the music industry’.”
While he tracks the band, Richardson generally steers clear of producing Missing Andy: “We actually have five producers,” he explains, “[and] we all learnt the art of production from our manager, who was signed to Zomba [now Epic/RCA] some years ago, so it’s quite easy for me to just be a drummer and leave the production to everyone else.”
However, he says his being a drummer “definitely shows through in my mixes and productions” when mixing other bands: “I like it when drums are in your face, punchy, like they would be if you were sitting on the stool – that, after all, is what gets people moving.”
Richardson’s production style is also influenced by his background in live sound, which is “very much a part of my work these days. I have a regular gig with [Hertfordshire funk/soul act] Uncle Funk, which consists of an eight- or 10-piece line-up, which is great: I get to leave the studio and remember what ‘the great outdoors’ looks like!
“Live engineering has helped change the way I approach all my studio sessions. I once watched an interview with Rich Costey, who explained how he flies across the desk with a rough balance first, to get a mix sounding like ‘a record’, then fine-tunes from that point. Live sound for me is just more practice at exactly that process, meaning I can what I want to hear in the studio much faster.”
The transformation of Highfield from a makeshift recording room to professional studio was inspired by the increasing success of Missing Andy, says Richardson, and his exposure to some of Britain’s leading recording facilities. “As my band progressed I was fortunate enough to record in some of the UK’s best studios: Metropolis, Sarm West, Sphere and Miloco’s Livingstone and Square (Nottingham)” he explains. “From these experiences and from working alongside our engineer, Adrian Hall, I learnt a great deal about acoustic treatment and studio vibe.
“From this point on Highfield Studio v2.0 was born, and I had to teach my dad to build things […] in a non-linear way! (Highfield MkI had “perfectly straight walls, unquestionable right angles and office-style décor,” Richardson recalls.)
“All the building work was achieved by my dad and I with regular help from my studio engineer, Warren Woodcraft, whom I met at college and who also happens to have great building skills in addition to sound engineering…”
Is Dad still involved in any way? “Not any more, unless I have ideas for further expansion – and then I’d have to sweet-talk him into thinking it will benefit the business!”
Mixing- and monitoring-wise, Highfield is an all-Mackie affair, centred around an eight-bus Onyx 24 analogue desk and HR624 active studio monitors.
Outboard comes courtesy of Focusrite (Liquid Channel and ISA220 channel strips), Drawmer (1960 mic pre/valve compressor) and Harman (Lexicon Alex hardware reverb, dbx 31-band graphic EQ), among others, with headphones by beyerdynamic (two pairs of DT770s and four DT150s) and Bower & Wilkins (P5), a Logic Pro 9 DAW and veritable smorgasbord of microphones – including Rødes and Shures, a Coles 4104, an AKG C12 VR, a Royer R-121 and sE’s Rupert Neve-designed RNR1 – and plug-ins.
“My kit list began after I did work experience at a local studio,” says Richardson, explaining his choice of audio equipment. “I worked two jobs, day and night, to save up enough money to get my first set-up, then went straight to my pal Pistol Pete – the main producer at the studio – who he recommended a set of Event 20/20 monitors, a Mac Pro and a M-Audio Delta 10/10 [soundcard] to get me going. Buying
equipment after that has been easy: after visitingthe studios I’ve been to, you soon get to know what
the big boys use.”
Favourite bit of kit? “Always a tough question, but for me at this point in time it has to be the latest addition to the studio, the Fender Rhodes [electric piano], mainly because it’s just beautiful to play and sends me to my happy place when I’m killing time. After that it has to be our SSL Alpha-Link A–D converter, which has helped improve our sound no end.”
While rural north Essex may not seem like an obvious home to a thriving recording scene, Richardson says there are actually “a lot of studios in this area – in fact my bass player is currently building his own studio 10 minutes away from me as we speak”. Although he admits that there “may be competition” with other local studios – there are facilities near Chelmsford (AT Music Group, AllStar, Plus11, Studio 808), Witham (Soundmagic), Saffron Walden (Threecircles), Harlow (Woodbury) and Southend (Bleeding Ear) – Richardson “prefers to see them as a family network, like brothers from different mothers who are all in the trenches together trying to survive what could well be a dying industry.
“Anyone who can make decent enough money out of a ‘hobby job’ is a friend of mine, plus it’s all just friendly competition – ‘Have you heard the results so-and-so is getting?’ – so I just push harder to up my game.”