After years out of commission, the Grand Cru barge is providing world-class recording and mixing facilities once again from its new berth in London’s St. Katharine Docks. David Davies went along to speak to its ‘captain’, producer/engineer Myles Clarke.
The tradition of boat-bound recording studios hasn’t been the subject of too much coverage over the years, but in fact it is far from being marginal. Among more recent examples one need only think of Lightship 95 – the recording and mastering facility situated aboard a 550 tonne ship permanently moored at Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London – or The Nutmeg, producer and musician Thomas Dolby’s converted lifeboat studio in Suffolk.
But it is arguably the Grand Cru that boasts the most distinguished and varied history of any ship-based recording facility. Occupying a vintage 30m-long Dutch barge, the studio was instigated in the late 1970s by Who guitarist and creative force Pete Townshend, with design and build courtesy of Eddie Veale. Moored alongside another of Townshend’s many studio facilities, The Boathouse in Twickenham – which became the home of Eel Pie Sound and Oceanic Studios – Grand Cru was used primarily for his own projects, although producer and Lightning Seeds leader Ian Broudie was among other regular visitors.
By the mid-Noughties the studio had largely fallen into disuse, but having sold the Boathouse in 2008 Townshend and his long-term collaborator, producer/engineer Myles Clarke, began to contemplate a refurbishment of the Grand Cru. One of the primary aims of the project was to provide a permanent space for Clarke, whose previous facility in East London had become “uncertain”.
After five years of work (including the addition of a striking coat of bright blue paint), the studio is open for business once more in its vibrant new surroundings of St. Katharine Docks near Tower Bridge. “It’s a very nice area in which to record,” says Clarke, gesturing towards the marina’s many bars and restaurants, “and we are offering it at a rate that I feel is highly competitive. It just goes to show that you don’t have to go to some place with a corrugated iron roof in Acton or Tottenham…”
Let’s see action
A CV that includes an extended stint at Strongroom and work with acts including Slow Club, Divine Comedy, Sparkadia, Lou Reed and St Etienne attests to Clarke’s expertise and versatility. But it is Townshend with whom he is most closely associated, having been involved in numerous new and archival projects during the 14 years since he went freelance, including The Who’s first studio album in 24 years, Endless Wire (2006), and the deluxe ‘Director’s Cut’ edition of the band’s 1974 classic, Quadrophenia (2011).
Most recently, Clarke mixed a new orchestral version of the last-named album, entitled Classic Quadrophenia, which was overseen by Townshend and his partner, orchestrator/composer Rachel Fuller. Grand Cru is still owned by Townshend, and Clarke confirms that the working relationship is ongoing: “I am always ready for involvement with his projects as and when they happen.” For now, however, the focus is firmly on attracting external acts to work on the boat.
“We’ve just had Matt Edwards’ blues trio in here, recording live except for the vocal, and we’ve also been working with a Brighton-based act called Honey’s Dream Tapes, who are a bit reminiscent of Beach House and Fleetwood Mac,” says Clarke. “There will obviously be short bookings, but we also hope that this is the kind of place that people will want to go to for 2-4 weeks at a time. My experience suggests that this is a studio that can be used as the basis for an album – we have really good equipment and a great sounding room, and we can do everything from recording to mastering in one place.”
Best of old and new
Reinforcing Clarke’s assertion is an impressive permanent spec that combines new and vintage gear in a studio that feels surprisingly spacious. Positioned centrally in the studio is a recently-acquired SSL AWS948 console, which Clarke feels to be significantly superior to the AWS900 that previously occupied the space. Pro Tools 10 is used for the vast majority of recording – although a Thunderbolt-enabled laptop with Pro Tools 12 is available – whilst there is the ability to record to tape thanks to vintage Ampex ATR102 1/2” 2-track and Studer A827 8-track machines.
Principal monitoring is courtesy of a pair of Focal SM9s, about which Clarke has nothing but positive comments to make: “We have had those for four years and we’re still very happy with them; they sound fantastic.” Genelec 8030A studio monitors and a sub are also available for those wishing to work in 5.1.
As might be expected given Townshend’s decades-long interest in recording technology – “I don’t think he will mind me saying that he loves to build studios!” – Grand Cru is also home to an enviable collection of outboard. Substantially derived from the former Oceanic Studios, but with a number of additions made over the last few years, the list includes Amek Pure Path and Focusrite ISA430 channel strips, Neve 1066 and 1073 mic pres, Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor compressors, a Lexicon 224 plate reverb and an AKG BX15 spring reverb.
The microphone collection is also extensive and is heavy on models from the AKG, Neumann and Shure families. A Fender Deluxe Reverb and Vox T-25 are among the featured amplifiers, while Gibson SG Classic and Les Paul Deluxe guitars, a Yamaha Avant Grand piano, and Ludwig Super Classic drum-kit are included on the permanent instrument spec. Further additions are likely to be made in the near-future: “I am going to be adding a bass or two, plus Pete has been talking about a nice electric 12-string…”
A competitive edge
“We have a really fine inventory of equipment, and we are able to get a great sound in here,” says Clarke, who also highlights the contribution of assistant Jonathan Hucks to a host of current projects. But equally, he is “under no illusions” about the challenging nature of the British studio scene – or indeed the fortunate position in which he now finds himself.
“We have pretty low overheads – much less than you might think – and of course we have a great history to draw on in terms of the boat’s heritage and Pete’s involvement,” he concludes. “We won’t get U2 in here due to the space restrictions… but we might get The Edge! [Laughs] It is a nice area in which to work, and I am glad to say that we have plenty of bookings lined up. I am aware that conditions are tough out there, but I have a feeling that it will work out.”
Pictures, top to bottom: Shipshape – Myles Clarke at St Katharine Docks; Plenty of outboard onboard – Pro Tools and a Studer A827; Below decks, it's a proper studio; Grand Cru blues