Hook End Studios, formerly Sarm Hook End, is once again ready to apply for the position of Europe's finest residential recording facility, writes Dave Robinson
Now under the ownership of linguist, musician and businessman Mark White, the studio, based in the grounds of the enchanting 16th century 10-bedroom Hook End Manor, was put up for sale for a cool £12 million by legendary producer Trevor Horn in September 2007. White, who has lived in Russia for 16 years, says he and his wife were "looking for a family home in the UK" when an estate agent friend suggested Hook End. "We came and had a look and were shocked by the size of the studio - but we fell in love with the place. And when we bought it, we decided to keep the studio open."
That's an understatement. Having negotiated with Horn to retain most of the equipment at the site, the savvy quasi-Muscovite is investing heavily in his purchase: both in the 1920s-style oak-panelled main house, which has seen ownership by Ten Years After's Alvin Lee and Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour; and in the famous recording suite, which has played host to countless famous names over the years (check out the online guestbook to find out who).
White has trebled the amount of vintage and classic analogue outboard installed; souped up the loudspeakers with PMC MB2-XBD Active monitors; and brought in an HD5 expanded Pro Tools system with the capability of 112 inputs and outputs using SSL iBox interfaces together with 96 channels of Euphonix A-D/D-A converters, fully routable via a 12 x 556 in/out MADI router to the 80-channel SSL 9000 J.
"It was basically an analogue system of live room, SSL desk, tape and outboard. Presumably Sarm rented in rigs, or brought them up from London, when they needed them. So I filled it out with gear. I wanted the ability to do everything digitally, or everything analogue." (Two Studer A827 24-track machines are available should clients request them, along with a plentiful supply of tape.)
White and his team, which includes long-standing in-house manager Mark Collins, have repainted the control room and are in the process of replacing the fabric on the walls of the three live booths, stained by years of nicotine abuse. Bedrooms in the glorious mansion - some designed by Gilmour, some by financier Charles Clore - are being modernised over the next few months, while keeping their individual and eccentric character (the Zebra Room, the RAF Room, etc).
Last year saw Jamiroquai and Spandau Ballet spend time at Hook End, recording albums due for imminent release. Now it's time to move things up a gear.
"I want to keep it open, and run it commercially, as well as use it myself. But we're not under the pressure other people are under today," says White. "Within a few years, the way studios are closing, it might be the last residential left."
Collins, who worked for Trevor Horn for 10 years, is more than pleased that White has saved the facility. "There was a time when we thought it might have just become a private house. It's brilliant that we are still here as, I would say, the best residential studio in Europe."
Bill Ward of Langdale Technical Consulting (and previously Newfield King) has also become part of the Hook End rebirth. With Ward, it's more of an emotional thing. "The last thing I did before I left Sarm was put that desk [the SSL] in," he says. "It's quite bizarre coming back after 10 years."
White says of Ward: "Bill wanted to be involved with the studio again because, well, he built it. And I'm quite happy to have people here who love and know the place."
Ward has an extensive knowledge of Hook End's infrastructure and oversaw the installation of the latest outboard gear and other additions. "My company, Langdale, builds studios and designs systems; if you are not careful, the studio [you build] wants maintenance cover, and you can't do that, not if you are a small operation. But with Hook End, I can't keep away!"
As White begins publicising his fabulous - and arguably brave - acquisition to the wider world, are there any last-minute items on his shopping list? "If something old and valve-ish pops up - and it's my birthday - then I'll think about buying it…" he says with a twinkle in his eye.