Hugh and Stanley at Sofa Sound. Photo by TF
Hugh Padgham seems very much at home at Sofa Sound Studio, arriving to do the interview together with his wife’s dog, Stanley, who is a star in his own right, having been immortalized in the Cath Kidston range of products. Hugh suggests we start the interview sat in the large control room between his beloved SSL G+ 64-channel console and racks of analogue processors. Beyond the SSL’s meter bridge is a window looking on into the live room, which is also home to the Yamaha upright and Wurlitzer electric pianos, a cabinet full of Hugh’s favourite microphones and a couple of acoustic screens on wheels.
“I would have liked a slightly bigger live room,” he admits, “but I was very lucky to have inherited the studio already made. I fell on my feet in that respect.”
To the right, a door leads into is a small control room containing the Pro Tools HD3 Accel rig and Studer A800 MkIII 24-track recorder. On the other side of the studio is the acoustically untreated entrance hall, which is still put to occasional good use.
“It’s very ambient,” says Hugh. “If you put microphones in the corridor and squash them with compressors, you can get a very good drum sound.” The corridor also has several very large windows which let natural light into the building, and through to the live room itself. “It’s lovely having these big windows, because daylight is uncommon in studios,” he continues. “Everyone who works here loves that side of it and if you are going to spend all day somewhere it may as well be somewhere nice.”
At the back, to the right of the stairs and elevator, are the two booths, the first of which is used for vocal recording, the second acting mainly as a storage area and home to the huge EMT 140 plate reverb, roughly the size of a double bed mattress standing on its edge.
One Lucky Owner
When Hugh first arrived at Stanley House, an Edwardian warehouse converted into a state-of-the-art studio complex by the previous owner, it was merely to look at the SSL console that was for sale. A few months later, not only did Hugh own the desk, he also owned Stanley House itself, including its bar and roof terrace! He is now clearly very proud to possess the property, having named the studio Sofa Sound and had it filled with all his favourite equipment, but he saw very little need to own or even run a studio until industry changes forced him to reevaluate his working methods. “In the old days there were hundreds of studios,” he explains, “so there was no point going to the expense of buying gear when someone else would pay for you to go into a studio that’s better than something you could afford to set up yourself, and I was used to working in the top studios. But by the mid ’90s the budgets weren’t paying for us to do vocal overdubs in studios costing £1200 a day, so my assistant and I set up a small room in the basement at The Townhouse Studios.
“We did our main recording work in the large studio, but could overdub using the booth in our room. For mixing we simply used the big studio again. Unfortunately the studio became harder to book because all the others in London were closing down, so I thought ‘Now’s the time to make the jump’. You can’t always dictate exactly when you are going to want to mix so it was all about finding a studio I could use when I needed to. Having that freedom is massive, really.”
Hugh’s plan was to rent out a suitable space and turn it into a studio, but first on his list of priorities was to find an analogue console, ideally an SSL, which were beginning to become relatively affordable.
“The weird thing is that even though there were loads on the market I was struggling to find the console that I wanted,” laughs Hugh. “I didn’t want it to be too old and ropey. I was looking for a new desk, but without moving fader automation. I’ve never liked seeing faders going up and down; it’s completely irrelevant to music as far as I’m concerned. Also, if you are going to have your own studio without a full-time maintenance engineer, you don’t want things that go wrong and they are more likely to go wrong. Secondly, I wanted VU meters rather than bar-graph ones. Bar-graph meters don’t really tell you anything. If you have them set to peak level they just tell you what peak is, whereas I can turn all the monitors down and pretty much tell you what instrument is playing just by looking at the movement of the needles. If you understand how VUs work they are much more informative. Again, bar-graph meters are more likely to go wrong.”
Eventually, Hugh found the SSL he wanted, which was installed at Stanley House. The console was in “incredibly good” condition, the only problem being that, being a G+ SSL, it was fitted with the standard G+ EQ rather than the much loved E type. “It’s a G+ console but I’ve always preferred the E EQ which has bass and treble ends that you can switch from bell to a shelf curves. The G+ EQ couldn’t do that and there are various other subtle differences, so I persuaded the company who sold it to me to swap the EQs. I ended up with the perfect console.”
During the conversation, Hugh asked the studio owner what he intended to do with the place once he’d sold the desk. It turned out that he was moving out altogether as was his business partner, who had blocked up the control room window to make the live area into a writing room. The control room was used purely for mixing at that point. Interested in renting the studio, Hugh spoke to the studio manager, and before he knew it, the place was his. “It was brilliant because I was expecting to take the console to another premises and then spend six months putting a studio together, but I inherited a proper studio!
“I was a tenant for four or five months before the owner declared he wanted to sell the building. My first thought was ‘I’m going to have to move everything out’, but I didn’t want to so I ended up buying it all. The people who converted the building into a studio also built loads of programming suites, which I now let out too.”