Building a great studio or music venue is an art (see how we did it in a home here). It requires the right acoustics, a welcoming environment and is easy to use. In a small and complex business, some may know speaker brands or the finished products, but rarely the names of those who design and help build the actual studio or concert spaces. Legendary studio Designer John Storyk has built some of the most famous rooms around the world like Electric Lady Studios in New York City, the famed recording studio for Jimi Hendrix, the stunning Jazz Lincoln Center (the view on Columbus Circle is second to none), the Swiss Parliament and more.
Storyk is celebrating fifty years of his acoustic consulting and A/V integration firm WSDG, which has worked on the iconic rooms mentioned above and so many more. He has built private studios for some of music’s biggest stars like Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys and Green Day, in addition to broadcast spaces and teaching studios.
We chat with him about what makes Electric Lady Studios so special (hint there is an actual reason in the building they discovered later), what you can do at home to make your space as good as possible and how new materials have opened up a whole new world for studio design.
How did you get your start in the business?
Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Lady Studios was my first project, and it came about through a series of serendipitous events in 1968. First, I graduate in ’68 from architecture school at Princeton and, since I was in a band, I moved to NYC for fame and fortune in the summer of ’68. I ended up moving to Greenwich Village and got a day job as an architect, since I was very good with drafting and had been doing this for numerous summer jobs.
Then I’m waiting in line one night for an ice cream cone and I pick up a copy of the East Village Other. I saw an ad that said, “Wanted: carpenters to work for free on experimental night club.” It seemed like a nice idea at 10:00pm on a hot August night. So I put 10 cents in the rotary phone, rang the number and 30 minutes later, found myself on the upper west side meeting these crazy guys who had this idea to make an experimental club in a loft in SoHo. I agreed to build this thing at night if they let me redesign it, which I did. It opens in November, it is on the cover of Life Magazine in February of ’69, and my life changed on a dime. Everybody who was anybody would go to this 64-person club because it was one of the cool things to do in New York. One of the people who went through it one night was Jimi Hendrix, who was in the process of buying a club on 8th Street called The Generation — a place where blues musicians used to go to.
I literally got a call from Jimi’s manager one night, and I don’t even know how they got my number. “Do you want to design a club for Jimi?” Of course I said, “Yes.” I went up to his manager’s office on 37th street and listened to what they wanted to do, which was make this white club that changed lights and had circles and curves and what not. It seemed perfect for me so I did that design, which is dated February, 1969 - 50 years ago. Of course the excitement was amazing. At the last minute, Jimi’s producer / engineer Eddie Kramer convinced Jimi to not open up the club, which would have had a small recording booth in back of the room. Eddie convinced him to scrap the club and make a full-on recording studio, because he didn’t want to have anything to do with clubs but needed a studio having just come over from England. He also reminded Jimi’s manager that he was running up tremendous recording studio bills. And so the club became a studio, and my first commission disappeared just as fast as it came. I wanted to strangle Eddie until he said, “You can stay and do the studio.” I reminded him of one small problem that I had never even been in a studio. He said, “That’s fine, see if you can learn everything you have to learn.”
So I quit my job and created my own internship with another acoustical engineer who was well known for his work on radio stations, Bob Hansen. Together we did all the isolation details. I did his drafting for free by day for free and studied at night. A year and four months later, Electric Lady got built and I was down there almost every single day. It was only in the middle of the project I realized that this basement location was right below a movie theater that I had admired for years, designed by my idol Frederick Kiesler, the Viennese architect who had come over in 1927 to do this building. Kiesler really only did two buildings in his life: this building, which was the first movie theater in the U.S. not to have a stage, very advanced for its time, in the ground floor of this building. I knew the building from pictures, but had no idea it was in the same building. The studio opens, and before it opened I had three more studio commissions to do. Life changed in the summer of ’69 — Woodstock — and I have basically never looked back. I was introduced to Albert Grossman and was designing Bearsville Studios. Suddenly, I was in the same universe as world-class musicians — guys like Leon Russel, Todd Rundgren. So I stopped playing music because I was intimidated by all these rock stars. I regret that a little bit, but I guess it worked out OK.
What is the first thing you look at when sound proofing and installing sound materials (panels etc) in a large space?
Not that much different than in a small space. The larger the space, the less concerned we are with interfering low frequency modes. Why? Because the first order of standing waves gets lower and lower. In fact, as the space gets bigger, that first order of standing wave gets subsonic. It goes below what you can hear. So the fact is that smaller spaces are harder to deal with vis-à-vis low frequencies than big ones. In big spaces, we are usually just dealing with intelligibility and reverb times, so I am looking at target reverb times for that space, and trying to figure out how I’m going to get it. Of course in really big spaces, we also have to think about what spaces sound like when they are empty, and when they are full. You don’t really have to deal with that in small spaces. In small spaces, we are dealing with the room proportions and first order reflections. Large spaces, we are dealing with average reverb time and how are we going to treat the surfaces in order to accomplish that.
What can people at home do to help make their living room / room sound better without breaking the bank or destroying the building?
At home, obviously you could start tackling surface treatments and whatnot. But my approach in living rooms is usually the following: no one wants to change anything, so the best thing in a living room is to try to deal with orientation. Usually I can make a bigger change by possibly repositioning the speakers. Maybe by moving them off of the wall a little bit, so you don’t get speaker bounce, or speaker boundary interference also known as SBIR.
Also a lot of living rooms now are mini-media centers and they have subs so another trick is to position the sub correctly. This can make a huge difference in how the lower frequencies sound without changing the room at all. So I would try to tackle geometry first — both speaker geometry and seating position geometry first — before I start changing individual surfaces. Of course when we are designing a living room from scratch, if it is a ground up or a brand new building, then we have a lot more flexibility. We can have absorbing sheetrock if we want ceilings to be white and hard but still absorptive. We can suggest that certain surfaces become more diffusive. There are many more things we can do if we are starting from a white pallet, but if it is an existing living room, I will try to get the geometry straight first.
What has been the biggest change sound design for rooms change over the past 50 years?
I guess digital technology has allowed many things to happen. For me, the most exciting thing has been that it has made it easier to acquire and use affordable measuring and prediction tools. Fifty years ago, I am guessing, and it’s lucky that I guessed right. Electric Lady’s live room is still one of the great live rooms in New York and the world. It does sound good. But it wasn’t until about 25 years after it opened that I even got to know why it worked and measured it. And it’s not because there’s a subway nearby, there’s water under the floor, or Jimi’s vibe is in the walls. That’s all interesting lore, but that’s not what’s going on. What’s going on in that room is an amazing ability to control low frequency, and it’s happening because of the ceiling. The ceiling is essentially a giant membrane absorber. I thought intuitively that by making an absorber out of air entrained plaster that was relatively thin that it would dampen the low frequencies. And by making it a propeller shape, this meant that it is not parallel to the floor so we didn’t have any flutter echo. Little did I know that what I was actually making was a giant membrane absorber, which gives the tight sound in that room which musicians seem to like. But I had no idea and I certainly couldn’t measure this in 1968.
How do you balance getting the sound right and making the space still aesthetically pleasing?
That’s what we do and that’s the challenge. This is what we do every day: we look at architecture, we try to solve programming solutions, we try to make shapes exciting, and we try to make people become emotional when they walk into rooms. At the same time, we need our rooms to have a kind of neutrality because they are workspaces, they are workshops. They have to reflect the spirit and signature of its owners, particularly personal studios. Then we have to balance it with great acoustics. That is in fact what we do.
What are challenges of modern rooms that are filled with technology, glass and plastic?
Plastic and glass do not need to be your enemies anymore. I can have a 10’ x 10’ clear plastic wall that is more absorptive with curtains, I can have wood that is absorptive, and I can have curtains that are reflective. We have the ability right now to almost make any material do anything we want, and that is one of the great things that has happened in the last 10 or 20 years. We also have the ability to test these materials very accurately. That has also spawned a new industry. 50 years ago, there was really no “acoustic products” industry. The first industry was the people who made acoustic ceiling tiles — called ACT. If you went to the yellow pages and looked up acoustical contractor, it was usually someone who put in ceiling tiles. They took the ubiquitous 2’ x 2’ lay in ceiling tile and called them acoustical ceiling tiles, which we now have a billion square feet of it all over the world in airports and whatnot. But there is nothing more acoustical about that ceiling tile than a piece of plywood. It just absorbs sound at speech frequencies — which is useful in airports, but not particularly useful in studios. What would be more useful in studios might be plywood aimed at a certain direction because I want to control reflections. Every material is acoustic, you just have to understand what it is doing.
What has been your favorite building that you worked on?
My favorite project is the one that is on my boards, the one I am working on now. I am usually in the middle of designing 2, 3, 4 things at the same time, pure design. Right now, we are designing a studio in Germany for a pretty well known company, a ground up studio in Nashville, and extension to a radio station inside a theater building. These are the projects this week, this month. So those are my favorites.
In retrospect, it is hard for me to think about my favorite, particularly because we are in the 50th anniversary window. The Electric Lady story and the moment when I realized that where I was working was in the basement of a Frederick Kiesler designed theater is still one of those amazing moments for me. I can literally remember the moment when I discovered this — it was when I went to file the drawings myself. They had the original blueprints, rolled them out and there is Frederick Kiesler’s name on it and it all clicked. I remember saying to myself “this is a pretty cool looking theater” - and there were only a few remnants left of the original 1929 theater. But I hadn’t connected the dots - I didn’t realize this was the 1929 Film Guild, I don’t know if anybody knew that back in 1968. But when I saw his name on the drawings, I was like “Oh my God, I’ve been playing around in this building and I am now redesigning the basement of Frederick Kiesler’s building.”
In school, my three favorite architects were Frederick Kiesler, Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright. To this day, they are still my three favorite architects. That moment was a game changer. I am always looking at buildings, but the game changing moments always involve the people in my life. Most of these people I have met, but some are people I haven’t met, from another era. Like the Wright Brothers, who I’ve obviously never met but have read a lot about. Albert Grossman also influenced me.
What do you look for in prospective employees at WSDG?
It depends on what we are looking for. The next generation of leaders and owners are in place and so they are kind of always working on that. The first thing I ask is “Do you like living in the Hudson Valley?” and then depending on what we are looking for, specific skills, etcetera. It would be nice if they knew architecture and music and acoustics. It is kind of hard to find people that are really good in all those subjects, and people who want to live and work in Highland, NY. It doesn’t come around that often. We are happy if we are able to get two out of those three, it is actually really tough.