This article appears in the April 2021 issue of Professional Sound.
By Andrew Leyenhorst
Nestled comfortably away on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, Garth Richardson has spent years working on his state-of-the-art facility, The Farm Studios. The Juno Award-winning and Grammy-nominated producer carries a legendary reputation not only for his vast experience and mind-boggling list of credits, but also for the studio that he has been growing for nearly two decades.
The Farm Studios has been an ideal destination for a unique recording studio experience for many years, and through many iterations. In fact, it never really remains the same for very long before Richardson changes things up in some way or another; as such, the screeching halt to the industry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic provided a perfect opportunity for new additions to the experience at The Farm.
Going back in time, when Professional Sound last spoke with Richardson about renovations to The Farm in 2016, he told a story about the process of digging the first channel to run cable underground from building to building. The long and short of that story was, shovels are slow, use a backhoe. So, when Richardson decided last March to run Cat 6 cable all throughout the property as part of a new networked audio system, he bought a tractor and got to work.
While the previous underground cable runs tied the property’s main house to the band house where the control room was being moved at the time, the new Cat 6 lines serve a more compelling purpose beyond tying two buildings together. With the help Focusrite’s RedNet series of Dante-networked hardware, Richardson can now record anywhere on the seven-acre property. This includes the main house, the band house, the studio proper, the crew cabin, and even outside in the woods.
“I have a probably 500-ft. Cat 6 cable, so that if anybody wants to go out and record in the woods, they actually can. If you remember the Zeppelin record where they did some of it outside, [“Black Country Woman” from Physical Graffiti], I have always been in love with that whole fantasy of being able to do that,” Richardson explains. Of course, that’s just one of the options brought along with the new system. “I have the engineer’s cabin wired up, I have my live room wired up, I have my living room wired up, I even have my laundry room wired up. Billie Eilish did her record in her bedroom. I could top that. I did it in my laundry room,” he jokes.
In terms of the laundry room, Richardson says he actually intends to use it for guitar amps to keep space free on the live floor, and the convenience of the RedNet system really comes into play here. “I don’t have to run tons and tons of mic cables anymore, because it’s just one cable.”
The way it works is that Richardson can simply plug in one of his RedNet interfaces or mic pres into any of the Cat 6 jacks on the property, which use Dante to send the audio back to the control room instantly, without any loss in level or fidelity. Currently, Richardson is running the system off of two RedNet HD32R 32-channel Dante network bridges, and handles the recording at the source with three RedNet A16R 16-channel interfaces, a RedNet MP8R eight-channel mic pre and A/D converter, and a RedNet X2P 2x2 interface. He also has two RedNet AM2 headphone boxes for monitoring.
The Dante network saves an immense amount of time and effort, especially dealing with cable runs, as Richardson mentions. However, it’s the creative potential and immediacy of being able to simply plug in anywhere and go that really gives the system its appeal.
“When people come here knowing they can do things outside, there’s a whole new kind of excitement. Because people, to me, are so caught up on sitting on their laptops and it’s like, ‘Well, let’s do something different. Let’s go outside and let’s experience something that makes you f**king feel, right?’”
While he hasn’t had the opportunity to make full use of the system just yet, he does recall the excitement of recording outside in the past, and it’s hard not to be convinced to try it. “I did a song a long time ago where we did drums outside. They were phenomenal because they sounded like cannons since there was basically no reflections; it’s all open air. I’ve also put a Leslie cabinet outside, with two U87s out in the woods, and you could hear the birds in the background. The sounds of this Leslie permeating around the whole forest were absolutely spectacular.”
Certainly not your typical recording studio experience.
Moments such as these are very much engrained in The Farm’s DNA, as Richardson chose the locale back in 2002 specifically for the tranquility and isolation and the positive effects they have on both himself and clients coming to work, both mentally and logistically; the band house includes full accommodation, which eliminates the need to travel to and from the studio during session weeks.
“Bands come here and you can see their shoulders going down. You can see them calming down. The great thing is that there aren’t any actual obstructions here. Because if you’re in the big city, people can show up late. Here, they’re over in the band house. They can just go, ‘Come on, guys, let’s get to work.’ It makes things so much easier being able to hang out here because you get to do what you want to do, and there’s nobody bugging you, so you have to focus.”
Now, when you have a musician on one side of the property and the producer in another building, communication is obviously a bit tricky; however, Richardson has elected to (continually) keep it simple. Professional Sound’s previous conversation with Richardson divulged that he exclusively uses audio talkback, and there’s no video communication in use anywhere. “Nobody in their car looks at the radio. You know, they listen to the radio. If we were in the video business, yes, we’re going to have screens and cameras, but we’re in the audio business. There’s no video and I’ve done that on purpose.” With the Dante network in place, of course, talkback is just as simple as if the only degree of separation was the control room glass.
Speaking of the control room, it too has seen yet another renovation and upgrade. Less for practical purposes (even though it would still work out that way), and more for the love of the game, according to Richardson. “I keep changing it because I get bored. It’s kind of like making a record. You don’t want to make the same record every day, so I began to change it around again and again and again.”
The first major change is that the control room has been relocated back to the main house from the band house. He followed the relocation up by replacing his 32-channel Ward-Beck console with the more modern SSL AWS 900+, and then redid the rest of the room to boot.
The renovation included the addition of new bass traps, an acoustically-treated ceiling by Chris Potter, and a 90-degree re-orientation of the entire room’s setup, ultimately improving the sound of the room. “It got better because the bottom end can actually do the full cycle now. The room was very short the way I had it.”
The new SSL console and renovations in general were inspired by the at-the-time pending arrival of a Dutch band called Kensington. “I got on a Zoom call with them, and I was all old-school analog. I had the Ward-Beck console, I had an old Apogee system with the HDX card, and I was the old white guy; basically, analog, analog, analog. My gear was all old and it sounded great, but when you have clients coming in, they’re looking at it going ‘What the f**k is that?’” As such, Richardson decided to modernize, bringing in the AWS 900+ and redoing the control room in seven days before Kensington’s arrival.
The console is flanked by Richardson’s impressive collection of outboard gear, ranging from the classics, like a bank of Urei 1176s (two each of the black face and blue stripe variants), to modern pieces such as a Kemper Profiler. He also points out the array of five Yamaha HS8s throughout the control room, which he has deployed for 5.1 surround sound work. However, that’s only a small part of the current monitoring suite. “I mostly use the HS8s for five-one. I do have a pair of PMCs here, those are my mains which I love. Absolutely love them. I do also have NS-10s. I’m also in the process of talking to Dolby about putting an Atmos system in here too, because that’s where everything’s going. Everybody from Netflix to Apple to Amazon Prime to Disney Plus, everything has to be mixed in Atmos now.”
Richardson has also added a new live room to the main house with the design assistance of Ron Obvious, who also helped design major spots such as Bryan Adams’ Warehouse Studio as well as Armoury Studios in Vancouver.
When asked if these latest upgrades were something that he had envisioned years back, Richardson makes it clear that The Farm’s consistent evolution is predicated upon not only his own needs or those of his recording clients, but other engineers as well. “I got this place because I knew that if I didn’t, a bunch of us old school dudes who don’t have a home studio would still have to rent a place to work. But now that budgets are getting smaller and smaller, it’s getting harder for them to be able to do this. So, I spent the time to just make sure that I was able to keep going.”
Evidently, Richardson has been able to keep going for quite some time and shows no signs of slowing. He also recently added a Mac Mini to run the studio from, as well as a unique stereo rack of SSL 4000 series channel strips by Big Valley Audio. “I’ve got the whole room wired up so that I have all of the new modern gear and I have all the old gear. With all of this stuff, I do love the fact that the RedNet has done a good job, because it all sounds great.”
Even when the studio itself isn’t running, The Farm is self-sustaining; with the unique property and five buildings, Richardson also rents out the facilities via three separate Airbnbs. “Once people get the green light to go out again, there’s a lot who will want to get out of their small condo. And this place is set up so that it can sleep up to 19 people. People can come in for a month and never have to leave.”
Of course, the outside world isn’t too far away, as Richardson says all the necessities like grocery stores, the bank, and the liquor store are all within three kilometres of the wooded site.
Ultimately, The Farm in its current iteration is the most fully realized version of Richardson’s ambitious and evolving vision to date. Between the ability to record anywhere on the property, the beauty and welcoming vibe of the property itself, and the updated control and live rooms, there’s no better place to make a record.
“I built the place so that you aren’t really in a studio,” Richardson says. “You’re in a house. You’re in a place where you can actually see everything growing, the day coming and going. If there’s a horrible storm out, you can’t work because of the rain coming down on the actual roof. Sometimes you’re going, ‘Guys, I think we have to stop for the night because it’s too loud.’ It’s fun!”
Stopping for the night is one thing, but for Garth Richardson and his work on The Farm, that’s about all the pause you’re going to get before the next big thing gets underway.
PS: What’s your stance these days on amp modelling vs. real amps?
Richardson: You know what? I’ve changed it a lot. If a real head works for the song, great. If you have a Kemper or Fractal and the sound works and fits the band, great. It’s kind of like when I teach my kids the difference between analog and digital; digital would be a PlayStation 5, analog is a pinball machine. The best sound wins. If you look at plug-ins too, the UA plug-ins sound phenomenal. The Waves stuff sounds great. So, while I do have all the old analog stuff, the question is how you’re going to use that going into the box. But when you’re just in the box, you can use the modelled stuff because it works.
PS: How has Nimbus School of Recording and Media, of which you’re a co-founder, been operating with COVID-19 at play?
Richardson: Great — we’ve just completely revamped the whole school. We have a whole new program, which we started in January. We’ve also tied ourselves to Capilano University, where you can come to Nimbus for the year, then from there you can go to Capilano and get a degree. When COVID first hit, we shut it down for three days to get everything set up to teach online. Now, half the class comes in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then the other half comes in Tuesday and Thursday. Then the next week, the classes that were in on Tuesday and Thursday come in Monday/Wednesday/Friday and the other half is online. As far as class sizes, we do what the guidelines say, so 10 per class.
The Farm Studios: Gear List
• Mac Mini
• 3.2GHz 6-Core Intel Core i7 Processor
• 32 GB 2667 MHz DDR4 Memory
• SSL AWS 900+ V5.1/21
• Neve 8816 with Neve 8804 Fader Pack
• HDX Ultimate Version 18.104.22.168
• PMC AML 2
• Yamaha NS-10
• Advent AV-570 Powered Partners
• 2x Focusrite RedNet AM2 headphone box
• 5x Yamaha HS8 (5.1 surround)
• 3x Focusrite RedNet A16R
• 2x Focusrite RedNet HD32R
• 2x Telefunken V72a
• 8x Neve 1073LB 500 series
• 8x API 512c
• 1x AEA TRP2
• 1x SSL stereo channel strip (by Big Valley Audio)
• Focusrite RedNet X2P
• Focusrite RedNet MP8R
• 2x Empirical Labs Distressor
• 2x Urei 1176 (blue stripe)
• 2x Urei 1176 (black face)
• 2x Urei LA-4
• 2x dbx 160
• 1x UA Teletronix LA-2A
• 1x Smart Research C2 Stereo
• 1x ADR Compex Vocal Stresser F769X-R
• 1x Tube Tech LCA-2A
• 2x Valley People Dyna-mite
• Lexicon PCM-70
• Tech21 SansAmp PSA-1
• SPL Transient Designer
• Drawmer DS201 Dual Noise Gate
• 2x API 550b EQ
• Little Labs Monotor
• Kemper Profiler
• Fractal AXE-FX III
• Aviom AN-16/i Headphone System
• Little Labs IBP Phase Alignment Tool
• Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro 3.0
• Little Labs Multi Z DI
• Little Labs STD Instrument Cable Extender
• Systematic Sound V199 Valve DI
• 2x Radial J48 DI
• Systematic Sound GBX-95 guitar splitter
• 1x Shure SM7B
• 2x Neumann U87
• 2x Neumann KM 84
• 2x Neumann KM 184
• 1x RCA-44
• 2x Beyerdynamic M 160
• 3x AKG D112
• 2x Coles 4038 (matched pair)
• 2x Sennheiser MD 441
• 1x Sennheiser e 906
• 1x Shure 55SH
• 2x Royer R121
• 1x Neumann FET 47
• 5x Shure SM58
• 13 Shure SM57
• 1x Electro-Voice RE 20
• 9x Sennheiser MD 421
• 2x AKG C451 B
• 2x Gefell M 300
• 2x Gefell M 930
• 2x AKG C414 XL II
• 1x Townsend Labs Sphere L22
• 2x Apex 210
• 1x Audio-Technica AT 8471
• 1x Manley Reference
• 1x Gefell UM92.1S
• 1x Yamaha Subkick
• AKG C12
• Telefunken ELA M 251E