On a recent Tape Op journey that took me through Athens, GA, Nashville, TN, and Chapel Hill, NC, I had the pleasure of visiting about a dozen recording studios and photographing them and their occupants for our magazine. One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Wes LaChot, a Chapel Hill based studio designer and the proprietor of Overdub Lane in Durham, NC. Wes is a genuine southern gentleman — friendly, laid back and hospitable. He's also one of the most brilliant and inspiring people I've met in the music business. He's built and/or redesigned studios for David Barbe [Tape Op #14], Mitch Easter [#21] and Man or Astro-man? The really amazing thing about Wes is that he's completely self-taught and hasn't gone to school to study architecture or acoustics. He's a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, and says he learned about architecture from carefully studying blueprints of Wright's buildings. Wes also believes that building a good studio shouldn't cost any more than building a good house on a square footage basis. In my mind, Wes LaChot is the first DIY, punk rock studio architect.
How did you make the transition from working in studios to designing studios?
I designed my first studio in 1984 and it was out of necessity that I had to learn about studio design. I had been running a studio in a funky old house in Durham, and a friend of mine that owns a music store asked me if I would build a real studio in the back of his store. He just thought it would be a good tie-in to have a recording studio in the store, and he thought it would be good for me to get a lot of exposure, which it was. That was over where the Cat's Cradle [local club] is now. I had to build it from scratch — it was just a big wide open place. It had been some sort of manufacturing place, so there were no walls. Since I had to completely build the place, and it had to be soundproof from the music store, which was really loud, I had to learn a lot about soundproofing just to make it work. I had no choice — I couldn't just throw up baffles and call it a studio. So I went and bought the books everybody's read by F. Alton Everest. He's published like five or six of those books now. Sort of just writing the same book over and over, but updating it. They're great books. I read those and a few others, and talked to some other studio designers that gave me a lot of advice. Since I had to throw in a lot of money building these walls, I wasn't content just to have it be soundproof, I decided it needed to have good acoustics too. So I learned about room modes and non parallel walls, all that kind of stuff. And of course, I figured that by the time I was done designing it and building it I thought it was gonna be the perfect room. It wasn't, 'cause it was the first one I'd ever done. I learned a lot about it. I spent several years while I was there trying to improve the acoustics and just did a lot — building this sort of bass trap, and so on and so forth. I learned a lot, but during the late '80s several friends of mine asked me to build studios for them and, one friend in particular, had been introduced to the concept of reflection- free zone control rooms which was just coming into being in the mid '80s. He had been involved with building a studio with the originators of those concepts and so I started reading up on that whole thing, including the RPG Diffusors, which is profoundly more scientifically advanced than the older types of designs I had been reading about. I got really interested in that and I got a chance to design a couple of studios more along those lines, and they worked a lot better than mine. When Overdub Lane recording room I designed my current studio, although it was really inexpensive and small compared to some of the other ones I've designed for other people, I used those concepts. The place has been booked solid for six years and you can't find anybody who doesn't like the sound.
How did you learn all the technical details and stuff involved in actually building a full scale studio building?
I was always into math in high school and college so I had the math background. Studio acoustics gets into some pretty interesting math. I was also interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminister Fuller and some weird esoteric music math like Carlos and Harry Partch and weirder stuff like that. It all ties in. Control rooms are really musical instruments — they're actually scientific instruments if you get right down to it. It's a little bit like designing telescopes or something. I've never designed a telescope but I imagine if you did you'd know pretty much instantly whether it worked or not after you built it. It either looks fuzzy or it looks clear. And with the studios it's the same thing — they either sound clear or they...