Harmony in the Hayloft: turning an old farm barn into a recording studio

Back in the 16 and 1700s they didn’t really think very hard about sound proofing their barns. They were more interested in keeping hay, grain and perhaps an occasional ox or horse dry, so all that was needed were some hefty beams that wouldn’t blow over and skinny planks nailed to them. Job done.

On our working farm here in Little Maplestead in rural north Essex, we had such a barn and kept some ducks and a couple of horses in it. It also had 300 years and many layers of pigeon and swallow guano in it.

First steps

I had started my company, Audio Network, in the neighbouring building with Robert Hurst back in 2001 and I had always thought the barn might one day make a perfect recording studio. In my humble (by which I mean correct) opinion the nature of the random shapes, angles and surfaces in a traditional wooden barn would make for a perfect acoustic with no reflections or ugly nodes and should sound amazing. In 2019 the last few remaining Audio Networkers moved to our London office so I was free to get building.

Getting planning permission

First, we had to persuade the local authority that the building was a good idea and ticked all the necessary planning boxes:

  • We were going to preserve an historic but redundant barn

  • We would be sustainable, eco and polar bear friendly

  • We would be good for hard working families in the community

Then we had to convince a man with a troublingly small moustache and a clipboard that there were no rare bats in the barn’s roof and that the great crested newts in the pond wouldn’t mind.

Image: Andrew Sunnucks

Image: Andrew Sunnucks

At this time I was working very regularly at Abbey Road Studios and always asked for my pal Stefano Civetta to be on our sessions. Stef’s an impossibly cheerful character and a bit of an all-round genius as both a musician and engineer, so I always had him as my much needed wing man. After a particularly fun couple of days in the summer of 2019 Stef announced he was going to come and work with me at School Farm. I had absolutely no choice in the matter, so a day before lockdown in 2020 Stef moved to a house in Sudbury, Suffolk and we were a team.


The first challenge was how to soundproof the barn but keep the interior as it was minus the woodworm. Chris Walls of Level Acoustic Design is the only acoustics expert I have ever met who is also a human being and speaks English, so we hired him to work it all out. He came up with the solution of building a new barn over the old one with a steel frame. No part of the new barn is allowed to touch the old which was challenging, but it meant we could keep the crucial wibbly wobbly nature of the original barn and the soundproofing isolation is pretty much total.

He packed the wall space with layer upon layer of rockwool, heavy duty acoustic ply, air gaps and other mysterious ingredients known only to the illuminati.

Working with very old buildings cannot be planned with a nicely straight lined CAD drawing. These things were built to last, unlike the hutches they build now which have the life expectancy of a croissant. Every beam-type has a name – collar, blade, crucks, spur, ridge, purlin, brace and ridge, sill and wall plates.

Nothing in the 17th Century was straight or at right angles to anything else. Some of the old oak beams in the barn dated back to the 1300s and are as hard as steel. It is near impossible to bang a nail into them and even the most ambitious woodworm gave up with toothache before they made even 1mm progress – but some of the more recent (300 year old) elm was little more than dust in places.

When the 1970s asbestos roof was removed it was amazing to see the corresponding Roman numerals on the joists and purlins which had been chiselled there and last seen by the original carpenters who assembled the barn from much older timber, around the time JS Bach died in 1750.

Image: Andrew Sunnucks

Image: Andrew Sunnucks

Floored by floors

I had no idea control room floors were such a thing. Chris produced plans for a floating floor in a newly built area of the barn. The slab required a hole the size of the Grand Canyon and within a few days we had what looked like an open cast mining operation. The top of his digger was well below the final floor level.

The floor was then built with layer upon layer of dense acoustic plywood on the reinforced concrete slab, then a layer of Studflex anti-vibration mounts, more dense concrete slabs on top, more plywood layers screwed down tightly, and finally the floor. Nothing is allowed to touch the walls and this, Chris earnestly informed me, is all part of building the perfect control room to mix Dolby Atmos 7.1.4 in, that Stefano told me I had my heart set on.

Getting the air right

It was around about this time we realised the control room roof was too low to contain the massive air conditioning pipes we were going to need to install. Air going through small tubes goes ‘whoosh’ so you have to have tubes like the channel tunnel which gently waft cool air and don’t create any noise which might be audible on recordings. I had completely underestimated the amount of space that would be needed to accommodate all the pipes and equipment and it led to a lengthy delay while we worked out how to fit everything outside.

Getting the air flow right is critical in a studio. Because of the tightly sealed doors, really good ventilation is vital not only for musicians’ comfort, but also controlling humidity. With a Steinway concert grand with a six-figure price tag and regular musicians with similarly costly instruments in the room, they are not going to be pleased if they come back after lunch to find their Stradivarius has curled up like a British Rail sandwich.


As the construction phase neared the end it was time to think about the technical installation. Stefano had written up his wish list of equipment, microphones and systems. HHB was called in to help design the systems and Bill Ward and his nephew Jack Saunders, the cabling ninjas I knew through Abbey Road, came in to lay some 30 miles of cable. I have been to studios before that had crackly signal paths and knew that cabling isn’t an area for economising. Bill and Jack spent months fishing vast looms of cables into tight spaces with far less swearing than I had budgeted for. For a month all I saw were their bottoms. They then terminated all the ends with solid gold solder. We had our own patch bays designed and made and put tie lines into the main room, two booths and two outside buildings, so we have five entirely separate recording areas which can all work together with video links.

Image: Mike Banks

Image: Mike Banks


I think we only really made one major mistake and that was on our acoustic doors. I used a hopeless company who charged over £40,000 for seven doors. They sent me a succession of troglodytes who had no idea how to hang them. In the end our amazing builders did the job for them, but to this day the outer control room door can only be opened and closed by a team of Shire horses. I wish we had just used big thick fire doors as I have done in other studios I have built – but we all live and learn and in the scheme of things the door issue is pretty minor.

In conclusion

Whilst we were doing all of this, we also rebuilt the old Audio Network offices and transformed them into a very comfy place for musicians to stay, dug out the old pond and relandscaped the whole area. I didn’t want any building work to be happening when we had our beautiful new studio operational, so we had to do everything in one go.

Every time we are recording the talented players I am fortunate enough to work with, I like to imagine how surprised the old timbers must be to find themselves converted from chilly chicken perches and duck digs to warmly climate controlled beams prized for their random and warty appearance.

I have huge respect for the craftsmen that built the original building. It was always just supposed to be an agricultural barn and yet the precision and beauty of the joinery and the care taken with the construction, all done with no power tools, is astonishing. I like to think we continue the craft in our own way and honour them by caring deeply about the music we make in their beautiful building.

What would the old carpenter from 300 years ago have said if he knew that one day his handiwork would be part of a building that recorded music so it could be heard all over the world for years after it has been played? I suspect he’d have brushed the shavings off his smock, patted his wooden trousers and said it doesn’t make any sense – and I think he might be right.

Lead image: Mike Banks