Northward Acoustics: The Brussels-based company that designed the Red Bull Studios Paris

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Who would have known that one of the world’s prime sound studio design office is located right here in Brussels? With projects all over the world, Northward Acoustics is doing a terrific job spreading their technical know-how to the recording studios where some of your favourite albums have been made. But from all the studios they designed, there’s one in particular we’re most interested in: Red Bull Studios in Paris. Artists that had the privilege to record their music here can concur: the professional design and eye for details at this place are on point to say the least. So we figured it’s about time to sit down with Thomas Jouanjean, founder at Northward Acoustics, to talk about sound design, Parisian architecture and upcoming projects.

Hi Thomas, can you tell us exactly what you do in your daily life?

"I engineer and design recording-, mixing- and mastering studios all over the world with my Brussels-based company Northward Acoustics. As a result, I spend a lot of time on airplanes, which makes me feel like a DJ sometimes. When I’m not working I'm also playing in a post-metal/sludge/drone band called Camilla and do some recording and mixing in our studio and showroom in Brussels when we find a bit of time – which is not very often. We also just launched a high-end studio furniture brand called Northward Systems."

How did you end up designing the Red Bull Studios in Paris?

"It's a fairly complex story. Don't know how much I can tell either. If I remember right, I got an email one day from the main Red Bull Music Academy team and mix engineer Philippe Weiss, asking me if I'd be interested in taking over the design project from their usual designer, the Barcelona-based Imar. I don't exactly know why that happened. In the end I think it was a mix of Imar’s busy schedule and the project being overly technical and complex to deal with due to the space being very hard to work in."

Why was it difficult? Did they give you carte blanche or did you have to oblige by their guidelines?

"A bit of both. They knew what they wanted and needed, but the space was clearly going to dictate what would be possible or not down the line - old Parisian buildings aren't necessarily well suited to house a professional studio. The first proposed iteration of the design was accepted by the Red Bull team, but realistically it was the only approach that was going to work within the constraints of the space and everyone understood that. In that sense I had my hands tied and was focused purely on engineering, "designing by function" with very little consideration for the looks. Which very often ends up looking nice anyway as properly calculated spaces somehow always end up looking visually balanced too. The math behind a design organizes what you see nicely. Afterwards, the architects came in and proposed the colour scheme, flooring etc. They did a good job!"

What are the aspects you need to take into account when designing a space like that? Does the Paris studio have aspects that other music studios don't have?

"We work within stringent quality standards - the control room's acoustic response has to be within specific criteria time and frequency response-wise. The soundproofing quality and noise ratings also have to meet or exceed precise targets. Each room we work on has to meet these criteria without exception, so we can guarantee results for each design. This one was very particular, and to tell the whole story, the dedicated space was outside of our usual basic technical requirements. So we were hesitant at first. It clearly wasn't going to be the typical scenario. We have a minimum shell size and load bearing capacity benchmarks for our FTB rooms, and as a policy we usually refuse to bend past these minima. Mostly because the technicalities and cost of building such rooms always becomes a problem. Technically speaking they are difficult to calculate and further down the line very difficult to build, everything is so very tight. Every centimetre you can use for shaping the studio shell matters, every low frequency membrane absorber and bass trap has to be built and perform just right with virtually no deviation possible from calculations. And no possibility to test anything before hand as all the treatment is custom calculated for the space and constrained by the space - but that's the case for every project.

The project was clearly a challenge. We agreed to do it because we felt the Red Bull team understood that and was also very pro-active and open-minded. In the end, the studio met all quality benchmarks and we're all very happy with it. We got very good feedback from the Engineers working there."

What were the most prominent problems you encountered?

"A few of the problems we had to deal with were mostly related to the available space, which was quite restricted and narrow with a fairly low ceiling clearance for a studio. There was a lot of piping and ducts all over the ceiling that had to be (re)moved. On top of that there was a difficult structural scenario - the studio spans over 3 different types of floor and ceiling structures, with only one of the floor areas really able to sustain the added weight from the studio's shells and a lot of the ceiling area especially over the Live Room unable to withstand the added spring loaded ceiling weight. Additionally, there weren't any clear official documents telling us when the modifications we could see to the building were done, and what they meant in terms of overall structural integrity.

We found workarounds for all the problems but it wasn't a walk in the park. The studio fits in with a "shoe horn" like they say in French, with clearances of less than 10mm in a lot of places, so the studio build team did a beautiful job. We still managed to float both shells of the Control Room and Live Room and fit a nice pair of ATC 110 A SL in the Control Room's glass front wall. These types of projects are a good way to enhance your designer skills."

And what are you working on at the moment?

"In Europe, we're designing a mastering suite in Paris for Adel DSD, a new post-production suite for Helsinki Studio in Antwerp and a new producer-owned recording studio for Barefoot Studio in Western Flanders, both due for completion this year. We're also finishing a new mastering suite near Halifax in Canada for Archive Mastering (J. Lapointe). In the USA we're in the final stages of building a 3 rooms facility for NestHQ / Skrillex in Los Angeles, designing 2 new mastering suites for engineer Dave Greenberg in Florida (Sonopod Mastering), a mastering suite for engineer Dave McNair in North Carolina, and we're working on the new multi-rooms ground-up Sterling Sound mastering facilities in NYC and Nashville. More stuff is in the pipeline, so these are good times!"

Northward Acoustics