John Storyk on What It’s Like to Be a Professional Studio Designer and Architect

By Mr. Bonzai | April 15, 2024

So, what does it take to build a professional recording studio from scratch? Architect and acoustician John Storyk — founding partner of Walters-Storyk Design Group who’s built over 3,500 world-class audio/video production facilities around the world, including Jimi Hendrix’s studio in New York City — has a few pointers on the matter. In this episode of Bonzai Beat, Storyk shares his career experiences, the skills you need to work as a studio designer, tips for building a small-budget studio, plus his thoughts on serendipity and why retirement, for him, is out of the question.


MrB: John, for our viewers who may not be totally familiar with studio design, can you just give us a quick description of what an acoustics and studio design expert does?

VSL Synchron Stage Designed by John Storyk
WSDG founding partner John Storyk and team upgraded the VSL Synchron 1940s scoring stage into a recording facility (Vienna, Austria). Photo courtesy WSDG

John Storyk: I'll let you be the judge on the expert part. I've always been, as long as I can remember, very passionately interested in architecture. And music. Like many of us, I was a musician since I was a kid — clarinet and sax, piano. And I love engineering. I'm not an engineer by training. If anything, I'm a structural engineer by training. I could not imagine a more perfect nexus of those three passions in architecturally and acoustically designing recording studios. 

Fate and a little bit of serendipity was very good to me at a very young age. Just as if somebody was watching said, well, why don't we just throw you right into the mix and make your first project be a recording studio? In an era when there weren't really a lot of people designing recording studios.

MrB: Let's go back to your youth. I know that you studied mechanical drafting in high school, you got your college degree and then got a job in an architect’s office. That sounds like a pretty nice move. You've learned about isolation techniques, acoustic treatment, and let's not forget about the aesthetics, because you're known for not only creating studios that have great acoustics, but they have an environment that is conducive to making good work. 

John Storyk: I was very fortunate because the first studio that I designed, which was almost the first studio I was in, certainly the first one I designed, had as its requirements to be personalized. It was for Jimi Hendrix. And so Jimi was as interested if not more interested in the aesthetics. He was actually quite visual. I mean, I don't know if he's really known for being a visual artist, but he was very visual. He loved colors, he loved shapes. He didn't draw really, at least I never saw him drawing. And so his ask of me was essentially to create a project studio for himself that was aesthetically extraordinary. He had been in a club that I designed, it was really the only other project I did as a 22-year-old, that had a lot of changing lights and environments. It was a kind of a sensorium in lower Manhattan that got to be a little bit famous very quickly. 

Job Titles Working in the Pro Studio Design Field

Acoustic Engineer
Architectural Drafter
Art Director
Audio Technology Specialist
AV Systems Specialist/Designer
Business Development Specialist
Director of Acoustics
Director of Applied Science and Engineering
Electrical Engineer
Production Specialist
Project Engineer
Project Manager
Systems Engineer

MrB: What was it called? 

John Storyk: Well, the name of that club was called Cerebrum and only lived for nine months. Everybody who was anybody in the art scene would visit it. It was kind of a cross between a music club and a piece of theater. 
Jimi at the time, and his manager, decided to buy or take over the lease of a blues club called The Generation. This was a well-known blues club in Manhattan, which I used to go to. That's even more ironic because I was in a blues band. Little did I know that two years later, I'd be living in it for a year. And so he took over the lease, and said find the guy that did that downtown nightclub, and we'll have him redo my club, which I started to do and actually did a drawing for only to watch Eddie Kramer, his engineer producer at the time, talk him out of doing a club and into making a studio because he reminded his manager that Jimi was running up extraordinary recording bills. This was in an era when artists were just beginning to handle their own recordings, Jimi being one of them. 

And so I watched my early, amazing commission disappear as fast as it came, but then came, I guess one of the more amazing moments in my life — they said, well, you can stay on and do the studio, despite the fact that I reminded them that I'd never been in a studio. And so that was the beginning of the year-and-a-half path that is a story unto itself that ended up as being Electric Lady Studios. 

john storyk at electric lady studios
John Storyk with famed producer/engineer Eddie Kramer in the original entrance to Electric Lady Studios in NYC on 8th Street just off 6th Avenue. Photo courtesy Howard Sherman.

MrB: Well, we might mention the studio that he was working at for years before you launched into building this one. And it was Record Plan.

John Storyk: Yeah, that's where he was. But he didn't like going uptown. He lived downtown. Actually, he lived around the corner from Electric Lady. And he wanted his own studio, he really wanted one. And so Electric Lady Studios, although it's a commercial studio, was built as a project studio in an era when that word didn't even exist. And so it never occurred to me to not make a studio aesthetically pleasing. And so I guess it was sort of lucky that way.

And that's never left me. It was perfect for me because my architectural studies included lighting. I was a huge fan of Antoni Gaudí, the Barcelona architect. And you know, this studio was famous before it was built. So I had commissions before it was finished to do more studios. And more or less everything continued from there.

MrB: What a great start for you. What advice would you give to young people or anybody who'd like to get into this type of work that you do? What are the basics? How do you get that experience?

John Storyk: I teach, I love teaching, I've always enjoyed teaching. And it's a common question. I'm not a guidance counselor, I'm not a parent. So I don't really know, I can't really tell somebody what to do, I can only tell them what happened to me. And of course, that's not going to be duplicated. So to me, there's a few skills that I think you should have. And then there's a little bit of advice. Let's go over the skills.

I don't see how you could do this kind of work if you didn't have knowledge of architecture and didn't have some knowledge of music. I just don't see how it would make sense.

You're dealing with musicians, you're dealing with environments where music is made, or certainly, often music is made. Sometimes, studios deal with speech, and other kinds of content.

But you would need to want to at least have the passion for those two disciplines. You need a little bit of math, but nowhere near as much as you think you need. And I think you have to at least have a love and respect for engineering, there's a lot of engineering in studios. You don't have to be an engineer, you don't have to be a mechanical engineer or electronic engineer, but at least you have to be able to have a love for it. 

And then you need to be a pretty good listener. Because sooner or later, one way or the other, you have to be able to listen to a lot of programming, either you have to yank it out of people, or they're going to tell it to you or both. And now comes the common thread for thousands of projects that I've worked on. The programming is not always synchronous. In fact, I can almost guarantee that it's usually nonsynchronous.

You know, architecturally, we want X, but financially we want Y and electronically, we want Z and they don't always line up. In fact, usually they never line up. And so, you have to have some just drop-dead project management skills in order to do this balancing act.

Recording studios, they're complicated. They're supposed to be complicated. They're also messy.  We've been very blessed with a lot of magazine covers, and we get a lot of projects that are high profile, and you see the photos, but that's not really how they exist. They’re really messy. Studios become messy. They're like workshops. You have to strike a balance between a studio having a lot of personality, which could mean very discreet lighting, and colors and shapes and forms, but also being somewhat neutral. So it can change like a woodshop. They're constantly changing. 

The Church Studios
WSDG won the 31st NAMM TEC Award for the redesign of producer Paul Epworth's (Paul McCartney, Adele, U2) The Church Studios in London, UK. Photo courtesy WSDG.

This was Jimi’s command to me. And so Electric Lady was basically white, and the lighting made the changes. It's changed over the years a little bit with new ownership. But that was Jimi's edict if he gave me any edict. I never hung out at a lot of sessions, but I've spoken to Eddie Kramer, who remained a lifetime friend, he's my daughter's godfather. And Eddie recounts, to me very, very often that Jimi would go in and say, change the lighting.

If I get closer to advice, which is, you know, paying homage to that word, serendipity, it's maybe my favorite word.

The story of how I got started looks like it was a lucky break, it sounds like luck. You know, standing in line, there's a delay to get some ice cream, and you pick up a newspaper, and you answer an ad to do a club, and you get the permission to redesign the club. And the club opens, and it becomes famous. And Jimi goes to the club and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it's a pretty well-known story. 

It sounds like a lot of luck. But I don't see it that way. I see it as a serendipitous set of events that happened. Everybody is constantly experiencing serendipitous events. I could have answered the ad, and said, I'm not interested, I could have answered the ad and said, okay, I'll just work as a carpenter and left it at that. 
So you need to have your antenna up for those events that are happening, because they will happen on a daily basis, and you got to be ready for them.

When you're young, you have more opportunity, because you have less weight. As you get older, you have more responsibilities. You're a little slower, you have kids, et cetera. But when you're young, the world is all in front of you. Everything is a yes. As you get older, you have to learn to sort of say no, and balance things. So keep the antenna up, follow your dreams, pretty standard stuff. 

MrB: I want to ask you something about Hendrix. Traditionally, you’ve got the recording room, and then you've got the control room. But in some cases, and I think in his case, too, he may have liked to work in the control room.

John Storyk: He did.

MrB: So how does that affect the design of the whole studio? 

John Storyk: At the time, imagine it's 1968/69, you're 22 years old, you don't really know anything, even though you think you know everything. And we're in a world with not a lot of recording studios. Certainly not a lot of artists owning their own recording studio. That was really a rarity at the time. And as you know, because you're a student of music history, most recording studios were pretty bland, were pretty dry. The control rooms were small. They were the home of engineers. Artists didn't go in the control room. Artists went into the studio, they did the recordings, and they left. The studios were the product of the record companies.

So now, we're in the late 60s, mid 60s,and this is starting to change. And Jimi of course, right on the forefront of it being the quintessential artist/producer and even a tinkerer as far as engineering was concerned, wanted a really, really big control room because he did a lot of work in the control room. He wanted to live in the control room. He had an entourage as you can imagine. And so it was one of the first studios to have a very, very large control room, big glass. The boundary between the control room and live room, he really wanted that to go away. Obviously, it didn't go away. 

But now of course, we're in the era of all-in-one rooms. And we've done many studios where there's no control room. It's one big giant room. 

MrB: That's what I want to talk about with you. Because I'm sure that a lot of people out there in recording environments want to have their own place like Jimi did. 

John Storyk: Everybody does. 

MrB: Let's hear your advice about how you might be able to convert an existing room in your home? Or let's say in your garage so that you have maybe some more space. And can you create an acoustically appropriate situation on a relatively smaller budget compared to the studios you’re working on.

John Storyk: Okay, so the question you're asking is, what's a car cost? It's a vague question. And it's going to be a vague answer. The answer to the first question is, of course you can. You don't have to spend a lot of money. That's a little bit of a myth. And you also don't need nonparallel walls. That's another myth. Actually, people have approached me about acoustic myths, myths and studio design or acoustic myths. It's a great book, I thought about it for a while. But it'll have to wait for a while.

But it starts with exactly what I was talking about before, it's always going to start with very exact programming. If you want to get this room in your garage, to be exactly what you want, for the budget that you have, whatever that may be, we'll come back to that in a second. You got to ask really exact questions. And you gotta be prepared to make some not-so-easy decisions. 

Now, can you do that yourself? Maybe? Most people can't, some people can. To be honest, it's why I have a business. I have 60 people that just spend most of their time on studios. At any one time, we're doing 15 or 20 of them, and all over the world, because it's hard to make these decisions. 

So let's drill down a little bit because I haven't really said too much specific. So the very, very early question you have to ask is, do you need isolation? Do we need acoustic isolation? By that I mean, are we bothered by the noise outside? Or are we going to bother people with what we do? This is a very, very fundamental early question. Because if you don't, things get a lot cheaper. If you do they get a lot more expensive very quickly. It's like saying, are you pregnant? You're either pregnant or you're not pregnant. You gotta be honest with the question and the answer. 

So let's say it's a garage. And it's in a relatively quiet location. And you want to have an all-in-one room, so you are prepared to track with phones and then mix with speakers, that's fine, okay. And you don't really need ducted air conditioning, because it's a residential environment. So when you record, you can turn your air conditioner off, that's no problem. I'm starting to lead into tips about how to do things at a budget, which is, of course, where I think you want to go here.

And then all of a sudden things can you know, huge piles of money can just fall off the table, you don't need them. 

Maybe you can work at a reasonable level till 10 at night, and then you just have to work softly so you can solve problems socially. On the other hand, if you're in your basement, and you want to work at four in the morning, and your wife is in the bedroom right on top of your basement, you gotta isolate the basement. There's no easy cheap way to do it. It's just not inexpensive stuff, isolation. Room within room construction, decoupled walls and ceilings, soundproof doors, I can go on and on. And that's where the money is. That's where the heavy money is.

If it's a commercial environment, or it's one that's going to take place in a commercial setting, then you may have to abide by a whole different set of building rules. And that's again, where there’s money. But again, all-in-one room, basically a mixing room without isolation? You can follow a few basic rules. 

Try to make your mixing environment symmetrical. Don't position yourself in the dead center of the room, that's where a node is. Pay attention to low frequency absorption. There's a few pieces of software out there that allow you to do that, or maybe get a little bit of advice. And if you're in doubt, put some absorption in the corners, because that's where most of the low frequency build up is.

Keep your speakers at ear level monitoring, don't get them too high so you don't have a console bounce, which causes a comb filter. And everything that I just said, these are very, very simple tips. 

These are not money tips, I haven't added any money to the project. The all-in-one room, basically, a giant mix room where you can also record is where I believe everything is going, is where it's headed. And we're doing some really slick ones. I mean, we're doing them for well-known people, bigger rooms, all glass that look out over environments, and it gets a little bit trickier.

Exact programming, follow basic acoustic guidelines, there's a fair amount of literature out there about those. And you can get dangerous very, very quickly. Not to be too self-serving, but sometimes it might help to get just a little bit of advice. It can go a long way.

The all-in-one room, coupled with a small ISO booth … so now you have a place to put an amp which is going to get loud, not the head, but the amp, or overdubbing vocal or separating instrumentalist. That's also a very, very common trend that we're seeing. So you put the money in the isolation just in the smaller room, and then you let the bigger room stand by itself, maybe an extra layer of sheet rock on your garage, etc.

Rue Boyer Studio by WSDG
WSDG was recognized at the 2024 NAMM TEC Awards in the Studio Design Project category for the design of the Rue Boyer recording studio in Paris, owned and operated by Mix with the Masters. Photo courtesy WSDG.

MrB: Since you're continuing to do this, so many studios all around the world, how do you keep your inspiration up? So that it doesn't become a routine thing? You've said that if you enjoy what you're doing, and you're making a living, it's not really working.

John Storyk: Somebody told me that, yes, I did tell you that at a recent NAMM. I'm almost 78 years old. I'm blessed with pretty good health. Seventy-eight is not 28.

For me, a few things I've been blessed with.

First of all, I believe in teaching and education. So teaching allows me to always talk to younger people. I'm teaching undergraduates and graduates, I teach mostly at Berkeley, but I lecture at about 10 other schools. So I'm always meeting younger people, some of them become interns, a few of them have actually become employees, and two of them have become partners. 

Over time, we've added global offices, we have about 60 people in four discreet offices, Germany, Switzerland, Miami and New York and other reps as well. But over time, I kind of invented a program with some help. And my wife, that's the W. That's Beth Walters, that's the W in WSDG. To give away ownership interests in our companies, as well as allow people to buy in and without going into that program, which is kind of my own version of an employee-owned situation. I, which means Beth and I, now own less than 50% of the WSDG ecosystem.

MrB: Wow. So you're injecting new energy into it all the time? 

John Storyk: Yeah. And then because of that, in the last two years, I'm no longer the CEO and COO of the New York office. So what that allowed me to do was not only get younger people doing that work, who to tell you the truth are smarter and faster and sharper than me. But it has freed me up to basically continue to do what I just really love to do, which is what I always wanted to do, which was just design. 

So on a typical day, I'm spending 70 to 80% of my time just on projects and designing and I'm spending the 2% of my time on the business part and HR and insurance and management, which I used to do and I never really loved it. I kind of learned how to do it. And now other people do it and it's incredible to watch. It's amazing. 

MrB: John, this has really been fun. We have to kind of wrap it up here pretty soon. I think we've really got a good idea of who you are, what you do. And I think if people pay attention, they can probably apply it to their own dreams or their needs. 

John Storyk: I recently went back to my 55th college reunion. I graduated from Princeton in ‘68. I go back every five years. And of course, everybody's my age, we're all pretty much the same age and it’s how are you doing? What are you doing? And everybody's retired, they're all retired. 

So then my question to them was, are you happy? I got about a 50% response. Some were happier than others. And of course they’d say are you retired? And I'd say seriously, why? Of course I'm not retired, what would be the point? I spent all these years trying to get reasonably good at something. On some days, people think we're really good at something. What would be the point? There's no point in retiring. 

MrB: Well here we are and we're still cooking. I love it too. It keeps you alive. I want to ask you, what kind of music do you like to listen to?

John Storyk: It's funny you asked because that was literally the first thing I did in the new home here this morning. I got my iPad out and got onto my liked. I got about 350 songs liked in Spotify; just threw it on. One minute it could be Taj Mahal; it could be blues, Paul Butterfield the band and the next minute it could be Puccini, La bohème. Mostly, I'm steeped in 50s and 60s music. I love it. Atlanta Rhythm Section.

I listen to KC and the Sunshine sometimes, too. I'm not a gigantic rap person. I kind of appreciate the music. Some I like more than others. I've done a lot of studios for guys that make that kind of music, but it’s not my favorite music. I think if I'm on an island, and I can only have one CD, it would probably be Puccini, La bohème. The next one might be Rubber Soul, from the Beatles. 

MrB: Oh, yeah, of course.

John Storyk: That album changed my life. When I heard that album, I said how are they doing this? I heard the Beach Boys, then when I heard them, I didn't know you could make music like that. I must have gone through three copies of Rubber Soul, because then you just kept playing it over and over again. 

MrB: Yeah, Rubber Soul was probably what, only four track recording?

John Storyk: And then bouncing and pinging and you know, the history of it is something. So a little bit on the eclectic side. I listen to music every day. I don't work without music. Most of the people in our organization are either musicians or engineers. A lot of them play instruments. Some of them still play instruments. So we got a lot of musicians.

MrB: Well, listen, thank you very much. 

John Storyk: Thank you very much. I've been a fan of yours for years. Kudos on your book. 

MrB: Oh, yeah. Thanks. Well, you're in the book. You opened it up and there it was.

John Storyk: That was a fluke. I flipped to a page and it opened up to the only page that I was in which described Stevie Wonder studio, Record Plant in Los Angeles. But the book looks amazing. I'm looking forward to reading it. 

MrB: Thank you. You'll be among the first to know. And with that, I bid you a fond adieu and good luck in your new home.

John Storyk: Thanks a lot.

Discover Careers in Music

John Storyk's career in the recording studio business is just one of many possible pathways into the music industry. Visit our Careers in Music page to learn more about opportunities in different sectors.  

About the Author

Mr. Bonzai is an award-winning photographer, author and music journalist. He has written more than 1,000 articles for outlets in the United States, Europe and Asia. His photos and articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Billboard, Mix and EQ, among others. He has also published numerous books, including Studio Life, Music Smarts and Faces of Music.