Community Spotlight: John Storyk, Founding Partner of WSDG

Pictured: John Storyk and Beth Walters

Our new Spotlight series highlights members of our TEC community, sharing stories and looking ahead to our next opportunities to gather and celebrate.

John Storyk, registered architect and acoustician, is a founding partner of WSDG. He has provided design and construction supervision services for the professional audio and video recording community, since the 1969 design of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York City. 

John recently spoke with NAMM about his career, design inspirations, lessons from the pandemic, and his plans for The 2022 NAMM Show.

Thank you for taking the time to join us, John. So, how did it all begin?

My start, now 51 years ago, seems to be pretty well documented (so much for privacy). I was very fortunate and remain thankful for such a professional beginning. Simply put, serendipity struck.

I was 22, fresh out of Princeton Architecture School; new, young wife; still in my college blues band (doing rather well, in fact); and living in New York City in the 60's. A chance reply to a Help Wanted Ad quickly found me connected to some young artists in need of free carpentry to create a downtown experimental nightclub. Five months later, after redesigning the club and leading the construction charge, Cerebrum was open and became a huge success in NYC. If you were in the art and music scene in NYC, you visited this club. Life changed for me on a dime as the club hit the cover of Life Magazine in early 1969.

No surprise, Jimi Hendrix visited the club one evening. And wanting to convert his newly purchased blues club (Generation on 8th street), had his partner/manager (Michael Jeffrey) seek out Cerebrum's designer (me), and next thing you know, I'm hired by Jimi to design his club. At the 11th hour, the club idea was scrapped at the suggestion of his engineer/producer, Eddie Kramer, and the project instantly became a recording studio. And now comes even more serendipity—somehow, Jimi and his team allowed me to design the studio (even after I reminded them that I had never been in a studio!). Life is funny that way.

What I did not realize at the time was that what Jimi was asking me to design was, in fact, a "project studio"—a technical space that needed vibe. In fact, vibe is mostly all that Jimi wanted. His manager was smart enough to have us build the studio to commercial specs, which of course, is one of the reasons 50 years later, it is still thriving. The rest is, as they say, "history". Again, I remind you of my favorite word, "serendipity."

Little did I know as I started that adventure, the basement location for the studio was under a somewhat famous film theater designed by a then young European architect who had just arrive in the States, Fredrick Kiesler (one of my heroes in architecture school). Built in the late 1920's, I knew the theatre by photo only. Imagine my shock when I realized that I was now spending a few years of my life in his building. Even more crazy was the fact that during my years at Princeton (remember I was in a blues band), I used to visit the blues club (not knowing that it was Kiesler's building and, of course, not knowing that I would start my studio design career in that very space.) So... you believe in serendipity now?

Your studios are known for their incredible pairing of beauty and functionality. How do you combine the visual aesthetics of a creative space with the audio needs of the client?

Fact is, I'm not an engineer. I'm a designer and a musician (although I do love and respect science and engineering). It never occurred to me that a studio should not have vibe. It should be all vibe.

I think that's why it always seemed that we were ahead of the curve. Jimi only talked about vibe. Back then, studios had those perforated tiles on the wall. They were somewhat boring, not really paying attention to anything artistic. In fact, as you know, artists spent little to no time in the control rooms and were in and out of the studio rather quickly. All that changed in the 60's!

Most people think you paint one discipline on top of another as if you have architecture and then layer on acoustics and technology. I've never thought about it that way. I think of those disciplines as one dance—happening at the same time. They inspire each other.

Where did you find your inspiration?

Well, the inspiration is from day 1. It's everywhere. When I go to a city, I look at architecture, the color, the light, the smells, the foods, the hardware stores, the lumber yards, the churches, and on and on. Have your antenna up, and always be ready to find something.

And of course, remember my background. I went to Princeton in the mid-60s (at the time steeped in Bauhaus and Corbusier tradition). But for some reason, my idols were Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudi from Barcelona, and Friedrich Kiesler (virtually unknown). Kiesler only did two buildings: the Film Guild Cinema (1929) in New York City and the Shrine of the Book (1965) in Jerusalem, Israel. And of course, my serendipitous beginnings envelope me always.

How did you continue to find inspiration as your career grew?

The W in WSDG—Beth Walters. We fell in love at a party almost 35 years ago. She is an interior designer and an incredible person. Flip through the thousands of projects our group has done, and starting 33 years ago, there is suddenly more color. That's all Beth. We became partners in everything very quickly after we met.

And I've always believed that our team and I have been very fortunate to work with clients who let us design what we feel—or ask us to help them design what they feel. For me, our clients or more like partners! Through it all, we try to get the music to become color and light.

How does your process change for different clients?

Well, you have, for the lack of a better word, corporate clients. And those are actually really fun. Most of the marketing guys just want you to get the logo right and then let you really wail. And then you have others, like Alicia Keys or Paul Epworth or Herb Alpert, where you become more of a co-designer. Those moments are really satisfying, too, because we're more like a shepherd, drawing out the artist's vision and taste and implementing it. We re-dreamers and, at the same time, dream catchers. How lucky!

During the past 50 years, what periods in your work have you experienced?

For a long time, I was creating a number of projects with a great deal of curves and circular shapes. Exploring the circle and exploring curves is always special. I was inspired by people like Le Corbusier, and I'm a student of Renaissance architecture. Then that ended for a while, and I started exploring other kinds of geometry.

I love the opportunity to work with glass. For a long time, studios were windowless spaces. Now, a studio without glass is a rarity. Technology advances have always helped. As acousticians, we don't have to be afraid of glass; actually, glass can often be our friend. Currently, I believe we are on the edge of some very interesting technical material frontiers—i.e. advanced microperfed surfaces, including glass(!), metamaterials (very thin absorbers), etc.

How did WSG become a global business?

Thirty years ago, after aligning with Beth and forming Walters-Storyk Design Group (eventually shortening to WSDG), we were a practice with one office in New York City. We were growing and already had 20 years of a career "under our belt." So, our group had a clear professional path in front of us. Next came a string of events that just don't make complete sense (remember that word "serendipity" again).

Approached one day to participate in a small trade show in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we somewhat reluctantly agreed, with the understanding that I would give a professional presentation and that the organizer would provide assistance for us at the show. (My Spanish would be okay but I would need full-service translation). Beth and I figured, hey, the worst thing that can happen is we get a nice trip.

The show was tiny, and sure enough, there was no AV set up for me to talk and present our video; and low and behold, the translator that was provided collapsed in a matter of minutes with the technology phrases in the presentation. I turned to the promoter, asking about how we're going to pull this off. The next thing I know, a young kid arrived with two Genelec speakers that he pulled from the walls of his personal studio.

By the time the weekend is over, that kid became the translator as well as my partner and lifelong friend. I visited his studio, which of course, needed improvement. We quickly agreed that I would redesign his studio if he promised to build it and represent us in Argentina. Thus the beginning of WSDG Latin and a lifetime friendship with Sergio Molho and his family. Our team's next project was creating a world-class studio for an Argentinian rock star, Fito Paez. Sergio is now Director of our International Busines Division and runs our Latin America office out of Miami. Life is strange that way—again, serendipity.

And another story. For many years, I would teach at Full Sail in Orlando (having designed their new phase one facility). One of my students, Dirk Noy became an intern, and almost instantly, we offered him a position with WSDG. Wanting to return to Basel, Switzerland (of course, I knew nothing about Basel), we suggested that he return, open a small office and represent WSDG in Basel and continental Europe. He initially thought we were kidding, but after assuring him that we were not, WSDG-e was launched, and our path towards a global team continued. Other students became interns, became representatives, became partners. What an exciting adventure this has been with now over 65 people on our team, worldwide. What an honor, what a privilege, and I assure you, a program that was created very organically (remember my favorite word!).

How do you manage such a diverse business?

We're not greedy. We do our work, pay our bills, and always finish. We really don't try to conquer the world. We work with good people and try our best to treat them well.

We're not perfect. We've made mistakes and haven't made everyone happy—but we have a pretty high percentage of happy clients. At the same time, we always are trying to introduce cutting-edge technology and innovative design. As for marketing, our plan has always been a simple one. Do good work; get it documented; get it published; invest in teaching; respect the work, the clients and art.

Howard Sherman has been my publicist for over 45 years. We've grown old together (or young—it depends on what song you listen to). And we're still working. I work every day and love my work. This is most likely why it does not appear to be work!

We're not a big firm, but we're always in some way expanding. We are either growing talent or growing knowledge—usually both. Even during this recent pandemic, we had to scale up. We simply just had too much work. We're very fortunate and very thankful.

As a result of the pandemic, has anything changed about the way you and your team work?

There was change, but it wasn't too painful for us. Being global for so many years and being somewhat virtual (winter snow days, work at home policies, etc.), we already had technology in place and simply had to scale it up. Our whole team was already on laptops, we already had eight Zoom accounts, and we're very optimistic people. We have been operating across five continents, so we're used to meeting virtually. We looked at it, saying, "Okay, we'll adapt."

If you put the right lens on this, one can always can pick up the silver lining in any condition. This has always been our attitude. We never like to use the word "problem." We would rather call it an opportunity and, most certainly, a learning moment. To that point, we figured out another way to do site inspections, invested in more robust file-sharing systems, and developed new ways to draw together.

There is no doubt we are planning on traveling less. We like to see each other but are looking to find a balance. Because we're designers, we're constantly sketching and changing, and we're applying that to our workweek now. For example, we are trying not to have any meetings on Fridays in order to give our staff a chance to catch up and be creative from home. We're calling this time our summer hours, with Mondays at home too.

Are there other ways that the pandemic has opened up opportunities?

I'll give you a most unusual example. For many years, Beth and I have spent the winter months in our home in Mexico (north of Tulum on the Caribbean coast). I work every day from there, as if I was in my office, but do not have any clients in that part of the world. But yet, I got a call one day recently from a very large concert promoter (coincidently, a dear friend down there is the local on site production coordinator). In a normal advance tour of the site, it was noticed that there was an acoustic issue (slap echo) coming from one of the buildings. Next thing, I am getting a call to provide acoustic analysis services in my winter playground part of the world. Now comes the fun part.

We did drawings; analysis; and remotely ran an impulse response test on a laptop—connected to a phone hot spot, with one of our new York acousticians literally running my laptop, which was in the sand, only inches from the ocean. How amazing—what a cool moment in time that we can be anywhere anytime if we try hard enough. I believe this pandemic gave us the social license to think out of the box.

As a world traveler, where are you most excited to get back to?

Live music. Sports. And a hamburger with my friends. I miss live music the most. The virtual music has been fun. I literally just bought my 2021 Yankees tickets—was sad to miss all of last year at the Stadium.

And I'm excited to get on a commercial plane. My first trip will be to California (many friends, projects, and of course, daughter and teenage grandson). My second will be our annual visit to Tuscany (another home-away-from-home for Beth and me for many years).

Can you talk a bit about the importance to the industry of trade shows and events like the TEC Awards?

The TEC team has always been very kind to us. At first, I was gun-shy when it moved to NAMM. But it turns out TEC was ahead of its time by joining NAMM and helping to meld the AES exhibits into the same show. Kudos for NAMM, TEC, and AES aligning this way.

Over the past several years, the lines between pro and consumer audio have completely disappeared. And now the north hall at NAMM is where it's at. The NAMM Show has become one of our primary exhibit venues.

How have you felt community events like NAMM Shows have influenced your career and your network?

Part of our marketing strategy is to educate. I teach and have always taught. I regularly present at AES and at NAMM. It has been quite amazing to be able to expand our education initiatives by aligning with newer (and, in some instances, cooler) virtual techniques.

Having said that, trade shows are still crucial. You want to talk in person to journalists. An event like NAMM is still where dozens of journalists in your industry will be. Get a booth. It's a chance to host them and thank them as well. And of course, nothing replaces a live cup of coffee or a good meal with old friends.

By January 2022, with America 80% vaccinated, I think NAMM is just going to be a slam. It's always a hot show. It's always a fun show. I would be expecting a very large crowd. We at WSDG have committed to NAMM.

Okay, final question. I know you're always asked this, but how has the industry changed with so many bedroom studios?

We have never had so much work in my life. Why? My response to that is twofold. One, it's our turn. There's not a lot of us working in this space. I would never say that we're the best at what we do—this is simply not my style! But I feel safe in saying that there are days where we are certainly on the first page of such a list. And we are always working to be there.

But the real answer is: One should not be afraid of a Billie Eilish making a record with her brother in her bedroom. (I'll remind you it wasn't mastered in the bedroom.) They used real equipment, and they just used it in a great way. The real secret sauce of Billie's success is the songs—they are wonderful.

All that bedroom studios mean is that more people are making more music. And once you have one studio, you always want to have another. And it doesn't take long before you realize that you don't want to always work in headphones. You know, it's often simply more fun to listen to really good monitors in a really good room. There will always be a need for accurate, critical-listening environments. And there will always be the desire to praise vibe. I rest my case.

I am not afraid of people recording in their bedrooms or creating one room ("all in one") studios. All those terms: project, commercial, budget, etc.—those are all marketing terms. Ultimately if sound is being created and listened to, it deserves as much accuracy as is possible.

WSDG is at the nexus of vibe, technology and acoustics. If that interests you, we are the right group to work with. And then it becomes fun.

I say: Try to stay relevant, stay current, stay young. It's not complicated. I knew little of any of this 50 years ago at the young age of 22. Not sure how much more I know now. What a ride—still on it.

Learn more about WSDG at their website, https://wsdg.com.