Bob Suffolk could live just about anywhere he wants to, but for more than 20 years he's called Dallas his home. That's saying something because Suffolk, who's originally from the U.K., spent a good portion of his life working alongside some of rock music's biggest stars, rubbing shoulders with everyone from the Kinks to Elton John while he worked in London. Now the man who had the honor of renovating Trident Studios is particularly excited about his latest project, the soon-to-be-opened Niles City Sound in Fort Worth.
Suffolk has designed roughly 200 studios over the years, but when he first got started in the business he was a musician himself. He started his first band when he was 15, and when he was 18 he got a job doing delivery for studios on Denmark Street, often referred to as London’s Tin Pan Alley. “One of the first things I learned was bringing in tea and coffee for the Kinks at Pye Records,” Suffolk says with a chuckle. The first lesson he learned was not to enter a room with a light on to indicate recording in progress: He walked in on Ray Davies playing harpsichord. But Suffolk says these humble beginnings were the best way for him to learn how studios work. “I’ve always been one to watch, learn and listen,” he says.
And he certainly had plenty of big names to study under. From his delivery job he became a tape operator at Spot Studios, where he recalls recording Elton John (before he was known as Elton John) and Marc Bolan, in his early Tyrannosaurus Rex days. "He was young and fairly unknown at that time," Suffolk says of Bolan, who brought in some rough demos. "I remember thinking he was very cool. We used to have a lot of people doing demos and writing."
Everyone seemed to know everyone in the early London rock scene. Another person Suffolk came into contact with around that time was David Bowie. He remembers how difficult it was for Bowie to get “Space Oddity” on the radio. "I was a member of the famous Beckenham arts [scene] with many others including David Bowie, who I used to watch play at the local pub as Davy Jones," Suffolk says. "We all used to hang out at Haddon Hall, his large Victorian house in Beckenham, along with Lindsay Kemp."
Suffolk also worked alongside many great producers, notably Glyn Johns, who worked with Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones among countless others. "I watched, shut my mouth and learned as much as I could," he says.
At the same time, Suffolk continued to make his own music, playing the Hammond organ. In 1975 he formed the Fabulous Poodles, which was John Peel’s favorite group for years. He also had a project with John Bentley, the bass player from Squeeze. The two had a band that was signed to Polydor Records, but they were only around for a year before Bentley went back to Squeeze. Suffolk was even asked to join the Faces at one point, but thought it was a ridiculous name for a group and decided to focus on another project. “I had lots of opportunities like that,” he says with a shrug.
By the early 1980s, Suffolk left life as a musician to work in studio design. His big break was remodeling Trident, a building he once stood outside of trying to catch a glimpse of the Beatles while they recorded. It was his dream job. “Once you’re in it, you don’t think of them as pop stars,” he says of the artists he worked with. “It was a working environment.” But Suffolk remembers the voices of Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin making quite an impression on him. He struggles to describe just how amazing it is to hear them recording.
In the early 1990s, he moved to Texas from London. He was constantly flying back and forth and ultimately found himself more interested in the talent in the United States. “I liked the creative energy,” he says. “London had lost a lot of that energy.” Suffolk has now built all sorts of different studios all over North Texas, as well as other parts of the country. “You have to see all the deficiencies in the sound that the room is producing,” he says. “And then pick out all the good stuff."
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Because of his background, Suffolk is known for designing studios from a musician’s and producer’s point of view, but not necessarily from an architectural one. “I like being behind the scenes,” he says. Suffolk’s passion is “creating a room that creates a great sound that will create a fabulous album.”
That was part of the appeal for him of tackling the Niles City Sound project, and if the studio's first recording — Leon Bridges' Coming Home — is any indication, he may have hit the mark. The computer industry has changed studios and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But over the years there seems to be a loss of the value of real sound. Niles City wants to get back to basics, drawing on vintage analog equipment and modeling itself after old-school, straight-to-broadcast studios. “Everyone’s forgotten the art of recording,” says Suffolk. “It’s you, a microphone and a tape recorder." And those things, plus the right imagination, are all you really need.
Suffolk remains as passionate as ever about what he does; he has no plans to retire. Looking back, he says he has worked in some of the best and worst recording studios on the planet. He learned just as much from bad studios as he did from good ones. "People say that I see sound," he says. "But it’s only through experience.”