Discover everything you wanted to know about the Elder!

"Elder" Related!

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Designing Ace In The Hole Studio

By Tim McPhate

As the calendar turned to 1979, KISS were in full-blown "Super KISS" mode. Having come off a busy year in 1978, including the release of the solo albums and their first feature film, "KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park," each of the band members -- now full-fledged millionaires -- were enjoying their respective tastes of the good life. Ace Frehley, KISS' resident Jendellian, had settled down in Wilton, Conn., a quiet residential town some 40 miles north of New York. Situated on a four-acre property, the house was something of a dream for Frehley, who particularly enjoyed his newfound privacy. But his dream house was lacking one final key ingredient: a recording studio.

Following the success of his solo album, Frehley wanted a musical laboratory where he could indulge his creative impulses at the drop of a playing card. While home recording studios are commonplace today, in 1979 a home recording studio was considered a rare luxury, and certainly a project that required the expertise of a credible professional. Enter John Storyk, who through a recommendation by his personal friend and colleague Eddie Kramer, would be contracted to design the facility that would ultimately become Ace in the Hole Studio.

A registered architect and acoustician, Storyk designed the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York, which was his first studio project. A revered member of the professional audio community, the Princeton graduate has gone on to design more than 3,000 recording studios while overseeing his own company, Walters-Storyk Design Group, in conjunction with his wife Beth Walters. In remembering his initial meeting with the Spaceman, Storyk recalls a bit of a false start upon Frehley's request to house the studio in his basement. "I looked at the basement," says Storyk, "and it took me ... about 19 seconds to basically turn around to Ace and tell him this was not going to happen. At least this is not going to happen with me in the basement."

In this KissFAQ exclusive, Storyk reveals what transpired with the design and construction of Ace in the Hole Studio, his initial consultation and interaction with Frehley and how a "joke" of an idea turned into a reality. As a special treat, Storyk has also contributed a photo and his original studio drawings from his personal archives.

John, how did you come to be contracted to design Ace Frehley's studio? Was it through Eddie Kramer?

John Storyk: Yes. I'm 99.9 percent sure this is correct. At the time Eddie was very involved with KISS as you know. He did a number of their albums and I think he was pretty close with Ace. Ace had, more or less, just gotten his new home in Connecticut, right on the Connecticut-New York border, and wanted his own studio. And Eddie and I, of course, had been friends since 1969. He's my daughter's godfather. Basically, Eddie said to Ace, "This is the only guy to do it." And Ace said, "Great. Let's do it." And I remember he sent a limousine to pick me up and I went up to his house up in Wilton, he had already moved into the house. And he basically outlined that he wanted a private home studio.

According to "KISS & Sell," a book authored by KISS' former business manager Christopher Lendt, "Ace's dream was to have a recording studio in his home." Was this how you recall the project being described to you?

100 percent. You know, it's kind of funny because artists having their own studios at home now is like buying a loaf of bread. It's an every day occurrence. It's not a big deal. Then it was a slightly new idea for an artist to have a "commercial-grade" studio. When I say that, I mean a glorified recording studio. There was nothing non-commercial about it other than the fact that it was not going to be a commercial studio. And also, it [wasn't] a giant studio -- [Ace] didn't need a giant studio. He needed room for three, four musicians. So the idea of having that was a little newer then it is now.

It all took place in a relatively short meeting. I knew [KISS'] music, liked some of it, didn't like other parts of it, but enjoyed the energy. I knew nothing about any of the members personally. To be honest with you, I didn't even know what they looked like, from the makeup. I got up there one morning and met Ace and he reviewed very quickly what he wanted. What he wanted was of course not what we ended up building, and that might segue into the next question.

In this case, I can only go by what I have read. Initially, I believe the initial budget was in the neighborhood of $60,000 and the studio was to be more "modest," according to Lendt's book. Do you recall this initial budget?

Well, that's true, but that was not the dynamic discussed at our initial meeting. That is true and I'm sure that a business manger would present that from that perspective because that's his job as a business manager. My guess is somewhere between Ace's vision and the business manager watching the money, that's what they started out with. And you're absolutely right, they didn't spend anywhere near that money. It was closer to 10 times that amount when we were done.

From my perspective, our meeting started in a very different way. Which was that Ace had very quickly described what he wanted, which was basically a modest-size studio, [and] budget was not discussed, basically to handle three, four, five musicians, mostly himself, practicing, recording ... maybe the guys would come over, et cetera, et cetera. And, now comes the big point, he wanted it in his basement. He wanted it in the basement of his house. I said, "OK. That sounds like a good idea. Let's take a look at the basement." At which point, literally, and this was very quick -- I don't think I spent more than one hour there, maybe two -- I looked at the basement. And it took me, even though his was a long time ago, about 19 seconds to basically turn around to Ace and tell him "this was not going to happen. At least this is not going to happen with me in the basement. Because first of all, your basement has only got 8 foot ceilings. Plus it's got pipes and wires, and this and that." Actually, it was big enough, and there was enough of it, because it was a big house, but I turned to Ace, "There's no way we can isolate this in your basement. It's impossible. You don't have enough height. And also it's a wood building. It's not going to work. It's going to be very loud obviously. You're going to wake up your wife. It's not going to happen. Maybe I can think about digging down, but it'd be a major project [and] I have no idea whether it's even possible."

And this conversation lasted a very short amount of time. And you know, it was almost like I've got a job and I'm talking myself out of a job about as quickly as I'm meeting Ace. But I had to tell him that, "This is the truth." At which point, I had walked around the property -- I think he had like five acres -- and I came into the house. I said, "You know, Ace, you're up here on a beautiful [piece of property]. Why don't you just build a small little barn in your backyard? Build it out of concrete block, side it with wood so it will look just like a house or anything you want, and then you just walk to the studio and you can make as much noise as you want and everything will be perfect. This will be really easy." At the time, I had just finished doing the project for Albert Grossman in Bearsville working on Bearsville Studios [in New York] and I had a lot of experience with those [type of studios]. And that's exactly what we did -- we basically made a concrete block bunker look like a wood building. And I said [to Ace], "This would be so much simpler. To try and do this in the basement would be impossible." And he just looked at me and said, "No. I'm from the Bronx. I don't want to walk outside to my studio. I want to just get up, put on my slippers and go out to the studio." And I said, "Well, you know, Ace, what do you want me to do, you want to put the studio underground and connect with a tunnel to your house?" I said this as a joke. And I remember this almost exactly -- I was literally joking, and I was half-kidding with him. I was trying to see if I could flush out some kind of solution. At which point, Ace turned to me and said, "That's a really good idea. Let's go do that."

No kidding? (laughs)?

He said, "You can keep the limousine for the rest of the day." He walked out of the room and I never saw him again. That is the story. Period. End of conversation. Nobody was angry. He just said, "That's a brilliant idea. Let's go do that. Work out the details." And he walked out of the room.

Acefreeley-plan Storyk 4.jpg
Copyright: John Storyk/WSDG/Courtesy of John Storyk

How far underground was the studio ultimately built?

It was built about six feet underground. I literally never saw Ace again. I worked with Eddie to get the basic specs that he needed. I mean nobody knew more about recording him than Eddie because he had been working with Ace. So it was easy to get all the equipment specs and the needs that he had. And basically that is exactly what we did. The land kind of sloped -- it's hard to explain. The side of his property -- the land sloped down. So it was easy to basically put the studio into the ground. So it was under the ground, but then one part of it basically daylighted out. At that was the only part you saw. It was a big giant concrete curved box, actually it was pretty. [It] was one of my favorite studios [and] favorite designs. It was pushed into the ground, six feet lower. The bottom was six feet lower and the base was level. So we made a hole in his basement and you went through a small tunnel, that actually had a skylight in it, believe it or not. You went down and then you entered the studio, which had a modest-size control room, about a five-man live room with a small iso booth. And one edge of the studio was a floor-to-ceiling glass block wall. That wall you'd see from the ground, from the land as you approach the studio. When you went into his property, you took one turn to go to the house and another turn to go to the studio. That's what we ended up doing. So the studio was solid concrete -- it was basically a giant basement and the roof was concrete.

Ace Frehley (Kiss).jpg
Photo: Courtesy of John Storyk

On a scale of 1-10, how challenging was this particular studio design?

For me, at that point in my life, it was a 10. Now it would be a 5. But I was much younger then [and it] was before I met [my wife]. My company is Walters-Storyk Design Group. Walters is my wife, Beth Walters. It's kind of like I have two careers, before Beth and after Beth. But [this job], it has to be [more than] 25 years ago.

Again, based on what at I have read, construction to ok about a year and it wrapped in late 1980. So I think we're talking mid to late 1979 that this project would have started.

Yeah, that's possible. I could easily look it up, I have all the original files. I've kept every drawing I've ever done since 1969, including Electric Lady Studios. So I have those drawings. And I have one great photo of the outside of [Ace's studio]. It's still to this day one of my favorite photos. I never really got any pictures of the inside. But I have the original drawings. [Ed: John Storyk has confirmed that the late 1979 - late 1980 timeframe is correct.]

Once you had that initial meeting with a client like Ace, what would have been the first step of the process in designing his studio?

Well that project happened in a slightly unusual way because, as I said, I never saw Ace again. So basically at that point, and this was not so good, it was a little bit goofy, I think we dealt with Eddie. Eddie became the mouthpiece between me and Ace and that was fine with me. Ace, you know, had his own qualities and stuff. I've been around a lot of celebrities and stars and that stuff doesn't interest me that much. So I was happy to deal with Eddie. Eddie is very grounded and he's an incredible engineer and my friend. So I did my drawings and then I took them to Eddie and he would have feedback, et cetera. And they would either be his comments or Ace's comments. The actual design was pretty quick because everything happened in that 10 seconds. I mean that's the real story. That's what happened. I jokingly said, "What do you want me to do? Put it underground and connect it with a tunnel?" And he said, "Yeah, that's a great idea. Let's go do that." And that was it. Just like that.

The real pedal to the metal came [when] we finished the drawing then we went out and found a local contractor. I forget how we found that contractor -- it might have been the person that built the house. I don't remember. I would have to go to my file to find that and that requires some work. But one way or another we finally got a builder -- a real local builder -- who had never built a studio before but knew how to build concrete foundations and stuff. And then of course, the prices came in and I do remember the business manager saying that it was "going over the budget" but Ace basically wanted it. And the business managers ultimately do what their clients want them to do.

Copyright: John Storyk/WSDG/Courtesy of John Storyk

That is the scenario Lendt describes in his book, that the price escalated.

Ace didn't care.

Exactly. According to Lendt, Ace's reply was, "Aren't I a millionaire?"

And that's exactly what happened. I'd only seen the basement boarded. I think we ended up busting it apart. I think I remember the construction was something like $250,000, [which was] a lot of money for 35 years ago. But you know, he was making that kind of money. That was in an era when they made so much money, those guys, and sold a lot of records.

In a recent interview we did with engineer Rob Freeman, he detailed some of the gear in the studio: an MCI 600 series automated console, an MCI JH-16 2" 24-track tape machine with full remote, and two MCI 100A 2-track tape machines for mixdowns.

We had tape machines ... I forget the gear, I'd have to look that up. But I think the drawing -- sometimes I'll pull it up in a lecture presentation on "stranger" studios, "unusual" studios, [because] this is one of them. I remember seeing the drawing. And I remember seeing the tape machine and at that time MCI was one of the leaders and they were of course bought by Sony. But the equipment was probably handled through Audio Techniques and Ham Brosious, who was my friend and buddy at the time, and one of the great pro audio dealers of all time, and they were the MCI dealers. So my guess is that the gear was all sold and brokered through Audio Techniques.

And this recording gear would have been considered top of the line for the time?

State of the art. It was a commercial studio. It just happened to be at his house. And that's what he wanted.

As you said, you had no other interaction with Ace. But according to Lendt there were "constant meetings" with you in lower Manhattan. These meetings would have taken place at your Union Square office ...


So despite Ace was not being present, there was still a series of meetings?

Yeah, but they were all between me and Eddie. And I also remember going [to Ace's house] quite a bit when it was being built. It was a challenge to get it built because it was so different. If you were to see the shape you would realize that it was kind of an odd shape.

Would you have been onsite for all of the construction?

No, no, no, no. I went there maybe once every two weeks. We were involved in the process but we didn't go there every day. But there were [a lot of] phone calls. Even today, we are always in the middle of the present project. And we'll get some projects where we get calls daily. Sometimes we get pictures sent to us. Of course, everything is different now 30 some odd years later. Now, we've got cameras onsite, Skype conversations and live video chats. Then, it was not quite as fluid because we didn't have the technology we have [today]. But I was working [and] living in New York City, 30 minutes away, so it wasn't that hard for me to go visit, and I did on occasion.

Apparently a bathroom was added at the last minute, and some walls that were erected had to be torn down and done over again. Does this ring a bell?

I don't remember ... the bathroom kind of got thrown in there. It was sort of part of the tunnel. The tunnel was not really a long tunnel. It was almost like a 10-foot connector but, to tell you truth, I don't remember the bathroom being a last-minute effect. It might have been last-minute in design but it was always on the original drawing. I'm going off of my memory, because I don't have the drawing in front of me, but I think that I remember that it was always in there.

Once construction ensued, how smooth would you say the process went?

Given that it was being built by a non-studio builder, because there really weren't that many studio builders then, I think it went relatively smooth other than the fact that it just kept costing more than everybody thought it was going to cost. I don't remember any nightmarish moments. Other than this bathroom story that I'm really hearing for the first time, it's not like whole pieces of the project had to come down and be built back up. It basically just got built. It was a concrete box in the dirt. Basically there was a giant hole and imagine building a foundation that had some very strange shapes to it and then instead of putting a wood floor on top of it, they put a concrete floor on top of it like a commercial building and then they put two feet of dirt on top of it and grass. That's the box. And once that was done, the inside was more conditional -- it was a two-wall system with multiple layers of sheetrock and drywall. The studio construction was a little more atypical than what we were building at the time. It went relatively smoothly.

When work was finally completed, what was your immediate reaction? Do you remember being satisfied?

Oh sure. I only got to see the studio once after it was built and then I never went back. But it did pop up in my life again because the house got sold.

That's correct.

Now there's a lot of stories that I heard. Ace, more or less, got asked to leave the community. Not because the studio was making [too much noise], the studio was 100 percent soundproof. But I think he kind of got caught using the studio for commercial purposes because of the traffic that was coming in and out.

His house wasn't cleared for commercial use?

No, no, no. It was totally non-commercial but he ended up using it for commercial use but he didn't get caught because of the noise. He got caught because of the traffic. That's what I heard. I can't verify that and I have some [others] stories about that ... But anyway, none of that interested me, it wasn't my deal. But I did get a call from the future owner, from the person who bought [the house] whose name I completely forget right now. I did get one call because he was thinking of converting it into some kind of studio and wanted information and "could I help him?" I think I said yes but nothing ever became of it. I have no idea what became of the house or the studio.

According to Lendt's book, the studio was ultimately "gutted" and made into some sort of recreational room. I think we're talking some time in the mid-'80s. With all the work that went into the studio, from your perspective, do you think that's unfortunate?

I don't think about it. I mean, I don't mean to not answer your question but I've done 3,000 studios. I move on. Studios don't generally have a very long life. Stone churches last for 5,000 years; studios have an average life of four years. They come and they go. There are some that have lasted a long time and it's actually fun to kind of think about them, like Electric Lady Studios, ironically my first studio. Not only does it still exist, it's flourishing. It's fun to be associated with that but most of the studios that I've done, they arrive and they're there for awhile and then they go. Some have lasted longer. [Ace's] didn't.

Ace's studio was absolutely designed as a state-of-the-art commercial studio. He just wasn't allowed to do it. What he should have done was .. pay a little more attention to when people arrived and observing the community and whatever, because you are allowed to have your own private studio. But basically, I just think somebody didn't want him in that community. That's a pretty uppity community, that Wilton, Connecticut. But I don't know all of the particulars of how he left and why he left.

Would you be at liberty to divulge the fee you would have been paid for your work?

I don't mind divulging it, I just completely forgot. [It was] not that much I am sure.

So John, you've constructed 3,000 recording studios and the very first one, Electric Lady, becomes both a legendary studio and a landmark. Talk about making a big splash the first time out.

Yes. It was a very interesting turn of events that happened and changed my life. Among other things, I got to meet Eddie and got to work with a genius, which was fun, and started a new career. I was a musician. I was actually thinking of being a musician but I had studied architecture so two loves in my life kind of got combined very quickly right out of school. It was just one of those strange turn of events. Just within a few months my life changed around and put me on a different path.

How much did Electric Lady cost to build?

It cost somewhere between $1 and $1.3 million dollars, in 1969 dollars. There have been a number of interviews and articles about Electric Lady. There's been the Electric Lady 35th reunion and there was an Electric Lady 40th reunion and I've been on panels. They recently have a new owner and they have a terrific young manager who has really kept that studio alive. It's fun that it's still there. It's one of the most famous studios in the world.

You mentioned your company, Walters-Storyk Design Group. When was the company founded? And how active are you today?

I've been designing since Electric Lady and then 26 years ago Beth Walters came into my life. And I met her and fell in love with her. She's an interior designer and fabric designer and very quickly, almost within a year, we became partners and everything. Actually we became business partners before we became married. We formed Walters-Storyk Design Group. She runs everything. She's not only in charge of the interiors, has changed a lot of the look of some of the studios, but also runs the business. She's an amazing woman. And now that the company, we have five offices around the world, it's a much bigger company. I am still extremely active. I work everyday but other people are now very seriously involved in some of our activities, even to the point where over the last five years we've sort of tried to change our name to WSDG because we want people to know us just by our letters. I've tried to get it to where not everybody has to talk to me. I can't be hands-on with every project. It's impossible. It's a much bigger operation then when I was doing Ace Frehley's studio.

(KissFAQ thanks John Storyk for his time and gracious contributions. For more information on John Storyk and Walters-Storyk Design Group, visit http://www.wsdg.com.)

March 17, 2013

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