One magical aspect of Brighton is that artistry can spring up in the most unlikely of places. Take a stroll to the quiet end of Madeira Drive, just where the road dissolves into a expansive cycle path, and you’ll find one of the city’s newest music studios. Located in an underpass, Black Rock Subway Studios is a haven for any musician who likes their music loud, real and real loud.
This new space rose from the ashes of the much-loved Studio 284, which was set up in 1997 as a place where proper rock bands can have a space to practice freely. Situated under Madeira Drive’s Victorian terraces, the area’s worsening dilapidation forced a change of location. “Out of the blue, the people from the seafront came down,” the studio’s owner, Austen Gayton, tells me. “I just knew what they were going to say. I had predicted within five years, maybe ten, that the place was going to fall. But I didn’t expect it to be so soon.” A new home had to be found, but finding a space where there are no neighbours to annoy is a big ask in Brighton. To store his vast collection of gear, Brighton & Hove Council offered the use of some rooms further up the beach. Which turned out to be a serendipitous opportunity.
The new location is kind of cool. It’s tucked away in an extensively converted public toilet in a subway linking Kemptown to the beach. It was originally constructed in the 70s, when a starry-eyed council provided a public convenience for the droves of people they imagined use the underpass. Unfortunately, the tunnel’s footfall didn’t justify the facilities up-keep, and they were closed in the early 80s. and so it laid empty and almost forgotten, until the demise of Studio 284. “I’d just signed a new lease on the other place. Out of the kindness of their heart they said ‘we’ll either compensate or relocate you.’” Gayton took a look at the space, and quickly realised it could offer more than just storage. The following building project has taken almost 12 months. All interior walls were knocked down, everything was dry-lined, new electrics, smoke and fire alarms were installed and 1.2m service trench running the length of the property had to be capped. In the way have been building regulations, summer holidays, and some less enjoyable issues. “Just outside there’s a manhole cover in the subway, which was so full of chalk it was blocked up. I had to chip it all away!” he says with a laugh. It certainly helped that many of his contacts with the local band scene also had the skills to transform this inconspicuous space into something quite special.
Apart from the change of address and name, everything else about the studio remains the same. They endeavour to provide quality equipment and excellent spaces at an affordable price. Rehearsal rates average £10 per hour, but certainly times during the week are heavily discounted, while recording sessions come in at under £200 for the day. Gayton recognises what musicians want and need, having played in bands since he was 16. He became involved with the original Studio 284 as a punter. “I said: ‘I’ll run it for you. I’ll give you the rent you need, as long as I’ve got my own space.’ That was in 1997. Eventually I took the lease. I just fell into it somehow.” The advent of modern technology means it is easy to create bedroom studios. But you certainly can’t play a proper drum kit in your bedroom, not without encountering grief from the neighbours. You certainly can’t play massive guitar stacks as loudly as you can in this studio. Mainly because you’d be in danger of breaking your windows.
Obligingly, all the backline you’ll ever need is already in Black Rock Subway’s two rooms. There’s towering Marshall stacks and amps, 4×10″ and 2×15″ Gallien Krueger and Ampeg bass stacks, both Pearl and Premier drum kits and a colossal 450w RMS PA per side. “It’s cheap, quality rehearsal space, with a rock ’n’ roll attitude, with as few rules and regulations as possible.” It’s not simply a suite of rehearsal rooms either. Both rooms are linked via multicore cables to a 48-track digital recording suite. This hasn’t been an easy move. But with a little ambition, some serious planning and a lot of hard work they’ve transformed an abandoned space into an asset for local music. “For me, I get up in the morning and I do it. I guess I’ve been lucky. This is the sort of thing I’ve done all my life.”