Sunday, 21 October 2012

Cultivating precious talent in Gavin's Garden

Gavin Monaghan's Magic Garden recording studio has quietly grown into a powerhouse production centre, simply by concentrating on doing things well. Really well. 

When you visit a recording studio for the first time, more often than not finding the place is a bit of an adventure. Studios are tucked away in basements, shoehorned into warehouses, carved out of unlikely spaces in industrial estates, squeezed into odd bits of residential homes… It’s all very hidden and exceptions are rare. It’s only in colleges and, sadly, now rarely at radio - like the old Pebble Mill BBC studios - that you’ll walk into something open, airy, shinily well maintained, and above all, obvious for all to see.

So it was with Gavin Monaghan’s Magic Garden, arguably the most consistently successful outfit in the West Midlands. It took me half an hour of driving around odd bits of industrial north Wolverhampton, and even then Gavin had to come out and find me – he’s not on anywhere you’ll find on Google maps or your satnav, and that’s the way he likes it. 

Gavin presides over an operation which has turned out some magnificent work in his 21 years as studio manager and producer: The Twang, Scott Matthews, Editors, Robert Plant, Ocean Colour Scene, Carina Round, Nizlopi, and a host of local names including Khaliq, The Destroyers, Guile, Paul Murphy, and Ben Drummond – who was recording when I dropped by, and who will be the subject of a later post on this blog when everything is mixed.  

Vintage tech lust object
There’s not a whole lot of of room in Gavin’s place, and that’s partly because he collects kit - rather a lot of it - and lovingly refurbishes it. His pride and joy is a 1938 Neumann microphone, which he dug up on eBay; but there are classic pieces of kit everywhere you look. 

Vintage kit fetishists can get their kicks reading the kit list on his Myspace blog. 

Notwithstanding all the appeal of gorgeous old equipment, the heart of Gavin's system is a Protools rig. Above and beyond the love of kit, there’s a love of the creative process. And in the teeth of a howling recession, things are looking good

First question, Gavin: How’s business?
Booming. It’s very busy. There’s always been a steady flow of really talented people coming thought here, I’m pleased to say.
And this comes to you how? Word of mouth?
Yes. I don’t advertise. I’m also quite selective of who I work with. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes that happen, but I’m glad it has. It’s nice that current artists come in as well – we’ve still got stuff on and off the radio all the time - I see that as a continuation, and I try to embrace change as it comes along. But… a good song’s a good song. 
I talked with Jon Cotton at Artisan about six months ago, and he pointed out that the tiny studios have now simply disappeared, because people can work with multi-track software on their laptops, and the big studios are scrapping for movie business. So that kind of means that reputation counts for an awful lot.
Yes. You’re only as good as the people you work with. If I get a great band to work with, I’m at my best. If I get somebody… not so great … they there’s not a lot you can do with that. I do a lot of research. I listen to a lot of brand new music. I try to uncover gems. I’m always all over the internet. I approach bands that I hear and like. If I hear something than inspires me, I get in touch. And I try and put as much effort into a job like that as I would with a major album.
That can’t be cost-effective, Gavin…
I don’t care. I’m not doing this for the money. Never have been. 
On the other hand, we’re sitting here, surrounded by squaziliions' worth of vintage kit, which doesn’t come cheap… 
Gavin (chortles)
… but you’ve got Protools up there as your main system.
I like classic sounds, but you’ve got to embrace what’s going on now. So we’ve got all the modern stuff that you’d want. But it’s a good combination. In an ideal world, everybody would still be recording to tape, and perfecting their craft to the point where you wouldn’t need to endlessly edit your stuff to get it on the radio. Having said that, I’m more than happy.
But I think new cheap kit has made a big difference for a lot of bands. They can get their ideas sorted at home, working on their laptops, and recording acoustically where possible…
Sometimes we’ll work with what they’ve already started in their home studio. We end up keeping some of it – I love that. It brings interesting textures into the recordings.
Capacity is a problem here, isn’t it?
Well, we’ve had all 18 of the Destroyers in…
The chat moved on through technology, music quality and sound quality.
I work with music fidelity for a living. My job is to capture the best possible signal. But if it’s going to be reduced to mp3, and that’s how people are going to hear it, then I’ve got to make the best possible mp3 I can possibly make. 
I had a very interesting conversation a while back about distortion in mastering. Most people want to capture the maximum possible volume, with the minimum possibly dynamic range. So part of that process is to distort it, to clip it, so it’s as loud as it can be on radio.
But radio compresses everything anyway…
They use Optimod, yes. A lot of bands and record companies, if you give them something with dynamic range, will say ‘It’s not as loud as the Arctic Monkeys’ – it’s part of the culture. It’s part of the trend, Music is a fashion-based industry. So if that’s the trend, I’ve got to make my masters the best distorted masters I can!
So once Ben Drummond’s mixed and finished up, who’s next?
We’ve got a band called Arrows – a brilliant band. We’ve just done a Radio 1 exclusive with a Birmingham band called Jaws. I’m doing an album with Johnathan Day, a brilliant singer-songwriter. Paul Murphy’s coming in to do his next album. We’re slated to be working with – don’t want to jinx it, but I’m hopeful – with Dry The River. Hope so. My management’s talking to them and various other people.
Management? How does that work?
I have a manager for my production work. I’m a studio owner, but my job is music producer. There are agencies similar to artist management, who manage producers, My manager’s Sandy Robertson from World’s End in Los Angeles. He’s got about 40 producers and engineers on his books. 
How did that relationship come about?
He liked some of the albums that I’ve worked on. The first Twang album – he loved it. He wanted the Twang for another one of his producers, but they wanted to work with me. And after he heard it, it went from there – he’d been listening to my stuff for a while.
But does he understand you and your range of production chops and styles?
I think he works with such a variety of producers… so, yes. I just want to be working all the time. For me it’s important to work with new bands, just as important as working with major label acts who can line your pockets. If I was in it for the money, I’d be a hell of a lot better off!
Gavin's Magic Garden Myspace page

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