Saturday, 6 April 2013

16 tracks and that's your lot: the joys of analogue at one of the oldest studios in Birmingham

Recording studios #3: It takes a special kind of enthusiasm to run - and to record at - a seriously retro recording studio. But it seems to be working at Highbury.

Where does an analogue recording studio, stocked with vintage 80s kit, like a reel-to reel multitrack tape recorder, fit in our relentlessly digital age ? 

Like so many 20th century technologies, the accepted norm has been savagely upended by digital technology. The bottom end of the market has been eaten by laptops running free software, while the top end is left to at Air or Abbey Road - see here for more on this. Studios left in the middle have had to become nimble and, sometimes, specialised. 

There are, of course, different ways to specialise. John Mostyn runs Highbury Studio, one of the oldest studios in Birmingham; one that is cheerfully old-school in its approach. Built by Bob Lamb on producer royalties from UB40’s 'Signing Off' album, it sits happily in a onetime cricket bat factory, in a quiet side street in King’s Heath, Birmingham. John lives, literally, over the shop. It’s a unique place. 

John took it over two years ago, when Bob Lamb retired to Thailand. Renamed, spruced up and overhauled, it now trades as Highbury Studio, offering 16 tracks of old-school Tascam reel to reel paired with a Teac analogue mixing desk. 

I have to ask - after a life of making music, managing some impressive bands... why did you decide to take on a studio like Highbury?
I was looking, really seriously, about moving to Devon and doing my own retirement thing. But I just knew that within a few months of beach walking I’d be bored. Interesting as the Devon music scene is, it wasn’t going to be enough to keep me happy.
 I’d never wanted to run a studio – or own one. I don’t like studios, generally. I find what goes on in studios the most dull activity. With the artists I worked with over the years, there was an awful lot of spending a couple of days getting a snare drum sound, and all that, to me, dull stuff. The only time I was really happy in a studio was when there was some great backing vocals going down, or some other inspiring moment… but those were quite rare. Generally it was quite hard, relentlessly… concentrating…work.
That’s the exact correct word: concentrating….
So I liked the fact that this is an analogue studio. I knew this wasn’t going to be the place where people would do that 'ten days to get the snare drum sound'.thing. If I could make this work, it was going to be a place where exciting things happened. And, touch wood, that’s turned out to be the case. People come here, ready to play together. That’s exciting. I’m inspired by the fact that the Troggs took an hour to record their first two hit singles, in total.
And the Beatles did their first album in a day…
I’m there! That’s the neck of the woods that I love.
And that’s what you have to do with analogue, because of the limited capacity of reel to reel tape. Let me ask a few tech geek questions…. Digital kit is so cheap, and it offers endless possibilities of unlimited storage. But you’re working with a 16 track machine with a few decades on the clock. Things wear out and break. What do you do to get new parts?
Well, getting the parts can be exciting. It’s a bit like running an old sports car. But we are hooked into a worldwide network of people who used to work for Tascam and Teac, and such… and by chance happen to have saved, or collected, bits and bobs. So we can call on these people when we need a new part. We ‘re very fortunate to have a great engineer who comes and fixes and maintains the equipment for us. He comes down from Leeds, so it’s not cheap; but he’s really on the case. We now maintain our kit religiously, and it serves us well. 
The Rimes shot a ten minute documentary when recording at Highbury What about tape?
There is now one manufacturer of tape in the world. They can literally name their own price. I think now we’re paying about £120 for a 20 minute reel of 16-track tape. You can re-use it quite a lot, and we don’t find any loss of quality when we do. We’ll happily re-use it half a dozen times…
Let's stop for a second and do the math. Half a dozen times? That means a cost of £120 for a maximum of 2 hours of multi-track capacity. Or....  you can put, ooh, a weeks' worth of audio on a £50 Terabyte drive. Going by the numbers alone, it just doesn't stack up. Clearly, there has to be something more to make this work. 

So how does that works with your musicians? You can put sixteen separate bits of information down onto that tape for 20 minutes. A four-piece band can eat that up with backing vocals and overdubs. Do you brief your musicians before they come in?
We discuss the way that we work here. And ask them if they feel ready for that. Most of them have done their research before they come to us, so they know why they’re coming to a studio like ours. No one has fazed by the limitations – those limitations can in fact drive creativity. Having that framework makes people be thoughtful and inventive in a really positive way. 
You’ve been working on this business for two years. How is business?
Well, I’m delighted to report that business gets better every month. The graph continues to rise.
Are you in the black?
Will you be in the black?
I’m hoping that by this summer, it’ll be washing its face. But really, to be seriously profitable, we’d need to charge twice what we charge now. I’ve subsidised it personally to a dramatic extent. But that was the price I was prepared to pay to get the ball rolling. 
But there are a number of factors. There’s the joy of having the great people we have coming to work with us, and the joy of living here, in my chosen place, in the community that I want to live in. 
Tell me about the music that comes through your place
We recently recorded an album for a young Muslim singer, called Mikhael. He came to us with quite a blank sheet. He had some ideas about instrumentation, but it was a pleasure to develop things with him: ‘Would you like some harp in this piece? What about some bodhran here?
So at one end there’s the pleasure of developing something with a new talent, and at the other end there’s the excitement of Kodaline coming in. They didn’t use our tape machine; they’d been working on their album for two years. They brought their pro-tools kit in to do some final overdubs. And they chose, to my surprise, to do it here. The buzz of having them around when they listened to their album was incredibly thrilling. So high, so excited, for all the right reasons. You find yourself in the middle of this wave of excitement – just a lovely place to be
The there’s the joy of watching Goodnight Lenin, who’ve popped in and out for the last six months. I’m thrilled to bits with what we’ve done with them. 
What about marketing?
We’ve not done a big marketing campaign at all. We don’t want just anyone coming here. We want interesting, creative, imaginative, good people. It’s word of moth and recommendations that’s causing that to happen. At the heart of what we do here is producing that warm analogue sound that no amount of plug-ins can buy you... and now we have artists like ADO taking that to vinyl, we're cooking.
But I think you have that in common, say with Musoplex with Andy Ward, who loves his musicians…or with Gavin Monaghan in Wolverhampton at Magic Garden, who is passionate about the work he does… even though these are three very different operations.
(Laughing) Certainly are… I have an enormous amount of respect for Gavin. I do remember him saying that he’d like a tape machine…
But he has vintage kit like you wouldn’t believe! At some point you guys ought to do some sort of technical collaboration. Do you know what breaks my heart about old-school recording? We used to be able to put a 70 piece band into a room… and now we can’t. Not that the business really supports such enterprises anymore.
Well, there’s still the old Hollick and Taylor place – CMat. That place did the music for Thunderbirds, with a big orchestra….
So in between the big boys in London, and the kids in bedrooms with laptops and Garageband or Audacity, the market seems to have settled down to niche specialist operators. Gavin gets a lot of work because he is a producer of international repute; John Cotton has carved out his areas, as have a lot of others. Are you in a similar place?
Not yet. Gavin is a producer, and a lot of work comes his way because of that. I – or Rob (Peters, sound engineer at Highbury) are nowhere approaching that; nor do we have those aspirations. We’re not on our way to being what Gavin or John (Cotton) are. John commented the other day that he took stock of the material he had assembled for an album he is working in… and worked out that he would have had to spend over £7000 on tape just to store it all.
But what I do think will happen is that people in the digital world, like John, might well feel that they would like to do some basic recording here, because of the ambiance of the room. And then take that back and spend months knocking it into shape with all his wonderful gear. 
I see that as part of our future – we have a room that is unique.
If someone wants to start a studio up now – say, someone who’s just come out of college, learning about music technology – what would you say to them? 
Well… despite the utter chaos that the industry is going through, things do still seem to start with a recording. It’s your calling card. Even if you’re only looking for live work, then the odds are very high that you will only get that live work if you are able to send your musical calling card. So although the days of big spends of studios are mostly over, there is, still, and always will be, a need for this. 
I don’t think a youngster setting off today is wasting their time. The majority that move forward are going to have done it by astute use of their own gear, and looking for the right opportunities. The hardest part must be to find a place to work 
The place with the vibe… and from that comes the skills, the production chops, the knowledge, the discipline….
Highbury Studio

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1 comment:

Nick O'Connor said...

Seasoned users of recording equipment will know that in digital studios you have the option of imparting a 'warm' sound to a track or mix, often with the choice of either valve or tape warmth. However there is never anything like the real thing! Having said that, digital recording and mixdown offer too many advantages to be overlooked. To me, the best option is to record on tape, transfer to digital and mixdown there. The amount of time saved through not having to fast forward and rewind for a start is a huge bonus. And as John said, the maintenance bill for machines (also the mixing desk with hundreds of pots, switches and faders) has to be a serious consideration. One last thought - the old multitrack machines can be linked together to give for example 32 tracks, and the secret to getting a good live sound is to record as many instruments simultaneously as is possible on the first take.