It’s a tough world out there in the 16-track studio jungle, but Abbeydale’s owners have made a success out of providing a ‘personal production service’ for songwriters and bands. What's their secret? Read on...
Demos? Ah, yes... The band, burning with hope and enthusiasm, descend into the underworld of a grimy basement labyrinth, to spend their hard-earned cash producing a Woolworth's C120 that sounds distinctly reminiscent of cornflakes being emptied into a steel bucket. The musicians then emerge, shaken but not stirred, into the cold light of day, knowing somehow that the said cassette does not hold the musical nirvana that was promised.
'Does it have to be this way?' you may ask. Not always. If you make your way to Abbeydale Studios in London's Park Royal, you will meet Jerry Freedman and Brian Mahon, who have been operating what they call a "true production service" for an incredibly wide range of artistes. They insisted that we didn't confine ourselves to the word 'demo' because, in their view, 'demos' and 'masters' are accurately definable only by the person listening to the recording. When you understand this view, they contend, it leads to a whole different approach to the business of developing a song into a saleable commodity. And, distasteful as it may seem to some musicians, 'art for art's sake' is hard for anyone to easily justify when investing money in bringing out the best in their music!
Whatever your level as musician or songwriter, it makes sense to demand the best results from your efforts. And that means ensuring the best levels of presentation within your own parameters. However much you spend on a recording, you should always aim to get real value for your money. Something which Jerry and Brian seem to understand very well, being musicians themselves.
The production service at Abbeydale Studios offers a 16-track, purpose-built facility with "sufficient room to swing several felines simultaneously," Jerry claims. Although Abbeydale is available for hire as a straight studio facility, what really sets it apart from the crowd is its personal production service.
Jerry and Brian don't expect bands to necessarily be engineers, arrangers and producers. It's also very unlikely, in their view, that solo singer/songwriters will have developed a feel for band arrangements, let alone recording and production techniques. Jerry explains why:
"The vast majority of clients who use our service have a number of things in common: they have no professional management, no current publishing contract and no record deal; they all appear to want all three, and preferably before Easter!; they have already produced rough demos at home or in a so-called studio, but these have yielded no discernible results in the industry; and all are honest and open enough to admit that, whilst often they can write songs which should be commercially as well as artistically viable, they would benefit from help and advice with all aspects of the direction, recording and presentation of their songs so that a much improved 'product' is the end result."
It's certainly true that the industry, ie. the record company A&R men and the music publishing companies, have come to expect very high standards of presentation.
"Gone are the days of traipsing from publisher's office to publisher's office with a grand piano strapped to your back, ready to belt out your latest masterpiece to anyone who cares to listen," explains Brian. "Industry executives these days are expecting sounds that compare with the finished article - songs that have been demo'd, mastered, and put on CD! Believe me, your best bet if you want to make any real impact is to be sure your song is 99% there."
So how can Jerry and Brian help? Well, Brian has more years of experience than he cares to remember as a drummer and percussionist on the road, as a session player, and in the recording studio; Jerry is an accomplished keyboard player and guitarist but has always been strongly drawn towards the technical side of recording. His grasp of arranging and production techniques is comprehensive. And, by constantly working and thinking as musicians and writers as well as technicians, both Jerry and Brian now boast the breadth of experience across a range of musical styles which lends all their work a strong authority.
This ability is particularly useful to songwriters who are working without a band. Whilst a songwriter may envisage Tina Turner performing one of his tracks, for instance, he may well have difficulty presenting the song in the right way. This is even more relevant if a writer is working outside his natural style.
"It's also important to realise how secondary the equipment becomes when you are aiming for a specific sound and feel," remarks Jerry. "Sure, you need the right kit, but more importantly, you must know what to do with it. A Fairlight is only useful when you can be sure you can get what you want out of it. And more importantly still, can you be sure it really is the right thing to use in the context of a particular project?"
We probably all know how difficult it is to remain objective about our own work. That's why it's a good thing if you can depend on a measure of objectivity from guys like Jerry and Brian at Abbeydale, who are close enough as musicians to understand what's required in a song but can remain one step removed at the same time. Often, songwriters are distracted by the technology of the studio and usually to the detriment of their music, as Brian points out.
"If you're unsure about the technology and you have to get involved in trying to translate what you want to an insensitive producer or engineer, you're likely to be even less artistically objective about your music. For the less experienced artiste, the mere fact of being in a studio can prove to be a distraction in itself. That's why we offer unlimited hours in our package. We take the risk out of making a demo. Jerry and I see it as our responsibility to advise the client on the number of hours it will take to complete a project. It's only fair to them. We're supposed to be the experts, so we'll put our money where our mouth is! By agreeing in advance, the client doesn't have to contend with that awful worry of time running out. If we've got it wrong, we'll work on till we get it right, for no extra charge."
"If you're unsure about the technology and you have to get involved in trying to translate what you want to an insensitive producer or engineer, you're likely to be even less artistically objective about your music."
"Mind you," Jerry intercedes, "we don't often get it wrong. If we did, we might not be sitting here talking to you now!"
Listening to their approach, it certainly sounds an improvement on the 'Oh God, it's 4.30 and we've only got the drums down' syndrome, which is a well known damper of creativity.
These days, about 90% of Abbeydale's business comes from production packages, tailored carefully to suit the needs and budgets of individual songwriters and musicians. To help you get the right result, the Abbeydale service goes even further. It helps the guys if they can hear work you have done previously. This way Jerry and Brian can best establish what creative direction each client is going in. Constructive advice and that famous 'objective ear' are available right from the start of a project.
Jerry and Brian insist that the level of committed service is a hallmark of Abbeydale Studios. It filters right through the recording process to the point where the musical work is complete. Even then, they can also offer an 'after-sales service', such as advice on how best to approach the music industry; for example, they'll tell you where most interest in your music might lie - record companies or publishing. If possible, and if your 'product' is good enough and right for a particular sector of the market, they'll do all they can to arrange an appointment with their numerous industry contacts. For those who want to produce results on video, Jerry and Brian say that they like to get involved at the storyboard stage or, if as some clients prefer, the end result is to be a vinyl disc, the guys will even oversee the record cutting process and check test pressings for you. It's that level of involvement in detail that really does seem to reflect Abbeydale's commitment to quality and achieving the best possible results for their clients - 'personal services' indeed.
For the technically minded, Abbeydale's 16-track recorder is a Tascam 85-16 (1" format), the desk is a Trident, and the monitoring system comprises Tannoy Ardens, Quad and Auratones. Foldback is via Beyer Dynamic DT100 headphones. Mastering is done on a ¼" high speed Revox B77, and cassette decks are Tascam 122 and Teac. Outboard gear includes a Lexicon PCM60 digital reverb, EXR exciter, Korg delay lines, MXR graphic EQs, Drawmer and Rebis noise gates, Drawmer and Trident compressors. Trident and Rebis parametric EQ, and a wonderful old Echoplate III stereo reverb plate.
The studio itself contains a seven foot Chappel grand paino, Ludwig and Tama concert drum kit, Yamaha and Fender guitars, a Roland Juno 60 synth, Yamaha RX11 drum machine, assorted percussion, and a fire extinguisher tuned to D! Planned additions to the equipment stock over the next few months include an Akai S900 sampler, and a Roland D50 synth.
The control room and studio areas are both much larger than you would expect to find in some 16-track studios, the control room measuring 17' x 14', the studio 21' x 28' with a permanent isolation booth for recording drums, vocals etc. There is also a 20' x 12' relaxation area which, on occasion, has been used as a 'live room'! The decor and atmosphere throughout has been designed very much with a 'top class' studio approach, and the whole complex has a very relaxed and creative feel about it.
As is sometimes the case, some projects can develop way beyond the studio's, and the client's, initial expectations. Which is precisely what happened at Abbeydale, as Jerry explains:
"Last year we started working with a very talented writer and guitarist called Alan Gill, who simply found our name in the Music Week studio directory. Since then, we have worked on developing some 22 songs with him and he now has two albums out, stocked by Tower Records and Our Price outlets. This has led us into the film world and we will be starting work with Alan on scoring for a feature film for Columbia Pictures."
So, if you're tired of producing half-baked demos and think your songs deserve 'personal services', why not try the full treatment from Jerry and Brian at Abbeydale Studios - you never know where it might lead you...
Contact Abbeydale Recording Studios Ltd, (Contact Details).