Assault On Battery
Jive Records' own Battery Studio complex has to accommodate acts as diverse as Schooly D, Mark Shreeve and Samantha Fox. David Bradwell raps technology.
As the Jive record label has grown in stature and strengthened its links with America and rap music, its studios have had to keep pace with the demands for technology - old and new.
IF SOMEONE YOU hadn't seen for a while approached you in a pub with the gleaning smile and the self-confident swagger of musical success, you would very probably be pleased to see them. If they launched into tales of massive record company advances, huge publishing advances and promises of international stardom, you might start to feel a little less magnanimous and a little more envious. If they then casually informed you that they were going to record their debut album in a lighthouse in north-west London you'd breathe a quiet sigh of relief and either conclude they'd taken leave of their senses, or that the final pint you had should really have been your last. Lighthouses, as we all know, are only to be found near the coast...
When Jive Records started to achieve regular commercial success (with the likes of Roman Holiday, Whodini, Samantha Fox, Billy Ocean and so on) its parent company Zomba decided to buy into the world of recording. Zomba felt that having a studio was an important and integral part in the creative process of making a record. Battery studio one opened in 1981 and has since developed in line with technology and musician's demands. In late 1988 the Battery complex has played host to such artists as The Wee Papa Girl Rappers, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, and Kool Moe Dee. At the same time it is undergoing a major transition, with the permanent closure of studio two followed by the complete rebuilding of studio three thrusting Battery headfirst into 1989. It seemed a prudent time, therefore, to accept the offer of a guided tour around the facilities, to see what was on offer to the keyboard-based musician.
THE BATTERY COMPLEX is spread over two sites in the Harlesden area of London. Studio one occupies a site of its own, which houses a 56-channel SSL desk, spacious control room and 1,200 square feet of live floor space. Being the oldest studio, it also has the longest list of production credits, being the spiritual home for albums like Def Leppard's Pyromania and The Cars' Heartbeat City. It is available in either 24- or 48-track analogue or 32-track digital guises. Alternatively, for 56-track operation, 32-track digital and 24-track analogue machines can be sync'd together. Studio three is under reconstruction at the present time but is destined to become a top-class tracking room with a 40-channel SSL desk and a "very large" recording area. Studio four is kitted out with equipment similar to studio one, but functions mainly as a mixing room and overdubbing area. As well as a spacious control room there is a separate overdub booth designed especially for vocal, percussion and guitar overdubs. Analogue and digital multitracks are housed in a separate adjacent area to provide more space in the control room and cut out machine-generated noise. Finally, studio five, otherwise known as The Lighthouse, and soon to be renamed studio two, is dedicated to the wonderful world of MIDI and keyboard-based recording. It also means your friend was probably telling the truth about his impending stardom and provides us with a neat starting point for this feature.
The Lighthouse was obviously carefully thought out in its design stages. As well as a Fairlight Series III, it is equipped with a Yamaha DX7 and TX816 rack, Roland D550 and MKS80, PPG Wave 2.3, E-mu SP12 drum machine and Akai S900 sampler, all of which are constantly being upgraded. There is a central MIDI routing system involving huge built-in patchbays that completely eliminate the need for railing cables across the studio floor. Additionally, as the maximum MIDI cable length recommended before delays are expected in the reception of signals is 15 metres, the ability to patch directly into the walls takes on a constructive as well as esthetic purpose. Former administration manager Jim Cook explains the advantages of working in The Lighthouse.
"You could have 20 different keyboards in here without the place looking like Spaghetti Junction", he begins. "We've had sessions in where the amount of extra gear they've brought in has almost swamped the room, but the studio still produces a decent working environment. That's the problem with a small studio - when you're wiring things up, you arrive at a situation which is very cumbersome, here it's very flexible. Such a lot of records are made with this sort of setup it seemed logical to build a studio like this. Its more than a programming room, there are a lot of people still in the situation where they're using a programming room and then recording in a more old-fashioned studio. This ties the two together."
The room is wired up from a monitoring point of view, with back monitors to assist in the production of film soundtracks. A 36-channel Westar desk features an automated mixdown facility and is regularly linked up with the Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape machine. Lighthouse regular, Pete "Q" Harris is one producer keen to fully exploit the clarity of the digital sound (although while studio three is out of commission The Lighthouse has been housing an analogue tape machine as well).
As well as the four operational studios, Battery offers both a programming room and digital editing suite. The programming room is generally used for a couple of days before bands go into one of the studios. It offers a greater flexibility of equipment than most artists have in home studios, as well as a very good atmosphere and the opportunity to meet a mixture of people who could be working in the complex at any one time. As Jim Cook points out, "There are a lot of people around, so there is sometimes quite a collaboration between projects. You'll have a mix going on downstairs, while you'll have programming going on upstairs. People get quite stimulated by that."
"We're building two New York studios and we may install the Waveframe there - it would be nice to be compatible as collaborations become more frequent."
The digital editing suite takes care of all post-production requirements from analogue or digital masters, including editing, compiling and PQ encoding for CD release.
Pete Harris co-produced Kool Moe Doe and DJ jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince at The Lighthouse With Bryan "Chuck" New and, as the more technology conscious of the pair, he explains the advantages of working at the Battery complex:
"Its very geared up for the use of sequencers and it has Fairlights, which to me are the best samplers. I use an Atari with C-Lab Creator and Notator software linked to the Fairlight, and do a lot of jingles so I find the U-Matic lock-up and video sync facilities very useful. I also like to be able to go into different studios for different jobs. Studio three used to have a really good live drum sound, and that's rebuilt it should be even better. At the moment I'm using studio one for live drums.
"You always find the latest in technology here, all the latest samplers, sequencers and synthesisers. We're thinking of installing the Audioframe Waveframe system - we're building two New York studios and we may install it there, and it would be nice to be compatible as collaborations become more frequent. We're also opening studios in Nashville and Los Angeles and becoming a global enterprise. I find it's easy to get results here, because I'm used to the surroundings. It's very often a case of 'It's the devil you know...'. It's very hard to get other studios configured - I use a lot of multitimbral equipment with multiple outputs and it takes a long time to wire it all up anywhere else."
"People think in terms of 24-track recording being something in itself, but the point is, if you're only recording a piano you only need two tracks."
For up-and-coming bands, the benefits are equally clear.
"One of the main advantages is that we've got very high calibre engineers who are able to offer a lot of input at all levels. Bands find it helpful to have an engineer on their side if they're working with a producer chosen by their record company. Our engineers are very musical and we have a very high staff standard. Battery is expensive but in this business you get what you pay for and you generally find that here you get good results.'
Jim Cook, however, errs on the side of caution.
"Young bands have got to feel their way a bit in terms of studios. There are plenty of facilities around these days where you can go in for not too much money and therefore create demos without pressure. There is always the situation where a band gets signed and goes into a studio they've never been in before, and it takes them a little bit of time to settle down. People think in terms of 24-track recording being something in itself, but the point is, if you're only recording a piano you only need two tracks. Whether you master on digital or analogue is very much down to the personal preference of whoever's engineering it. We use 30ips half-inch for an awful lot of mastering. Against the 1630 digital system, there's no real perceived difference in terms of the amount of hiss you get. You basically get an incredibly clean tape, and it comes down very often to whether people prefer the sound of the 1630 or the half-inch."
Battery's strong links with Jive through the Zomba group have meant that, as Jive have pursued British and American hip hop, so Battery is turning into an increasingly hip hop orientated studio. The American wing of Jive is almost exclusively rap-based, and that influence is felt very strongly in the British studio. The trademarks of Battery-produced rap are to be found in the dynamics and recording quality of the finished records which sound substantially cleaner than many other records of the same genre. Harris explains the reasons he thinks Battery and rap are well suited to each other.
"We're very tooled-up for rap because rap tends to use Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines and we've got all of those sounds sampled on the Fairlight - so we can create the same sounds with the same feel. As for the argument that you lose the 808 groove if you just sample the sounds, I don't think it's too important for rap on all of the rap records I've had success with there have been a lot of drum machines playing at once, with different sounds off each. On the other hand, if it was an R'n'B mid-tempo ballad I would definitely use the original machine."
One further aspect of Battery, and in many ways one of equal importance to the studios themselves, is its range of topflight producers, engineers and programmers. As well as the aforementioned Brian New and Pete Harris, the studio looks after the likes of Nigel Green (mix engineer on Hysteria, and mixer of Billy Ocean's hits 'Caribbean Queen' and 'When The Going Gets Tough The Tough Get Going'), Ian Anderson (resident engineer in the digital editing suite), Steve Lovell (who has worked with Samantha Fox, A Flock Of Seagulls, and Julian Cope), his production partner Steve Power (who mixed Black's 'Wonderful Life'), Phil Nicholas (personal Fairlight programmer to Mutt Lange), Jerry Peal (an in-demand mix/remix engineer), and Chris Tsangarides (who has an international reputation for his work with Gary Moore, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath and Killing Joke). These are all backed up by a young group of junior engineers and tape ops.
There are a lot of studios in London, but there aren't many as big as Battery. When studio three is rebuilt they will have four very contrasting studios - two ideal for recording a live band and two perfect for mixing, although one of those will be dual purpose. On top of that there is The Lighthouse, which is based around the use of sequencers rather than the use of microphones, and which is far more orientated towards MIDI recording. In a nutshell this means that you can go in to a studio which is already prepared, rather than having to purpose-build it for every session, and waste valuable time in setting up equipment. Battery may not be cheap - The Lighthouse coats some £1,650 per day with the Fairlight III or £1,350 without - but if a mate comes up to you in a pub and says he's going to be recording there, I'd advise buying him a celebratory Perrier and telling him just how lucky he is.
Feature by David Bradwell
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