The Ever-Ready Studio Complex
Ralph Denyer takes the lid off this top London studio complex to discover how it and the people that work their tick.
Ralph Denyer takes the lid off this top London studio complex to discover how it and the people that work there tick.
Visit Battery Studios in North London virtually any day and you are guaranteed to be impressed and infected by the enthusiasm and energy. The four studio plus programming rooms complex is always buzzing with activity. If there is a cancellation on a booking, there are always people at some stage of the development of a song or project who will speedily utilise whatever equipment or rooms are not in use. This is because Battery Studios provide the factory floor for a whole range of musicians, producers, programmers and writers who are in some way tied into the Zomba group of companies.
Zomba encompass many activities including publishing and artist/record producer management. Mutt Lange is the most revered and innovative producer on their books, with Billy Ocean being their most successful artist. As well as Battery Studios, Zomba also has its own label, Jive Records, and equipment hire company, Dreamhire.
Many creative people have to rely very largely on their own momentum. Conversely, within the Zomba set-up, the constant impression is that a very strong, active administration and management team is constantly advising and supporting artists, producers, and programmers alike. At the time of my visit to Battery, none of the Zomba management team were available to speak to me. Managing Director Ralph Simon, who is obviously a driving force within Zomba, was in the USA.
Though away from Battery for months at a time, Mutt Lange's name constantly crops up in conversation around the studios. He produced Pyromania for Def Leppard and Heartbeat City for The Cars, two of the influential albums that have helped make him both a producer's producer and a serious vinyl shifter.
It is impossible to give a complete nuts and bolts rundown of the activities generated within the group. Hopefully, the interviews that follow will give you some insight into the workings of Battery Studios.
I first spoke to Battery Studios manager Chris Dunn. He explained that he was virtually a prisoner at his office desk, having to deal with a constant stream of enquiries as well as the day to day running of Battery and Dreamhire. Such has been the success of both enterprises recently that he was looking for the right people to double his number of personnel. Chris explained how, through Mutt Lange, he became involved with Battery.
"He's been a very close friend of Ralph (Simon) and Clive's (Caulder) for a long time and they look after his interests. My connection with Mutt goes way back. Mutt produced the band I was in, City Boy. We did five albums and as a result of that Ralph and Clive ended up managing us. That's how I got to know them and that's why they ended up employing me, originally managing Tight Fit for them and then moving into Battery as the bookings administrator in May'83."
Initially, Battery Studios was primarily catering for Jive and Zomba acts, though 50% of current studio bookings are for outside users. The ratio is likely to alter according to the amount of activity generated by Jive and Zomba acts who, at times, can keep all four studios and programming suites working solidly.
A recording session at Battery could involve almost any piece of recording equipment, ranging from a vintage valve microphone to the latest piece of hardware. But beyond any doubt, the studio's Fairlights and Solid State Logic mixing consoles are the most influential pieces of equipment. Also proving very popular with up-market clients is the 32-track Mitsubishi digital tape recorder, which can be wheeled in to any of the four studios to replace the Studers used for analogue sessions. Chris feels that one of Battery's strengths is having a range of facilities (not forgetting equipment available through Dreamhire) that allows the studio to provide just the right equipment for a studio user's needs.
"Two of our desks are curious in that they are SSL desks but they don't have the computer-mixing. We feel that at some stage it might be worth going for computers, but those are the studios where we do a lot of recording and overdubbing for in-house Jive projects, and you don't really need a computer. You can usually find one of our computer studios to mix in."
"Those studios are obviously a bit cheaper to hire than the computerised studios, and we recommend that if outside clients want to be able to mix in a full computerised facility, but they've got a limited budget, then why don't they go into a lesser studio to do the recording, but mix in a computerised studio."
"We've got studios with large live rooms and studios with booths that are not suitable for drums. So, depending on what they are doing, we can move sessions around, if it's convenient for the client. And if people have a limited budget and they've got a certain amount of tracks to record in a certain amount of time, we should be able to work out some kind of deal, depending on availability."
Chris Dunn explained that it is studio policy to recruit hands-on staff who have some kind of musical background.
"Almost all our engineers play an instrument. We like to be able to take on assistant engineers who have some kind of musical ability or background, because we feel that if we are going to tailor them into becoming the new young engineers and producers of tomorrow, it is going to stand them in good stead if they already understand music. The art of production is obviously the art of arrangement and understanding what music is all about. So, if they've already had an interest in playing an instrument and in understanding music from an early age, that's going to be a great help to them. We've had tape-ops who've come here and within three to six months have started engineering, depending on how well it's worked out. They've just continued engineering from that moment on."
As might be expected, even when they're not being used for an actual session or for programming, the Fairlights at Battery are very rarely switched off.
"All our engineers are fascinated by the Fairlight and whenever possible, if they find there's an odd Fairlight lying around redundant for a day or two and they don't have a session, they'll usually find a little room or studio that's not being used, drag it out and start playing with it."
Policy is to actively encourage engineering trainees and staff alike to develop Fairlight skills and not to apply rigid dividing lines of demarcation. It also works the other way so that, for example, trainee Fairlight programmer Tania Hayward also gains experience in engineering.
"Tania engineers as well so she has a full understanding of the operation of a studio. We like to find people who are extremely versatile because there's always a need for people to muck in. So if we're stuck for an engineer we can always say to Tania: stop playing with the Fairlight, go and engineer this session. There are a lot more talented people here than you would imagine. Even I was a musician once."
When Battery had the task of accommodating the recording of the music soundtrack for Michael Douglas' Jewel Of The Nile feature film, Chris says the technical side of the operation was surprisingly almost effortless.
"We just hired in a U-matic, linked it up and off we went. It's very straightforward as far as I can see. There seems to be a lot of needless hoo-ha about having to go into a video or film production suite to do a film soundtrack. I don't think it's a big deal. All you need is the equipment and a good reliable synchroniser and you've got it. We did another movie for Major Rose called Turnaround and they recorded the whole thing in Studio One on the Mitsubishi 32-track working to a U-matic playback."
"We're experimenting with the new Lynx Timeline synchroniser now, which looks very interesting because you don't have to keep changing the software all the time when you use a different machine. It's got all the software in there and you just tell it which machine you're going to use. It's cheaper than Q-Lock. For two machines it's only about £4500, and if you want to link up more machines you just buy a new module for about £2000."
"If Zomba are going to get more and more of their artists involved in film soundtracks I suppose we should look at the possibility of installing a full film post-production suite — but that's another thing on our agenda of discussion, alongside a digital mastering suite. There are many avenues we can follow and many new systems we can set up. It's just a question of deciding which one is going to be the most used. But next door we've got room to build a whole new facility."
Pete Harris is Battery's top man on the Fairlight. He was making tapes and writing out lead-lines for publishing purposes when Zomba decided that the Fairlight looked interesting enough to invest in. They placed one in Pete's hands and he's never looked back since.
I spoke to him in his programming/synth suite where he told me he'd just finished working on the film music for Turnaround with producer/guitarist Steve Lovell. Previously they worked together on the soundtrack for Jewel Of The Nile. Film work has proved to Harris' liking, as has his success with Fairlight programming, co-production and co-writing for Samantha Fox, as he explained.
"I'd like to do a lot more pop music and film work because they are the areas I'm really interested in. I've just finished writing a couple of songs for Samantha - again with Steve Lovell - and we've been having some fun doing that. We've been demoing them with Fairlight, Linn 9000 and PPG Wave in this room, which is where we do most of our work."
I asked how Pete finds working within the Zomba set-up and how that has been positive for him.
"I think the environment at Zomba, Jive and Battery is very good from a lot of viewpoints. From a competitive point of view, it's great, because it's a competitive market internally. You're always competing for projects, songs and things. Not in a nasty way but in an open way. Everybody's writing different things for different people. There are a lot of studios on the go."
"Whenever you come into this complex, there's always several sound sources happening. There's the studios, a copy room, writing rooms, and another programming room downstairs. There's Mutt Lange's room up here for programming, my room for programming. There are lots of things going on all the time - it's very, very busy. From that point of view I find it very stimulating, because I come in and I work. It's just a very good atmosphere and I find it suits me. I don't think it would suit everybody, mind you."
On the occasions when Pete does need a bit of peace to try and write a "very poignant lyric", for instance, he packs up and goes home to work. But for 90% of the time, he's more than happy in the hit factory. There is a tendency for people to pop in and out of the different rooms checking out what everyone else is up to, and trading constructive feedback and opinions. It can be particularly useful when the team working on a song next door consists of people Pete will work with on other projects.
The way in which he employs the Fairlight as a basic songwriting and arranging tool allows Pete to develop an idea using Page R and get quite close to the final concept, relatively economically.
"You don't have to waste lots of expensive studio time. You can sort out the song arrangement, the key, and work with the artist up to a point at which it sounds like a finished record from the sequencing point of view. Then go into the studio and record a vocal, guitars, solos and manual things like that. That's actually how I work and I think the studios here are geared up for that way of working. Obviously, they are adaptable for other things too, but that's the key way in which the studios work - and work very well."
Knowing Pete to be a Fairlight devotee, I asked if any recent applications came to mind. He was amused to recall that for one section of the music for Turnaround, which he worked on with Steve Lovell, they recorded alternate bars with a Fairlight Series II and a small Casio MIDI synth. This led him on to an important point.
"There are no rules. You do not have to have £30,000 worth of equipment to make a good record. The equipment helps and from that point of view I think it is very useful. But you have to use the equipment creatively and when you need to, not just because it's there."
"I think we're very privileged here at Battery, because we actually do know the limitations of the equipment. A lot of people think computers can do anything you want them to and, of course, they can't! They can never write a good song, for instance. I mean, it's all input. You can't walk up to a piece of equipment and expect it to do everything you want. I'm still waiting for the piece of equipment that does everything to arrive! The Linn 9000 was very close. Unfortunately, also very unreliable - but it had sampling, pressure sensitive drum pads, and a polyphonic MIDI sequencer that functioned like a MIDI tape recorder. The whole machine was a great concept. I still use it and a lot of other professional people do. Andy Hill (Bucks Fizz producer) still uses his and people are just getting into them now. They're buying them secondhand and sort of taking the software bugs by the reins, learning where the bugs are and going for it from a Linn point of view. I think it's a great sequencer and a great production tool."
Now that Roger Linn is designing products for Akai, Pete says he hopes and expects that they will come up with an improved machine with a similar design philosophy to the Linn 9000, which has track-by-track polyphonic sequencing.
"That concept of being able to sequence quickly in real time and play stuff back polyphonically, have it track assignable and have it laid out in front of you like a multitrack recorder, is very quick and useful for doing arrangements and production in the studios. I don't think anything else these days does that.
I think it's against a manufacturer's ideology anyway to manufacture something that does everything. It doesn't make very good financial sense."
Unless, I suggested, the manufacturer charges £300,000 - which is the current UK price quoted for a complete Synclavier system with the Direct-To-Disk option. Battery Studios - mainly on the advice of their programmers - decided not to invest in the Synclavier at the moment, in spite of being loaned the one used for the NED/Turnkey demonstration held at the studios last year.
"I don't know whether that was a logical decision or a gut feeling." said Pete Harris. "You've got to look at an instrument like that in terms of whether your end product is going to actually improve in quality and whether you're going to get things on your records that you couldn't get using other technology for less money. I think our general feeling was that the answer is 'No', and that you may even make more problems for yourself - from a creative point of view - than you actually solve."
"I've always felt that the Fairlight is a much more creative and adaptable system, musically, than the Synclavier will ever be. I don't know whether we'll ever get a Synclavier, we've been talking about buying one since the wheel was invented!"
Pete is not totally convinced that hard disk storage is the way to go, but is convinced that now is a good time to be sitting on the fence with regard to digital storage mediums, especially as he has access to Battery's 32-track digital Mitsubishi.
"I'd like to give digital a crack in the Mitsubishi and Sony area for one or two years before I think anybody should be advised to go for a hard disk multitracking medium. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing yet."
And is Pete happy with the sound coming off the Mitsubishi?
"Yes. I think Mitsubishi is the best digital tape recorder around, without a doubt."
Pete says that he can't comment on any quality difference between Sony and Mitsubishi digital multitracks, but did say that he hears a distinct difference when recording on a Mitsubishi multitrack and a Sony F1. He finds the Mitsubishi has a smoother, more realistic sound.
"I don't know whether the Mitsubishi is actually adding something like very low-level distortion, but it definitely seems to sound warmer to me. I've mastered a couple of albums now using Mitsubishi, and doing backups on F1 - and I much prefer the sound coming off the Mitsubishi."
When Battery had the loan of the Synclavier I asked whether they did a direct A-B comparison test between the Direct-To-Disk and the Mitsubishi?
"No, that would have been interesting. But I did get as far as taking a sample of the Fairlight Series III into RAM and then saving it onto hard disk and comparing that to the Sony F1 and Mitsubishi. I found that the Fairlight was very similar to the Sony F1 but the Mitsubishi was the one that I preferred. I mean, I do like the Fairlight; I like 'digital' generally, and I think that before anybody considers buying anything analogue, if they can afford the option, then they should go digital."
When I asked Pete - well known as a Fairlight enthusiast to say the least - how he's been getting along with the Series III, his answers would have filled a couple of magazines. Here are some of his comments...
"I'm totally sold on the Series III. It's not just a step forward (from the Series II) - it's a massive leap forward!
It's going to be a great compositional, arranging and production tool. It has wonderful sampling at the moment, and it will have wonderful stereo sampling soon. It will also have a SMPTE-trackable sequencer that will lock instantaneously to anywhere in the sequence with a multitrack. So it means that the age of being able to do your mixes and your 12-inch mixes running the sequence live with the tape is upon us. You've been able to do that with the Synclavier for a while now — but again, that's a more serious investment, and also it takes a lot longer to write the stuff into the sequencer in the first place with the Synclavier."
Pete is obviously aware of many of the developments in the pipeline for the Fairlight. As he discussed them it became clear that he expects that before long, with a Fairlight as a main controller, a tapeless studio could be set up for far less money than a Synclavier system with the Direct-To-Disk option.
"I think they'll have to charge a lot more money for it eventually, because the leap from where we are now to what we are envisaging in terms of a tapeless studio, is actually quite a big one. Although you can already see where they are heading now."
I first had contact with Zomba a year ago when I interviewed record producer Chris Tsangarides, whom they manage. They were impressive then and now, even more so. Obviously, key points include the choice of people they handle, monitoring of their development and utilising skills as fully as possible, as well as providing access to the best technological tools to allow people to maximise their potential. As Fairlight programmer Pete Harris says, the somewhat speedy atmosphere may not be suited to all people. But for those it does suit, it must be excellent to be able to forget all about the tedium of business and just get on with the creative process. I take my hat off to them.
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Feature by Ralph Denyer
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