Friday, 30 November 2012

I have GAS

Hello. My name is Christian Thomas. I have a problem with GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I first realised I had this sad affliction when I was a kid and my parents bought me a little Casio keyboard. As soon as I had it, I wanted a bigger one. When I got a bigger one a few years later (behave yourselves and stop giggling at the back), I realised that I wanted something to record the two instruments on. When I got older I wanted a guitar. Then I got a little bit older and got a job as a mechanic. This badly affected my GAS as I had to buy my own tools, and a Snap On man used to come round to our workshop every Friday. There was a lot of snobbery for tools (I’ve warned you) and if you didn’t have Snap On, you were a joker. Alongside all of this, I wanted another guitar. Then a bass. Then another one. Then some pedals. Whether I needed them or not, I wanted them.

And then we got the studio. Buying stuff for the studio is like Christmas. Even buying relatively dull stuff like power conditioners is fun, because it comes all wrapped up in a box and you have to Open The Box Carefully In Case You Have To Send It Back. And then you have to be sad and geeky and plan where it’s all going to fit in the rack. That’s a guilty pleasure of mine that is.

Now, I want to make a comparison with my being a mechanic here. There’s this incredible snobbery about the tools we use in both professions. As I said above, Snap On is THE brand of choice – Facom are probably second (they were when I was in the trade), King Dick and Britool were just about ok. Anything else? Forget it, you’re not serious. There’s a point to this – a crap drop forged spanner from a catalogue shop is going to break pretty quickly. With Snap On or Facom you get a 25 year guarantee. I’m sure they do break at some point, but I never saw it happen. I saw loads of crap cheap spanners break though. The moral – you buy crap, it will fail, you can’t do your job. Ignore the bit about a bad workman here – if a spanner snaps, it’s a crap spanner.

We have the same in our industry. There’s loads of great names out there. Neve. SSL. AVID. Avalon. Pro Tools. Neumann. These are the industry standard. These are the Champions League. These are that bit in Star Trek when Zefram Cochrane is the first human to develop a Warp Drive and the Vulcans show up. These show you’re on the scene and you’re serious.

And this is where the snobbery exists. The fact is, you can do your job without the exciting acquisition of beautiful shiny expensive stuff. A good engineer will get a good sound out of bog standard onboard preamps and a cheap mic. I’ve had to use cheap gear, and it’s done a job. But I wouldn’t want to rely on it every day. I’ve used certain manufacturers gear and it’s failed, or it has put excessive colouring into the sound. It always feels like a bit of a compromise. But the fact is, these things are ok, like those catalogue store spanners. They’re fine if you’re doing a bit of light recording, or you’re tracking some rough demos. But for shooting an album, well, if it was me, I know that I’d want to be using the best gear.

As it goes, when we got our first Pro Tools HD rig, we had the Zefram Cochrane moment and we got approached by the big labels. We had the expansive studios, we had the mics and pres and we had the Warp Speed of the HD (I promise that is the last Star Trek reference in this blog). But for the day to day stuff we had an interesting position…

Our day to day clients simply didn’t care. Either they were just happy to be recorded and be in the studio, or they didn’t want to pay the prices that having the plush studio, boutique mics and industry standard recording rig entailed. These guys preferred to go to backstreet studios down the road and get a cheap recording they weren’t happy with. Then they’d come and complain to us about it!

It’s the clients who don’t care about the equipment that we really love working with. They’re very similar to the top end clients in that way. The big name artistes and labels kind of expect you to have the shiny expensive gear. They come in and just do the thing. The same thing goes for those nice clients who just want to record. It doesn’t matter to them what mic they’re using (or who else it has been used to record). All they know is we help them get the very best sound they can get, they don’t know or care that what they’re being recorded through is the best there is.

But I know. I definitely want more gear. I can’t get away from it. It is a compulsion. It is my precious. It’s good though because it does obviously help me to do my job, and I know that just like a Snap On spanner, it will keep doing the job I want it to, reliably and the chances are it won’t fail on me in the middle of a session. 

Christian Thomas is Production Director of Space Studios. His GAS is a serious problem. If you would like to make donations of boutique preamps, microphones, bass guitars or Snap On tools to him, he would be delighted.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Permanently Plugged In

Gartner suggest that worldwide, one third of mobile phone sales are smart phones. In the UK and the US just over half of the sales are smartphones. I think New York must account for a huge part of that percentage in the US. It seems that most of the people you see on the street or on the subway are plugged into iPhones, and half of that amount are plugged into either Blackberries or Galaxies.

If they're not plugged into their phones, they're plugged into, and tapping away on iPads or Kindles. I did a very rough head count on the L train the other day. I reckon there were 80 people in the car, and 60 had headphones on. Around 20 were Beats by Dre. About 30 brave / stupid souls had their devices out in front of them. I grant you, you have to do that with a kindle or a iPad, but I digress. A further 8 were reading (shock, horror) books or magazines.

"So what Chris, it's the 21st century, get with it man" I see you tweet. Well, yes. Don't forget I am a total gadget boy geek, I own iThings, I have a Blackberry (yeah, don't laugh).

My point is that so called Apple Theft is responsible for 14% of crime in NYC. These guys wander around, plugged in, and with their phones out in front of them. Now it's a free world, and let's face it, you should be able to do what you want without fear of some arsehole nicking your gear in broad daylight, or in dark night time. But with those figures, wouldn't you keep your phone in your pocket?

And another thing.

I'd love to be able to use the iPad on the subway here (well, when it's not too packed, and you can get a seat). As a visitor, having MTA details available would be very useful, as would having a map of the Above World so you don't get in an harassed and in a hurry New Yorker's way. But then you hear that very soon, there'll be free wifi on the subway, and I know they have trialled this on the tube in London as well. I think it went better than they thought as it was originally just for the Olympics, but I understand that it is on and available until Christmas now. However, it seems we're going to lose one of those sacred moments, like being on a flight, where you can legitimately and understandably be off the grid. Not that being on the subway is any way a quiet thing, but at least you can not think about work or emails whilst you are serenaded by the leak from the Beats headphones of the douchebag next to you.

Then again, Jessica tells a story of how a record company executive tried to contact her offering a deal. Because she was on the underground she didn't get the message to her pager (ok, that's dating the story a bit) until she'd got back above ground and on the grid again. By the time she got the message and got back in touch, the deal had mysteriously disappeared. So if the technology had been in place back then she'd have had a deal. And I'd have been a kept man. 

I guess I could sacrifice those moments of "peace" after all!

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He is aware of how plugged in he is.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A New York Blog

We arrived. After the fun and games of moving out, and being nomadic, saying farewell to our friends and family, we got here.
I haven't been here since 2005, I loved it then and it doesn't look like much has changed, except perhaps it has got a bit cooler, which seems impossible.

It's great walking around Manhattan, you've seen it so many times on tv or on film that it feels like home already. There's nothing like the sound that greets you as you go up the subway. The taxi horns, the sirens blaring and the smell of pretzels wafting down. Then you have to be careful on the pavement (sorry, sidewalk) because if you look up at the sights, an harassed and in a hurry New Yorker will politely remind you exactly as to where you should be looking and perhaps you wouldn't mind doing your sightseeing at a different time.

Actually, that's interesting because I am going to explode a myth here. It isn't the tourists that cause problems. It's the New Yorkers. The ones who are checking their phones as they cross an avenue on red. The ones dawdling along doing the same. The ones who stand in groups on the sidewalk (got it right this time). The ones who stop dead in the middle of a crossing to talk about whether to go into a shop or not. And my favourite, the ones who stop at the top of the subway steps to check their emails! I mean really! Is it that important to see what Alejandro from accounts has just done on FarmVille?

And the dawdling, come on guys you can walk faster than that, and if you weren't jammering into your iPhone you could probably manage to walk in a straight line too!

Don't get me wrong, I love NY and I love the people, but walk more sensibly!

So what are we doing here? The plan is simple, to work on our business plan away from the UK; it's too emotional there. Jessica is working to get gigs, and to get herself in front of management and labels, and hopefully picking up some session work as well. Then there's a bit more of a plan, to write as much material as possible in order to batter the publishers back in the UK. And somewhere in between, to hang out with Jessica's lovely family, meet some old friends, make some new friends and to have as much fun as humanly possible.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He is indeed having a nice day.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Jobs that make it all worthwhile

I like to think I’m a pretty laid back bloke. I try to take the rough with the smooth roll with the punches and any other cliché you might want to add. I guess it’s one of the most important attributes in our industry, as is a very good sense of humour. Sometimes even my bonhomie gets a bit of a battering. Usually when I’ve spent time on the phone with a bad timewaster – or even better when I’ve spent time explaining the way we do things, then have the would be client go somewhere else, then come back and complain about the service they received at some two bob studio.

But then you think of the jobs that make it all worthwhile. Most recently we worked with a special needs school who we have worked with in the past. We worked with the same class we had worked with about four years ago, so it was lovely they remembered us and great to see how they’d grown up. We were recording the kids to backing tracks. I inwardly groaned when I saw the songs I was recording, as we tend to record the same songs with parties and solo experiences.  But then I dropped the track into record, and spent the next two hours with a huge smile on my face. These kids were just putting everything into what they were doing, and they were loving every minute of it. No drama, no divas, no pouting, they got on and did their songs.
We were approached by Follow Your Dreams a while ago, and they asked if we could help them out with some downtime recording for some of the kids they work with. We do these sessions in pretty much the same way, but because of some of the needs of the kids we tend to only offer one song.

Of course, these were incredibly powerful and emotional sessions. Some of the kids were exceptionally competent – one who springs to mind beautifully belting out “Do-Re-Mi”. I had to pad the mic and drop the gain way down on the preamp. Such gusto, and again he was absolutely loving it. He’d obviously been practising with his parents, and he knew how good he was – he took all the compliments he received as if everyone was merely stating the obvious.
And then other sessions are heartbreaking, working with a lad with such deep autism his communication with us was basically echolalia. But thinking of him working his way through “You Got a Friend”  still chokes me up. I had a sense of being welcomed into his world for a very brief moment.

There are other issues, in the way that Jess has to adjust the way she coaches, or the way we manage the expectations and needs of the clients. There’s also other things to consider, like making sure the kid knows that a disembodied voice is going to talk to them through the headphones.

These jobs are especially gratifying as we originally set the company up with a remit to work with people who wouldn’t ordinarily get a go at recording, and it seems that now we are making inroads doing this.

On a different note, the hardest job I have had to do is probably the one that puts everything into perspective. I recorded a solo experience with a chap who had outlived his time. He’d been given six months to live and his time was up. He knew he was going, and so he wanted to record his and his wife’s favourite songs. All well and good, and we had a lot of fun. Some of his friends turned up, and there was a bit of a party atmosphere in the control room.
But then he wanted to record his goodbye message to his wife and his family, and he broke down several times during this. I’d lost my dad a few months before, so it was still a bit raw - I managed to keep it together, but only just. I filmed him as well, and it was nice to be able to give his wife all of the footage, and all of the audio from the sessions as well. It is the hardest job I have ever done in my life, but it’s right up there in the “I have done something that has had a positive effect on at least one other person” stakes.
Every time I hear “Sweet Caroline” I think of him and his wife, and I think of all the other really nice people we have helped out. Whenever I’m having a bad day I think of them and I thank them.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. Sleep well, Dave.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Moving Blog

For the second time in three years, we're packing things up in a hurry. The first time was back in 2009, when we moved out of our old 2500 sq ft premises. That was a bit of an "Operation Frequent Wind" last-helicopter-out-of-Saigon moment, as we cleared two studios and two edit rooms, along with the green room gubbins and kitchen stuff. The fun bit was trying to cram everything into a considerably smaller place, stacking gear high in boxes literally from the floor to the ceiling. We eventually got all the gear stowed in new homes, and sold or gave away the bulk of the rest of the gear.

And now it's time to move again, as we head for pastures new, firstly across the Atlantic, and later, well...who knows?
People say about us in the recording industry that we should never throw stuff away or sell it, and I agree with this sentiment on the whole. Except when I come across boxes from that first move that haven't been touched in the best part of three years.

It is short sighted to bin working gear, but really how useful is any of this stuff? Sure, I have kept little interfaces, they can still work, and can be used in an emergency, or we can set it up for interns or whatever in future.

You have to consider all the compatibility issues. Have you got all the drivers? Does your OS support the hardware? Does the recording software support the hardware? Hell, does the hardware still work, or have small furry creatures set up home inside it?

Some of it, you just have to let it go. It's funny how important it all seemed in those frantic days of leaving the old premises, and it was beyond the Saigon moment - it was more of a scorched earth policy. Nothing and no-one left behind! 

The thought of it still being there when we get back though fills me with a sickness, bordering on dread. Part of the plan when we get back is to move into a new form of the business, and having leftovers seems like it anchors us to an old way of thinking. Which incidentally is part of the reason for us trying pastures new, to get away from old mentalities, old fears and old hopes.

Somewhere along the way, we have to pack away our personal gear, and get the house ready for tenants to move in.

So anyway, see you Stateside!

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He is sick of seeing boxes.