Friday, 3 May 2013

Monarch to the Kingdom of the Dead

I’ll never forget the day I first heard Reign in Blood. I don’t think my neighbours will either. I was the only metal kid in my street and I’d just discovered the ability to wind people up by playing metal obnoxiously loud. I was only young, so don’t hate me too much.

Neckbrace covering "Angel of Death". (C) Scott Morgan 2013

I couldn’t believe the ferocity and the intensity of RIB. I’d never heard anything quite like it. If you’ll forgive a clumsy mixed metaphor, it was like I jumped from a Madras to a Phall. That first riff in Jeff Hanneman’s Angel of Death, the stabs, Tom’s scream…Or there’s the version on Decade of Aggression when out of the feedback from Mandatory Suicide, Tom introduces the song, and the crowd screams its approval…  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or played the song, but when I hear the original it pushes my pulse way up.

On the other hand, my mum was horrified, she thought it was just noise, the worst noise I’d subjected her to. My dad quite liked it, in fact it was the start of a long period of me not being album to find albums as my dad had “borrowed” them. But anyway, I instantly loved the effect that the music had on me, and on other people.

I’d always loved watching Slayer videos, and my favourite memory was seeing them live at Donington in 1992. It was very odd seeing Slayer in the early afternoon whilst standing in a puddle, but the boys were awesome. Jeff  in his LA Kings shirt, Kerry actually having hair and Tom being amused at the “you fat bastard” chants, in the middle of a wet and windy field in Leicestershire. That was the first of many trips around the country to see Slayer. I think they’re the band I’ve seen the most and I saw them in small venues as well as at the large festivals.
I always felt Jeff was an underrated guitarist – I think his guitar was always quieter than Kerry’s and it’s a shame. My favourite solo of his was in Seasons in the Abyss, and I’m pretty sure that is the first solo I ever truly learnt. He wrote some of my favourite songs – War Ensemble, Seasons in the Abyss, Raining Blood and of course, Angel of Death. Hardly original I know, but we used to end the Parricide set with Raining Blood, and in my Neckbrace days, Angel of Death was one of our two covers (the other was Gung Ho).  So as a band, Slayer were a major part of my life growing up and of course they were the impossibly high benchmark against which we set ourselves in bands.

You see people on Twitter and Facebook moaning when people RIP celebrities, and of course one person’s hero is another’s zero. Yes, tens / hundreds of thousands of people die every day and for the individual’s family each death is tragic.  But when band members die, you have to remember that they had an integral part in their fans’ lives. Clearly Jeff wasn’t a superstar, but I never saw him as a celeb. For a good part of my life I felt that he and the rest of the band were just distant friends. And to die in such a bizarre way is horrendous for anyone.

A truly awful last few months of life followed what for us in the UK is the strangest thing, a spider bite. He was in a medically induced coma for a while, and originally there were concerns he’d have to have his arm amputated. The band thought he was on the way back to recovery but he fell ill again and died of liver failure on Thursday at the ridiculous age of 49.

Sleep well Jeff, and thanks for the inspiration. Monarch to the Kingdom of the Dead.

How not to get work experience in a recording studio

Me: Good morning Space Studios
Voice: (nice, pleasant) Oh Good morning, I’m sorry to bother you but I’m phoning to see if you have any work experience for my son…

Angry Engineer
I'd just hit record when the phone rang...

Yep, another frequent phone call for us. I find this one a bit more annoying than I probably should. It’s even worse when it’s a grandmother phoning. (It’s always a mother or grandmother incidentally). I could understand it if a school made an approach to us for work experience on behalf of the students – in fact I would feel much more comfortable with this. But no, it’s always a very nice, harassed sounding mum or nan, and never, ever the would be candidate.

It’s all a horrible joke though isn’t it, work experience? I remember when I was an apprentice mechanic, the only thing lower than me was the poor kid on work experience. Because of the insurance and H&S issues, said poor kid was only allowed to push a broom, and even then only in certain areas. All day, leaning on a broom. Some would say of course that that is perfect preparation for work, being bored and not allowed to do what you want, but really it is nonsense. And what do the kids themselves expect? When they come to us, do they expect to suddenly be working with a client, making mix decisions?

As it happens, yes, they do.

We have had several kids of different ages (from year 10 to second year degree students) come through on work experience, and on the whole, I’d employ three of them again - rather tellingly, one of them was a film student, the other two were marketing (and only did marketing in the studio).
Some of the engineering kids were ok, but if I ever gave them any real work to do, basically I’d have to redo it afterwards – and hell, that’s fine, I didn’t expect them to be able to do the job completely and they have to learn at some point don't they?

Actually one kid managed to debreath a whole bunch of voice recordings for me, which was pretty cool and saved me a bit of time.

But in the majority I remember sullen faces, or faces looking at me in wonder when I suggest they clean some mugs away, or tidy some leads up. One kid, a physics student actually suggested that as a physics student, tidying cables was below him. He then complained after half an hour of tidying (badly, I should add) that he was bored. Welcome to work!

Studio leads
The bane of every recording studio intern

Then there was the funniest thing I have ever seen with work experience. I told one lad that he could sit in on a foley session. I explained the process of recording these naturally occurring sound effects what they were and why we were recording them. He came in after we had recorded the footsteps, so we had moved onto spot effects. So, to set the scene, we were recording the layers of sound effects for an explosion, which was in a cartoon. This lad was sat watching me, intently watching a screen with a kids cartoon on, whilst in the foley stage another bloke made explosion noises with his mouth,  through a plastic bag wrapped around a mic. I think he thought we were trying to wind him up into not wanting to get into the recording industry. Or he was wondering whether he’d come to the right place. Or maybe he just thought we should have been committed. Poor fella, he really didn’t know where to look or what to say.

And what of unpaid interns. Or slave labour as other people might call it. Unpaid internships happen in several wildly different industries, and it’s kind of seen as you serving your apprenticeship with the company. Or slave labour as other people might call it. But some companies use internships to really help these kids grow into the role, and start them off on the very lowest rung, but with the prospect for the intern to move up that ladder. It’s very difficult for both the company and the intern – it can be and often is very dull for the intern, and it can be so frustrating for the company, because they do want you to make some kind of positive impact. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of the legality of internships in the UK, that’s for anybody else to discuss. The fact is that they do exist here, they are probably unfair, but figures state that anything from 60% and upwards of people who do an internship get a full time job afterwards. Just because something has happened frequently before doesn’t necessarily make it right – however, the concept of doing unpaid work in creative industries such as recording or the media was something of a rite of passage. And let’s face it, there have always been more potential employees than positions in these industries, and they are highly desirable jobs, so you can understand why the employers might want to “try before they buy”.

I know of some employers, especially in our field, who see the internship as a way of making the knowledge the interns have learnt on their courses actually practical and useful before they employ them. I also know of interns who have bemoaned going back to Uni because what they have learned on the job has shown their course to be nonsense at best. I’ve mentioned some of this before.

But back to my original point. I can relate to all of this, because  I was exactly the same, I always wanted to get into recording when I was a kid and I had no help from my school or careers people. But did I get off my jacksie and actually phone anyone? Don’t be silly mum, Grandstand’s on in a minute.

We’re hoping that we can work with some kind of paid internship programme in the future, and if we do, we will probably go through work placement bodies. We’ll also make details available on our website and through social media. My suggestion to anyone looking for internship / work experience in the UK would be to go through such bodies, because they make contact with studios / related industries and they ensure that there is some kind of scheme in place to make sure you actually get to do something related to what you want to do.  But you are going to have sweep floors, or make coffee or tidy cables. You probably won’t get to see daft men making vocal explosion noises to cartoons though.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He’s been an apprentice and he’s done internships. He’s also been the mad man making explosion noises through a carrier bag.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Let's Get Social

When I look at my laptop in the morning, the first things I open are Facebook and Twitter. I’ve got my Soundcloud on the bookmark bar, my Tumblr account is patiently waiting for me to do something, as is my Flickr account. The least said about my Myspace page the better (don’t go looking for it, it’s not worth the effort). I’ve got my Reverbnation account, which I occasionally use, but I only really got because I thought it was necessary, and of course there’s the creeping tide of Google and Google Plus.

Recording Studio Control Room
I must stop wasting time on Pro Tools and do some Twitter

So that’s just me, a whole bunch of social media accounts that I’ve jumped on, to both ensure I have my preferred names, and also just in case it turns out that they are next year’s Facebook and Twitter.

One website suggests that Google receives two million requests for data a minute. In that same time, 42000 statuses are updated on Facebook, 36000 tweets are sent, and a staggering 72 HOURS of content is uploaded to YouTube.

That’s a lot of information.

Then there’s us doing our thing and posting music, or talking about making music. I don’t know how much of the Facebook sharing or tweets are about music, writing a song or being in the studio. In my case, several have been about struggling with software and hardware (thanks Avid).

So who is actually listening? How do we stand out in this utter chaos of (let’s face it) mostly drivel being shared?

I think it’s quite funny that social media has made the world smaller, but for us musicians it’s really emphasised the point that we need to get out and play to our audiences. I feel that we owe it to ourselves to back up the social media, use it by all means, but we can never take our eye off the ball and remember that we actually need to engage with the punter.

If we use our social media properly, then yes we are engaging with our fans and followers. But I just have a feeling that we’re going to go back to doing loads of really small gigs and hopefully they’ll be well attended because of our exemplary social media skills. We used to run a night called Space Lounge, where we’d invite an artiste or two to come into the studio and do an acoustic unplugged set in front of a small invited audience. As an added bonus, we miked them up and recorded them.

A Live Recording Setup
Studio 1 set up for a Space Lounge

These were really nice evenings, we always had a full audience (even though it was only ever going to be a small audience due to the size of the room) and it was a way for the artistes to really engage with music lovers. There’s a not-so-new trend of people playing in other peoples living rooms, and you can’t get much more up front than that. Check out the YouTube vids of people busking on the NYC subway! There’s some great music and some appreciative audiences, especially on the L train stops.

Speaking of YouTube and gigs, I found it interesting following the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' recent request for people not to film the gig on their smartphones. A piece on the BBC website showed that a company called 45sound had developed a brilliant application that could recognise gig video uploaded by fans. Using some amazing mystical dark art technology, it replaces the sketchy audio with professionally recorded audio from the gig. Where multiple footage sources are available, viewers are able to change the camera angle. I think this is yet another encouraging movement, and it appears that the record labels are behind this. It is of course another way for musicians and fans to interact. I wonder though what happens with the footage copyright, and also what happens with editorial control? What happens if someone has their phone right up the vocalists left nostril? Does the band / artiste risk alienating their fans’ goodwill by imposing editorial constraint on uploads, or should they just grin and bear it and bask in having a lot of hard work done for them?

Only time will tell I suppose. But what I think we can safely say is that doing these kind of gigs alongside the usual range of club and bar gigs, and also alongside a social media campaign is a good way forward. You get several bites of the cherry to directly engage with your audience. I guess I would definitely advocate a return to singing songs around a campfire – but someone from Health and Safety would probably tell me it was dangerous or something.

You can see some of the Space Lounge videos here:

One or two famous faces might pop up.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He is personally responsible for a good hard drive's worth of drivel on the net.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Are studios irrelevant these days?

Recording Studio Control Room
It looks just like a real studio

In this day and age, you can see why people would ask this question. Why bother spending your hard earned cash when you can go and buy some ludicrously cheap software and track stuff yourself? We all know people who have (ahem) illicit copies of software that us respectable types have spent thousands of pounds on, who are willing to record for free.

Or of course, why not go the whole hog and build your own studio? If you have the time and resources available, that’s a truly fantastic idea, and one that I would love to do myself. I’ve got a rudimentary understanding of treating a room, and it would probably “do”. I’d probably have a nervous breakdown with all the woodwork involved, as I’m not a patient chap with woodwork. Anything else I think I’m pretty cool with, but woodwork? Forget it…

Even with a good, solid amount of treatment, you’re not going to completely stop sound getting in and out. If you’re building your studio in a house, then even after treating the room you’re still probably going to have to look out for your sound leaking out and disturbing the neighbours. Or you could have their sound leaking onto your tracks. Then there’s the issue of building a treated area for mixing. Even if you’ve had your room calibrated, you run the risk of disturbing other occupants, and having to stop recording or mixing just when things are hotting up is a real end to creativity.

All of this is moot if you have a farm somewhere, and you can convert a barn or an out house. If this happens to be in the Dordogne, I’d be delighted to come and help you set it up and perhaps engineer for you.

The way that things are going, it’s even easier to get hold of some very good equipment for a fraction of what it used to cost. You don’t *need* a huge console these days, although of course there is a time and a place for these. Preamps and channel strips range from the easily accessible budget options to boutique beautiful stuff you’d have to save for a few months for. There are some very good mics out there that can be picked up for around £150, and some that you could buy for the price of a second hand car.

Let me state this case first of all, a great engineer will get a good sound using a cheap mic and the inbuilt preamps on a USB box. But in a studio, you’re going to get a combination that is really hard to beat. You will get rooms that have been properly treated and will sound good. You’ll get some nice mics, hopefully Neumann, Telefunken, AKG, Schoeps etc. You’ll get the more expensive boutique preamps like Neve, SSL, Avalon or Focusrite.

Neumann U87 Microphone
A microphone, yesterday

“But that’s all for show isn’t it Chris?” I hear you cry in despair. Well, no. I've written a bit about this in another blog, but the fact of it is, it's simple. These tools are the tools used by professionals on professionals. If you really want to get the very best sound out of your instrument, be it guitar, voice, sax, tuba etc., then you want to have the very best microphones pointing at it, and you want it going through a great preamp. Besides, you’re paying for it, and who wouldn’t prefer 5* to 1*?

In larger facilities you’ll get options to use different equipment, different drum kits, different amps. Also in larger facilities you will get the big console, and in the top end studios you’ll get Neves or SSLs, and you’ll incur the cost of having someone who can maintain them and who actually knows how to use them!

Wherever you go, you’ll also have an engineer who knows how to use these and get the very best out of them.

The benefits of having an engineer with you are manifold.
They can worry about setting mics up and everything else while you can concentrate on the important bit of getting ready to get the tracks down.
You don’t have to worry about whether you’ve gone into record, or worry about getting levels as they have got it all covered.
They’ll be listening to really make sure each instrument sounds the best that it can.
They’re a good and independent set of ears, and they can act to help you get the most of the session.
They’re also going to be keeping track of your takes.
You’ll have someone who can sort out monitor mixes for you, so one of the band doesn’t have to stop and adjust a (real or virtual) fader.
In many cases, the engineer will take a co-production role with you if you ask them to, and they can help, offer advice, and in some cases they can coach.

This is a simplistic list, I do not mean to belittle the activities of an engineer, they really can be an important but transparent instrument in the band.

But yes. You certainly can record at home, and there’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact it’s brilliant that we can have such incredible technology at our disposal. It can be such a boost to creativity. But I don’t think it’s going to be replacing the need for a permanent full on studio facility just yet, especially for recording live instruments.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He hates the smell of Rockwool in the morning.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Gizza job

Me: Good afternoon Space Studios
Voice: Hi, yeah, what it is see is I was wondering if you had any jobs going there like?
Me: Well, I could use someone to answer the phone, or maybe clean the toilets
Voice: No man, I mean producing like
Me: No, I’m afraid we’ve got everyone we need for that at the moment
Voice: Well, can I send you my shit like, so you can hear it and see what you think of my beats?
Me: Do they clean the toilets?

This is an all too common phone call, probably heard in studios across the country. Despite having plastered over our website that we did not have any vacancies, we got upwards of twenty of these kinds of approaches a month. Or, they’d be pitiful approaches from kids with impressive sounding degrees from various universities around the country. It is heart rending sometimes, it really is. Speaking as someone with an entirely unrelated degree, but which holds as much use unfortunately as a chocolate teapot, I honestly sympathise.

I really do wonder what these kids are being told before they get saddled with insane debts and a degree in a subject (along with goodness knows how many other graduates) in an industry that basically consists of dead mans shoes. I should be clear though – if music tech / sound recording degrees had been more available back in the mists of time when I was going through UCAS, I’d have jumped on a course, no doubt, instead of worrying about how you say “good morning” and what the bleeding felicity conditions of such an approach are…

I am not going to knock the degrees – I believe in Socratic learning (especially now people have to pay for it!), but really, what do the poor graduates expect? Are they told how difficult it is to get a job? Or that their degree may not be looked at in the best of lights?

Sure, a degree does bring some rigour to it, and I assume the graduates have to do some kind of reading, research and assignment writing. These are of course good skills to have, along with the oft-quoted myth of time management and self starting skills (yes, I have used those two lies on a CV before). But is such a degree really worth the paper it is written on?

How much time do the students get in the studios? How much time do they get practising and listening with mic placement? Or coaching singers through difficult spells to really nail that take? In my experience, I’ve found that on different courses in different Unis, undergrads haven’t been allowed near the sexy desks that are in the prospectus. I’ve been told of undergrads only being allowed to use Behringer boards while SSLs sit gathering dust. Granted, if you can get a good sound with a Behringer desk, then excellent, you have some kind of skillset going on! But the kids are drawn there on the promise of using the good gear, but never really getting near it.

Then there've been lecturers visiting our place and enjoying actually being in “real” studios, rather than jerry built plasterboard studios provided for the students. Again, these are probably good enough to highlight a point, but is it good enough for someone being saddled with £20k of debt?

I would never want to tell anyone not to go to Uni, it’s a blast and they really are fantastic days. But I would recommend perhaps an alternative degree (music, physics, hell anything except Language and Communication!) – and then either buy a small recording rig and a subscription to Sound on Sound and just get out there and record as much as you can. Get as much extracurricular experience (behave yourself) as you can. Actually I’d say that to anyone doing any degree – join in with as much student society action as you can, it’s where the fun is at.
Or you could even get some work experience in a studio. But that’s a story for another blog…

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He hated his degree in Language and Communication and doesn’t see why anyone else should have enjoyed theirs.

Friday, 8 March 2013

My admiration for those who do it

Yet again, it's another late blog. My excuse this week is not that the dog ate my homework. But I was in the process of moving half a garage full of stuff to our new place, part of which was our big Pro Tools rig. Oh it is so nice to have it back, so it can sit there, whirring expensively at me as I fight to overcome the hideous self-doubt that is manifest whenever I try and write something..

I've wondered aloud before about why the hell we bother trying to make music these days, but one thing that I really should make clear is I love working with the people who make music. Not only that, I have enormous respect for those that do, and then go out and play their own songs.

First and foremost, I respect the fact that they have taken the time to write the songs, and they've gone through the self doubt processes. These I understand can be fatal for a songwriter's career. I’ve often wondered if this is something like the yips that golfers get when all of a sudden they are unable to make a seemingly simple putt, or for cricketers and baseball players, an inability to bowl accurately or even let go of the ball at the right time.
Although this is possibly a neurological condition (focal dystonia), some experts have postulated it is caused by momentous events in the athletes life, but it tends to hit golfers more if they have been playing for 25 years and upwards. It could also be brought on through excessive use of the muscles involved and intense demands of concentration. 

Thinking too much. Overthinking things, weighed down by the need to win, or perhaps in our case, the need to be creative, or even the overwhelming expectation that you *must* create something. 

Similar to this is that hideous songwriting block, which can affect anyone, but must be incredibly hard (and possibly even more like the yips) for someone who has been writing proficiently for years. Whatever, the fact that the songwriters manage to get beyond even the initial self doubt is an incredible feat as far as I'm concerned.

Then they'll put the track together, jam it a few times, and then maybe perform it at an open mic. This for me is possibly the most incredible thing ever. How anyone has the brass balls to stand up with only a guitar or a keyboard and their voice and sing their own songs is beyond me. I have nightmares about this. The Exorcist, The Omen, Paranormal Activity and any future horror film combined could not touch the utmost dread that doing this would instil in me.

The point is, it seems at every stage of being a singer songwriter you are holding your heart out for anyone to take a stab at. The initial writing process, where you bare your soul. Jamming it, making the melody (the melody that you came up with, that could be as personal to you as the lyrics) work with a chord structure. Fine tuning, self editing, but not letting the self editing destroy your creativity or your desire to carry on making music. Then, and only then, it is played to an audience, and you have no idea of how the song will go down.

If you're lucky, you'll pick up reviews which again must be a nerve shredding thing. Even a bad review from a no-mark "journalist" in a free 'zine must be a hard thing to bear. But then I guess you have to understand that their only creativity comes from destroying other people's creativity!

I still wonder why we bother making music. But you guys out there, writing and performing your own stuff. You rule, I love working with you, and I love watching you perform. So keep going and don't give up, and don't let your computer / notepad / manuscript paper mock you with its incessant blankness!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Try, try, give up again

I don't understand why we can only try ideas once.

That's one of the most perceptive lines from Lisa Simpson there. It's at the start of "Today I am a Clown" and Lisa rescues Maggie from the locked bathroom. Marge tried using a coat hanger to open the door, but it didn't work. Lisa tried it, and it works.

So what's this got to do with what is laughably a blog on the music and recording industry? Well, it’s been a while, but as I said in the last blog, we're been off to the States, and then moving to London, and so we have had to start packing stuff away. We've also had to start clearing the hard drives, and backing everything up.

Wow. Look at all those brilliant business ideas. Look at all the great event ideas we had. Look at all the bands we worked with. Look at the terabytes of unfinished songs. It seems it's only when the painful process of moving rears its head that we actually look at all of this stuff.

We tried a lot of the ideas once and never carried things forward. There were multiple sound reasons as to why...but really, why did we only do it once? If you've invested the time in planning and organising the event, product, programme etc., why not give it more than one airing? Unless it costs you a stupid amount of money to do it, or it seriously distracts from income generation, you owe it to yourself to do it again, don't you? Most of the stuff we tried we didn't continue because of a low turnout, or because people baulked at paying a price - even when we got subsidy from the local government! But perhaps we should have pushed again, aimed at a different market, tried different price points or tied in with other partners. These are all strong ideas that we intend to use in a different way in the future.

There's the often used quote from Einstein (or Franklin, or Browne, or the AA or an old Chinese proverb) that insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting different results. And there's a bit of truth there - but try telling that to Robert the Bruce! He watched that spider repeatedly attempting to spin the web, and it gave young Bobby the inspiration to rouse his fellow Scots to fight and die for their wee bit hill and glen.

Your mileage may vary on this, but it hurts to look at some of the great things we did only once. We were held back by crippling overheads, and a client base who only wanted stuff if it was fully funded by someone else.

But those ideas…

We owed it to ourselves, and to the ideas, to try again a few times.

Then there's the songs, the seeds, the concepts. So much stuff that was good, bad or indifferent. But it is all sat there uncategorised on the hard drives. I spent a fair whack of time metaphorically dusting the tracks off, giving a rudimentary mix and bouncing so that I could at least have a listen when I was in a less stressed state. I just don't get how I got to the place where the track took shape, drums, bass, guitars, string arrangements, melodies and some vocals, yet I left it mouldering.

That's two things that I've picked up from our moving escapade. Unless we are seriously out of pocket or our income generation is seriously compromised, I'm going to make sure we try our new ideas several times. What's a good number? I don't know, but let's give ten times a go. I shall let you know how it works out!

The second thing is that I will go through my work in progress disc once a week in some downtime and mix down all the seeds and snippets alongside the finished tracks and make sure I get them all in an ideas folder and on our iPods. Maybe I'll send them out to collaborators. Whatever, the thing is we came up with these ideas, so let's really give them the chance they deserve.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. People often find him trying.