Capturing Sound with 20/20 Vision: 80 Hertz Studios
Bands and musicians spend many an hour writing, learning, arranging and performing their songs, and when recognition comes their way the recording studio inevitably beckons. But taking a performance thrashed out in the heat and energy of a gig and reproducing it in the calm, technical studio environment can have a sterilising effect. We’ve all been blown away by bands on stage only to be left disappointed by their recorded work. Perhaps it’s underproduced due to being rushed out to capture a moment. Or maybe overproduction is the culprit, toiling to extract some core clarity but denuding the rawness in the process. Nightmares about failing to capture this authentic, instinctive sound in the studio make 80 Hertz’s George Atkins wake up in a cold sweat. But now he has opened his own custom-built studio in The Sharp Project, we’re going to start hearing the difference.
Turning up at 80 Hertz Studio today, the whole thing seems to be magically sealed behind an unassuming door off the main corridor. But until literally hours before we officially opened our doors on 29 June 2011 it was a fenced-off building site and materials dump with an external office. George was a constant fixture, usually seen standing in his hard hat clutching his phone, presumably sorting out the delivery of some piece of building fabric or recording equipment (or, for all I know, doing horoscopes). And before it was a building site it was, like most of the building when he started, a dark, echoey, slightly damp space.
George had left university and founded a studio in 2005, the original 80 Hertz, in a building built by Manchester Midi School. (The name 80 Hertz comes from a high-pass filter button on all mixing desks.) George’s reputation and talent as a producer and engineer quickly spread and he would go on to work with mainstream acts such as Lily Allen as well as an eclectic range of artists such as The Twang, Wiley, Rae Morris and All the Young. But along the way there were downs as well as ups. Out of the blue one day his landlord announced that his tenancy was over and the studio was effectively closed down. He was faced with a limited number of options: re-found the studio elsewhere (but money would be a problem); seek employment full-time or freelance in a studio; or simply get out of the recording industry altogether. He decided to take the freelance route, taking his work to Blueprint Studios in Manchester, where he would see out the next few years.
But every morning George would get out of bed and gaze at his old recording helmet dangling forlornly from its hanger, and with an 80 Hertz hum continuing to rumble in his ears, he resolved one day to give the whole thing another go.
Location would be an important factor, particularly from a cost point of view. He searched Manchester for a suitable location and even got involved with talks with Peel Media, who wanted him to set up on the then embryonic MediaCityUK site. Talks ultimately collapsed.
Over beer one evening his friend mentioned a new project that was being planned for the digital industries; George pricked up his trained ears. The next day he was being shown around by The Boot Room’s Keith Jobling who was himself in the process of getting the project off the ground. George saw fabulous prospects. There was the availability of space to design the bespoke studio he had in mind; the isolation from other businesses and households (perfect for 24-hour sessions); the potential for being a go-to place for the TV, movie and digital media operations planned to operate from there; the focus on getting huge amounts of data in and out of the building at high speed; and also good rates. Negotiations went on for quite some time, but eventually, with encouragement from Sue Woodward and other key people at the project, came the handshake that secured the build.
Now all he needed was the money. George had no choice but to continue working freelance, so a bizarre period of his life was commenced in August 2010 consisting of working with the builders from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then going to Blueprint for the rest of the day to perform his freelance duties. This went on for three gruelling months, until eventually he undocked from the mother ship and cast himself fully into his new role. As time went on, and as tenants started to fill the containers and other phases, the pile of building materials slowly got sucked in through the door until all that was left outside was a broken-toothed Wurlitzer keyboard. There was still plenty to do inside, but the walls, floors, ceilings and windows were in place and stairs replaced the precarious ladder.
Without an investor, George had had to use some creative ways to acquire materials and equipment. But he managed to get it all finished without external backing. The investment and the risk are therefore all his, which amply demonstrates his commitment. He was helped immeasurably by Alistair Weir of PRP Architects and studio owner John Wood, who gave their time for free.
When May 2011 ended and the calendar was flipped to June, a heart-stopping day appeared. June 29 was The Sharp Project’s opening event, and 80 Hertz was playing a pivotal role. As well as showcasing the studio to everyone at the event, it would play host to two live performances, one by Rae, another by Mechanical Bride. As if that were not pressure enough, Rae would be having her slot filmed and shown live on the big screen in the campus via George’s mixing desk. This was one deadline that could not slip, and George drafted in as much help as possible, culminating in a sleepless pre-launch 72 hours that would make those 3 a.m. starts look slovenly.
But complete it they did, and by ten to eight that evening every room was full of silent guests taking advantage of the lines of sight to the main studio, where Rae poured her emotional masterpieces into the microphone from her piano stool. George characteristically blended into the background as he tweaked the mixing desk, pausing only to readjust the matchsticks holding his eyes open.
Line of Sight Philosophy
The standard model of recording studio construction involves moving into a new building and partitioning as best as possible. The control room has to be acoustically isolated as the sound coming in has to be as close to 100% electronic as possible, as it is this that is being recorded. But thereafter, the isolation of the various musicians has been more down to what can be got away with. If there is plenty of space the possibilities are wider. Abbey Road, probably the most famous studio in the world, has a large live room, and when Pete Waterman wanted to found his studio in Manchester he went for an abandoned church. But not all studios have the luxury of space, and isolation is often a case of plonking a padded board between musicians.
Why is isolation so important? Fundamentally, it’s because each instrument is recorded on its own track and they are all mixed together to make a finished recording, and you do not want to hear bass and drums in the background of the vocal track. Also, the snares of a snare drum, which are effectively a bunch of coiled springs a millimetre from the drum head, rattle when they pick up vibrations from the other instruments (i.e. all the time). These problems are easily avoided by recording the tracks separately, one after the other. The drums will usually be recorded first, and then the musicians will listen on headphones and play along one by one, recording it several times until they are happy. The vocals are sometimes the last thing to go down, but there’s no right or wrong order – acts will record in the order that befits the sought sound.
This is where George sees the origins of sterile recordings. Music, he says, is about interaction between the band members. Just as a pianist would not record the left and right hands, or indeed each finger, separately, so a band whose members do not practice their parts one by one should not record one by one. Look at a live performance of a band and you’ll see movement, eye contact, laughter, touching, dancing and experimentation going on. Musicians will instinctively work off each other rather than follow a single lead, and yes, that includes drummers.
Then after months and years of interaction in the practice room and on stage, off they traipse into the studio and they are suddenly expected to reproduce their live sound with a completely different mood and methodology.
Many of the recordings we now consider classics would have been recorded as if live. Although multi-track recording was invented in the mid-1950s, it took time to establish itself and even when it did, the number of tracks was limited. In 1968 when the Beatles recorded The White Album, eight-track recording was revolutionary; all their previous work had been recorded on four-track machines. With two guitars, a bass, a drum kit and two or more vocal tracks, it’s a squeeze. But as time went on, tape and hardware got cheaper and more advanced, and studios became 16- and then 24-track, allowing even individual drums and cymbals to get a track of their own and multiple overlays and harmonies could be put down over the other instruments and vocals. Some acts were masters in the studio and got the most out of it, but all too often bands would see empty tracks and fill them with unnecessary sounds that added nothing to the overall performance.
One of the specifications George gave to his architect was that line of sight should exist as much as possible between acoustically isolated live rooms. Musicians can of course hear each other as all the rooms are wired to the hub so they can listen on headphones, but with this line of sight they can also give and take visual cues. With this ability the whole band can perform dynamically, upping the tempo and loudness together, introducing colour and maybe even going off at an unexpected tangent and guiding themselves back to a crescendo. It’s how some bands rock. Even little errors and slips of the finger that would have screamed “wrong” in isolation and caused a stop and start again when recording track-by-track can end up adding to the overall sound or even go completely unnoticed. The verb used for making music is playing, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
George also hopes that this approach will make it easier for smaller bands to pay for studio time. The time they spend perfecting their songs is up to them, but once they roll up to the studio the clock is ticking. There’s inevitably some time required to set up the equipment and get the levels right, but recording simultaneously means that a performance can (theoretically at least) be recorded in a few minutes rather than a few hours, and then any tweaks, overlays and re-recordings can be put in afterwards. And since the studio is putting together its own collection of instruments (including a piano), amplifiers and effects, they could literally turn up with their guitars and drum sticks, count to four and go. A well rehearsed band could have a single recorded in an afternoon.
Serving a Changing Industry
The music industry is not what it used to be; everybody knows that. But even when it was what it used to be, it wasn’t what it had been; this is a state secret. Humans simply have ears for music and don’t really care how they consume it. By far the most important change of the past fifteen or so years has been the ease with which anyone with a computer can create complex, high-quality music and sell it or give it away, completely bypassing labels. It’s astonishing that it’s now fourteen years since Your Woman became the first bedroom single to reach number one in theUK – but even White Town had to get vinyl pressed. How quaint.
So do we need recording studios any more? And if so, how can they service digital music? In answer to the first question, it’s a clear yes. There are no signs that people will stop writing songs and performing them on physical instruments any time soon. For the best possible results it has to be recorded in an acoustically designed studio with professional engineers and producers. But digital music? As White Town and countless others since have proved, it is not essential, but there are still factors in the studios’ favour. There’s still the aforementioned expertise on hand, as well as the industry-standard gear on offer. And it’s not uncommon for artists to create the tracks in the comfort of their own homes and at their own pace but then to go to a professional studio for mixing and mastering.
The wondrous data speed available at The Sharp Project also allows the studio to be used for interesting concepts such as live online broadcasts. The Rae Morris event could have been simply a dress rehearsal for things to come.
Jewel in the Crown
Ever since George first signed up and threw himself into The Sharp Project there has been a buzz about the place, not only among those working here who have seen it grow from nothing. So ingrained is the studio into the fabric of the project that it’s sometimes overlooked that it’s the work of one man (albeit helped and assimilated seamlessly and willingly into the building by all concerned) and not a homogeneous part of the project. But it shows what can be done in this place where flexibility and open-mindedness inform strategic decisions.
Now his studio is “complete” (although I get the feeling he’s a bit of a vintage gear hoarder) he’s ready to mould it to his way of doing things. George loves genuine, heartfelt music, and has designed his studio around its recording. He is dismissive of the juggernaut that is simplistic, manufactured, humourless pop that is churned out by certain sections of the industry, and reserves a particular loathing for the output of TV talent shows whose sole purpose is to part pre-teens with their pocket money (and a bemusing number of long-since-teens with money that should be in their kids’ pockets). He clearly appreciates quality pop, and has a track record that proves he knows how to create it.
Although modern recording and broadcasting is digital, George already has some analogue tape-to-tape gear waiting to go on stream. He loves the dynamic range and warmth of magnetic recording and is looking forward to his first request to record onto tape. Even though it will end up in the digital domain for reselling and distribution, the magnetic signature will remain to have a profound effect on the sound. And vinyl, once described by someone as quaint, has still not formally been declared dead and continues to show signs of revival.
All this talk about bands and music is probably the obvious way to describe a recording studio, but working studios offer all manner of audio recording services, and 80 Hertz is no exception. Broadcast quality spoken word recordings will always be needed; there’s a TV and radio advert and jingle industry to service; and other miscellaneous recording tasks can be performed here, such as sound effects for the games and film industries.
But with George and his team at the desk, it’s going to sound great.
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