Studio 6 Music

In a new series GrapevineLIVE is talking to those involved in the music business – anything from studios to instrument makers to promoters and lots in-between.   We start by talking to Michael Parker of Studio 6 Music in Whitam about his new studio and the process of recording…

Why did you set up Studio 6 Music?

Its kind of a long story but my business partner Peter and I went to school together and we were in bands together when we were like 13 or 14.  I went off and carried on with the music, I’ve been writing for TV and Film and stuff like that for sort of the last twenty-five years and playing in bands before that.   Peter went into business and commercial property – he bought a series of units up in Whitham one of which had previously been a recording studio so the nuts and bolts of the rooms were there already.

I’ve been abroad for 25 years but have now come back to England and he called me up, said I’ve just bought the se units one of which was a recording studio – do you fancy rebuilding it and setting up…

After priming him that this wasn’t an easy way to make a living and such like – I said obviously I’d love to.  I’ve been writing music for various things and that has go progressively harder as the years have gone by.  But this is a good place for me to carry on that work but also to branch out and record bands and stuff like that.

When you say that the business has got progressively harder over the years, is that because any teenager with a laptop and a microphone can produce a recording in their bedroom?

I think so.  Obviously there are certain things that we can do here that your average guy with a laptop can’t do – especially if they are living in a residential area.  Recording drums and brass at home does not endear you to the neighbours!

Certainly the composing work has got harder.  There are more people about – when I started doing it to sync to video you needed a lot of equipment, or to sync to word clock you needed tape machine that you could dub sync tracks onto so you would have big old u-matic machines – reel to reel stuff which was a major investment in  those days whereas composition work these days you do with Quicktime withing Logic or Q-base or whatever.  The technology has become a lot cheaper but since the economic crash, advertising budgets have come crashing down.

What is it that makes Studio 6 Music unique would you say?

Probably our approach.  I have always produced music for broadcast and found a way to make the sound that I have wanted and I have done it for a long time.  It has always been about recording for me, I was a big live player, though I did play in bands that did gig up in London and abroad.   I have spent many many years experimenting and building up studios out of various bits – from valve driven tapes to digital.  I have also played a lot of music and because I’ve written for commission you have to create music of any style of any given moment.  That means you delve into a lot of worlds that are not necessarily your sort of music, but you dive in and learn how they work.  From a production perspective that gives me a good grounding to hear a band and say – oh no, that would sound good if I did it this way or that way.  And also, we are fortunate that in as much as Peter bought the building outright which allows us to be flexible on time and budget.  We know it is not easy for bands to make a living.

I assume the most expensive part of any recording process is the time it takes rather than the capital investment in hardware?

To an extent, when we built the place we had a budget but we tried to get the best equipment we could afford.  We’ve got some nice mics, a nice valve channel to put the vocal mics through.  We have good monitors so we can hear exactly what we are doing.  But yes, it is the time and the ears that you are paying for.  We are very aware that bands are struggling to break even on gigs let alone recording. Record sales are not great, everything is streamed and there is less opportunity to earn money.

A lot of the bands I see seem to play for free!

Well thats it.  I still play with a band in Belgium, we play in small venues but we always get paid. This is improvised music, not covers, we are not a function band – but we get paid, not a lot, but we also take the hat around.   I break even, it doesn’t cost me to go out there.   I was astonished when I came back to England and saw how many open mics there were.  It is great for the customers, and also for the landlords and I think if you are starting a band it is good to get a bit of experience in front of an audience.

But does it not generate the feeling amongst the general public that music should be free?

Yes, exactly it does.  But music should be accessible but to get good at it you need to spend time at it.  You wouldn’t ask a plumber to come around and fix a leak just for the exposure – would you?   Give that, we try and keep our costs as reasonable as possible.  Because I like to get the things that come in front of me to sound as good as they possibly can I tend to do a lot of mixing and tweaking beyond the booked time to get it right.

In your publicity you say you listen before you record – to a lay man such as me that sounds a very obvious think to do.

Where possible we do.  Unfortunately with some studios, you book the day, turn up and its like “what are we doing?”  If I know the songs, if I know the people who are going to record.. for example, we had a band come in, an acoustic band made up of six people.  They wanted to record in the same room – kind of old school and they were all multi instrumentalists.  I got them to sort out beforehand who was singing what, and playing what and when so that I could know what mics, what chairs, what stands I needed before they turned up – otherwise half your day is gone.

But of course no matter how much planning you do you always end up thing oh I could have done it this way or that way because, of course, there are no right answers!

As it happens, with that band we ended up doing two more tracks than we had planned simply because we got it right to begin with.

What is your biggest challenge when a new band turns up?

All bands present challenges, either because they have never been in a studio before or because they have!  Drummers may have a certain way that they like their drums mic’d.  I have my own way, a simple way that I like to mic a drum kit, usually with four mikes rather than ten – and if it sounds good then it works.

Studio 6 is not just a recording studio is it?  There is teaching and impromptu sessions, yes?

Yes, we are starting that up.  The lessons are building slowly, we have a number of teachers coming on board and we have a number of rooms in the building where we hold lessons.  Of course the students can record here as well – some of the teachers offer that as a package.

Myself and one of the other guitar teachers we’ve got are setting up a kind of improv session – basically because I play in a band playing improvised music and I really like the idea of getting people together giving them guitars or whatever and saying OK, lets make some noise!  Or if they can play a bit, setting up an environment where you can listen and try things out safely.   Improvisation can be a bit intimidating but you can achieve an awful lot without structure.

How much time can a band expect to spend in a studio recording an album?

The flippant answer has to be as much time as they can afford but that is a very difficult question to answer.  It depends on the band, the number of people involved.   In an ideal world you would like to be able to work on a track a day but I’m quite aware that even for regular gigging bands that is excessive.  An EP can be recorded over a couple or three days – but you have to be careful not to over produce something.

Studio 6 are based at Whitam in Essex and can be contacted on 01376 517 856