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October 2010

The Speakers That Started My Career (September winner)

The LoftAfter some time spent puzzling out where on earth the map was pointing me to, I arrived at the small front door of the studios. After leaving the tube station I’d spent the last 10 minutes traipsing up and down the same 3 streets, narrowly avoiding countless taxis and pushbikes tearing around the roads, whilst looking for my new place of education for the next 10 weeks (well for the next 10 Saturdays anyway). The London Centre of Contemporary Music was where my career in the music industry was going to start, at least that’s what I hoped anyway, and after traveling almost 200 miles on train, foot and tube I was determined to give it my best shot. I was also early, and as it turned out, would be the first student there every day, despite having the farthest to travel...by about 200 miles!

The course was designed for beginners and seemed to contain among its alumni, the most ramshackle bunch of people I’ve met; there was a lad who helped out in his local church and despite the course costing £600 and clearly saying it was all about studio recording and mixing, was only interested in learning how to best mic the church choir for Sunday service (a question that I’m not entirely sure he ever got an answer to), there was a guy who only wanted to learn about mixing and every time a microphone was picked up would let out a weary groan of “when are doing the mixing bit”; next, a friendly student called Raul who had the unfortunate habit of pronouncing the word ‘impedance’ as ‘impotence’, which was made worse by him constantly asking questions on the subject. Then there was myself and a guy called Nick who I got on with instantly (probably because he was the only person I could get to join me in the pub during the first day’s lunch break).

That should have been pretty much all of us, except for one Brazilian chap, who we were all convinced had never actually signed up or paid for the course but just turned up anyway. Not that we minded too much as we all thought fair-play to him for having the bare-faced cheek to turn up, and as he was slightly insane, we all got on with him (until it turned out Nick worked for a steel company who bought cheap steel from Brazil and then sold in back to them at a highly inflated price!) Somehow though, despite this motley crew, Cam, our tutor, managed to keep order and started to tech me something magical.


The studio we were in had a fairly large live room with a drum kit and some amps in it, across from which was the tape room, and finally, joining the two up was the control room. In there was a 24 track DDA mixing desk next to a rack of some posh looking preamps and compressors on one side and a large silver computer on the other. Finishing off the studio, behind the desk, were 2 huge Genelec 1038 speakers. For someone like me who had never really seen (or taken notice of) any speaker bigger than a shoe box, these Genelecs were massive! They filled the two corners of the room they were in and I thought could surly be used a small house if ever the need arose.

We got down to work and spent the next 10 Saturdays pushing faders, turning pots, placing microphones, moving amps, dropping microphones, scratching our heads, scribbling notes, compressing, de-essing, multi-pressing and guessing; all the time listening to what we were doing through those 1038s.

I had decided to learn about studio recording as a way in to the music industry and although I knew a little before the course, I’d spent most of my time as a teenager perfecting the art of playing drums in a kick-ass rock and roll band which would go on to tour the globe with a million screaming girls. The trouble was that I wasn’t very good at that, yes I could play the drums, but as for the kick-ass globe trotting girls part of it - the only screams would be coming from the pub landlady telling us to turn down or be barred!


I had never really looked at the recording process being particularly creative, certainly not like writing a melody or working on an interesting drum fill before the chorus, but pretty soon I started to change. I realised that, not only the way you place microphones, but also which preamp and compressor you use and how much sound dampening there is around them, all affects the sound and feel of the instrument you are recording, giving not only the performer but also the engineer, their own unique and creative voice.

For the first time ever, thanks to those 1038 speakers, the sounds we were recording were coming thorough clear and defined. That started me out on a long obsession with how recording can be creative and exciting and how every choice you make along the signal path determines the feel and sound of the record. Where I’d previously been sat in my bedroom mixing on a pair of old computer speakers for treble and a massive great PA speaker as some kind of sub, with the mid range somehow eking out between the two of them, now I was listening to clear tones with the frequencies all where they should be. I could hear the power of air through a guitar cabinet, the hammer of a piano and the subtle whisper of a brushed string - It was no wonder that before this I’d thought sound recording was boring, it was because my speakers were boring (well, not just boring in my case, just down right shoddy!)

I’ve since found great excitement in setting up for a recording, wether it be a rock band or a single violin to some of the stranger things I’ve recorded like a flushing toilet or the worlds largest collection of American Hand Bells (which was particularly interesting as we were recording a Christmas album with them in June!). I’m often asked how to record a certain instrument or type if music and my answer is always the same; there is no singular way to record anything. Every instrument and every performer is different and so what works for one instrument one day may sound terrible on the next. The most important thing to do is listen, it takes time (a lifetime!) to train your ears, but what you hear though your speakers and how you capture that moment is the most important, and for me the most interesting, part of the process.


I’ve been quite fortunate since then and worked as a professional sound engineer and producer at a studio in Cheshire before going freelance as both a session musician and engineer 2 years ago. I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and learning from, some of the best producers, engineers and musicians working in the UK today. I’ve met (and worked with) my heros, toured in America, played with orchestras, performed on countless radio sessions and much more besides. The picture of me playing a djembe was taken in April 2010 at The Loft Studios in Liverpool, I was being recorded by the great Mike Cave for the acclaimed singer/songwriter, Thea Gilmore, whose new album is called “Murphy’s Heart” (Thanks to Kirstie Hunt for the photo!)

For most of all this I have that course to thank; for teaching me, if nothing else, that there is a whole world of creativity to be found in a recording studio. However, were it not for the music coming back to me so sweet though those speakers I may never have bothered to continue learning and experimenting with sound.

After 10 weeks the course ended and we all went to the pub across the road from the studio. Most of our party left but a few joined Nick, Cam the tutor and myself in the next pub, but soon it was just us 3 hurtling around London in black cabs stopping at posh pubs and bars until late in the night. I needed to be up early the next day because my train back to Cheshire was at 10am. Nick and Cam both kept drinking after I left and Nick said I could stay at his girlfriend’s apartment as she was out that night. I am however convinced that he never actually spoke to her about it because I had to clamber over a load of massive waste bins and pretty much break in though an open window to get into the house Nick had described. The next morning when I woke up I heard voices from outside her room - her housemates. I got up, got dressed and clambered back over the bins, over the wall and away to my train...I never did find out if she knew I was there, or even if it was the right house I broke into...


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