Earlier this week, we had our first external project at Soundpark Studios in Northcote. The studio (excluding rehearsal rooms) consists of a main live room that is collaged with doors, offcuts of wood, foam padding and other oddities that contribute to a great sounding acoustic treatment. Alongside the main room are the appropriately named Wood, Mid and Dead rooms. These are great for isolating amps and singers depending on the goal of your recording. At the heart of control room at Soundpark is an MCI console, and this is flanked by racks and racks of outboard, as well as an EMT plate reverb. The studio also boasts a huge array of mics, additional baffles, snares and hardware effects units.
The focus of this week was to focus on recording to tape using the studio’s Studer A80 (mark IV from my research). As is common in 2017, we used a hybrid set-up and monitored through ProTools (taking a split from the input of the Studer) and recorded to tape and ProTools simultaneously. When we had a take that both us and the band, Tom Walker & the Sick Individuals, were happy with that, we flipped the tape heads to repro and printed the Studer’s output back into Tools. Recording to tape was also a good exercise in not only encouraging a band to get their best performance, but making sure the band is comfortable, happy and ready to play their best.
The routing of the patchbay and live room looms was deceivingly simple, and it reminded me how comfortable I’d become in the Audient and Neve studios at SAE. We used a mixture of MCI console pre amps and external pres such as Neve + clones and API. We didn’t compress too much to tape, and finished the day printing some stems through a Space Echo and messing with the plate reverb and Lexicon PrimeTime. The control had a lot of Universal and Urei equipment, and in hindsight I regret not trying equipment such as the LA-3As. We used an LA-2A on the bass which was amplified by a 70s Ampeg which a few of us were excited about having watched Eric Valentine’s recent Sound On Sound video about surf guitar and the Queens of the Stone Age guitar tones, where he uses a similar (if not identica) Ampeg. The bass amp was placed in the Dead room, guitar amps in the Mid room and we didn’t use the Wood room. We had planned for vocal overdubs, however captured a great take on the scratch vocal through a Shure SM7B.
Having no experience with tape, I was keen to run the Studer for the day, and having been an avid ProTools user (pardon the pun) for a few years now, switching to the Studer made a lot of sense and showed me how similarly laid out ProTools is to a tape machine. This is something that seems obvious in hindsight but wasn’t until I had the tape machine’s buttons in front of me. Some things such as making sure everything you’re recording is armed, input monitoring, pressing play and record simultaneously. Though we didn’t do any literal tape editing, the fades and cut in ProTools are also very similar (albeit unfathomably simpler and quicker). Printing good takes to ProTools is also good practice as it saves you tape in the long run. I’ve used tape saturation plugins before, which give definitive saturation, but I’m yet to find a plugin that really gives the low mid bump that real tape gives.
Patching the signal into ProTools was a really good experience. The patchbays at SAE are normalled, which is common, but a de-normalled patchbay also makes a lot of sense to me. In a de-normalled set-up, is something isn’t patched in, you’re not getting signal. This makes troubleshooting a breeze, whereas in a studio like the Audient or Neve I find myself double checking insert buttons, aux sends and insert volume when I’m not sending/receiving signal. We opted to patch from the live room/isolated rooms > pre amps > Studer > ProTools. If we wanted something else in the chain, we’d just interrupt that signal. We didn’t use the MCI console conventionally, but instead treated it like a rack of pre amps. It was a really good experience to see a different signal flow in a professional studio, as it showed us a different way to work and think abut signal flow. Thinking about and even questioning convention is a really important thing for students, as in some ways we’re still blissfully ignorant and are having a lot of happy accidents.
In conclusion, recording to tape at Soundpark was a really good experience. I’m now confident with a tape machine, and unfortunately lusting a little for a real machine as my plugins aren’t quite cutting it anymore. Using a de-normalled patchbay was good and reminds me to stay on my toes with signal flow as I’ll likely be working in an array of studios freelancing. The live rooms at Soundpark were also great and got me thinking about isolation and choosing the right rooms for sounds. I’m already planning a few sessions at Soundpark outside of SAE. It’s really driven home how important a great take is, as bad takes can be edited and ‘fixed’, but will never have the energy/imperfections of a great live take, especially when a band is all playing in one room. As a final note, I’m still waiting for a coffee from Nick, who arrived last to the studio on the day.