My First Visit to Big Smoke Studios
If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be getting up at 4:30am to travel to London for the chance to gain some work experience at a great recording studio, I would have probably laughed. Who gets such an opportunity? Also the one thing I love more than music is my beauty sleep. I joke of course, I love video games far more than sleep, but sleep comes a close second.
Joking aside, I was given the chance to visit Big Smoke Studios, along with a small selected group of my university peers, to get a taste of what it is like to be in a real functioning and professional recording studio. I would have been a fool not to grab this opportunity and I am no fool.
Big Smoke Studios is in North London and is owned by one of my university lecturers Mark Brocklesby, who is also a recording engineer and producer. I was rather fortunate that one of his assistant engineers, Josh, managed to direct me the last part of my journey otherwise I could still be wondering around London trying to find the place.
I was immediately felt at home in the studio, thanks (again) to Josh who showed a great interest in my work as a musician and as a composer. He was clearly a very talented and interesting individual. The live room (the name given to the room where the musicians perform and is captured via recording) was not a large area by any means, but it it a very tall space with stone walls and wooden floors, which makes it a very lively and bright sounding room. The one down side to this was that it also meant it was very cold but this was quickly rectified, when some powerful heaters that were wheeled in.
I was surrounded by some wonderful instruments, most notable a 1950s Wurlitzer electric keyboard, which I was lucky to play later in the day. With the many software emulations/plug-ins on this instrument, it was such an exciting moment when I was offered the chance to try it out. What a beautiful sound it produced. I am tempted to call it 'sexy' as it had a clear dirty, gritty timbre (a fancy musical tone for 'sound') as the valves in it needed to be cleaned. Being the weirdo I am, I loved this tone and found it hard to pull myself away from such gorgeous ebonies and ivories. But enough on the keyboard, as that was not why I was there.
When the rest of 'The Chosen' arrived, we were able to hear some recordings in surround sound. I was very much aware that soundtracks for films, video games and television got this treatment, but songs? I found it a strange concept to sit and listen to this classical guitar playing while it bounced around the room via the speakers and it toyed with my understanding of how to listen to music. It was an almost hypnotic experience.
The real meat and bones of the day came shortly afterwards when the three of us were tasked to set up some mics to record the drums for a client of Mark's. With Josh's aid, we were able to set up the drum kit very quickly with some gorgeous microphones that many producers can only dream of getting their hands on. Once the mics were set up, the three of us were escorted back to the control room, where all the recording 'magic' happens. We were given a whistle-stop tour of how things are done, and Josh showed his great knowledge of the recording environment and Pro Tools, the industry standard for digital recording software. Mark played the drums for this client and he got the track down in a couple of takes.
Attempting to sum up my experience with as few words as possible, I have to say it was a truly wonderful experience. It was the first recording session (apart from Cedar Studio) where nothing went wrong, which is often the case when you are relying on the equipment in any university/college. A great drummer played brilliantly on a great drum kit in a fantastic space, captured by wonderful mics, going through some great outboard gear and into Pro Tools. There was no processing effects such as EQ or compression, it just sounded amazing and I couldn't have been happier with the final outcome. I also got some wonderful insight of how to improve my mixes so in future my production skills are on par with my composition skills. In short, it was a truly magnificent day and I hope I will get the opportunity to do some further work there.
If you would like to learn more about them and see the things the studio gets up too, you can find a link for their website here.