Founded by Jordan Kouby and Frédéric Vectol in the 2000s, Question De Son started as a studio wiring business that later grew into one of the premier recording spots in Paris. After reaching out to them via email, I was able to visit and talk to Jordan and Frédéric about the history of their studio, their clientele and their famed 24-channel EMI-NEVE recording console.
Hi guys. Thanks for having me over. Can tell me about your backgrounds?
Frédéric: I started off as a musician at an early age, playing bass. My band eventually needed someone to handle the recording side of things, so I volunteered – that’s how I got my start in audio. I later worked at a studio near Paris, were we recorded a lot of small rock bands as well. Following that, I went to audio engineering school at ESRA, where I met Jordan, and we later interned at commercial studios together. After school, we started to do wiring and cabling jobs for recording studios, as well as designing and building small studios for producers.
But how were you able to start a wiring business straight after school? Who taught you how to do that?
Jordan: We were already making our own stomp boxes and pedals before ESRA, so when we finally met at school, our shared interest in electronics brought us together. In addition, we had both studied engineering and electronics programs in high school, so the foundation for wiring and cabling was already there, and the gig offers came soon after graduating. We only got small wiring jobs at first, but later graduated to building patchbays for people. We taught ourselves through trial-and-error, and were able to buy better tools as we made more money, which led to better results.
We spent so much time working in studios that we got to see how the spaces were built and acoustically treated, and those experiences enabled us to deliver similar results to our clients, even though we’d never gone to school for acoustic science or studio design.
So in addition to wiring, you were installing acoustic treatment in studios?
Jordan: Not only installing, but developing the materials as well. We started off with basic stuff like putting mineral wool on interior walls and wrapping them with tissue, and later moved on to installing proper bass traps. By reading books and Internet forums, as well as talking to professional acousticians, we were able to build on what we knew and improve our skills.
Frédéric: Whilst we were building studios for other producers, we also worked as audio engineers on music projects, and because of the experience we gained from all the different projects, we were later able to build our first studio by ourselves. We handled everything from the electricity to the acoustic isolation for that place.
Jordan: To be honest, the first studio wasn’t fancy, but we had to do it ourselves in order to save money. We opened the place in 2005. It was a small room in a basement, with a control room of about 13 m², and a live room of about 15 m². Because everyone knew that we built it ourselves, they started to ask if we could do the same kind of studio design for them.
Did you stop with the wiring work once the first studio was done?
Jordan: No. One of us would work in the studio on recording jobs and the other one would continue with wiring gigs. Repairing gear was another source of income for us back then.
Frédéric: We’d make racks for people or repair things like their mic pre-amps.
Jordan: We also used to make wooden gear cases and power supplies. You can see some our stuff in the “Audiotoys” section of our website. It wasn’t anything complicated though. We just made aesthetically pleasing stuff that other people wanted.
Was the studio you opened in 2005 also called “Question De Son”?
Jordan: Yes, it was. But it’s funny – “Question De Son” was the name of our wiring company, so we just used it as a temporary name for the recording studio, expecting that we’d rename it later, but we never did (laughs). It’s as if we were secretly hoping someone would come along and randomly give us a cool-sounding name, but it never happened, so “Question De Son” stuck.
Frédéric: We already had a website called “Question De Son”, which we couldn’t change. Otherwise we might have had to change other stuff, like our phone number or branding. So we just kept it.
How did you find the basement venue for the first Question De Son studio?
Jordan: I had earned some decent money by making music for a fashion show in Paris, after which my father pulled me aside and said, “When you’re young, you need to save your money. Don’t just spend all of it. Find a spot and start a business “. So I approached Fred to start a business together and we began looking for a location. Luckily, I managed to get the phone number of an organization called Semaest, who wanted to diversify the businesses in a street in Saint Ambroise; they didn’t want a street filled with only clothing stores or restaurants. So I called them and said, “We’re two young guys who want to build a studio to work with things like wiring, recording and music production “. The guy on the phone said, “I know of a place. It’s been hard for me to find a tenant for it because most of the locale is a basement with no lighting. But maybe that could be interesting for you? “. So we went to visit the place and thought it looked perfect. We rented out the ground floor to three of our friends who were graphic designers, whilst Fred and I took the first and second basement levels.
It took a few months to finish the studio, but we hired a small construction company to help us. The owner of that company was a huge help for us. He was an older Frenchman who liked to smoke cigars, and we learned a lot from him in terms of how to build walls, doors and soundproof a room. But we didn’t have a lot of money left to pay him with, so the deal was that he would work on our studio without his regular employees, and we had to help him with the manual labor.
We were lucky that the locale used to be a factory space, so the basement areas already had an air conditioning system and electrical wiring for our studio needs.
Once the studio was done, we uploaded pictures onto MySpace. After that, an audio engineer called Jacques Ehrhart contacted us. We had been his interns during some sessions at Studio Grand Armée, and now he wanted to book our place for five days to record and mix, which he later extended by a month. So that’s how things started for us. We were still living with our parents at the time, and were able to reinvest all our profits for the first two years into buying gear, mostly on eBay because of the low value of the dollar at the time.
What kind of gear did you have in the old studio when it opened? Did you have money to buy what you needed?
Jordan: We didn’t have a lot gear initially. In order to finance the studio, we had to take out two loans. One of them came from the bank, and the other from a creative association called Paris Entreprendre. They give out loans at 0% interest rate to creative projects. Those two loans is what allowed us to pay for the construction of our studio and the console.
The first thing we bought was a small 40-channel SSL desk for about €45,000, which we later expanded to 48 channels. Having interned at commercial studios, we realized that the most important piece of equipment you could have was a good console. Buying the SSL meant we would have 40-channels of mic pre-amps, EQs, compressors and one master compressor. When we compared the price of the SSL to the outboard gear we would have needed to record only sixteen tracks of audio, it was obvious which one was cheaper.
What model of SSL console did you buy?
Frédéric: It was a custom SSL 4048 G+ with ultimation. We found in it England through Recycled Audio, though it was manufactured for a Tokyo-based studio in 1992. None of our clients had ever seen a desk like that in a small studio like ours, so it was a good start for us.
What kind of workload did you have at your old studios?
Jordan: We’d work 18-hour days at times, doing hip-hop or African music sessions at night, followed by other projects during the day. And we said “yes” to everything; someone might call us and say, “I want to book a session for film score mixing “, and we were like “Sure! “, even though we’d never worked with that before. But we’d call up our friends at bigger studio to ask for advice and borrow gear to get through the bookings. So after doing a lot of work like that, we finally started to build a decent résumé that made the studio locally popular, and labels like Universal, Sony and EMI began to call and book us. For example, they had American engineer clients who wanted to mix in our room because of the gear we had. So the SSL was a big attraction, but we also had things like a pair of Distressors, a Summit Audio TLA-100, a UA 1176, some API units like the 550a and 512c, and a Lexicon PCM 70. We later bought a Lexicon 480L and an EMT 240 plate.
Which records did you work on that made you famous locally?
We worked with Pony Pony Run Run on their debut album, which had the popular single, “Hey You“. We also mixed an album by Catherine Ringer, who was in a famous French band with her husband called Les Rita Mitsouko. After her husband passed, she did a live show at a popular venue called La Cigale, and we were asked to mix the live album by Mark Plati. He’s worked as a musician with David Bowie and also does production and mixing. Mark also brought us work for Rashid Taha, who was a famous Algerian raï singer, and those projects really helped our reputation. But we also had a lot of indie artists and DJs that came through here. Fred started to work with DJ Cam, who’s been credited with popularizing trip-hop music, and we were still getting massive Afrobeat sessions where we’d have to record up to twelve musicians at a time. It’s the kind of thing were you can’t fit everyone into the live room, so you have a guitarist in the corridor, a bass player in a side room, a drummer downstairs and singer in the control room. It was great though, and we had a lot of fun with it.
Jordan: We’d made some good money towards the end of our time at the old studio. I worked on an album called “The Shape Of A Broken Heart”, for a girl called Imany. It was the biggest session we’d had up to that point, and was a months-long project. As a result, we not only realized that we needed a bigger studio, but we needed two rooms. At the old place, when one of us was using the studio, the other guy had to take time off or do wiring work. But we actually wanted to do less wiring gigs at that point, so we decided to move venues – but things got complicated. We had a friend who used to produce music for sports events, which pays a lot of money. He actually got his start in our studio and would make his artist albums there, which is how we became friends. So one day he said to us, “Guys, I’m working on some big projects right now and I need a bigger studio to work in that will impress my corporate clients. Are you interested in building a bigger one for me, which you’ll be the Studio Managers for? I’ll get the funding for it “. We thought it was a great idea, since we didn’t have the money to do it ourselves. So we spent a year searching for a location and making plans with acousticians, only to later find out that one the financial partners involved had changed his mind about the deal and the whole plan had collapsed, leaving us with nothing. But we decided to undertake the new studio project anyway, this time on our own. The experience wasn’t a total loss because we’d learnt the ins and outs of how to pursue a large-scale studio-building effort, such as how to approach banks for bigger loans and how to plan the designs for bigger spaces.
Did you lose any money because of your friend’s failed plan?
Jordan: No, but we lost time, and time is money. But it was a good learning experience because we got to visit so many empty venues.
Frédéric: We would visit a potential space and sit at the bar across the street afterwards to work out the studio design for that location, in case we picked it. So we’d map out where we wanted the control room or a corridor, etc.
Jordan: After looking at hundreds of different spots in Paris, we eventually found our current place. It was big, yet cheap, and so we started to develop a business plan straight away. We had payed off the bank loan for the first studio, and wanted to take out another one, so we decided to rent out two rooms downstairs, which would provide income for our new loan payments. I approached the bank with our plan and they liked it. So we got two new loans, started building, and it took us fifteen months finish.
The construction process was a challenge because we couldn’t take on any recording projects during that time, so we focused on studio wiring instead. We had a big one at a castle in Champagne that was being used for cultural retreats. It’s called Lizières, and they had a recording studio there that we worked on too.
What year did you finish the current Question De Son studios?
Frédéric: We finished around March 2012, but had already mixed an album downstairs by the end of 2011. We had two big holes in the wall because we hadn’t installed our main speakers yet, but we had to start working as soon as possible in order to start making money again.
Question De Son is a relatively big studio. Can you talk about what it takes to make a large studio successful at a time when most of them are closing down or downsizing in Paris?
Jordan: I don’t think having success with a studio is determined by the size. It’s more about timing and the current business model. A decent SSL console can be bought for about €40,000 today, whereas it used to cost around half a million in the 90s. So setting up a studio has different requirements now. Also, the nature of studio sessions has changed; no-one goes to a commercial studio just to record vocals anymore. But when we were interns, it was normal to get two-week bookings just for that. Nowadays, vocals sessions only take a few hours and usually get done in the flow of an album session, if at all. Producers can just record vocals at home anyway. So I think one of the reasons Question De Son has been successful is that we try to address the needs of our clients by offering artists what they can’t get at home. That’s why we bought a vintage EMI-Neve console and built up a good mic collection with lots of instruments. We also have a competent team here who know how to do their jobs.
Jordan: Yes, but those studios operated on an older model. Most of the famous studios in Paris were built or expanded using large loans, and their monthly loan payments were based on revenue earnings in the 80s and 90s. Don’t forget that many big studios in the 2000s were still paying off loans for SSL and Neve consoles that they bought decades earlier. But once the studio business changed in the 2000s, those monthly payments couldn’t be met anymore. That’s why Question De Son is different, even though we’re a large studio. We started from nothing, built everything ourselves, and never spent money on things we couldn’t afford. Plus XXX was a huge place, but the studio owner didn’t have to engineer the sessions there. He had a staff of engineers, studio managers, gear technicians, etc. It was a really nice place, but it was expensive to maintain.
By the time we started interning at big commercial studios, the old era was already coming to an end, and they were mainly booking hip-hop sessions. Take a place like Studio Davout: they had 200 m² of space in their live room for orchestras to set up, but were mainly recording rap vocals. All that space costs money, but they couldn’t charge their usual rates because rappers just wanted to record vocals. So Davout had to offer discounts to attract those kinds of artists, just so the studio could earn something. But you can’t survive by offering discounts all year. So I saw this problem first-hand, and to be honest, I would never make fun of how things ended up for those studios because we don’t want to the same thing to happen to us. The best we can do is try to keep up with the times.
Frédéric: Those are modern studios that were built on a different model.
Jordan: Exactly. Gang is just one studio, not a complex with three or four rooms. The vibe there is amazing, the location is great, and the studio owner has paid off his loans for the space, so he owns the building. Also, Gang never switched out their API 3288 console. Because they never went looking for a new SSL or Neve, they were able to keep their overhead costs low. Their venue is also shared with Translab Mastering, which they own, and it’s one of the best mastering studios in the world, which is probably a good source of income for them.
So who among the bigger studios that remain do you consider to be your competition?
Jordan: I guess the main ones are places like La Seine Studios, Gang Studios and Les Studios Saint Germain. But we don’t all offer the same range of services. Le Seine Studios have less vintage gear, but can offer a bigger control room. Saint Germain have a nice vibe, but might not have a mastering room like we do. I might even compare us to OneTwoPassit. Even though they’re smaller, all studios ultimately have the same issues to deal with. So in that sense I think we’re all in the same boat, competition or not.
What kind of sound do you guys offer at Question De Son? Given all your vintage gear, you’re presumably not making pop records like “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy“.
Jordan: We can do those kinds of records too. In fact, Kanye West has booked the studio before. He was here for a number of days with his team, and I later worked with him at his flat for some days after that. But yeah, things have changed for us in terms of the projects we work on. Whereas we used to say “yes” to everything before, we don’t really chose our clients anymore – they come to us now. That means we won’t get booked for certain things. For example, recording classical music requires a bigger room with a higher ceiling, so we won’t get those kinds of gigs. Personally, I work on a lot of black music, like jazz and soul that’s inspired by the 60s and 70s. But I also work with the upcoming producers who make bass music. I’m doing a lot mixes for a French band called FORM, who I think will be successful in a year or two. We also recently did a film score based on violin on piano, which I mixed in surround sound. So we do have a variety of projects that still come through here.
Frédéric: I also like to work on different kinds of projects, but I mostly get booked to do pop and rock music nowadays.
Do you guys have enough bookings nowadays to where you no longer have to solicit new clients?
Frédéric: Yes, I would say so. We get a lot of artists nowadays who say, “I love the sound here. Can you record my other band too? “. That’s one of the ways our client base has grown.
Jordan: Question De Son is now a word-of mouth business that’s become pretty self-sustaining. Hélène Texier handles the bookings, so if a record label wants to call and book time here, it’s easy for them to do that. But our main type of clients are freelance engineers that want to work with our gear, and we have an assistant, Thomas Rasoanaivo, who helps them with that.
We’re only a staff of four people, but we manage to handle most things ourselves. We might hire someone to fix broken gear, or to maintain the Neve or the SSL, but even with that, we try to fix things ourselves before giving them to a technician.
Miloco are known for representing famous studios around the world. How did you end up on their their website?
Jordan: Back when we were designing the new studio, we used to check out Miloco’s website to find inspiration for our designs. As you said, they work with some of the best studios in the world. So when our current location was ready, we decided to contact them to see if they might be interested in representing us.
What do you charge for sessions at Question De Son?
Jordan: A full 10-hour day in “Studio A” is €800 before tax, with an assistant. “Studio B” is €600 before tax, with an assistant. We can also arrange package deals if clients want to work for multiple days here, or choose to both mix and record here.
Is there a “Studio C” also?
Frédéric: Yeah, but it’s just a small editing room.
Jordan: We don’t show it on the website because it’s a room we offer to clients that are already booked here and need a place to edit their sessions, instead of having them sit in the control room. But occasionally we do overdub or vocal sessions there for clients on a low budget too.
Tell me about the live room. I see a new door has been installed to create a booth for your stone room. I didn’t see that in the pictures online.
Jordan: Yes, that door is new. We installed it this past December. It was originally included in the first sketch of the studio, but it was so expensive that we had to leave it for last. We also had a hard time finding a suitable manufacturer for it. Eventually, we found a German company that manufactures doors for houses in the mountains, and the temperature isolation they use to keep out the cold also translates into acoustic isolation. So we asked them if they wanted to work with us, and they agreed. So now we have our door.
The door separates our 12 m² stone booth from the rest of the live room, and we use it to record things like drums or piano. Acoustic guitar also sounds great in that room.
Why did you decide to build a stone booth though?
Jordan: We’ve always had stone in our studios, even in the first one. We like the way the material affects the sound. It’s nothing new: stone walls were standard in British studios in the 80s, so we just looked at pictures of beautiful live rooms from 30 years ago and took inspiration from that.
I record a lot of acoustic sessions that require the pianist and drummer to play together, and I needed a way to manage the bleed during that recording – the stone booth is perfect for that. The purpose of using stone walls is to create random reflections. Because the stone is porous, a portion of the sound waves pass through and gets absorbed by the mineral wool we put behind it, which deadens the room a bit. But the rest of the sound waves are reflected randomly, which creates interesting reverb times and high-frequency content in the recordings.
Frédéric: The brick wall in other parts of the room does the same thing as the rock, but to a different degree, and we still get non-linear reflections from it.
Jordan: We’re big fans of Electric Lady Studios, so we wanted a similar New York vibe, which is why we also chose brick for some of our walls.
(Above: The live room before the door was installed near the guitar)
But the live room is quite sizable, and I don’t see an adjustable ceiling. What do you do if you want a tight, dead drum sound?
Jordan: We have three gobos that we built using melamine foam from Basotect, which is the best acoustic foam you can buy. Even at a shallow depth, they offer lots of absorption and are very effective for deadening a sound. We also have heavy black curtains along the walls that we can use for high-frequency roll-off if necessary.
What kind of cables and wiring are you using in this studio?
Frédéric: We’ve exclusively used Mogami cables until recently, but have started to make use of some other brands now.
I was reading about your clientele on Miloco’s website and saw some interesting names. If I mention a few, can you tell me about the session they had?
Chance The Rapper: He came by here from Miloco. Mainstream artists are often in Paris to do a live show or to attend Paris Fashion Week, and they might want to record a vocal or work on a beat. We get a lot of those kinds of sessions from Miloco.
Kanye West: He booked the whole studio for himself and ten other producers on his team whilst working on “The Life of Pablo“. His main team was working in “Studio A”, with Noah Goldstein handling the engineering.
Beck: Jordan is good friends with the engineer that Beck often works with, Darrell Thorp. So when he was in Paris, Darrell recommended us, since Gang Studios wasn’t available at the time. That’s where he usually records (laughs).
Martin Solveig: He’s also a good friend of ours, and comes here almost every month. Even though he’s a DJ, he produces a lot of music for other artists. He has his own studio, but he might come here to check his music on our main speakers. He sometimes takes meetings here with other producers too, and they might just hang out for a few days and socialize.
Mike Hedges: I think that was another Miloco booking. It was just a simple session.
When I think of famous French artists, names like Daft Punk, Phoenix, Air and Téléphone come to mind. But I don’t see those kinds of names on your website list of past clientele. Do you have any interest in attracting those kinds of artist?
Jordan: That’s a good question. If you look at the Victoires de la Musique, which is the French version of the Grammys, we usually have a record or two being nominated every year. So even though we may not get bookings from names likes Daft Punk, we can still work the rest of the artists in Paris, and we’re happy with that.
Frédéric: It would be nice to work with Daft Punk, but they regularly work out of Gang Studios anyway.
Jordan: When Daft Punk book a studio, they’re probably going to stay for three months and record one project. But in one week, I might work on five different projects at Question de Son, which is what I prefer. Sure, it’s nice to work with big artists, but it’s possible that among our current clients is the next big star anyway. That’s how we look at things.
Did you guys have a particular philosophy for how you built the gear collection here?
Jordan: We went a bit crazy with collecting gear in the past. In the first studio, we used to buy a lot of lesser-known units, like the Yamaha Rev7, which cost €300. It’s a nice little reverb, but it just collected dust. So we sold our smaller stuff and replaced them with the classics. It’s hard to have a studio without an 1176 or a Distressor. Those units are respected for a reason and their reputations aren’t based on fiction. We used to have reissues of things like the UA 1176, but once we got a chance to compare them to the original Urei, we had to sell reissues and get the vintage stuff.
Would you say the vintage units are better than the reissues because of the components used?
Jordan: Yes, I would. Some of the materials and techniques that were used to build vintage units aren’t even permissible anymore, for health reasons. The winding of certain transformer metals by hand has been banned in factories, so you couldn’t find accurate reissues even if you wanted to.
Frédéric: And I don’t think manufacturers will ever find other ways to recreate the sound of their old units. It would be too expensive for them, given today’s market.
Since we’re on the topic of gear, can you tell me how you got your EMI-Neve console?
Jordan: Sure. A few years ago, we decided to take account of how much money we were spending on gear and repair each month. By doing that, we discovered that the Neve VR console we used to have in “Studio A” was consuming took too much electricity and air conditioning. It also had too many parts and was costing us too much money for repairs and upkeep. So we had two options: the first was to buy another SSL 4000 console, since they’re cheap and we already knew how to manage them. We could have gotten an E-series and surrounded it with outboard Neve pre-amps. The second option was to look for a vintage console from the 60s or 70s, which is what we chose to do. So Fred, myself and our mastering engineer, Mickaël Rangeard, made a list of the redundant gear we could sell to raise money for a vintage desk. For example, we had four Space Echoes, like the 201, 301, 501 and 150. One belonged to Fred, one was mine and the other two were for Mickaël. Having four them just meant more maintenance costs, so we sold all the extras, in addition to other modern units like our Distressors or LA2A reissues. We also sold some pieces that we liked, like our Ampex ATR-102 tape recorder and our Wagner U47. The final list of sold gear was pretty long, but the money we earned was significant.
Once we had some money to work with, we started sending out emails saying that we were selling our Neve VR and were searching for a vintage console. We ended up getting an answer from our contact at Miloco. We expected him to perhaps help us sell the VR, but instead he said, “It’s funny that you should reach out about a vintage console. I know a guy in Mexico who claims he has an EMI-Neve, and he sent Miloco an email saying he wants to sell it. I’m not sure if it’s the real deal or not, but here’s his email. You can contact him if you want “. So we reached out to the guy, but the negotiation was a long process. After weeks of email, I started to suspect we might be talking to a bot, but then we figured out that he didn’t speak English or French, and was using Google Translate to write his emails. So I brought in one of my friends who spoke fluent Spanish and he helped us write a concise email that stated our intentions, which encouraged the seller to write back with a detailed response. So finally, six months into our correspondence, we made a deal at a really good price. But then he emailed us a some days later saying, “Actually, sorry guys, I’ve decided to sell it to some Americans instead “. I was like, “What?? “. We had already started selling even more of our gear, like our Telefunken and Neve pre-amps in order to raise the rest of the money for the console. So I asked him, “Are you sure? That puts us in a really difficult position “, but he was like, “Yes, I’m sure. Bye “. So we thought we would be left empty-handed. But I emailed him again about three weeks later to ask if he had sold the console, and he wrote back, “Well, the Americans came to see the desk but didn’t like it, so they passed “. My first thought was, “Uh oh, why didn’t they like it? “. That was a red flag for us, so I wrote “Our offer still stands, but we’re going to come to Mexico to see the console “. So Fred and I booked tickets and took an 18-hour flight to Monterrey, carrying nothing but our backpacks.
I remember when we arrived at the guy’s studio, the inside looked like an abandoned house. He turned on the light and there was dust and cobwebs everywhere. We spent the first day taking pictures of the desk; of the insides, the buttons, the back, the spare parts, etc. The reason was that we’d been in touch with Blake Devitt, a Neve guru from the UK. Before flying to Mexico, we had emailed him, saying, “We’re going to check out an EMI-Neve, and since you know a lot about the console, can we send you pictures of the desk so you tell us if it’s authentic and in good quality? “. He agreed, and so we told the owner that we’d send the photos to Blake, and if everyone checked out, we’d buy it.
But you said he only spoke Spanish, so how were you communicating with him?
Frédéric: We met a girl there by name Yoshi Yamamoto. She was Mexicano-Japanese, and spoke great English and Spanish. So she helped us out a lot with the communication and some logistics as well.
Jordan: After we flew back home, Blake emailed us to say that all the components were original, even they weren’t in good condition. He said the repair work would be extensive, but the most important thing was that the components were originals.
So what did the console end up costing you?
Jordan: We bought it for $115,000.
That sounds like a good deal.
Jordan: : Man, as soon we posted some pictures on Instagram, we got an offer from a guy in the UK who wanted to buy it from us for £180,000, so it’s a better investment than having a flat in Paris. But it was a lot of money for us at the time. A good friend of ours had to lend us some money because we weren’t able to sell all of our gear in time. But the real nightmare was shipping it to France, which took months. I had to fly back to Mexico with Blake so we could take apart the console and place the parts it in wooden crates. But the Mexican customs gave us hell because they wanted to know what was inside.
Frédéric: The French customs gave us a hard time too.
Jordan: Yeah, the whole customs process is what really cost us, rather than emails or flights. But we finally got the desk to the studio and started refurbishing it, which also took months, even though we worked on it every night and on weekends.
Frédéric: We marked all the buttons with small pens, changed all the capacitors, redid the power supply, cleaned the switches, checked the cabling and made a modern remote patchbay. We also rebuilt the console stand.
Has the refurbishing changed the sound the console?
Jordan: No, because we stuck to the original specifications and only used old-stock components if we had to replace anything. We weren’t able to do that the capacitors, but we used the same brand as the old ones, and this particular type of capacitor doesn’t alter the sound that much, in my opinion.
Tell me more about the console’s history and specs.
Jordan: Abbey Road used to be called “EMI Recording Studios” until 1970. So EMI had approached Neve Electronics about wanting a console, and said, “Your consoles are great, but we would like something a little different that suits the work habits of EMI’s audio engineers “. So this console’s 1093 pre-amps are a little different than the 1081 modules. The EQs have different frequencies and the output transformers are also different, with a faster transient response that makes drum recordings sound bigger.
The center section is a bit unique too, being a precursor to the in-line console. So on one hand, it’s a split console; you record your instruments through the tracking section on the left side, which is channels 1 – 24, and you play back the recording in the monitor section on the right side, which are playback channels 1 – 16; those have no EQ modules. But on the other hand, when it’s time to mix, you’d want to play the recorded audio on the tracking side in order to have access to the EQs. By hitting a switch on the console, you can switch between the mic and line inputs, and the output of your recorder is set to channels 1 – 24, whilst the monitoring side becomes 25 – 40. So you don’t have to re-patch anything on the backside of the desk. This setup was the pre-cursor to what SSL would later do with their desks.
The layout looks a lot less complex than the Neve VR you used to have.
Jordan: The Neve VR is a really good console, but I think they had too many possibilities on each channel, and the console is also quite fragile. But in the EMI-NEVE, you have the basics of what you need, which is a mic pre-amp and an EQ.
Can you mention any known records that were made on an EMI-Neve console?
Jordan: Sure. Pink Floyd’s, “I Wish You Were Here” was recorded and mixed on the one at Abbey Road. There’s a bigger one in ICP Studios, in Brussels. It’s one of the biggest and most beautiful studios in Europe, and they have an 36-channel EMI-Neve in “Studio D”.
Your SSL 4048 is downstairs in “Studio B”, correct?
Jordan: Yes, that’s the same SSL from the first studio, although expanded. We have that downstairs in our mix room, even though we can re-patch things to record stuff on the Neve from downstairs as well. We have film cameras down there that send us a feed of the musicians.
Which of your two consoles requires the most maintenance?
Frédéric: None of them. We don’t have any maintenance costs anymore. That phase is over for us now.
SSL consoles aren’t maintenance?
Jordan: No, not that much. I mean, any high-end audio gear will eventually wear out its components, or have an EQ that needs to be serviced, but that’s it.
It was manufactured in 1992 for the Japanese market. The seller told us that it was owned by Tokyo Broadcast System, but the company had bought a digital console around the same time, and so the SSL didn’t get used that much. You can still feel the oil finish on the faders when you touch them; that’s how unused it was. So it only needs two to be checked for maintenance twice a year, in the spring and the fall, and we’ve replaced all the capacitors, so it’s in very good condition now.
Frédéric: We also have the Japanese power supply, which is very high-quality compared to the regular ones. SSL power supplies are known to be fragile, and since Japan used to have issues with their power grid, the SSL power supplies would always get damaged there. So the Japanese started building custom ones for their own market. They look like military gear, and are very resilient. We have one of those, which has probably helped to keep our maintenance costs down as well.
Let’s run through some of the outboard gear you have in “Studio A”.
Jordan: We have the Neve 33609, the dbx 160VU, the Distressor, two blackfaced 1176s, and the LA3A. We also have the Gyraf Audio Gyratec X, which is made by a Danish company. Some of its knobs are a bit fragile, but the sound is great.
We also have a Gates SA-38 vari-mu compressor. It’s a brand from the 50s that made military and broadcast gear. The SA-38 is like a mono Fairchild 660 with less settings and more tubes. It has a big sound that works well on vocals and bass.
Jordan: The EMI-Neve satisfies most of our EQ needs, but since our live room that can hold 32 – 40 mics in a session, most of out outboard EQs are paired with external pre-amps in case we run out of channels on the board. Our goal is to pair most of our EQs with the API 212L pre-amps, which are the same ones used in the Vision console. We have one 212L so far, but are expecting five more soon, and ultimately want a sidecar of with six 212Ls and EQs.
Frédéric: We also have the Millennia HV-3D pre-amps, which give us a clean sound that works well for recording strings and piano. The Mellenia’s also work well in combination with the Neumann PE mastering EQ.
Jordan: The only EQs that we’re missing in “Studio A” are a Massenburg and some Pultecs.
Jordan: We have the EMT 245 and the Lexicon PCM 60, as well as the EMT 140 in the corridor. Since “Studio A” is primarily a recording room, we prefer more of an old-school vibe for when we decide to mix here, so we don’t have a ton of effects available. Most of the effects units are in “Studio B”.
Jordan: Our mains are custom made, and we’ve been working on them since our first studio. We tried mixing components from different brands but got nowhere after several tires. When we finally worked with our acoustican on the current studio, Michel Deluc, he said he could design them for us. So now we have a TAD driver for the low-end and ATCs for the mids, with beryllium Scan-Speak tweeters on the highs. The speaker cross-over is digital, which allows us to tune the speakers to the room, and the Class D amplifiers are digital as well, which means the speakers don’t consume a lot of power. We have the same speakers in “Studio A” and “B”.
When I look around at all the equipment you have, I wonder if you’ve ever been in a situation where you acquired too much gear and lost track of the sound you were initially going for?
Jordan: We did have a period like that, to be honest. We had so much gear at one point that we couldn’t use all of it. But that’s what led to us sell our extra units so we could buy the EMI-Neve. Clearing out the unnecessary gear was a big help for us, since you can lose yourself in gear quite easily.
The more we use our gear, the more we realize what pieces we didn’t need. If you’re only using a compressor on trumpet solos that you mix once a year, then it’s probably time to sell it. So Fred and I kept each other updated about what gear is useful to us by asking things like, “Have you used this compressor at all in the last months? “. If the answer is “no”, then we sell it. We probably won’t buy more new gear from now, apart from the incoming API 212Ls.
Given your gear collection, do you have any need for plugins at Question De Son?
Jordan: Yes we do, but we tend use effects plugins more than anything else. You can’t really work without plugins in a world were reverbs and delays need to be automated. But when I work on soul or funk records, plugins aren’t needed, since the delays don’t change from the chorus to the verse.
Thanks for the interview guys. Do you have any new studio projects ongoing?
Jordan: We just redid the acoustics in “Studio A”, so I think we’re done with new projects (laughs). We just need to finish selling our old gear so we can buy the things we want, like the API 212s and the Pultecs. On the booking side, we’re doing great right now, and the studio will be full in the coming weeks.