Interview : Abbot Street Studios Director – Tuba Karaer

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abbotSituated in the unassuming area of Abbot Street, in the heart of Dalston Kingsland, London, the aptly named Abbot Street Studios has become a low-­key destination for artists and engineers in London looking for a suitable recording environment that covers their needs. Run by an artist-turned-­studio director, Tuba Karaer, it’s control room comes equipped with a Digidesign Icon D-­Control and Pro Tools HD3 System. In addition to being a desirable recording location, the studio also works with the Recording Connection, an audio school, thanks to whom I was able to arrange a sit-­down with Ms Karaer, to talk about her recording facility.

Hi Tuba. Thanks for sitting down with me to talk about your studio. Can you tell me about how Abbot Street Studios came about?

It was established in 2006. As studio goers ourselves, we found that professional studios have an effect of killing creativity and inspiration, because you’re working with a clock, which causes you to always monitor how much time you have left. So we were pressured, and our 10­-hour sessions would pass so quickly. We weren’t able to catch the same vibe and sparkles that we had at home, and we ended up just recording for the sake of recording. As a result, we decided to set up a recording studio and improve the aspects of a commercial studio for our own clients to be! This was around 2005, so we ended up checking out the just­ released ICON D­Control from Digidesign, as well as the SSL AWS900 and the Digidesign Icon, which had just come out. We really liked the SSL, but it would have cost us ten times as much as the Icon, which could do everything we needed. So we ran our fingers wistfully over the SSL for a moment, but grabbed the Icon.

I work from anywhere, serving the studio seven days 24 hrs a week. We assembled our staff over the years, and now have a front of house personnel, many engineers and a tech team, who are awesome.

What was it like for you guys to build the studio?

This unit was an empty space, and though the physical building process took about 4 months to complete, the entire endeavor took a lot more time than that. In fact, we kept the Icon D­Control in its box for a year because of all the time it took us to find a space. We didn’t know at the time that you couldn’t just build a studio anywhere, and that commercial property in London is very expensive. You have to consider things like the distance from the underground and schools. You can’t just buy a lease for 40 years, and then realize afterwards that the Central Line is running right under your studio. So we naively thought we’d build a studio from the ground up outside of London on a sort of isolated island. That didn’t work at all. Eventually, we realized no­one would travel there to record. So when we found our current space after 9 months of searching, we were happy about it, and built the studio in 3­4 months right in the heart of Hackney.

Tell me about the console you have, the Icon. How did you get it?

We bought the Icon console directly from Digidesign. Selling directly to customers is something they never do, by the way. But we went to their studios, and asked them give us demo of the console, and they entertained us for the whole day. So at the end of it, we said "We’d like to buy this desk", and they said "Uh, we can’t sell it to you from here. You need to go find a distributor in London and buy it from them", and we obstinately said "Then we won’t buy it!", and that forced them to sell it to us on the spot, haha. It worked out great for us, since they were the manufacturers, and we were able to deal with them directly whenever we had any issues. We’d call them up, and their representatives would say "You need to talk to your distributor", and we’d say "You’re it!", haha.

The desk is great! You can have as many channels as you want, and it turns six hours of work into one.

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What kind of clients do you focus on attracting to your studio? Do you have a preference?

We were a bit selective of who we worked with in the beginning, but after about 2 years, we became more flexible, and opened our doors to everyone, both in terms of clients and engineering staff. We were getting 20­ - 30 emails from young engineers and graduates who wanted to work for us. They’d do anything, like make tea all day, just for an opportunity to be in the studio. We used to say "no", and eventually had to delete emails without reading them, because they got to be so many. However, that’s how we ended up having such a big engineer family.

We have around 300 engineer names in our books, and might use 30 regularly. Audio engineering schools are training more engineers than the industry need, and it’s silly. What are these students going to do? Only a small number of those that graduate each year make it, and it’s mainly because they have the right industry contacts or just lucky.

I would assume that this makes you good fit for the Recording Connection school, since a part of their ethos is that they allow students to get first­hand experience in recording studios, where they can create these industry connections, right?

Yes, exactly. The other day, our runners had gone on holiday and no­-one was here. I was actually thinking about calling on Sam, one of our former students, and asking him to help us out. His name is in our books, and I’ve even invited him to join our Engineers Program, which is something we set up because we got tired of saying “no” to everyone. We decided to figure out a way of not having to say "no" to people, and let them engineer at our studios. But they can’t work for our clients, since those clients are coming back to work with established engineers that we can vouch for. So the Engineer’s Program entails that you bring in your own clients. We’d give you advice on how to go about finding clients, such as which venues to go to and how to approach artists with business cards and attractive rates. They could even use our lobby space for free pre-­production meetings and to show off our gear, and can even offer clients discounted rates. This worked well for us, and our studio was always booked. It also gives us the time to evaluate an engineer from a distance, and see how he works with his own clients, and if we like him, we can bring him into our circle. We even give members of the Program a 3-­hour familiarization session to become used to our equipment, which includes half an hour with one of our paid engineers, who goes through everything with them.

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That sounds great. In keeping with the theme of students, how exactly did Abbot Street Studios end up working with the Recording Connection in the first place?

We came across them by chance, and approached about a potential student we had, Sam, who wanted to start a course with us. With their help, we did 2-­hour weekly lessons over a 20 week period with Sam, following the curriculum off the Recording Connection's website. The school was easy to communicate with, despite the time difference between the US and UK. It worked really well, and Sam left really happy. We enjoyed it.

Cool. Is there any particular kind of work that you guys attract at the moment, despite being open to all sorts of clientele?

We get a lot of post­-production for video and advertisements work right now. People in that type of work have a great budget, and they don't negotiate!

And what do Abbot Street’s rates look like?

It’s £249 for 10-­hour daily sessions, which is ridiculously low. But when we’re talking to an inquirer on a phone, or taking a booking, we don’t have people saying "Let me think about it". People realize our price is nothing. But it gets worse: £149 for 5-­hour sessions, and our single­-hour rates are £49. Our rates for post­-production is £50 an hour + VAT. Post-­production studios could probably afford more, but we try to keep our prices attractive.

Do you feel like you compete with bedroom studios more than other professional studios?

We compete with all studios! It's very competitive out there...Everyone's dropped their rates right down.

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Can you tell me about what kind of clients that you’ve booked at Abbot Street, as well as a project that you’ve been a part of that’s been memorable for you?

Tinie Tempah is one. He knows that no­-one is going to bother him for pictures and autographs here. This is a reflection of how Abbot Street Studios works in general. Our doors are always locked, there’s no sign outside and it’s not easy to get in. We do this on purpose, and though it annoys some people, our regular clients appreciate it. Once you’re in here, it’s your home and you won’t be distracted by anything.

We don’t tend to go looking for clients. We might do mail blasts once a year, to remind people that we’re still here, but I think the music business is unlike any other business, where advertising in a magazine isn’t really going to help you. I never looked into a magazine to find a studio when I was a recording as an artist. Artists don’t follow studios; they follow producers and engineers. Your clients aren’t going to leave you and go to another studio, because once they’re comfortable with an engineer or producer, they tend to stick with them, as they have a history with you of singing, recording, messing up, knowing how to talk to you, etc. So to find a new engineer or producer, they’d have to cross a number of bridges to make it work.

One of the things that clients often encounter at recording studios is technical issues with gear and equipment, which tends to take up their session time. You mentioned earlier that you guys have a tech staff. What’s been your experience with having them make sure client’s get the service they need?

At Abbot Street, your time won’t be wasted because of technical problems. I’m against that. When things don’t work at certain other studios, they say "This will just take 5 minutes to fix, bla bla", and then it takes an hour. They don’t even apologize, and the wasted time isn’t refunded. Even if it only takes 5 minutes, you could develop multiple technical issues with different pieces of equipment, and it builds up. So we make sure to compensate our clients with twice the amount of time lost on any rare technical issues. So if you lose 30 minutes, we give you an hour free of charge on that day, in addition to apologizing.

Because of my time as a studio-goer in the previous years, I understand what clients want, and from running Abbot Street for 8 years, I understand it even better than I used to.

That’s good to hear. What are your hopes for where you want to take the studio in the future? Do you intend to expand on your rooms or gear?

Not at the moment. We don’t intend to jump to upgrade anything unless our regular clients request it. 40% of our clients are engineers, which is in part thanks to the Engineers Program. Because the studio isn’t overly colored by my taste of outboard gear, different types of engineers are able to use it as they please. In the event that they want a rack of gear, they can order it from our pro audio rental partners, FX Rentals, and the gear arrives within a few hours. They know the setup, and can color it as they want with FX Rentals.

SamInterview : Abbot Street Studios Director – Tuba Karaer

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