Interview: Angel Sound Studio – Jordi Moraleda

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Its been a while since I last talked to any studios, but after having relocated to Barcelona, I figured I'd start reaching out to the recording spots around. First up is Angel Sound StudioHaving moved into a new venue in Barcelona's inner city, Jordi Moraleda and his partners have been servicing artists as well as companies like VICE and Mcdonalds in both the realms of music and production services.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Tell me about the venue we're sitting in. Does all this space belong to Angel Sound?

The space we're currently renting is a combination of two brands. Mutuo is an art gallery, whilst Angel Sound Studio is a studio created 4 years ago. We've been in a joint venture since 2017. One of the guys who runs Mutuo also happens to be a sound engineer from Argentina. He didn't have a place in Barcelona where he could work, whilst my studio partner, Miqel, and I had a lot of gear in our venue in a part of the city called Gracia, but didn't have a lot of space to work with. So we decided to help each other by creating this collaboration. We share the space with various creatives, from painters and fashion designers to DJs, so the overall vibe is one of art creation, and being able to meet your friends everyday at work makes it less and about work more about having fun.

What was it like working in Gracia before moving to this venue?

We actually started in a garage in a parking lot. More specifically a garage for ambulances. Miqel's mother had a lab where she did analytics for medical staff. They had a big parking lot that they weren't using, so instead of leaving it empty, she offered it to her son. So he started putting up walls and isolation, whilst I got us a mixing console and audio gear. Slowly we built up our studio, even though the place wasn't ideal. This was in 2012. Two years later we were given the opportunity to move to another venue which was well-built and designed. The occupant was moving to Chicago, so we took over the facility from him. The control room was great, but the recording booth was too small for our comfort, which was remedied when we moved to our current location. So basically, Angel Sound is a project between Miqel and myself. We've been moving around like nomads until we ended up here.

What kind of clients did you get working whilst in the garage? 

In the beginning of any business, you'll take any work. Given that both of us are musicians who have played in different bands, we each had our contacts, so it was helpful to be able to call on those people who wanted to record. We started off at very modest prices just to spread the word, and worked with a lot of bands in our community and in the psychedelic scene, like Dead Parties. From that we slowly moved into more music production work, which our 2nd venue was good for. After that came advertising post-production, which was good for business, though we made an effort to continue doing music work also.

Did you feel like only being a recording studio for bands wasn't profitable enough and that going into post-production was a necessity? Would it have been different if the bands had been bigger?

Well, bands are hardly ever big in this line of work. There may be very interesting bands in Barcelona, but the industry is focused in places like the US and UK. Its harder to find international success outside of those markets because much of the infrastructure and investors are focused there.

There are 2 leagues in Spain. The 1st one covers 95% of bands. You make underground stuff that's based on your influences, you like what you do, and the motivation is to express yourself and you stick to that, but you'll be bound to a local scene. You might be able to talk to a label, sign a small deal, get a bit of funding to release a record, which is what most local bands go through. But the other 5% have a huge amount of major label money for promotion. So only the music made for the goal of being promoted fits into that category. Its not about being good or not. So in a world where people are being constantly bombarded with distractions and media, spending lots of money on advertising and radio is how those bands get heard. People get familiar with the song whether they like it or not and then its what they expect to hear in clubs and on the radio.

What about just being a good band that gets promoted on its merits?

There are exceptions who overcome the funding wall, of course. I can think of John Talabot, who does a lot of international gigs. But a fundamental difference is that places like the US and UK have a strong culture of going out to clubs and big venues to hear live music, whereas here in Barcelona, its more conservative in that regard. We don't have it in our culture to just go out for the sake of music and listen to just any band. People here who are motivated to go out and hear music do their research, check out songs online, pick their favourite venue and then go out. But you'll have a hard time convincing your friends to go with you if they aren't into the same kind of music. So it's hard to find a group of people to go with, unlike places like New York or London where people go clubbing in groups just for the fun of it. Its one of our handicaps of having a scene full of small bands. If you can't afford to play at a venue that already has a strong inertia of audiences that attend it regularly by default, things can be hard.

If the live scene is such a struggle, do bands have to pay a fee if they want to perform at certain venues? I've heard that such things might happen.

What I've seen is that bands sometimes enter into competitions for promo. So if you're new band that no-one knows of and your skills aren't even top-notch, you might partake in a competition among bands, for which you have to pay to cover the competition's expenses. But its something that happens as PR for new bands. The finalists usually get to play at big venues like Razzmatazz that they'd only dreamed of playing at.

My experience with meeting young people from Spain living abroad is that they seemed quite avid about the grunge and alt rock music of the 90s. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Matchbox 20, etc. So apparently this isn't an enthusiasm that's widespread in Spain itself?

There's a difference between people who live in Spain all their lives and have their minds set, and those who have travelled abroad have had interacted with other scenes. I've lived in Paris for a year, several months in Canada, etc. My former bandmates have lived in London for 4 years. So those things tend to differ. The standard person in Barcelona will go out to a club for the sake of disco or dance music, not because they want to hear a particular band. Then you have a small percentage of that group who might go to another venue afterwards where live music was being played, but they'll arrive only after the show is over. Live music normally starts between 10pm and 12am, but the main parties start at 2am, so most people arrive late and miss the band. As I said, the attitude here is not one of people going to live gigs just because.

Is your area of work solely in recording and mixing, or have you ever had to deal with labels and distribution side of things?

Well, I've played bass, keyboards and synths in many bands since I was 15. I've also recorded classical music, since my father was a symphony conductor. He also played the bassoon alongside my uncles, who played different instruments. On occasion they would ask me to jump in and help with the recordings, and it was amazing to record 100 people in a big room with 25 mics. But the classical industry is very different. They rely heavily on public funds and external support. So my main experience is in these two fields, classical recording and studio recordings.

What's your preference, recording of classical or modern music?

Modern recording, because its what I'm working with now. But I do recommend that people seek out the classical recording experience. To have headphones on and listen to the depth and detail of whats being recorded is amazing. Later, of course, it gets mixed and subdued, but even there it's very different from mixing rock music. With classical music, you shouldn't overdo the compression and EQing, and harmonic distortion is a no-no. But modern music is about loudness, harmonics and brightness. Classical music is the opposite, where its about detail and depth. So mic placement is crucial, the type of mic also, and you need to know how to capture specific timbres. You can't record a violin the way you would a brass section. The room will reflect the instruments differently and you need to place the room mics properly.

Do you see any potential in your current space for any unconventional types of recording, given the size?

Recording acoustic reverbs would be nice here. We might look into that later

As a music professional, what would you say is your speciality?

I like mixing. I can  do engineering also, but I lean more towards producing and helping the artists get a good performance than focusing on the technical side of mic placements, routing cables, etc. I'd rather be a coach.

Miqel and I split the work. He does the recording, mic placement, setting up the sessions, etc. After that I take over on the mix end, adding colour and polishing things.

What are the major differences you've noticed about your work process and the end result in this new space that you've moved into, compared to your older spaces?

The main change has been about vibe and motivation. In this space we have a more exciting energy that the artists we work with love. The most important thing about this space isn't the technical capturing of recording, but the human element. When musicians come here and hear the acoustics, and play with their friends in the same room, it creates a live show vibe. So their performance is enhanced, and that's whats key. If that doesn't work, then you have to use technical tricks to overcompensate.

Have you had situations where you weren't able to capture a good performance?

When you have a small room, its easy to record because the sound of the room is stuck to the music. It ends up being a tight and dry sound that's very audible. This is how we used to record before moving into this space, so it wasn't hard for us. Now that we have a bigger room with more ambience, it increases the difficulty of capturing the sound we want, but we haven't failed yet, and I don't think we will.

Tell me about your console.

Its a Japanese Tascam M700, better known as a baby-SSL. Its similar to the SSL 4000G, minus the dynamic section. Same structure and workflow. I love the EQs, which remind me of an SSL, and I use them a lot, more than any plugin. The pre-amps are rather clean, and they do a  good job in most situations, but if you want a specific colour for a vocal, its better to use a specific pre for that. If you had an Avalon, you wouldn't use the Tascam over that. But I'll use the Tascam for drums and for recording a larger number of instruments for the sake of summing and mixing. I'm a lot slower when mixing in the box, and have found myself aborting sessions where I was using plugins and just switched over to the console instead.

Do you feel like the console gives an overall more favourable sound than plugins?

If I feel happier with my workflow then the song sounds better, but if I'm getting bogged down with too many options and technical decisions, then the song sounds more boring. I'd rather play a Steinway than a MIDI keyboard. That's how I'd compare a console to plugins. Looking at the screen and  the plugin layout can be distracting. But I'm happy to use digital tools for editing and production convenience.

What's your master bus setup like? Do you turn to analog gear for that also?

I generally prefer using parallel compression or processing groups of instruments, rather than slapping things on the Master. I might mix the Master onto tape, which is good for achieving a glue effect and for colour. But generally I avoid Master processing on everything. I don't think drums shouldn't be compressed in the same way the guitars are. Its about degrees on different things.

I understand. So if we take a group like drums, how would you approach that?

I'm quite reactive when I'm mixing. I don't pre-plan any templates.

I'd have to ask if the band was a 3-piece or something like a 7-person setup. If it was a small number of people, I could imagine using mono drums and being generous with the EQ on the high-mids to bring the sound forward. But if we're talking about a psychedelic band with 30+ tracks of guitars, theremins, keyboards and pads, then my approach would change. I'd probably try to make the drums as stereo and as colourful as possible.

What do you find to be most critical in a drum mic setup, the overhead mics or the room mics?

Rooms. I find myself being able to achieve a consistent sound with my drums without having an OH mic, and just by using the kit mics. But there's no replacement for a room mic. If you have a good room mic placement, I don't think you can duplicate it.

But if you had to use an OH, would you be able to achieve a favourable sound using only one mic?

Sure, as long as I can choose the placement.

How do you address drum bleed when mixing?

I used to overthink the bleed issue, but then I later found that every mic contributes to the overall sound, even the ones with bleed in them. If the low-end of the snare drum sounds great, and the OH is picking it up, why would you EQ it out? I used to be a fan of surgical EQing and removing the low-end from anything that wasn't bass-centric, but then you're being a technician and not an artist. Mixers have to think as musicians do. You can't just listen to one mic and make a call based on that. However, if the recording was poor, and you have an ugly-sounding bleed in the OH, then you have a problem. But drums need to work as a whole. You shouldn't take a Frankenstein approach to it by being surgical with each mic when it's time to mix. So the drums have to sound good based in the OH and the rooms, since that's where you hear everything. It's possible to get an unfavourably biased image of the drum kit if you start only with the dry kick and snare, and then try to overcompensate with processing to make it sound full without even hearing what the OH and room mics sounds like.

Have you mixed drums without compression?

Everyone wants their music to sound loud, so I think compression is in inevitable. In my case, I haven't worked with a band that didn't want compression, so I've always used it.

I see you have a Roland Space Echo here. Does that get used a lot?

Its not as usable to me as it is for the band. Its more of a piece of outboard gear that functions as an instrument. We've tried playing with it by feeding drums into it and having it feeding back on itself and stuff like that. But we usually leave to the band to use.

Are you interested in mastering at all, or would you rather stick to mixing?

I've done a bit of mastering, but it requires a totally different mindset than what I'm into right now. It's very technical and you have to stay calm and listen to the objective details of the song. Mixing is more subjective, so I'd rather stay doing that for now.

I saw on Angel Sounds website that you've worked with companies like VICE, Mcdonalds, Doritos and M&Ms. How much post-production work are you guys getting nowadays?

Our work with those companies is mainly related to advertising and promos, but we've also done other interesting things like sound effects for a Tame Impala music video. But its Miqel who handles that side of things, so I'm not sure what our workload for that is at the moment.

What are you hoping to see develop with Angel Sound in the future?

We'd also like to be able to live music work, and not just studio recordings.

One last question. Tell me about a recording that turned into an unexpected learning experience for you.

One of the bands I played with 8 years ago was called San Leon, and we had we hired a well-known Spanish producer called Paco Loco. At the time, I thought the recordings had a bit of noticeable hiss, and the takes appeared a bit unpolished. But as additional instruments were recorded and we went into the mixing stage, all of a sudden, most of these apparent defects had either become unnoticeable or had contributed to  giving our sound a sense of character. Paco had focused on getting a great performance out of us, instead of waiting for us to perform like robots, playing clean parts with our instruments. I ended up realising that the most important thing was to capture the talent, and not to obsess so much over getting the cleanest take ever. We were also recording everything straight to analog tape, but with no noise reduction. I kept asking "Won't we be using by any Dolby SR, gating or filtering? 24 channels of hiss are open." But in the end, all that mattered was the performance, and once the songs were sent to mastering they just trimmed the start and cleaned the endings. Worrying about it had been a waste of time.

SamInterview: Angel Sound Studio – Jordi Moraleda

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