Palma Music Studios – Fredrik Thomander

As my travels took me across Spain to the city of Palma, in Mallorca, I continued to keep an eye out for studios to talk to. With some help from Google, the most locale-centric name of Palma Music Studios popped up in my browser.
Created by Fredrik Thomander and Johan Lundgren, and opened to the public this year, this new studio set out to become a destination for local and international music projects alike, with its founders drawing on many years of experience and contacts in the music industry to attract thier clients. I swung  by the studio to speak with Fredrik about his background and what one could expect when working at his new studio.

My understanding is that you grew up on the West Coast of Sweden in Varberg, as an aspiring musician, but then at some point you moved to LA as a teenager. Is that correct?

Yes, that’s right. I was in a rock band from age 12 to 17, and spent most of my free time in rehearsal places and venues, playing local gigs in the 80s. Varberg was a small place with not much going on, so when I happened to read about a music school in America that had teachers such as Michael Jackson’s session musicians, I took some student loans and moved to LA on my 18th birthday. I lived there for one and a half years and studied the Vocal Program at the Musician’s Institute. After that, I moved back to Sweden, and made Stockholm my home, as I toured around with my band.

Could you contrast what it was like being an aspiring musician in both the US and Sweden? What were some of the things that were attainable in one country that weren’t attainable in the other?

In Sweden you have the calmness and lack of pressure, where you could spend as much time as wanted fine-tuning your project and skills without the stress of competing with other bands. I notice that people nowadays seem more stressed and have less patience because they want instant results with their music, but in Varberg I didn’t have that. LA was the opposite, where you learn the hard way that you’re not that unique; there are hundreds of other people with the same goals and skills as you, and you’re going to have to work a lot harder than you thought if you want to succeed. But in the midst of that you also get more opportunities to learn.

(Above: Fredrik Thomander)

I’d also like you to contrast the music scene of the 90s to that of today. In an era where computers were supplementary, instead of primary, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on musical competence. A premium was placed on a session musician that knew how to play his instruments, versus a bedroom producer with a laptop and a good online brand. But now it seems like the opposite.

I would say that a lack of editing tools in the 80s and early 90s made it so that when you went into the studio, you were well-rehearsed and knew the lyrics to your song, because that’s how you got signed to labels back then. Drummers were also exceptional in those days, and the difference between a so-so drummer and a great one was huge. So it was obvious which guys had it and which ones didn’t, which encouraged everyone to practice harder. But having said that, people today have access to a huge sources of information, such as Youtube. Things that used to take 6 months to learn as you hung around someone’s studio making coffee, like micing a drum kit, you can learn in 20 minutes by watching Pensado’s Place.

I also think there are less musicians with a signature sound these days, especially guitar players. For example, no-one really knows how the guitarist from Maroon 5 actually sounds, because he probably uses the same amps or emulations as everyone else. It seems like everyone learns from the same sources and uses the same tools now. In the 80s, people had their own gear that they’d bought, and it was usually cheap, but it sounded unique and helped give them their own sound.

As the music side of things has become standardized through plugins and DAWs, I feel something similar is happening to studios, as many of the distinctive ones are forced to shut down for financial reasons. The more I talk to the studios that remain, the more I realize that many of them are just accommodating the current music industry, with little regard for the kind of music that they record. So whether the next Led Zeppelin or Martin Garrix comes through their doors, it doesn’t really matter to them.

I see what you mean. Speaking for myself, I built this studio to accommodate my own interests. Also I didn’t want to travel away from where I live, so my hope was to attract clients to come here by having a good studio. I spent a lot of years working by myself as a producer and mixer, so when I finally got a chance to build this place, I wanted a studio where multiple people could work at the same time. We might have post-production projects going on upstairs, whilst a rock band is being recorded in the live room, and a writing camp is going on in the basement. So it’s about building a place that I wanted to work in, and that also reflected my work as a musician. I’ve been to studios where all they had was a big black couch and a mixing console, but no instruments. You ask for a guitar and they say, “Sorry we don’t have any guitars here, but there’s a MIDI keyboard in the corner over there“. I didn’t want that, so we made sure to have things like guitars, pianos and drums, whilst also creating a nice interior where people could hang out.

As far as making classic music goes, my vision is that within the next 5 years the local tourist bus changes its route to pass by our studio, where the guide will say “Here’s where they recorded such and such famous song“. I’d also like for people to say about our recordings, “That sounds like it was made at Palma Music Studios“. But things like that have as much to do with songwriting as with the acoustics. As someone who grew up listening to ABBA, I want to emphasize good songwriting, in addition to being able to capture great recordings. But as far as having a unique sound goes, the guy who runs Polar Studios helped us duplicate ABBA’s microphone setup where they have mics hanging from the ceiling, so we have a similar starting point for recording drums as they had.

Interesting. So in keeping with that theme, what was the acoustic inspiration for your main recording space?

I would go back to my record collection from the 80s where the drums had a big, roomy sound, which is why we put a high ceiling in there. The height of a room matters more than the width when you want a big drum sound.

You’ve said in past interviews that you had a home studio in the 90s. Although such things are common now, in the form of laptops, portable sound cards and 5-inch speakers, I imagine it required more effort to maintain a fully analog setup 25 years ago. What was your first studio like?

I had my first home studio in 1989, based around a TASCAM Portastudio, which was synced to a Roland R-8 drum machine and a Korg M1 synth, each talking up 2 tracks, with the sync taking up a 3rd. I also had a DAT machine, so I would record my two guitars, bass guitar, and drum machine on that, and I’d do my MIDI sequencing on the M1. I’d mix everything as well as I could, print it to DAT, bring the DAT back on 2 channels on the Portastudio, and sing lead and harmony on the other 2 tracks. If I was feeling adventurous, I would even sing as I was printing. But to be honest, I hated working with that kind of process. The final sound wasn’t great, and I knew even back then that it was a compromise. So my transition away from that kind of thing started with Cubase VST in 1996. With 32 channels to record on, I could stack my own background vocals in addition to having more guitars, and it all sounded much better than the Portastudio.

So you didn’t like your 4-track setup, but weren’t there still other setups in the late 80s that you could have used, like a 24-track tape machine?

In 1998, when I started getting a lot of work, I did buy a studio that had a 24-track tape machine and a lot of outboard gear. I had no problem with that kind of setup, but I’ve always been more of a songwriter than anything else, so I ended up selling a lot of that analog stuff, because using digital was was better for my workflow. This was at a time when people were unwilling to admit that they were mixing in Pro Tools, but I decided use it because the volume of projects I was working on was so much that I couldn’t stick to using a tape machine. For example, I needed things like total recall, and using tape machines and analog consoles limited my flexibility. But I couldn’t reveal that to my clients. Luckily, they were hardly ever around to see me using it.

I haven’t heard about that before. So mixing in the box was frowned upon back them?

Oh yeah. If you said you were mixing in the box in 1999, you’d be laughed at. That was a no-no. People didn’t want to accept that you could bypass an SSL mixing console and just use a mouse to mix music. If you admitted to that, you could lose clients. My first experience with this was when we mixed at Ocean Way for an artist signed to Island Def Jam. We had done a demo, and when we got there, we spread out the mix on the Neve console. But this was the time of boy bands and commercial rap music, where pop records were expected to sound punchy and transient, so there really wasn’t much of a point in using the desk; it actually made things sound worse. When the label got the DAT  in the mail a few days later, they called us and said, “This sounds worse than the original demo. Can we just master the demo instead?“. So that got me thinking: they just flew us out to Nashville and spent a fortune on booking Ocean Way Studios, but decided to scrap the result for a demo that was mixed digitally. So based on that experience I started mixing in the box in 1999, even though I still used outboard gear alongside that.

What kind of plugins did you use in 1999? Waves Audio?

No, the only ones that really sounded good in those days were the Focusrite D2 and D3 compressor and EQ. I eventually used Waves as well, like the Renaissance plugins and later the Platinum bundle.

Do you know why Island Def Jam preferred your demos over the console mix? Did they give specific reasons?

Not specifically. But I would guess that it was because we had spent weeks on our mixes, tweaking and automating, and then a new mix engineer was brought in who asked for all our plugins to be taken off so he could start again on the console. You also had a label that had been listening to a demo that they liked for 3 weeks, thinking that it was going to be a single, and then they get something from the mixer that was unexpectedly different. If you get a demo that uses sampled drums and synths, which sounds great from the start and has been worked on for weeks, it’s common for the demo to become the final record. That’s why every demo I’ve worked on since 1999 sounds like the final record. I never had to do rough demos for labels.

And how did you move on from your home studio work to being signed to major labels and writing for pop stars?

At the time, I was still a touring musician, but I decided to branch out into writing pop music for other artists. By sheer luck I sent a CD to my friend who lived in New York, who was sharing an apartment with a guy who worked at RCA Records. He gave the CD to his boss, who was an A&R for NSYNC. So in 1998 I got a phone call from the boss of RCA, saying he loved the music and wanted one of the songs from my CD. That kick-started my career of working in America, and from 1999 to 2004 I was signed to Warner/Chappell, which is how I got to work in lots of different studios like Ocean Way, Hit Factory and Capital Records, mostly recording young pop artists.

And then as the boy-band era gained steam, I’ve heard that you became acquainted with the Cheiron group, which Max Martin was a part of. What effect did meeting them have on your career?

I had my studio just 100 meters away from theirs. We were in the same age range and would eat lunch at the same places. Sometimes they’d have a young artist with them that I didn’t recognize, but who later turned out to be Britney Spears, and when I started working in America, the Cheiron guys had already paved the way for Swedish producers. I think Sweden’s music industry owes a whole lot to Max Martin and Denniz Pop for what they did for the scene in the 90s. It was all made possible because Dennis Pop, who was doing remixes as a DJ, used his club music sensibility to create pop music, and Max Martin built on that from ’98 onwards.

Also, as far as Sweidsh producers having success back then., I was in America in the late 1990s when people weren’t used to working with MIDI sequencers and drum machines. They would make a beat on the MPC, record a Rhodes or other keyboard, and then lay vocals. The only exceptions were the electronic musicians in places like Chicago or Detroit. But in places like Sweden and the UK it was different, because pop music never fell off in those places, whereas I saw pop music die in the US in 2004, thanks to people like Pharrell Williams and the hits they made. So the boy-band wave was favorable for people like us Swedish producers who were used to working with synths, samplers and keyboards that were integrated into our writing process.

I think you also said in an interview that a lot of people in the US were using MOTU’s Digital Performer in the late 1990s.

Yeah, because that was one of the few programs that worked with Pro Tools TDM at the time, and was actually considered better at Pro Tools for certain things. So it wasn’t uncommon to see producers using it.

Another feature of the times was that the beat maker and songwriter were different people in the US, whilst in Sweden they were the same. Isn’t that so?

That’s right. In Sweden there were too few people in the industry, so we had to do it all ourselves. We didn’t have assistant engineers to put up microphones or mix a record. In America, producers in the studio would have keyboard guys, microphone guys, tape engineers, and beat makers on hand. When we showed up there to do a session, there could 6 guys already in the studio.

Following your time in the US, writing for pop acts, you transitioned into working with the winners of Swedish Idol, correct?

Yes. I stopped traveling to America to do pop music after 2004, and started working with rock bands locally. I had a friend who worked at Sony Sweden, and they needed people to work on the 2nd Idol winner’s record, so I did signed up to do that.

Cool. And now you’re in Palma, running  a studio.

Yes. I originally hadn’t planned to build a studio. My intention was to just move here with my family and travel to where-ever I get booked to do music work. I only had a few projects going on at the time, but some of the guys on those projects approached me about doing some revisions to the music we’d recorded previously in Sweden, to which I said “Well, I’ve moved to Palma now“. So they decided to come  to where I was. But I didn’t know of any studios on the island at the time, and had to improvise a solution. Fast forward a few months, and I met my current business partner, who had a studio in London. He didn’t have many clients, and I was living in a place that a lot of music people wanted to travel to, but they had a hard time finding a studio here. So we saw an opportunity to work together by building Palma Music Studios. When I was driving past our current location, which at the time was just a garbage dump with cats,  I took a picture and sent it to my partner, with the message, “Looks like a nice place to build a studio“, and he was like, “Yep, lets go for it. What’s the worst that could happen?“. We knew that we wouldn’t lose money because the real estate in this area was about to increase in value, so we made the down-payment and bought the property, and for the next 2 and a half years we had to figure out how to build the place.

What was the hardest aspect of building the studio?

To get everyone to understand the standard we were aiming for. When you hire construction workers who are used to building hotels and apartments, they might not understand the acoustical demands of a studio. Things have to be dead silent, some parts of a room can’t be touching and others can’t have any space between them at all. So I had to be present everyday and take pictures to show them what needed to be done.

Given that i requires a significant financial investment to build and equip a place like this, do you feel like the current bookings you get justify the costs to maintain this place?

I do. Currently, we’re at 20% of our capacity, but we had an amazing first 6 months, and since we planned things well, we know that the future will be fine. This place isn’t only a rent-by-hour studio. I also put my whole music catalog into a publishing company that’s attached to the studio, and I have 6 writers who work in-house here, who were living on the island and are fantastic. So other revenue streams have opened up through different people coming through. We have a lot of bookings coming in the fall, and we’ve already learned that March to May tends to be a busy period, and mid-September to November may be equally so.

The demands of record labels, the charts and radio to make certain kind of electronic-meets-urban pop music are quite adamant. We don’t often see successful musicians who create their own sound like Skrillex initially did or who are trying to be the next Jack White. How are you going to balance making music that you feel inspired to make versus what the industry demands, which could be an EDM record with fart noises as the hook?

Haha, well of course I’d like Adele to make her next record here or for Gotye to spend 3 months recording here. But in reality, I know that tour first big hit will most likely be a surprise. It might be something we just did for fun. Also, because this is a commercial studio, there will be clients who come through that have projects I’m not involved with, which could then go on to be successful. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who have a wide range of musical abilities and are passionate about what they do, and those are kinds of people I hope will come to this studio.

Let’s move on gear talk. What kind of recording console do you have here?

We have an SSL Duality. My partner chose that partly because of it’s integration with Pro Tools and its mix possibilities. When we do tracking, we can use our Neve 1073 preamps or Shadow Hills gear if we want that sound, but on other things we use the SSL compressors and pre-amps, and we go straight into Pro Tools using Antelope’s Orion 32 A-D converters.

Why did you opt for something like Antelope converters and not something from Burl Audio, which are making a lot of noise at the moment?

We have Burl converters now as well, but I met the people behind Antelope at a NAMM conference. I knew about their clock systems, but their converters had some features that caught my attention. The Orion 32s that we have in the main mix room have 32 inputs and outputs, and have the ability to run 2 DAWs into one system. So you could have a laptop with Cubase that’s connected with a USB to your system, which is then synced to the SSL console. allowing you to run the SSL with your laptop. That was interesting to be because I’ve been in situations where I had to bounce files, transfer them into a new Pro Tools session on the computer that’s connected to the board, and later find that I’d made a mistake with some of the files, forcing me to redo the whole thing. So to be able to have the sound quality the Orion 32s have and still offer features like that impressed me.

Also, we decided to go with their smaller Zen Tour interfaces for our project rooms. They’re like blown up Apollo Twins, but have twice the inputs and outputs, and more headphone amps. Also, their DSP systems allow you to have plugins on each unit, so anyone who comes through here with their laptop has access to great plugins like emulations of the Neve 1073 and 1076 that are already set up on the mic channels in all our project rooms. Also those interfaces are both Thunderbolt and USB, which serves PC users.

And what kind of speakers do you have?

We have a blend of different things. Upstairs in the surround studio I have my old Genelecs 1031s. We have ATCs in the walls of the SSL room, which are the standard for mixing today. We also have the ATC SMC 150 in the Quincy control room.

In the basement we have the Augsperger Solo 12 with the sub, which we chose with beat-makers in mind, who want to hear the bass in their music.

In all the project rooms we have the Unity Audio’s The Rock speakers, as my business partner already had them and trusted them. I also thought they were a nice mix between Adam speakers and an NS10, with a distinct mid-range.

And finally, what kind of outboard gear are you stocked up on?

We have a big collection of microphones between us, like the U47, U87, Sony C800, SM7s, etc. We also have the Didrik De Geer’s mic, which sounds very transparent.

For outboard we have things like the Neve 1073s, LA2s, LA3s, Pultec EQs, GML EQs, Eventide H8000, Bricasti M7  reverb, Compex Compressor, Distressors, Shadowhills Vandergraph, and a Lisson Grove compressor. Oh and we also have the Polar 160 compressor, which was a part of the Harrison desk that was in Polar systems.

Nice. Well, what does Palma Music Studios have booked for the rest of the year?

A popular Swedish TV show is coming through here with some of their singers in a few weeks, and we have a Japanese writing camp coming in late October. We have a masterclass with Metallica producer Fleming Rasmussen in early November. He’ll be teaching people over a 3 day period how to make music. Also, a lot of producers and songwriters will be coming through this year to see the place, which we’re happy about. So we’re quite happy with how things are going right now, and we hope to continues like that.