Sierra Studios – Christos Achladiotis [General Manager]

I came across a number of studios during my first few weeks in Athens, but all of them were either small or mid-sized. It took me two months to finally discover Sierra Studios, the only large-scale commercial studio in town. Once I knew the name, it wasn’t hard to reach out and set up an interview with the Studio Manager, Christos Achladiotis. Thanks to my chat with him, I was able to learn not only about the Sierra’s activities, but also about the studio scene in Greece and the level of musicianship to be found there.

– Hi Christos. Thanks for inviting me to the studio. Let’s start by talking about your beginnings. How did you start off in music?

I started playing music when I was nine, largely because I came from a family of musicians. I also had access to Sierra Studios since my childhood, and was able to use the instruments here once I was old enough.

After attending Doukas School, I did three years at Nakas Conservatory, where I studied drums and music theory. I concluded my studies at two schools: AKMI in Athens and Preston College in the UK, where I focused on audio engineering and music technology.

– Did you form a band after that? 

Yes, I did. I played a lot of gigs as a drummer before forming a band with my friends called Maplerun. That was about ten years ago.
We recorded a number of albums and toured the world, although our commercial success came mostly in countries outside of Greece, like Canada and Germany.

– How did you end up as the studio manager of Sierra Studios? Was it because you and the owners are family?

It was a combination of things. We have other family members who don’t work with audio at all, so being family was probably the least important. My studies played a big part, and I spent a lot of time here since the 80s, which allowed me to build connections with the staff and understand the needs of the studio. Also, being in a band allowed me to learn about the relationship between music and business, which was necessary to understand once I became studio manager.

– Who was the studio manager prior to you?

I’m actually the first full-time manager. Before that, there was a group of staff who filled multiple roles until the studio combined them into one position, which I took over.

(Below: Christos Achladiotis)

– What was the genesis of Sierra Studios? 

The building was a cinema until the 70s, after which Tom Hidley turned it into an Eastlake studio. It was originally called ERA Studios and I believe it’s the second or third Eastlake design in the world. I used to have some handwritten letters by Hidley that showed the original specs, and I think this was an early prototype to see how well the design worked.

My family bought ERA in 1981 and renamed it Sierra. It started off as just a recording studio with a live room but was expanded in later decades. We added a mix room, followed by a mastering room and finally post-production facilities in the 90s.

– How come Sierra is the only large studio in Athens? Usually, most European capital cities will have at least a few of them.

The disappearance of big studios in Greece is primarily due to money problems. There used to be about five of them nationwide, but the needs of the industry changed with the arrival of digital technology, and big studios became increasingly expensive to maintain. There isn’t much you can’t do in a smaller studio apart from recording large orchestras, so they all closed down, and Sierra is the last one standing.

Greece used to have a lot of recording projects during the 90s. I remember there was a survey that found us to be the second largest music producer in Europe. But once the studios couldn’t cover their expenses, the numbers dropped. Some studios closed temporarily with the hope of being sold and reopened, but that never happened. The ones who did get sold were turned into clubs or parking garages.

– Most big studios around the world get booked for several weeks at a time, but apparently this doesn’t happen with Sierra Studios. I’ve heard people only book a few days at a time here.

That’s how it is all over Greece. No-one books studios here for a whole month. Even the bigger artists prefer three-day bookings at the most. But the thing is, we often have two or three sessions a day, so our facilities are always in use. The only exception concerning long-term bookings is with our mixing room. Clients might book that for five days straight.

– Normally, major labels are the ones who pay for their artists to book long periods of studio time. Why isn’t that the case with you guys?

Back in the 2000s, we had many contracts with major labels for just that reason. Each label would buy a certain number of studio hours a year, ranging from 10,000 – 20,000, but it doesn’t work like that anymore. The majors either pulled out of Greece or were downsized after the financial crisis, and the big indie labels decided to build their own small studios for beat-making, pop productions and vocal recording, rather than spend money on bigger studios like us.

– Can you share more about the disappearance of major labels in Greece? I haven’t seen this happen in other countries.

Technically, we do have majors labels but the way they operate is very different from how it was before. Sony, Universal and Virgin sold their roster list and rights to certain indie labels who now represent them in Greece. Spicy Music took over for BMG, Minos EMI represents Universal and Panic Records handles Sony’s artist. But they mostly put out singles rather than albums, and the number of releases have dropped from hundreds per week to less than five.

– So how does Sierra Studios attract big clients without the help of major labels?

We have a long history in the music business, and everyone in Greece knows about us. So to be honest, it’s the clients who attract us. But music recording isn’t our main preoccupation anyway – it’s post-production. Dubbing represents most of our workload, and there’s no way we’d survive with just music recording unless we were booked every single day, twenty-four seven.

– I see. So what’s your percentage of dubbing versus music recordings? Is it 50-50?

Not even close.

– How about 80-20?

That’s closer (laughs). We’re the biggest post-production studio in Greece, with both local and international clients that send us projects for
TV shows, movies, video games and subtitle work. So we have around-the-clock operations for that.

Music is what we all enjoy doing, but it’s not what keeps the studio going. The popularity of platforms like Netflix and Disney+ have soared because of the quarantine, so many studios around the world are living off post-production at the moment. I doubt you could name ten big studios in France that live entirely off music at the moment. I wish things were different, but they aren’t. Our primary responsibility is to support our staff and clients, so things have to be this way for now.

– How did Sierra handle the financial crisis of the 2000s? Did you have to cut your rates during that time?

No, we couldn’t afford to do that if we wanted to maintain the place. The truth is, Sierra isn’t a studio everyone can afford, and it’s not always the best choice for recording your first album either. It’s easy to make mistakes when you aren’t familiar with the album-making process, and some artists aren’t prepared to work in big studios, so they lose a lot of time trying to adjust. Unless you’re a big artist with the time and budget to spend a week per song, you have to come prepared, which many artists aren’t. But we do try to help them. During both the financial crisis and the COVID situation, people felt inclined to come here because we were willing to accommodate their schedule and offer advice on how to structure their bookings. We’re also very strict about health measures at the moment, so that clients feel safe to work here.

– I’ve heard that artists sometimes get nervous when they work here. Apparently, many of them have never recorded in a live room as big as yours. Is that true?

You can’t imagine how many times I’ve seen popular artists come here unprepared. Even if they have experience with big live shows, recording in a big studio is a different experience. So if they haven’t finished composing the song, aren’t sure about the key, or their band hasn’t practiced, it can waste time during a session.

The term “producer” isn’t a well-defined one in Greece. Back in the day, a producer was the guy on the couch who kept track of studio hours, and only cared about the lead vocal being loud enough. In my opinion, that’s not a producer – it’s a record label guy or A&R. When we finally got the chance to work with international producers, we realized it was totally different job. So without a real producer who oversees the artistic direction of a project, it’s easy for an artist to struggle in studios like ours. And the biggest problems occur during the mixing process. Artists will say things like, “I need the kick to be louder. Now I need the snare louder. Then the guitar and the vocals “. So everything just gets louder, and the mix obviously goes nowhere. When the artist listens to it at home, of course he’ll be dissatisfied. You can’t imagine many hours are spent on the same mix because the artist doesn’t know what he wants. Even if that leads to more studio hours for us, it also means the artist won’t want to do a second album here because of the cost, which isn’t a good outcome either.

– But of course most artists don’t have the skill to steer a mix. They expect the mix engineer to have that expertise for that.

Yes, but that’s only because a producer is involved. Either the mix engineer is the producer, or the artist has his own producer to provide a direction. Neither of those situations happen a lot in Greece. Here, artists book studio time without having a producer, and they work with
in-house engineers to achieve what they want, thus forcing the engineer to act as a stand-in producer. That creates problems, especially when the client is a band, since each member wants to be loud in the mix, which is impossible. So a lot of time is wasted on several mixes, and the first mix usually turns out to be the best anyway, which is what bands keep 99% of the time.

– So Sierra survived the financial crisis, but what’s been your response to the current health crisis? Has it affected you in any serious way?

Yes it has. We lost all of our music sessions during the quarantine, so post-production was the only thing keeping us busy for several months. Many of the large media companies want to use video streaming for their dubbing sessions, and we managed to retain our clients by embracing that. Movie and TV directors are using Zoom to guide their voice-actors on how to perform, and the result has turned out well for us.

– Given your huge live room and numerous analog consoles, it feels odd that post-production is your primary business. Do you anticipate any changes regarding that?

Not really. People are less likely to record albums when money is tight, especially if they aren’t pro musicians. Our music bookings have lessened since the financial crisis, and now with the COVID situation, people are even less likely to record any personal projects. Additionally, many of the musicians that were living in Athens have traveled back to their hometowns or islands, leading to even less music recordings. So we’re waiting to see what might change in the next few months.

– What does it cost to run a place like Sierra Sound? What do you spend the most money on?

When working with analog gear, maintenance ends up being the highest cost. It’s a pain. Things break daily and it’s hard to find spare parts. All the classic audio brands are either closed or no longer support their older consoles. For example, we had to sell our Neve 1084 because we couldn’t find spare parts anywhere. I know of other studios who fixed their Neves with parts from other consoles, but then you no longer have the original desk; you’ve created a modified version that only looks the same on the outside, and we didn’t want that.

The second biggest cost is electricity, since we have to keep our consoles on all the time. Then comes air conditioning, since we have big analog desks that require cooling.

– What about rent costs?

To be honest, rent is actually the least of our problems.

– Really? That’s the opposite of how it is in other European countries where rent costs drive studios out of business.

I know. If you have a studio in London, your rent costs will be enormous. A friend of mine studies in Paris and pays €1000 per month for just a room, which sounds like a bad joke. In Greece, it’s more expensive to rent a house in the suburbs than in the center of town, and since many of the popular studios are close to the center, and rent costs are less here.

– But if maintenance represents your biggest expenses, why not switch out your gear to something more cost-friendly?

We can’t change major pieces of gear like the SSL 4000G+ because our sound is based on that. What would be the replacement?
Analog pre-amps? We’d have to get 48 of them and it would cost a fortune. Besides, we’ve gotten used to this desk, and our engineers have found ways to do repairs on their own since SSL doesn’t service it anymore.

I remember being in France to mix the Greek dub for Disney’s Cars, and there was an issue with a compressor on the SSL 9000. A technician was called in, and he pulled out the damaged channel strip and replaced with a new one. In Greece, we don’t have extra channel strips just laying about like that (laughs). We’d rather close the studio for a month or two during the winter to address any needed repairs.

(Below: SSL4000 in Studio A)

– Is owning a big studio in Athens a good investment? Would you start one today?

Not at all. You’d be crazy to open a big studio here. Spend your money on something else. A small studio with a live room that’s big enough to record a band could be fine, but even a medium-sized studio is a bad idea.

– But don’t you make good money here?

Yes, but we’ve been around for 40 years, and a studio like ours literally costs millions of Euros to build. Look, I have friends who want to sell their recording studios, so just let me know if you’re interested (laughs). They all say it’s the last time they’ll ever own a studio. That’s how much of a hassle it became for them.

No-one ever became rich from this type of work. If you can name just one guy who became rich from owning a studio, I’d like to hear it. And I don’t mean large corporations that happen to have a studio, like Capital Records or Universal Music. I’m referring to independent guys whose livelihood comes from a studio. Are the owners of Abbey Road rich because they have a great studio? They might be richer than me, but I doubt they’re millionaires. So at the end of the day, owning a studio is a day job similar to what everyone else has.

– Let’s talk about post-production, since it’s your biggest earner. How did you succeed in acquiring big clients like Netflix and Disney?

Post-production became more prominent in Greece with the arrival of kids TV channels in the 90s, which is how we started working with such companies. Our first Disney voice-over project was for Toy Story in 1995, and we soon became the most popular voice-over destination in Greece after that.

– What do these major media companies pay for your work?

It depends on the project. There aren’t any fixed prices. Big movie companies tend to want big-name actors, which they pay more for, as opposed to a TV show that only airs on weekends. Major video game companies pay a lot of money because their projects involve many hours of voice-over work. But keep in mind that getting paid a lot entails a higher level of corporate demands, so you have to work harder since your clients won’t settle for sub-par work.

– Who pays more, video game companies or Netflix?

Well, we dub six to ten games per year, whereas Netflix gives us 40+ different projects a month, so it’s not really comparable. But the video game industry is growing very fast, so we hope to attract more clients from there in the future.

– Does Netflix specify which voice-over actors you should use for their dubs?

That also depends. Sometimes we choose the actors, and at other times Netflix requests we use specific names. They mostly want actors with big social media followings.

– What can you tell me about your facilities? How many rooms do you have?

Sierra Studios consists of two buildings: one in the center of Athens, and another in the suburbs. The one in the suburbs is only for
post-production, and it has three recording booths with one mixing room. The building in the center of town is primarily for music recordings, where Studio A is the main control room. We have a mixing room upstairs with its own live room, and there’s also three post-production rooms here. So that brings the total number of rooms in both buildings to nine, and we also have a portable remote studio for live recordings.

In terms of recording consoles, we have three analog desks. An SSL4000G+ in Studio A, an SSL9000J upstairs in Studio B, and an Otari desk in the suburbs. The rest of our consoles are digital ones.

– Tell me about your big live room. What are your walls and floors made of?

The floor has different sections made of marble and parquet, with some parts covered in carpet. Some parts of the walls are made of cork, and other parts are covered in curtains. We also have movable acoustic panels to control bleed when it’s needed. In the drum room we have walls that are covered in mirrors, which creates a unique diffusion pattern. Other studios use rock to achieve a similar effect.

(Below: Sierra Studio’s live room)

– I noticed you have some tape machines in Studio A, but it doesn’t look like they get used much. Why is that?

All of our tape machines are available to use, but the artists just aren’t interested. Once DAWs became popular, the level of musicianship in the Greek pop and rock world took a dive, and there aren’t many guys left who can record to tape. You can’t edit or retune anything with tape, so the recording process can take a lot of time if the musicians aren’t capable, plus the channel count is limited and clients have to pay for the tape. So people prefer not to use it.

– Who are these guys that can’t play their own songs from start to finish? You mean all of the artists who record here need to comp together their tracks?

Look, playing from start to finish is hard if you’re not used to it. We get drummers in here who play off click all the time, but if an artist comes here with his band, we can’t refuse to record the drummer because his playing is off.

Good musicians do exist, but they’re outnumbered by the younger, inexperienced ones. A lot of young musicians come from using bedroom setups where you record the chorus once and copy-paste it for the rest of the song. You can’t record to tape with that kind of work ethic.
The music business is about time and money, so if digital recording provides the faster route, then even the record labels will demand we work digitally.

– But we’ve seen artists like Dave Grohl switch from making digital recordings to analog ones for albums like “Wasting Light“, which had immense success. So it’s clearly not an unproductive medium.

Sure, but Dave Grohl can stay in the studio for a year and record whenever he wants. The rest of the industry doesn’t work like that. Besides, can you even hear the difference between “Wasting Light” and the previous Foo Fighters album that was recorded digitally?
If you can, not only will I let you record at Sierra for free, I’ll even pay you to do it (laughs). Most people can’t hear what “analog” sounds like, and the vinyl explosion of the 2010s is the biggest indication of that. I see a lot of artists pressing vinyl because they think it makes their album sound special, but it’s a big delusion. If you want an “analog” album, the whole recording chain has to be analog. If I record and mix my album in Pro Tools, using autotune, plugins, and editing, the final result won’t be “analog” just because I press it to vinyl. So it’s a lie when artists claim to hear an “analog sound” on their vinyl pressing. First of all, playing an LP is a complicated process. You need the right vinyl player, power amps, speakers, and even the right room acoustics, all of which costs hundreds of thousands of Euros. So the vinyl explosion is mostly based on fashion, since the best way to listen to music today is still the CD.

I hear a lot of complaints from indie rock labels and producers about the level of musicianship to be found in Greece. Apparently, there’s a lot of lackluster albums being released, and it seems to reflect poorly on the scene. Can you elaborate on that? 

You have to separate “Western” music from “Greek” indigenous music, which is the biggest-selling genre in the country. It’s a form of Eastern music that’s pretty difficult to play since it doesn’t use a lot of 4/4 time signatures. Many of the guys who play that stuff are great musicians because their studies were very technical. By comparison, Western music can sound less complex. I’m not saying all rock music is easy, but even an average musician can play it and find success. With Greek music, you can’t play it unless you’re proficient. The biggest Greek labels are focused on the indigenous scene, so many of our top musicians end up playing rebetiko or entekhno, leaving the guys in the rock scene as second and third-tier musicians who play rock as a hobby or a side-gig. And it reflects in the quality of what you hear.

– I understand. Tell me about the kinds of artists who record their music here at Sierra.

I think all the major Greek names have worked here. Some examples are Haris Alexiou, Alkinoos Ioannidis and Dionysis Savopoulos. Some composers like Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Xatzidakis are globally famous and have played multiple shows in the White House, whilst others like Yanni are the official composers for NASA. Even Vangelis has worked here, and we’ve done everything from the music of the 2004 Olympics to sessions with 50 Cent, Shakira and Pink Floyd.

Before we started the interview, I asked my engineers about the albums we’ve recorded here, and they all had a hard time remembering the names. Like I said before, we don’t have one-month bookings like other big studios. They might have twenty long-term bookings a year, but we book twenty artists in a week. We had four different sessions yesterday alone, so imagine how many we have a week. There’s no way we’ll remember everything we’ve done with that kind of volume.

– How many engineers do you have working here? Are they all full-time employees?

No, we have two guys who are full-time staff and the rest are freelancers. But since it’s hard to find similar offers elsewhere, most of our freelancers only work at Sierra Studios.

I don’t think dedicated mix engineers exists in Greece. Our engineers handle both tasks, and that’s usually how it is at other studios in the country.

– I noticed you don’t have a lot of guitar amps here, which a lot of studios typically do. Why is that?

A serious guitar player will usually bring their own amp because that’s what defines their sound. You can’t expect to achieve a signature sound by using the gear in a commercial studio. I’ve been in sessions where guitarists said, “For this track, I’d like to have the guitar sound of Santana “, and I think, “Oh great. Do you play like Santana, and write similar songs too? But somehow it’s my job mic you up so you achieve his sound? “. Of course not. But we do have amps that cover the basics, like a Carvin Legacy, a Koch, a Princeton, and an Ashdown bass amp. We also have a Yamaha G5 and Steinway pianos, along with a Fender Rhodes and a Hammond B3 with a Leslie Sold State 760.

– What rates does Sierra Studios charge for recording music here?

We charge €40/hour for recording and mixing, and it’s €400 if you book the studio for more than twelve hours. All prices are before VAT, and we’ll give you a package rate if you book a whole project of recording, mixing and mastering with us.

There are no extra charges for using any of our equipment, with an exception of analog tape, which you need to buy.

– Your rates sound quite friendly in comparison to similar-sized studios in other countries. A studio this size in Paris would charge €1000/day.

I know. It’s a function of being based in Greece. If we were based in Paris, we’d have to charge a lot more. I have a friend who runs a studio in Switzerland who charges €1500 a day, so I know how it is.

– Thanks for talking to me Christos. It’s been a fun interview. So what’s next for Sierra Studios in 2020?

Our primary focus is to get through the COVID crisis. We expect that a lot of games will require dubbing since the new consoles are coming out this year, so we’re reaching out to companies about that. We used to attend games conferences to create connections, but it won’t be possible this year. On the music side, we’ll be doing more live streams until things change.