Though I originally reached out to Barcelona producer and studio owner, Marc Molas Carol, to talk about his studio, El Tostadero, it turned out that the venue had been closed down, and his music affairs were being relocated into a new building that is still under construction. However, we let the conversation bounce around to all kinds of subjects. In fact, we’d already been talking for a few minutes before I got the microphone set up, at which point the topic of discussion was the Spanish music scene and how even the most talented bands struggle to gain recognition by the industry.
You were telling me about how difficult it can be for musicians in Spain, due to how the government, music industry and overall Spanish culture is disposed towards music in general. Can you expand on those thoughts?
Sure. I can tell you a story about how frustrating the Spanish live music scene can be. I know of a reggae band whose members are from here. Barcelona is a city with some of the most high-level educational institutions for music in Europe. We have four schools that offer the equivalence of a Berkeley College Bachelor’s Degree, which isn’t bad for a city of one and a half million people. For contemporary music, the toughest school to get into is called ESMUC. All of the musicians in this band had just graduated from ESMUC. They were the best of the best at their instruments. Just so you understand, the university only offers one or two spots for a bass player, and whoever comes out of there is a beast. So the band was amazing. We had talked about having me produce their record, but they didn’t have a lot of money. Regardless, I managed to convince some people I knew to fund it, and we made the record. They played a few gigs, and the response was amazing. But when it came time to look for a record label to release it – nothing. Zero.
But this was a reggae band. Isn’t that a niche genre outside most of the Caribbean?
Yes, but reggae has always worked well in Spain. It’s one of the niche genres that is well received here. So after a year of gigging around without being able to find a manager or label, the group finally just disbanded out of frustration. But I don’t want you to think I’m complaining just because I’m biased and worked on their record; the bass player has gone on to play with artists like Bruno Mars, so these were really competent musicians. But I’ve seen this over and over in Spain. I think the industry is just messed up; in fact, there is no industry here.
Really? Maybe less for local bands, but there is an industry for the major label artists, right? Universal, Warner and Sony all have offices in Spain and if they thought this reggae band could have become the next 5th Harmony or One Direction, a label would have picked them up. Don’t you think?
Not in Barcelona. They would have signed a group like One Direction in Manchester. The thing is, you don’t see musicians coming out of a Spanish scene that actually managed to gain momentum in Spain. I’ll give you an example. I have some good friends that I’ve worked with for a while, an Electro-Pop band. They’re one of the most successful Spanish bands in Latin America. They were struggling in Spain, despite being really good. At some point they started thinking “We have to leave Spain. We only play small venues, we’re hardly making any money, and it’s costing us too much of our own funds.” So it’s not always an issue of bands doing something wrong. There’s no industry to support you, unless you have deep pockets.
But why is it so hard for local bands to tour when there are clubs and venues everywhere in the country? Don’t they want to book bands?
Yeah, but you have to rent them.
What? If there’s a cocktail night happening at a club, the promoters won’t call up a band or booking agent to secure live music for their event?
Nope. Almost no-one does that anymore. Small venues might do that and split the profits, and if the band brings in enough people, they’ll make enough money to pay their rent. It’s ridiculous. I’ve worked with artists from all over the world, and they’re always flabbergasted when they come here. Let’s take a venue like Sala Apolo as an example. “Room 2” at the Apolo costs €400 for a band to play and closes at 12am. The first issue is that the band has to bring their own technician and their own ticket-salesman for the door. This is a place that packs 300-400 people, which you won’t be able to fill unless you’re a well-known band. Secondly, people in Spain go out to party and drink after 11pm, but the live music starts playing at 9am, which means the venue will kick out the band by 12am. So they end up missing the main crowd of people who show up at the venue later.
But why would the venue kick them out? Don’t they care about the ticket sales?
Nope. They’ve already been paid €400 by the band, so they don’t care.
Some of these things are starting to change but it’s been this way for at least ten years. But let me finish the Electro-Pop band’s story. They decided to gather up all the money they had and moved to Mexico. They recorded an album there, and after a year or so were filling out stadiums. Seriously. So now they just stay in Latin America. They play in Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. They fill football stadiums there, but when they come back to Spain they play for 500 people and do a few festivals. So mostly they don’t even bother coming back.
I used to have a band a few years back and we were doing festivals of 40,000+ people. We had a summer tour, our own label and a manager. After the summer tour, we had played all the major festivals in Spain. One of them was particularly bad; it was called Sonorama, in Burgos. We had to leave Barcelona on a Saturday at 7am, and drive for ten hours. When we arrived, we had to pay for our own lodgings. To get back, we had to wake up early and drive another ten hours. In total, we made €700 for the whole band, and this despite having played for 40,000+ people. How are you supposed to make that work in the long-term?? It’s a rip-off. So what you get is an amateurization of local bands. The only ones who get paid properly at these festivals are the headliners. After the entire summer tour, once we started doing the accounting for the money spent on gas, label expenses, lodgings, food, etc we made €300 each. We were like “What the hell is this??“. It makes no sense unless you’re in it for the attention and the groupies.
So is it incumbent on the government to establish regulations that protect the bands from these kinds of things? Minimum wage fees for shows, bans on having to pay venues for bookings, etc? What kind of regulation exists currently?
There’s no regulation for this at all. However, about a year ago, a new musician’s union was formed and they’ve started doing some interesting things. It’s called Smac (Sindicat de Músics Activistes de Catalunya) , and it’s made up of activist musicians who are pushing for change.
Here’s another example of how bands are left to fend for themselves in Spain. I produced an album for a Japanese ska band called Tokyo Sky Paradise Orchestra. I’d say they’re the best ska band in the world, and they fill up huge venues in Asia. They came to Spain to record an album with the hope of opening up the European scene to their music, and after we made the record, they booked the big room at the Apolo for a live show. Attendance was only 50%. But then when they go to England to play, they headline Glastonbury. How can you go from a half-full mid-sized venue to headlining a major festival? It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not their fault. Ever since my experience with the Electro-Pop group, I just plainly tell the artists that I work with, “Forget about Spain. Just go straight to Latin America“. Since the album I produced for them, they’ve recorded two more in Brazil and Mexico, and now they sell-out huge venues where-ever they play in Latin America. I’m talking 20,000 – 30,000 capacity venues. So how can it be the band’s fault? And they’re signed to a Sony sub-label, so their situation is Spain is not for lack of marketing. The label could push them if they wanted to.
So why don’t they? If Sony wants to blow up an artists in Spain, they have same avenues for that as in any other country. I see posters for Shakira’s new tour everywhere. You mean a label can’t pump half a million dollars into marketing local bands like they do with AAA stars?
I’m not saying you can’t make an artist big in Spain. You can. But the Spanish industry is not made up of a thin slice of major label artists like Shakira, who’ll only do one or two concerts a year in Barcelona. The industry is everything else. It’s festivals like Primavera Sound, who do more than 100 concerts each year and book tons of bands. If a producer had no choice but to survive off the top-earning artists at Warner Music and Sony, they wouldn’t be able to run a recording studio in this city. Those labels won’t cover your bills – one or two recordings a year, that only last for two weeks max? You can’t live off that. I struggled a lot with this, having recorded many different bands from all across the world, both big and small, and I’ve noticed that Barcelona has a ceiling that most local bands can’t break through.
(Marc with Åge Sten Nilsen from Wig Wam)
Do taxes imposed by the government play a role in that?
Of course. The Spanish music industry, in general, pays one of the highest rates, which is 21%. In any country that claims to support culture, that culture either pays no taxes or very little of it. Although Spain has reduced the taxes on film tickets to 8%, the music tax is still abnormally high. 21% of your income is a lot for any company, especially when your margins are already so slim, and it makes the threshold for going pro much higher.
On a political level, I believe Spain has been sinking into fascism for a while now, and it’s permeated into the culture. During the last 20 years, both the right and left-leaning political parties have insisted on deculturalizing people, dumbing them down through educational reforms, hyper-taxation on culture, incentivizing trash TV, etc. It’s a deliberate move that dis-empowers people and what we’re currently seeing with music is the result of that.
I work with many African bands. Generally, these are protest bands whose music is very politicized. For example, I worked with Chriss Ekhman to record a Sahrawi artist called Aziza Brahim who’s big on defending the rights of the Sahrawi people in Morocco and North Africa. By the way, it’s not by chance that there’s hardly any music industry in Morroco. It’s because the government is deeply fascist and the king behaves like a dictator. You have whole areas where the Sahrawis live which have no roads or infrastructure. So bands out there have no support, since music and politics go hand in hand. So what I’m trying to say is that the more you deepen into this type of political model, the less cultural industries you can afford to support. It’s a given.
On one hand, politics is an important aspect, but also you have to look at two other factors: the global economic crisis, which hit Spain in 2010, and the global music industry crisis that started around 2003, due to the rise of Internet, whose effects are still lingering. However, most countries that have a clearer idea of how to support culture positively have already exited the second crisis. Look at England. In the UK, you record, produce and sell records without any major roadblocks. You can tour, there’s festivals, regional bands can make a living, etc. No regional band in Spain makes a reasonable living doing this, and even national bands struggle. So it’s a multi-faceted problem.
I’ve never heard of this, but I guess it’s because I’ve only talked to people in the US, UK and England, where the industry is at its largest. Major labels in those countries have no problem signing trash bands, and the fans don’t complain, so why can’t good bands succeed also, even in Spain?
I think you can learn a lot about Spain’s music scene by looking the scene in a place like Morocco. The more troublesome the politics are, the more music tries to influence society and vice versa. So most of Morocco’s music is political. The Amazighs or Berbers are an ethnicity that were the original population of North Africa, going from the Nile to the Canary Islands. They have their own language, alphabet and culture, not being Arabs. But with the Islamic invasion, they became marginalised. It’s in Morocco where we’re seeing a re-emergence of their culture more than other countries.
There’s an Amazigh band that I’ve been producing with for three years, Inumazigh, having made two albums with them. They make a new album every year to release before summer, since many immigrants from Morocco return home during summer to visit their families, and they all want to have the latest Amazigh music. So these guys put out a single and a music video that was made with hardly any money, and get 150,000 views in a matter of months. So in their own niche, they’re huge. How come they can’t make a living?
But in a world where the biggest videos get almost 5 billion views, 60,000 isn’t comparatively much though.
Right, but we’re not talking about the whole of Europe. This is a population of only two million people. For an audience like that, those are big numbers.
I understand. So what would this band have to do to gain more momentum? Live gigs? Merch?
Merchandise can be tricky because their audience is so spread out, consisting mainly of immigrants and are generally economically challenged. But there’s also the fact that where most of the Amazighs live, there’s hardly any music industry support. But there are problems on the other side of the spectrum also. Aziza Brahim is a successful Sawhari artist whose 2014 album, Soutak, I recorded under Chris Ekhmann, and it went #1 on the European World Music Charts. It has the longest record ever on the chart. The label, Glitterbeat Records, won the “Best Label Award” at the World Music Expo that year, and has consistently won each year since then, thanks to their work with Aziza Brahim, who now lives in Barcelona and is able to make a living off her music. How does she manage? By not playing in Barcelona. She became famous in Central Europe. So because she appealed to a different market, she’s now making a living, and her listeners in Europe are primarily Europeans, not the Sahrawis who live in the desert. Frankly, they live in refugee camps, which is one of the big shames of Spanish colonialism, since the Spanish left them to rot after pulling out of that area, and Morocco has kept the camps going, which are the longest standing refugee camps in the world.
From what you’ve said, it seems Barcelona has many problems with it’s music industry, despite the generally high level of wealth seen around the city. What does the local record label situation look like here? If a label gives free recording sessions to an artist they believe in, so that they can record an album, then the artist will have gotten over the initial hump of financing their project. What then? Now they have a record. What’s so hard about promoting it? Can’t labels in Barcelona even do that?
It’s still difficult, and lets keep in mind that throwing money around doesn’t mean anything will work. Nowadays, the artist could be good and still not click. Look at Bruno Mars. He wasn’t able to sign an artist deal with anyone in the beginning. He was producing music for other artists for a long time. So why didn’t the labels give him an artist deal earlier than they did? Wasn’t he good? Of course he was. But he was half Puerto Rican and needed to change his name. Such a thing had nothing to do with his musical ability.
Ultimately, it’s very hard for me to say how to make a band successful. I’ve worked with many local bands of different genres, from reggae and dub to noise music, so what I can say is that “success” is mostly an accident. If that’s what you’re looking for as an aspiring musician, you have to change your definition of “success”. Does “success” mean getting laid or playing big venues? When I was in my early 20s, I thought my music was fantastic, but now that I’m older, I consider everything I did before 30 to be crap. I saw Radiohead play when I was 17, in the biggest venue in Barcelona, and I said to myself “I’m gonna play there one day “. Then I did that, a few years ago. Now what? In my time in this industry, I’ve had a lot of money and been really broke also. It comes and goes. So it reaches a point where if you think money is what makes a successful musician, you’ll quit, because you’ll think of yourself as unsuccessful for not being able to keep your income consistent.
That makes sense. But if you’re a producer, what are your prospects for work in Barcelona, given all the negative aspects of the industry? There’s always going to be new artists who need someone to help with their projects, right?
Yes, but there are very few of us who succeed in making it work. The few producers in Barcelona who run a studio do manage, despite the challenges, but there’s been a lot of reinvention of what it means to be a producer and a studio-owner. I’ve been struggling a lot with this since I closed my former studio, Tostadero.
In political terms I’ve become increasingly anarchistic, and the more I look at it under that light, the more I think music shouldn’t be tied to money. I know it sounds idealistic, but we’re seeing the emergence of the kind of technology that would allow us to realize this kind of thing. I’m starting a new project with some big names in Spain who come from the old guard of the business, who are looking at cryptocurrency as a means to subvert what’s going on in the industry. For example, you could set up a blockchain that allows artists to get paid directly from streaming services. So we’re working on things like that.
In terms of the recording studio, let’s compare it to running a cab business. You can have a pretty successful studio with more or less the same investment that it takes to be a cab driver. A cab in Barcelona requires around €150,000 in capital. You have to buy both the car and the licence/medallion, which is quite expensive, around €120,000. So now you’ll make around €200 – €300 a day, minus gas and maintenance. A studio has the same start-up cost. You’ll spend around €150,000 upfront, and you can get a great studio for that. El Tostadero was made for that amount, and I recorded Placebo there. But as much as you can record good music in a studio like that, you’ll never make €300 a day. No way. You might get €600 in total after a few consecutive days of work, but there’ll be many days where you won’t make any money at all. And you’re going to need more than one person to run studio. Even if you’re the main producer and engineer, you’ll need an assistant. What if you’re booked for 48 hours shifts? You’ll need another main engineer to switch with you. You might even need a secretary to answer the phone and door. So ultimately you won’t even make as much as if you’d chosen to start a cab business.
Studio ownership isn’t a particularly profitable business, and it’s usually reserved to people with money. So after looking at the problem, I feel like this shouldn’t be a game for people with money, but a community project. I’ve chosen a 800 m² building, bought a lease for 25 years, and if I decide to buy it outright, all my paid rent counts towards that cost. Also, instead of creating a private company around this, I’ve created a cultural association that has partners. We have a painters workshop and are building a rooftop garden that will give us grants from the government so we can install solar panels that will power the recording studio that we’re building. We’re approaching this whole thing not by saying, “Let’s dump €200,000 into this“, but by reinvesting the money we make from our music production company. I still make records at other studios, and other people in the association also contribute to our coffers. So even though you need money to live, we’ve chosen not to approach things as a standard business. Everyone who works with us wants to make art.
So if Sony came to you with a million Euros to produce their lackluster artist, you wouldn’t jump on that?
Haha, a million is a lot, but probably not. I’ve recorded big bands, and have turned down offers from the likes of Mercury Records and Sony because it didn’t feel right. Accepting a million Euros means chaining yourself to a million Euros. That’s a heavy chain! Like I said, I’ve already made money and lost it. I’ve been really poor and struggled, especially in the beginning, taking any job that came my way from Nike or NEC and other brands I wouldn’t buy or even take products from if they gave them to me for free. But I needed to eat! I don’t need to take that approach anymore. I don’t look at my business as a means to make money, but rather as a means to make great records. There’s a reggae record I’m working on that we thought would take three months, but it’s taken a year. I don’t care, because it’s a good record. So it’ll take the time it takes.
When you change your approach to music, it makes it easier to make records also. There’s a lot of people who make their music in their bedrooms and rehearsal rooms. Many huge bands mostly record in the studios they build for themselves or they rent project studios. They want to be worry-free, and not have to think about how much money they’re paying for Ocean Way or Abbey Road. You can’t relax with that kind of pressure unless you’re The Rolling Stones.
But making music in your bedroom comes at a price. Everyone has felt the effects of how the bedroom studio has affected the quality of music. If anyone can make music, the quantity of music that’s available skyrockets and the overall quality suffers. I’m not seeing any new artists like Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana come along anymore.
It’s not a hopeless situation though. In the 80s you had a hip-hop revolution where people were DJing with tape machines. Who would have imagined that at the time? Personally, I don’t like a lot of the popular music that’s being released, but that doesn’t mean nothing good can’t come of it. If you look at the early rappers and hip-hop artists, what they did might look really basic and rudimentary by today’s standards, but out of that sprung an amazing genre of music. But yes, I agree with you. We do have a lackluster quality of music today that can’t compare to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. You almost can’t recreate that 70s sound in today’s studios. You need a lot of money and amazing engineers who are over 50 years old. But I do think that the digital tools will help us get closer to that.
But things are standardised now. Waves and Universal Audio are standards for mixing. Pro Tools is widespread. How do you overcome the fact that these tools have a fixed sound that has been baked into today’s recordings? You can’t recreate the sound of the 70s or even the 90s with that.
I think you can. I love analog stuff, and I still have two MCI recording consoles from the 70s that I used at El Tostadero. But the truth is if you have a rack of Millennia pre-amps with pristine transparency, and if you know how to work your DAW, you can get very far. I prefer Logic or Cubase to Pro Tools, which I feel has a slightly boomy print that I don’t like. Logic is more transparent in my opinion. But even the plugins are getting better. Have you tried Slate plugins? I’ve A-B’d his stuff with the hardware originals and they’re very close. And this is coming from a guy who worked for almost a decade on an MCI JH636 from 1978, which is a desk that Cream and Jimi Hendrix recorded on. But now I listen to that sound and think to myself, “I can make that on my laptop“.
Really? That’s a big claim.
I’m serious though. It’s so similar that I have a hard time differentiating. But let’s keep in mind, I’m talking about an MCI desk, not a Neve or an SSL. Those would be very hard to emulate, and I don’t think you can do that on a computer. But for an MCI, which isn’t a top-tier desk, you could achieve a similar imprint using plugins, although to an audio engineer whose ears are well-trained and can tell the difference between a Neumann microphone and a RØDE NT1, he can tell that it’s achieved using plugins. But the audience can’t.
I love audio porn as much as the next engineer, but you can’t become too attached to those things. I need to be able to use any tool to achieve my job. For example, I was in a noise music band when I was younger, and we had a really crappy drum machine; if you heated it up and used your finger to poke the chips, you could get all kinds of crazy sounds. So we would go on stage dressed in karate uniforms and started poking on chips (laughs). It was so much fun. Was it crappy music? Sure, but we weren’t looking for audio quality. We were looking for a thrill, and the audience was surprised by that, which is what we wanted. So a producer should be focused on the emotion he wants to convey, and not have a singular focus on vintage or pristine audio quality alone.
Here’s another story to illustrate my point. I have a friend who’s a local musician in the city, and we’ve done a few recordings together. He plays a clean Fender electric guitar, without distortion pedals, and records himself on an old-school tape recorder that we used to use on the MSX computers back in the 80s. But the flutter on his machine was so unique that if I played his tape on another machine, it sounded terrible. I used to tell him “Just buy yourself a phone or something and record on that. This sounds terrible” and he’d always say “But it sounds better on my recorder. Let me show you with my own recorder“. So one day he brought the recorder along and I was like “Oh wow. this is really interesting. You were right“. So we made a record using his recorder, and people would always tell us “I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that“. So there’s always people who will make low fidelity music, and it’s important that we separate audio porn from conveying the emotion that the artist wants.
I understand you, and I’m not trying to discard the importance of the final record over the gear used to make it. But if a label comes to you and says “We want you to make an album with our artists that sounds like Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsys“, can you do that with today’s equipment? Or do you say “Well, I can’t do that because I’m stuck with all these plugins.”
No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m a big fan of 70s music and that sound, but it’s only a means to an end. If I can make a plugin work as close to a vintage piece of gear that would otherwise require a million dollar facility to run, then forget the gear. There’s an aspect of being a producer that’s not so glamorous, but it’s super important and record labels value it: can you be economically reasonable? When a label says “This is our budget. Can you stick to this? “, then your job as producer is to restrain the project from going overboard. Of course you have to be able to manage analog gear, tape machines and a console. I don’t know how you could call yourself a good producer otherwise. A good producer has to be both musically capable and a competent engineer. But then again, with today’s budgets, there are somethings you simply can’t do. If you want to sound like The Beatles, you need a REDD desk and a two-track tape machine. You’ll have to record everything twice, bounce one recording to another tape machine, etc. It’s crazy! I’ve had people ask for that. They’ll be like, “I really want to sound like The Beatles on Strawberry Fields Forever“. But man, can you play like the Beatles did on “Strawberry Fields” ? Why are you asking me to chase a sound like that if you can’t play as good as them?
That’s great too. I don’t advocate for plugins over analog gear, but I do think too much importance is given to the gear, over the functionality. For example, I’ve produced a record for a fantastic blues guitar player who fronts a band called Johnny Big Stone And the Blues Workers (previously the Johnny Perez Trio). In my opinion, he’s the best power blues guitar player in Spain at the moment. Nowadays he has a project which involves playing 1940s power-blues. He goes into a room with the whole band, records live to tape, takes the live mix and presses it to CD. It sounds amazing – but only because he plays amazing. I produced his first record, which was a Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute album, and I’ll say that some of those covers sound better than the original, and we did it on the MCI. But it all boils down to the performance and the ability of the artist. If a guy can play Stevie Ray Vaughn’s music better than Stevie Ray Vaughn, it’s because he’s a beast of a player. It’s only then you can reach for the gear that gives you a certain sound.
But Daft Punk would have never been able to make “Homework” on a laptop today, Neither The Prodigy with “The Fat of the Land“. So even the greatest electronic musicians would struggle to make anything outside of EDM by today’s digital standards, no?
Of course. When I talk about working with a computer, I mean as an audio engineer who is using software to mix and process the signal to achieve a certain sound. That’s very different from using software instruments for composition. I don’t think software instruments are anywhere near as developed as mixing applications, like compressors, EQs and reverbs. I can’t find any convincing Hammond organ emulations or upright pianos. But with that said, much of the magic of 70s recordings wasn’t in the console pre-amps or the tape, but with the way you handle the recording sessions, which is very overlooked. I rarely hear producers talk about this, and it’s something I discovered whilst working with my MCI. For example, I’ve produced a couple of records for one of the biggest Afrobeat bands in Spain, Alma Afrobeat Ensemble. When they came to record their first album, they all came together, because Afrobeat has to be recorded with everyone playing live. You can’t comp things or put the musicians in different rooms, unless you want a lackluster performance. That experience taught me that if you want to sound like a 70s band, you have to record people together. Even the singer has to be in the same room, which does make things harder for the engineer, but that’s not the artist’s fault. It’s partly the fault of ever-shrinking rooms. 70s bands used to record in huge rooms that nobody has anymore. Bleed isn’t a problem when you’re recording in a room that’s 300 m², which is something I discovered in the new studio we’re building. In El Tostadero, the largest room was 50 m², which may be large for a Barcelona studio, but isn’t very big overall. So if you have the singer on one end of the room and a drummer on another, it’s just not going to work. You would at least have to find a way to isolate the singer. But I couldn’t do that with an Afrobeat the singer; that would have screwed the band. For them, the singer is functioning as a kind of priest or preacher. That’s the role Fela Kuti played in his music. The singer sets the pace for the band and adjusts the intensity of how they play. So you can’t put them in another room. When we got to the mix stage, we realized that the very things we initially felt were technical shortcomings actually made the record more interesting. So I can’t stress enough that even if you feel like recording all the band members together entails a lot of bleed, remember that this was why those 60s ska bands sounded the way they did.
I’ll give another example. I recorded a really cool ska band called Soweto many years ago. They do some of the best 60s Jamaican music in Spain. We made two albums at El Tostadero for them. The first one involved standard recording practices in an attempt to mimic the sound of the 60s, but they ended up being upset with the result. They were like “The 60s ska records we play don’t sound like this at all“, and they brought their favorite records to me and played them – but I thought they sounded like bad recordings. They were mono, you couldn’t differentiate the instruments from one another in the mix, and the cymbals are really loud. But they were insistent, “We love how it sounds. It’s so groovy. This is what we want“. So for the second album we decided to bring our recording equipment to their rehearsal space, which was a garage. We ripped everything off the walls and recorded their rehearsals live. Then we mixed it to mono tape. So even though we used a digital platform on a Macbook, we stuck to the old-school techniques and that was the main thing that gave us a sound that they liked.
So El Tostadero doesn’t exist anymore?
No, it doesn’t. We’re working on building a new one. We have a control room, but the rest is under construction. We hope to have a 95 m² recording room in a year. If the budget allows it, I’d really like to have one of the newer SSL boards. I’d also want to combine our two MCIs, of which we have a MCI J618 from the Sony’s Japan factory in 1980, and a 36-channel MCI JH636 from the American factory, which are very different-sounding. The Japanese one is quieter and doesn’t break as much, whilst the American one is hell to maintain but sounds hotter. We want to take the channels that are in the best condition and make a 12-channel rack of those. So if we got an SSL, it would ideally be a Duality 48-channel, with the MCI as a sidecar for recording. The SSL pre-amps aren’t my cup of tea for recording; they’re too flat, and I was told by friends that I wouldn’t like them. The signal path for recording these days has shrunk massively. You go from the pre-amps straight into the computer, so you need some other way to inject character into the signal. But for mixing, the SSLs are amazing.
I’m also a Yamaha fan, so we might install a Yamaha DM2000 also, which I bought after El Tostadero closed down. I really like it because the MLA8 pre-amps aren’t that flat. You can buy a rack of 8 of them for around €200.
What about speakers?
I like the big Yamaha MSP 7s for mixing. I also have the Dynaudios Air 20s. They have digital control for your room, which is great. But the Yamahas are what I use for mixing because they’re so screechy on the mids that if you can get your mix to sound right, and switch to another speaker, it sounds sweet. They force you to be careful with your frequencies, which is what I want.
Do you use any NS10s?
I don’t particularly like the NS10s, which I know many engineers don’t like to hear. I think they served their purpose, which was great at the time, but we have to account for the fact that in current times, our bottom-end has extended a lot. In the 70s, hardly any home-speaker went beyond 90 Hz. Now you have some home theaters with sub-bass units that go down to 30 Hz. How is an NS10 going to help you with that when they don’t go beyond 150 Hz? So I think they’re becoming more and more unusable. But the MSP 7s have a nice bass response up to 50 Hz, even if you need to check the mix on bigger speakers later.
I’ve heard that you have a custom-made SSL mixbus compressor. How did you get one of those?
By making our own gear, including microphones. The engineer with whom I work the most is an electronic whiz and because we had the MCIs for so long, I had to learn electronics as well, since the repairs are constant. Have you ever been in the middle of a recording session, only to notice a burning smell coming from the desk? You have to turn the whole thing off because a channel caught on fire! That’s what can happen with a 40 year-old desk. So because my engineer was an electronic engineer, we started making our own gear, and built custom 1176s, SSL 4000 mixbuses, pre-amps, etc.
Do you build your custom gear from scratch or do you modify existing units?
You always start with a template, which is the original kit, and the next step is to find similar components. We made a Telefunken U47 copy, which had it’s components custom-built in China, because they’re not standardised pieces. The body, grid and capsule has to be made in a factory, which is time-consuming, so we made it with some friends of ours.
The 1176s are fun to use, but the plugins give more or less the same result. So a lot of times you think to yourself, “Why bother patching?” (laughs). The SSL bus compressor is more fun. We have two of them, with one sounding a little brighter than the other, even though the components are the same; we’re not sure why.
When do you think the new studio will be finished?
In about a year, hopefully. We bought the place two years ago, and for the first few months we did nothing because we underestimated how slowly things would go. We applied for construction permits, but got no answer for four months. So we started working on other things, like making a production room, forming the creative association, etc. We bought a portable isolation booth for around €6000 that you can assemble without screws, and set that up so we could record vocals. When we finally got the permits, six months ago, we started knocking down the walls in the building. So now we have six months more to finish constructing the ground floor, six months for the rooftop and then we’ll address the office and lounge area.
In the meantime, I’m still working on records. We have large rooms I can use for recording drums and things like that. They’re great for psychedelic drums, reggae recordings and reverb effects and such. Our largest room is 50m long, which is really long. You can get cathedral-style reverbs with that kind of size. I could have a singer singing at one end of the room and a reverb microphone at the other end, down the stairs and at the end of the hallway, for 100m worth of reverb. It wasn’t very usable, but it was fun to experiment with, just like they used to do in the 70s. You can’t do that with today’s studios because of the reduction in size. For example, if you wanted to make a big-sounding drum set, you’d place a stereo mic in front of the kit, facing the floor and compress it heavily. But what happens when you use two stereo mics, but one is 20m away and the other is 5m away, giving you reverbs in stages? You can hear that on some of David Bowie’s music, where there’s three mics in front of him, at different distances, and they get used on different sections of the song for dramatic effect. You can only do that in a large room.
I really hope things work out. This has quite an enlightening chat about the industry and pro audio. Thanks for talking to me Marc!