Tuesday 24th October 2017




History

REPRODUCED FROM HI-FI+ Magazine

Old School… An all-analogue, residential studio in the 21st Century: who’d have thunk it? by Roy Gregory

In last Issue’s review of Eleanor McEvoy’s latest album, Out There, I mentioned the fact that it was an all-analogue recording, made at the new Grange Studios. Of course, analogue recordings are far from unfamiliar in audiophile circles, but McEvoy is a serious mainstream artist with major sales potential. But what’s interesting is not just that there’s a studio out there prepared to meet her sonic concerns and provide an analogue recording environment, but that it’s a new venture. The Grange is the brainchild of Dave and Sue Williams, owners of Frontier Promotions, one of the biggest independent influences on the UK blues and roots rock scene, handling such artists as Joe Bonamassa, Alison Krauss and Mavis Staples. But Dave’s first love is the studio, a field in which his credits stretch back as far as Ike and Tina Turner, including the likes of John Mayall and Peter Green along the way.

When Frontier took up residence in a sprawling Norfolk farm and its outbuildings, the barn was just too tempting an opportunity to miss. In fact, as long ago as 1999, there were recordings coming out of The Grange, with Eric Bibb’s Home To Me being the first. But these were ad hoc affairs, using the house as studio space and stringing cables to the desk situated in a cottage.

Converting the barn into a purpose-built facility and the two cottages to provide accommodation has been a far longer process than originally envisaged, finally reaching fruition in April this year. Out There was the inaugural project and bodes well for the future, especially when you consider that the studio is booked solid through March, with its second album just completed (a solo effort from Mike Harrison of Spooky Tooth). The day I spoke to Dave Williams I just missed Eric Bibb, who’d dropped in for a look around, so who knows what might be on the cards… What is it that draws these artists back to a technology and style of recording that the music industry thinks it’s left behind forever?

The thinking behind The Grange is interesting. Faced with a market in which digital recording, sampling and Pro-Tools have created the capacity for a genuine “home” studio, big name recording venues have been folding at an alarming rate. So, the reasoning goes, do something different, something that attacks the weaknesses in the now fashionable approach, the primacy of the computer, the notion of music as a construction process, digital Lego. The decision to go analogue was crucial, not just in technology terms, but just as importantly, in terms of attitude.

Whilst DW is quick to point out the sonic benefits of analogue recordings running on two-inch tape, it’s the notion that sonic quality matters in the first place that really counts. What he wanted to create was a large space, a single acoustic in which multiple musicians can perform together. The Grange offers one large space with two smaller, but interconnecting areas, so that even if you put the drums in a separate space there’s still a visual link between the players. Each area has a range of removable acoustic treatments, meaning that they can be tailored to meet the requirements of a particular project without changing the site, the personnel or the venue. It’s this desire to preserve the chemistry in a band’s performance that dictates the approach, whilst also demanding the weight, warmth and subtle substance that analogue recording brings to the process. The intention is to capture the sound of multiple instruments, along with all the low-level bleed and harmonic ghosting that binds them together. To that end the studio boosts an array of vintage mics from the likes of Neumann and B&K, including valve models. There are vintage compressors and if you want to use them, Neve 9098 mic-amps to replace the ones in the desk.

The analogue tapes are run on a Studer 827 Gold Series 24-track machine, although there’s also a Radar hard-disc running as a slave. (Thankfully the panic over two-inch tape stocks is over, with new tape back in production.) Likewise, the AMEK Rembrandt desk is an analogue design that incorporates digital control. Finally, for analogue mastering, there’s a half-inch Studer A80. It’s a pragmatic array, with DW happy to use whichever approach will give the best results. As he points out, “Analogue isn’t just about technology, it’s more about attitude. Why fix something digitally by faking it when you can just do another take?” It’s an approach that has proved equally appealing to older performers who experienced it first time round, and younger ones who’ve been put through the Pro-Tools mill and found it wanting. Either way, it signals a refreshing return to concerns over the sound quality of mainstream recordings by serious artists, which has to be good news.

 

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