Inside Track: Chamber Recording Studio
Chamber Studio is a highly specified traditional recording studio based in Edinburgh with a client list including Mogwai, Frank Black, Snow Patrol, Amy MacDonald and many more. We talk to owner/engineer Graeme Young about how Chamber has grown from it’s humble beginnings in a record shop basement to become one of Scotland’s premium recording facilities…
Chamber has been around since the late 80’s, founded by engineer/musician/producer Jamie Watson. It began in the basement of a record store in Lady Lawson street, then moved to a cottage near Murrayfield stadium for a few years before finally settling into the current building in Granton in the early 90’s. Jamie ran the studio along with another wonderful engineer, Grant MacNamarra for decades until he decided to sell up in 2010, passing the reins to me. It had always been an analogue studio, running 2 inch and half-inch Otari machines and it remained an entirely analogue complex until I installed the Neve VR in 2011 and decided that was a good time to bring digital into the mix as well. Since then, I’ve just been trying to upgrade and improve both the equipment and the live spaces without losing any of the character and vibe that the space has always had.
How did you start out in the industry, and what path led you to sitting behind the console at Chamber Studio?
I did my formative training at SAE in Glasgow in 2003/2004 then fell straight into live work; starting at the Edinburgh Fringe then graduating into festival, touring and venue work over the coming years while keeping my hand in with bits of recording. As a musician I had recorded with Jamie at Chamber and we’d kept in touch, as we live pretty close to each other. As all good stories start, we were in the pub. He asked why I wasn’t doing more studio work. I said, there weren’t any studios around to work in, he asked if I’d like to buy his, and ten years later…still here!
Your main room has a lovely Neve VR48 Legend with flying faders - how easy is it to get something like that serviced these days?
We are extremely lucky to have an incredible local technician in Reuben Taylor. He’s looked after the equipment at Chamber long before I was involved and continues to do so. He’s also building me bespoke electronics when the right things don’t exist on the open market… a 6-way guitar splitter, a monitor controller for our B room, a box to allow easy connectivity of any instrument to our Leslie 122 cab. He’s an extremely useful man to have around and we really couldn’t do it without him. We also have the wonderful Neil McCombie (Scotch NcNeil) come up from Yorkshire from time to time to service the Neve and help with modifications. I’m always surprised at just how reliable the console is though considering its complexity and age.
It's great to see a studio still with multitrack tape facilities - how often is your MTR90 fired up these days?
Not as much as I’d like I’m afraid. The cost of the tape itself is prohibitively expensive to most artists. I do have a number of reels that I’ll use to track drums etc to then dump into Pro Tools, but time pressures usually mean there’s little scope to enjoy getting those things just right. Although I do mix to my MTR12 regularly, I would relish more opportunities to work entirely in the analogue realm.
You have a great selection of backline - do you do much re-amping or are you more of a "print and move on" kind of guy?
I’ll always try to get the sound at source and print it. I think it’s vital to the creative decision making process. How can you possibly know how the second guitar is going to sound if you haven’t made a decision on the first one yet? So I’m always as keen to spend the time at tracking getting the right combination of drums/heads/snare or guitar/pedals/amps as I am to choosing the right mics/preamps etc for the job. The source material is the most important part of the chain, so having a great selection of backline and instruments helps fill in any gaps that an artist may have with their own. Plus, to an artist who has only ever used emulations of vintage gear, imagine getting to sit down behind a real Rhodes, through a real Space Echo, through a real Leslie…that’s inspiring and stimulating and always leads to an expansion of their ideas and what can be achieved with hardware. And also the uniqueness of any great instrument. An ancient grand piano like ours makes a performer work harder to get the most out of it. It can be a battle sometimes, because it’s old and imperfect, but it always pushes the artist to give a more exciting performance.
What outboard is most used on sessions and are there any pieces of equipment you just couldn't do without?
Even though you already have an enviable kit list, you still regularly buy new equipment. What's usually behind those decisions - when you're missing a particular flavour, client requests or simply investing in the studio?
It usually stems from a desire to have a good range of flavours to choose from. After I’d had the studio for a while I made a wish list of pieces that I’d really like to try or definitely wanted to own. I’ve not deviated much from that list over the years, although some items have been sold on or replaced with a new piece that does something more. Does the trying and buying really ever end?
Do you have favourite go-to processor chains - eg. for tracking guitars or mix bus processing?
Guitar tracking is usually a blend of multiple amps (using the aforementioned splitter that Reuben made), sometimes 3 or 4 depending on the song/part, usually a few mics on each (SM57’s, MD421’s, Royer 122, Josephson e22s are some go-to favourites). They’ll come into the console/preamps, I’ll balance the blend of those mics/amps then they’ll all be sent out through one EQ, usually an API 560 and printed to one channel in Pro Tools. I’ll usually print any room mics separately so I can pan differently.
Master buss if i’m in analogue world is usually either a Smart Research C1, Neve 33609 or the Tube Tech LCA-2B and a Manley Massive Passive. Because I’ve got a quad console, I sometimes blend in the second stereo buss as a parallel with something aggressive like the Gyraf Gyratec X or the ADR Compex. If it’s ITB mixing, UAD Neve 33609, sometimes a tape emulation (Acustica Taupe or UAD Studer), UAD Massive Passive, Brainworx EQ3, sometimes Fabfilter Saturn, sometimes Gullfoss. Sometimes a multiband. It varies mix to mix.
You're a UAD user - how close do you think plug-ins are getting to the hardware, and what are your thoughts on the balance between convenience (eg. session recall) and pure sound quality?
The modelled plugins that I use a lot are pretty close sound-wise and tend to respond in the same ways that I’d expect hardware to. That said, if you try to push them to the limit, an 1176 with all buttons in for example, I don’t think there’s much comparison. The hardware is still much more aggressive but more forgiving at the same time. That said, one of the beautiful things about hardware is that no two units are the same and as such you get more interesting or unique results. My 1176's are wildly different despite being seemingly the same.
I use plugins in totally different ways to the hardware. I’m always committing my sounds on the way to tape/Pro Tools so the tones of the hardware are being printed. That tends to mean that I’m only using small amounts of processing at the mixing stage and usually end up using plugins that are more transparent and have less character. For convenience though, plugins win hands down every time. Another good reason to commit on the way in and rely as little on having to recall hardware at the mix stage.
You recently replaced your monitors with ATC SCM45A's - what made you settle on these?
With the ATC’s I trust what I’m hearing to be an accurate representation of the audio and there’s no guesswork to how it translates to other systems. Because of that, making creative decisions is quicker and simpler. The stereo imaging is also better than any other monitor I’ve experienced. It’s been a journey of experimentation with all sorts to get to this point but I’m pretty confident I won’t be changing monitors again!
With so many people owning their own home rigs, do you find clients often bring in their own material as a starting point, or do you always track from scratch?
It’s a pretty regular occurrence, yes, even if we then go on to re-record or replace the parts. I find it a really useful part of the pre-production process though, even if it’s not being kept for the final track. Being able to have a discussion about arrangement and instrumentation with the client before they get anywhere near the studio is a great time saving tool. Sometimes it’ll be using their demo MIDI information to run back through a Moog etc, sometimes we keep whole chunks of their audio. I’ve even ended up using vocal takes from a practice room demo, PA bleed and all, because it was just the right feel. Whatever works!
How are you keeping busy during the Covid pandemic and what plans do you have for the studio once things return to normal?
Obviously, the Covid pandemic has taken its toll on everyone in some way. Since re-opening in July, we have been inundated with work though which I’m extremely grateful for. A lot of the sessions have had to adjust because of numbers of people in the studio, but generally it’s all been workable so we haven’t lost out on much. For me, lockdown happened to coincide with the 10 year anniversary of me taking over the studio…not an ideal anniversary gift! But in hindsight, having a few months of downtime was really good for me personally and allowed us time to plan ahead for the rest for the year and make some long needed changes to the way we work in general. I still kept my hand in too, working from home with a basic UAD Apollo Twin setup…mainly pre-production and a little mixing. Overall, the whole experience reinforced just how grateful I am to be able to earn a living making music. Long may it continue!