On the Sunday Spotlight this week, DV Magazine talks to Ali Chant from Toybox Studios in Bristol, which has a selection of the best of analogue and digital gear, including a Trident console.
DV: How did you first get into music?
AC: When I was about eight, my uncle gave me a bag of cassettes out of his red Cortina, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Police’s Synchronicity. He also made me a compilation of the James Bond themes. I reckon that was the beginning.
DV: When did you get into music production?
AC: Soon after that, a school friend inherited a red Strat from his older brother, and he and I sat in his basement and started recording songs we made up on a cassette machine. He probably knew about three chords and I only knew how to use the whammy bar! It was a total racket, but that was the beginning of my relationship with recording. I was recording myself before I could even play a note! After that, I took guitar lessons and started getting into bands.
DV: How long has Toybox been operating?
AC: It’ll be 10 years this autumn.
DV: Was the studio always going to be a commercial venture?
AC: No, absolutely not. It started off as a practice space for a band I was in, just so that we could leave our gear set up and not have to go to rehearsal studios. I had a Mac and a Digi001 to start with, so I would record demos of songs as we wrote them. A year later the band got signed off the back of those demos and we asked the label to help us kit out a better recording space. We built acoustically treated rooms and started slowly accumulating gear and instruments. Then friends in bands heard about it and I started getting asked to record demos for other people. It became a commercial business around 2005.
DV: How many full-time staff do you have?
AC: There are two of us that do most of the work. Stef got involved around 2005 I think. He was a freelance engineer I knew, so we ended up pooling our resources and Toybox was born!
DV: What’s your own area of interest musically?
AC: It’s quite broad. I have never recorded jazz and not worked on much ‘chart pop’. Other than that I have recorded most styles of music. But I guess I lean towards leftfield indie music, broadly speaking. I think you end up being hired by association, to the music you have worked on before.
DV: Which instruments do you play?
AC: I am most comfortable with guitar and bass and I’m not bad at vocal harmonies. I can fudge my way through drums, keyboards and percussion. I’m also vaguely trying to learn the violin, when I have the time.
DV: Do you get time to play live?
AC: Yes but not as often as I used to. I still play in band and we play shows every month or so.
DV: How involved do you get with clients as far as arranging and production are concerned?
AC: It really depends on the artist. Sometimes they come with songs that are half finished, or songs that need some input and perspective on them. I might end up working on arrangements and even playing on the recordings. Other times the music is already great and doesn’t need messing with, then my job is to simply capture what’s there. I am also getting asked to mix for people more and more these days, which is great.
DV: Bristol has a thriving music scene, are all your clients mainly local?
AC: Bristol’s music scene is always thriving; however, it’s often rather difficult to pin down. I can’t say am always abreast of what’s going on, but I do my best. We do have local clients, but I would say they come from further afield these days. I work with people from all over the world now; a lot of European bands, Americans bands and from all over the UK.
DV: What kind of artists do you mainly record?
AC: Like I said, I suppose ‘left field indie’ kind of sums it up. We often work with bands or solo artists and we seem to have done quite a bit folk in the last few years and also electronica, post rock, hip hop and blues. Generally not huge major label artists, but people who are on indie labels, or are proactive and self release their music.
DV: Any plans for your own label?
AC: We do share our office with a friend who runs a label and a management company, so I’am quite familiar with the process of releasing records. We have been discussing some sort of development label, so watch this space.
DV: What’s the history of your Trident TSM console?
AC: Well we bought it from Funky Junk about six years ago. It came from Paris actually and all they would tell us is that it belonged to a very famous French musician, but they couldn’t tell us who it was so your guess it as good as mine! We know it dates from around 1976, and I’ve chatted with Malcom Toft, who designed it quite a few times. He’s been very helpful actually.
DV: Do you get clients who want to record to tape?
AC: Yes, but sadly it’s becoming less and less. I love using tape, it makes you work in a very different way. I find its restrictions a great challenge and it forces you to work around problems in a musical way rather than leaning on the ‘computer crutch’! I love the sound of it, and I love the fact that it makes you listen to music rather look at it. I often bounce stems to tape when I’m mixing. Everyone should try using it.
DV: From your gear list, you seem to favour hardware over plug-ins for your outboard?
AC: Yes I do. I think hardware nearly always out performs plug-ins sonically. I have done a lot a A/B tests to reach this conclusion and I think that digital processing has an accumulative effect on the final mix that I don’t like. I accept that there are situations where plug-ins are the best solution, especially where parameter automation is required. However, I don’t see the point in paying loads of money for inferior software emulation when I know the real thing sounds better. I would rather use the real thing and print it. I also find that the less time I spend fiddling around on the computer screen, the more I rely on my ears and my instincts. I prefer to close my eyes and turn a dial until it sounds right.
DV: Do you prefer to record guitars live?
AC: I don’t have a preference either way. Whatever works best for the track.
DV: If you’re recording a band, do you prefer to track them live?
AC: I think if they are a band that are used to performing their songs live, then that is a logical place to start. You can always, re-record parts later if you want.
DV: Do you have a favourite vocal microphone?
AC: No, not really. You can’t always tell what is going to work on someone’s voice, and the cost of a microphone can’t always guarantee the best result for every singer. Ideally you try a few microphones out and pick the best one for the job. I do like the old Neumann U87s and the Neumann CMV563 is a great microphone too, as is the Electro-Voice RE20.
DV: Which mastering software do you favour?
AC: At the moment I use a mixture of Pro Tools and Waveburner. I quite like the look of Soundblade though; I might invest in that at some point soon.
DV: What piece of gear couldn’t you be without?
AC: Oh god that’s impossible to answer, so I’m going to be corny and say ‘my ears’!
Thanks to Ali Chant. If you would like to be featured on the Sunday Spotlight, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.