Island Studio: John Adams Interview

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The Sunday Spotlight this week features Island Studio on Canvey Island and we talk to John Adams about the rehearsal and recording facilites on offer as well as his own personal extensive collection of  guitars and amps.

DV: How long has Island Studio been operating?

JA: The studio has been open since 2004. It was first built by Craig and went under the name of MOFO studios. Work commitments meant the studio had to change hands and the name changed to Island Studio. Me and the members of the band I play in were looking for a rehearsal / recording space of our own. We heard Island Studio was open to offers, and we already knew Craig, who wanted back in, but couldn’t commit full-time to the studio, so we took on the studio together in September 2010.

If anyone is thinking of setting up their own working studio, I’d like to say that the overheads can be scary on your own. It’s far more work than you may think, so find someone who shares your passion to take on some of the work load and financial responsibility. Try to get at least one month’s expenses in hand and be prepared for clients who treat the equipment and premises in a less than careful manner, or simply try to walk off with things. We’re always having to replace broken microphone stands, drum heads and cymbal stand fittings. Cleaning the toilets can also be very unpleasant, so be prepared. On the up side, I love being around musicians, young and old. You learn a lot. Some of our clients have and still do tour the world as professional musicians and have the stories that go along with those experiences. Have you heard the one about…

DV: Are you primarily a rehearsal or recording facility?

JA: We are primarily a rehearsal studio at present and most recording work comes from the bands that rehearse at the studio. Improvements are being made to the studio as time and money allow and hopefully the recording side will become a bit busier in the future.

DV: Do you have a music or engineering background?

JA: Mine is really a music background. What I’ve learnt about recording comes from reading and being around some very talented people and asking questions all the time. Whenever I was recording with a band, I would always ask about things like microphone choice and placement. I also spent as much time as possible in the control room, taking note of things like the way too much reverb on a vocal can make it disappear into a mix.

DV: What’s your main area of interest musically?

JA: If I have to narrow things down, it’s blues and blues rock. It’s the music I listen to the most and play as a member of a performing band. A close second would have to be folk music. Artists like Martin Simpson or John Martyn hold every bit as much magic for me as Big Bill Broonzy or B.B. King.

DV: Which instruments do you play?

JA: I suppose I’m really a guitar player, but I love playing bass. Anything with strings and frets is fair game as far as I’m concerned. I play slide and lap steel and enjoy messing about with different tunings. I’ll try anything. I think not being familiar with an instrument, or tuning can throw up some unexpected ideas. I’ll experiment with anything I can get a sound out of, it’s great fun.

DV: Do you get time to play live?

JA: Yes, I play with a band called ‘Sarah Rand and the Collectors’. We’re just starting to get out and so far the reception has been very good, but it’s not easy to find the time when you have a studio to keep open seven days a week.

DV: How did you get into music?

JA: I saw Keith Moon on the television. It may have been Top of the Pops, and I wanted to be this guy who played the drums and did this cool twirly thing with his sticks, then kicked the drums over. My parents weren’t going to have any of that, but they gave me a little classical guitar and I was hooked. Sadly I snapped the neck off of it trying to be Hendrix, on the top bunk, in a guitar meets ceiling incident. I was eventually forgiven and was given a 335 copy that a friend of the family didn’t want and I played it through an old valve radiogram. It was heaven and I’ve been in love with the instrument and music ever since. It took me a few years to realize that the songs I liked the most had a common thread; then a friend lent me a Muddy Waters compilation and the penny dropped. While the other kids my age were getting into punk, I was moving away from chart music and hunting down Blues recordings. That got me into folk music and anything that had an organic feel. I suppose I like music that takes chances and is live, sweaty and in your face. The same goes for recording, I like to try and capture that pointwhere the musicians are reaching beyond their comfort zone.

DV: Do you have a guitar collection?

JA: I nearly said no to his question, because I’m not a collector. I do have to admit that I’ve got quite a few guitars though. I’ve used them all in anger over the years, so there’s nothing that was bought as an investment or something just to look at. My two main gigging guitars are Fender American Deluxe HSS Strats with maple fingerboards which have been modified by Robbie Gladwell. They now have stainless steel frets with compound radius fingerboards, plus I swapped the scratch plates for pearl ones. Most of my guitars are Fenders, or in the Fender style, like my two Tom Anderson Guitars. There are four PRS guitars, but my favourite PRS is an all mahogany McCarty in translucent cherry with P-90s (a bit of a Les Paul Special for Fender Players). It took me years to find a Les Paul Standard that was right for me but in the end I found a ‘57 Gold Top reissue. The guitar was a touch harsh on the high end, so I had it fitted with vintage authentic caps and wiring and that sorted the problem. I’m mainly concerned with how a guitar feels in the hand and how it sounds before it’s plugged in. Pickups and electrics are simple things to swap around and fix. I have three acoustic guitars. One is a Takamine, a slotted headstock model with a 12th fret neck to body joint, which gets used for slide. The other two are a bit special. One is a Gibson Custom Order acoustic, with flamed koa back and sides. The other is my pride and joy, a Martin OM42.

DV: What about amps?

JA: My main gig amp is a Mesa Boogie MKIV 112 combo with an EV speaker. I know it’s complicated, with knobs and switches everywhere. It’s also the loudest amp I’ve heard this side of a Soldano SLO 100, which can be a real problem in most clubs these days but I’ve got used to it over the years and I can get it working for me in pretty short order. I’ve also got a Mesa Lonestar 212 combo, which has my favourite semi-clean 6L6 Fender blackface tone. Both the Mesa amps have great spring reverbs too. For EL34 tones, I use a THD Flexi Fifty head and 212 cab. This amp is fitted with new old stock tubes at the moment and has a great classic British blues rock tone. For EL84 tones I’ve got a Cornford Hellcat. It’s a great amp, versatile, simple to use and at thirty five watts it’s got plenty of headroom without trying to kill everyone in the vicinity. I also have a little Cornell Romany Plus. It works well for certain Tweedy Fender Champ Tones and records really well with a small capsule condenser mike. The amp I’m really excited about is a 30-watt EL84 head with reverb, being custom built for me by Clem Andrews. It’s a real Savile Row affair. Clem has spent months working on it to fine tune the tone and is now doing the final stages of the amp’s reverb. We used my Les Paul and Telecaster as tonal benchmarks. I’m really pleased with its simple layout and the way it reacts to a guitars volume and tone controls.

DV: How extensive is the studio in terms of recording gear?

JA: The way things are at the moment, the recording and mixing are done on my Mac Book Pro using Cubase 5, a Soundcraft desk and an RME Fireface 800 onto a Glyph hard drive. Mastering is done at my home studio on the Synergy System Computer using a Steinberg MR816 X. There are two Line 6 rack effects units plus Lexicon, Art and TC Electronic processors too. However, plug-ins now do a lot of the work. Monitors are Yamaha, Roland and Tannoy. We have full EV drum mic sets, plus Shure SM57s and SM58s, Audio Technica AT4033 mics  and a selection of other condenser mics for overheads and acoustic instruments.

DV: What kind of artists do you mainly record?

JA: Most of the recording work, about 90% is for pub or club bands and duets looking to record a demo CD to hand out. We do get some work from vocalists who come along with a backing CD and want to record a demo, or as something just for themselves. The least work comes from original bands, who tend to hire a room and bring in their own gear.

DV: Do you engineer and produce sessions yourself?

JA: There are five of us involved with the recording side of the studio. If it was a reggae band recording, then Craig would be the guy to sit in the producer’s chair. He’s really into the music and has a wider knowledge of it than me. With a prog rock band, Les is the one with the right ear for the job. Blues, rock and R&B are Alex, Gary and myself. It’s simply a faster way to get things done; given that most of our work is for covers bands. I think it just gives a quick common point of reference, what with time generally being an overriding factor.  The majority of times, it’s Alex and myself who take on the engineer’s post though.

DV: Do you use live or programmed drums, or both?

JA: I have used programmed drums and have Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0. I do prefer live drums though. It’s a lot of work recording live drums, but I think the effort is worth it for the music I play and the type of bands I work with.

DV: What do you record on?

JA: I used to use Logic, but swapped to Cubase when I got my Mac Book Pro and had a Synergy Tower system put together. It just meant I could use the same program on both computers. I’m still learning things about Cubase and get Alex Murkin, who plays keyboards with me, to help when I hit a wall.

DV: Do you record guitars live or use a plug-in?

JA: I have used Pods. I’ve got two rack PODs, one bass, the other guitar. I’ve recorded with both and it’s the bass one that gets used most. For myself I just prefer the way a tube amp responds to the player and the guitar. It’s less of a sound than a tactile thing I think. With a good tube amp you play the amp as much as the guitar. That said, I tend to plug into the amp without any effects now other than the amp’s reverb. If you’re using lots of pedals in the chain I find the PODs work really well. With bass, I use a lot of the DI signal and the POD makes it easy to go back and re-amp the bass.

DV: If you use amps to record, what’s your favourite?

JA: It’s hard to choose between the things you love, but if I had to have just one amp for all occasions it would have to be the Boogie MKIV. I can get a wider range of sounds from it and even switch the 6L6s for EL34s for a more British tone.

DV: Do you prefer outboard effects or plug-ins?

JA: Not so long ago I would have said outboard was the way to go, but things have moved on so quickly over the last few years. Computers can handle more workload now and plug-ins just sound that much better than they used to do. Excluding extreme high end outboard gear, that most of us have only read about, the plug-ins have improved to a point where I can’t hear the difference any more. I now just use the tool that produces the sound I want and that’s more likely to be a plug-in these days.

DV: What’s your favourite vocal microphone?

JA: My favourite microphone for vocals and acoustic instruments is the Neumann U87. I haven’t got one of my own yet, but I’m working on it. At the moment I’m using an Audio Technica AT4033; it’s a great microphone for the price and has always performed well for me. For most other band applications, it’s the Shure SM57.

DV: What piece of gear couldn’t you bear to part with?

JA: If you’re just referring to recording or processing equipment I think it would have to be my TC Helicon Voice Live 2. Singers love it and even if it doesn’t end up on the final mix, it gives them a good solid vocal tone in the headphones. However the only music making tool I really couldn’t bear to part with is a guitar, the Martin OM42. It’s settled down beautifully over the last few years, is easy to play and has a tonal complexity and balance I love. It really is my desert island instrument and my first choice for recording acoustic guitar parts. Technology can be replaced, but you can’t replace time. That’s what’s so special about a great guitar; the more it’s played the better it sounds.

DV: What’s next on the shopping list?

JA: So many toys, so little time. However I think it’s got to be a Neumann U87, when funds allow that is. A lot of great music can be produced on a budget, but a great microphone really makes all the difference to a vocal take. I know it may not be the perfect mike for every occasion, but it would certainly be a great microphone for most of the music I’m involved with.

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About Author

MNJ has been writing articles, reviews and blogs for the DV online magazine for the last five years or so. Although he has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and is now officially an 'oldie', he is still mad for all things guitar related and when not busy in his studio he's learning new songs, practising bluegrass guitar, painting his house and taking his dogs out. If banished to a desert island and forced to take only one guitar he'd take a Les Paul. Actually, make that several Les Pauls, a Strat, a Tele, an ES-335, a vintage Martin and some boutique amps. Battery powered obviously.

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