Cauldron Studios is a popular central Dublin recording, producing and mixing facility that’s recently hosted the likes of Hozier and Eleanor McAvoy. They function on a side of the music industry that many of us music-consuming fanatics can easily forget, but their role if vital in the product that we’re all so passionate about. Having played a prime role in our city since their formation back in 1999, Cauldron has seen, enjoyed and suffered through the modern-day history of Irish music. Co-owner Ciaran Byrne took time out of his day to give me an in-depth lowdown on the way things are…
You’ve been in business 16 years and seem to be going well. What are the greatest challenges involved in keeping a studio running?
The Studio business is like the longest Roller-coaster ride you’ve ever been on. There are times when you’re coasting along nice gentle stretches with plenty of great acts coming through the door with the best new music you’ve heard in ages, and then WHAM! you hit this massive dipper and you’re wondering: are the phones working, has your address been removed from the directories or has the website just died.
I think that to some extent that’s the way it’s always been, but over the last 27 years that I’ve been working in the studio business it has changed dramatically, especially since the early to mid 2000’s. The fall of major labels interest in supporting development of acts has in some ways given the power back to the artists, but it has also removed the structures that allowed bands to fund recording projects. For us, we’ve had to adapt quickly to changes and offer more varied services to artists. I think because it’s such a small team with just myself, Bill Shanley. Michael Manning and Trish Nowak you’re able to make decisions in minutes. Then we get Trish to make us stick to those decisions!!
Our biggest challenge over the years have been working to stay unique to the industry here in Ireland with an affordable studio, in the city centre, that has great equipment and instruments that you just won’t get in other studios. The studios that I’ve worked in since I started have always had a kind of sterile, functional look to them and they never really appealed to me. Yet when I’ve recorded in a few studios outside of Ireland, some had this creative and comfortable personality to them that induced good work out of everyone there. This may have been down to a bit of cool furniture, decor or colours on the walls or good lighting , but you can tell when you walk into one of the good ones that the vibe is right.
How do you go about establishing yourself as a good quality studio? Does it come down to personnel, equipment, past releases or something less tangible?
When we started out, myself and Bill met while we were both working, as a sound engineer and freelance musician respectively. I had just spent the previous 7 years going from studio to studio working on different projects and he was pretty much doing the same , whilst also working with various bands and singers. Bill had a fairly decent home studio setup and I had just bought some equipment that needed a place of residence. We got chatting during an album we were both working on, and it transpired that Bill and another friend were going to setup something small, but bigger than what they had already, in the basement of an old Georgian house at No.8 Blessington St., right smack bang in the middle of Dublin town. He suggested to me that I had a look at the back room in the building with a view to renting the space for myself and that we would both share a small communal recording space.
I took one look at the place and thought that it was probably too small for both of us to work out of, but I proposed that maybe if we combined all our equipment and shared the space as one recording studio we might have a better facility all round. That’s what happened back in 1999 and we used those 3 rooms for about 4 years and grew the place sort of organically. When the basement next door became available we jumped on it and more than doubled the size of the studio overnight.
As new equipment came along we made hard decisions as to whether we needed or could afford it, and also tried to find our niche within the music industry here in Ireland, which at the time, there were probably 2 big studios and a few really small dives that were no better than pimped up rehearsal spaces. I had done some work for Dirt Records for a Revelino album that I produced and for that we had setup a couple of different ‘popup’ type studios in various places in town, so I had a bit of an idea of what I didn’t want.
The Cauldron grew out of the fact that we had both worked in places that you wouldn’t want to be in for any period of time, and on the other hand we’d also worked in top class studios in the US, UK and Europe. We needed to be able to marry affordability with high standards of equipment, but we also liked our toys, so we went for things that weren’t necessarily in all the other studios around town. We bought a Valve on TL Audio desk, first and possibly still the only Valve board in Ireland. Due to some friendly and wise suppliers we were able to borrow microphones and other pieces of gear to try out to see if we liked them. So what we bought was bought on the basis of us liking it and not what the industry mags or ads were telling people they had to have.
We’ve worked really hard to maintain standards with the equipment, software and computers and also to keep things looking sharp. It’s an old building so we make sure that that we keep it spotless so it feels bright, yet warm and cosy. Bill is a world class session guitar player and a producer himself who has worked in studios all over the globe so he comes to the studio with a musician’s hat on and that keeps a focus on what the musician and producer requires.He will be worried that headphones are right and that all the instruments are up to scratch, he’ll talk musician speak with artists and be always able to offer advise for the fledgling musician.
Michael has an amazing ear for great new music and I don’t know anyone who has as big a music collection as him. He’ll know as much about Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan as he would about some obscure Hip-Hop Punk band from the outer reaches of Mongolia. He always manages to blow me away with the music he plays in the studio for his and others’ listening pleasure. He has a knowledge of what is current or what hasn’t been discovered yet that astounds me.
Trish is very new to the studio( well a year and half she reminds me) but has brought so much in her short time here. She can really energize everyone and has such a friendly rapport with clients without being a distraction. As studios tend to be a bit of a boys club, it’s really important to get her perspective on things.
I did an interview about 25 years ago with MTV ( when they used to be a music station ). I was working for the original Windmill recording studios before the owners sold it on and the studio turned into a sound college, they asked me the same question you ask. That year there were about 4 albums that we had done in that studio which were at the top of the charts all over the world, and the place was hopping.
You record, master and mix. Of course the process varies hugely act to act, but talk us through the typical process involved.
The 3 things are very different processes.
For recording you have to be very aware of the emotions of the client, to be part Clairvoyant, part Psychologist and part engineer / producer.
As the studio owner you have to make sure all the things we spoke about before are put in place. For me as an engineer it’s always exciting when a band or artist comes in because for them this is the day that they have been waiting for, the day that all those agonising nights spent over changing this word or that word or that chord to this one come to an end and they can hear whether its all been worth it or not.
This is where the psychologist part comes in, we have to put people at their ease and try and make them feel like their song is ready to record, that YES it is going to work out. We can also advise them if there are any glaringly obvious things that they may not have seen themselves.
Sometimes a writer can get too close to the tree to see the leaves.
In saying that though, we have to stay objective because everyone has their own vision of where they want a song or piece of music to go, so it’d be wrong of us to push our own opinions on them just because it doesn’t suit our own personal taste. That’s where the Clairvoyant bit comes in. You have to try and interpret what the artist is aiming for. Sometimes they have very clear and concise information that they have obviously thought long and hard about and then other times it’s almost like trying to understand a foreign lover for the first time, but then when that understanding occurs, its magic.
The engineer part probably comes last, because if you are the producer you’ve already worked on the songs and discussed arrangements and instrumentation. So as the engineer you are coming to the party late, but you’ve got to get up to speed pretty quick because the next few hours can be hectic. We would discuss the overall vibe of what kind of sound they are looking for and then we’d make decisions on which rooms to put musicians in, which microphones to use and where to place them. We’d also decide on which desk to record things through, as we have an Vintage Neve board as well as the valve TLA which has a very unique sound.
This particular Neve Melbourne has been used by U2 in a previous life to record quite a few of their albums and it is a rare thing of beauty.
Every microphone has its own particular colour and sound so we would decide if a mic is suited to the instrument or voice that we want to record.
When all that is done and we get a quick sound up on everyone, we make a headphone mix whereby everyone can hear each other and be able to communicate with each other. But for the most part when your at that stage you’re off and running. Little tweaks and levels changes are made, microphones moved, headphones are sorted and then it’s really all about the players. Every recording is different and some go really smoothly and then others take time, effort and a lot of anxiety on the part of the artist and studio crew, though we usually come out the other side with something that everyone is happy with.
Mixing requires a whole different set of skills. Sometimes you’re mixing material that you’ve never heard before and then other times it’s stuff you’ve just recorded here at The Cauldron. I sometimes find it easier to mix stuff I’ve never heard because you can form new fresh opinion on the song or music, which can be challenging if you’re the same person who has recorded it. But in saying that, it’s usually only difficult if you have to go straight from recording into mixing. We do both all the time, but it does help even to get a nights sleep in between recording and mixing.
As mixers we all mix things differently. I like to get things up really quickly to try and keep that first impression feeling on a mix and then I’d tweak away until I’m happy with the way it sounds. I usually like to get all the instruments in as quickly as possible and not spend 2 hours listening to a bass drum or a hi-hat in solo just to see if the tone is right. I like to hear how it’s sounding with the rest of the stuff. Because sometimes those 16 microphones you or someone else used on the drums sound better off when you just use 4 of them!
Michael tends to work differently to me and Bill likewise but we all tend to bounce mixes off each other to see how the others think they sound.
I like to listen very very quietly and for long periods in mono just to get balances which might represent the small speaker in a little transistor radio. But I would have to say that I have no set formula to working up a mix. I’d listen a few times and then dive straight in, so that for the first hour its like a slash and burn scenario. Eventually what gets left behind, hopefully is the basis for a mix that just needs a few tweaks.
Ah Mastering! The Dark Art of Mastering…..
Over the years we’ve mastered hundreds of albums and singles for people who had never imagined the difference mastering could make, or who couldn’t afford to go to high priced mastering facilities which were usually based overseas. Personally I’ve had lots of albums mastered by others that I just wasn’t very happy with unless I attended the mastering. Maybe that makes me sound like a control freak, but we started, as I said, out of a need to provide high quality masters to our clients at affordable prices.
We use our ears instead of whatever the new fancy pants high-end mastering tool was around, and we just learnt how to do it. The way its gone recently, most of our mastering is done through our online studio facility, whereby people send us the tracks and we make the necessary adjustments and send it back without even meeting the client. It’s a great way of keeping costs down for them and for us its sometimes easier to just master how you feel it should be, rather than having someone who doesn’t know the room or speakers as well as you, making those decisions. Of course there is always dialogue and we send listening versions so within a very short space of time you end up with a Final Master. We’ve had a great success rate with the online mastering and mixing so far, with hardly anybody coming back for major changes to be made.
Tell us a bit about your equipment and your setting. How do they influence the sound?
Cauldron is on Blessington St. which for the uninitiated is basically a straight run up from the GPO with the river at your back and is a 1 min walk from the Garden of Remembrance, where all the protests start from. We have the basements of two Georgian houses connected together as if they were one continuous basement. The place has walls that we stripped back to original stone and there are wooden floors and features everywhere. The feel is immediately cosy and warm, which for most people is the first thing that appeals to them.
We have 4 different recording rooms and one large control room. Each of the rooms are interconnected by double glass doors so that musicians can see each other but still maintain audio separation. The main difference between The Cauldron and most other studios in Ireland is that we don’t go in for the functional, sterile decor and look, that most other studios have. Think old farmhouse barn with hi tech space age looking gear, old vintage microphones and instruments, slick flooring and great lighting and you can kind of imagine it. We still have an old fireplace from the original kitchen that was here.
The equipment that we’ve generally decided on has been more for its originality and sound than what the studio mags are telling people to buy.
We had a couple of suppliers who’s sale pitch was to lend us something for an extended period until which time we had either fallen in love with it or we knew within a couple of days that it wasn’t for us. We have an old EMT 140 Reverb Plate which is one of those kind of things that is as rare as hens teeth. But it also has a unique sound that you just can’t get with digital plugins. This married with a Vintage Neve Melbourne desk and our Valve TLAudio desk makes for a great combination of sounds that just can’t be found in this country. When we got the Yamaha Grand piano we had a crane stop the traffic on Blessington St for about an hour as we watched helplessly as our new and probably most expensive purchase perched high over a 30 foot drop. Tom and Jerry cartoons were running through my brain for that hour.
The main influence I think the studio has on performances has been that musicians feel very comfortable and at ease in the Cauldron. The BIG RED LIGHT syndrome that can sometimes scare people is nowhere to be seen here. Bill being a musician has obviously influenced this and brings that opinion that most studio owners can’t really get, coming from the technical side of things. I could go on about how we have the most up to date Protools rig and all the things that as I said earlier you expect from a studio these days, but I’d bore most of your readers. But yes we do have them!<
Those 16 years of operation coincide quite well with the well documented financial collapse of the music industry. Have you noticed big differences in the money available to acts to record?
As I said earlier this had been one hell of a rollercoaster ride, and yes, we’ve seen a complete flip in terms of who’s paying for recordings these days. It mostly seems to come direct from the artist themselves but there are still a small amount of progressive companies who still encourage new acts. Look at Rubyworks, they seem to be going from success to success with the likes of Hozier and Ryan Sheridan, but nobody gets to hear any of the demo’s of the artists that they’ve been plugging away at for a few years, until the big break happens. It’s very indie which appeals to me. I would love to see the bigger labels take more of interest in development of artists over a number of years instead of the current disposable system that seems to be in place.
I feel that the radio stations have much more of a role to play in the business of promoting our own. You’ll get the company line that “we are fulfilling the Government remit” with regard to airtime given over to Irish acts, but its just not good enough. If we are proud to get behind acts as they break through, let’s not forget the ones that can’t get played because it “doesn’t fit the station sound” or “the quality isn’t up to scratch.” I’ve heard all the excuse but in my opinion I think most of it is laziness and complacency on the behalf of DJ’s, radio Producers and Station Heads.
This withering away of funds from artists has meant that the artists are paying for recordings themselves and while in the past, stories of people being ripped off are infamous, I think most musicians and bands have become more business minded themselves so you would hope that they finally have their heads more screwed on. I’ve met bands who are totally in control of their marketing, image, and funding through fundit campaigns and also with regard to contracts. When the time comes to sign up to “The Man”.
For us it has meant that budgets for albums have gone from the days when you would realistically tell someone that to do an album you would need 7-10 days recording the basic tracks and then another 4-6 days for overdubs, about 3 days doing vocals Then finally 7 days mixing.
Nowadays this is all done in 7 days max if you’re lucky. This is usually money the band have saved up or have got through a successful Fundit campaign. Something has surely got to suffer with all this. I think experimentation has more or less gone out the window, and people are so prepared and organized that the time when a happy accident caused the birth of hit song are few and far between.
How much of a recording is raw talent, and how much can be set up in the studio in your view?
I think raw talent is still the most important thing, but being able to spot what is good and shouldn’t be tinkered with too much is a skill held by few.
The tendency these days is to produce something to within an inch of it’s life, and the end result is poorer for it. My approach to a recording with some for the first time would be to listen very carefully to the song in it’s most simplest form and ask the question that if they were to busk it on Grafton st. or play to their friends at a party would it fall flat without all the bells and whistles. Then I would look at the arrangement and see where the superfluous stuff was and get rid of it, while trying to point out the really good points that the artist may have missed. So the Song and the Raw Talent are ultimately the key elements. But absolutely if they’re there then you can make massive improvements in the studio.
What tips would you give to a band in terms of preparing to come in to the studio and record?
- Make sure that your equipment is in good working order, turn up on time.
- You’ve already done the rehearsals, yes??? So we’ll presume they’re up to speed on which songs they’re going to record and they all know the parts.
- Don’t come in at 10 in the morning wondering where’s the party!
- Listen to the people in the studio, they’re not there to rip you off, they’re on YOUR Team and they love what they do as much as you love what you do. They also do this Everyday, so try to keep an open mind to some of the advise they have to offer as it could save you a lot of money in the end.
Does the typical artist walking into a studio have realistic expectations of what’s achievable and what isn’t? Do they book sensible timelines?
First reaction to that question would be No and No, but I feel that more and more artists have some kind of home studio setup, so their knowledge of how the whole recording thing works is far greater than ever before, so they are not completely naive. But as it’s such an emotive art, you never can tell for sure how long something is going to take. I’ve done some sessions that were finished in one day and others where the right mood or emotion never came. It is Art after all, even though we call it The Music Business.
You’ve had a few big names pass through your doors over the last couple of years, not least Hozier and Eleanor McEvoy. Do more established acts tend to be more knowledgeable in the studio? Do you get a sense of what might be successful?
Yes definitely established acts are more knowledgeable but that’s pretty much just because they’ve done it before. But most Artists are vulnerable and it’s still a nerve racking experience opening up a new song to someone for the first time, even for people who’ve been at it for a while.
With regards to whether something is going to be successful or not, I think that’s a harder one to answer. Except to say that we’ve had stuff that we thought was the best we’ve ever heard, but that was the last time we ever heard of it, and we’ve also had music that blew us away with the reaction from the public. Suffice it to say, that we usually find something in the music or the production that sparks our interested in it. I hate to say it but I generally end up loving everything I work on.
Where do you see the future of music studios: more technology? Different recording techniques? Back to basics?
For us, all we can do is keep doing what we do and hope that people appreciate it. I think you have to keep up to date with what’s going on with technology but you can’t necessarily keep up all the time. A good mix of old and new is always a good thing. Techniques always change and I can’t remember the last time I mic’d up a drum kit or a piano the same way two days in a row, anyway 2 different people play the same instrument in many different ways and this changes the sound. That’s why it never gets boring.
You’re offering a ‘submit online’ mixing service that doesn’t actually involve coming into the studio. How will that work, and what are the benefits?
What we’re aiming to do is fit into what we think our clients/ customers need. Nowadays as I said earlier more and more people are recording in their bedrooms or don’t have the skills it takes to mix properly or the right kind of equipment. They need something that’s high quality yet affordable.
Our standards never change when it comes to what we do to the music , so whether the client is sitting behind me or they are at home listening to a mix I’ve just sent them over the internet, that quality control still remains.
How it works is that the artist sends us a stereo track when it comes to Mastering and we manipulate that if it needs it, and then send it back to them. We wait for feedback and then if there are any tweaks required we do those and send back the final master for approval. For mastering we have a 2 tweaks policy.
Online mixing requires a little more dialogue with the artist usually saying things like “ I like this particular song by X and this one by Y, but I prefer the drum sound on Z.”
We listen to the artists requests and maybe a rough mix that they’ve done and try to interpret from what they are saying over email or phone what kind of vibe they’re going for. Then we would do a mix for them, send the version by email back and see what comes back to us for changes. Sometimes that can be very broad like “ Maybe lower the volume of the bass, or can you add more of that echo onto the vocal” and other times it can be very specific like ”at 2.10 the guitar needs to pushed for 1 bar, at 3.47 pull the hi hat back by 2 dB’s for 2 hits” and so on…..
The main benefits for the artists are that firstly they are getting the perspective of someone who has spent over 25 years in the business mixing records of every type of music, all the time and knows what’s required to get the best out of a song. We also tend to bounce mixes off each other here for a ‘fresh ears’ opinion. There’s also the added savings that can mount up when people have to take time off work or any travel and accommodation expenses that occur.
What’s coming up in 2015 for Cauldron?
We are currently busy designing a new website which can incorporate more interaction with artists. We’ve always supported people who’ve been in by including samples of their work or upcoming events on our website. This new website will do this better, and hopefully create a bit of a Cauldron Community in a much more efficient and fun way. We are intending to have a few open days where bands, singers engineers will come in and see for themselves what’s on offer here.
We are also about to welcome Producer /Engineer/Artist Joe Chester into the Cauldron family. Joe has produced successful debut albums for The Coronas and Ryan Sheridan, and we are sure that this will be a fantastic addition to Cauldron.
At the minute Bill Shanley is in the middle of producing an album for Na Fianna, a great band from the midlands who are taking Irish music to the masses, with a huge local following, and hopefully when this album comes out the rest of the country will hear how good they are. Bill is continuing to produce acts from all over the country and lending his unique set of skills to singers and bands which he has gained over the years working with the likes of Ray Davies ( The Kinks ), Mary Black, Paul Brady, Gilbert O’ Sullivan and Sínead Ó Connor.
Michael is working closely with Bill and also with young bands following on from his work with The Chakras, B.O.B, Laura Ibiza, The Original Rudeboys.
Trish will be looking after the new most important person in her life which is due in early May and we all wish her the best with the new arrival. But will I’m sure be back very quickly to kick us up the ass!