Billed as a residential recording studio ‘on the edge of the world’, The Outer Hebrides’ Black Bay Studio stands as an unexpected sanctuary for musicians looking for a great live sound completely detached from the trials and pressures of everyday life.
Established in 2016 within a former crab factory, the unique facility redefines the concept of creative seclusion. With three purpose-built acoustic rooms, a comprehensive array of equipment, and accommodation for up to nine occupants, the studio offers a blend of artistic freedom and serene isolation.
And, despite the popular cliches, Black Bay is more accessible than you might think – with daily flights to the island’s main town Stornoway from Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness, and several ferry sailings each day from both Ullapool and the Isle of Skye. The studio also has moorings for arrival by sea and a helipad!
We sat down with Pete Fletcher, the mastermind behind Black Bay Studio, to uncover the journey that led him from Nottingham to the shores of the Isle of Lewis.
I suppose the obvious starting point is: A studio in the Outer Hebrides? How did that come about?
Pete Fletcher: I had a studio before this in Nottingham, and it was always a lifelong dream to have a studio by the sea somewhere – a residential. Then the opportunity to move to the Hebrides came up through my wife’s work, and I looked at some properties up there and realised we could make it happen. We weren’t planning on going to the Hebrides exactly. But that’s what’s ended up happening!
And that was 2016, right?
PF: Yeah, we moved nine years ago. It took a couple of years to find the property and then to renovate the building.
Give us a sense of your surroundings up there…
PF: We’re on the Isle Of Lewis, which is the northern part of Lewis And Harris, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides, just off the West Coast of Scotland. To get here, you go up to Ullapool in Scotland and then it’s a two and a half hours on a ferry to Stornoway, which is quite a big town for the Hebrides – it’s the only town! There’s a supermarket, a hospital and all the things you might expect from any small town, but then the rest of the island is very sparsely populated with huge areas of moorland, stunning beaches, mountains and miles of coastline – there’s incredible wildlife like white tailed eagles, otters and whales, as well as great surfing, swimming, fishing, climbing and, of course, the ancient and rich history/heritage of the island and its communities. It’s a big island. It’s two or three hours to drive across, with distinct regions.
What kind of clients do you get coming to the studio? What kind of things are they looking for that they find at Black Bay?
PF: I guess it’s a bit of an adventure. It’s something different, something that folk can write a story about. It’s great for videos and photos… All the things that go alongside just making a record at the moment.
For me, an album recording is an artistic experience, so it’s good to be able to properly indulge in that process. I think it’s quite an artist-focused way of working – to really separate yourself off from management, the label, the industry, and just be like, ‘This is my record, and I’m going to go and make it somewhere weird. Just really lose myself in that process.’ For our album clients, it’s about that. For producers, I think it’s nice for them to have a holiday, basically. Somewhere that they’ve not been before, or just something that’s completely different from their day-to-day. It’s an interesting place to come to. A lot of people come for the adventure at first, but then they find a really great studio. They come back for that.
Tell us more about that. What does your studio offer aside from the location?
PF: We’ve got a really big space, particularly for the budget level that we’re at. You get a lot more space, and a lot of equipment, for your money. Our live room, our main one, is a really, really big space with high-vaulted ceilings and fantastic drum sounds. You can work quickly and get a lot done because you can put up some mics, and things sound really good. You don’t have to work very hard to get great sounds.
We have a lot of equipment ready to go as well. We have all our pedals and keys set up all the time. It’s just a very creative space that sounds really good no matter what you do.
What have been some of the highlights for you since you’ve set up?
PF: I did a record with a band called Silver Moth, which is Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai and others. They hadn’t worked together before, it was like a collaboration project. They came in not knowing what was going to come out of that and ended up with a really good album.
Thinking about the studio sector more broadly, what are the main challenges that you are facing at the moment?
PF: A big one at the minute, although not very exciting, is just energy prices. They’re up threefold on what they used to be. We pay more in electricity than I pay myself! That’s an extra cost we hadn’t really imagined a few years ago. But I think, generally, things seem pretty positive at the moment. We’re getting busier and busier.
We’re always trying to do very high quality work for people who maybe haven’t got the budget that they used to have to work residentially. We try to give people that experience of a really top live studio, but without having to pay through the nose for it. It seems to be working for us.
We don’t get any walk-through trade, obviously. For us, that’s a big challenge, as it means we don’t have any of those little jobs that fill up the calendar between the bigger bookings. We’re just about the bigger bookings, so we’ve got to work quite hard to keep them coming in.
How do you see things progressing more generally for your part of the industry over the next five to ten years or something?
PF: I guess, in terms of styles of music, I think the bedroom style of production is taking hold even more. It seems to be that there are maybe fewer bands, fewer venues… That definitely means a potential risk for a studio that’s really geared around people playing live together. But, at the same time, I think what we’re trying to create is that experience for the artist. If you’re not coming here with a full band, we have lots of solo artists coming out as well, and we do the whole production for them with session musicians or between myself and my assistant. We have a surprising amount of solo artists coming who just want something a bit more authentic than what they’re doing at home or what they’re doing in the local studio with click tracks and so on. But I do think that general trend in music could have an impact.
Do you see AI as an extension of that progression?
PF: A lot of those tools are super useful for us as well, but I think it’s about the connection with the humans making a record, making those decisions about the sound, the inspirations and all the ideas coming together. Those are the important things. That’s really what studios offer – an environment for people to interact with each other and some great equipment to help put those ideas into action. Perhaps that equipment is just the latest drum machine or whatever AI offerings there are at the moment, but it’s the interactions between the people and the inspiration to create.
What’s coming up for the studio that’s particularly interesting?
PF: We’ve got a lots of album projects in for the rest of the year, including Tor Maries’ (Billy Nomates) new project which we’re very excited about. We’ve got quite a big sample pack company, that I can’t announce at the minute, coming to sample all of our drum kits and rooms to create some new packages for that. That’s the flip side of what I was saying earlier, I guess: we’re actually getting some work off the back of the bedroom guys – we’re looking at and developing our own sample packages.