Angelic Studio

"Knocking on Heaven's Door"

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Interview with Toby Smith

Toby Smith was the founder of Angelic Studios. He was a producer, and the keyboardist for Jamiroquai for a decade, with whom he also co-wrote many big hits alongside Jay Kay. For the launch of Angelic Studios back in 2010, Toby kindly let us ask him some questions about his vision for the studio, his immense collection of gear, and his career to-date. You can read what he had to say below...

Hi Toby - thanks for your time. It's a huge job you've done down here at Angelic. When did you start and how long did it take? 

Toby: We started building the studio November 2008, and initially things were pretty slow, weather hampering a lot of the initial works. Apart from that, things went fairly smoothly, and once the local builder had finished with the structural elements and the building was dry, Chris Clifford, ADG's trusted chippie, got cracking and it all came together without too many dramas. I had to get the studio operating for June this year as The Hoosiers second album was due and they were desperate to get started. We had barely two weeks to commission the desk and test the outboard gear and patchbay which was pretty stupid, but apart from the first week of the session, amazingly, everything seemed to work brilliantly, with just a few incorrectly wired XLRs to fix.

What would you say was your overall vision for Angelic Studios, when you set out building it? 

Toby: This is the second studio I have built, the first being built by Chris Clifford but not using ADG for design. It worked well, but there were a few things that were obvious to alter on this one. I wanted to build a control room where 6 people could work without ever getting under each other's feet. I also wanted it not to be so big that it was hard to hear detail when mixing, a problem I had experienced in some of the London majors. I also was not interested in bright red and purple studios - I think that is great for a one day session, but I have tried to create an atmosphere of creative and restrained calm so that you concentrate wholly on what is coming out of the speakers. That said, Chris was appalled when I insisted on fitting recessed RGB LED lighting around the studio... 

"it looks like an Italian supermarket!" 

"... bollocks, it looks mint, especially for instant vibe!!" 

It was also important to have at least three properly separated recording areas with as much visibility as possible. We have in fact four in the studio and tielines to the accommodation block; even tielines to the massive grain barn for epic reverb times. Where the residential accommodation was concerned, it was really important for it to feel as comfortable and stylish as I would like for my own house, hopefully we have achieved this. I want this to be a studio where people love to stay, and that meant creating a home from home. 

Shortly after opening the studio you had the small matter of hosting Chrissie Hynde for a month. How was the feedback from that session? 

Toby: Chrissie was a joy to have here. She stayed for nearly four weeks, and loved it. She loved the privacy and the beauty of the farm, so much so that she stayed all weekend too! She commented on the privacy up here and the fact that there weren't lots of other bands working on site like some residentials. She was also very positive about the sound... "It sounds fucking amazing!" Chrissie produced the last Pretenders album, and the one they recorded up here, so was very hands-on in the studio. There were eight people here including the assistant, and it worked very well, with all of them commenting on how comfortable and at ease they were. There were also a lot of great comments on the catering. 

You've amassed an incredible spec at the studio with all corners covered. It's built around the old Townhouse 2 SSL SL8072 G+, which is accompanied by stacks of outboard, including some rare vintage Neve Mic Pres. But what is it about the console that made you choose it for Angelic? 

Toby: I had worked on my Neve 8068, which although a fantastic desk to track on, I struggled when mixing. We mix all our acts in house, so when Funkyjunk offered me the desk, it was not a difficult decision to make. I mean... its a 2001 G+ !! It sounds fantastic, and has behaved itself impeccably. However I would never have committed to the desk without keeping what made the Neve sound so great, the mic/amps. We retained the best 10 mic/amps from the 8068, which are 6 1100s and 4 1084s. The 1100s were a special order from Neve and are extremely rare. They are basically a 1081 mic amp, but with a 1073 sidechain, which gives a fast punchy mic amp but with lush and interesting EQ. When overdubbing on the 8068, we used these more then any of the other modules. The 1084s were tweaked so that they could work in an 8068, and just have that classic Neve sound. What musicians comment on is the musicality of the sound, but also that they sound really 'real'.

What other flavours of the month have you been enjoying from the outboard on the current Hoosiers mixing session you are working on? 

Toby: The Klein and Hummel valve EQs. They are incredible units. Like Pultecs but much more comprehensive and much more German. 

The legendary Sam Toyoshima was on board when designing the studio. Can you tell us a bit about the ideas and aims that went towards creating the room's acoustics? 

Toby: I wanted a similar reverb time to Spike's room in Olympic, so that is where we started. The room is big, but still remains incredibly detailed and close. Also I am allergic to fan noise in control rooms, so the protools rig is behind a glass door, as is anything else with a fan.

A Toyoshima trademark is having large, light and airy spaces. You've really achieved this through having these large windows combined with the building's original high ceilings. Speaking as a musician yourself, how much of a difference can it have on a recording artist to work in such an expansive and laidback studio environment? 

All I know is that when I sit down behind the piano in the live room, I find myself coming up with chops galore. I didn't have this in my last studio. It is an undefinable quality in a studio, and I have been in studios which deliver that creative urge, like Great Linford, and some that don't. Either way, The Hoosiers experienced that creative feeling, as did Chrissie Hynde who ended up writing four extra tracks beyond her initial 14-track remit. Maybe its the lay-lines!

There are two different live rooms with a variety of acoustic attributes, so clients will have many different sonic options to experiment with when tracking. Talk us through the design of the rooms in terms of the sounds that they can achieve... 

Toby: The main live room is big without being cold. It has stone walls, and can be controlled by the massive curtains, and the variable absorption screens I have commissioned. I wanted the live rooms to be really flexible so you could have a massive Rock Drum sound, or any level of absorption below, to that end I have kept the walls stone, and used a selection of screens with varying degrees of absorption in them so you can move them around the room and sweet spot it rather then having a fixed sound. My experience of some of the major studio live rooms is that they lack character and realness, and this way I think you have a much broader palette. I think tracking a band altogether in a room gets overlooked, and it was important for me that this could be achieved comfortably. Usually we would expect the singer to be in the control room standing looking through the massive glass window at the band. The second room is about a third of the volume, consequently much closer and more intimate. We used this with the Hoosiers for a much smaller and tighter drum sound.

You have also had some special 8' x 4' customised absorption screens made up. You've described them as a massive asset to the live rooms - what do they offer to recording engineers and producers? 

Toby: I am local to the acoustic specialist that built the screens used by Radiohead to record OK Computer, and I felt that it was far more useful to be able to sweet-spot a room with screens then have fixed absorption on the walls. We have some full range absorption screens and some bass trap-only screens, all of which mean that you can achieve anything you need when recording.

The second live room houses your amazing collection of rare guitars and amplifiers, which are accompanied by an awesome array of pedals. What tried-and-tested guitar/amp and pedal combinations would you personally recommend to other producers and engineers coming to work in the studio? 

Up until recently I found it very hard to get away from my 1962 Ac30, and it usually will be in the guitar chain somewhere. However we are always experimenting with different amp combinations, including the Spacetone, Divided by 13 and more recently my Ampeg Rocket. The rocket sounds pretty ropey on its own, but sounds amazing as a second or third amp, especially on Bass. Pedals are used to suit, getting an amazing guitar sound is dependent on so many factors, not least the guitar being used, but there is never a tried-and-tested formula that will be guaranteed to work. The Clon pedal seems to make a regular appearance though. On the last album I recorded, we used my EMS Synthi AKS (an uber-rare and expensive suitcase synth) as a distortion pedal... sounded fantastic.

Your collection of keyboards is unsurpassable - you must have some great memories of playing these in your Jamiroquai days! Are there any in the collection you consider your most prized possessions? 

Toby: I have had pretty much every analogue keyboard at one time or another, but have distilled them down to the ones that I use the most, and that do something that no other does. Saying that, the Jupiter 8 seems to do everything extremely well, and would be the one that I would keep on my treasure island. The Memory Moog comes a close second... If you have time, the Synthi AKS is extremely rewarding too, as is the ARP 2600.

All great tracking rooms need a great microphone selection, and you certainly have that with all sorts from the likes of Neumann, Coles and AKG available. Tell us a bit about the choice of microphones on spec... 

Toby: I find that when using the same mics for situations it can get predictable and you can end up with records sounding samey. I have tried to keep my mic stock unusual, it makes records sound much more interesting. I have yet to have run out of mic choices, and always try and experiment rather than make do.

Your extensive list of plug-ins suggests you are equally as keen to provide as much digital gear as you can, as well as analogue gear. What are your personal views on the growing trends in the recording industry to digital studio techniques and mixing-in-the-box, and how important do you feel it is to try to keep analogue studios open in a commercial sense? 

Toby: Personally I prefer tracks mixed on analogue desks. All the records I respect and love are made that way and I think it is sad that the industry has suffered enough that labels will settle with tracks mixed in-the-box. I think that whilst some dance tracks can get away with it, where live instruments are concerned it is crazy to end up cheapening the sound in a computer. It will only take one fantastic band to record and mix in a traditional set-up to remind people how much better it sounds. Whilst it is fun to watch the Blair Witch Project, no one would want Schindlers List to have been filmed in the same way. There is a reason that the classic albums of the last 40 years sound the way they do !! 

Do you have any other new additions to the spec (digital or analogue) in mind for the future? 

Toby: I want to get a Lavry to mix down through. Cenzo swears by them, and if they're good enough for him...

There's been no-expenses spared in building this world class studio, and the same can be said for the accommodation building as well. You must have put a lot of time and effort into refurbishing the house and giving it such a stunning interior... 

I wanted to make the best residential in the UK. That included the accommodation, and I think it's essential that when acts come for any length of time, it becomes a home from home. 

We'd like to finish up with a few questions on your career to date. You spent many years as the keyboardist and lead songwriter for Jamiroquai. Out of all the records you made with the band, which would you say was your favourite and why? 

I was swept up in the Jamiro-bubble for ten years, the first album was fantastic because there was no pressure and no external factors influencing our decisions, however I would have to say Travelling Without Moving. Radio 1 played 'Virtual Insanity' the other day, I hadn't heard it for a while, and do you know what? I thought it sounded fucking great. Also it still brings in royalties which is nice...

You formed a prolific and hugely successful song-writing partnership with Jay Kay. How did you both go about writing a tune together, and what do you feel was the key to your success? 

It's a bit of a cliche, but all the most successful tracks Jay and I wrote happened within a quarter of an hour, and were more-often-than-not a combination of a verse of mine plus a chorus of his, or vice versa. So for example 'Virtual Insanity' was a verse I had written at home, with a chorus that Jay had written whilst on tour in Japan. 'Too Young to Die' was a chorus I had written with Jay's verse. Jay would scat melodies, and usually not commit to lyrics until the last minute. Jamiroquai worked because we had a lucky combination of timing, skill and individuality in a time dominated by Beatles cover bands and dance music. No one was, and actually still aren't doing what we did, and I think that helped. Also Jay was an exemplary performer and that meant that the live shows were great.

You now manage and produce The Hoosiers, and are currently working on the band's second album. How have you approached producing this record in comparison to the first album 'The Trick to Life'? Can we expect a different-sounding record? 

One of the key changes was enlisting Max Dingel as chief nob-pusher. We all wanted the sound to move away from being primarily guitar-driven, and for synths to take more of a front seat, but without sounding like they had jumped on the electro-pop bandwagon. I think we've achieved this, and overall the songs and sound are a bit more grown up from the last record. Also being able to mix on the SSL has made a huge difference. 

... and when's the new album due for release? 

Around April/May

Lastly, congratulations are certainly in order on this incredible new residential studio. You are now on board the Miloco studio partnership model, but what made you come to Miloco and what do you feel they can offer which other studios can't... 

I am firstly a musician, and as such will always have a tendency to be somewhat distracted. Miloco were able to consolidate everything I have achieved here in a way that I never could, and add their organisational skills and expertise to make sure that everything runs smoothly with bookings and administration. Plus they seem very level-headed in what can sometimes be quite a hectic environment. 

Toby was talking to Miloco in January 2010. 

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