We are a music production company.
Our clients are those that are serious about communicating their music to many audiences, and we help them do this in an engaging way.
We work from a spacious, converted cowshed set in 100 acres of unspoilt countryside, yet only 30 minutes from London. And we have an envy-inspiring collection of boutique audio gear.
Where have you come from?
7 years ago I set up The Cowshed, the aim being to bring industry recording processes within affordable reach of musicians starting out. Having spent some time with Blake by this point I knew I could put my trust in him to spec and wire my studio, and so my love affair with vintage audio and strange records began. In the first week of operation I took on Joe for work experience and his enthusiasm for hard work and his sponge-like nature for all things audio hasn’t worn off.
What’s with name change?
It didn’t take long to realise that producing good music is little to do with your gear cupboard. It’s a complete artistic process, everything from asking who your audience is, through to writing vocal harmonies appropriate to the style of track. Indeed, the true meaning of music production. And it is this single idea, and our collective desire to make really good music, that has led, quite naturally, to us redefining ourselves. We are a music production company.
What are you bringing to the table?
In what many sound engineers would posit as the ‘golden age of recording’ people would take their time over recording an album in a well specified facility. There were far fewer studios (equipment was eye-wateringly expensive) so quality control had to be high. These mostly record-company-owned studios were real hubs for musicians and production staff which led to much collaboration. We want to bring some of these sensibilities back into the modern era of music production.
Do we really need music production?
No. But, if you want to make the best possible record, then, at the very least, an extra set of impartial ears will seriously help. I am fond of saying that, if you look at the list of credits on your favourite album, you’ll find that it’s a mile long. This is no accident, excellent music is always as a result of collaboration. And, by delegating the act of producing your record, you can concentrate on writing and performing to the highest possible standard. Everyone does what they are best at.
Won’t it cost a lot?
It depends on how much you value what you are doing. It would be easy to wax lyrical at this point about music for music’s sake, and it is a valid point, if rather well trodden. But let’s take a commercial perspective for a moment. If you were to think about it in business terms, you are creating a product. If you want people to buy it, it has to meet with people's expectations of quality, i.e. sit well along side the competition, and be unique in some way, i.e. give people a reason to want it. Here we can return to the purest perspective. If you make your music with deep thought and finesse, to the highest possible standard, then you meet these business requirements without ever having to dwell on them. The investment will always be worth it.
Have you got a studio then?
Sensible question given my lengthy diatribe on being a production company and equipment not being that important. But, yes, we do have a recording studio, and it’s a good one. True, much of what we do could be done anywhere, but things like tracking awesome drums and mixing to a standard that your mastering engineer will thank you for, do need to be performed in a professional facility. We have a 75 square meter performance space with a 14 foot ceiling and our control room has some very sought-after equipment in it, including a vintage Neve console. The kind of stuff you can't buy down the shops. Although, as I have said repeatedly, gear isn’t the most important ingredient, good gear doesn't half make things easier. Used correctly, it adds that sounds-like-a-record sheen to a well crafted song.
How can we trust you?
There needn’t be this leap of faith that artists feel when deciding on who to make their album with. Firstly, pop in for a coffee and let’s chat, you’ll soon know whether you like the way we think. I’ve been engineering/producing for 10 years now, and I have been and always will be, keen to meet music makers. I guarantee you’ll love the coffee, if nothing else. Secondly, you can dip your toes first. There’s no need to commit to a huge project straight off with anyone. Let’s work on something small first and get a good working relationship going. Thirdly, our consideration of your music goes way beyond just making it sound nice. You, your audience, your image, your ethics and where you see yourself are all part of the same picture, projected in the form of your music. So all of these elements have to sit in unity. Finally, we work to finish, there's no knocking off time and our hours of operation are entirely unrestricted. And (last point, honest) we have 24/7 on-site tech support (thank you Blake) so our equipment will never get in the way of meeting a deadline.
Can we visit?
Yes, it’s mandatory! In all seriousness though, and this might sound a little bossy, you should be prepared to take some time out to talk over your ideas. Email simply isn’t subtle enough. Your project is important to you and therefore to us, and since we are perfectionists, we need to know as much as we possibly can to help you. And, as I said, we like to chat. In this way a successful production plan can be made just for your project, and we can all get on with the bit we love: making music.
What do you do at Superhet?
A little bit of everything. As an assistant it’s my job to make sure things go smoothly during sessions. This can be anything from setting up equipment to making sure everyone has a relentless supply of (good) coffee. As a musician I also contribute to pre-production and occasionally put on my session player hat. As a geek I coded quite a lot of this website.
A ‘Jack of all trades’?
There’s an element of that. I’d like to think I’m master of something! I enjoy turning my hand to different roles, I’m forever finding new things that interest me, especially new ways of making music. I think it’s this enthusiasm that’s been appreciated first at the studio and now in Superhet.
It makes me work hard.
What do you like the most about your work?
I most enjoy being part of the writing sessions. I love the way musical layers build up, transforming a barebones song into a polished record. I’ve also found I really enjoy vocal tracking sessions, good vocals never fail to surprise me. Pushing timing, tone or tweaking intonation at the right moment can make a totally different performance. Assisting Dave and a singer to get the best out every line makes all the difference.
Are you also a producer then?
I’m not a producer. I think it’s easy to call yourself a producer because it sounds cool. The job requires way more skills and responsibilities than most people think, and being the person in the room that knows how to use Pro Tools isn’t what it’s all about. I think it’s about being the person in charge that can make an artist meaningful to their audience, directing the ‘sound’, making sure the artist makes the best record they can. I certainly assist with all this but I’m not the guy. Maybe one day.
How did you get involved with Superhet?
I got to come to the studio for work experience years ago. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I ended up painting the floor, looking at (but not touching) loads of gear, soldering cables and herding cows. It was brilliant. After that I jumped at the chance to hang around and watch whenever I could. I started working here regularly in my last year of uni’ and I've been here ever since.
What makes a good record?
A record that has been made with care by those wanting to make a mark. Good records always have somebody behind them determined to do it right, and it can be heard. It's not about genre; I think all genres have something rewarding to offer (classifying genre's a weird one anyway). Popular musical trends change of course, so to some extent it's about timing. I think most importantly a good record is one that meets expectations with familiar sounds to a particular audience, then exceeds them with something new.
Is anything missing from music?
Hi-Fi! I was born in 1990, so like everyone my age, when I first got into music I was listening to MP3s on an iPod or tiny computer speakers. Tiny players + tiny file sizes = tiny music. I was perfectly happy to listen to mosquito music for most of my teens. If this is all you know then that's the ceiling. It was a revelation for me when I was first shown that you can go several steps better. Playing a record (vinyl/CD/lossless file) that you know well on even a semi-decent system is like hearing it again for the first time. It can make it feel like a whole fresh bit of music! There are enjoyable details there that you just couldn't hear before.
This effect was most striking on re-listening to Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’. The first thing I noticed was how gripping the sense of space was around her vocals. It makes her bold use of vocoder even harder to stop listening to. The biggest surprise was during the lyric “Trains and sewing machines” you can faintly hear sewing machines in the background, almost sounding like rain. This pleasing detail was just lost to me before. I don’t think you need to be into audio or even music that much to appreciate discoveries like this. You just feel it more. If people are prepared to have 42" HDTVs in their living room then why not 42" bass drivers? That doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it?
This System Works
Blake Devitt talks about being more than a studio tech.
What does a studio tech do?
I like to look at it as being part of a team. You are there to oil the wheels, just like everybody else is. The client can tell when they walk through the door that “this system works”, it's worked before and it's going to work now. It puts them at their ease and when you've got a relaxed client, the session works better - I swear you can hear it on the record.
But haven't studios stopped having tech departments?
I think it's becoming very hip to say you have that sort of backup. If you've got vintage gear - that responds better to being fettled and loved and looked after - then it's easier to keep it in tip-top condition. And, I think clients are getting wise to the so-called “producers” who are just sat in bedrooms with a copy of Cubase and a few Waves plugins. Serious facilities are realising that they should have a studio tech and make them part of the studio; it's all coming full circle again.
Many people will be wondering how you got into all of this?
Well, I walked in on a Jamiroquai session at Great Linford Manor Studios. They were recording ‘Travelling Without Moving’ so it was one hell of a baptism of fire. It wasn't like it was the first time I'd fixed stuff, I'd been fixing stuff since ’77. So, by the time I went into the studio on a session and I started looking inside all the equipment, I knew quite a bit of it.
I recognised most of the components and just dived in. I noticed things like a Neve module: I took the lid off and went “oh what!?”, ‘this hasn’t been made to a budget, it’s been made properly’. I realised how Neve stuff actually worked - the fundamentals are so simple. Everyone thinks it’s some sort of black art, it's not. It's just a case of “don't lose track of the fundamental way of doing it”.
You mentioned the make Neve a couple of times back there …
I’m a bit of a collector and a hoarder of the stuff. I look at it like audio Lego because everything was made in a certain way - it’s how they fit together. It’s not just the console, it’s the patch bay that you’re confronted with: knowing every single hole on that patch has an agreed impedance and noise floor, that you can connect anything to anything and it’ll just work. It won’t hum and things will mate properly. That’s why I don’t like cheap equipment in a studio: it never works with a patch properly. You don't get that when you're dealing with Neve.
You certainly don’t get the situation “well that sounds fantastic, but the noise floor’s terrible”. If it is, it’s the person who’s mixed it or tracked it. It’s not normally the console. If you make a Lego model that’s unstable or is ugly, it’s the fault of the builder! Not the bricks. The bricks are great. That’s why I like Lego, and then I found Neve.
What do you think it is about the Neve tone that Producers love so much?
Many times I’ve seen people in the control room saying “go round the kit, mate” and the drummer’s gone round the drum kit. The mics were set up earlier, and then I’ve seen four, five people - and half the band - all look at each other and go “Ooh! Wow!”. Now write down that thought. You can’t! And I also see them think ‘this is gonna be great’. They’re gonna get the sound they want. Half of it’s the room and who’s set up the microphones, but more often than not they choose a vintage Neve to track on, because it just, somehow... doesn’t get in the way. It’s always sympathetic to the room, the instruments, the mics.
So you think this does have a bearing on the listener?
Yeah, I’m convinced of it. I think when it has a bearing on the band it automatically does. You can hear the mood people were in when they were making it - you just know with some albums that they had a damn good time making it. I’m pleased to do vintage Neve because people consistently leave with their record in the can so to speak - smiling, saying “This is gonna be great”.
It’s important people don’t lose track of this. Bands come in, or solo artists, and they’ve written songs. It’s the most important thing in their life right now; or it should be. They’ve given up so many things to sit down, not go out and write the songs. Then they hit the studio to record it and they want to cut corners! I don't get it at all! The ones who’ve realised how much time they’ve invested up to that point don’t cut corners, so that their painting is put in the correct frame and lit properly for everyone to see for the first time.
You’re kind of implying there’s a return to old-school ethics at Superhet …
Well attitude is everything, and the attitude here is what I like. I sense here at Superhet that everyone’s trying to do much more, but making sure that each step towards that goal is not being built on foundations of sand. ‘Old-school’ isn’t necessarily using old gear either - it’s using the right gear. Everyone would assume that because I like vintage Neve that I love tape machines. Yeah, fantastic things, but I think Pro Tools is amazing!
People should aspire to having people around them who appreciate what it is in the room that’s going to give them the sound they want. So that, people can just walk in, record an album and can’t believe how good it sounds. Take a detailed approach throughout the entire production process and the end result will be wonderful. People will start to say “wow, where did they get that drum sound? Who was the engineer on that? Who was the Producer?” and that’s what the people who make music need for their career. Engineers don’t go around putting adverts in papers going “hey I'm a good engineer” - you're as good as the last album. So you have to make it your advert, just as much as it’s the band’s advert! That’s how it works.
From listening to you, it’s fair to say you’ve got about a bit. You’ve seen one or two people in order to amass this level of knowledge. Where have you been?
Well, I put the monitor wing from Abbey Road into Metallica’s studio in San Francisco - that was an experience! It’s the most bizarre building. I’d describe it as the headquarters of SMERSH but with pinball machines.
I looked after Max Martin in Stockholm for a long time, when he had his old Neve up there. That was a nice place to be in - a place that couldn’t be further removed from Metallica’s HQ. It was typically Swedish: everything almost crystalline in its cleanness just like their approach to things.
I’ve worked with some great producers - some have such amazing ‘ears’. Michael Ilbert at Hansa (Berlin) is a case in point. I’ve never seen anyone but him find every last fault on a desk. If I had a magic way of lending out a console for testing, I’d send it to Michael to do an album on because I know damn well I’d get a report back of every single fault.
I’ve done a lot of Europe, there’s quite a few I look after. One of my favourites is ICP in Brussels. I like the whole attitude there, it’s Rock ‘n’ Roll gone mad - you’ve never seen so many guitars, guitar amps and pedals in your life.
I did one in Taipei. Everyone should go to the Far East, it’s an cultural eye-opener. But I must admit, having like, a chinese meal for breakfast, is very strange. They couldn’t understand, they said “well it's chinese food”. Yes, but I'm only used to it in a ‘hey we'll have a takeaway!’ kinda way. That took some getting used to.
I did Sigur Rós’s console - about three trips to Reykjavík - and the way they work, the way they record their stuff and the way they put it together, is so unusual and refreshing. A typical Icelandic attitude. And that attitude was there, in how they wanted the console and how they wanted their whole room, let alone the view out the window - fantastic!
It seems like there’s a take home message here: that making music, is a meeting of the right attitudes more than anything else?
Oh absolutely. From my perspective the right attitude can only come from people with empirical knowledge or experience who’ve realised that keeping up the standard with equipment is the first thing on the list. It’s just a small part of it, and there are hundreds of them. The tech is back from that, like the chef is the engineer/producer combination and the sous-chef is the assistant, the tech is the person who made sure all the ingredients were there, ready to go. That’s the way I look at it. It’s like you grew them all.
I guess people are wondering, after this surfeit of interesting information, whether we’re going to be hearing some more from you over the course of time?
I want to do more and more! For the first time, in the new workshop here, I’m going to be putting units back together that were taken apart over the 20 years ago (from all round the world). I’ve got rather a lot of modules and Neve parts and they’re all going to be run into the studio. And, I’m going to be building things especially for Superhet - little bespoke bits and bobs, so watch this space. I want the results of the studio’s recordings to be self-evidently more and more interesting, involving, and of a higher quality - where you can actually hear that the people who made the record enjoyed doing it. I’m not just here to fix gear.
So you’re definitely going to be part of the records?
Oh yeah, a good tech always is. However much they feel that - because their name isn’t on the album, they don't get a credit and they certainly don’t get a percentage of the royalties - they’re somehow not part of it. But, a good tech knows that they are, just by virtue of the the smile on a producer’s face when you walk in. They’re trying to do it properly, to the best of their ability, just like you are. If you all realise this, you just get on. If everyone in the studio does this, upward is the only way it can go!