INTERVIEW: Red Bull Studios? Brendon Harding

Audio Pro International catches up with London Red Bull Studios’ head engineer and studio manager Brendon Harding to discuss the challenges of working in such a unique environment.

Having garnered something of a reputation as one of the UK’s leading promoters of new artists and innovative musical projects, London’s Red Bull Studios has hosted an intriguing array of broadcasts and recording sessions of late. Taking an indiscriminate approach to the projects it undertakes, the London Bridge facility is not simply just another recording studio, but a venue that facilitates the artistic endeavours of those who pass through its doors. Whether it be new, up and coming bands looking to maximise their exposure via the recent Launched at Red Bull Studios sessions, or well-established artists such as Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard and his new 2 Bears side project taking part in special one-off sessions, the Studios’ concern lies solely with providing the best possible exposure for its acts.

Furthermore, as the Studios charge no fee for the use of its facilities, the time offered to its artists can sometimes be limited, often resulting in a high turnaround of bands and musicians, which can lead to inevitable time constraints for all concerned. This was no more evident than on the Launched at Red Bull Studios project whereby ten bands were recorded live for individual broadcasts on Channel 4. Studio manager and head engineer Brendon Harding explains how each act was recorded and mixed to such a tight schedule: “We recorded all ten bands over five days, with two bands in the studio each day. This meant that the recording sessions were all quite frantic as they were all full band sessions, and, as you would expect, rigging and sound checking for two bands within 12 hours was really quite fraught, as well as having to make sure that they were all comfortable and relaxed. It was hard work but ultimately it worked out really well.”

As a result of such time limitations, a number of the bands were required to make use of backing tracks when it came to such extras as backing vocals or additional instrumentation. “There’s a lot of hard drive playback, so you may well get up to eight channels from an Alesis hard drive that certain acts use for their live rigs, or some kind of Logic or ProTools output,” Harding says. “There was a lot of balancing backing tracks, such as BVs or extra synths that they couldn’t have players here for, and that’s always quite tricky; making sure that you balance the backing track with the live aspect, especially when it’s being filmed, as the audience’s eyes only see the musicians in the room, yet still hear extra sound. It’s vital that it doesn’t detract from what you see.”

In spite of these challenges, Harding was able to achieve the desired mix for those taking part in the sessions, with a number of bands offering positive comments and feedback following the broadcast: “Everybody was happy with the mix. We’ve had some positive feedback from bands, which is really nice given that they were only in the studio for six hours. It’s great to see that we had that kind of impact on people considering the short amount of time they were here.”

When it came to mixing the performances Harding opted for Logic 9.1.5 in conjunction with a selection of UAD and PSP plug-ins; a system, which he has become very familiar with over the years, and one that he deemed well suited to tackle the challenges of the Launched… project. “For me it works really well,” he comments. “It’s one that I’ve got used to over the past few years. I mixed it all in the box as it had to be quick and alterable, and the time that it takes to bring something out on a desk would not have worked for this project.”

With regards to monitors, Harding utilised the studio’s Dynaudio passive M3s and Yamaha NS10s, stating that the combination of the two offered him an ideal monitoring solution when it came to mixing the recordings. “The M3s give me the body that I’m looking for so that I can check exactly how the lower end feels. They’re also really nice to mix on for sustained periods of time. But you also have to be able to reference on the NS10s as they are extremely translatable on more systems, so there’s a balance between the two.”

The wide range of acts and projects that take place at the Red Bull Studios is mirrored by the variety of services that the facility offers to those looking to utilise its assets. From radio shows, podcasts, album recordings, vocal sessions, writing sessions and mixing, the studio is designed to offer optimum flexibility via its vast range of multifunctional equipment for use across a multitude of applications. “We pride ourselves on the studios’ flexibility. A lot of the in house gear we have can be used across many genres, which means that we don’t have to rent in any specialist gear very often and the bands that come in are generally really pleased, as the equipment we offer them is usually better than their own gear,” says Harding.

At the core of the facility is a Solid State Logic G4000 48 channel console, which has taken pride of place at the heart of the studio since August 2011 and goes some way to marking out Red Bull Studios from its peers. With such investments becoming an ever-increasing rarity amongst modern studios, Harding believes that the SSL G4000 serves not only as an exceptional piece of gear, but makes a clear statement about the company’s long-term commitment to serving the music industry to the highest standards.

“It’s a really strong feature of the studio. A lot of people come in and go ‘wow, you’ve got an SSL!’ There aren’t many studios purchasing big desks such as these any more, and by bringing in the desk we are making a statement about how serious we are about what we are doing. It’s a huge investment on a financial level and a time level – to find it, to bring it in, to set it up. We’ve had to build a machine room below the mixing room and drill holes in the floor, so making it happen has been a substantial project for us.

“It states our intention within the studio world and the music world that this is not just a fly by night kind of thing for us, but that it is a long-term plan and that we are not taking it lightly.”

In addition to the SSL investment, Harding is keen to explain what he sees as the philosophy behind the studios’ approach to the music industry – an approach, which harks back centuries to the days when musicians didn’t have to pay a fortune for the opportunity to pursue their artistic callings. “I spoke to a guy recently who eloquently stated that traditionally, if you go back to the days of Beethoven and Bach, music always had patrons,” Harding explains. “It was paid for by the Royal Court or the gentry of society, and was for a purpose. It’s only been for the last 60 or 70 years that music has been made for money or for companies, so we are going back to how it used to be. It’s not necessarily that we are paying for people to come along and entertain us, but it’s providing people with a space that they wouldn’t necessarily have been able to afford and it allows them to work on projects that they maybe wouldn’t have previously been able to undertake. It’s essentially helping music happen, and it’s nice to think at the end of the day that a band or an artist has been able to take away something that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”

It’s certainly difficult to argue with such an approach to the creation of new music and sonic artistry, especially in a time when many young artists and musicians can’t afford to fund their creative pursuits due to the often-extortionate costs of high-end rehearsal and studio spaces. This approach, when combined with the eclectic nature of the projects continually emerging from its various live rooms and mixing areas, unquestionably stands London Red Bull Studios in good stead to remain as one of the UK’s leading patrons of new music for many years to come.