From the vault: RAK Studios interview

Founded in 1976 by iconic producer Mickie Most – eight years after he founded RAK Records, RAK Publishing and RAK Music Management – RAK Studios not only occupies a nice address in North London’s St John’s Wood, but also an important position in the UK music industry’s past, present and future.

While RAK Records brought music by the likes of Hot Chocolate and Suzie Quatro into the world, RAK Studios has facilitated the recording of projects by an extensive list of legendary artists – from the Cure’s Love Cats to Radiohead’s The Bends. Other notable artists to have recorded there include David Bowie, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Scott Walker and many, many others.

In terms of contemporary acts, everyone from Adele and Arctic Monkeys, to Liam Gallagher, Savages and Royal Blood have worked there, with the studio’s comfortable residential facilities (the RAK Suite and RAK Townhouse) making a late night (or early morning) in the studio entirely possible and thoroughly enjoyable. Plan B (Ben Drew) was even allowed to live there with his cat while he was recording his album Ill Manors.

The complex, which is famed for its vast list of well-maintained vintage equipment, exists in an old Victorian schoolhouse and features four studios, two of which (Studio 1 and Studio 2) contain API desks, with the other two, Studio 3 and Studio 4 (a ‘boutique’ mixing room) boasting a vintage Neve VRP Legend console and an SSL 4056 desk respectively.

The studio has expanded its revenue streams by opening up the space to be used in film and photo shoots, in addition to the likes of songwriter camps, seeing even more diversification among its client base with a range of top artists across many genres working there.

“The nice thing here is that when all the rooms are full, you get a lot of cross fertilisation of people that maybe naturally wouldn’t even talk to each other,” explains long-time studio manager Trisha Wegg. “Their paths may not naturally cross, but they do here.”

In 2018, AMI was given a tour of this expansive music hub that’s steeped in pop history and overflowing with impressive audio gear and saw first hand why RAK was named Studio Of The Year at the MPG Awards in 2014, 2015 and 2017.

We also caught up with general manager Andy Leese and technical manager Kevin Seal to find out how RAK is adapting to changes in the wider music business, their views on the state of the London studio sector and the task of maintaining the studio’s list of high-end audio gear.

RAK has a very diverse client base – how is the studio evolving alongside changes in the wider music business?

Trisha Wegg: We keep an eye on the market. We obviously have a contact base with the record companies and management companies, so they’re the ones that come to us with artists and producers. Over the last 15-20 years the urban world has come through and established itself as an [important] part of the overall scene. Naturally they’re coming here because they actually get signed by the majors, who have then got the budget to put them into a facility like this. It’s just evolving as music evolves and we cater and go along with it.

Andy Leese: The diversity of things we have taking place in this studio is about opening up what we can do. With all the big spaces we have, like Studio 1, we regularly have film shoots, photo shoots, album launches, showcases, live events in there, and that opens up the doors to a wider audience other than just recording session work. We’re encouraging all of those activities to happen in here, and that in itself is putting in a more diverse range of clients.

How well is the studio market in London doing from your perspective?

Trisha Wegg: I speak to the other studios pretty often and we’re all really honest with each other. I think that five years ago we were all in a fairly big pickle. The ship has sort of steadied and just by default, by studios closing, there’s enough work to keep most people happy. It’s tough, because it’s a business that requires constant investment, whether it’s in people, equipment, or utilities.

But most people are getting on with it and things are not as grim about things as they were a few years ago. We’ve probably seen the biggest closures happen and the ones that are left are going to go on and survive.

How challenging is the maintenance of all the old equipment here?

Kevin Seal: The maintenance is not too bad, in fact it’s very simple. Most of the API desks have very little in them. Switches are still available, unlike the Neve, for which the switches have now been discontinued, but we’ve got good stocks of those. So they’re very easy to look after. The electronics blocks are still made by API for their new desks. So they’re quite good. I’ve just been going through and changing all the capacitors on the Neve and I am nearly finished with that. The rest of it, because it came out of Abbey Road, has been very well looked after. I’ve got all the maintenance records for it from them, which is very handy. So we know what’s been done to what and to which channel and things like that.

The SSL [4056] is a very simple desk because it’s from back in the ‘60s or ‘70s as well. So it’s very straightforward to do [maintenance] on that. But again, switches are a bit of a problem on it and it’s always in need of either a good clean or changing if they can.

The tape machines have been really reliable. They are Studers and the parts for those are not made anymore and I don’t know what parts are available for them when it comes around to needing things. The heads you can still get from different places. It’s more the motors and things like that, although most of them have replaceable bearings and bits and pieces, or you can probably get it rebuilt at some engineering place.

Pro Tools is changing so often that, before they break down, we usually change to a new one. Once it’s going, it’s going and you don’t have to do much with it. Providing it is up to date, then it’s ok. The assistant engineers will look after the software side, because it changes so regularly that I don’t have the time to keep on top of it all.

The outboard, again, most of it is quite old so is easy to look after. Anything newly manufactured would have to go back to the manufacturer, because I just don’t have the technology to change components on it.

Does most of RAK’s investment go towards equipment and maintenance and are you looking to make any significant upgrades in the near future?

Trisha Wegg: Microphones are on-going as well as the odd compressor. With the desks, we’re happy with what we’ve got. There’s no reason to change them at any stage soon, hopefully. For us, that’s what attracts people, the sort of classic desks and the vintage sound and the fact that you’ve also got your Pro Tools and other modern technologies, so you’ve got an amalgamation of both.

Andy Leese: There’s a major investment in instruments as well. Mickie [Most] had a 1959 Strat, which has been reconditioned recently. We’ve got an amazing Gibson J200, which everyone picks up and says, This is the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played. We bought a new bass and we bought a couple of drum kits and that’s all in-house stuff. Most other studios charge for that. We tend not to, because it’s just another reason to come here and walk in naked and walk out with a record. If artists are coming here and spending money, you want to make sure they’re really, really having a good time. The RAK mantra is, make sure everyone has a really amazing time and walks away going, I’ve got to go back there.

Rick Rubin talks about it in the documentary Sound City; that there’s a big difference between being in a bedroom and a studio environment like this. Of course, you can make music in very small rooms with very small amounts of equipment, but I think there’s an experience factor in a studio like this and it’s a whole different thing. It’s inspiring and it’s aspirational.

What are RAK’s plans for the future beyond trying to continue the legacy of the studio?

Andy Leese: That’s certainly what we’ve been doing, especially in the last four or five years. The industry has changed so much that you have to keep up with it and you have to keep pushing on and forward. You have to look to get involved in as many areas as you can in order to find the next set of clients, because record labels are changing.

There are some very ambitious plans that we’re just looking into it at the moment for way down the line. We’d like to do a building extension at the back, which would increase the size of two of the live rooms and also possibly create some production rooms, which is very much the domain of the modern writer these days. Production is also becoming key to the artist development process.

Has selling this property and studio business ever been something that’s been proposed, or seriously entertained?

Andy Leese: They’ve poked the subject with a stick, let’s put it that way.

Trisha Wegg: They have tried. When Mickie passed away, within a week I had about three people contact me saying, Are you up for sale? The answer is no. Occassionally they will cast a speculative offer our way, but the answer is always the same.

Andy Leese: We’ve had a couple of publishing companies sniffing around, looking to buy the whole place lock, stock and barrel. It was a couple of new enterprise companies.

It’s a very appealing thing [to want to acquire]. If you buy this whole place, a lot of the publishing catalogue is life of copyright, so you get a whole catalogue for keeps and you get this amazing property. The building alone must be worth goodness knows what, so you would be buying into an awful lot. But RAK is a family business and it’s not going anywhere.