Simon Gooding studio. Image: Julia Parr
Ten minutes before our scheduled skype conversation, Auckland engineer Joshua Lynn emails and asks to reschedule. An hour later, when we do chat, he explains why. “I’m nocturnal,” he says. “When I have a deadline like I do at the moment it can get out of hand.” He’d been up late working on an EP for a “sci-fi thrash metal band that doesn’t exist in the real world”.
Joshua is one of several engineers carving a niche for themselves in New Zealand. His studio – in a basement near Auckland’s Upper Queen Street – is a handy walk from the city’s cultural epicentre on Karangahape Road, where much of his work is acquired through musicians and friends who frequent the road’s array of music venues, galleries and cafes.
James Goldsmith and Simon Gooding operate similarly in Wellington. Finding work doesn't appear to be a problem they encounter too often. The duo work in adjacent studios, across the road from one another on the western side of Mt Victoria. “Simon has the flash space, I’m in the not-so-flash space,” James says, without a hint of jealousy. Working side-by-side has its perks. “He’s got the only world-class suite in Wellington. It’s really nice to have it across the road”. And occasionally they share. “Sometimes he comes across and uses my studio; takes over my space for a day or two when he needs to do something a bit different.”
The trio make the recording engineer lifestyle sound pretty appetising. When I ask all three if they've ever been pushed out of their comfort zones, they all reply with various versions of, “no, not really.” Simon anecdotally remembers a time when a major label-backed Australian band got a little too drunk in the studio and jammed through the night, only to have a label rep call up the next day and demand that all evidence of the recording be erased.
Nowadays, rock ‘n roll moments with major label artists don't happen too often. His current clients are mostly young, energetic artists, with an enthusiasm to create and innovate. Right now he’s working on several hip hop and R&B projects, with Mzwètwo, a Zimbabwean-born Kiwi rapper; and KVKA, a young rapper whose gruff delivery and grimey flow circuits back to the legendary ODB.
Simon finds their positive energy personally inspiring. “It’s easy to work with an artist who really knows what they want. It’s a confidence thing, when you see that confidence early on in someone’s career it’s really awesome and special.”
James also gets a thrill out of working with young, ambitious artists. He recently recorded Wellington psych-rock group Mermaidens’ debut album, and says his “interaction was based all on the feel of the performance”. His first serious project was back in 2006, helping a young So So Modern record their Friendly Fires EP. He remembers being approached after doing live sound for the band, who asked to record in his studio. He didn’t have one and the band had no money, so they “took everything and crammed it into a hallway [in Grayson Gilmour’s house] and tried to do it there.”
When it comes to recording in unusual places, a hallway is about as crazy as it gets – at least for James. Simon recorded vocals for A Dead Forest Index’s debut album in a Melbourne carpark, aiming to capture the sound of the giant space. He says, “we set one close mic for the vocal and then several mics as far away as possible so that we got a bit of the city ambience.” But it’s in the recording studio where these New Zealand engineers expel most of their energy. Joshua tells me that he records in his studio “95% of the time… recording outside of the studio is a pain because I have to dismantle everything.”
Working away from the studio is a luxury, but thankfully New Zealand's isolation and relatively small population makes escaping the city relatively easy. Auckland engineer Tom Healy remembers recording “in a couple of beautiful holiday-type areas by the beach. One in particular, I remember being on the edge of a cliff overlooking Piha”.
In Auckland, Tom's studio sits alongside another local institution, The Lab. Writing from Singapore, where he’s been doing a bit of mixing work while on holiday, he says, “lots of music for me is about capturing things quickly before the magic wears off, so I have tried to make it a space I can move fast in.” Like the others, he enjoys the comfort of his own studio, even when things don’t go quite as planned. “On Tiny Ruins’ Brightly Painted One I couldn’t get the vocal reverbs to sound quite right, or natural enough. After some mucking around I ended up re-amping the vocal and some of the drum parts through a Fender Princeton Reverb into different areas of The Lab to get a natural tone I felt fitted the album. Turns out the table tennis room and stairwell are nice reverberant spots.”
Simon says his opinion on the ideal recording space is evolving, partially due to a talented R&B singer named Estère, who recorded vocals in her closet then sent them to him to mix. Explaining his theory, he says “when it’s just the vocal, I think you can be anywhere. However, it is important when mixing, because you need a room to represent the frequencies in the right way. Mixing in a room that’s treated, that has the right amount of bass and the right amount of treble, is really important, otherwise you’ll compensate in the wrong direction.”
It's this type of attention to detail that keeps these talented engineers in business. So next time you listen to a record and think the levels are spot on, thank the engineer. They’ve listened to every little detail and made sure everything sounds just right.
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