In this series of articles, I chat with people who share my love of recording so much that they make their career out of it. Here's what Lewis and I spoke about when we chatted recently.
Lewis, and he co-founder Tom, started Dead Basic Studios in Manchester in 2016.
During our chat I learnt about:
- Their humble beginnings of renting out their own rehearsal space to offset recording and equipment costs
- The serendipitous events and momentum that led to them renting their current, 4x bigger space
- How rehearsal and recording spaces are about more than just the physical space for artists to rehearse in, it should be an experience
He also shared his advice for people looking to set up their own studio and the, now deep irony, behind the studio’s ‘Dead Basic’ name.
So, first off, could you tell me a little bit about the studio, please?
Yeah. It was a hobby that kind of got out of control really! The co-founders, myself and Tom, we were in a band together, we had a rehearsal space and we quickly realised that when we weren't using our rehearsal space, other people could be using that rehearsal space and it was a good way of offsetting things like recording costs, and equipment costs. And as we became more popular in that respect, I started to learn to record bands by making small demos, basically my mates and bands on the local scene that I liked.
From there, we developed that into a two room space. I think the total square footage was about 300 square foot. Just two tiny practice rooms that were next door to one another. And we sort of used those as a rudimentary live room and control room setup. And then when they weren't in use, they were both big enough to have a rehearsing band in. So that's kind of how we got momentum.
And then, I think it was, like, just before the pandemic, we knew that the building that we were renting out, right in the centre of Manchester, was quite shot. We knew it needed a lot of work done on it. We knew it was going to be another quick victim of gentrification. So we actually had in mind to start finding our own place. And it was serendipity. A friend of ours moved out of the country who had a much bigger purpose-built recording studio. We had our strongest first quarter ever so off that momentum, we were like, right, we're gonna take on this studio,. Not sure whether it was a good idea or not, but things seem to be going really well.
And then the pandemic hit. And there was a sketchy part, where we were renting two spaces, the first 300-400 square foot space and like, you can fit the old studio inside the new studio four times I think. [You can see a video tour of the new studio on Dead Basic's YouTube channel] So we had this massive, empty studio that needed loads of renovation work and loads of lights, and all the gear installing, and we had to move it all. Suddenly, there were pandemic restrictions on. So it was a bit sketchy for a bit. But actually, it gave us time to go in individually, and sort of renovate.
There were no clients during the pandemic, you know, they prevented any kind of bands meeting up and using the space they’d normally book, which was a shame. But we managed to sustain ourselves because we do a lot of recording, mixing, and mastering stuff online. And everybody started recording at home and sending their mixes to work on. So I ended up working on about two or three albums worth of material, which is a lot for me, considering we're both kind of part time.
Since then it’s kind of bounced back a little bit and we are doing fairly well at the moment. I don’t know how everyone else is doing, but we’re doing ok.
Yea, speaking to other people, it seems a lot of artists have written material during lockdown. And now they're ready and coming up and ready to record it. So there's been like a bit of a boom in creativity, which is really cool.
Yeah, I think initially, we saw that. When we first came back, initially, we saw this surge of people who had no means of their own to record themselves or build content themselves. Because we do a lot of video work as well.
As a studio, it's not just about having the latest gear, or the most expensive equipment or whatever. I mean, obviously a certain part of it is that. That helps you to get to the next sort of level of production. But I think with all this, during the pandemic, we've kind of discovered that it’s the experience that we had that was helping us to help a band more so than it was the physical space. It’s the community of bands and artists that fill around us that became a sort of self-sustaining model. Which is really good. Because it means that it's forced us to communicate rather than just clicking ‘like’ on Instagram, Facebook, or whatever.
So we've been bringing people on. I did online Zoom things working through people’s mixes and stuff. I know Tom does video conferences, and bits and pieces with all his video clients. Because it's just the best way to get ideas onboard. So for the first time ever, it felt like the extra technology will be used for a positive rather than just like Facebook being a time thief or whatever. It’s a lot better in that respect.
And now, I know that we're kind of a dying breed. Because we only offer a large live room, it's like a traditional recording studio setup, it's not like a production studio. We have a large live room, control room, several booths set up, like a dedicated drum room, guitar room, vocal room, etc. So it's kind of like, our clients now come to us to do what they can't do at home. Because during the pandemic era, you know, the buzzword was you can make your own records in bedrooms. And it's like, yeah, you can, but this guy's done 10,000 more hours of it than you and he’s got a grand piano and a massive live room and a better collection of mics than you. So when people need to finish things off, or when they want to take things up to the next level then that’s when they’ll bring in their half done demos or productions. And then, like, just sprinkle fairy dust on it with us. Which is great, because it means I get to work with more people who are sending over more things. Which has been really cool.
Yeah, that's what I've heard from a lot of other people. And that ties nicely into my next question, which is post Covid, what do you think your business will look like? Are you making any changes? Are there any kind of opportunities you're trying to pounce on?
It’s a weird one really because I can’t treat it fairly because we're obviously coming from a much smaller facility pre-Covid to post-Covid. We don't know what a proper year is like yet, in this studio. We were busy as soon as we were able to open again. But it's kind of hard to get a measure of how good it could be.
At the moment, we've got plenty of things to do, we've taken on an assistant/intern and they're managing bookings for us, they’re helping us get our shit together because there's just so much going on.
We worked out that covering our overheads is made easy by having a lot of varying clients wanting different things. I mean, we're just found that we've just sort of nailed down into this model of offering a space greater than a home studio setup, you know. We can cater for live reproduction as well, so you can set it up like a stage. So we’re getting people coming in to do anything that they can't do at home. Giving people that opportunity at a fair price seems to be doing well. So it’s proved to be a good move for us at the moment.
And then I’ve missed seeing groups of people together, personally. When you build a rapport and a camaraderie with four/five people turning up three, four times a month for a rehearsal. You might see five or six groups a month. I miss that. And like, you know, now gigs are back on, people are sort of venturing out to other people's gigs and stuff like that. But there were a lot of people who’d come down from home and just wait 15 minutes over into the next session to see their mates and I've kind of missed that a little bit.
Yeah, I do think generally people are ready to come out now. And they're bored essentially.
Yeah, massively. We've definitely seen that. I mean, there's no excitement quite like the excitement of a loud drum kit going like the clappers. And you see that that weird sort of Neanderthal joy come across people's faces when they're playing the live room and it's the first time that they've heard themselves do it well for a while at, like, gig volume. And nothing can ever really replace that.
So final question for you. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to set up their own studio?
Yeah. Don't rush out spending all your money on things that you don't need. Like, if you're running a space where you can have bands come over and see, making sure it's not a cesspit is 100x more important than what gear you've got. You can have the best gear in the world, but if you’ve got no social awareness or awareness of the fact that people need to be comfortable in a recording environment or in a rehearsal environment, and they need to feel at home and likely to switch off and concentrate fully, like, every penny will be wasted until you’ve addressed that.
If you're bad at doing that yourself, ask a friend to help you. Over my musical career, I've rehearsed in so many dives. Places like that, you know, where the mic is shot because it’s damp, you can hear the band next door, it’s horrible, you know.
And that goes for yourself as well, like, if you encourage people into the studio, then you become a member of whatever thing they're working on. If it's a one-to-one thing, you've got to have your shit even more down than when working with a band. Because if there’s a group of people already there, you can kind of blend into it and become like an extra member of the band for a couple of days. And that's fine. But creating anything like that works both ways and there's got to be a level of trust and everyone’s got to be on the same page. And if it isn't working in that marriage you’ll never get it to work. If you find that you're struggling with relationships like in your day to day life like that, then maybe you’re more suited to something not on the front line or dealing with people.
When we were starting up, it was never supposed to have grown to what it is now. And we're immensely proud of that. Because every chance or opportunity that we've had, we’ve just said, yeah, let's do that, that’s a good idea. Because we've had no pressure. Ever. Because we started out so small. That’s the name of the studio, you know, it’s Dead Basic. Because we really had nothing, you know. It was like, you’d turn up, we've got a good PA and you'll be able to hear yourself and that's pretty much all that we could offer. And it was sort of like, you know, we were a cheap place to use. Now, obviously, there's a deep irony in that. Now being sat in a fully kitted out, recording space with a grand piano and six drum kits. But that’s what you can get if you work hard, isn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. That's the journey though isn’t it. You can't get there without getting the fundamentals right
What, I would say to absolutely anyone as well is, if you are still planning on being a working musician, you can give that idea up straight away. There are these miracle worker people that I see making it work, where they can not only commit to being in, like, a full time live band or an act that they write for or perform with, or whatever, and making it into a gig schedule, but I have yet to manage that myself. Like, this has come at a sacrifice of my own musical outings because I've just been throwing myself into other people's stuff.
And obviously, it’s running a business isn’t it? and, you know, the perils of being self-employed when you find yourself knocking back bar gigs, where you're going to get like a cut of £50 between 7 of you to run your studio, which is fair enough I suppose. But I do miss the whole live thing so maybe a bit more of that would be nice.