Entretiens bloqués avec des propriétaires de studios de musique

Alec Brits, The Cabin

We take some time out to speak to Alec about his experience as a recording studio owner and what advice he has for others in the industry.

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 Alec Brits and I spoke about when we chatted recently.

Alec runs and owns The Cabin, a recording studio that has been based in Liverpool’s creative Baltic Triangle since 2017. During our conversation, I learnt about

  • Why he feels it’s important for artists to be with him throughout the entire production proces
  • The three distinctly different ways that the studio ru
  • How COVID has been “the almighty hoof up [his] butt” to get him going

He also shared his advice for people looking to set up their own studio and his favourite project of last year.

Could you tell us a little bit about your studio

Yeah, sure thing. The studio in its first incarnation kind of started in 2014. Back when I was in a rehearsal room, and then in April 2017, I custom built my own space in a warehouse with Lee from Sort Rehearsals. And Sort Rehearsals is a rehearsal complex in the Baltic, creative area of Liverpool. And we basically try to supply very high-quality rehearsal spaces per hour for bands. Because a lot of bands don't really want to have a monthly room because it's not really financially viable.

And then I put my studio, which is called The Cabin, inside of that space. And it was designed to never feel like a studio, more like a living room with the best quality equipment in it. A lot of my studio experiences growing up and over the past 10-15 years is that studios kind of feel quite imposing. Especially when you go into really high-end facilities, it feels like the room itself is jarring, you know. I don't know if you've been to any of these kinds of places, but, it's not a nice sensation, when I'm trying to sing or if I'm trying to play and it just feels like I'm this tiny voice in this massive space.

So I wanted to create something that was predominantly very friendly to singer-songwriters, who are used to doing demos, and garage bands in their kitchens or bedrooms. So I wanted it to just be like a bigger version of that. But be able to record at the highest quality that I could manage at the time.

So that's how it all started. And now it's kind of evolved into a little bit more than that. So now, not only is it a nice place for people to write and record, but it's also my filming studio for my YouTube channel. So that's great.

That's really cool. Tell me a bit about your YouTube channel

So the YouTube channel started during the pandemic. I was, kind of, halfway through the pandemic and I was fortunate to be with my partner at the time, and we were discussing, like, if the phone doesn't ring, what do you do? You know, like, we're so tied into this concept of somebody has to hire you for you to be able to make money or to feel valued in a professional sense.

So, I got to the point where I thought to myself, one of the things that I like, as much as playing drums and recording artists, is studio equipment. I absolutely love the tools that I have. So it makes sense for me to talk about that. And I have a very close relationship with one of the biggest audio distributors in the country, which is a company called Studiocare. And they're, very handily, about 20 minutes away from the studio. So I approached the Head of Sales and Marketing on their side. And I said to him, you know, I'm thinking about starting a YouTube channel about reviewing audio equipment and highlighting songwriting and using good songs within audio equipment so that it's more engaging and more fun for people to watch; to kind of break down the barriers a bit. And he said to me, that sounds awesome, let's take a walk down the aisles of Studiocare’s warehouse with the trolley. And we just loaded up the trolley and he said there you go, there’s your first 10 videos. So that kind of started!

That was in August last year and the channel is still small. I've just got up to just about 2,300 subscribers in the span of a year. But I will be focusing a lot more aggressively on pushing that even harder and not just focusing on reviews and tutorials but taking songs from start to finish and bringing people in on that process again, to kind of break down the barriers and to show that none of this is rocket science. You can just crack on and get it done, you know.

That this will make my next question kind of interesting then. So what does a day in your life look like?

Well, I am a creature of habit. So I like to wake up around six o'clock in the morning, I go out for a 70-minute walk around Liverpool docks, I come back, I have myself breakfast, and some vitamins. And then obviously shower, and get to the studio between 8:25 and 8:35 in the morning.

And then if I have clients coming in on that day, they arrive between 9:30 and 10:00. So I like to have an hour in the morning to either go over any recalls from the client from the day before or from mix session that I'm working on. And then the client arrives. We work, usually from 9:30, until about 6:30. I don't particularly enjoy working much more than like 10 hours a day, I think your creative decisions kind of get a bit altered.

And that's, you know, when clients come in. I have either songwriters coming in, I have label executives coming in, or I have musicians who are sessioning for other people.

If it's a songwriter coming in, then I'm usually tasked with doing all the instrumentation on their record, as well as producing it for them. So they usually come in with, like, a voice note. And then we discuss in the morning, all right, I think the instrumentation should be x, y, and z. And then I'll set up the drum kit and set up the guitar amplifiers, I'll set up everything, and then we'll get a guide track down, and then I'll track all the instrumentation before about three o'clock. And then we'll get some vocals down. Next day, we'll track some more vocals, add any extra instrumentation. If I need another musician to come in for something specific, like lap steel, or something that is not part of my usual five instruments, then we hire somebody in for that day. And then the third day is the mix. And I like to have the artists with me when I'm mixing.

And the third day might not be the third, like, consecutive day. Sometimes if I'm recording something, then we’ll spend the two days recording the song. And I like to have about 10 days off from that particular thing. It gives me enough time to work on five or six other tunes so that when I come back to it, I've got a lot more objectivity, which makes the mix process a lot better. And on a mix day with the client there, it's not uncommon for us to go like, Oh, this needs a glockenspiel or something ridiculous. So they might arrive at 9:30, we'll stop mixing around 11:00 and get the mix done. And then to finish that process, 10 days later, they might come in again for a couple of hours for any tweaks and stuff.

And I think it's important for the artists to be with me throughout the entire process. Because I think so many times people have had horrible experiences where they'll record something they really like to get a desk bounce, and then the mix comes back. And it's like, what? How? How did we get here? So in the past, my ego wasn't ready for people to sit with me during the arduous process that is mixing. But I found it's actually saved me a lot of time, which helps the profit margin of the studio quite dramatically. So yeah, put the ego aside and crack on.

Tell me if I'm waffling, by the way because there's three distinct different ways that the studio runs all the time. So that's if an artist is in there. If I'm working with a band, that has the same process, but with the whole band, which is kind of cool.

And then if I'm working for a label executive or whatever, then they'll often come in and they'll have some of the production in place. And I'll be doing additional production and tracking the vocals and kind of finishing off. Which we then send to an external mix engineer, whoever that may be.

The final way [of using the studio] is when I'm recording a YouTube video, and this is where discipline gets a little bit tricky because you're by yourself. But basically, I arrive at the same time as every other day. Usually with an acoustic guitar or a piano, I start writing and I need to write a verse, a pre-chorus and the chorus and sometimes a bridge. I need one and a half minutes of music. And I craft a new song for every video that I do. It forces me to get more material out so that I can finish and actually write an album in the future. And because I know the public will be hearing it I don't half-arse it.

So yeah, I will usually write and record over a day and a half, and then I will do all the filming post doing the recording. In the beginning, I tried to film myself while I was writing and singing and stuff. And it never really, I just didn't feel sincere about it. So it was better for me to mime and get the music as good as possible. And then to mime, the parts on video on top. It’s faster. And then on the third day, I edit and publish. So every time that YouTube video goes up, that song is still fresh out of the oven. It's like two days old at the most, you know.

So those are the three ways that the studio operates. Unless it's external mixing and mastering, then it's just me, from 8:30 mixing until about 4pm, and then I go home.

That's really interesting. We've talked a bit about this already, but obviously Covid-19 was a massive issue to anyone with a physical location. And obviously, you've pivoted in the sense of YouTube. Have you had to kind of change the business in any other ways to cope with, forgive the cliche, the ‘new normal’?

Yeah, um, the business has changed, of course. I think that, you know, in the past, if somebody would cancel a session 24 hours before, they would still be charged the session fee, because, unless something very drastic happened which is very rare, then that would happen. But with Covid that’s changed. I had a three-week booking in July last year, and the people arrived, they were coming in from France to record. And they got a test, the day two test, before they were going to come in and they tested positive and they were quarantined at the Hilton for 10 days. And that obviously just stopped all recordings. So that ground the whole project to a halt.

So although we've had fantastic government support in the studio, when that stopped, and Covid hasn't stopped, it's just… you know.

And I like to have very clean facilities and stuff. So if anybody is not feeling great, then don't come into the studio. And I can't charge for that. So from that sense, it's made a lot of things a little bit more, kind of like, eggshell-y, you know. You're walking on eggshells and you’re kind of like okay, I really hope that everybody's taking their vitamins and has had the damn vaccine and you can get on with work, you know. But yeah, that's been tough.

The other side of it has also been like, I haven't really worked with many bands, because I don't want to have too many people in the room at one time, you know. So even though I have a live room when I need it I don't like to have more than like four people in the room at any one time. Just because it gets a bit intense, you know. And it's also impacted like, having been alone or working with such small teams for the past year and a half, when I'm in a bigger scenario, I used to be quite good at managing, you know, 8-10 people comfortably. But now I'm just kind of like, Man, this is a mess. There's people everywhere. And I don't like it. So I have to now relearn how to deal with people management. And trying to keep the place clean and sanitised. I’ve never sanitised so many pieces of studio equipment in my life. I mean, it's not great.

Yeah. And unfortunately, I think like you say, this is not going away quickly. This is probably going to be the next couple of years for everyone. Apart from YouTube, are you looking at any other things with the studio or any other expansion plans?

Yeah, I think the big thing for me now, and it's kind of my mission for 2022, is kind of like breaking down the walls and showing people who are a bit younger, who might be thinking about starting a studio, that none of this is insane. If you put in the right amount of time, you can get on with it. And I think that YouTube and interviews and a strong social media presence are the only way for people to get to this point.

Because there's so many successful YouTube channels out there that are represented by people who may have had a relatively successful past, like a hit or two, or something where there was this moment that they could peak and then make a choice of what they were going to do. But I think there's very few representatives of somebody who's a bit younger, who can go like, Hey, listen, if you're kind of good at one thing and you keep working at it, it's gonna work, you just need to really work your ass off. That's it. And to kind of peel back those layers. So that's my goal for this year.

And for the projects that I'm working on, now, I am more focused on the artist development side of things. I would rather work with two or three people a year and really get into it, you know. Because in the past I’ve just never been able to do that. So if I can have a YouTube channel that will grow over time and start to become financially independent of itself, that will allow my creative and development side for actual albums and artists to really push forward. So Covid has been the almighty hoof up my butt to get me going.

Yeah, it's an opportunity as well as a challenge, I think. So this is a bit of a cheeky question but, have you worked with anyone famous that you can talk about?

Yeah, of course. I've worked with a couple of breaking through artists. The first one was when the studio first started the band called MiC LOWRY. They were fantastic, all boy band. We recorded their first couple of EPs and that launched them into the trajectory that they're at now. [You can listen to them on Spotify and SoundCloud. Check them out on YouTube. Or follow them on Instagram and Twitter]

And then most recently, one of my absolute favourite projects of last year was mixing the Clean Cut Kid’s Mother’s Milk album. Mike and I go back some time. And when he'd recorded Mother's Milk, it was one of the most incredible albums I've ever heard. And we were in BrewDog in Liverpool having a pint together. And he was like, so you fancy mixing it? I was like, what the hell? Absolutely. Let's do it. So we worked together for seven days. I think it was 12 mixes in seven days. He was one of the first clients that ever sat in with me during the mix process. And that was really wicked. If you check out their Mother's Milk documentary online, you'll see me pop in for a little bit. And you get to see the incredible creativity that is that record. And those people. Mike is one of the most incredible people I've ever met. And every person in that band is just ungodly good at what they do, you know? [You can listen to them on Spotify and SoundCloud and follow them on Instagram and Twitter]

Awesome. So final question for you. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to set up their own studio?

Yeah. Focus on the service. Don't focus on the gear. I have been very lucky; most of my clients have been with me for more than three or four years. And that's not because I have a nice neat microphone preamplifier. It's because I care, you know. If you're going to be starting out, and you're not only recording yourself, then you need to provide a really good service that makes artists feel like they're being cared for.

The next thing is, manage your time as if you were managing your best friend's career. Because as producers and creatives and engineers, we, for some stupid reason, are proud of saying that we work 80 hour work weeks. And that makes no sense. You wouldn't want your best mate doing that. You would talk them out of it. And we have the strange Stockholm syndrome with the studio over time, you know?

And once those two things are sorted out, and you're charging appropriately for the service that you provide. And figuring out how to charge for something is the single hardest thing to do. So, yeah, if you can focus on those first two things, the rest of things tend to kind of balance out a bit better.

And don't forget about your friends, you know. They don't forget about you. And it doesn't mean you have to see somebody every week. But make sure that you schedule in, if you are in a partnership with somebody, have a date night, during the week, and make sure that you have one day minimum a week that you can look after yourself. That way, your productivity will constantly be high. If you're working seven days a week, and you bring that down to five or six, with a couple of nights off, your productivity will be higher than working seven days.

And yeah, I think that's the main thing. And make sure your studio is clean, hoover and use nice scented wipes so that the studio doesn't smell like somebody has been hibernating in a cave for too long. And those are my current things. If we talked again in a year maybe they'd be different, but I hope that they're not.