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 David and I spoke about when we chatted recently.
Producer, Mixer and Musician David set up White Bear Studios in the centre of Manchester back in 2018 after a string of pivotal introductions and opportunities presented themself. I learnt about how he balances his work with his family life and his own music creations; his take on the challenges faced by the industry; and how getting to the first page of Google has shaken up his sales process. He also shared his advice for people looking to set up their own studio and the artists he’s most excited to be working with.
What inspired you to start your studio?
I was in a band and I had this little four-track tape player, and I really wanted to record my band. And this is all we had at the time. I managed to sort of rig it up to my computer, and I was trying my hardest to get the top results that I wanted to get, which was obviously like commercial quality recordings, even though all I had was this little tape thing and I was obviously getting frustrated with it and my Mum turned round to me and said, Well, you've had a year out, why don't you think about going back to learn how to do it properly and see if you can get on a uni course?
So then once I'd done that, again, I took another sort of year out because during University I then was in another band that was a lot more serious than the first band. And we were good. Everyone in the band was a good player and we had a fan base and things were going really well. I was recording all the material for the band whilst I was at University as well, so I had some equipment at home and going around recording bands whilst I was at Uni. So I ended up taking another year out pretty much after Uni to pursue this band a little bit, but also at the same time as doing that, doing a little bit of work at this community centre in Chorley that had a recording studio attached to it.
Then, I don't even know how I came in contact with him, but a guy called Neil Aspinall asked me to come and do these rock school things where kids would come in for an hour and a half a week for six weeks, they'd write a tune and record it at the end. So that got me in at that studio working there. And then once I was doing that, I was like, well, I could use this studio to record the bands that I've been recording in the rehearsal rooms now because I'm sort of in there now.
And the next thing you know, all the other engineers that were sort of doing little bits and pieces at the studio disappeared and I was just running the studio. So that was great. Apart from it was in a community centre that was also booking things like Akido lessons and acoustic Spanish guitar lessons at the same time as me recording heavy metal bands in the next room. And it just went horribly wrong, there were arguments left, right and centre.
So we ended up taking the equipment out of the studio and just putting it in my house for a little bit, but only for about two or three months, because next thing you know, I had this call off somebody who was like, Oh, I built a recording studio in Adlington (which is where I lived at the time), but I'm not going to use it. So I've seen you've got a mobile recording studio online. Would you consider taking over this? And I went and looked at it, it was literally like a two minute walk from the house. It was unbelievable. So I said Yes. I'll take it and it was a good price and just moved all the equipment there. And that was the start of White Bear Studios.
It feels like fate
Yeah, it was literally just taking opportunities and not really overthinking anything. Someone asked me to do something. I thought, well, that sounds good. I'll do that. It felt like that's what I should really do moving forward is just take opportunities and see where they go rather than worrying about money or worrying about what might happen just to go with it and just make music, because that's what I wanted to do.
Going back to your education and qualifications, what did you study at Uni?
I did music, technology and sound design, but my reason for doing that was because I did it at college, and it was a bad course. They had all the gear and the guy who was teaching it was just really a musician, and he knew about music. He was a cool guy, but he wasn't a teacher by any stretch of the imagination. And he didn't tell us anything about what we needed to know to actually do what we were doing. So I ended up finishing college with a really bad grade in it. And I think that was probably mainly because I wasn't really following what I was supposed to be doing in it, I was just wanting to use the technology, create music and just get creative with it rather than follow the syllabus.
I’m sure many people can relate. So what about today, what does a typical day in your life look like now?
So if I'm busy, which it has been for the past few weeks, which is good. Is, I get up, walk Snoop [David’s dog], drive to the studio, work for 8 hours and do a session or two, whatever it is in the day, drive home and then look after my toddler for a couple of hours before going to bed and starting again and then spending time with my wife and child at the weekend.
I have my son for half a day on Monday, so Monday afternoons I set aside for collaboration with some artists from my band just working on individual stuff just to really spread the branches of my own work, do my own thing. I’m not just doing this to make other people's music, because that's not me. I'm a musician as well. I need to be fulfilled by creating music myself as well, so each Sunday afternoon I make time for band practice.
What sort of musicians do you work with?
I do a lot of work with solo artists. A lot of MCs and rappers and all just general people who live in that hip hop bubble, which is actually quite big nowadays because you can throw the word hip hop out there. And it's just generally a culture, isn't it? It's not just a rapper who's trying to sound like Eminem anymore or whatever. It can be anything, all sorts of different sorts of music.
So I get a lot of people who try and do that sort of thing. There’s people who do, like a lot of singing and the soulful side of hip hop as well as a little bit of rapping. And then we've got your singer-songwriters who will come in with an idea that they might have just written something on guitar, and then we'll develop it into a full song. And then you've got your bands as well.
I work with a guy called Ken Moodie. He's a songwriter and he's one of my regulars. He'll come in every week if he's got the time and he'll write something on an ipad on his guitar at home. And then he'll bring me the rough sort of Midi idea of a song, and then we'll start bringing it into place, start playing things properly and really turn into something like a real song. [Hear Ken’s work on Spotify here]
Have you worked with any famous artists?
I've recorded a few bands that have made it all the way to the London BBC Introducing show. And then as most bands that don't succeed, it's because they've fallen apart, they've fallen out or they've just broken up because they can't endure it anymore. I think good bands don't fail, they just break up. So that's happened a few times.
I’ve worked with a few people that have been on TV shows as well, a couple of people who’ve been on The Voice. There’s a girl called Millicent from Preston, she got to the battle round and then after that I did an EP with her which was really good. And someone called Kiki de Ville, I think she was on The Voice and something else as well. [Hear Millcent's EP on on Spotify here]
What do you believe is the biggest challenge the industry currently faces?
I think artists receiving the money that they are sort of owed and deserve from the amount of money that they spend in, say, recording studios or videographers photographers, all these things that they have to do to create a brand and an image for themselves to get taken seriously. And then you go and put your music on Spotify and get 0.006p per stream. But back when we'd buy a CD, if you loved it, you'd listen to it over and over. But then, I bought records and maybe only listened to them two or three times, and I spent £30 on it. So just because someone's only listened to it a few times doesn't mean they didn't enjoy it.
And it means that that margin between the people that were obviously backed by money in the first place so that they get in everybody's faces and they're getting millions of streams are the people who are getting the money and the ones at the bottom are getting nothing.
And I think as well, it's far too easy to put music on there. It's not like it's a free thing, like Soundcloud or YouTube where anyone can put anything up, it should be a little bit more prestigious. I think there should be a certain quality that people should have to get, I don't know who judges that, but something because it's just far too easy for anyone to put music on there and then they go, right, my music's on Spotify, I'm going to be famous, I'm going to get rich off of this. I've got this young lad at the minute that's only come in and done one session and before he'd even come in, he was asking me how much he's expected to earn off of this track that he's going to make. I was like, I don't know. He found out it was like 60p if you got 1,000 streams. So you say you want to make £1,000 off this track, there are easier ways to make £1,000. You’ve got to do it because you love music first, right.
What does your business plan look like after Covid?
I was really struggling after Covid because I had a regular group of people coming before it and things were as busy as I'd like them to be. Because I don't want to be here over four days a week because my brain turns to mush and I can't look after my family and I can't look after myself because I'm just not made to work that hard, especially with the commute I do.
So anyway, I had a nice thing going then I had to shut down for three or four months and then I opened back up again and my really strong couple of regulars sort of kept things going a little bit. Then I had a few bands coming in as well. But even after this summer, when everything came back to normal, it was like where were my enquiries? I was getting nothing. The only things that were coming in were repeat customers. I was getting no emails, getting no phone calls. What is going on here? Something's wrong.
I had some work off my brother who's a videographer. He works with a company upstairs and they had a director come in here who was doing some voiceovers and she was sort of directing me. We went out for a walk around the block and I can't remember how the topic started but she basically said, I've searched for you on Google and your own company didn't even come up first and I couldn't find you. I was like, what? She's like, you need to sort out your website and sort out your SEO because it's awful.
So I took that advice and I sat on it for a while and it came down to September, and things still weren’t changing. So I thought, right, it’s now or never, I've got nothing on, let’s start doing this. I went on Wix and started building a new website, and it took me about two weeks to do it. I was sort of doing bits and pieces on it. And then I've got a friend who does SEO. So I built this website and then he started saying, like, oh, if you just change this little bit here, change this little bit. And then, like, over the next week, we sort of refined it. Next thing you know, I'm on the first page of Google, enquiries are coming in. Boom, boom, boom, like that. So I went from being on the third page of Google, which no one's ever going to find, because they're pretty much going to get what they want off that first page to being on the first page. And you got people phoning in and emailing and all sorts.
So now I'm ready to just sit and work with that now because everything suddenly changed and I'm getting things coming in. And now I'm sort of just learning how to maybe do sales a little bit more again, because before I think if people were actually getting in touch, maybe I was like, a last ditch, we really need a studio. Yeah, we'll just say yeah sort of thing so now when the first few enquiries came in, no one was getting back to me. I was like, maybe I just need to not just be throwing prices at them straight away, I need to get them into conversations and just get people talking before, I actually hand over the prices.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to set up their own studio?
Do as much work as you can before you start paying for somewhere. So like, what I did was I got a pro tool set up that was completely subpar. It was an ancient computer, but it had pro tools on it, it had a stack load of plugins on it, but I could use probably about ten of them before the thing would crash, which was great because it made me really resourceful with what I had. But what I did with that is take it round to the rehearsal rooms, charge bands next to nothing to do it, record them then, and take it home and just mix it and just get the craft to get it right before even opening the studio. So people were already wanting to work with me because they knew I had a good sound before I was even in the studio.
It just takes time training your ears and understanding what you want to achieve with it as well, and referencing to other music that you want to do, because you could sit there in a room with a set of speakers and think if something sounds awesome, but then it's not relevant you could go and put it in a car or put it next to someone else's in a similar sort of thing that's commercial and think why the levels are just all over the place. Sometimes that can work, but more often than not, people expect a certain sound, a certain standard with a certain genre of music. So you've got to sort of conform to it a little bit.
That's the advice anyway. So just make sure you're good at it before you start opening the studio.
I think as well, this is a good bit of advice, is if you're a musician is to be in a band and be gigging, because that's how I got most of my work at the beginning was just by talking to the bands and saying, Well, I recorded our band, check it out. And they thought oh well that sounds sick. So if you can do that and not even own a studio and just like rent other people's studios out, then that's probably even better because I don't think Manchester needs any more studios. ;-)
Oh, and get an understanding girlfriend or boyfriend. One that maybe might be able to support you for the first ten years or so of your recording studio’s existence because there's going to be massive lumps where you’ve got no money. So you need someone to be covering that rent when you're not bringing the money in! And don't go silly spending money. I've been building this equipment up for ten years.
Do you know any local, up and coming bands and groups you're excited about?
Yeah, well, just everyone that I'm working with that's been putting in some seriously hard work. You know, some people come and go and they come in for one session and they make out they're going to be coming every week and then they don't and that's it, they've basically made one track to show their mates in the car and that's it.
I'm working with a band called Mewn that I'm really excited about. They've got that sort of Manchester sound, they’ve kind of got a bit of a Joy Division meets Morrissey meets Portishead and then Radiohead [Give them a listen on Spotify or SoundCloud]. They're just doing their own thing with it. I think they could do something really good. I did an EP with them last summer, and it's just been released recently, and they've been in this summer and a couple of weeks ago to finish off their second EP, which probably won't be out for another twelve months. They really know what they want. They're really in tune with their own ideas and their own sound and things.
So, I'm a producer. I do produce people and tell people I think this is what they should be doing, but Mewn know exactly what they're doing. I can just sit and listen to them discuss all day long. I'm like, this is great because some people just don't know what they want and they just want it done now and they want to be walking out with the CD. These guys are happy to mull ideas over and get that guitar solo just right. So the whole idea and the whole picture is really good when it's finished. So I think they'll do something. I think they're doing quite well on the gig circuit as well, they've got a few local magazines as well. They're doing things a little bit more old school as well in terms of, like, they're not just trying to hammer social media to try and get famous. They're going in local magazines doing all the sort of like, yeah, playing it like you would have done in the 90s. (And you can still follow them on social platforms - https://instagram.com/mewnband, https://twitter.com/mewnband, https://facebook.com/mewnband.)
And then there's a couple of the solo artists that I work with. A guy called J. Kosmos who I've been working with for years. He's just put a video out where he bought a NASA spacesuit, like, it was obviously made. It wasn't a real one, but it was made in America and sent, and he spent lots of money just so he could have this video and have a really good looking spacesuit. And he's been around the country filming this video and sent me a little clip of it and it looks so good. But he's a guy who'll come in and he'll book in two sessions a week for, like, three months, and just do loads and loads and loads and loads of tracks, and then he has a few tracks to sit on and then go right. Okay. Right now I need to go and do the other things that I need to do. He's a really hard worker. He'll come in and we'll sit and be tweaking compressor and EQ settings for, like, a full session just to get that sound exactly right on his voice for the track. Yeah, he's got a good eye for detail as well. [Listen to J on Spotify and SoundCloud. Check out the video on his YouTube channel and follow him on Twitter.]
Shout out to everyone else that's my regulars, there's a lady called Gitanjali Pritchard who I make trance music with and she's a really hard worker as well. She only comes in once a month, but she spends that little bit of money that she has left every month to come in and work on some trance music because she loves trance. And she'll sing her thing over it. At the minute, she's put things on Spotify. And that's what I discussed with her last time she was in last week and saying, there's so many other things you can be doing to get this music out there and she's totally taken it on board. I've been getting texts off her all week saying I've sent it to this person, I've sent it to this person. DJs and all sorts. Labels. Anyone that could just play it, that's not just putting it on Spotify and expecting people will find it because it's like throwing a penny into the ocean and expecting someone to come across it, it's never going to happen.
I also want to mention Anna Lynch who’s in my funk/soul band. She has a great voice and sounds like Amy Winehouse. Actually, she recently fronted an Amy Winehouse tribute at the Blues Kitchen in Machester and it sold out so we're all really proud of her. [Give her a listen on SoundCloud.]
Any final thoughts you want to share with my audience?
There’s often that thinking of, you know, I can do stuff in my bedroom with Ableton. But I think there's still a massive quality in going to a studio and having somebody like a producer or even just an engineer, just someone to think outside of the box for you. Especially if you're a solo artist. Just help you develop the ideas a little bit, because even me, I make my own stuff just me as well. But I'll always at least send it to a mastering engineer rather than try and do the whole thing myself and put it out. So at least one other person has had their fingers on it and said, this is what's wrong with it all or this is really good, you know.
I think a lot of people jumped into making electronic music over lockdown as well because they could get some software and start putting ideas down and it only takes one person to make something. Not necessarily the best thing, because I do believe in working with people to create something better, especially if you've got an idea. Especially for myself, I might have an idea of a song, and it tends to be because I've heard something else or maybe two other things or something like that and I'm trying to merge an idea. Then as soon as you bring another person into that, who doesn't know what your inspirations are for writing the song, they'll just hear it from a completely different angle, and then they'll bring some originality to it. Then you get something that's actually truly original.