Behind every great track and band, there are the unsung heroes. The producers. The studio engineers. The mixers. The men and women who make it their mission to make every track that comes their way the best it can possibly be. The North has never been shy of talented individuals who know what it is that makes records tick, and this year we are teaming up with two of the best in the business for Kickstart.
We sat down with Graham Davidson and George Sloan of Half Bap Studios to chat about starting up the studio, their involvement in the local scene and, their favourite recording toy.
► Music, obviously, has been a massive part of both your lives. What is your first memory associated with it?
Graham: There was always music on in my house as a kid, so I don’t think there is any specific incident that sticks out. My dad was obsessed with Thin Lizzy and Queen, my mum was into David Bowie, Elton John and stuff, my older sisters were into their pop music, so it was just a constant presence. We didn’t really ‘think’ about music in our house, it was just always on.
George: I remember, I must have been in P5 in school, they brought us out to do all these music tests. I had no idea what was going on, but I remember they just told me “you are going to play Cello.” And I thought it was some massive guitar thing so I was really excited. Then I got home and there was one in the house and I was thinking “… the fuck is that?! That’s not cool!” [laughs]
► What age then did you start considering music as more than a hobby and something you were actively involved in?
Graham: Well my first instrument was when I was eight, then guitar from eleven, but I think at fourteen that was pretty much me, hooked on properly writing songs and playing.
George: Pretty much the same. Moved from playing a classical instrument to playing the drums when I was about sixteen, joined my first band. Then we both went to college when we were eighteen or nineteen. Graham was slightly older. When we got in though, for me anyway, I was just like “this is a lifetime choice, there’s no going back.” And it’s just been amazing ever since.
Graham: My old drummer, who’s now a BAFTA-winning director [Micheal Lennox, ‘Derry Girls’], was doing theatre studies when I was about sixteen. He was saying to me “Graham, next year they are starting a music course” and I just knew right then and there I wasn’t doing any A-Levels. From fourteen there was no going back.
► What was the local music scene like when you were growing up?
George: There were loads of great bands to come out of there, Steven
Macartney, Lafaro, Farriers…
Graham: And So I Watch You From Afar were coming up, Mojo Fury, Axis Of. Thinking about it, there were actually loads of class bands. It was great, man.
George: It was just the perfect time really. Even the ones we were in college with, I loved all those guys.
Graham: Back then, the 09-10 period… See I was part of the scene before that, and I was noticing a dip, and then all of a sudden it started getting massive again. You had Pigstock, Glasgowbury, the start of Stendhal, there were so many cool artists and festivals going around, local gigs seemed bigger than normal gigs! That lasted for a few years and then there was another dip and it seems to be picking up again.
George: That was the class thing about being in College at that time, all our mates were in bands and Radar was absolutely MASSIVE at the time. Like, Thursday nights, we would go out for a few pints, head to Radar and there would always be good music on, no matter who was playing. We miss that now, that one weekly night.
► You started working together pretty quickly after you left college. Tell me the story of the studio.
Graham: We handed our last assignment in and we started heading up to Belfast. Anyway, we met this guy called Biggy who used to run rehearsal rooms years and years ago on North Street. So we got talking and he said he was getting the keys to [gestures around room] this building. He said he was going to be opening up an art centre. I went up with him to have a look around, and at the time this place was just an empty shell. Where we are now in the control room was his practice space, so we rented a wee room down the bottom of this floor for our studio, knocking through a wall or two.
After a year or two he left and we took on the building. So we’ve been here since 2011 but we’ve really been running the place since 2013. We renovated the place about two years ago, made it bigger and really it’s just gone from strength to strength.
George: It’s always been a great building exercise. Every year we’ve been getting better equipment, I mean we started with a Digi 003 and some speakers and us and now we’re flying.
► What services are offered by the studio?
George: Recording would be our main intake, doing a lot of local acts. People will send us in the track a lot of the time and we’ll mix and master them for them
Graham: Rehearsal space is available, we do sound design for theatre, we do voiceover work for loads of different companies. We’ve done gigs in here before, the Sofar sessions were in here… Recording, mixing and mastering would be the main three anyway.
George: I think what makes us different though is how bespoke the studio is. Graham and myself work with a lot of different artists and are very much hands-on as producers. The main thing is aiming to make them comfortable and making the song the best it can be. That’s our unique selling point, how we can push that track further. I think the production is a big side to what we do.
► I’ve read about your recording process, and how its a mix of hands-on but also very free flowing. Can you walk me through it?
Graham: We speak to the band and see what their vision is first. I start off with a very quick live take to hear what it sounds like, I get an idea of the stuff we should add or take away and get a pair of fresh ears around it. Then we go in and start recording, and I work with the guys on their tone, getting it right for the song, getting the right melodies. Occasionally I’ll do a bit of writing with them as well. Sometimes a band will come in with 75% of it done and we’ll finish it together.
George: Me and Graham work in different projects now, so it’s a slightly different work style. I would mostly work with singer-songwriters these days, so you’ll have people coming in with just their song on guitar, so I’ll go through the song; the tempo, the lyrics. And then I try to work on the instrumentation, find out who they want on it, what works best for their sound. I think, for me, that’s the most fun bit, building a song up from its roots into a fully produced track with drums, strings, Tibetan throat choir, the lot.
I think for me as well, It’s about making them comfortable in Half Bap. Our main aim is to avoid this sterile environment, avoid “getting it right-first-time” thinking, keeping it very free and loose…
Graham: No egos.
George: Exactly, no egos, it’s about the finished product, if everyone is happy with it at the end. I think more than once I’ve said to Graham like, “Should I light some candles, set the scene?”
Graham: That’s what we’ve found, if you make the studio more comfortable to them, they’re more relaxed, they sound better and play better and everyone opens up to trying new things. Like a Glockenspiel in the middle of a punk rock song. It works! But how we work is good because, we can come to a band with ideas and if they take them then, you know, great! But if they don’t, there’s nothing personal, because there are no egos.
► On the subject of the stdio, what’s your favourite toy to use?
George: That’s a hard question.
Graham: Aw man. I don’t know! I would use this a lot, the Amek Pure Path sounds so good.
George: I would be with Graham, it’s one of my favourite toys to use.
Graham: We’ve got this guitar pedal, which was given to me for free. It only costs about a tenner anyway and we have so many pedals that cost hundreds of pounds, and it’s this wee cheap delay pedal that shouldn’t be any good. But it’s just got this tone on it that I can’t get off of anything else and so it makes its way onto most of the records. It’s a Behringer but it just sounds class. Everyone who comes in with their guitar rigs, they always use it. But that’s very much a ‘diamond in the rough’ type of tool. Loads of amps, mics, guitars, we have a lot of favourites
George: We have a permanent loan of a Fender Princeton that I love, we would use that on nearly every record that we make. It’s one of the most beautiful amps I’ve ever had the pleasure of using… to be honest, there’s way too many [laughs].
► What, in your opinion, is a misconception that people have about being in a recording studio?
Graham: That it takes the length of a song. Like when people come in and think “We’ve only got three songs so it should only take around three hours.” It’s a longer process than people would expect. It CAN be done quick, but we don’t really do demos, what we do requires a bit more time and attention to detail.
George: One of the things I hate is when people say “Sure we’ll just fix it in the box.” They’ll just say, if something isn’t going right, “Can you not just fix it?” And I mean I can, but it’s going to sound really robotic.
Graham: And it’s going to take me an hour to edit it and take you two minutes to record it [laughs]. I think people assume we have a magic wand that we wave and can fix all the mistakes. It’s a hard one to explain, to be honest.
George: With the technology, theoretically there is no problem you can’t fix. But when that mixes with the performance and you start fine tuning everything it becomes less warm, less human. There a lot of studios who do that and do it very well, but that’s not how we work.
Graham: We tend to not use loops for instance, because when the guitarist is playing a riff, each time they come back round, they are playing it a little differently, it adds energy to the song and we like that.
George: A little bit of magic.
► What advice then do you give to bands when they’re coming in?
Graham: Be rehearsed. I don’t mind if there are parts of their song that needs attention, a bit of writing and stuff, but you can have bands who come in with 25% of the song written and they don’t know where they’re going with it. It can be a bit of a waste of time and money.
George: Even if someone has a full song and they say “Oh XYZ is coming in to play drums,” and they come in and haven’t heard the song, or don’t know how it goes, and you spend another 3/4 hours with them and then the day is gone. So being rehearsed is paramount.
► How important is it for you guys to be connected with the streets and spirit of Belfast?
Graham: Oh essential. Essential. The sound that we use is very much from the streets, it’s from Belfast, the studio is in the heart of The Cathedral Quarter. There’s so much art and creative people around here, you can’t not be inspired by everything around you.
George: For me it’s massive. My favourite story about this is, years and years ago we were recording something and the guy wanted a resonator or something on his track. So we walked outside for a second and Stephen Macartney was sitting out in the street, and we just invited him in to play on the record.
Graham: He came up, played a bit and then we went out for a pint after. it was lovely. We are in the local scene as musicians as well. We play here, we love it, we hold it very dear. And doing something like this is just another way for us to contribute, to add to it and protect it.
George: It’s also great to showcase the talent as well. We are lucky to be around here, people are always coming in looking to record with us and showcasing what they have to offer.
Graham: Music at the minute is so brilliant.
► You’ve worked with a vast swathe of artists. What was your favourite thing to record?
Graham: I’ll not go into specifics because each project is different in its own way, be it genres or styles. I would still do a lot of indie but my speciality is alt-rock, punk, grunge and rock. George would do a lot of the softer stuff, the singer-songwriters, folk, trad. It’s great, it means it doesn’t matter who comes in because we cover the whole spectrum. I like recording the harder stuff that we do.
George: And those lines do blend. At the minute… I can’t mention too many names because there are no favourites, but Joel Harkin for me was a gem. The songs were fantastic. Another one would be DANI, a singer-songwriter from here, she’s the artist in residence for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. She brought over this band from Indonesia and they feature on three of her tracks which will be out soon. Eilish Phillips, she lives in Portsmouth now… I know I’m repeating myself but there are so many hidden talented gems over here, it’s incredible. But I have no favourites, I just love seeing the end product with these folk or alt-folk guys, what they come out with. We’re very grateful to work with talented people.
Graham: There are a few bands that I’ve absolutely loved working with. I love capturing the energy and making it sound big and strong and energetic. There a new five-piece called Vale who I really enjoyed working with, they’re coming back in soon. They’re quite young but so enthusiastic and just a lot of fun.
George: That is something that I really enjoy about this as well, finding out the new bands coming in. It’s cool working with one of these wee bands and then you start seeing their names on posters around the place. Paul and The Meanie came in to do a few songs here a while back and since they’ve been in here I’ve noticed them cropping up here and there. Really enthusiastic, really talented players.
► This isn’t the first time you have offered your services up as prizes in local music competitions. Why do you do it?
Graham: It’s nice to give back. George did the Busk Off, I did the Music Skills NI. See, not every band can afford the studio, and there’s something nice about giving back a bit and helping out bands. They seem to hold it a bit more dear to them. We never look at it like, “oh this is a free recording” and put less detail into it, the same approach is there, the same attention to detail is there.
George: And it’s not even really free the way we look at it. Bands, especially these days, are always on social media, posting about stuff like this so if anything it’s a bit of free advertising. Plus, we’ve been there, we’ve been in bands since we were no age. And I remember all the guys who wanted to invest in us. I’ve never forgotten it. I was actually a finalist in Kickstart years ago with a band called Runabay, so when Aaron [our lovely deputy editor] approached me about this, I was so on board with the whole thing. Because I remember sitting watching and thinking “wow, we might actually win this.” But the idea that someone like Chordblossom is supporting you, we want other bands to feel that from us.
Graham: We’re very fortunate. We’ve worked hard to get this but we want to give back in any way that we can. We make a decent living doing something that we love, but to be honest I’d be doing this for free if it wasn’t my career. I don’t really view recording as work for me, plus you know whoever won the competition is going to be a good band so it’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned.
► On the subject of local musicians, what is the last local track to fill you with love and why?
George: Mine was today. I was listening to that brand new Joshua Burnside release, ‘Northern Winds’, Live at Elmwood Hall, I love everything that Josh does. Similar to yourselves, I do a Spotify playlist and put local artists on it. I stuck that on today. He and his band are just amazing, especially with Conor on drums. The Burnsides are a talented group of musicians.
Graham: I loved Josh’s last EP. And I loved that Jealous Of The Birds track, ‘Plastic Skeletons’, I really loved that track. There’s a load… We haven’t talked about any that we’ve recorded! [Laughs] I also fell in love with that last track George recorded with DANI and the Indonesian band. When it comes out, it is awesome.
► What does 2019 look like for Half Bap?
Graham: Busy! We’re gonna spend July renovating, building a new vocal booth, and keep producing bands.
George: That’s it, always going onwards and upwards, and we both have calendars booked up to around June or July. It’s looking good.
Graham: We’ve been going from strength to strength the past six years or so. So it’s all looking good.