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The straw-bale sound: Cowshed’s Glasto triumph

Billy Bragg, The Noisettes, Jah Wobble and many others helped to make the Cowshed’s temporary incarnation at this year’s Glastonbury Festival “a resounding success”.

Billy Bragg, The Noisettes, Jah Wobble, Show of Hands and many others helped to make the Cowshed’s temporary incarnation at this year’s Glastonbury Festival “a resounding success”, studio organiser Joe Leach tells David Davies.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a comparable project captured performances by the likes of Iron and Wine, Mumford and Sons, and The Decemberists at the latest edition of Bonnaroo.

PSNE has been following the Glasto Cowshed project closely since its earliest stages (read previous coverage here and here), but to recap briefly: in conjunction with Greenpeace, Joe Leach of analogue-centric Cowshed Studio arranged to recreate the vibe of the London facility in a temporary, low-impact, straw-bale building situated in the Greenpeace Field at Glastonbury.

While a collection of classic keyboards and other MI from Cowshed was brought down to Somerset, Leach tapped the support of many other companies to help populate the studio. Audient supplied an 8024 mixing desk, while KMR Audio came onboard to fill the racks with some classic outboard, including a Neve 33609 stereo compressor, an Anamod AM670 stereo limiter, a Cranesong dual-channel EQ and an Endless Analog CLASP signal processor.

From Quested came a pair of V3110 self-powered monitors, while Avid provided a 32 I/O ProTools rig. Other suppliers included RMG International, Fender, Funky Junk and D’Addario.

“This project was only made possible through the support of all these organisations who gave freely of their equipment and their belief; after all, it could have been construed as a completely wacky idea!” Leach tells PSNE a few days after returning from Glasto.

The load-in was not without its challenges – the prop-shaft fell off the truck containing many of the raw materials during a stop on the M3, delaying the construction process by several days – while Leach admits that the post-event negotiation of a 7.5 tonne truck around Glastonbury’s winding lanes “certainly generated a little bit of adrenaline for me!”

But these are minor caveats to what was, says Leach, a “resounding success”. Firstly, the studio itself worked out really well: “When the sound hits the bale, it is kind of gone forever; you don’t have any room acoustic issues [to address]. There was an incredibly flat bass response. The musicians loved the sound of the room and commented on the great acoustic throughout the weekend.”

Secondly, the “generosity and helpfulness” of artists, record companies and management teams yielded a steady stream of high-profile performers to the Cowshed to cut tracks direct to stereo for a forthcoming release by The Vinyl Factory that will aid Greenpeace’s funding of Rainbow Warrior III.

So from Stornoway came a “really fantastic” version of ‘Battery Human’, while former PiL bassman and solo artist extraordinaire Jah Wobble laid down some powerful dub-reggae. The Noisettes, Billy Bragg, Seth Lakeman and festival favourites Show of Hands were among the other artists who took the opportunity to record in this decidedly unusual studio space.

The sessions by major artists will be captured on a 5 x 12” limited edition box set, The Cowshed Cut, while there will also be five 300-run 7” vinyl releases containing music from unsigned artists recorded during the weekend.

There is already discussion about reprising the idea in 2013 (there is no Glastonbury next year), with Leach describing the entire experience as “very inspiring. It’s great for everyone to get away from the usual capitalist grind, so to speak, and to get back to the notion of music as a gift; something that we do because we can. There was lots of joy coming through and that is reflected in the performances.”

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee is every bit as much a staple of the US festival circuit as Glastonbury is of the UK one. A purpose-built studio located backstage has been a feature of the festival for some years, and in 2011 the appropriately-named Hay Bale Studio captured tracks by a total of 35 artists, including Amos Lee and Ray LaMontagne. Operated by Nashville’s The Toy Box Studio with producer/engineer Lij helming the sessions, the studio was equipped with the help of Guitar Centre’s outside sales division, Guitar Center Professional (GC Pro).

Among the gear supplied by GC Pro was a Solid State Logic AWS 948 Superanalogue Console (courtesy of Fadi Hayek and SSL); a Pro Tools HD3 system with Apogee Symphony Converters; a full complement of microphones from Shure, Mojave and Royer Labs; monitors from ADAM; Switchcraft Patch Bays; a full cue system; and a backline of instruments and amps from Fender, Gibson and Nord.

The sessions were frantic and fluid, enabling artists to lay down first-take recordings of three songs. Performances were mixed down to two tracks and prepared for broadcast from the radio tent next door. Music resulting from these ‘Bonnaroo Sessions’ was broadcast by approximately 45 radio stations across the US, while the multi-track sessions were preserved and archived as in previous years.

“This is our third year helping sponsor the studio at Bonnaroo,” said GC Pro’s Nashville-based account manager Chad Evans. “This year’s festival was another amazing experience. We have developed a great partnership with Lij and crew, and we’re proud to contribute. We look forward to continuing to contribute next year and beyond, because Bonnaroo is such an important place for the music industry and up-and-coming artists.”