Low Four is a new broadcast platform and facility in Manchester operating from the old Granada TV studios. As Kevin Hilton reports, the aim is to provide a new showcase for news and established bands through streaming media...
Music and broadcast television have had a fruitful yet difficult relationship over the last 50 years or so. TV has give a platform to up-and-coming performers, as well as some of the biggest names across the genres while at the same times subjecting music of whatever kind to the vagaries of scheduling, ratings and fashion. This remains true today, which is why new media outlets such as IPTV are providing opportunities for programme producers to showcase both current and next generation acts.
In the UK, Low Four is doing this from one of the most famous broadcast centres in the country. Manchester's Granada Studios were home to the independent commercial TV contractor for the north-west of England, and produced programmes for the ITV network, notably the soap opera Coronation Street, as well as regional news coverage. Through the Granada-produced show So It Goes, Tony Wilson, a local news presenter and later founder of Factory Records, gave early exposure to bands of the post-punk era, notably Joy Division.
When ITV/Granada moved into new facilities at MediaCityUK in 2013, the old broadcast centre looked to have an uncertain future. But through a recently established arts initiative in Manchester, the studios have become home to several creative projects. Low Four, headed by Dan Parrott and Brendan Williams, was set up as a new TV home for bands, featuring both established and emerging acts.
Dan Parrott did something similar for the Manchester music scene with local TV service Channel M, which closed in 2009. "Some bands that made their first appearance on Channel M are still around today," he says. "Now we've got a new opportunity by taking over an arts space to run both an internet TV platform and a commercial studio."
The space in question is the old recording centre within Granada Studios, comprising a large live room and a control booth. Opened in 1979 this was used for recording large orchestras on the soundtracks of Granada drama series including Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown. Brendan Williams, who looks after the audio side of Low Four productions, says the studio is comparable to the BBC's studios at Maida Vale. "It's a beautifully-treated room," says Williams, who, in addition to independent consultancy work is programme leader in creative music technology at the University of Salford. "It's massive and is as dead as a doornail."
Sadly this facility was scaled back in 1989 and became used less frequently for music as more work was sub-contracted out to other production facilities and companies. Its voice booth was used for ADR and, most recently, the studio was the hospitality area for the confrontational Jeremy Kyle Show. But, says Williams, some of the infrastructure, as well as the acoustic, remained intact.
"There were still 34 lines from the studio into the control room," he explains. "We've reinstalled another 12 lines, giving us 46 independent lines distributed over the original wall boxes. There's also the earthing and power system, which was built to a super-specification in 1979 and is really clean."
Low Four sessions are based round bands performing live in the main recording area to an audience. A small PA rig currently based on Mackie 450s has been installed; Williams says discussion are underway to perhaps replace this with a Turbosound system in the future. "But what we've got works," he comments. "There's only an audience of 60 people so we don't need to push it. And in a great room like this any system sounds really good."
Low Four's debut broadcast featured angular artpop foursome Everything Everything, whose front of house engineer requested a Midas PRO 2 console. The Music Group provided the desk with DLT 251 side box and has not yet taken it back. "The Midas guys came to the show and afterwards said, 'Shall we leave it here then?'" Williams recalls.
Sessions are recorded using studio mics, including dynamic models for voice and even ribbons on drums. "We don't want to present this as a live performance, it's more a recording session," explains Williams.
The control room houses a 36-channel Audient 8024 console, with two UAD Apollo units. "I do a two-track mix of the sessions and master that. There's also a simultaneous multitrack recording made into Logic. I've shied away from lots of hardware effects because I really rate the UAD emulations. But there is some classic outboard, including Lexicon."
Low Four is aiming to broadcast two sessions a month but is putting out more at the moment. When it is not recording for transmission it is running as a commercial studio. Not bad for a facility that most people had either never heard of or forgotten about.
Pictures: (L-R) Dan Parrott and Brendan Williams of Low Four
Bottom: There's plenty of backline available at the facility