Expanding the technical capabilities of its four studios and establishing lasting connections with labels are among the factors that ensure RAK Studios continues to be an integral part of London’s studio community, writes David Davies…
Established in 1976 by legendary producer Mickie Most, RAK Studios has been a mainstay of London’s studio scene ever since. Like another notable facility in St. John’s Wood, Abbey Road, RAK has never been slow to respond to changing requirements while maintaining an ethos that blends the very best of new and vintage equipment.
Fifteen years after Most passed away, the studios are going from strength to strength, thanks to the continued vitality of the four primary studio spaces and a publishing arm, as well as more recent additions of a writing room and a fruitful association with the University of Westminster.
General manager Andy Leese and studio manager Trisha Wegg both believe that RAK’s reputation for accommodating a diverse roster of clients and project types is serving it well. “It’s been a good year,” says Wegg. “As with most studios these days there is always a quiet period at some point, but then things pick up again and, in fact, we are already confirming bookings for March and beyond.”
2018 has been another “very eclectic year”, confirms Wegg, with recent weeks seeing RAK hosting British art-rock band Sundara Karma and a new cast recording of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s much-loved musical, Company. The latter saw Sondheim – who will celebrate his 89th birthday in March – conducting an ensemble of 20 vocalists and 15 musicians that obliged two studios to be combined together.
“It was a really interesting project for us and involved a good deal of planning, plotting, checking and set-up,” says Leese. “The original facility earmarked for the project had become unavailable, and we were perhaps not a natural studio physically speaking, but we successfully slaved two rooms together using all sorts of wiring and video conference equipment. Ultimately, we had the strings in the Studio 2 control room, vocalists in the Studio 2 live room, and the rest of the players in the Studio 3 live room.”
Although undoubtedly a challenging project, and one that was turned round on a relatively short timescale, Leese asserts that it passed off “very well and is just the kind of project that really shows off our capabilities. ‘Word of mouth’ [counts for a lot in this industry] and often results in similar projects coming our way”.
Of course, along with attracting one-off projects, there is much to be said for securing the loyalties of major-name engineers and producers. Producer and engineer Steve Fitzmaurice – whose credits include artists as disparate as Depeche Mode and Sting – has brought numerous sessions to RAK, as has producer, mixer and label executive Rodaidh McDonald. The association with McDonald – whose credits include Adele, The xx and Gil Scott-Heron – is partly the result of a long-term association with prominent British independent label XL Records.
“Rodaidh was someone that we became friendly with through the label at a time when he was XL’s in-house engineer,” Leese recalls. “He loves the vibe at RAK and has brought a lot of work to the studios; in particular, The xx album [2017’s I See You] coming here was a real coup for us.”
There is no doubt that a major contributor to the RAK ‘vibe’ is the continual finessing of its new and vintage equipment. “We are always on the lookout for interesting gear and instruments,” says Leese, pointing to the recent acquisition of a Wurlitzer piano and a Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar. “It’s not something we advertise prominently, but there are a lot of great instruments here and you will be able to use if them you come to work with us.”
In terms of fundamental studio equipment RAK retains an enviably diverse infrastructure. Studios 1 and 2 are both based around API desks, while Studio 3 houses a vintage Neve VRP Legend desk as well as both a classic and new outboard. Studio 4 – oriented towards mixing – features an SSL 4056 desk. Coming right up to date, a pair of Quested Q212D monitors have just been installed in Studio 3. RAK also remains a popular destination for artists wanting to record to tape for at least part of their project.
Wegg mentions a recent session that involved recording drums to tape before moving everything into Pro Tools, whilst South African jazz pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim recorded an entire album to analogue in superquick time. “When he and his band came in they were saying it was a 40-minute album and they needed 40 minutes to record it!” says Wegg, adding that a full backup was also captured with Pro Tools.
With six- or eight-week studio stays now largely a thing of the past, there is an onus on studios to continually explore other sources of work that can help keep the overall operation healthy. An ongoing collaboration with Communion Records that involves artists coming in for a day each and recording three to five tracks live, including a cover from the RAK Publishing catalogue, is a case in point. So, too, is an initiative involving the University of Westminster that entails one student per year – drawn from a wide range of artistic disciplines – basing themselves at RAK for project work and mentoring. A series of masterclasses are also going, underpinned by the desire to expose more people to studio life.
As Leese observes, “many industry people don’t get the opportunity to go into [major professional] studios anymore. With a lot of working taking place in production rooms or bedrooms on laptops, it’s good to be able to offer that other kind of experience.” With a formidable roll-call of classic tracks and albums recorded at RAK reinforcing its contemporary position, the studios have been well-served by a relentless determination to “prove what we can offer in terms of quality, and a willingness to explore new areas of diversity,” states Leese. “That will remain our emphasis in the future.”