Going Wunderground with producer Dan Carey and engineer Alexis Smith

Speedy Wunderground, run by Dan Carey, is a recording studio and record label aimed at the cutting edge of independent music. Simon Duff headed to South London for a look around
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Located in the leafy South London suburb of Streatham, Speedy Wunderground is a recording studio owned and run by artist and producer Dan Carey. His record label, that goes under the same name, was formed in 2014 and aims towards recording and releasing up and coming bands and artists who are interested in experimenting with bold studio techniques, creating something new and original. Carey started his career as an artist in the late 1990s, signing to Virgin Records and releasing an EDM influenced album in 2001 under the name of Mr. Dan. This led him into a career in production and his list of credits includes co-writing Kylie Minogue's hit single 'Slow' in 2003 and production work for Toy, Bat For Lashes, Franz Ferdinand and Tame Impala.

Armed with a 10 point plan that is nothing short of a label manifesto, speed is at the heart of its production ethos and the studio still operates as home to Carey's external work. The recording is based around musicians, the producer Carey and his engineer Alexis Smith working together in one large room, with no separate control room. Sessions are often conducted in the dark with lasers and a smoke machine to enhance the atmosphere. The aim is to record all of the tracks in one day, then mix and master over the following days, sending it off to a printing plant to have a brand new 7” hot off the press within a week or two of the band laying it down.

Acts who have released work on the label include Boxed In, Steve Mason & Emiliana Torrini, The Archie Bronson Outfit, Mr. Dan and Dewey. Hotly tipped for 2019 are two acts: black midi, a London four-piece experimental rock outfit, now signed to Rough Trade and Squid, a five-piece Brighton band. The label has released three compilation albums to date.

Carey's motivation to record quickly and instinctively is founded on a number of factors. He says: “I guess, in a way, it stems from my desire to create something raw and new, based on the frustration of not releasing material quickly after recording. In terms of the process for the label, when I am recording something, there's a moment that comes just after everyone has learned the song enough to be able to play it, where it just sounds amazing, because it's slightly on edge, because no one's 100 percent sure - I want to record that bit. Not the bit after it's been rehearsed and played and played. It could be better once it's been gigged for a while and turned into a real thing, but it's that moment when everyone's in the zone.”

THE STUDIO

The Speedy Wunderground studio, designed by Munro Acoustics, consists of a mixture of choice analogue equipment, digital technology, and musical instruments that have been accumulated since Carey's childhood. Analogue gear includes ribbon microphones, old amps, tape machines, eight-foot plate reverb and a giant spring reverb crafted from a child’s slinky toy. The studio has a La Font Chroma mixing console, an A 48 channel in line desk, with 24 groups, eight aux sends on each channel, along with gates and parametric EQ, flying faders and Uptown automation. The main monitors are a pair of Dynaudio C3s driven by a Dynaudio T 1000 amp. The recording is to Logic Pro, running on a Power Mac, and also a Studer A80 16 track recorder that used to belong to Guy Chambers. Carey also has a smaller studio, predominantly a mixing facility, based some five minutes walk down the road from Speedy Wunderground with a Calrec Q series 60 channel desk and, like the main room, Dynaudio C3 monitors.

Outboard equipment includes Shadow Hills and Great River Electronic mic preamps, as well as Manley, Chandler pres and a Thermionic Culture EQ compressor. Reverbs include a Bricasti M7 and a much favoured OTO Bam. There are a wide variety of microphones, including Wunder CM7, Lomo 19a18, Royer SF12V and R121, Coles 4038 and 4040, 12 Gauge, Shure SM7, and a Josephson e22S. In terms of instruments that are always set up for a session, these include an old '70s Rogers drum kit, Gretsch, Gibson, Supro, Fender and Wem guitars, a Wurlizter and a robot drummer. There is also a Kawai upright piano, multiple synths, an AKAI MPC X Production Machine, and a Swarmatron, which is located next to drum machine corner: a synchronised collection of Wunderfully unusual drum machines.

Part of the 10 point plan and manifesto for the label is that each track recorded must have the sound of Carey's beloved Swarmatron synth on it. Looking like something out of a '50s furniture catalogue, the Swarmatron is an analogue synth with dual ribbon control over the pitch and separation of eight sawtooth oscillators. Controls include an ADSR envelope and a low pass filter. Carey notes: “The swarm's end sound is particularly weird and wonderful, whether for conjuring up alien ensembles or for explorations similar to a theremin. Because it allows you to generate cluster chords with microtonal variations between the notes, you can make chords and harmonies that have not been heard before. The way that it glides between chords is so otherworldly. I have used it a lot with black midi, as well as on my work with Kate Tempest.”

BLACK MIDI

Black midi, who released a single in 2018, are one of Speedy Wunderground's up and coming artists; an enigmatic, taut, frenetic, inventive new London fourpiece that is quickly becoming one of the hottest new underground bands in the country. Hailing from nearby Selhurst, they released their debut single bmbmbm to critical acclaim. Although signed to Rough Trade, the band have just completed their debut album at Speedy Wunderground, produced by Carey and engineered by Smith. The album is due to be released in Spring 2019. The Fall, Talking Heads, and PIL have all inspired this left field act. Carey enthuses about the band: “Musically, they are highly adventurous. They make their own rules and do their own thing structure and tone wise, following their own path. Essentially, they are making music for their own world, a world that is to them surreal, angular, aggressive and beautiful. The lyrics are brilliant and darkly surreal. For mastering, we used Justin Mitchell at Loud Mastering in Somerset.”

Squid, a Brighton five-piece experimental act, in the vein of LCD Soundsystem, is also set for a good 2019 having released their debut single 'The Dial' with Speedy Wunderground last year. Another notable album production in 2018 was for Fontaines DC, a Dublin postpunk band with poetry to the fore. La Roux, the English synth-pop act, has also done tracks at the studio for their forthcoming album.

THE SPEEDY WUNDERGROUND SOUND

Alexis Smith's professional engineering career started with training at SAE in London before gaining employment at The Dairy Studios in Brixton, assisting and engineering on a range of projects, such as So Solid Crew and Basement Jaxx. After a period of freelancing, Smith has been working full time with Carey at Speedy Wunderground for the past 10 years. Smith says of working at the studio: “One of the things I really like is being able to record both to analogue and digital. We quite often record low-end material, say drums and bass, to the Studer A 80, and top-end material to Logic, so we get the best of both worlds. We tend to mix out of the box through the console, using Uptown automation. In terms of Logic, I use features such as Strip Silence, tempo and beat mapping a great deal, then, mix wise, we use a lot of Outboard gear. My favourite reverb is the amazing OTO Bam box and the Bricasti. So, we have a mixture of the highest tech as well as adventurous and not often used boxes that help to get the Speedy Wunderground Sound."

Smith's preferred vocal mic is a Brauner VM1, into a Great River mic preamp, then routed into Logic, before monitoring back onto the Chroma console.

Looking forward, Carey talks about a recent album project he has completed with Kate Tempest in conjunction with Rick Rubin, due for major label release in the Spring: “We recorded in Los Angeles at Rick Ruben's Shangri La studio with his engineer Sean Oakley. It was an amazing experience working with Rick, he is an incredible producer. He can take one listen to it and he knows what to do. He absorbs music and he knows exactly what he does and doesn't like. I've even come up with a kind of new rap style that Rick has worked on with us. This project was mixed at Speedy Wunderground with Christian Wright at Abbey Road mastering. Live shows are planned for May.”

Asked what is top of his kit wish list, Carey concludes: “That is very easy to answer. It has to be the new Moog One synth." 

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