Trading Stories: Making music in the Blackwater

Based in Glanworth, he is helping the next generation of Irish artists get their music out.
Trading Stories: Making music in the Blackwater
Musicians in a recording session at the Blackwater Studios.

How and when did the studio start?

I’d been working in the live music industry since the early 1990s. I was involved in a couple of studios over the years as well but I really wanted the freedom of owning the business myself. We finally opened Blackwater Studios in 2004.

How did you get into the recording industry?

I opened a studio and prayed people would want to use it! It was an enormous gamble, there were plenty of sleepless nights at the start. But I’ve always worked with music so it wasn’t totally uncharted waters.

Is it a difficult market to operate in?

You have to keep your standards high, always do good work. You’re walking a line between art and science all the time. I also do the web design, the bookkeeping, the social media stuff as well, so it's busy and varied. One of the nice things about where we are located is the variety of work that comes through. 

Bands, singer-songwriters, people who’ve written a song and just want to hear it for themselves, people buying studio time as a gift for a family member, advertising agencies wanting voiceover work. You’re always working with new people which keeps it interesting and fresh. You have to be able to get on well with people and be interested in what they're doing.

Musicians in a recording session at the Blackwater Studios.
Musicians in a recording session at the Blackwater Studios.

What is the state of the recording business in Ireland like now?

Historically it’s been a difficult industry to be involved in because we don’t have the population base that other countries have. But overall I’d say it’s pretty healthy. As things went digital some studios closed, but that seems to have levelled off. It’s a good time to be doing this.

There are loads of independent radio stations now too and almost every one of them has an ‘up and coming bands’ or ‘Irish only’ programme. It would be great if the bigger stations moved away from format radio though. Let the DJs choose their own music.

What kind of services do you offer?

It’s mostly music recording. But there’s a good mix of things. I've done work recording audio books, cleaning up old cassettes, sound design for films. I’ve a mobile setup as well which a lot of schools and choirs prefer as it’s usually easier to go to them than for them to come here. For a lot of people it’s their first release so I’d usually help them out with copyright stuff, IMRO, RAAP and so on. We mind our clients all the way through the process.

Tell us about your staff?

Really there’s only me! Recording studios generally don’t have a lot of staff relative to their physical size. My wife Lucy is endlessly supportive, patient and an enormous help in the background in terms of the vibe and feel of the place but the recording and day to day is mainly just me, though an honourable mention goes to our three dogs Cleo, George and Missy who provide entertainment and diversion to clients in return for rubs and treats.

Is there an advantage to operating in Glanworth, and not a city like Cork or Dublin?

We’re away from distraction which is nice. But we’re also only 6 miles from the country’s main motorway (M8). Glanworth itself is a very laid back place. People let you do your own thing around here.

Rural Ireland is made up of loads of small businesses so people are very supportive locally.

Our clients come here to work, but it’s a creative process too. My wife is a fine art printmaker so it’s an environment where the creative side of things is understood and supported in a real and practical way.

We’re just outside the village with a little under two acres of gardens and orchards so there’s a real sense of ‘getting away’ from it all. Being out of the city means clients can have the space to think things through, work out ideas and so on. It’s nice not to part of a ‘scene’ too, cities tend to be a bit more like that than rural areas.

Is it a very competitive industry and has it changed a lot in recent years?

Obviously there’s competition within the industry but, in general, recording studios in Munster are very supportive of one and other. Margins are tight, in real terms the price of studio time has dropped by nearly 60% in the last 30 years. Recording budgets are much smaller now too. But the flip side is that more people record now than they did back then.

Has the advent of streaming music over buying albums changed much in the recording industry?

I think there’s quite a bit of scaremongering about it. It’s very early days still. The fact that every play is logged is bound to be good news in the long run. The royalty rates are still too low but that’s slowly changing. It’s great for young unsigned acts; for a fairly small financial outlay they can make music available all over the world. It’s true that streaming royalties are small, but the cost of distributing and publicising a CD even nationally is an enormous financial risk beyond most bands. The attics of Ireland are full of boxes of CDs that didn’t sell! Streaming, though set up by big companies, feels very punk, very DIY. I really like that energy.

What kind of equipment do you have, and is it expensive to keep up to date?

Recording studios, in general, are bottomless money pits. There’s always a microphone or an amplifier or an instrument that you feel you’ve got to have. But against that is the fact that a great recording is often a very simple one too. 

The heart of things is a Mac Pro computer which runs the recording software. We’ve tons of plug-ins (virtual versions of classic pieces of equipment) and a pretty comprehensive range of microphones, both new and classic. Most studios used to use Apple hardware but people are moving away from that, the company doesn’t seem that interested in the pro market anymore. Outside of that there are various guitars and basses, amps, keyboards. But it’s not about the gear, it’s what you do with it that counts.

What kind of clients do you get?

Interesting, talented people who are trying to record their project as well as they possibly can. It doesn’t matter who they are, they all have that in common. My job is to make that process as easy as possible.

What are some of the more significant things that have been recorded in your studio? Any big names?

I’m always asked this!

I’m just doing the final tweaks to a live album by the amazing Crow Black Chicken which we recorded over three different gigs recently.

We’ve just finished Dry Roasted Peanuts second release, Serengeti Long Walk are finishing up their second album which is sounding really good, great songs.

A few years ago we recorded a single ‘We Love The Same’ for Cork LGBTS choir Choral Con Fusion as part the campaign for Marriage Equality. I was really proud to have, in a small way, been a part of that.

Kellie Lewis from The Voice of Ireland did her debut EP ‘Behind the Moon’ here. Allie Sherlocks first album was done here. As they say ‘it’s all go’!

What is in the future for your business?

As broadband improves I could see there being more live streaming from studios. Already I do a lot of voiceover work with people in Sweden and Spain, The actor is here and is being directed live via an AV link from the other side of Europe, that’s fun! It’s an interesting time, it’s really easy to start recording now with a basic laptop setup.

But more and more people are realising that the expertise and creative space that a studio provides is invaluable.

There are amazing new bands coming through all the time, it’s always interesting and exciting. The future looks good.

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