Jory MacKay sits down with Red Bull Studio London’s head engineer Brendon Harding to talk gear, fostering up-and-coming artists, and working for an international energy drink manufacturer-cum-lifestyle brand.
Red Bull studio manager and head engineer Brendon Harding is a bit of an anomaly in the world of recording studios. Starting his path into the industry during secondary school by working on the first versions of Cubase (“when it was in black and white”, he notes) he moved onto SAE in London before joining Soho Recording Studios as an assistant. Two years later he was referred to acclaimed English record producer Adrian Sherwood, who he worked with for three years on projects ranging from Lee Scratch Perry to Primal Scream. Another chance meeting brought him to the attention of Red Bull’s studio builder Erik Breuer, and in 2010 he took up his post as head engineer at the brand’s studio in London Bridge.
It’s rare to hear of such a straightforward path into the music industry.
Yes, I like to think that I’ve worked hard enough to make my own luck so that I’ve been in the right place at the right time for those links to have happened.
Red Bull Studios definitely takes a different approach to how a recording studio should operate. Can you tell me a bit about the ethos of the space?
For starters we are not a commercial studio. We don’t charge for the studio, we never have and it’s not something we’re even entertaining. We’ve been able to make sessions happen that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else and we’re just really pleased to be able to be positioned with the networks we have. People can say ‘I want to do this project with this person, can we do it at your studio?’ and by and large we can say yes.
So what kind of people are you working with in the studio?
People use the studio in different ways. We do a lot of podcasts and voice-over sessions all the way up to the full album projects with Ghostpoet and Jessie [Ware] and artists like that. So it’s quite a versatile space and what happens in the studio on a daily basis changes greatly. That’s part of the reason why we wanted to expand and create Studio B and the Artist in Residence room. Studios these days are quite isolated – it’s a producer in a room that could be completely apart from everything else that’s going on. Back in the day you would have four, five, six studios in a complex and you’d get those great little moments where a producer would come out of a room and get talking to a band and they’d go off and make their next album together. We wanted to create the kind of environment where you get those happy little accidents.
What’s the biggest project you’ve worked on in the studio since you started?
I suppose the biggest project that we’ve done is Jessie Ware’s first album. She had two weeks in the studio, which for us was relatively unheard of as we’d been doing only one-, two-, or three-day sessions. For me, I was so used to dealing with a new set of people each and every day, that it was quite refreshing and slightly odd to see the same two faces [Jessie and producer Dave Okumu] for two weeks. We got this really great bond working together.
What was your set-up like working with Jessie?
The set-up was pretty simple, actually. We used a Flea 47, which I love. Straight away it sounds great, which is always a good place to start. She then goes through a Neve 1073 and then an 1176. There’s no great feat of rocket science in what we’re doing – you take a great singer and a great mic, a great pre and a great compressor – if you can’t get a great sound out of that then the engineer is doing something wrong at that point. For me, a lot of the time when you have a great source it’s about not fucking it up rather than having to be creative and turn nothing into something.
What about the rest of the studio? What sort of kit are you working with?
The core of the studio is the desk. We’ve got a 1993 SSL G series, 48 channels. We got it from a place called Studio Delphine in Paris. It was 56 mono + 8 stereo originally so we had to chop it down largely just to fit it in the room. I don’t think we would have been able to fit any people in there if we got the whole desk in. Everything else is set up so we can cover pretty much all genres and styles of music. There’s a backline that’s quite versatile and flexible and we’ve also got synths and toys: a Novation Bass Station 2, Jupiter 80, some old Rolands like an SH-3a and an RS-202. Outboard-wise we’re set up more as a tracking and writing facility rather than a mix space. Although we’ve got the SSL, we haven’t got a great deal in terms of external EQs and processing. I’ve got an 1176, an LA2A, a Distressor, and a DBX 160X. But four compressors doesn’t get you very far in modern productions – four mono compressors at that. Most of everything else we’ve got is external pres. When we started we had a different desk – a DDA AMR 24. The pres were nice, it was just about having some external options available. So we’ve got a 1073 and a 1066 in a Vintage King rackmount, a Focusrite ISA828 eight-channel, four API 512c’s, three Great River MP-500NV, a pair of Chandler TG2s, a two-channel tubetech MP1A. So there’s a lot more on the front end then on the mix process. We run Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, and Reason – we like to think most bases are covered.
Lastly, what’s the best part of working with a company like Red Bull?
As a company we like to try to help people from the beginning. Jessie’s the best point for that. She hadn’t really released anything on her own before she came in here. She’d done some features with SBTRKT and Jokers, but this is where she became a solo artist.