Its former dwelling – known locally as the U2 Studio – may have been reduced to rubble last month, but Matt Fellows finds that Windmill Lane Recording in Dublin remains alive and well in its not-so-new location.
Upon hearing the news in April that the old home of Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, the facility where U2 recorded their debut album Boy as well as The Joshua Tree, had been demolished, much of the industry realised it had lost another prized relic from an increasingly distant age of recording.
“It was put together by myself in 1978 along with three business partners; James Morris, Russ Russell and Meiert Avis,” explains original owner Brian Masterson. “Those three were already successful film editors. I was establishing a name for myself working as a freelance engineer in various Dublin studios. The decision was made to build a studio that would appeal to international clients, and John Storyk from New York was retained to design the studio.”
But that’s not the whole story. While it did indeed witness key moments of music history, the site that is now to be made into multipurpose office, retail and residential blocks has not been the site of Windmill Lane Recording since 1989.
“The partners wanted to devote their time and energy to launching Ireland’s first and only commercial TV channel,” Masterson explains. “I acquired the name and the equipment and went into partnership with Andrew Boland who then ran Ringsend Road Studios.”
Relocating to Dublin’s Ringsend Road but keeping the Windmill Lane name, Masterson found that the studio stood to benefit from the advantages of the new location: “The new premises were much bigger than what was available at the original location. This did give scope for expansion and diversification.”
Over the years the studio has gone on to see acts such as The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Metallica, Norah Jones and Lady Gaga cross its threshold; it still stands there today, now staffed by an entirely new team.
Current studio manager Niall McMonagle saw the move as an easy one to make: “We took over Windmill Lane about seven years ago. If we hadn’t, I don’t know what the future would have held. The previous owner and one of the engineers/producers approached us to say, ‘we’d love for you guys to take it over. You’re the right people to do it,’ because we owned, and still do own, another studio off Camden Street, another area of Dublin where the company had grown and had reached bursting capacity. So we were looking to move and then Windmill Lane came up and it was a no-brainer really. We’d dreamed about it for some time, and then the opportunity presented itself.”
So what has been their secret to success and longevity when so many studios of the same generation have been forced to close their doors? Like any studio manager, McMonagle is keen to talk first and foremost about layout and quality equipment.
“On the ground floor, we’ve got two studios: Studio Two and Studio Three. Studio Two is a typical band-style, rock ’n’ roll size; there are a couple of live rooms and a couple of vocal booths with a standard size control room with the SSL G+ Series in it. Studio 3 is a 5.1 surround sound room, which is used more for mixing, mastering and post-production projects. And the entire top floor is devoted to Studio One, which has a big control room and a huge live room – it can hold between a 70- and 80-piece orchestra. It’s got a Steinway in there, harmoniums and Hammond organs; the Neve VR is the centrepiece of Studio One and is a thing of beauty! We also have some lovely outboard, the usual classic stuff like UREI 1176s, distressors, Summit EQs and we also have a lovely EMT Plate Reverb.
“Apart from the equipment, which you can find in other big studios, our recording space is fantastic. As with a lot of studios some rooms just work, and this one is right up there. It’s just a lovely room. Obviously acoustically – there’s no parallel walls and there’s nice absorption and dispersion – but also aesthetically. A lot of bands want to come in and have a clean, comfortable room to set up all their gear in and relax. The large live area is thunderous for drum kits and we love nothing more than setting up a big drum kit and shaking the building.”
“I’d like to say I had a way of working but it tends to change from week to week,” he continues. “Trying a new technique or a new piece of equipment or I hear somebody else’s song and think, ‘let’s try and do that’. Trying to change it as regularly as we can is important but the common denominator for us is that we try to get it right in the room as much as we can, working with the band to get them polished, whether it’s just rehearsals or a bit of pre-production before we hit the record button.”
Above: Studio manager Niall McMonagle
But even when you’re as well equipped as all that, it can’t hurt to have some secret weapons when it comes to survival in the studio sector. And Windmill Lane Recording certainly attributes the stability it enjoys today to these key differentiators and auxiliary avenues of business.
“Without doubt our involvement in education has been a huge part of the company for quite some time,” McMonagle remarks. “As well as the usual recording and mixing, we are also heavily involved in education with Pulse College. We have a range of courses from certificate up to Masters level covering areas such as Music Production, Sound Engineering, Film Production, Game Development and Animation. The college has helped the studio and having facilities like we have here has also helped the college.
“Without the education side of it I don’t know how the studio would be getting on,” he says. “Like for any other big studio around the world, it’s been difficult. For us luckily we’ve been getting bigger and bigger. The request for the studio is still as big as ever.”
The studio has also embraced online distribution with its Windmill Lane Sessions, a series of live performances and interviews hosted on independent.ie, Ireland’s most visited website.
“We’re all big fans of music here, and we love live music,” McMonagle explains. “Studio One is so big it seems a shame when it’s not being used for a session. Why not put on a gig? We’ve got so many film students here and film equipment we thought ‘why don’t we film it?’ We’d had various ideas of doing music shows and approaching TV stations. We did one or two pilots and roped in favours from everyone we knew in the industry, and then independent.ie actually came to us and said ‘Hey listen, we want to do this music series,’ and we said ‘You know, it’s funny, that – so do we!’ We showed them the pilot stuff that we’d done and they loved it, and it pretty much just hit the ground running.
“The idea is that we can give all sorts of artists, from young, never-before-seen bands to old stalwarts who’ve been around the scene for a long time, another platform and another route to market,” he continues. “It’s generally a two- or three-hour session. We set them up, they record two songs, they do an interview, and out the door again, so it’s nice and quick and snappy, so even bands who are doing a gig in the evening can pop in on the morning and do a session.
“We were trying to put together a show that was quality musicians doing their thing live. We record, we film it, we don’t do any of the studio magic – there’s no Pro Tools editing or Autotune or any of that studio trickery. We’ll mix it and tart it up a bit, but what goes into the box comes out. So the band’s have to up their game. They get two or three takes, but there’s no editing between takes, there’s no comping. The emphasis for us is on the bands doing their thing, which is the way we love to record. It’s been going great for the past few months and we’ll be looking to up the level and try to attract more high-profile artists.”
While the importance of quality and breadth of service cannot be understated, Windmill Lane has shown over the years that the true key for studios hoping to make a stable leap to the current generation is reinvention.
For Masterson, the spirit of the original Windmill Lane is still very much alive: “Speaking as someone who now uses the studio whenever possible, I think the same ethos of providing wonderful facilities with a great bunch of talented engineers and assistants is something that hasn’t changed. And that fantastic Neve VR is still going strong and sounding as warm and musical as ever.”