STUDIO FOCUS: BMG WRITING ROOMS
Story: Preshan John
You’ve heard the term ‘content is king.’ BMG has a slightly adapted philosophy better described as ‘content creation is king.’ The global record label isn’t your average hit-churning machine, although it certainly churns out hits.
BMG Australia recently completed the fitout of its new SoundLabs ‘writing rooms’ in its Surry Hills offices. They’re like ridiculously over-spec’d home studios, but in an office building. Apart from the enviable recording gear, SoundLabs aren’t your run-of-the-mill studio spaces. They’re all about content creation; rooms designed as songwriting ovens set to the perfect temperature to bake new music to perfection. Dubbed Black room and White room according to their aesthetics, both creative incubators feature a Slate Raven touch-screen controller, Waldorf keyboards, and a handful of mics. A Yamaha baby grand sits in the reception between the two rooms, appropriately named ‘the grey area’.
Each SoundLab isn’t trying to be a world-class recording studio. As you can imagine, BMG’s Sydney headquarters are frequented by international artists, producers, and musicians. Some of them are well-versed in handling the technical aspects of a recording studio. Others make their music on a laptop and not much else. The idea with SoundLabs is you walk in, flick a couple of power switches to bring the gear to life, hook up your own laptop via USB or Thunderbolt, launch your latest DAW session, and start jamming. No patch cables, console normalisation, or tape head calibration involved.
How exactly do you go about creating an optimal songwriting atmosphere? Heath Johns, managing director of BMG, insists natural light is a crucial ingredient. Both rooms have large windows that look out over Sydney city.
Heath Johns: “With the BMG SoundLabs we were hyper-conscious of allowing that connection to the outside world. When people are sitting there for hours on end looking to create and not just record, a little outside stimulus is a really positive, productive thing.
“Having the external vista change throughout the day tends to correlate with the evolution of a song. People might come in it at 10AM with the sunlight streaming through. As the day progresses the lighting in the rooms change, you start to see the city lights turn on in the background. It kind of matches the progress of the song. It’s quite interesting — on a dreary day you often get a slightly more introspective arty track, but on a vibrant summer day you get a few more party bangers written in the room.”
KEEN AS KENNY
BMG’s SoundLabs are partly Mitch Kenny’s brainchild. Mitch is a world-class mixing engineer who’s worked with artists like Beyonce, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Nicole Scherzinger, and Boyz II Men. You can read all about Mitch’s mix of the ARIA-nominated Hermitude album Dark Night Sweet Light in Issue 113. Heath brought Mitch in to select the audio gear for the SoundLabs… and when Mitch specs a studio, it’s the kind of place where you’d happily pitch tent and hang out like a hermit for the next few years.
“Artists and creative people spend their whole lives away from being in offices, then they go to meet their label and it’s like walking into a bank,” Mitch says. “This doesn’t feel like that at all. From the baby grand in the lounge to the pick ’n’ mix lolly bar mounted on the wall, it’s a fun place to be.”
The writing rooms were built with zero commercial intent. Heath says they exist simply to make artists feel welcome and to foster a collaborative, creative environment at BMG’s Aussie HQ. The company has run songwriting camps, also called SoundLabs, in similar rooms abroad. Heath said a number of the songs on Rihanna’s Anti album were formed in sessions like these. Inviting global artists to collaborate on music is a primary purpose for the two new rooms.
The 46-inch Slate Digital Raven touch-screens underpin the user-friendly design philosophy. Mitch is a Pro Tools keyboard shortcut ninja and was surprised to find himself gravitating toward the touchy-feely Raven interface.
“I didn’t know anything about the Ravens before I used them here but can totally see their benefits now,” Mitch says. “It does require time to learn all the gestures and things like that but I’m finding I’m starting to touch the screen more.” The easel-style workflow adds to the vibe of collaboration and participation in the SoundLabs. Plus, it’s fun to look at.
The extremely capable UAD Apollo 8s cover interface duties in both rooms, adding a little colour via its DSP-powered effects and Unison preamps without involving a rack of outboard pres and a patchbay.
Vocal tracks recorded in the writing rooms are the most likely to be carried through to the final mix. As such, the vocal chain is far beyond ‘demo quality’ — a Manley Gold Reference cardioid microphone running into a Manley VoxBox channel strip. If the Manley gear doesn’t float your boat, Mitch threw in a Shure SM7 and Slate Virtual Microphone System as well. Like the Apollo DSP, Slate VMS allows for some wiggle room in sonics without requiring multiple physical preamps and hardware processing units. It’s all part of the ‘writing room’ M.O. — keep it minimal, keep it simple, keep it functional, and let the focus be on inspiring creativity.
UNITY IN THE ROOM
While Mitch spec’d the gear for the two rooms, Heath handled the design and acoustics aspects. Tonnes of mass were put into the rooms for isolation. Acoustic treatment was imported from FeltTouch in Turkey. The bold and colourful magnetic panels contribute to both the interior design and room acoustics in equal measure.
Monitoring in both rooms is via Unity Audio Rock monitors. Unity also hooked Heath’s own office up with the three-way Boulder and B.A.B.E. system. Needless to say, he’s chuffed: “It’s been an absolute pleasure working with the Unity Products. There is zero fatigue, even the Boulder and B.A.B.E. system is really easy to listen to. They’re not just a party speaker, they’re also very clean and accurate. That’s been one of the revelations from this project — just how good the Unity products are.”
Both are absolutely stoked with how the SoundLabs shaped up. “I’m tickled pink,” says Mitch. “There’s something about the rooms that’s really, really cool. They’re comfortable to work in and mixes are translating really well.”