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Analogue productions aplenty at ToeRag

Rare and vintage kit is in abundance at this Hackney-based studio, and more developments are planned, as Simon Duff reports

“It’s important to make decisions quickly when I’m recording,” says Liam Watson, talking about his approach to committing mix ideas to tape. The producer, chief engineer and founder of Hackney-based ToeRag Studios, specialises in providing clients with an analogue sound courtesy of an assortment of spellbinding vintage equipment. 

At the heart of the studio is an EMI REDD valve console, Studer A-80 eight-, four- and two-track tape machines, Astronic and Langevin EQs, PYE compressor/limiters, EMT Plate reverb and a classic collection of over 50 microphones.

Blues-influenced songstress Liz Green, winner of the Glastonbury Emerging Talent 2007 competition, is currently working on an album with Watson. Initial sessions at ToeRag were used to record her vocals and guitar prior to the addition of brass, strings and woodwind that give the songs their highly unusual flavour.

Likewise for the folk and country-influenced singer songwriter, Bobby Long, Watson augmented guitars and vocals with piano, organ, drums, stand-up bass, and an assortment of additional guitarists to achieve the desired sound. He will often create a balance and commit that to a limited number of tracks on the eight- or four-track A-80 1″ rather than record separate elements onto separate tracks.

“I am trying to capture an acoustic event that I am happy with and I know works. Of course sometimes I’ll record things on separate tracks but it’s often harder to rebuild the sound gain afterwards,” he explains.

Dan Sartian, an American singer songwriter in the vein of The Clash, signed to One Little Indian Records, is another current client and the results are impressive, natural and very powerful sounding.

ToeRag opened for business in 1991 and moved to its present location in 1998. What gave it widespread recognition and earned Watson a Grammy was his recording and production on the 2003 Elephant album by The White Stripes.

“The booking came about because I had spent time with the band on their first UK tour and got on very well with them, sharing many musical influences and ideals. The album involved recording Jack White’s two guitar amps onto two tracks of the eight track, Meg White’s drums onto two tracks, along with a live guide vocal that was subsequently replaced. Spending time on the road getting to know their sound beforehand made the sessions pretty straightforward, effective and great fun to do, and that is the way I love to work.”

Watson’s much-prized EMI REDD (Record Engineering Development Department) 17-valve ex-Abbey road series console was made in the late 1950s. “We are lucky to have one of them because they are incredibly rare. I think there are only about four or five accounted for. There is one here and one in Abbey Road, one in Lenny Kravitz’s studio and one in Mark Knopfler’s [British Grove] studio. They are great sounding desks. My one has 12 inputs and two groups.” Watson is in the process of having a box of external pre-mix faders made for him that will ultimately give him more grouping options.

Monitor-wise the studio has adopted Lockwood Universal cabinets fitted with Tannoy Red 15″ dual-concentric drivers, a classic period system used during the late 1950s and ’60s. Also present are a pair of BBC-designed LS35As driven by a Quad 405 amplifier. Between the two Watson believes he has got everything that he needs to know covered.

The main live area, which can accommodate up to 14 musicians, is purpose built with acoustics and dimensions worked out by Mark Neill, an American record producer and acoustic consultant. Watson comments: “When this was an empty shell with no acoustic treatment we put the floor down and it was like a perfect echo chamber. We have kept that feel with the acoustics but things are now more controlled and tighter sounding which is ideal for the way I like to work.”

The studio also has its own relaxation area above the main studio area where clients can relax with computer games and TV.

Clients coming to work at ToeRag have probably either heard about the studio or know a record produced by Watson, who is now managed by Barbara Jeffries at the Smoothside Organisation. Consequently there are two types of sessions: Watson’s own production work or those who book the studio in order to record a specific instrument or sound such as The Streets who spent time earlier this year recording a track with resident engineer Ed Turner.

As for the future, does Watson ever see the day when he will move to getting a DAW into ToeRag? “Absolutely. I do intend probably next year to get an iZ RADAR system to augment the Studers. I’ve heard RADAR sounds very good and would be interested in trying a different muti-track format and finding out for myself how it compares. It would also be useful to have an alternative format especially for clients finishing a recording in other studios.”