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‘Artists feel at ease’: A look inside Antwerp’s Nice Recordings

Attracting the likes of Post Malone as well as its local music community, Antwerp's Nice Recordings is making waves in the studio world and is set to open up a second studio in June

With an API 1608 mixing console, plenty of vintage outboard and backline, Antwerp-based Nice Recordings is rapidly making a name for itself. The facility’s reputation has quickly spread, attracting a healthy mix of musical styles, artists and bands for recording and mixing. The opening of a second studio, set for June, will allow Nice Recordings to cater for artists in search of pre-production, writing sessions or recording vocal tracks. PSNEurope’s Marc Maes takes a look around…

Nice Recordings’s origins are somewhat unorthodox: when owner Damien Smets, a professional electrical engineer with a passion for music, decided to re-focus his career and build his own studio, his first investment was an API 1608 analogue desk.

“I took an 18 month sound engineer course and training while the console remained in my attic, because working in the analogue domain was crucial for me – I want to work with the controls and switches myself,” said Smets, convinced that investing in a top quality mixing console would attract clients to the studio.

Starting from scratch

Despite the fact that Antwerp has a rich music scene, the city houses only a few professional recording studios. Smets found his working habitat in the lively Southern district close to the city centre, but with easy access to the main highways.

He devised the plans for the studio with both US sound engineer/studio builder Ethan Winer and professional audio solutions provider Amptec giving valuable input. “Actually, Damien came to us with a virtually blank page,” says Niels Neven, sales manager of pro audio and acoustics with Amptec. “As API-distributor, we supplied the mixing desk for the new studio. In addition, we supplied the acoustics and basic gear for the live room, the cabling and some microphones. Damien put everything in place, we assisted in the design.”

After a few test sessions, it turned out that the studio’s live room required extra insulation. “Neighbours were complaining about noise hindrance – it turned out that the low frequency spectrum was causing audible vibrations in the upstairs apartments,” explains Smets. “I hired acoustics specialists DOX Acoustics, who made the calculations and choice of materials. A spring suspended ceiling in the live room turned out to be the solution. By decoupling the ceiling from the building structure, the sound vibrations get absorbed, thus reducing the noise hindrance in adjoining spaces.”

Nice Recordings’s studio landscape consists of a 65m2 live room, an API control room, two separate recording booths, a lounge area and a spacious indoor parking lot, offering options for future expansion of the studio.

The core of the studio being the API 1608 desk, Smets soon found that the engine’s 16 channels would not do for his plans, and upgraded the console with a 16-channel API Expander module, adding up to 32 operational channels.

When colleague/sound engineer Michael Franck attended a Tape Camp masterclass in Nashville, he returned with two Mara Machines analogue tape recorders, a MCI JH110 1/2″ two-track analogue master tape recorder and a MCI JH24 2” 24-track machine.

“Michael was on the lookout for a quality analogue mixing console to complete his working environment and that’s how we matched. He brought in the tape machines and has the studio available for his own recording sessions. A win-win for both parties.”

For monitoring, Smets initially installed Bryston 4BSST2-powered PMC IB2S midfield monitors and Yamaha NS-10 nearfield speakers. “I decided to add a pair of Neumann KH310A active nearfield monitors, resulting in the perfect set-up with lots of clarity in the vocals and clear low frequencies.”

Nice Recordings also offers an extensive microphone inventory, combining vintage models like Neumann U47 FET with various types and brands of ribbon (like the Royer R101 MP Stereo Pair, AEA, and Beyer Dynamics), condenser (Neumann, AKG) and vocal (Schoeps V4 USM) microphones. The live room also houses plenty  of vintage backline, including an original 1964 Gretsch jazz drum kit, 1977 Fender Stratocaster and Jazz Bass, and a genuine Schimmel piano alongside a 1977 Fender Rhodes keyboard.

As for outboard, Smets opted for UREI LA-2A and UA 1176 compressors and a tandem of ‘70s Eventide Omnipressors (“Abba used them during their recordings and they are ideal for drum processing, they make drums sound really big”), plus Kush Audio (Tweaker compressor, Clariphonic and Electra equalisers), a Manley Vari-Mu compressor, API 2500 and 525 compressors with API 550B and 550A equalisers, among others.

“The masterpiece of the control room is a genuine EMT 140 plate reverb,” enthuses Smets. “It came to me through sound engineer/producer Staf Verbeeck, who owned the legendary Jet Studio in Brussels where he used the analogue EMT plate for many years.”

Smets admits that, initially, he wanted to build a studio eyeing the traditional bands as clients. “When engineer/producerJussi De Nys joined the studio as freelance engineer, he brought in his skills and huge business contact network, spreading the word about Nice Recordings,” says Smets. “Also producer/ songwriter Youssef Chellak, general manager at Top Notch Belgium (and A&R manager, Universal Music Group) was immediately convinced and booked sessions for his hip hop artist roster.”

At first, acts came in with basic beats on PC, and used the studio just for vocals and horns recording. The next step was when they decided to use live recorded drums instead of percussion software, with analogue sound adding a new dimension to their songs. Major domestic acts like Blackwave, TheColorGrey, Coely and Flemish rapper Tourist LeMc came to record and mix.

With the studio agenda being booked up and to cater to new hip hop artists discovering Nice Recordings, Smets decided to build a second studio, consisting of a vocal booth and a compact control room. “I’m thinking of a DIY studio operating without any studio staff, rented at competitive rates.” The studio will open before summer.

Post Malone

On March 11, US rapper/producer Post Malone decided to make the trip to Antwerp to find out what Nice Recordings had to offer. “Prior to his sell-out show at the 18,000 seat Antwerp Sportpaleis, I received a call from the artist management,” Smets says. “Post Malone brought in producer Brian Lee, DJ Smitty and a 30-strong crew to record three tracks. The studio stood the test.”

Nice Recordings also wants to establish itself as a creative playground. Smets had the idea of inviting two artists at a time (recently Belgian band Bazart and Dutch rappers The Opposites) to write songs in the studio. “We have plenty of backline available and a studio works better than a hotel lobby,” he says. “Artists feel at ease, we have a kitchen and lounge plus two b&b’s just around the corner.”

Staf Verbeeck of Stiff Studio, a regular client, is attracted by Nice Recordings’s set up. “With a Neve outboard in the racks, extremely good preamps and the API desk, this studio is exactly what I need for most of my recording projects,” he says. “As a studio engineer/ lecturer I regularly invite students to the studio. It’s the perfect environment for masterclasses in studio engineering and mixing.”

Antwerp band Fixkes have also become regulars in the studio. “The live room has a great sound and enough room,” comments bass player Sam Valkenborgh. “In terms of mobility, the big advantage is that Nice Recordings is within cycling distance for many artists and studio staffers in Antwerp. Finally, there’s Damien, serving coffee and chocolates, flexible in booking sessions, and with an eye for the tiny details that make working in Nice Recordings great.”