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Q&A: Staf Verbeeck

The Belgium producer on pushing the ‘record’ button at the right moment

In 2010, renowned Belgian studio engineer Staf Verbeeck decided to sell the building housing the legendary Jet Studio (the oldest studio in the country, in fact). He had no choice, he says, because of “hard times”. With his extensive backpack full of recording expertise, Verbeeck boarded the (Brussels concert venue) Ancienne Belgique’s (AB) technical team where he worked as engineer in the hall’s recording studio. Alongside his job at AB, Verbeeck started lecturing at the PXL College of Music in Hasselt; he now lectures at two other institutions in Belgium. Throughout the year, he also hosts master-classes on recording and mixing in music centres all over the country…

But what were the plans for getting back into the studio?

Well, the ‘temp’ job, replacing Stef Van Alsenoy in the AB live studio took longer than expected – just because Stef expanded his one year sabbatical. I really liked that job. But I needed a plan – how was I to address my recording assignments? And where to put my equipment after I’d sold Jet studio? After having moved the gear from one test place to another, I decided to build my own studio at home, in Antwerp. The idea was to go out and record artists in other studios or live settings, and then take the mixing and mastering work to Stiff Studio. One way or another I was quite lucky with the acoustic qualities of the room – I invited Dutch acoustic consultants AudioWorkx who measured the studio and the results were surprisingly good. I added some extra bass-traps and an acoustic ‘cloud’ above the monitor position and there it was: Stiff Studio.

Tell us about the gear you are using?

Over the years I’ve collected my favourite equipment, which has helped me to define my sound as an engineer. I moulded it all together in a hybrid studio, combining vintage equipment with Avid interfaces and hardware inserts like a pair of EMI RS 124 compressors and an Ampex ATR100 recorder. I further invested in Proacc Studio 100 speakers as main nearfield monitors. The bigger monitors are a pair of Rogers BBC PM-510 cabinets. Stiff Studio is not a recording studio as all recording happens on location.

Who are your clients at Stiff Studio?

Despite the fact that people get access to sophisticated home studio gear, I’m convinced that it takes expertise to take the recording to a higher level. I see plenty of young people reaching a high level, thanks to the info available on the internet and aprofessional education… But it takes a certain ‘mileage’ to lift the material up – and I’m happy I can contribute there. We take on the full spectrum, from recording (live or on location), to mixing, mastering and production. And we get both established artists as well as young bands like Felix Pallas, Coely, Vuurwerk and Kasablanka coming over to have their material mixed. The bulk of my assignments are external studio recording and mixing, and every now and then, I do location live recording.

Which brings us to your most recent project…

Singer-songwriter Anton Walgrave asked me to do a live recording for his new album Where Oceans Meet. Anton released his first album back in 2000 – and hasn’t stopped recording ever since. Last year, we worked in his studio and our collaboration grew quite organically. When he decided to cut his 8th album, before a live audience, I was on his radar… We went out to record in an 18th century chapel. The album is part of a crowdfunding project, with the live audience providing the funds for the recording.

How did you proceed?

It all starts with the artist – that’s the essence. Secondly, the chapel felt right as a recording area. And then came the equipment: we decided to put together a mobile set-up combining both Anton’s and my gear. We took UAD Apollo audio interfaces, and good pre-amps like vintage API Audio 312 and API 512, Vintech X 1073 and Cartec Audio.

To get the chapel’s atmosphere, the choice of the microphones was key. The first step was establishing a good acoustic balance as a basis to start from – the result with a few distant microphones seemed great…but slightly too ‘wet’ so we eventually opted for the close miking as planned. You may not be surprised that, over the years, I have put together my own ‘mix’ of microphones I like to work with – the Neumann KM series, the Schoeps CMC5, a vintage C37 Sony tube mike… For this particular recording, I used a Brauner VMX for Anton Walgrave’s vocals – his guitar was recorded with a DPA 4099 mic and an AEA NUVO Ribbon, both channelled through the API 512 pre-amp.

How did you manage the chapel’s acoustics?

To capture the right performance and the right atmosphere – that’s what, in my opinion, makes a good recording. Being there at the right magical moment and pushing the ‘record’ button…I made sure that we recorded all of the rehearsals for that reason. And although the audience isn’t really audible on the recording, it provides an extra value and boosted the musicians’ focus.

We installed tandem microphones on respectively 1/3 and 2/3 distance from the stage. A first set consisted of two Neumann KM 184 on either side, the second pair were Schoeps CMC5. For the classic quartet I used an AEA R88 Stereo Ribbon as overhead microphone. The combination of close miking, stereo ribbon microphones and overheads worked great. We also carefully placed a genuine SoundField Mk4 where the musical balance was best. The Mk4 allowed me to dynamically shift the focus from one source to another. We recorded directly into Logic, with the Apollo interfaces, and only used minimal compression. The album was recorded in three sessions with live audience on two nights in June.

How is the rest of the year looking?

I must admit, 2016 has been the busiest year of my whole career so far. I’ve been doing mixing jobs 24/7. My agenda is quite booked up until the end of this year. I just finished a live recording session with singer/rap star Coely which I’m currently mixing. And… these days I’ll be returning to the cradle to record rock band Diablo Blvd at Jet Studio – the room remains great to work in…