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BILLY LUNN: A Producer by Necessity (Part One)

Daniel Gumble
BILLY LUNN: A Producer by Necessity (Part One)

The Subways front man, Billy Lunn, discusses the changing face of home recording.

Whenever I walk into my studios in Hertford, flick on the light switch, drop my backpack, turn on the power, and watch the multicoloured lights on all the Pro Tools hardware links surge and dance as they heat up, I always, without fail, remember the various stages of my experiences recording leading up to this point. I look at the computer that could probably send a rocket into space and I naturally think back to the Tascam Ministudio Porta 03 mkii four-track tape recorder on which I recorded my GCSE ensemble/composition pieces and all of The Subways’ first, tentative, self-penned attempts back when we were called Mustardseed or Platypus. I look at the neat stack of boxed microphones, an array of metallic orbs, slabs and cylinders, which could reliably soak up the fullest sounds of almost every instrument you can think of, and I’m reminded of the temperamental £11.99 Samson dynamic microphone I used to absorb the sound of everything (literally EVERYTHING) we played, sometimes all at once through a single channel.

I think of the early days, of the silly purchases made out of naivety or an over-eager sense of self-belief, and sometimes I think of the latter, when most of the purchases were made out of necessity. From all of my mistakes and my relative successes there has grown a philosophy of sorts through which I maintain a modest perspective regarding engineering and production: use what you’ve got for as long as you can until you start to feel like you’re squeezing the life out of a piece of hardware/software that simply cannot give you what you’re aiming for anymore. This makes the whole conundrum of “should I upgrade” much more bearable to deal with: if it’s working, stick with it. Recording, of course, is more than just the equipment you’re using – every engineer/producer is different, each with their own personal history of musical appreciation, their own set of ears and their own objectives, and my “philosophy of sorts” has progressed symbiotically with my need for more sophisticated pieces of machinery to achieve the results I’m hoping for.

The band’s first recordings were made at The Square in Harlow. This will most likely come as no surprise to anyone, both because The Square was a vital reason for the formation of The Subways – and remains a vital lifeline for us still – and because almost every other band based around Essex and Herts had a recording made in that tiny room under the dancefloor at one time or another. For some reason I’ve always had a feeling that I could do anything if I just put my mind to it – to the point where most of the producers I’ve worked with think I’m way too cocky (Butch Vig actually used those very words to me) – so once I’d witnessed the incredible John Sellings recording, mixing and mastering our first demo in The Square’s tiny but brilliantly characteristic studio, I thought to myself: “only a couple more sessions here and I think I might be able to do this myself”. And I did. Two more Square demos down the line and I went and dug out the old Tascam four-track tape recorder from the back of my wardrobe and I got to work, employing what I’d learnt from being in the studio up until then.
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It was a huge step backwards, of course; the Tascam recordings sounded nowhere near as good as the demos we’d recorded at The Square. For one thing, whatever we recorded ended up on cassette tape and not on CD – but at least I got a good chance to see for myself what it was to create a sense of separation in the mix, to pan and to EQ, and to also reason with the band about how I wanted them to perform for the recordings. My dad recently found the tapes we’d recorded on the Tascam in a box in his loft and asked if I wanted to hear them. “I don’t think I even have a tape player, mate…” was my response, but I think I was just finding a way to weasel out of actually having to face the awkward proposition of hearing how bad the recording (and how young my voice) would sound to my more mature ears. I might grow a spine one day and give the tape a good whirl.

Anyway, during the process of recording these demos with the Tascam, my dad saw that I was trying to squeeze all that I could out of this tiny tape machine only to end up with a series of badly rendered performances, and that my ambition exceeded both my ability and the equipment necessary to achieve it. As he always has been throughout my musical endeavours, even right up to today (he still tours with us, working as Josh’s drum technician and our stage manager, as well as helping out at YFE Studios), dad was super-supportive, and he splashed out on a second-hand Yamaha AW-4416, which even then I knew I was completely undeserving of. Naturally, I spent almost every second of every day sitting on the floor with this magical machine reading the small print of the manual and toying about with the controls and digital settings. And yet I still couldn’t completely figure the thing out. I’d plunged into the deep end without my armbands!

Even before I’d reasonably got to grips with this wonderbox, we’d already begun recording several tracks at once with some Shure SM58s we had lying around our rehearsal space. But in order to do this properly I needed a more colourful range of microphones, so I worked evenings after college cleaning blocks of offices with my mum in Welwyn Garden City so that I could get the money together to buy a set of cheap Shure drum microphones. To capture the bass, guitars and vocals, I made do with the 58s – my experiences thus far with the cheap, ratty Samson taught me that one could do much worse! The process of mixing became a more complex and rewarding one, and the idea of transferring our songs onto CD (and then the internet) also became a more complex campaign of various and equally important stages: writing, rehearsing, recording, mixing, burning, mastering – all needed to be considered. After demoing for months and months, and then after a long break from gigging to write some more, we recorded some new songs called At 1am, Oh Yeah and Rock & Roll Queen, and soon we began receiving calls to play gigs in London after sending these demos out en masse. Once again, whilst at first my reach had exceeded my grasp, now my ambition was beginning to exceed what I could achieve effectively with the equipment I had to hand. But, for now, London beckoned, and record labels had already begun to sniff around. The demos had to be recorded one way or another…

To be continued.

Tags: recording , audio , the subways , Production , Opinion , billy lunn

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