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Bryan Adams

At Home In The Studio By Joe Matera
Published July 2022

Bryan Adams

Like any true rock star, Bryan Adams is most at home in the studio!

“My love for recording started when I was about 14,” says Bryan Adams. “I took a course at school called Electronic Music and one of the things we studied was musique concrète which included composers such as Stockhausen and things like that. We’d play around with editing sounds and collecting sounds on small tape recorders, where we would then take them and make a collage of sounds out of it. It was a strange thing to be doing back in those days, but there were electronic artists like Tomita and Rick Wakeman that were happening at the time. It was quite fast and quite strange but amazing to be doing that when I was that age.”

It’s not something you expect to hear from a rock & roll superstar, but it was an experience that ignited the Canadian singer’s lifelong obsession with recording, and one which would set him on the path to becoming one of the world’s biggest rock acts. Since then, Adams has released 15 studio albums — his latest, So Happy It Hurts, was issued in March this year — and amassed over 100 million record sales, with his 1991 worldwide hit ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ enjoying a record‑breaking run of 16 consecutive weeks at the top of the UK charts.

Bryan Adams: "My love for recording started when I was about 14, I took a course at school called Electronic Music and one of the things we studied was musique concrète."

Warehouse Party

At the dawning of his career, Adams set up his first studio in the basement of his home. Later, in the aftermath of his worldwide success, he put together The Warehouse Studio, a three‑storey major commercial recording complex in Vancouver, Canada. As well as Adams himself, major stars from AC/DC and REM to Bon Jovi and Muse have used its recording facilities over the years.

“I bought the building in ’89 and sort of started getting bits and pieces fixed on it as it was a complete wreck,” explains Adams. “The building had been neglected for years and years, and they also had a fire in it at one point and all kinds of stuff. Basically, I was just trying to find different builders to help me put it back together again. I went through city archives to try and find photographs of it from the turn of the century, to try and find the original architraves and window designs that used to be on the building and then have them refabricated.”

The refit would take several years, and the studio finally became fully operational in 1997. In the interim, Adams’ own projects were recorded either in his West Vancouver home basement studio, with an SSL 4072 G+ console at its core, or on a custom‑built mobile recording unit. “On the Waking Up The Neighbours album [1991] we did some of the stuff in my basement, and then for the next album 18 Till I Die [1996] we built a mobile unit and ended up recording with that. The mobile unit was a little recording desk with a very expensive digital tape machine which now sits collecting dust in the studio. It was a Sony 3348 48‑track machine which, at the time, was the state of the art for recording. With the mobile unit, we set it up in Jamacia where producer Mutt Lange and I rented a house, and basically for six months we started making a record there. Then after six months we decided we’d go to France, so we went there and rented Johnny Hallyday’s house called La Lorada in Ramatuelle and set up a studio there.

This mobile rig, based around a small console and a Sony 3348 digital multitrack, was used as the main tracking setup for Bryan Adams’ 1996 album 18 Til I Die.This mobile rig, based around a small console and a Sony 3348 digital multitrack, was used as the main tracking setup for Bryan Adams’ 1996 album 18 Til I Die.Photo: Ron Obvious

“Then we got really adventurous and bought another SSL, which I don’t have any more. It lived at The Warehouse for a short period of time, but it was so unbelievably expensive to run. It was basically like having just a giant heater, it was sucking so much electricity that I had to get rid of it. Anyway, we set that up in the house we were renting in France and worked on 18 Till I Die.”

Write Another Album

Throughout his career Adams has worked with the biggest names in the studio business, notably engineer and producer Bob Clearmountain and then later on uber‑producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange. “I wish I had all the techniques that those guys have, particularly Clearmountain who comes from an engineering background,” says Adams. “Back in the days before there was digital and computers and before you could manipulate sound and do sampling and all that stuff, it came down to being able to get really great drum and guitar sounds.

The capacious live room at The Warehouse set up for a horn session.The capacious live room at The Warehouse set up for a horn session.“With Cuts Like A Knife [1983], we were basically dealing with a dead studio in Vancouver [Little Mountain Sound],” says Adams. “So Bob very cleverly put the drum kit in front of some loading bay doors and built this sort of tunnel out of some studio sheeting. We then hung two microphones in this loading bay and the drums were recorded in the dead room but the ambiance was recorded in this loading bay. So that record and Reckless [1984] both have the sound which Bob created out of this funny old loading bay and this really dead studio. And what I learned from that was that you don’t have to record in a room that you’re given. You can experiment and try other ways of making sounds.”

Later, the recording process for Waking Up The Neighbours took more than a year and proved laborious. “When I first went to Mutt I had written an album with Jim [Vallance], and when I played it for Mutt he said, ‘Yeah, that’s nice, but let’s write another one!’” explains Adams. “So what we did was we took bits and pieces of the album I had written with Jim and rewrote them and put them in new songs. There is nothing left of that original album because it was all ripped apart and redesigned for Waking Up The Neighbours. In essence, I had actually recorded two albums. Just before I met up with Mutt I tried recording the album that Jim and I had put together with Steve Lillywhite, but the songs just weren’t as good as what Jim and I had written in the past.”

Lifelong Learning

Bryan Adams also credits Mutt Lange with improving his already famous singing voice. “There have been four phases in my life where I learned a lot about how I use my voice. One was in the club days, where you learned pretty fast how to pace yourself. Two was in the studio and getting into recording; three was with Mutt and getting into the finer performance aspects of how to make a song even better by getting a better performance and, lastly, going out on tour with my acoustic guitar and just doing solo performances. The acoustic performances were probably the most educational of all of them, because you learned not only timing and tuning, but you also got to learn how to remember all your songs and make them work with just the one instrument and your voice. And I learned a lot from doing just that.

“The thing I learned from the early days, even before I was recording with a band and just working as a session singer, I had learned how to do everything from mic technique to where you stand when you’re singing with other singers, and all the way down to how to put everybody into a room and make it sound like something. You couldn’t muck around, so you had to perform it and you had to sing it in tune and be in time. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to mic up a whole room, but I can definitely busk it. You’ll need an engineer who has experience to be able to get that. But going back to the early days, timing and tuning when you were singing were two of the most important things. I basically had that figured out pretty much until I met Mutt. And then he just took me to a different level as a singer.

“With Mutt, one of the most interesting things about him when I first worked with him was to not be precious about the ideas you have, and to be open to changing things. Jim and I would spend a year writing a record and then recording it. Waking Up The Neighbours took a year and half to make but that was because we were writing it as we were going and sometimes we’d get to a point where a song was ‘Yeah that’s feeling pretty good except that bit doesn’t work, so let’s change it,’ and so we’d work on that for a bit more, but it was an amazing time. Mutt got the best performances out of my voice than anyone ever got.”

The well‑stocked outboard rack in The Warehouse Studio 2.The well‑stocked outboard rack in The Warehouse Studio 2.

The Mic Locker

Over the years, Adams has stockpiled a large collection of microphones, which today he keeps under lock and key at his studio. “I kind of started collecting microphones as something to do while I was on tour,” he reveals, “as there were a lot of times when I would be sitting around doing nothing, so I would just go down to flea markets in whatever town it was and see what was available. Sometimes it’d be like, ‘Oh, there is something in a box here,’ and sure enough there would be an old mic. So that was the way I started collecting them. As it went on, it got more and more serious, and I ended up going to different places and buying some things online and stuff. I’ve kind of given up on it now because I’ve got too many and I don’t have anywhere else to put them.

“The microphones in the collection include some odd weird ones from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that are kept for display, and then there are ones from the ’50s onward which are the kind of the microphones we will use. But I kind of use new microphones now as I hardly ever use old microphones any more to record, though on the new record at least [So Happy It Hurts] I used a Neumann U47 and a Neumann M49 which are both older microphones. I find that all microphones kind of all sound the same unless you sort of downgrade and go to something like a Shure SM58, which is kind of like the ultimate rock & roll microphone. You can belt all that you want into that thing and it won’t crap out.

“I used to have this really old Neumann M49 with which I recorded quite a bit of my work up until 1993, and the last vocal I did on it was ‘Please Forgive Me’. And then by accident I left it in the studio in Paris where we were recording it and I only remembered about a year later that I had left the microphone there. So, I called the studio and they sent it back to me but it just didn’t sound the same. And now for vocals I just use a Neumann U87.”

Does Adams prefer any specific miking techniques? “Not really, just as long as I can hear myself,” he says. “And if I can’t, then I will just take one ear off the headphones and listen to myself in the room. Sometimes if you’re miking, for example, a Marshall amp, what I will do is I will go in and set up the guitar and the amp, then have one of the assistants go in there and put on a set of headphones and then just with the engineer we will find the sweet spot in the speaker where the microphone sounds best, and once we do, we will stick with that.”

The Ultimate Neve?

Taking pride of place in Studio 2 at The Warehouse is a Neve AIR A6630 console, one of only three custom mixers commissioned by producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick for Martin’s AIR Studios in 1979. Adams purchased the desk in 1991 and then hired studio design technician and engineer Ron Obvious to install it and undertake modifications.

Studio 2 at Bryan Adams’ The Warehouse Studios houses the famous Neve AIR console.Studio 2 at Bryan Adams’ The Warehouse Studios houses the famous Neve AIR console.Photo: David Backus

“I first worked on that desk when it was at Atlantic Studios in New York, as they were the original purchasers of it from AIR Studios,” explains Adams. “I had heard that the desk had later been bought by Jimmy Iovine, so I went out and checked what was going on with it and sure enough he had bought it. I said to him rather flippantly, ‘Well if you ever decide to sell that desk, let me know.’ And apparently it just sat in a box for years, and finally one day he called and said, ‘Hey, would you still be interested in buying the desk?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes!’ so I bought it from him. It took us quite a bit of time to put it all together again because it was in pieces and there were some pieces that had been nicked from it, which we managed to get back. So that’s kind of the history to the desk. It’s a beautiful piece of kit. Honestly, I can’t believe sometimes that I’ve got it. That’s the jewel in the crown of the studio. A few people have approached me to buy it over the years but I haven’t been tempted enough to sell it.”

With the growth in home studios and easy access to digital recording, many legendary studios have faced tough times in recent years. For a studio owner such as Adams, staying afloat financially is a day‑to‑day juggling act. “If you are thinking about making any money, don’t start a studio!” advises Adams. “Obviously, I like it because it’s my place and it was kind of a nice dream to have a place of my own that had my gear in it, and it’s got a vault in it for some of the rare pieces of things I’ve collected over the years. The studio really runs on hand-to-mouth every month. And though we’ve had some incredible artists in there throughout the years, it basically just washes its face.”

Studio 3 at The Warehouse.Studio 3 at The Warehouse.

Do It Yourself

While Adams still prefers to work in an old‑school recording studio, circumstances at times have forced him to turn to alternative options. “What’s interesting about recording now is that you don’t necessarily have to be in a top studio to get a great sound. You can be anywhere. For example, the albums Room Service [2004] and 11 [2008] were recorded sort of everywhere and anywhere, because I was touring and just wanted to go on and make a record as well.”

The lockdowns that resulted from the recent pandemic left Adams in another quandary when it came to recording his latest album, So Happy It Hurts. “I couldn’t get the band and fly them in as nobody was travelling so I had to do it myself! And because I didn’t really have an engineer, too, I hired Hayden Watson, the guy that I recorded Shine A Light [2019] with and who’d been making the tea at my studio, so I asked him again if he could record some of the things I had and the ideas I had. And every day we’d go into the studio and record a bit more. The only difference between this record and any other record I’ve done previously is that I recorded all the instruments myself. And I did that because I had a drum kit and had started slogging away at it. My mantra for each song was basically, I would come back into the control room and say to Hayden, ‘Would [John] Bonham have played that?’ And he’d go, ‘No.’ And I would go right back in there and just kept going back in until I got something of what I felt was as rock as possible.”

Despite having penned some of the most memorable anthems of the past four decades, Adams says songwriting hasn’t become any easier over the years. “When it comes to songwriting, in order to really get songs, I have to sit down and basically graft at it because if I don’t do that, it’s very seldom that an idea will happen. Sometimes I will mumble a jumble of words. One of my best mumbles was ‘Cuts Like A Knife’. I remember Jim playing the tape back when we had recorded a sort of rough version of the idea and he said, ‘What did you say there? It sounds like cuts like a knife?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that’s what I said.’ But usually, the most that will ever happen is that I will get an idea in a restaurant and I will scribble it down on a bit of paper and that might end up being something — but to actually get a song, I have to sit down and really work at it.”  

A Breath Of Fresh AIR

New Zealand‑born studio designer and engineer Ron Obvious was hired by Bryan Adams in 1991 to install and modify the Neve AIR A6630 console that Adams purchased for The Warehouse. With 58 inputs, this was the largest of the three made for AIR Studios (the others had 32 and 40 inputs respectively). I asked Ron to give us an overview of the modifications he made to the desk.

Part of the famous Neve AIR console.Part of the famous Neve AIR console.

“At the time, the console in the world was the SSL 4072K. So as a recording and technical engineer, I wanted to retain the sonics and look of the A6630 but, at the same time, incorporate what was expected and available on a modern SSL 4072K. I spent almost a year on the console with two assistant engineers, doing the many mods and updates.

“VU meters were still in the left to right order, and the physical centre of the console had the four master faders. I changed these to the SSL standard, for example, meters 1 and 2 above channels 1 and 2. At the console centre section, I put in the quad VU meters and a digital dBFS meter.

“The cut and solo switches were also made the same as the SSL, where they are lit and have the solo safe mode. I also added a custom balanced [insert] point — pre‑EQ, the same as in the SSL, where the Comp/Gate [dynamics card] is placed ahead of the EQ, which is actually the right way to do things 93 percent of the time. This required a button on the meter bridge, and a full second insert point in the patchbay, which now made the Neve console the only one with two insert points.

“On the far right side of the console there were some simple line returns (49‑58) for reverbs, I designed six SSL G mic pres and 242 black EQ modules with all the layout and knobs made in the Neve style. On the centre quad main fader bus, I added an SSL bus compressor — card set, meter and knobs located in the centre section — so when bypassed with relays, it’s fully out of the signal path. Back in that era, because the monitors were only mains and minis, I designed a four‑output balanced switching system in the console centre section. I also added tape transport remote controls, again like on an SSL.

“These consoles were the very first consoles in the world [1977] with remote mic preamps. I installed the 48 mic pres in two roll‑around racks in the studio, so this way they could be placed close to the instruments you wanted to record. A 32‑pair Mogami snake connected with a DL connector on the wall. The extra mic wires were to supply the ±15V and 48V.

“I completely redid the patchbay with nickel bantam jacks, again making the layout more closely laid out in the SSL style. There were no meters for the eight auxes, so I added half‑sized VU meters on the upper right side. The 12 bus faders that were originally at the bottom of the centre section were moved to knobs on the right side of the meter bridge, which allowed more room for you to run the tape machine transport buttons and so on.

“With the help of a tech in A&M Studio, we designed and installed an ‘in‑line’ mix playback system by using the eight auxes on each channel. This was to get around the monitor panel with only 32 playbacks. Three LEDs were added to the bus assignments, so that you could see if any of the bus assignment switches were being used. I would have liked to have done one for each bus switch, but that was not possible. All bus switches had to be replaced with new ones, as the old ones were too oxidised.

“All the classic updates were done to replace all the caps in the console with Panasonic HF, and the op‑amps with 5534ANs. At one point, GML automation was put in, much to my disappointment, but to my satisfaction, was later removed. And all power supplies, including six for ±15V and 48V, and 24V, were replaced with new ones.”