Shaun Hayward & Joe Kenny of Chunc Productions reveal their gear setup and musical motivations.
Sometimes hi-tech music can be pretty hard work. Creating a studio is expensive and time consuming — choosing the gear from a confusing array on the market, getting the necessary money together, fitting out a suitable space, head-scratching over wiring and setup, then spending possibly months becoming properly familiar with hardware that's sometimes inscrutable and software that's nearly always deep. And all this before you can get down to serious music production.
Shaun Hayward and Joe Kenny, aka Chunc Productions, recognise this catalogue of potential difficulties. Three and a half years ago they got together to find a house where they could begin creating a studio. The setup would be used to record their own album and would also serve as the engine room for their production partnership with other bands and artists. There was one tiny extra obstacle: both Shaun and Joe are blind. Joe lost his sight at five years old, after an unsuccessful operation for congenital Glaucoma, while Shaun's sight failed progessively into his 20s, due to another genetic condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa.
If you've been (rightly) patting yourself on the back for having slogged through the process described above and come out the other end with a working setup, think for a minute about how much harder it would be if you couldn't see what you were doing. It's tempting to think it would be impossible, but Shaun and Joe have proved that assumption wrong. Not only do they have a very nice basement studio centred around MOTU 24 I/O audio hardware, Sonar software for recording and a Soundcraft Ghost analogue desk, they are indeed part-way through recording their album. What's more, they've been working with two separate vocalists, one of whom will be the subject of a Channel 4 documentary this summer, and they also act as producers for local bands who take their fancy.
While Joe and Shaun met while studying music technology at a Hereford college for the blind, their routes to that point were very different. Joe was fresh from school, having decided that music and not 'A'-levels was the way to go. He'd played guitar since he was a child, adopting a unique 'left-hand-over-the-top' style because when he first picked up the instrument that seemed the way to play it. Shaun, on the other hand, had spent years playing solo and in bands in the Birmingham area, majoring in vocals and keys.
At Hereford, Shaun and Joe both became inspired by lecturer Paul Cobbold (who had previously worked with the Pogues and Clannad, amongst others). Both were aiming for a career in the audio industry, and while Joe went off to continue studying at Leeds Metropolitan University and then Leeds College of Music, coming out with an HND in Music Production, Shaun landed a job engineering at Forge Studios in Oswestry, at the same time playing piano and singing at a local restaurant.
The studio provided valuable practical experience, although, as Shaun relates, learning the gear without being able to see it was initially "very stressful. They had an 80-input Amek Rembrandt desk and Bantam patchbay. I was used to a normal patchbay, with holes in horizontal rows, and when you go Bantam they're sometimes in vertical rows. Bantams have much smaller holes too. It's not a job I'd like to do now, because it does stress you out. I wasn't only engineering, I was producing, keeping people happy, smiling, telling jokes, and at the same time I'd be thinking 'where the hell is that wire going?' Sometimes I got a tape op, sometimes not. When I did I'd send him to read the DA88 meters and tell me if we were in the red yet. Otherwise I'd use these [indicates ears]. I'd do a little test run and as soon as I heard any distortion, pull it back."
He seems to have managed admirably well, no doubt helped by good ears and a phenomenal memory — desk navigation had to be done entirely by touch, with layout and channel assignments memorised — and became a valued part of Forge. "Lee Monteverdi, who used to work with Pete Waterman, would come in and do a lot of mixes where I'd worked on the tracking. We did some sessions where Phil [Forge owner] would pay me just to come in and sit at the back of the room and listen, to say if I felt something was happening that was wrong, if they were pushing a compressor too hard, or something needed lowering in the mix, or a hi-hat frequency was too bright against the rest of the track. Just to get it all to blend. A lot of vocal production, too, because singing is my main thing."
While working at Forge, Shaun kept in touch with Joe and would frequently visit Leeds, where Joe was at University making a discovery of particular importance for the future prospects of the partnership. He explains. "That was when I first got into operating the Cakewalk 6 software. The speech software we use [called Jaws , by American developers Freedom Scientific] worked with Cakewalk 6.
"A company called Musicians In Focus had a plan to bring this speech software to blind people who wanted to record their own music. For me, it really was an eye-opener. Before that I'd been using Tascam DA88s, reel-to-reels, ADATs... I could use them, but you could never read what was on the screen, and if you got it wrong, if you hadn't un-armed a track or whatever, there was no second chance. But as soon as you get onto a sequencer you can do anything anyone else can do. When I came across it, I thought... 'That's it!'
"The basic function of the speech software is to read what's on the screen and speak it to you. It's made for Windows and it works with common Windows apps, like Microsoft Word and Excel, and Internet Explorer. But then it started to be developed for Cakewalk. Little tweaks have to be made to optimise it for different software. You have to tell it how it's supposed to look at the screen — for example, whether it's meant to read graphics."
Shaun takes up the story. Having heard from Joe about using Cakewalk with the speech interface his first thought was: "This is great, we could work together and be the producers we really want to be, get on a level playing field with everybody else. So I said let's look for a property and put a studio in it, and Joe was really up for it. From there I went around buying stuff. I bought the desk, he had a PC, I already had my Roland keyboard, so we started from there. We found this house. The cellar was absolutely minging, so we spent £3500 on tanking it out. Luckily the landlord gave us £1300 towards that. Everyone kept saying we were mad, putting money into a place we didn't own, but you have to follow your dream.
"When we first got Cakewalk going, that first year, we were making mental sounds. We were so excited to be able to make grooves ourselves. A lot of stuff we still couldn't do, like the MIDI wouldn't work properly, so we taught ourselves to play everything in by hand and copy and paste, and that's how we got our unique sound.
"We don't use commercial loops. We make our own, drumming them in. Joe has his own style entirely and he gets sounds out of the guitar that no-one else can get. As for me, I was taught on Hammond organs so in a way I'm self-taught on the piano and I use a lot of bass end and chords down the bottom. Since we've been here we've pursued originality, trying to keep going our own way."
As Cakewalk advanced, Joe and Shaun moved on with it through its mutation into Sonar, aided by Jaws 'scripts' written by an American programmer that enable the speech software to read what's in Sonar. Joe: "Cakewalk communicate with people who are prepared to write the scripts. Sonar was a bugger for script writing. Apparently it looks a lot more like VST than the previous Cakewalk software, very graphical, so it was harder to write the scripts. But people have kept up with it, thank God."
Standing quietly in a corner by the racks I notice an Alesis Air FX mounted on a mic stand. Shaun and Joe are immediately enthusiastic: "That's the best bit of kit in the house," says Joe. "It's awesome. A lot of studios won't have them, because of the quality, but sometimes quality is irrelevant, it's about getting a vibe. That's got 50 different effects on it. Some of them are useless, but some of them are great — the filters, for example. You've got four points of infra-red rays and you move your hands about and you can produce effects you'd never be able to produce with just two knobs, make shapes with your hands and get some great sounds going. We usually put it through a Penta set for limiting so that it doesn't crash too much, and mess around. We use it on drums." "And it's good for intros and outros," adds Joe. "Put a stereo tune through it and mess it up." Shaun continues: "We had one guy in here and he played with it and then he turned around and said ' that is as important as your fridge!'."
The basement studio at Chunc HQ in Leeds is a cosy and comfortable little space, although it can get rather warm in summer. There's a portable air-conditioning unit vented through the back wall, but it's too noisy to use during recording or critical listening. The walls are mainly covered in thin carpet, though the back wall is wood panelled and the wall behind the desk has a pleated curtain in front of it.
The main building work was done by a local firm, but Joe and Shaun did much of the rest themselves. They also undertook the wiring (balanced throughout), including the patching from the patchbays to the desk, all using touch and memory. Shaun explains: "My Dad made all the looms and we bought one of those £10 testers from Tandy. We'd pick up one end of a lead, put the tester on it and keep picking up leads until the tester went 'bleep'. Then we'd know we had the other end. Then we taped numbers to the leads, in braille, and we kept doing that until we'd finished all the looms."
Choice of gear came down to the usual balancing act between needs and finance. Shaun was determined that although they would be recording digitally, to hard disk via Cakewalk/Sonar, the desk must be analogue. "We use a mixture of analogue and digital. Analogue desk, analogue outboard, and digital hard disk recording. That is the best way to go. When you hear bands recorded via digital desks, they're very clean. It's great for dance music, but for real bands there's no warmth."
The assignable nature of digital desks doesn't go down well with Joe and Shaun, either, as Joe explains: "I had a bit of experience with the Panasonic DA7 and I thought it was a horrible console to use. You've got three knobs and a button that changes what the knobs do — ie. top, middle or bottom EQ bands, or they're aux sends. That's too many things for three knobs to do, if you ask me."
Moving on to digital recording, the pair have nothing but praise for the MOTU 24 I/O they chose as their audio interface, with Joe observing that "MOTU are the best. The quality and dynamic range are just great. We get such a fat sound recording at 24-bit, 96kHz." Shaun adds: "A lot of our old stuff was done at 44.1, but now we record at 96k. You can really hear it on things like acoustic guitars."
In answer to my question about what exactly is added to the sound by the extra bits and sample depth, the pair have an interesting viewpoint. "It's very hard to describe," responds Joe. "It's a height thing." Shaun enlarges on this statement. "Nobody else seems to have figured this out. If you have a sound in front of you so that the vocal is there in the centre [indicates something placed at around chest height], at 96k it will be up here a bit [moves hand up towards head height] — a bit bigger. If that transfers 24 times you're going to get a much fatter sound. Unfortunately, with Sonar 2 you can't mix sample rates in one file. With Sonar 3 you can, so we really want to get that. On the tracks we haven't finished for our own album it would be great to be able to re-use old material, as well as recording new stuff for the same songs at 96k."
The studio's two well-stocked racks contain some great favourites, such as two Focusrite Penta preamp/compressors. "They are brilliant," says Joe. Shaun agrees. "Their mic preamps are fantastic. We've got a Neumann TLM103 mic that we used to put straight into the desk and it was a bit naff, but you plug it in to a Penta and it's clear, in focus, warm, full. Plug any mic in and it helps.
"The presets are on little individual switches in a row with their own LEDs, and we manage to work with those just by counting. For example, number nine is one of the acoustic guitar presets. Then if the preset is not quite right you edit it. But there are no rules... We'll sit there and hit the buttons till we find the right sound. Maybe it's a kick drum preset and a guitar is going through it, but that doesn't matter if it's the sound you want for that moment."
Not all the rack gear comes in for the same praise. Joe: "The TC Triple C is hopeless for a blind user, because it's so menu-driven. There are 100-odd presets, but we can't get to them, because of the menus." "We bought that because it's a multi-band compressor, the only 'finaliser' we could afford," adds Shaun. "We've got a friend who we sat and worked with for a while, getting our own presets together, and when we want to master something we ask him to access a certain preset for us. The other thing with the Triple C is that the knobs don't click and they don't have a pointer you can feel." "And they're very light, which means that the slightest touch makes them move," adds Joe. "I'm sure even sighted people have had the same problem," says Shaun. "They brush against something and 'oh shit...' it's changed in the middle of a mix."
A strong presence in the racks is Behringer: Shaun and Joe own no fewer than seven Behringer units, about which they have mixed feelings. The two Behringer preamps, Ultragain Pro Tube models, see perhaps the most action. Joe: "I wouldn't use them for a nice vocal or a nice piano, but if you bang a full-distortion guitar solo through them... bloody great!" Joe also likes the Ultra Q Tube EQ, primarily for basses and guitars. "It generates warmth. You put that on a very clean sound and the warmth becomes noise, but on a bass it's just warmth." The Behringer gear clearly has its uses, then, though Shaun calls the Ultrafex Pro enhancer "the worst buy I ever made" and freely admits that he finds the Intelligate so inscrutable that he's only turned it on once!
Well designed knob-driven interfaces are a favourite with Joe and Shaun — as they surely are with the majority of SOS readers. They particularly like their Lexicon MPX100 effects processor — although, as Shaun reveals, "we only use that for delay. We don't use the reverbs because they're not very good. But it's got tap tempo and is very tactile. It would be brilliant if Lexicon came up with something that used an engine from one of their really high quality machines, and stuck it in a box with that interface. If you could get the real quality with those knobs and that layout, it would be fantastic. Those two knobs in the middle where you can extend stuff and change it... it's so instant. But I would think a lot of people wouldn't want that. They'd want the menus to mess around with." I observe at this point that I'm not so sure they would!
Monitoring is taken care of by Tannoy Reveals and a pair of tiny PC speakers. "The Reveals are very good, you can hear everything with them," offers Joe. "The bass they can handle never ceases to amaze me." Shaun adds that "in this small room you get a 'main monitor' sound out of them. They're fantastic workhorses. And for nearfields we use those PC speakers. If you can make it sound good on there and it isn't cracking up — because the top end cracks up on them — it'll sound good anywhere. We try to match between the Reveals and the PC speakers. If we can be flicking between the two — and obviously there will be a bass disparity because the Reveals are much bigger — and there's not that much of a difference in the sound, we know we're on to something."
- Altec Lansing PC Speakers
- MOTU 24 I/O Audio Interface and PCI 424 card
- Neumann TLM103 Microphone
- Pentium 4 2GHz PC with 1GB RAM, 2 x 40GB drives, Seagate 120GB drive
- Pioneer DVD writer
- Samson Power Amp
- Soundcraft Ghost 32:8 Analogue Mixer
- Tannoy Reveal Monitors
- Alesis Air FX Processor
- Aphex 204 Aural Exciter
- Behringer Intelligate Noise Gate
- Behringer Tube Composer Compressors x2
- Behringer Ultragain Tube Pro Preamps x 2
- Behringer Ultra Q Tube EQ
- Behringer Virtualizer Multi-effects
- Dbx 266 XL Compressors x2
- Focusrite Platinum Penta Compressors x2
- Focusrite Platinum Compounder Compressor
- Lexicon MPX100 Effects Processor
- Line 6 Pod Modelling Guitar Preamp/Processor
- Line 6 Bass Pod Modelling Preamp/Processor
- Midiman 8x8 MIDI Interface
- TC Electronic Triple C Multiband Compressor
- TC Electronic M1 Effects Processor
- Emu Proteus World module
- Emu Proteus 2000 module
- Evolution MK361C Controller Keyboard
- Line 6 Guitar Pod and Bass Pod Processors
- Novation A-Station module
- Roland RD500 Digital Piano
To get an idea of how Shaun and Joe operate in the studio, I ask them to talk me through a typical working session. Shaun begins. "If we take, for example, a four-piece band, drums, bass, guitar, singer, the first thing is to get the drummer set up in the booth and mic up the kit." The miking up is done by touch, as Joe confirms. "It's just experience, you get to know where to point the mics and how far away and so on." The drums are then routed through preamps to the desk. Joe explains. "The typical thing would be to put the kick through a Penta. The overheads, too, would go through a Penta, and we could then use its limiting. It's imperative you get a good overhead sound and a good kick. The hi-hat and the snare would go through the Behringer preamps, because sometimes the cracking sound of the valve works quite well on a snare. The Behringers are a bit noisy but they're ballsy. They'd come up at the desk, we'd route them to the groups, they go straight to the MOTU, we'd open up Sonar and select the inputs and arm tracks for record. Then we'd plug the bass and guitar into the Pods, route them, and so on, then give the vocalist a mic to hold, which we usually don't record."
"At this point it's all about getting a good drum track," says Shaun. And getting the best from the players involves more than just the gear. Psychology comes into play too. "Half the time, on that first pass we don't even record the bass and guitar. Nine times out of 10 they don't play the part right. People come in and say they want to do it live, for that live feel, but every band we've ever produced in here has left with a great live feel, because of the way we work. We motivate, we encourage, we turn up the monitors and really get the player into it. We're listening for feel all the time, to make sure that energy is created. We like to work with people as individuals, so once we've got that drum track nailed, the session changes. Now it's 'everybody out, and where's the bass player?' It's his time then, and we want to make him feel important. There's a lot of politics in bands, so the best way psychologically is to get each member on their own, make them feel comfortable and safe and tell them they're doing great. In the end, that's what makes the better product from them. They've not got the worry of the guitarist giving them a look that says 'you made that mistake again'... We send the others upstairs to make tea and watch a DVD. Then it's the guitarist's turn. It does seem to be the best way to work"
While Shaun and Joe are making each musician feel comfortable they're also taking care of business with Sonar, routing inputs where they want them, arming tracks for recording, and so on. Joe explains how it's done. "We've got a template we use that opens up 24 tracks ready to go. We use the arrow keys to get around. Imagine a grid: up and down is going between tracks, left to right is going through the columns in that track: Mute, Record, Solo, Pan, Volume, Input, Output... I don't know if that's how it looks on screen, but to us it appears mentally as a grid system." Every time the cursor reaches a significant point, a computerised voice gives audio feedback. For example, if Joe arrows through a track strip, the voice might read out something like 'Mute off, Solo off, Record off'. Joe: It'll give us feedback at every keystroke. If I'm on a Pan button and I want to pan something, the voice interface says 'Pan', I hit Enter, type in my new value, hit Enter again — and there's the pan position changed for that track."
Once everyone has finished track-laying, one of the most time-consuming parts of the process begins: editing. The pair clean up guitar tracks, chop breaths and coughs out of vocal tracks, and so on. Joe: "It's all based on your 'from' and 'to' time. I might select from bar two to bar four, because I know I'm going to do something with that space — cut it or put a plug-in on it, for example. That's the way it works." If a band has elected to record without a click track, this system of using bars becomes more difficult and entails Shaun and Joe doing some careful listening and remembering of edit locations. Fortunately, the speech interface gives audio feedback of bar/beat/tick positions when asked to.
Not being able to see to use onscreen wave editing means that the process is slower, but it gets done. Shaun points out that "music is a listening, not a seeing medium. I've known people to edit badly, thinking they can see everything on screen, but I can still hear little clicks, because they've edited with their eyes. People are so caught up in seeing what they're doing rather than listening."
Next up is the mix, which is largely a hands-on process at the desk, although Shaun and Joe will sometimes use some Sonar level automation to lighten the mixing load. They swap roles constantly at this point. "We have similar skills with mixing," says Joe. "Shaun will be at the desk and I'll be wandering around behind him, going 'louder', 'quieter', and so on, or I'll be here adjusting the compressors... or vice versa." "That's the beauty of me and Joe as a team," adds Shaun. "There's differences in terms of our personalities, but when it comes to working we both play drums, bass, guitar and piano, to different degrees and in different styles, and we both can use all of the equipment at the same level. So we share responsibility. We trust each other. If he says 'that kick's too loud,' I reduce it straight away. And he'll do the same with me."
Some tracks are then 'finalised' using the TC Triple C, sent out of the audio hardware, through the patchbay into the Triple C, then back to the MOTU again, without going through the desk, before being topped, tailed and faded (if necessary) in Sonar. Shaun comments that they'd really prefer to have someone else master for them. "It would be great to get some help along the way, and someone else's perspective."
The Chunc Productions website, www.chunc.net, gives details of Shaun and Joe's projects, including work with singers Sarah Caltieri and Joanna Laporte. Sarah, also an actress and featured in a Channel 4 documentary this summer, is using the two tracks she completed with Joe and Shaun to seek a publishing deal. The pair have now returned to their own album project. Shaun: "That's why we set up the studio. I think our music fills a gap in the market. We listen to a lot of rap — we don't use rap but we're influenced by the beats. The music is very melody-driven pop, but it isn't pop. It's not exactly political, but it says something about life and the way we are as people. It's kind of soulful punk."
Next on the agenda for Shaun and Joe is finishing their album, but at the same time they'll be continuing to pursue their aim of establishing themselves as a production team. They've already made a good start, laying the groundwork of creating a studio, making contact with other artists, and refining their working methods. Shaun is matter-of-fact about the determined attitude that's allowed them to get so far already. "If there's a problem, we work around it. We have a saying here: there are no problems, only solutions."