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Readerzone: Jonathan Atkinson

By John Walden

Another 'through the keyhole' glimpse into a reader's studio reveals how it's possible to turn your hobby into a job, with a TV commission to help you on your way.

The SOS readership are a diverse bunch, and although the main focus of these features has been on readers who pursue a passion for recording in their spare time, there are a number of people who work in their home or project studio as a key part of their livelihood. Looking at the pictures of Jonathan Atkinson's studio might suggest he's in the first of these Readerzone groups, and Jonathan is quick to admit that his West Midlands-based recording studio is modestly stocked. However, for the last 12 months this enthusiastic SOS reader has been operating a full-time music production business.

READERZONEPhoto: Richard Ecclestone

With a number of other commissions in progress, and having already composed music for an eight-part Channel 5 TV series, he's certainly doing something right. So, the question many SOS readers will be eager to find an answer to: how did he make the transition from a dedicated 'hobbyist' into a full-time professional?

Humble Beginnings

Jonathan's musical beginnings would be familiar to many SOS readers: piano and guitar lessons while still at school soon led to various band line-ups in his native Cumbria. "Basically, we spent three or four years trying to make something happen, but there just wasn't the support for what we were doing; sort of early 80's pop-rock. We spent a lot of time playing mostly to sheep! We did actually move to Manchester for six months to do it full-time, but we didn't make much progress."

In various band line-ups, Jonathan experienced the usual demo recording process in a number of budget commercial studios, and an interest in recording technology took hold. "A member of the band I was in bought the contents of an eight track studio that was in the process of folding. We set up the gear in my house, and from there the seed was well and truly planted. This would have been when Home & Studio Recording magazine [Paul White's editorial home prior to joining SOS] was still around."

In between a variety of non-musical jobs, Jonathan developed his knowledge of the recording process via a six-month course in Manchester and a stint working as an Assistant Engineer in a small London studio. However, financial considerations eventually led to work in areas outside music, though the deep-rooted ambition to make a living out of his hobby remained. Jonathan knew he'd have to wait until the right set of circumstances presented themselves before giving a musical career another try.

The decision came a little earlier than planned. "I had a job in sales but, during 2000, the company I was working for was relocating. I'd had a plan to give music one final shot when Lisa [Jonathan's partner] had graduated a year down the line. Anyway, when this possible redundancy package came up a year early, I knew the time was right. I know a lot of people see changing jobs as a big risk but, because I've moved around quite a lot, I guess I'm not so worried by the uncertainty of being in that position. In a sense, it didn't feel like such a big step, more just 'about bloody time!'"

Plasterboard & Patience

When Jonathan had bought his current house a couple of years before this, he'd identified a space at the back of the property that could serve as a studio. "I was obviously going to need a dedicated space if I was ever to start a professional business, plus I felt I'd spent enough time in the bedroom studio and wanted my own space."

Sound On Sound had a role to play here. "The studio is in the back of my house in the old 'Brew House' (hence the name 'Brew House Studio'), which is directly attached to my neighbour's kitchen, so I was always conscious that noise could be an issue. My SOS collection solved most of the practical problems I encountered. The house is about 100 years old, so I'm sure that helped but the actual task was quite straightforward and enjoyable. I think the phrase that sums it up is 'plasterboard and patience'.

"The construction work took about three months. I guess it cost about £300 in materials, and most of that went on timber and plasterboard. The wall between the studio and next door has two layers of plasterboard, followed by a timber frame to create a gap that I filled with Rockwool. Another two layers of plasterboard went on top of that, and the door is also a double layer. I've mentioned to the neighbours about the fact that I work from home and sometimes play music, though amazingly they've never heard anything, so I guess the soundproofing is good enough!"

Quantum Leap

A room with a view: Jonathan's compact studio where the music for 'Floyd's India' was produced.A room with a view: Jonathan's compact studio where the music for 'Floyd's India' was produced.Photo: Richard EcclestoneQuantum Music officially opened for business in April 2001 and got off to a remarkable start. Within three weeks, Jonathan had landed a commission to write all the music for 'Floyd's India', the recent eight-part Channel 5 series by TV chef Keith Floyd. As Jonathan explains, previous experience in sales clearly helped here. "Essentially, the Floyd job came about as the result of one of many cold calls to local production companies. They asked me to send them in a couple of sample pieces to consider and I got the job on the basis of those two pieces. I'd never written Indian or ethnic music before, and I'd never worked with a TV director, so admittedly it was a bit scary. As it turned out, the director was fantastic to work with and just a really nice bloke. What made it easier was that I dealt directly with him and he was obviously the person who was making the decisions. I wasn't trying to second-guess on the basis of a brief passed down through various layers of management. He was also very well informed musically and we were talking the same language from day one."

Having got the Floyd job, meeting the deadline was the next issue. "I had about a month to put the music together. The brief was essentially East meets West, and they needed something like 20 basic pieces of music, some variations on one or two of these, and of course, the title music. The West bit was fine, but for some of the East I had to turn to a couple of sample CDs, such as VindaLoops, for a little inspiration. Some of the sitar lines are from the JV, and some other things, such as some vocal lines, are from samples. The budget didn't allow me to use live musicians, so this was the only practical way to get the right end result and add a little authenticity. The variations were mainly in tempo and in the style of the percussion, so at its most simple, this might just have involved switching between a Western style drum loop to something with a more genuine Indian feel. Even so, I've never written so much music as fast in my life."

The series was transmitted through November and December of 2001 and, understandably, Jonathan got a real kick out of seeing the final credits roll. "It was a fantastic start to my business but, in retrospect, I know I was very fortunate in getting the job so quickly." A number of other jobs have followed and, from the success achieved to date, Jonathan is keen to stress that while musical skills are an obvious requirement in this line of work, a range of business skills is also very important. "In terms of going out and getting work, my sales background has been a big help, but there are other non-musical aspects to making this work as a business. I've done some financial management work in the past, so that's helped in terms of making the books balance. Being able to get on with people is also important, as is a professional attitude. Another problem I've had to deal with is simply knowing what to charge. When I was negotiating for one particular job, I emailed Big George to ask some advice and his response was 'Well, how long is a piece of string? Charge what you can without feeling like you are taking the Mickey', which helped."

Less Is More

The heart of the current working setup is based around Cubase VST running on a PC, a Roland JV1080 sound module, an Ensoniq EPS 16+ sampling keyboard, a desktop Nova synth and a carefully chosen collection of sample CDs. For composing to picture, Jonathan has a VCR hooked up to the PC via a Philip Rees synchronisation unit. His attitude to equipment is pragmatic: "The equipment has evolved very slowly, and this is basically down to a combination of limited finances, but also trying to get the most out of each piece of gear. For me, the emphasis is on creativity, not equipment, and it's the end result that's important, regardless of how you actually get there."

This is illustrated by the approach Jonathan adopted in writing the music for 'Floyd's India'. "The music was all written with the EPS sampler and JV1080. There are issues I have to work around since the EPS was used mainly for drum loops and one-shot samples, but it has a maximum sample time of about 11 seconds, so most of the sample stuff has to find it's way into Cubase eventually. And as the PC is not exactly the latest spec, I'll often have to submix in Cubase, perhaps drums, keyboards and vocals each down to a stereo pair. I also have to deal with some latency problems when recording.

"It's not ideal or state-of-the-art technology, but these sorts of issues are more of a convenience thing and you just have to learn to deal with them. This setup is still way ahead of what would have been possible for the same money 10 years ago. Anyway, not producing something just because you haven't got this or that piece of kit isn't going to get you very far. What knocked me out was that I was mixing music in the studio room, burning a CD, listening to mixes on my hi-fi and car systems, and then it was off to the dubbing session, and that was it. I didn't really mess about with a lot of EQ or compression because I didn't want to screw it up. They seemed happy for me to work this way and leave any final tinkering to the guys doing the dubbing work. The setup I have may be fairly basic, but the actual audio quality I can achieve here is pretty good and, for the Floyd music, it did the job, end of story."

Studio Gear List

Instruments

  • Ensoniq EPS 16+ sampling keyboard
  • Novation Nova desktop synth
  • Roland JV1080 sound module
  • Roland Alpha Juno 1 synth
  • Yamaha DX21 synth

Hardware

  • Mackie 1202 mixer
  • Spirit Absolute 2 nearfield monitors
  • Rode NT2 microphone
  • Behringer Composer compressor
  • Hi-Fi amp/tape/CD player
  • Standard VHS video machine synchronised with Philip Rees TS1 MIDI-Tape synchronisation unit

Computer & Software

  • Pentium II PC with 10 GB hard drive
  • Cubase VST MIDI + Audio sequencer
  • Event Darla 2-in/8-out soundcard
  • FXpansion DR002 freeware drum sequencer

Computer Love

Jonathan came to the PC from running Cubase on an Atari, though he looked at both Logic and a Mac. "I'd always been happy with Cubase, so it seemed a natural step to stay with it when I was ready to move on from the Atari. I did consider the alternatives, both in terms of software and hardware, but in the end I went for the cheaper PC option, which was more familiar to me, and stayed with Cubase. The PC has been great so far."

Jonathan's rack proves that you don't need a room full of gear to have some success: VHS video recorder atop Behringer Composer, with Roland JV1080 below.Jonathan's rack proves that you don't need a room full of gear to have some success: VHS video recorder atop Behringer Composer, with Roland JV1080 below.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

The Nova has been the most recent addition to the studio, and Jonathan is really pleased with what this has added. "My other interest is in dance music, and I desperately needed new analogue synth sounds. I wanted sounds that would be most appropriate for the type of music I write, and the Nova just seemed to suit me best. I went for the desktop version as opposed to the Supernova since I didn't really need the polyphony. I can always layer stuff up in Cubase, and what was more important was the style of sounds, useability, excellent sonic quality, and tweakability. The effects are brilliant and it's also my favourite colour! The sounds have brought me into the 21st Century."

There are some items on the shopping list however. "I guess the next thing I should really look at is an upgrade to the PC so I could run some of the more recent software synths and samplers. In terms of outboard, something like the SPL Vitalizer might also be useful to add a little sparkle to final mixes. I was also interested in the TC Helicon Voiceprism Plus that Paul White reviewed in SOS a little while back. Any chance he might persuade them to develop that into a 'virtual vocalist', where you just type in the lyrics and play the melody line via a keyboard? Now that would be useful!"

However, Jonathan is conscious that there's more to improving the quality of his work than just adding to his equipment stock. "I feel competent in most areas, but I tend to spend a lot more time on mixing than perhaps I should, so maybe that's not my strength. The room is small and a little boxy, so I'm never going to get a perfect monitoring set-up. One area I certainly want to know more about is general production, there's always something new to learn."

Future Plans

If Jonathan can continue to keep the business side of Quantum Music in order, his plans have an eye on expansion. "Although officially it's a fully fledged production company, I'm still conscious that this is very early days. As a business, you have to work within the resources you have at this moment in time. This obviously includes limited finances, so I end up doing everything myself. However, when things do develop further, I want to put together a full production team so I can concentrate on writing, which is where I think my strength lies. Consequently, I'm keen to make contacts with like-minded engineers, mixers, co-producers, remixers, co-writers, and so on. With more people involved, eventually it would be necessary to look for larger premises, although this would be a big financial commitment. The medium-term aim would be to start my own record label, and for me, this seems like a very logical step both from the song-writing and business perspective."

Jonathan considers himself no different to many SOS readers with an ambition to make a living out of music but who have not, as yet, taken the plunge. Jonathan's final comment might offer some encouragement to those considering this possibility. "I know I've been fortunate with the start I've had during this last year, but one thing is pretty clear, the success I've had so far hasn't been down to the equipment I own or being a musical genius, just a lot of hard work and determination."

Projects Brewing Up

Jonathan has a number of other TV projects ongoing, including a children's animation series destined for American TV and, at the time of the visit by SOS, he was in the middle of writing the music for an hour and a half documentary for Channel 4. However, music for TV is not all that Jonathan has in his business plan. "The other main reason for setting up Quantum was to try and get some commercial success with my own songwriting, which is mainly dance and pop, so the new Nova has made a big difference in terms of having the right sounds available."

To pursue this avenue of work, Jonathan has teamed up with various vocalists and has three such projects currently active. "The vocalists are all in different styles. The most recent project is with a local female vocalist who has an excellent voice, and I'm confident we have the material to get a commercial result if we keep at it. The aim is either to license the tracks as finished masters, or sell the songs for other people to record." Jonathan is keen to develop this sort of collaboration and, in addition, the studio is available for hire by local musicians. "It's a good source of income, and at least I get to talk to a few other people!"

Published June 2002