Talkback: Owain Fleetwood Jenkins

Engineer & Producer
By William Stokes

Deep in rural Pembrokeshire, South West Wales, engineer and producer Owain Fleetwood Jenkins has built a paradisal residential studio in an abandoned chapel. StudiOwz (a portmanteau of ‘studio’ and Owain’s childhood nickname ‘Owz’) is stuffed with lovingly maintained vintage instruments and equipment, pride of place going to the Cadac J‑Type console.

“I first got into music through work experience in school, actually,” says Jenkins. “I went to a local recording studio in Tenby, and then, kind of, never left that studio! Before I went there, I had no idea that that’s how music came to be heard on the radio. Like, I hadn’t even figured out that bands go to a studio, and that they do this thing called ‘recording’!”

StudiOwz has hosted artists and producers from all over the world, from acclaimed singer‑songwriter Emily Barker to Cate Le Bon and erstwhile Keane frontman Tom Chaplin. It has also welcomed many local musicians for sessions conducted entirely in Welsh, Jenkins’ first language. “It’s just all been word of mouth, really,” he explains. “That’s how the studio has grown.”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

I always listen to vinyl in the house, to be honest. There’s an artist called Erin Rae, actually. Putting On Airs is the album. I actually came across her while doing live sound in St Davids. It was one of those shows that just blew me away, so I ended up buying the record. It’s an Americana, singer‑songwriter album, but it’s got really cool production as well. There are really interesting percussion parts in there. Like, the use of timpani and stuff, instead of toms. I love it when the orchestral world gets involved a little bit... but not much. Not enough to sound orchestral. It just sounds great! There are a few albums that have that kind of thing in it. And I love that. I’d love to buy some timps, actually, but they’re huge and you’d only use them every now and then.

The project I’m most proud of

Probably Jodi Marie, who’s also my partner. She trusts me with her music, a lot. Her latest album, The Answer, actually took quite a long time to record. It started off all live, and then we went in and did overdubs and generally replaced the vocals. And you can really hear that in the recordings, I think. We started in my old studio and finished it off in the new studio. It’s really interesting to work on the same record in two different studios and see how the room changes things, even though you’re using all the same gear.

Loads of spring reverbs were used — I’m a big lover of old springs! And just, like, misusing old analogue gear: driving spring units far too hard and then turning off the spring, so you get distortion from absolutely abusing a piece of analogue equipment. I love that. I had lots of fun with that on that record. I got into saturation and vintage springs and tape echo. Which is a fun world to start exploring deeper. It’s a very ’60s or ’70s‑sounding record, which is mainly the music I listen to, but I also tried to get that little hint of modern production in there so it stands up today as well. I’ve found that quite hard in the past, to get the balance right. It can either sound dated, or just a little bit shit.

The first thing I look for in a studio

The microphone cupboard! I just love the classics. Old valve mics, old ribbons... it’s quite a boring answer, really! But U67s, the old 87s, the old 47s. I don’t have all of those here at the studio. And that’s probably why I’d go looking for them. They just get you so much closer. The closer you are to the start of the chain, the more important that piece of equipment in the chain is. Recently, I’ve started trusting in the microphone a little bit more, rather than immediately grabbing EQ. Because we love these microphones and how they sound. So, if it’s in good condition, we should trust that the tone character of it is ‘correct’. And we need to get more on board with that sometimes, rather than, you know, grabbing for 10kHz straight away and giving it that modern sheen, or whatever. Just trust the microphone. That it sounds great. Microphones are important to me.

The person I would consider my mentor

That would be Bruce Campbell, who I went on work experience with. To a certain degree he told me everything I know, really. And from an early age, especially in live sound, he was the person that taught me that It’s not all about the bass drum. Because growing up, you go to gigs where all the engineers are trying to get that bass drum as loud and punchy as possible. They totally forget about the vocals and the whole point of the music. He taught me to hear what’s important in the music, what’s carrying the melody in the song. That was a big lesson early on, I think. I still hear it with young sound engineers now: you walk into a big venue and that bass drum is absolutely pounding. And, you know, sometimes I quite like that as well! But it’s a shame when they miss the point with everything else.

Owain Fleetwood Jenkins: I don’t feel like you fall in love with a song for the bass drum. So I don’t know why some engineers spend so much time on it.

With my record collection, I never really notice the bass drum on those records I love, because you’re listening to how the acoustic guitars are double‑tracked, or the vocals are right in your face. I don’t feel like you fall in love with a song for the bass drum. So I don’t know why some engineers spend so much time on it. Learning what’s important in a song was a lesson I learned at, like, 15. Which was invaluable for me.

My go‑to reference track or album

I definitely have an album for testing speakers. It’s Blake Mills’ album, Heigh Ho. It sounds like he’s done lots of varispeed stuff with the drums, the players on it are incredible and the recording is so good. And the low end is insane. Really interesting sounds, like you know, there’s a great, really soft, close upright piano sound. Crazy reverse delays and things. A huge range, quite an unusual range in the arrangement of the songs, too. He’ll like, hold out right till the end to like introduce a drum kit or something. Throughout a five‑minute song, you’ll have been waiting for the drums to kick in, and they’ll kick in for the last eight bars — and then it’s finished! But it feels incredible when it happens. And the stereo imaging on it is really insane too. It gives me chills when I listen to it on the big Tannoy Arden monitors in here. I love those speakers so much. They’re from 1976. It’s as if we’ve come so far in speaker design since then, yet we haven’t got much further in their audio quality!

My top tip for a successful session

Good communication between everyone involved. Who’s on the session, why they’re there, what their role is — having clear roles for people. And then, the communication between artists and producers and engineers, between artists themselves. Being good at communicating when you’re in the creative process is really important, I think, for how much you get done, you know. Keeping a good vibe. Good communication. When people communicate badly, they kind of tense up and lock up. Or they start having a grudge against each other. It’s that kind of vibe that comes before arguing. It totally kills any creativity.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

I think it would be a home recording, actually: Paul and Linda McCartney’s album, Ram. It’s just incredible, isn’t it? It’s like a lesson in production. Just, all the sounds. The way he uses his voice as an instrument, as well. I would have loved just to see them doing takes. Like, he never uses his voice in the same way on different songs. It’s like he’s in character. it just sounds like such a fun album to make. I bet it was really fast paced and just, ultimately, fun. Often in the studio these days it can be so slow: another take, another take. It’s important to not slip into that kind of monotonous ‘studio‑takeage’.

Originally, I had this theory that all the odd‑numbered tracks on Ram were the best songs. But after listening to it over 100 times, I’ve gone against that theory. They’re all just crackers.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I think I’ve worked with him actually. Which is good! Ethan Johns. When I was growing up, I listened to lots of records that he’d produced and played on. And they’re still records I listen to now and that I think sound good. We worked together on the new Tom Chaplin record. They worked at four different studios. I think they did The Church first, then Real World. Then they came here, and then I think they went to Angel.

We did some drums, some acoustic, some electric, loads of Mellotron... Ethan’s got, like, nine or something. It was Glyn Johns who recorded the original recordings that went on the Mellotron [tapes]. They were recorded at Abbey Road, apparently. And actually, it was a digital one that Ethan brought with him. It was really interesting, watching him play it. The way he performed with it. That was really cool. He was like, “You can’t think like a keyboard player. You have to think like a French horn player, or violin player.” The movements, and using the volume for swelling. It sounded so good.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

The recording process! Massively! That’s where all the fun is. You know, you’ve got a clean page to fill in. The foundation of the sounds. That’s so much fun, I think. I like imagining and aiming for the end result, right when you place your first microphone. It’s just a feeling I get. I can’t describe the feeling.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

Just keep working hard. Because there’s always going to be someone working harder than you, and better than you. So yeah: head down. I remember as a child, my dad used to say to me, “Every day is a Monday.” There’s no such thing as a weekend, or a day off. I grew up on a farm. And on a farm, you know, every day really is a Monday! Aim for things and just go for them. I wanted a studio by the time I was 30 when I was about 17 years old. And I’m sitting in it now. The only way I got that really was by aiming for it and keeping my head down.

Published March 2023