We visit another group of enterprising SOS readers: TMS (which stands for The Musical Shed) is a six-man business partnership producing hip-hop and garage music for white-label release.
Two wooden sheds stand at the far end of the car park of a private doctor's surgery in West London. From the outside there's nothing to indicate they contain anything other than a few gardening tools, yet their horticultural appearance conceals a fully soundproofed state-of-the-art studio with separate vocal booth, belonging to the TMS collective.
"Being a doctor is something that my dad always wanted, so he understands our determination and is really supportive," explains Ben. Convinced by his son's desire to make music his career, Ben's father allowed the group to use the end of his car park for a studio, providing it took up no more space than one car. The need for planning permission ruled out the erection of a brick building, so the obvious solution was a wooden building -- hence the highly unusual shed studio.
The six TMS partners all met at school where they discovered a common desire to make their living as musicians and music producers. "Only one of us didn't go to the Latimer Upper School in Hammersmith," says Peter. "Ben's brother Dan is a little bit older than us but the rest of us were in the same class. We also have a couple of other vocalists who sing for us but who aren't partners."
"It was when Pete and I were doing our music GCSEs together that we realised how much we were into the music," says Ben, "so we ended up doing a music technology 'A' level. In a lot of ways we had to teach ourselves because it was the first year the school ran a music technology course and it was a shambles. But Peter and I were so into music we did it anyway."
"Back then we knew what we wanted to do and realised that we could do it better ourselves, so we started setting up the Sheds," adds Peter.
Peter, Ben, and the rest of TMS first began work on the shed in the summer following their GCSEs and before they started their A-levels. A second stage of shed improvements took place a year later along with a few more gear purchases. Ben explains how building commenced.
"We'd talked about building a studio and it got to the point where we had to do it or shut up. So the next thing was my dad found us in his car park with a hammer trying to get through the tarmac to create some sort of foundation. We dug this massive hole, bought the cement and tried to fill it up, but it only filled a tiny corner of the hole! It took a while but by the end we had a decent 14 by 16-foot base. Then we bought a heavy-duty flat-pack shed which cost us about £1200 -- a serious shed! We did need to get something solid that wouldn't rot, but compared to any other option it was cheap because we don't have to pay rent, and we didn't need planning permission because it isn't brick.
"After that we bought a book on how to do electrics and ran a wire all the way along the fence from the surgery's fuse box to the shed. Then we read an article on how to wire your own studio and did the sockets.
"It was a DIY disaster at first because we just bought some foam-back plasterboard to line the inside and we put that on top of a layer of rockwool. It stayed like that for about six months but we had loads of complaints from the neighbours because of the noise."
"Another problem was that there was no ventilation," explains Peter, "so it got really hot and some of the guys were in there smoking like chimneys."
At that point it was clear to all that the sheds needed a significant overhaul before it could be considered fit for professional day-to-day recording jobs, so the following summer the second stage of soundproofing and improvements began.
Ben: "We left the first layer of plasterboard, but we realised that we needed a room-within-a-room construction to cut down the noise. For the floor we used two-by-four-inch cross beams, all of which are mounted on neoprene rubber strips. The rubber was one of the most expensive things we bought. Then we built up from that base and around the sides so the inner room was a completely separate structure from the shed -- there was no nailing into the shed, there's literally a gap all the way round. Then we put tons more rockwool into the gap until every space was stuffed. We were itching from the rockwool for months after that!
"We finished it off with plasterboard but there were big gaps between the boards. By that time we had met Martin, who is one of our vocalists and also a professional plasterer and joiner, so he did a brilliant job finishing it off. First he used metal strips to join the boards, and he stuck those using some sort of plaster adhesive. He coated the metal strips with plaster, then he skimmed the whole thing. You can do a lot of DIY yourself, but the surfaces need to be finished by a professional, or it will look like a botch job. Even now, you can see that the minor details were done by us."
But although the team had done a pretty good job, they hadn't thought everything through properly, as Peter admits. "When it was all seamed and painted we realised that we had forgotten to put in any ventilation. Soundproof ventilation is a serious deal because it goes from the top of the wall, down through the middle and out of the bottom to make periscope-shaped shafts. We need two of those so we literally had to put a hammer through our nice wall. Luckily we had some plasterboard left and Martin's plastering skills."
Ben adds up the cost: "We had initially spent about £1500 including the shed, all the wiring and plugs. Doing the inner layer cost us the best part of £1500 again. That would be a lot of money for one person but divided between six it's not so bad. At the end of the day, if I had to spend three thousand pounds to build a studio on my own it would be really scary and it probably wouldn't happen, but we have strength in numbers."
"As you can see, we've invested quite a lot in the site," admits Peter, "but we've got a good two years of rent-free use out of it! The only other expense was an extra £500 for a security system which we needed for insurance purposes -- and you need insurance if you're going to leave all that stuff in a shed.
"Now there's an alarm that will go off if anyone walks into the studio, and to cut through the wall would be quite an ordeal because there are so many layers of rockwool, beams and plasterboard."
Ben: "I would recommend anyone finding out if they can get insurance before they start anything like this."
Although the main shed was a huge undertaking, the vocal booth proved to be a little easier. A small shed was already on the site a few feet from the studio and it seemed like a great idea to fit it out as a separate vocal room. Once again, the shed was soundproofed and plastered. Just to finish things off nicely, an audio-visual link was installed so that there could be communication between the main shed and the vocalist during a session.
During the building process, TMS were busy finding equipment to kit out the shed. All six partners had home setups, so the first studio was largely made up of the members' own instruments and recording tools.
"Several of us had samplers at home, so buying new ones seemed a waste of time and money," explains Ben. "We were all best mates, we grew up writing together and spent every day with each other, so I convinced everyone to put their equipment together.
"I have a computing and physics 'A' level, so I was given the job of sorting out the computer stuff. All I had at home was a 333MHz PC with 128MB RAM running Cubase VST 3.6 and a 20GB hard drive. So it wasn't a big thing."
Peter: "I had a Proteus 2000, Gav had a Fender Rhodes and a GEM keyboard. Then we bought the Delta 1010 card and a Rode NT2. Gavin had a trust fund which we raided straight away, so we probably only spent £500 and that did us pretty much. Between us we had several S2000s so we kept one but used the money from the sale of the others for new equipment. When we did up the shed for the second time we bought new equipment and now we have a G4 Mac."
Ben: "The minute we had the opportunity to use Logic properly on our own time we decided to move from Cubase to that. I believe that you can write a professional tune using anything if you work hard enough, but Logic just lends itself to being easy to use and the plug-ins are nicer. I think it's a more sophisticated program, whereas with Cubase you'll double-click on something and it takes you to completely the wrong place.
"We also started using Emagic's EXS24 software sampler and with that we barely need anything else. We've had 24 tracks of audio running on the G4, a number of plug-ins, plus another four virtual instruments like a B4 and an EVP88 piano before it gets to the point where it glitches. Now I can't imagine why I'd do sampling any other way -- I haven't touched the S2000 for quite a while."
Peter: "The Rhodes is a proper musical instrument and you can't get away from that kind of stuff, but you don't need the things in the middle like the S2000 -- what's the point if you've got the EXS24?"
There are definitely advantages to working in a team, one of which is the division of labour. The six members of TMS have found roles that best suit their particular set of skills and interests. Their respective jobs are as follows:
- Ben Kohn: producer/guitarist. "Ben's the technical one. We get Ben to take responsibility for mixing and generally to make everything sound good."
- Dan Kohn: producer/guitarist. "Dan comes up with all the mad ideas."
- Gavin Jones: producer/pianist/DJ. "Gavin adds the jazz influence to our recordings."
- Pete Kelleher: producer/pianist. "Pete is the man with theoretical knowledge coming from his days as an 'A' level music student, Pete has done bass, trumpet, grade eight singing."
- Phillip Davenport: producer/guitarist. "Phil is our business man, he sorts out accounts, contracts and legal stuff."
- Tom Barnes: producer/drummer/DJ. "Tom is our beat programmer and all-round rhythm man."
With six people working together, working methods obviously vary, but a typical TMS track might begin with the drums. "A lot of the time we do start with a beat," explains Ben. "Then Gav will come in and start messing about with the Rhodes, then one of us will get an idea from that and we'll record it. Then we get into a lot of digital editing."
Peter: "It's very much the same process repeated over and over again. For hip-hop we'll start with a drum track. We can't record a live kit so we have to program our drums, which is mainly Tom's job. We often sample off a record and the write our beats over that. We also use MCs, so we create a loop, write a rough lyric and rearrange the track to fit around the lyrical idea."
"Sometimes we take loops, chop them right up and retrigger them." continues Ben. "We don't really use other people's loops or samples, we're much more likely to make our own samples, whether it be playing a live bass guitar or Rhodes, so we're very much ones for making our tunes from scratch."
Peter: "Producing the garage music is completely different. For that we use very synthy analogue sounds, mostly from the Proteus."
"The Proteus has some serious editing facilities," continues Ben. "It's very good for your average sort of dance music, but especially good for house and bright R&B sounds. The one thing we're still lacking is something to do basses, so we're probably going to get a Novation BassStation."
Peter: "The bass is such an important and specific part of both garage and drum & bass music that we need something that's designed to handle bass, and we also want something that has a lot of hands-on controls. For a lot of the tunes we use the Rhodes, because you've got a lot of bass in there."
Ben: "We've only released one tune that's been professionally mastered. Unfortunately we weren't happy because it came out a bit dull -- as if they'd taken the top end out of it. Normally we just mix it down to a point where we're happy with it using our mastering plug-ins. If it sounds good to us, then we're happy.
"Our plug-ins aren't like Pro Tools, but we've got just about everything we need. At the end of the day, if you can't make professional tunes with this sort of setup, there's no excuse and it's not the equipment that's the problem!"
Peter, Ben, and the rest of the TMS collective already have an understanding of how their music fits into the competitive commercial market, as Peter and Ben explain. Peter: "Garage is a fledgling market, so it's not like pop music where you really need label backing. Hip-hop is a bit harder to crack, especially as the British market is very small at the moment."
Ben continues: "We can play it, record it, press it, and sell it ourselves without too many complications, and all the means are there to promote the music, such as pirate radio stations. Tom is a garage DJ and plays on a pirate station so there's an underground market for garage in London at the moment.
"Having pirate radio stations is like having your own Capital FM with your friends playing on it! Garage has done us well because if it wasn't for that market we wouldn't have been able to release anything. There's also a new station called Itch, which is the first pirate radio station for British hip-hop."
TMS come across as being an extremely enthusiastic and highly motivated group of people, but fortunately they seem to be able to balance their high ambitions with some very down-to-earth thoughts on how they can make a living doing the thing they love. Pete and Ben sum things up.
"We really want a career in the music industry and we'll keep trying because our theory is that we'll do it through perseverance," insists Ben. "We've done everything we can think of so far. For the last six months we have run a regular club night in the centre of London. I specialise in breakdancing and have taken classes under the TMS name. We've tried renting out the studio, we've made adverts, we've even sat outside radio stations blasting our tunes, and posting flyers until 3.00 in the morning. We've also released several white-label records. We love what we're doing and I can genuinely look forward to going back to work on a Monday morning."
Peter: "It's great to be able to manage our own time. We can play basketball in the sunshine at 11 o'clock if we want. We might not be sitting in an office nine to five but we are working, releasing records and getting things done."
Ben: "We're just trying to be as professional as possible. We've got our accounts book and we're slowly making money.
"If we hadn't created the shed we wouldn't be doing any of this now. It has done us well, given us a focus, and we've met a lot of people through it. Only now are we realising how much people respect what we're doing, because we're young and genuinely up for it. I know there are a lot of people like us out there, but we've managed to get this far and we're going from strength to strength.
"Over the next few years we'll be releasing more records and you'll be hearing a lot more about us."
- Apple Mac G4.
- Emagic Logic Platinum sequencer and EXS24 software sampler.
- Propellerhead Reason soft synth and Recycle loop editor.
- M-Audio Delta 1010 multi-channel audio interface.
- Akai S2000 sampler.
- Emu ESI4000 sampler and Proteus 2000 sound module.
- Roland RS9 synthesizer.
- Fender Rhodes 88 electric piano.
- Rode NT2 microphone.
- AKG C1000 microphone.
- Tascam 424 Mk3 Portastudio.
- GEM master keyboard.
- Alesis M1 Active monitors.
Now that The Musical Sheds are well established, there's another big project in the pipeline for the six partners. "At the moment we're looking into opening a little specialist record shop selling urban music, hip-hop and dance" says Peter. "The Prince's Trust are going to give us about £5000, then we've got to look for premises."
"Up to about three months ago we knew nothing about record shops so we went out and got loads of books on the subject," admits Ben. "Now we know how to do it and that's what we're going to do in the next few months."
"Some of us are going to university, but the rest of us, who are staying to run the shed, have to make money to live. The record shop is partly to earn a regular wage, but it's also so we can keep being in the industry as opposed to going out and getting a job in Sainsbury's or somewhere that has nothing to do with the industry."
Peter: "If we can get the record shop up and running it will give us something to do while are gathering a bit of steam, because we know that nothing happens overnight."