Feature: Island life
Feature: Island life
One man’s vision to create a multi-studio facility where creative collaborations unfold is being realised just months into its opening. Caroline Moss drops in
It’s a busy day at Island City Studios on the day that Pro AVL Asia visits. The live room of Studio A is hosting a session for students of the Berklee College of Music, and is jammed with musicians from across the globe. This, apparently, is not an unusual state of affairs.
‘On the first day I visited after the studio had opened, there were 26 people in there,’ says Sound Wizard director, Didier Weiss, who was appointed by Mumbai-based musician, Jehangir Jehangir (JJ) to realise his new facility. ‘I only designed the room for 10.’
This isn’t the first time JJ has featured in these pages. Back in 2013, we covered Cotton Press studios, which he’d established with his then band, Something Relevant, as a jam space that could also be used for recording.
‘Cotton Press was the beginning of my experience in the studio,’ he recalls. ‘I learned on the job; I wasn’t an audio engineer and I didn’t know anything about music technology, just a bit about logic. Cotton Press was my training for running a studio. However, when you start a commercial facility, it’s not only about what you want, there has to be a compromise.’
Enter Weiss, who had been recommended to JJ as a studio designer. Apart from creating a world-class facility on the third floor of a newly built commercial premises in Khar West, Weiss also introduced a sense of reality to the project. An initial sticking point was JJ’s insistence that three separate areas should be created in the available footprint – an open space with no walls – but Weiss was adamant this couldn’t be accomplished.
‘I was saying I needed three spaces, and Didier was saying, “I can’t give you three spaces in this area”,’ JJ recalls. ‘If it had been up to me, there would have been no reception area. Eventually, I decided to give up on this building, and started looking again. Then the broker who found this place came back to say there was another room available across the corridor.’
This resolved the stalemate, as the main space could now be divided into Studio A (aka The Press) and Studio B (The Bay) with room for a reception area and space for artists and engineers to regroup. Across the corridor is the all-important third working space, the Madfingers rehearsal room.
‘I know now – Didier was right,’ confesses JJ from the spacious control room of The Press. ‘I had to take it one step up from Cotton Press, and that meant having a proper control room with room for a console, and a place where clients could go and have a coffee and meet with their production team.’
The premises ticked other boxes too. ‘There are two covered balconies where clients can go out and have a smoke,’ he continues. ‘Location-wise, we are right near the other studios. Musicians are now used to coming to Khar for audio work, and there are postproduction and video studios and advertising production houses close by.’ The building also had the benefit of 3.6m ceilings, which Weiss had stipulated as a minimum height to work with.
JJ’s aim of fitting multiple studios into one space was in part driven by a desire to create a large facility inspired by the likes of London’s Abbey Road and New York’s Electric Lady, where artists could meet and collaborate. ‘There are big studios here such as Yash Raj, but no smaller ones that are still large enough to work with lots of different artists. I was inspired by musical collectives that hang out and work together, often out of the same studio, and Mumbai didn’t have smaller, midrange places that could facilitate that.’
Judging by the vibe at the studio, this collective approach has been accomplished just a few months into its existence as artists begin to mingle and work together, while the studios are handling a diverse range of projects. ‘Little connections are adding up, such as people I’ve known in bands in the past coming in,’ says JJ. ‘I used to work in theatre and I knew the director of the musical, Sing India Sing, and the vocals for the album release were recorded here. Then composers, Salvage Audio Collective, have just finished working on a Bollywood release, Gully Boys, which ironically is about a rapper who used to record at Cotton Press. Composer Andrew Mackay, who’s been doing a lot of work in Bollywood, came to watch an independent session, and he liked the vibe and energy so he brought some work in for a background score that he was working on. Mae Thomas comes in to do a podcast, Maed In India, where she interviews independent artists who talk to her for about an hour and play some songs. We’ve tracked some albums including a new one for [renowned Indian jazz musician] Louis Banks, and we’ve recorded strings for advertising work, so it’s been a mix of independent music and some commercial advertising work, which we need to stay alive.’
At the heart of Island City is The Press, a large control room connected to a 165m2 live room which benefits from natural daylight and a panoramic city view. The control room is equipped with an API 1608 console and Quested 212 monitoring system with a 5.1 system of Focal Twin Be and Focal 6 Be 5.1 speakers. ‘I had four channels of API at the old studio, and the preamps sounded really good and punchy,’ says JJ. ‘The 1608 is expandable so I can start with 16 channels and work my way up; that’s the case with most desks now, of course, but this is a really trusted and well-known brand. It’s got 500 Series slots in the master section where I can put in and pull out what I want. It didn’t seem as complicated as many consoles did – even at this size. It’s got a 5.1 monitoring section and, although we can’t do big 5.1 film mixes, all HD content now requires surround sound and that market is really picking up.’
The Quested monitoring system was recommended by Weiss. ‘Didier firmly advised I put in speakers that would blow people away and it was one of the best decisions of my life. I wasn’t going to buy them without listening though, so I went to hear the Questeds in [film composer] Harris Jayaraj’s place in Chennai, and also because it was a room that Didier designed with the Questeds in mind. So it was a space that would probably sound like my room. I was blown away by the detail of the speakers and the low end; it was just so true. Now I’ve been using them for the past three months and every day I find new spots in which I can put sounds within the image. A composer and good old friend of mine came in and we were listening to a Radiohead song, Everything in its Right Place, and I literally felt like I could reach out and touch a sound, it was so close, and other sounds were far behind. It’s great to be in a space where we can mix not just left to right, but front to back. It’s so new that we’re really learning how to use it.’
Other equipment in The Press includes Universal Audio 4-710d, Focusrite ISA 428 MKII and Audient ASP880 mic preamps, 12 API 550A 500 Series EQ units, four API 560C EQ units, an API 527, Elysia Xpressor 500 and 1176 FET compressors, a stereo pair of Empirical Labs Distressors, a Behringer Powerplay personal headphone monitoring system, Antelope Orion32 HD converters and an iMac running Pro Tools HDX and Logic Pro X.
Monitoring at The Bay, which doesn’t have a console but runs Pro Tools Native and Logic Pro X, is via Genelec 8260A SAM studio monitors and Dynaudio LYD7s with a 9S sub. ‘It’s a reincarnation of the old Cotton Press setup, and we can lay down 11 tracks,’ explains JJ. ‘We have four channels of the API 3124V preamp from Cotton Press and the Avalon 737 channel strip from there as well as a Drawmer 1969 vacuum tube preamp compressor. I brought the whole studio here, even some of the doors and panels.’
The studio is attached to a dubbing room big enough for a drumkit, and this can also be used as an isolation booth for The Press.
Across the hall, Madfingers can accommodate ensembles of up to 10 musicians and provide two-track or multitrack rehearsal recordings. A quantity of backline equipment is available, and again the room benefits from the natural daylight and views that inspired the studio’s name.
‘We can see out over the treetops, and so the name Island City emerged. I feel very connected to Mumbai here, so I wanted a name that would represent something about the city itself. I wanted to develop a community, to create a space where musicians, producers and creative people could come and be a part of something, which is why the rehearsal studio was very important for me. Musicians will come in to rehearse and see the rest of the facilities, and understand it’s somewhere for people to just come and hang. Unless you cross paths with other people, collaborations don’t happen; a community needs to be built to nurture that. A Bollywood producer wouldn’t be spending time with musicians on a regular basis, but that has already happened here – they knew each other already but hadn’t hung out in ages, and that’s how creative projects start.’
Despite his recent entry into the commercial studio world, JJ displays a mature understanding of the viability of such a large investment.
‘Studios are a risk; they only work as a business if you can bring something to it personally. For example, if you are a musician yourself, you can use it and bring others in. I knew this when we were starting. It’s been a couple of months now, and fortunately the studios have been booked way above my expectations.’
Clearly, Island City is filling a gap in Mumbai’s already-vibrant recording scene. The future looks bright for the studios, as well as the city’s musical community it’s been set up to connect with.