As part of our series of interviews with producers in partnership with Allianz Musical Insurance – sponsors of the HMA19 Best Producer category – we are discussing career highlights, studio set-up and great advice with some of the finest producers operating in rock and metal today.
For the second edition, we’re talking to Carl Bown. Based at his own Treehouse Studio in Derbyshire, Carl produced the HMA18 Best Album ‘You Are We’ by While She Sleeps, as well as the band’s recent follow-up ‘So What?’, and releases by the likes of Bullet For My Valentine, Fightstar and many more.
How did you get started in music production?
I grew up in bands as a teenager and kept getting demos done that I really didn’t like the sound of, so just started doing them myself with really REALLY basic public domain software, a £99 Zoom FX unit and a reel to reel tape machine in whatever space with whatever we could borrow… It was so basic but I enjoyed the guerrilla nature of it… Next thing I knew I’d got other bands asking me to make their demos etc… Honestly: I had literally no actual idea what I was doing I just used a bit of common sense but I guess it got results!
Could you give us an overview of your career?
Like I said above, I started out as basic as you could get and got busier and busier, in about 2005 I built myself a small studio in a garden shed and took a year out from university to see if I could do production as a full time job. It was demos and local bands singles and low budget albums mostly, until I started getting some signed bands interested to do demo work. I guess that was the turning point. I knew that if I made the demos sound awesome then it would be hard to beat when they came to record them for real! So I stayed up and pulled out all the stops. The plan worked with a band called Fightstar, on the back of that I got nominated for the Music Production Guild “Breakthrough Producer” award… I didn’t win but it led me to find management and ultimately to work with and be mentored by Colin Richardson, a guy who I’d looked up to and who’s work I had revered (and still do) to be the very best of Record Production and mixing. From then on I got to work with bands like Trivium, Carcass and Machine Head as an engineer for Colin whilst also working on my own Productions with While She Sleeps, Gunship etc, and a couple of albums with Bullet For My Valentine.
What have you been working on in 2019?
I started 2019 by taking a bit of time off production and built myself a new mixing studio. At the end of While She Sleeps’ “So What?” I felt like I needed a new space to create and mix in. I ripped out the whole inside of my original Treehouse studio and started again… It was well worth it as I’ve created an incredible mixing environment to work in. I’ve now got two very exciting projects on the go but nothing I can really talk about as the bands haven’t released anything about the projects yet!
What has been the proudest moment of your career as a producer?
This is a tricky one because its kinda like picking a favourite child… Impossible! Maybe when one of the Bullet For My Valentine albums I produced hit number 1 in the UK midweek charts, that was super cool, I loved the album and I think my folks actually believed I had a “proper job” at that point so that was pretty rad. Or maybe WSS selling out the Roundhouse in Camden – the first show I saw them at had less than 50 people in and I KNEW I wanted to make their record and create them a massive sound… Four albums later seeing such a large, passionate crowd singing so loud and so ferociously to the songs that we had produced was a real moment for me. I dunno – one of those, I can’t choose!
What would you say are the pros and cons of owning your own studio?
- I have more control over time (not literally – but you know what I mean!) – I’m not clock watching and I can work as early or late as I want… I find this really important because I’m quite a night owl and can become more creative at night.
- The same goes for bands – I want artists to feel chilled and not worried about time running out etc… It’s really important for me to have a comfy room and having full control of the studio allows me to provide that.
- From the technical side of things it’s fantastic to have a place that has all of my go to gear ready to go and working just as I like it.
- It was very expensive to do properly – it’s like taking a gamble on yourself to a certain degree, then there is the general wear and tear…. I seem to be forever buying replacement headphones and adapters for things etc.
- It takes time to do! like I said before I had to take a couple of months off to build my new mix room… time I couldn’t earn any money and just haemorrhaged it on building materials and new gear for the studio!
What do you see as the biggest pitfalls when starting out as a producer?
Unless you come up as someone’s engineer or assistant it’s very hard to get to work with larger/higher profile artists. It’s all about proving your worth when you get the chance – and getting those chances is very tricky and hard to come by. A very real pitfall is making enough money. When starting out trying to become a producer or engineer it’s almost like a chicken and egg thing – you kinda need to make great sounding records with your name on them to help convince bands to work with you, but without great bands you can’t make the records that sound great… Then there is the rub, you need to get paid enough to survive as well. A certain amount of faith is necessary to see it though.
What has been the most important technological advance you’ve seen in production since you started out?
I have to say two things really – one being the development of the Kemper guitar amp modeller. It has quite literally revolutionised the way I can work… I know other producers that feel the same – quite simply it was a game changer in recording guitars. The other is an odd one but I’d have to say the advancements in manufacturing things like microphones have made incredible mics and other equipment much much more affordable and accessible. For example a company called Aston make some insanely good, high quality mics that say 15 years ago just wouldn’t be possible or would have been thousands of pounds to own.
How important is it to insure your equipment? Have you ever had to deal with theft or damage that required an insurance claim?
Very. I’ve had a few bits stolen, nothing massive BUT there was one time most of my studio got blasted in a lighting storm… It was right on top of us, whilst pulling the plugs out we were struck – I got shocked, gear got shocked, stone fell off my house roof… It was a bad time. It was quite early in my career and without insurance it could have really held me back. Now I’ve got two studios fully insured: a mix room and a recording studio – for example my recording studio has some really bespoke bits of gear in it including mixing desk/sidecar that it would be insane not to have insured – it gives me piece of mind that it is protected.
What is the best piece of production advice anyone has ever given you?
After asking Colin Richardson for mixing advice he said “I guess it is all about making sure you can hear what you’re meant to hear, when you’re meant to hear it”. I was expecting something technical and he gave me some Yoda style advice that has really stuck with me.
Finally, what one prediction would you make for music production in the next 10 years?
Hard question! The next ten years are going to be interesting because of the way we listen to and pay for music has nowhere near settled… The way we release music will probably change and therefore the way we produce the work will follow suit. For example the production of individual singles or a short EP is very a different to the mindset of producing a full album of say 12 songs… Perhaps we’ll see shorter bodies of work being produced more frequently and that will potentially lead to more eclectic productions as artists will have a shorter cycle touring before they need to go in the studio again… Either that or grunge will come back and we’ll all be back on 16 track tape… Both sound SUPER FUN me.
You can find out more about Allianz Musical Insurance, sponsors of the HMA19 Best Producer category, at their website.