Tarek Musa is the (Spring) King of the studio
From teenage years spent skateboarding with The 1975 to international success with his band Spring King, Tarek Musa gives us the inside track on his favourite gear, why he loves the studio and how imposing creative limitations can give your music the edge.
“Don’t let two microphones and a simple sound card stop you creating what you hear in your head. There are no rules to get where you want to go. Be as new and as weird as you want.”
Producer and songwriter Tarek Musa is reflecting on the creative process of the contemporary music-maker, and this Liverpool-based sonic artist is well placed to offer some serious insight.
With early passions veering from skateboarding to the wild drumming of Keith Moon, he channelled his musical love into performing before studying music production at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. After returning to his native Manchester, he formed the razor-sharp garage rock of Spring King and has never looked back, completely immersing himself in the worlds of writing, mixing and production.
Initially, Tarek and his music collided with the ears of switched-on music lovers via the guitar-based energy of NME favourites Spring King. Following the band’s end last year, his diary has been full of studio endeavours, helping push forward the sounds of new stars including Circa Waves, Kagoule and Hannah Lou Clark. It’s a role that suits him and has resulted in plenty of industry acclaim. How did he get his foot in the door?
“My first big break came through an EP I made under the name of Kankouran,” says Tarek. “I saw it as coursework, but Channel 4 picked up one of the tracks from it. Rivers became the lead soundtrack for their TV, radio and cinema campaign for the acclaimed TV show Skins. It was totally unexpected and opened doors pretty early on.”
King of springs
Tarek’s musical career experienced an extreme, almost nose-bleeding ascent when Spring King were picked up by one of the indie scene’s key tastemakers. DJ Zane Lowe chose the band’s track City as the first to be played on Apple Music’s Beats 1 station and it heralded a career gear-shift. Suddenly, the group were propelled into the stratosphere with sold-out tours and two critically acclaimed albums.
“It was crazy. I’d recorded City with a couple AKG C1000s and all the guitars were DI’d, it was a very basic setup,” Tarek says. “Off the back of it, labels became a lot more interested in not only the band, but also my production and mixing style.”
Tarek’s winning formula helped send Spring King around the world and then some. But success also showed him what could be achieved with a can-do, DIY attitude. “I always prided myself on my mix of distortion, dirt and energy with just enough vocal definition to sing along. I think that moment solidified a belief in me that it was possible to record, produce and mix music from the limitations of a bedroom with the potential to reach a great audience.”
The shape of things
Since the band came to an end, Tarek has busied himself mixing, producing and arranging the sounds of other artists. His infatuation with studios has always gone beyond viewing these spaces as somewhere to merely capture audio. For him, they play an integral role in shaping the creative process.
“The studio has always been a place to start a song, because there’s so much on offer to you. Ideas can begin from something as simple as a piano loop that has been cut up and manipulated,” says Tarek. “That’s something I could never get out of a traditional songwriting space, such as a rehearsal room.
“Nearly all my songs have been written on the fly within software. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve started a track by simply playing a drum beat, then figuring out the rest as I went along. That balance between being able to explore endless possibilities while having the discipline to commit to something and move on – that can only be found in the studio. That’s what inspires me.”
Tarek takes his musical pointers from some of the greatest sources of sonic inspiration: from the legendary Brian Wilson and Phil Spector to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Arctic Monkeys engineer Tchad Blake. Although separated by years, a passion for classic melodies and the adoption of weird, unconventional and out-there recording techniques is a common aural thread binding them together. “I’ve always been a fan of layering beyond the realms of what can be played by one guitarist,” says Tarek. “I take no shame in quadruple-tracking lead vocals or stacking three pianos.”
Like many producers in the digital age, he’s magpie-like in his musical tastes, bouncing through a diverse list of innovative artists to add colour to his palette. “I’ve picked up things from everyone, whether obsessing over Beach Boys, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, The Mars Volta or ABBA. It’s all fed into my productions in many ways.”
Tarek’s production technique is rooted deeply within his songwriting DNA, a style manifest via Spring King. In 2017, their Tell Me If You Like To album of the previous year was rewarded by the wider industry. Tarek was announced as the winner of the Self-Producing Artist Of The Year Award prize at the Music Producers Guild (MPG) Awards, an accolade he unsurprisingly describes as a special moment.
“As an artist, you can end up falling into cycles, with moments of creative uncertainty followed by complete musical focus and passion. This can be challenging for anyone,” he explains. “So to think the panel, who are inspirations to me, heard something that resonated with them, it was really special. The world of music is one in which I create with no end goal apart from my own enjoyment and the hope that eventually, I’ll get a response back from someone saying they’ve gotten a kick out of what they’ve heard. The MPG panel feedback was one immense kick, that’s for sure.”
The role of the producer is slightly different to that of the artist-producer. The former involves helping prepare a perfect environment for the songwriter or artist to create within. On the flip, working as a solo artist and producer rolled into one gives you complete control. Having worked with indie rockers Kagoule and Valeras as well as leading his own band, what’s Tarek’s take?
“When I work with artists, I’m trying to understand what they and their project are about,” he says. “Sometimes, an artist needs me to suggest ideas or ways to approach a song and recording it, spinning their usual approach on its head. Sometimes, they simply need a producer to pick out minor details.”
With his own projects, Tarek only has himself to answer to. So do ideas flow more rapidly? He agrees: “Yes, I know what I’m trying to hear and that can cut out the translation process that sometimes occurs between a producer and an artist when they are trying to find a common understanding of the project. I’ve been very fortunate to work with artists who are willing to experiment and where we both have a lot in common. It’s meant I can try experimental approaches usually saved for myself.”
“I work on music mainly from my new recording studio in Liverpool,” Tarek tells us. “I mix nearly all my clients from the studio and do a lot of my own productions from it. I’m based around an iMac, Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 with an added OctoPre and a few preamps. I’ve got a couple Warm Audio bits including the WA273, WA-412, and WA76, which have treated me really well, they sound so good and add a lot of colour to my signal. I rarely use transparent preamps; everything tends to bite a bit and has to pass the crunch test! Everything is hardwired, so I don’t tend to switch preamps for different things; it’s really about speed for me and keeping that energy there when working with others, or on my own.
“There are two pieces of kit that have been behind so much music I’ve made over the last 10 years,” Tarek explains. “The RE-201 Space Echo and a Yamaha Electone HC-4 organ my old neighbour donated to the family. As much as I mix and produce in-the-box for portability, I also believe magic happens using hands-on analogue gear. I like to have the ability to commit to the choices you make there and then, with the equipment in front of you. But I go through phases. Sometimes, I love the fact every parameter within Pro Tools can be automated. Sometimes, I prefer committing to a take using an analogue synth or effect unit.”
Tarek isn’t entirely averse to working in-the-box either, though. “Plug-ins are mind-blowing these days, and I couldn’t survive without the Soundtoys bundle, especially the Decapitator, or some of the Waves stuff, such as the Kramer PIE, API EQs or C4 Multiband.”
Tarek’s musical process is one of recycling and revision. He begins on Pro Tools, then works on the organ, bass guitar, piano or acoustic guitar, leaving recording running while he develops ideas to a click track. “My aim is to get an interesting verse, chorus and bridge pattern into the DAW. From there, I’ll start arranging them roughly in an order that fits my instincts.”
How does Tarek begin to refine these initial ideas once they’re in place? “I’m always listening to my gut,” he laughs. “Where does it want to jump into a chorus? Where does it want to back down a little for dynamics? All the while, I’m creating markers in Pro Tools, typing things such as ‘verse kick in here!’ or ‘big drum bit’. It doesn’t really make sense at first, but I’ll keep replaying the session and moving things until it sits with the melodies I’ve got in mind.”
Tarek’s take on music tech is a pragmatic one. With more powerful, affordable gear available, Tarek can tap into the music in his head far more easily. But some of the limitations imposed on himself, either deliberately or via budget or a lack of space, have all helped him realise some of his best ideas. “I always track the drum shells separate to the cymbal takes. Why? Because I come from a bedroom mentality, where the ceiling was low and drums would always sound thin, and the cymbals would spill into every single microphone,” he says. “When you’re trying to figure a way to get around those kinds of limitations, it takes you to strange places, but for sure on a lot of my own projects, I record this way out of habit and comfort.”
Does he think the plethora of software and hardware now available has helped him become a better musician and artist? “When I first owned a soundcard, it was PCI-based and you’d have to open up the computer to physically install it. Now I can plug in anywhere, at any time,” Tarek states. Rather than being simply better, the advent of tech means ideas can be realised and recorded faster than ever before. “A lot of the time, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface with what’s achievable,” he says. “Technology has made my creative process a lot more fluid – and that is key.”
Long live the King
The rest of 2019 and beyond looks bright for Tarik. He’s been named as one of the recipients of support from the PRS Foundation’s Writer Producer Fund initiative and is currently enhancing his Bungalow Beach Studio space in Liverpool. He’s working with a mix of local and national talent as well as tinkering with his own solo material.
“There’s a lot going on up in Liverpool creatively. The availability of space and lower costs has given me the freedom to work with more bands who are trying to break through.” Tarek is keen to dispense some key advice for those looking to have a similar career: “It seems thinking strategically with a well-thought-out plan from the get-go are both essential. This could involve meeting other producers and making new connections in music, or analysing your favourite records and what it is about them that grab your attention,” he says.
“Knowing the basics always helps, especially with regards to engineering, mixing and recording techniques. Ultimately, try and be open to trying new things, listening to new sounds and learning from your mistakes. Expand in every direction possible.”
Tarek’s top tips
Unsurprisingly, Tarek has a wealth of advice and insight for any artists looking to produce themselves. He believes that having a solid knowledge of the basics surrounding audio recording will give you an advantage. It can help prevent inspiration being halted by reaching for an instruction manual. At the same time, acts shouldn’t be put off by a lack of technical knowledge.
“See your limitations not as barriers to something outside of your grasp, but as a defining character to your style”
“I rarely reference other artists when I’m working, and only do things that make me feel charged with energy”
“The moment you lose that spark for a song or production, first try again – and if that fails, then come back to it later”
“There’s no rush. If you feel like ideas are slow, think of your method – and then do the opposite for a week”
“Comparing yourself to others doesn’t always help: judge yourself only by your last song, mix or production.”
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