Learning the art of collaboration at Real World Studios

Sometimes, making music with others can be hard. At a recent Beatcamp weekend at Real World Studios, we learned the art of successful collaboration first-hand.

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Learning the art of collaboration at Real World Studios

Image: York Tillyer

How would you get on if someone put you in one of the world’s best recording facilities for a weekend and asked you to make a piece of music with someone you’ve never met before? That’s the challenge for 16 members of Beatcamp 2019, who have signed up for their latest event at the idyllic Real World Studios in Box, UK. We’re not talking signed record-company bands or musicians here (although, as we’ll find out, many have a background as successful musicians). All the attendees have paid to go through this experience, which entails meeting someone they’ve been paired up with by Beatcamp and making a track together. Oh, and the resulting tracks will be put together on an album that will be released across all the major streaming platforms. Sounds daunting?

The ultimate campsite

Yes, it probably does sound daunting; terrifying, even. But let’s focus on the rewards and perhaps we’ll understand more why these people are here. First of all, the obvious. This is Real World Studios! MusicTech has been here before on a number of occasions, but Peter Gabriel’s studio never fails to charm you with its creative magic. It’s built around – literally – an old mill in the heart of Wiltshire, with grounds, ponds, lush surroundings and heaps of tranquility (oh, and great food).

It’s not cheap to be on the Beatcamp weekend – we’re looking at around £2,000 per person – but nor is there any holding back on the experience. The other main draws for these Beatcampers – and for us, as MusicTech has been invited along to enjoy the experience – are many.

Firstly, we all get access to all the Real World studio gear in the main control room and side studios to make these tracks. That’s everything from a Bösendorfer piano to a rack of vintage gear (or 20); everything from an SSL desk to a suite of vintage synths and guitar effects. You name it, it’s here. That’s certainly enough to be getting on with. The thought of simply plugging our synth – yes, we’re allowed to add our own bits and pieces to the stockpile, too – into a vintage Roland Space Echo is mouthwatering, and indeed, by day three, the temptation proves too much to resist.

Real World Studios, The Big Room
The beautiful and tranquil Real World Studios is situated in the heart of rural Somerset and has hosted some of the biggest bands on the planet. Image: York Tillyer

Secondly, all attendees get access to the in-house engineers and producers at Real World, who we’ll be meeting throughout this article. That list includes studio manager and senior consulting engineer Tim Oliver (Robert Plant, New Order, and Sinéad O’Connor); our recent interviewee,  producer Steve Osborne (Elbow, New Order, Happy Mondays, and Placebo); engineer, producer and musician Cameron Jenkins (Lana Del Rey, The Verve, John Cale, and Lemon Jelly) and engineers Oli Jacobs and Oli Middleton. That’s quite a list of expertise and they are on-hand to guide each and every pair through any production technique or gear setup that they could wish for.

Then there’s a raft of studio musicians who have been brought in. Yes, if you want to have a guitarist who’s played with George Michael to play on your track, then book them in. Professional session singer? Proper drums? All no problem. And last of the pluses? Ah yes, the album…

That’s right. Perhaps one of the greatest incentives of being here is that the track you produce with your Beatcamp partner will be released as part of the Beatcamp 2019 album on Real World Records, with a full release on Spotify and iTunes.

Real-world people

The Beatcamp attendees are kept in the loop on all things about the camp via the Slack app several weeks before the event, during which they are paired with their partners. So there is a chance to get to know each other, at least virtually. Perhaps cynically, we thought that typical Beatcamp attendees might be rich, middle-aged, high-disposable incomers, possibly here for the Peter Gabriel experience – but nothing could be further from the truth. There are literally people from all walks of life. Several have flown over from the States to be here, many from Europe. Yes, there are Peter Gabriel fans wanting to get a VIP experience, but everyone is passionate about music and unwaveringly enthusiastic, if a little nervous at first.

“It’s a combination of trepidation and excitement,” says Beatcamp founder Marc Langsman. “Someone on the last camp described it as ‘Disney World for musicians’, so part of them is like a big kid in a sweetshop, but they have this big challenge to produce music that they will release in a couple of days and for most people, that is an experience they haven’t been through.

“But the trepidation melts away as we go through the weekend and everyone is living together, eating meals together and they start to bond. Suddenly, this group of disparate individuals become this great group.”

BeatDaters at Beatcamp, Real World Studios
The Beatcamp experience is a great experience for musicians from different backgrounds to come together and collaborate

Marc then explains how the pairing process works – the so-called ‘Beatdating’ – between the attendees: “When someone signs up, they receive a form to fill in with a whole spectrum of questions, including what music they like, their strengths and weaknesses, that kind of thing. There’s about 20 data points and we then go through and piece together the people we think will work well together. For example, someone might be a strong instrumentalist, the other a strong producer.”

Beatcamp’s Rena Psibindi is an integral part of the process. “Most times, you can find something that bonds them,” she says, “usually in terms of their sound, their influences and also their production techniques. I haven’t had anyone paired yet who is at completely opposite ends of the mix scale!”

Hello campers

We spoke with a couple of Beatcampers both before and after to hear what they learned. Barbara Duchow is a fashion designer, choreographer, singer and producer originally from Hamburg, now living in Toulouse. Her reasons for attending this collaborative event are many and varied, but pretty much cover everyone’s here.

“First of all, I was tired of composing at home alone,” she says. “I had also just done an album and needed a new impetus and of course, I was more than excited to come here to this studio. I also grew up with Peter Gabriel’s music, so there were many aspects encouraging me to come, but sometimes it is just good to be around committed people who just want to create.”

Barbara has been partnered with Graham George, a teacher from Arbroath in Scotland. “I signed up, as I had always wanted to work at Real World,” he says. “I had often driven past on holiday, but I also to meet like-minded, nice people with a shared interest in music and the recording process.”

Ideas days

On the first day of the three, Marc introduces everyone on both the Real World and Beatcamp teams in the main studio. Fortunately, this place is huge, easily able to accommodate the 16 producers who have signed up for Beatcamp, each one set up in pairs. Computer outputs are run straight through the main desk so that audio can be monitored by the assembled engineers and producers, but also so it can be routed through whatever outboard you’d like to experiment with… and you will want to do just that.

In separate rooms, including the Wood Room, a drum kit is already mic’d up, as are guitars and that Bösendorfer. There’s also a separate vocal booth with, as you’d expect, a massive range of mics.

“The Big Room at Real World is very unique in what it can offer,” says Real World engineer Oli Jacobs. “You can have everyone in the same room, but it is also the control room – so if someone wants to play something back, they can. I don’t know how many other studios can offer this in that same way. The Big Room is such a big space and that’s why we’ve attracted so many pop and R&B artists, as they like to work in that way with lots of artists around the room, with the whole band in that room. It’s like a hybrid production/band session, in a way.”

There’s also the small matter of getting to work with someone you have never met in person before. The teams were paired and introduced by Slack, but this is the first time they’ve sat down with one another. Oli Jacobs has a pragmatic opinion on this pairing.

“In the professional world of making records, you are working with people you have never met before, pretty much every day,” he says. “Like next week, I will be starting a new session and have never met this person before, so that’s a challenge. So if any of these producers want to go into the industry full time, this is amazing practice – ‘Here’s someone you’ve never met before, make a song!’ So yeah, it’s how the record industry works and if you can’t work with people you’ve never met before, then you can’t work in the record industry!”

But Oli’s pretty confident the eight teams are gelling well already: “It’s amazing looking around the room, like we have a guy who can play amazing piano with someone who sings and writes great lyrics and it’s just offering different skillsets. The massive plus of Beatcamp is forcing people out of their comfort zone with people they might not necessarily have chosen to work with – and bringing different things to the table, perhaps realising what that other person can bring and offering to them what you can do.”

Graham Kearns, Real World Studios
Session guitarist Graham Kearns has played with Chris de Burgh, Sinéad O’Connor, George Michael, Mark Owen and Jamelia

As the teams begin to get ideas together and start to think about booking instruments and musicians, they are each set up with a comprehensive filing system so that audio files from each team can be collected together from whatever sessions are booked – either by the producers singing or playing the assembled instruments themselves, or played by the three on-hand session musicians. Pretty much anything can be routed from any room and through anything. It’s ridiculously slick for so many people using one room with so much gear.

And talking of gear, it would be very easy to get carried away with everything on offer. On the first day especially, ideas and creativity are encouraged over spending too much time focusing on the tech on offer. Fortunately, many people are seemingly narrowing their choices down and for this day at least, not exploring too many options. This is no surprise to on-hand and legendary producer Steve Osborne.

“We’re around for this first day,” he explains, “but people are trying to get ideas together, so you say ‘hello’ and help people if they ask, but they’ve only just met, so they’re dealing with that and getting their plans together.”

At the end of the first day, each of the teams’ efforts are played through the main speakers at Real World: a daunting prospect for some, but we are treated to some pretty well-rounded ideas. Most have produced at least skeletal arrangements, but ideas are being fleshed out, with most constituent parts already present.

It’s business time

After the inevitable politeness of day one, day two could start to yield any problems associated with meeting and working with someone you have never met before. Indeed, there are a couple of teams where one person is taking a lead.

“I’ve seen it, but it’s often about differences in musical styles that can cause the most conflict,” says Rena, “and if you are not used to collaborating and are not open to new ideas, it can disrupt the harmony. It’s working for most people, though and if they were struggling a bit with the musical style, we have spoken to them and given them some good advice and they’ve been getting on with it.”

“We’re all here to help make it work as well as possible,” Marc adds. “It’s very rare for people not to find their footing. We had some guys who wrote a track together, but one was leading and the other guy wasn’t so happy, but we keep an eye on it – the producers and engineers are constantly checking in on each couple. So we spoke to them and discussed options and they wanted to start another track and it worked really, really well.”

Barbara and Graham at Real World Studios
Graham and Barbara’s musical tastes may have been different, but their collaboration worked extremely well

“There is always a solution,” says Real World senior consulting engineer and producer Tim Oliver. “The most extreme case was when the two people weren’t benefitting from the relationship, so we got them to take the track which they’d been working on to that point and asked if they wanted to work apart to make two different tracks. It worked really well and they ended up bouncing ideas off each other’s tracks… so in a way, it was a collaboration.”

In Barbara and Graham’s case, they’ve used the fact their idea was led by one of them to their advantage. Their track started out as Graham’s, but it proved to be a meeting point of their ideas after Barbara’s initial worry that her and Graham’s styles were too different.

“I perhaps wanted to be partnered with someone doing more electronic music,” she says, “but then I went through Graham’s library and heard a lot of different styles. I found one song that I really liked and we decided to work on that. I wrote some lyrics, and have brought some ideas and will start to play around with them.”

On a more technical level, Steve Osborne is now being called in for more mix tweaking as the songs begin to form. “On the second day, you get more involved,” he explains. “You might give them another beat to strengthen things up or you might just add a compressor to neaten things up. There was one track where I have tightened the mix up and did a few bits of tidying it up, tidying frequencies and adding a bit of compression here and there.

“There are no typical problems sound-wise,” he adds, “but it’s the boring stuff that is more common. Things like not naming a recording. These are the things I always recommend – filing and naming, the boring housekeeping stuff. If you have learned production through the big studio system, that is the first thing you realise – you don’t do any recording unless it is named correctly. You can understand it here, though, because they just want to get on and do their thing.”

And do their thing they do. One of the US visitors, Dan Easley, is a TV technical producer and has been paired up with fellow American Kai Keefe. Kai was delayed arriving at Real World, but got a head start working on some samples on the plane on the way over. The two have spent the day fleshing them out, using everything Real World has to offer.

“Those samples were of saxophone mouth-and-key-noises, very percussive,” Dan explains. “We added a keyboard track that didn’t make it very far into the process, but gave us some harmonic information – a chord progression – to work with. I laid down an electric-bass track and then Kai went into a vocal booth, singing mostly wordless vocals. The words we heard in those ambiguous notes became the foundation of our lyric. Drums and electric guitars fleshed out the loud bits; acoustic guitar and piano filled in the quiet bits. Kai played a nice passage on flute in the middle.”

It’s just one of a varied set of tracks that are beginning to emerge at the end of the day.

The last day

By the last day, the group have got most of their arrangements together and are happy with their ideas. However, it’s also now that realisation dawns for many – they are in Real World Studios, and look at what’s on offer! Even we are tempted to call in some classic pieces of Eventide and Pultec gear, which Oli J gladly sets up for us before we spend far too much time throwing some Korg Minilogue XD presets through those and a vintage Roland Space Echo, simply because we could.

With other teams, it’s a rush to make the most of the assembled musicians. After spending a day in-the-box on ideas, it’s time for attendee Pascal Toyer from Paris – here celebrating his 50th birthday – to really make the most of it.

The Big Room at Real World Studios
The Big Room at Real World, all set up for three days of intense teamwork

“On the first day, I didn’t use the people or the studio as much as I could have,” he admits, “so then we started with the drums and have a session with the singer. But I don’t want everybody, as I know what I need. You have to keep focus, as there is a lot here!”

Pascal is also hoping to make the most of the engineers and producers on offer, to pick up more hands-on tips and advice. Senior consulting engineer and producer Tim Oliver is also finding himself in higher demand on this last day, as people near the finish line.

“It’s the typical producer element, really,” he says. “You are ‘smoothening’ partnerships and making sure that it is working towards a goal and that the balance is right. I’ll listen to it and make suggestions from both a production and sonic point of view.”

Tim Oliver at Real Word Studios
Senior consulting engineer Tim Oliver oversees Real World Studios’ facilities, staff and overall quality. He’s been on-hand throughout the Beatcamp sessions

All of the producers are making their mark with the teams on the last day. James Hurr is one of the engineers present and is bringing his experience to bear on Dan and Kai’s track.

“James has done a phenomenal job of quickly cleaning up all the work we’d done and is putting together a mix that’s very clear and very exciting,” says Dan. “I learned the most technique-wise from watching him work. There are methods he applied to our song that I’ll try to apply to every recording I make hereafter. The guest producers have been absolutely amazing in their advice, their encouragement, and their engineering.”

After some initial misgivings from Barbara, it seems that the musical partnership between her and Graham has also taken off. Barbara tells us that she has already signed up for the next camp in September and George is really pleased with the music they’ve come up with.

“It started well, as we had talked over a couple of weeks beforehand, so had a rough plan,” he explains. “It ended up superbly with a new, exciting track and ongoing writing, recording and band projects planned.”

And he’s not alone. It seems that pretty much every pairing has made the most of the facilities as Real World’s junior engineer Oli Middleton (who was in charge of recording live instruments) confirms: “They’ve really made the most of it this time. The amount of stuff we’ve recorded in the Wood Room: pianos, drums, percussion… it’s like a different league to how you’d get it in your bedroom.”

“We’ve had a real mix of songs,” says Rena of the resulting set of tracks. “There’s been ambient, electronic, big-ballad songs… really, what I’m hearing has all been quite new and different. I’m not hearing any standard pop, it’s all quite experimental. One other thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a recurring theme – purely by chance – and their concepts seem to be about detaching from the digital world and coming back to being human and real, which is really interesting.”

And perhaps the bottom line for us is that our cynicism has been washed away. Okay, not everyone is going to have the kind of cash to go on one of these recording adventures, but the experience has certainly changed some lives here and it’s not just good for the attendees, as Real World producer Cameron Jenkins adds: “I don’t think you can be cynical about these kinds of events, because if it weren’t for things like Beatcamp, then studios can’t exist these days. The economics of the music industry has changed and even though I’m a big advocate of streaming, we’ve been at this point where the economics of it hasn’t worked itself out.

OIi Middleton at Real World Studios
Studio engineer Oli Middleton takes on the mantle of recording the live instruments throughout the weekend

“But once Spotify has 100 million subscribers, that times £20 is a hell of a lot of money, but that hasn’t filtered down to recording studios or artists and so many studios have closed because the budgets aren’t there.”

But last word from the campers goes to Graham, who concludes: “I’ve met great people, made lasting friendships and contacts and taken lots of advice and tips from true professionals. It’s been a magical, wonderful, creative nirvana.”

And finally, Oli Jacobs gives the Real World perspective: “It’s amazing to bring in people to experience a recording session like this who maybe might be able to not otherwise – and for us to share our expertise, but also learn from them as well.”

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