Amsterdam Recording Company
Recently I reviewed Sparrow Falls and The Cut/Up and a review of The Local Spastics is on it’s way. These albums have a couple of things in common. They are released by Amsterdam Recording Company (ARC) and they each sound different, but all three sound amazing. A closer look and you’ll notice all albums are recorded in ARC’s own studio. As I am really curious about what’s happening behind the scenes to keep this scene of ours alive and kicking I felt this was a great opportunity to check out what’s going on in a studio and how these guys run a label. So, on a rainy Sunday afternoon I went to Amsterdam and had a chat with the three enthusiastic and ambitious owners of ARC.
Hi lads, thanks for inviting me over. Please introduce yourselves?
I am Aziz. About ten years back I started getting interested in recording technique. This is more or less where the idea for this studio began.
I am Jean, I am in the music business for over thirty years. After talking about opening a studio I opted in and now apply all my technical expertise in the studio.
And I am Nicholas, I devote my time to the management and marketing side of the studio and label.
Aziz already mentioned becoming more and more interested in recording technique. But it’s still a big step to actually opening a studio. What made that happen?
Well, first Aziz became more and more interested in recording technique. It seems that this is a world where the more you discover, the more there is to be discovered. We all were interested in the subject actually, and as we were discussing the subject a lot we decided to take a leap of faith and start to make it happen. From the very start we had ideas about how to run this thing. I mean, we all played in bands at the time (and still do) and found that giving away stuff for free sometimes generates more interest than asking money for everything. We are trying to translate that idea to our studio.
We’re still talking about the step where the studio is still an idea, right? But this studio is pretty real. How did that come to be?
We found a place to get started… We’re based in Loods 6 in Amsterdam. This building is monument actually. Amsterdam decided the building should be a location that fulfills a certain cultural function. There’s a lot of artists based in the building. And then there’s us, making noise in the basement. At first, roughly the first two years we were just planning. Everyone told us not to go ahead with our plans. The ceiling would be to low to have good acoustics for example. In a way it was quite frustrating. Every time we thought we solved a problem, we encountered at least two more. The turning point was when we saw images of the recording of a Rolling Stones album. We all thought that album sounds amazing. Pretty amazing if you see that they recorded it in a dampy basement. A lot of time was used to get rid of water and keeping the equipment dry. We figured that if they could record an album with such a great sound under those conditions, we were bound to have gold in our hands. I mean, our basement is dry! Anyway, we decided to get some professional help in. This really got everything up to speed. He was around one day, explaining how to arrange certain spaces to make it happen. After that we contacted him every now and then when we needed him. We really paid extra attention to giving the control room that extra dry sound. You really need to hear what you are recording in there. The live room is a different story. The thing is, that room has a ceiling that is less than four meters high. That’s basically the height you need to not be bothered too much by sound reflecting from the ceiling. We don’t have that, so we experimented with balancing reflective and absorbing materials until we had everything right there. What we’re really proud of is that we basically did everything in this place ourselves.
We all played in bands at the time (and still do) and found that giving away stuff for free sometimes generates more interest than asking money for everything
Impressive! Now, I warn you… I am no technician, so try to explain where the magic happens in such a way that even I can have an idea about what you’re doing here?
Ok, we’ll give this a try. Very, very short: the heart of our studio is our Polygram mixing console. This is a brilliant piece of equipment that was developed a long, long time ago. A time we now know as the past. It was developed in 1972 actually. Back in those days a lot of studios worked with Neve. These worked very well sound wise, but were not very reliable. In fact, you basically had a technician in the studio full time to keep that thing up and running. As everyone was using Neve though it has a very recognizable sound. Philips at the time figured this wasn’t good enough for their Polygram studios. That’s why they got their most brilliant engineers together to develop this 32 channel monster. It’s like the Formula One race car amongst the mixing consoles. It must have cost them a fortune to create this, but in our opinions: it was definitely worth it. As far as we’re concerned a better mixing console has yet to be developed. This console is one of the main reasons we can create a sound with a lot of head room. Head room is the term we use to describe that really open sound.
Ah thanks for the translation…
Haha, you’re welcome! Anyway, we can go on and on and on about how lucky and proud we are to actually have one of them in our studio. Some folks may say that the disadvantage of this console is that the sound is too good. But that’s a luxury in our minds. Besides, it’s relatively easy to add that rough edge to a sound. Much, much easier than to add some clarity to an overly muddy sound for example.
Something that we tried to do is keep the signal path as short as possible. We see you frowning again, so here’s a short explanation. The longer a signal is on it’s way from where it’s created to where it’s recorded and the more electric components it meets on it’s way, the more a signal could get distorted. That’s why you want a signal path that’s as short as possible. Just think about those really old recordings from the fifties where what the artists created was captured almost the moment it left their fingers or throats. The equipment really wasn’t that great, but there was almost no signal path. So, our mission was to keep the signal path as short as possible, and looking at our studio now I think we failed miserably, haha! We did find a way to solve this problem though and we guarantee you that the signal reaches our console in optimum condition.
Something else we take pride in is our collection of microphones. The most special perhaps is the Neumann. This type of microphone was introduced in 1928 and is still going strong as one of the best mics ever. We actually own two of those! We had a rockabilly band recording here, Miss Mary Ann and the Ragtime Wranglers. We decided to record with this mic. Their singer fell in love with this mic. They actually have their own mic now and you can see their singer with this mic on the cover of their latest album. But that’s not the only mic we have. We’ve got a whole collection of them and we can use ‘m to record all types of voices and vibes.
Our mission was to keep the signal path as short as possible, and looking at our studio now I think we failed miserably, haha!
Alright, alright… but have you got any modern equipment as well? I mean, welcome to the digital age!
Ha! Yeah we got that alright. Off course we do. We use the best of both worlds. The big issue with recording analogue is that horrible moment where you translate that analogue signal to a digital one. If you don’t get that right everything you did before gets lost right there. That’s such a waste. We were basically ready with installing everything when our engineer Philip J. Harvey joined us. He’s not only a great engineer, but also happens to be beta-tester for the magical Metric Halo box that translates analogue to digital. Unfortunately he could only conclude we didn’t get this minor detail right. He helped us get everything right in this department. The downside is that we had to rebuild a lot to get everything right this time. So, looking back it was a bit troublesome to get where we are now, but we couldn’t be more happy with our studio. I mean, we have the luxury that every little improvement we make from now on makes such a big difference! Compare it with owning a bad amplifier, speakers and terrible cables to finish it. If you now change the cable to quality stuff you’ll find that the sound has gotten only marginally better. But if your amplifier and speakers are top notch and you upgrade your cable, you’ll immediately notice a major improvement in sound.
To finish this off, something non-technical. We paid extra attention to is the atmosphere outside of the control room and the live room. We’ve recorded albums ourselves and we felt this was something that needs improvement in a lot of studios. We really went for that relaxed atmosphere and I think we succeeded.
I can only agree with that. When I saw the bar and the pin ball-machine when I walked in I felt right at home.
Well, don’t underestimate this aspect of our studio. When you’re cramped up in a relatively small space for a long time and you can only focus on your the parts you need to control you’re not playing your music relaxed. If you can play your parts relaxed it will automatically sound better. That’s what went for. In short, we think that this studio is as complete as you can get ‘m.
If you can play your parts relaxed it will automatically sound better.
That sounds great. How’s business now that you’re up and running?
We’re up and running for three and a half years now. I think we can conclude that business is good, although we could use some extra bookings every now and then. The thing is, we mainly have smaller projects going on here. That makes the planning a bit more difficult. It’s so much easier if you can just book a project that will last three weeks or even longer. Unfortunately for us it’s more and more unusual to be in the studio that long. A lot can be done with home recordings nowadays. That is a good thing as it opens doors for young bands. The downside is: you’ll never record something as good as we can do here. Off course you can fix a lot while mastering, but upgrading murky parts is not something that’s easy to do. If there’s no depth in your sound you’ll not find it while mastering as you can’t add that to a sound. It has to be there from the start.
Something that’s not uncommon is that a band wants a studio to master what they’ve recorded at home. They then find themselves surprised by all the possibilities a studio offers. I think we can say we’ve had bands over here that felt sorry they recorded at home and not in our studio. And it’s ashame really. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll get to tape in just two days if you’re well prepared. If you have done your work preparing, think preproduction etc, and are clear about the sound you’re looking for we can do a lot of magic in just those two days. And there’s something else you don’t have at home: our three engineers. They are not only very experienced but also have a lot of musical experience to offer. They can help you get those little details right that you might miss recording at home. Oh, and is there a guitar player that doesn’t get happy as hell with so much amps to choose from? Haha!
But to get back to your question about how we’re doing business wise, we talked to Bill Stevenson recently. I think it’s safe to say he’s a big name, right? He told us he would be touring more in the near future. We mentioned that shouldn’t be a big problem with his studio funding this. He laughed and told us that it paid the rent and the engineers and sometimes left him with something extra but that’s it. It’s most certainly no cash cow. Somehow we were relieved to find out we’re not the only ones!
Funny thing is: you first admit you’re not fully booked, but you’ve got the equipment ready to start building a second studio.
That’s right! We are building a second studio. What we see is a growing demand from the home-recording we’ve talked about earlier. They want to have the mastering done by a pro and perhaps upgrade the recording by rerecording some parts. That’s what we aim for with our second studio.
I’ll admit to you guys that I have no clue what’s going on in a studio. You’ve explained the technical side a bit, but how does the magic happen?
It starts really simple actually: a band books our studio for a certain period. We start by discussing with them the sound they’re looking for. Based on that and the music we can hear from the band our engineers arrange a set-up in the studio that they feel will lead to the desired end result. We always work with our own engineers as they know they’re way around in our studio. With Philip J. Harvey, Igor Wouters and Jean Morreau we have three top notch engineers around, so that can never be a problem. Off course some bands bring people of their own, but they will always be assisted by our engineers. We’re happy to see that a lot of bands come to our studio with an open mind and are not asking to sound exactly like another band. Look, if they want that, will arrange that, but who wouldn’t prefer to sound like themselves instead of someone else. That’s what we strive for constantly!
In some scenes you’ll find studio’s that define the sound of an entire genre. Think for example about the Morrissound studios or the Sunlight studio’s in the early nineties. That’s not something you aspire?
No, most definitely not! We want to be open minded as a studio. What we do aspire is a very high quality level. That we do! Something else we really want to achieve is to operate much more international. We are pretty much oriented on the Dutch market right now. We want to create a name for ourselves to attract international acts as well. We’re also thinking about getting a big international producer in-house for a while. Our challenge would be to get acts that match with that producer to record their new album here. We think we can create a bigger dynamic around the studio that way. It’s something we learned from playing our bands as well: think big and have the guts to look across the border. That way you’ll develop so much faster. Our main goal is to help create great products and to do that on our conditions!
Our main goal is to help create great products and to do that on our conditions!
Some years ago you gave artists the opportunity to come in and record for free under the Converse pop-up recordings banner. You still offer that?
No, we don’t. And it wasn’t for free, Converse hired us to do that.
Shows what I know….
You’re not entirely wrong though. We still do something similar. We like to invite touring bands that are in Amsterdam to come and record a couple of songs. We won’t tell them what to do. They just have the studio for themselves for some time and are free to record whatever they want. This is something really cool as we got some really surprising results. Some bands enter our studio and record a couple of new tracks as a sort of try out. Other bands play songs that have been on their set-list for ages. The beauty of that is that they play the songs live, but you still have that perfect studio sound. And secondly, these songs still evolve. A song is never finished. They’ll play these songs with different accents now or a bit faster. And we record that.
The fun thing is that we get a mix of different bands in the studio. Different both in style and level of experience. And while it’s sort of a showcase for smaller bands and it feels great to support them in this fashion, for us it’s a great thing to work with artists that have loads and loads of experience. We can definitely still learn from them.
Have you had bands recording here where you thought: “oh wow, they are/were my favorite band and now they’re recording in my studio!”?
Oh yeah! The Obits is an example of that. It was so cool to see a band we all dig and know for a long time come in and play a really loose and relaxed set. In our studio! Just… wow….
So, what’s going to happen with these recordings?
For a large part that’s up to the bands. Die Kreuzen released two tracks as a single and The Pale Angels are going to release a couple of tracks soon. Also as a single. Other than that we plan to use these recordings for a radio show.
So these are like Peel-sessions?
Yeah, that’s just right! We plan to make a two hour radio show once a month for Red Light Radio, an on-line radio station. Perhaps a national channel could pick this up as well. We hope we can get this show up and running in a couple of months. Off course we can add live material from the shows in for example Independent Outlet, Aziz’s skate store.
Ah, you mention live-recordings. That’s something you do as well?
Definitely! Philip J. Harvey is our main man for that line of work. He has loads of experience. He worked with a couple of big names like The Kills, The White Stripes and The Black Lips. We would like to built on his experience and record more on site and finish the recordings in our studio.
Off course we can add live material from the shows in for example Independent Outlet, Aziz’s skate store.
Ah, that sounds great. Let’s get back to that radio show though…
Yeah! What we also want to do in that is to honor our musical heroes. So it’s very likely we will play some old stuff as well. By the way, you mentioned the Peel sessions. At first these sessions were only broadcasted. It wasn’t until later a lot of those sessions were released. There’s a funny parallel with our sessions as well. We would love to be able to release some of these recordings. Perhaps as a sort of singles series.
Well, thank you for the bridge to the label. You’re not only a studio, but since 2013 you also started a label under the same name…
That’s correct! When we started this thing we immediately agreed on doing more than just recording music. We wanted to be able to offer a total package. But to be able to do so, we first had to focus on the studio. In 2013 we felt we were ready to start the label as well.
What determines whether a band could be on ARC?
That’s pretty easy. A band has to believe in themselves and must be willing to give it 100%. Off course we also have to like that band, but style is not the most important thing.
How do you get in touch with the right bands?
Well, for starters we contracted our own bands off course, haha! Next to that there could be bands in our network or we have bands in our studio that we really feel we should release. Sometimes a band is ready to go for it as soon as we start talking with them about this idea, like Sparrow Falls and The Local Spastics, sometimes they feel they can get a better deal somewhere else. That’s not really a strange idea, I mean, we are still starting up as label. On the other hand, sometimes it happens that we would love to release a band, but they are just too big for us. We then advice them to look for a better deal elsewhere. That’s only fair, right?
We do have a big advantage as a label… See, in the past a lot of labels had their own studios. It’s not that obvious anymore. We still have that, so we can offer a more complete deal. What a lot of people seem to forget though is that signing a record deal doesn’t mean your work as a band or artist is finished. There’s still a lot to be done. As we’re experienced musicians ourselves we know that as a musician you just want to create and play music. That whole business side is something you want to avoid as much as possible. What we can do is help ‘m out with that stuff a lot, but they still have to put in a lot of time and effort to get their music to the public. We’re not going to manage your band for example.
Anything big going to happen soon(ish)?
Yeah, we have this crazy idea about a singles series. The idea is to get a couple of musicians together in the studio who haven’t worked together yet and are from different scenes. We get them together to write and record a couple of songs and hope to release these tracks on a singles series. We already have our first two musicians working together: Benjamin Herman, a jazz musician and Olav from Seein’ Red. Some folks will say that this is a combination that can never work out, you know? Combining jazz with the extreme music Olav usually makes, but when they met it turned out Olav actually knows his jazz and Benjamin could really appreciate punk. We’re really curious what these lads will come up with!
What we strive for is that these singles really are pieces of art. Not only musical, but also visual. So we want to have art for these singles that really adds something to the whole experience. The art doesn’t have to be from well known artists, it can also be an unknown artist that we feel is very promising. Main thing is: we have to like it!
Oh, and new NRA material is written at the moment. Well… that’s a process that’s going for quite a while really. I think for over a year now. But new stuffs on the way!
The further down the tracklist you get, the less people will have listened to this song.
I’m always curious to see how a label feels about different formats to release music on?
We’re not releasing on CD. We feel that’s a dead format. We release everything on vinyl and digital. Where we prefer vinyl ourselves…
Are the possibilities of digital music a blessing or a curse for you?
Well, we both love it and hate it. Personally we feel it’s not for us. We do feel it’s an easy way for people to get to know new music. Everything is just one mouse-click away, right? That’s why we have our music up on Spotify and iTunes for example. The downside of those platforms is that there is no money at all to be made for small bands or for us. We can only hope that more people will come to shows because they got to know one of our bands on those platforms. Looking at the statistics you can see one funny thing: a lot of people only listen to a couple of tracks of an album. The further down the tracklist you get, the less people will have listened to this song. We’re not sure what to do with that, but you’d say it’s a challenge artists and labels will have to do something with…
On a regular basis you organize shows as well. What’s up with that?
Well, we already organized shows way before ARC. We mainly book bands that are in the neighborhood but can’t get a show in Amsterdam. If it’s a release party, which we really like, we will brand it ARC presents. We can do that in Independent Outlet, which is pretty cool. How often do you see a show in a skate store? But we also have a couple of other venues that we can contact. It’s all in Amsterdam though. Perhaps in the future we can expand our scope to other cities as well. Anyways, we really like the idea of being a complete platform: studio, label and shows.
One stop shopping ftw! I’m out of questions, do you have anything to add?
No, thanks for the interview!