Mike Pelanconi Interview
Mike Pelanconi has carved a unique position for himself in the recording industry, and his new studio is a perfect reflection of his philosophies: individuality, creativity and quality always wins! We set him 15 questions on The Ironworks, his career and his thoughts on the industry. See below for his healthy and intriguing answers...
Hi Mike, thanks for your time. So what have you been working on recently?
Mike: I've been recording backing tracks for an EMI France Album with drummer Graham Fox (UNKLE and Graham Coxon). I mixed Reggae legend Little Roy's latest album (produced by Mafia and Fluxy) and i'm adding the finishing touches to my next Prince Fatty album with a fantastic singer called Hollie Cook.
It's been about a year since you opened The Ironworks down in Brighton. What was behind your decision to relocate to the south coast after many years in London?
Mike: I am from Brighton, so it made it sense - London was getting hectic and expensive. I had ambitions to build a bigger studio than i had previously. It took me several years to locate the right premises. Brighton is possibly the best place for creativity, low stress and low maintenance.
The initial idea for The Ironworks was to setup a room to primarily record and mix samples for your Drumdrops library. Tell us about the work Drumdrops do and how this business venture came about...
Mike: I have always loved recording drums. There is extra pressure to get it right and many variables, and more importantly along side the lead vocal it defines the sound or character of a record more than anything else. Bad drum sound = lame record. Drumdrops started over 10 years ago and we have slowly built a fan base of dedicated drum perverts. I didnt do it for financial gain, more to record and archive the fantastic drummers i work with, in the spirit of Lomax. Drummers like Horseman and Keith Le Blanc will always be of interest.
You hooked up with ex-Olympic tech Mike Craig to design and build The Ironworks. What was the vision behind the acoustic design of the studio, and were you in anyway surprised by how good the sound of the room turned out?
Mike: I knew the sound would be perfect because of the dimensions i had at my disposal. I like to record everybody together as much as possible so it's crucial to have a well balanced live room. Mike started at Olympic in the sixties and has witnessed the studio build evolution from the days of valves and mono to the present day. We have worked together for a long time, so he understood what i wanted. He looks after all the equipment and takes care of the modifications that i often demand.
Before you moved to The Ironworks, which studios did you enjoy working in, and are there any influences you drew from other studios when mapping out the plans for your own?
Mike: The best control rooms that i have worked in are in LA. New York or London control rooms tend to be smaller. The design and dimensions of the control room were inspired by Capitol Studio B and the old Hollywood Sound Recorders where Parliament and many cool 70s artists recorded.
The studio's spec is rooted in some excellent vintage gear, notably the Ampex M1200 16 Track 2". The sound quality of this tape machine is vital to the sound of your recordings, but what is it that makes the machine so special?
Mike: Its discrete electronics (no computer chips or IC's). At 15 ip's it has a huge boost of 4 db at 35 hz, which is why American records of the 70s had a better low end than British ones. The classic Studer machines used in Europe actually roll off the bass below 80hz and at 30 ips (the most common speed used) its even worse.
Talk us through your collection of vintage EQs. What's on offer and do you have any personal favourites?
Mike: For me the best equalizer for general work is the API 550a. It's very musical and I have ten of them. For surgical purposes the GML is unbeatable and for vibes and huge bass boost the Lang PEQ2 is the undisputed champion.
The Custom 28 Channel Vintage BBC Class A Console is a unique inclusion in the spec. Where did you find this desk and what are its key qualities?
Mike: Huge head room, marinair transformers, distorts beatifully when you want it to and a unique equalizer. It came from the BBC, I have had it since the early 90s. It took me a while to realise how great it was, as it was in my demo studio at the time. Once i actually started recording with it properly it blew everybody away.
A studio's vibe is a vital ingredient to a successful session, and yours has a lot of personal touches. What was your vision behind the type of atmosphere you wanted to create at The Ironworks?
Mike: I wanted to create an environment to stimulate musicians, and to facilitate the sound possibilities I had in my head. I wanted a blend of professionalism and informality that puts musicians and producers at ease and inspires the best out of them.
Tell us about your background in production and engineering - how did you start out in the industry?
Mike: Classic tape op snakes and ladders from the age of 17 - I was lucky and caught the last wave of the old school engineers and producers. I was always using downtime in the studios and it often got me sacked or disciplined: recording studios such as Maison Rouge, Wessex, Matrix etc. It didnt take me long to progress and i soon started working for record labels direct and as sessions moved around a lot more in those days between different rooms it was a great opportunity to learn new sounds, meet people and develop techniques such as multitrack tape editing and old microphone techniques that are often overlooked. I used to learn a lot from the techs as they were a lot more open and knowledgable. 90% of sound engineers record in the same predictable fashion so it's not hard to stand out if you have some passion for quality.
You've become closely associated with a number of different artists working within different genres, such as Manu Chao, Unkle and Graham Coxon. What do you look for in an artist or project when deciding who to work with?
Mike: Artists who have a unique view of the world and the courage of their convictions, fearless communicators and inspired musical revolutionaries! I am not a frustrated artist so I love the challenge of making a sonic reality from an artist's imagination or idea no matter how simple. All good records have a script or theme of sorts that makes them stand out from the rest. The personalities involved dictate the feel and vibe, so of course each artist ends up sounding different as they should.
You mixed Lily Allen's Alright, Still, which went on to be one of the most notable debut albums of the decade. Did everyone involved in that record expect it to go onto make the impact it did?
Mike: I knew it was a hit of sorts for sure, it was obvious to me - the lyrics made it special and it connected. The success of the album in the USA was a welcome surprise. The music was just a vehicle for Lily's story telling style, so nothing too special. I liked her follow up It's Not Me, It's You, and she was wise to work with Greg as his tracks were the most interesting and original from Alright, Still, so he deserved the gig !
How might your creative approach differ between working on a debut by a young artist or working with more experienced guys such as Manu or Graham?
Mike: Great sounds and recordings inspire musicians and artists to deliver better performances. Turning people on is my job. More experienced bands and artists tend to have more fully-developed ideas about arrangements and production and they just trust me to bring my thing to the party - where as with a breaking artist I might offer a little more guidance here and there.
What's the best piece of advice you'd give to any aspiring engineers setting out on their careers in music production?
Mike: Develop a record collection. Buy some decent speakers! Listen and learn. Know what great voices and instruments should sound like when they are recorded really well. Look for talented producers and, artists to work with, and avoid bad records even if the money is good.
Lastly, it's a notoriously unpredictable time in the recording industry at the moment but what do you personally feel are the main things that need to change to improve the outlook for everyone?
Mike: The destruction of the old music business can only be positive. From the ashes a cleaner and leaner business model will be born. In the meantime only those creatively strong with something unique to offer will survive. The music business should belong to the creators of the music - that now has a chance to be realised more than ever before. Change comes from within, so we must find new innovative ways to sell our music and services, whether its a custom USB stick at a live show or a download.
The classic CD/Record Label/Distributor business model is over. I believe publishing companies will be the record companies of the future, which is a good thing. In the meantime get hussling and remember the best bass line or guitar riff still wins!!
Mike Pelanconi was talking to Miloco in May 2010.
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