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Recording in paradise: AIR Studios Montserrat

Air Studios in a dilapidated state
AIR Studios control room
(c) Shane Thoms

In the modern recording era getting clients to travel more than an hour is a big ask, but in 1980, not so much. After a trip with his wife, George Martin decided to open up a secret studio in the rural, nonmodernized, secluded island of Montserrat. Recording artist flocked to the island to not only record in one of the most sophisticated studios in the world at the time but also to enjoy the peace and tranquility the island offered. Most of us could only dream of getting the chance to take a trip to an exotic island with the sole reason of creating the best art possible. For over ten years Air Studios hosted artists such as Dire Straits, The Police, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Duran Duran, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, and Eric Clapton, just to name a few.

AIR Studios Montserrat in its heyday

In 1989 disaster hit the island when Hurricane Hugo destroyed over 90% of the island’s buildings. This included Air Studios, and it was shut down, liquidated and boarded up. In 1995, disaster struck the island again when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted and left only a small piece of the northern tip of the island habitable.

The remnants of Air Studios resides right on the border of the exclusion zone; an area covered in ash, mud and overgrown trees and considered too unsafe to have open to the public. However, this hasn’t stopped numerous adventurous tourist from trespassing so they could experience a piece of what’s left of the extensive history. Over 75 albums were recorded at Air Studios in Montserrat, yet there is little information or pictures in existence. The best documentation of the studio and island is in Sting’s music video “Every Little Thing You Do Is Magic.”

Most of the information I could find about the studio on the internet is from people sneaking in while it was already in a dilapidated state. Shane is an urban exploration photographer from Australia who visited the island of Montserrat last year. He was kind enough to let me use his pictures. You can visit Shane’s website here.

(c) Shane Thoms

After the hurricane, there were discussions of turning what was left of the studio into a museum, but it never materialized. Air Studios still sits at the edge of the exclusion zone, almost symbolic of a better time for not only the island of Montserrat but the music industry. Million dollar budgets and tropical recording gateways are a thing of the past. On the bright side, you can take a laptop and an interface or midi controller on vacation and experience a similar feeling.

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Carbon microphones and the Placid Audio Carbonphone
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering

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Setting yourself apart: recording unique sounds

Recording Unique Sounds

It seems the older you are in the recording industry, the more credibility you have, and for a good reason. An engineer who has been working since the 80s has seen the transition from tape machines to Napster and the first two channel interface in just a couple years. If someone has been working that long and been able to stay relevant, it’s a huge accomplishment in an industry that’s known to chew you up and spit out without any remorse.

As I mentioned in “[More] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering,” there used to be a mentality in the audio industry that trade secrets were just that, secrets. Only the select few included in the inner circle would get to learn them. It wasn’t until the internet that people started to realize giving away these secrets was an excellent way to pad their pockets with a little extra spending money.

What I’ve learned from the older generation of engineers, that I see younger engineers sometimes lack, is going out of their way to be unique and original. In a world where everyone can have the same plugin, it’s uniqueness that will set your sounds and productions apart from the rest of the engineers using the same cracked version of RCompressor as you. I’m not saying you have to be Sylvia Massey and record drums through a garden hose (you’d be cooler if you did though). But, if you can use a weird guitar pedal as an insert or record vocals through a cassette player, then you’ll at least be able to include a sonic footprint that is uniquely your own. Not many people have that weird guitar pedal, and I doubt anyone is using the same cassette deck to saturate a vocal track.

Sylvia Massey’s special drum hose mic technique in action

The convenience of digital recording is the reason many of us are even making and recording music today. Computers have made the barrier to entry for musicians to record themselves almost nonexistent while the internet has made it easy to find information that was once only found under lock and key in the major studios of New York and LA.

But the problem with digital and the abundance of information is that it’s almost too convenient. Everyone wants to know how so and so got that sound? What guitar did they use? What microphone? Creativity thrives due to necessity, and it can’t flourish when everything is easy. You can’t be a revolutionary using a tool that everyone else uses trying to get the same tones that everyone else has. Can you imagine what Sgt. Peppers would sound like if they had Pro Tools in 1967?

Instead of being able to go to a plugin preset, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the rest of the crew at Abbey Road had to make everything on their own. Effects, tape loops, and any processing was all carefully thought out and made in house; but you don’t need a crew of electrical engineers to be original. Experiment with unusual mic placements, use real hallways and bathrooms for reverb. Think outside the box. All of these things will set your recordings apart from Johnny “Audio” down the street.