Neil Brockbank is part of a dying breed of true pros. For the past several years he has been traveling with celebrated songsmith Nick Lowe on Lowe's solo tours, tirelessly wearing the hats of driver, guitar tech, soundman and tour manager. I had a chance to accompany Brockbank while he did live sound on a couple of Lowe's U.S. shows, and witnessed an artful engineering "performance," — equal parts choreography and improvisation. Neil knows Nick's songs back to front, and is able to deftly ride the vocals and instinctively add subtle flourishes of echo and reverb as needed. It always serves the song and enhances the audience's experience. The musical care offered every night was admirable to be sure.
And though he has a great deal of live sound experience, the U.K.-born-and-bred Brockbank is certainly no stranger to the studio. He's done records with some of the greats from both sides of the Atlantic like Bryan Ferry, Tanita Tikaram, Alison Moyet, Tres Chicas, Geraint Watkins, Tift Merritt and Linda Thompson. And it's Brockbank's astonishing work with Lowe, starting with 1994's The Impossible Bird, up through 2011's The Old Magic and beyond, that have garnered high praise for his natural, timeless recorded sound.
A couple of years ago I met up with Neil and his cohort Bobby Treherne (a producer in his own right and longtime drummer with Nick Lowe, Van Morrison and others) in the Camden Town neighborhood of London, where their cozy and beautifully set up studio, Goldtop, sat nestled behind sprawling wisteria in a former dairy mews. Sadly, Goldtop was recently forced to relocate, due to a lease complication. Nonetheless, Brockbank has been busy as ever under the name Goldtop@Gravity Shack at the South London studio run by Jessica Corcoran. (Please note that all references in this interview are to the original "open room" Goldtop Studio.) I enjoyed the easy-going nature of Neil and Bobby, as well as their brotherly, collaborative work spirit. Pints of bitter were quaffed down the street at the Princess of Wales pub, gear was discussed ("Ribbon mics are a godsend.") and stories were exchanged ("Of all of Van Morrison's drummers over the years, I've lasted the longest. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing." chuckled Bobby).
Why did you put Goldtop together?
I told everybody I didn't want a studio. It wasn't possible within any kind of foreseeable budget that I could ever imagine creating a studio that would make every kind of record I would want to make. That changed, and I found that actually, in the last 10 years, the records that I've been making have been much more similar to each other than I thought. I've attracted a kind of artist that wants to make a record in a certain kind of way. I'm not doing any kind of death metal and I'm not doing any hip-hop...
Goldtop is beautifully set up for seizing moments. Tell me about some of the design aspects that you guys incorporated?
When we got in it was a rectangular room, but the ceiling is much higher on one side than it is on the other. There is nothing above the ceiling other than plasterboard and a kind of metal roof. In what we jokingly call the "control room area," it has been treated to the point where the ceiling would go up really high — it doesn't. It slopes backwards, and above it are hanging triangles of very thick carpet felt at half-meter intervals all the way along there. Anything that goes up into that triangle of space above the rear of the control room doesn't come back. The same is true of the rear control room wall where all the speakers are firing too. That is constructed to be non-reflective. There is a layer of drywall and then a gap, a layer of drywall and then a gap.
Was that designed by instinct?
One of the partners here, Paul Laventhol, had done quite a lot of work building studios as a carpenter — not designing studios, but working on them. He amassed a fair amount of practical, real practical knowledge with how to deal with a room. He specified the wood floor. He knew how to put it in. The wooden floor is sitting on rubber mountings. They're made from old car tires. Paul had a lot of practical ideas, like guttering as a conduit for the cabling — simple solutions that don't cost anything but do the job. We looked at all kinds of poncy speaker stands, but we used concrete building blocks that are really heavy and sit on rubber with rubber between them and the speakers. They're an engineering solution, and I think they cost under a pound each.
The "no control room" thing — we should talk about that a little bit.
It's certainly a new idea, and it's something that couldn't have existed prior to 1970. Back in the old days, they would have to mix the record while it was being played — at least mix the rhythm track. You really needed a separate room where you could reliably do that and everybody could be confident on the production side that they were getting the sound of the record. Here the fact that you're not putting a barrier between the performing staff and the engineering staff enables people to feel much more like a team working together on the record. When you listen to a playback and somebody says, "Oh, I could just do this." They don't have to go out of a door, down the stairs, along the corridor and back into another room, where all of a sudden they're all on their own.
You don't have to worry that you're taking up too much time.
Some things get down that wouldn't otherwise get done in the overdub mode. I really like the tracking. I have to say we're not doing a lot of loud music here. There are a few bands that come by that do loud music, but I'm not necessarily personally involved in those sessions. By and large, most of the music we record here is performed really quietly with little 15-watt amps, acoustic piano and...