Julie McLarnon

In Northern Ireland, in a certain region of the countryside, you can find Analogue Catalogue Recording Studios. This residential studio is run by Julie McLarnon, an engineer/producer with a fascinating history and a passion for analog(ue) recording. Her records for The Vaselines, Jeffrey Lewis, King Creosote, Barbarossa, and The Shivers are proof of her skills. Myles O’Reilly’s documentary short film with her, The Psychology of Analogue, is also worth tracking down on YouTube, and I found her insights in it on hearing quite interesting.

When you were quite young, you decided to study recording. What inspired you?

My inspirations were initially very early, when I was probably nine, with the Bowie records. [Tony] Visconti’s [Tape Op #29] work; the Trident Studios era. I’d fallen in love with that and T. Rex. These records came out when I was born, so they were out of step with where I was chronologically, but I was in love with them. Then I went further back and started getting into the Velvet Underground and those kinds of records. The film [The Psychology of Analogue] covers how I’d had a childhood where I spent a lot of time on my own in a hospital, and my ears overdeveloped. I was able to pick sounds out easily, hence when I did learn music, I learned it fast. It was only putting theory into my mind that I’d already worked it out. It was the same with being able to listen and hear. The first person to teach me to place mics was Bill Leader [Bert Jansch, Pentangle]. He taught my college course, which was the George Martin Recording Technology course. It was the best college course for learning production, and it was free! I did an audition to get in; it was mentored by George Martin and taught by Bill Leader, at Salford College of Technology.

Which is near Manchester, right?

Yeah, it’s part of Manchester. I was lucky enough to go there. The year that I was there, the other people on the course were Humanoid [Brian Dougans] and A Guy Called Gerald [Gerald Simpson]. A lot of people who were part of the dawn of house music were tinkering away, and they were part of those 20 odd kids who were doing that course.

How old were you?

I went to recording school when I’d just turned 16. Then I was working at Strawberry Studios before my 18th birthday.

That was 10cc’s studio. How did you get in there? Through the school?

A bit. When I got to the end of the second year, which was the end of the course, I could’ve stayed on to turn it into almost a degree; but I got the first part of my qualification and I got Student of the Year from George Martin. I got a decent reference, so I got pulled forward for an interview to work at the BBC, and I didn’t get the job. I now think that it was probably for the best. The BBC probably wouldn’t have taken working-class Northern Irish girls. I think they were looking for a different type of person, at that point.

Interesting.

I walked away from that. I knew about Strawberry Studios, and I was a big Nico fan. I knew Nico had been working with [Martin] Hannett [Tape Op #103] there, and then Nico had died over that summer. I still wanted to go there and work with Hannett, so I turned up and told them that I’d work for nothing for three weeks during my summer.

Obviously, Martin Hannett was still with us, and engineer Chris Nagle – who had been his engineer on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and many other records – was there.

Yeah. I continued working with Chris right up until a few years ago, when he kind of retired. I’m still in touch with Chris all the time. Me and Chris worked together a lot after Martin passed. They were both absolutely incredible engineers. They’re not that dissimilar. Martin’s known for being more outwardly-spoken, shall we say. I think that they enjoyed having me in the room, because I would be very female and buffer-ish about it. When the drummer’s doing a take, and they’re f-ing and blighting about how not up-to-standard they’d think it was, then they’d go, “We need to move that mic,” and I’d wander in and go, “Yes, it’s going well!” Trying to calm them down and do the buffering, not letting the musicians see the tension.

There’s a bluntness that happens in the studio, isn’t there?

Oh, yeah. The psychology of handling musicians is a massive part of it. Knowing when to push them, but not break them. These days, because of all the levels of undo and the safety nets, I don’t feel they get pushed nearly as hard as the days that I grew up in. I saw a lot of tears and a lot of fistfights. Now it’s that age of social media; just emojis, clap, clap, “Everything’s great,” and hearts. It’s like that in the studio as well! But I grew up with foul language and people not saying, “That was great.”

What was it like apprenticing under those two at Strawberry?

A lot of what I picked up, initially I didn’t realize the value of it. Techniques, like always bringing my effects back on a channel [not an aux return] so that I can EQ it – EQ’ing your reverbs and effects returns so that you’re not creating clouds and lumps. That’s my standard way of working. There are a lot of mic’ing techniques that I picked up when I was young that I still use daily. It was great. And the anecdotes and stories. The Happy Mondays saved my life, because I saw them do so many drugs that I’ve never touched drugs. I’m petrified of touching drugs in case I turn into one of them!

That’s... uh, a cautionary tale. How long were you working at Strawberry?

I was there from ‘88 to ’90; just two years. Then I went to a place that used to be called Pennine Sound, which was now Mirage Studios. I continued working with Hannett and Nagle on sessions there. Then I went and did four years at The Windings, a residential studio in Wales. I’d come back and freelance at Suite 16, which was co-owned by New Order. I’d freelance helping set up tech for New Order. The Factory Records lot all knew each other. Tony Wilson was somebody I’d known since I was a kid. That whole clan was very close, and they hung out together in Manchester. Characters were wandering in and out of Strawberry. Lots of people you’d see coming over for a day here and there, finishing off projects with Martin or Chris. Other people passed through as well; loads of other producers and engineers. Ian Broudie and Andrew Weatherall worked out of there. I worked with 808 State. I worked both at Strawberry and in different studios with people like that. We became friends.

How did you get the gig in Wales at The Windings?

The Charlatans. I worked on “Indian Rope.” I knew the lads, and I brought The Charlatans into Strawberry and hooked them up with Chris Nagle. I got them my “studio discount,” because it would be my first assistant engineer job, as I’d only been at Strawberry a very short time. Then, when they came to do the album Some Friendly, I presumed that Chris and I would be working on it. But I was at Mirage by then. They came and looked around but opted to go to The Windings with Chris, so I headed to Wales to see them all.

That ended up becoming a job, working down there?

Yeah, I went down there initially to see how the record was going and to hang out. Then I decided, “I’d like to stay down here.” They offered me a job; I was down there for years. They knew that I knew all the other bands as well. I brought the Inspiral Carpets into The Windings. Colin Richardson had also trained under Martin Hannett in the Happy Mondays days. He brought loads of metal bands in there, like Napalm Death, Fear Factory, and Carcass. I’d be doing an indie rock session – Inspiral Carpets, The Fall, James, and The Charlatans – and then going into Colin Richardson’s death metal sessions. He did two Napalm Death albums there.

Legendary.

Lovely lads; but not the kind of thing I’d sit down, have a glass of wine, and listen to a bit of Napalm Death.

Julie McLarnon
Analogue Catalogue | Tape Machine + Control Room

How did you decide to open a studio in 2015 that was fully based in analog recording?

I’ve been recording for 30 years. It was actually back in the late ‘90s, when everybody was throwing out tape machines, that I sat down and tried to get my head around [Emagic, now Apple] Logic and [Digidesign, now Avid] Pro Tools. It made me want to give up, because I’m not a data entry-type person. I felt it was using a part of my brain that was stopping the rest of my brain from doing the actual job of listening. I struggled with it and kept using tape. Then I set up a full Analogue Catalogue Studio in the early 2000s, in Manchester. Then I hoicked the whole studio in container vans and brought it over to Northern Ireland in 2014. I was already a so-called Luddite. I’d recorded The Vaselines album [Sex with an X] and the Jeffrey Lewis album [A Turn in the Dream-Songs] whilst it was in Manchester. When I came here, I felt that not only could I not subscribe to the digital thing, I also felt that I missed my years of working in residential [studios], like Monnow Valley Studios, Rockfield Studios [see review of the recent documentary this issue -ed.], and The Windings. I missed that creativity of living with the band in the middle of nowhere, everyone having the anxiety levels of riding that emotional roller coaster of trying to capture the magic to tape, as well as hoping that everybody got it right together at the same time. I love the “all together now” aspect.

When I do sessions on tape, even if I’m going to dump them over to Pro Tools where I could edit, people still go, “We’d better get this take down properly.”

You just need to tell them the price of tape, and that there are only 32 minutes on a reel if you’re running at 15 ips [inches per second]! That’s enough to put a boot up their ass. That decision-making that you have to make, where you do a take and you’re thinking, “There are only two minutes left on this reel. Do we rewind and go over that one?” I don’t think they’ll make themselves do that, leave that comfort zone and push themselves that hard, if they’ve got, “Oh, yeah; we’ll keep that one, and the next one, and the next 20 takes.”

Are you finding there are clients who push back against using tape? Like, “That’s great and all, but we want to use a computer”?

There have been, over the years. It’s coming back around. That’s why I did the film as well, to articulate why I’m still here recording to tape. I didn’t want to be seen as some old person who hasn’t got a reason for this, like they don’t know how to use the telephone. I do know how to use a computer, but I don’t know how to effectively use a computer for recording and listen the way that I can listen when I’m not using the computer.

Right.

My hands have been operating the Otari MTR-90’s controls for so long that it feels like driving a car. I don’t think; I just do it. It means that my brain is free to think about the music. When I started questioning myself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I still doing this? How can I justify this to others?” is when I started to look so deep into it that I’m now pretty good at justifying what I’m doing.

You’re going to get better results for the client, because you’re listening deeper.

Yeah. It’s a combination: I’m fully listening. Not using my eyes. And there’s no such thing as latency. Also, and very, very importantly, the pressure is on the artists to deliver it. That adrenaline rush that they get. This building is designed so that everybody can see each other. We can put amps in rooms. A drummer can have a massive “John Bonham” sound, with a bassist and a guitarist with them all the way up. They feel it. They don’t feel like they’re trying to fake it in a booth. You can feel that in the performances. I get those moments when I think that the pressure and expense of tape, and the inability to keep all the takes, has piled on and has done a good thing. It does good more often than it makes people snap under the tension.

Julie McLarnon

Right. What about the cost of tape? It’s $345 [USD] per reel over here.

I’m on the RecordingTheMasters SM911. It’s coming in at just under 300 euros, or about 260 pounds a reel. I can use it maybe three times. I tend to hire [rent] it to them to take the sting out of it for the session. I’ll divide the cost of a reel by three, and, at cost, hire it to the client. The average tape cost is just an extra 200 quid on the end of the invoice, which is perfectly acceptable. It removed that argument of, “I can’t afford 1,000 pounds for three reels of tape.” You know, because you record to tape as well, you session plan like hell to analogue. You make sure what songs we’re doing, “Do they all fit on this reel? Don’t leave me with 20 seconds short on this reel!”

Right. I used to rent tapes to people. I’d say, “I’ll hold on to this tape for two months.” I’d always get a call the day after that expired, asking, “Can we remix it?” Does this happen to you?

I hold on to them for a long, long time.

I see the stack behind you.

Yeah. I have two other rooms like that as well. I have a JoeCo BLACKBox recorder and all the looms [cables]; as soon as a session’s finished, I get my assistant to archive it all to a USB and give it to them. Even if I’m recording to tape and I am going to mix back off tape, I give them the mono WAVs. That way they’ll have the raw files.

On the other hand, it puts another factor back in that says, “Let’s commit to these mixes that we’re doing off the analog reel. Let’s get this right now.”

Yeah. Probably only about 40 percent of my clients are happy to mix in analogue, with no recall, and go with those mixes. Many, 60 percent probably, do all their tracking in analogue, but then they take it away to mix it in Pro Tools, or have somebody else mix it. Maybe they might do a bit of tinkering, but a lot of it is mixed very, very quickly from the WAVs.

Julie McLarnon

When you’re committing and setting it up this way, you’re also putting down tracks that all work. They don’t need to be tinkered with.

I was taught to tidy up. My training at Strawberry Studios was a combination of 10cc’s very strict studio protocols, and that studio was also used by the BBC. I eat my lunch over the tape machine remote control, because when everybody else breaks I’ve got to remove that breath or that false start on the drums. I tidy up all the time.

Erasing little bits of tracks where they don’t need to be in there?

Yeah. I do vocal submixes and bounces all the time. One of the best jobs I ever did was when I bought Trevor Horn’s [Tape Op #89] machine from SARM West [Studios]. Then Trevor had my tech guy transfer all the tapes, so we got to transfer all of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood and classic Trevor Horn mixes. Getting to look at his multis, and how much submixing had gone on, was like, “Whoa!” We got the multitracks up and we put [the faders] to 0, and that was the mix. Everything was submixed to tape. It was gorgeous. I was listening to that multitrack and there were honestly tears in my eyes. It was just, “I’ll never be this good.” Comping’s great, though. I do comping of keyboard parts, string parts, and then I print the EMT reverb and print delays. I’ll comp the strings and any printed effects with it. It makes mixing very simple.

If I had a band and came to you to record, how much pre-production would you do?

I need at least a day. That’s the beauty of being residential. I tend to say I’m not charging for preproduction if I’m tracking and producing. I tell them to turn up the day beforehand. I want to go over the songs, tune the kit and the toms to the different songs, check the BPMs on songs, and check all the amps for any buzzes or earthing issues. I’m pretty thorough on the gear. I’ll talk to them in advance about whether I want them to change strings a few days earlier. I’m quite persnickety on drums and cymbals being in pitch. If it can’t happen, the beauty of tape is you move [varispeed] the tape to make the cymbal in tune with the song, and then play in that speed.

No way! I’ve never done that. I can’t believe this.

I do it a lot. I often make the drummer play a cymbal-free pass. I’ll either cloth up the cymbals, if they have to go through the body motion of hitting, or if they can do it without. Some drummers cannot go there. I get the shell take, and then go through and do the cymbal take. In doing the cymbal take, I’ll make sure that those cymbals are in tune with the song. If they’re not, then they’ll have to do the cymbal take at a different speed, to edge them in. Unless they’ve got a selection of cymbals. But often a drummer will turn up, and they want to play this particular cymbal, but they haven’t really thought that it’s jarring with the pitch of the tune.

That’s totally a Jeff Lynne [Tape Op #92] approach. Have you heard of him doing that?

I haven’t, but that’s because I’m not massive on reading about everybody else’s approach. These are techniques that I luckily got taught, because I was working at 10cc Studios with Martin Hannett, so it became the norm.

With your studio being remote, do you have a lot of extra instruments?

Yeah, I do. I have some rare instruments that I know sound beautiful, like my Wal bass, my Rickenbacker guitar, [Gibson] SG guitar, and some beautiful amps. I actually have a [rare] handmade Peterson [Guitar Special P100G] amp, and then I have Barney [Bernard Sumner] from New Order’s Yamaha [G100-210] amp, which now lives in its retirement out here. It sounds like a Fender Twin. I have loads of analogue keyboards: Fender Rhodes, Hammond, harmoniums, and all sorts of weird instruments.

It’s residential. How many people can you put up out there?

At this moment in time, it sleeps six. But within two months it’ll sleep ten, at least. There’s a little gatehouse to the property that’s been derelict for years that will be ready. The roof’s on and heating’s in. We’re fitting out the kitchen and decorating, so that’ll be out in May/June time [2021].

You’re between Belfast and Dublin. How did you decide on the location?

It’s where my family are from. I’ll never lose the Manchester accent, but my parents are from here, near the border. Most of my family still lives in and around these parts. Having worked for years in this kind of environment at The Windings, I saw bands come in with half an album, or a fully-formed crap album, that went out a great album, because they wrote the thing that made it good in the studio. I saw that happen more often than not. All the albums that came in and out, they got better and better in that environment. I felt it was something that shouldn’t be gone. Bands not having that opportunity; it’s not fair. So, I found a cheap property in Northern Ireland and built a mini-Rockfield.

Are you able to keep the rates so that independent bands are able to afford it?

Yeah, absolutely. I keep the rates with accommodation around 300 pounds a day, without an engineer. It’s in line with the nearby Pro Tools-y equivalents, and cheaper than London. People should get out of their bedroom and try that experience of tracking an album over at least a week or so, instead of doing as much as they can very cheaply on their own and then blasting into a studio for a few days here and there. When we were out in Wales, the average booking was for two to four weeks, just to track bass, drums, and guitars for an album. They had time to think about it, get the sounds right, and lock it together. When you take the time to do that, you can hear it in the records, as opposed to saying, “I got eight bars right, so you loop the rest.”

You get away from distractions.

Yeah, absolutely. There’s no noise. The neighbors have got four legs and a tail. We can open the doors and windows and play drums until 2 a.m. You can feel that in the music, that people have got that freedom to blast it until it’s right.

Do you personally live on the property?

Yeah. I live in the main house. The studio is built into a 200-year-old mill. There are four buildings here: There’s the house that I live in with my kids, and then there’s the studio building, then there’s the gatehouse which we’re adding in, and then there’s another building that I haven’t even attempted to do anything with, which is also 2,000 square feet. It’s got lots of outbuildings, and all the buildings are made of solid granite, so they’re sturdy. The sound doesn’t go anywhere.

Who else helps you run the place?

I have my assistant. I might have somebody come help me clean, but I don’t have a huge staff. If guest engineers are coming in with a session, my assistant and/or me will help them set up and then leave them to it. My kids have been raised in a recording studio. They’re 14, 13, and 10 now, and they’re totally used to running errands for me, like, “Go and drop these things into the studio for me.”

Julie McLarnon
Analogue Catalogue | Sunny Live Room

What about tape deck maintenance?

I have allocated time when we do all maintenance. We pile up the “bug list” over a five to six month period, and then have on the calendar X amount of days. The tape guy is the guy I was talking about when doing the Trevor Horn transfers. Andy Popplewell has been my maintenance man for over 25 years; I met him at The Windings. He comes, lives here, fixes everything, and then goes back to Manchester.

For someone who’s never owned multiple professional tape decks, it’s hard to explain to them what can go wrong.

I’ve grown up with tape machines. I can see if something’s gonna go wrong. I’ve only lost a day of something going wrong that I couldn’t fix. Today one of the audio cards decided it wasn’t fully erasing, but I have spare audio cards and I swapped it out and carried on. Nobody noticed. The [Otari] MTR-90 is all swappable. I can fix most things. Anything that I can’t fix, I’ll call Andy out.

Julie McLarnon

Looking back, you’ve been working in a very male dominated field for years.

Yeah. In hindsight, I can say that I am lucky that I was blissfully unaware of the lack of females, because I did get that job. My best friend is still the receptionist from Strawberry Studios. His name is Adam Rockingham. That was the beauty of Strawberry. The manager there was a female, Caroline Elleray (now Head of A&R for Universal Publishing), she took me on. Before me, there had been a female assistant engineer there as well, and there was a male receptionist. I hadn’t realized that wasn’t that way in other studios. I did manage to get through all my studio career without any #metoo moments or dangerous situations. What did make me realize that it was not an even playing field, or not a 50-50 thing, was my credits. It took me a long time, until I was probably about 40, to learn to fight for my credits. I didn’t realize that men presumed that they did everything. If I don’t go in there like a man and go, “Hey, I did this, and don’t you forget that,” they’ll go, “Well, that was an easy fight,” and take it. I’ve learned over the years to make sure that people credit me for what I’ve done and to watch out for my own credits. But it is turning now. There are plenty of people who do want to turn it around and say, “Oh, yeah. I absolutely do want to put down that a female recorded this.”

I hope we’re looking at a new era. Were people able to come in and work at your studio in 2020?

We worked through June, July, and August on and off, and then we worked right up until December, but then the wave hit and we shut through the Christmas period until March. But there’s a backlog of work now. I’ve done three records in three weeks. I’ve had both COVID and the vaccine.

How did you get it?

I went back to Manchester to see my mother and then I caught it looking after her. I wouldn’t have picked it up in Ireland. There’s a sense of relief though when you’ve had it. I still don’t have my sense of taste or smell properly. But at least I’m out the other side where I’m not feeling, “Oh, I might die of this if I get it tomorrow.”

That’s been my fear. I spent the last 15 years building up a lot of remote mixing clients. That got me through.

Yeah. I don’t have a mix setup, really, so I can’t fall back on that. I personally don’t operate Pro Tools at all. I can’t do recalls. It’s all about recordings.

I wanted to talk about The Psychology of Analogue film that you and Myles O’Reilly did. You talked more in it about your sense of hearing expanding when you were young and in the hospital.

The amount of scientific research that’s going into the way the next generation’s brains are developing, so highly data processing and everything is visual. Are we losing a lot of our ears? Changing the way those connections between the way your ears develop. But the thing that needs to be remembered is that your hearing is the first sense that you get. When you’re in the womb, it’s the first sense that you get. You hear muffled lower mids. That’s what’s comforting, like train or engine noise. That rumbling lower mids are naturally going to the core of our brain and making us relax. The high-pitched squeals, which you never heard when you were in utero, they cause you extreme anxiety.

Julie McLarnon

I hate the word “warm” for audio, but I like to make mixes more inviting and less shrill.

Yeah. And the more that you put in there, the more the listener will want to return. That is what draws them in. Even when recording started, the crooners – Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley – those are the frequencies that are your comfort food. You might not be able to write an essay about audio frequencies that make me happy, but I can, and I can tell you, that’s what it is!

I’m always looking for the tonal balance and emotional tones.

That’s why I wanted to highlight that people should question the medical aspect of doing this to people. Listening to those high end frequencies all the time, it’s alright getting excited, but what about if it’s causing release of cortisone into you all the time and causing medical problems? People go for sound baths. People go and listen to bells. People do humming and yoga. And Tibetan monks; it’s those in utero hums that they’re listening to.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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