Quietish achievers

Tex Houston in his Dunedin home studio. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Tex Houston in his Dunedin home studio. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Dale Cotton, engineer, musician and long-time student of album liner notes. Photo by Stella Rehua...
Dale Cotton, engineer, musician and long-time student of album liner notes. Photo by Stella Rehua Austin.
Paul Sammes (seated) works on a song with Dunedin musician Jacob Ambrose, aka Ronnie Stash. Photo...
Paul Sammes (seated) works on a song with Dunedin musician Jacob Ambrose, aka Ronnie Stash. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Sound engineer Michael Holland in the University of Otago Albany St studio. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Sound engineer Michael Holland in the University of Otago Albany St studio. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Live sound engineer Iain Sweetman at Sammy's. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Live sound engineer Iain Sweetman at Sammy's. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.

Amid talk of a new golden age of Dunedin music, there are some who have gone under the radar. They are the city's sound engineers and producers, whose ears and expertise augment all those chord combinations, writes Shane Gilchrist.

There it is in black and white (with a few red highlights), a list of the media coverage accorded The Chills in the wake of the Dunedin band's recent album, Silver Bullets.

By the start of this month, the Martin Phillipps-led outfit had attracted no fewer than 400 positive articles, spread across 26 countries.

Such publicity offers a focus wider than the group itself, shining a light on a Dunedin music scene in rosy health, according to various industry types, including those who document its pulse from afar (e.g., United States label Ba Da Bing Records, which recently picked up Kane Strang's debut album Blue Cheese; or Uncut, Billboard and The Observer's praise for Port Chalmers singer-songwriter Nadia Reid's recent album, Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs).

Those who operate within Dunedin's varied musical paradigms agree; there are no small number of good acts out there, be they fingerpicking folkies, angsty alt-rockers, or ethereal electro-pop kids, the list goes on.

Yet in all this celebration of creative spark, there has been little mention of the expertise that adds muscle to the bones of much of this music.

Occasionally acknowledged (usually in the liner notes of albums), typically obliging, the sound engineers and producers at the mixing consoles of recording facilities and venues around Dunedin could be likened to a good bass-line: felt rather than overtly acknowledged, they are nonetheless often intrinsic to the success of a song.

Dale Cotton, a recording and live engineer, a mixing and mastering guru whose adventures in sound are intertwined with the output of a range of groups, perhaps sums up the collective spirit as well as anyone: "I'm driven by a combination of needing and/or wanting a sense of place, specifically, in the river that is New Zealand culture.

"It's also about twiddling shiny knobs that make lights flash and build things up and break them down again.''

Cotton recalls his early teenage years in Christchurch were often spent shut away in his bedroom.

When he wasn't eating cereal or playing games on his ZX Spectrum computer, he would pore over the liner notes of albums, taking in the small print: "engineered by ...'', "produced by ...''.

"I guess I didn't really know it at first, but I was liking records not just because of the songs, but also because of the way they sounded. I started collecting albums because of who made them, rather than who wrote them.''

Fast-forward a few decades and Cotton's expert ears have been sought by a diverse range of artists, from Shayne Carter's now defunct Dimmer, to Wellington heavy rock juggernaut Beastwars, to Dunedin folkish act Delgirl and sonic adventurers HDU.

"It was at the Empire where I saw HDU's first-ever gig supporting a band I was playing drums in, Age Of Dog. I asked them on the spot to come over and record,'' Cotton recalls.

"The first thing we did was, yes, a cassette EP. I think they paid us $50 and a crate of beer. The studio was called Broken Ear after the Tintin book. Our ad in Critic read, 'Broken Ear Recording Studio - bad equipment, inept engineers, cheap rates'.''

• Tex Houston describes himself as a bit of an electronic nerd.

Yet he's also a pragmatist.

Having bought his first PA system as a teenager, doing the sound for bands enabled him, firstly, to pay off the loan and, secondly, to learn on the job.

"After a few years I started recording local bands. When Stephen Kilroy asked me to be his partner at Fish St Studios [the now defunct facility on Dunedin's waterfront], we bought a 16-track recorder that used half-inch tape and a 24-channel mixing desk. I recorded many great Flying Nun bands at Fish St in the late '80s and '90s.''

The list of acts with which Houston has worked is long. Seminal Dunedin acts The Clean, The Chills, Look Blue Go Purple, The Verlaines and 3Ds; Christchurch's The Subliminals and Loves Ugly Children and North Islanders The Able Tasmans.

In more recent years, he has recorded The Haints of Dean Hall, Haunted Love, David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights (including the recent Sam Hunt collaboration, The 9th), Tono and the Finance Company, The Shifting Sands, Trick Mammoth, Two Cartoons, and Males, among others.

"In the last month I've been doing some more recording with David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights and mixing an album with [Dunedin folk-pop outfit] Grawlixes.''

These days, Houston works from his home studio in one of Dunedin's hillside suburbs, where he has gathered a collection of recording equipment both old and more recent.

Regardless of technology, he says he tries not to interfere "too much'' with what a band or artist is attempting to achieve.

"I'm more into realising the vision of the songwriter and band and giving them room to be creative. Having said that, I will say when I think something could be better or if I have an idea or suggestion.

"My main motivation is the satisfaction in making albums that sound good, that the band is proud of and that stand the test of time.''

• Paul Sammes' house is not far from Houston's.

Sitting proudly on the corner of a street, its wooden weatherboards hide a treasure trove of technological wizardry, much of which Sammes packed into a shipping container when he returned to Dunedin in 2010, having lived overseas since the mid-'90s.

A tech-geek's dream, the top floor of Samme's home (his business is called arthousemedia) is brimful of state-of-the-art digital recording equipment, amassed over a career that spans three decades and includes studio work in Australia, Asia and the US, lecturing at the Australian Institute of Music, marketing for industry giant Digidesign, as well as film post-production and sound design.

"Most of my time now is predominantly as a mastering engineer,'' Sammes explains.

"I produce stuff for local bands, but also do fly-ins from Australian and American artists and some film post-production work, including voice-overs.''

His list of clients ranges from pop, rock, electronic and folk acts, to a Samoan choir and Christian groups.

This week, he has been working on a contemporary country album with Dunedin performers Bevan Gardiner and Georgie Daniel.

Having played in a range of Dunedin bands, Sammes understands most of those involved in music in the city are not the "most well-financed''.

For many, it is a hobby as opposed to a career.

"So for New Zealand Music Month last year, I did a deal where I scaled my hourly rate to the earnings of the person doing the recording. So if a person was on minimum wage, I'd work for the same. I did that because you always get accused of ripping people off.

"The thing is, equipment costs money. I have a million dollars worth of gear here; some of my microphones cost $5000 each. I have a lot of money invested in it.''

Sammes acknowledges there is a strong DIY ethic among Dunedin musicians who, like their peers around the world, have been able to access relatively inexpensive recording equipment, including the rise of computer-based platforms.

Yet, such technological empowerment does not necessarily equate to quality, he says.

"Sure you can record stuff on your laptop using Garageband - and people have made good recordings this way - but if you want to compete with others ... it's like driving a Mini and hoping you'll win a Formula 1 race.''

• Michael Holland is not unlike many people involved in music in Dunedin.

He does a bunch of different things to help pay the bills, from freelance studio and live sound work to teaching the University of Otago's music production courses.

"As a good friend of mine said, ‘people don't get jobs in music, they make them'. I think that's especially true of anything to do with music in Dunedin.''

A professional practice fellow in the university's music department, Holland got involved in audio production through playing in bands.

He was the person who plugged everything in (every group needs one).

"I guess it grew from there. My first show mixing in a proper venue was with [Dunedin group] Left or Right at Backstage, about 10 years ago. I'm still touring with them, so it can't have been too terrible.

"I'm pretty thankful that I had the opportunity to kind of stumble about in the dark for a while before anyone heard much of what I'd worked on.''

Holland, whose production credits include recent releases by The Julian Temple Band, Ha the Unclear, Left or Right and Brown and Summer Thieves, might have written a range of academic articles on aspects of music production as well as presented at conferences, yet much of what he does boils down to one key factor: enjoyment.

"I really love studio work, especially in the recording phase. Being part of a creative endeavour is always fun, and there's always an opportunity to experiment and, hopefully, learn something about yourself, the band and the nature of things.''


Sounds good

Be it in a dark bar deep into the night, or an outdoor concert held rain or shine, Iain Sweetman loves both the music and the challenges that come with live sound engineering.

He says it's his hobby, the equivalent of owning a boat, albeit an expensive one.

"For what I have spent on music equipment, I could have bought a house,'' says Sweetman, who moved from the United Kingdom to Dunedin nine years ago.

"Instead, I rent a bedsit in the middle of nowhere. I've spent more than $200,000. I could spend more, but I'm pretty happy with what I have.

"Keeping a truck on the road is a major expense, too,'' the University of Otago School of Medicine technician says.

"If I didn't do this, I'd lose an important part of my life. I couldn't live without it.

"I do as much as I can to keep the cost down for bands. It's not about the money for me.''

David Craig, a sound engineer with Strawberry Sound for the past eight years, says the company also tries to help local musicians.

"We do a lot for supporting music and arts events. We understand it's not cheap.''

He also believes performers and audiences alike have certain expectations in regards sound quality.

"People are getting used to working with bigger and better sound systems.

"It's not a case of people cobbling together a couple of speakers to make a racket; people want good sound.

"There are good engineers mixing shows so everyone is getting exposed to a higher standard.''


What comes out in the mix

Dunedin band The Broken Heartbreakers recently had one of its songs tweaked in an initiative organised by respected British recording magazine Sound On Sound, the result shedding light on the importance of the production process in realising creative potential.

The track in question is Breaking Branches, from off the group's recent independently released album, How We Got To Now.

Recorded by Auckland soundman Mike Stoodley at drummer Jeff Harford's Dunedin house last year, then subsequently mixed in a collaborative process involving songwriters Rachel Bailey and John Howell and Stoodley, the song was remixed by Sound On Sound producer Sam Inglis.

The result? Howell: "Sam's mix sounds 'professional' whereas ours sounds like a really really good demo.''

Stoodley: "The Breaking Branches mix that we did was [we thought] pretty good, and we were all very pleased with it, but I was interested in what a 'pro' would do given the same raw material.

"We were very lucky that Sam appeared to instantly 'get' the band and song vibe and so his mix was an enhancement of ours rather than a reconceptualisation.

"He made some key decisions that opened up the sound a lot more than what we were able to do.

"I think John summed up the difference rather nicely when he said, ‘I can imagine Sam's mix on the radio in a way that I can't imagine ours'.''

That was not to disparage their mix, of which they remain proud.

"I think Sam's mix is better because it has everything that ours has, plus some fairy dust, and most importantly, it passed the goosebump test.''


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