It was a little less than 12 months ago I first met engineer and producer John Hugo in the shell of what would become his space at Electric Beach studios which he shares with Ash Workman. We returned to sunny Margate in Kent to find out how the build has progressed.
J: I can’t believe it’s been a year since we were sat here in the sand, sipping a beer. So tell me about from the ground up from the sand on the floor, where did you go next?
JH: The biggest nightmare of the whole build was the floor! The sand was laid out but it was so hard to compact it in a level way. then on top of that went this rock wool acoustic floor insulation, which was the itchiest, nasty stuff I’ve ever worked with and I was crawling around on the floor for two days to get it down, levelling in one place then realising everywhere else was dipped! Nightmare! Crawling around in this itchy stuff, it was awful. Then on top of the rockwool is 22mm chipboard and then the wood floor. It came out good in the end.
J: It’s good, it doesn't feel like there is any vibration at all or any ring back.JH: It came out well but I wouldn't do it like that again. But you know, you learn.
J: So obviously, there is a fair bit more ‘wall’ that's gone in. When we see studios you're never quite sure how much acoustic treatment has gone in. How much do you reckon you've lost in width?
JH: Almost nothing! these walls were just skimmed, then there's a layer of rock wall behind these two panels, so that's very little actually. I still have bass problems like real sub problems in the rest of the room but the sweet spot is good, it's a bit boomy in the back.
J: So you got the producer sofa in the back there?
JH: Yeah sometimes the artist will sit there and say ‘Yeah it sounds amazing, so much bass!’. Apart from Ash (Workman) who is like ‘Can you turn the bass down?’
You know, I could have done with about 3 or 4 times as much treatment, but I just put in as much as I could, I think it’s about 40cm of hanging baffles in the whole ceiling, there are 90 panels that are hung here, above the fabric. There are 5 layers of hanging baffles in all the corners, 3 layers up there, two layers of hanging baffles in the doors. The Eve speakers were originally soffit mounted, which sounded awful.
JI: I remember seeing photos on your Facebook of the Eves built in.
JH: Yes I spent a week building the mounts, but it just didn't sound good.
J: That's the whole point, if it sounds good, keep it, but if it doesn't …
JH: It's not that much treatment, I see how Ash (Workman) is building his studio and how much treatment he's put in and he's showed me the inspiration he's had for his studio in terms of how much treatment and there's a shit load more that's gone in, but you know, its totally fine in here.
J: It’s quiet! Certainly for a semi-industrial area?
JH: You hear it because I haven't decoupled my floor properly like on the rubber pads. If they drop something really heavy on the floor next door I can hear it. When they used their lift also, there is a very low hum. It might be picked up on a vocal but it's of a frequency that would be filtered out anyway. There's been a couple of times when they actually bang something into the wall, I can hear that. But these are super rare occurrences and they are so rare that they never really happen at the wrong time.
J: Its funny, you say about the corner traps, when we came last year, I didn't realise that there were plans for a door and an isolation space.
JH: No, there wasn’t. When I came down to start on the acoustic build properly, because it wasn't planned fully when it came to the build of the actual building (which I should have done), the dimensions just weren't quite right and the more I tried out the room with a little bit of treatment and just experimented with it and testing it I realised I would have to either have a seating position very far into the room which I would lose a lot of space or put a dividing wall in. So we put the wall in and made the doors massive and put bass traps into them so that they can still be open and feel like the open plan space that I wanted to have.
J: And you've still got space for a drum kit!
JH: Yeah, the only thing is when the kit is in, the doors don't close so you have to make a decision! But I haven't closed those doors once since I build them. and its been fine, I don't really mix and even when I do, even my rough mixes sound 10x better than they did before.
J: Yeah it’s one of those, it doesn't matter what gear you're using, its the space. If you're using a pair of m-audio speakers and a pair of eves, if it sounds good on the m-audios and good on the eves, it's going to translate into the real world because the room sounds good.
JH: Exactly, I think if I ever build another studio, there are things I would do slightly differently but mainly that's because I would save myself time and money and effort and just be a bit smarter with it.
J: So what would you change?
JH: I would have gone wider
J: Did you have the option to go much wider within the constraints of the building shell?
JH: Yes and no, Ash’s studio size was set in stone from the beginning, what we could have done is build all the way up so we didn't have an alley between us. and initially we were thinking about that because we started before him and he had to raise all his walls anyway, his build has a raised wall up against mine, but it would have been a lot harder and the build would have become complicated, but if I had a different space I would make it a bit wider just to get more treatment in and give it more width. This is totally fine but when there's five people in here with instruments and stuff, cableseverywhere its sometimes a bit much.
J: Yes but you've still got that vibe of a really cool space. It doesn't feel like a studio, and I know you weren't going for that, but in Ash’s studio, even though it isn't finished, it looks and feels like a recording studio whereas in here it feels like your living room which is actually really nice because some of the best music is made in peoples living rooms.
JH: Exactly, I just wanted to create a super easy going vibe, to make everyone feel relaxed and chilled and then you throw some music in there with it.
J: I’m seeing these file/card draws around, I really want some wooden ones for my studio but they're like five times the price! I'm loving the idea of having everything around.
JH: It’s almost done, and I've been working in here for some months now, but I kind of like the little details that aren't quite finished because I'm sure there will come a time in 6 months when I'm bored of music again and I can go in and sort things out.
J: I love the print on the ceiling. That’s very cool!
JH: Yeah, I’m really happy with how that came out, a really cool seaside theme.
J: Is that something you've found or acquired or a local artist?
JH: No actually it's from some old Swedish nature books. It's something I've used before for visuals for the very best show. I'm shocked at how straight I managed to get the fabric!
J: The whole place has got a really lovely vibe, down to the retro lamps and the greenery, I love it.
JH: All the furniture in here used to be our living room furniture, and when we moved it all to the studio, we had no furniture at home for months so my wife would just come and hang out here and work! It's easy to move some furniture around so you can get more people in here comfortably.
J: You still have space outside to use too which is handy.
JH: Yeah it’s a little difficult with the build still going on though. Once Ash is done with his build I'm building stairs in the alley between us and I'm building a big patio on top of my studio where I can store things and it can be a little hangout area. I'd like to put a drum kit up there, and possibly get a really cool drum sound. It’s a big space, it’s worth a try!
I've been working with 5 girls in a harmony group, we do a lot of film trailer stuff together. I mean I do use a lot of samples and stuff, but mainly from my own libraries. For a good 20 years, I've been building up samples. Some friends of mine do a Swedish podcast, and they have just released a sample library, it’s something I'm thinking about doing together with them.
J: I guess you must have many hard drives full of samples.
JH: Yeah, I've got a lot. It's rare that I go to something that isn't my personal library. I like to constantly update my own library.
J: The sound in here is really good. The bottom end is very full but not overpowering.
JH: The bottom end is great, I think it has a lot to do with the Eve's as well. I am so happy with them. The sweet spot is good, bass heavy but I like bass so that's perfect. There’s a clarity in here that I really like, I've never really had a particularly good space before this so anything was going to be a massive improvement and I think this came out a lot better than I ever expected.
J: So you're now officially part of the Margate massive, the whole worlds moving down here!
JH: They are, have you heard about Pete Doherty and Carl Barat? they bought a hotel down here, and they're building a massive recording studio at the back of it, the planning was approved a few weeks ago. Up in Cliftonville, around 25 rooms with a bar, live venue and recording studio!
J: The music world is moving to Margate!
JH: We are extremely lucky to have found this warehouse when we did. The only regret is that we didn't manage to buy it. The owner bought it a month before we took it on for £60,000! We offered him £100,000 for it and he said no, obviously! He did a good investment. Ash has bought a unit 3 doors down as production rooms. We were looking to get that unit initially but it has a mezzanine in it so the ceiling was too low for us.
J: Property here is so cheap, but it has gone up a lot.
JH: It has gone up a lot. Our little house that we bought two years ago has gone up £80,000! But it’s still cheap in comparison to London. There's still a few years left in the property bubble.
J: I hope the Margate bubble doesn't burst for a little while. Because you've got management people, you've got record label people, producers, engineers, creatives, who wouldn't want to come down here from London for a couple of days?
JH: I find that every artist that come here has been super excited to come and loved to work here. For me, what is special about Margate is there is this big creative community but I lived in Hackney and Clapton where there were big creative communities there as well and when we left for here, they were dying out because people couldn't afford to stay. Down here I don't know anyone that's renting, everybody has managed to buy, so everyone has locked themselves into this place so whether this hype around Margate dies or not, these people are here and they have their houses. It doesn't matter if this Shoreditch-On-Sea hype disappears, nobody really cares about that anyway. We managed to buy houses and set ourselves up, in a place that we love being in with a lot of other people.
J: And you've got a great beach, who doesn't love the fresh sea air?
JH: Exactly, and it’s close to London! An hour and a half on the train. There are so many places here. When I used to live in Hackney Wick and it would take me a lot longer to get to a studio to work. The only thing here is airports, they are quite far.
J: I suspect when you're doing the travelling thing on tour, you're out for months at a time.
JH: I have a few projects that take me here and there.
J: Is there a plan to do another “The Very Best” album.
JH: Yeah there will be a “Very Best” record, I'm sure me and Baba Maal will start working on something. I mean who knows? He might want to work with someone else!
J: Will that be a collaborative thing as in a long distance thing? Will he come here or will you go to Senegal?
JH: When I work with Baba we always work together we've never done anything long distance. Were either in England or in Senegal. His record was done half at my place in London and half in his house in Senegal. But we're not really talking about that, I reckon he won't make another record for a good year or so. The Very Best should really make a record next year.
I've had this idea for the next Very Best album, I’d like to go really remote into Malawi with Tesla batteries and solar panels and set up a safari tent and build a compound for a month.
J: Tesla would love that I’m sure.
JH: I've got a friend in LA, he runs a news company called Riot. He said as soon as I'm ready and have a plan, he will do the pitch. That's how I’d like to make the next record, to make it a bit difficult for ourselves.
J: Like making a record isn't difficult enough? Would you like to finish it back at the studio or complete it all out there?
JH: I would like to get everything done out there. In an ideal situation, we’d have a Tesla out there that can drive the 5 hours to our base and go to the airport to get artists over etc. I'd like to do everything. Give it a month, get a few creative people that I'd like to work with and whoever else fancies doing it, then just come home and mix.
J: I am available for that one!
JH: We did the last Very Best record which was the most pleasurable recording experience I've ever had. The house we rented was an amazing massive mansion on the beach on Lake Malawi, far away from the capital, but it still had some stuff around. So it wasn't isolated, we stayed out there for like 2 and a half months, no internet, the phone barely worked, just the most beautiful place ever. A very relaxed environment to work in and we got so much done. That's kind of a bit of the philosophy behind Margate and my studio here, it’s close to the beach and you get taken away from the feeling of how it used to feel when I worked in London. When you're working with an artist for 10 hours, 7 days a week, you barely have a break because everybody is on the clock and there's so much you have to get done because someone is expecting you to have a song delivered in 2 days. I wanted to get away from that. It's nice to have artists here and when everyone is a bit fed up its like, shall we just go to the beach?
J: I find when you give yourself a break for an hour, you end up feeling ready to get back into it because your brain has had time to decompress.
JH: Financially, moving down here has allowed me to work on the projects that I really want to work on, and it have become really fun again.
J: If you’re doing this for the money you're doing it for the wrong reasons, we do music because it’s fun.
JH: It definitely needs to be fun. The last few years working in London, it started to become a job that I didn't really like. For me moving down here and being able to do all this is life changing, completely. It’s the best thing we ever did.
Thanks to Johan for his time and for showing us around his space. You can watch the video we shot with Johan back in November 2016 below.