In the Studio with Sugar House: the excitement of working with new bands, Viola Beach and much more

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Ady Hall & Lee McCarthy – Sugar House

In the third of our In the Studio features, Getintothis’ Martin Summerfield talks to Ady Hall and Lee McCarthy, music producers who have worked with Viola Beach, Larkins, and Pale Waves.

As music fans, we sometimes forget the effort that goes into curating new bands and finding new sounds, and the tireless work that goes into producing.

So, late last year, we sat down with Ady Hall and Lee McCarthy, producers under the name of Sugar House, located in Catalyst Studios, St Helens. We had an in-depth chat about their work as producers, the proliferation of bedroom editors, and helping new bands find their sound.

Getintothis: How did you get started in the music industry?

Ady: “When we started as Sugar House it was the end of 2008, the end of 2009 and Lee was producing bands on his own for a number of years we met each other and towards the end of that year we had the idea of making a production team. We started working in a few studios, and a studio where we still work now called Catalyst Studios.”

Getintothis: What made you want to branch out on your own? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?

Lee: “Well when I started out, I was recording and working in bands I wasn’t getting the kind of sounds that I wanted from other studios, so I decided that I could probably do it myself and learn to get the results that I wanted.

I think Ady was the same, he was recording his own projects and then it just came together that Ady was looking for a producer to work with, we found each other on MySpace either I’d advertised looking for artists or he advertised looking for producers.

We ended up working together initially with Ady as the customer and me as the producer, but we went on to work on a couple of projects where we were working together with Ady writing the songs and me producing and we just thought it was a good idea. It was better having two heads on the job than one.”

Getintothis: Cool. So you mentioned that Ady had done recording himself. What sort of stuff do you do yourself when you do your own music, Ady?

Ady: “Well that’s something that’s come to an end, really. I was just in a series of bands from my teens-late twenties. I was in a number of bands in different roles like drumming, singing, playing guitars and synth, but I think all that experience I had of being in bands song writing, and being in bands really helped me with production.

The way Sugar House works is we’ve always got involved and quite hands on in our approach with bands. We’ve got an understanding how things work from the drum and bass, we’re not afraid to get involved if something’s not right. Plus I think the experience of being in bands and not succeeding you probably learn more about what not to do than actually succeeding.”

Getintothis:  It’s like they say success is a poor teacher.

Ady: “Yeah, definitely. It just worked out better that way, we both started off with the idea of doing things ourselves, both being in bands and found out we were better at producing bands.

But I think all of that experience we had has been really valuable, it’s like when the bands come in with us they make all the same mistakes that everyone makes when they’re in bands. What you need really is someone with some experience to steer you in the right direction sometimes.

I think when we started as well that’s what we were looking for, but the other person behind the glass didn’t necessarily give a shit about what we were doing. We started with the idea of wanting to make proper records and not demos.

We probably had varying degrees of success with that when we started, because when you get started you’re trying to build up your reputation but to some degree you have to work with anybody you can just to get things going and earn a living but as we went on there were more and more bands that we wanted to work with and we had an opportunity to do something really good with.

But saying that, we learned a lot with working with the bands that weren’t as good because when you get presented with a track that’s kind of shit you’ve got a problem there, and it’s amazing the things you discover in terms of making a song good when it isn’t and making a player sound good when he can’t really play so we’ve learned all sorts of tricks to do it.

Obviously now we only want to work with bands we’re really really buzzed up about , and that’s something that’s grew over the years as the bigger our reputations got the more bands that have wanted to work with us.

Probably the last 3 or 4 years we’ve really noticed a difference in the numbers of bands getting on national radio and picking up labels and managers.

The two bands who we’re probably most known for at the minute are that we did the first couple of demos for the Pale Waves and they’re doing really well now, and we also worked with Viola Beach and I’m really proud of their tracks.

But there’s a number of bands at the minute, maybe 5-6 bands where they’re on the cusp of something, we don’t know how it’s going to pan out but there could be something on the cards for bands that we’ve worked with.”

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Getintothis: What do you look for in an artist when you’re fostering talent?

Lee: “It’s always a song. Is there a good song there? Then everything else comes into play.

What kind of sound does the band have? Is it current? Is it something that could be happening next? That always comes into it. If there’s no song there there’s no point really.”

Ady: “Yeah, I agree with that.”

Lee: “Sometimes a band has it all together with a sound but mightn’t necessarily know what to do with it, and that’s something that we’ve got involved with not as management but as development, helping them make the right decisions to find a path into the industry.

Artist development as well as production, to make sure they don’t sign anything they shouldn’t and make sure they present themselves the right way.”

Getintothis: As you said, from your own experience of both of you being in bands I’d imagine it’s quite an easy mistake to make signing contracts too soon, and easy pratfalls that a lot of bands must make when they start out.

Lee: “It happens so much where they sign with people who on initial conversation think it sounds so good and they regret it 6 months down the line.

It’s happened with me and Ady where we’ve both signed things that we shouldn’t have done and yeah you can just see it coming when you see the kinds of conversations they’re having with these people you see where it’s leading to and it’s probably not going to work out the way the band is hopeful for.”

Getintothis: Do you have a favourite band/artist you’ve worked with?

Lee: “That’s a tough one.”

Ady: “We’re usually like it’s always a case where we change the way we work all the time. It’s always evolving all the time. So it’s normally something we’ve been working on within 6 months that we like the most. There are tracks we’re fond of and we look back on, like we’re really proud of the stuff we did with Viola Beach.”

Viola Beach

Viola Beach

Lee: “We worked with Larkins – their two new tracks that we’ve just recently finished are really good. But there’s not really a favourite you have, it’s just what you’ve been working on at that time.”

Ady: “I think there’s a bunch of bands we hand pick for success but it’s really difficult to tell because sometimes we’ll finish a track or number of tracks with a band and we’ll be buzzed up about it and think “yeah, this track is going to do it”.

It’s funny because you never know what’s going to take and not going to take. I’d say at the moment I’d say probably Larkins,Glass Caves, and bands like Ravellas are all really exciting bands and we like the tracks we’re doing with them.

I think when you do a few tracks with a band that’s when you really start to get a feel of what they’re doing rather than one track you get a feel for the whole band and what the whole thing is. We definitely get that now when we do a number of tracks with bands, and we’ll be like they’ve become our favourites when you can see the whole picture.

It’s difficult to gauge it off one single sometimes because there’s some singles with a few new bands but it depends what happens next with them. Sometimes when we’ve done something with a band if it gets a sniff of interest the first thing they’re asked is “right, what else have they got?” so we like those bands that keep coming back with songs and building on what they’ve done.”

Getintothis: Kind of like bands that have a bit of a hunger about them that genuinely want to put out more stuff.

Ady: “Yeah. I think bands like Glass Caves they really love the process of being in the studio and anything’s a possibility when they’re in the studio they like to try a number of different ways a song can go, we enjoy working with them for that reason. It’s not just about quickly getting it done; they really love the whole artistic process you have to go through to get there with it.”

Glass_Caves_Pirate_Stage_Soundcity_2017_CFlack

Glass Caves

Getintothis: If you could work with any band or artist, who would you work with?

Ady: “I dunno, because normally your heroes disappoint you, don’t they?”

Getintothis: Too true!

Ady: “I don’t know. Do you know what I’d like to do? And I think Lee should answer this too.

Do you know when a band has had loads of success and they start making shit records, I think that’s a little bit of getting used to people telling them “yes” all the time and they start believing that everything they do is awesome.

But personally, I’d like to work with a band who used to be awesome, who’ve went shit and just be honest with them. But I think I prefer to work with new bands. Are there any bands you really want to work with Lee?”

Lee: “Like Ady said it feels more exciting the idea of working with a new band.

We haven’t really been in a position to work with an established band but there is something super exciting about working with a new band because there’s no expectations and you can just make a really exciting record, and you fly by the seat of your pants. Because they’re not established to a certain degree you can do whatever you want, create a track that could break them.”

Ady: “It’s good I think because as soon as a band has its sound there’s expectation there to deliver more of the same, and that’s really boring, whereas with a new band it’s a blank canvas and you can do whatever you want. It’s difficult for some bands because when they establish what they do they can’t stray too far from that sound because the public don’t want them too. We just like finding the bands where there are no expectations at the moment.”

Lee: “I’d like if you could work with an established artist where it’s a bit of a journey like with a band like Foals, there’s literally no limit of potentially what you might do with bands like that, and you could really get your teeth into the music and the production and everything.”

Getintothis: I definitely like the idea of you rescuing bands gone to seed; you should offer it as a service.

Ady: “I think when a band’s new they do get bollocked in the study, but when you’re a success they’ve got no-one telling them no, and I think that’s one thing we’d have to be honest with what they’ve done.”

Getintothis: Yeah, I think it’s a problem not just in music but in films and books when you get someone who’s been a big success and they become too big to fail, and then they do something awful and you feel like saying to them “why are you ruining my childhood or my perception of you as a band or artist?”

Ady: “Yeah, a bit like [FILM REDACTED]”

Getintothis: How much time would you say is spent in editing/post production? Does it vary from band to band?

Lee: “We do a lot of it on the fly in the sessions and with the bands. We’ve always done this, an engineer or producer would probably disagree but we kind of commit going to tape.

We tend to want to track everything the way we want it and edit it there and then so the band knows what it’s going to be getting so when it comes to getting it mixed we’re just mixing it and not having to fix and edit it, and just concentrate on the vibe in the mix.

We do spend quite a bit of time in session with the band doing 2 or 3 days tracking and a little bit of mixing time afterwards with a fresh set of ears. It is a bit of a process. We spend as much time in the studio with the band as possible.”

Ady: We break it down bit by bit.

It’s never a case of “oh you just do what you want and we’ll get enough takes”, we make sure to pay attention to each musician and make sure were getting something special and weighing up if it’ not broke don’t fix it. We usually know if something’s working we leave it as is and focus on the bits that need working on and bringing out more.”

Lee: “I think sometimes when I was in a band if a guys there editing till the end of time and it takes a long time to get the tracks back the band kinds of lose the buzz they had about what you’ve just put down, so we do try and work quite quick so the band can have the track straight away and try to get on with their work and get a bit of momentum happening. We try to commit during the sessions to what’s going down.”

Getintothis: How do you think the space shapes the sound?

Lee: “It shapes it dramatically.A lot of factors play into it, say for example a drum sound, obviously the room you’re in plays a massive part of it, obviously the room you’re in captures the sound and it can play a massive part.

We’ve moved to a couple of different studios and you can tell where a studio hasn’t quite got it right with the control room. The musicians play a massive part in it as well.

You can have the same mic set up in the same room day after day but the drum kit will always sound very different from day to day with a different drummer, so it all plays a part we’re lucky at the moment we’re working out of Catalyst Studios over in St Helens and we’ve been there for quite awhile so we know the rooms really well and we know our starting points and how we’re going to get it.

We have had some studios where you’re going in and you’re battling with room acoustics or equipment. That’s another thing we’re quite lucky with Catalyst is it’s specced really well, so you kind of know what you’re going to get.”

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Getintothis: With the proliferation of people using editing software such as Audacity to record and edit music in their bedrooms, what do you see as the role of the music studio in the internet age?

Ady:  “I think that this software is really good for bands. I think they can get music 75%-80% of the way there, but thankfully for us they’re not getting it all the way there as I’d probably be out of a job.

But bands that have been doing their demos, they can’t quite get it there but I think it’s a good thing that software’s there to get bands going.

Sometimes if that’s been the case and there’s something really decent in the demo a band’s gave us we use that as a starting point and then in the studio we’ll add things that weren’t there before, like a better drum sound or replace synths with better synths and add production round the edges and make it what it needs to be.

But I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone walk in with a demo that’s been finished and if it was I suppose they wouldn’t be here in the first place. In the studio things happen in the studio, there’s something about being there that’s like you’re going to work. It’s a psychological thing about being in the building doing it.”

Lee: “We’ve been working quite a bit actually in the last couple of years where bands would bring in the Logic sessions they’ve worked on and they’ve done an amazing job.

I think a lot of the time if a band has the facility to do some recording at home and uni with either Logic or Ableton or things like that there is a sort of plasticy sound about it all that’s never really existed.

With a lot of bands there were stints a few years ago with people having home studios and they were our competition sometimes when we were starting out with unsigned bands, and you can’t really compare to free sometimes when bands do it for free in their houses.

It does seem to have changed though, as bands realise to get something a bit better you do need to bring it into an environment to make your sound good. I think the main thing is a lot of the bands find when they’ve done it themselves, I’ve just done a mix recently for a band, that it just sounds really plastic and false, we want it to sound real.

That tends to be the main thing, as it doesn’t sound like that sounds ever existed anywhere because they’ve done it all on the computer.”

Ady: “I think as well it’s impossible when you’re doing your own stuff to be objective about what you’re doing, that’s really important as well.”

Getintothis: What has been the most challenging work you’ve done so far?

Lee: “I think it’s something that always changing. I think generally even if you’re working with incredible musicians there’s always a challenge with that.

If you’re working with musicians who aren’t quite up to standard there are challenges with that. But you always end up getting them all to the same sort of place where what you’re getting down is good. There are always different challenges.

Sometimes it is like what we tend to get a lot of is we get a bunch of guys in a band who aren’t necessarily brilliant musicians, which is fine because they make a good noise together, but they’ve wrote really good songs so you’ve just got to capture that.

Sometimes on the opposite end of the scale you’ve got a brilliant set of musicians who haven’t quite got the song writing down. I think Ady will agree, the challenges change all the time.”

Ady: “Yeah, you know from band to band and project to project with experience when a band comes in after the first 15 minutes you know what kind of job it is and what you’re in for.

The most challenging thing is when a band comes in and they’re guarded about the song when they’re frightened to do what they have to make it great it’s a sometimes frustrating thing when they’ve come to us for a reason they like what we do and the first thing they do is they dig their heels in.

It’s kind of like working with your hands tied behind your back. It’s like if it’s free enough and we see what happens and we try stuff that’s good because no matter what happens and what you’ve got, even if you have a song that might not be great or a musician that might not be brilliant if you’re open minded to trying stuff there’s always a way around it.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes it does happen when you’ll work on something, get it to a really good place and the editing process starts when they take all of the good stuff out of the track.”

Getintothis: Oh God.

Ady: “I just like bands who are open minded. Anything’s possible then.”

Lee: I think if bands put parameters on it straight away from the off sometimes it’s like you’re stifling something that might be quite good.

We’re always going to go down a number of different paths, and we’re not going to go down a particular idea route if it’s not great, but sometimes bands don’t even let you look down that road and it might be better but you have to try to see if it’s going to be better and they’ve got a stranglehold on that.”

Ady: “I think the bands we like working with are the ones that let things happen.

If something’s going to be shit we usually know quite quickly and say never mind, but sometimes you have to try these things to rule them out.

But most of the time, less and less these days, but there’s always one in the band who might be the weak link musically. We had one session where every vocal we did was a nightmare. And another session it was drummers. It’s never the same thing.”

Getintothis: It’s almost trying to work around the limitations of a band’s weakest link.

Lee:: “Yeah, completely. We’ve found over the years if you’ve got a decent drummer that can save it no matter what the rest of them do, similar with a singer if you’ve got a decent singer that can make up for any sort of deficit in anyone else.

We have had situations over the year where you’re going from member to member, and with each recording it’s not getting better.”

Ady: Sometimes you might go through the whole process, hate it, and somewhere in the last half hour it just comes to life and you’ve done it. You’re praying for that moment to happen sometimes. It normally does happen, but ugh. A band that we’re working with, were not going to name them they’re really good but in some ways they’re their own worst enemy because they’re all super talented but sometimes it’s like they’re competing with each other on the arrangements, and that’s the other problem you have when there’s too much going on and you’re trying to make sense of it.”

Getintothis: It’s like they’re all trying to play jazz and all have their big solo moment.

Lee: Completely right. It’s amazing with some bands when you simplify one bit of the arrangement it blows their mind that the player just playing a straight beat of the bass player not being too fussy can make the track. It’s kind of obvious why that would help, but I guess that’s why we’ve got a job.”

Getintothis: What advice would you give a band or artist that’s just starting out and trying to find their own sound?

Lee: “The bands have the influences that they have but I think what we’ve found a lot recently with bands like The 1975 is we’ve had a lot of bands turn up and wanting to be a 1975 covers band with their own songs.

I think it’s kind of like my best advice would be to use your influences, but still try to do something that’s your own.

We’ve found when we sent track to labels or management that remotely sound like another band it’s already the end of the conversation because it sounds like such and such. It always comes down to the music, so make it your own and having a good song in the first place is the biggest part, so try not to be a carbon copy of another band happening.”

Ady: “I’d push it a bit further.Sometimes bands will write the song and not look over it. They’ll just put down the first idea that comes into their heads, the first part of an arrangement that comes into their heads they’ll settle on and say “ok that’s it.”

But sometimes, we tell bands to delve a little deeper, “look at the melody, look at what you’ve done and revise it. Maybe you should look and try other chords or melodies, and see what’s possible don’t just settle on the first thing.” Sometimes with the spontaneous side of things just happen quickly, sometimes a band just has a sound anyway and they don’t even have to try.

But some bands are looking for their sound, and I think we’ve worked with bands where they’re doing everything right it’s just they’re trying to find something that’s their own. It’s good that these bands have people to look up to like Catfish and the Bottlemen, 1975 and whatnot, but I know some bands don’t admit it to themselves but there are a lot of people copying that sound, and it happens a lot.

We always say you want to be leading rather than following.”

Lee: “I think some bands don’t even copy something that’s already been done, but sometimes it will just come out sounding very vanilla and beige, like it doesn’t sound like anything, but not in a good way, just sounds like nothingness.

Some bands will have a great drummer and that will create a lot of the sound for them but they’re not utilising them. So I’d say look to whatever your strengths are. You’ve got to create something that’s your own to a degree; it’s difficult to do that these days.”

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Getintothis: What’s your top tip for anyone looking to start out with their own studio?

Ady: Don’t!”

Getintothis: (laughs)

Lee: “I think the first thing I would say is get good at the recording side of thing first of all. You’ll see a lot of young lads and girls come through and they’ll work on the production a lot but not be looking at how they’ve initially engineered it or how to mix it so it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the production or in the mix if you haven’t recorded it right.

So it’s kind of learning the basics are the big one. I think the other thing is be patient because you’re not going to earn a lot of money for a long time.”

Ady: “Yeah, don’t expect the work to come to you. I think a lot of these lads fresh out of college will send their CV’s round, but it doesn’t happen like that. In this industry you have to make a job for yourself.”

Lee: It used to be quite a lot of guys could start as tea boys in big studios and they’d learn their craft like that and eventually end up assisting and engineering, but it doesn’t really happen anymore as the big studios are either struggling or shutting down, so it is learning your craft.

You’re not going to make a lot of money in the start, you’re going to do a lot of free stuff, and then once you get good enough people start paying you a little bit of money. But having understanding wives and girlfriends/boyfriends to support you would be another thing.”

Getintothis: I’d imagine that’d be essential.

Ady: “Well, we had a lot of years were we weren’t earning much a day anyway, and we’d have good months and bad months but it was always a bit of a battle, not even just getting to the end of the month and paying your bills.”

Lee: “You end up slightly diversifying what you’re doing a bit , when me and Ady were starting out I’d do live sound I’d do live sound, keyboard tuition, studio tuition, Ady was playing in a covers band.

You can’t just do recording because most studios have 20% occupancy a month so it’s really hard just doing recording. As you go along its easier once you’ve created a profile. You’ve got to go through rough times if you want to earn a living out of doing recording.”

Getintothis: What does the future hold for Sugar House? Can you tell me about what things you’ll be working on in the near future?

Ady: “This year been a really good year for us, we’ve been looking for our break into the industry for a good few years. A few of the bands over the last few years have moved up the ladder, getting bookings, signed with management labels, getting agents and getting played on Radio One and Radio 6 which is a good thing.

This year we finally had that breakthrough there was a music lawyer that started talking to us because he thought we’d been working with a lot of the bands who put us in touch with a good few labels and managers, and also a label plugger who introduced us to the management we have now: 140DB and Big Life, they’ve partnered and got a shared producer roster and we’ve joined that roster this year and that’s an amazing thing for us.

We were aware of both companies and would have been happy just working for one of them, so it’s great to be working with both of them. I know that Big Life managed The Verve, Snow Patrol, London Grammar  and, for a brief period, La Roux…”

Lee: “I think they managed Bloc Party for a brief period too.”

Ady: “Yeah they do and 140DB manage Steve Osborne, Flood and Gil Norton and we really look up to those people and just the fact that we’re on that roster now is really gratifying after what we’ve been doing for 10 years.

The good thing is they met us and said we love what you’re doing. We met a few managers and they gave us the best feeling because we were wondering “do we have to move down to London to make a good fist of this?”

But they said “no you’re perfect where you are, because that’s your unique selling point is that you’re up North, making these opportunities happen for bands”, they love the fact we do our own A & R.

We’ve got this gateway to London now where we work on something really good we can legitimately pass it on to someone who’ll listen to it as we’ve got a connection to a good few lawyers, labels and managers and it’s a really exciting time because when we’ve done something good that’s a great feeling, but just knowing we can get it into people’s hands.

That’s something that’s been a real revelation this year where we’ve been getting emails off big labels and saying we can’t believe this, and that’s become part of our everyday working life now, it’s great.”

Lee: I think probably for the rest of this year we’ve got a few new bands and a few older bands recording. Since the announcement in September since we’ve signed with the management we’ve had a lot of interest from bands and a lot for solo acts, so we’re starting with a lot of new stuff in the New Year.

Hopefully we’ll do some stuff we’ll pass on to the management contacts and the label contacts we’ve got to try and get something happening for the bands which will hopefully in turn help us move on, and the management side of things should ramp up this year.”

Ady: “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen but we know we’re going on the right path. Our managers have faith in what we’re doing and said “just keep up with what you’re doing and then something good will happen.” It’s about keeping working with good bands and doing a good job.”

Getintothis: How can people get in touch with you?

Lee: “If anyone wants to come and work with us best thing to do is have a look on our website and our management team email addresses are there, and that’s how we do it really.”

Ady: It’s Sugar Housemusic.co.uk if you want to have a look.”

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