LONDON'S BEST SYNTH ROOM? Silver Shark Studios

Silver Shark Studios is based in South London and offers one of the best synth rooms we've seen in ANY recording studio. We speak with owner Grant Strang about how his ambition to create one of the UK's best facilities for synth recording came together…

How long has Silver Shark been running?

The studio has been around for 20 years and was originally set up by the producer Pat Collier (Primal Scream, Wonderstuff, Robyn Hitchcock & The Vibrators). I took it over 4 years ago and was keen to put my own mark on the place. My big love is synthesizers and the studio gave me an opportunity to build something utilising my own collection of vintage synths and outboard while retaining the original drum room and live space so I can record guitar bands and other genres.

The synth room here is really outstanding! What made you want to set it up in the first place?

I’ve run studios for over 10 years and I always wanted to set up a commercial facility offering artists access to a wide range of classic high-end synths which they can use in their own projects. It’s something I’ve never really seen done properly anywhere else. I’ve collected synths over many years, but I was adamant that I didn’t want Silver Shark to just become a “synth museum” – I really want this to be an active working facility with the synths in regular use. Some of these synths are old and notoriously unreliable and that brings its own set of problems as they need servicing and repair more than newer models. It's one of the reasons we have a broad mix of old and new synths here, it gives us a good balance but also ensures that if any of the old classic instruments are away being serviced there is always plenty of kit here for people to work and be creative with.

There are some lovely vintage pieces here – I haven't seen a Waldorf Wave in a very long time! How easy is it to keep that stuff maintained these days?

Yes, we have a great selection of vintage classics here including the Roland Jupiter 6, Jupiter 8, Juno 6, Prophet T8 and what is probably the main attraction - our Roland System 100M modular wall. It can be challenging but there are some great synth techs out there and spares are still available for most of the older kit. I guess if it was easy to keep these things in good shape then everybody would be doing it – it’s a labour of love to a large extent and regular servicing goes with the territory.

The Roland System 100M modular system is a beast – how long did it take you to put that together?

Yes, it’s one of my favourite things here. It took me a few years to get it into its current form. I now have at least one of every module that made it in to production. I started off with the classic D system consisting of five modules and a keyboard which I bought about 7 years ago from a shop on Denmark Street and it has grown since then. I was particularly lucky to find someone who was selling quite a few modules a few years ago and it's then grown via the usual auction sites and swapping modules with other 100M users. The Vemia auction site has been a good source for System 100M gear. It’s becoming harder to get now though and seems be gaining in popularity again. Rightly so, it sounds absolutely huge!

In addition to your lounge areas, the studio is made up of three spaces – live room, synth room and control room. How do the rooms interact?

The control room houses all the newer synths as well as the classic Jupiters and Prophet T8. It's linked via audio and MIDI lines to the synth room - we call it the “70s Synth Room” given the age of a lot of the gear in there! The modular wall is in that room along with the Yamaha CS80 and older Korg synths. Everything can be run independently or can be run back into the control room. All audio runs through a digital mixer which also serves as a USB audio interface giving you 16 channels of I/O allowing you to plug in a laptop and start recording. You can also just plug in a SD card and record a live jam if you wanted. Everything is clocked and synced up so it’s possible to trigger from a project in the main room or from your own laptop. I have made these rooms as flexible as possible while trying to ensure everything remains simple to use. You can book this room and use it completely independently if access to the synths is all you need. We also have the live room and drum booth which houses our vintage 60s Ludwig kit. The kit is usually set up and ready to go so if you have a synth project that wants live drums then it’s straightforward to record – it’s a great sounding kit and we regularly get complimented on the drum sound from that room. Because the rooms can be used independently, if people just want to use the modular set up while another member of the band is editing or mixing in the control room, they can do that easily and keep the vibe and production process moving along. Seeing the studio back in action after the pandemic, it’s hugely rewarding to see the space being used as I’d hoped - it all works together really well.

You've got a tidy SSL G-Series console and a well-chosen range of outboard – what sort of recording projects do you have coming in?

I’ve thought of getting rid of the SSL, but it’s such a useful centrepiece and even if you just think of it as a summing mixer with EQ’s, it would cost a fortune to replicate that functionality with outboard, so it's staying put for now. We do everything here from full band recordings to voice overs. Recently we have had producers and writers in using the synths, bands doing drums and live tracking sessions and a choir recording tracks for their new album as well as regular work from Miloco, record labels and artist management. I’m hoping that as labels become more aware of what we can offer that this will become a “go-to” facility for synth recording.

And what's the main recording platform here – Pro Tools?

Yes the main system is Pro Tools HD but we also have Logic, Studio One and Ableton on the main computer. People can also plug in their own laptop to the system and use whatever their go to production tools are – we’re flexible!

Many studios struggled over the pandemic – how did you keep the wolves from the door during the last couple of years?

We were lucky that the studio is part of a larger complex including six production rooms. Most of the guys work on their own so isolation did not hugely affect them. The main studio was unavoidably quieter as bands were not able to come in. We did do a few solo sessions once we were allowed to open up again and we found that most people were happy and keen to get back in. We just made sure we followed all the guidelines and had a stack of pop shields and cleaned or replaced them after each session and hand sanitiser in every room! I personally used the time to record and release an album with a vocalist I write with under the name Strange Gravity. In a weird way I found lockdown to be a very productive time, we were able to really focus on the project without all the normal distractions! We're working on the second album at the moment although it’s taking much longer now we're all busy again!

You're lucky to have a working Yamaha CS80 – what's the story behind that?

The CS80 is a recent addition and is on loan from a good friend of mine. He works with a band who used it on a few of their albums back in the 90s and it had been in storage since. He asked if I wanted to make use of it as was just being mothballed so obviously I jumped at the chance. It took three of us to get it in here and we were not sure what to expect when we opened it up. This thing was built in the 70s and it hadn't been used since the late 90s so I wasn’t hugely confident that it would work given how temperamental they can be. However we opened it up switched it on and, amazingly, it worked first time. It sounds awesome of course, and it’s a great bit of kit to have in the studio. It’s now the centrepiece of the synth room alongside the System 100M and I am really hoping they don’t want it back!

Companies like Universal Audio have made great strides in software outboard emulations. Synth emulations go back even further. What are your feelings on software synths vs. analogue hardware?

I don’t have a problem with software synths. I use them a lot as well – I just see them as different tools. I think there is a place for both and some of them are very very good. The new GForce OBE is amazing, the Roland and Arturia synths are also very good. And I am really into the new Cherry Audio synths, they all sound great. The big difference for me is the creative spark and inspiration you get from playing with a synth. There is something inspiring about the tactile feel of playing on something like a CS80 or a Jupiter 6 that you just don’t get from a soft synth. And once you get into the modular world then I think there is no comparison, although some of the software modular emulations sound great they are just not the same as plugging leads randomly into a modular System 100M and coming up with weird and wonderful sequences or sounds. I can’t think of a better way to lose an afternoon as a writer, producer or musician.

If (god forbid!) the studio caught fire, what single piece would you grab under your arm on the way out?

Oh man, I really don’t want to think about that but I guess it would probably be my Juno 6 as that is just such a great synth to get amazing sounds from quickly and maybe as much of the System 100M as I could grab. I would love to say the CS80 but it is too much of a beast to move quickly – I think I’d probably get a hernia!

Finally, what are your hopes for the studio and where do you see it going over the next few years?

I would love to see more people coming in and using the synths to make great records alongside drums, guitar and bass. I was at the Great Escape festival in May and there seems to be a move towards using hardware synths again so that should translate into people looking at Silver Shark as a place to write and record. I am always amazed at how two different people can use the same synth in completely different ways and get such different sounds from them. Equally there are so many exciting new synthesizers coming out at the moment that I think we will probably see more of these new synths coming into the studio alongside the old classics.