Producer Club: Spacestation Φ Studio

SPACESTATION Ø STUDIO is the personal studio of renowned techno producer and DJ, Luke Slater. Since the beginning of the 1990's, Luke has pioneered and developed this musical genre whilst amassing the impressive collection of modern, boutique and esoteric recording equipment he uses on his tracks.

Luke runs the studio with producer/songwriter/mix engineer Sie Medway-Smith. Sie has worked for over 20 years with top artists including Bjork, Depeche Mode, Rita Ora, David Guetta, U2, Chemical Brothers, Ellie Goulding and more. He is known for his highly innovative production style and is also a developer for Ableton Live software.

For the first time, Spacestation Ø Studio is opening up to the world, offering a creative new online service for other producers. We caught up with them both to find out all about it...

So how did you two start out?

Sie: We met in the studio at Mute Records as Luke was signed to NovaMute Records (dance music subsidiary of Mute Records) - and I was mixing for Daniel Miller. I never had a job outside of the studio environment. I originally met somebody, who knew somebody else who had made the tea in a recording studio the previous summer. He gave them my number and they called asking if I could start the next day and that was it - I was in! And here I am after all these years, still working in studios today. Luke: I've always come from the dance side of things and Sie has been mixing and producing across the board in a variety of genres. Sie was tour manager for me and so we first got together like that. Sie: I took the traditional route of coming up through the ranks - starting as an assistant making tea and coffee, then moving up to become an engineer. We mostly recorded bands, but it was also the start of trip-hop and drum and bass - there was definitely a lot of crossover happening back then. Luke: I had DJ'd in London before making records, and hung around the clubs so I could give people my tape - I just hung around because I liked the scene. I was also cleaning aeroplanes at the time to pay the bills. People used to say to me "You've got to go for music or broke!"

...Or going for music AND being broke!

Luke: Yeah both, haha! But when I was a teenager if somebody said to me "Oh, you're just getting a job because you're worried you're not going to make it" - I used to think "Where's my dedication, where's my drive?" But actually, it's a very sensible thing to do, because you can always give up your job once you've got something going.

Can you remember what equipment you started creating music on?

Luke: I started with an AKAI S950, Allen and Heath GS3 mixing desk, Yamaha DX7 - quite basic stuff, but at the time I thought it was pretty out there! You couldn't do so much with the gear back then so you really had to make the most of it. I think that's an important thing to understand - as much as I truly love gear (it's a vice, haha!) - you can create great music on very basic gear if you master it properly. I remember Mike Lindup from Level 42 made me want to go out and buy a DX7-II. It was the first proper synth I had - I heard some of the chords and that 80's trumpet sound and had to get one. I only realised afterwards that there were a lot of studio effects and compression etc used in those recordings as the keyboard didn't quite make the same sound by itself. When I look back now, that's something which has led to our thinking these days. Some people buy Ableton and Logic - and go right, I've got the gear, now why can't I make the same sound? There's a huge learning curve in mastering your equipment. Sie: I started on an AKAI S3000XL and I was very proud of the fact that it was maxed out to 32Mb! It was the only thing I had when I signed a deal with Pussyfoot records. I got five grand and I bought that sampler and paid my rent with the rest of it and I recorded and mixed internally in that sampler. Like Luke says, I mastered it, there was nothing I didn't know about it. Every click of that wheel I knew what the outcome was going to be. It was just a matter of getting what I heard in my head out into the real world using this piece of gear. When you know a piece of gear to that extent you can do anything!

Capturing a moment in time as audio is always exciting...

Luke: It's that fascination with the idea that you can record stuff, that you can create something that wasn't there before. I try to avoid questions like "How did you make that sound on that track?" Even if I could show somebody it wouldn't do them any good, and it's impossible to recreate a track from scratch anyway. But what I can explain is the way I think about things, there’s a lot of mentoring. I always suggest that whatever you think about something, just record it. It doesn't matter if you think it's sh*t, just record it. Hit record, even if you're thinking to yourself "I don't think this is going anywhere", just record it. There's no excuse anymore - you don't have to buy a reel of tape - just record it, otherwise it's gone! Sie: Even if you get 30 seconds out of hours of recording you've still got something you can work with. Even knowing what we know, there still isn't a magic wand. There's a lot of experimentation - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t - there isn't an "if you do this it will work" button.

So do you do a lot of experimenting with clients?

Luke: Yes, for example, one of our clients hadn't had much experience with analogue gear, and he was very curious to hear the difference in replicating what he did in software using the analogue kit. We made the same chain that he had in Ableton so he could weigh up the differences - it was a real eye-opener for him. Sie: Yes, I got a 909 emulation up in Ableton, adding EQ and Saturation plug-ins. Then Luke got a real hardware 909 and we put it through an Overstayer and the Audient ASP8024 desk and it sounded brilliant Luke: From the client's point of view, it's also like "Ohhh! That's how you got that sound!?" But as we explained at the time we didn't know what we were doing, we just knew if we did that it would probably sound kind of right to us. I like the idea of not always relying on the past. By all means, learn from the past, then think, well those guys probably didn't know exactly what they were playing with either - they were just trying to get it together...

Then try the same approach and experiment?

Luke: Exactly, I'll do the same. I think it's important you shouldn't try to repeat history but it's bloody useful to learn from. Sie: I learnt a lot when I was Howie B's assistant - he became my mentor and I engineered on all those amazing tracks he did at Milo Studios in Hoxton. He taught me an important thing. One day, after I'd learnt all the gear and the patchbay, he said to me "Right I think you're ready now". And I was like "What do you mean?" and he said, "OK, so now you know what it all does, do something with it that it's not supposed to do, and then you're going to find something interesting." So when he disappeared, I got one of my tracks out and just started doing things that I thought were stupid, but then I started thinking actually, this is wicked. I then took stuff way past the line and just experimented with bringing it back from that point, that for me is where the really interesting stuff is. That was his gift to me: "Now you know something - do something you shouldn't with it."

How did this new venture come about and what gave you the idea to open up SPACESTATION Ø?

Sie: It was during a brainstorming session that we had over lockdown - Luke and I would meet up occasionally just to hang out and chat. Luke thought there was something more we could be doing so we sat down and thought about what could we offer. One of the first things we thought about after mixing and mastering was processing. With all the great, tasty gear in the room here, we thought how nice it would be for people to be able to take advantage of that also. Send over their stems and we'd put it through the gear. Luke: That can happen in real-time whilst they're talking to us. They can watch and guide us while listening to the results - and then we record the processed audio and send it back to them. Sie: Running all their audio through the gear and processing it. Or send us your MIDI parts and we'll put it through the Colossus or the Moog or whatever we think will work.

How does it work? Do you do want stems, individual tracks or the whole mix?

Sie: I want the whole session. every single thing - and they may be very specific in that they love the Moog, so then we'll run it through the Moog and then run it back, but then there may be something else that comes up like "This could be a good idea?".

Do you do a production consultation on Zoom prior to tracking and processing?

Sie: Yes, so for example we have a client in New York who has requested a mentoring session. In order for us to do the best job for him, I'll chat to him this afternoon on Zoom to get more info and a few specifics about what he's hoping to get from the session. We then get sent the track and Luke and I will sit down together and make a plan. That's how it's been so far and it's working really well. Luke: Of course, it's also a 'one-off' session for us as well, we're never going to be able to recreate it. But if they're on Zoom we can tweak stuff with them, then once it's delivered it's gone forever.

That's what makes capturing and creating audio so special...

Sie: This gives people an opportunity that they would struggle to find otherwise - being virtually in our recording studio and having all this gear available to experiment with. I played back some DAT's quite recently and the sound of the late '90s was amazing - we were just making it up as we went along! These days, for me it’s Pro Tools and Ableton all day long - it's what I use for 99% of my work, and it sounds wicked. But it doesn't sound as wicked as analogue. Play some of those 90's techno records, Blue Lines by Massive Attack is 30 years old, it came out in 1991 with Unfinished Symphony. The MPC60 used by the late Johnny Dollar in Neneh Cherry's bedroom - you just can't emulate those things.

Everybody has had to adapt during the pandemic, haven't they?

Luke: Before lockdown, the idea of talking to somebody on Zoom really didn’t appeal - I didn't want to go on a video call! But we've all had to adapt and I've got used to it now and, of course, if I want to speak to you I'd like to be able to see you. I hope it continues - I've missed people! Sie: I've missed travelling a lot, there's a lot to learn from travelling, exploring a new place and working out how people live, the normal day to day stuff and just watching the way people move about, so you dip in and out and then you're gone, I've missed that.

Taking advantage of time differences can be great when working remotely as well?

Sie: Yes it can be brilliant. I'm currently working with an artist in San Francisco. I send her a bounce about 8 pm here - when it’s around mid-morning with her in the States. I go to bed and then wake up with new vocals in the Dropbox - I think there's something really cool about that! This room is full of quality stuff, and it feels like quality is coming back - it's all about the music. Luke: From what we know, nobody is doing this in quite the same way we are.

Do you think you may expand this into full-on production with artists?

Sie: Longer-term maybe. It hasn't been a plan from the beginning, but it would be nice. Luke and I are busy and things like that can be very time-consuming. With us being tight for time, what's good about the current setup is that it's totally unique for each client and more of an exclusive experience for the producers who come to us.

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