As part of our brand new series, We are Spirit Studios, we had a chat with Alastair Atcheson, a successful music producer who is carving his own path in the industry.
Al originally studied English at the University of Manchester, and UCSB in California, before enrolling on our Music Production & Sound Engineering Industry course in 2017. Since then, Al has continued to produce music, cultivated The Spirit Studios podcast, and most recently showcased his incredible talent during our virtual experience.
You haven’t always been a music producer. You studied English at university and then went on to study Music Production and Sound Engineering at Spirit Studios. Tell us, why the change of direction?
I’ve played guitar for years and always loved making music, but didn’t believe it was something I could pursue as a career. English was always my favourite subject in school (aside from music), so I decided to pursue it and ended up studying at the University of Manchester, and UCSB in California. I formed a band with my roommates, and realised that I wanted to spend all my time making music instead of writing – although I’m also working on a novel in case my records get slated by Pitchfork.
That’s really cool. And so, what drew you to study at Spirit Studios?
I started teaching myself how to produce at home and began churning out terrible songs for my friends. I figured I should take some classes and actually learn what a compressor was so I did some research and found Spirit. I was working full-time at that point so the Industry Course was perfect for me because I could still make money at my job while studying in the evening, so I called up to ask about enrolling.
I spoke to Spirit’s Course Advisor, Dan Buxton on a Thursday, and he told me the next course started the following Tuesday. I’d missed all the inductions so I went down on my lunch break to look around and was blown away by the facilities. I remember being taken up to Spirit Studio and shown the Neve console. I had no idea what any of the buttons did but I knew I had to learn, so I signed up on the spot.
As a music producer, do you think music production as a whole has evolved and become more fluid?
Music production is always evolving, which I think is both necessary and inevitable. Technology and tastes are constantly developing and I think having a solid understanding of the musical landscape is invaluable to a producer, especially if you’re not already established. I want to be able to work with different artists across all kinds of genres, so I’m always trying to learn new techniques and approaches used by engineers and producers who are masters in their field.
With this in mind, do you think the role of a music producer has continued to change and expand?
Absolutely. The ability to produce at home has enabled anyone to create a record, so if you’re making music from your bedroom, you’re still considered a music producer. Granted this isn’t quite what guys like Quincy Jones and Rick Rubin are doing, but that just shows how broad the term ‘music producer’ is.
I’m massively influenced by guys like Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, who does everything by himself in his home studio. He writes, performs, records and mixes everything you hear on a Tame Impala album, and it all has this cohesive and characteristic sound because of the care he takes in the production. For me, the most exciting thing about music production is the process itself, having a vision for a project and figuring out the best way to capture it.
On the back of this, you’re also the brains behind The Spirit Studios podcast. Talk us through your process of setting up a podcast and also creating and producing an episode.
Working on the podcast is awesome because it combines elements of production with writing so I can get some mileage out of that English degree I mentioned. Because of lockdown I’ve been producing all the episodes from home, which has shown me you really don’t need much equipment to get started, just a laptop, a mic, and a quiet place to record. Within the podcast there’s several ongoing series, such as the Supporting Small interviews or the Making Tracks production tutorials, so my process varies depending on the type of episode we’re doing.
Making Tracks episodes are the most intensive as I’ll create a full track first and then break it down piece-by-piece to give listeners an insight into different production techniques. I’ll make most of the music in Logic Pro and then record, edit and mix the podcast in Pro Tools, so there’s a lot of bouncing and exporting going on to get to the finished episode.
I’ll usually script out each episode so I can pack them with info while keeping everything on topic – this might not be necessary for other people but it definitely helps me. I keep things streamlined by starting each episode from a Pro Tools template with my tracks, plugins and routing all set up, so all I have to do is turn on my microphone and start yapping away.
You’ve taken part in our latest virtual experiences. Tell us, do you think streaming technologies will change the way producers work and collaborate with clients going forward?
That change has already begun, and I think we’ll see more records created by groups of people who are spread out across the world. Where you really see this taking off is in rap and hip hop, with producers making beats and sticking them on YouTube or SoundCloud, which then get picked up by rappers who might be in another country entirely. That’s what happened with Old Town Road: YoungKio made this beat in the Netherlands, and Lil Nas X made it a number one in America. Then Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a verse after getting tweeted about it, and it went on to win two Grammys.
While we are on the topic of workflow, each producer has their own way of approaching a composition. Do you follow a specific process when creating music?
Not really. I’ll usually start with whatever has sparked the idea for the track, which changes all the time. For example, there was a point in my life where I was obsessed with the sound of snare drums; I’d be listening to Bruce Springsteen and have to stop what I was doing to go and try to recreate the snare from Glory Days. That one sound then set the tone for a whole track and I started building up instruments that fit with the snare drum until I ended up with a song.
As a music producer, how do you maintain an online presence while most of your work is behind the scenes?
This is definitely something I need to work on! I have an Instagram account that I’ve been neglecting, so once I shave off this quarantine beard I’ll have to get back out there and start promoting myself. Most of my work with other artists comes through word of mouth, but I’ve also started building a website where I can share my previous work and make it easier for people to get in touch.
Given the current pandemic, how have you continued to make music without having access to studio facilities? Have you had to learn to adapt and improvise?
I’m fortunate enough to have a designated home studio space which does the trick for a lot of stuff I’m currently producing. While it’s definitely not a fully fledged studio, I’ve been adding bits of gear over the years and now have plenty of things to work with. Because lockdown has forced me to work completely inside the box, I’ve been spending a lot more time working with VSTs and sampling, which in turn has given me loads of ideas of things I can do in the studio. Hosting the recent virtual experience in Spirit made me realise how much I miss recording in the studio, especially because I haven’t been able to play a proper drum kit in months. I’ve got several tracks that are crying for real drums, I’m just aware that my neighbours probably won’t appreciate me recording them in the flat.
In your opinion, how do you think the current situation has changed the landscape for producers?
I imagine it’s different for everybody. I know there was a surge in uploads to streaming platforms as producers stuck at home suddenly had way more time to make music. At least this lockdown might give us some great new music, and maybe inspire people who otherwise might not have found the time to create tracks. My main concern is how it’s going to impact live music, and how venues and festivals will recover after shutting down for so long. As album sales have become less profitable in the age of streaming, artists have become more reliant on live shows to generate income, so I’m hoping this doesn’t have a knock-on effect that significantly impacts the music industry as a whole.
That’s very true. As a producer, do you find yourself experimenting with new ideas and processes?
All the time. I have to keep experimenting because otherwise I’d get bored. Plus, trying new ideas seems to create this positive feedback loop, where you’ll start experimenting with one new idea that then gives you another idea which then leads to some other crazy idea and so on. Experimenting is the best way to improve your craft and push yourself to be creative.