One day at a time
A connection to Yusuf Islam is helping Dubai’s newest studio to gain notoriety, but there is far more to JR Studio than a famous patron, learns Barney Jameson.
There is much to say about JR Studio, a new recording space with big ambitions tucked away in a modest corner of Dubai Studio City. But one fact threatens to overshadow everything else, so let’s get it out of the way immediately. This small facility is the new recording home of Yusuf Islam, the internationally renowned artist once known as Cat Stevens.
His influence can be felt throughout, from the name (JR stands for Jamal Records, the label he founded in 1997 at the outbreak of the Bosnian War) to the particularly open-armed philosophy that stands behind the studio’s formation. It is also very much a family affair. The facility is owned and run by Majid Hussain and his wife Hasana, Yusuf’s daughter, while the location was partly chosen, explains Mr Hussain, because ‘it’s on the way to where our kids go to school. We were looking for a place where we could be close to them – it is a bit of a family business’.
Indeed, Mr Hussain openly discusses his father in law’s role in the origins of the studio, having worked with him for 12 years on a variety of projects.
‘We’ve worked directly with him on his spiritual projects and when he returned to making music in 2006 and started touring again we found ourselves following him on this new journey,’ he explains. ‘We did have a studio before in Dubai Media City, but it was in 2008 when the economy was difficult. Meanwhile, in London, the touring began and it was the perfect time for us to hang up the mics and leads for a while. But we didn’t sell any of the equipment.
‘Then last year we started discussing wanting a place where we could work, that Yusuf could also frequent. A lot of the studios here are not accommodating for music artists; it’s all to do with the advertising sector. We wanted a place where we could think freely, where we could work until four or five o’clock in the morning, as we like to sometimes.’
Yet as much as the association is a valuable asset for the studio in terms of grabbing the attention of potential collaborators, it is the people working within the facility and the ideas that they have used to create it that will hold the attention of anyone who visits.
Within the context of the wider UAE market, JR Studio is an unusual and exciting proposition – a place where creativity and the freedom to let ideas develop are more important than widening a profit margin or watching a clock. The technology within the facility is high-end, but much of it has been rescued from the previous studio, as Mr Hussain and his team seek to allow the space to evolve on its own terms and in its own time, refusing to simply buy new equipment for its own sake.
‘We wanted to get in here first and see what we’re capable of doing with what we have,’ he explains. ‘I’d seen in the past when studios had opened and then closed within six or seven months despite having everything in there. We want to be here for a long time.’
Even the physical space that it occupies – a control room, a small live room and a reception area – serve as an indication that this is a project being given the opportunity to breathe and grow. Plans are already in place to extend into a second location in Studio City, at which point the current live room will swallow up what is now the reception. Ambition is in no small supply. Crucially, the team that Mr Hussain has assembled possesses the wisdom and expertise needed to transform that ambition into reality.
Perhaps the lynchpin of the team is composer and producer Idris Phillips, whose soft-spoken, quiet confidence has been earned over a remarkable 30-year career in music and production. Having first walked into a studio at the age of 16, he has toured the world as a session musician working with and opening up for major artists, while his lightness of touch at the mixing console has been honed in a succession of major studios across America and beyond.
‘I’ve been in so many different places,’ he recalls. ‘I’ve had studios in Los Angeles, northern California, Arizona, Nashville Tennessee, Seattle… I’ve been writing, playing and performing with people all of my life.’
His presence within the studio could be considered something a coup. But if there is any doubt regarding the dedication and passion that each member of the team has for the JR Studio project, then it is quickly dismissed by the sheer speed with which Mr Phillips decided to leave his career in the United States and move to the UAE, having never before even visited the Middle East.
‘Idris is an old friend and he was living between Los Angeles and Nashville,’ says Mr Hussain. ‘I had a conversation with him one Sunday in June and the following Sunday he was here in Dubai. Within a week he had packed and he was here.’
The producer, alongside Mohamed Benammi from Morocco (also a proficient composer and producer) now sits at the heart of JR Studio’s core mission, offering the full spectrum of his talent and experience to songwriters from the region in an effort to create a creative musical community within the city.
‘It’s something that we think could benefit the artists here,’ Mr Hussain enthuses. ‘We have to keep this going as a business but we’re pushing to work with schools and the community, younger artists especially.’
The plan, like the facility itself, has evolved. ‘I built the studio without any intention of working with clients from the outside – we were going to work on our own internal projects,’ Mr Hussain clarifies. ‘But when the place was built enquiries started to come in and they changed our understanding of what this could be. It’s about bringing people together, different artists with different backgrounds, and giving them a chance in this room.’
Considering the quality of the room in question, that’s quite an opportunity. Mr Hussain has invested carefully in the space in which his team works. Having previously experienced the disappointment of trying to artificially improve a room’s acoustic character, this time he enlisted the help of Genelec’s Clifford Pereira to achieve the best possible results from the start.
‘I took Clifford’s advice from the beginning, even when choosing the room,’ Mr Hussain recalls. ‘Before I chose the room I sent him the floor-plan to see if we would be able to work in a space like this. He’d seen the previous studio and the mistakes that had been made. But it was great that this room has angled walls, that just works so perfectly for us.’
To make his point, Mr Hussain strides into the open space between the mix position and the far wall where three Genelec 1238 CF monitors are positioned. The wall they stand before is comprised of three parts, subtly angled inwards to the left and right before meeting in a level centre section.
‘The idea was to get the same kind of reproductive space that happens in the real world,’ Mr Hussain begins. ‘The average home is not full of absorbers, the way a lot of studio rooms are built. Keeping that in mind, the whole room had to function in such a way that it didn’t hinder the sound.’
Indicating the angled wall, he continues: ‘These walls are angled to form a lens so that any and all reflections are directed towards the 1m bass trap that we have constructed on the back wall. That’s 1m of absorption across that whole wall. It means you only get direct sound coming to the mix position.’
He adds: ‘This room is not like other small studios where you just take a room, put some absorbers here and there and try to get it to work. Here the sound travels in a certain way so that it doesn’t hinder the sound at the mix position and you get a proper mix in the first shot. At the same time this is all hard wall – we built concrete to the ceiling.’
The concept is simple but effective, funnelling reflections past the mix position to ensure that all the engineer hears is the sound reproduced by the monitors. ‘That’s where we went wrong last time – it was complicated,’ Mr Hussain agrees. ‘We were asking ourselves “where has this gone wrong…?” and taking things apart and looking behind the walls… But this is so much simpler. If there’s a problem in here then there can only be two places where it could be wrong.’
Adding the finishing touch to the design, meanwhile, are the monitors themselves. Until their recent addition, the studio had been using Genelec 1032s, again sourced from the previous facility. ‘Then Clifford brought in the 1238s to demo,’ laughs Mr Hussain, ‘Demo – that beautiful word!’
Mr Hussain and Mr Phillips were both immediately convinced. ‘We were left saying “oh my goodness...” I felt the difference. It was as if we’d had our heads in the sand. Everything was around us and we felt the music.’
‘I brought some mixes from Los Angeles that I’d done a few years ago and I threw them up in this place,’ adds Mr Phillips. ‘I found out that I had to remix them. That’s a big compliment.’
With such care having been taken over the construction of JR Studio, it’s no surprise that the facility is already winning high-calibre projects, not least the creation of a score to accompany visitors as they tour the forthcoming Islamic Museum of Australia. Meanwhile the facility continues to develop, plans continue to unfold and the enthusiasm within the studio remains palpable. Soon, songwriters from Dubai and beyond will have the opportunity to record in the same delicately designed space that Yusuf Islam frequents, benefitting from the same minds and technology that will shape some of his future recordings.
‘It’ll be a hands-on experience for them,’ says Mr Hussain. ‘They’ll walk out with a recording that they’re hopefully proud of working on. If we could do that all day then we probably would.’