A former cotton press in Mumbai has been converted to provide a rehearsal and recording studio for a local band. Caroline Moss investigates.
When six-piece Mumbai band Something Relevant needed a space to rehearse and record, their size and eclectic nature posed a few challenges.
‘We are a large band with a big drum and percussion setup and a horn section,’ explains Something Relevant’s guitarist, Tanmay Bhattacherjee. ‘It was hard to use our full arsenal of instruments in the smaller jam rooms that we would frequent. This kind of stifled our creativity – we had to make compromises. So we were on the lookout for a space that would allow creativity to flourish with all the technical requirements in place and ready to go.’
For four years the band searched for the right premises, making do with temporary solutions. Finally they came across the Parel Cotton Press Factory Compound and its landlord, Mazher Jaffar, who runs a warehousing business. Unwittingly, the band had stumbled across the owner of Schwinn Audio, a company that sets up domestic hi-fi systems for clients in his spare time. ‘We got lucky to have an audiophile landlord!’ smiles Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘He blasts classical music on Tannoy speakers in his office all day!’
Mr Jaffar was instrumental in getting Cotton Press Studio up and running, charging a nominal rent for the midtown premises. ‘When the band approached me, they needed a place to jam and record their own music as they played,’ says Mr Jaffar. ‘I didn’t know initially that they wanted to create a proper recording studio here. I personally am a lover of music – not the kind that Something Relevant plays, but Western and Indian classical music. However, I believe in supporting talent, and this was a new idea which appealed to me. It was a call I took on my gut instinct, with no financial motivation. I am happy with the way things have turned out. My place is being used for some constructive work. Lots of young, talented artists come and visit, and the basic energy level is very positive.’
Just a few months in, Cotton Press Studios is fulfilling one of its main raisons d’etre: to unite Indian musicians who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet and play together. ‘One of the aims of the studio is to build a community,’ says Something Relevant’s drummer Jehangir Jehangir. ‘There are so many awesome musicians in the country, but we don’t have that culture where musicians just meet and jam with each other.’
There is no doubt the band has lucked out with the premises. Aside from its convenient midtown location, benefits include 24 hour security and neighbouring tenants who head home after a day’s work, allowing bands to play without disturbing anyone. However the 110 sq-m space initially presented some acoustic challenges, including a 28 tonne cotton press which had to be incorporated into the studio design, and this is where Kapil Thirwani from Munro Acoustics came in. Munro Acoustics had provided live recording studios for artists and producers including U2 and Dan Carey, and this was exactly the setup Something Relevant were looking for.
‘The concept is for the band to be distributed around the space with an engineer in one corner recording the session on headphones, which can then be played back on monitors,’ explains Mr Thirwani. ‘This gives an open and interactive environment, and bands don't feel locked out in a recording space with someone watching them play through a window.’
Like Mr Jaffar, Munro Acoustics also kept its rates low, charging a nominal consultancy fee. ‘These kids were putting their savings into this space and we believed in what they were working towards,’ says Mr Thirwani. ‘This is our way of supporting upcoming talent in being able to have their own acoustically treated studio.’
Munro Acoustics put forward a layout that would provide maximum utilisation of the space. As well as a jam room with the capability to record live sessions, the band also wanted a small control room environment for programming music and mixing. The room was treated with low frequency and full range membrane absorbers, and the space was measured at different locations for optimum placement of drumkit and other instruments. ‘We built a drumkit platform with mattresses and particle board, keeping budget in mind,’ explains Mr Thirwani. ‘We also fitted the ceiling with a Rockfon acoustic grid – a good material which doesn't eat too much energy in the mid bands, with a Rockwool backing to absorb a decent amount of low frequency.’
‘Kapil did a fantastic job with the room; I haven't heard our music sound so good in a room before,’ says Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘The room has areas that are absorptive and areas that are more live. The tuning of the room according to how the instruments would be placed has worked really well.’
Developments in technology have also helped Something Relevant realise their dream studio. To run alongside their own equipment, gathered in the 10 years they have been together, they invested in some key pieces. ‘One of the main ideas was to record a band live with effects on the headphones and no latency,’ explains Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘So when Universal Audio announced the Apollo high resolution interface earlier this year, we immediately ordered one.’
Also on the wish list was a good console. ‘Unfortunately we couldn't afford an SSL Matrix, so we went for the Nucleus, which was supplied by Sound Team here in Mumbai,’ he continues. ‘The controller allows us to speed up our recording and mixing process by at least 400 per cent. We've got a UA 4-710d with four preamps running on ADAT to the Apollo, two SSL analogue preamps from the Nucleus, and the SSL Alpha channel with four more SSL pres. Our gear setup is designed to keep the creative juices flowing rather than getting stuck in the technology.’ SE Munro Egg monitors grace the control room, purchased after Mr Bhattacherjee attended a demo given by Andy Munro in Mumbai.
As well as those offering competitive rates, some audio companies put together sponsorship deals, happy to be associated with such a talented and innovative operation. ‘MX cables came on board and sponsored our entire cabling setup,’ says Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘They made us custom cables for our room and we couldn't have asked for a better deal. The cables are super heavy duty and very reliable. Furtados Music also stepped in, providing instruments, amplifiers, mic stands and accessories. They also gave us a great deal on our B Steiner upright piano. They are a legendary company in India and have really helped us and a lot of bands over the past few years.’
Something Relevant were already an endorsee of Sennheiser, which had provided equipment for the band’s live setup, and this is also being used in the studio. ‘There are indie bands aplenty, but only a few have that spark to sustain their momentum,’ says Gunjan Srivastava, managing director of Sennheiser India. ‘We believed in the potential of Something Relevant and decided to support them to take a leap forward. Sennheiser often supports new bands and budding artists globally, who share a love of perfect sound.’
To say that Cotton Press Studio has changed the way Something Relevant work is something of an understatement. Their first album, Feels Good 2B Live, was recorded in just four days at legendary Mumbai studio Yash Raj; now they have been able to spend time crafting its follow up, We Could Be Dreaming. ‘Before, we had only read about bands who would go into a studio with a producer and spend however long it took to put down what they wanted to do and get their creative juices going,’ says Mr Jehangir. ‘It’s been like that for us; it’s changed the way we look at production and our music. We’ve had a lot of fun recording and we’ve learned how to use the studio as a tool.’
Adds vocalist Stuart Da’Costa: ‘Before the studio, our jam sessions acted as the canvas for our songs – all our creativity came out of that. The space we used was tiny, so we were very limited in what instruments and percussion we could use. The recorded sound was very small too. The new studio has opened up our creativity, allowing us to try all sorts of new ideas. We have really progressed since we’ve been here.’
This new way of working is reflected in We Could Be Dreaming (available for download at www.oklisten.com). ‘We recorded the band playing together live, and about 40 per cent of the album is the original live takes,’ says Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘We built upon these for two weeks, improving the scores and arrangement, writing lyrics and shaping up the production simultaneously; there was a lot of parallel activity and a really good energy in the studio. We kept the essence of what we did live and just went with that. We're very happy with this album, its the fruits of our labour and although we did it in a relaxed way, we managed to get it done in two months thanks to some really long sessions.’
This process was also a learning curve for engineers Rohan Ramanna and Navneeth Narasimhan. ‘We all experimented on this album, without losing the live essence of the band's original tracks,’ continues Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘I had to be on both sides of the fence, musical as well as technical, so I learnt quite a bit about production. Rohan and I used this project to get used to the studio and our speakers. Meanwhile Marzban Irani, our live sound engineer, is working on getting the new album sound at gigs too, so that’s going to be fun!’
The band has also found time to produce tracks for other musicians, along with some advertising and commercial work. Conscious of the altruism that helped get the studio up and running in the first place, they are now passing it onto others.
‘We figured that by creating this studio, we would not only help ourselves but other bands too,’ says Mr Bhattacherjee. ‘There are some really good bands here, and many of them simply don’t get the chance record. Cotton Press Studio is a unique space in this city; it's a large, acoustically treated room with a relaxed and friendly vibe, where an artist can feel creative and be reassured that their music and lyrics are in good hands. We want to record and produce bands and create great music here in India, so we plan on offering super discounted rates. Bands can make money if they keep their production costs low, simultaneously making a good sounding record. Before we created this space, that was something of an impossibility.’
Cotton Press Studio is also providing a launchpad for a multitude of projects the band is now able to undertake. One of these is a series of podcasts, Sessions at the Press, broadcast via a YouTube channel and featuring bands playing at the studio. ‘We’re filming artists in their comfort zone; they can come in and perform songs they know well and have performed a thousand times,’ says Mr Bhattacherjee.
As well as regular gigs in Mumbai, Something Relevant are also planning a tour of India – no small undertaking in a country so large and challenging to travel across – ‘to keep people informed that we exist’.
Something Relevant are indeed an extraordinary band. The maturity and sense of unity is undoubtedly due to the fact that despite their youth, they have been playing together for a decade. In setting up Cotton Press Studio, they have demonstrated the same innovation they displayed in organising a self-promoted and funded UK tour in 2012 before taking a six month sabbatical to attend the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Chennai to hone their talents. With such drive and passion behind it, Cotton Press is a fantastic addition to the rich musical life of Mumbai.