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Ian Dowling
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Ian Dowling

Engineer
Ian Dowling

Ian Dowling won a Grammy for his work on Adele's 21 but considers the record making process to be more important than any 'bauble'. He has engineered at Strongroom Studios and produced a string of bands; from Alexis Kings to Hot Dreams. Yet he tells us, the more you learn, the less you realise you know…

Adele, Alexis Kings, Kasabian, Black Honey, Bombay Bicycle Club, Everything Everything, Hot Dreams, KT Tunstall, One Direction, Catfish and the Bottlemen
Ian's Aston Gear
Origin
Starlight
No more practicing paradiddles

I started my life in music as a drummer in punk and grunge bands in my teens. That led to a performing arts course as a musician, providing musical accompaniment to the stage plays that the actors and stage techs were putting on. In my second year, two things happened: I started listening to more electronic music which introduced me to samplers and synths, and the college invested in a small studio setup, which was an 8-track Tascam 1” tape machine, a Soundcraft desk and a few mics. I realised that I enjoyed working with technology more than practicing paradiddles all day.

 After college I went to Staffordshire to do their BSc in Music Technology, a course that was very focussed on the science behind making music with technology, rather than the practicalities of programming or recording a band. At the time I was annoyed that there wasn’t more focus on actual record-making but, looking back, I’m glad. Anything I would have learned would have been out of date a couple of years later, whereas I still lean on the principles that I was taught then, almost 20 years on. The technology may change but the science doesn’t.

When I started the course, Napster and Google rose to prominence. I thought it was brilliant. It’s fair to say that I did not fully appreciate the effect it would have on the industry I was hoping to make a career in. It’s a strange feeling, looking back now, seeing myself starting my journey in the music industry, just at the point when everything changed beyond all recognition. I often wonder if, had I somehow predicted the effect of file-sharing, whether I would have continued with my dream of ‘making it’ in record production (whatever that means). I think I would have done because I was so completely obsessed with it – it seemed impossibly romantic to me at that time. Maybe I would have made sure I had something else on the side, though, something lucrative like coding…

You thought you knew it all…

After university I tried to get a job in a recording studio. Actually, I tried to get a job, any job, in a lot of places. I interviewed at the BBC for radio production (about which I knew precisely zero). I interviewed at mastering houses, I sent out hundreds of CVs to any music-related company – labels, promoters, venues, everyone. I got nothing back, so I thought ‘fuck this’ and went traveling round Europe for three months. When I got back I sent the exact same CVs to the exact same companies and got two replies, one of which was Strongroom in Shoreditch. That’s how I became a runner there in 2001, and left as in-house engineer seven years later, to go freelance.

 After Strongroom I started working with Jim Abbiss as his engineer. It’s a funny quirk of age and experience that, as you learn more, you realise just how much there is you don’t know, and will possibly never know. I look back at myself at that time and think ‘you had absolutely no idea about anything, but you thought you knew everything’. I think if I met '2008 me' now I would find myself quite annoying – well done to Jim for putting up with me. He’s the one who really taught me about record making. He’s been my mentor for a long time, and now I’m proud to call him my friend. We occasionally still work together and I always enjoy it as much as I ever did. That’s a piece of advice I always like to give younger engineers: get a mentor. Be someone’s apprentice. I worry that it doesn’t happen as much any more. It’s partly financial, but it’s mainly because studios and record production don’t now lend themselves to educating the younger generation on the job. Budgets are tight and there’s too much at stake.

Just a load of baubles

Between 2008 and 2015, it was an incredible few years for me. I was working with great artists in the best studios, traveling abroad, and I guess living the dream, really. In 2011 Jim and I won a Grammy Award each for our work on Adele’s album 21. It was a bizarre feeling to be receiving an award like that. It wasn’t ever an ambition of mine – really it seemed so outside the realms of possibility that it wasn’t ever something that I had ever even thought about. It did spin me out a bit at the time and, counterintuitively, it made me lose confidence in my ability. I ended up finding that it made me question what I was doing too much. “Is this what a Grammy-winning engineer would do?” I would ask. Looking back I don’t think I thought I deserved it, that I wasn’t good enough. But now I know that all of that stuff is bullshit. Sure, it’s a nice thing, but I really do get more pleasure from the process of actually making records than I ever would from receiving an award. They’re just baubles really. It’s what you make that matters.

In-the-box ears

I spent a good part of my 20s learning techniques that are now almost completely redundant, with tape machines, desks, mix automation, outboard, synchronisers… It’s rare that I use any of those now, really rare. I started with the intention of having an analogue/digital hybrid setup, but it just isn’t practical. I do everything inside my Mac now – I have to be able to recall a mix at a moment’s notice. It’s taken me a while to adjust my ears and my way of working to doing everything in the box. I started off trying to mix as I would on a desk, but in the computer. It never worked out but now I work better with the technology. The way I mix has changed beyond recognition. It’s actually more creative now – it’s freed me up a lot.

I’ve also changed the way I approach recording. I used to be a real vintage freak, but it just doesn’t fit with the records I want to make – I want them to sound current.  Also, when I produce I do a lot of the engineering, so I just want things that work every time with no fuss. That’s why I like Aston mics. They sound great on all kinds of instruments and they never let me down. I’ve got an Origin, which I use on kick drums, bass cabs, pianos, vocals… almost anything. I think of it as kind of like a U87, in as much as it sounds really good on almost anything and EQs really nicely.

I have used the Origin on the bass guitar amp with artists including Alexis Kings, Black Honey, LIFE and Hot Dreams. I've tried loads of combinations over the years, often ending up with three mics in front of the amp and all the phase issues associated with that. As soon as I heard the Aston on there I realised that was all I needed from now on.

I also have a pair of Starlights. They’re my ‘go to’ for overheads. You can change the tone if you wish, they’re unobtrusive and with the laser it’s really easy to line them up on the snare to minimize phase for a tighter sound, or have them wide for something with a bit more space. I’ve used them on acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, as room mics… They’ve always sounded tonally balanced. I used to use KM84s in the same way, but now I wouldn’t bother – the Starlights are better.

Out-takes

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?
A. “I think my ultimate mic would be one that was completely reliable, very detailed and completely transparent, so that I would have as much flexibility as possible after recording. And it would float/hover in any position I placed it and be connected wirelessly. At this point I can’t really be bothered with setting up stands and plugging in mic cables any more. Come on Aston. Help a brother out.”

Q. What are the 4 words you’d chose to describe Aston, the mics or your experience with the brand?
A. “Reliability, tonally balanced, detailed, great all-rounders.”

Q. What was the first song that made you cry?
A. “My Girl by The Temptations.”

Credits

“My favourite artists at the moment: are Moses Sumney, Alabama Shakes, LCD Soundsystem, Dense and Pika, Björk and David Bowie.”

Alexis Kings

Alice Phoebe Lou

Black Honey

Blaenavon

Hot Dreams

LIFE

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