Sven Lens – The MusicTech Interview

Welcome to the latest in our series of producer interviews, where we put successful studio owners and engineers in the spotlight and ask them to pass on their knowledge and experience. This time, it’s Sven Lens and As Loud As…

The Amsterdam-based studio As Loud As is run by Sven Lens, who has worked with some huge names in the recording world but is just as happy offering advice to new bands at his incredible facility.

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He has recorded with Lil’ Wayne, Willie Nelson, Nelly Furtado and Snoop Dogg and worked at many festivals, including Rockin’ Park, handling the live duties for Lenny Kravitz, Counting Crows and Ben Folds. We caught up with Sven to talk tips, sparse arrangements, DIY recording and six-foot speakers.

MusicTech: Tell us a little about yourself: why you got into music and the position you are in now, running your own studio…

Sven Lens: I’m a 40-year-old producer/engineer/musician, working from my studio in Amsterdam. I work as a freelance producer and engineer doing mostly music, but also quite a bit of sound for television, live sound and – just for the fun of it –some other stuff, together with fellow musician Gijs Pronk. Together, we run Audiomedia.tv where we make music for commercials, feature film, games and so on.

As to how I got into music… my parents played me Steely Dan, Zeppelin and Queen most every day when I was a kid. After playing guitar in my youth, I got better and better, but not good enough to start a career as a guitarist. As a teenager, I recorded a demo with my first band – all Metallica covers – and the engineer made us sound even worse than we were back then!

I was sitting behind the console, tweaked a few knobs and it sounded better, and I just loved the technique, playing with EQ, axes and faders. From there on, I bought a small Tascam portastudio, a little desk and a few more bits and got myself into studios because I could do a bit of Pro Tools, which was up and coming back then. I was employed by a studio which did a lot of music sessions, and I worked there for two years before it went bankrupt. After that, I officially started for myself: www.asloudas.com was born.

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A varied bunch of instruments in the live room

MT: What is your overall philosophy or approach when it comes to music with playing, recording and production?

SL: Music means so much more to humanity than we all think or know. In every phase of my life – and I’m sure in that of other people’s – music played a big role, from Metallica, Sepultura and Therapy? as a frustrated teenager to Steely Dan or the jazz and classical music and everything in between I love nowadays. In the studio, my opinion is that 95% of the sound of a recording is in the hands of the artist and/or the musicians.

As a producer, depending on what you do, I just try to get the best out of everybody by making them feel comfortable, at ease and give them as much confidence as possible.

A studio is not a natural environment for most musicians: headphones, different acoustics, a guy behind the glass watching you… You have got to make sure you understand that and deal with it. And, of course, music has to be your passion if you want to be an engineer or producer. It’s a tough question to answer though!

Mixing in the box and out

MT: Tell us a little about your studio: the main components behind it and a little about how it all came together…

SL: Right now, while my new studio is being built at our new house, I rent out a place in Amsterdam where I use my own portable Pro Tools HD set in a small flightcase, a super-fast Apple Mac Mini i7 connected to an RME MADIface USB, which is connected to an SSL interface. The MADI interface lets me hook up to most of the live consoles, which is good for concert work.

The main components would be that Pro Tools set, slaved to a Grimm CC1 master clock, connected to my Cranesong Avocet, which goes into Bryston amps, which feed PMC TB2 near fields and those big PMC MB2 speakers – with subwoofers. They are six feet tall and they are magnets for selfies – which I hate by the way.

As Loud As Studios features the best of old and new gear, above is the live area

Everybody wants a picture next to one of those speakers! Other components in the chain are two original 1073 preamps, Manley ELOP, Millennia preamps, original Neumann U47 and U67 tube mics, and more.

MT: What are your favourite sound-generating studio tools – synths, guitars, etc – and why?

SL: For me, that would be electric guitars, because I play them myself. I think I know what I like to hear from a guitar recording, and through the years I experimented a lot with guitar amps, mics and preamps…and learned a lot from my mistakes! Years ago, while reading Mixing With Your Mind [by Michael Stavrou], I was amazed by the trick Stavrou uses for finding the right phase and sound from an amp, so I use that one a lot, too.

It’s a great book by the way. Right now – together with a friend – we’re developing a little stompbox to find the sweet spot for your mic in front of the guitar cabinet. It is really cool and simple because the only things you more or less need are a mic preamp, a noise generator and a headphone output.

MT: And outboard – what plug-ins or outboard do you find most creative and most useful on a day-to-day basis, and why?

SL: I love the Manley ELOP compressor. It is so easy to set up, and besides its smooth, smooth compression I love the sounds it gives you. I would describe it as ‘tubey’, I guess. I use that unit every day. The harder you drive it, the more you hear it working, even when not compressing.

MT: When you get asked about music production at the studio, what would you say is most common subject that people need to know about?

SL: The main question I hear is: ‘Why does it sound so awesome?’ I guess that it is me who is responsible for that one, right?! I think a lot of people think that it’s the gear and technology that make the music sound good, and that it’s so important, whereas I think the musicians/performers and how they play is the critical part to how things are going to sound.

Those selfie-inducing, six-foot PMC monitors. Yes Please!

Of course, mics, placement and all of that stuff is important, but once you have mastered that skill, you find out it is the band or the artist that really makes the difference. Although there is amazing gear which really does something nice to your sound, it will never be as important as a great musician laying just down his or her tracks in a great way.

MT: And when you listen to music recorded by other people, what is the biggest production mistake that you hear, and what is your cure-all advice for it?

SL: I have two, both from a studio perspective. In a lot of songs from up-and-coming bands, I hear this one before I record them: I want to do something about the arrangement of the song. Not in how the structure of a song is, but in how much it is played.

A lot of newer bands tend to record as much as possible, layer after layer, simply because it is possible these days to do it and every member of the band wants to get heard. When you write with your band, try to make one good part for your instrument, no dubs and no extra parts that just get in the way of the other parts. That sounds simple, but it is often the most difficult thing for a band to hear.

As a real-world example, that is why I love Steely Dan: their arrangements leave space for every instrument, while each instrument plays a great part in the song. And on the other side of the spectrum, with something like Sepultura’s Chaos AD (and more great ‘loud’ albums), although these are very intense and in your face, they also still manage to leave room and space.

The second one is that I get quite a lot of songs to mix which someone else has recorded, and I therefore know that this is the mistake that a lot of people make. It is that many people think that just sticking a mic in front an amp, instrument or singer makes a good recording that you can then make sound better in the mix, whereas what you should be doing is making a recording sound great in the first place!

Move your mics around, flip phase switches to see what sounds better, compare different microphones, try different drum kits, amps and instruments.

This helps you more then anything to get a great-sounding song, so maybe my overall advice should be to call the person who will mix your song before you start recording to see if he has helpful tips, etc!

It’s not all about the gear, having a great environment does help a lot…

MT: What advice and experiences have you picked up from running a studio that you can pass on to our readers?

SL: You have to have a passion for music and working with people. I love music and I love the work I do. If I wanted to earn big, big money I should’ve worked at a bank I guess…

MT: And from working in the studio?

SL: I have learned to work with people. For all kinds of reasons, people are happy, stressed out, angry, silent, outgoing or something else. When I started out, that sometimes really got to me, nowadays I just accept people can be all over the place, and most of the time they have a good reason for it!

MT: And what about any advice from working within the music industry as a whole that you can pass on?

SL: Nowadays, the whole band/artist to record company relation is a lot different than, say, 20 years ago. With the internet, artists have a way better artist-to-fan relation now because of all kinds of social media and crowdfunding.

They can organise gigs themselves, can put their songs on Soundcloud, Reverbnation, etc. And they can do all of this before they even hook up with a record label. I think that is a really positive thing. Bands work harder because they see that it pays off. Also, the industry has changed a lot without older people involved knowing it all, I guess!

MT: Talk us through at least one of your production tricks or processes that you tend to use most often and is something that perhaps defines your sound.

SL: I maybe tend to follow the original authentic sound of a band instead of trying to push it in some direction. Also, maybe the way I record guitars using that phase trick I mentioned earlier. Also try not compressing so much and just riding faders a lot while mixing! Try using automation more, as it helps keep your mix dynamic.

MT: What is on your wish list, studio-gear wise?

SL: Actually, there is not that much. I love DW Fearn preamps, and I would like a couple of them.

MT: What would you like to see developed in terms of studio technology, and why?

SL: That is another difficult one again. I know this is never going to happen, but I always wondered why speakers were never standardised (if that’s the word). In the dubbing stages, engineers decided they wanted to use U87s for all recordings of voice actors everywhere because they then would have some sort of consistent-sounding tracks.

As I am in quite a lot of different studios, for me it would be nice to have some sort of reference speaker – which could be anything as far as I’m concerned – so I know how the control room sounds. You know, a speaker can sound way different in one studio compared to other studios. But I know this will never happen, so I bring my own speakers most of the time…

MT: Tell us about your latest project and some of the latest work done at the studio…

SL: I did quite a lot over the last few months and one of them is a band called Princeton – five young guys who can actually play! They are not like a boy band, but musicians who write their own pop songs, which were awesome to record and they were great to work with.

Also, I have done some amazing work with some incredible engineers and producers, including Andy Bradfield, Chris Porter, Bob Clearmountain, Alan Branch and so on. Why do people come to me? Word of mouth, I guess. I make really strong White Russians, you know?

MT: What have you got planned for the future?

SL: I’m busy with some album recordings, a little tour with a choir… which may sound odd, but they are an amazing choir of students that sing songs from Mahler to the Stones… they actually performed with the Stones on the big festivals here last year. Never thought I’d ever like a choir, but these guys are great.

Besides that, I’m discussing doing some tips and tricks videos for Sonic Distribution over in the UK. I’m a big fan of their Munro Sonics Egg system, and they do Rupert Neve, Apogee, Waves, etc, as well.

MT: Lastly, what do you think is the future of music production?

SL: There will always be great albums from new artists. I know a lot of guys who do a lot of great stuff at home on their laptop, but most of the good ones miss real musicians/acoustics on their tracks and are searching to collaborate with producers/musicians to create something different. At the moment, I’m working with this really young talented guy who makes awesome tracks at home, but we’re introducing real drums, percussion and string ensembles into that.

It’s coming together really great, sounds rich, full and dynamic, almost dance 2.0 – maybe that’s were it is going.

For more information on Sven Lens and As Loud As, go to www.asloudas.com.

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