Ever wished you could be a fly on the wall when your favourite song was recorded for the first time? As an audio engineer, you are in the unique position of not only witnessing magic in the making, but also playing an integral part in the production of it.
Alex Archer is an audio engineer based in London, who started out his career as an apprentice for Real World Studios in Box. Now, Alex is responsible for producing almost every Vevo UK Live Session and has worked with top international artists including Kaiser Chiefs, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lewis Capaldi and many more.
Keep reading as we go #BackstageWith Alex and take a peek behind the curtain to see what really goes into the making of a hit song.
What attracted you to a career in the production side of music?
I had played various instruments as a kid, never very well, but was lucky enough to discover Hot House Music in Derby which teaches jazz through ensembles and big bands. Hot House arranged a recording studio session to cut an album, and from the first moment I stepped into the studio, I felt inspired and hooked in a way I had never felt before. It was all the colours and lights, the boxes and cables - I wanted to know how it all worked and press as many buttons as I could! I stayed long after we were finished, sat in the corner of the studio, just watching the engineer work.
My happy place was always listening to albums on my iPod, and it felt like that’s what the studio guys got to do all day and more, they got to work with the bands and musicians, the dream job!
Can you tell us a bit about your experience as an apprentice at Real World Studios? What were some of the most valuable lessons you took from your time there?
I was really lucky to get the opportunity assisting and apprenticing with Steve Osborne. From day one, I was sat in the room with Simple Minds, straight in at the deep end. If you really want to learn how to do anything, the best way is to watch someone more experienced do it. Sadly, a lot of music education lacks that crucial element of time with experienced professionals. It’s easy to gain A-Levels and a degree without knowing or understanding some really fundamental concepts. (Side note to anyone looking at Music Tech courses, my top tip would be look at who teaches the course).
Steve taught me a lot of valuable lessons that have shaped my work to this day, probably the most important being the human interaction side of the work. When someone is performing, whether on stage or in a studio, it’s a very vulnerable thing to do, so when you don’t look interested, check a text on your phone, or talk over it, understandably, they may not put as much effort in. And there’s no plugin that can compensate for the magic of a good performance! So, to this day I make a priority of ensuring any artist I’m working with feels comfortable and happy.
It was also a real insight into the process of making records, learning how you adapt to the workflow of different artists, how to make sure technology didn’t get in the way of creativity and seeing the time and hard work it takes to make an album. Also, studios are hierarchies, not egalitarian communes, so if you get the opportunity to sit in the back of a room whilst a record is being made, take it, but keep opinions to yourself and just make lots of tea and coffee!
Real World Studios in Box. Photo Credit: York Tillyer.
How did you get involved with Vevo and the production of their original content?
It started when I was asked to cover a Vevo shoot for a friend back in 2014, and I think I’ve done pretty much every UK session since. In so many people’s stories you hear that element of luck, the phone call out the blue or being in the right place at the right time, and it can be disheartening thinking you might not get lucky.
I do believe there’s some truth to “the harder you work, the luckier you seem to get”. Wherever you are, try and find communities and make friends with other people doing similar work to you. Be generous and put friends forward for jobs you can’t do; not so that they will reciprocate but it can come back to you, if people know you and know what you do.
Do you have any ‘pinch me’ moments from projects you’ve worked on?
Two spring to mind. When we recorded Kaiser Chiefs for Vevo, and they launched into ‘Ruby’, I just found myself beaming from ear to ear thinking back to being a teenager and all the times I saw Kaiser Chiefs live. I was now recording them playing live, it felt like a bit of moment. That and the session I recorded for Carly Rae Jepson in Lapland. From a purely technical standpoint, I had to work so much out and had a lot of responsibility so when it all ran smoothly, I felt really proud of myself and the whole team.
How would you describe the relationship between the artist and the audio engineer?
As an engineer, you’re always working in service of the artist, even if they aren’t directly paying you or it’s not your thing musically, in the moment you are working for them and your goal should be to make them comfortable and happy. And that doesn’t always mean saying yes to all requests or not asking the artist to do things in a way that makes your job easier, but it’s a working relationship that can become a close friendship due to the proximity you often have with an artist.
Alex Archer. Photo Credit: alexanderarcher.co.uk
First gig, last gig, favourite gig?
First gig was P.O.D (Payable on Death) at Birmingham Academy aged 13. My Dad warned me it would be loud but 5 minutes in I thought I was going to collapse it was so loud! But 15 minutes in and I was used to it and loved it.
Lately gigs have been hard to come by due to lockdown, but I recently saw Kenny Hoopla at the Social and Bears In Trees at Powerhaus.
Favourite gig, that’s a tough one. Radiohead at Leeds Festival 2009 maybe, or Bon Iver at Hammersmith a couple of years ago…oh wait, Prince at Hop Farm, it literally started raining during Purple Rain like it was planned - unbelievable.
Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood?
I could do a whole playlist. Any time I hear Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen, I’m reminded of bouncing up and down on the sofa as a kid when my dad would blast it out, or Love And Happiness by Al Green, when the guitar lick comes in… what a song!
Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at YTL Arena Bristol and why?
If someone could arrange a weird double headline show with Queens Of The Stone Age and Vulfpeck, that would be a dream ticket.
And finally, can you share an all-time favourite song/ a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?
Ooh let’s go with a little Tom Waits, Long Way Home, a beautiful song that sounds like a classic… or, if I can sneak on two The Modern Leper by Frightened Rabbit.
To listen to our Backstage Playlist on Spotify, click here. For exciting updates at YTL Arena Bristol, follow @ytlarenabristol on social media or sign up to our newsletter here.