Tony Cummings journeyed to DB STUDIOS in Lincoln to talk to the facility's founder Dan Bowater
At the end of a seriously unpromising lane on a Lincoln industrial estate is a nondescript concrete building which from the outside still looks like the warehouse it once was. In fact this is one of the power bases of Britain's grassroots Christian music scene. Over the years dB Studios have recorded a veritable torrent of albums by artists like Chris Bowater, Andy Bromley, Johnny Markin, Trish Morgan, Dave Middleton, Patti Boulaye and Tre Luci not to mention the pioneering 'Re-lease' series of albums which gives non-professional worship songwriters a chance to get their songs recorded with quality musicians and session singers. The founder of dB Studios, and the source of its moniker, is Dan Bowater, eldest son of renowned worship leader and songwriter Chris Bowater. Because of Chris' ministry Dan grew up surrounded by music. "As a child I used to travel around with my dad and we used to go to gigs. I always felt it a real privilege because more than anything I got to stay up late at night and I got to eat sweets on coaches and mini-buses, travelling around the country. Invariably I ended up sitting with the sound engineer at concerts and being inquisitive I would be asking them 'what does this do?' and 'what does that do?' I got shown how to wind up a cable and the very basics of sound, which really got me interested in sound engineering. I began doing sound in my church and from the age of 16 we got a little demo set-up at home so my dad could do some demos. We created the Grapevine Songbook in the early days all from a cubbyhole bedroom in my parents' house.
"From there I went to university in Salford and studied professional sound and video technology. I learnt an awful lot of theory but I had had so much practical experience beforehand it didn't really widen my experience in terms of actually doing things. It was more like I understood maybe some of the background to things."
After uni Dan became a freelance engineer travelling around with various musicians, doing their live sound and from time to time venturing into various recording studios. Sometimes when the phone didn't ring, he had to take other work. "I was a dustman for a period. I drove vans. I did anything just to earn some money at that time. My dad and myself had always talked about one day having a recording studio but what I really wanted to do was to learn my trade and to kind of know that I had a talent, or I knew I could get better at it. So what happened was I began to work. I did some freelance work down in Eastbourne at ICC Studios."
Amongst the projects Bowater engineered was the Johnny Markin album 'Little Town' and an early Richard Lewis project. He also worked on a couple of albums recorded by his father at ICC. He remembers the experience rather ruefully, "'A New Day', an interesting album. It was my dad's venture into trying to be culturally relevant. It was I think commercially a bit of a flop but I think we had fun recording it. I worked in a studio up here - Chapel Studios. I got to work with Paul Weller, part of his recording; I can't remember the album but the one after 'Stanley Road'. I did all sorts of things, at all different kinds of studios at different levels."
In 1996 Dan received a phone call which, as it turned out, was to result in the birth of dB Studios. He explained, "I had done some work in Littlehampton at West Park Studios, which was the studio that was owned by Tim Jupp and had the resident engineer, Martin Smith. Paul Burton had a flat upstairs and was engineering there as well. I was doing some freelance work there. I had known Martin for a long time through ICC and so I was there for quite a bit. What happened was actually Delirious? had just done their 'Cutting Edge' cassette and were doing really well. They were gigging all over and essentially they decided that they were going to go full time and were trying to work out what they were going to do with their studio. So Tim, pretty much out of the blue, phoned my dad and said, 'I don't know what this means but would you be interested in buying some of our equipment if we were to close the studio?' So my dad and I talked about this and looked into the possibilities of buying the vast majority of the equipment from West Park which included the desk and multi track, reel to reel, a load of microphones, speakers, all sorts of things really."
In an act of extraordinary faith Dan and his father decided to buy West Park Studios' equipment. Remembered Dan, "We had no facility to bring it into but thought, 'Okay, we'll go for it.' So we drove down with a Luton van and picked it all up, bubble wrapped everything and brought it home. We put it in my parents' garage. We began looking for a building to put it. We looked all over Lincoln and found what we thought was the place. It actually connected to our home church New Life Christian Fellowship. We got an architect in to start drawing up plans and it looked like it was going to be perfect. We were going to tie into the main hall, we could do live recordings and all sorts of things. But at the very last moment it fell through because the owners decided they didn't want a recording studio in their building. We were desperate, we had already started to take some bookings and we had nowhere to record. So we went around all the local estate agents. We went around looking at various lock-ups and garages. Eventually we got shown essentially a warehouse and it was totally derelict throughout but it was a very, very big space and the rental price was pretty low. It was outside of the city centre. I'm not a visionary but my dad kind of is, he could see things. He went, 'Yeah, this could really work for us.'"
The "very big space" to which Dan refers is The Old Brickyard where dB Studios is now housed. He explained, "We got an architect in and they drew up plans and eventually we took on the property on a 10-year lease and began to put in the infrastructure of walls and everything that we needed to turn it into a recording studio."
I asked Dan how the whole thing was financed. "What happened was the directorship of the company was created and it was actually made up of myself, my parents and a silent partner who invested some money to do the building work. My parents actually re-mortgaged their house to pay for the equipment.. They took a big step of faith and in April 1997 we opened the doors of dB Studios."
Work began to trickle in. "Johnny Markin was actually living fairly locally at the time so we did some things with Johnny. He became a bit of an in-house producer. I was engineering and we were kind of learning the ropes together. Early on we did the Grapevine albums. I worked on absolutely anything and everything. I think in the first couple of years we looked at the money that was coming in and it worked out that for 50 weeks of the year I was doing 82 hour weeks. I was putting a lot of hours in and I think in that first year I was on £4000 a year. It was an awful lot of work and effort and I certainly felt a certain amount of, not pressure or stuff, but I knew that my parents had obviously put a lot on the line to make it happen so I wanted to make sure that I did my part to make the business happen. We did hundreds of projects from people singing along to karaoke CDs through to full orchestral arrangements, symphonic orchestras, jazz bands, all sorts of things."
Dan mentioned recording the annual Grapevine event at the Lincoln Showground. How did dB deal with the logistics of that? "In the early days when we did the recording it was a case of stripping out all the gear, putting it into the back of a transit van and kitting out the transit van as a recording studio. For the more recent ones though Paul Burton has got a really nicely kitted out van that has been used for the recordings. Then the recordings come here and we do the post production."
Essential to any recording studio is a fairly full diary so how did sufficient work continue to come in? "What really began to happen was - I think the link points for the studio were two fold - either people that I had met on my travels as an engineer and so people that I had had connections with and all of a sudden I had a studio so they are like let's go see Dan and let's do some recording with him. Secondly it was people that connected with my dad so people that were really coming under his wing, people like Andy Bromley, Angie Lendon. People that are now more established worship leaders. What began to happen was that as my dad went out into various churches he was encountering people who were desperate to do their own recording and to get their songs out there. So we began to see maybe there was a niche market there, which was really how the 'Re-leased' album series came about. The 'Re-leased' albums offered worship composers a chance to do a professional recording, a good quality version of their song at a reduced cost. It's basically for people who might not have the finances to do a whole album's worth or an EP's worth but actually if they funded their one song and we could put that on a compilation album. If we had 12 people funding one song each we actually had enough to do a reasonable album."
Over the years dB Studios have recorded albums for Word, Kingsway and Kevin Mayhew. They have also recorded a veritable torrent of independent projects. In all the myriad of sessions one project which stands out in Dan's mind is his father's 'Still' album. Explained Dan, "My dad thought he had pretty much hung up his microphone and entered retirement in worship leading. But on the 'Still' album he pretty much said 'this album is for me and my family just to say I am still here, I still love God.' He wrote out a list of things that he loved and that he is still around. He didn't need a record label. It wasn't a militant statement by any means. He just felt that the record companies were looking for younger people now. So we recorded 'Still' and it really became an album of, I guess, love, for myself and Howard Williams who is the other part of the production team at dB Studios. A whole load of local musicians, past and present, came in and put their little touches on the album as well as some great musicians that have played on his albums in the past; people like Neil Costello. We had string quartets, we had Dave Fitzgerald and Mike Haughton and some of these great musicians. We created a very, very interesting album. It isn't necessarily radio friendly but it really put across where my dad's at and it's more like his live performances where he really ebbs and flows in-between songs and creates an atmosphere just by going from one song to another. So a lot of the songs actually flow into one another. So that was a really interesting, exciting album."
One of the most unusual projects dB Studios have ever undertaken was an album of English translations of Korean worship songs. Explained Dan, "I don't know what they were released as. The concept was that they were going to take them back to Korea, package them up as English language albums and get them out into their Korean churches all around the world. Apparently there's a large Korean population in LA, parts of England, primarily London and there are populations all around Europe. The concept was to get the songs out to those people, probably all tunes that they recognised from being in Korea but in English language so they could actually sing them. We did about five or six albums with them ranging from a huge symphonic orchestral version down to a very basic acoustic guitar version. That was a really interesting project and a headache as well just in terms of the organisation and the translation skills that were definitely lacking on our part. We didn't speak any Korean but sometimes the things they were asking for in their broken English was often very difficult to determine exactly what they were looking to get."
Today Dan is very excited about the potential of Tre Luci, three female former choristers from Lincoln Cathedral. After their appearance at Spring Harvest, a Cathedral tour is now being planned. Said Dan about the 'Tre Luci' album, "It's a great album to kind of soak in and really, in your quiet times, to enjoy. Howard did an absolutely brilliant production job."
Our fascinating conversation was drawing to a close so I felt the time was right to grab the bull by the horns and ask a question on behalf of all the hundreds of bands, singer/songwriters and artists of every type who dream of making a professional quality album. How much would an artist need to spend at dB Studios to get an album worth releasing? "Of course it's a bit like answering the question 'how long is a piece of string?' For a larger scale album you're probably looking at spending £10,000 to £12,000. For a smaller album you're probably looking at £6,000 to £7,000 and for a budget album you're probably looking at £3,000 to £4,000. That's including pretty much everything in those prices. I'll give you an example. We had somebody recently and on a four-track EP they will have spent just over £2,500 up until the mix. After that comes duplication and artwork. So for that £2,500 she's got the recording and the mix for four songs. In a weird way actually five songs wouldn't have been much more or maybe six songs; it's only once you get into maybe doubling the four songs it increases because obviously a session player can play six songs in a day probably but you pay them the same for the six songs as you would for four songs. The economics are a bit strange sometimes but they invariably do work out."
I left Dan with his thoughts about the music industry ringing in my ears. "I think the great thing about the music industry and probably the most frustrating thing about it is what I call the 'what if' factor. In music there are always going to be bands and artists who save up to do a recording and they go, 'Okay, we can afford to stretch ourselves, we can take out a credit card which has got zero per cent for a year and as long as we pay 'x' amount of pounds per month then we are clear.' And with music there's always a chance that something big might happen to your little recording. I think the great thing is that unknown aspect is always there. So we can only do our best and I think as long as artists are aware there's no guarantees, they can come to dB Studios and we'll give them a product with added value. What we try and say to people is that if you are paying for 10 hours of studio time, invariably they will get 12 hours because that's what we are like and we wont just finish at 10 hours because it's the end of the day, we'll put the extra hours in because the resulting CD will have our names on it as well, and we really want it to be as good as it possibly can be. So you go away with a recording hopefully sounding great. It goes out there and at that point you don't know where it's going to go, who is going to listen to it or who's a friend of a friend of a friend who might listen to it at a party or at a worship concert. You just don't know."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.