Sound engineer Duncan O’Cleirigh runs Blackwater Studios in Glanworth, county Cork.

‘A gentle opening of the taps’

By now, we’ve all heard of the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the livelihoods of working musicians, but what about the recording studios?

It’s easy to forget that, behind every song we casually stream and every music video we glance at, sits a technical wizard or two in a dark, soundproof cave.

I refer of course to the wonderful and often underappreciated people known as audio engineers.

I caught up with two such people from two of Cork’s busiest recording studios to see how the last year and a half has been for them.

“Well, basically we were shut down in March 2020 until the following August. There were a few projects in the pipeline and Cork band Fyunkay were the first back in to do their EP,” says Duncan O'Cleirigh who runs Blackwater Studios in Glanworth.

“There was a mad recording done with the Fermoy International Choir where we did a Christmas single, recording them two at a time. It was a huge challenge logistically, each pair done in 20 minute time slots with everyone having to stay in their cars until their appointed time, then dashing in when I’d give the thumbs up.

“Facemasks off just to sing, a quick photo, then back on, then vent the rooms, change mics, clean down stands. Bonkers!”

Duncan says one of the more challenging aspects for him was to maintain a sterile environment while making sure that the standard of his work was unaffected.

“It’s impossible to truly sterilise a microphone without damaging it, so that means you can’t use it again for nearly a week, so sessions have to be spread out.

“People have been great but yeah, it’s added another layer of things to be on top of. Their music still has to be every bit as well recorded and mixed as before. So it’s like you’ve got two top priorities, not one,” he explains.

Overall, Duncan says the most difficult aspect of the whole thing was the lack of interaction which is such a key part of what he does.

“Recording is a very organic process. Ideas go over and back, friendships are formed, jokes are made. Imagine trying to show someone an idea without just picking up a guitar or sitting at a piano and playing it to them. First you need to send the Zoom invite, then they can’t hear or see you. Aaargh!” he laughs.

One question I was eager to ask Duncan was whether he expected any kind of ‘boom’ of musical creativity after the pandemic.

“I think the creativity has always been there but maybe people had more time on their hands because they weren't gigging. Making a living solely from gigs is a hugely time consuming thing if it’s your only source of income.

“I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for this but, in one way, the fact that gigs have been shut down has really driven the point home that musicians have been robbed blind by the whole rise of streaming and downloads.”

Although Duncan says there are plenty of positives too, he feels the low fees doled out by streaming platforms and how they arrive at these figures is unfair.

Back in the city, audio engineer Eoin Hayes of Rebel Recordings on the South Douglas Road, feels differently about the impact of streaming and (legal) downloading but says the rise in popularity of vinyl is a truly welcome development for musicians and fans alike.

“I don’t think streaming or legal downloading has any negative impact on working musicians. It is how many musicians make or supplement their income and release their music. I rarely ever have a client ask for a hard CD copy of a production,” says Eoin.

He adds: “We’ve also seen a huge jump in vinyl sales in recent years which is great and definitely one of my favourite ways to listen to music.”

Looking back over the last 18 months, Eoin tells me his business came second to his own personal needs and that he used much of the time to hone his skills.

“To be honest though, I was glad about that at the time. Working long days in close quarters with clients that were mostly essentially strangers, with so many question marks regarding Covid, was getting a little nerve-racking.

“I got stuck into trying to improve my skill level as a mix, recording and mastering engineer. I tried to plug any little holes in my knowledge base, partly as the ‘responsible thing’ to do but mostly to keep myself occupied.”

At one point, Eoin was ordering a new guitar pedal for the studio every single week enjoying the process of hunting them down and opening them as a break from the “mundane existence of a winter lockdown”.

Like Duncan, Eoin encountered a number of technical difficulties in the recording process throughout the lockdown and says he did most of the post-production from home.

“The nature of a recording space is usually fairly airtight due to acoustic treatment and trying to cut down on noise bleed from outside the rooms or from adjacent rooms. So, not the kind of environment you can expect a cool refreshing breeze through open doors and windows.”

A musician himself, Eoin says he wasn’t especially creative during the lockdown and that having plenty of time on one’s hands is not necessarily a catalyst for creativity.

“I personally created very little. I didn’t find the downtime inspiring at all. In general, I am more productive the busier I get and when I have all the time in the world, I am much less motivated artistically.”

In terms of a post-pandemic creative boom, Eoin says he has a number of past clients booked in with him to record material written during lockdown.

“I think we’ll inevitably see an increase in musical output compared to last year. Personally though, I don’t expect a boom, in the short term at least – just a gentle opening of the taps. I really don’t want to hear a song about the pandemic any time soon!”

While Eoin and Duncan are both experts in their field, it’s important to remember that behind the music and the art, they are also business owners and must spin multiple plates to keep their doors open.

They might not fully agree on the impact streaming is having on their industry, but they do agree that “our crowd” (the Government) has done a decent job at helping businesses such as theirs through some difficult times.