The amazing Haybale Studio is, for four days every summer, possibly the most strangely dressed and busiest studio in the world. Its challenge is to capture the spirit of Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival – with a little help from a Solid State Logic AWS 948 SuperAnalogue™ console.
Music and podcast producer Lij Shaw is normally found in residence as the Owner of The Toy Box Studio in East Nashville, TN. However, every summer he packs his essentials into a trailer and heads 60 miles South of Nashville to a 700-acre farm, along with 85,000 other people. There, with the help of a local farmer and an SSL AWS 948, he creates the now legendary Haybale Studio at the brilliantly quirky Bonnaroo Festival.
The Bonnaroo Festival is known for putting on a wide variety of music and comedy acts for an equally wide variety of music fans – all bound by a love for live music, and the Bonnaroo Code, which in essence says ‘be nice’. The humour that courses through this celebration can be spotted even in its venue names: The What Stage, Which Stage, Who Stage, This Tent, and The Other Tent.
The Haybale Studio is equally individual, with a particular mission to record amazing original arrangements and performances of music from the bands that are playing at the Festival. These recordings are a kind of In-Session supplement that aim to capture the mood of the fans, the bands, and the moment.
The ‘Haybale’ name originates from a practical solution to the need for sound isolation. The Studio is set up behind the Which Stage, so 85,000 fans and a very big PA need to be supressed somehow. Sean O’Connell of Music Allies, who originally invited Shaw to set up a recording studio at Bonnaroo in 2005, was inspired by some large bales of hay in a nearby field, and he asked Shaw if these could be used to soundproof the studio. “I said ‘yeah, that’s a perfect sound insulator!” explains Shaw. “Now we come and we park the trailer here, and then we bring in hundreds of bales of hay… They go all around the trailer… right up above the sides. When you look at the outside you just see a giant bale of hay with a couple of doors. ”
What started as a small idea, has grown beyond all expectations. Originally a two-man operation, recording a few bands on limited equipment, now Haybale Studio aims to record three-song sessions with 40 bands over the Festival’s four days. Shaw: “In the festival we’ll have everything from all-night DJs like Deadmau5, to Scrillex, to Kanye West, to rock bands, to bluegrass… All sorts of stuff. And that is reflected in the studio.” In any hour, on any of the Festival days, Haybale studios could be hosting anything from a couple of mics on a single guitar/vocal act, to a full-on rock band, to a classical ensemble.
At the centre of this is an SSL AWS 948 console – supremely equipped for the Haybale challenge.
“This console does some incredible stuff,” says Shaw. “This is like having a rocket ship in the studio… The sound, the tone of it, and the flexibility – and the fact that I can mix on it in real time. I’ve tried this with other mixers and I’ve tried to emulate this by mixing in the computer somehow…It’s just not possible…
“The sound is awesome …It’s got punch, it’s got attack to it, the detail is incredible, and it’s so quiet. For me a lot of time is spent keeping everything else quiet to match how good the console sounds.”
To give Shaw the flexibility and speed he needs in Haybale, tracks get routed to eight busses which are then sent for parallel compression and brought back into stereo returns, created by using the Stereo Mix mode available on all the AWS 948’s dual-path channel strips.
The mix gets passed on to Joe Hutchinson (Garage Masters, Nashville) who actually masters the tracks as the sessions are happening. Shaw: “It’s just analogue live signal through the microphones, through the wires, through the console, through the outboard, straight down… There’s a quality and purity to that sound… I’ll be damned if I can ever figure out another way to create that…”
Once the mastering is done, the tracks get uploaded to a server, and are then available to radio stations and other outlets all over the country. “…It’s almost real time,” says Shaw. “Within an hour that stuff is accessible and it’s getting aired on radio stations around the country… It’s a really cool way to bring people into Bonnaroo…”
For many recordings there’s a video crew as well, creating a series of in-session videos, available via the Haybale website and on the Bonnaroo YouTube channel (Haybale Sessions playlists).
However sophisticated the distribution though, Shaw has to make sure he always captures spirit of Bonnaroo – keeping the source true to the performance. The AWS 948 is key to that goal: “You can get really intense and fancy within the computer,” he says. “It interfaces with Pro Tools if you want it to… But man, if you just want to run mics through it, and you want a mixer that is just a workhorse, that sounds killer, and works when you need it to… It works great for that too!”
You can see and hear more about Haybale Studios and Lij Shaw’s approach to recording and mixing at the Bonnaroo Festival in the SSL video interview below.