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Mastering the music of Champions
Soca music is the sound of the Caribbean that is yet to earn residency on leading international charts. Still, it remains the go-to genre for a fleet of writers, producers and singers chasing a breakthrough moment.
In a modest two-storey structure on St Ann’s Road, Martin Raymond stewards the studio of champions with Jeremy Johnston, and an extraordinary arranger named Gregg Assing who visits from London and collaborated with Billy Ocean and Gregory Isaacs.
The night of the interview Raymond, the man many call Mice, had already taught a class on music production and sound engineering at University of T&T, held a round of meetings, and at 9 pm still had enough energy to record a session with legendary calypsonian David Rudder.
During a break in the recording, Rudder says: “You can work in a studio and people have absolutely no understanding of the music you playing. They don’t understand your soul. Martin is not just someone who understands, but also someone who grew up in my era. That kind of connection is even more important.”
Rudder and Raymond’s alliance dates to 1982 when cover bands were king of the fetes.
Rudder was lead vocalist for Charlie’s Roots and Raymond was a 17-year-old guitarist with Fireflight. Born in England, Raymond lived his teen years in Diamond Vale with his mother, Ursula Raymond, who, he says, was a member of Girl Pat, the first all-female steelband, and “created a massive record collection years before we had a record player. Eventually we were able to afford one; we listened to all these records that had been piling up.”
Reading album jackets offered clues to the team players involved in producing records, but before Raymond knew what a producer does, he knew he admired the work of Quincy Jones.
On the advice of Grammy Award-winning R&B group The Brothers Johnson, Raymond migrated to London in 1986 to develop production skills.
“I applied to more than 100 studios, got interviews with two of them. Both turned me down. Being Black and from the Caribbean was a major disadvantage,” he recalls. Raymond got his break from Adrian “Smokey Joe” Joseph (Hot Vinyl Records) who invited him to produce a record for Dennis “The Merchant” Williams.
The music producer, he explains, “is like the director of a movie, he/she finds the song, decides how to bring it to life, and directs everyone from the engineers to the singers.”
Raymond returned to Trinidad in 1996, and opened Champion Sound Studios in 2005.
Audio mastering and mixing for the titans of soca and calypso has never covered all the bills. The recording season peaks from October to January due to the emphasis on Carnival.
“It is said that we do not have a music industry in T&T,” notes Raymond, “we have a Carnival Industry.” That observation may also influence bank loan officers.
Financing music projects without crowd-funding, investors, loans or bartering leaves “paying for it out of my own pocket!” admits Raymond.
“Seriously, access to finance is the major issue facing the industry here. MusicTT, a subsidiary of CreativeTT, is looking into this now. TUCO, the calypsonian’s association, launched an initiative with the National Entrepreneurship Development Company to provide finance for recordings by their members. There were few takers as far as I am aware.”
Raymond adds: “Most calypsonians I spoke to were reluctant to get into to debt to finance their recordings.”
“Recording studios and record labels are seen as very high risk,” reveals Raymond.
“The situation is similar to the UK a decade ago, where that government found that despite the visible success of UK artists internationally, the banking sector was very reluctant to lend. They set about creating an investment climate to encourage venture capital. The results over the past decade speak for themselves.”
There are roughly 30 recording studios in T&T. Raymond says the majority in Port-of-Spain are commercial facilities, not home studios, which have lower overheads. Yet, they charge fees comparable with a studio paying commercial rates for utilities.
Champion’s monthly operating expense slides above $25,000.
“We make a small profit on most outside projects, enough to offset operating costs,” shares Raymond.
Developing emerging talents who don’t only sing soca is a new avenue for the studio. The hope is that their potential will deliver ROI. As he awaits fruit to bear from in-house projects, Raymond is exploring “whether we need a studio at all. The average laptop can be a fully-operational recording studio/mix station.”
Locally, studio time is the “most expensive component” of CD production. A session can cost between $200 and $400 per hour.
Raymond says: “Most songs are done on a project basis with a cost for the entire project: $1,500-$2,000 for a demo, and $6,000-$12,000 for a full production; budgets are “all-inclusive,” all costs are paid from the producer’s fee. In the US, you are looking at between US$10,000 to U$100,000 per song,” estimates Raymond.
Overseas the largest expense is hiring “a hit record producer (not arranger, eg, Dr Luke, Max Martin) who can command a fee upwards of US$100,000 per song. This does not include studio time, musicians, etc.”
“Ten years ago the international market was not ready for Caribbean artistes,” recalls Raymond.
“After the success of Rihanna, Sean Paul and Nicki Minaj, the idea that someone is from the Caribbean opens all sorts of doors, whether or not you’re doing Caribbean music.”
As manager of Champion Sound Studios, Jeremy Johnston, 38, is the co-ordinator of logistics, custodian of comfort, and the 999 and 611 guy on everyone’s phone.
“It is up to me to make sure they all have everything they need to create,” says Johnston. The studio “survives on a shoestring budget with the bread and butter mastering, seasonal production at Carnival time, and Mice’s salary from teaching.”
Champion’s mastering expertise is a key ingredient in crowd-pleasing, soul-stirring tracks by Fay-Ann Lyons, Shaggy, JW & Blaze, Mr Vegas, Sean Paul, Akon, Bunji Garlin and Machel Montano. To serve clients who compete for million-dollar prizes during Carnival, the “studio operates like Switzerland,” adds Johnston, “we’re neutral with no particular allegiance.”
Beneath Raymond’s mellow, nerd-like demeanor is a brawny ego, driven to deliver his clients to chart-topping success:
“At no point, from the football team The Soca Warriors, did I hear anything like, we’re going to the World Cup to win it. (Their) attitude was, we know we’re not the greatest team and just glad to be kicking a little ball with Beckham, and we beat England and Sweden.”
Raymond insists, the talents his studio grooms are “the real soca warriors, going against the biggest teams in the world, and playing to win!”
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