For someone who put the sweat and tears back into pop, Mark Ronson wasn’t expecting the move into his new London studio to be a heavy affair. But as the Grammy Award-winning producer — who had been studio-less since moving out of his New York space five years ago — opened old boxes and set up shop, he found himself a bit choked up.
“All this gear has just been sitting in storage,” he says of his collection of vintage instruments and equipment. “When it came over from the States it was quite emotional. I was unpacking and found all these old notes and scribbles from Amy.”
Fittingly, the spirit of Amy Winehouse informs the London-born, New York-bred producer’s new hub. “A lot of studios that I’ve walked into, you’re almost a little intimidated to pick anything up. I wanted this place to feel relaxed and inviting,” says Ronson, who credits the Dap-Kings’ Brooklyn studio, where he recorded Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” with revolutionizing his approach to production. Its large live room allowed him to record all the musicians together — and onto tape, infusing the sessions with a warmth missing in the digital era.
To wit, he built one, too, installing two tape machines, with “a nice desk that’s going to make everything sound a little valve-y and crunchy,” he says. To make the “empty shell” he found at Tileyard Studios, a large complex at King’s Cross, look as lived-in as it sounds, he recruited Steve Durr, who designed the Black Keys’ Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville. Durr duplicated its black-and-white linoleum floor and raised the area at the back of the poster-adorned control room, just like New York’s Jungle City Studios.
“I took my favorite things from all the studios that I have ever worked at and put them in here,” Ronson says of the vast three-room studio, which boasts a control room and a vinyl-filled front office, in addition to the sizable live room.
The studio is a blast through the past 50 years of recording history, from a Scully eight-track tape machine from Sun Studios in Memphis, to Magnatone and Ampeg guitar amps, to the vintage mic Winehouse sang into, to rare polyphonic synthesizers personally vetted by Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes. But Ronson, who cut his teeth as a club DJ in New York, isn’t only rooted in retro. A MacBook and Akai MPC, placed by twin-turntable decks, bridge the old with the beat-driven new.
The producer of Paul McCartney’s latest album, New, and Bruno Mars hits “Gorilla,” “Moonshine” and “Locked Out of Heaven” says he still doesn’t have a name for his eclectic new home. But Zelig, a reference to the 1983 Woody Allen film about a chameleonesque character, is in the running.
“As a producer, you have to be a bit amorphous,” he says. That may be. But Ronson, who’s currently laying down tracks for his fourth solo album, does have one constant. “I always want the drums to sound tough,” he says. “No matter what else is going on, that’s the starting block.”