How Dublin’s Windmill Lane Recording Studios attracts A-list clients: “It’s a hit-making factory”

Tony Perrey, director of the historic Windmill Lane Recording Studios in Dublin, reflects on the studio’s history, some of its most famous guests to record there, why international recording artists continue to choose the studio to this day, and the studio’s long history with Genelec monitors.

Windmill Lane Recording Studios was born out of a passion for music and the desire to create a world-class production facility in Dublin. Opened by Brian Masterson and James Morris in 1978, the studios were originally located on Windmill Lane, where the buildings came to be known for the graffiti painted on them by U2 fans from all over the world. 

From rock to rap, from AC/DC to 50 Cent, global superstars as well as local breakouts come to record at this premier audio production house in Ireland. Housed in an iconic Art Deco building on Ringsend Road, the studio stands out as much for what you will discover inside. Comprising three state-of-the-art recording studios, its largest studio can accommodate an 80-piece orchestra.

What was your route into working at Windmill?

About 100 years ago I was in a band in school. The keyboard player in the band got me a job in a music shop and I left school. I was really lucky because that music shop had some real pro kit in it and I was given an introduction to that music tech for free, just by working in that shop. I remember the guys from Clannad – an Irish band from years and years ago – who had a really big hit with Theme from Harry's Game, and I remember seeing these famous loops and the sounds that the Akai S900 created from working with those guys.

I remember Mike Lindup from level 42 coming to the shop – it's that kind of place – so I got really good with music tech for free because I was trained by really good people; these people really knew what they were doing. I was in the right place at the right time. I left there eventually and set up a small MIDI studio close by in Dublin City and then moved to another place in Harrington Street to a slightly bigger studio. 

Then I moved to Camden street to what is now Camden Recording Studios. We recorded artists like Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Bryan Adams, Jon Bon Jovi – we were getting good clients, and we kind of built that one from scratch. It was an old art gallery!

Windmill had this aura about it – anyone in our industry knew about it; it was synonymous with U2.

Then what happened?

In 2008, a good colleague of mine, Alastair McMillan – who is now monitor engineer for Bono and U2 – said that the ownership of Windmill Lane had passed hands from Brian Masterson and Andrew Boland to Van Morrison. It's public knowledge now; it was in the newspapers.

Alistair was working with Van and said, ‘If Van's looking to sell this, would you be interested?’ It was perfect timing because we were looking for a bigger boat. When we heard the famous Windmill Lane was up for sale, I went, ‘Okay!’ Windmill had this aura about it – anyone in our industry knew about it and it was synonymous with U2.

I remember when I was recording an orchestra for Ballykissangel; I walked into the control room of Studio One and said, ‘Wow, this place is amazing’. There's a meme and a bit of a joke about it: everyone's an audio engineer until they sit in front of one of these; it was a Neve VR Legend 72-channel, 144 input console. So, I did not want to mess this one up!

I had a chat with that team and it took about eight months to sign off on the deal. It hadn't been used much as a commercial studio for about three or four years so it needed to be spruced up and turned into a working, current, well-loved, well-maintained studio, which is hard to do when you've got a lot of analogue gear! So we did up the studio with rewiring, recommissioning the desks and grew it from there, and then we were back to getting the bigger clients back in again.

If you visit the clients section of the Windmill Lane Studios website you’ll spot David Bowie, Kylie Minogue, Rolling Stones, Spice Girls, Lady Gaga, Shania Twain and hundreds more major recording artists amongst the names. What are some standout moments of yours?

I have to say, Bruce, recently was a big one – Bruce Springsteen. Just hearing that voice coming through a beautiful microphone through a beautiful preamp… The studio has had so many hits over the years. Many of the Spice Girls hits were done in Studio Two in Dublin. Kylie Minogue – a lot of her big hits in the ‘90s; bands like Gabrielle and Five – it was that ‘90s scene. 

There was an English producer called Biffco and he was working out of Studio Two and doing a lot of those hits. It was a hit-making factory, it really was. Studio One was as well – we had big bands like Rolling Stones and U2. God, it sounds like an awful lot of name dropping going on here!

The list just goes on and on, and it's still going on. To have so many beautifully talented people performing and expressing themselves in those studios is just extraordinary. It really is. You can be humbled by it sometimes, as a music fan – you do sometimes have to pinch yourself. 

It really is a privilege. It's exciting and fun, and a bit of a hair-raising, helter skelter ride as well, but it's just wonderful. When I look at that list, because I don't go dwelling on our website all the time, I just happened to pull it up now so I can remember some names.. but it does strike me sometimes and I can't help but smile.

In Ireland, we're not that impressed with celebrity for celebrity's sake.

Of the many notable projects recorded there, Lady Gaga's Born This Way is among them. Is it correct that she laid down some of the tracks a few hours before she went onstage for her O2 Arena Dublin Gig?

How did you know that? Yes, she did! She was on tour and she had work to do on the Born This Way album.

Lady Gaga just came in and said, 'Call me Stefani', in a jeans and jumper and couldn't be nicer and more accommodating. She's absolutely in her comfort zone, working hard in a recording studio. It's everything you'd imagine.

Like a consummate professional, she had her own people with her. She didn't even use the live room in Studio One, she just did the vocals in the control room. The part that they were working on at the time was in the box. I'm sure she does some out of the box stuff as well – she's a proper musician. 

Anyone who sees her sit behind the piano and sing any style of music, you can’t not just be in awe of someone like that. I play keyboards – poorly! – and when I see her play, I see that effortless grace and fun. She came in and had vocals to do, and she was going to be singing that night in the arena.

Do you notice a difference in the way an artist at that level operates compared to a less established performer or band?

Artists at that level don't have any airs and graces. In Ireland, we're not that impressed with celebrity for celebrity's sake. So many people have said that Brad Pitt or whoever can walk down the street in Dublin, and they would recognise you, but they're not going to hassle you.

It's one of those places where they'll wave or something like that, so the teams around these people aren't used to that – they might be used to people being much more hostile or feral, so they're very protective, and rightly so of their artist. We do find that sometimes the team around the stars can be very, 'It has to be like this’ and a bit uptight, and you find that the artists themselves are not like that at all.

I'm just thinking of people like Bryan Adams, or Jon Bon Jovi, or people like that coming in; they can be just so down to earth and chilled. They're just like you and me: they love music, they live for music, of course they do. They have nothing to prove, because they are who they are. 

The reason why they're at the level that they're at is because they're great communicators, they obviously have emotional intelligence and all those things that you need to be to be a good songwriter and performer, and they're also consummate professionals. They know exactly what they're doing. People like that are dead easy to work with and be around.

Sometimes you might get an insecure young band who might have had a big first album, and then you have the classic difficult second album syndrome where they've only got nine months to write a new album when they had their whole lives to write the first album, and they've been touring ever since and they're tired. That's a different beast.

Name drop! A few months ago we had Bruce Springsteen in and we were doing vocals. His team was wonderful. They were really warm and you could get a sense of family and kindness as you do with a lot of those tight groups. He couldn't be easier to work with and couldn't be more gracious. And I'm not saying this because I feel obligated to talk about a client. That isn't the case. It's just my experience of many artists at that level. They are gracious and they're very easy to work with.

Lady Gaga said 'Call me Stefani' and couldn't be nicer. She's absolutely in her comfort zone in a recording studio.

Comprising three state-of-the-art recording studios, your largest studio can accommodate an 80-piece orchestra and hosts the best of the best when it comes to kit. What monitors are you using?

Our artists’ standards are so high and the bar is so high, that you have to have confidence in yourself, the team and the equipment, including the monitors. You have to know that you can deliver and that you've earned the right to be in that position to be offering a service to artists like this.

The Ones by Genelec in Studio One were there when we took over Windmill. They were 1039As. They're old, but man, they're good. They don't even have a subwoofer – these things are so big, they're flush mounted.

They just got it right the first time – that doesn't happen all the time with studios, but that just worked beautifully. Now it is different with DSP controlled speakers; that's like black magic these days because the speakers configure themselves to the room. But that tech wasn't around back in those days. Those speakers were put there in 1995, and they're still there and they still sound amazing. They’re astonishing: the depth, the clarity, the imaging – it just works. Anyone who goes into the Studio One control room always comments on that sound, and we do push it. Danny from The Script was in there a while ago, and he really pushes it and has that red light blinking!

We’ve got Genelec 1039As in studio one, and Genelec 8040As and 7070As in studio two, and in studio three we’ve got Genelec 5.1 surround sound using 1038Bs, 1038Bs, 1038Bs, 1032Bs, 1032Bs, and a 7070A sub.

I have such a long relationship with Genelec. I remember first hearing them and going, ‘Oh, wow’. Genelec weren't as ubiquitous in Ireland, or probably anywhere at that stage. Genelec led the way with the active speaker where it was all matched for you – you just had to plug the speaker in and the amp was perfectly matched to the speaker. 

It sounded great and I was hooked back then. I thought, ‘These are good for pop and rock’. They were pokey enough, but they gave you that detail that you needed. I don't mean to sound like I'm fawning over Genelec or anything but Windmill is a big building with loads of different studios and small production studios, and they're all Genny!

people have confidence when they walk into the studio and they see Genelecs, and then when they hear it, they know it.

How has the studio evolved along with Genelec?

As new generations of Genelecs come along, they seem to have thought of the next stage. They seem to be the right thing for the style of music that's coming out right now. For instance, the detail that we listen to now, particularly when we're using plugins like SplitEQ, and Spiff and all of these things that can separate the transients from the tone. The fact that dynamics are coming back into music is great and the Gennys can be all things, really; you can do an orchestra on them, and if you turn down the music, the dynamics still are retained beautifully, but they're just quieter.

Yet, if you do something really modern, like urban or rock, Genelec seems to be comfortable within all of those different paradigms. It's weird, but it's true. When we have speakers from 1995 doing everything from beautiful jazz to traditional Irish music to full orchestras to out and out rock, and they seem to be doing the job for all of those engineers and producers where they're all nodding along saying, ‘This sounds great’, it's comforting as a studio owner, as well as someone who makes music. It's a serious brand and people have confidence when they walk into the studio and they see Genelecs, and then when they hear it, they know it.

How have you found the GLM software?

We've been moving around the SSL a bit and sonically, where the desk sits in the room has a huge influence on the sound – certainly a desk with that mass and size. We've been using the GML setup a lot; if you haven't tried it out or seen it you should see it in action, it’s brilliant.

Down at the bottom end, the 1237A’s bass is bone dry. I love that. It's got that tightness and gain and bumping the crossover frequency up to 100 hertz made a big difference because it does take the pressure off the full range speakers. That sub bass is taking a lot of the heavy lifting because there's a lot of action between 80 and 100 hertz - there's a lot of thump down there and the subwoofer is taking that action, but the crossover is seamless.

Whichever way the GLM kit does it, it's really smooth around there. It's extraordinary. We had an issue with an 80 hertz dip prior to that, and it seems to have knocked it on the head. It's just brilliant. I can't imagine myself ever going back to anything that doesn't have a smart kit to GLM the thing - you just hit a button and let it do the work. It's extraordinary.

We have three studios. It's hard to get three studios sounding right; you're lucky enough to get one sounding right. But we have been dead lucky. It's taken a lot of trial and error and it's taken a lot of science.

I have to give a plug to Michael Brown and his team and Big Bear Sound in Dublin, they're studio supplies. Michael and myself go back about 115 years. When I started off in the industry, Big Bear had just established themselves as a really good supplier. 

Michael always treated me the same - I was a bit of a disrupter in the industry. We had a small studio, but we were getting a lot of attention and doing a lot of work, and we built and we built and rebuilt the studio and the college. 

Every step of the way, Michael was one of these guys who would advise you and would laugh with you and was someone to bounce ideas off. It just so happens that Michael also was the Genelec agent in Ireland and I remember him telling me about Gennys back in the day.

Listen to the full podcast interview below:

Those Genelec speakers were put here in 1995; they're still there & still sound amazing.