The Motor Museum's Al Groves on his must-have studio kit

Producer, engineer and mixer Al Groves talks about how a penchant for taking risks led him to take over the lease at Liverpool’s The Motor Museum recording studio, which has shaped the careers of artists including The 1975, Oasis, The Arctic Monkeys and Jake Bugg. He reflects on working on a Bring Me The Horizon album in Santorini and explains why switching to Genelec monitors changed his workflow for good.

The Motor Museum recording studio in Liverpool has shaped the careers of some incredible guitar bands. How did you come to take over the lease?

I’d been at my first studio, Sandhills since 2006, and I felt like I'd hit a wall. The Motor Museum was looking for a new engineer and it was the logical next step for me. In fact, it was five or six steps higher than where I was at Sandhills. However – and I was quite heartbroken – but I had to say, ‘Look, I just don't think I can do this. I can't sustain the numbers and the finances that the studio requires at my level yet. I just don't have the client base or the success to be able to trade at that level’.

What happened next?

I kind of forgot about it until the summer of 2012; I just kept on doing what I was doing, thinking that there would be a break for me somewhere and that the right artists would walk through the door at Sandhills and kickstart the next chapter. 

I was getting more and more agitated when it didn't really happen. Then I got a text in late 2012 offering me the job at The Motor Museum again, and I was thrown in – in a brilliant way. There was no other option other than to say, ‘I have to do this and I have to give it everything I've got’. 

They said if after a year, it doesn't work, we'll shake hands, hug, and there'll be no bad feelings at all. But lo and behold, that first year was awesome, and I've never looked back. I've never left the place and I ended up buying it last year. 

That was probably the first career milestone I've ever looked at and gone, ‘I feel really satisfied with that’, and gave myself a little pat on the back and said, ‘I'm proud of that’.

A major milestone came in 2015 when you recorded the Bring Me The Horizon single, Drown at The Motor Museum. What are your memories of this?

Bring Me The Horizon was really cool. The single we recorded was Drown, which preceded the album, That's The Spirit. It was the first one off the album. Out of the blue I got an email one morning from the booking guys at Miloco who said they had a client from Sony looking for a studio outside of London, and it had to be a great rock studio. 

Sony sanctioned a single to see how things went, and somewhere along the line I just asked, ‘Who's the artist?’ They said it's Bring Me The Horizon. I immediately told them I'm a huge fan and I was quite cheeky and asked what the situation was with the production team. 

They said, ‘We don't know right now, all we know is that the band wants to self-produce, and we don't know if they're bringing an engineer, but we can definitely put you forward’.

Santorini is a crazy trip of a place; I had never made a record to that level before.

How did this culminate in you spending months with the band in Santorini?

The single did really, really well. It exceeded all the commercial and radio expectations and it was just a pleasure, to be honest. About three or four months later, I knew that there was an album bubbling, but I hadn't heard a thing. 

I was kind of hoping that we'd be bringing the album back to The Motor Museum, so I took my chance and asked how the album was going and they said they were arranging it. I said, ‘Well if you want me to be back on board again, I would be absolutely delighted to do it’. 

The day after, their managers emailed me and said, ‘The band is gonna go to Santorini for two months [to record]; would you be up for going?’

I actually had to say, ‘Can I think about it for a day?’ – because at the time, I obviously had my business at The Motor Museum. So I took a day to think about it, and my wife was like, ‘Why haven't you said yes yet?’ So I said I'd be absolutely delighted to go. 

That really was a dream offer and a dream experience – the band are brilliant and they’re really nice, good people and very generous to be around. Santorini is a crazy trip of a place; I had never made a record to that level before. They were Sony's real priority and they pumped everything into that record.

Ironically, the band had worked with lots of big producers before that they'd never really felt that satisfied with, so they were quite humble about everything and were very down to earth.

It was very much like working back at The Motor Museum with a band of down to earth, cool people that you go for beers with, have dinner with and get to play Fifa with; it was very natural. It was a privileged experience, really. The best thing was that we knew the album was amazing. As soon as I listened to the first track, which I think was Avalanche, I just thought, ‘This is going to be the best guitar music album in years’.

You’ve got Genelec monitors in every room at The Motor Museum, including 8351Bs and new W371A subs. You used another monitor brand for years prior to this; what issues were you experiencing before, and what made you switch to Genelecs?

I won't mention the brand, but previously I was using different monitors for about five years. I really trusted them and I thought they were great. They're a bit esoteric – a lot of people would come in and couldn't really understand that, but for me, they just presented everything. 

There was such a huge range of information that I felt comfortable with, but I was noticing that in terms of translation, there was always something in the bottom end and something in the top. There was something in the extremities of the sound in the mixes that was aggravating me. The top end wasn't quite right.

When I was in the studio, the information was never there, and it always felt fine to me. But I’d take a mix out to domestic systems and I always got mastering comments back. They would say that there was something in the top end, so other people were hearing something I wasn’t, because it wasn’t presented to me in the studio.

What was the feedback?

The bottom end had too much energy in the sub region and not enough in the lower and mid bass to make things really punchy, so my mixes were never very tight and this was aggravating me, because to get onto Spotify playlists and radio and those editorial things, all mixes have to have a certain sense of liveliness about them, and if you position your low end the wrong way, you really sacrifice that and you exclude yourself from those things.

That was frustrating because I couldn't hear it. In the studio, those speakers sounded very natural and balanced and sounded good, but I would take the mix out and there was just something… I used to compensate for it a lot. During the lockdown I was looking at all my processes and going, ‘Well, here's the opportunity to see what's actually been bugging me for so long’.

The first thing I thought about were the speakers. I just needed the information to be presented to me correctly so I could make all the decisions from there. I was really reluctant to change speakers because it's quite stressful and there's a lot of psychology in trying something else – it doesn't matter what they are – so I was very cautious.

I spoke to Genelec on the recommendation of Romesh Dodangoda. I said to Andy at Genelec, ‘I’ll be frank with you, I'm going to be the hardest person to please because I don't want to change. But I'm having these issues and I want to make sure that there isn't a better speaker for me out there’.

There's nothing quite so liberating as when you have monitoring that you just forget about, you just trust it.

How did you come to try out Genelec’s The Ones?

Andy listened to the issues I was having and recommended The Ones, and talked me through the technology and the design philosophy.

He had a load of demo pairs and said I could borrow a few different sizes and he would leave them with me for six months. If I liked them and they solved the problems, he said I could call him anytime. If not, he would just come and pick them up – no bad blood at all.

Andy brought two sets of 8341s and 8351s, set them both up and calibrated them all. I was in the middle of working on some clubby-orientated music at the time – it had a jungle, Prodigy vibe to it – lots of low end and fast beats, so very articulate, demanding music on speakers.

Did you immediately notice an improvement in the sound reproduction?

The first thing I did was switch from the previous brand to the Genelecs and just thought, ‘Wow, that is quite profound’. The sense of comfort I had straightaway and the sense of relief! I didn't realise that life could be so easy when you're making decisions. But I was cautious not to say anything to Andy, as I didn’t want to give too much away, get over excited and then in a week's time be confused again.

So I said, ‘Let me work on these for a while and see what happens’. This is no word of a lie: I did not turn the previous speakers on again for about six months. I just worked exclusively on the Genelecs.

About a month went by and I rang Andy and said, ‘These are profoundly good and are changing the world for me’. He came back to the studio two or three times to move and recalibrate them and try different sizes.

You were adamant that you did not want to change monitors; did you eventually listen to your previous monitors again to compare with The Ones?

The next time I turned my previous brand of speakers on was the day that I got the invoice through for another pair of The Ones. I thought, ‘Just before 100% commit to this and pay for these and put the order in, let me just double check’. 

I put the other speakers on and thought, ‘There's nothing in these that is useful to me anymore’ and I made that decision there and then.

Since I got the Genelecs, I've never looked back. I've loved them ever since. Just two weeks ago, Andy dropped off their big W371 woofers with a little smirk on his face that said, ‘If you like your Ones, wait until you hear these’. 

My next task after getting off the call with you is to give Andy a call and to tell him he can’t have them back, because they are really remarkable things as well! There's nothing quite so liberating as when you have monitoring that you just forget about, you just trust it. You don't even hear the speakers, you just hear the decisions.

The cool thing is, we have a lot of visiting engineers that come to The Motor Museum and I’ve got tenants there that are in two small studios that they rent from me, and everybody who comes in says, ‘Can we have NS10s?’ Everybody turns the Genelecs on, listens to them and they go, ‘Wow, they sound incredible to listen to my reference tracks; let me work on them for an hour’. 

Meanwhile we’ll plug in the NS10s for them and then an hour later, they’ll say, ‘Don't worry about the NS10s – these Genelecs are so revealing and so easy to judge’.

You could take everything else off me in that studio and I would say just leave me the Genelecs.

How have they transformed your workflow and improved confidence in your mixes?

The whole building is on Genelecs now – all the tenants and all the studios have got various sizes of The Ones in there based on the first version Andy dropped off on me. I'm trying to get the whole of the UK on them so that if I ever go to other studios, I've always got the same speaker there! They’re becoming a ubiquitous NS10s of 2022.

They work really well for guitar music because they sound exciting, but at the same time, not falsely exciting. If your sound is cool, they will say, ‘This sounds cool’. If your sound was cack, they'll say, ‘yeah, sounds a bit cack’. Other speakers can be brutal in a frustrating way, whereas these just say, ‘This is what it sounds like; do you like it or not?’ 

And if you don't like it, you make a move, and you can hear that move straight away. If you brighten something, you can hear it. If you make it more saturated, you can hear it. You don't have to guess.

How do they compare to the NS10s?

With the NS10s I used to just guess, and all of a sudden, they click to life and you'd go, ‘I don't know what I've done, but now it's right – don't touch anything!’ Whereas with the Genelecs it's much more iterative all the way through and when I'm working now it's a case of, it sounds cool. I'm excited and I'm really confident working on them.

Then you can just keep working to make it cooler, and you just keep going until you feel satisfied. To be honest, you could take everything else off me in that studio and I would say, just leave me the Genelecs and I'll be fine.