21 October, 2021
Engineer to the stars has ears out for new talent
Kiwi sound engineer Neil Baldock had it pretty good in the music industry in Los Angeles, mixing with big-time artists and more or less living the dream – while still entertaining his own dreams of home.
But when Covid struck LA early last year, the big studios shut down overnight and suddenly his bread-and-butter work began to run out.
Sitting at home on the sofa, he saw Devonport’s Depot Artspace back in his home town of Auckland was looking for an audio engineer to manage its studios.
To Baldock this was a piece of luck in the face of a tough situation. For the Depot Sound studio it was a fortuitous hire for the future of a small operation known for helping make big things happen.
“Family and love were the two things drawing me back and I had been planning to return soon anyway,” says Baldock. “But this job was the lifeline at that moment.”
A year into the job, he’s loving it – even if lockdown has got in the way and left the studio silent for now, with Baldock scrambling around trying to figure out what he can get back on track in such uncertain days.
The studio calendar had been packed for these weeks and the place should have been humming with the many musicians booked in to record.
But for Baldock the ups and downs of a business he’s in for the love of it are nothing new. He took time out with The Flagstaff to look back on his decades around recording and producing music, honing the skills that have taken him to the top of his game and brought nominations for many awards.
For three years in a row he was up for New Zealand Music Awards, taking the Best Engineer title in 2012.
Baldock recalls he was probably set on his career path as a kid in the 80s, glued for hours to the family television set. For him, shows like Hogan’s Heroes, and Star Trek opened a whole world of production and technical possibilities.
And then there was homegrown music show Ready to Roll, with our leading talent belting out covers in big flash Wellington TV studios and, sometimes, going on to record their own music in heady days for the local music industry.
“Those shows,” recalls Baldock with a nostalgic grin, “they just had it all going on.
Those consoles, and lights and the wow of just getting it all happening. For my brother and me it was the highlight of the week and we’d be recreating our own version in the living room as we went along in awe of it all. I was totally rapt in it all. It was what I wanted to do.”
The route to the top studios wasn’t quite clear for an Auckland schoolboy at that point, even if he was burning with a passion for it.
First, before he could get his hands on consoles and levers and all things tech, he had to escape from his own near-miss with the bright lights.
At high school he’d been a more than competent piano and guitar player. His skill in composition and performance won him a place on stage in the end-of-year school concerts. And decades later he still looks like he wants to crawl under the table at the memory of the agony of having to put himself out there.
“I’ve never been a performance kind of guy,” he laughs.
As a school leaver studying sound engineering, young Baldock regularly called the recording studios of the day around Auckland, offering to work for free. Eventually one of those calls opened a door.
He found himself on reception, running errands, picking up lunches, doing invoices and making himself as useful as he could, while also looking for a step up when his studies were done.
He points out that he couldn’t have made it through, studying and working unpaid in a recording studio till the wee small hours, living on adrenaline, without the support of his parents.
“I was living for free at home, and Mum came to pick me up from the studio night after night and sometimes at three in the morning. Because of course there was no way I could get back home on my own.
“I really wanted to get in and I chased it hard,” he recalls.
The break came with a studio job, and more followed.
Though a lot of the money went out of the business when he was only 30, he was undeterred by the uncertainty that brought. “I’ve never regretted the choice,” he says. “I’ve done what I love to do, I’ve travelled all over the place and worked with amazingly talented people.”
A decade ago he was at the forefront of engineering in New Zealand, heading up Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios as chief producer and chief engineer.
He had a long list of acclaimed-record credits to his name, having recorded many of the country’s top musicians, including Finn, Crowded House, The Phoenix Foundation, Shihad, Dave Dobbyn and Bic Runga.
Going to Los Angeles, at first on a job and then to break into freelance engineering, was a change of gear.
In a hotly competitive city where, Baldock points out, many freelance engineers are in reality earning most of their living as Uber drivers, he started out well in a house with a studio in the garden and with good contacts.
In six years in the city he worked with Grammy Award winning producers, top recording artists such as Billy Ray Cyrus and Joe Satriani, and worked in half a dozen of the world’s greatest studios. There were, he says, more than a few ‘pinch myself’ moments when various superstars wandered in.
The Devonport Depot studio couldn’t be further from the bright lights and action of the Los Angeles scene but, says Baldock, it’s been an important niche facility from where many musicians and singers have launched onto much bigger things.
“It’s a perfect little space. It’s community based and it’s here to provide a very valuable service. The Depot has such a rich history and it’s still going strong. There is incredible talent that comes out of this community and from further afield. We have a responsibility to nurture that talent. I’m really enjoying being here.”
Once he had the feel of the place, Baldock reached out to the teenage talent on the Shore by launching a singing-songwriting contest through secondary schools across the region.
“I really had no idea what response we would get and I was surprised and delighted at the high number of entries we got from kids at 17 schools. It was great.”
He brought them all in with their songs for recording sessions in the studios. It was an intimidating experience for many of them but for some, he says, it was a step forward on their music journeys. It was also an exercise for the studio that created relationships with the music departments of many schools Shore-wide.
For him, the project called on all the old skills beyond capturing a great sound. Like making the talent feel at ease and coaxing the best out of them. As he puts it, “getting those magic moments”. He plans for it to be an annual gig that expands and develops.
When Baldock started in the job fresh from Los Angeles a bit over a year ago, he walked straight into a local lockdown here too.
Sitting there in silence on his own between the blank walls of the functional studios he decided the place could do with a bit of tizzying up and opted for a bit of bling and memorabilia.
After lots of searching on Trade Me he came up with the dozens of shiny record covers that paper the walls, and he threaded multi-colour- ed fairy lights through the montage. Perfect!
“Yeah, everyone seems to like it,” he grins.
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