A virtual visit to Smart Audio Recording Lab in Kirov, Russia

Smart Audio Recording Lab is a custom-designed recording studio that also operates as a tape label, releasing its own recordings as master tape copies. It’s run by father and son team Mikhail Mamonov and Artem Suntsov, who designed and built the studio from scratch in 2018.

These guys are clearly passionate about what they do, so I (Dave Denyer, aka ‘the rambler’) was keen to chat with them and find out more. Sadly, in these times of Covid 19, a trip to Russia was out of the question, so we resorted to the virtual digital world. One day, I hope, we’ll get to meet in person. In the meantime, we recorded most of our conversation on video to share here.

The video is about an hour long, so here’s an outline of what you’ll find where, along with a few reflections I had post-interview. If you prefer to skip straight to the video, just scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Creating Smart Audio Recording Lab: a father-son labour of love (the first 8 minutes)

To kick off, I chat with father Mikhail and son Artem about how Smart Audio Recording Lab came about, launching in 2018. Also present is friend and blogger Dmitry Alexandrov, who wanted to chat to me for his website stereo.ru, and (mostly off-camera) interpreter Laurin Harrison.

The first thing that strikes me is the fact that Mikhail’s main business is in large-scale lighting and equipment for concert halls, and so creating and running a recording studio is something he describes as a ‘hobby’. In my 30 years in the hi-fi business I’ve seen so many great companies and products start out this way – as a side venture, a hobby, a passion project. But rather than being something that people dabble in when they have time and energy, as is often the case with hobbies, with audiophiles these things seem to become an all-consuming passion driven by an ongoing pursuit of perfection – which certainly seems to be the case here!

Mikhail credits his son Artem, who plays guitar – rather well, I’m told – with being the driving force behind the project. What started out as a fairly “humble” idea inevitably grew in ambition, Mikhail explains with a smile. “We started talking about building a home studio, and then we thought there’s no point in doing this unless it’s at the top level.”

So, in 2015 Artem travelled to Nashville, where he spent a month learning from multi-award winning producer Vance Powell, as well as spending time with several world leading sound engineers in locations such as the iconic Ocean Way Recording Studios (see what I mean – audiophiles don’t do things by halves!). On his return, he and Mikhail were committed to making their project a professional studio, with a focus on using analogue technology.

The pair designed and built the studio from the ground up, creating the recording space and control rooms as two separate buildings to ensure excellent sound insulation (the control room is where we’re ‘meeting’ right now). The whole complex covers around 300 m2 and there’s more to come: on the agenda this year is the addition of a dedicated drum and percussion room, and also a chamber room for a small chamber orchestra, both separate but connected to the main studio, adding a further 100m2.

Mikhail is keen to tell me that the studio is located in the middle of a forest, in what sounds like a stunning landscape and a highly conducive environment for recording great music. “Once you come here and experience the atmosphere, it’s really hard to leave,” he says affectionately. Californian interpreter Laurin Harrison agrees; “I arrived a year and a half ago and I’m still here!” he chips in.

In the control room: a virtual tour of the tech (around 8-14 minutes)

The mixing desk

So here we are in the control room, where all the recording and mixing takes place, and I’m itching to find out more about the awesome-looking bank of kit and tech that I can see on-screen as we’re chatting – so that’s what we move onto next.

Artem gives me a guided tour. The focus is very firmly on analogue recording, but of course there’s equally the potential to include digital elements into the process as and when required or desirable. “We try to cover all the needs of modern production and take the very best of both analogue and digital worlds.” The 48-channel mixing desk at the heart of the control room is an English import: it’s an Audient ASP8024-Heritage Edition. There are several tape decks: a half-track Ampex ATR102, a Nagra IV-S and three Studers, a 24-channel A800 and two A80s, one studio and one broadcast edition. The selection of mics is extensive and spans multiple models by Neumann, AKG, Schoeps, Shure, Sennheiser, Soyuz and more. And then there are several racks of electronics, both modern and vintage, spanning preamplifiers, equalizers, compressors and digital reverbs and effects, etc. Speakers include the ATC SCM50ASL Pro & 12″ Sub, and the Yamaha NS-10M Studio.

The selection of in-house musical instruments includes a Shigeru Kawai SK-6L Concert Series Grand Piano, various keyboards (including a Fender Rhodes and a Hammond organ), several guitars (including a Gibson Les Paul Custom Axcess and a custom Stratocaster) and guitar amps, two drum kits, one American and one Japanese, and a double bass.

You can read more about the acoustic design of the control room, as well as the different recording spaces within the studios, at http://smartaudiorecording.com/en/studio/control-room

Collaborating with musicians: a unique proposition (around 14-31 minutes)

When the studio first opened, it was understandably a draw for various musicians who came to record there. As time has gone on, however, Mikhail and Artem have become increasingly keen to use the space for their own projects and recordings, all analogue, and choosing the specific musicians they want to work with.

Back to Mikhail, who takes the lead in the role of producer. “I have a good sense and feel for what kind of music is in demand in analogue sound, what types of music fans of analogue are looking for,” he explains. “At the same time, I understand our studio well and I know our strengths and limitations. Right now we’re not in a position to accommodate a big classical orchestra, for example, so we focus on the areas where we have real strength, such as smaller jazz ensembles and chamber groups.”

“From time to time, people in the industry will point out that we don’t have any big name stars on our list, but this is where I strongly disagree with their focus on that, because we have a lot of very, very talented young people who are just in the process of realising their talent and who have great potential, so we’re really in the business of creating stars.”

Mikhail has very kindly sent me one such example, Kristina Kovalyova’s ‘My Favorite Things’ which I’ll be reviewing here soon (spoiler alert: I can’t argue with Mikhail’s assertion that she’s a real talent – she truly is). Mikhail cites another rising star, classical guitarist Andre Bernovski who has already recorded two albums with Smart Audio. A third is on the cards when travel rules allow (Andre, who was born in Belarus and grew up in Israel, currently lives in Germany).

“We really want to create a collaboration, a partnership,” says Mikhail. It’s an interesting and quite unique (I think) proposition: Smart Audio offers selected musicians free analogue and digital recording. They get to keep the rights for the digital recording and we retain the rights on the analogue recording so we can release it as tapes. So it’s a win-win situation.”

In addition to jazz and chamber music, the label is currently expanding into other genres; projects currently in pre- and post-production include Russian romantic music, opera, classical piano, electronic music, classical blues and rockabilly.

Moving back to Artem, knowing that I’m dealing with a fellow ‘analogue man’, I ask how he feels about digital recording compared to analogue. It’s an interesting conversation, which Artem illustrates with the story of when he first got the Studer A800, and invited a drummer to come in and play for a full day, allowing him to record the sound in multiple formats and experiment with different approaches to recording and mixing – particularly to explore the technical challenge of how to achieve a powerful sound with excellent transients but with the least possible noise.

The studio has residential facilities that can host four or five recording artists at a time and there are good and reasonably priced hotels close by if more space is needed. Mikhail stresses that this is a key part of how the studio works: the team is determined not to rush the process, instead allowing the artists the time and space to record, experiment and find themselves. Again, the studio’s forest location creates a conducive environment with its sense of breathing space and natural rhythms.

I ask if the studio’s income comes primarily from the sale of analogue tapes. I get the impression that Mikhail isn’t terribly interested in talking about money. “We don’t really call it a business,” he explains, “it’s more a motivated – or motivating – hobby. Russians can have fun, you know!” The ‘hobby’ model is an enviable position to be in, and we chat about its advantages, not least the freedom “to work with who we want to, who we really enjoy.”

I wonder how the team goes about finding those people, and so we chat about multiple approaches, from personal contacts to online research, and from actively exploring live music performances to word of mouth among musicians.

I’m curious to know what rate of tape output these guys are aiming for over the coming years. Obviously then pandemic has seriously curbed production, and Mikhail is keen to point out that their focus is on quality over quantity. That said, Smart Audio is hopefully looking at around 6 albums per year, I’m told.

The current catalogue at http://www.smartaudiorecording.com

To the ‘room of dreams’ (around 31-39 minutes)

Interpreter Laurin Harrison asks if I’d mind if we move from the control room into the ‘archive room’. Would I mind??? As I tell the guys, this is my ‘room of dreams’ – it’s packed out with tasty audio kit and one heck of an album collection. Seriously, there are some real gems here. It turns out that another of Mikhail’s ‘hobbies’ (passions) is collecting both music and high-end hi-fi. I couldn’t help notice the Aesthetix Io phonostage, which I also use as my reference (if you’re competing with tape, your vinyl needs to be heard at its very best).

Of course the room itself is high quality ‘kit’ too. Like the whole studio complex, this room has been constructed using all of Mikhail’s experience of working in concert halls, drawing on his professional expertise in architecture and acoustics, creating a superb sounding listening / preview / archive space.

The primary purpose of the room, however, is the copying of master tapes. Mikhail shows me his bank of Studer decks and talks me through the process and shows me a few beautifully packaged finished products. Man, I would love to step into that room for real, in person!

Appreciation to the team!

It was a real pleasure and a privilege to meet the team behind Smart Audio Recording Lab and to take a virtual tour of their amazing facilities. My huge thanks to all the team for making it happen. It makes such a difference, I think, to actually see the equipment and the processes, and of course the expertise and the passion, that goes into producing the master tapes we invest in.

So, here’s the video, I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did! You can find out more, browse Smart Audio’s current catalogue and listen to samples at http://smartaudiorecording.com/en/about/