Archway to creativity

DEEP in the heart of the Wicker, wedged between a taxi firm and a greasy spoon, is Sheffield’s most prestigious music studio, Yellow Arch. Richard Hawley’s recording home and rehearsal space for umpteen Sheffield bands – Yellow Arch is deeply embedded in Sheffield’s music history.

And on the surface, Yellow Arch’s gritty surroundings are incompatible with the ethereal tones of Richard Hawley’s Gretsch guitar, but on a deeper level, the Wicker couldn’t be a more appropriate spot – Yellow Arch is as much a part of Sheffield’s industry as its steel-making predecessors. Only at Yellow Arch, its music that’s being manufactured, not steel.

Based in a former industrial nut and bolts mill, Yellow Arch’s sound is as much owing to this vast former industrial space as its sound desk. And it’s this sound – vast, epic and organic – that attracts musicians not just from this region, but from across the globe.

Indeed, on hearing the sound quality of Richard Hawley’s records, even Mr Twangy Guitar, aka, Duane Eddy, contacted the studio and had his latest album, Road Trip, produced there.

And the brains behind it all is Colin Elliot, who founded Yellow Arch in 1996 after leaving Bristol, where he met his future music collaborator, Shez Sheridan, a friend of one of his university pals.

The sound engineer had just finished his philosophy degree and wanted to play music, so, in 1988, he followed his dream and romantically flocked not to the hills of San Francisco, but to Sheffield. Here Elliot joined forces with Bolster and then The Dizzy Club.

“We wanted a rehearsal space in which to play really. We looked around here and initially thought it was quite small but then the man who was showing us round kept saying ‘and there’s this as well’ and we couldn’t believe how many rooms there were. There are thousands and thousands of square feet here.”

Yellow Arch is certainly vast. But its excessive space is key to Yellow Arch-produced records. “It’s about space,” says Elliot. “Bands can play here and the music doesn’t sound flat whereas more modern studios, with lots of sound-proofing and smaller spaces, have a flatter sound.”

But it’s not just about the physical space allowing notes to breathe, it’s also the way in which this translates to an abstract space on the record itself, a space in which the listener can lose themselves. “Duane Eddy was sat at the same table as Richard Hawley at the MOJO music awards and said to Richard that he ‘wanted to walk into our sound’ and said he wanted to record something he could ‘walk into.”

His wish was granted and last month the creator of ‘twangy’ guitar (a technique achieved by playing his bass strings) came to Sheffield to record Road Trip, which features Hawley. But Eddy’s just one of several artists that sought out Yellow Arch for its sound. Tom McRae recorded there recently and this month Seattle folksters the Head and the Heart produced their album at the Sheffield studio.

“I love the variety of artists we have. I wouldn’t want to do the same thing every day. And I really enjoy working with singer songwriters who have a clear idea of what they want but don’t know how to produce it.

“I’m not happy working just as an engineer because I can’t shut myself up,” says Elliot.

But Elliot’s vocalism is justified. Classically trained, Elliot composed all the orchestral tracks for Tony Christie’s Made in Sheffield album of Sheffield covers. “I devised them all up here and then we travelled to London to record it with a full orchestra. That was the best day of my life. When I heard them play the scores it was unvelievable.”

Elliot’s behind-the-sound-desk philosophy is equally organic and original. “I don’t want music to sound produced. Music that’s over produced is like a perfect face in which there are no imperfections but it’s the imperfections that make something beautiful. I want that original creative spark to be transmitted to the listener.”