Robyn Robbins – Mid-Atlantic Digital
ROBYN ROBBINS has a habit of getting place and time right. He was a founder member of the Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, one of the most influential bands in the 1970’s; a decade of vintage musical creativity; coming from Detroit (AKA Motown), a city of legendary musical talent.
And then in the 1990’s he found himself in Ireland just when a country steeped in musical tradition was get-ting itself acquainted with the technology to make it sound better and with the money to do it for the first time.
So where and how did it all begin? He describes himself starting out as a ‘Motown session player’. He played with a number of famous old Motown bands which were popular nationally in the US. His speciality was keyboards.
When he was 21 he was hand-picked as a founder member of the Silver Bullet Band, a band that has recently been inducted into the Rock & Roll Music Hall of Fame. The band started in 1972 and toured for 10 years around the world.
The Silver Bullet Band made 19 platinum albums (which is double-gold, sales of one million or more in the US). While they were touring they made an album about once a year. The creative side of the work was shared amongst the band members.
Robyn recalls how the music was written: “Bob owns the publishing for the song writing but a lot of the stuff was written among the band in rehearsal. Then we would give Bob the material and he would go and put lyrics on it. In a lot of cases he would have the song written but mostly it was a joint effort.”
The Silver Bullet Band was hugely successful, playing to crowds of over 30,000 people on a nightly basis. Robyn believes that the biggest crowd that they ever played in front of was at a pop festival in Sedalia, Missouri at which 300,000 showed up. There was so many people there that the bands had to be flown into to the stage area in a helicopter.
Robyn also toured for five years with other bands, including two years his own band ‘Champan’ based in Toronto. He toured with ZZ Top, Bee Gees and many other groups as well. What this meant was that he ended up with a very wide musical backdrop.
You would imagine that there is not much more that someone with this musical pedigree has to learn about the business. However, Robyn moved to Miami in the late 1980’s and he went to the Central University of Florida where he studied music recording for two years. The university had a specialist faculty called Full Sail.
“I got a certificate from Full Sail in tapeless recording. I did this because I wanted to record and compose film scores. Now this technique turns out to be the same as music mastering,” he says. Although he was very familiar with ordinary recording studios, the new digital technology changed the way music recording was completed.
It fitted in with his interest in technology. Although, he spent a lot of time on the road, he didn’t miss out on the PC revolution. “I got the very first PC that ever came into Detroit from Radio Shack. It had 2mb of RAM. Now you can’t load a program without 30mb,” he laughs.
So by combining the music and the technology, Robyn started writing music scores for film while in Florida. And about this time his life took another turn.
“I met my wife, Bernadette, who is from Newtownbutler in Fermanagh. We lived in Florida for a number of years and then we decided, for the sake of the children, to move to Ireland,” he says.
“I put stuff in storage, came over here for two years, toured with the Commitments, getting to know Ireland and meeting people.”
“I started doing film work here. I was the Music Production Manager for the movie ’The Run Of The Country’, filmed in Redhills in Co Cavan. Then I did five J T Davis films based on the bible. Then I met up with Philip Donnelly, an Irish musician who is Nancy Griffith’s guitar player and we wrote and recorded for guys from Nashville and a couple of Irish artists as well.”
“But the biggest thing that got me into music mastering was when we were contracted to do a peace song around the time of the peace negotiations. I had Ronnie Wood play guitar on it; I had Jack L sing on it; Maura from Clannad was singing on it: every music name from Ireland was singing on this peace song. What I discovered when they sent it off for manufacturing was that the mix was inferior mastering, in my opinion. So I asked: ‘Does anybody master here in Ireland?’.”
What he found out was that big name musicians in Ireland were going to London or New York to get their albums finished off in order to get the professional sound that modern music listeners had become accustomed to.
Robyn realised that he had all the ingredients in his background do mastering in Ireland. He turned his garage in to a studio and imported the latest equipment and Pro Tools mastering software, possible the first use of Pro Tools in Ireland.
He started by mastering Daniel O’Donnell records and inside of six months he had numerous musicians and recording companies approach him to upgrade their sound. Gael Linn asked him to work on their back catalogue going back as far as Sean O’Riada.
Every traditional group in Ireland seemed to be heading his way. “So the business got so busy that I couldn’t handle it. I was doing the CD manufacturing as well and I was sub-contracting that out.
“Around that time my brother-in-law Tony Mohan, was getting out of the business that he was in, so I asked him whether he was interested in the CD side of the business. So he invested and I invested, and we put in the studio we have now in Enniskillen.” Mid-Atlantic Digital was born.
Ok, so he can play music, he can record music and he can make music sound good, but what did he know about the day-to-day running of a business? Quite a lot, as it turns out. He was involved in running the band’s business in America and his father was a plant manager of the Chrysler Corporation in Detroit. So business organisation was familiar to him as well.
But Irish business is not quite like American business. He recalls: “People conduct business here slightly different. They beat around the bush whereas Americans would be more direct. They have a few pints and work up to a decision – in America they do the business first and then they go for a drink. So it was advantageous having Tony who knew how to speak to people here and how business was done here.”
He concentrated in getting the musical stuff right. “We have everything here that you would find in the biggest studio in LA and then some.” And yet, for all the technology, he still depends on his ear to a large extent in finishing off the sound on film or straight music recordings.
He gets in material from all around the world, recently he has been doing work from places as diverse as Russia and Sicily.
He believes that Enniskillen is an ideal venue for the studio in that it is halfway between Dublin and Belfast and is in a general are where music is strong.
His advice for young people entering the business? “You need to get proper credentials from a proper training school for sound engineering because it’s changing daily and you really need to be up to speed on it. Jobs for newcomers are not plentiful and you really need to pick up all the experience you can.”
Finally, what about going back on the road with Bob Seger? “There’s talk about us doing a reunion tour since we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We don’t know about it – Bob’s health is not what it used to be. Our ‘Greatest Hits’ has been in the top 10 for six months. It might be a better idea to go out as we were.”