I got into it, like a lot of people, I think, by being in a band. What happened was, like a lot of people in my generation, The Beatles happened and like everyone else, I said "that's what I want to do" and found myself playing bass guitar in the first band. We got some interest from record labels that took us into recording studios, and as our career progressed a little bit, I was always interested in what was going on in the control room, sort of bothering people and nudging my way in, and eventually, when that band did not turn me into a superstar and fell apart, I weaselled my way into working in a recording studio. There were so few people really trying to do it, that it wasn't that hard for somebody with a little interest in it and a musical background to get enough work, and so I found find myself doing it full-time. It moved from doing sort of little bits of fill-in engineering to getting some full-on engineering gigs and then to producing.
You didn't make that much coffee then?
No, I never really made coffee, I never really tape-opped, I never really did very much of any of that stuff, I was just sort of the guy they went "Oh yeah, he could do it. I can't make it on Tuesday but he could do the guitars. He's a bass player, he knows what he's doing" and it just happened that way and I had some pretty good ‘uncredited’ credits early on which let me move on to getting a proper job eventually.
You’ve worked with Cyndi Lauper; how did that come about?
That happened because my long-term partner at that time, a guy called Rick Chertoff was a staff producer at Columbia Records and Cyndi had been signed just recently to a solo deal at the sister label. One of the team said "I have this singer who's really fantastic but probably needs some songs", and Rick said "We've got these fantastic songs but we really need the voice to do it with", and that was the combination. The introduction was made and we sort of felt our way into it and it worked out. A lot of songs on that record were things Rick and I had been playing with already, looking for somebody to do it with. We already had "Money Changes Everything", "All Through the Night" and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun".
There's a lot of technical producers out there, yet you seem to be very interested in the musicality of the stuff. Is that a good assessment?
Yes. I mean in some respects, I am an engineer/producer but I definitely come at it from the musician's side, from the songwriting side and particularly from the arranging side first. I'm very much of the belief that if a record is correctly arranged, almost any monkey can record it; not necessarily every monkey can record it as well as every other monkey, but the big job is getting the music right. I do sculpt the sound and make sonic choices as I go. I don't want to say that I don't pay attention to the engineering, but I'm much more concerned with it being arranged correctly, with the song being great, and then with eliciting a great performance because people relate to other people, especially that voice. It’s the performance of the musicians in general that moves your heart on a record, not how great the snare drum sounds.
Which I’m guessing most average people wouldn't know anyway.
Exactly. You think people respond to that, and once in a while they do, but really, the greatest snare drum sound in the world doesn't make any difference if that vocal isn't telling a story that makes you want to listen.
I don't remember the song being called "The Greatest Snare of All" do you?
No, although it's a good idea. (smile)
Let’s talk gear then, have there been kind of favorite landmark bits of gear on this journey? Things you keep going back to because you can trust them?
I'm a very old-school guy. First and foremost, I'm very much an analog guy. I still make two or three 100% analog records a year and love it. It takes me a day or two to get back into it. The first day I'm sitting there going "I could have done this edit. I could've cut and pasted. I could've fixed that" and by the second day, I'm just enjoying the process of having it just go down on tape and knowing you're actually making the choices on the fly.
I’m asking the guitar player "Do you want to do another guitar solo? Well then we're going to erase this one" and I think that kind of thing is actually helpful in the long-run, plus it sounds fantastic.
Leaving aside the 100% analog records, I do use a lot of analog gear for most of my projects. I typically work on a large analog desk with analog outboard gear and I’m fortunately at a point where I mostly get to work with seriously great microphones and good instruments, in good rooms with good monitors, and all that stuff. I routinely work with U47s, I routinely work with Fairchild 670s and LA-2As and 176 compressors, and I love the EMT250 reverb. I don't think I've mixed very many records in the past 25 years that didn't go through my Audio and Design recording stereo Compex compressor. Those are the sorts of pieces of gear that I find almost indispensable, but we live in a different world now with different levels of budget and different ways people are making records, and I also do work on the other end of things. I'm mixing a record right now at home 100% in the box, so that it will be recallable 100%. For this kind of project, it's all about emailing back and forth files as we're working and that sort of thing.
So Sound Radix plug-ins are almost the polar opposite of what we have been talking about; how did you hear about them and why do you use them?
I first heard about Sound Radix on Pro Tools Expert and thought it was really interesting and was worth a try, but I wasn't prepared for how amazed I was going to be. For example, in this record I’m currently working on it's one of those records where there really wasn't a single hand on the throttle the whole time, and so there's a really talented singer/songwriter guitar player, but then he sent his session off to a drummer somewhere else who threw his tracks on, and then they sent it to a bass player who threw his tracks on, and its been done sort of piecemeal by that without anybody thinking about how it would all go together sonically.
The drummer in particular is a very creative guy, but he's got one of these set-ups where he has three different snare drums plus a box that he bangs on, plus shakers that he wears on his wrist, plus a full-on regular drum kit with multiple toms and two bass-drums and one of them is a Parade drum! Then there are room microphones of course.
The thing is I don't have the advantage of having even seen this set-up, so it would be enormously helpful if I saw "oh that's where the third snare drum sits" in his room, I don’t have view of what you might call, stereo field and his picture of the drum kit. So it's a bit of a phase nightmare and I need that kit to appear to be some sort of unified kit.
This was one of the first times I tried Pi on all those tracks and it was, I have to say, a bit of a miracle worker. All of a sudden, all of this crazy, random phase just sort of came together with a clarity that is really striking to me. It's doing something I really would have no other way to do, and I think I've mentioned this to you already - it's actually kind of saving my life on this album.
It's turning this mess of twenty-two random drum microphones into something that sounds like it was reasonably recorded.
Have you found that when it’s in phase there is less to do in the mix?
Yes, exactly. It's the sort of thing where if I was doing it myself, recording it myself, I would probably use fewer microphones and I would place them around and if things sounded a bit whooshy or not quite right, I would move the mics until they did sound right. But when you don't have the opportunity to do that, you're right, I could spend all day trying to EQ everything and compress things and gate things and trigger things, and it would still end up sounding, at least to my ear, like a bit of a hotchpotch. It would still sound like a lot of various elements that aren't necessarily sitting together in a space. By aligning all the phase, what Pi does is put it back in that room. It makes it sound like a unified instrument, granted it's a bit of an over-sized instrument in this case, but it makes it sound human again in some way and that's something I don't think I have any other way of accomplishing.
Let's go all the way back round the circle here. You said you've been in this industry for a long time. What do you think has gotten you this far and allowed you to have a career that has been successful?
Focus on what you're recording before you focus on how you're recording it. A great capture of a great performance is what matters, but any capture of a great performance is better than a great capture of an adequate or mediocre performance. It's the people relationships that matter and from a producer's point of view that means eliciting a great performance. The biggest part of a producer's job I think is in getting the people involved to do their very best work.
That ability to make the band feel "Yes he gets us, he's on our side. The things that he's going to ask us to do or suggest we do are things that will be good for us and make sense for us". Very often, it's frustrating for me to read, what I like to call, the ‘Indier than thou’ approach that I read on the internet sometimes, where you have all these people who really have never experienced a serious professional good producer but they've got all these reasons why producers are bad, producers are commercial, heavy-handed ***holes who are going to ruin you and tell you what to do, and try to shape you into being some horrible poppy thing.
Great collaborations are all about having someone help you attain something you never would have attained on your own, the sound you could hear in your head but didn’t know how to get.
Is it carrot or stick, or a bit of both in your experience?
It's a little bit of carrot on a stick, mixed with a bit of schoolteacher, a bit of "no, no, that wasn't quite it but I think we can get a better one". Sometimes you have to be the cheerleader and sometimes you have to be the taskmaster. I don't believe in being the ***hole producer.
Read more about William Wittman here.