For more than 30 years, Mick Glossop has been lending his considerable talents to top-flight recordings, including a long-term collaboration with Van Morrison and work with Mott The Hoople, Frank Zappa, Tangerine Dream, The Waterboys, and Sinead O'Connor. Glossop is unique in that he's served as staff engineer at some of London's finest studios, including Wessex, Townhouse, The Manor, and Nova. This long apprenticeship gave him the opportunity to study and absorb numerous different production techniques -- invaluable experience that has undoubtedly aided him in his own illustrious career.
On the rainy London afternoon we sit down to talk (what other kind is there?), we were plagued with a power outage, resulting in the interview being conducted by candlelight while frantic staffers in his office ran around trying to conduct business by battery power. None of this seemed to have any perceptible impact on Glossop's powers of concentration, however; for more than two hours, he remained focused on the task at hand, giving thoughtful, insightful answers that reflected his intensive training and singular dedication to the craft of making records. At one point, having just asked him a particularly challenging question (and before hearing his answer), I had to run out of the room in order to feed the meter -- an inescapable fact of life for those foolhardy enough to take a car into central London. During the five minutes or so it took me to complete my task, I inadvertantly left the tape running (honest, Mick, I didn't do it on purpose) and when I later came to transcribe it, I simply heard silence during that period. While most others would take advantage of the break to stretch or make a phone call, Mick Glossop was instead thinking about his answer. In retrospect, I can't say I was surprised.
What do you think have been the most important changes in audio technology during the past 30 years?
One of the most radical changes was the development from 8-track to 16-track. That's a really massive jump because 16-track was the first time you could really put instruments on separate tracks. In particular, the drum sound is instrumental in determining the sound of a record, and with 16-track you could have kick and snare on separate tracks. So it was the first time you could really change the drum sound afterwards, and the first time that mixing as a concept really came into its own, as well as the idea that you could leave major decisions about the sound until later.
Then, of course, we started seeing more boxes that enabled us to do things with sound. George Martin, in talking about making Beatles records, would often say, "We had to make our own sounds in those days," and I think that was a very important thing because it produced a greater sense of originality in records. There were no presets -- there were hardly any synthesizers, really -- and there was nothing you could dial in. You had to create everything from scratch, and if you had any ingenuity then you were driven to that, anyway; you liked the idea of doing things differently. That's part of your stamp as an engineer or as a producer. The other part has to do with relationships, how you get on with people.
Are you saying there's less room for originality today? Well, I'm not necessarily one of those people who yearns for the old days because today, we have more freedom. I tend to be a bit cynical when people say that the magic of a Sgt. Pepper came from limited choice. Undoubtedly, it had an effect on the way the record came out, but I'm sure there were times when they were frustrated as hell about things they wanted to do and couldn't.
It's all about decisiveness and having the confidence to move forward; to me, that's the essential thing. It can be frustrating to work with an artist who's indecisive and isn't confident enough to say, "Yes, that's great." It makes the job easier if you can say, "Well, we can't do it any other way -- you have to accept that because we have to move forward and that's the only way to do it." It helps you get the thing done, whereas if you've got all this choice then you can't use that argument.
These days, though, it seems like there's almost too much choice, at least for the novice. Someone who is experienced will know in advance that certain options won't work, whereas the novice has to wade through all of them.
Yes, it is tricky. I'm in favor of restriction of choice from a creative point of view. One case in point is the third Peter Gabriel album, the one that had no cymbals and the big Townhouse drum sound. The room wasn't designed in any sense whatsoever -- it was more or less accidental. It's live, with a stone slabbed floor, which was done at least 50% for aesthetic reasons. Given the context of the day, it was very, very live. If you hit a snare drum in the room, it was so loud, it was incredible. We were contemplating changing the acoustics in there because we felt it was a bit uncontrollable, but it went on to become the vehicle for a classic drum sound!
How did that happen?
Peter had decided before he even went in the studio that he wanted to restrict the choice of percussion sounds inasmuch as he didn't want any cymbals on the album -- he didn't want any crashes, rides or high hats. So the rhythmic components that were traditionally played on high hats and rides had to be played on floor toms and that kind of thing.
On the Townhouse SSL, there was a talkback system that used a mic rigged up in the ceiling, connected to a really vicious compressor. So vicious that if somebody hit a drum, the volume of that drum was the same as the level of their voice, which is exactly what you want [in a talkback system] -- very very compressed. It was probably Phil Collins who was playing the drums at the time; they were talking about something, and he started playing and in the control room they suddenly heard this amazingly compressed drum sound. Peter Gabriel heard it and said, "Wow, that's fantastic! Put it on the record!" and I don't think that they were working towards that. So [engineer] Hugh [Padgham] then set about using the SSL channel compressors to reproduce the sound of the talkback compressor. In the course of that, he was playing around with the gate, and, again, Peter responded because Phil hit the snare and the gate chopped off the reverb, which is the classic sound that has become legendary. And it was really Peter who insisted that the sound be used -- it came about by accidental reasons.
But the point is, if they had been using cymbals with that kit, they wouldn't have been able to use that sound, because the gating would have chopped off all the cymbal decays in a very haphazard way, which would have messed up the sound. The sound is basically the sound of a drum being hit and the ambience compressed and then, as the ambience tails off, it chops off sharply because the gate's got a short release. It just doesn't work if you play cymbals as part of the rhythm. So it was only possible to get that drum sound -- which then went on to be the drum sound of Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight" -- without using cymbals. That's an example of a massive sonic creative effect being made possible only by a restriction of choice.
And a series of accidents.
And a series of accidents, yeah, especially if you think about the room design not being planned. So good things can come about if you say, "Right, we're not going to use that piece of equipment" -- whatever that equipment is, a musical instrument or whatever.
So you're suggesting giving yourself some restrictions beforehand in order to find a way to accomplish what you want with limited options.
Absolutely. Instead of yearning after all the gear, choose wisely and think what the essential things are -- just make sure that they are the right individual bits of equipment. Given the kind of recording technology we have now, with hard disk recording, etc., you can create fantastic results with very little musical equipment, with one keyboard that has a selection of tones, one guitar; you don't even need a bass guitar, really. If you're working on your own in a project studio, you can create bass parts with either the keyboard or the guitar, using octave dividers. You can speed the tape up and play a bass part on the bottom strings of the guitar, use that sort of thinking. If you get into that kind of boy scout mentality of making it work with a piece of string and a pen knife -- seeing what you can do with not much equipment -- that will bring an originality to your work, and it's fun as well! You just have to work a little harder mentally, rather than just calling up preset 25.
The thing about sound is that it's not a separate thing from the music; the two are totally interlinked. When you're creating effects on records -- not in an effects box sense but in a musical, sonic sense -- the two are the same. So choose two or three bits of equipment with care and then set about doing what you've got to do with those.
If you're putting together a project studio from scratch, what's the most important piece of gear?
It depends on what you want to achieve with your studio. I suppose you could divide equipment up into the stuff that you are creative with and the medium upon which you record -- the tape machine or hard disk recorder. I think it's worth getting quality for the medium, because that directly affects the reproduction quality of what it is you are creating. You can buy a computer-based system with a PCI card, but use the best converters you can, so at least you can do transfers with the best quality; it's quite important and you can't really bypass that. I suppose the next thing on from that would be to make sure that your listening environment -- by that I include the speakers and the amplifier -- is as good as it can be. That doesn't mean you have to have a big massive system with 18" bass drivers. You can get very good results using a pair of Yamaha NS10s. A tremendous number of producers and engineers work for maybe three quarters of their major projects on NS10s.
Is that what you do?
Yeah, most of the time when I'm mixing, I'm listening to a pair of NS10s. I check it on the big speakers and I use Auratones as well, which takes that idea even further. Even if you are going to use, for example, a pair of NS10s and a Quad 405 amp -- which is the standard combination a lot of English engineers use -- try and make sure the room isn't adversely affecting the sound too much. I know I'm being very general about that because there's a tremendous amount you can do, but you don't need to spend a lot of money on acoustic treatment.
What sort of treatments come to mind that will help?
If you want to split the frequency of the spectrum into three bands, there's the high frequency stuff, there's a midrange band which is a very wide range, and there's low frequency. The bands are kind of inversely related to the amount of money you need to spend [to control them]. Controlling very low frequencies costs more money because it's big movements of air and you need mass and big trapping systems to do that. So you'd be lucky if you can do that without spending a lot of money. High frequency, it's just soft material. Midrange is more complicated because it's a wide range anyway, and to a certain extent it depends how much absorption and how much diffusion you want; there's a balance between those.
It's weird talking about acoustic design because you can get complicated equipment in, but it comes down to what you want to hear. You kind of mess around, really. Normal domestic furniture plays a big part in the way a studio is going to sound, so don't be frightened off by the mystique of acoustic design. It's worth just getting stuck in and putting stuff in the room and listening to CDs that you know the sound of and see what your monitors sound like. If it sounds a bit muddy, then get some books on the wall and see what that does. Try the old test of making a recording in the room and then playing the tape elsewhere and seeing what it sounds like on different systems. If it's bass light, then there's too much bass in the room, so you need to absorb a bit of that. I think the listening environment and the quality of the recording medium are the two most important things, really, because what you hear obviously determines what you do.
Is the quality of the mic preamps more important than the quality of the mics?
There are companies like Mackie which are making desks that have mic preamps which are great. As far as I'm concerned, they are better in some respects -- and this is very subjective of course -- but in some respects, they're better than SSL E-series mic amps, and we made a lot of records in the 80s on SSL E-series consoles with E-series mic amps. So in terms of mic amps, if the budget's restrictive, then get a Mackie. Not just Mackie -- there are other cheap consoles with reasonable mic amps, like the Soundcraft ones. Rather than just one mic, as well, it's good to have a choice of mics -- at least one dynamic and at least one condenser mic for different things, because they sound different.
Do you experiment much with different polar patterns?
I don't spend a lot of time doing that, but it's something that I keep meaning to do. In terms of polar patterns, I might go for omni if there's a particular ambience in the studio that I want to capture. There's a bidirectional mic technique which is quite useful for a singer with an acoustic guitar who's singing at the same time -- it's a classic problem, trying to keep the voice out of the guitar and the guitar out of the voice, but particularly the voice out of the guitar. If you use a bidirectional mic on a guitar such that the dead sides are pointing up and down rather than side to side, then you get more rejection of the vocal than if you use a cardioid mic, which doesn't really have as good side rejection; it has good back rejection. So if you use an [AKG] C414 bi-directional and have it sideways, it picks up less vocal. So I might experiment with polar patterns from a rejection point of view, though generally I use cardioid for most things. But it's an area that's valid; it's a question of the way that the sound gets into the mic. It's as valid as what happens when you put it in an effects box.
Do you tend to use a lot of room mics?
Yeah, when it's appropriate. I particularly like Steve Albini's approach to drums, which has got lots [of room mics] all over the place. You don't have to use them all, but it's good to record them. It's good to have them set up and to use them collectively.
Do you ever process room mics differently?
Oh, yeah. I use delay sometimes. One trick I've read about that interested me was that Abba would close mic the drums when they did the drum track and then they'd double-track the drums but only record the room mics, put them on a separate track. I thought that was neat. I like double-tracking and changing the sound of the double-track in some way. I do that with guitars a lot, where you double-track with a different guitar or you've got the same guitar with a different amp or a different mic.
One trick from the old analog days was doing a slight varispeed for the double track.
Yeah, and it's not the same as using a Harmonizer; it's not static. Analog tape machine speed changes all the time, so even though there's an LFO kind of effect on the Harmonizer, it's a constant sweep; with tape, it's a random thing.
Random, that's an interesting concept -- a very Brian Eno kind of thing -- but it's something I've been getting into recently, trying to get modulation on things that's done in a random way rather than a sweep. You can create it in different ways. If you have several effects that each have their own LFO modulations, then if you combine them, since they're not locked together, you'll get some interesting combinations. But also deliberate random modulation, which you can do on some old analog synths -- you can run the noise through a sample-and-hold circuit to create a random variation of modulation signals so that the pitch is just shivering away in a weird bubbly way, which is quite nice. I think that's a much more natural thing -- if that's what you're going for -- than a constant sweep.
Is there a basic drum miking setup that you tend to begin with?
I try to avoid that as much as possible. I used to do that and it's something I have to force myself to avoid because, if you've got something that works and you've got a job to do, you think, "Well, I've got so much time to do this and that'll work, so I'll do it." But if you use the same mics in the same positions every time, you're led down a certain road of creating a sound. Sometimes you'll find yourself using the same EQ without actually listening -- you're going, OK, I need to take 700Hz out of the snare, I need to add 5K and I need to add a bit of 12K and maybe put in a 75 Hz filter to get rid of the kick. Yes, that's a snare sound, but it's also what you did on ten other recordings.
Although perhaps people have hired you because that's the sound they want. Maybe. It's difficult to know that.
Do you go into the room and listen to the kit acoustically and start deciding from there?
It depends on the project.
But how do you make the decisions?
The question of what the record is going to sound like is the main thing. You've got to start somewhere, so you have to get a concept, to use a grand word, for the sound of the record, which will come about when I first listen to demos of a band; they'll give me an idea of what their direction is. From the demos, I'll form an idea of where I think I need to make changes musically and sonically, but also I start to get an idea of how I think the record could sound, but not too specifically at that point. Then I meet the band. We talk about the sound, the sort of things they like, the sort of records they want to make, and that sort of crystallizes that idea of what sort of sound the record's going to have. That's the reference for virtually all the decisions that are made, notwithstanding the fact that you are going to have some experimentation and some surprises along the way.
One extreme will be that the record is going to be a very fidelity, acoustic reproduction kind of sound, where, for example, the drummer has a sound that has to do with the kind of kit he has and the way he tunes it and plays it. [In that case], you put that drummer in a room which will enhance the presentation of that sound and you set about choosing and placing mics in such a way that what comes out of the speakers is a representation of his sound. So you're not talking about processing in order to change anything; it's reproduction in a classic hi-fi jazz sense, I suppose.
That's one extreme, but the other extreme is where the idea is to create a sound which is conceived in the collective imaginations of the artist and the producer and the engineer. That sound is conceived in theory first, then you set about creating it by whatever means are necessary. Both [approaches] are interesting, but the second one is, in a way, more interesting, because there's more imagination, there's more creativity. That's where you get into concepts of originality -- when you want to make the record sound like a record that hasn't been made before. And quite often you'll end up with different sounds on different songs as well -- different drum sounds for each song. Then you start talking about the percussion content of the record; it doesn't have to be drums, it could be combinations of classic drums and classic percussion. But then you start to talk about sequencing and sampling and creating different sounds using distortion, changing a high hat into something else, into a shaker sound or into something that just sounds like distorted white noise -- the whole thing is wide open. In those circumstances, you might still put the drums in the room and the band might still have a drummer who physically plays and you're still dealing with acoustic material, but it's going to be transformed into something else. So you don't necessarily walk into the studio and listen to the way the drums sound in the studio; you might actually avoid doing that! You might even just tell the assistant to use whatever mics he wants.
Have you done that?
Occasionally, yeah. One of the things you have to do when you make your record is choose your vocal mic for a particular lead singer. Assuming you're going to pick one mic and use it for the whole thing, you need to choose a mic which is best for that voice. Again, you can fall into the trap of saying, well I think a 414 or a U87 will sound good on that, so you put those up and choose between the two, but you are letting yourself open to all your preformed ideas about what a 414 or a U 87 should sound like. So I might give the assistant a list of mics and ask him to add a couple to them, set them up in the studio and plug them into channels one to eight, but not tell me which is which. I might ask him to switch on the appropriate phantom switches so I know which are the condenser mics and which are the dynamic mics, but I'd rather just push the fader up and just see what they sound like. It's quite fun to discover that the Tandy Radio Shack PZM mic actually sounds better than the M147 or something like that. I don't know if it's a perverse sense of humor on my part, but I quite like that idea of getting a great vocal sound with the mic you would least expect, as a sort of discovery, I suppose.
It's funny, actually because when PZM mics came out, we did experiment by unscrewing the plates, just clipping the mics on. Although the low frequency response wasn't all that great, I thought the high frequency quality was really special. I guess it's because the electret capsule is very small so it doesn't interfere with the high frequencies in a physical sense so much. The top end was fantastic.
Do you take the same approach in miking guitars?
Oh, yeah. Everything, really -- just trying to do things differently, trying to get a different sound that hasn't been done before. I think everybody's blazing a trail to a certain extent; you want to add your stamp to things.
What's the oddest idea you tried that actually ended up being used and really worked?
Hmmm. Let me think about that. (pause) In one recent session that was rather rushed, I had a snare mic on the top and another mic on the bottom, [routed to] separate tracks. When I listened to the track back later, I found that the mic amp must have been too high on the bottom mic because all the way through it was distorted. Not tremendously, but certainly distorted. And that actually created an effect which I think is part of the sound. It was a kind of compression thing that beneficially affected the sound of that mic.
I also remember recording an elecric guitar once and I had two or three mics set up, and I chose an AKG C28, which is a valve [tube] mic. About three hours later, I was wandering around the studio and I found the assistant had set up the mics in an odd way. The C28 has a pencil mic kind of shape and you're supposed to point it at things, but it has a grill that extended round the side of the mic. The assistant engineer thought it was the kind of mic you sang into from the side and that was the way he pointed it at the amp, so it was pointing up in the air. But it actually sounded better than the other mics that were positioned in the correct fashion. That was an interesting discovery.
So it's worth trying to face your mic in different directions.
It's definitely worth doing that. It's a combination of knowing the "official" way to do things and using those techniques when they sound good, but also not being afraid to break the rules. I think that's very much in the tradition of English engineering -- breaking the rules, being a maverick, doing stuff wrong. Mind you, a lot of engineers have done things wrong because they actually didn't know what was the right thing in the first place, but that doesn't matter. It's the end result that counts.
What do you listen for when you make a decision to work with an artist? What can they do to get your attention?
There are classic things, like the songs. That's a major, major thing. The style, the writing. Originality is very important. I think it's almost more important for a singer to have something about them which is identifiable than it is for them to be a technically good performer. Certainly originality is more important than being technically good. Originality in terms of the vocal performance and originality in terms of the musical concept -- the instrumentation, the way you've chosen to arrange the songs, the way you play the instruments or program the instruments. There's so much stuff out there that you've got to compete somehow.
Do you prefer to hear a fairly finished demo? Oh, no, no.
So a simple piano/vocal demo will work for you.
Sure, because that's the song. Again, that's a classic thing: a good song will stand up if it's played with very basic accompaniment: vocal/acoustic guitar, vocal/piano.
But that's a song demo as opposed to an artist demo.
Yes, except that you still have the voice. If somebody sends me demos of vocal and guitar or vocal and piano, that will tell me half of it, I guess. From my point of view, I prefer to hear some kind of musical realization on their part because I find it more difficult working with an artist who doesn't have a clear idea of how they want their musical identity to emerge. The artist needs to have some idea of the sort of record they want to make, the sort of things they want their musicians to play. I feel a little uncomfortable when I'm working with solo artists who expect the producer to create that. I guess that's because I'm not a writer myself, although I dabbled in it a bit. But even if I was a writer, that's a collaboration; that's not really a producer working with an artist. So I like working with artists who are pretty clear on what they like and what they want, with some scope for movement. I like working with artists who are pretty strong about what they want as well.
A lot of producers would not say that.
No, they wouldn't. I've never believed in the producers record; I don't really like that idea. I don't think I have a particular sound; it's just not appropriate for me. My job is to realize the musical vision that the artist has. You work with the artist, and the artist says -- and they may not verbalize this, but it may come out in the way they perform -- these are the songs I write, this is the way I like to perform, this is the way I think I'm going to get it across to people and this is the kind of musical environment I want to create. Then it's the producer's and engineer's job to realize that, to show them how to do it.
Do you tend to engineer your own records?
It varies. It's something I decide as I go along in preproduction. It depends on the kind of record, the way that we are going to go about it. Generally, I prefer to do it all myself because you get there quicker. However, one of the advantages of having an engineer for the recording is that you can sit back and get a bit more distant with the way you're hearing things. Also, if you're working with an engineer who has something to contribute, then you've got another source of good ideas. Mixing I always do myself because it is instant -- I just go ahead and do it. It's very frustrating for me personally to describe what we need to do to the snare. I suppose I could work with an engineer and let him do that and be very, very overall in terms of comments, but I don't think I'd enjoy that very much. I like to actually be doing it; I like it to be my mix. Maybe that's an ego thing, but I enjoy doing it, so why not?
What is the essential difference between the role of the engineer and that of the producer ?
The roles are becoming very blurred. Coming up as a staff engineer, I worked with a lot of producers who were completely and totally in control; the engineer was there to realize what he wanted and it was his production. But I also worked with a lot of producers where I was getting into that realm, I was half producing the record. That happens a lot, as everybody knows. All we've got is a record or CD with the credits that say produced by Joe and mixed and engineered by Fred, but nobody really knows who did what. It might have been the keyboard player in the band -- who is going to be a producer in two years time -- who actually contributed more to the production than either the producer or the engineer. We don't have enough words to describe what people do when we talk about the way records are made.
But if you're an experienced engineer, then you've got that direct experience of what mics sound like, what you can do with a combination of a mic and a compressor. You're just that much more familiar with how you can get a particular sound from a particular instrument so you can get it much more quickly. Again, in the sense that the sound cannot be divorced from the music, you're tapping into what's going to happen to that musical part directly. A producer who is musical but doesn't have that link to the sound has got to rely on his engineer to do that.
What are the common mistakes you are hearing in tapes that are coming out of project studios?
It's difficult to answer that, really, because they're not really mistakes. It's just to do with skill, and again to a large extent it comes out of experience for which there's no substitute. Things like not being able to use a compressor in the right way; not knowing whether something is too compressed or not compressed enough. Over-EQ.
I've listened to a few records recently -- finished CDs which have been recorded digitally -- and the reason I haven't liked the sound of these records is because there's something about the transients which are excessive, particularly in cymbals and drums. There's an aspect of digital recording which results in transients being too present, for me, anyway. The hit of the stick on the cymbal is too clear, too apparent. It's something which needs controlling.
It's very difficult to describe, but one of the benefits of analog is that those transients are controlled and they enable a blend of the instruments which is very appropriate and very pleasing to me. A lot of digitally recorded releases are made on low budgets and that's usually the reason for it: lack of expertise and cheaper digital formats where those transients aren't being controlled. As a result, the instruments aren't blending properly and a cymbal crash, for example, is sticking out too much and dominating the listening experience. It's inappropriate because it distracts your attention from the main event, which is the vocalist. That sense of how to deal with what's happening in a digital recording is something that you need to have an awareness of. So I think a pitfall that's being fallen into is the allure of those transients.
When you put a microphone up and you start getting a drum sound, the fact that digital recording preserves and in some ways actually accentuates those transients is something which initially can be appealing. You think, oh wow, that sounds like quality. It's like sometimes when you add high frequencies to a sound, it immediately makes it shine more and you think, oh, that's better. But it isn't necessarily better. It's just that you're being kind of drawn into that; it's seductive, I suppose. I suspect that some engineers and studios are perhaps being attracted to that in an inappropriate way so that those transients are just too dominant in the recording.
What techniques can you use to tame those transients?
One of the things that I've really only learned in the past three or four years is that, if you're going to record on a digital medium, you can't expect to use the same mics you've used for analog. There's an upper midrange quality that can be accentuated by digital, [a quality] which was always smoothed off by analog. So you could use a mic that had a spike -- an upper mid boost to it -- on an electric guitar or a cymbal, something that maybe had a tendency to be a bit harsh. Because the signal was going to analog tape, it would be dealt with. When you record on digital, it's going to be enhanced, so you need to choose a mic which has got less of that upper mid. Choose an Audio Technica or a B & K or an Earthworks --there are several mics which have been developed in the past five or ten years which have a smooth top end and nice, smooth low frequency response but not much midrange enhancement. Those kind of mics are a bit more appropriate for recording spiky sounds or transient sounds. So that's one thing: Use a different mic.
Distortion? There's lots of different kinds of distortion. Distortion can be viewed as a kind of compressor in a sense. There's a squaring off of the signal that prevents it from going beyond a certain point, which is what a compressor does. But distortion -- I don't mean a kind of fuzz necessarily, although you can experiment with that as well -- is a way of controlling the transients. It can be very mild; when people talk about what valves [tubes] do to warm the sound, it's a kind of distortion
So one idea is to put it through some kind of tube before it's in the digital domain.
Yeah, or anything. You could use a distortion pedal -- you don't have to set it to full on -- or even putting it through just a line amp that's not a terribly high fidelity line amp. I got something in a junk shop the other day which was designed as a kind of PA amplifier -- I think you're supposed to connect speakers to the back of it and if you're in an office and you want to talk to the factory floor, you press a button and you talk into a built-in electret mic and the sound of your voice comes out of a speaker the other side of the hall. It was cheap so I bought it on a lark, thinking it might have a good sound. It's this hideous orange plastic box and it's got built-in distortion, but it's quite a mild distortion that might be quite useful. So there are lots of devices that aren't really distortion boxes; they're just amplifiers that aren't that good. You can use them subtly to tame those things. Compression with a very fast attack -- you need to have a fast attack to really cut the front off sounds -- a lot of compressors have attack controls that go right down, so that's something worth looking at.
Do you tend to record everything on analog tape or just drum tracks?
It depends on the project. My philosophy is that, if possible, everything should go through one analog generation somewhere along the line, even if it's the half-inch mix. It's better, though, if it's before that because it helps to blend the instruments. I find it more difficult to get instruments to blend together when they've all been recorded in a digital format. If you're leaving the analog process to the end, then you're not going to hear it until you play back the analog tape, so it's a bit limiting. The analog process is perhaps not essential for vocals, but I think it helps drums. But that doesn't mean you have to record on analog first; I've done a lot of projects where I've used Pro Tools as a tape machine and then copied it to analog at some later date. A lot of people work like that with ADAT, for example. Again, you're not hearing the effect until after you've done the recording, so it involves a certain amount of experience to know to record onto the ADAT and to listen into the future. You've got to think, well, it sounds like this at the moment but I know that when it comes back off the two inch [analog tape], it's gonna be smoothed off a bit.
Analog tape does have a beneficial effect on a lot of instruments straight off the bat. There are different ways you can achieve that. If you're working with hard disk and you've got an analog 1/4" machine sitting in the corner, you can come out of the hard disk through the quarter inch machine back to hard disk and then slide the track back into place to compensate for the delay. It's easy to do that -- you know what a tape time delay is, so you just match that. So you can use the analog tape machine as a processor, working that way.
When you're mixing, in what order do you bring faders up? What are you listening for and what are you thinking about?
I start off with an initial mental picture of how the song is supposed to sound -- a general kind of personality for the mix. If it's something I've recorded, then I know what's on the tape and I would have been recording with the mix in mind anyway, so I'm halfway there. Then it's a matter of just trimming because I've done so many monitor mixes in-between time and I know how things can blend. The panning positions are probably already worked out, and most of the compression will have been done. If it's a track that I'm not that familiar with, then I'd listen to everything up and get some kind of a rough balance.
If it's a rhythm section oriented thing, then I'd probably work from the drums up, but I wouldn't listen in solo to the drums. I generally mix on an SSL and I generally tend to assign each group of instruments to its own VCA master fader. So I'll have the drums on one, the bass on two, the guitars on three, acoustic guitars on four, keyboards on five, etc. I'll pull all the faders down to about -15 [dB] except for the drums, and I'll leave those up so I can work on the drum sound while listening to the other instruments at a reduced volume. That way, you're still listening in context. It's very easy to solo the snare or solo the high-hat and spend half an hour working on the high-hat sound, only to find that it doesn't work with the rest of the kit, let alone with the rest of the instruments.
Are vocals the last thing that you work on?
Well, you kind of move them around. All the midrange instruments have to be related in terms of their frequency band and the musical harmonic aspect. The vocals have to relate to the guitars and keyboards; generally, the vocals are in that midrange, so there's no point in getting a bunch of guitar sounds that leave no space for the vocals. So I'll work on the guitars for a bit while listening to the vocal. Whilst you are doing that, you are kind of with another ear listening to the sort of problems there are in the vocal sound that need to be dealt with. For example, if it's a song which has a quiet verse and a loud chorus, then it's very common for a singer's voice to develop a hard edge when he's singing loudly, which doesn't happen when he's singing quietly. So while you are doing the drums and guitar, you might be thinking, well, perhaps I'm going to have two channels for the vocals -- one for the quiet parts and one for the loud parts. An alternative to that may be using a frequency band compressor where you control that particular hardness factor in the vocals. The problem with using static EQ to get rid of the hardness is that it might solve the problem of the vocal in the chorus, but when the quiet verse is being performed, it will lack some presence because you've taken out some 4 or 5 k. So you could use a frequency band compressor to control that band. I use a BSS DPR901, which is four band; it's a really really good device for controlling that kind of thing. It has a sidechain [input] so you can tune one band to that problem area. I use it a lot, particularly in vocals.
Another thing I do is that I have an AudioDesign Scamp rack and I have a couple of modules which are frequency splitters designed for band compression for radio use. You put a signal in and it's got four outputs for low, low/mid, high/mid, and high, so you can split the frequency signal up into four components. But then it has four inputs which combine those four components back to the original, so if you take the four feeds out and put them straight back in again, there's no difference in sonic quality because it's designed to have no phase shift; if the gains of those bands were changing and there was a phase shift between the bands, you'd get a swooshing effect. So it means you can take just one band of the signal, compress it and do whatever you want with it -- pan it, whatever -- but if you process it in a mono way, you can feed it back in with the other bands. You can compress just one band and it works really, really well -- it's fantastic. I use it in conjunction with four dbx 160 compressors -- one on each band. The nice thing about those compressors is that each one has an output level control, so you can do the compressing and then balance up the four bands as they are mixed back together
So in effect you're equalizing as well.
It's dynamic equalization, but you can have a different compressor on each band. You don't have to recombine them through its combining network; you can bring those four signals up on the desk and you can use different effects on the different bands of the vocals. You can put them through four auto panners and have them moving around in different frequency bands in the vocals, which is quite a nice effect. You can add a digital delay just to the upper mid, you can pan the high frequency just on one side and have the lower mid on the other hand side, things like that.
And presumably you've done all these things.
(laughs) Oh, sure. I simply realized when I started messing around with these boxes that you can split the signal up into these bands with a hi-fi respect for the quality. It's quite transparent; it doesn't compromise the sound in any way. It just splits and recombines if you want to. But once you've got those four components, you can do all kinds of things; you can use a phaser on just the high frequency. Again, vocals are one of those things that changes its character quite a lot and so quite often you need to control narrow bands. So it's very good for that.
You could probably do that very easily with digital devices, but this way you have the benefit of working in the analog domain, so things are being smoothed out.
Do you have any general advice to the novice who wants to be the next Mick Glossop?
Just don't be afraid to experiment; that's very important. Most of what we do comes down to experience and there's no substitute for that. So just spend a lot of time on it and mess around and experiment. Do crazy things, break the rules, and if you like the sound of it, then that's great. Have confidence in your own subjectivity; if it appeals to you and you think it fits with what you are doing, then do it. You don't have to be purist about things. If it sounds good, then it doesn't matter how you got that sound.