"Close to the Edit" (Interview with Richard Buskin - November, 1999)
Trading perfection for performance and accuracy for atmosphere has seen Mick Glossop making some of the best records of three decades. Richard Buskin meets the thinking musician's producer
'After you've been involved in a process to achieve a particular performance for five or six hours, it's a great experience to finally capture that. Nevertheless, I also have to say that the word "capture" is used a lot to give credit to producers. I mean, producers are instrumental, I think, in terms of helping people to get there, but when you press Record you're basically sitting there listening. You're not doing much else.'
That may be open to question, yet what is in little doubt is that Mick Glossop is a producer and engineer for whom the essence of live performance has been a key feature of much of his work with artists ranging from Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, Tangerine Dream and Flesh for Lulu to Queen, Mott the Hoople, Mike Oldfield, Sinead O'Connor, The Skids, The Waterboys, The Wonder Stuff and The Men They Couldn't Hang.
'There's a link between human performance and imperfection,' he says, 'and you have to be very careful about the imperfections that you decide you're going to rub out with your little eraser.'
The 'little eraser' that Glossop is referring to is the editing process, and this is something he is extremely conscientious about. '
A case in point is Van Morrison, with whom Mick Glossop has collaborated on no less than 13 albums since kicking things off with the Wavelength project in 1977.
'I remember something that happened with his saxophone part on 'Celtic Swing',' says Glossop with regard to one of the singles on Van the Man's 1982 album, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. 'He was playing a low note and it wouldn't speak properly. The key wouldn't seal, so we just got this kind of rushing air sound, but he carried on playing and he was really furious about it afterwards. "The bloody thing only got serviced the other day and it's still not working properly!" However, it was left on the record and a lot of people have since remarked about that, because it's a very interesting sound; the sound of the air blowing through the key of the sax. At the time Van was upset about it, but other people thought it should be left in because it was atmospheric, which is not something that he would normally do.
'He's very much a Take 1 person and he's certainly not obsessed with technique in the technical sense. He's very into the feel and he's had a big influence on me in that respect, and he usually okays quite a few things which other people would iron out, such as a guitar that might be slightly out of tune. If the performance has got the feel and the spontaneity and the creativity that it needs then he'll accept that. He'll always sacrifice technical considerations for atmosphere and expression and feel, and from that point of view it's very good working with him. There have been several performances and overdubs where he's initially said, "No, that's fine, that's great", and I've thought, "He's going to redo that in a couple of weeks. I'm sure he's going to replace that overdub". However, two weeks later we've put the tape up and I've listened to it and thought, "Well, that's actually okay, isn't it? It's not a problem." I'd been sucked into being too focussed and too microscopic about it, and therefore in terms of my other work it's a very good thing for me to work on his sessions every now and again, because it just sets things in perspective. He's constantly got his mind on the performance, and that's very healthy.'
From 1970 through to the end of that decade Mick Glossop was the beneficiary of a first-class apprenticeship courtesy of the time he spent on staff at Wessex Studios in North London, Nova Studios in Marble Arch, Studio Son Quebec in Montreal, The Manor in Oxfordshire and The Town House in West London. At Wessex he assisted on numerous live orchestral sessions as well as those with artists such as King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Georgie Fame, Alan Price and Stevie Wonder, while as an engineer at Nova he learned a lot from working with Mike Weighell. 'What he taught me was a way of communicating with theproducer and the artists, and learning that that was as important as getting the sound,' Glossop recalls. 'He also showed me that, as an engineer, it was possible to subtly influence what went on in a session.'
After spending four months recording and mixing the music of French-Canadian rock outfit Offenbach for a 1974 documentary movie, Glossop was then offered the job of chief recording engineer at Virgin Records' residential facility The Manor. This not only brought him into contact with a wide variety of major international artists, but also enhanced his technical know-how by way of his direct involvement in the studio's redesign, and it was during his his 4-year stint there that Glossop gained invaluable experience working alongside Mutt Lange.
'I engineered four or five projects with Mutt when he came over from South Africa in the late seventies, and he is the person who probably influenced me more than anyone else,' Glossop says. 'He was 100 per cent focused on what he was doing and his powers of concentration were fantastic. He'd be on top of things for 18 hours a day when everyone else was losing it, and so what he showed me was a level of dedication which I realised was necessary in order to achieve real success as a producer. Also, his encyclopaedic knowledge of production techniques was incredible, and that emphasised how important it is to do your research prior to working with a particular artist and then to cover every base. There wasn't one note or beat that went on any of his records that wasn't closely examined. Everything was there because it was supposed to be there.'
Which brings us back to the subject of deciding what imperfections to 'rub out with your little eraser'. After all, isn't the syllable-by-syllable approach also a threat to the kind of spontaneous feel that is associated with many of the artists whom Mick Glossop has produced and-or engineered?
'I'm a fairly spontaneous person,' comes his justification, 'and generally I find that the best decisions I make are the ones I make quickly. So, I try to balance the two aspects.' Glossop also tries to keep the tape rolling in order to avoid missing out on any moments of artistic inspiration.
'The first time that I missed something with Van Morisson was at the Record Plant in Sausalito,' Glossop recalls. 'It was the second album that I did with him [Into the Music], as usual everything was live--live vocals, the band was playing live--and they all came into the control room to listen to playbacks for a couple of tracks. People were just hanging around chatting, and Van walked out into the studio and was tinkling around on the piano, and then he picked up his guitar and started tuning it. I was still talking to everybody else, and a couple of minutes later I looked out and he was strumming some idea or other. He was nowhere near his little recording area, but then the drummer wandered out there and he started playing along, followed by the piano player who started fingering a few notes in relation to what Van was doing. Well, this gradually evolved into a performance, and at that point I realised something was going on and we'd better put some tape on. Don't forget, we'd just been playing back a track and the master was still on there, and so we quickly spooled the tape off, put on a new reel and stuck the machine in Record but by that time they were already into the chorus of the song. Of course, because of the way that things work psychologically and musically, this ended up being the take, of which I hadn't recorded the first two minutes. I think they ended up having to do another take.
'As a result, ever since then I always have two tape machines, and if we're working with Dolbys--which is normally the case--I take wire leads from the back of the Dolby rack to both machines. That means there's always a tape machine ready to record. At the same time, quite often Van's songs will extend much longer than most people's--I mean, the longest live performance I recorded with him was about 32 or 33 minutes. You don't know how long it's going to be, so you have to have another machine that you can put in Record to catch the overlap instead of losing 15 seconds of the song.
'Van does do a lot of stream-of-consciousness-type songs, where instead of lyrics he'll have a page of words or phrases that he dips into and a lot of other stuff is off the top of his head. There's no structure and the band members are just flying by the seat of their pants, and there are often misgivings from the musicians when they are put on the spot. He doesn't tell them what key the song is in, he doesn't tell them anything about the chord structure. They have to pick it up most of the time, and that's pretty tough. Obviously there will be mistakes and various musicians will feel that they haven't played as well as they could because they were feeling their way, and sometimes they're right and patch-ups will be done. However, quite often Van will insist that they don't redo their parts unless there's a really glaring error, because he knows that that first tentative performance has a unique quality purely because they had to play instinctively.
'That's one of the massive things that I learned from him--there is something about a musician's performance which you can only get under those circumstances. I used to think the reason he didn't fill them in on the song's key was because he didn't think it was necessary and he just couldn't be bothered, but I now think that it's deliberate because he instinctively knows that they are going to have to feel their way. That's what it's about, and it also means that people can never overplay, because they have got to respond to what he is doing. It's a very human element about performance that is brought into the recording, and I think he knows that. He worked it out a long time ago and he's stubbornly stuck to it, and he gets the results by virtue of doing that.'
It was in 1980, after spending a year at The Town House, that Mick Glossop branched out as a freelance producer and engineer, yet just prior to his departure one of his final fader-pushing projects there was Frank Zappa's album Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar. This in turn led to the mix of 'Joe's Garage Parts 1&2', and yet more seat-of-the-pants experiences.
'Frank was trying to mix it in his basement studio, which was a basement in the California sense, hanging down near the top of a hill with lots of windows and great views,' Glossop recalls. 'It was a new facility with a big Harrison console, very nice-sounding Eastlake monitors and two Studer tape machines, but it didn't have any air conditioning and this was the middle of July. It was absolutely roasting in there, so after a day we had to give up and go to a place in Burbank where we mixed the record in ten days. It was a triple album and Ihad time to do three sides. Steve Nye did the other three, so we did half each, and it was great.' Working with Zappa was also contrary to expectations, for the man himself turned out to be far removed from Glossop's original vision of a highly meticulous, overly critical chieftain who would dissect everyone's performance in clinical fashion.
'I was very impressed,' he says. 'In an intellectual sense he was the most advanced musical director and creative person that I've ever worked with. He really deserved the title of composer. He wasn't a rock guitarist who happened to be able to write music. He was extremely bright and he really had a much higher intellect than you generally tend to find in this business. Still, while his standards were very high and he could be very demanding when trying to get results and performances out of the people with whom he was working, he also had a keen sense of what each person's limitations were and he would never push people beyond that point.
'I've worked with a lot of producers who are very demanding and will just go on and on and on, because they have this vision of how it should be and they will drive someone into the ground until they've got it, even if there's no soul left in it. Zappa, on the other hand, had a sense of knowing when to stop during that process, and that was down to an intuitive sense of what that person's capabilities were. So, he'd get the best out of them, but if it wasn't quite as good as what he really wanted he also wouldn't drive them into the ground. I thought the human aspect of that approach was really good, and it actually got the best out of everyone he worked with, including me. He had a way of relating to me which made me really work hard at what we were doing.
'He was very experienced in terms of recording techniques, although I have to say that the way in which he talked about recording techniques was not like an engineer. I think he'd learned all that he knew by virtue of his own intelligence and talking to engineers, but he was still quite unconventional. He would talk about microphones, recording levels and so on quite knowledgeably, but he also looked at things in a different way and expressed himself accordingly, even though you'd pretty much always know what he meant.
'He could listen and pick things out that would pass by the ear of the average experienced musician. I mean, his music was complex anyway, but it's not as if he was an artist who just wrote complex music, it was played and that's it. He'd hear every single note of that music as it was being played, in the way that you'd expect a classical composer to do so, whereas with a lot of his more complex pieces it would take me the second or third listen to hear certain things, and then only if I was specifically listening out for them. His ability to listen to the whole thing and each individual part at the same time and assess its value and performance level was unmatched in my experience. Mentally he could work very quickly, and even watching him rehearsing his musicians during a sound check prior to a concert was fantastic. He would be completely on top of everything that everyone was doing; eight or nine people in the band playing those classic, very fast arpeggios in unison. They'd be making mistakes and he'd pick up on every single one. He was incredible.' Over the course of the past three decades Mick Glossop has kept abreast of technological advancement, be it MIDI programming, digital sampling or computer-based mixing, yet this is hardly surprising in light of his instrumental role as one of the very first people to spot the potential of the fledgling SSL console and then put it to the test at The Town House.
'I had already done the design for the Helios desk at The Manor and that had worked very well,' he says. 'I therefore designed another Helios desk for Studio One at The Town House, but the technical director, Phil Newell, and I then sat around trying to decide what to put into Studio Two. We wanted something different for there and so the options were Neve, Cadac, Harrison and MCI; in-line desks that had already been established. However, Phil and I weren't sufficiently knocked out by any of them to make a definitive choice--ergonomically the Neve wasn't all that great in my opinion--and there was a weekend maintenance guy at The Manor who would always come in and rave about this company for whom he was a construction engineer. He'd go on and on about the components and build quality, and so after about six months we decided to go and see this little family-run company called Solid State Logic.
'Phil, studio manager Barbara Jeffries and I met Colin Sanders, and I was almost immediately impressed with the way Colin talked about design. All of the major innovations in the SSL came from his experiences and frustrations sitting behind a desk as a recording engineer. These included the natty features such as supercue and autocue and the layout of the channels. Everything was in the right place; the routeing was up at the top where you didn't need to get it that often, the EQ was in front of you, and you could also arm the tape machine very easily from the desk. None of that was in existence back then, and that's without mentioning the computer which sounded completely impressive when Colin described it. Up until then we were working on Allison 65K computer systems, where you bounced the data to two spare tracks on a multitrack and I think the maximum delay was an eighth of a second. You'd program a tight cut on something and it might come back in time, and there again it might not. It was very frustrating, and now here was Colin who had designed this fantastic system.' Thus a B-series console found its way into Studio Two at The Town House, at a time when its only other operational counterpart was at Country Lane Studios in Munich. Coming more up to date, in 1994 Mick Glossop invested in a Digidesign Pro Tools hard disk recording and editing system, and four years later he upgraded to Pro Tools 24 in conjunction with a Macintosh PPC computer. Now he is in the process of setting up a project studio away from home.
'In line with most engineers and those who have become producers, I am guilty of techno-lust,' he says. 'Still, apart from wanting to have all of this gear, the initial motivation was also to do with my feeling that the only way I could learn about the techniques and what you can do with new systems was to actually get hold of them myself. That's why I initially invested in MIDI and Pro Tools, and as an extension of that--and because Pro Tools is now a viable recording system, wihc has made it feasible for me to set up a room of my own.'
'I thought about getting an analogue desk, but there are certain attractions to a digital desk, such as the total resettability. Since Pro Tools has that as well it means you can swap from song to song in two seconds, and so that seemed like a good idea. There again, I also feel that if one is in the digital domain there's not much sense in coming out of it. You might as well stay in it and listen through the 02R, and so I see the 02R pretty much as a monitoring mixer. I intend to record through high-end mic preamps directly into Pro Tools and then listen back through the 02R.'