At Home in the Studio
An exclusive look inside Genesis' private studio retreat deep in the heart of Surrey.
In this exclusive insight into Genesis' private studio, Paul Tingen discusses music and working methods with Tony Banks.
In the picturesque heart of Surrey, within 15 minutes' drive of their various homes, Genesis have an estate which they jointly own and which accommodates their private recording setup. In all there's 80 acres of land, with a Grade II listed 16th century farm house and barn set amidst meadows, woods and a small flower garden. Around the back is a floodlit tennis court, and nearby, two large, rather unsightly shed-like buildings. One houses all the paraphernalia a major rock band needs for going on the road, while the other is immediately adjacent and is a former cow-cum-milking-shed. Inside, the cows have made way for the recording studio. Patched into the 56-channel SSL 4000 E Series mixing console is a Sony 3348 multitrack, a Sony 3324A, and a Studer MkIII A800 24-track analogue machine.
The monitoring is diverse, ranging from Acoustic Research AR18s to ProAc and Westlakes, with monitor amps by Amcron. Apart from the familiar array of outboard gear, like AMS and Lexicon, Neve 1066 and Focusrite EQs, there are two Sony 1630 DMR2000 mastering machines plus a DMR4000 and a DAE3000 editor.
The control room is enormous and bright, looking out over two large recording areas and a meadow. As you might expect, Genesis' private recording setup is very well specified, and certainly on a par with top UK commercial studios. It's affectionately called The Farm and one of its four caretakers, technical assistant Geoff Callingham, clearly glows with pride as he shows me around this example of rock opulence. In one of the side entrances to the barn, he reveals a glass cabinet containing 51 guitars. And Rutherford's axes aren't even all there, as he's taken half a dozen or so to the band's rehearsals in the nearby village hall, where they're preparing themselves for a three-month world tour with old friends Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson.
In the same room stand various pieces of abandoned equipment: several Seck desks against the wall and some Brenell 8-track machines gathering dust, as well as an impressive collection of outboard gear, microphones, cables and so on, much of it from the rather more modest home setups owned by individual Genesis members in the distant past. And in the farm house is Scrapyard Studio, a writing setup consisting of an Emu III, DX7, LinnDrum, Atari Mega ST2, Emu II with hard disk, SP12, Fostex B16 and Seek 18:8:2 desk — enough gear to make the average, struggling UK musician green with envy!
Genesis didn't always have their own studio, instead recording their epic albums in studios like Trident or Island. It was in November 1980 that they bought the farm and began converting it into The Farm, a process which took four full months of intense building work. "It was a big job to convert the cowshed into a recording studio," asserts Callingham. "From a building point of view it would have been easier to knock the cowshed down and build a whole new studio from scratch. But the band wanted to start recording as soon as possible, and with British planning regulations being what they are, it was quicker to build another building inside the shed. So they wrote Abacab in the farm house whilst the building work was going on, then we started recording the album in the studio in March 1981."
The initial setup was a rather small and dark control room in the back of the building, in real 70s style, designed by architect John Flynn, with an Amek desk. Andy Munro later did some acoustic updates.
In 1985, the band decided to upgrade and assigned Sam Toyishima to create a large, light control room which could hold an SSL. Intense battles raged over the window, which the band wanted, yet Toyishima thought acoustically unsound. The band got their way (obviously), and the resulting studio space is certainly impressive. This particular Friday morning in the Spring of 1992, a seemingly nervous Tony Banks occupies one of the control room's comfortable cream-coloured leather couches, awaiting my questions. His nervousness can hardly be due to the fact that he is about to be interviewed — he has had far too much experience with the press for that — but more probably to the fact that he's under immense time pressure. The other band members are awaiting his arrival at the village hall to start rehearsing, and apparently Genesis Ltd is run rather punctually. Whether as a result of this pressure or, quite simply, natural temperament, Banks speaks faster than any other person I've yet interviewed. (Transcribing the tape afterwards, I clock 4000 words in the first 15 minutes of our conversation, which comes down to an average of 266.66 words per minute, or 4.44 words per second!)
Admirably, he articulated well and spoke along clear, logical lines, coming directly to the point of every question. Banks clearly doesn't believe in wasting time — at least not when being interviewed. I ask that most obvious of questions: why did the Genesis trio decide to build their own recording studio in the first place? Banks dives straight in:
"We'd always dreamt of having our own studio because we didn't want to have that time pressure any more during the actual recording process. We didn't want to separate writing, rehearsing and recording any more, but wanted to be able to write and record at the same time. That was the main reason. Other reasons were that we'd become tired of travelling up to London whilst recording. You waste three hours a day and then there are the parking problems, so we decided to build a studio close to our homes and build it exactly the way we wanted."
But why did they go for such a fully fledged studio? Surely a more modest tracking facility, where they could write and record and then take the material to a top-name studio to mix, would have done the trick? Banks shakes his head:
"Although the original studio was much more basic, our intention had always been to have a place where we could master. Again, one thing we wanted to get out of was this idea that you have a rehearsal period and then a recording period. We felt that one of the things we tended to do during rehearsal periods was overwork things. With an album like Selling England By The Pound, for example, we sat down and wrote something on the first day that was great and we also had a few songs that were written by individuals that were great. So we played them for six weeks and really overworked everything like mad. At the same time other new ideas came in, and these ideas probably came out better than the ones we wrote at the beginning, because they didn't get so overworked. If we'd been able to record those original tracks on day one they would have come out much better."
It's clear that Genesis' now famous writing method, recording hour-long group improvisations and sorting the wheat from the chaff afterwards, is integral to their having their own studio. Banks asserted that it's a working method almost as old as the band (26 years now!).
"The only difference is that we now work exclusively through group improvisations. On Abacab there were still a few individual songs, but since then they have disappeared, because we decided that the things we liked best were the things we did as a band, where everybody is equally behind it, and where you don't have conflicts like 'that's your song, I don't want it as a single.' It sorts out all those problems and it gives a reason for the whole group being together, given that we all do solo stuff as well.
"When we start off, it's just the three of us for a while. Then we do get an engineer in. There has to be someone you can be as unselfconscious with as you are with the rest of the band. But we don't like other people to be there, because you immediately start to worry about hitting a bum note and you can't afford to worry during the writing process. I tell you, the way we write, if you listened to the whole lot, 95% of it would be unbearable. All sorts of things happen, like Mike decides to change a chord and I don't. Sometimes that produces a gem and at other times it produces an extremely nasty noise.
"Improvisations are generally recorded straight to multitrack, so that when you've played something that was good, you can find out what the hell it was that you played. The whole solo of the song 'Home By The Sea', for example, was done that way. Mike and I listened to hours of improvisations and picked out all the good moments, joined them together and then learned what we played. It produced a great result. It's a very satisfying way of doing things and it's something you can only do in your own studio."
There are two main live areas in The Farm — a live stone room, where Collins records most of his drums, and a larger area with big windows, where the trio each occupy a corner, Collins with his favourite SP12 drum box, the others with an assortment of gear set up by either Callingham or second technical assistant Mike Bowen. The big windows were a must for the trio.
"I know that these days natural daylight is more common, but that wasn't the case 12 years ago. Windows were of prime importance to us, one of the things we really wanted to have in our own studio. We'd always reckoned that the acoustic arguments for not having them were rather dubious. Most of the stuff you record in the control room you DI, and you monitor most of the time on little speakers so you hardly come up against the acoustics of the room. What we wanted to do with this studio was not to bother with a lot of the things other people might bother with and simply put in all the things we wanted."
One of the things the band obviously wanted was the SSL, but Banks appears to have rather mixed feelings about it:
"The stone live room and the SSL came very much from our (and particularly Phil's) experience of The Townhouse. We felt that was a good place to take as a starting point, so it was the approach we took. But to be honest, I don't find that I like all aspects of the SSL. I've never been in total control of the board. At home I engineer my own stuff, but I never got fully at ease with the SSL. Also, I notice that people who really care about sound always seem to put things through Neve EQs. The same with the compressors on the board, they try to avoid them.
"Half the time you don't really need EQ anyway. The problem with having EQ on every channel is that everybody tends to use it. You have to be careful with that. The desk I'm using live for my own setup has no EQ in it. It's purely volume and effects, because that's what I wanted and I think it's quite good. With keyboards, I feel you should, most of the time, be creating sounds from the keyboard and not try to enhance things too much afterwards. I think there's a tendency to over-EQ things."
"Mike and I listened to hours of improvisations and picked out all the good moments, joined them together and then learned what we played. Its a very satisfying way of doing things and it s something you can only do in your own studio."
Having three multitracks standing in your private recording setup, giving you a total of 96 tracks, does appear to be a bit of a luxury. Banks explains:
"The 48-track is obviously the current machine, the one that we now use. We hung on to the 3324A because you can do safety copies on it and the old Studer is kept for people who like analogue. Hugh Padgham, who engineered and co-produced our previous few albums, would certainly have used it if he'd worked on We Can't Dance as well. He likes to record drums on analogue machines. But we only used the 3348 on the album. The analogue 24-track we keep purely as a facility."
This isn't to say that The Farm is used by outsiders very often. Eric Clapton mixed some of his Royal Albert Hall live recordings here and David Crosby did some work here whilst he was recording a track with Collins — but these are exceptions. Callingham later explained that, unless the band are away on tour, the studio is rarely empty. Band members book the studio in advance, and if their solo project runs over time, as did the last Mike and the Mechanics album, they have to seek refuge in a commercial studio. With the various technical staff running around, one wonders how involved the band members get in the technical side of the studio. Do they tend to leave things to engineers and their technical staff and focus on music only, or are they technology freaks themselves who like to come to grips with every tool, new, or old which comes within reach? Banks hardly appears to be of the latter school:
"Well, we know what everything does and we're quite capable of twiddling a few knobs. But we don't want to get too bogged down in that whilst we're recording albums. The basic equipment you see here was selected by us, so we do know what everything does, but we don't really know where the cables run — and we don't care too much about that really.
"People can get very excited about certain pieces of gear, but I find that some of these things are like red herrings. You have a good experience with a certain box one day, then the next day you use it and it's no good. Having said that, some of those old limiters have been favourites for a long time. Phil's used a very old and cheap Allen & Heath limiter for a long time, I think it was the first type they ever made. It came with the Brenell 8-tracks we once used. The limiter was incredibly unsubtle and Phil decided to use that as an effect on his voice, because it gave an extraordinary effect.
"Nowadays, limiters try to give you this lovely, soft attack, but the A&H cuts in absolutely square. So you get this hard 'Khh...' effect, which was used to great effect on tracks like 'Mama'. It became a trademark sound of ours. Eventually we felt it became a bit of a prop, so we decided to use it much less, but now Phil sounds like he has one of those limiters built into his throat. He sounds like that whatever way we record him." (Laughs)
Banks is clearly no techno-freak. His attitude towards technology appears to be pretty pragmatic and uncommitted. For him it's purely a means to an end, so he'll use whatever it takes and doesn't get particularly excited about one particular box or another. Some technical knowledge is essential, though:
"As a keyboard player you've got to know quite a lot about technology anyway, because of all the MIDI stuff you're dealing with. So I know things like the Atari and Cubase, with which I recorded my last solo album Still, and also know how to incorporate that into this studio, linking it with SMPTE."
The only thing which comes close to a favourite piece of gear for Banks is the Emulator III. This appears to go for the band as a whole, because they own five between them, which they use as their main samplers.
"I don't like the sound of the S1000", says Banks, adding that he's also not happy with the Emulator piano samples, and uses the Rhodes MK80 with a Kurzweil DX1000 instead for piano sounds: "The Roland Rhodes is great as a keyboard, I like the feel of it. I also think that certain of the piano samples are pretty good. I mix them in with the Kurzweil samples, because they're very mellow and have a very nice bass end. But by and large I'm still not 100% happy with electronic piano sounds."
Queried about his usage of MIDI sequencers, Banks explains that when he's playing with Genesis, he hardly uses Cubase, or any other sequencer for that matter:
"Most of what I do is played live. On We Can't Dance there isn't anything particularly complex, and I prefer playing onto tape. There's something about it — you put something down and you know it's there. Computers are all very well, but everything is always floating, you're never quite sure what you have and you can always change things again."
The arrangements on We Can't Dance are indeed relatively simple, especially for a band who were once experts in weaving intricate and inimitable webs of sound. It's been a successful album for Genesis, already having sold around a million copies just in the UK. It's also remarkably good, with a great transparency to the sound and arrangements and the sheer quality of the songs. Banks explained that the transparency and simplicity of the arrangements is largely a matter of confidence.
"We don't feel the need to be more complex any more. In the old days, what tended to happen was that I would write a song at home, and in order to play it to the group, I'd immediately be plonking around with a rhythm track in my left hand and put that whole part on the album as well. Everybody would have their little bits like that, and the end result would be quite complicated. With our current way of writing, if there's a drum machine going and Mike's playing a guitar part, all I have to do is, maybe, just hold down a chord. If that sounds good then that'll do. I'm quite happy with that, because I've never had a desire to show what a fabulous player I am. I don't think that way anyhow."
Sound wise, We Can't Dance is also markedly different from its predecessor, Invisible Touch, with a much softer, silken-sounding approach. Does this have anything to do with new producer/engineer Nick Davis taking over from Hugh Padgham, who engineered and produced all Genesis' studio albums since Abacab?
"I personally prefer the sound of We Can't Dance. I think Hugh was great for when we did Abacab and the albums after that, because we made a radical departure from what we'd done with David Hentschel, with all the new emphasis on drums, and Hugh was the logical choice. But for this album I think we felt we'd gone as far as we could with Hugh and that it was time for a change. It wasn't that we were unhappy with him at all, but you can get terribly stuck into a way of working, and the easiest element in the team to change was the engineer/producer. I'd worked with Nick on my solo album and had been really pleased with the sound, and Mike had also worked with him, so he was very much a natural choice."
Exploring the sound aspect of We Can't Dance a bit further, I mention that ear-catching growling sound which is the main feature on 'No Son Of Mine'. Banks explains that it's the Emulator:
"It's a sample of Mike's guitar. He was just improvising and I taped a load of what he did, found a little section, cut it out and slowed it down. It sounds great, almost like an elephant, and the atmosphere of the song was really just playing that note and that chord. The mood was so strong that we instantly realised that there was a song there. It's something I love about Emulators. You can get that kind of atmosphere with them almost by sampling things at random.
"All the drum sounds on that track came from the JD800. That particular sound is just a preset that no-one had used before. We'd played 'I Can't Dance' quite a few times and it was OK, but sounded rather straight-ahead. Then when I played it with this drum box sound, it suddenly took on a whole new feel. We immediately started to think differently about it and Phil improvised this almost tongue-in-cheek blues vocal over the top and the whole thing started to take shape. That funny sound gave the song a lot of character."
It's striking that several of the songs on Genesis' latest disc get their character from a specific sound, especially since several innovative artists (Rupert Hine, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby — see Sound On Sound May '92 for an interview with the latter) have recently been saying to me that they feel that the time for being innovative with sound is over. Cheap sampling has given everybody access to so many sounds that, according to Thomas Dolby, "going into sound exploration today is like going to the Antarctic and finding teams of huskies all bumping into each other." Instead they've decided to focus on writing good songs. Despite his sound innovations, Tony Banks takes a similar line:
"It's absolutely true that it's much more difficult today to be original, sound-wise, because everybody has access to a whole vocabulary of sounds. Still, you do try to make things that sound and feel different. So what you're looking for is a small motif, like that sound in 'No Son Of Mine'. They're very important, these little things which are really almost a phrase. It makes people go: 'Oh, that's the song which has got that sound in it.' But even that is going to run out. I think one has to perhaps stop trying always to be original with sound - I don't think it's necessary. You can be original in other ways. Maybe, rather than think so much about sound, we should go back to thinking about the actual music, of which sound is only a part. It seems that's happening a bit more at the moment. I was really heartened to see Crowded House doing so well, because their Woodface is such a great album. That's music — simply pure music. It has nothing to do with sound. Of course it's very well mixed and produced and all that, but that's not the essence of it. I hope that the next few years will produce more and more of that kind of music."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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