Record Producer | Colin Thurston
The man who turned the music of Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, Human League and Magazine into hits, discloses his hit-making formulae, recording methods and well-equipped home studio.
Colin Thurston is a producer who keeps a low profile. An in-built horror of interviews has not helped to bring him to the public eye, and it was with much trepidation that he consented to talk to HSR. A long-standing member of the producer profession he has worked with numerous top artists and bands including Duran Duran, Human League, Magazine, Kissing The Pink, and Kajagoogoo.
Born and raised in Singapore, Colin's first brush with a musical career was originating a jingle for a 'Scothbrite' commercial. Discovering what a doddle this could be he soon got stuck in to a writing routine which proved to be a pretty lucrative thing to do. "It really was money for old rope - it took me five minutes to write an ad, and the rewards in repeat fees are brilliant."
Deciding that Singapore, nice as it was, wasn't exactly the centre of the musical universe, he dived into England and was greeted by culture shock. "The first six months here I thought I would die!" His situation improved rapidly when he managed to be signed to a jingle agency in London and very soon was working night and day. The only recording equipment he possessed at that time was more or less a Revox tape recorder, a microphone mixer and a few other bits and pieces. Other writers started using Colin to demo their work and it was through one of these that he heard of an engineering job going at Southern Music Studio in Denmark Street, London.
"If I hadn't previously played around at home on my Revox, got levels right and done lots of multitracking going from side to side on the Revox, I'd never have got into it or even been interested. I'd probably be a chartered accountant or something by now."
After working at Southern Music for a while, Colin 'went over the road' to TPA Studios, and then came back across the street to Central Recorders next door. From there he went to Zodiac Studios which was soon to become Good Earth when producer Tony Visconti took it over. There followed a stint at Utopia and then back to Visconti and, finally, out on his own as a freelance engineer/producer. The Good Earth days brought him in contact with many top artists, not least of all David Bowie, and it was this experience which Colin felt had made him ready to take the plunge.
"The first band I ever worked with as a producer per se was Magazine. In 1978 I did an album with them called Second Hand Daylight, which was pretty second hand by the time we'd finished with it in the studio! I thought: 'engineering for Bowie no problem. Production's my next step'. Well it wasn't. Howard Devoto of Magazine is no easy person to get on with — he's a bit strange at times. He had these really great ideas that nobody else could actually visualise or hear, it was all in Howard's head. To try and translate that into everyday language was difficult. I tried, I really tried... it came out strange because half the ideas were mine and half were the band's and somehow they didn't quite marry up in the final mix. I got really panned badly by the critics for that."
It would seem that Colin is the sort of chap who needs a hundred and one things to do at once and this probably accounts for his insistance that he does both engineer and produce. A combination which is generally advised against because of the huge demands made by both roles. "I always engineer my own sessions because it keeps me off the streets and keeps me interested in what I'm doing. For me production and engineering have always gone together."
"Mind you, with these Solid State Logic computerised mixing desks it's so easy to do things nowadays that used to be difficult. I can practice a lot at home - the principle of working my Soundcraft 1600 Series mixer is virtually the same, and if I can spend hours in my studio here at home doing it myself and perfecting something, I can then use it in the studio. A lot of the equipment that I normally use in the studio I don't have at home and so I've obviously got to find ways round it."
"I often trigger things, and I don't have any AMS units at home to trigger sampled bass drums, snares, and things like that, so I bought this cheap little device called an Electro-Harmonix Instant Replay. The average AMS I think is about £6,500—£7,000 with all the latest software in it; that Replay thing cost £250 and it does a similar job but with much lower quality obviously. You get a sound or an effect or anything you want, record it in there and then key or trigger it from something like a bass drum. On the AMS I can do that in about 30 seconds. With the Instant Replay it will take, well, at least three minutes! It's not as good as the AMS obviously, but the results I get speak for themselves."
So what happened after Magazine? Colin worked with a (then) little known band called the Human League who actually wanted to change their name to The Men (was there some doubt?). It was this single (I Don't Depend On You) which brought him into the limelight for working with another little known band - Duran Duran.
Meanwhile, Human League, deciding that their name wasn't that bad, decided to go for the album and asked Colin to work with them. "That was their first album Reproduction. Everyone was experimenting at that point. My first year and a half as a producer was all experimenting - every band I worked with I was experimenting. You always learn something. Most bands have got the idea in their head of what the record should sound like in terms of musical arrangement, but they want the sounds, and that's where I come in as the producer. I pride myself in my drum sound, bass sounds and guitar sounds."
Those three instruments are ones which Colin is personally very familiar with. When it comes to keyboards, however, he is the first to admit that dexterity is something that is distinctly lacking! The advent of MIDI has bridged this gap for many to some extent, but what about in the early days of synths, and synth bands? Human League for instance...
"Interesting. They were triggering things from stuff in those days and I didn't know how the hell those guys were getting their instruments to play. All we were doing was running off this horrendous time code that was recorded on tape, sounding like all the banshees of hell going at once. I learnt a lot from them."
"I worked with the first Simmons drum kit that was ever made with a band called Landscape, on a single of theirs. The thing was a whole bunch of wires and PCBs sitting on the couch at the back of the studio - it hadn't even been put into a box at that time. To tune them you had to take a screwdriver and just turn a preset pot -'yeah that sounds like a bass drum'. In those days there were no pads to hit or anything, it was just strange things being triggered off this peculiar time code again. Of course, it has now become the big thing — everyone triggers everything all the time. I saw a real drum kit the other day and I couldn't believe my eyes! I think I've only recorded one real drum kit in the last three years, otherwise it has all been Simmons or Linn or Drumulator etc."
Duran Duran's demo tapes had an immediate appeal for Colin. The first song on the tape was Girls On Film, and "That was it, I didn't need to hear any more." They instantly got together and recorded four songs in rapid succession over a period of three days and, of course, Girls turned out to be their first single.
When it came to doing the album there was a rather surprising hitch: 'We went to Abbey Road, spent nine hours trying to get a drum sound and then cancelled the month I had booked there, went to Red Bus studios, got the drum sound in 15 minutes and in two weeks we had the whole album done apart from the vocals."
Could it be that those hallowed portals in Abbey Road were being criticised? Surely not. "I think I was so in awe of it because it was the Beatles' studio, I just stood there with my mouth open! I couldn't get anything to work."
With two Duran Duran albums under his belt Colin was looking for something new. "Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran came in screaming one day and said 'Look, there's this band called Kajagoogoo. You've got to listen to their songs'. So we co-produced it. It was good to have someone else in the control room because I was doing all the engineering. Too Shy was the first track and then we did the Kajagoogoo album."
"Everything I do helps me to learn. The day I don't learn will be the time to give myself a good kick in the pants, because you've got all this equipment and you can start getting a little blase, the 'well, anything I do will be good' attitude, which is absolute rubbish! You mustn't rest on your laurels. Trevor Horn - he's my hero, and Quincy Jones, as far as producers go. Everything is exactly right - the music's pleasing to the ear and people buy the records in rackfuls - I can have sympathy with the man!"
What about the Colin Thurston sound? Is there such a thing, and is it flexible? "I do have my own sounds - but what exactly they are I can't define. As a producer I approach each project individually. Different musicians will go for my sound because that's all I know, and how they play will translate that sound to fit what they're doing. You get a drummer who is really heavy with the right foot on the bass drum and who is really lightweight with the snare - it will produce a totally different feel. With technology as it is now, I can get a lightweight drummer to sound so heavy it would make John Bonham run for cover, just by putting John Bonham-type sampled sounds into the drum machine. You just take that, pop it into the Instant Replay or an AMS and when he taps his drums out comes 'wallop'! It only takes a small signal to trigger it."
"I find that a lot of drummers now drum 'live' in concert, but don't drum so much in the studio - they tend to use drum machines. The guy in Kajagoogoo is brilliant live - in the studio he tends to get very nervous - that red light syndrome. The moment the red light comes on he freezes."
Does Trevor Horn hero-worship mean an admiration for effects? "Not necessarily effects. I just love the way he manages to get the best out of a band and get it really sounding aggressive. Like with Frankie Goes To Hollywood: he just brings out the best of every single instrument that's there. There's no waste, no waffling, just straight to the point - and that's what I like. Lots of things that bands record on tracks are really not necessary - it's just filling. If you took some of it away it would definitely be a lot better. For me, good music is about what you don't record rather than what you do."
"I don't use effects just for the sake of using them. If I hear something or have an idea that something would work, I tend to actually record the effect with the instrument as I'm putting it down, straight on to multitrack - there forever. No time to change your mind. Otherwise, when you're mixing, you've got 2,000 effects happening all at once."
"This is the engineering side of my character coming out again. After a while, I know that this guy uses that particular snare drum and I want this kind of tone drop on it; and that this harmoniser will give me what I want. Why wait till the mix and try and explain to the guy there and then that I'm going to use a harmoniser? The guy will probably go 'Oh nice — what does that do?' If you actually pop it on he'll go 'that's great, I like that', so you record it directly with the snare. If you feel afterwards that you don't want to use the harmoniser, then all right, you gate the snare drum so that the harmoniser hardly comes through, and you use that to trigger another snare, with no harmoniser on it, then mix the two together. But I tend not to do this."
"Only once did I record something and regret it later, and that was on one of the tracks off the last Kajagoogoo album. On Nick Beggs' voice I used a repeat delay. I thought I should maybe record that on a separate track at the time, but I actually needed those two remaining tracks so I couldn't really let one go, and of course it was always there. Towards the end of the album when I heard it, I thought 'Dammit, I wish I hadn't done that.' But to ask Nick to go and re-sing it just for the sake of it (and he put a lot into that vocal), was too much... I tried gating it and it just kept breaking through slightly - so I decided to leave it. It was their single Turn Your Back On Me. It just gets me every time I hear it - it's slightly out of time with the track and I think that's what annoys me. The band don't mind, it's just me being finnicky."
Colin chose two tracks to speak about in more detail: Rio from Duran Duran and Too Shy from Kajagoogoo.
"At the very beginning of Rio, there's this really strange backward sort of rumbling sound - I don't know quite what it is because somebody walked in with a tape and said this is how we want the song to start. I still haven't been able to work out to this day what it was because I haven't been able to play the tape the other way round!"
"When Duran Duran came into the studio the song was just an idea, not yet totally formed. They had already decided six months before they did the album that they were going to call it Rio. Most of the sounds were recorded conventionally with microphones using real drums, real guitars, real everything - very few synth parts; there's just one sequencer all the way through the whole song. When we didn't want that to play, all we did was cut it out using the 'mute' button on the mixing desk while it was going down onto the master tape. A Roland TR808 was used for the rhythm part backing, so we knew exactly where we wanted that to play and where we didn't."
"Ideas came easily for actual sounds - it had to have a carnival feel to it — the sort of thing you find in Rio. Nick Rhodes had just been offered a new synth to try out from Yamaha, so we went through all the noises on that: we found seagulls and all kinds of things and used them. There's so much going on in the background of that track - it adds a great atmosphere. You're not quite sure what it is, but it's synthesised seagulls, a whooping sound and people marching, all built up on a track behind the song. If you actually took away all those things the song would probably sound very empty and incredibly dull. But that's how it was done anyway."
"Andy Taylor, the guitarist, loves harmonisers, so there's a harmoniser effect on every part that he played. Most of his guitar sounds, in fact, were direct-injected into the mixing desk. He hardly ever used amps except for guitar solos and there's not too many of those on the album."
"We used two harmonisers - the new Eventide H949 with the reverse switch on it, and also the H910 which was the first one Eventide brought out. I used the H910 on all of Simon Le Bon's vocals on the whole album - I actually recorded a harmoniser blended with his voice on every track. I think the band thought I was using it as a monitor track and not actually recording it. When they said 'can you take the harmoniser off' I said no - it suits Simon's voice I believe. For me, it gives a certain hardness to a voice that you can't achieve via EQ or anything else."
"For Simon's vocals we employed a close mic, usually a Neumann U47, and another about 15 feet away from him which would normally be an AKG C414 - my favourite - open all round. So, whatever sounds are in the studio are picked up either back or in front of the mic. If he sings quietly his voice gets that intimate feel. If he opens up... a lot of engineers open up the reverb on the vocals to get that sort of spacey feeling of being on a big stage - but it's not necessary. If you have an ambient mic like the AKG C414 on the vocal, it won't pick up the quiet stuff; but as soon as the guy opens up his voice, suddenly you hear the room ambience. AIR 1 studio, where Rio was recorded, is a big room - probably at least 60' x 40' with a 23' high ceiling. It's a big room to record in and you suddenly get this 'open' sound on the chorus of Rio that is, in fact, the room's natural reverb doing the work and not me. I don't use any synthetic reverb at all if I can get by without it, but if I can't I'll use an AMS. Trevor Horn would probably disagree with me - he's a great user of the Lexicon 224X and he gets an equally great sound."
"Keyboards I normally DI in the control room. But if I want a 'bigger' keyboard sound I normally take a direct keyboard feed into the studio, plug it into an amp and have the amp positioned right up to the control room window pointing the full length of the studio, then record that on a microphone at the far end, so the reverb is created naturally there in the room. Most keyboards have an upfront dry sound, unless you start playing around with them. Maybe use something like a Roland Chorus amp for a chorus effect and when that's thrown across a big wooden room - that's really quite a strange sound that comes out the other end. I use a bit of DI keyboard as well, purely for an up-front sound, with a delay on it and a small amount of reverb. Otherwise, the whole thing will sound like it's coming from miles away and detract from the straight sound that you get from going into a DI box and straight on to tape."
"One thing that I really love to do is record everything first time. When the band are running through something I record it. Because (red light syndrome) they think they're not being recorded, they tend to be totally at ease and play things that they probably wouldn't do if the red 'record' light was on."
"That brings me on to Limahl from Kajagoogoo on the single Too Shy. The final vocal used was actually the run through. I was getting the vocal sound and he reached the end and I said 'Limahl, come and listen to your vocal.' He said: 'Oh no, it was only a run through.' 'Yes I know, and I recorded it and it's brilliant.' He asked for a couple more goes because he thought he could do better but half-way through the second take he stopped and said, 'no, I can't do better.' At the very beginning of the song you hear him getting his voice in pitch and it all went on tape. I got so used to hearing it that I left it on."
"It's when you're running through the track setting up record levels, that you say to the band 'I've got your individual sounds, but we'll just run through it once and check everything'. Then its straight into record, automatically. I don't care if they stop half-way through. On the Bowie album Heroes, for example, there were so many edits and parts of songs. The musicians heard the songs once which was just me on drums. Tony Visconti on bass and David Bowie on keyboards; no vocals. They heard it once, and walked in and played it. Machine straight into record. Amazing!"
"I learned that track off Visconti - record everything no matter how bad or how good, there'll always be some priceless gem in there somewhere. You say 'play those notes you played before' and they say 'what notes?' So you play them back to him: 'Oh, those notes. They're nice!' When they're relaxed most musicians don't actually listen to what they're playing which helps them play better."
"On Kajagoogoo's Too Shy, it was one of the few times that Jes actually played the drums and it all went straight down on tape. It was a run through with the bass player that I recorded. One or two timing problems are evident here and there, but that's only because they couldn't hear themselves on the cans properly. Limahl did the vocals first go. He's got an absolutely superb voice to record from an engineering point of view. When you hear it coming out of the mic you don't actually need to add anything or take anything away from it. The top end is there, the middle range is there, the bottom end is there, and he doesn't blow into the mic either when he sings. He's really got it taped." No pun intended I'm sure. "There's the inevitable touch of harmoniser behind the voice which was on there and that's all I did to his voice to record it."
"If I walk into a studio and I don't see an AMS digital reverb and an AMS digital delay, I start having my suspicions about the place. I use the harmoniser function on the AMS DMX 15-80S delay system, plus delays and I always use their reverb if I can't use natural reverberation. Other ones are good, but they always sound a bit plonky - they've got a sort of tone on them that I don't like. The AMS one is superb — fully equalised top and bottom."
"I was going to get a Fairlight, but since working alongside Nigel Bates at Ambiance Studios near Brighton and seeing what he does on his PPGs, I've cancelled my Fairlight order and I'm getting a PPG - it's much better. I used the Fairlight for some of the stuff I've done recently with a band called Touch, and really the PPG is so much better - the sound sampling, everything is so superior. The sounds Nigel gets are brilliant. I love walking around with my battery-powered Sony PCM F1, sampling all manner of sounds then storing them on the PPG disks.'
"All my drum sounds are sampled - bass drum, snare drum, all the things on Kajagoogoo's album are sampled from real drums recorded digitally in a studio. I just hire in a few kits, rack round on the drums, tune them, then record them digitally. Then I'll use the drummer actually drumming on a Simmons kit, but I'll substitute the Simmons snare sound with my real snare recording stored in the AMS memory which is being triggered as he plays; the same with bass drum."
"I used to love the sounds of the Simmons snare and bass drums until I found that you could trigger things yourself. The natural instrument sound is much more appealing to me than an electronic version. It's so much easier to record like this because there is no sound spill - you get perfect separation between each drum. Most drummers tend to hit the hi-hat harder than anything else, for instance, and that spills everywhere - to isolate that is so difficult if you're using a conventional kit and microphones. Use Simmons and add your hi-hat so everything is being direct-injected, except the hi-hat, and you have perfect control over your drum sound."
"Flangers, phasers, things like that I hardly ever use now. I used them for so many years when there weren't other effects around. I tend to go more for a natural sound these days. If I can use the room to create an effect for me, I'll use it. I've got a few effects here at home, obviously, because this room is as dead as a dodo.
"As I very seldom mike things up now to record them, it's normally down to vocal mics or general ambience mics, as I said earlier. I'll tell you the ones I used to use for recording as well."
"On bass drum, an Electro-Voice RE20. Most people use the AKG D12 - but they don't have enough top end for me, I like a real snap on a bass drum. The RE20 is a very good all-purpose microphone, especially on the bass end. Stick it inside a bass drum and go 'wallop' and the thing won't cough once nor give up on you. Snare drum: any normal dynamic mic like a Beyer or a Shure. You don't need a very classy sounding mic for a snare because so much sound from the other drums is going to spill into it anyway. If you get a direct wallop where the drum stick hits, place the mic as close as possible to it, that's the best solution. So, Shure Unidyne, Unisphere, any dynamic one. Beyers are good and AKGs - the actual numbers escape me."
"Tom-toms; again I'll use dynamics - I normally mike over and under. If the chap's got his bottom skin off I'll put a dynamic mic like a Shure inside each separate tom, and then over each pair of toms I'll put a Neumann microphone, normally a U87 - so one mic picks up two toms about 4" away and they pick up the smack of the stick hitting the skin, whilst the real tom sound comes from underneath."
"Hi-hats: something like a very lightweight Neumann U67 or U47 is very good - miked up about four inches away so that you pick up a little bit of the snare stroke. So, if you make the sound of that fairly toppy using EQ boost (which you would do on a hi-hat) then it makes the snare sound toppy as well, even though the main snare mic contains a more midrange sound."
"Overheads, for cymbals and things: normally, if I can get them, I'll use an AKG C414 or the C12 which is like a poorer cousin. If they're not available then I'll use Neumann U87s. I normally put two mics over all the cymbals - one positioned each side to get a complete stereo spread."
"Bass guitar: I'd go for the E-V RE20 again to pick up the bottom end and emphasise the top end. I normally DI the bass as well, so I've got a combination of both. For really loud electric guitar - you invariably get one guy who is going to do a solo with his amp running flat out - I go back to mics like the Shures because they can take the volume close up to a speaker. For distance, I use the C414 or a Neumann U47, again to get the ambience. Sometimes you can't do it at the same time because the whole band's playing, but if they do the solo afterwards then you can get a distance mic on it. I'd always recommend using one for it adds a lot of the depth to the guitar sound."
"Vocals: if the guy's got a voice like Limahl's which is really pure and clean, then an AKG C414 is the one to use. For someone a bit dirtier, like Nick Beggs in Kajagoogoo, then I use the Neumann U47 because you don't need a really clean sound or else he sounds almost effeminate. You need something a bit gutsy, more rock'n' roll. Unfortunately the 47 only has a pick-up response on one side so you can't really use it for backup vocals with people grouped round the mic, and that's when the C414 comes back in. Or, if you want to go for a thicker, not so bright sound, it's best to use the Neumann U87 I find, which does open all the way round."
"When it comes to miking up ambience in the room, I like using the PZMs (Pressure Zone Microphone). If you can get four of them it's great because you don't have to shift them around, just place one in each corner of the room. Sometimes the PZM directly located behind the guitar amp (not actually pointing the way the amp's throwing out its sound) results in a better sound for ambience because the guitar sound has hit the studio wall and come back across the room. This creates a slight natural delay in the room, as if you're using some kind of digital reverb or digital delay, which is a very nice effect. That normally works only in a very large room, not in a small one."
"I tried using some of the other mics I talked about for ambience but they're too clean - you need something dirtier like the PZM. Also, the PZM's very good if you want to record percussion. One trick I use is to open up the grand piano and stick one PZM to the outside of the lid near the top and play the percussion in front of the lid. The sound of the percussion instrument hits the wood, travels up it, is picked up by the mic, and you get this amazing room sound."
"If you're overdubbing a snare drum or a tom or something, place the tom-tom right near the piano, put the mic on the inside, hit the drum and some of the piano strings will ring in sympathy. It doesn't always work; it depends on the tone of the actual drum. It's also good sometimes to get people to sing with their heads inside the piano (seriously!) and mike it from in there. As long as they keep the headphones on tightly and don't try to take one ear off as most vocalists do, it's OK. Otherwise, it will throw you."
"Most people want this really 'plucky' sound on the bass guitar these days, so that you can really hear the thing being played. I tried getting this sound through an amp - we got all the depth, but when we started doing the top end, the bass went all shallow. So I had this marvellous idea of sticking a microphone in front of the actual strings. That microphone was picking up the sound of the actual pick hitting the strings whilst the amp was providing the bass end, and we achieved this real top and bottom. You put an acoustic screen between the amp and the guitar and it works a treat. That was used on the Iggy Pop Lust For Life album."
"Most bands I record, the drums go down on tape first with somebody playing a guide (like an acoustic guitar or a piano) along with the drummer whilst listening to a click track. I don't mind if the drum plays fractionally a beat in front or fractionally a beat behind the click track; I like that because it gives a human feel to the part. Then things are overdubbed, there and then, which gives you a chance each time to build up your complete sound image to exactly the kind of depth you want."
"I often mix flat with no equalisation - very seldom do I add or take away anything on a mix. If I generally want the whole thing to sound brighter, I put the whole lot through a stereo graphic equaliser and just notch up the top end until I obtain what I want."
"There are some people who can't overdub easily, they've got to play live in the studio with the drummer and bass player otherwise their feel goes right out of the window. Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo) is one of those; John Taylor from Duran Duran is another. Roger, Duran's drummer, can overdub the whole lot. He only ever plays bass drum, snare and hi-hat when he's recording. All the toms and other cymbals and things are overdubbed, not because he's incapable - he just prefers it that way. It also makes it easier to achieve a good, tight drum sound."
Confidence in himself may not be altogether intact when being interviewed, but Colin Thurston is one hundred percent sure that his latest project, a band called Touch, will soon be hitting the music headlines. He even gave up a five month break for the privilege of working with them. No doubt we shall hear the outcome of those sessions soon enough if Colin's track record is anything to go by.
Interview by Janet Angus