Hugh Padgham has worked with some of the best contemporary artists - The Police, Genesis, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, and Phil Collins, to name but a few - and has earned his place in the recording industry history books through his sensitive, innovative, and inspired sound engineering and production work. How did he do it? Brian Jacobs finds out...
Hugh Padgham has been involved with some of the most influential artists of recent years - Peter Gabriel, Sting, Genesis and The Police - and with some of their best recorded work. Dealing with this calibre of artist requires more than superb engineering and production skills and musical ability - the personality of the producer is just as important. You couldn't imagine someone telling or ordering Peter Gabriel or Sting what to do.
Between some producers and the artist there is probably an invisible barrier, but without being present in the studio during recording of one of the people concerned, you could never be completely certain. Producers like Tony Visconti, and perhaps Stephen Hague, hold the artist at arm's length; it's a business relationship but it works well for the artists concerned. Hugh Padgham deals with people on a very equal basis so that any artist would feel they are working with him as a partner and as someone whose ideas and ability they respect for their own sake. Genesis asked him to help design their Fisher Lane studio, for instance. For these artists it must feel as if a friend has come to help them produce and engineer their latest album.
Hugh Padgham has a very individual way of looking at the recording business, he is not overawed by the equipment, and is not at all satisfied with the current quality of recordings or of the resulting pop music, but for Hugh that's almost the same thing. He blames the A&R departments of record companies for the predicament of pop, but are they really responsible? In the studio, he was surprisingly critical of the independent engineer and producer as this made a fortunate few rich but meant that trainee engineers got very badly paid, as the studios expected them to leave after one success. Even after three number one hits, Hugh Padgham was not willing to follow an independent career and leave London's Townhouse studios. Most of all, he keeps an open mind to his work and freely admits that he is still learning new things about recording every day.
We heard that you became a recording engineer because you were very interested in music and science. How did this happen?
At school I played in several groups, which is how I became interested in rock music. I took science subjects for my school-leaving exams when I was 18 but the music interested me more, although I enjoyed the technical side of science. So when I discovered what a recording studio was, I decided that was for me. I wrote letters to a lot of studios until eventually one of them offered me a job; this was soon after I left school. In those days, there were only about twelve good studios in London, far fewer than today.
Did you have any special training?
Studios don't like people to be well trained. There are university courses but many studios prefer to train people themselves, and they can pay them less.
You have said that Peter Gabriel's third album was the most important for you as an engineer. Why do you think so?
Because it was so interesting. At that time Peter was one of the few people who were experimenting musically, and that allows you great opportunities to experiment aurally. Every album you engineer is important for your own career and the knowledge you acquire but that was a particularly good album to become involved with as it was so interesting and different.
As a producer you mentioned Phil Collins' Face Value is a favourite album. Why this choice?
That album has a good memory for me. I met Phil when I was working on the Gabriel album and I liked him and got on well with him. A few months later he phoned me to ask if I could produce the album with him. He'd only written a few songs before that and so it was a new experience for us all. As often happens, first albums have a certain magic about them.
You prefer the DDA console for recording and the SSL for mixing. Do you have any special reasons and what do you think are their strong points?
I like the DDA desk because it is very, very clean. Compared to SSL desks they are much simpler electronically and the signal path is much shorter, unless they are retrofitted with an automation system. And there are no VCAs on them. The BBC use this desk for their classical recordings. I like SSL desks and the automation system is great: when you get to know it, the system is as automatic as driving a car. I've been involved with them almost since they started, and we had the first production 'B' series console in this room [at Townhouse studios], where we did a large amount of Peter Gabriel 3 and Face Value.
"When I discovered what a recording studio was, I decided that was for me. I wrote letters to a lot of studios until eventually one of them offered me a job."
I also like the Neve desk for recording. There used to be a great console in Monserrat, where we recorded the Police albums, but that's now in New York. I have mixed on the Neve system and it works, but if you go onto that from the SSL you spend two to three days learning it.
How do you choose an engineering or production job? Do you select from different offers or do the musicians choose you?
If work comes along that I like and I have the time, I'll do it. I'm lucky in that I can choose work because I like it. I don't have to go looking for work. This album I'm mixing now, for a new artist called Julia Fordham; I wasn't involved in the production but they asked me to do the mix and I had two weeks spare time. On Nothing Like The Sun, Sting is an old friend and he asked me to mix the record and I hadn't worked on the recording. Recording an album is three to four months involvement, so it's good to just mix records occasionally.
Could you describe the difference between engineering a mix, as you did on the latest Sting album, and producing/engineering, as you did on the Genesis album Invisible Touch?
On the mixing, it's a challenge as you take something other people have done and make it into something that me or other people would like to hear. Sometimes it's difficult as they may not have recorded it the way you normally work, but making the best use of what you have is challenging. Sampling, editing and other devices let me alter the recording to my way. On Sting's recordings there was a sax solo we didn't like in the middle of a song, so we put it at the end instead.
You co-mixed that album with Neil Dorfman?
We didn't do it together. He mixed two or three songs and I mixed the rest. I didn't mix the single 'We'll Be Together', 'Still My Beating Heart', 'They Dance Alone' or 'Little Wing', but I did all the others and I mastered the whole album and put in some little effects. Sting was there with me most of the time and approved the mix. We did it on a SSL at A&M studios in Los Angeles.
Phil Collins' gated drum sound seems to characterise his approach. Do you agree?
Everyone asks that question! What annoyed us in the '70s was that everything was close-miked and the studios were generally very 'dry', but now they tend to be more live so it's not so difficult to get a good live drum sound. But that first Phil Collins album is eight years old and the gated echo effect we use when it works, not just for its own sake. On 'In The Air Tonight', we didn't use gated echo but a lot of room sound on drums, which to me makes them sound bigger. Of course you wouldn't necessarily do that in a ballad, for instance, so you have to be tasteful in the way you adapt the sound to the song.
When Phil Collins played 'In The Air Tonight' with Eric Clapton at the Birmingham NEC concert, the drums sounded brilliant?
"The CD has come to replace the vinyl disc and DAT has come to replace the audio cassette... the faster audio cassettes get thrown out the door the better..."
Phil was probably triggering samples off an E-mu drum machine. We spent some time in the studios making samples by getting Phil to play all his different drums. For live work you can't just sample the record, as you must have each individual drum sample. With Genesis, we prepared for live work in the same way.
You used gated echo for the first time on the Peter Gabriel 3 album. How did you find that effect?
Basically, because the SSL mixing desk was the first one which had compressors and noise gates on each channel. So it was very easy just to press the button on the desk rather than make a decision to plug in the equipment and experiment. Also, there is a 'listen mic' on the desk which turns on all the microphones in the studio and has a very vicious compressor built in. We were in this studio one day [at The Townhouse] and Phil was playing around with his drums and I turned on the listen mic. Out came the most unbelievably compressed drum sound and Phil said he liked it. So I assigned the listen mic to a channel, as there is a facility on the patch bay to do this, and fed it through a noise gate; and while I was playing around with this Peter [Gabriel] said he liked it and asked Phil to play a five minute drum pattern. Then Peter went away and wrote the song around the drum pattern. [That song eventually became a track called 'Intruder'] It's a very good example of a sound working in the song as opposed to trying to make something work. Phil will often get a groove going on his drum box and write a song round that.
In the studio, what technology and effects do you like to use for sound creation?
Having digital echoes and reverbs is very useful - in the old days you only had an echo plate or maybe two if you were lucky. Different programs like 'reverse' and 'nonlinear' [on the AMS unit] are good fun, and it's always useful to have delays. For drum sounds, not many devices are good enough quality for me. I have these devices called Wendels. They aren't samplers but triggering devices which play cartridges of pre-recorded sounds. They are very, very well recorded, so sometimes I use those. Apart from that, I use whatever I think fit. But I don't tend to use vast amounts of gear, although in some studios where you mix there are racks and racks of outboard gear. When I mix songs that I've also recorded I tend to use less effects, because I probably put them on during recording. I prefer to work that way as you know how the record is coming along, rather than saying it'll be OK in the mix because I can put some effects on it. To make your mind up during recording is better than deciding later on. It's always better to know what things sound like when you put up a rough mix than finding the right point to add effects during the mix.
What do you think of the current MIDI standard?
Well, it's too slow for some things and you get a definite delay. But MIDI is not a big thing to me; we had it years ago, you just overdubbed more tracks. It's useful if you've recorded a piano and you want to put other instruments with it. But sometimes if you want a composite sound of piano and electric piano, for example, it's actually better to double track them because you get a human feel about it, whereas MIDI is exactly together. In terms of keyboards, it was never a big revelation to me. But, again, it depends on the situation. Sometimes we've had trouble with it on percussive sounds, because of the inherent delay in the system, and finding that some keyboards and drum machines 'fired' quicker than others. I can see better uses for MIDI live than in the studio, where you can change MIDI channels and have things ready for the next song. You can MIDI into outboard gear so that the technical operator can change programs, that's useful.
And what do you think of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recorders?
It's great, I'm mixing down to DAT now. This is the first record I've used it to mix on. To me it sounds as good, if not better, than a PCM 1630 system; and at £70 per day it's a lot cheaper than U-Matic at £230 per day. The only problem is you can't edit on it, so I try out any edits I want on ¼" tape first, to make sure they work, and at the end of the album I'll go into the editing room and transfer it digitally to the PCM 1630 format, which has to be done for transfer to CD. I'm using a Sony PCM 2500 B, the professional version. It sounds brilliant and I've had no problems with it.
"I have these devices called Wendels. They aren't samplers but triggering devices which play cartridges of pre-recorded sounds..."
What do you think of DAT on a domestic hi-fi basis?
It's excellent, the best available. For me, as an engineer or technician, it's great that people at home can really hear what you spent months recording, as opposed to cramming it onto vinyl discs or audio cassettes. In fact, the faster audio cassettes get thrown out the door the better, as far as I'm concerned. I've had terrible trouble in this studio with artists complaining about the quality of cassettes. We've checked the machines but we still get problems - maybe the azimuth wasn't lined up properly? With digital recording it's just right, all you have to do is line up the level.
I understand the arguments over unlawful copying but I don't think you can get in the way of new technology - that's being negative. The CD has come to replace the vinyl disc and DAT has come to replace the audio cassette, but it'll be a few years before DAT is commercially cheap enough for the average person to buy. As for copying, if you line up your cassette copier properly, you can make a good copy of a CD or vinyl disc anyway.
What do you think of analogue and digital recording?
I still like analogue multitrack recording. I find digital multitrack a bit cold, something is not quite right. Sting's latest album was done on a digital Mitsubishi 32-track and he said he hated singing to it when he was overdubbing. He didn't know why but it just felt different. You A-B between line-in and line-out on digital and you can't hear the difference, so it seems to be a very faithful reproduction of what you've asked it to record, but when you put the record together it may not seem as warm and nice as analogue. A lot of people will disagree with me but as far as I'm concerned analogue will live on happily for some time. I'm quite happy with a good analogue machine and Dolby SR noise reduction - it's virtually as quiet as digital. The problem with digital is not the signal-to-noise ratio or the dynamic range, which are very good, but the instruments we are recording - such as DX7s - are inherently noisy. So what is the point of using digital when Dolby SR on analogue is about 5dB less dynamic range than digital machines? Digital multitrack recording is very expensive at £4-5,000 per week to hire. Hopefully, the studios will buy Dolby SR cards to replace their Dolby A cards. But it's up to the artist which system they use.
What do you think of sampling? Is it musically valuable?
It can be musically valuable. Whether it's morally valuable is a different question, having had lots of things stolen off my records! Although the quality of drum machines and samplers is improving, you never get the same transients out of drum and percussive devices that you do when you record them properly from a live drummer. The lack of transient response upsets me about a lot of records. By the time people have sampled a drum sound off a record or a CD, it's already gone through endless pieces of equipment and the transients will just sound soggy. I don't steal things, even off my own records. A lot of sampling is just laziness. It can be useful - using an Emulator you can play tubular bells in tune, for instance, but very often it doesn't work as in the case of the oboe, every note is different. If I can use the real thing, I will.
What do you think of the rapid development of Synclaviers, SSL consoles, etc?
Any new technology is good because you can use it in a good way, not necessarily for stealing things. The Synclavier is brilliant in the way you can write things on it, and if you have enough money you can use it as a tapeless studio. I don't think we'll have tape for that much longer.
"Sting's latest album was done on a digital Mitsubishi 32-track and he said he hated singing to it when he was overdubbing. He didn't know why but it just felt different."
As for mixing consoles, I sometimes get the feeling that as the manufacturers add more channels to the desk the more we use. I don't necessarily think records are any better now than in the '60s, when they were recorded on 4- and 8-track. Maybe they are worse? Nowadays you may do something twenty or thirty times so that it's technically perfect, but you've spent so long with the technology that the feel can disappear out of the music. In the old days, you had to use the first take. The first album took 45 minutes to record and the second album took even longer!
Do you think digital equipment will change the recording industry?
I think so. CD has already changed things in the sense that we now have cheap, high quality recordings in the home. Digitally-controlled mixing consoles are still a long way off, as the technology is still quite noisy and cost-prohibitive at present. Tapeless machines are probably closer.
In recording, what do you feel is the most important thing as an engineer and as a producer?
I think the most important thing is the music. There's no point in making a good recording of a terrible band, I'd sooner make a terrible recording of a great band. To me, all this equipment is superficial to the actual music and whether the people are good musicians. As an engineer, that is the most important thing to me. If they are good musicians they will usually give you a good sound. That makes my job easier as it's difficult to concentrate on engineering and producing at the same time, and when I first started it was almost impossible! Every stage of the recording is important, but I believe that the music being right is the most important thing and that you shouldn't use all this technology to get in the way of the person who is recording. Sometimes bad recording is actually quite good, as everything mushes into each other...
What is your involvement with studio designer Sam Toyoshima?
The first studio he designed in the UK was Townhouse 4, in this building. We already had a studio with Genesis at Fisher Lane, and we decided we could build a better studio and design the control room from the ground up. Having seen Townhouse 4, we approached Sam and I was close to him while he was doing the drawings. The band gave me and Geoff Callingham, who works for Genesis, a free hand to build the studio and we designed everything to be how and where we wanted it. In many of the studios I go into, I think that the person who designed it is not the person who has to sit there and use it. Sam thought it was a good idea that we could give people our experience of working in a room and placing equipment. I enjoyed doing that work and I hope to do it again.
Finally, is there anyone you are particularly interested in working with?
I tend to like more serious music than pop. I like Robbie Robertson's new album and I would sooner work with him than, say, Pepsi & Shirlie. The Sting album is the sort of thing I like to do. I also like Huey Lewis and would like to do an album with him - and Steve Winwood I've always liked.
What about Peter Gabriel?
I wouldn't mind doing another record with Peter but you've got to be prepared to lose two years out of your life, especially as he's got his own studio, and by that time everyone has forgotten about you. The Gabriel album I did seemed like a lifetime but, in fact, it only took six months. It was good fun experimenting.
© 1988 Rittor Music Europe Ltd. Used with permission.
Interview by Brian Jacobs