Producer Extraordinaire | Hugh Padgham
The genius behind the 'Phil Collins drum sound' reveals how he got started in the industry, his production philosophy and life at The Townhouse.
Until about four years ago Hugh Padgham was just another tape-op, sitting in a studio corner frustrated and wondering when life was going to start treating him fairly. Then suddenly, almost overnight, he shot to such great heights of fame that today he could almost he described as a household name. Certainly in the music world, his production work with high calibre musicians such as Peter Gabriel, The Police, XTC, Phil Collins and Genesis leave us in no doubt that he knows what he is doing.
Hugh himself would not say that success came overnight, as those frustrating times desperately trying to break in on the professional engineering and production circuits go very slowly indeed. His background is unusual in that he left his public school after doing A levels in maths and physics, to seek a position as a studio tape operator. His interest stemmed from his school band, in which he played bass, but also recorded all their rehearsals with an old Ferrograph mono tape recorder that he had managed to get hold of.
Parental opposition to his chosen career route was very strong. They really wanted him to go to university, but he really wanted to work in a studio. The simple answer would have been to apply for the Tonmeister degree course at Surrey, but for one thing he did not have the necessary A level and for another "I found out at a very early age that it wasn't worth going on one of those courses because... studios, well they prefer to pay you less money and train you themselves, which is a shame really. You get kids who think, and quite responsibly so, that it's a good thing to go to college and learn your trade. If I ever got kicked out of this job and had to do something else I wouldn't know what to do because I haven't got any training in any other field. I think when you're at college or university you get a little bit more diverse - you don't just do your chosen subject, you're out in the world a bit more."
So university was out. The parents then tried to urge him to enter an organisation such as the BBC because 'that's a proper job with proper training' as his mother pointed out. "I said I don't want to go in and record stuff that they've already done - I'm talking about radio sessions: John Peel or whoever. I want to be in a studio creating stuff in the first place."
This shows an unusual clear sightedness for an 18 year old straight out of school. Maybe his vision was enlightened when one of his friends took him to visit John Congas' studio who they knew through some connection or other. "I thought this is great, all these knobs and things - the fact that you can control all the music. I was naively thinking it would be really easy!" And thus the ambition was born.
Lots of letters followed, gaining him an interview at Pye Studios where "they were all wearing white coats and things!" and finally a job as tape op at Advision Studios. This, however, was not the end of the story. On reflection Hugh really resents his time there (and it wasn't long - he was made redundant after about six months!) because nobody tried to teach him or help him with anything. "Apart from one guy, Gary Martin. I was pretty ignorant at the time even though I did maths and physics A levels. I wasn't that stupid but I didn't understand what all the routing buttons were on the mixer channels and it took me ages before I sussed that out. So now when I'm working at the Townhouse Studios - they've got a couples of blokes who are 17 or 18 - I really like helping them to do things and they are really knowledgeable - much more than I was at their age."
Being made redundant was rather a devastating blow since it was his first job and no sooner had he got it but he lost it again. Fate stepped in and someone directed him towards Lansdowne Studios where he was appointed as tape-op and where he remained for the next four years.
"I learned a lot. It was a very fastidious studio in their style of working, that sort of thing. But during this time the studio became less and less rock music orientated which was what I felt I wanted to do." Four years spent tape opping and virtually nothing else is a long time and although, yes, it was frustrating towards the end, Hugh does not think it was time wasted.
"It took a good year to leave Lansdowne but I knew I couldn't leave to go to any old studio and the good thing about working at Lansdowne was that we used to record anything from jingles to jazz. Tape opping for that amount of time for quite good engineers helped me learn an awful lot. I think a lot of kids nowadays who work in a studio only ever see rock bands - you know, the occasional horn overdub or something like that but never classical string sessions, weird jazz sessions and jingles where you have to get the whole thing recorded and mixed in three hours. These guys don't know how to do that. So even though I tape opped for possibly longer than most other people did, I think that it certainly doesn't do you any harm in the long run because you get a better all-round training."
Whilst working as delivery boy for a local shop, Hugh met Trevor Morais who, with Rupert Hine, owned Farmyard Studios. Although only rehearsal studios at the time, Farmyard had become a very trendy place to go to record your album with a mobile in tow. Bands such as Genesis and Yes would bring the Manor mobile down and just use the empty barns as studios. Hugh Padgham, finding himself in this attractive world, left Lansdowne and went off with Trevor Morais who was drumming for Jim Capaldi at the time. After a European tour it was back to England to begin working with various lesser known bands signed to Virgin Records.
This was around the time that Virgin were building the Townhouse Studios in Shepherds Bush and Hugh got very involved in the project. "I actually did a lot of the wiring because I let out that I knew how to use a soldering iron which was a terrible mistake! Anyway, we all got roped in to help build the studio from scratch which is brilliant. I don't know many people who get the chance to see a studio (well two studios) built from nothing."
The Townhouse was the first studio in London to have the now almost compulsory Solid State Logic mixing console, and the reason why is not as revolutionary as one would have imagined. "Townhouse had an opening date by which they wanted the studio completed by, so it came down to choosing a mixing console that we would be able to buy in time to open the studio. It was down to either Harrison, MCI or this new firm that no-one had heard of called Solid State Logic who were based close to the Manor, Virgin's other studio in Oxfordshire. Someone had been to see SSL and had been impressed. We all thought, let's buy British and give it a go! SSL were prepared to deliver a desk in six weeks or something, so that was it." And just look at them now!
Apart from actual album credits, Hugh's particular claim to fame is his drum sound - the so-called Phil Collins drum sound which he found at a time when popular music was going through an extremely punky phase: "Everybody just went 'roar, roar' and played like that."
It all started at the Townhouse when the Eastlake/Tom Hidley studio design got a bit lost in the live room of studio 2! "We said we're going to have a live area in each studio and in studio 2 it'll just be stone. Along with the flagstones on the floor, we hung a couple of logs down that we strapped some lights to - it was all quite prehistoric. I suppose. No thought of acoustics at all! Just stick it up and see how it sounds."
"Luckily I was the engineer there at the time. There were lots of sessions and I happened to always be in studio 2. The first time I used that room it was hell, because we'd never heard anything like it. It was so 'live' and I thought 'I can't handle this', but we gradually got more into it over a few more sessions and nurtured the sound that way. Tom Hidley, from Eastlake, came down and said 'You can't have this room - it's got a huge resonance peak at 300Hz', which may be right, but he wanted to put a huge great bass trap into it which would have completely ruined the sound of the room. So we told him to sod off and left it. It is today just how it was when we made it."
This then was phase one of that sound. So now Hugh was well established as an engineer at the Townhouse and it was there that he met up with Steve Lillywhite who "was the great white hope in those days. We were both young and the same age, and we started doing a lot of sessions together." With XTC, the Members, Derek and Clive and numerous Virgin acts under their belts, the duo started making waves. Eventually Steve Lillywhite was invited to work with Peter Gabriel on his third solo album and it was then that Hugh met Phil Collins.
Now for phase two: "The SSL desk was amazing — it had compressors and noise gates on every channel which hadn't been heard of before. The whole idea of SSL desks is that they're great to work and you don't have to think of patching something in, you can just punch a button and there it is."
"One day we were getting a drum sound with Phil Collins. The desk has got reverse talkback and we had these microphones just hanging down in the studio so that we could hear what was going on there, and built in to the desk there's this huge sort of compressor that you can't alter or anything. One day I was trying to speak to Phil and he was playing on his drums in the studio, and I and everybody else in the control room stopped in their shoes and said 'Bloody hell that sounds amazing!' So we faded up the microphones and used the desk compressors. While Phil was playing this drum beat I thought I'd put a noise gate in it for a laugh. It ended up being that song 'Intruder' on the Peter Gabriel 3 album where it goes 'doo doo cha, doo doo cha', and in the gap at the end of each phrase the noise gate closes up. It sounds like it's sort of going backwards and forwards. Peter Gabriel thought it was so great that he just told Phil to play it continually for five minutes, and then he wrote the song around the drum part."
"I had always hated the Eagles type of drum sound. It was so tight, being close-miked, that it never sounded like a real drum kit to me. When you stand next to a drum kit and the bloke's playing, you can't hear because it's so loud and clattering. Drums never sounded like that on records. Steve Lillywhite felt the same way and so between us we were well into getting an outrageous sound, even if it was over the top - we ended up with something more like what we felt real drums sounded like when you go to a gig."
Phil Collins was suitably impressed, and when he was starting work on his own album Face Value several months later, Hugh got a phone call. "That's more or less how I started producing/co-producing... by accident really."
It was about this time that he had to leave his employment at the Townhouse because he was doing too much work elsewhere. "It was great, because somehow I had managed to negotiate a freelance engineering fee from Gabriel's camp, but I was also getting paid from the Townhouse as well! So in the end, when Barbara at the Townhouse found out she thought that was a bit cheeky. Of course, by that time I had met up with the Genesis crew and done that album with Phil Collins in Los Angeles, so I got paid independently there as well!"
"Then we came back and Phil wanted me to do the Genesis album, so we built their 'Somewhere in Surrey' studios, and I think that was the last straw. Barbara said 'well you can't go off for three or four months and still stay working here'. It wasn't a question of a dangerous decision or even thinking about it. I wanted to do that album — I had to leave, so I did. But they're still great at the Townhouse. I still work there whenever I can, it's got such a good feel to it - the people are nice and not snotty like they are in some places."
Working with Lillywhite was very much a team effort, and this is the sort of arrangement which Hugh prefers - "I like co-producing because at least you only get half the blame if it goes wrong! It takes a bit of weight off your shoulders. It's pretty daunting sometimes when you are concentrating on trying to get a good drum sound, because that's usually one reason why people have asked to work with you, and it's quite difficult trying to concentrate on doing a really good job on the engineering and to be there listening and musically aware all the time."
"It's a pretty indefinable thing, especially when you get up to the sort of level of groups that I've been working with. I've done two albums now with the Police, two with Phil Collins, two with Genesis and one with Bowie. They're all very experienced to the extent where they know what they're doing. It is much more daunting with a group who aren't experienced and therefore don't really know the studio etiquette. In some ways I think I have been a bit spoilt because I've worked with most of the best groups in the world. They're so good - everybody is a fantastic player and it makes my job as engineer much easier."
"In my experience, the best players give you a good sound in the first place, so half the time I just stick up a microphone and it sounds great. You always discuss the sound with them of course. With Andy Summers of Police, for instance, he's just brilliant on the guitar. You talk about a sound and he'll virtually get what we want to hear just from his amp and his playing. I just stick up a mic that I think will sound good, go and listen to it, fiddle around a little bit - not too much - and off we go."
"It's the same with drums. You hear of people spending two or three days in the studio getting a good drum sound. With Phil Collins it takes me 15 minutes! That's because he knows his drums so well (I know his drums quite well too) but he's so good at tuning them. It's the same with people like Alan White of Yes. They're both masters of their instruments, and you don't have to try because the sound they give you is excellent in the first place."
"I like to be quick and spontaneous in recording where things like that Phil Collins sound can happen, and if you stop to think about it, something wasn't technically right... I love abusing equipment - if it's there, abuse it, I say. Try and do something that other people haven't done: overdrive compressors using distortion to your advantage; I know some engineers would say 'Oh you can't do that, it's overloading' and you'd stop and then lose the vibe a bit. Then you sit around for hours getting a drum sound and the drummer won't feel like playing after he's gone 'bang, bang, bang' on a snare drum for two hours. It's all wrong."
"I don't reckon musicians really become musicians in order to work in a studio. When I wanted to become a musician I wanted to be on stage, to play concerts and have people clapping me and adulating. What I am trying to say is that the studio is a very unnatural environment. You have to go in and play on headphones and be stuck away from everyone else... it's quite an unnatural process really."
"My philosophy is to make everybody feel like they're not really in a studio: if something technical is holding me up I'll just leave it wrong, technically; or if a channel's not working I'll try and zap across to another one that is working. I wouldn't stop the session for the maintenance crew to come in and change it unless it was really necessary. Keep things running as smoothly as possible. The atmosphere, the vibe, the attitude of the recording engineer is half the battle - not just the ability to record it in terms of choosing microphones and twiddling the knobs and things. It's whether you can still put on a brave smile at four o'clock in the morning. That side of things is equally important."
There seems to be a very strong connection with SSL. There were a lot of discussions in those early days about the first desk, and indeed they still go on. "I used to like them more before they became so popular. When everybody likes something I tend to try to go off and find something else." The something else seems to be the Neve console at Air Montserrat. "They've got microphone amps remote controlled from the Neve desk. They're right out in the studio in the mic boxes, and they reckon it makes a difference to the recorded sound. And I reckon they're probably right because the two albums I've done there have such an incredibly good sound on tape: really clean. I love the top end cleanness of the Neve EQ."
On the subject of SSL: "Yes, I think they're the bees knees. In some ways they are inadvertently destroying the studio business because they are taking over the world! That's fair enough but sooner or later that's going to have to stop because everybody will have an SSL desk. You don't throw them away like you do cars that fall to bits after a couple of years... We all know we're on the last generation of analogue mixing desks now. But what worries me is the fact that everybody now says, 'I won't work on anything except the SSL', and you've got these poor studios who can't afford 125 grand to buy one that are going out of business. It's not all SSL's fault they can't help making a good product."
"I think the music business is so fickle - a lot of people get on who don't know what the hell they're doing. I don't know what the hell I'm doing half the time, but at least I've got a good idea. You mustn't forget that people made great records long before SSL appeared."
On the subject of digital, Hugh has taken a stance by purchasing his own Sony 1610 system with editor, having worked with other systems such as the JVC (which he thought was good) and the 3M (which he wasn't so happy about. This was on Freda's album at Abba's studio and they had a lot of problems with the machine, including getting the tape chewed on one track!). But generally speaking, he is very pro all this sort of thing - the compact disc etc. But for the moment, recording 46 track analogue seems to be his preference, for versatility and cost effectiveness.
"On Bowie's album Tonight for instance, I recorded all the backing tracks (the drums and stuff), made a slave copy and then put the master multitrack tape in a cupboard and let it lie there. Then the horns came in and rather than have to sit around and work out how you're going to fit the horns onto the first 24 tracks, we'd just open up another slave reel and run them in sync - I'll call it the horn reel. I just had two or three parts of the original backing track recorded on the first few tracks of the horn reel and track 24 had the timecode on it. Then when the horns suddenly said 'Oh I want to triple track that bit' or David Bowie said 'I want an extra little horn bit there', I didn't have to scratch around for about 10 minutes looking for a blank part of a track to put it on, which is what you would usually have to do if you only used 24 tacks."
"You have to bear in mind that you've got to keep tracks open to bounce things down to. So on the slave reel you've probably got 18 to 20 tracks available so you have more or loss got carte blanche, and you don't have to hold up the session. Then when the musicians have gone home I can get my original slave on one machine and then bounce down to the original slave, keeping the original 24 track tape safe in the cupboard all the time."
"The other thing is that when you bounce tracks normally, you have to bounce from the record head (in sync), and that doesn't usually have as good a frequency response as the playback head. The way I do it is to use two 24 track machines locked together in sync by the timecode, then I can play it off the playback head. So in actual fact my bounce loses less quality. Also, if I come back and then decide later on that I wish I'd had a bit more soprano sax in the mix or something (because I probably bounced it down to two or three tracks) then I haven't already wiped the originals, which is what you would have to do normally. They are still all sitting there on the slave reel."
"I did the same thing with the strings - it was brilliant! I ended up with four or five reels per song, but I knew exactly where everything was - horns, strings, vocals - and I never lost quality and I never lost any information that we recorded either."
"I like doing this 46 track recording — it's pretty good. You are usually only working on one 24 track machine at a time, apart from when you're mixing, so you are only having to pay 24 track fees. Whereas, when you are doing 24 track digital they'll put a huge surcharge on the price to try to get back the 120 grand they have just had to pay out for it. Sooner or later everybody will have digital stuff and the price will come down. Maybe there will be 46 track or 48 track digital recording - I guess there will be soon."
Although not exactly the boffin type, Hugh is definitely very interested in the technical side of his trade and he puts in a lot of time reading up on equipment. "I love reading technical reviews; it's a bit like reading road tests on cars. You can learn a lot from reading. I know from literature that a microphone's frequency response is this or that - but it is always different when you use it. However, I like to know when I'm using a microphone, for instance, that has a proximity effect (bass boost when used close up) as I can use that to my advantage. Sometimes a singer would really like to sing close to the microphone because it makes him feel like he's on stage. If he feels more at home with the mic like that then he's going to sing better, so let him do it. You just have to choose a microphone that you know doesn't have too much proximity effect."
"Sometimes you can get ideas by reading block diagrams of mixers, for things you can possibly do. I don't sit at home and design my own circuitry or anything, but I think it's useful to know that such and such a limiter works on a feed-forward basis, say, and such and such a limiter works from an optical eye principle, so that you know that one is faster to react than the other. Because if you are using a limiter in the studio and you think, 'damn, it's not working' - if you don't know that it's a very slow acting limiter and it's letting through all your signal peaks anyway, then you go through life being confused. It's like a doctor reading the medical journals when he gets home ... I like to be knowledgeable in the field and from my reading."
"I think my favourite effect at the moment is no effect, actually. When we made the Synchronicity album with the Police, we all reckoned that with every record on the radio now you could suss out exactly what it was: you knew somebody had put backwards this in there and used an AMS in there. So, on the Synchronicity album we sat down and said we were not going to use any effects apart from a bit of subtle tape echo, maybe a little harmoniser, but no out and out flanging and that sort of thing. Any effects that we did have on guitar, Andy Summers would get at point source, in other words out in the studio. I suppose if I have a favourite effect then it's tape echo - it's not an effect as such, but you can do so much with it. You can make things sound like they're coming from a long, long way away, by using long repeating effects and giving things a lot of depth. Then you can make people sound like Elvis Presley if you use a very fast repeat... it's very versatile having a tape machine or a DDL hanging around the studio."
And so, although Hugh himself prefers to steer a course away from effects, he does have a great respect for those who go in full tilt such as Trevor Horn. "Although even he doesn't use many effects, his style comes from the way he arranges the songs and edits - that sort of thing, more than studio gadgets. Like in that Yes single, 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart', one of the best things that has ever had the word music put to it, where it just edits with that acoustic guitar in the middle - that's a brilliant idea. There is nothing studio gadgety about that at all."
"Yes one has one's sort of pets." Hugh was strangely reticent to confess what these actually are! "Am I giving away all my secrets?" he wondered. "Actually when people ask me what microphone did I use on so and so's guitar I really couldn't tell them. My answer is usually just one that works!"
"Sometimes with Phil Collins, on one song we will possibly record the chorus on a dynamic mic and the verse on a condenser or something. It really depends what mood I'm in, what side of the bed I got out of. I know I will very rarely use an AKG D12 on a bass drum - I have my favourites for bass drum which are the old Neumann U47 transistor mics because I get a nice punchy sort of sound. Sometimes even a Sennheiser 421 sounds quite good on the bass drum. For instance, on a Neumann mic you usually have to add some bass into the bass drum, depending on the sort of mixing desk you are on. So that might influence my decision. If I'm in a studio with a Harrison desk I wouldn't use the Sennheiser, I'd try and use the Neumann."
On the subject of valve microphones, although Hugh likes them he is not fanatical. "I'm not like some people who are convinced that if you've got an old microphone the singer's voice will be magically transformed into a better sound. I've got a motto that you can't polish a turd. It's probably a bit rude, but I think it holds water. You have always got to start off with a good sound. I remember we used a valve U47 on Peter Gabriel's voice and other valve mics like old 54s. I've used the AKG Tube as well, which I like on some things, but often in sessions I'm more keen on getting the session going than spending an hour swapping from mic to mic. The singer wants to get on with the singing; maybe I will have done a little bit of pre-singing talking about microphones, and got him to go out there at the end of a session and muck around with two or three mics, but sometimes you don't have time. If the bloke's itching to do the song, I'll just go for what I know works because capturing the performance is much more important than getting a technically perfect sound. If you get both then that's a bonus. It's easy to destroy a session by getting too technical."
Hugh talked a great deal on the subject of training. He said that if the studios themselves hadn't appeared to be so 'anti' the course-type training he would definitely have gone in for something like that. You have to be lucky to end up in a studio where the other engineers are prepared to spend time with you and teach you properly. He also thinks that the broader training a college or university can give you is very worthwhile. "If you just train up in a rock studio you're not going to know where the sound comes from on a clarinet. I've sent tape-ops to mike up a clarinet or something and they put a microphone in a very strange position, because they don't know. I've read loads of books (like 'Sound Recording Practice'), I like reading other people's theories about recording."
"The only dodgy thing about working in a rock studio (like the Townhouse) is that you'll only end up knowing how to record a rock band. That applies to me as well. For the last four years I've done so much rock recording that I would now be wary about going to Abbey Road and doing a big classical session myself - although on Bowie's album I did all the strings, and on Phil Collins' album I recorded all those too. It's a good challenge, especially when you don't do it that often. So once or twice a year I record strings and I really enjoy it. If we're at CBS Studios with the engineer who always records strings every day - he is obviously on the ball. You do have to appreciate that other people will know more than you sometimes. So I make sure that he's looking over my shoulder, or I let him do it and I look over his shoulder!"
"On the new Phil Collins record that I'm about to do, I'm going to take into the studio a really crappy little 10 channel mixing console and experiment on recording through that. Sometimes you get demos from groups that are just done in a day in a cheap old studio and they've got a certain quality that's great because they're naffly recorded! Whether it's to do with distortion through the console, which is usually the weakest link, I don't know. It's like some of the old Motown songs - when you actually analyse them, a lot of the sounds are actually naff, but altogether it's got that certain feel and sound to it which is great. So I'm going to try recording drums like that."
"You've usually got all the bits of outboard equipment in the studio simply because people like a Gain Brain compressor for some particular sound or they like a dbx compressor for some other sound, and I thought, 'well why don't I have a different console if I want that sort of Motown sound'. Everybody always wants to go for the cleanest possible sound there is, so I'm going for a nice naff demo studio sound, and see what happens."
This is at a studio that has a Solid State Logic desk? "Yes, we're doing it at the Townhouse." What can I say? Anyway, why are they doing it at the Townhouse when all the chaps in Genesis seem to have studios of their own coming out of their ears? Well, it seems that the band's 'Somewhere in Surrey' studio is having its control room rebuilt.
"They're a crazy group, Genesis. Their home studio is better equipped than most proper division one studios and they've all got their own 8 track set-ups at home as well. What Phil Collins does is record at home on a Brenell recorder using a SMPTE code on one track of the 8 track. Then we'll go into the studio and copy the timecode and the bits we want to keep on to a 24 track machine (so you do lose a generation), and then just overdub on to that. That's how we've done the last two albums - just overdubbing his demos. What we're really doing is home recording I suppose."
Interview by Janet Angus
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: