Producer of Howard Jones' best-selling album, 'Human's Lib', talks about the making of the record and his approach to production.
Never easily classified and with a fresh approach to all 65 or so records he has so far produced, Rupert Hine has, over the last decade, earned himself the reputation of being a "producers' producer".
With his pioneering approach to synthesiser recordings in the early Seventies, it seemed inevitable that the union of Rupert and new wave synthesist/composer Howard Jones, would prove more than fruitful. Just how fruitful was impossible to predict, but the end result 'Human's Lib' shot straight to number one in the UK album charts, made Howard Jones a household name and sported superb production courtesy of Mr. Hine.
Now busy recording a new album by The Fixx, Rupert found time to talk to Ian Gilby about the making of the Howard Jones album and his approach to recording; but begins by retracing his first steps into production....
"In 1973 I had become involved with the early Moog synthesisers and I was quite keen to experiment with them in the recording studio myself. It was the heyday of the record companies and it wasn't too hard to get to produce one's own record, so I asked to produce my second solo album 'Unfinished Picture' myself, even though I was an absolute novice!
The album was recorded at Air Studios, London, because I had previously worked there on my first solo record 'Pick Up A Bone', and had met and liked the people. When they knew I was going to produce the second album myself, the people at Air wanted to encourage me by putting their most experienced production team around the project, to help me out on it.
I actually only wanted to work with this one tape operator who had worked on my first album. There was something about the nature of the man's personality that I really liked; he had a very musical awareness of both pitch and time, and a real artistic flair, and I thought, 'that's the kind of chap I need, I want him to engineer'. Of course, the studio manager said that I couldn't because the guy was only a tape op and not a trained engineer, and it was also my first ever production! They did their level best for some two weeks after that to try and persuade me to change my mind. But that tape operator turned out to be Steve Nye who went on to produce Japan and Roxy Music!
After that album I was asked to produce other people, which was a fairly immediate reaction, mainly by people who also wanted to do something different.
I have no specific liking for any one particular electronic sound. To me, they are just the most usable, useful and most flexible sound source for creating some kind of picture. I have always tried to avoid being into synthesisers in a technical way, but in order to work the early Moogs you had to be aware of what each function on the synth did.
I always wanted only to be aware of what you could finally do with them and it was only because that end product was just so vast, compared to other instruments that were available at that time, that one couldn't help but realise that it was a completely new kind of palette.
With recording, you start with a picture in your mind. In other words, you start with an atmospheric objective of how a track will sound. If you've got that clear a picture on the way, the only thing that you then need is the complete flexibility to change your mind en route.
The two can be quite hard to fuse; you can get people who are very good at visualising an end result, sonically through the mixer, through the effects etc. but who refuse to break off until they achieve that end result.
The amount of time I see wasted in the studio with people sticking doggedly to these very logical routes is unbelievable. Music is such an abstract medium and logic has very little to do with it.
You really need to rehearse with the equipment in a non-creative environment to a point where it feels natural to work it. So for people like Steve Tayler, my regular studio engineer, a Solid State Logic mixing desk becomes a very 'creative' instrument.
I think mixers, pieces of equipment and instruments also, are merely a means to an end. I've always only been interested in what's going to enhance the song atmosphere that you're trying to get, it can be something just so 'out of the blue' every time, regardless of how well you plan everything.
The whole thing about production really, is that it is a completely different job, artist for artist. Maybe it isn't for some producers who have a real system. I have absolutely no such system and no interest in having one, as it means you're expecting other people to bend to it. The production aspect has always got to be something that is going to assist and hopefully make the artist's music blossom in some way. It won't if that music has got to be bent and shaped to a producer's own system.
The last four albums that I've done are all so radically different that there's hardly one production that I've done the same.
Howard Jones' album Human's Lib is so different because Howard is so self-contained, and because he doesn't really come to you with song demos; he comes to you with 'programs'. So, to re-structure songs in his case, you are re-structuring the programs, be they for his Drumulator or Simmons SDS6 or whatever. That doesn't apply to any other artist that I'm producing at the moment.
The criticism with Howard is usually quite simply on a song structure level, where I feel that it's all basically there, but perhaps he shouldn't have that extra verse where it is. It's simply some imbalance which is quite often a reflection of Howard gigging so much. Certain songs work a certain way live, but obviously need to be made more compact for a record.
Looking at the individual parts of his arrangement sounds, the ones he'd already used in his live version, I'd then figure out which one of those is really essential and really should not be changed, because it contributes too much to the overall character of the song, say. With Howard, there is usually one synth sound that is quite plainly the source that started a particular song. You can almost feel that it was the one that he got going first and then built upon.
You then keep maybe that one background sound, make a pass onto tape of the basic drum program with that initial sound and probably whatever else Howard was using live, as a guide, quite simply so that the song is recorded with a form to it. Then we'd just look at replacing any of the sounds that were not right.
What we were doing was starting with a time code generated from a Linn Drum to set the song tempo, simply because it is still the most reliable to feed back off tape. The Linn still reads itself better than any other drum machine that I've come across and I bought a Linn essentially because of that ability. It reads its own time code faultlessly, and it's not a delicate thing to set up. With some of the other drum machine codes, the recorded level on tape has to be so absolutely right. The Drumulator didn't read itself very well, for example.
In the end what one tries to do with things like PPGs and Drumulators, is to interface them with something that reads code well. That has been the Linn, which we've used as the master time clock source because it happily interfaces with tape, and then we'll worry about how to get everything else to synchronise with the Linn!
With Howard's album we wanted to try tempo variations. He could programme them himself with his Drumulator, but he hadn't had any tempo variations in his tunes, originally. His records are unashamedly making use of drum machines, but with some people I produce, we utilise drum machines during the recording process but don't have them on the end result.
After we had thrown out the Drumulator because of its constant failure to read off tape, we went back to the Linn. We devised this rather long-winded method of getting speed variations out of the Linn by 'freezing' some of its own time code in an AMS digital delay and varying its relationship as it went onto tape. Then when it was fed back into the Linn, it was read as the tempo variation that we wanted. I wouldn't particularly recommend that method to anybody else, but it worked.
Now we use the SRC Friendchip, which is an SMPTE timecode-based machine. It has every clock permutation you could want and everything can be driven off the SMPTE code on the multitrack tape including the variation of tempo on the drum machine. The Friendchip has been a definite boon for us. In terms of the list of essential things for a studio to have these days, I think the Friendchip and a Dr. Click (another machine for controlling sequencers, drum machines etc.) would be very close to the top. They are both expensive at around £2000 each, however, but very worthwhile.
The drum tracks on the album were created from a conglomerate of sources. Some were real drums frozen into the memory of the AMS delay and triggered by Howard's original recorded drum parts. Sometimes I'd rewrite part of the drums, just as a producer might have asked a drummer in the past to try a slightly different feel on a particular section.
Some tracks were combinations of Simmons sounds, Drumulator and Linn sounds. We had them all running in tandem so we could mix whatever combination we wanted.
With the drum machines, most of the time we recorded the separate outputs for each drum sound onto a separate tape track. Rather similar to a real drum kit, you'd get a mix of top kit but always keeping bass drum, snare and hi-hat separate for individual treatments at a later date.
The overall sound level control is so good with drum machines these days that you don't need to use a device like a compressor purely in its level controlling mode anymore. They can be put to much more creative uses.
Because of the nature of some of these digital reverb programs now, it's a lot better to actually record them simultaneously with the drums. Certainly, Steve Tayler (the engineer) and I, are not at all 'yellow' when it comes to recording effects and reverb along with sounds like drums. A lot of producers prefer to record everything 'dry' and only add the reverb at the very end.
Steve, for example, is always nosing around as to what he can do with the sounds whilst I'm talking or deliberating the parts with players. That's one of the many reasons why I like working with Steve as much as I do. He's always fiddling around with equipment, but in his own time... and that to me is the art of an excellent sound engineer. It's somebody who's constantly putting creative input into the sounds that you're recording, but never at the artist's expense. It's essential to do what you have to do as an engineer in your own time, just while other people are working out their ideas in the studio.
If something comes out of that 'messing around', the chances are that we'll record it. I'm glad to say that in recent years, you don't really see any resistance to that, but in the Seventies there was massive resistance from the 'name' groups who'd had some recording experience and who'd often question your decision to record something.
Today, I like to work much more spontaneously, and be quick and firey about things. Try it, if it doesn't work, move on, and don't worry about why things wouldn't work. On average an album takes 5 weeks to record and mix. Howard's Human's Lib album took us that long, for example.
The thing that made me most interested in working with Howard Jones was the fact that behind every song of his was an idea. That sounds like a ghastly truism, but unfortunately it isn't in most music. So much of rock and pop music these days is born out of 'doodling'. There's no real centre to it.
So often today you hear records that have no ideas behind them. Unless songs begin from a central point - an idea - there is nothing by which to judge whether other things are applicable or not. You are left in the abstract world of music where one idea is worth exactly the same weight as the next because they are all subjective - there is no right or wrong.
So the only way you can make decisions and move forward, and to feel the energy that you can get out of making music, is to know what the 'centre' is; to know whether a sound is appropriate or not because it fits the mood: and I cannot make that point strongly enough.
I could recognise that in the majority of Howard's material, he started with an idea of something he wanted to communicate, and then the music was used descriptively to reinforce that idea. He's the kind of artist that I'm interested in producing, and I figure that you can always spot those people whose recordings start life purely as a 'jam' or improvisation.
There aren't so many producers that are capable of spotting the intent behind a musical project, the motivation and commitment to it; and for a lot of producers I don't think it's important to them, especially those that are bom out of the engineering side of the business.
To be attracted to a project, I have to feel that I can very usefully add something to it. You need to be able to spot where something is going wrong, where it's going very right and where it should be encouraged dramatically. You've got to feel you can supply answers as well as like the music.
If there is music that is trying to say something, then my job as 'producer' would be to find every way possible to help that band or artist achieve the ideas goal that made them write that song in the first place. If it seems they are only saying half of it, then it's my job to supply as much of the other half as possible to try and complete the picture.
On route, you've got to try and emphasise the good points about what they do naturally, as players, whilst also deemphasising the bad points; their less gifted parts.
Long before I got my Soundcraft 24-track studio package at home, I was working with an RSD Studio 4 four track cassette and I was getting to like the stuff I produced on that so much, that I had the classic artist's dilemma of trying to recreate that in a professional studio. I used to say to myself, 'I shouldn't be having this difficulty, I'm a record producer!' I did it all at home and I should've been able to do it all in the studio too, but I couldn't!
It's because things aren't clearly defined, that therein lies the magic. You've got something on a demo that's not technically well-recorded but can have a magic, because you can't hear clearly what made it up.
With your own recordings, because you know how they've been built up, it's very hard to have an objective approach to them. However, with other artists' demos, you are listening to them for the first time, afresh. You don't know how they were recorded, therefore how you as a producer read their end result is how you try and get the artist in question to record.
You can maintain that to a point where they say 'But that's not what I played on the demo' and you say 'Don't worry, trust me, play that'. Then when the whole track comes together you've captured that certain something...
In Howard's case, I took a tape of his song demos with me to America. There were no solos, as such, and no real area where a player's ability could shine through. It's one of the things I like about Howard, he's an extraordinarily talented and skilful keyboard player but there's not one place on that record where he is brazenly displaying it, and yet he's so capable of doing it.
It was during the making of his album at Farmyard Studio last year, that we first linked the whole MIDI keyboard system together. We were powering, for the first time ever for both of us, two Yamaha DX7s from an SCI Prophet T8 synthesiser, which became our main set-up for the recording of that album. Because you were getting four sound sources - the stereo T8, and two DX7s - going through all the studio gadgetry we had, live, it meant you could get the most stunning, enormous sound pictures whilst just improvising, and Howard kept us entertained for many hours using that set-up.
I was very stunned just to see how good a player Howard really was. Of course, that made the making of the record so much more fun because I knew that any idea I came up with he was capable of playing, and that is very rare.
The moment we first linked up the Prophet T8 and two DX7 synths was one of those moments I know I shall remember in the way I remember first multitracking the big Moog synthesiser in the early Seventies.
There are certain very rare moments in the recording studio where you realise that a very important barrier has been crossed, and in the way that you experience it, psychologically you think 'oh my god... this is extraordinary'. You suddenly feel that this series of barriers you've been used to living with have just dropped. Howard and I both felt that in the same way.
We didn't really use the MIDI system to even one percent of its full capability on Howard's album. We were discovering it and trying not to sidetrack ourselves. There were so many great sounds that we could have used that we were playing with in-between doing his tracks: the temptation was enormous. But we exercised the most extraordinary amount of self-control and stuck with the original parts we had planned, simply because we knew they sounded so good.
It's coming back to what I said earlier about keeping an open mind; to go down these avenues and experiment but to be able to return to your original idea if things don't work out."
Interview by Ian Gilby