King Of The Castle
Calum Malcolm: Going to Caledonia
Though often regarded as the preserve of the recording magazines, the work of the producer is of critical importance to all those involved in music - particularly when it's the work of a producer like Calum Malcolm...
An air of sobriety permeates a rather gaunt Victorian schoolhouse in the village of Pencaitland, a few miles south-east of Edinburgh. But for an incongruously flashy car parked outside, you'd think it was abandoned. This, however, is Castlesound Studio, and both car and studio belong to Calum Malcolm, the quiet man of Scottish pop and the unsung genius behind nearly two decades' worth of contemporary music with a distinctly regional flavour.
Building on early successes as a local engineer, Calum has produced a chain of idiosyncratic acts from The Blue Nile to It's Immaterial, and has been the natural choice of a generation of Celtic musicians looking to place their traditional forms in a modern setting.
He first opened a studio around 1974, a small 4-track in Edinburgh, and slowly ascended through 16 and then 24 tracks as word spread. "It grew because there weren't many other studios around, not because it or I were any good, particularly," he says, self-effacingly, in his gentle Caledonian murmur. In the late '70s, a change of location was prompted by prohibitive city rents: "This place was empty, just a typical old school. I eventually found out who owned it, bought it and converted it - pretty much as you see it now." What you see now is a calm and restful studio environment, somewhat darkened by the years, but on the brink of refurbishment to allow in more of the light from the surrounding East Lothian skies.
The control room, in which Calum sits with a reviving mug of tea and a faint air of the laird, stands at the end of a long corridor between one very large live room, which runs along the length of the corridor, and a smaller but still generous room which today contains a solitary amplifier and a boom mounted mic. "The design has lasted quite well," he muses. "I re-did this room a couple of years ago, but it's basically the same shape. You can't really go wrong with a decent building, where the rooms are a half-decent shape. You'll get a decent sound when it's like that, so it doesn't really matter. It's when you try and cram a studio into a basement or some other tiny space that they don't really work.
"Good playing areas have always been important for me, and I have to say that the most important thing in my background would be musical as opposed to technical, although obviously I've had to pick a lot up as I go along. I had no training as such, I've just been interested in music right from the beginning, and I've tried to keep that in the front of my mind."
A Mitsubishi digital machine arrived two and a half years ago, before which the studio was standard analogue 24-track. "24-track was fine, there are some good machines, but some of the stuff I was doing at the time was quite atmospheric and empty, with a lot of silent passages and very quiet moments in the music, and I had Telcom noise reduction. That was the best system until Dolby SR, but it still had some problems. So at that point I could have bought another 24-track machine with Dolby SR, which all costs quite a lot of money really, so I went to Mitsubishi.
"I had a good relationship with them, even though I'd never bought anything off them. The people there were actually quite pleasant, and that makes a difference. Obviously in the end people are just trying to sell you stuff, but nevertheless there's an acceptable face to that - and they provided it.
"It seemed a good enough machine; it had a few more tracks, and it really wasn't that much more expensive than buying another 24-track plus 48 tracks of SR, so I went for it. I still have a bit of trouble with digital things, but I'm definitely not a purist - people do think that, but I'm not - I just think that there are limitations with the sound of digital stuff. Providing you accept that, it's OK. I also found that there were quite a lot of limitations in analogue multitrack recording: it's just a bit wider than a cassette, really, isn't it? A 2" tape is only slightly better than cassette width, so it's not that brilliant anyway. It tends to compress a bit, which is OK if you want that sort of effect, but if you don't, and you just want to get back off the tape what you put on, it's not very good.
"So I thought well, a Mitsubishi gets rid of all that stuff, and it may not be quite so satisfying deep down but recording multitracked music is not a pure form of making music, anyway. I don't really care if it's not perfect. If I want to make something 'perfect' I'd do it it straight to 2-track analogue, like one of those old jazz records. Those are still the best sounding records, if you want something that's really alive and exciting to listen to. They'll beat all the multitrack stuff hands down, I think.
"I don't really care about the digital/analogue thing - they've both got their pluses. Although the thing about digital is that it's dead easy, you can't really go wrong. You get more or less what you put on. If you're dealing with synths it's a digital source anyway, half the time, so it doesn't really matter. I stick everything on tape - it's too risky not to. I like it all to be in one place at one time.
"No matter what anyone says, I've yet to find any sequencing package anywhere that can guarantee perfect timing every time you start the tape. Maybe nine times out of ten it will lock up, but the tenth time it could be a fraction out, and it's infuriating. I just want it all to be in the same place at the same time, then it's one less thing to worry about when trying to get all this..." (he gesticulates vaguely at the studio) "...put in its place".
Pragmatism is at the core of Calum's being. While displaying the mildest of manners, his patience is in shortest supply for those tools of the trade which put up the greatest barriers to getting the job done. "The most useful part of a sequencer, as far as I'm concerned, is to be able to put ideas down quickly - then you can quickly join them together later. The ideas are there and you haven't used up track space on the tape, you're not worried about wiping a track and losing something that you might find in the mix which might be good. It's on the sequencer, and if you need it you can get it.
"Quantisation, and all that other side of it, that's fine for some things, but it's not necessarily a great thing. It's not easy to program these days without too much flatness and precision, and I know a lot of people - including myself - who get round it by programming it all out; but it takes ages to do that. You can be much better off with a decent drummer. I still do a lot of sampling, but I do love live music. I like the sound of a drum kit - or making it sound different, not necessarily like a drum kit.
"I love the feel of somebody half-decent playing an instrument, it makes a big difference. It has a lasting power, you don't get sick of the record after the third verse. It'll stand the test of time a bit more, I'm absolutely convinced of that. An awful lot of music these days has got a lot of impact initially, it immediately grabs your attention, but once you've heard it a few times you think '...next'. You want the next thing, and then the next - and you try and figure out why that is. On a lot of older records, the things you still listen to, you always hear something a bit different; it's never quite the same each time. You never remember the feel exactly all the way through, whereas once you've heard the first four bars of a sequenced record, that's the feel for the rest of it."
The enduring qualities of Calum's own recordings, of course, owe much to his sympathetic blending of traditional musicianship and modern technology. A case in point is this year's solo debut Main by Máire Brennan, provider of the haunting lead vocals on a brace of hit albums by Clannad. Calum co-produced the album with Irish musician Donal Lunny. "There was a good balance of technologies on that album. All the percussion was played. We used Nigel Thomas, who's an old friend. He's the principal percussionist with the London Philharmonic, and was with the London Symphony Orchestra before that, and he's really fantastic. I like his ideas, he's a nice bloke. He's joined me on quite a few projects over the years, and he's able to play with precision, so you don't have to rely on computers to sort it out.
"And there are also lots of synths and stuff. I played most of the basses and synths on that record, and we had a great combination, I thought, of the two areas. There are weak points to it, of course, but there are some good moments with Nigel playing along with Donal Lunny - who's a cracking bouzouki player and also a great bodhran player. He can play that as a bass, as well, which he did on a couple of tracks, because he can pitch it so well. Some of the stuff came together very well, I think.
"Máire and I spent a couple of weeks doing all the songs through, with just me doing all the music and her doing vocals, most of which was discarded later. That was purely preparation; all I could do was play it on keyboards, and what we did was get arrangements down and a basic structure on tape for people to listen to. We couldn't do it as a live ensemble; it was impossible to get everybody together at the same time. But I tried to get as much acoustic stuff on the record as I could."
Calum, it seems, is in demand as a remixer, too, his brisk efficiency suiting the production-line methods of contemporary pop. Earlier this year, Greg Kane of Hue & Cry was the stunned beneficiary of a complete album mix finished in five days.
"I have to say, I always do it in that time. I hate spending a long time mixing, I always think there must be something wrong. I usually mix twice in very quick succession, or even three times. I like mixing on my own, just to get my own ideas straightened out the way I think it roughly should be, and then getting the artist to come and tell me what's wrong with it, what they would like, where I've gone off the rails.
"This Amek RN console is quick, and it's got a computer which I like, too - it's the best system I've used. I think flying faders are good as well, but for me an SSL is a bit slow. I know they're better these days, but this system seems very, very quick, and it's highly repeatable as well. I've got my own method of writing things down that aren't automated, just bits of code I write out, which means that no matter how complicated the mix, I can get it back up into the console in about 20 minutes. And then just comparing it back with a half-inch I can make sure it's exactly where we were. It's so fast to do that now, I tend to do mixes very quickly. Deliberately not take them to what might be their final conclusion, and then get everyone's input to see what they think. Then I'll get it all back up and do what needs to be done."
Another pop act within Calum's orbit is Liverpool duo It's Immaterial, currently exchanging new DAT-recorded tracks in the post with the producer of their Song album of a couple of years ago. That album was sadly overlooked (tragically overlooked, I'd say -Ed), but it was a subtle masterpiece in the art of creating a sense of space within a multitrack recording. "I like space, yeah, I've always been fond of space. I think it's just correct orchestration in the first place. Pure arrangement; getting the right instrument, the right kinds of sounds which create their own space.
"I love the feel of somebody playing an instrument. It has a lasting power, you don't get sick of the record after the third verse. It'll stand the test of time - I'm absolutely convinced of that"
"Reverb's important, but not that important. I don't go in for fancy reverbs, actually. I'd probably like a Lexicon, but it doesn't matter anyway because I can't afford one. A 480L - what's that, about seven and a half million pounds?
"So I just have these things; the Klark-Tekniks, they're fine, the old AMS is OK, too. Probably my favourites are the two EMT plates; I really do like them. I've got a transistor one and a valve one, and they do sound totally different. Probably not because they're valve and transistor, but just because they're different tensions. One's very bright, one's very warm and dull sounding. They're great because they've got so much resolution; they never fizz or die away, or ring, or do anything funny - they just sound really spacey. I suppose, probably, a bit of it is that - now you mention space - they're superb for percussion. A lot of people don't bother using them, they're so big and cumbersome. Although plenty of people still have them."
The Máire Brennan album is a fine example of the empathy between Celtic flavours and contemporary ambient music, which Calum Malcolm is perfectly placed to interpret. There's something about the windswept imagery involved which is easily evoked in the modern studio. Or to put it another way, there's nothing like a synth pad for a bit of the old Scotch mist. Calum also mentions Capercaillie, Simple Minds and Runrig as exponents of a poppier version of this hybrid, and identifies the drones in traditional Celtic music as being a key link.
"There is a thread running through Celtic music. You can see connections between U2 and Simple Minds, for instance. Whether they influence each other, or ever have done, I don't know. But there's obviously a sound which is purely down to the traditional Celtic music - that's all that is. And there's a format, a form of music which is written down and understood. And so, of course, with people growing up and being subjected to that kind of music it will have an influence that will rub off on them and emerge later when they start writing pop songs.
"There must be an element of that which happens all over the world. There's a thread running right through Europe as well, of course, right through to Eastern Europe, and there are very strong musical connections between the Celts and Brittany, Cape Breton in North America, and middle Europe. There is a very consistent sound, which you can also pick up in many types of modern classical music. And Rumanian, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian folk music have all got this exact same thing going on. It's drones, and certain shapes; the way these shapes are used. There's obviously a big connection and it must spill into modern music."
And is it this that distinguishes Scottish pop? "The Scottish pop scene has always been vibrant. It comes into focus now and again and then it goes out of focus - but it's always there. Just like the North-West. There's possibly a certain amount of rebelliousness involved, wherein people want to be different, want to be independent. I doubt whether people would consciously write to be like that, but that's the effect, subconsciously, I'm sure."
To many, Calum Malcolm is synonymous with Glasgow trio The Blue Nile, whose two seminal albums A Walk Across The Rooftops and Hats he produced in 1984 and 1989. Responding to an enquiry as to further collaborations, Calum is circumspect... "Well, possibly. I spent some time with Robert recently, and I spoke to both Pauls on the phone, and in fact we were talking about equipment, trying to figure out what to do. The last time we spoke about recording, I said what's the point in going into a studio? They really are very capable people, and studios are very expensive. So I said why not just buy some equipment and do it at home - the bulk of it, at least, and then come and finish it off, mix it, or add things that you can't have at home. I think that's the right way for them to record.
"Too often, especially on the last album, we spent a long time trying to recreate really crappy, but perfect kitchen demos, the feel of which eluded us, and which I think did elude us in the end. I still prefer the kitchen demos. It's a very hard thing to get back. Paul Buchanan comes up with the ideas and performances, and it's one definite sound, whether it's just him playing the guitar and singing the thing, he creates a sound. To try and recreate that is just impossible. It gets squeaky clean, disjointed, disembodied. If anyone would benefit from just having a mic stuck in front of them, it's The Blue Nile. It would sound awful but it would have something very very special."
"There is a thread running through Celtic music. You can see connections between U2 and Simple Minds, for instance. Whether they influence each other or ever have done, I don't know. But there's obviously a sound which is purely down to traditional Celtic music"
Recording at home would put The Blue Nile in the company of many other innovative '80s songwriters in search of new openings. Mention has already been made of Calum's DAT correspondence with a pretty much housebound It's Immaterial. The Nile's Paul Moore is apparently interested in hard-disk recording systems, but Calum is sceptical. And it's not just a case of 'you take the high tech and I'll take the low...'
"I've been trying to put him off, because I've had quite a lot of experience with them. I've invested a lot of money in a Spectral Synthesis system - which is superb, very good - but they're not right. They're brilliant for people doing film work, brilliant for synchronising video and film stuff together, usually packages from SSL or whoever - that's great, that's the future, I love that idea. But, to record music on, they don't make much sense, because what do you do once your disk's full? You back it up, and how long does that take? Can you really afford the optical disks you'll need? If someone pulls the plug and your signal disappears down the earth line, are you going to be happy about that? Wouldn't you rather it was on a bit of tape so you could just switch the machine on again and it would still be there?
"I think they're a dead loss. They're grossly unreliable, still. They've got to wait. One of these days they'll suss it out and it will be better. They'll have to get cheap backup. They'll have to be able to load things in very fast, like changing a tape. I've got two systems, in fact - I've got a Hybrid Arts system as well. I use the Spectral for all my sampling; it's up-to-16-track, it does work, it doesn't crash, but I use it as a way to manipulate the digital audio on the Mitsubishi, not as a separate recorder."
Maintaining spontaneity is the goal of Calum's no-nonsense approach, and he agrees that there may be a danger in the almost limitless rearrangement possibilities of the latest sequencers. Here's what he would do with your demo, were you to find yourself in the enviable role of Castlesound client...
"The way I've worked with demos recently - and I'm doing this just now with It's Immaterial - is to take the demo in whatever form, DAT, 16-track 1" or 8-track or whatever, and just copy it exactly onto the Mitsubishi, and that's where we start. Print an analogue-to-digital copy onto a reel. They're just versions of the songs, just as relevant as what we do at the end, probably more relevant in many cases. I've done that successfully now over quite a few albums, it really works. Maybe we don't use anything from it in the end, but the feel is always there. You never lose that. You never have to put the old cassette on and ask 'where did we go wrong?' You can't go wrong; it's there in the first place. That's provided the arrangement is correct in the first place.
"There's a danger that's hit me several times: you've got so much flexibility you can lose sight of your aims. And if you spend too much time on a piece of music, which I think is also bad, you get bored, just as anyone would get bored with anything, and you just start changing it for change's sake. You'll go back and throw away perfectly good things, just in order to hear new things - and because it's so easy to do it. You end up recording at least two albums, and the first was perfectly good. It's certainly happened to me before. Some things may get better, but undoubtedly some things get worse."
At Castlesound, most things are getting better, and the diary gets ever fuller. Now involved in an A&R and production role with a new label started by Bruce Findlay (ex-Simple Minds manager, who now manages The Silencers), Calum appreciates the basic time and labour-saving benefits of technology more than ever. "Sure. That's why I've surrounded myself with things which are quick and easy to use. I don't ever want to be held up. It's lovely for that - I don't run out of tracks, I can slave up the Atari, I don't run out of anything. I like being able to get things done.
"The current album I'm working on has been paid up to the last day, it's four weeks exactly and it's done, it's finished. We'll just do the last few overdubs today, have a week off and start mixing. That includes rehearsals and everything.
"That," says Calum Malcom, pragmatist, "is sensible".
Interview by Phil Ward
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