Master Of The Mix
As PWL's in-house mixer, Pete Hammond can claim to have had a hand in even more chart singles than Stock, Aitken & Waterman. David Bradwell finds out what makes a hit record.
As the Stock, A itken & Waterman stranglehold on the charts becomes ever tighter, only one man can claim to have mixed more charting singles - "Mixmaster" Pete Hammond.
NOT CONTENT WITH heading the most successful British production team of the late 80's, Pete Waterman has been expanding his influence of late. PWL the studio has become PWL the record company, and the Hitman has become a TV star. Viewers of Granada's cult Saturday night pop show The Hitman And Her used to write in to ask why only Stock, Aitken & Waterman records received airplay. Although nowadays there seems to be less of a bias, a large proportion of the music on every edition of the programme is still PWL produced and has been mixed by Pete Hammond. Hammond is probably the only person this decade to have had more records in the Top 40 than SAW, having mixed the majority of their hits since late '86, remixed a few other peoples' and produced some of his own. He works through the night at PWL to maximise studio efficiency, and deliberately tries to avoid the media spotlight shining on his colleagues.
The first Hammond records to be released on an unsuspecting public were 'Living By Numbers' and 'Straight Lines' by New Musik, closely followed by The Nick Straker Band's 'Walk In The Park'. These were heard and liked by Peter Collins who had just started Loose Ends Productions in partnership with Pete Waterman. After working with Collins on projects with the Lambrettas, Piranhas and Belle Stars, Hammond engineered Hazel Dean's 'Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)' for the fledgeling SAW. A year or two later, a prolonged lull in his production schedule prompted Hammond to call Waterman, who told him to come down to PWL and mix himself a hit.
"The first thing I did was 'Heartache' by Pepsi and Shirlie, which went to number two", Hammond recalls. "From then on I started to mix the boys' tracks and the rest is history."
One of Hammond's chief talents is converting failed singles into hits - with a bit of judicious remixing. One example of this was last year's 'Voyage Voyage' by Desireless, which reached No. 5 - 48 places higher than on its original 1987 chart placing. Hammond seems well placed to point out where other people are going wrong.
"The way I see it is quite simple", he begins. "If you look at the Top 10 and you get all the people who have bought the No. 1 record to stand in a corner, all the people who've bought the No. 2 record to stand in another, I guarantee that very few people who are standing in the No. 1 corner will go and stand in the No. 2. There's almost a different market for every record, and if you want to get a record high into the charts you've got to appeal to as many of those markets as you can. Where 'Voyage Voyage' fell down was that high-fidelity wise it didn't sound good - you couldn't dance to it, although it had a nice tune. The minute you grab the dancers plus the hi-fi people you've got enough sales to get it in the charts.
"Another thing with remixes is that the Americans particularly tend to record everything in stereo. I get tapes sent over that sound very clogged up. They record all the stereo outputs from all the keyboards because they don't realise that what is actually left on most keyboards is just a slightly delayed version of what is on the right to get a stereo effect. Because the delay isn't very much you can get a lot of phase cancellation in the bottom end, and in chords particularly. To me, to keep it simple is better if I'm going to build up a sound. If you get a massive sound that's covering the whole frequency spectrum and put it in a track you can't hear anything else at any level, so by the time you get it in the track at a level that's helping the track it sounds weedy."
Song structure is another area in which many artists fall down. SAW songs may appear to be all chorus but, for Hammond, the bridge is nearly as important. It's all a matter of timing...
"A lot of people don't understand what a bridge is for, but to me it's the most important part of a song next to the chorus", he explains. "If you go straight from the verse to the chorus it throws your timing out because then either the verse has to be too long and becomes boring, or the chorus comes in too early. To me the ideally paced song is one which has a chorus-type intro for about eight bars, which at 120bpm lasts for about 16 seconds, then an eight bar verse and an eight bar bridge, which means you're up to about a minute for your first chorus. If the chorus happens as any later than that the radio stations take it off because they're fed up, but if you've got a good bridge leading up to something they feel drawn into it.
"Melodies are also vitally important, and I think what makes our records so acceptable to the public, no matter whatever anybody says, is that they've always got lots of things you can hang your hat on in the mix. The LA and Babyface record that Sheena Easton made only has big drum sounds, and very little melody. Once you've heard that, that's it. I'm not knocking the record because it was popular, but there's not much interest in there. It's alright for two or three listens but then it's done. When I mix, I always try to get as much interest in every part of the song as possible. In between each line there'll be a nice little melody phrase as well as a nice string arrangement.
"There's a different market for every record, and if you want to get a record high into the charts you've got to appeal to as many of those markets as you can."
"Things like key lifts into choruses are very useful and are one of the tricks the boys use here all the time in songwriting. Key movements between verse, bridge and chorus are crucial. If you go into a bridge and you build towards a crescendo and then nothing happens, you're sunk. I see a record as rather like a James Bond film. It starts with a guy skiing down a mountain with guns shooting - that's the intro - the verse is where the storyline starts to unfold, then there's a bit of action - which is the first chorus. Then it settles down a bit, then there's another bit of action, with a car chase, then suddenly there's a love scene - that's the middle eight - and that all builds up to the finale and the explosions. And the fade out is where he sails off in his boat knobbing the bird. When you think about it, a film is made in exactly the same way as a song - you've got to maintain the public's interest at all levels. So if you're going to have an exciting bit it's got to stand out. It's difficult getting down again, but it can be done."
WHEN HE IS first assigned a remix project, Hammond listens to the original master tape and discards anything he thinks doesn't work. Generally speaking the bassline, rhythm section and percussion are the first to go. From there it's a case of reconstructing the track - adding top lines where they're needed and pads where they're missing. Despite PWL's reputation for being superbly equipped in terms of the latest technology, Hammond believes in keeping his instrumentation as minimal as possible, as he explains:
"I tend to only use a DX7 and a D110 most of the time. Occasionally I use the Korg M1, because I like the piano sound on it. The problem I find with new synths is that they've all got reverb on them, some have even got repeats. When you take the reverb off they're quite ordinary sounds, it's just the reverb that makes it sound good. I'd personally rather get my own sounds and then put the reverb on.
"The D110 is great, it's like eight D50s in a box, but if you start using lots of partials at once you start getting delays, and if you layer sounds you find that it gets very flammy and it doesn't come out as a nice clean chord. Even MIDI itself causes problems - if you play a big chord which is all supposed to happen at once, it doesn't because it can't deliver all of the messages simultaneously. And the bigger the chord, the longer it takes to read through."
Hammond's drum programming is done on an old LinnDrum rather than his Pro24 sequencer. The sounds from the Linn get replaced by samples from an AMS. He doesn't trust MIDI clocks for his rhythmic overdubs, because he doesn't find it accurate enough.
"If you've got a sequencer that's reading MIDI clock and trying to read MIDI information, sounds start coming in late", he explains. "With a Linn, because it uses FSK it's reading nothing but code, and therefore it comes out exactly in time.
"At home I find that if I write a song with lots of parts using Pro24, a DX7 and the D110, when it's all playing together it sounds a pile of shit - it's all over the place, with delays everywhere. You can't bring it all in time by advancing and delaying individual tracks, because it still can't read everything at once, so you then end up with a delay on something else. When I'm recording I only ever record one instrument at a time and I block out all other MIDI information, so it's not looking for any other parts, or pitchbends, or modulations.
"Don't get me wrong though, I'm not a real stickler for tightness; I'm a firm believer that not everything should be tight, I just like to choose my own delays. I actually did an experiment one day when I was working on a track with Dizzy Heights. There was one clap in the song that sounded particularly natural so we analysed it and discovered it was ahead of the beat by about 15ms. I always see sound in my head, and a clap is a kind of arch. For the main body of the sound to be on the beat the start of it should be slightly before it. A snare drum to me looks like a triangle."
"Melodies are vitally important - what makes our records so acceptable to the public is that they've got lots of things you can hang your hat on in the mix."
It's an old notion that music made with electronic instruments is inherently cold and mechanical. While it's fairly easy to dismiss these arguments, recently there has been a new twist. It's been suggested that rather than sounding mechanical, electronic records merely sound like collections of equipment. At the time, the remark was made specifically about PWL productions. Hammond doesn't recognise the problem.
"I think it's the natural way to go", he counters. "When a man made a guitar or a violin it was his attempt at making noise and musical sounds, it's just that we've got better ways of making these sounds now, and if they'd had them in those days I'm sure they would have used them just the same. They never had the technology and the ability to create these sounds in other ways."
Nevertheless, Hammond always looks for musicality in his sounds - something he considers lacking in many American productions.
"I'm not just knocking LA and Babyface, but I don't like a lot of American records that have got great big bass drums. I love the bass, I'm a bass player, but if you put a huge bass drum in there with lots of ambience on it it's really difficult to distinguish what's going on in the bottom end of the track. The long reverb on the bass drum is all in the 50-100Hz band, which completely muddies up the bottom of the track. Like Pete Waterman says, you can never sing a bass drum. You can sing a bassline and people do, but you can never sing a bass drum.
"Having said that, with drum sounds on the stuff we do, the emphasis is always on the bass drum, the snare doesn't play a particularly big part. A lot of people, again particularly the Americans, put a lot of emphasis on the snare drum. I always find that you paint yourself into a corner immediately if you use a huge snare, because it's all in the mid range and it can last between 200ms and half a second. In effect you get half a second of noise then a little gap before the next one, and to get musicality in there is really difficult. People dance much more to the bass end of a track than they do to the clacky end, so the snare drum is not really of that much importance to me."
Equally as significant as the sounds chosen are the ways in which they're treated. Hammond employs a lot of pre-delayed reverbs and predelayed short echoes.
"To me, echoes are something that are totally unnatural in everyday life", he comments, explaining his approach. "Ambience is here, you can hear it on my voice in this room, but echo is something that's quite different - you've got to have a cliff a hundred yards away to get an echo, and that's not something you come across in everyday life. Consequently, echoes are a lot more magical to me than reverbs. Pre-delayed reverb is also one of my favourites because again it's unnatural. You've got a sound, then a gap, then a reverb. If you use delays right they give the feeling that somebody is somewhere rather than in your loudspeaker, and that's the big difference for me between making a mix sound good at low and high volumes.
"I always vary the texture of the track as well. Very often I find I need to change the vocal echo effects on choruses if the rhythm of the singing is different. I never use the echo sends on the desk as such, I send the vocal tracks up to maybe three or four groups and then return the groups back up to four channels, and each channel will be sending to a different echo unit. If I mute them all I've got no echo on the voice, but I have four different echoes instantly available, all at the same time."
"What you listen to on the CD was mastered on analogue, cut on a record, taken from a stylus back onto DAT, from DAT back onto a multitrack, then back onto CD."
WHEN ASKED WHETHER artists get the opportunity to approve his mixes, Hammond responds with a definite "no", although he qualifies it by saying that if they don't like the finished results they don't have to use them.
"I very rarely get involved with artists", he explains. "It's not a good idea because they taint what I would do. I'm very easily swayed, and if they come along and suggest things they're giving me things to think about that are extra, and then I don't do what I would have done. We've always had a policy about keeping the artists out of the mixes, in fact on the back of the Donna Summer album it's got thanks to everybody except me because she never met me and she doesn't even know me. I don't want to be a star, I'm too old for that."
One of his biggest single projects in recent times is the Boney M Reunion remix album.
While Boney M may never have been the most credible of artists, Reunion is possibly the ultimate party album, and its making is a valuable lesson in giving old music an up-to-date feel. Hammond is keen to discuss his approach to the project.
"There was limited studio time, so I had to work as quickly as I could. I had to make it sound modern without making a mockery of the original songs, because they were all classics. The first thing to do was to get the computer to run in time. That involved generating an EBU sync code on one track and syncing that to the original music. 'Sunny' was one of the worst ones to do because the drums were all over the place, and eventually I had to lay a completely new drum track at the same bpm, and then laboriously sample off all the orchestral parts in 20 second sections and fly them in - a process which took me two days. The Publison will unfortunately only sample for 20 seconds, but you just about get a verse or a chorus in, and because it's stereo I could sample strings into the left and bass drum into the right. Then I programmed a part into the Steinberg that would play the orchestral parts wherever they were required. The only way to make sure it was in time was to monitor my bass drum against their original. I didn't listen to the strings when I was doing it, and if there was a section where their bass drum raced ahead, I had to take it up to that point then alter some delays or the Publison output time and slow it down slightly so it came in by the time I was going to drop in.
"On all the tracks I kept the string and brass parts and anything I felt was really important to the track, like steel drums. All the rhythm sections were re-recorded, in fact some of the songs were re-recorded from scratch because they'd lost the tapes. On a couple of them I actually had to sample bits off a record because they'd lost bits of the song. 'Mary's Boy Child' had the intro on one reel, the middle bit on another and the outro on another, recorded at different times. The acapella intro to 'Mary's Boy Child' was sampled off the original record, so what you listen to when you buy the album on CD is something that was mastered on analogue, cut on a record, then taken from a stylus back onto DAT, from DAT back onto a multitrack, then back onto CD."
Getting an up to date vocal sound to match the rest of the tracks from tapes recorded in the '70s posed another big problem.
"The problem with new synths is that they've all got reverb on them.., when you take it of/they're quite ordinary - I'd rather get my own sounds and then put the reverb on."
"I found it difficult to get the edge that you get these days. The vocals were done on analogue, and there weren't the high frequencies then that you can get these days. You can only top boost to a certain degree before you get too much noise.
"I've also tried to make the bass parts more modern, because they never were big on bass parts. Most of the emphasis was on melody and drums. The songs always had good themes more often than not they were about a person and they were never love songs. I think that's one of the reasons why the album is suffering at the moment, because that's not in vogue at the moment, these days they're either much deeper and heavier or they're about love."
Hammond admits that Pete Waterman is wary of changing a successful formula, and, like it or not, the formulae devised at PWL seem to be the most successful in the business at the moment. But for Hammond there is no big secret to success.
"There's no reason why anybody can't mix a bloody record. Everybody who mixes it is going to make it sound a little bit different, and if the song's there anyway it's going to come through. Pete knows if the song's there, the artist's there and the package is there. If it is, the mix can be a pile of shit and you'll still get away with it."
SAW have come in for a lot of criticism from even area of the music industry, yet have remained at the top of their profession for the last three years. Hammond feels he understands why they attract so much criticism.
"I don't think there's a harder working team anywhere than down here, but my theory is that the minute you go out and buy a SAW record you are in effect becoming one of the masses, and people don't want to be the masses. But you've got to realise that if you sell a gold record in this country it ain't many when you consider the population is near 60 million. I went into the pub the other day with the boys after we'd finished work, and we were sitting there and I said 'have a look round the pub, how many people do you reckon would buy a SAW record?' They looked round and said no-one. Then I sat there and said 'they're all buying food, perhaps we're in the wrong business.' Everybody eats every day, but they don't buy records."
Whether or not this train of thought means PWL will open a chain of fast food shops to further their quest for world domination will only be seen in time. For the moment they seem quite happy with pop music, and the McDonalds of this world need lose no sleep. Granada have said The Hitman and Her will run indefinitely, and while it does, the work of Pete Hammond will still dominate the airwaves late on Saturday night. Hammond sums up the PWL approach when the discussion comes round to the drum break that introduces so many of their productions.
"That's because we've got a bit of a Motown thing going", he explains. "It's like instantly recognisable - 'Here they go again'."
Here they go again indeed.