On The Wings Of Song
Janet Angus talks to Peter Wingfield about his career as a songwriter and producer.
Pete Wingfield tunned to production after establishing himself as a musician and this has contributed to his individual approach to the subject.
The way in which a musician approaches production as opposed to that of an engineer is often evident in the finished product. Priorities differ and interpretation becomes more important. Pete's own musical prowess is reflected in his working methods even down to his choice of who to work with.
So far, his production credits have included Dexy's Midnight Runners' first album, The Kane Gang, 2nd Image, Hot Chocolate, Alison Moyet's 'Old Devil Called Love', Mel Brooks' 'Hitler Rap' and the Belle Stars' 'Galaxy'. Though he graduated from keyboard playing to producing, he continues to earn a very good living as a session player and songwriter, each of which is a full time career in its own right. Not unnaturally, the three interests complement each other, with Pete often writing songs for the artists he is producing, or simply playing on their tracks rather than bringing in another session player. As he says; it's easier that way. He does, after all, know best what he's after.
Working in the business since the very early 70s has meant that Wingfield not only saw, but himself experienced a wealth of different types of music. His greatest love though, is for R&B and he describes this with such enthusiasm that it sounds more like a way of life. His theory also extends to the artists he works with, in that if they like R&B, then they're more likely to have a natural empathy with the man.
Vocals come in for particular scrutiny. If the man cannot sing, he cannot sing and there's absolutely no point in trying to do anything about it: a sentiment which I feel many people would identify with!
'Most people can't sing but many think they can. That is why I ditch so much of the material that comes in. It all comes from that flat style of singing made popular by Bowie and Bryan Ferry which comes in turn from Dylan and goes on to 'that geezer in Human League.' I'm not really saying that Bowie can't sing, but I hate that awful kind of Euro singing style he pioneered.
You can tell a singer's quality straight away from their demo cassette because, although it doesn't last long, it usually represents the absolute best that they can do, and if it doesn't come up to scratch then they'll never do any better. There are plenty of people who can sing, so why waste time with the ones that can't?
That is what annoys me about the chart records at the moment, particularly when it's brought into relief by a perfect backing track. On British records, the vocals are usually awful.'
The Wingfield method is best described as straightforward and simple, his aim being to record the tracks with the minimum of trauma for the artist. 'I make sure that we allow enough tracks for several takes at the vocals and then go through the songs with the singer several times without comment. Then I make a composite master, dropping in to replace any lines that aren't quite making it. Everybody is different and I wouldn't mess about with microphone technique. The main objective is to keep people at ease. For instance I wouldn't tell them to stop moving about. I go for continuity on the tape and it really shouldn't take very long to achieve.'
For example, Alison Moyet's 'Old Devil Called Love' was the result of seven consecutive takes which were all so good we had trouble choosing which one to use! If only everything were that simple. The record was made in a day with no problems whatsoever. 'Having turned out all the lights in the studio, (Alison likes working in the dark) I think we used a Neumann U87, but I wouldn't swear to it. It certainly wasn't an antique microphone to go with the music. It was just whatever was around at the time. To be honest, I don't get very involved much in that side of things.'
The reason for this is that more often than not, Pete is accompanied by his partner in crime; Chris Birkett, who has been with him for about seven years now. Inevitably, the duo have reached a degree of understanding where few words are required to achieve the result they're both seeking. Although Pete has worked in many studios, remaining with Chris for most of the time makes moving from studio to studio interesting rather than nightmarish.
Pete first discovered Chris in John Conga's Tapestry studios in London: a fairly small facility frequently used by Pete for his own projects.
Pete has his own favourite studios and not all of them are based in London. Chipping Norton is one of his favourites and his association with it reaches back to the 70s. 'Over the years, I've used Chipping Norton more than any other studio, their engineer, Barry Hammond is very good but he doesn't do work in London. We did Alison Moyet at Jam Studios which is a good place, although we haven't returned there since. The control room is a little too small if you want to do a lot of keyboard work, but there's a large studio area with a wooden floor which makes it very live.
Studio Two at Marcus is dead right in terms of size and they have an extra live room which is so live it's almost ridiculous. But on the other hand we quite often feed the drum machine via speakers into the drum area to get natural reverb. Livingstone has two good studios. One has a big control room that's fitted with an SSL desk, and the other has an Amek console. The studio offers good value and is run by nice people.
But surely studio choice is affected by equipment. The priority usually given to SSL desks would not appear to apply to the above list.
'I'm not anti-SSL. In fact I'm a recent convert. I don't really think that it's very important in the recording stage, but there can be no argument about its application for mixing as far as the computer is concerned. You can disregard the EQ because that's more a matter of opinion, but although it's no quicker to write into the computer than on to a piece of paper, once it's there it stays there.
'I've never used 48-track either; I'm quite primitive in that respect.' It would seem that the necessity has never arisen. 'On most recordings only effects end up on the second 24-tracks. I pride myself in making decisions early, and Chris and I tend to put effects on the track and not change them. I like the recording to sound as it's going to end up.'
Equally, he's fairly unhappy about giving the musicians strange balances in their headphones, but the artist's peace of mind ultimately comes first and if they really do want to hear all the drums and bass, for instance, they can.
"If the man cannot sing, he cannot sing and there's absolutely no point in trying to do anything about it..."
His relatively late venture into the world of Solid State is more than a little attributable to the fact that he has a reputation for bringing projects in within a fairly tight budget and therefore previously tended to avoid expensive studios. 'I don't like using a large amount of money or spending too long on things. I wouldn't spend three weeks on a single for example. It's totally unnecessary.'
Another way to reduce your overheads is by going to a studio which has the facilities you need as a permanent feature. This rather simple logic seems to escape many a brilliant mind, but not Peter's. 'I hardly ever hire anything. For some studios nowadays, the hire bill is larger than the studio time. I go to facilities that have got what I need. I know how the bill mounts up and I regard it as one of the main responsibilities of a producer to spend within the budget. I don't know how people cope with owning studios; you have to have so much equipment. It's an increasingly crowded market and technology is advancing at 90mph, with digital taking over.
'I've never produced a digital recording, though some of the sessions I've done, such as Elton John's have been mastered on digital. I've only recently started mixing on ½ inch! When CD hits the domestic market, digital recording will arrive at the same time. Of course it's better, though that difference alone would never determine whether a track became a hit or not, (although that is often what the record company expects).
In the near future I think you'll find people will be programming at home, recording in a low budget studio and then going in to an SSL facility to mix.'
Public demand is also the explanation given for why most band drummers get replaced by drum machines on their records. 'Most group drummers do not play to the standard that the public expects to hear as they are used to mechanical accuracy. So now we use machines, although often we will be triggering sampled acoustic sounds. Session drummers that I book, such as Charlie Morgan and Graham Jarvis do however play to the required high standard.'
Programmed music requires a little ingenuity. By adding something that is not programmed to the track the atmosphere is considerably heightened.
'On the tracks I did with Blue Zone everything was programmed but the group are actually horn players, so we used that as well and it made such a difference to the tracks. You can make drum programs sound exciting if you get the accents right. Contrary to popular belief, a programmed track can be exciting. I often pep it up with live percussion (usually by Luis Jardim). For example I might use live congas with the drum machine.'
To Pete Wingfield, the job of producer means total responsibility for the arrangement: routing, structure and arrangements within the proviso that if it's good in the first place it won't be changed.
'It depends how commercially minded the artist is. Sometimes the whole affair is a tug of war and sometimes you don't have to do anything. Sometimes the demo has a gaping hole of boredom which you have to plug up. You might put in a double chorus here, or cut out four bars there. I like to have as much of the parts worked out as possible before we go into the studio.
'For my own work I have the drum program worked out beforehand with charts. I always work with charts; I suppose comes from session playing. I'm not a complete dots merchant but I can get by and it does help if the artist has some knowledge of theory. Most of the people we work with these days do know what we're on about even if they're not totally used to notation. '
This is no doubt a reflection of the calibre of musician Wingfield chooses to work with rather than an increasing awareness within the average band of the usefulness of musical theory.
The Wingfield method of simply getting on with it as fast and efficiently as possible, coupled with the enormous variety provided by his working life basically means that when asked to recall what he did where, he can't! However, it also means that each time he does it it's new.
'I don't like going back and re-doing things. Trevor Horn spends months on the smallest things and the outcome is superb, but I'd rather something is done quickly and effectively because it will often sound better.'
Surely the logical extension of this principle would result in complete live takes.
'I can only really concentrate on one thing at a time. If I'm doing something with a group drummer I'd maybe record bass and one guide vocal to get the drum track and then buildup from there. That doesn't really apply these days as much as it did because you can start with a time code on tape and put the drum machine down afterwards if you want to. You can only really do everything live if you do one thing at a time; it ends up quicker than trying to get everything dead right in one go. I haven't done a track with a whole rhythm section for years. I don't like sloppy records; it's good to sound spontaneous but it must also be exact. It all comes down to working with good people.'
"I don't like going back and re-doing things. Trevor Horn spends months on the smallest things and the outcome is superb, but I'd rather something is done quickly and effectively because it will often sound better."
'Some recordings can be relatively simple. Alison Moyet's voice was simply recorded straight with a little ghost behind it; AMS on quavers or crotchets. Others rather more complicated. Pile it all on, particularly with drums. It's also nice to have just a bit of reverb on the bass drum. With synths it's so easy to get it sounding right that there's very little EQ to be done on mixing. I usually use more on vocals and acoustic instruments.
'Vocal lines are improved generally with a discreet repeat behind. I usually use AMS. I think it's the best because I have never wanted to do anything that it hasn't been able to cope with. The sampling is great and now you can use it as an alternative to spinning in choruses from tape because of the increased sampling time. Otherwise we'll just use various reverbs, chorus effects and repeats.
'I'll use compression if the vocalist is over-dynamic and keyboard parts with too much attack and not enough sustain can be sorted out later with compression. I don't have any patented tricks as such, I use anything that helps the feel of the track. If there's no feel to it that's what the punters notice first.'
Having worked with Hot Chocolate on numerous occasions as session musician, he has finally got his producing fingers into that particular pie with a new single called 'Heartache No.9' which is due out early in the new year.
'When mixing, I generally like all the band to be present, as there can then be no misunderstandings afterwards. On this particular single however, only Erol came to the mix. Artists always worry that things will be taken away from them at the last minute and they are quite right to be upset about it, which is why I like to play safe and have them there.
'On the drum track an RX11 was used with the snare augmented by a Simmons module. Two Casio CZ101s were linked together for bass and we used two DXs, a TX and Jupiter 6. We worked from a very good demo and everyone agreed as to what it should be like.'
'I don't like to work late at night; you can sense a point after which concentration goes, and rather than plug away at something during the night and have to do it again in the morning, I prefer to leave it. I tend to work from around 11am to midnight with a break around 6 o'clock for a meal, although the last day we inevitably end up working later to get things finished.'
The very nature of session playing is to go in, do your stuff and leave. This speedy approach has rubbed off on the other aspects of his musical life with the result that the end is achieved as quickly and as smoothly as possible. For someone always anxious to move on, remixing becomes the absolute pits! It is therefore just as well that it's a rare requirement.
'Usually, once they see that you know your onions, the record companies don't interfere. Some things they involve themselves in a lot, but broadly speaking, the stuff that hasn't been messed around has been the most successful! They usually just want you to do something like bring a certain riff out. They never want to change the whole structure.
'I think I get less than my share of record company interference, and I think that's because I like to do it right first time. I wouldn't start a mix in the evening, I'd rather knock off and start fresh in the morning. I also like to leave a gap of a few days before starting to mix. The number of mixes we do will depend on the type of material; funk is easier to do a lot of mixes on because you can do so many different things with the feel of the track.
'I've been asked a few times to mix other people's stuff but I tend to say no because I don't like to tread on other people's toes. I don't like it when they do it to me.'
That seems fair enough. In a conversation like this, Peter comes across very strongly as being a man with a mind of his own. Unlike many of his breed, he's not associated with management of any kind, having seen too many of his friends 'drown in middle men', and with his wife Jane, he takes care of all contracts and engagements himself. He described the 'band meets potential producer' situation with a laugh, likening it to a job interview, which after all I suppose it is, and chuckling at the way people so often get embarrassed.
Pete holds very strong opinions on various related subjects, one of his favourite issues being the rather peculiar marriage between music and broadcasting in Britain. 'It's good that all these pirate funk stations are opening in London at the moment. These community radio licenses they're introducing are rubbish. London should have 50 stations not three. The American system is much better. It annoys me; we should be able to listen to music all day. The MU and PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) come from diametrically opposed viewpoints to conspire to keep records off the air. PPL believe that limiting the playing of records on air keeps the sales up; they've obviously never been to New York. It won't change until they alter the copyright laws. To some degree, the record companies are to blame for demanding payment for playing records, whereas the Americans feel that the exposure is the payment.
'It's not true that if all broadcasting was commercial we would lose quality. Stations in Los Angeles that operate on subscriptions are broadcasting Radio 4 shows. It is getting better here; Radio London is good because, using maximum guile and cunning, they manage to give exposure to a lot of music. They play a lot of imports which are not subject to PPL and tracks which just happen to be from soundtracks which are not PRS. The restricted allocation of needle time is crazy.
'I'm old enough to remember the time when you would hear the top ten hits played by the local dance bands, and if the MU had their way, I think they would go back to doing it that way. They've lost control of how records are made but they have tightened their grip on broadcasting, particularly television. They used to insist that you remake your record in three hours, (or pretend to) but now you only have to do it if it uses foreign session musicians. You then have to re-record it using British session players! There are differences in this area between ITV, BBC and network so it's very confusing. I fix and produce a lot of those tracks for foreign artists signed to CBS.
'The MU only gets wise to something a couple of years after it happens. Regarding their Keep Music Live campaign, for instance. Supposing you program something and then go on stage and play it live; is it really live? If you have made five different parts going through MIDI on stage with just one guy triggering it all, is he putting people out of work? Sampling is another issue that they've been sitting on. What are they going to say about that?
'The other crazy thing about radio is that Radio One is not FM. It annoys me that you still have to check that a track sounds OK in mono in the studios these days. It seems crazy, and the reason must be because it's only pop music. They say it's because they haven't got enough transmitters but if Radio 3 can be FM with only 1% of the listening audience that's plainly nonsense. Their old argument used to be that people didn't have FM radios, but of course that's not true now.'
He's quite right of course, and maybe if more of us knew the ins and outs of these matters something could be done about it. Judging on past performances, however, it's likely to be a slow process.
Interview by Janet Angus
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