Paul Cobbold: Producer/Engineer
...is a bassist turned producer/engineer who has worked with many artists in both Europe and America. In this article he gives his opinions on the techniques and equipment he uses.
Paul Cobbold is one of a new breed of producer/engineers. He has worked in studios in both Europe and America with artists such as Nick Lowe and Carlene Carter. Having started in the music business as a bass player he moved on to engineering where gradually people became aware of his considerable talent as a producer. We caught him just before he flew off to Hamburg to do some mixes with a certain Brazilian artist called Serge Clemens.
J.H. How did you become involved in engineering and producing?
P.C. Well, when I was 17 my grandfather bought me my first ever bass guitar, which was a Hofner Violin bass, similar to the sort Paul McCartney used to use. As it was left handed. I held it the wrong way round and so I learned to play it upside down! After leaving school I played in bands with various people, including Martin Chambers (of the Pretenders) and Simon Kirke (who went on to play with Free and Bad Company). Then one day a friend called Pat Moran, introduced me to a band that he was producing called Hobo, who were recording their first album at Rockfield Studios and they happened to need a bass player. I got the job and Pick Withers stood in on drums. We had to record the album in down time and Pat would have been working hard all day in the studio so he'd be practically asleep by the time we started recording in the evenings. That's when I began to help him out and gradually became interested in the engineering side. After a few tours around Europe with Humble Pie and Country Joe, the band decided to split and it was then that I got my first proper engineering job. A friend called Rob Andrews and I put together a 16-track studio near Hereford called 'Chapel Lane Studios' which is now 24-track, and I was really thrown in the deep end because the night after I'd finished wiring up the studio, the first session started and I wasn't a hundred per cent sure how everything worked. I had to learn very fast!
J.H. Who have you worked with?
P.C. During the three or four years I was at Chapel Lane I did a lot of work in the Christian music field. There was an album with Sheila Walsh which I produced and I also worked with Mark Williamson who is now a session singer for people like Kelloggs and Wham!. When I left there, Kingsley Ward at Rockfield Studios asked me if I'd do some engineering for Hawkwind's 'Sonic Attack' album and it was after that I started doing freelance sessions at Rockfield, the first of which was for a producer called Roger Bechirian who was recording a band called Blanket of Secrecy. One of those tracks, 'Say You Will' still gets airplay even now, though the band didn't quite make it. I worked quite a lot with Roger and we also did a Carlene Carter album (which I played 'cello bass on, using the Hofner with a bow), a Nick Lowe album, Shaking Pyramids album and a Robert Ellis Orrall album: 'Contain Yourself' which I ended up producing two tracks for. I was also asked by Stiff Records to spice up and remix a few tracks for the Passion Puppets album 'Beyond The Pale' which I had engineered. I got a credit on that for additional blending! Last year I produced three tracks for The Mood which I was very happy with and more recently I co-produced a band called 'Yes Let's', through the Stiff connection again. I've also worked on albums with Budgie and mixed the Hawkwind Live album. At the same time as working at Rockfield as engineer and sometimes producer I've started working in another studio a few miles away; Kingsley Ward's private 24-track, producing unsigned bands for his production company. One of these is actually on the verge of signing to Geffen which is very gratifying.
J.H. You've worked with a diverse selection of musicians. What sort of approaches do you take?
P.C. Even though every band is different, you're still dealing with roughly the same basic sound sources and from the technical viewpoint there isn't a vast amount of difference from one band to another. Differences do occur, though when you start dealing with jazz or orchestral music. What I try to do when I engineer is to realise the sounds which the producer and the band want to hear. Hopefully they'll tell me what to look for. As a producer however,the role is quite different and the approach has to change from band to band. You can't treat every band in quite the same way, but in general I like to go for quite a big sound and a large stereo spread, though I can't use this approach with every band I work with otherwise I'd be imposing too much on their natural style.
J.H. Do you think then that you've got your own individual sound?
P.C. I don't really know. I haven't made a conscious effort to achieve my own sound. One thing I don't like is using stereo for the sake of it: here's the left speaker, there's the right speaker, let's have something at each extreme, because I always find things like that turn out to be weak. At the same time I like the single mix of 'Two Tribes' and that was absolutely full of those sort of production tricks but it came off. That worked for me because although the guitar was panned hard left, the reverb was panned to the opposite side.
I tend to double track instruments quite a lot - especially keyboards. This is not to hide weaknesses in the sound but rather to create perspective; panning the two tracks hard left and hard right leaving a hole in the middle for the vocal and obviously for the bass drum and snare. I say obviously, but it's not strictly necessary to have the bass and snare drums exactly in the centre. It's merely that if you start panning them about you'll eventually have cutting problems and the stereo will be uneven. However, some people are firm believers in panning the bass drum slightly to one side and the snare slightly to the other. Personally I prefer to use reverbs to spread the drum sound, not on every song, but I like creating that hole in the middle, and producing a big surrounding sound. I'm also keen on recording repeat echo and delayed plate using a delay that's in time with the track - usually half a beat - which sets up a rhythm within the track. That was an idea that I took from Nick Lowe who started using it in the early punk stuff. He was one of the people largely responsible for the punk movement. He wasn't afraid to use loads and loads of reverb!
J.H. What else do you like to do with delays?
P.C. If you have a relatively simple drum part such as is common on many disco tracks, you can gate the snare and put in-time repeats on it. I've been doing it for about four years, but it's become quite fashionable now. Also I like to use repeat echo on vocals, to catch certain vocal phrases and emphasize them. That's quite a common trick. It's also interesting to treat the repeat in some way by flanging it, harmonising it or sticking it through a couple of delay lines on different modulation settings - I use my two Roland SDE 3000s in tandem - and pan them symmetrically about the centre to blend the vocal into the track. I'm very wary of always bringing the vocal right out to the front unless the song cries out for that sort of effect. For a close-up vocal I position the singer close to the mic, and I have a little trick I use with two compressors where I'll set one up to be a mirror image of the other, panned to either side with the straight signal in the centre - watching out for phasing problems. The effect it gives is almost like it's been Aphexed. It adds great deal of presence and appears to move, as though you're feeding it through a Dimension D or a very subtle chorus unit. In fact, you're not actually bending the note at all but using the attack release time constants to make the image appear to move. I also have a Dimension D which I use on anything that needs more spread. In particular, putting drums through it results in an exceedingly interesting sound, but it only works if you're using a relatively sparse track. It moves the drums around - you can't place the stereo image anymore. In general I like to play with the stereo imaging in this way rather than just pan things around, although I still do that from time to time, but I find it rather too obvious for most applications.
Most of the people for whom I've done production work have commented on the fact that I can come up with such a huge sound from a relatively small amount on tape. I suppose that's why I'm given re-mixes to do so often! I like to blend sounds and I'm not so concerned with hearing every note that somebody's playing in the finished mix as long as the feel comes over. I love using stereo AMS harmoniser. It widens your horizons and when there isn't one around I have to work so much harder. I set one side to .995 and the other to 1.005 with the straight signal up the middle. I used this a lot on some tracks I did for a guy from Germany called Serge Clemens. We treated vocals, guitar and keyboards this way. Treating the PPG with it produces a wonderful effect and gives you have a lot of height to play with in the sound: you're not just emphasizing the middle frequencies, and you can produce a huge backdrop of sound without it becoming cluttered and still leave plenty of room front-stage for the vocals and solo instruments. I also use the AMS reverb quite a lot. On a recent session for a German guy called Zak I used my Casio CZ101 on the percussion preset with a very long reverse setting, about 2.7 seconds, and it produced an amazing effect which was extremely suitable for German disco! You have to use something like the reverse setting either very tastefully or very blatantly. Used tastefully it's very good for enhancing drum sounds and gives them a particular type of pseudo-ambience.
J.H. How do you go about recording drums when you're engineering a session?
P.C. I generally use Sennheiser 421s on toms and a Shure Unidyne III on the snare, although I'm quite happy using a Sennheiser 441 but it's rather bulky, and drummers always seem rather loathe to move their hi-hats about to allow you access to the snare. I rather like the 441 for the bass drum too on occasions, because it gives a good tight sound but I also like the AKG D27 with the bass cut switch off. I always aim to get a good mic position rather than adding bass on the desk. Often people arrive with totally the wrong sort of basic bass drum sound for the type of material they're playing, such as using Evans heads in conjunction with felt beaters, and there's nothing worse than that! Drummers please take note. I also like recording drums in a live room with a couple of ambient mics in addition to the close mics. At Rockfield you can get an excellent drum sound with quite good separation and still be aware of an ambience without actually using any ambience mics purely because of the natural acoustics of the place. That's how we recorded drums with Richie Heywood, treated with a bit of short plate for extra enhancement.
I think drum machines are great though I grew to detest the original Linndrum - especially the bass drum and the snare. Although I've used many different sorts of drum machines my current favourite is the new Linn. I think it's wonderful, but when it's not been available I've used E&MM digital drums (Syndrom) to replace bass and snare drums. I think they're excellent too. They are easy enough to put together and you get a really good sound for very little outlay. I trigger them off tape with a device that I had made up for me. It's really just a box with some op-amps in it followed by Schmidt trigger chips but it does the job.
J.H. Do you ever get trigger problems?
P.C. On Serge's tracks we were using a sequencer part which we were triggering from the PPG Linn code and for some reason it wouldn't trigger absolutely in time: there was a slight delay. We solved the problem by recording it as it was, reversing the tape and re-recording the signal with a slight delay using a DDL, which brought it into time. It's quite a recognised problem that you have with the PPG and the Linn.
J.H. How do you go about recording other instruments?
P.C. For guitars I'll mike up a cab or if I need instant results I'll use the Rockman, partly because it's convenient and partly because the sound is fairly flexible. I don't have one set way of miking up a cab but what I've been doing at Rockfield is setting up an amp in the games room (which is a live area), and close-miking it while still allowing some of the room sound into the mic. I'm also quite keen on recording guitar and drums in a dry studio situation and then feeding the recording into an ambient room and micing up the result, but you never get quite the same sound or feel for some reason when using this technique.
When recording bass guitar I prefer to mike up a cab and use a DI at the same time. If you use a DI alone you don't seem to capture any of the character of the playing coming through. It may be partly because people like to play off their own sound. Also the amp and cab tend to emphasise the mid-range, so I obtain the bass and high end off the DI. I don't like using the DI from an amp, as I find them too noisy.
With keyboards it depends on the kind of music I'm recording. I tend to DI them usually, but as most of what I produce is rock, I like sometimes to record keyboards through an amp, miking up a cab. Sometimes the only reason I do this is to dirty the sound up a little because most modern synths are so clean. I'd rather overdrive an amp than introduce some sort of box in the way. You produce a far more natural rock sound with that method. I have a DX7, a Korg Polysix and a Casio CZ101 which I take to sessions and I think the Casio is wonderful, and particularly so when you consider its price. The small keys do take some getting used to but the editing facilities on it wipe the floor with the DX7. Although it does have its problems, I would like to have the full PPG system with the Waveterm. It's a good modern keyboard and it's not too difficult to use.
J.H. You've worked with SSL desks, what is your opinion?
P.C. It took me a couple of days to get used to because I'm very used to working on a Trident console with a separate monitoring panel, such as the one at Rockfield. I've grown to love that desk because although it's big and cumbersome (it's a long way from channel 1 to channel 40) it's also very flexible. You can break in anywhere in the circuit. On SSL there's no post fade direct channel outputs which are something I use quite a lot in place of auxiliary sends which can be prone to leakage. It's a great desk but I found the controls small and fiddly at first and another drawback is that you can't EQ the monitor returns. When I'm setting up a sound and I've got it as good as possible it's nice to be able to EQ the monitors as well to give you some idea of what you can do in the mix. Also, studios equipped with SSLs have to charge a lot more for their services. $120,000 for total recall represents rather a lot of capital outlay. There's a lot of mileage left in non-computerised desks, I suppose computers are here to stay but I don't think that they're absolutely necessary. They make you incredibly lazy, and when you're actually doing the mix any adrenalin is just dissipated.
J.H. How do you like to record onto tape with regard to the levels?
P.C. I tend to record and monitor as I want to hear the thing as a finished product and I don't record in such a fashion that it's impossible to re-mix it differently. I often put effects directly onto tape during recording to get the most mileage out of a limited number of effects units and/or auxiliary send channels. You can't do it with every sort of material and every single artist because they sometimes want to have their say on the mixdown and make alterations - which is fair enough I suppose! Sometimes there are things you have to do on the mix or you'd be committing yourself too much. I record echo effects on vocals onto a separate track and that keeps my options open but still allows me to listen to the tape as a mix without actually having to create a mix from scratch. And yes, I do sometimes have to do the odd bounce which I don't like doing. It's usually done on keyboards, or sometimes guitars but I never bounce the drums if I can possibly avoid it.
J.H. What do you have in your effects rack?
P.C. Basically I've got two Roland SDE 3000 DDLs, a Powertran DDL, a Drawmer Dual noise gate, an Aural Exciter, a Roland stereo flanger, a Roland Dimension D and Vocoder, the E&MM digital drums and a cheap Ibanez harmoniser which is extremely good for brass even if it's not much good for anything else. I tend to use it instead of the AMS which is almost too clean, to get a sort of trombone sound by harmonising a trumpet an octave below. It's certainly useful to have my own rack with the effects I use most commonly patched up ready to go.
J.H. You also take your own monitors, what are they?
P.C. They're a pair of Realistic Tandy Minimus speakers which are amazing and relatively cheap. All the mixes I've done using them as reference monitors have sounded absolutely wonderful on anything anywhere else. They have a very full sound, like a cross between Auratones and Visonic Davids, with quite a lot of middle but a nice bass end and the top is extremely clean. I've never personally got on with the Auratones I bought - I eventually stuck them in the car! They're supposed to be the world's standard reference speaker, approximating the average hi-fi, but most people have much better sound systems at home than that now. I prefer the Visonic Davids for listening back on, being closer to the average hi-fi, but I think you could be easily misled when using them to set up sounds. You probably wouldn't put enough top on and you tend to add too much bass.
As for studio monitors I started off with Tannoys, Rockfield had Reds and Golds, Chapel Lane had Ardens and Super Reds. I used to think they were the most wonderful speaker in the world and I still think they're extremely good but I'm now very attracted by the JBL 4350s. I've got to know how they react and I find the Tandy speakers very compatible with them. It's important to work with speakers you know, but unfortunately it very much depends on the room that you're working in. Also I like to check mixes on cans for the stereo imaging; it's all too easy to get an imbalance between left and right. I don't like time aligned speakers which are supposed to ensure that the high and low frequencies arrive with the correct phase relationship. I've never yet come across any of those that pack any punch at all.
J.H. As a producer, how do you get the best performance onto tape?
P.C. I think that things should be spontaneous — especially lead solos, overdubbed drum parts and particularly vocals from the feel and artistic point of view. You have to apply a certain degree of psychology to coax the best performance out of musicians who may have sat around all day waiting for their turn. Certain things have to be worked out in advance, especially if you're using a lot of keyboard sounds. You do have to be careful that you don't produce too muddled a sound with frequencies interacting with each other. On a 'Yes, Let's' track we got the singer to put down a vocal that he considered to be his final take, and then sent him out again to do as wild a vocal as he liked and used the two together in places to create a very interesting effect.
J.H. What did you have in your home studio?
P.C. I used to have a Fostex A8 which is a really wonderful machine for the money although it did cross-talk a little, undoubtedly due to the narrow tape format. I only ever recorded one track on it and then I sold it because I was so busy working in the professional studio that I never got time to use it! I also used to have a Portastudio. As a producer and arranger those kind of tools can be very handy for trying things out. You can save an awful lot of pro studio time in that way.
Paul's plans for the future are obviously based around a desire to succeed in his chosen field and although he was not forthcoming as to his ultimate aims, he was heard to mention a bottomless pit full of tenners and a very long ladder!
Interview by John Harris
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