Peter Wilson - Record Producer
Producer of Style Council, The Jam and Comsat Angels explains his working techniques in the studio, production skills and the ins and outs of various effects.
A graduate of the famous 'Tonmeister' studio course, Peter Wilson has quickly attained success as a record producer of considerable note, having helped steer such acts as Comsat Angels, Sham 69 and The Jam to fame.
His most recent work has been with Style Council and chart hits Fiction Factory, and in a well-earned break from the studio, Peter discusses the recording techniques he employed on the sessions and throws light on the applications of several common studio effects devices. Janet Angus lends a pretty ear.
Finding a moment in a busy producer's schedule to sit down and conduct an interview can prove to be tricky. But finally, one Saturday afternoon we managed to meet up at Peter Wilson's North London flat to discuss his remarkable rise to fame.
Peter is one of the Surrey University 'Tonmeister' degree success stories. One of the first ever Tonmeisters in this country, he, like many others, has gone on to carve out a career studded with hit singles; first as a recording engineer and then as a fully-fledged producer in his own right.
So what were his aims and ambitions when he went to university, and have they been realised?
"I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in recording studios. I wanted to make records, either by twiddling knobs or playing instruments."
"I didn't aim at what I'm doing now really. I was interested in music, electronic music, and sounds — things like that. I suppose getting a job in a studio came quite easily through the industrial placement part of the course. I was assigned to Air Studios as a Tape Operator for 6 months. The Tonmeisters do a year now don't they? It was quite a short time, but if I'd stopped at Air another 6 months I don't think I would have learned much more."
"When I left Surrey University I got a job straight away as an engineer at Polydor Studios, which didn't have tape ops. It was run by this German bloke", the Tonmeister course was invented in Germany, "and, cor... was he impressed with this thing called Tonmeister, being German. He'd heard about the Tonmeisters at home and he thought they had a special status. He believed all that and was very impressed, so I got the job."
"It was a good and a bad thing going there. At Air Studios it was stars all the time: Roxy Music etc, and when I was tape opping there they had John McLaughlin in with the London Symphony Orchestra and George Martin producing, and all kinds of people; big names all the time, or so it seemed to me."
"Polydor Studio was used for recording demos for the A&R department, and it was really boring. Most of the time it was awful groups; and if it was good groups and the demos went really well, the group got a deal and then they'd go off somewhere and do their album with somebody else, with the result that I never got a look in."
Three or four years ago, Peter decided that this arrangement wasn't for him and took the big step into the freelance world. I asked if he thought it was perhaps an easier step to take then, than it is now?
"I can't really tell if it's any easier or harder. You see, all you need is a hit record. Then people will ring you up, or if you put yourself about they'll come to you, regardless of what the record sounds like, as long as it's a hit. That's all they care about."
In your five years at Polydor, did you learn a lot from the producers who used the studio?
"I did learn from people when they came in, but as I was co-producing and then producing towards the end of that time I came across other producers less and less. It's funny; but you end up not meeting any other producers apart from those you know socially. In the course of my work I don't meet producers. And because, a lot of the time I do my own engineering, I don't meet many engineers either. I just don't pick up new ideas."
Isn't it quite unusual these days to do your own engineering?
"I suppose so. I don't know, is it? When I go to a strange studio where I'm unfamiliar with the desk and the patchbay, or the monitors etc, it's easier to use a house engineer because he knows the place perfectly well. So I just keep an eye on him and override him if he's doing something I don't like. But it becomes boring for him if I'm playing with the monitors all the time or telling him what microphone to use and how far away from the instrument to place it. So I may as well do it myself."
"I do use other engineers from time to time. For example, I'm working on the Fiction Factory album which I'll mix myself and I've been doing some of the overdubs; but on all the backing tracks I used a house engineer. And if I go back to that studio I'll use him again. He was Callum Malcolm who owns Castle Sound where we were recording."
So what was that first hit that launched him on his career?
"Oh Sham 69. I did them. They had several top ten singles. I think the first one was Angels With Dirty Faces. I recorded four albums with them, and made a bit of money which was quite handy."
"Then I did three albums with the Comsat Angels for Polydor; and I did a couple of singles with The Passions, again for Polydor. With Sham 69 we did an album at Startling Studios down at Ascot - Ringo Starr's place. And we did two in France with Sham: Honky Chateau and Super Bear Studios in the South of France, Cote D'Azure and all that."
At what point then did you leave Polydor?
"I can't really remember! I'd been working with Paul Weller on some demos, and I think he'd asked me to work with The Jam. I do remember being worried about it at the time because I had a pretty secure job, but I was getting bored with being an engineer."
"I think engineers and tape ops are exploited. It's not just the low pay, it's the ridiculous hours they have to work at the whim of the producer or group. They can go into the studio at 9 o'clock in the morning and they don't know if they are going to leave that day or not. That happens in all studios."
"Some studios find a way round it by having freelancers. They have maybe one house engineer. Also they're allowed to go home when they haven't got a session, whereas I wasn't. There were two engineers, and when I had got a session I had to stay as long as the group or the producer wanted me to, weekends included. It really frustrated me and my social life collapsed completely."
Do you spend a lot of time on an album?
"You know the syndrome where the first album costs £15,000 or £20,000; the second album costs £30,000; and the third costs even more than that? It's quite understandable really because with the first album, the band gets a deal and they do a single, or they go straight in and do an album - the songs for that are all written and they've probably been playing them for years; they're well rehearsed and it's much easier, well quicker anyway, to record it. But when they come to the second album they've used up all their material on the first one and they've been touring ever since so they haven't had time to write anything."
"The Jam's second album Modern World was like that. They had about three songs when we first went into the studio."
Do you mind what sort of music you work with?
"Yes I do. I can't say what I like and what I don't like. With some people I like the music but I don't get on with them. Or vice versa; I get on with them but I don't like the music. If I didn't really like the music but the people were great to get on with, I'm not sure how much point there would be working together. I mean, ideally you like the music, and the people, and it sells lots!"
"No, I wasn't serious about that last comment. It doesn't matter to me whether a record sells. If I like something I'll do it. I'm lucky being in the position where I can do things that don't sell because I'm making a living out of things that do sell."
Do you have a particular method whilst working in the studio?
"I do the backing tracks first, then the overdubs and then I do the mixing."
Do you spend a lot of time on the mix?
"It depends if the arrangements are good, and the stuff down on tape is well recorded, then it should be quite easy to mix; especially if you know what kind of effects you are searching for."
"I like to try things out on the monitor mix — if there's a particular treatment on the voice, say, or on anything; a weird echo or something, you really have to hear it early on to judge whether the song's recorded right, whether it's ready to mix."
"For example, on the Comsat Angels' second album there are some very extreme drum effects: gated lift shaft for instance! We recorded the drums in a lift shaft - there was a live tiled and plaster-walled staircase going round a double lift shaft with just wire mesh on the outside, and six storeys of it. So we put the drums out on the landing to create a massive sound which was only usable by gating it; by putting the two echo mics through a couple of noise gates and keying them (triggering) off the drums. So we sorted that out early on, so that we could hear what the drums would sound like in the mix."
Do you use a lot of effects?
"Sometimes I do. I use a lot of delay lines. I like to record things with the effect on if possible, but actually record the effect on a spare track - this avoids committing myself to the effect or the depth of the effect. It's not really wise to record it on the track with the untreated sound, unless it's something fairly mild like a chorus effect on a guitar. But if it's something extreme, then it's often prudent to record the thing on two tracks, although it does tend to eat up tracks! So you can run out of 24 very easily."
"On one track on the Fiction Factory album I've gone 48 track, because I wasn't really sure how we were doing the song. So to keep our options open I didn't bounce things together, and since we were at Sarm West Studios, and they've got two 24 track machines and a Q-Lock system (to synchronise the recorders), it seemed like the obvious thing to do."
"But it's a bit unwieldy! I've yet to mix it! 24 tracks can be a limitation if you are using a lot of effects. It's a good idea not to say 'oh well, we'll fix it in the mix' because, number one, you don't know how it's going to sound unless you've got it there on the track or you've got it on the monitor panel; and anyway, most monitor panels have only got two echo sends, so you've got a short echo for the drums and a long echo for the voices and everything else - that's your two sends used up already."
"The second reason is that if it's an effect that involves a delay line, which it probably is, then you won't have enough delay lines and you may want six or eight - it's quite easy to use that many. So if you record them that's okay... until you run out of tracks. Then you either have to mix down, committing yourself to balances, or you go 48 track, which has its own problems."
"The easiest way to go 48 track, or at least the recommended way, is that when you realise you're going to run out of tracks, you do a monitor mix on a second 24 track recorder of the tracks you've already recorded, on to as many tracks as you like, keeping things separate so that you can drop them out. You need one track for the SMPTE time code to link the multitrack machines together. So if you put your monitor mix on eight, that makes nine tracks in all, leaving 15 tracks open for overdubs — which should be enough!"
"When I was up at Air Studios with The Jam, Paul McCartney was recording there and he was using two machines a lot of the time to do backing vocals and harmonies. There were three of them: Paul, Linda and Eric Stewart of 10cc. The three of them sang one part together in unison; then they sang the second part in unison, and the third harmony so that they were each singing each part. That was three tracks. Then perhaps they'd double track it, so that's six tracks gone already, just like that. Then they'd mix down on to one or two tracks on the first 24 track machine."
You said you like using delay lines a lot. What sort of things do you use them for?
"If you put a signal through a delay line, like an AMS or a Korg or a Roland delay, you can create ADT - artificial double tracking which is very handy sometimes. And if the delay length is short, you're not conscious of a delay, you're just conscious of an effect, of there being two voices or two instruments. Some of the delay lines have got a way of changing the delay time setting with an oscillator: of sweeping the delay between two points. If it says 10 milliseconds on the front panel, and you put a bit of modulation in - it's sweeping up and down say 2 or 3 times a second between 6 and 14 milliseconds; the most noticeable effect of doing that is a slight pitch bend because of the Doppler Effect."
"The Doppler Effect means that the pitch of the signal coming out is bending up and down slightly around the average. So when you mix that with the original sound you get a chorus effect, a very sweet effect (if the pitch bending isn't too gross). It doesn't sound out of tune or anything, it just sounds sweet, and it's a very handy effect. Particularly if you split them in the stereo - if you put the direct signal to the left and the treated signal to the right, you get a good stereo effect. That is very handy on lots of things, although it can be over-used like anything. Delays are also handy for long effects: 100ms or 200ms, Dub spin echo."
"Other effects I use include compression, though to explain what it sounds like is very difficult, but I'll try. The history of compressors: initially they were used as devices for stopping broadcast transmitters from overloading on the radio by limiting the level of the signal going to the transmitter. So, if anything above that level came through the limiting device, the gain (volume) of the device would be reduced correspondingly to hold the music signal, or whatever, at that predetermined level."
"It also means that you get a very high average signal level if this process is happening all the time, and so it sounds loud. If you use it on instruments individually, or on the voice individually, or on the whole mix, the effect can be very exciting."
"You can hear the difference between limiting and non-limiting if you switch between a programme on Radio 1 that's on VHF and the same programme on medium wave. Apart from the fact that it might be in stereo on VHF and that the frequency response goes up beyond 5kHz, which is the cut-off frequency on medium wave (which is horrendous really, but it's just a fact of life), medium wave tends to be limited and VHF isn't. This limiting can be used to great effect on lots of things."
"Voices are always limited and compressed. Lots of instruments are or else you'll find that they keep disappearing in the mix. If you look at lots of instruments, for example saxophone or flute, and look at them on a VU meter; if you get them to just play a scale, some notes will hit the end stop while others will be very low. You don't notice it if they're on their own, but if they're in a mix some notes will shriek out and others won't."
"It's the same thing with people who sing; very often the high notes will come belting out and the low ones are inaudible. You can solve that problem by pushing the level fader up and down, but it's often a much better solution just to stick a limiter on it. It's not just a question of making them audible in the mix: the effect can make them more punchy."
"There are good limiters and bad limiters, and you can misuse them quite badly. If you want to hear some really gross limiting listen to the BBC World Service - it has the most horrific limiting. You tend not to notice it until you get a music programme - the sound sucks. You hear this sucking sound."
What about other effects?
"The AMS reverb: that's got some interesting effects on it; funny things like nonlinear programs. They're quite expensive. They've got a Digital Reverb which costs about £3,000 or £4,000, but it's got some very interesting reverb programs on it. As well as the normal plate or concert hall programs it's got funny things like reverse: sounds like a reverse echo effect."
"Another thing I used to have until I sold it to Paul Weller because he liked the string sound so much, was a Roland Vocoder which is a keyboard instrument with a string machine sound, a vocal choir sound, and a Vocoder filtering section so you could either vocode using the keyboard section or you could insert from outside - anything you liked - and vocode with it. I've used that a lot; not necessarily for vocoding the voice, but for modulating one instrument with another. I'd like to do that more."
What about record cutting? Do you usually attend the cut?
"Oh yes. I usually go to the Master Room, where they've got some good equipment, and they let me twiddle the knobs and do what I want to do."
"I usually do a test cut and, having listened to the tape or on the spur of the moment, I'll try a different EQ if I feel it's necessary."
"Sometimes, you don't have to do anything. Occasionally the tape's fine! It has been known. And then you'll just do a test cut to see what level it will take happily without breaking up. I'll come home and play it here and then go ahead. You can try a louder cut or reduce the level or do an EQ that might improve it."
What about the Style Council album? Where did you record that?
"Most of it was recorded at Solid Bond Studios which Paul Weller has bought. We didn't do anything else much except the strings which we recorded at CBS 1. We did the strings for 'Blue Cafe', which I arranged, because it's a large studio well suited to that sort of overdub - it's famed for its string sound!"
Were any of the tracks done live?
"Yes, 'Paris Match' - that was purely vocal and piano. Paul didn't play on that one."
Do you like doing live takes or does it depend on the track?
"I haven't really got scruples about patching up mistakes. It's not important that it's live or not. It's just important that it sounds... 'live'..."
"Yeah, and that it doesn't sound calculated and manufactured. It's got to sound like the musicians are involved in what they're doing, and that they're trying hard, on their toes and enjoying themselves. Going for it. And the only way to make them sound like that is if they actually are. That's what I believe. So it doesn't really matter if it's an overdub or a backing track."
"For the Fiction Factory stuff: if you want to say what are my methods, well, this is one of them. There's nothing special about it, it's just the way I do it. The band all played along, and I tried to cajole them to make it as exciting as possible and to get a good feel and so on; and all we kept from the original 'take' were the drums."
"You can't really patch up drums, although we did on occasions, if there was a slightly dodgy drum fill we could drop it in. But the drums are so important to a song that you can do what you like afterwards; if the drums aren't happening, if they don't sound exciting, it's no good. Even if it's a simple part it's got to work well."
Do you spend a lot of time getting the drum sound?
"It just depends how long it takes to get it sounding good. Sometimes you can get into real problems with the snare drum. For some reason, some snare drums, no matter how good they sound on stage; when you put a microphone on them in the studio, they just sound terrible. Sometimes you can save it afterwards - if the player's playing well and the rest of the drum kit's good, and you've spent time trying to improve the snare sound and given up, thinking you'll save it later... if you've got a situation where the musicians are all ready to go and you've got a recalcitrant snare drum, it's rather difficult to say 'oh well, hang on, we've got to get the snare drum right.' The atmosphere in the studio soon evaporates and people get cheesed off'
"So, it's always handy to have a spare snare drum. It is worth working on it to get it right. One way of saving it afterwards is by sampling a good snare drum sound in an AMS digital delay and triggering it from the real snare drum sound. That can work really well."
"The trouble is that in real life every snare drum beat doesn't sound the same. The drummer will hit it with a variable amount of force and he'll hit it in different parts of the drum, and the sound will be different. Or maybe if he's doing a crescendo or a roll, there'll be variations in level which you don't get if you're just triggering an AMS."
"I use a Simmons kit a lot. You can get a very nice tom-tom sound - quite a natural sounding tom - rather better than the real thing actually! With a lot of drummers you get a lot of trouble with the tom-toms in the drum sound."
"I like quite a resonant tom-tom that goes 'bang' instead of just 'clunk'. If you've got 3 or 4 toms sitting on top of the drum kit - two of them connected to the bass drum - and all these toms have got mics on them, the bass drum in particular will cause the toms to 'honk' every time the drummer hits it. So, unless you can spend a lot of time rigging up noise gates to gate it out, (which might not work properly, or they might open at the wrong time because the drummer hits a cymbal nearby and the gate opens), the sound will have this kind of halo of 'honking' toms with it. You lose your hard bass drum sound."
"But with a Simmons kit, you can get exactly the sound you want on the Simmons rack unit, and it will only sound when the pads are hit. I think a lot of live drum sounds are weak for that reason. Also, live, you've got the added problem of the monitoring being so close to the kit microphones which are 'on' all the time, so the tom-toms would be ringing away, and you just can't get a clear drum sound when all this racket is going on!"
"You can't really set up noise gates to gate out the microphones because there's so much sound spillage. You can't set the noise gate threshold so that it only opens when he hits the tom. And if you set the threshold too high, when he hits the tom lightly it doesn't open, and you hear no sound!"
"It's a very difficult problem if you like that kind of drum sound, which I do - a big kind of concert tom sound."
"I suppose recording drums is made out to be a bit of a magic art, but it can be quite tricky. There is a certain amount of expertise to it, and it is a pretty important factor, particularly in today's music."
"It's also a very difficult sound for people to achieve at home with eight tracks and Portastudios, although the price of equipment is coming down and down. It's quite exciting really. I get an interesting sound just in my bedroom with a Great British Spring reverb put through a Drawmer noise gate triggered by a dmm machine: you send the snare drum to the echo spring and you bring it back in stereo (if you want stereo) through two noise gates. Then you trigger the noise gate to open when the snare drum is struck, and have it stay open for a healthy amount of time, to get this massive burst of echo every time you hit the snare drum on the drum machine; and the sound cuts off abruptly. It's very much a fashionable sound these days. There's no great secret to it and it's quite easy to create really."
With all his techno-wizardry, musicianship and ideas, how does Peter Wilson actually see his role as a producer?
"My view is that as long as their ideas are good, I should be there to facilitate the musicians. It's the musicians who play the music not the knob twiddler. What I should be doing is creating the necessary conditions, acoustic sound conditions, for them to play to the best of their ability."
"It's difficult. I don't like having to place restrictions on musicians like saying 'don't hit the tom-toms unless you hit them hard enough to open the gates', if you're using gated toms. I suppose with technology you can work on it, but it's not always the solution. Sometimes you need a raw edge."
Well, he's obviously got the formula right, as he continues to make his hit records. I'm afraid we'll have to leave it here, while Peter launches into a glowing account of the wonder of automated mixing and the ins and outs of total recall.
Interview by Janet Angus
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