At home with Chris Hughes | Chris Hughes
The former Tears For Fears producer invites us in for a cuppa
When a top producer shuns the world's premier studios and starts making records at home, you know the times they are a changin'. Chris Kempster tracks down Tears For Fears producer Chris Hughes and learns a little of his solo projects...
Recording technology has come such a long way in recent years that even top professionals can't ignore the benefits of recording at home any longer. Best-known as a producer of the likes of Tears For Fears, Adam & The Ants and Robert Plant, Chris Hughes has been spending more and more time in recent years recording under his own name, in between his production commitments. His latest album, Shift, contains a collection of reworked Steve Reich compositions, and was recorded in Hughes' comfortable studio located in the outbuildings of his beautiful home in the village of Box in Wiltshire (just down the road from Peter Gabriel's Real World studios). And that's where I found myself on a pleasant summer's day, drinking tea in front of the Aga, and trying to get an insight into the world of record production.
The producer's role has always been an ambiguous one, the balance between technical and musical input varying widely from man to man and from project to project. One role the producer can usually be called upon to perform is that of wet-nursing artists who might not want to talk to each other, in order to keep the project on the rails. Chris was producing even before he joined Adam & The Ants, but it was while working with this band that he really developed into a skilled studio operator. His production work with the Ants led to a successful partnership with Tears For Fears which spawned the mega-selling albums The Hurting and Songs From The Big Chair. So what sort of control did Chris have, as a producer, when working with Tears?
"A large part of production has nothing to do with control," he asserts. "Roland [Orzabal] is a really creative bloke who on the whole knows what he wants to do, and will experiment until he gets what he wants. All power to him for that. I can remember saying to him at the end of the first album: 'I can see a time when you'll be doing this yourself'. And that's exactly what has happened. I was certainly an influence - there were times when I would try to convince him that perhaps we should do it this way or that. He's the type of person who will respond very favourably to some result if he thinks it is any good."
Okay, maybe control was the wrong word to use - how about 'influence', then? Was Chris' presence felt on the technical or musical side of things?
"It was a bit of both, a bit of all of it - the usual type of collaboration. In terms of songs Roland doesn't need much help, the guy is a natural. For the creative process I was there, particularly on Songs From The Big Chair, which was mainly made by me, him, and Curt [Smith]. Then on the third album we basically fell out; I was no longer any help to him and I think he just wanted to do things his way. It got to the point where I didn't like the things he was trying to achieve. Having said that, we did do a fair amount of creative work together on that third album."
So does Chris sit back and let the engineer make the decisions, or does he get in there and twiddle the knobs himself?
"From a technical level, I'd take it right the way through - I'd take the playing apart, program it, sample it, make sure it's coming into the desk right, recorded to tape right. If need be, EQ it, have a look at how much compression it's got. Right the way through. I don't just sit on my earphone going: 'good take, bad take.' I'll interfere as much as is necessary, and if I can't be expert enough, I'll get someone who can be.
"If I want a specifically good balance engineer to balance something I haven't got a cat in hell's chance of getting close to, then I'll get them to do it. If I want to get someone who can help me record a trumpet musically, I'll get them down. It's all a question of who does what best. I know the essentials of recording and arranging, but I might get someone in to arrange something specific, say a brass section."
Although Chris has worked in some of the plushest studios around, he's adamant about what can be achieved at home.
"You can make good records in your bedroom. I think publishers have been hip to this for some time. For years they've supplied singer-songwriters with four-tracks, so they can get their songs to something. I think the days are gone when you spend years in the studio making some superb-sounding record.
"I know I used to muck around for hours with the Tears doing those records, but it was such an amazing learning curve in those days, 'cos gear was coming out all the time. We'd spend weeks just trying to see how a bit of gear worked, trying to synchronise a Drumulator with a Linn. Everybody knew how a guitar worked, but we didn't have much idea about the Fairlight, say, and that was much more intriguing - it was the bit that was different. In the early days, the classic days of the synth duo, the guitar was shunned."
"A lot of very good records have been made without A&R intervention... people are bypassing the record companies"
Evidence of Hughes' continued interest in technology lies in his attic studio which, though not stacked to the rafters with exotic gear, has considerable power vested in its pair of Apple Macintosh computers. They run Digidesign ProTools, SampleCell, and a gamut of sequencers and editors, and provide a pointer to the way studio technology is heading.
What also meets the eye is a three-pack of Alesis ADATs, a Mackie 8-Buss desk, and a range of classic keyboard instruments including a Fairlight CMI Series II, an NED Synclavier, and a Sequential Prophet 5. But while Hughes has always tried to use the latest technology, he's become wary of jumping aboard bandwagons that aren't yet fully fit to roll...
"It's really strange when you see a bit of gear that you've heard about come into production with all sorts of bugs and glitches. It's like the whole Synclav thing. I bought into that when it came out, and you could mortgage your life for the cost of it. I've always tried to be on the cutting edge of things - not uniquely, because there's a load of people who are - but I've almost come to the conclusion that it's just not worth it. In the past, I've invested thousands in a load of people getting it wrong, only to find that at a point where they've vaguely got it right, the product is selling for a quarter of the price. I might as well have waited a year and a half, got hold of a revision, and had some fun for nothing."
Past experience hasn't entirely put Hughes off, however, and the juxtaposition of old and new hardware makes his studio a veritable Aladdin's cave of music technology. As well as the two SampleCell cards, a Roland S770 sees a fair amount of action when it comes to sampling.
"The filters on it are quite nice," says Chris. "They seem warmer to me than the Akai S1000, which I've never been a great fan of. I did an album in New York with the lead singer of the Cars, Ric Ocasek - and Greg Hawkes [keys] had a strange Akai sampler that was made with 8-bit ElectroHarmonix circuitry. It's a crunchy old box, fantastic. My Fairlight is still capable of doing that..."
Though a big fan of the personal studio, Hughes still sees a place for the professional recording complex in the future, providing facilities not available at home - particularly when it comes to 'real' engineers recording 'real' instruments.
"If I want to record a 14-piece string section, then I'll get hold of a marvellous engineer who knows that discipline, a professional string arranger, and someone who can mic it up properly. If you want to get into laboratory conditions for recording, say, a beautiful grand piano in a classic way, then yes. You're gonna have to go to someplace where there's no background noise and the floor's isolated, and get a handful of very, very good microphones.'
"I've invested thousands in a load of people getting it wrong, only to find that at a point where they've vaguely got it right, the product is selling for a quarter of the price"
The technological revolution, though, has meant as much to Hughes as it has for the thousands of young musicians brought up recording on Ataris.
"I think it's fantastic. For me, its been more of a revolution than the punk thing - not politically, but certainly musically."
Chris also sees a smaller role in the future for the major record companies, whom he regards with cynicism.
"Having been a studio owner with The Wool Hall, I know that record companies will try to shave off every last ha'penny, and yet spend a fortune launching some publicity thing. A lot of records have been made without production in the standard sense, and certainly a lot of very good records have been made without A&R intervention. So many independent records are doing well at club level - millions of white labels - and independent concerns are doing well.
"The great thing about that is that people are bypassing the record companies. They've done a piece of work, they hand it to a couple of guys who are enthusiastic, and it's out on the street within a few days. The shelf-life of that product's very short, and rightly so, but it's not crucial, its not a piece of music that's going to be around for months and months. It's just something they like, and did that day. You try and get anything through a major record company quickly - forget it. It's a really slow process."
Chris Hughes, then, has no doubts that the development of desktop recording is to be applauded. But he's also adamant that, at the end of the day, it's musicians, not technology alone, that make good recordings. His suggestions for people wishing to improve their recordings are all to do with people, not technical detail:
"The recording process should be as transparent as possible - it's really getting the performance that's important. If it's a question of making your recordings more vibey than they were, making sure that you're recording performers at their best time - or if it's a question of a bit of programming, making sure the programmer's really good, not just average.
"Try and excel at some of these aspects. Really push yourself. That's the bit that's important - the performance or the writing, the creative side! Let the process of getting it to tape be as transparent as possible - don't let it get in the way."
Interview by Chris Kempster
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