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Production lines

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...

Chris Hughes inside his attic studio near Bath: the period oak beams double as handy cable-storage devices

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?

Home sweet home: like many of the best studios, Chris Hughes' place is strong on atmosphere but not so hot on organisation - witness this debris of DATs and cassettes

"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."

Personal space: Chris' work area centres on a pair of Mac Quadras running Digidesign hardware and software; to his left is a Mackie 8-buss mixer, to his right a motley collection of synths including Yamaha DX7 and Casio CZ101


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"


Triple tracker: a stack of Alesis ADATs is kept in check by an accompanying BRC 'Big Remote Control'


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.

Rack attack: ProTools modules rub shoulders with MIDI interfacing and a Roland MKS20 piano box in Chris' 19" stack

"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.

Vintage advantage: Roland CR78 (left) provides Chris with classic analogue drum sounds, while Yamaha REV7 (below right) offers the detailed reverb programming his music needs


"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."

Notation and number-crunching: the story behind the album

Maths professor: when it came to manipulating sequences for his album Shift, Chris Hughes had to use all his number-crunching skills

The idea of reworking some of Steve Reich's compositions has interested Chris Hughes for a long while, and the recording of these tracks - based on 'Drumming', 'Violin Phase' and 'Piano Phase' among others - for Hughes' album Shift took place in between various production jobs.

"It was something I was doing in the background, really. I was messing about with stuff like that in the early '80s, just dicking around with sequencers, and it just kind of evolved. I went to see him [Steve Reich] and I talked to him about the idea of doing an album, and I said: 'I've gone through this process sorting out what your music's about, and I've come up with these variations.' I played him two short bits and he said: 'fantastic - carry on'. So I did.

"After a while I had enough recorded bits and pieces to make up a set of recordings. So I played them to a couple of people, and Phonogram bought the idea."

What sound sources did Hughes use?

"Fairlight, Synclavier, Wavestation, Prophet 5, the whole gamut of Roland S770 samplers, two SampleCell cards - I think, in general terms, average stuff. Quite a lot of the samples were done specifically for the project, but there are also things which are library, and quite deliberately library. There's a common language of certain sounds; everyone knows what a DX7 sounds like, for example, and you may use that for an obvious reason.

"But very specific things, like Mai're from Clannad's Gallic harp, we used samples that were specific to that, were only used for that, and probably won't be used for anything else. They've got a life, as a sample, specifically for one job - not for something that becomes library, and is available any time you want to dial up something exotic. There are quite a few things unique to the album."

How far did Hughes move away from the original scores?

"Quite a long way. A lot of what he was experimenting with, I kept intact - I haven't just painted pretty little tunes on top. A lot of the thinking behind it is very similar. But there were other areas I was really interested in. I was really excited by the idea of hearing what computers would do in terms of chasing one sequence to another, in a very gradual process. Humans get a sense of where things are going and kind of work towards things, locking in - they race that process. You can make that process very long, with fantastic things going on, which if humans were doing they'd get locked into, and over-emotional.

"So I sat around for hours and hours listening to points where two different sequences were not quite in phase, but were adding something very exciting, then take a section of that and repeat it, and at that point you're not dealing with what human beings play."

How did he get the chasing of events?

"Maths. Weeks and weeks of maths! I wrote programs to calculate where certain notes would lie. The basic maths were done in (Opcode) Vision, where you've got 480 positions between two beats, two and two-quarter notes, and I was just writing calculators in Supercard to calculate where a note would be if its tempo increased this amount over this period of time. Referencing something that wasn't changing, and then some other calculators that created sequencer-friendly sheets of text, I could have it play in the right place, and then adjust through inaccuracies.

"The kind of things I was doing, with bits of loops and bits of samples as well, meant getting the maths right. Only then did it become more musical, as I realised: 'Great, that chases that amount in five bars'. If it was aesthetically dull then I'd have to try it over maybe 15 bars.

"To get technical about it, one of the things I really enjoyed was at the point where one sequence was shifting against the other, and there was maybe a 16th out of whack, and instead of letting that be just a moment, I'd stop and have a look at the phase patterns.

"The most minimal ideas can be phenomenal to listen to. There was one piece, about 22 minutes long, which was a real nightmare to mix - you can't even do three passes of it in an hour - that's 'Shift part 3'. I ProTools'd about three mixes, and cut it down and crossfaded and messed around for hours, days. I was there for about a week, just trying to edit the thing down to about 11 minutes."

The track 'Slow Motion Blackbird' features a loop of birdsong that gets progressively slower, mimicked by violin, without changing pitch. How was this track realised?

"Reich talked about the idea of it, really, before it could be done, so it was theoretical. And when I read the three pages of text that comes with the initial premise, I thought: 'Well, I'll use a blackbird tune.' A friend of mine plays violin so we just got him to hear what the tune is and imitate it. Then I looped the sample and put it into stereo, with blackbird on one side and violin on the other, and repeated it by a specific ratio - 1 to 1.125. Each time the loop repeats, it's that much slower.

"It was done by time-stretching on the Mac, using Alchemy, which was a while ago, before more sophisticated programs [Time Bandit, ReCycle!] came along. As it goes on and on, it becomes more and more inaccurate, and that degradation slowly shifts through the piece. At the time, this was as good as I could have got it, but if someone was to try that piece again next year then it's going to sound better."


Mixography...

Adam & The Ants - Dirk Wears White Sox
- Kings Of The Wild Frontier
- Prince Charming
Tears For Fears- The Hurting
- Songs From The Big Chair
Robert Plant - Fate Of Nations
Chris Hughes - Shift


Kit list: Chris Hughes' attic studio

Desktop
Apple Mac Quadra x 2
Digidesign SampleCell x 2
Digidesign ProTools
Opcode Studio 3 Mac-MIDI interface

Tracking & mixing
Alesis ADAT digital multitrack recorder x 3
Alesis BRC remote controller
Mackie 8-buss mixing desk

Sound sources
Roland S770 sampler
Roland MKS20 piano module
E-mu Procussion
Casio CZ101 synth
Fairlight CMI series II
Korg M1 workstation
Korg SG1D piano
Korg Wavestation module
NED Synclavier
Sequential Prophet 5 synth
Yamaha DX7 synth
Roland CR78 beat box

Signal processing
Alesis Quadraverb
Yamaha REV7 reverb



Previous Article in this issue

Rock the Kasbah

Next article in this issue

Stranger than fiction


The Mix - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

The Mix - Aug 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

In Session

Artist:

Chris Hughes


Role:

Producer

Interview by Chris Kempster

Previous article in this issue:

> Rock the Kasbah

Next article in this issue:

> Stranger than fiction


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