Production Masterclass With Hugh Padgham
Hugh Padgham takes us behind the scenes to explain the tricks and techniques used in the recording and mixing of Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight'.
There can be few people unfamiliar with Phil Collins' mega hit 'In The Air Tonight'. Hugh Padgham, the producer behind that sound, reveals how it was recorded and talks about his own production style and values. Richard Buskin reports.
It's 9.15 am on a hot summer's day at the beginning of June, and down at Genesis' Fisher Lane Farm Studios, in the heart of the rolling English countryside, Hugh Padgham is embarking on his latest assignment, standing with his back to the SSL console in the centre of the spacious, subtly hued control room.
Strange, you may think. What is one of the world's top producers doing, working at an hour which still does not appear on most record industry clocks? Furthermore, why is he looking towards a leather sofa rather than the recording area, which is located in the opposite direction, especially when the owners of the private studio are currently away on tour in the US? The answer lies in the 20 attentive faces concentrating on his every word, faces belonging to members of the Japanese APRS (JAPRS), with strong aspirations to scale the professional heights which Padgham himself has already climbed during the past 18 or so years, courtesy of his landmark recordings with the likes of Sting, Phil Collins and Genesis.
The object of today's exercise, therefore, is to pass on not only some of his expert knowledge, but also to provide insight into his own inherent, innovative skills as a technician, as a musical arranger, and as an inciter of performance. Hence the studious looks on the faces surrounding him, some of which double for puzzlement, as several of the visitors do not fully comprehend the English language. Their curiosity is thankfully short-lived, however, as an interpreter periodically translates Padgham's words for them.
Also comprising part of his audience are manager, Dennis Muirhead, yours truly, and studio designers John Flynn and Sam Toyoshima who, together with Hugh, rebuilt the Genesis facility back in 1985, five years after its inception. In 1981, Hugh Padgham assisted Phil Collins in the production of his debut solo album, Face Value, on which the kick-off track is 'In The Air Tonight', a smash-hit single which helped launch Collins' career as a star in his own right. Padgham also engineered the record, and it is this song which he now utilises as a means of demonstrating his techniques to the assembled throng.
"Right from the start of a recording I always have a clear vision of what I want to end up with, and I keep this in mind throughout the project," says Padgham. "'In The Air Tonight' is a very simple song, and this is a very good example of how I like to produce records, with good separation and clarity of sound. When I'm making a record, I look at it very technically, from a sonic and a musical standpoint, and I'm always, always fighting, either with myself or the musicians, to throw stuff away. For example, if you're working with a guitarist, it's best if you can achieve the part that you want while keeping the structure of his performance as simple as possible.
"I'm also always looking for a balance in the dynamic spectrum. Obviously, you'll have things like bass and drums at the bottom end and hi-hat and cymbals at the top, but tonality is really important, and so if you've got someone singing in the midrange then it's no good destroying his or her vocal by placing a load of guitars in the same register. Separation should be retained as much as possible and the register varied. Of course, there's no hard and fast rule for this, but you should always concentrate on being able to actually hear what you're doing. There are so many times when you may think, 'Oh, the piano sounds great,' and it does sound great when you're overdubbing and it's turned up loud, but as soon as you immerse it in with the rest of the music it's no longer all that clear. So it's important to shift the instruments within the dynamic range as much as possible, in order for them to each have their own space, and I therefore tend to go along with the old adage that 'less is more'!"
While the Prophet V was inherently reverby, the drum box sounded a little dry. Echo would give it more atmosphere, but reverb can make things sound muddy, so in this instance a short digital delay was used. The setup for the lead vocal, on the other hand, was an unusual one, happening to particularly suit Collins' voice and performance characteristics. He was recorded with a Beyer M88 dynamic mic, in conjunction with an old Allen & Heath compressor which offered slow/fast attack and fast, medium, and automatic release controls. "If you look inside [the A&H] there's nothing there," muses Padgham, "but it has a sound, and this is a perfect example of using a piece of equipment to acquire a specific effect.
"A distinctive facet of Phil Collins' voice is its hard, guttural edge, and the way in which we attain this is to use a very long attack time on the compressor and a very short release, so that certain [hard] consonants get through the compressor before it compresses. Then it compresses very hard, and you get this very 'angry' sounding effect. The level of return on the effect which you are using is another important factor. I don't want — and don't need — to cloud everything with reverb on Phil's vocals, so I use just a little reverb along with the delay, as well as a harmoniser sometimes."
Padgham next moves onto the subject of miking technique, and the importance of both correct mic choice and precise positioning. Acknowledging the fact that, given the calibre of projects with which he is customarily involved, he is usually in the fortunate position of being able to concentrate on this task without severe restrictions on time or money, he nevertheless rues the lack of formal training which many young engineers have received in this field during the past ten or so years. Having seldom, if ever, worked with a real drum kit, not to mention proper brass and strings, their studio ability is often restricted to "sticking a microphone up and then resorting to equalisation to get the right sound."
"Unless I'm really messing something up on purpose, I regard the equaliser as the last option in terms of fine-tuning the sound," says Padgham.
"A distinctive facet of Phil Collins' voice is its hard, guttural edge, and the way in which we attain this is to use a very long attack time on the compressor and a very short release..."
"Like everyone else, I have my favourite microphones, but I'm always willing to try out new or different ones. I've sometimes experimented with several microphones when recording an acoustic guitar, for instance, and found that re-positioning one of them by just one inch has achieved the precise sound which I've been after. So, if you've got the time, I strongly suggest trying out a variety of mics in varying positions, because you'll be surprised at the difference this makes. It's just a case of combining experience with common sense.
"As a general rule, I believe in keeping the microphone as far away from the instrument as possible. Obviously there are exceptions to this, because if you're recording a band where everybody's playing live together then you can't record a piano from six feet away, but if you're in an overdubbing situation or one where you don't have problems of excessive spill, you should retain distance.
"Having said that, a lot of the studios built in the Seventies — the Eastlake, Westlake-type designs — have very dead-sounding rooms, and in this case it's very difficult to move the microphones around, because the sound has no character and it just disappears really quickly. That's where I think Sam [Toyoshima]'s rooms are great, because they have different-sounding areas, providing you with the scope within which to experiment."
Indeed, experimentation is how Hugh stumbled upon the much talked-about big drum sound when working with Peter Gabriel; it was achieved by miking from a long distance to pick up the room sound, gating the natural reverb, maximising the compression — while still retaining a fairly low compression ratio — and pushing part of the sound into a warm distortion courtesy of valve preamps and EQ.
On 'In The Air Tonight', there were four channels of room sound using different microphones; Neumann U87 and ribbon mics, placed at distances of two and four metres and compressed with Urei 1176 limiters, one of them heavily gated with an SSL noise gate. The main part of the sound, therefore, came from the room, and the bass and snare drums were miked close up, in order to provide a little more kick, clarity and focus.
"This is the way in which I always work when I want a big drum sound," says Padgham.
"Almost backwards, working from the sound of the room first. The distorted sound of the room mics gives an overall feeling of more aggression, and when you think of it, rock 'n' roll guitars are always distorted really, so I look at drums in a similar way. At the same time, I try to keep the close mics as clean as possible, and to keep the transients on the tape so that I can augment the distortion with a clean sound.
"I've sometimes experimented with several microphones when recording an acoustic guitar, and found that re-positioning one of them by just one inch has achieved the precise sound I've been after."
"Assuming that I was now mixing 'In The Air Tonight', I'd start with the end of the song where the drums come in, as this indicates what my maximum level is. It's very important to put the lead vocal in as soon as possible, because otherwise you can mix all of the rest of the song and think that it sounds fantastic, only for the whole balance to change when the lead vocal is put in. So you should always try to mix with the vocal in as soon as possible, because it is the vocal with which you are trying to sell the record. No one's ever going to hear it as an instrumental, so it's best to get things right from the start.
"I always follow my initial feelings about a song. Push the fader up, put the echo on or whatever, and move on, so I'm listening to everything as a whole, and I will try to bring everything that's on the tape into the mix together. As for 'In The Air Tonight', at this stage there's no EQ at all apart from a little treble on the snare drum, and that's partly because when we were recording it we did so with the mix in mind. The sounds were all on the tape — the work is so much easier and more fun that way — and it's great for the artist when he's overdubbing and the sound in the control room or his headphones is always the same. Better than having to say, 'Hang on, Phil,' while I plug up this and that in order to try and make the song sound okay for him to overdub a part. 'In The Air Tonight' can sound good with just one delay line and one reverb chamber, and so it's good to get everything into the mix right away and not to start fiddling with equalisers until this has been done."
Hugh Padgham stresses the importance to him during the mixing process of having access to a real echo plate or echo chamber. For while he is happy to use digital reverbs, he does not regard them as in any way a replacement for the 'real thing', and he personally feels that many records made today utilising just digital reverbs sound thin, and lack the warmth that a real echo plate or echo chamber can provide.
"It's pretty depressing, because many of the studios that I go to nowadays don't even have an echo plate," he says, "and if you think back, it's less than ten years since it was impossible to get hold of a digital reverb. So I'll only ever mix at a studio that has echo plates or chambers.
"On top of this, I also place a lot of importance on the actual VU meters. The peak-reading meter... forget it, useless, unless you have one in addition to the VU. A lot of the digital machines now have peak meters, but if you understand how a VU meter works then you know what your peak is. The VU tells me so much that sometimes I can almost mix without having to use my ears, and I've been doing this work for so long now that I can tell if something isn't right in the mix just by the way that the VU meter behaves.
"For instance, when I'm mixing and I've already determined my level, I don't want this to be exceeded when the lead vocal is introduced, and this can sometimes be very difficult to achieve. The vocal should be sitting in the music, not above the music or buried so that you can't hear it. French records are particularly bad in this respect, as they always seem to want to have the vocal incredibly loud, meaning that the music takes second place. I, on the other hand, try to make records where all of the elements are balanced in relation to one another, and it is the VU meters which help me achieve this."
Padgham demonstrates this by way of playing the 'In The Air Tonight' backing track, and then fading up Phil Collins' lead vocal with no discernible change in the VU levels. Pushing it up any further, he explains, would have a negative effect on smaller speakers and on the radio. A distinctive quality of Collins' hard-edged voice is the way in which it cuts through the mix, and so this brings us back to the importance of introducing the vocal as early on as possible during the mixing process.
"When you think of it, rock 'n' roll guitars are always distorted really, so I look at drums in a similar way."
"When I listen to a lot of other people's records, either in the cutting room or in a studio where I can see the VU meters, it's clear that there is a lack of control in the levels," says Padgham. "I don't like that, and while I do sometimes use stereo compressors or whatever, I much prefer to have control on the VU meters without having to resort to compression.
"It's not that I don't believe in compression. I sometimes compress the whole mix — I may use two pairs of compressors, one for the rhythm section and one for the 'melodies' — but most of the time I try to avoid using compression unless I particularly want to hear that kind of sound.
After all, it is adding to the signal path, and another of my beliefs with regard to recording is that the signal path from the microphone to the tape should be as short as possible, going through the minimum of electronics, and utilising the smallest amount of EQ in order to avoid messing with the phase relationship. Basically, therefore, keep that signal as pure and as simple as possible on the way to the tape machine and, believe, it will eventually sound better and make the job of balancing easier. If the vocal is clear on the tape, then it will cut through the mix better without having to utilise equalisers or enhancers or whatever.
"When a record reaches the mastering stage, the last thing that I want to see is the engineer taking my tape and equalising or compressing it because he feels that there is not enough treble or too much bottom end or something. I've spent ages and a lot of money in the studio to get that tape sounding the way think it should, and so know I've done my job well when I go to the mastering room and nothing extra has to be done to it. Once again, a case of attaining as good a sound as possible by keeping things as pure and simple as possible."
Having pointed out how he always keeps an eye on the phasing when recording and mixing in stereo, in order to ensure faithful reproduction in mono on the limited number of sources which still utilise it, Padgham concludes his lecture by discussing the pros and cons of mixing down to either analogue or digital. He explains how a rock song such as the title track of Sting's last record, The Soul Cages, sounded better on analogue half-inch, whereas the rest of the album was mixed to 1630 digital. In a general sense, however, he usually opts for digital when mixing down, its clarity of sound winning out for him over the much talked-about warmth of analogue. At the same time, his latest project, with new Magnet artist, Helen Hoffner, is utilising 24-track Dolby SR with new generation analogue tape mixed down to DAT, and this, he certifies, manages to combine a very good, high quality sound together with the warmth which some feel digital lacks.
In line with a modus operandi which discourages extraneous sounds or unnecessary gadgets which may cloud the natural sound of a record, Hugh Padgham does not allow the multifarious views of his peers to get in the way of his own ideas, and he is not afraid of expressing opinions which are not always music to the ears of manufacturers.
"Overall, having worked in studios for eighteen years now, I'm clear about how I think and how I like to work," he says, "and while that's good for me, hopefully at the end of the day that also makes for better records."
Interview by Richard Buskin
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