Richard Hewson - Man of Mystery
This man, responsible for the string arrangements on numerous albums by Supertramp, Cliff Richard and Diana Ross, also happens to be the creative genius behind disco/funk hit makers, the RAH Band. His latest album 'Mystery' released this month, was successfully recorded in his home studio using an ACES 24-track system and we went along to see how he achieved it.
He's quiet, he's modest and unless you habitually read the back of albums you may not have heard of him. You will, however, have heard him — or at least his arrangements. In a career spanning over fifteen years not only has Richard Hewson found time to arrange the music of some of the all-time greats but under the disguise of the RAH Band (Richard's initials), he's one of the early supporters of home recording, a pursuit he is still very much involved with today. This month he released a new RAH Band single and album. Carl Anthony went along to see how it all happened.
Richard Hewson's career started in the merchant navy when he taught himself to play jazz guitar. As we sat in his small but comfortable home studio he told me how he'd, in his own words, "bluffed my way into the Guildhall School of Music... my music was so far out they didn't know whether it was good or bad. In the end I received a scholarship to study classical composition, piano and trumpet."
Studying under Edmund Rubbra he spent five years at the Guildhall and then met up with Peter Asher. At the time he was working for Apple Records and Paul McCartney was trying to find someone to do a 'classical' arrangement for a girl singer called Mary Hopkins. Richard got the job and eventually the record went to number one. Not a bad start for anyone's career! A few jobs followed then he was invited to arrange James Taylor's first album. As Richard recalls, "This was one of the first 16-track sessions done in the UK. We recorded the album at Trident, London. The funny thing was, we were so used to using 8-track that we couldn't think of what to put on the other tracks, so we recorded on tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9 just so that we could say we went more than eight! Eventually, of course, we soon got the knack of using up all the tracks."
After James Taylor, Richard moved on to do a couple of tracks (including 'Long And Winding Road') with Phil Spector and the Beatles. "What lasting impressions do you have of the session?" I asked.
"Well more or less a man in a raincoat surrounded by gangsters in a darkened control room. And a voice through the talkback saying, 'That's fine'. That is about all he said.
"Was it a quick session or quite laboured?"
"It was laboured in ways. I was called in at the last minute because he had suddenly decided that he wanted to do this track with a massive orchestra. He called at seven in the evening for a session the next afternoon, I think. He wanted twenty violins, three harps, a big choir and so on, so I said OK. When I got home the phone rings and he's saying 'Oh no, we have got to have another ten trumpets and another etc'. The phone kept going like that all night. When I got to the studio the next day with this massive score there were not enough chairs or music stands or even places to put all the musicians so some of them had to be sent home! In the end, we still had a big orchestra. We ran through the numbers a couple of times and that's all he said - 'it's fine'."
After the Beatles' session Richard went on to work with Supertramp ('Crime Of The Century', 'Crisis? What Crisis?'), Art Garfunkel, Diana Ross, Leo Sayer. He also worked on the Xanadu soundtrack and more recently the live Cliff Richard album with the London Philharmonic Orchestra but during this time he was busy working at home on his own special project - the RAH Band.
"By 1977 I'd been in the business nearly ten years. I had been trained as a composer but all that time I had been arranging other people's music. So at this point I created the RAH Band. This was simply an excuse to do just my own tunes and apart from my wife (who provides the vocals) there are no other outside contributions at all. I started on a 4-track just playing anything I could - all I had was a Hohner electric piano. The 4-track was an ancient ½ inch Philips or something. I used that in conjunction with a high-speed Revox A77. In fact, I still use the same machine for safety copies although I use a Revox PR99 for mastering now. The A77 has never been lined-up or anything and it is still as good as it ever was. It just goes on and on and on. The first record I produced using the 4-track was 'The Crunch'. That got to number six in the charts."
"All I had was a Hohner electric piano"
"It's funny, I had a good start in arranging and a good start with this equipment, then nothing for a while. But at least it got the studio off the ground. After the single I bought an 8-track Itam. I think it was either the third or fourth one they had made. I also bought an Itam mixer. In those days not many people were using multitrack equipment and I must admit that I still needed to go into the studio to add on extra bits like brass. There was a lot of trial and error. Also a lot of the things engineers told me not to do — I did! Sometimes it was just for effect. If you want tom-toms to really sound beefy it is sometimes better to over-record them in order to get the sound you want. I made a lot of mistakes though."
"I played an old recording recently - a follow-up to 'The Crunch' which, as it happens, wasn't a success. The sound was dreadful, all thin, piercing and middly. It was just me going mad thinking 'middle' is the answer. I'd worked out some theory at the time that the optimum frequency of the ear cavity was 1kHz, so I thought if you put masses of 1kHz on everything it would come out sounding loud on every radio. In fact, the sound was so awful it sounded as if it was playing down the telephone!"
"The Itam served me well but it did have one unfortunate problem. As far as I can recall, if the remote was switched to 'Play' and the machine was rewinding (by using the machine's controls) pressing 'Stop' on the machine would activate the remote 'Play' command and I lost a lot of masters that way. They must have corrected it by now. I don't even know if these machines are still made. It would also feedback if you tried to record on adjacent channels whilst listening to one of them in sync. Apart from that it was a good machine."
"In the end though, it caused a lot of pre-planning. Dodging around with the tracks but, in fact, I used the machine right up until I got the 24-track. The first three RAH albums were all done on the Itam with overdubbed brass or drums in the studio. Also, all the mixing was done elsewhere. Some of the tracks were successful; 'Messages From The Stars', for example, was done entirely on the 8-track Itam and that made it into the charts."
For his latest album project ('Mystery' RCA PL70640), Richard decided to go the whole hog and buy a 24-track ACES recorder and desk. "Why," I asked him, "did you go straight to 24-track and not to sixteen? At the end of the day, however, Richard prefers to work this way. As he says, he'd prefer to have a basic, good mixing desk and customise it rather than buy features on an expensive desk that he might never need.
"Basically, I looked at the cost and the ACES machine wasn't that much more expensive. The other important reason was that it was a two-inch format tape that would be compatible with outside studios. On the new album, for example, I did three tracks with a big string section and all I had to do was lift off the reel of tape at home and walk into the studio. After two hours I was on my way back home. If I hadn't bought the two-inch format I would have had to take my machine into the studio, transfer all the tracks and apart from being a very cumbersome operation, I'd lose a generation anyway."
"I'm not too keen on noise reduction"
"Just as with the Itam, the ACES 24-track is a fairly easy production model and there have been a number of modifications made to the machine since it first became available. It now has a 'ready to record' light and electronic switching rather than relays which makes a lot of difference when you are doing drop-ins. In a way, it is great because if you want little modifications the company will do them, like on the desk, for example. I like the mixing desk but it is designed for an average cross-section of users. Personally, I prefer the EQ range to be a lot lower than it is here. Rather than a lower limit of 80Hz, I'd prefer 40Hz. The top end goes up to 13kHz and I think I'll change that to 16kHz as well. As I see it, the difference between a really professional recording and a not so professional one, is the top and bottom end. If you can get that really low bass sound and a good high frequency on your recordings, it all sounds so much better."
Whilst Richard put the kettle on, I had a chance to look at the outboard gear he'd amassed in his studio. It was an interesting selection: MXR 01 digital reverb, a Bel BD80 digital delay, a Boss delay, the JHS Digitec delay, a Great British Spring reverb, Drawmer stereo limiter/compressor, a couple of Accessit modules and a couple of mysterious units marked 'Gates'.
When Richard returned I asked him what he used the various effects for.
"The Digitec is mainly for long delays. The Boss is used for short delays and chorus effects - the Roland chorus sound is hard to beat. You can get the effect on the other delays but you are forever fiddling about trying to find the optimum setting. With the Boss you are there immediately. The Bel is mainly used to sample percussion."
"I'm really pleased with the MXR. I've updated it with the extra software chips and that has been great fun. What is nice is pressing the memory buttons to get different reverb effects. In fact, on the latest single ('Clouds Across The Moon') there's an electro-mix on the B-side in which the first minute or so is just going through the track and pressing the MXR's buttons in time with the music so each note has a different reverb. Before the MXR, I only had a 'British Spring'. That's good as well and I use it quite often in conjunction with the MXR. Hard percussive sounds can be a problem but then again, on reggae material it can sound very effective."
"So far I haven't used the Drawmer compressor. It's sitting there because one day I know I'll need it for something. I bought it originally to put across the two outputs of the Revox, but every time I tried it I wasn't happy with the sound. It might just be me and I haven't learned to use it properly yet. In the 70s, they used to compress the grand piano and the sound was really great. It will probably be used on something like that when I can get round to it."
"I haven't got a song in my head!"
"One thing I'm not too keen on is noise reduction. What I've got instead - which will probably be new for a lot of people - is twenty-four noise gates (um... umm the mysterious boxes). These were built for me by Paul Findon from Shrewsbury. He's starting his own little company called Gate Electronics. I've tried noise reduction systems and I've never found one that didn't take something away from the sound. It's not a foolproof system - if you have noise on a track when the gate opens the hiss comes through. But because the noise comes through with the note, it is not as evident. The gates are simple to use. All they do is open and close very quickly and all you have is an adjustment for threshold and a switch for three different operating levels plus bypass. So far it has cost about the same as a noise reduction system but to my mind - for my purposes anyway - it's 100% better."
When I asked Richard about the microphones he had, he looked deep in thought, "I've got about three I think. There's an AKG D202 that I've had for years and that's really good for percussion and drums. For vocals I use a Beyer condenser - an MC714 - it has an omni and a cardioid capsule but I usually only use the cardioid. I also have an old Calrec but I didn't use it on this album. It is very toppy - good for cymbals and hi-hats. A lot of studios use a Neumann U87 for vocals and I might be tempted, but at the moment I get the sort of vocal sound I like, so I'm not particularly worried. I rarely have to treat the vocals, in the main they are recorded fairly naturally out in the hall and whereas most of the other things tend to get twisted and strangled, the vocals are the one thing that stays fairly normal."
"And what about monitoring?"
"I use a pair of JBL 4311s, AR 18s and also the little Auratones. Monitoring is one thing I do have a bee in my bonnet about. When you visit lots of studios in London, you get used to the sound of each studio. When you come out of a studio with a particular tape you have made, you may find when you get home that there is no bass or far too much top. What I've rigged up, as a way of measuring the amount of top or bass, is a system where all my equipment - radio, cassette deck, record player and the mastering machine - is wired to the same amplifier which in turn is switchable between the three sets of speakers. If I particularly like the bass sound on a certain record I can flick between my mix and the record and do an A/B check. It seems to be the only way I can get a good clear picture of how much bass I'm putting on, or top or whatever. The more comparisons I make, the truer the picture I get of what is going onto tape."
"When I first started I'd take my tape along to the cutting room and the engineer would say there's not enough top or bass or mid on it. You would get a nasty embarrassing moment when you put the tape on and it sounded awful. If you get good quality records and make aural comparisons, you can then find a good optimum level for bass, mid and top. I've now got my monitoring more or less sorted out and I can now, as with this new album, do all my final mixes here at home."
In order to create the music, Richard relies a lot on his Roland JX3P polyphonic synthesiser. "I've always liked Roland things. I got the JX because everyone at the time seemed to be going for the Yamaha DX7. I hire in other keyboards like the Emulator for the odd day if necessary and I still use my old Roland SH5 monophonic synth for bass and lead lines. Digital is great but they don't seem to have the power and guts of the analogue synths. The JX is very useful, not only for the presets, but the beauty of it is the additional programmer (the PG200). I'm looking forward to seeing what the new Roland JX8P is like with the touch sensitivity added. I still have my Hohner electric piano and for guitars I use a Hofner and Watkins Rapier along with an old Epiphone bass."
You might think that as Richard is so familiar with arranging, songs would appear in his head in a complete and final form. This is not the case. Like most other writers most of his songs come from a germ of an idea. Usually he'd write a song in the afternoon restricting himself to one verse and one chorus — no more. After this stage a short demo is made with his wife on vocals and just a piano accompaniment. At that point he usually relaxes in the bath listening to the cassette to get an idea of the overall song. If it passes the test the following day he makes a demo of the way the instrumentation would go to determine the 'shape' of the thing. Again, later that evening he would listen to the cassette, finalising the arrangement. Only then would he start on the master recording. "It's a good discipline as you weed out the rough bits before you even commit the final song to tape. In that way, you don't spend days making a master only to find after all your hard work that the song was never really going to work anyway."
As the interview drew to a close I was curious to know whether in the end the equipment dictated the music or did the ideas come first and in what way had a 24-track set-up changed things?
"The songwriting is at last leading. For a long time it was the other way round. Obviously, when I get a new piece of equipment the first thing I do is make a track using that - nothing but that - lots of it, whatever it might be. After it has been here a week or two, I get used to it and it finds its own usefulness. Everytime I've got a new machine - when I got the first 4-track, when I got the 8-track, and then the 24-track I thought 'This is great. I'm going to record fantastic sounds and do great, wonderful albums'. I'd get the machine in, set it all up, then I'd think, 'What am I going to record? I haven't got a song in my head!' At the end of the day you have got to actually sit down at the piano and write that song. Even before you can make a mono recording."
"24-track does give you a lot of freedom though. It was nice not to have to worry about dropping-in and out between vocals. Also, whatever EQ you have set up on a particular track can stay put. You don't have to let things go because you haven't time to change the EQ when a different instrument appears on the same track. So it was lovely, even though the instrumentation hadn't increased, to be able to use five tracks for the drums and three more for percussion. On the 8-track I'd be down to one or two tracks for drums and percussion. Also, I can have stereo keyboards which I couldn't afford to have on 8-track. Strings again in stereo. Now that's twelve tracks already."
"In a way there is less decision making with 8-track, you create the mix as you go along. With 24-track you are keeping all your options open. You can re-mix, you can even re-orchestrate or whatever. I think that's all it is — the greater freedom to place the sounds."
Interview by Carl Anthony