Robin Lumley - Producer
Having been out of the limelight for a while, Robin has again donned his producer's cap and set to work with new artists 3AM and Robin Clark. Here he talks of his involvement with them and his attitude to the home recording revolution.
Robin Lumley is one of those people who fell into the music business more by luck than judgement and then proceeded to make a tremendous success of it. A well respected keyboard player with Brand X and a record producer with scores of successful albums under his belt, Robin has been fairly quiet over the past two or three years, spending his time writing television commercials and scripts and penning the odd film score. He has recently dug his producer's hat out of the cupboard, dusted it off, and set to work with a vengeance on two new projects — a band called, provisionally, 3AM and an artist called Robin Clark, whose first single is now on the BBC playlist.
How did you get into all this in the first place, and why?
"Well the reason I did it was so that I didn't have to get up in the mornings. I hate getting up and I knew that in the music industry nobody gets up much before 10 o'clock, so that's why I wanted to do it in the first place!"
"I had taken a B.Ed. degree at Exeter University in Television Studies. You learned how to make TV programmes, and you also got a basic grounding in television studios which has, in fact, come in very useful much later on when I strayed into the realms of TV commercials."
"Anyway, when I left university I thought I would take a sabbatical year before going in for the archetypal bit of joining the BBC, and all that sort of stuff, as a Floor Manager for schools programmes. I'd always been a big music fan all of my life, and I decided I would try and learn to play something for a giggle."
"So I moved up to London like all hopeful young musicians - I wasn't even a musician at the time, didn't know how to play anything. I got the usual silly little daytime jobs - driving a bakery van and boarding up broken shop windows - anything to earn a few bob so I could learn to play. I bought a little electric piano because I knew there were already lots of drummers, lots of bass players and lots of guitarists around; and in my naivety I thought the way in to recording was to do sessions. Because I thought there weren't lots of keyboard players, if I learned to play the piano I might stand a better chance, and that's the only reason I play keyboards!"
"After about a year I was very lucky because I was phoned up by David Bowie of all people. He lived in Beckenham where I lived, and he had a whole series of concerts lined up and his keyboard player (Matthew Fisher from Procol Harum) had gone sick. He wanted someone for the day after tomorrow to play the Rainbow!"
"Actually, when he phoned up first of all I hung up on him because I thought it was someone fooling around! Then he phoned back and said 'no, really, it is David Bowie here' and I had been recommended by a friend of a friend, you know that bit. Anyway, he sent a car round, and when the doorbell rang and it was this guy with a chauffeur's hat and a six door Mercedes outside I realised: this is getting a bit serious!"
"So I went round to his house and they taught me the piano parts for all the Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory albums, and the next night was the first of three nights at the Rainbow with Roxy Music supporting - that's how long ago it was; 1972."
"So I stayed with that for a while which was great fun. After a bit I started getting fed up with having my hair sprayed black and glitter on your face and boots, and black silk trousers. Then I bumped into Jack Lancaster and we started writing all sorts of junk together. Then, thanks to Mick Ronson, who was in the Bowie band and a very active producer, he got me into lots of other people's albums."
"Once you do that, it's a bit of a snowball effect. You start getting asked by lots of other people who've heard other things and you've suddenly cracked the impossible route of how to get into session work. So it's all a rather nice fairy tale."
"Then on all those sessions I used to run into Phil Collins (of Genesis) a lot and we decided to form Brand X. It was after this that I started getting interested in producing people and went through all that lot with the old Brand X albums and all the old Jazz Rock things like Nova, Bill Bruford, Michael Walden from the Mahavishnu Orchestra... and eventually with Orleans: hit singles and all that rubbish in America."
"That tied me up with Hit and Run Music and the Genesis organisation which I am looked after and managed by today."
We had met for this interview at Faderway Studios in Kensington Park Road in West London where Robin has been working with the 3AM crew who, it turns out, actually own the studio. It is a little 8 track set-up with really quite a lot of gear in it (including the original Moog synthesiser which is destined for the British Museum sometime next year). It did, however, start out life as Ricky Sylvan's home studio - the only thing is he doesn't live there anymore. It seems to have taken over somewhat!
Whilst the musicians kindly faded into the background. Robin expanded on his more recent thoughts on recording.
"One of the most exciting things that has happened to me lately is that after the long time of not producing anything I've put my producer's hat back on for only two things - 3AM and for Robin Clark."
"3AM are a band that has interested me for the first time in years... I didn't think I had anything left to contribute. I was worn out by 23 albums in six years, which is quite a lot - I didn't have anything left to do and felt I would have been a waste of time and money to anyone that had hired me."
"But this lot (3AM), they have really honed this little 8 track set-up called 'Faderway' which is almost like a home studio but where you can get broadcast quality, releasable singles and album material, which is amazing. With very minimal, but the right sort of equipment. They are a prime example of this trend and they turn out some very interesting stuff. We took them to two record companies last week and both of them (which is unusual) have said 'we'll sign this, it's great' - and they can't believe it's an 8 track! They think it's an expensive 24 track. The company personnel are so fixed by this wonderful thing that if it sounds good it must be more than 8 track or 16, which is so silly."
"Faderway is only an 8 track studio. Now most people think that's too small to do anything serious with; they're always taken in by the number of tracks something's got. They think 24 track must be better than a 16; and if it's 16 it's got to be better than 8. It's so dangerous to judge something purely on the number of tracks it's got because it's what you do with them and how you manage and plot your recording: it's always down to your pre-production and pre-planning. There is no reason why you can't do virtually anything on an 8 track."
"I would even drag out the age old boring analogy about something like Sergeant Pepper which was in fact done on the equivalent of 6 track - two 4 track machines with one of the tracks on each recorder being used to link the machines together. And that was just good planning. Look how many overdubs they managed to squeeze in without inviting quality loss."
"It's okay if you are happy to burn your bridges. If you want to busk it and record it loosely and have big budgets and keep 12 guitar solos until the very last minute and decide which one you are going to pick; well OK then, you can waste your multitracks that way."
"For the home recordist, who perhaps has maybe a Fostex 8 track or even a B16, it's down to how much you plan your use. There is no reason why you can't burn your bridges and start bouncing tracks together more often and be very careful."
"If you've got a longterm viewpoint of what the final recording is going to end up sounding like, then there is no risk in doing that whatsoever."
"With the modern equipment you can get nowadays, especially things like the Fostex range; this is fine. You can do anything with this. Anything that you would want to do at Trident Studios, Air London, Marcus or anywhere! With imagination, and not necessarily going in for millions of pounds worth of specialised DDL type outboard equipment - there's nothing much you can't do at all."
"Looking around Faderway 8 track, for example, there's nothing expensive in here. Alright, maybe there's a couple of Urei limiters which may be outside the sort of price range of someone that's just bought a Fostex B16. But you've got something like this little MXR digital time delay - that's not expensive. This little Sound Workshop job - that's not much either you know. None of these things are really a lot of money. There's a parametric EQ here from Trident - maybe a little more. But there's very little; and you need an ordinary little cheap reverb unit like the Great British Spring which, again, doesn't cost very much; and a good tape machine.
"Then you need a few reasonably priced microphones. Don't forget that Crown have made those PZMs for years that cost £240. Did you know that now you can get an equivalent for £19.95? (The Realistic PZM from Tandy Stores.) We bench tested those at HHB a while ago and we couldn't find any difference between the £19.95 version and the £240 one! So if you break it or smash it you can buy another one."
Is a PZM microphone something you would recommend for a home studio?
"Well it's very useful, yes. Because there is one thing, in a home studio environment, if you haven't got a room that's correctly set up acoustically - it may be one's bedroom or kitchen or something - then you may possibly have phase problems if using several mics. With the PZM it obviates those because the very essential principles of its mode of operation are that it tends to iron out phase difficulties. It's a pressure zone that reflects, and any audio path exciting the molecules of air will only actually stay in phase on the reverse thrust; so you don't have phase problems with them."
"If you're trying to record an acoustic piano, a little guitar or someone's voice, and there's something else going on in the corner - PZMs are really useful for that. And they don't colour your sound as easily either. They contain a very simple and cheap capsule - there is nothing particularly expensive or clever about them, it's just that somebody had to think of it and nobody did until a couple of years ago."
"But the most important thing to remember at any time - and it's a basic principle that goes right across the board, whether you've got a Revox and a microphone at home or whether you're in Trident or Air London or any vast top end of the market studio. It's not the EQ and the number of knobs on the mixing desk that matters; it is always getting the source sound right in the first place. So I've long ago got fed up with the idea of being impressed by large complicated desks and being surrounded by rubbish - well it's not rubbish, it's all excellent technology, but you tend to lean on it too much and all it is, is a dirty great volume knob. All of that," Robin leaps up and attacks the mixer, "all of that is just a volume knob. Every bit of it. Say one channel here: that's the volume fader knob. And then there's all the EQ with which you can either add or take away at certain frequencies; well that's only determining how loud a sound is at 10kHz, so you can make one sound louder or quieter at 10kHz; you can make it louder or quieter at 50Hz and then that fader in the end is only an overall loudness - after you've decided how loud the little bits inside it are going to be, it's how loud the whole lot is against the entire master fader. So all it is really is a dirty great set of volume knobs. There is no mystique about it at all. It's really very ordinary and everything comes out balanced."
"Did you know - a lot of people don't know this - but the real name for a studio engineer is not an engineer; it's a balance engineer. Can you imagine those guys in the 1930s when they were making direct to disc records like the old 78s? They had an orchestra and one or two microphones and it went direct to disc; everything at once. No overdubs. No mistakes. And that guy sitting in the studio control room then had to balance the volume of the entire orchestra. Now he was, in fact, a human version of the mixing console. He was just the arbiter, the big volume knob that decided where it was all going to go: it was all down to his ears, and he balanced the sound properly."
"Now if you do that with home recording and indeed, spread it into the supposedly professional end of things, then you get much better results without all this waffling about. You park a drummer out there in the studio and with a lot of people, the first thing they will do is mike up the drums, then they're all over the desk, shoving up faders, twiddling all the knobs straight away 'whey hey!'. If the bass drum sounds a bit shoddy and not the way you want; don't start doing this - go out there and find out why it doesn't sound right. Go and change the microphone, move it or use a bit of damping or move the drum - do something to the source sound. Then you'll have the wonderful situation that, if you've got it right and all your source sounds are right, when you come to mix it and push all the faders up, they'll all be in a straight line and you haven't got to mess around with the desk, you just take it. You've done the work to start with."
"It's very applicable to home users because you haven't got the sophistication, and you learn by your mistakes in the same way."
"The big point to hammer home is that the folks who are sitting at home with a Fostex, a Portastudio or something, have got nothing to fear. They can turn out just as good, if not better, stuff (and with the present technology it's broadcast standard) as anything in a £100 an hour studio; with a bit of imagination."
"I'm plotting to put a Fostex 16 track recorder in our basement at home so that I will no longer have to go and spend large amounts of money on studio bills every time I have to do a TV commercial. I'm going to have an extremely basic set-up: I'll have a Fostex and a very simple little mixer, all my little DI lines, my synthesisers and my Q-Lock synchronised to picture. With all that, I'll be able to do just as well, if not better, than I can spending £80 an hour in a top London studio. They've got nothing I haven't got or can't do. It's daft. The home chap is in such a fantastic position these days - far better than he ever was before with the available equipment."
"Even the cheap little effects and things now are very good. He's got nothing to fear at all which is quite wonderful. It's about time it happened. It really is good for me, after years of fooling around with large multitrack consoles and all the hundreds of choice possibilities, to work suddenly in a truncated environment because it makes you think hard about the first principles, which you should have been considering in the first place, but which you can lose sight of."
"I've been just as guilty as anyone because you lose touch with that. You think you can't move unless you've got X number of digital delays and a mixing desk that you need to get a taxi cab to get from one end to the other and there's different weather at one end of it. And monitors the size of the Empire State Building! You don't need all that. You can do just as well at home with a pair of Auratones and a little mixer."
"You know old Phil Collins: his home studio is down in Guildford where he lives - well it's now a bit more sophisticated than it used to be - but in its early days it was only a Brenell 8 track and a little Allen & Heath mixer and we used to do lots of stuff on that. In fact, a lot of the stuff on Face Value, Philip's first album, was recorded at home on that and then bounced onto multitrack later for adding other things and for mixing. But the basic activity on that album was done in Philip's back bedroom; and fine. It works a treat. There's nothing wrong with the technical side of it; it works wonderfully."
So you actually prefer to work in a much smaller studio environment these days?
"Yes. Without a doubt. It's so much more exciting to be thrown on your wits. I know I'm repeating myself but it's the business of balance and pre-planning how you're going to bounce things together. Knowing you're going to have to do it and not worrying about it. The number of tracks does not equal quality; that's rubbish. You can go into 24 track studios (which I won't mention because I don't want to get a writ) that I can think of now that wouldn't come near this little 8 track in what you can do with it. The engineers are dimwits! They don't understand what they're doing half the time and they're all so locked up in the whole 'techno' bit where the desk is more important than anything else."
"Say, for example, if you had a car - I'd rather, if you're a good driver and you know your beaten up little Mini, then you'd be better off racing someone in that than you are getting into an Aston Martin that you won't be able to drive to its capacity. You'll probably lose. But if you're sitting in your Mini and you know exactly how you can steam it up on the corners and whatever you can do with it, you'll probably win. In other words, if you can excuse the clumsy analogy, it's relevant to big expensive studios. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with big expensive studios at all - it's not that. It's just that most of the time the people that use them don't exploit them to the full. They're the guy that gets into an Aston Martin he hasn't driven before; he'd probably get a better sound in his little Mini if he stuck to it."
OK. So planning is of prime importance when you're dealing with 4 and 8 track work. Does Mr. Lumley have principle rules that one would follow?
"I suppose there are some, but we mustn't be hidebound by them. You must always be ready to break them."
"Say if you are going to double up sounds: for example if you want a guitar and a synth both playing the same melody line; well you might record them separately and very obviously end up bouncing them together. You just plot how many tracks you're going to use to start with. Pre-production is a very essential and often overlooked aspect of recording altogether these days."
"Generally, in those lovely barmy mid-Seventies days of the big budgets when you went into a studio and you didn't have anything written, you made it up in there and you wasted hours and hours of time, waffling about - we've all done it. But budget constraints, and the prevalent economic situation anyway these days, means that you can't go and play with such luxuries. It makes you work more at home first."
"So, for example, with Robin Clark, who I've just produced, we had this song that we wanted to record and we worked out everything at home in a pre-production stage first. Everything. There was a passage on this song where the main theme relies on 3 synthesisers with three different sounds, all playing in unison. We were using the Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 synth that gives you 100,000 possible sound combinations; and we went through virtually all of them until we got the three that we wanted! In a studio that would have taken a couple of days at £80 an hour, but we did it all at home. We plotted it. So, when we walked in to the studio we could record it immediately."
"We worked out all the drum patterns we were going to use. We'd also done a great deal of work on the track planning - where we were going to put it all to start with, and leaving room to bounce something to here later and back to there, always allowing for the art of the moment - something will blossom and something will change after it's half-way done, for example. But you mustn't cut and dry it so heavily that you obviate that from happening."
"It's just common sense - planning what you're going to record and in what order so that it enables you to continuously bounce things together, and bounce the right sort of things together. You don't bounce a lead guitar with a bass drum obviously. Try and keep all the instruments and all the various components: if you're going to bounce them, bounce them into areas that you know you won't want to change any more. You have to burn bridges, of course, but you can be very careful and you can plan it to such a degree that it will become really quite obvious to anyone that actually does sit down with a pencil and paper and work out how they're going to record their four or five piece band and whatever else they're going to have; it becomes terribly obvious within a few moments of planning it, how to do it. Anybody with any nuts at all can do it."
It's not that simple though, is it? It's the introduction of effects that throws people off course.
"Well it can be, but I would always recommend trying to record effects at the same time, rather than trying to add them afterwards. I tend to believe now (I didn't use to) that it is in fact a very good idea to be stuck with recorded effects. The old way we used to do it was to have like a Fender Rhodes piano and you would say 'well we'll phase it, flange it, whatever later!' Meanwhile you don't bother and you record it straight. But if you put say just an MXR phaser box, just an ordinary bog standard MXR phaser on a Fender Rhodes piano, then it sounds so different and you probably play it differently because each note, instead of going 'boink boink', goes 'beow beow' and sounds more beautiful. You'll probably play less notes, and then when someone's overdubbing an hour later the sound will have a psychological difference and the person playing a tambourine or a cowbell or the guitarist or whatever will probably play differently as a result."
"So I think it's a good idea to burn your bridges and have the whole thing sounding as much as possible like the finished product from the very beginning. This 'fix it in the mix' syndrome is one of the oldest jokes out. If you're at home and you can't afford lots of bits and pieces, you might want to use an effect on the four tracks in the mix; if you've only got one piece of gear you can't."
"If you've got the confidence to get it right to begin with, then the homogeneity factor, in the end, is going to be really something."
What are the basic effects you would recommend for the first home studio?
"Well one of the most useful things to have around at home is some sort of digital delay system. Not everyone can afford to go and buy a harmoniser, they certainly can't afford to go and buy an AMS digital delay; but there are a lot - just looking through Home Studio Recording you can see most of them - you can get good quality little DDL units. It's the old automatic double tracking principle so that you get two of something and you can stretch the gap between the two to make it sound more of an echo or repeat or so that it sounds like two people singing or whatever. It's one of the most important things to get as early as possible."
"Other things like limiters, which are like balance engineers - a limiter is actually a levelling amplifier and not just a limiter. It's a means of making sure that things don't peak too far from a technical point of view. A basic spring echo or spring reverb is essential - you can get a very good cheap one, something like the Great British Spring and you must never skimp on microphones."
"Money spent on microphones is money always well spent indeed, because that is the source sound. That's the beginning of the whole game - the noise made in the room. It's only as good as what it's picked up with in the first place. The mic turns it into an electronic signal which we can then play with. So cheap microphones are a very, very false economy. I'd rather have two or three really expensive microphones (they don't have to be expensive but I'm afraid it does equate with quality in this instance), high quality mics, than I would a load of extra outboard gear, because that means that the sound you're recording is actually what you're actually getting. That's very important. Cheap instruments and cheap mics are a false economy."
What microphones would you recommend apart from the PZMs?
"It depends on the prices - what are we looking at? My favourites are the range made by Schoepps but then they're six or seven hundred quid each! If you can get secondhand studio quality mics - some of the upper end of the Shure range are very nice. Also if you can get hold of any Neumann things like the U87s and U67s secondhand for about £250, that would be so worthwhile. Generally get the best quality microphones you can afford - I really recommend that."
"Then there's tape echo units - I've got a Roland Space Echo, had it for years. Lots of people make them, but this Roland, it acts like an analogue version of a DDL. You can get delay and it's got a spring in it. You can do amazing things with that and it's only about £250. They make a chorus version and you can get a stereo kind of Leslie effect. It's got ordinary echo and it gives you lots of selections for the length of delay. It's analogue and actually works off a tape loop which, of course, is inherently noisy by comparison with digital. But, believe it or not, you can use that in a professional situation and, if it's a bashy sort of track with a lot of cymbals and things kicking around, any noise the Roland generates vanishes into just background hiss which you don't hear. That's probably third on the list and a jolly good idea to have."
"After that it's up to one's own desires. If you're recording a lot of synthesised things, and I suppose a lot of people at home are doing that, and using drum machines rather than real drummers (in which case we don't need to talk about microphones) and they're DI'ing things from various synthesisers, then you might require something in the realms of a mixing desk which has got enough cross routes and patterns in it for you to blend signals together."
"I'm not talking about the amount of EQ it might have, but its versatility as a 'sewing machine' to be able to join together the bits, route things to where you want them to go. Mixers do vary quite considerably on the way you can punch things together and across to each other."
"There are so many manufacturers and they are all about par. It's horses for courses: you have to decide exactly what it is you want and why, and then go and find someone that makes it. You'll find that these days all these retailers will be falling over themselves to be helpful because the customer that comes in to buy a mixer is a customer who, if he's happy, is going to come back time and time again for his next mic, his next effect, his next little outboard, so everyone is very helpful. You don't need to go in armed with too much information - you must just know what you want and then get them to recommend something that does it at the price you are interested in."
Do you have any thoughts on the drummers versus drum machines argument?
"For cheapness, if you've got one guy who is working all alone and he's got a firm fixed idea about the rhythm pattern that he wants in his song, then surely one would think that it would be much more sensible for him to employ a drum machine because he can get what he wants — he can start and stop and fiddle about, work all his rhythm chains out and get it to sound right for him, for his song, much easier than have someone come in."
"I suppose you're trying to get at it from the point of view of loss of feel. Well, yes, you will have to sacrifice that kind of thing, but then it is actually the end product that you must be looking at. If the drums aren't that important - it's just a rhythm keeper with a couple of nice frills, and what he's trying to get over is the melody and chords, perhaps for a publishing demo or a record deal; then as he has actually worked not just the drum machine, but the bass, the synths and all the other things himself, it will have been one person and it will tend to get some of the feel back. It tends to make the drum machine less of a hideous thing to have."
"When I'm doing TV commercials, I must confess that I always use something like a Linn drum machine, because it's easier as I am doing everything on my own. Another reason is that it means I can change my mind at a moment's notice without having to explain to, or possibly even argue with somebody that doesn't want to change! It's easier."
"But if I was recording a band where the music was a fusion of several people then I wouldn't think of using a drum machine. I might have one as a guide part on the backing track for the drummer to play to. But if you're going to make a piece of music that involves more than one person and there's lots of magical moments going to come out, then obviously you'd use real drums. It's not a hard and fast rule but it's "sort of right."
Well we've talked about the guy at home by himself a lot, but what do you think about bands trying to record live? Bearing in mind that a young band would be much more experienced at playing together than trying to build up tracks.
"It would be great if lots of people tried to do things all in one take. If they were going to do that they could buy something like the Sony PCM F1 stereo digital recorder. I've been using that - it's been very useful. You can go anywhere you want with that, bounce it onto multitrack for effects and it's beautifully quiet. You can use it for recording sound effects and for recording bands in small rooms. It's great stuff. It also doubles as your home Betamax video recorder!"
"Anyway, when I've had the people in to stop the rising damp in my present basement then I'll actually be putting my money where my mouth is. Other people have done it and it works a treat. They don't even bother to go to studios any more. There's not much you can't do at home."
The world is your oyster?
"It is. It's never been better and it's going to get better as the months go on. I can't wait to see what home recording is going to be like in the middle of 1986/87. As long as you use common sense and you use your ears. Big ears and lots of pre-planning - you can't get it wrong."
"The recording equipment is only a tool, like a hacksaw or an electric drill or a paint stripper or a chain saw; it's only as good as the person using it and the intelligence of the person using it. It will only do what it's told. So if you get a duff sound whose fault is it? You switch it on and the light comes on. So it works! It's up to you then, and that's it."
Interview by Janet Angus
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