Janet Angus talks to Robin about practically everything.
This month, Janet Angus talks to one of the more well known — and articulate — current producers.
Three years ago Robin Millar was virtually unknown in the UK. On the continent however, (France in particular), it was quite a different story. From North London schoolboy to big shot producer in gay Paris is rather a large leap, and requires elaboration. European success eventually failed to satisfy the man's incredible driving ambition. He packed his bags, returned to England, and set out to show us exactly what he was made of. To date, his studio has turned out to be one of London's biggest and most prestigious recording complexes (Power Plant), and production credits including Everything but the Girl, Working Week, Sade, Big Sound Authority, The Bluebells, Pale Fountains, Tom Robinson and the Kane Gang.
As a schoolboy, Robin had a very rich, rigid and intense musical training with lessons in singing, piano and finally, at the grand old age of ten, the guitar. This last instrument gradually drew him away from his classical music background towards blues and R&B and eventually jazz. His formal piano training left him with a thorough grounding in the basics of harmony and counterpoint and his departure from that particular musical area left him free to develop improvisatory skills.
When his treble voice finally broke, he tried a bit of singing with his own music but didn't particularly enjoy his new light baritone. 'I was now into blues, jazz, rock and pop, and I had a stab at being a singer/songwriter superstar but I sounded too strained - it wasn't quirky and had no individual style.'
Academic life continued at Queen's College, Cambridge where he studied music and law: 'The law was to exercise my brain, and I thought it would stand me in good stead.' On graduation the naive young man wrote to all the record companies thinking they would fall over themselves to offer him a job. But we all know record companies are not quite like that! They all said go away, except for Polygram where I got a job in the royalties department, and eventually became manager. This lasted nine months, and that's the only 9-5 job I have ever had!'
He decided that he had to get out and at least try to make it as a musician. 'Besides, I used to get fed up with sending out vast quantities of money to people like Slade and the Rubettes! I was approached by a French friend to make a record: 'Rock 'n' Roll, Who Needs Rock 'n' Roll?' So we went into IBC (now Portland Recorders) where Status Quo had been in the day before, and it was so exciting. We were completely naive and I'd never been in a studio before. I didn't even know what a producer was supposed to do and I ended up being credited with the production... I just thought somebody should be telling the engineer where to put things and how to do it - no one else was doing it, so I did.' Since the writing, playing and production was all down to the same people, when the record became an enormous hit in France and Benelux a vast sum of money came their way. This kind of instant easy success could go to a person's head... it did.
'I moved to Paris and had a whale of a time for two years - spent all the money I had earned, did no music whatsoever, ran out of money and thought I'd better go and make another record.' If only life were that simple. Robin quickly discovered that had he never had a successful record he would probably have been in a better position than he was now with a two year old hit which had received absolutely no follow-up.
Successful or not, one still has to eat, and so Robin made his way into the Parisian Metro Busking Society which did, and still does, contain an enormous amount of talent. The French are very into technique, so I zipped around the guitar. The society was quite highly developed at that time with French, English, Americans and Canadians, and there was an Algerian who was also doing session work and through him I got involved too. It was up and down, but I was making a reasonable and progressively better living. I did a lot of things for nothing just to be in the studio.'
Having made the acquaintance of people who worked at Le Chateau just outside Paris (already quite famous through works by David Bowie, Grateful Dead, and of course Elton John's Honky Chateau album), Robin started hanging around - tape oping and making the tea. Well that was the idea anyway but 'I was always full of bright ideas and very pushy. You can sit at the back of the room for ten years and no one would notice, so instead of just making tea I would suggest things. I started being left to sit at the desk and do things. You learn a lot of theory and you learn a lot by watching people working but until you do it yourself... it's like reading books about making love, when you actually get into bed with someone it's totally different to what you thought.'
'You can get bogged down by the technical possibilities and options available to you to a point where you can lose direction and you can lose creativity. Generally speaking 'works of art' that will have lasting public appeal and are considered great, are works of art that excel within a limited framework. For example, most paintings are in a square or rectangular frame and we have to paint something in there that is super good.
'It is much more difficult to assess free verse than a sonnet. A sonnet is always 14 lines long, divided into 8 and 6 lines of a certain length, and within that framework people can tell whether or not it's good. That's the public test. The public can only have a certain depth of understanding.
When people work within a discipline they have a framework as their starting point. The possibility of linking any number of machines and having any keyboard or sound processing device - a sea of possibilities - can become too much. You have to very carefully limit and discipline yourself about which you are going to use and say: for this song it is ridiculous to use more than 24 tracks; for this song we do not need a Fairlight, we will take this synthesiser that the keyboard player owns and get the sound we want; or, the main melody is so good it doesn't seem to need harmonies, so we won't use any; this song is excellently structured and doesn't need a computer to mix it, so we'll do it by hand; the dynamics are shaped in such a way that will sound good on analogue ¼" as opposed to ½", so we will not hire in a Sony PCM1610 digital mastering machine.'
The Power Plant has a lot of facilities, and possibilities to add on anything you might require, and I watch people lost in a sea of overindulgence in technology who are losing their way, eating up more and more money and studio time. They have not done what they should have done before they walked into a £1000 a day studio: that is to sit down with a 4-track machine and shape their ideas to get priorities; demoing material to the point where it is satisfying to listen to on 4-track.
'I have seen people spend three days in Power Plant trying to get their bass drum sound, and I have seen the band after those three days, and the relationship between the record company, the producer, the manager and the band as they eat away more and more money and I watch what happens to the record. I have drawn my own conclusions.'
Robin has somehow acquired a reputation for not being particularly into the 'new technology', and this may be attributed in part to the fact that it's obvious he will not learn his lessons in the session, preferring to do his homework first. To this end, when the Sade album number two is complete, he intends to devote the remainder of 1985 (some four months) to working with drum machines, sequencers, sound samplers and synthesisers.
'The time has come for all things to be brought into perspective with music. I have always been interested in computer science in music and I spent a lot of time recently with acoustic based music. I know there is a lot I could do with computer technology. If you have a bloke playing a simple drum pattern and then you have three percussionists; if they are good they won't try to get every beat mathematically the same as the drummer; a tension is created between them, slightly shifting. They are all playing in time but they get tension, emotion and feeling.
'People buying records have heard by now what a digital reverb sounds like on a snare and they have heard what sound sampling can do and it's not going to excite them any more. The first time you heard it you went 'Wow - incredible!' Now people have to do more. People have to think about what they can do. It's like putting men into space: in the beginning just putting them into space was enough. Eventually the American public would stop putting money into a space programme that was not satisfying scientists.
'All the sound processing developments made recently seem to be orientated towards making loud noises, therefore people tend to make loud records. I'm thinking about Trevor Horn who has had an illustrious though relatively short career to date - he has actually made relatively few records. He has learned very very well how to be loud on a record. He has never been quiet on a record he's been involved with. He hasn't learned to be. Eden and Diamond Life did so well because they came in the middle of all this and so appeared quite revolutionary. There's definitely a place for subtle reverb in spaces rather than things that go bump in the night, and I think it came as a shock to some people. '
"...it's just the manufacturers telling us what we need. They're telling us we can't make records on analogue machines."
Due to what Robin calls being in the right place at the right time, an opportunity to produce Cirkel & Co presented itself. The Punk movement hit France in a very big way long before we had even heard of the Sex Pistols. Robin was at head of the change in Paris and it marked a turning point in his career.
He came to London's Maitrix Studios and recorded a 12" 'very, very quickly. I played guitar and produced it. There was an Argentine drummer, a French guy belting away incompetently on the bass and a drug-crazed Lou Reed clone on vocals. But it was the most exciting thing I had ever done! Of course the record companies all said 'Go away you nasty people' (or words to that effect), but Pierre at the Chateau was persuaded to press 12,000 copies which we sold from a van on the corner of the market - we sold all the copies in one weekend.' With extraordinary clarity of thinking they spoke to all the radio stations and papers involved in compiling the national chart, who had to concede that since Robin's crowd had sold so many more records than some of the chart people, they really should be placed, and they were.
'Suddenly all the new wave and punk bands who had been working in basements came into the daylight and started getting work.' There followed five years of hard production work, right up until 1980 and then the bubble burst. 'It burst really quickly in France and went back to heavy rock, Bruce Springsteen clones and pop - so it had just gone. I had done well out of it financially. I had spent every minute of every day and night in a studio for 5½ years and felt I knew an awful lot about what was right and what was wrong about studios. I wanted to make it in my own country, so I came back to England.'
It would seem rather odd that someone who has come to England to make a name for himself as a record producer kicks off his campaign with taking on an incredibly expensive studio project. The reasons are two-fold: firstly he has very strong feelings about the attitude, atmosphere and approach of the studios which don't really fit his (and many others' in his opinion) personality or way of working; secondly he was aware that it would be virtually impossible to get any production work in England when all he could show people was foreign recordings.
'I have a saying that if the front door is shut, then you go round the side and get in that way. Then you find yourself standing on the other side of the door that was shut. So I begged, borrowed and stole every penny I could and bought Morgan Studios and started systematically to rebuild it.'
'Slowly the English music industry became aware that some bloke had bought Morgan Studios and renamed it Power Plant and they began to be curious about who I was and what I was doing.' This curiosity provided just enough leverage for Robin to get people to listen to some of his past work, and thus the England conquest began. The first project was a Weekend album Le Variete which was put out by Rough Trade and was very successful on the indie chart. ('It was the first Rough Trade record to get into Woolworths!')
'I have been involved in six LPs either wholly or in part and every single one has been top 20, as well as five top 40 singles. Singles aren't so important to me because there are so many reasons why they may or may not make it. You have to have a phlegmatic and pragmatic attitude to it - you just give it up to the world and see what happens. It's terribly important that the group or artist is happy with it, but you can't get upset if it doesn't make it. The biggest selling thing I have done was 'Rock 'n' Roll, Who Needs Rock 'n' Roll' and it's garbage. Some good things that I have done haven't made it. It may just have been that they were too slow to play on Radio 1 because of the weather - it can be as simple as that.'
'In the music business we seem to be told what we need by manufacturers who want to make money out of us. The biggest single current items in that respect are digital recording, digital sound processing and digital desks. I use my ears and listen to what other people say. The first digital records were by Ry Cooder, Donald Fagin and some classical composers, and people were rushing in saying 'Wow, incredible, listen to this.' That lasted about three months (I'm talking about musicians and the public). Now people are bringing early soul records into the studio and saying 'I want to get a sound like this.'
'Manufacturers are committed to digital and the CD and they want us all to buy it and use it. Apart from the fact that you get much less deterioration of sound as the tape passes over the heads time and time again and that you get no tape hiss and better signal to noise ratio, the sound is infinitely inferior to analogue. If you listen to it and don't get beguiled by the lack of hiss, it doesn't sound as sweet. It isn't an exact replica of what is being recorded. It is a technical representation of what is being recorded.
'And even if it were an exact replica, it's like the photographer: (this is a joke metaphor). You go to a photographer and you give him a digital camera and say to him 'Here is a digital camera and I guarantee you your picture will have no white border and you won't be able to tell the difference between the picture and the real thing. It will be an exact replica.' and the photographer replies: 'But I like photographs.'
'I just wish that people growing up in all this digital stuff would meet someone who says 'Before you do it you should learn what you can do with a microphone and a tape recorder just by moving things around.' Creative lining up of the tape recorder - that's another thing; it's like choosing your ASA or filter on the camera to achieve the results you want. When you consider that digital multitrack takes all these processes away: the possibility of more than 10% varispeed and the possibility of razor blade edit. (This is true with the Sony definitely, but I haven't had a chance to see the Mitsubishi yet.) Also, it is so expensive that it's not viable in the current marketplace. Recording costs a certain amount of money, studio prices are so high that it is a waste of time putting unknown bands into the good studios that are so expensive. The whole SSL affair is the same. What annoys me - I'm very radical and very progressive in what I think about studios and what they should do - is that it's just the manufacturers telling us what we need. They're telling us we can't make records on analogue tape machines.'
'I don't knock SSL'. On the contrary the newest room at Power Plant has a 36-channel SSL console as its centrepiece. 'They are brilliantly designed with on-board features making it good for one man operation, a particular kind of EQ which makes it very easy to get a hard bright sound, but I've got two Harrison consoles in this building which are also brilliantly designed: compact, highly sensitive, reliable, with impeccably clean signal path, subtle EQ and a hundred miles above what you need to make a good record. Some A&R men who don't know anything tell you that their artist has to use an SSL. It's got nothing to do with the fact that the guitar sounds better coming out of an SSL than anything else because it doesn't.'
'Having to use modern technology to make music - you need a greater sense of dynamics particularly when using digital tape. It is inevitable and desirable that analogue tape will disappear, it's just the way technology has been sold to us and the way people have been using it. We've all got to, at a judicious moment, sit down and re-educate ourselves to work in this new medium, so we don't lose a sense of space. I think I would tend to make a noise if I was surrounded by all the effects and things.'
Appropriate use of technology, then, is the key. At the time of the interview Robin had recently been approached by one of the weekly music papers to write an article on home recording. The paper is fairly heavy rock orientated and under Robin's photograph was the caption: King of Wimp, '...which they chose, I suppose, because they don't like the music I do, but I assumed they respect what I do or surely they wouldn't have asked me to write it. At first I was angry and I thought I would go and play them a kind of retrospective Robin Millar with all the loud, noisy anarchic music which I did for seven years. It is simply that I was chosen to produce Everything But The Girl and Sade, and it would have been non-sensical to make them sound like that.'
'I am actually dying to make a loud record again! My hearing was tested the other day and it is still perfect in both ears (we use nearfield monitoring here - you can get the power, loudness and sense of noise without the sound pressure), and I was almost disappointed!'
"...I watch people lost in a sea of overindulgence in technology who are losing their way, eating up more and more money and studio time."
'I tell the tape ops here that their ears are their future and that every time you listen to the monitors too loud it's like everytime I smoke another cigarette. (It doesn't seem to stop me.) At the end of the day the band usually wants to have everything up loud and I don't say anything, I just turn my chair round so the sound has got to go to the back of the room first and is therefore quieter when it reaches me.'
'The Millar approach in the studio has seen many changes before reaching the maturity of 1985. In the beginning, nine years ago, I thought I was master of everything instead of just one link in the chain and I had the curious notion that I was a complete genius and these pathetic musicians would not be able to play their stuff and so that meant I could play everything.
'I started to find that with this attitude three weeks after I had finished a project, the band wouldn't talk to me because I had made my record and not theirs. Also, the records were not doing very well. I realised that it wasn't me that the record companies had signed and it wasn't me the audience came to see and that, although the band could often only just play the notes it was them that everyone liked. I simply had my job to do, just like them.
'So I decided to experiment, and tried encouraging instead. I found, for one thing, that it was good fun, I enjoyed this; and also the guy was suddenly playing better than ever before and everyone was getting excited. Then the keyboard player listening to this suddenly had a good idea and so the thing snowballed. The band were also going on stage able to play their material better and the records started doing very well.
'The process continued to develop and I think some producers still have yet to go through it. I think it is profoundly soul destroying and deeply dissatisfying for a band to watch a producer doing their record and ignoring them. You develop a care towards the people you work with. You start to get fiercely loyal to them and fiercely concerned that their record does well. You are aware that you are what's between them and the dole queue. You make sure that they don't end up arguing with themselves, make sure that they don't end up arguing with their record company or their manager. I am always absolutely and thoroughly exhausted at the end, but it's a lovely exhaustion.
'I have a lot of friends that I have made producing their music, including people who may be working with another producer now. I don't have people that I don't want to meet or worry about bumping into. People working with other producers phone me up sometimes and play me things because they respect my opinion. You should never feel rejected if a band goes off to another producer. Every producer is different; so it's not fair to stop someone wanting to move on. If you're a good producer you teach the band lots of things and they should need you less and less. You should never feel unpleasantly competitive with other producers taking over projects which you worked on in the past. '
'There aren't any rules. There are people who adhere to rules but they are wrong. Every person, every piece of music, every instrument, everything is different every day. The tracks will change, the piano will change, the mics will change, the person sitting at the piano will change.
'I can't say I always use an (Neumann) 87 or a (AKG) 414 or a valve microphone for vocals - you would be a fool to say that. I listen to the person sitting in the room, and try to choose a microphone. Sometimes I use a different microphone to what they want to hear in their headphones. Some people like to gobble a Shure and so I hang something else up as well. I do lots of things without telling people if it doesn't seem appropriate. Things like, if the bass drum isn't particularly even I will sample it off and trigger it and even it out. Some people you don't tell because they won't notice that they are hearing something different to what they are playing, they'll just say 'Oh wow... amazing bass sound.' Those people you don't tell, but others will look at you and look back at their drums and then back at you and go 'Robin...?' Those ones I tell.
'When I am setting up microphones I go out and listen. I walk around them and find places where I like the sound and that's where I put the mics. If there is something missing from the sound in one part I will walk all over the place and find somewhere that's got that missing element and set up another mic and then blend the two.
'I take an enormous amount of trouble over headphone mixes because that makes such a difference to the way they perform. I am rather against those systems where the player can do their own mix. If someone is playing out of time, and they don't normally, or singing out of tune, and they don't normally, it's all your fault. So you've got to try and do a lot to make it better, even if you have to use a speaker and find a way of reducing the spill. Frankly, a little bit of spill from a speaker is better than an inadequate performance.
'I tend not to compress things too much, though I like compressed guitar for certain things and compressed congas occasionally. It's best to try and learn the part and ride it on the fader as they are playing it. If I am working with a group and want to eliminate the feeling that it was done in the studio, get the feeling that you were there, I tend to make a notional set up as you would like to hear it. I draw a map of the room. Usually on the first day I get them all in together, listen, and move them a little bit to get the sound right. Then when I record them they stand in the same places. I usually put up a couple of ambient mics which I will blend in with the close mics and I won't move them throughout the project. So you are constantly stamping the sound with the same space. It makes it easier to mix.
'If I can avoid putting EQ on at the recording stage I will. If I do use EQ I make a written note of what I use, because when you come to mix you have lost your conception of what the original sound was like.
'It's much better to move your microphone around to get the sound. At least you know what your original sound was like and you can get back to it. If you have the facility and the tracks free, you can record the same thing flat as well, so you have a reference point; or you can do it on to ¼" or an F1. You have to always have an eye to your finished article. You have to leave room for spontaneity, but you must have an idea of what it is going to sound like at the end. You know then if something doesn't sound right. Strategy rather than tactics is the key. Think through what's going to happen rather than just banging it into record and banging it off again and ending up with the situation where 'the bass sounds dull now that the guitar is bright...'
'As far as momentum is concerned, don't get bogged down. Don't forget that the group are there. If you've got to bounce tracks send them off to do something or come in early the next day to do it. Don't worry if you can't find the right thing or you all run out of ideas for the chorus link or something - leave it, don't worry about it. Someone will come up with something. Be very strong, and very tough. The band want to be told, even big artists want to be told. You're singing flat McCartney, go away. We'll work on something else and do it tomorrow. The tape will not die if you don't do your vocal now. It'll be alright in the morning!
'We dominate this room, it doesn't dominate us. You have to say that, remind the musicians of that and that we must enjoy it. So many people have unpleasant days going into unpleasant nights in the studio. It seems to happen more and more to people as they go on and they forget what fun it used to be.
"There aren't any rules. There are people who adhere to rules but they are wrong."
'There aren't any rules apart from the ground rules: think through the tracks, think through the album so that it is made as an album, recorded as an album and hangs together as an album. Beethoven didn't wander around writing the third movement of his symphonies, then write a nine minute piece of jolly music and think 'Oh that's nice, I think I'll stick that at the beginning.' He wrote it as a whole, very carefully thought out, planned composition. The whole thing should create something you enjoy.
'It's very difficult for me to get any more specific about techniques than that. I simply react to what I am doing at the moment. I never do the same thing twice. I won't always use the same compressor on something. Sometimes I have something going all the way through and then take it out and start to fill in some of the gaps. I don't always record drums first. Absolutely hopeless isn't it?
'If the feel which I want on a track is a chorused piano then I will set it up as a chorused piano and he will get it in his headphones as a chorused piano, so he will play it like a chorused piano. If the idea is an effected sound I will tend to put it down straight away.
'Always record the first run-through. If there is one golden rule for making a record that's it. It's the only time that the group feels safe in the whole session. It's true even of the most seasoned session men that there will be something on that first run-through which is special and you will never get again.'
'The other golden rule is when you are working with a synthesiser player bring a pair of handcuffs. You tell the guy what sort of sound you want and he says, 'Oh I know exactly what you mean' and gets the sound straight away. You say 'Great,' and he goes 'No, no, no, I've got a much better one than that,' 'Well don't lose it,' 'Oh no, I can put it in the memory, 64, there you go.' Ten minutes later: 'The first sound you had was great, really.' 'Oh alright, memory 67' and it's nothing like it. It's a perpetual nightmare. So when you get the sound you want handcuff the synth player, gaffer tape every setting on his synthesiser while you record and don't let him go until you've finished.'
Robin Millar is one of 18 members on the committee of the recently formed APRS Producers' Guild and this interview proved a good opportunity to find out exactly what the guild has formed to achieve and what its aims are. Robin is rather unusual as producers go in that having your own studios and working in them on a daily basis you actually come into contact with quite a few other producers. Most of them do not have the opportunity to do this, and lead an isolated existence. So the bringing together of members of a profession would seem to be the most obvious aim.
'The Producers' Guild has been so good because you realise that they are all just a bunch of human beings sitting round a table. It's very easy for a producer to look around at all the others and think 'Oh God, everyone is on top of their work except me.' But with something like the Guild you find out that everyone else is just the same as you. Two to three years ago the word genius was being bandied about in connection with producers and I think it is inappropriate; talented perhaps, very talented perhaps, but not genius.
The Guild is a good opportunity for producers to meet and exchange ideas about what is good or bad in this respect or that respect. Amongst your peers, and without embarrassment, you can learn a lot. Very early on everyone decided not to just be quiet and pretend to know everything.
'It's very like a group therapy! A producer in demand is under a lot of pressure, stress, blame - it could drive you to drink, drugs. It is a kind of therapy. It's the only time when they can display any weakness and unsureness because in the studio they have to be strong, and they are. It is very, very good for getting people more relaxed.
'As a united group we can exert pressure on manufacturers and record companies to change. We had a meeting with two representatives from Sony which ended up with a letter from us going to Japan and we think we will be able to influence them to change certain things. We are doing the same thing with Studer and Mitsubishi too.
'In the record companies there are A&R men who should learn more about what goes into making records before making arbitrary decisions like remixing or cutting without telling the producer so he can be there. As a group we can get standard clauses into the contracts. It's similar to when there used not to be auditing clauses in band contracts so you couldn't check the record company's books.
'We also aim to improve things for the people coming up behind us - the younger generation where the attitude towards them is no points, no money, you pay us to work here. The MU has meant that a musician can't walk out of a studio with less than 45 quid in his pocket and I think that's good. It would be nice if a producer couldn't walk out with less than one point and £100 for one track.
'We also want to put pressure on studios like mine to maintain standards, pull their socks up. I think the sort of things I'm talking about would surprise people really. It's not things like having at least six AMSs and a 56-channel SSL in the loo; it's things like not making a tape-op work more than so many hours a week. We have all worked with tape ops who are fundamentally ill or who have collapsed in the middle of sessions - they can't afford to eat properly and they are living in appalling conditions because they don't earn enough money. We have all seen the tape op who has already been on the go for 48 hours and is about to go into another 12 hour session. It's ridiculous. It's like the Dark Ages, and it's unnecessary.
'Other aspects include maintenance, like studios that don't have a night contact or do not carry out preventative maintenance.
'The Guild has a committee of 18, and to become a member you just put your name forward and get voted on by a majority, based mainly on what you have done (not necessarily your chart success).'
'There is a magic about recording and being in a studio and once it is in your blood you can never get away from it. It can be frustrating if you are lumbered with someone with a bad attitude to their work as well as bad technique - you may wish he was someone else, but it is never boring. At IBC when we did that song, that was the first time I felt that magic, when I was able to play back on that monster machine on the big monitors.
'I have been accused of being anti technology, anti this and anti that, but I believe in getting the most enjoyment out of performance on records. With a bit of luck and with the right mood being created, people will deliver performances that will lead to cheering in the studio, cartwheels, kissing and cuddling... and that's a reaction I've never experienced on completing a LinnDrum program.'
Interview by Janet Angus
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