Chas de Whalley chews the fat with Howard Grey, the young turk behind some of UB40's and Scritti Politti's finest moments
Some guys have all the luck, some guys get all the breaks. So the old song has it and, in the case of Howard Gray, the old song certainly has it right.
To hear this quiet 24 year old tell the tale of his career in the record business is a little like listening to Hans Christian Andersen at work on a fairy story. It all sounds so unreal and yet wishes can come true.
Try this for starters. It's 1980 and this Liverpudlian lad is in his last couple of terms at school. Higher Education looms on the horizon but instead young Howard decides he wants to become a studio engineer. So he picks up the latest edition of International Musician, turns to the back pages, and, writing to all the recording studios he finds listed there, he utters the magic words: 'Gissa Job'. Within a fortnight he gets an interview at the world-famous Manor and the week before he is due to sit his A levels those Virgin people offer him the gig of his dreams as a tea-boy cum tape op cum trainee engineer.
"That certainly blew all my incentive to keep studying", laughs Gray who, though now some six years older with a whole world of experience behind him, seems to have lost little of his boyish charm.
"I was the only resident tape op at The Manor and there were always a lot of really big names coming through so it was a case of cutting it quickly or getting thrown out. I stayed there for 18 months and sometimes I'd end up working for three months solid without a day off. It was hard but it was worth it because I learned so much working with some brilliant engineers like Hugh Padgham, Steve Lillywhite, Mick Glossop, and Richard Mainwaring."
Transferring to the Townhouse, that little corner of Richard Branson's empire which will be forever down The Goldhawk Road, Howard Gray spent another year or so as house engineer until a call from UB40 tempted him to go freelance.
"I'd already done some work with them on UB40 Four and their live album and hit it off well with both the band and Ray Falconer their soundman and resident producer. They were just about to start that album of old Reggae standards Labour Of Love in their new studio in Birmingham and they asked me to engineer it. I love Reggae and Dub so I jumped at the opportunity.
"It started off as a nightmare because they'd bought an old meat packing factory, which I suggested they call the Abbatoir. The control room was a big old fridge and all they had in it was a Soundcraft desk, a couple of tatty Tannoy monitors, an old 3M 24 track machine and the most horrendously wired patchbay you could possibly imagine. After we'd spent a week trying to get it to work we had to call in a guy to rewire the whole place.
"That's when I learned the real value of my training. A lot of the time what was coming back through the monitors was untrustworthy to say the least. I had to go by my instincts. It was a case of: 'This doesn't sound right but I know what it sounds like in the room and I've added plus three at 8k so it should be on tape okay.' Once we took it to the Townhouse to mix, it turned into a really happening album."
Not just technically but musically too Labour Of Love proved a bit of a tussle. UB40 being, apparently, not the most organised of operations and one of those bands who fight like cats and dogs in a studio but remain the best of friends at the end of the day.
"The bass was the biggest problem because Reggae bass players literally play with all the treble wound off their instruments and their amplifiers. All they want to hear in the studio is the ground shaking like they're at a blues party. And while UB40 are truly a Reggae band they're also a Pop proposition and so they have to come across on the radio. So I had to talk Earl (Falconer) into turning a little treble into his tone, which was not easy. We spent a lot of time working on the bass lines of that album, taking a lot of the low lumpy middle out at about 300-400Hz and homing in sharply on the 80 to 100Hz range. I'm not afraid of putting really low stuff down too, like 50 or 40 Hz because I think you really feel it. A lot of people shy away and think that because it won't be heard on the radio or record player it contributes nothing. But I believe that really high and really low frequencies, even the ones you can't really hear, have a subliminal effect on all the frequencies in between. So I often put in a bit of 14 or 16k which shouldn't make a lot of difference but adds a crispness."
Quite unexpectedly UB40 chose to give Howard Gray a co-production credit on Labour Of Love and before you could say 'more bass man' the album went straight to Number One and Red Red Wine was the first of a string of massive selling hit singles.
"It was the first album I'd ever engineered from start to finish and suddenly I had a reputation and so many offers of work I could hardly believe it!"
Sensibly, however, he resisted all temptation to go it alone as a producer so early in his career and instead threw in his lot with Steve Lillywhite, following him to foreign parts to work with the likes of The Pretenders, former Abba songstress Frida, as well as Simple Minds' Sparkle In The Rain LP.
Then came Scritti Politti and the Cupid and Psyche 85 collection which not only satisfied a personal ambition but also truly launched Howard Gray into an international marketplace. While Arif Mardin copped most of the acclaim for Absolute and Wood Beez, it was Gray who did the donkeywork on an LP which, by any standards, is a triumph of Eq'ing and sound replacement.
"We spend a lot of time on that album. Everything was worked out very carefully, which isn't my usual approach at ail, because I like things to be free and loose and spontaneous.
But with Scritti everything was very precise and pristine. With the exception of The Word Girl which went down very quickly, very little of the album was played as such. Just about everything was programmed and sequenced.
"David Gamson is a tremendous arranger which is a great help. I recorded a lot of the reverb and effects and EQs as I was going in an attempt to make everything on the multitrack sound like it should in the final mix. Nevertheless balancing the vocals and everything else took a long time. Some tracks took five days to mix! We felt it was important to get it just so. Everything went down on that record so perfectly that we didn't feel we should sell it short in any respect. And I think we were vindicated in the end because it turned out really well."
It is perhaps through Scritti Politti's Cupid and Psyche album that we get our best view of Howard Gray's exemplary skill as an engineer. On what is already a very bright album, with drum machines and keyboards vying for the high middle ground Green's pure, breathy falsetto still shines through, slightly compressed, a single vocal track subtly supported, so Gray recalls, by a soupcon of 35 millisecond delay spread in stereo across the AMS.
"I often find that doubling a vocal will detract from the character of the performance. So I'm always looking for ways to support a voice without it sounding artificial. Delayed plate reverb is good. One of the ways you can help separate a vocal from everything else on the track when you're mixing is never to use the effect on the vocal for anything else in the mix."
Since Scritti, of course, Howard Gray has been manfully employed producing an assortment of bands like The Red Guitars, The Associates and The Screaming Blue Messiahs. But when we spoke he was a couple of hours away from jetting to New York to indulge his love of Jazz by recording a contribution by current Big Apple hepcats The Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy on the forthcoming album by Virgin's latest signing Spenser Tracy. He was then set to fly to PUK Studios in Denmark to finish the tracks off. A punishing schedule maybe but Howard Gray seemed to thrive on it.
"I think PUK is the best studio in Europe. It's got the biggest control room I've ever seen, with the biggest monitors with 4x30" drivers in each cabinet. Everything else is digital. They've got the Mitsubishi 32 track mastering machine and 56 channel Calrec desk which sounds even better than SSL to my ears. Which may seem like an absurd thing to say when you think just how revolutionary SSL was, both in terms of ergonomics and sound quality. But the fact is that SSL have been updating their Eq circuits to counter the criticism that their Q bandwidth is just a little too sharp and narrow and so you can detect a certain harshness and brittleness in the sound. The thing about the Calrec desk is that it's more flexible so you can get a rounder tone."
Howard Gray was also fulsome in his praise of outboard Eq units, and in particular a set of George Massenberg units which also come as standard at PUK. Massenberg's name crops up most frequently among the engineering credits on Earth Wind and Fire albums, which is no mean credential, and the Massenberg designed five band parametric system is apparently something to be heard to be believed. During the Spenser Tracy sessions, where acoustic instrumentation like piano, accordion, double bass and Spanish guitar were married up with the latest Linn 9000 and Page R Fairlight, Gray found them invaluable.
"It was almost the perfect way to go about making a record. They had got masses of old valve microphones there which they bought from a radio station. So we had acoustic instruments through valve mikes coming through the cleanest desk available with the best EQ you can get. It was an engineer's dream."
Feature by Chas de Whalley
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