The Sound of Success
Article from Music Technology, April 1987
Still in his early 30s, yet a man who's worked with The Police, Genesis, Bowie and McCartney, Padgham is one of the most successful young producers in the world. Paul Tingen coaxes him into revealing a few secrets.
His 30th birthday wasn't too long ago, yet already, producer Hugh Padgham has worked with Genesis, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and The Police. Is he a genuine and reliable innovator, or did he just get lucky?
HUGH PADGHAM LIVES in a relatively modest house in Hammersmith, West London. Inside it, there are few things which hint at the fact that here lives one of the world's most successful record producers, a man who has worked with the likes of David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Genesis, and a man who — with the help of Steve Lillywhite and Phil Collins - started a revolution in the sound of drums.
At the back of Padgham's house there's an extension, covered by a glass roof. Underneath is the living area. A huge sofa, lots of plants, and a fluorescent lamp spreading a strange coloured light. It isn't until we visit the bathroom that we discover a small selection of platinum and gold records, a photograph of Padgham with Sting, and a card signed "Paul and Linda".
Back in the living room, Padgham is pouring some drinks. He is dressed in a black shirt, has blond hair and friendly blue eyes. He is obviously very tired, yawning while leaning back on the sofa, a beer glass hanging loosely in his hand. Yet his relaxed, easy-going manner puts writer and photographer at ease instantly. He is clearly used to dealing with people — an asset which must have played a part in his monumental success as a record producer.
Initially, it's hard to get him interested in conversation. He rubs his eyes frequently, and talks softly, monotonously. It isn't until a remark is made about his continued involvement with artists like Bowie, McCartney, Genesis and The Police that he suddenly comes to life. He was once renowned for his work with obscure and progressive artists, so what's he doing now, working with older, established acts? Padgham suddenly raises his voice.
"I think all these people, the Bowies, the McCartneys and so on, come from an era when playing and liking music seemed more important than having a good haircut. The people you've mentioned are all very talented individuals and surround themselves with good musicians. I would get, and have been, frustrated, having to work with groups where people can't play. I'm just not interested in that, because then you've got to get all political and get somebody else in to play which will upset the band, and so on. I'm not into music for people's haircuts, I'm into music for music. I'm not prepared to waste my time sitting in a studio with somebody who can't play.
"I'm not saying that young groups can't play. There are plenty of young groups with competent musicians, and I think the emphasis is getting back on playing again. But if someone asks me why I work with these old fuddy-duddies, then the answer must be that I do it mainly because I like them and their music."
Hugh Padgham was born 31 years ago, not far from London. His parents were amateur musicians, and his father built organs and spinets in his spare time. At the age of ten, the young Padgham started taking piano lessons, later switching to drums and finally bass guitar while playing in a jazz band. Rehearsals with this group were recorded on an old mono Ferrograph recorder, a device which quickly became something of an obsession for the band's bass player. This fascination, together with the realisation that he wasn't terribly proficient as a bass player, determined the course of his career to come...
"I wanted to become a professional musician, but I figured that if I was thrown out of this band, no other band would hire me. So I decided to become a studio engineer, and bought a lot of studio magazines. My parents didn't like it very much. They wanted me to go to University and all that sort of thing, and if I had to work in a studio, then I should go to the BBC and get some formal training. But I didn't want to do that. So I wrote to a lot of studios and ended up with a job at Advision as a tape-op-cum-tea-boy-cum-gopher. That was pretty exciting."
The excitement vanished quickly, though, as Advision's engineer wasn't willing to share any of his studio expertise. Padgham got made redundant on top, and continued his apprenticeship at Lansdowne Studios. Later, via the Manor Mobile, he came to work at Virgin's Townhouse Studios. And it was there that he ran into Steve Lillywhite.
"Steve is exactly the same age as me, and we had a similar attitude and taste as far as music was concerned. We enjoyed working together, and as a result did a lot of bands together like The Members and XTC. It was with XTC that our careers started taking off because the two albums we did, Black Sea and Drums and Wires, were very well regarded."
The duo's real breakthrough, however, came with their work on Peter Gabriel's third album, which has since become a milestone in modern pop and rock. On it, drummer Phil Collins, producer Lillywhite and engineer Padgham created their revolutionary "full frontal" drum sound, using ambient mics and noise gates. Subsequently, Collins asked Padgham to produce his first solo album, Face Value. The success of this record led Padgham to co-produce with XTC (English Settlement); The Police (Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity); Genesis (all albums since Abacab); Phil Collins again (Hello, I Must Be Going and No Jacket Required); David Bowie (Tonight); and most recently Paul Young (Between Two Fires) and Paul McCartney (Press To Play).
But the Gabriel venture is still the one which brings a spark to Padgham's eyes. Gesturing wildly with his hands, he explains how that new approach to recording drums came into being...
"Somewhere, halfway through the '70s, Steve and I started getting sick and tired of hearing all those terribly close-miked drums on records. Everything was padded up to the hilt. We figured that when you went to a gig or stood next to somebody playing drums, it sounded incredibly loud. You can't stand being there for too long.
"So we thought: 'Why don't drums sound like that on records?'. As it happened, the Townhouse had a separate room with quite a live sound. There we started using room mics as far away from the drums as possible, and getting this big, ambient sound which you hear on Gabriel's 'Intruder' or Phil's 'In the Air Tonight'. It's just two mics in the room, with some close mics to pinpoint specific sounds." Those techniques became common property in the studio world - though before then, it was almost exclusively Padgham's and Lillywhite's trademark.
"It's a long time ago now", Padgham recalls. "Everyone was calling me for this drum sound and I kept saying: 'My God, that's done, why don't you try something new?'."
ASK THIS PRODUCER which direction his work is now taking, and his answers are vague. Not because Padgham is protective about his studio secrets, but because his current approach is intuitive, occasionally improvised, and invariably matter-of-fact.
"I don't really have a system; it just varies with the band or the room I'm working with. I don't spend hours getting a sound together — I get sounds very quickly. I suppose that's one reason people like me. You hear these dreadful stories about people waiting for days while somebody is trying to get the drum sound OK. It usually takes me 10 or 15 minutes to get a sound, because I make sure the drummer is good, the drum-kit is good and the room is good.
"I think the important thing with recording drums is choosing the right microphone and choosing where to put it, rather than spending hours fiddling around with the EQ on the desk. Say I want to add a bit of top frequencies to the snare drum: I might change the mic or maybe I'll back the mic off a bit, so that it's an inch away from the rim and can get more of the floor reflections of the snares underneath the drum. Or, if the drums are on a carpet, I might take that away. Similarly, if I want to hear more attack from the bass drum. I'll change the padding or I might ask the drummer to play with a wooden beater rather than a felt one.
"The mics I use are usually dynamic mics on snare drums and tom toms. Which one depends on the drum-kit. Either Shure or Sennheiser or Beyer — they've all got good mics. I like using a U47 on the bass drum, especially while working with Phil, because he's got a small 20" bass drum.
"With Phil, and this sounds ridiculous, but one time we had three different tom-tom sounds. I'd miked them inside, up above and also via the room mics. So even though he played the drums once, I still had three different drum sounds at my disposal for one song. For the ambient mics I'll use anything, though usually a condenser mic like an 87 or a 47 or the AKG 414. But I always try out new things.
"It's becoming more of a problem to find a good room, because people are using DIs and forgetting about the studio room... It's ridiculous that they're building bigger control rooms at the expense of studio rooms."
"As far as the room goes, it should sound nice and live, though not too live, and you want to make sure it doesn't have a muddy resonance. Yet it's really hard to tell what's a good room and what's not. I've been in some rooms and thought: 'Oh wow, this sounds fantastic'. Then you put the drums in and it turns out that the sound is either uncontrollable or it has a horrible resonance in it.
"It's becoming more and more of a problem to find a good room, because in the '80s people are using more and more drum machines and DIs and are forgetting about the studio room. So there are a lot of studios that have quite a good control room, but the actual studio rooms are terrible. I think it's ridiculous that they're now building bigger and bigger control rooms at the expense of the studio rooms."
Apart from Padgham's preference for live, performed music, there's another reason why he is so bothered about the decline of the studio room. Because as far as he's concerned, drum machines still sound nowhere near as good as real drums...
"Even sampled drums never, ever sound like someone hitting a drum and it being recorded properly. They all have a very bad transience. The quality of a chip in, say, a Linn is just not good enough — the attack time is always somewhat rounded. To me that takes the excitement out of it.
"I'm not against using drum machines. Sometimes using one might be right for the song, and some machines have their own characteristic sounds which you can put to a use of their own. I still love the Roland CR78. It's got all sorts of nice latin sounds, and the bass and snare are useful in a weird sort of way. Nowadays, the Emulator SP12 is pretty good, I think."
Among his fellow producers, Padgham is often scornfully labelled as simply a good engineer who's hired because of his good drum sound and because he's a nice guy, implying that he is not too much of a producer. Such remarks come about partly through jealousy (who wouldn't want to work with Bowie or McCartney?), but there is a hint that Padgham's role in the recording studio isn't that of the typical, all-seeing, all-supervising producer. The hint lies in the fact that in almost every single case over the last few years, Padgham has been credited on albums as co-producer/engineer, rarely producer alone. The man himself is unpretentious about his work.
"I think people hire me because I am a good engineer who gets his sounds quickly. I also get on well with musicians. A lot of working in the studio is diplomacy as much as talent for pressing buttons. As far as my co-producer status goes, there's no way, when you're working with The Police, that you could say: 'I am going to produce you'. They don't want a producer who tells them what to do.
"There are obviously groups who want a producer who's more heavyweight in that sense, like Trevor Horn or Ron Nevison. These guys are known for going in and taking over. I'm not interested in that. I'm just interested in making records.
"I didn't ask to become a co-producer. It just happened and it works well with the sort of acts that I work with. When people like McCartney or Phil ask me to come in and produce an album with them, I'm not going to say: 'Sorry, I've got to produce the whole thing alone or it's not going to happen'. I actually like co-producing. I look at myself as an invisible catalyst. I give feedback and don't keep my mouth shut if I disagree with anything, but also, I don't want to put myself in the foreground too much.
"Still, it's quite a difficult thing to engineer and co-produce at the same time. Just doing the engineering side of things takes a lot of attention, so I guess it works well when I'm working with people who know what they're doing, and who are not looking to me the whole time. I'm one person less to take into account when there's a difference of opinion."
Yet despite his low profile, Padgham does manage to leave an identifiable imprint on the various albums he has engineered and/or co-produced. Not, perhaps, through a consistency in musical approach or arrangements, but through a range of sounds that is recognisable as being his trademark. His records sound "live" and rocky, and it's usually obvious that there are real musicians playing.
Historically, the one occasion where Padgham was hired initially only as engineer and then became co-producer was when he started working with David Bowie on the recording of Tonight...
"Bowie and Derek Bramble had arranged the album together, and I was asked to come in and engineer later on. But because of some friction between Bowie and Bramble, I got more deeply involved in the musical side of things than was originally intended. So Bowie gave me a co-producing credit afterwards, much to my surprise. Still, I wish I'd got involved in an earlier stage of the making of the album, because I don't think it turned out to be a very strong record."
Padgham's collaboration with Genesis and Phil Collins dates back as far as 1981, through his work on Collins' first solo album, Face Value. Genesis' most recent album, Invisible Touch, emerged after some extended sessions at their home studio, The Farm, in Sussex. Padgham was present during most of those sessions, recording them and helping the band sort out the material which was to become the finished, well-crafted album. Remarkable, and at times disturbing, on the end product is the almost continuous use of Simmons drums, giving the album a rather synthetic feel. Given Padgham's declared preference for real drums, this is also rather surprising.
"I have no idea why we used so much Simmons. To be quite honest, I'd never really thought about it. I don't really like electronic drums too much. It just worked out like that. A couple of tracks with real drums on them didn't end up on the album, so I suppose that tipped the balance a bit."
Yet even while working with electronic drums, Padgham stuck to his "room" approach.
"We had Phil playing the Simmons kit in the studio. As well as DI-ing them straight into the desk, we put them through a small mixer into a PA system, playing it back very, very loud in the studio. In that way we tried to get more than just the DI sound. Listening to the album now, I find the Simmons a bit thin and toneless. Perhaps it was us trying too hard to be a bit modern. But I think the album is a good record, because here is a band that could be doing the same thing over and over again, renewing itself and doing something quite fresh."
Paul McCartney asked Padgham to produce Press To Play because he wanted to make a "raunchy" album, away from the MoR area into which he'd felt he'd wandered. So Padgham went ahead and organised a crew of musicians renowned for their capacity for raunchy playing, like Jerry Marotta, Phil Collins and Pete Townsend. The reason the experiment didn't work as well as it could have, says Padgham, was that Eric Stewart (10cc founder member who co-wrote six out of the ten songs on the album) just wasn't the right partner for McCartney.
"If I can record a rhythm track really steaming, I'll do it, and playing with a drum machine is not the best way. You can't expect a drummer to play along to a click-track for five minutes with lots of feeling."
"Eric is very talented, but the song he is most well-known for is a ballad, 'I'm Not In Love'. So in retrospect, while we were trying to make a modern and more ballsy album, that probably wasn't the right combination.
"Apart from that, I think that some songs could have been a bit better. I remember thinking that in the studio, but then I thought: 'I'm working with Paul McCartney; if one guy can write songs, this guy can, so I'm not going to say this song is a pile of shit'. I mean, the man is a living legend. I used to stand in front of the mirror trying to be Paul McCartney with a cardboard cutout when I was six or seven! It wasn't that I was still in awe of him, it was just the repertoire of the songs he has written — it's frightening."
Commercially speaking, Press To Play was a failure. Padgham blames two factors.
"It's a good album, but it seems that people who are into buying a Paul McCartney album like MoR stuff, and that's a drag. The other reason is that we haven't had a hit single on the album, and we're now in this area where you have to have a hit single otherwise your album doesn't sell.
"When I first started recording, Led Zeppelin were top of the album charts and a group like The Sweet was top of the singles charts. The two didn't relate to each other at all. Then suddenly, around 1979/80, record companies started refusing to release albums which didn't have a potential hit single on them. Therefore albums tended to become three hit singles and the rest of the songs fillers to make up the rest of the space on the piece of plastic.
"I've always refused to work like that. I'd like to pride myself that I've always worked with very musical groups, as opposed to the fads, the 'here today — gone tomorrow' bands."
Paul Young can hardly be called a fad, though his previous albums did resemble collections of hit singles, even if the rest of the songs were far from being mere fillers. Yet with Young's latest long-player, Between Two Fires, Hugh Padgham has again been confronted by a lack of hit material. According to Padgham, 'Wonderland' was "probably too good for the charts".
Like McCartney, Young hired Padgham because he wanted to make a rockier, more live-sounding album. And it appears Padgham's involvement with Between Two Fires went quite deep. He rehearsed intensively with the musicians to get the arrangements 100%, and then went into the studio to record most of the tracks with them, live in one take. The co-producer elaborates...
"Everybody in the band is a superb musician in his own right, so it just seemed stupid to have this bunch of musicians go into the studio and do overdubs. If I can record a rhythm track really steaming. I'll do it, and overdubbing or playing with a drum machine is not the best way. You can't expect a drummer to play along to a click-track for five minutes and still play with lots of feeling."
AND IT'S FOR similar reasons that Padgham's relationship with hi-tech machinery hasn't all been a bed of roses.
"I do see it as somewhat negative, yes. I mean. I'd never get somebody to sing a chorus and then sample it. To me that's no good at all. OK, if you're working with somebody who can only sing it once, then you have to do it that way. But I make sure that I work with people who can sing.
"As for sequencers, (sighs) they're boring. I used drum machines with Phil because we usually write to them, and then we overdub afterwards. It's all very nice now, because you can sync it all up to SMPTE and run your computer or your sequencers off it, yet now people are saying: 'What happened to the pulling and pushing in the rhythm of the chorus?'."
So what does Padgham think of attempts to program that pushing and pulling - programmers' attempts at making machines sound more human? He snores and plays at being asleep for a couple of seconds. Then he raises his arms.
"Yeah, you can spend five hours sitting around your Roland Sync Box putting the tempo up half-a-BPM in the chorus, but that's still not the same as when it happens naturally. And then, with the amount of work and time you spend doing that, why don't you just get somebody in to play? I'm sure there are other producers who go absolutely crazy with this amount of time that's wasted in the studio.
"I remember working with the Human League when there was this guy sitting around with a Fairlight — or was it a Synclavier? — who would say: 'Well, I've got something to do now and it's going to take a bit of time'. We'd literally go home because it would take at least three or four hours. This was four years ago and even then the studio was costing £100 an hour. At the time I thought: '£400 to wait for a computer to do its thing? This is not what I wanted to make records for'.
"So much time is wasted using machines. They'll either break down or dump their information. It's horrible. You know, I'm not knocking machines. I like machines and use them frequently. But they get overused. It's like having a 98-channel desk and therefore thinking you've got to use them all. And that, of course, is nonsense.
"You tell me. Are records any better nowadays than they were in the '60s? Perhaps they are better played and better recorded, but then to me, the mistakes are part of the character of the old songs. Through working with The Police I discovered what value mistakes are. Sting would have played this bass part, and it would have some small irregularities in it, no big howling mistakes, and I'd ask him to do it again and Sting would tell me to fuck off. He valued the human element of it. That really changed my attitude, and I'm grateful for that. Thank you, Sting."
Padgham leans forward, smiling, honouring an imaginary Sting in the room, and concludes:
"Music is about all these small nuances, and if you take them away it becomes bland and boring."
And there, at least, I see no reason to argue.
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