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In Session

Tricks & tales

David Hentschel

Article from The Mix, March 1995

Now at last, it can be revealed! The veteran producer spills the beans about those 70s Genesis albums... and updates us on work in progress

He helped to shape the classic Genesis sound, played synthesizer on Elton John's early gems, and er, recorded an instrumental album of Ringo Starr songs. Mark Cunningham invites David Hentschel to take a bow.

Psychedelia's contribution to recording technology was unorthodox to say the least. Experiments in reverb, tape looping and back-tracking characterised albums like Sgt Pepper, and spawned a generation of 'progressive' rocks acts, whose demands of engineers and producers were matched only by their pretensions. In London, Trident Studios' place at the cutting edge of rock recording was secured when resident engineer, David Hentschel became the first in Europe to exploit fully the possibilities of 16-track recording.

25 years on, and Hentschel's portfolio encompasses writing, production and engineering credits with artists of the stature of Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, Mike Oldfield and Genesis. David may have earned his reputation with historic analogue recordings, but his West London studio bristles with digital technology.

David joined Trident in 1969 in time-honoured style, as a temporary tea-boy. Electronics and music-obsessed, the 17 year-old had planned to take a year out before going to university. Thanks to David Bowie, he never made it.

"The first day I was there, I was making tea for producer Gus Dudgeon and Bowie on the Space Oddity sessions, and I just thought. 'Yes! This is the job for me!'".

Within the year. David had risen to the rank of engineer, at a time when Elton John was beginning to find success at Trident.

"Being a small organisation, it was easier to get noticed than, say, working at Abbey Road. Elton's records brought a lot of success, particularly the reaction to his 'black album' in the States, which influenced a lot of American artists to record at Trident. As a result, the studio went from strength to strength."

Just prior to David's arrival at the Soho studio, Trident had installed an 8-track machine and made the headlines by poaching The Beatles from Abbey Road for the recording of 'Hey Jude'. Then in 1971, the studio received the first 16-track machine in Europe — a 3M. David recalls:

"On eight-track we often mixed a stereo spread of mono-recorded instruments, but with 16-track we were suddenly able to record the drums in stereo, which was extraordinary. That's why the drum sounds on Elton's early 70s records sounded so good. Sometimes we even treated ourselves to three tracks — recording the bass drum on one track, with a stereo mix of the rest of the kit."

Trident's reputation as pacesetters in the 70s technology race was further enhanced when it became the first UK studio to install a 24-track (Studer) machine.

"It took us quite a while before we started maximising its benefits. We began by recording everything in stereo, even congas. But the mixes started getting boring, with everything panned left or right. It was a while before people used 24 tracks for an arrangement, splitting things up and having certain things on different tracks. It made mixing a lot easier.

"The thing about eight or 16 tracks was that you had more control. Most of the first Genesis album I did (Nursery Cryme) was done on eight-track. We would end up with four or five instruments on one track, because the arrangements were so complex and we wanted to keep control over it. Plus there were only four guys playing, so there were lots of little overdubs. One track would have loads of stuff on it and it would make the mix very difficult, because in those days the desks were quite small. You didn't have enough faders to split one track between four or five faders in the mix, so you had to manually change the settings on each track as you mixed. Mixing was almost a performance in itself. It got the adrenaline going, if nothing else!"

The precious 'drum sound' that is so crucial to modern recordings was as much of a Holy Grail to 70s production teams, only they didn't have convenient devices like triggered samples.

"We would individually mic the bass drum, snare, toms. The two overhead mics would pick up the hi-hat, so we rarely close-miked that. There were about six or seven mics in total, whereas now you stick mics everywhere.

"In the early days, all studios were pretty dead acoustically, and that dead sound was quite fashionable for many years. But people now tend to use the acoustics of the room much more, especially since Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham started to produce those big, gated sounds. You do achieve a much truer sound by using the acoustics of a room. But back in the old days, it was all about close miking with no ambience at all. Everything was as isolated as possible, because in a lot of cases the sessions would be live, particularly when we used to do a lot of ad work."

Working on numerous hit projects with Dudgeon and Van Der Graff Generator producer John Anthony proved an ideal training ground.

"The first day I was there, I was making tea for producer Gus Dudgeon and Bowie on the Space Oddity sessions"

"Especially with John, because we would abuse the equipment to try out ideas. Comparing then with now, there doesn't appear to be any modern machinery that can achieve the kind of manual tape-phasing we used to do. We would feed a signal from the multitrack through two Studers, varying the speed of one of them, and because the signal is going through two machines, when you marry them up there would be a slight difference in phase. To get the really tight phase rather than shifting the varispeed knob all the time, we would wind editing tape around the capstan to make it acentric, so that it would wobble all the time and give that constant variation. It was a killer sound!"

Being the only true musician on Trident's staff helped David become noticed as the player of the studio's giant ARP synthesiser, and he was regularly recruited to perform on tracks such as Elton John's 'Rocket Man' and 'Funeral For A Friend'. This talent was not lost on Ringo Starr, who had the brilliant idea of asking David to record a Jack Daniels-fuelled instrumental version of his 1973 Ringo album, for the Fab drummer's new record label.

With five years' invaluable experience at Trident under his belt. David turned freelance in 1974 as a producer and synthesiser player, although he would often return for select projects. One of them was the milestone Genesis album, A Trick Of The Tail, which marked Phil Collins' debut as the band's lead vocalist, with David co-producing and engineering.

"There was a great buzz about that album. It started off without a singer, and we had just about got all the tracks down on tape. They'd auditioned, fruitlessly, for a replacement for Peter Gabriel, then Phil fancied having a crack at one of the songs and made a bloody good job of it.

"He was secretly dying to do it, and once he got the shot it was hard to hold him back. Because Phil was new to the vocals, he was full of beans — he always is anyway — and that enthusiasm rubbed off on everyone around. We knew it was good, and when it came out and got rave reviews, it was a real turning point in their career."

Rhythm tracks and vocals for the follow-up album, Wind And Wuthering (1976), were recorded at Relight Studios in Holland for tax reasons.

"I've done quite a lot of albums in residential studios, but two weeks is long enough, especially if you are working quite intensely, which you do with a band more so than with a solo artist. When you are a producer or an engineer, you're working flat out all the time. Once you have cut the tracks and you're into overdubs, all the members of the band want to do their overdubs, so they're queuing up to get their bit done. But the poor old producer and engineer don't get a break at all, they're at it hammer and tongs! Also, living in a confined space, you start to get on each other's nerves after two weeks.

"We returned to Trident to finish off the overdubs and backing vocals, and do the mix. One of the reasons we chose Relight may have been because it had a very big, livish room with loads of space for banks of keyboards (pardon the pun!). We also had two or three drum kits set up permanently, and always had two mics up so that we could very quickly swap around whenever Phil wanted to change his kit. Technically, it was a bit suspect, but it was alright."

Complex arrangements like 'One For The Vine' suggest that the album was comprehensively rehearsed before setting foot inside the studio. "Yes, they rehearsed intensely for about a month, so by the time that we got to the studio, pretty much everything was in the right place. There were always one or two exceptions, which were like last minute additions. Sometimes they worked OK and were recorded fairly, but other times, they were a bit of a struggle. But we never got into the situation where the band would be writing in the studio. That's a real no-no. Even now, for anyone, it's a hell of a waste of money."

In the wake of Steve Hackett's departure from the band, And Then There Were Three (1978), again recorded at Relight, signified a more commercially-aware Genesis with tracks 'Follow You, Follow Me' and 'Many Too Many' lifted as hit singles. David comments:

"Unfortunately, we now hear lots of records which have been made in bedrooms by people who can't really play"

"There was a conscious decision to try and do some more tracks that were radio-friendly. If not three minutes long, then maybe four and a bit. They probably felt a pressure to get more airplay, but I think they would have been just as happy to carry on the way they were before. Even now I still think they've maintained a good balance, and although they may have gone a little too far commercially, they have begun to pull back a bit and found their own level."

Despite the complicated textures of Genesis's music, particularly in the 1970s, a surprisingly small amount of editing was ever needed to assemble a perfect performance.

"We might record some of the longer numbers in sections, especially if a track was quite demanding," says David. "Occasionally we would edit together parts of two long takes. We might have done a really good take, but thought we'd do one more for luck. That might have had a really good middle section that we would chop in, and build a master from the two performances."

But of all the people David has worked with, no one was more ruthless with a splicing kit than top American producer, Richard Perry. He worked with David on Carly Simon's No Secrets and numerous Harry Nilsson albums.

"He was a nightmare! He would drive the musicians to distraction because it would not be uncommon to do 60 or 70 takes of one number, like on 'You're So Vain'. He remembered every single bar of every take, so once there were 70 takes in the can, he would spend God knows how long editing the best sections together until he got what he wanted.

"He used great players like Barry Morgan and Herbie Flowers who were very amenable and hard to upset. But these poor guys, they'd come into the control room and the looks on their faces were unbelievable. They'd say, 'Please, not another take!' By that time they had completely lost it and didn't know what they were playing anymore."

For David, production is about capturing, not creating a performance. "If I start overdubbing, whether it's guitar solos or vocals, I make sure that I record the first run through, because the chances are that it's going to be the best overall performance. You keep that, and let them develop it further, but quite often I have gone back and patched up the first take. There comes a point when it's so hard to maintain the creative flow, and the more you try to perfect something, the more difficult it is to get the result you're looking for."

Although he continued to produce and engineer solo projects for Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, David's last album with Genesis was 1980's Duke. After it, Phil Collins's solo career went stratospheric and took the band's musical direction with it. But Mike Oldfield was soon to fall under the Hentschel spell, recording QE2 at the shy multi-instrumentalist's Denham home.

"We would just try out a few ideas, with him playing guitar and me playing synths along to a drum machine, thrashing out some arrangements. Until it came to mixing the album, Mike had a desk on the floor, an Ampex tape machine in the corner and everything was in the same room. We were just wearing headphones and playing back off the speakers. The album was made as an extension of the rehearsals; the only thing was that at some stage, we hit the record button and gradually built up the tracks."

Had total recall and automated mixing been available to David in the 70s, I speculated that mixing sessions might have ended a lot earlier: "There was something artistic and exciting about doing a mix without it. Occasionally you would get a moment of magic that might come from going out on a limb. You wouldn't normally plan that, whereas the whole emphasis on the use of computers is to achieve the perfect result. But a perfect result rarely makes for a great record. There are different ways of using computers, and I usually start off knowing what I want to hear in my head and try to simulate it manually as much as possible, then I put it into the computer. Some people start automating from the word go, but I think that's a mistake because you get terribly involved in the process of using the computer and not listening to the music."

Clearly, the last 10 years and the advent of MIDI have been of extreme importance to the way David now works.

"It's not only MIDI that has made things easier, it's also the advent of digital electronics. With early analogue synths, you used to have to tune everything by hand, and by the nature of the circuitry, they would go out of tune as they got warmer. It was very hard, firstly to set them up and then if you had a sequencer, you would have to tune each separate note in the sequence with a knob. If you breathed on the knob, it would go out of tune by about an eighth of a tone.

"MIDI is a great composing tool, and extremely helpful at pre-production stages of projects. Unfortunately we now hear lots of records which have been made in bedrooms by people who can't really play. That has had an adverse affect on studios, and many of them in London and LA are extremely worried that they may go out of business. So they've had to cut their rates to pull more people in. But although I can't imagine being without MIDI now, you will never replace the magic of artists playing real instruments and gelling together."

In a changed musical climate, it saddens David that young engineers can't look forward to the breadth of experience he gained in his Trident days.

"We tended to specialise in certain types of music, like Roy Thomas Baker used to do the metal stuff and Zappa, Robin Cable used to do Elton John and those kinds of things, and I used to do a mixture of both, as well as orchestral stuff. But at any time we could have been thrown into a different kind of session, and that way we got a very broad grounding in how to record different types of music and instruments. Today's engineers have grown up with drum machines and know very little about microphone positioning. You sure as hell don't learn it by plugging eight outputs from a drum machine into a console and sticking some reverb on it."

Since his halcyon days behind the console with Genesis and other highflying artists, David has remained as busy as ever, particularly in the jazz world where he picked up a Grammy in 1988 for his work on the Yellowjackets' Politics album. The following year he was nominated for another Grammy, this time as co-writer, arranger, producer, engineer and keyboard player on the Andy Summers album, The Golden Wire.

For the moment, he's most proud of his growing association with the movie world.

"I taught myself orchestration, and the first time I ever wrote for an orchestra was the soundtrack to the movie, Operation Daybreak. Harry Rabinowitz was conducting, and I went into CTS Studios at Wembley, where suddenly I saw 45 members of an orchestra sitting down there with my music in front of them. I had a hip flask with me in case of emergencies, and I took a good swig at that. I heard the first few bars, and hearing it work was probably the most incredible buzz of my life. I don't think anything has ever come close to that."

Modules and podules

  • Mac IISi & SE computers with all major software
  • MTP & Jambox 4 + SMPTE Time Code synchronisers
  • Roland S50 Sampler
  • Roland D50 Linear Synthesiser
  • Roland JX10 Analogue Synthesiser
  • Roland MKS20 Piano module
  • Yamaha DX711FD FM Synthesiser
  • Yamaha TX802 FM Synthesiser
  • Yamaha RX5 Drum machine
  • Yamaha FB01 FM module
  • 360 Systems Professional MIDI bass
  • Ensoniq EPS, ASR10 Samplers
  • Ensoniq EPS16+ Sampler modules (2) with 100Mb hard disk
  • Ensoniq SQ80 Synthesiser
  • Ensoniq ESQ-M Sound module
  • Ensoniq SD1 & TS10 Synthesisers
  • Ensoniq VFXsd Synthesisers (3)
  • Ensoniq SQ1 & SQR Synthesisers (3)
  • Oberheim DPX-1 Digital sample player
  • Linn LM1 Drum machine
  • Simmons SDS7 Electronic drum kit
  • Greengate Sampler inc Mac IIe computer
  • Emulator 1 sampler
  • Roland/Yamaha/Alesis Signal Processors
  • Extensive sound/sample libraries
  • Various guitars, percussion, Gretsch acoustic drums
  • Fostex E16 recorder
  • Sony & Teac DAT recorders

Hentschel's hit list

Duke (Charisma/Virgin — 1980)

"Phil was always slightly frustrated, because Tony and Mike were such prolific songwriters in Genesis. But Duke was the first opportunity for him to contribute his own songs. He was always into Motown, and I felt that's where his heart was really. Then, after 'In The Air Tonight', I think Genesis just had to lean a little his way."

Paul McCartney & Wings
Red Rose Speedway (Apple — 1973)

Although panned by the critics, Wings' second album featured brilliant, Hentschel-engineered moments, such as the gospel-flavoured 'Get On The Right Thing'. But...

"Paul didn't seem totally immersed in it. He'd turn up when he felt like it, even though the whole studio was block booked out all day. He'd come in, throw a few cartwheels around the studio, maybe do a bass overdub or send someone else in to play something. Linda would produce a bit, then they'd go somewhere else for the night. It was very strange."

Mike Oldfield
QE2 (Virgin — 1980)

"After a positive day's work I would often find Mike had been up all night, erasing what we'd done the day before. I suppose that's what happens when you're working with a reputed genius! When a performance is communicating, you don't worry at the time that something might be out of tune or out of time, if you've captured some magic. Mike taught me a lot about that."

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Mar 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Simon Dell

In Session

Interview by Mark Cunningham

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> Almost Blue

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