Royal Engineer | Queen, David Richards
Mark Jenkins meets David Richards, the sound engineer behind Queen's latest album 'The Miracle'.
Mark Jenkins meets the sound engineer behind Queen's latest album, The Miracle.
Over the next few months, the new Queen album - The Miracle - is set to be one of the most widely publicised releases in living memory. The album has been a year in the making, is the band's 16th for EMI Records, and will have over a third of a million pounds spent on its promotion. The company is obviously confident of having a winner on its hands, and the first single - 'I Want It All' - is already doing well at the time of writing.
For the first time, all the tracks on the album are joint band compositions, with production credited to the band and Dave Richards, who has been resident engineer at Queen's own Mountain Studio in Montreux, Switzerland for several years now. As the band's first studio album for three years, The Miracle differs in several significant ways from previous Queen releases, presenting an unusual mix of the hi-tech and a powerful classic rock sound. The band which once proudly proclaimed on every album that "nobody played synthesizer" now credit Passport Master Tracks Pro software on their album sleeves!
Dave Richards' connections with the band go back some way. "I did half of the Magic album with them, but I've known (drummer) Roger Taylor for longer and worked on his solo albums (Fun In Space and Strange Frontier) and on The Cross album, which was really a solo album which turned into a band project.
"I first went to Mountain Studio in 1975 - before that I'd been at Chappell's Studio, starting at the deep end working with The Rolling Stones on Black And Blue. I learned a lot from Keith Harwood there, and went to Mountain as an assistant just before Queen came in to record the Jazz album. They were using Roy Thomas Baker to produce and he had his own team, so I took a holiday - but they liked the studio so much that when they heard it was up for sale they bought it, and we got to know each other better after that."
So what role does an engineer and coproducer have to play when working with a long-lived band like Queen, who have such a well-defined sound?
"Well, they like to take things to the limit, and I know how to get the effects they want. Freddie (Mercury) is very good at explaining what sort of sounds they're aiming for, but they often decide to change a song structure suddenly. On this album we were using two Sony 3324 digital recorders slaved together, so if you need to make a change you have to edit/copy all the masters and then transfer all the slaves as well. I don't like to tell them that something can't be done, although normally on a job like that they'd go off and leave me to it!"
Apart from Mountain, The Miracle was also recorded at Olympic Studio and The Townhouse, which provided a great variety of recording equipment from which to select.
"The Townhouse has an SSL E Series desk updated to a G Series; the monitoring and facilities are fantastic. Olympic has a G Series desk and Mountain has a 15-year-old Neve, which has the monitoring off to the side in a separate section. We're thinking of having it automated with the NECAM system, but we don't want to spoil the character of the desk - VCAs wouldn't be suitable at all, so we'll probably have motorised faders. The desk is constantly maintained by our Swiss engineer, who's been putting gold contacts on all the switches. We have one large room there, and a smaller Tom Hidley-designed room.
"There's a lot of space at Olympic as well, and I'd try to have the band set up to play live and to steer them away from using too much technology. We had an Emulator II and a Linn 9000 available most of the time, but because they are a great live band we tended to start with an almost-live demo and work on it until it's a finished song. I'm not too keen on scrapping your demo and starting again from scratch, although if we have a drum machine on the demo it often gets wiped out."
Dave's track-by-track survey of The Miracle reveals a combination of hi- and low-tech working practices: "The first single, 'I Want It All', was recorded practically live in the studio. 'Was It All Worth It' was recorded in Montreux - there's a huge concert hall beneath the studio which we can hire for a week, and we take 54 microphone tie-lines and closed-circuit TV cables down there. We can set drums up on the stage and you can get a very big sound. 'Breakthrough' has a synth bass line - it just didn't seem to work with a live bass guitar, and the guys aren't too purist to leave it as it is. 'Rain Must Fall' is mostly synthesizer; I did the drums and the sequencing on the Linn 9000. I also have an Atari/C-Lab setup at home now, but I find the Linn stops you getting too involved, otherwise you can spend hours shifting notes around. One section of 'I Want It All' sounds very complex but it was done in 10 minutes on the Linn.
"The band wrote 'My Baby Does Me' using a drum machine and we decided to keep it in; we had two different patterns and I used an SRC (SMPTE Reading Clock) to put them on separate tracks with a slight delay between them. That produced a slight phasing effect, which we decided to keep - it's the most natural type of phasing you can have, and I like that sort of spontaneity."
Was the orchestral section at the end of 'Was It All Worth It?' as daunting as it sounds?
"It's all Emulator and synthesizers. Originally the song didn't go like that at all, but the band wanted that section added and then moved around two or three times. Because it was virtually a live recording there was no click track, so I had to insert a space on the master, time it, add an equal space on the slave, and then add timecode. So some parts of the song go to about 10 generations of copying, but because we were working digitally there's no loss of quality."
"Brian May's guitar sound is just him, straight from his Vox AC30 amps through a couple of Shure SM58s."
As far as individual sounds go. Queen probably have three recognisable trademarks (apart from Freddie Mercury's vocal): Brian May's searing guitar, Roger Taylor's drums, and the tight vocal harmonies typified by 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. How are they recorded?
"The drums are a combination of real drums and samples put into an AMS digital delay. Most of the drums on the first side of the album are real, but where there's a synth bass, you're usually listening to sampled drums. All the drum sounds come from Roger's kit, though; it sounds a bit purist but it's worth doing in the end - if you use other people's sounds you'll soon lose the identity of the band.
I just carry around a PCM tape of various drums and we sample them and trigger them from the real drums or from the Linn. As far as the vocals are concerned, I sometimes use an old Fairchild valve compressor to warm things up, because modern consoles like the SSL can sound too clean, and if you're not careful you'll get a very garish sound. John Deacon doesn't sing much, but the other three just gather around one mic and work out the harmonies as they go along, so you don't waste a lot of time doing vocals separately and finding they don't fit together later. And Brian May's guitar sound is just him, straight from his Vox AC30 amps through a couple of Shure SM58s. Sometimes we add a bit of AMS chorus; just plus-or-minus 1 - nothing over the top."
Dave's work isn't confined to Queen albums, which is a good thing really, since this is their first studio work for three years.
"Ryko Records are putting out a lot of unreleased David Bowie material, and I've remixed some songs from 1973 and 1974 from 16-track - we had to copy the tapes first because they were disintegrating. I also did a month on Bowie's Tin Machine album, but then I had to go off and do The Miracle. Tin Machine was quite interesting, though: we recorded in the concert hall at Mountain, again with very much a live band setup - with the brothers Hunt Sales on drums and Tony Sales on bass. It was a very pleasant month or so's work because they were a very professional group."
Dave Richards has worked with many other bands, including progressive rockers Magnum on their Vigilante album.
"That was more or less a live band setup as well, but with more technology in use as most of the tracks were recorded to a click track. Roger Taylor started working on it with me but then had to go off to do something else and left it to me; the whole album was done at Mountain Studio. We've also recorded several Chris Rea albums there, which sound very good on CD - the Neve desk may not be as quiet as an SSL, but once you have a lot of noisy effects coming back to the desk that's neither here nor there. Yes and ELP have also used the studio, and I did Blah Blah Blah there for Iggy Pop. We also record a lot of local bands."
Dave's preferences for effects stretch to an old Publison delay (released before the better-known Infernal Machine), the half-dozen Neve compressors on the desk, EMT plate reverbs, and an MDB Window Recorder which Dave says "is very quick to use when you want to do 15-second samples and jog them backwards and forwards. I only like equipment that's fast and easy to use. I get bored if there are too many knobs and buttons. I'd rather have one really good effect than half-a-dozen cheap ones - although even Lexicons are noisy, so you have to be very careful."
It's important to realise that Dave's current position at Mountain Studio partly depends on his own versatility. "I worked on everything at Chappell's - from Shirley Bassey to Bing Crosby's last album, with a lot of orchestras - so it was a complete culture shock when I began working with The Stones starting at 10 o'clock at night. At Mountain I have seen a lot of different styles of working, such as Arif Mardin's work with Chaka Khan, which was very much organised in advance so that they were practically reading off sheet music. So I feel now that I can cope with almost anything, including orchestras - but I think I enjoy working on rhythm sections best."
Dave is presented with an annual challenge in the form of the Montreux Jazz Festival, which takes place in the concert hall beneath Mountain Studio.
"For three weeks each year we're responsible for doing the live sound mix, the TV and stereo radio mixes, and a 24-track tape for album releases, simultaneously. At least I'm in my own studio and not in a mobile, so I know how the monitoring will sound. But we have five soundchecks and five bands per day; there's no mix automation on the Neve, you'll have 45 minutes to set up the bands - some of which I'll never have heard before - and I just have one assistant, Justin Shirley-Smith, to place all the mics. It's a lot more exciting than programming drum machines!"
Dave's work for the Montreux Jazz Festival has involved him with bands and artists from Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie to Santana, George Benson and Patrice Rushen, and over several years up to 40 live albums have been released from the Festival. But away from show time, and if Queen aren't in the studio, Mountain isn't worked too hard. "If I'm in London, the studio isn't booked out too much; my assistant, Justin, knows how to work the Neve but it's a bit eccentric for anybody else to use. But the place doesn't lose money, because we've never put too much into it; we'd prefer to keep the character of the place rather than automatically buying all the latest gear just to find it's bugged."
Dave has been resident in Montreux for some 15 years: "It's a beautiful place to work," he emphasised. And with such a location, a not too demanding schedule, and a string of top bands to work with, it's difficult not to feel that Dave Richards has one of the plum jobs in the engineering world.
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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