While many producers are content to work within one or two musical styles, Peter Collins casts a much wider net - using high technology to increase the number of possibilities open to him.
His name may not be as well known as that of today's star producers, but Peter Collins is arguably more versatile than any of the big guns. His dedication and open-minded attitude give some clue to his popularity with artists and record companies alike.
HE'S WORKED WITH BLANCMANGE, Tracy Ullman, Musical Youth, Matt Bianco, Shakin' Stevens, Rush, and Nik Kershaw. He recently had two major hits with Gary Moore's 'Empty Rooms' and 'Out in the Fields' (the latter featuring the late Phil Lynott on vocals). Yet as a producer, he's never attracted the acclaim enjoyed by men like Rupert Hine, Steve Lillywhite or Hugh Padgham. Perhaps that's because Peter Collins doesn't have as obvious a trademark as some of his more famous colleagues. He's worked with as many different artists as styles of music, never pushing his views forward in an obvious way. Still, he is known as somebody well acquainted with the hi-tech area, in particular, and he has a thing or two to say on his work with hi-tech gear in the studio.
Collins has a reputation of being fast and efficient. As we enter Trevor Horn's Sarm East studio in London for a one-hour interview session with him, we are greeted with a sharp '55 minutes left'.
Indeed, we are five minutes late, and the 35-year-old producer is already waiting in the control room. Leaning backwards, one foot against a 40-channel Solid State Logic desk, he peers at us disparagingly from behind his glasses. He then explains courteously that he is very strict about working times.
'I usually start working at 11am and finish at eight in the evening. Sometimes, if an artist is really happening at eight o'clock at night, of course I'm not going to stop, but see a performance through. But generally speaking, nine hours a day in the studio — and we do work pretty intensively — is enough. You get the maximum out of people, because if everybody knows there's a finishing time, you work harder during the day. Otherwise you get this kind of sitting around. I'm a daytime person anyway, and this also gives people a chance to go home after sessions, be human, have dinner and come to the studio fresh the next day.'
A business-like approach which may sound odd (or refreshing) to those used to the widespread studio practice of working until the early hours. In Collins' case, it makes him a popular producer with studios, since they can book in sessions after him, as Sarm East do all too happily.
And though his approach may be business-like, Collins moves on to explain that it was a great love for the studio and its atmosphere that turned him to his present job. He started his career — as so many do — as a singer/songwriter/guitarist in the late sixties, and recorded one album for Decca: Peter Collins' First Album. It was also his last.
'As a writer and artist, one of the things which knocked me out in the studio was that all the musicians were there for me and my music. Still, the biggest thing was being there and hearing music coming out of these speakers. There was the desk and everything, and the whole atmosphere of the place was just totally tantalising.
'I realised, while making that album, that I didn't have what it took to be an artist, and the excitement of being in the studio was where it was at for me. In the absence of any other career ambitions, that's what I went for.'
So Collins got a job as a studio assistant at Decca.
'In practice that came down to being tea boy, but after a while I managed to do some after-hour recordings in which I recorded jingles for radio and TV. The money I earned with that I put into my own production again.'
COLLINS GOT HIS FIRST carte-blanche job in 1979, when a record company asked him to do the production honours for rockabilly band Matchbox. The success of that venture sparked off a glut of offers of work which, in turn, has led to the present, very successful state of his career.
So Collins is in great demand, a rare state for any producer to find himself in these days. What does he see as his strongest point, the key asset for which musicians and record companies want to work with him? The reply comes slowly, precisely.
'Being able to look at what an artist is doing and bring out the best in them. To help them project what they want to project. Because often they're not doing what they think they're doing, and are not able to say on a record what they want to say. My strongest asset as a producer is being able to bring that out, with a mind to commerciality.'
Which obviously makes Peter Collins very popular with record companies and artists. His approach is flexible, though.
'There is definitely not something like "The Peter Collins Sound". For example, from a sound point of view, the last album I worked on was Power Windows by Rush, and the drummer — Neil Peart — has a snare sound which is fairly high-pitched and cracky. With Billy Squier, with whom I'm working at the moment, there was a completely different, deep, thud-like heavy-rock sound on the snare. The two albums will come out sounding completely different.
'On synth sounds and arrangements, I also follow the band. What I do is say to a band "Well, look here, there's too much happening here", or "we need a little melody here", or "I think this needs a bridge", and then get them to do it. I will try and get them to be creative, so that I can say "great, that's it". I'm like the editor of their ideas.
Collins rises abruptly to order coffee from a passing studio assistant, and then continues, hand under chin.
'I always try to do as much pre-production as possible to get the arrangements OK. Then, in the studio, I start with putting down the SMPTE and the tempo. For that I get the whole band in, to make sure everybody is happy. Then I'll have the keyboard player putting down some chords which are absolutely perfectly in tune. Next the guide vocals go down, and maybe one more synth and a guitar part and then we start recording.
'In this way, everybody can see where the verses and choruses are, and perhaps get new ideas at this point. You can hear whether a song may need another dynamic change or is too long or whatever. Usually that sort of thing is sorted out in pre-production, but this is a good point to reassess.'
And there's no difference between working on a single and an album track?
'I produce a track the way I think it should sound. If it turns out to be a single, great; but if it turns put to be an album track, then that's fine too. I'm not going to throw a track away for that reason. Occasionally with a rock act there is the obvious head-banging track, which is not going to be a single — then I don't really worry too much about it and let the band do their thing, especially if I have been very microscopic about elements in other tracks.
"If you can invent a new sound and then give it a classic quality so it won't sound old-fashioned in five years, you've achieved something."
'Still, it's really dangerous to write a track off as a single. Things can happen in a studio. An idea can totally transform a sound and suddenly make it very commercial. Subconsciously, I'm always thinking about the potential commerciality of a song. That's just my nature. But my first aim is always to make an exciting and fresh-sounding record, with lots of dynamic changes.'
Typical of Collins' attitude towards music technology is the fact that he owns substantial amounts of electronic equipment. He has a 19" rack (in which there are, amongst others, two AMS samplers and a Sony PCM F1), a Fairlight II, a Linn 9000, two SRC SMPTE-reading clocks, and various synths. He once owned an Emulator II, but recently sold it to Nik Kershaw after transferring its sounds to the Fairlight.
'I have those machines for three reasons. First, I get a chance to get to know the new gear intimately, and know what it is capable of. Second, it is a lot cheaper than renting it. And last, I have my own library of sounds and can expand and use it whenever I want to.
'I also have to have a knowledge of what the engineer's gig is, what is available to him, what the limitations and possibilities are. Though with a really good engineer I don't have to say: "Now could you boost it at 10K please!" Rather, I'll say to him: "It needs a bit more of a razor edge to it, it's a bit lifeless." I won't talk to him in really technical terms, but more in graphic terms. I now work only with my own engineer, James Barton. We've worked together for two years now, and we communicate really well.
'I also see it as part of my job to introduce artists to what is happening now — to bring them up to date and offer them new sounds. A lot of bands that have had success in the past are locked into that past, and I try to give them new impulses.'
The two AMS machines each have a sample time of 14½ seconds: Collins uses them to fly in vocals and guitars.
'If I've recorded a chorus with which I am very happy, or which has taken a long time to get perfect, I then record that bit on the AMS and use it in chorus 2. The new Window Recorder is very good for this purpose as well; I was very impressed with it. Once it's stereo I'll buy it. You can also do this with the Fairlight III, but the quality of the sample on my Fairlight is not high enough.'
Collins has some pertinent views on the musical consequences of using computer technology.
'I think that, generally speaking, people are sick of rhythm machines, drum-boxes and quirky, gimmicky sounds. And a strange thing has happened. With the prominence of machines, people working in studios have become very, very conscious of strict timing. That has led to the expectation of drummers having to play extremely tight, almost like machines. In fact, producers, including myself, tend to use machines to help that process, even though I prefer to use as many real drums as possible. I have always worked with a click-track, even back in 1979 with Matchbox. But in those days, we moved around within the click-track enormously. Now my ability to tolerate an instrument moving around a click-track has greatly diminished.
'All this means that it's quite hard for young English drummers to find their way into the studio world. Usually they don't have the ability to play that tight. So it tends to encourage producers to use machines rather than real players, and I think that's bad. On the other hand, the technology enables kids to make fantastic demos in their front room.
'I think that a lot of young bands are very aware of the new technology, but they don't really know how to approach it, and feel threatened by it. I've heard of producers who have given young drummers a click-track to play against and nothing else. They've then got this thing bashing in their heads, and are supposed to play in time with it. That's the most awful thing that can happen to a new drummer coming into the studio.
It's much better to give them a sequenced synthesiser playing eighths. I also give them a guide vocal and put a lot of guide stuff down for them to play with, so that they can really play with some music.
'On the other hand, you've got experienced drummers like Charlie Morgan. He's absolutely rock solid to a click-track. The beauty of good professional drummers is that they can work with the technology, and still put some humanity into it. In using really good and experienced people, who are not intimidated by click-tracks and technology, who've used it and enjoy it, you get the best of both worlds.
'Still, a lot of passion has gone out of drums. The subtle nuances of well-recorded drums, played by a real musician, have gone. That's a shame... though the recent paradox is that, with the sophistication of drum machines, you can put in more and more expression again.'
SCEPTICAL AS HE MAY BE of the improvements modern technology can bring about, Collins doesn't hold with the idea that rock music has become more sterile in recent years. As he says, today's record buyers are more likely to be impressed by the rich, new sounds sampling has brought with it, than they are by the subtleties of classic drumming.
'I don't think pop music is any better or worse than it was five years ago. It's just different. Fresh sounds help making records that come out sounding fresh. If you can invent a fresh, new sound and then manage to give it a little bit of a classic quality, so that it won't sound old-fashioned in five years, then I think you've achieved something good.
'There's a lot of records that were made five or six years ago that now sound terribly out of date. It is a risk when you are working with the latest technology, and I'm constantly aware of that. I usually go for more classic sounds, and tend to veto sounds which I think are too stylised.
'A lot of the PPG sounds have become dated, for example. They've been used a lot on The Lexicon of Love, the choir and the bell sounds. Still it's a very useful tool. I love its Fender Rhodes sound. It has this funny digital racket, which I love, though a lot of engineers filter it away.
'I like to use synths for their different characteristics. Some people talk a lot about the DX7 sound, which is supposed to be too identifiable. I think that's nonsense. The DX7 has a lot of very useful sounds; it's especially good for small quirky sounds, and its piano sound is very nice. I like the clear quality of digital synths, and the thick, wholesome quality of the analogues, which you can't get otherwise.
'Still, it's the context in which you use these sounds that will make them stylised or old-fashioned. My own taste is gearing towards natural sounds. I like to take a natural sound and put it into a slightly unnatural context. That can be very alluring; there's something mysterious about it. I'm always looking for the possibility to make things slightly unreal. A record is a fantasy, and all those little elements can give that special extra which is what it's all about.'
Interview by Paul Tingen
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