Nigel Bates, Producer
Mixing Desk | Nigel Bates
Production is a term strangely difficult to define, it can mean so many different things to different people. In the strictest sense of the word you have the producer who rolls up at the studio when the engineer has set up all the sounds and simply restricts themself to making sure the band is sticking to the arrangements and all their instruments are in tune etc.
On the other hand, in more recent years studio technology has become so greatly advanced that producers have found themselves almost obliged to become involved in the intricacies of the control room.
The route by which a person finds themself taking on the role of producer is equally varied. A lot of the name producers of the day are musicians from the big bands of the Seventies who have turned away from the playing, either through necessity or choice. These people are ideal material for the producing role, since the intricate nature of their music has led to their interest in the equipment now available. This is in complete contrast to the young musicians of the day whose music has been geared to simplicity and therefore their experience of the technology is equally simple.
There are also a lot of engineers around who are frustrated producers and this has brought about the birth of the producer/engineer. Some would argue that the producer cannot be detached enough to direct the proceedings if he is also worrying about the practicalities of turning controls and moving faders, but in the end, the result is all that matters.
Nigel Bates falls in the middle of these categories. At the age of 26 he is neither old nor young as producers go. Although to all outward appearances he seems to have come along the engineer/producer route, having toyed with 4 tracks with his own band and graduated through 8 and 16 to a very nice 24 track set up at his own Ambiance Studios in Sussex. Nigel, however, begs to differ.
Did you see yourself as a producer when you were working the 4 track with your band?
"Yes. I've never seen myself as an engineer at all. I'm not that keen on engineers really because they tend to be very much 'This is my desk' and 'This is the way we're going to do it'."
Rather a sweeping generalisation?
"Yes, but it's true!"
Nigel obviously didn't go through the mill of tape-oping for years before becoming an engineer and ultimately a producer, so how did he managed to graduate from 4 to 24 track? Did he simply pick it up as he went along?
"Yes, just by having the front to go into a 16 track studio and do a demo. Just having the front to sit there and think 'Well, the engineer says that's EQ' you don't let on that you didn't know it was and mess around. That's how it came about."
Nigel's rather jaundiced views are not restricted solely to engineers. He feels that too many producers impose their own ideas and sounds on their bands and don't allow the musicians room for self-expression.
"I think Tony Visconti is like that now — it's not so much the band, it's Visconti. Simple as that. Who else? Steve Lillywhite — I think that's very much one sound. Phil Collins — pure Phil Collins.'
A rather unfair comment since a producer must inevitably have some trade marks of his own.
"Yes, but don't you think the charts are made up of stuff that's too similar? Trevor Horn dominated the charts last year. It wasn't so much the band it was Trevor Horn."
But why does that make him a bad producer?
"I think he could be a bit more... well he made a lot of money. But then again, doesn't the rot set into the industry? Same with Martin Rushent. To me he isn't very good at all."
So who does he rate? Toni Visconti in the old days, back in the Seventies; Nile Rogers (of Chic); Bowie; Robin Scott (of M).
"Bob Ezrin. He used to do the Alice Cooper stuff. He did the first Peter Gabriel album as well — but he is big production stuff, very expensive production. And I do really rate Trevor Horn, even though he does sound the same, because he has done it. I don't rate Martin Rushent at all. I think his stuff is extremely boring. I find it very unimaginative — as I find a lot of electronic music."
This is all rather strange as Nigel Bates is making a very nice living thank you very much, concentrating solely on electronic music. In his studio he has two of the most expensive synthesisers on the market — the Fairlight CMI and the PPG Wave.
He has found a tremendous challenge in this dissatisfaction with other people's efforts on electronic music, and devotes all his time to finding new ideas. The most important of these is expression. "I'm guilty in that I can go to a Linn Drum, go to a Fairlight or the PPG Wave, and just sit there. Because it's so easy you switch it on, you stick in your disk, and on the Fairlight you can probably knock out a tune within an hour using the Rhythm page. A little while ago it dawned on me that in about 2 weeks I had only done about eight tracks on the Fairlight and I thought this was disgusting. You tend to just sit there and there's no thought because it's so easy.
I listened to the tracks and they all sounded similar and lacked any expression. So I went out and bought lots of albums of electronic bands and all of it sounded really boring. It was like let's switch on the Linn Drum, let's push program chain number one and run that off down on to tape. There was no imagination and no human element put into it. The Fairlight has got expression and yet nobody seems to use it because you can turn it on and play it so easily. So what I'm trying to do is programme expression into it. It takes a bit longer but it means that it doesn't sound like a machine.
When I produced a track for a guy called Chris Wood we did that. It went to Phonogram first and the guy at Phonogram thought the band wasn't very tight! And it was all Fairlight — every single instrument was the Fairlight, and even MAM thought it was a band, when in fact it was a machine. We spent a lot of time getting that track together and it paid off. It sounded like a really good band instead of a sequenced thing.
Chris came to me with four chords and some lyrics and an idea for a Latin American track, and it wasn't Latin American at all when it was completed, it was a dance track — very, very empty. I use a lot of 'space' now in my music.
I'm also using a very big snare drum sound at the moment which is sampled into the Fairlight and the Wave. It is just in the live room, stuck through an AMS and you hit it. It sounds slightly backwards — behind a normal snare and then when I cleaned up the sample I cut it off dead. It's quite an interesting effect.
If I do use a hi-hat I tend to use erratic patterns and if I want the hi-hat to sound straight, I put in two 12 string guitars which play a hi-hat pattern and then the hi-hat goes with them. Then when you mix it, it sounds as if the 12 strings are playing something very clever! It's a good effect.
I don't use any equalisation at all if I can get away with it. And I do a lot of multi-miking and recording live. So many studios will mike up an amp by putting perhaps an AKG D12 in front of the amp and perhaps one some distance away. But when you go into a room you don't stick your head in front of the amp do you? So I tend to mike all the room up and try to get it on tape as if you were standing in the room at a particular point. It does work but you need two tracks for every instrument you put down."
With so many ideas, how is Nigel going to avoid falling into the trap he sees everyone else falling into, of ending up producing everyone the same?
"I don't know. I must have some trademark somewhere, but I try to interpret what the band are trying to do. One of my trademarks is that the recording is very clean and the sounds are very clean. But I haven't got set patterns for things or set EQ. Each bass drum idea is probably different to the one before, whereas lots of engineers and producers just use the same sounds over and over again. I do what I feel like at the time and I very rarely use the same ideas with two different people at the same time."
Nigel has recently had a spate of working with young up and coming bands and contrary to popular opinion has not found them particularly easy to work with.
"They don't actually know what they want. They expect the impossible. If a guitar is out of tune on tape they can't understand why you can't pitch it up in the mix because they've heard you can. And if they want a particular effect which they've heard on a Robert Fripp album they forget to tell you that at the beginning and things like that. At the end of a session there is only so much you can do, and I mostly find that people's first experiences in a studio are pretty bad ones.
I get people ringing me up and asking, 'can I come in and put three tracks down?'
OK, I say, what do you want? 'Kind of 16 or 24 track' and they wanted 3 hours! I said it takes longer than that to mike up the drum kit. They'd never been in a studio before — so they didn't know. It's very hard to explain to somebody that it's going to take you ten hours because they think 'Of course he's going to say that because it's more money.' It's terrible.
I don't like working with four and five piece bands. I tend to like two or three people. It's a much closer working relationship. I don't like it when you have to talk to five people the whole time. On the larger type band there's too much conflict between them. That's why I don't like working with them. You get five ideas at one time and the band always end up having arguments.
I've had bands fighting in my studio... it was quite funny. The girl singer attacked the guitarist when he was holding my guitar. So I grabbed the guitar and told her to hit him outside. So she did! And they all came back in and carried on."
Does he enjoy the music of the bands he produces?
"Yes. But it's very hard to enjoy a machine because you have to programme expression into it. It still lacks something. I mean the Linn Drum is probably one of the best inventions in the last few years, but when I work with a good drummer — to actually see him play and hear the power that goes into it — it's so different to a Linn."
Why concentrate on electronic music then?
"Because it's quick, and the sounds are there. I know that sounds funny, but there's nothing more boring than spending 3 or 4 hours miking up a drum kit. I can't stand miking up a drum kit! Anyway, a lot of people like to use a Linn Drum. It's instant. You can switch it on, programme it and record up to 4 tracks in the time it takes to set up a drum sound, and it's perfectly in time! People are very conscious of the money they are spending."
So, musicians, it seems are out because machines are cheaper. Who said the music industry was any different to any other?
"I find I always have this talk with drummers about Linn Drums. I say 'you programme it so that, effectively, it's you playing it.' I put it like that. If drummers feel they are being pushed out by Linn Drums they should arm themselves with one and sell themselves as a programmer."
Small consolation for the poor drummer who wants to play and record with his band. What then is his main production criteria?
"Speed. I've worked with so many people who take too long. I like to work at relative speed. I find it totally unconstructive to sit down and spend hours and hours with somebody working out a part. My ideas are very instant. When people ask me to produce them, I play the tape and if I like it I say yes. If I don't I usually say I'm busy or something because I don't want to upset them. I know it's terrible. They always say 'Do you want the tape?' and I say no because if I started listening to it by the time it came to actually putting it down on 2" tape I'd be so bored with the music and wouldn't be able to do it. Drummers are the main thing I don't like."
But you keep kicking them out and using the Linn instead so what's the problem?
"When I'm producing I like the drummer to play bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat. Then we overdub the tom toms. I like the actual tracks to move, shift, and when playing the tom toms as well you tend to lose that pace. Also, I use as little cymbals as possible because the man who invented cymbals needs shooting! I hate them!"
Why? You hate recording them?
"No. Drummers use them far too much. Because they are there they think they've got to hit them. If I use a hi-hat and it's not an erratic pattern then it is usually set very low in the mix. I like drummers to be very constant on the power they use. Drummers hitting all over the snare sounds so strange. I usually have the bass drum quite high in the mix. I also pitch them quite high — very, very similar in pitch to the snare.
Bass I always direct inject — I very rarely use an amplifier, and on guitars I use multi mics. If I have to use a drum kit, I mike it up in the live room and just record bass drum, snare, hi hat and, depending on how I feel, I might mike up the toms.
Keyboards I always direct inject. Vocals — I do a lot of those in the live room, even though I hate vocals. I find singers very pretentious. Anyone who's got a big ego I can't work with."
Not a subject to be pursued I think! We returned to the subject of working with people and getting on with them in the small studio environment.
"Yeah I think I'm good at that. I always pick on somebody and really take the mick out of them. It stops people getting uptight with each other because that can happen very easily.
On mixes, I put the track sheet out of the way and memorise where everything is. If the band wants to get involved I let them get involved with the mix, but I take no notice. I'm only talking about balance. They all do it and you just end up with a mess. I set the balance myself and when they say 'Oh push the guitar up a bit' I push up a fader on an empty channel. Or if it's 'Add a bit more echo' I just go to a send that isn't being used and turn it up a bit, and they all say 'Great'. It's all psychological. It's all in their heads. Someone wants to hear the bass guitar louder — if you go to do it, even if you move the bass guitar fader up and then down again they'll be sure it's got much louder and they will invariably say after a couple of minutes 'Oh it's too loud now.' What gets me is nobody ever cottons on to the fact that it's the same fader I'm using all the time!"
Well, that's one way, and certainly the simplest and most straightforward way, of avoiding mixing arguments which are otherwise inevitable and very frustrating.
There you have it. One producer's ideas and methods for working with young bands. You've either got it or you haven't, and judging by the product, this one has.
Interview by Janet Angus
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