The Empire Strikes Back
Phil Harding, Ian Curnow
Who helped make Climie Fisher's single a hit? And the Pet Shop Boys', and Depeche Mode's, and Bananarama's? David Bradwell investigates the latest action in the Stock, Aitken & Waterman production stable.
Nobody has done more to bring the production team into the musical spotlight than Stock, Aitken & Waterman. Now Ian Curnow and Phil Harding aim to raise the profile of the PWL production empire.
LOVE THEM OR loathe them, it's hard to ignore them. Who are they? Stock, Aitken & Waterman, and they are largely responsible for the current high profile of The Record Producer. Their distinctive sound and meticulous production dominates charts and packs dancefloors worldwide.
From reading album credits, you may have noticed that Pete Waterman Limited (PWL) employs more than just these three producers. Also within the PWL stable is Ian Curnow who first arrived as Fairlight programmer at the time of Mel and Kim's album, FLM. Since then, the former Talk Talk keyboards man has created nearly every bass sound on PWL recordings.
Phil Harding joined SAW as an engineer while they were recording at the Marquee studio before moving into their current premises in South-east London. The final mixes on many records you might associate with the threesome have in fact been his work. Now Harding and Curnow have joined forces and formed a production team of their own within PWL. Their work so far has always been dance orientated - witness The Four Tops' 'Reach Out' 1988 remix, the Balearic beat of Electra's 'Jibaro' and the pounding hi-nrg of records by Shooting Party and Dollar. They freely admit to being part of what people would consider the PWL sound. I visited the PWL Bunker studio to listen to the two producers put their side of the story. Curnow lights a cigar and explains how the partnership developed.
"When I was around 16 or 17, I was a songwriter on the piano, and I just happened to be working with Phil. We made an orchestrated record with a Transcendent 2000, played one note at a time; it was a dance beat with Vangelis-type orchestration and it took us a couple of weeks solid."
Since those days, Curnow has made programming his speciality. Aside from the Fairlight, he is noted for his Yamaha DX sounds, and it was these initially which aroused Pete Waterman's interest in his abilities.
"When the DX7 first appeared, the bass sounds weren't particularly good", explains Harding. "At that time Ian was programming with Talk Talk and he gave me some of his custom sounds which I immediately started to use with SAW."
Soon after, Curnow joined PWL, and once he and Harding were working in the same building, it was only a matter of time before the old partnership was renewed. An early remix success was Climie Fisher's 'Rise To The Occasion'. Harding relates the background to the project.
"The record company needed a 12" version, and asked us if we could make it club orientated. It was down at 97/98bpm, so the only thing we could think of was to shuffle it up, and turn it into a hip hop track. I don't think the record company were expecting it, but they told us to try it and see. When the band arrived to hear the mixes, we were halfway through. They walked through the door and thought they had turned up to the wrong session, because I was in the middle of a breakdown bit which had nothing to do with the song. In the end we also did a 7" which ended up as the single because it was so fresh to them.
"If somebody asks us to do a remix of a track, the major criterion is the tempo, and what alternative bag we can put it in. DJs have to be able to play it alongside other records without disturbing the excitement they are creating on the floor. If something's between 114 and 125bpm we can do a house version. Then the criterion is how much the song can actually handle the house treatment, which is all based around one chord, and if it can't we do two completely different sets of overdubs."
The task of making this work musically is left to Curnow.
"If a song is in a major key I'll work all my parts out in the relative minor", he explains. "Either that or restructure the chords so that it sounds harder. Then I copy them all onto another track of the sequencer and change them where it doesn't sound right. On his desk, Phil can have the song overdubs set up on one group and the loop overdubs on another. We can then flick between them. As soon as the vocal isn't there we can flick to the alternative tracks without disrupting the flow of the song - it'll just sit on a harder groove."
"Which is what we did on the Jackson Five's 'I Want You Back'", Harding adds. "The guys at Motown liked it, so they edited a bit of our 12" into their seven."
Much of a finished production job may actually be written by the duo...
"On most of the records we do it's musically about 70% Ian Curnow. I don't really say us because it's virtually all Ian", Harding begins.
"The ideas come from me and then Phil goes through applying feels", adds Curnow. "He decides which ones are worth using and which ones are complete crap. We try to make everything danceable to a point - where possible. People come to us because we seem able to get a good groove."
SINCE THE CELEBRATED Climie Fisher remix, Harding and Curnow seem to have specialised in giving projects the "house treatment". House purists from Chicago argue that nobody outside their own city is capable of producing authentic house - especially if they live in England. Curnow offers his defence.
"There is an awful lot of dross coming out since house has happened. It's like anything, as soon as it happens, everybody decides they will do a house version, without really studying what house music is. We spend a lot of time studying it here."
"I've realised now that making the biggest, fattest sounds isn't what's important, it's getting the right sound to suit the track."
"As far as the people in Chicago are concerned, they're the only ones who know how to make house music", expands Harding. "They don't think the guys in New York do it properly, and they think we do it properly even less. At the New Music Seminar in New York I suggested that the origins of house music are influenced by European disco, but they just won't have it. They won't believe that the open pea-soup hi-hat originated from Giorgio Moroder and those other '70s disco records. We know for sure.
"We never set out to do ethnic house mixes, but functional commercial house records for the UK and European clubs. Coincidentally we managed to create a sound commercial enough that they like it in America and Chicago as well." Whether record companies understand house music or merely regard it as a convenient marketing category is open to debate.
"If there are people in record companies that understand it they're not the decision makers", Harding begins. "For them, if it's got an open hi-hat, a fours kick, a few vocal locks and a rolling bass, it sounds like house."
Another genre the British and American record companies don't seem to understand is hi-nrg. In this case it seems they don't even recognise it exists.
"It's massive in Scotland and up north, but it's definitely deteriorating in the States", Harding explains. "People just bag it with the whole gay scene which is very unfortunate. I was actually on the hi-nrg panel at the Seminar this year, and we spent virtually an hour-and-a-half talking about the name hi-nrg and why people like SAW don't put 'hi-nrg mix' on their records. The record companies don't like it, it wouldn't encourage the DJs or the kids to go and buy it, whereas if you've got 'house mix' or whatever the latest thing is, they would. In Germany and around Europe you can still use the words hi-nrg and Eurobeat, and in Japan it's the biggest thing. When we do hi-nrg now we try to add a contemporary edge to it rather than make it just pop hi-nrg. Having worked with the Pet Shop Boys and realised how artistically they make their records, we've tried to inject some of what we learned from them into anything that we've since been doing in that field. They've still retained their artistic credibility, and for us that's the side of hi-nrg that you can still market, and market well. Most markets around the world perceive them not only as a dance act, but also as a pop or rock contemporary act."
A large element of the team's success is in their understanding of the needs of the DJ and the dynamics of nightclub PA systems. One of the main considerations they face is that of song structure. Harding explains his approach.
"One of the obvious things you are looking for is something at the start to make it easy for the DJ to mix into. Then there are three other aspects. If it's a very commercial song, we might have a three-minute intro of just the groove with no relevance to the actual song. When that is over I have a verse and a chorus and then another breakdown in case the DJ feels he's in danger of losing his floor and he's got to mix out of it that quickly. Obviously you'll have a breakdown in the middle, normally after the second chorus, and then something at the end that's easy for him to mix out of. A lot of DJs now prefer a two- or four-bar tag of a synth or vocal instead of drums at the intro. Then, if they time it right, they can get that over the end of their previous record, so when the beat comes in it's right on."
Many Stock, Aitken & Waterman records betray their origins as soon as they're heard on the radio or in a nightclub. Harding/Curnow productions share many of the SAW trademarks. The particular way the sounds are conceived and mixed together seems to be a feature of PWL productions, no matter who is behind the faders. Harding in particular tailors his mixes to the dancefloor. How does he cope with the dynamics of a nightclub PA system?
"I set up the mix on big monitors, and make sure there isn't too much woofy bottom end flying around - and not too much hardness in the middle area either. As long as you've got a tight bass and nothing screaming in the mid-range it's going to sound good on virtually any system. I do listen to our records in clubs, so I know how well it relates, and we've just bought a club system for our new studio here. In addition, we always aim for strong clarity in the top end. This is all done by very careful equalisation and treatment. When you're dealing with bottom end I believe you have to have specific spaces for specific instruments, so I would never boost the same frequency on the kick drum as I would for the bass, obviously the two main bottom end instruments. I would boost the kick at around 50 or 60Hz, and then again at the 3k/8k range for the click. The bass, I wouldn't boost below 100. If I'm adding bottom end to other things like the snare, or if something needs warming up, I wouldn't boost below 150. Then the kick and bass have their areas, and everything else is above them. We try not to put too much equalisation in at the bottom. It's easy when you're at the latter stages of a mix to go 'I need some more oomph', and think 'alright. I'll equalise it', and quite often all you're doing is adding more boom rather than actually increasing the power."
THE TWO PRODUCERS rarely work together in the same room: while Harding is mixing one project in the Bunker, Curnow will already be working on the next in the programming suite. This may seem a strange arrangement, but offers greater speed, freedom and flexibility for both partners. Communication between the two suites is extremely efficient, as Curnow explains.
"If Phil wants to change a sound during the course of a mix I can get up yesterday's program, change sounds from here, and then from my desk either dump to a multitrack, or if he's already running a mix, he can feed me SMPTE and I'll just beam it up to him - all the outputs from this desk appear on his patchbay."
Changing sounds is something that happens regularly. Often their brief will change in the middle of recording, and the whole track has to be altered accordingly.
"The vocalist will sing to drums and a guide pad and then we make the record around the vocal", Curnow explains. "Sometimes the vocalist will sing to one feel and the final record is completely different. They quite often freak out."
No matter how many changes of plot the records evolve through, nearly all the music tracks run from an Atari with Steinberg Pro24 sequencing software. It is a system the team are totally dedicated to.
"Version III is fabulous, very much second nature to me now", enthuses Curnow. "A lot of the updates on version III have actually come from my suggestions, which is wonderful to see. I get updated each week and get software to try out. With regard to programming feel on the Pro24, if I'm honest, 'Pump Up The Volume' really influenced me. It made me realise just how far you have to go but it's only since I've had version III that I've been able to do it so easily." Curnow's current setup combines the old and the new: analogue and digital technology. His studio also houses the only black Fairlight Series III in the world, three Roland Super Jupiters, two Yamaha TX802s, and an assortment of other synthesisers and samplers. How has the move to PWL affected the way he uses the technology available?
"Sampling is like an artist using bits of a magazine to make a collage rather than actually using his paint brush - it's a different effect."
"My attitude has changed since working here because we work so fast - when I was with Talk Talk it was a very different kind of criteria. I spent a lot of time trying to make analogue synths and DX synths sound acoustic - it was good training in a way. I learned a lot about making very delicate adjustments to parameters to get a fine timbre change, where something sounds electronic but slightly less sounds acoustic. That criterion doesn't apply here so much, but if you can actually do that I'm sure it's easier to make the electronic sounds. When I was doing sessions I used to try to make the biggest best sounds possible, to impress the producers. I'd put all these massive sounds on tape and the poor old engineer would have to thin them all down to make them sit in the track right. I've realised now that making the biggest, fattest sounds isn't what's important, it's getting the right sound to suit the track. In isolation it could sound like a ten-quid Casio but if it works within the context that's all that's important.
"If it works with a bit of echo or repeat on it we'll have it", jokes Harding. "If it sounds naff in isolation it doesn't matter, if it fits in the track that's the main thing. The D50 suffers a bit from that. When you got behind the D50 when it first came out it was brilliant, but when you actually try to put it in a track when there's a lot of other stuff going on, it's just unmixable.
"There are various factors I have to consider when creating a sound", continues the programmer. "If it's got to be spiky and hard I'll use the DX, if it's got to be easily sized up to a particular part I'll probably go to the Super Jupiters. I know them really well and I find I can get a usable result out of them quicker than the DXs. These days with the DXs it's easier to work from a sound."
SO MUCH FOR programming. The duo also face the problems raised by the debatable legality of sampling.
"Sampling is difficult, we just don't do it any more", Harding begins. "It's a little bit disappointing really. The principle is that if you sample something, even if it's a phrase, and you then cut it about and do different things with it then you're artistically doing something new. You're not just stealing."
Curnow draws another comparison: "It's a bit like an artist using bits of a magazine to make a collage rather than actually using his paint brush to draw it - it's a different effect."
One way the pair avoid the need to sample other records is by hiring their own rapper, Ambassador, he who spoke those immortal words "Wap bam boogie". Outside the studio, Ambassador earns his living as a plasterer...
Talk of sampling leads us on to a discussion of drum sounds. Harding explains where he gets most of his. "We've got our sound bank in the Fairlight now, with pretty much every drum sound for pretty much any job that we need to do. Some are created by ourselves, but more often than not they're taken off other people's multitracks."
As you may be aware, there is nowhere at PWL to record live drums, and no snare drum has ever entered the building. Despite this, some bands have asked Harding and Curnow to give their records a "live" feel. Are they tempted to break with tradition and use a real drummer?
"We have considered it a few times", Harding recalls. "There's a track on the Blue Mercedes album where the decision was to keep it as live as possible. We got very close to having a real drummer, but got away with some clever programming, actually programming fills slightly out of time. If people come in and say that they want as live a feel as possible we tend to end up with live bass and live guitar around programmed drums and keyboards. We do like to add a human element."
"My drum programming varies out of time by degrees", adds Curnow. "On the BM track, some of them were a good quarter note out. That's not an isolated note, that's where you pull a fill and the whole track would pull back by that much, and by the next bar it would be back in time again. Normally it would be a maximum of four or five MIDI clicks on the Pro24's resolution, especially the hi-hats and the faster parts where you can make them all duck and dive. If you make them all dead in line they disappear to an extent. They're all there and you can hear them, but when you put them together everything gets in the way of each other, which you don't get with a live section."
With their considerable success so far, do they feel they have already influenced other musicians and producers?
"I don't think the two of us have been working together long enough to influence anyone, really", Harding asserts. "However, talking to other producers, I think some of the sounds we had with Dead Or Alive have had a lot of impact, and I think 'Jibaro' might have an effect. Certainly we are both very much part of what people would consider the PWL sound."
"It's not a deliberate move either", adds Curnow."I think it must just be the way we perceive sounds. The way Phil mixes them in, and the way I put them together is a combination which just makes a certain noise."
Away from the dancefloor and the confines of PWL, neither producer chooses fast, energetic pop music as a source of listening pleasure. Curnow opts for his classical orchestral background, in particular the works of Vivaldi ("It's just so refreshing because it doesn't go bom dat bom dat all the time.") Harding likes a touch of classical music, and a lot of laid back Sade-esque jazz. They do try to go to clubs as often as possible, their current favourite being the Spectrum on Mondays at London's Heaven. As for listening to the radio, Curnow, for one, is sceptical:
"I think the ability of Radio 1 to make or break an artist is a bit of a shame, they've got such immense power. They didn't playlist the first Blue Mercedes single until it was in the top 30, and have effectively killed every record since because they don't like the band. They didn't even play Rick Astley's first single properly until it was in the Top 10. There is a public demand for the records, but Radio 1 set themselves up as censors of what is and isn't good in music - not every good record receives airplay."
Summing up the approach and attitude of PWL, Curnow sounds optimistic, but offers a word of warning to musicians who stay at home.
"It's a healthy environment here, with Pete Waterman flying about the place throwing thunderbolts. It's brilliant - it charges you up, it makes you work. I could never now go to The Manor and spend six months making an album, it would drive me round the bend. I want to get on with it and do it, it's a different sort of approach. It seems to be the most successful approach at the moment, although the pendulum will swing, I'm sure. You can sit at home for hours and play it to the walls, but you're so isolated at home compared to here where you've got an A&R department upstairs. Here you're constantly getting feedback, at home you've just got your children or your dog or wife, and it's so easy to disappear up your own arse making these wonderful sounds and noises that nobody is going to be very interested in."
Interview by David Bradwell
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