Craig Silvey

Once Craig Silvey had moved himself and his sensational collection of vintage gear into The Garden recording studio in October 2009, we caught up with him to discuss this newly-revitalised studio. We also delved into his successful career as a record producer, recording and mix engineer, including his time at his former studio in San Francisco, his work at the infamous Skywalker Ranch, and his life-long passion for vintage analogue gear, which has now gone a long way in laying the foundations for The Garden’s new vintage era. Here is Miloco’s Craig Silvey Producer Interview.

We hope your settling in well to your new studio home… Your first project since the new desk was installed was with Ray Dar Vees…

Craig: Yeah settling in fine! It’s been great cos when we first started the Ray Dar Vees session, even though it was a hectic session because of the faults that you find with the desk (the newly-installed Neve 8026) when you first install it, but we put the faders up and instantly it was like “wow, that sounds great..”. And me and Mark (Allaway, Miloco assistant) were commenting that the big monitors sounded better straight away…

There’s a theory that might have been helped by the fact that the 8026 is lower in height than the V3 we had in there previously…?

Craig: Yeah some people were suggesting that there is an acoustic issue of the desk being lower, and also that the desk is shallower – you can see that I can actually reach the meter bridge which you’d have trouble doing on an SSL for example, so your nearfields almost end up like a glorified walkman!

But beyond all the acoustic elements of it, the beauty of this desk is that it’s very simple. If you actually pull it apart you realise that there’s actually not a whole lot in there. There’s just a load of wires, no circuit boards…

… and it features this rare 24-channel Jukebox monitor section…

Craig: Yeah its very rare, you don’t see them hardly at all. It’s a monitoring section we use for tracking. Its basically 100% passive – there are no electronics to it. So your monitoring knob, even if you’re listening to a CD, it’ll just go through a couple of straight wires going all the way to your monitors, whereas more modern desks like the V3 will have loads of VCAs so that it doesn’t click and pop. And although all of these things that modern desks give you so that it doesn’t click and pop are great features, in the end it actually affects your audio. Even the line-input part of the desk, which is the 24 1084 and 1076 combination – which I’d consider the holy grail of Neve modules – you’ll do your basic tracking through those line modules, and then your monitoring through the jukebox section, it sounds so amazing that when you switch to a mix mode you think it doesn’t sound as good!!

When we were doing some of these mixes for Ray Dar Vees last week, we actually contemplated using it as a glorified summing mixer. We didn’t actually do it because we didn’t have the time, but you could actually use it as an analogue summing mixer. You see the 8816 summing mixers that people are using for mixing in-the-box, well this is like the ultimate one of those. It will always, hands-down, sound so much better than any of those systems, because it’s completely passive, an original Neve.

The studio has been transformed in such a short space of time. Are you pleased with how all of the setting-up and installs have gone?

Craig: Absolutely, yeah. I’ve never seen an install done so quick, and have so few problems! There were of course a few teething problems and perhaps a couple of miscalculations but it’s always going to be that way.

When we got the desk commissioned we went to Blake, who’s obsessed with Neve, and has pretty much become the world source. He’s gone through the whole desk: every single line module, to every routing module, to the centre section, and has cleaned all of it. He’s only changed the caps as they were needed, and has used the most spec’d and original caps. It’s basically a new desk, which is great.

The Garden has been marketed as a vintage band room for some time now, but we’re taking it to a whole new meaning of vintage now with the addition of your gear. Do you feel producers and engineers on the whole get an extra creative edge out of working in vintage-based studios?

Craig: I think so yeah. I guess I’m gonna open up the “special relationship” Trans-Atlantic issue here!! Certainly the West Coast United States recording ethos, which has been there for quite a long time, is seeped in the idea of having things vintage, which is why you’ll find more of these types of old Neve desks on the West Coast than anywhere else in the world. Everyone there recognised early on that they were way better sounding than your SSLs and your modern Neves. And I have to say I was quite shocked when I came to this country, to first work and then live, that everyone was so obsessed with SSLs and the modern Neves. They were going for convenience over quality; the convenience of a big SSL with compressors in each channel, and not having to use your patch bay and all that sort of thing. And it’s funny cos now I’ve been hear for about 12 years, I’ve gradually seen that attitude change. People have really started to click that these things do matter in your sound.

So I think that this room was marketed as a vintage tracking room in the past, but from my perspective you’d find me on a desk like the V3 trying to patch around to avoid all the electronics on it. Because what they do on those modern desks, which of course for some people is what they want, is the convenience of being able to automate your EQs and have a compressor and a gate on each channel, and to able to flick your switches without it making a click sound, and to not even have to use the patch bay because you can route up-above. And that’s great if that’s what you prefer. But I think if you’re a purist and you want to make good-sounding records, certainly with acoustic instruments used by guitar bands, you want to make you signal as pure as possible.

I’ve shipped over all my stuff from my previous studio, and I try and keep to this all the way along the line. Even the mic cables that we use, I’ve got these Mogami cables, they’re Japanese. And it used to be, back in my previous studio in San Fracisco, that a typical question you’d be asked when people came to look around, was “Ok you’ve got the 1084s, great, but what kind of wires do you use?”. People were that obsessed. They’d say, “if you’re not using Mogami cables throughout then I’m gonna have to find another studio”. And you could say that’s obsessive, but the thing is if you take it from the very first step, and every single stage is looked after, then in the end it actually makes your job easier. The first thing I had to do, when working on Ray Dar Vees, was put the faders up, and it was already sounding pretty good straight away.

What else about this room did you see which attracted you to become this involved with it?

Craig: Well it was a combination. The recording spaces are really good sounding, particularly for drums, and its surprisingly big sounding for its size. And on top of that was some of the outboard gear you had here. The outboard I had, which I shipped over when I came over here, was more sort of esoteric stuff that complemented your more standard studio gear. So I didn’t have your AMS Delays, or your AMS Reverbs, because usually I was going in studios that already had that kind of stuff. And this studio especially had a good selection of your good standards, such as the 1176’s and DBX 165’s.

You’ve brought with you some pretty special Helios Channels…

Craig: Ah yes! They come from the Helios Island desks, and they really are quite special. Vintage gear has become fashionable, and obviously your marquee names are your Neves, but there are some of these other companies that were making desks used on some really great, classic records. Helios is the one that seems to get forgotten a lot. In the States they’re actually very well known now, and those are very sought-after modules. But again, here they haven’t really clicked yet, oddly because the desks were originally from here. They were the desks that were in Olympic and Island studios, they were built by this guy Dick Swettenham, and they basically were used on all the classic Rolling Stones records, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley. So Dick was the main engineer at Olympic, but then Chris Blackwell from Island Records convinced him to start his own company and he built a couple of desks for Basing Street, which is of course now Sarm. So there are a couple in Sarm, and there was one in Island’s Jamaican studios, which is apparently the one where these channels came from. And then there was the Rolling Stones’ mobiles as well that had them…

So all those classic albums that you love from the ’70s were made using those. And it’s amazing cos as soon as you put an electric guitar through that, it’s almost instant Jimmy Page. They’re very quirky – it’ll take a minute for you to get your head around how they work, but they’re amazing. And some of the mic pres as well, like the Germanium ones, which break-up in a really nice way.

And before we move on from the desk completely, it of course has a very interesting history of its own…

Craig: Well it’s originally a US Desk, I think it was in RCA Studios. But my history with it probably dates back to about ’92 roughly. And I’ve actually owned it since about ’95. My old studio was previously called Coast, and originally the studio was a Bill Putnam room, which was the same guy who designed Ocean Way Studios. But anyway the history of the desk that certainly I know about, is that it lived in Coast, and then my studio which was called Toast. The name was obviously a play on ‘Coast’, and I got a few people pretty angry with that. It was only meant to be a joke! I was walking past an old Pioneer Chicken, which is an American food chain, but this Pioneer Chicken had gone bust and was taken over by a Chinese Doughnut shop. So they had to change the sign to not say Pioneer Chicken anymore, and they basically got some gaffa tape and just changed the P into an F, and so they’re Doughnut Shop became Fioneer Chicken! And I just remember cracking up about it. So as my studio had a sign saying ‘Coast’ outside, we thought it would be funny if we just turned the C into a T, and so it became Toast. We had no intention of ruffling anyone’s feathers but unfortunately we did.

So anyway since about ’92 it had certainly been based in that location, which was Coast and then Toast. And a lot of big records got done on it; ‘Last Splash’ by The Breeders, there was supposedly some Nirvana stuff although I’m not sure what, and then Neil Young did an album on it, which has only just been released actually, and I think that was called the ‘Toast Sessions’. He recorded that around 2000 or 2001, so yeah I have a Neil Young album named after my studio! What else? REM ‘Up’ was done on it, Third Eye Blind did some stuff – a huge act in the States, Smash Mouth as well.

But before that I guess it was commissioned in about ’72 and it would have had a life until about ’78 or ’79, and then the SSL wave would have hit and it would have virtually become junk at that point for a good portion of the ’80s. And then the guy who started Coast picked it up, he was also a famous dealer – he’d go around Europe and say “oh I’ll take that desk off you. I’ll give you £500.00 for it”, and people would be like “yeah great, cos we’re getting a new SSL and we don’t know what to do with it anymore”. So he ended up with about 100 of these and they’re now worth a lot of money.”

Tell us about the some of your microphones which now live down here in The Garden, amongst them c12’s and u57’s…

Craig: Ok so we’ve got the c12’s, which I guess in the world of classic mics probably come in at number 2 to the Telefunken Ela M 251, in terms of desirability. So they’re pretty cool. And the u57s are great as well. If you’ve got a valve 47 and a c12, and neither or those mic’s are working then the u57 is pretty much inbetween. So yeah there’s a great combination of mic’s down here now…

And what about the backline. Miloco and Matt Johnson have built up a good collection over the years. What’s caught your eye so far?

Craig: Well yeah it’s a great complement, as again its something that I didn’t have a whole lot of. But we’ve pretty much now got all of the classic keyboards, cos I have actually brought in a Valve Wurli, which pre-dates the classic Wurli, and that sounds great. And then we’ve got the Rhodes, and the piano, and the Prophet 5, and of course the Mark 1 Mesa Boogie, which is now nearly impossible to find. And so you’ve really taken care of that side of things as well: there’s some great guitar amps, great bass amps, all good classic stuff. And it’s brilliant for doing sessions with the new bands who are so broke they don’t really have any instruments…

You are the latest producer to join Miloco’s ‘producer partnership’ model of running studios. The recording industry is in a tricky and unpredictable time, but how important do you feel it is for us to try and keep classic commercial rooms open, or are we essentially destined for a future of home studios and mixing in-the-box?

Craig: Well of course coming from a vintage upbringing I really hope not. There’s one side, and it is fairly alarming. Some people might see this as slightly egotistical, but with a whole new generation of people what we seem to have lost is the ‘experience’ side of things. The way I was trained was by real classic types of people, it was almost like a guild of masters. I got a lot of my training from people like George Massenburg, who was instrumental in me getting my job at Skywalker Ranch. While I was at Skywalker the amount of knowledge I got from working with people like George, Phil Ramone, Alan Sides, and loads of people of that sort of ilk. I learned so much. The main thing I got out of it was what I call my ‘bag of tricks’. As I assisted with different people, I could learn ten things from them, and from those ten things you might take six of them and think, “that is absolutely amazing, I’m gonna put them in my ‘bag of tricks'”. And then the next guy comes along and you get another six things, and in the end you’ve got a mish-mash of your own tricks that make you personally a good engineer and producer.

And it was all based upon things that you experienced doing sessions under people who really knew what they were doing. But I think there’s a real danger now of a lot of that being lost, because the older generations are getting older and retiring, and less of that is getting passed on down to the next generations. And while in the world of ‘the box’ you can get a good standard of recording now, we still require that knowledge…

… so with the trend going that way, and with more and more commercial rooms closing down, is the quality of recorded music at risk?

Craig: I think what’s happened is that you used to have a very ‘high’ high, and a very ‘low’ low, and what’s happened is that everything’s now gone somewhere in the middle. So what was the low has come up to an acceptable level, but the high is also coming down, mainly because people aren’t getting the same training, and have less time in these types of studios.

That’s one side to it.

But then, although I’m a vintage head, I’m not opposed to trying new ways, and of course the future is the future and you do have to move forward. But I don’t think you should move forward just because something’s telling you it’s easier to do or that its more flexible. You have to balance that out with your sound quality, because what we are doing is an art, we’re not data processing. So I think you have to, not necessarily suffer for your art, but put the effort in and not just do things the easy and simple way, but actually do things the best way. Of course I’ve done mixing-in-the-box, due to budget constraints, and I can do it and I’m happy to do it, but it just really doesn’t sound as good. I did a record where I tracked it through a pro control, monitoring through the box, and basically had all my rough mixes which were done in-the-box, but as soon as I brought it out onto an old vintage Neve, I put all the faders at zero, and you found that without having to do anything other than setting your pans, it instantly sounded better. Without any EQs or extra compressors, using the same internal EQs, but it all just jumped out – the depth and the width – and it was just like wow. And that’s real, its not just being snobbish.

But I guess the original point in what Miloco is doing, I think it is important because somewhere we need to hold the ground and be saying, “ok that’s fine, you can go and mix your records in-the-box if you want to, but if you want that extra 10% done by people who know what they’re doing, here we are…” And whereas before you had to spend a million pounds to make a really classic record, you don’t have to do that anymore, which is great and that’s the way it should be, and it is more democratic musically. But certainly from a record company’s point of view they think, “oh we can mix in the box for £50”, and that’s too much compromise and I think that’s showing all the way down the line. I think music is becoming more ‘McDonald’s’ and disposable. I mean there aren’t that many classic records being made anymore, or very few, in terms of longevity. People still put on ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and think “fuuuck what an amazing sounding record”, but I’m not sure if anyone is doing that with any records being made now.

A couple of year’s ago you spent some time at Hugh Padgham’s Sofa Sound studios – an SSL room – when you were mixing Portishead’s ‘Third’. How did things work for you over there?

Craig: Oh it was great, yeah. Again sometimes what you want with the mixing side is a little bit more control, and what we were doing on ‘Third’ at that point needed a really good monitoring environment that was very true. We’d kind of already “mixed it” mixed it, so we were just kind of perfecting it, and that studio was perfect for that. I knew that room before it was Hugh’s and I already knew that it was a great-sounding space for true monitoring, and add in all the gear that he’s got as well – he has a great collection for mixing purposes.

Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you could give to any young and talented producers/engineers trying to get a foothold in the studio industry?

Craig: I think the best piece of advice really is to just get involved, be willing to put some hard work in that you may not get paid for, because you’ll get paid in experience. People spend lots of money on going to recording schools which I’m sure has its benefits, but at the same time there’s nothing like actually being in the studio, even if its just as an intern and getting five minutes with someone like Flood for example, cos in those five minutes he might tell you something that you’d never learn in a recording school, and you’ll certainly never learn sitting in front of your laptop at home. And it may seem that you have to do a lot of work and it’s a lot of grudge, but in the end those kind of things are invaluable.

Craig was talking to Miloco in October 2009.

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