Hugh Padgham

Two and a half years after Sofa Sound recording studios in West London joined the Miloco group, we finally caught up with the studio’s owner and all-round legendary record producer, Hugh Padgham. Miloco and Hugh spent an hour discussing the past, present and future of his West London SSL Gem; his thoughts and ideas on the modern-day music industry; plus of course a few obligatory questions on a career which ranks up there with the very best in the history of record production. Settle in to the extra special Hugh Padgham Producer Interview.

So how are you and what have you been up to recently?

Very well thank you.

I’ve been commissioned to do 2 albums for a publishing company. It’s basically a new version of the library music concept where music is made to be placed in movies, television programs and commercials, but is never commercially released. They are pukka songs written by songwriters, but my deal as a producer isn’t royalty-based, it’s based on sync and publishing income. This company is particularly involved in product placement and they market the music very aggressively.

I see absolutely no sense in working for bands on labels anymore unless you are absolutely ecstatic about them, because the chances of actually making any money out of a label nowadays… well you’re probably more likely to win the bloody lottery! The budgets are so low, and it just doesn’t really make sense any more. Nor do I actually know any young band who wants to sign to a label. I think the idea nowadays is to try and sell as many records as you can so that perhaps a label then takes interest, and then you can perhaps license your music to them. The one thing that labels have which is hard to better is their marketing and distribution, in the respect of international markets. But they are still rightly branded the enemy.

It’s been roughly 2 and a half years since we joined up to run your studio, Sofa Sound. How has life been working with Miloco?

I think it’s been fantastic working with Miloco, because if you actually want to make any money then running and owning a recording studio is not really a business I would advise anyone to get into! So what works for me is that when I go on holiday or if I am doing a project abroad, it’s absolutely brilliant that Miloco have been able to fill it up with other people, so the place does still earn a bit.

Of course before that, you’d had a number of years enjoying your own private use of Sofa Sound. We’d love to know how it came about that you acquired the studio for yourself.

I had worked at the Townhouse for years. Back in the mid-nineties they converted their tape libraries into production rooms, so I took a room and had a small Protools setup, a Control 24 console, and a bunch of analogue gear such as compressors and Neve modules. Even though you still wanted a proper studio for your main recording and mixing, it was becoming obvious that it was crazy to hire Townhouse Studio 1 for £1200 a day just for vocal overdubs.

But then 5-or-so years ago, EMI had sold the place to Sanctuary and it was getting pretty obvious that things weren’t going too well, and I thought it was time to jump before I was pushed. That coincided with it suddenly dawning on me that it wasn’t impossible to buy a second-hand SSL anymore, but although there were loads of them out there I hadn’t been able to find one that I really wanted, which was not very old and not too beaten up, which had VU meters not light beam meters, and which didn’t have moving fader automation. It is more cost-effective not to have light meters going down the whole time, and because I’d never used moving fader automation before I didn’t really want it.

Eventually, one day I was flicking through a magazine and I saw ‘Console for Sale currently in Private West London Studio’. So the next day I rang up the advert… I knew of Stanley House, and the guy who owned it was wanting out – he said “there’s two good things about owning a studio, they’re like boats: the day you buy it and the day you sell it!”.

The console was everything that I wanted: age-wise, the VU meters, the faders. It was in very good condition as it had originally been commissioned to go into a Japanese studio, and it had also never been in a room where there had been cigarette smoke.

The guy was moving out too, so I went downstairs to speak to Jess… “oooh we’d love you to take the room, Hugh”. I thought this is absolutely brilliant – I’ve got a fully-built studio here, and a console that I don’t have to move anywhere else. It also meant that I wouldn’t need to curtail operations for six months, while I bought an SSL, move it out of wherever, get the studio setup, get the console commissioned… I mean you’re probably looking at four to six months at least. So I was instantly in there, working.

And then, six months later, Jess came in one day and said, “oh its bad news, the owner wants to sell the building”. But to cut a long story short, myself and Chris Porter – another tenant in the building who moved in around the same time as me – hatched a plan together, and the two of us bought the building.

Your long working relationship with Townhouse studios is well-known, but what are the main benefits you personally feel now from having your very own studio, rather than a working in a big commercial facility?

The biggest problem for me which came towards the end of my time at The Townhouse, was that there were only 2 or 3 studios that I could count on for tracking and mixing. It just became a nightmare. If you’ve only got 2 studios that you like working in, then the chances of getting in there are that much slimmer unless you book way ahead.

Getting this place completely resolved that, plus it was nice at the time to be able to really settle in and do stuff. I had a lot of stuff that I used to kart around, but now its all hard-wired in. I guess I’ve hardly worked elsewhere since i’ve had this place.

How many changes – cosmetic and technical – were initially made to Sofa Sound when you moved in?

Well I had quite a lot of my own gear, and then I also bought one or two bits and pieces and a few microphones which had belonged to Stanley House. I had a small collection of microphones myself, like some of my favourite mics, but I didn’t have things like U87s and others which are ubiquitous to big studios. So I had to go out and buy a bunch of good mics. I now have a collection of 40 to 45 which suit me fine and seem to suit most other people; Neumanns, Shures, AKGs… I’ve got one or two older mics, and Chris has some old mics downstairs so we can borrow off him sometimes.

I also bought an EMT 140 Echo Plate that had to be found and wired in, and I also made quite a lot of little changes such as putting tie-lines in. We also renovated the 24-track, and so now we can swap from analogue to Protools, or connect the two together if you are working in analogue and then copying into Protools. We made a few little acoustic changes as well.

Of course not only is it an excellent mix suite but you also have that great live space in there as well. What particular aspects of tracking do you find the space at Sofa Sound is particularly suited to?

Well I love that space. Some people say, “oh it doesn’t look very big compared to some studios”, but then, if you take a band to even Studio 2 at Abbey Road, they’re lost in there. The great thing about my place is that although it’s a bit of a squeeze, the guys are all next to each other which is what it’s like at a rehearsal studio or onstage. So we try to replicate a stage environment. We’ve got enough separation as I’ve got the two booths, and for drums… I’ve never got a better drum sound in my life. There’s this corridor that leads from the hall into the control room, and it has plain stone walls with an arch ceiling. If I open the doors to the corridor and put omni mics out there and compress them, you get a really big, fantastic drum sound, similar to the famous stone room at The Townhouse where we got the big Phil Collins ‘In The Air Tonight’ sound. Everyone went, “oh my god that is just the most massive drum sound”, but the room itself wasn’t actually that big, it was just treated acoustically.

Before we move on from the desk completely, we’d just like to touch on the big affiliation you have with SSL. Can you tell us what it is about SSL desks that make them your long-standing personal favourite over other consoles/manufacturers?

Well, first of all, I love Neves as well. I have a rack of early 1970s classic Neve modules and I use them all the time. There was a Neve in the studio in Montserrat that I did the Police stuff on which was an absolutely wonderful console. And I love old Tridents and old Helios desks which are very hard to find now, although you can find old modules for them.

But you see for me the great thing with the SSL was that I had a hand in the development of it. The first console, which was a B Series, we helped develop technically and ergonomically into what became the E Series and then the G Series: for example the position of the monitor faders. The original desk also had rotary routing switches on it so you could only route to two routes at a time. So we had a big hand in developing that console and in particular the automation. I still think SSL automation is the best by far – the simplest. And I’m talking about the E and G’s automation, not necessarily the J which was derived from their film consoles.

People have derided the SSL’s sound over the years, but I’ve always liked the sound of them, it’s great for rock bands. It’s chunky and the EQs can be vicious. I retro-fitted my console back to the E Series EQs which I always preferred over the G Series ones. There’s the fact that even now on the old Neve consoles you don’t have instant access to your compressors and noise gates, but what was very much a part of how we found that Phil Collins sound, was that we could just muck around without having to patch things in all the time. It was the ability to have 60 compressors on a 60-channel board, whereas before you were lucky to have two pairs of 1176s and a pair of DBX160’s…

We’ve already mentioned your collection of classic Neve EQs, but from what you hear from other producers and engineers who use the room, are there any bits of gear that come across as particularly popular with Sofa Sound regulars?

Well of course the Neves are very special, but also the Urei 1176s, the Teletronix LA2 compressor, the AMS Delay lines, the AMS reverb. They are all popular bits of outboard. I’ve got these Tubetech EQ’s which are copies of Pultecs, and people like them. I’ve got a remake of the Urei pre-amp and equaliser that was on the classic American desks of the early to mid ’60s, which a lot of the old soul stuff was recorded on. So I like to have a good balance of interesting old stuff and the modern plug-ins as well. But I think it’s things like the Neves and the Yamaha Rev 7’s which people still love because they have a real sound character of their own. Many are now emulated into plug-ins but I still think it’s nice to have the real thing.

Then I have the Analogue 24-track which has been lovingly restored, and also an ATR 100 ½” which is generally still regarded as the best mix-down stereo machine ever. So one can record all Tube, or all Solid State, or all Protools in the studio.

We often like to ask producers on their thoughts towards the progressive transition towards digital in the studio. You have the benefit of using the best both mediums have to offer, so have you personally found the rise of digital technologies in recording studios has affected the way you like to work ?

I think it has in the sense of its editing possibilities. Even I, who am a massive fan and stalwart of analogue recording, look back on days of spending hours manually comping vocals, and not wanting to go more than one generation down, and whether you come off the sync head or the repro head, and the time it used to take to do all that. I don’t know if it’s whether I am older and lazier, or that old syndrome of ‘why does an old dog lick its balls?’ and the answer is ‘because it can’. So the whole thing of analogue editing compared to digital is a complete no brainer…

My favourite method of recording a band at the moment is to do my basic recording onto 24-track and then to copy that into Protools and carry on from there. I think I get the best of both worlds that way. But to be completely honest I absolutely refute anyone to say that records sound any better than they did 20 or even 40 years ago, when people recorded onto 8-track or 16-track. I am horrified to hear masses of people still working at 44.1 k, whereas I moved to 96 or 88 quite a few years ago, but then I tend to use Protools very much as a tape machine rather than a whole work station. People who are running 4,000 plug-ins still have to stay at 44.1.

So would you say that plug-ins are not managing to emulate original analogue units?

I wouldn’t say they’re failing to emulate them, but sometimes I don’t think they have the character. I also think some of it’s in my brain as well, and because I’ve got a lot of the real models I’m not going to use the plug-in versions. But I do have some favourites. I love all the Chandler stuff like the TG1s. Miloco’s clients would expect to have X, Y and Z, so we do keep up with the latest plug-ins, even if I don’t use them all myself.

And how about the future? Are there any plans or ideas you have for Sofa Sound which you are looking to introduce, technical or other?

We’re going to upgrade the Protools system this year because it’s finally running on Snow Leopard, and I’ve been loathe to upgrade it until it’s running on the latest operating system. Other than that I’ve put a new carpet down and re-painted the place, but I don’t really think there’s anything that major which I don’t already have….

You see the problem with studios is that they can become an obsession. I yearn for things in the way you might yearn to have a new badge on your car! If Malcolm Jackson has a sale on then I will go down there knowing it will be very hard not to buy something. Not that long ago I bought an EMT 245 Digital Reverb, just because they are absolutely brilliant sounding things.

I’ll go down to British Grove, Mark Knopfler’s studio, and I’ll look around and get very jealous because he’s got more old microphones than I’ve got, and more of this and more of that and more of everything..! If I hear that someone has bought an incredibly rare microphone, I tend to think, “shit I wish I’d bought it myself!”.

But I’m trying to get over that. I had David Gilmour here playing guitar the other day, and he’s got his own amazing studio on this boat at Hampton Court. We were chatting about what an incredible money drainer having a recording studio is, not helped by the fact that we can’t charge enough for them as everyone in our business knows. 20 years ago we were charging almost twice what we are now, and that’s without even working out how much inflation has gone up by.

It seems in the current climate that there are now many producers and engineers following a similar suit to yourself by looking for a private, tailored space, away from the traditional commercial studio. Do you believe it is a trend which could potentially put an end to the commercial studio as we know it?

I think it’s been going that way for years, but if you’re a rock band you’re still going to need a soundproof space with a reasonably good acoustic to be able to record drums. Even though you can get these amazing drum sample albums now – I noticed just this week Abbey Road have come out with one – and if you’re a very clever programmer you can do an excellent job. But if you’re in a band you are going to want to sit behind a bloody drum kit and thrash around on it. So I think as long as bands still exist there will still be a necessity for studios, and I think other than young chaps who have grown up working within a box, people still love to be able to sit in front of a console.

I’m not saying that people can’t make great mixes at home because they can compensate, say if the room is too bassy. But it’s nice not to have to compensate and I just hope that there’s enough professionals around like myself who have either been spoilt, or are just too used to working in studios that they will always want them. One day, if they don’t, I will just close the whole thing down and sell the building, and probably end up richer because of it. In some respects I have to say the studio is a bit of a hobby, but if people still want it then great.

You are of course in a great position to compare the state of the industry today to that of the 1970s/80s when you were establishing your career. What do you feel are the main weaknesses in the music business today, which has of course had a knock-on effect towards a slowing studio market?

I think it’s a massive combination of things. Record companies have charged too much for music – I don’t think people think paying 12 or 13 quid is good value for ten tracks anymore. I think they are at fault for being too greedy, because the profits they made were massive, although to defend them slightly there were vast areas of the planet where they weren’t earning any money, i.e.. the far east where it was all being ripped off.

I think people’s perception of what an album is worth is probably about a fiver, which is pretty hard to stomach considering two pints is more than that. And to think that all the effort and expense that goes into making an album, and it actually ends up worth less than 2 pints, well it’s slightly worrying. Then also when iTunes came along people were able to cherry-pick tracks. That was heaven for them because they knew there were only three good tracks on it anyway – partly because the producer or writer has said, “I’m not going to waste all of my good tracks on one album because I know the label will only promote three of them.” When I started we used to go into the studio with a band. The label would say “make an album”, and would then choose a single. Nowadays they won’t let you into a studio unless they hear a single.

So it’s a combination of that and file-sharing. But I hope what comes out of it is that disk space becomes so easy and cheap that we can get the quality of music back up from the present MP3 to the other end of the scale, because when compared to video and other businesses, music is the only one where quality has actually gone down from the ’60s. From vinyl, then to CDs, to MP3s, the quality has gone down, whereas television has gone from black and white, to colour, to high-definition, and now to 3D. In the music business we’ve tried three times to get multi-channel quad or surround sound underway, and it’s failed every time. It’s bizarre how audio and video have done opposites.

What I do hope is that we get back to making records much quicker in a studio. Yes, the budgets aren’t what they were, but then you don’t need to spend six months making a record. I think it should go back to being this: a band are signed because they can bloody play their arses off. They will go into a studio and play like they did in the ’60s when you could make an album in two or three days, and if that’s the case; more bands making more music; people less precious about having voices auto-tuned or drums drum-detective; where you can just go into the studio, play it, produce the record warts and all, and release it. Then it won’t cost so much to make records, and hopefully the studios that are still there can get more stuff going through quickly and you can keep the fee charges up.

One reason all the studios have closed down is that they couldn’t afford to pay the rent anymore. If you look at most studios that are actually still in existence, they are the ones that own their own bricks and mortar. Studios started moving out of the West End years ago because they couldn’t afford the rent. They moved to West London and then again the landlords put up the rent, when the studios’ incomes had been going down. So it doesn’t take the brain of Britain to work out that sooner of later it’s not going to work.

You’ve worked with a catalogue of the most successful artists over the last three decades. It all began back in the early 70s when you worked as a Tape-Op at Advision Studios for the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer. How did that very first gig come about?

Well everyone says it was Emerson Lake and Palmer, but it actually wasn’t, it was with a prog rock band called Gentle Giant. It’s a classic Wikipedia wrongism and I should edit it!! Gentle Giant at the time were quite a big prog rock band in the same genre as ELP and Yes. I also worked with a pop band called The Sweet who were very big at the time, as well as Mott the Hoople amongst other stuff. In those days there were probably 15 top studios in London and as a leaving schoolboy I just wrote to them all asking if they had any vacancies for a tea boy. I was very lucky that I got a job there. This was in early ’74, and I got made redundant after about six months because at the time they had a three-day working week due to a big miner’s strike.

Then I moved onto a studio called Lansdowne Studios which also closed down a couple of years ago. It was the second oldest independent studio in London and had been going since 1954. A lot of famous stuff was recorded there: anything from Acker Bilk ‘Strangers on the Shore’, to all the Dave Clark Five hits from the ’60s. Then in the ’70s you had people like Uriah Heep and other heavy metal bands, and also a lot of Trad-Jazz, Avant-Garde and Contemporary jazz as well. It was a great place to work for a few years because there was such a variety of music being recorded, and the engineers who I learnt from were all old school. One might call it an almost formal education in how to mic-up orchestral instruments and so on.

That studio then went into more film-based stuff in the late ’70s, which was clever for them as they could charge massively more on an hourly basis, but I was more interested in working for rock bands. Luckily I knew some people who worked at Virgin, who originally just had the Manor studios in Oxford, and the Manor mobiles. But they decided they were going to build a residential studio in London which became The Townhouse, and that’s how I ended up there. So I was just on the staff for a few years, but after the success of Gabriel, Collins and XTC, I went freelance in ’81.

Do you view those particular records you worked on as significant in setting up the path to all of your success in later years?

At the time the Gabriel records were seen as being very advanced and avant-garde, in terms of the recording techniques and sound. We were so massively into the whole sound quality thing. Nowadays it’s rare that people talk about that, unless you read the really nerdy magazines. Now people talk about music in respect of how much it has earned. Has it been a hit? How successful is it? Rather than, “oh my god you have to hear that album because it just sounds fucking incredible”. Back then we were in the business of making records to sound fucking incredible, and then if they were also commercial that’s even better. But we were far less constricted compared to now. In those days we’d go into a studio to make an album whereas now it’s the other way around if you know what I mean.

So we were totally into sound; aligning 24 tracks and Dolbys and so on. It would take the maintenance guys hours and hours, but that whole aspect of recording just doesn’t exist anymore. In some ways that’s good…

There was of course the whole Phil Collins thing, people revered the Gabriel stuff, XTC wasn’t a massive commercial success but it was a good critical one. So suddenly I was the new boy on the block and I was lucky enough to hook-up with The Police, who at that time were one of the biggest bands in the world. I then made two albums with them which were massive as well.

How do you perceive the development of your own career? Do you feel there are differences or indeed similarities to how you approached your work in 1984, working with say David Bowie, or in 2004 producing McFly, for example?

I’lI approach things in pretty much the same way as I always have done, which is working with the band and trying to get the best out of them, and that’s usually having them all playing in a room together. Whether you’ll go onto replace the vocals or the guitar – invariably you do – but if you can still get the buzz and the vibe of the music down, whether you’re recording onto wax cylinder tape or Protools, that’s still the order of the day for me. I’d still much rather have a good vibe and a bad sound than a great sound and a bad vibe. But if one can encompass both of those things together then that’s great.

Are there any particular records you’ve worked on which you look back to with the fondest memories?

It’s hard to answer that question, because time tends to fade the bad memories away and keep the good ones. I think it’s a natural reaction of one’s brain. I have very fond memories of Peter Gabriel’s third solo album (Peter Gabriel 3). Peter was such fun to work with and such a lovely guy. I’ve also got great memories of doing Phil’s first album because that was the first major co-production for me, and we had no idea it was going to be a hit. I loved it because it was the first time I felt like I had such massive control over the musicians we were working with. We went to LA, we worked here, and we both chose musicians to come in. But it had this great feeling of empowerment about it. It was the first time we could basically ask anybody we fucking wanted to come in to the studio. And yes, they might say no, but we could actually ask them, and when you’re a little junior pipsqueak that’s a pretty exciting prospect! To think, “oh we could actually ring up Michael Jackson and ask him to come down.”

And did you?

Well no we actually didn’t, but we could have done.

And then working with The Police was absolutely brilliant, but of course they fought a lot. But then because they did fight and they practically hated each other, the anger that caused was just so recordable onto the tape. Even though I look back on those sessions as being hard work sometimes, and sometimes really quite upsetting, in a way the aggro of the whole thing put an edge onto the record. Even when I listen to the records now the energy on some of the tracks is really obvious.

We’d like to finish by asking you for your best advice to any aspiring engineers and producers. What would you recommend are the main actions to take and pitfalls to avoid for newcomers in the field who are aiming for the top in the recording industry?

You can sum it up almost instantly. You have to either be a writer or in some way make your services indispensable enough to end up owning part of the intellectual copyright of the music you are recording. If you don’t own any part of the music then you are absolutely buggered unless you want to end up working for £50.00 a day for the rest of your life. That sums it up. You have to be a co-writer. If you’re not, make yourself in some way indispensable to the band, so that they will give you part of the publishing or ownership of the music.

Hugh Padgham was talking to Miloco in January 2010.

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