The Mike Crossey Producer Interview for the Miloco website took place in June 2011 to give an insight into his world as one of the UK’s hottest record producers. Mike spoke on The Motor Museum recording studio in Liverpool which he ran in partnership with Miloco since 2009, the many high profile bands he has worked with so far in his career, his opinions on producing in the modern day industry and much more. We had been itching to get into the mind of this prolific young producer, who has earned his stripes as one of the most popular producers and engineers of his generation. We finally tied him down. This is what happened when Miloco met Mike.
Hi Mike – thanks for your time. How are you and what have you been up to recently?
I am very well thank you! It’s been a hectic year so far but it’s been an eclectic mix of very good projects and a lot of fun. Recently I have been producing and mixing the Tribes album (that I’m very excited about!), mixing an album for a fantastic new folk artist called Ben Howard, mixing and recording an album with Bill Ryder Jones and also squeezing in radio and single mixes for the Black Keys, 2 Door Cinema Club, CSS, Cashier No9 and the Kooks.
It’s been roughly two years since we went into partnership at The Motor Museum. Tell us a bit about how the opportunity to take control of the studio came about.
I actually cut my teeth at the Motor Museum when I was just out of college and so it’s been a very special place for me. I was the house engineer there from the age of 21 until I went freelance at 24 in 2003. Andy McCluskey (the OMD frontman) has been a great mentor to me and gave me the chances I needed when I was younger. He decided a few years ago that he was going to concentrate his efforts on OMD again and the studio was surplus to his requirements. I pretty much took it on the spot when he told me of its availability.
Having worked in partnership with Miloco for a while now, what would you say it has to offer which other studio groups don’t?
Miloco made the transition from freelancing producer to studio owner a very smooth process. It’s been so valuable to have a team onside who know how to run studios inside out. I am very grateful to have you on board!
It is a fantastic privilege to be able to concentrate on the music and creative side whilst having a reliable and professional team always at hand to help with all the other issues that come with running a studio.
The studio has become a significant part of Liverpool’s recording scene over the years. Tell us a bit about a few of the bands, producers and engineers who have been here in the past who have helped shape it into the studio it is today.
It really is a special place historically. Oasis recorded their very first single, ‘Supersonic’ here, Arctic Monkeys recorded their first EP, ‘5 Minutes With Arctic Monkeys’ here. The studio has also had producers such as John Leckie, Mark Ronson and Grandmaster Flash through its doors. It has an air of creativity about it.
You have of course lived and worked in this part of the world a fair bit, so what do you feel are the main attributes the Motor Museum has which other studios in Liverpool and the North West don’t?
It has a very unique vibe and it feels really creative and relaxed as soon as you walk through the doors. What we have done since taking it over in 2009 is really pull the equipment spec to a fantastic standard. It is a studio where all the outboard, microphones and backline have lots of character and strong colours. You can really pull a unique sound out of a band and give them their own fingerprint with all the colours available to you as a producer.
Between the 3 live rooms you can cover everything from claustrophobic dead to explosive live and everything in between.
Everyone who knows the studio will no doubt agree that one of its most striking characteristics is the layout and original vibe. Tell us a bit about how this very original theme for a studio works so well with artists.
I love it when people first walk into the studio, it definitely has a wow factor with the huge open warehouse space with exotic plants and fruits growing all around.
I think it’s a great thing to have an intense and close atmosphere in the recording rooms so you get a real unified “everyone involved” atmosphere while you are making the music. The Motor Museum has a lovely balance of having a large private and beautiful space outside of the actual recording rooms. Artists, engineers and producers have the luxury of head space in a very relaxing and unique chill out area full of natural daylight. You can reset, then get back to creating :).
I put in vibe and atmosphere very high up on my list of the important attributes to making a great record and the Motor Museum really nails this.
As a tracking space, one of the main reasons for The Motor Museum being so popular is the great collection of backline which has been built up over the years. Speaking as a producer/engineer, how important is it for you to have as much backline available to you as possible when working with bands?
Also high up on my “important attributes” list is momentum and inspiration! I think having a great selection of backline really aids this. Knowing that you have pretty much any guitar sound imaginable at your fingertips without having to break the momentum of the session and call a hire company or research how to get a particular sound is a huge advantage to achieving a great result.
Many studios really focus on getting the equipment spec to satisfy the visiting engineers but I think it is just as important to have some great guitars, pedals and amplifiers at hand for the artists to get inspired by.
Glancing at the spec, the selection of rare and sought-after guitars and basses is spectacular. Care to pick out a few of your favourites and talk us through them?
I love them all! Hehe, well my favourite guitar is the 1972 Telecaster. It’s one of those guitars that you pick up and it just plays itself. It has a wonderful tone and I find I can pretty much nail any kind of sound with it. I will never let that guitar go, it’s with me for life!
The 1965 Supro Model 24 is also a very special amp, the only way I can describe the tone is that is that it’s like a quality bottle of wine, full of complexity and beauty. An R44 ribbon a couple of feet in front of that amp is as good as it gets for a clean guitar tone.
For a driven tone, the 50’s Silvertone 1485 is an absolute beast. You can hear this on most Jack White recordings as his main amplifier of choice. It is truly outrageous.
These guitars are also joined by a very comprehensive range of pedals. Without asking you to reveal any secret recipes, are there any tried-and-tested combinations that you find yourself regularly using and that you would recommend to others who may use the studio?
I think having the little labs PCP instrument Distro is an amazing recording tool. Again, for momentum this little box gets guitar players excited and full of energy to record. When I work in the studio, depending on what kind of guitar sound I am going for, I usually pick out 3 potential amp candidates and hook them all up to the distro.
The guitar player can then instantly audition all three amps individually or combined together. You can then add any combination of pedals going to any or all the amps simultaneously. You can stumble upon some amazing tones working like this and it gets the creative juices flowing.
My current new favourite pedal is the Klon Centaur overdrive, it just seems to pull the absolute best out of the amps without sacrificing any of the tone that cheaper pedals seem to do.
There’s plenty of highlights within your selection of microphones too, we especially noticed the Telefunken U48 valve mic. Talk us through the qualities of this special microphone.
The Telefunken really is a no compromise microphone, I was sent a whole load of microphones to evaluate whilst I was recording a band over from Sydney called All Mankind.
In a blind test on vocals (that included some classics such as an original U67, Manley reference U87 etc) it really blew me away. Unfortunately for me it was also the most expensive microphone that was sent! Bah!
Vocalists just seem to be at the top of their game when they sing through the U48, great sound inspires great performances after all!
From a mixing point of view, people are really going to enjoy getting their teeth stuck into this brilliant selection of outboard in the control room. There’s a great choice of compressors and EQs especially. What would you say are your flavours of the month?
I am really enjoying the Cartec EQP1a Eqs, they have pretty much lived on my mix bus since I got them. I find with the Cartecs on the Low end and the Silky smooth Sontecs on the top end, I now have my ultimate mix bus tone.
The Fat Bustard mixer is a real favourite piece for me also, everything that goes through that thing just has more balls and attitude.
You have a good collection of thermionic culture equipment including 2 phoenix compressors, why is this and how does it compare to the vintage gear?
The phoenix is my favourite compressor ever made. Most compressors although they sound great, tend to make the material sound firmer but also a little smaller. The phoenix just doesn’t seem to suffer from that at all, It can be nailing 10-15db of gain reduction on a singer and you don’t feel the vocal choke up at all, its magic!
Thermionic gear seems to sound more like the great vintage gear, it is all hand made point to point wired and I really think you can hear that quality in the sound.
With Vintage gear, there used to be a much bigger emphasis on quality of components and sound. In today’s audio equipment industry, cost of manufacture and profit margins are much more of a concern. For example it would be difficult for Neve to justify building an 80 series console nowadays despite the fact that they sound better than anything that has ever been made since. There just isn’t any margin for them to do it and that’s a real shame.
It’s the same with guitars and instruments. It’s not just being trendy saying that the vintage guitars sound better, they really do! Unless you get really lucky.
My 1972 Telecaster probably started life with a real human being knocking pieces of wood until he found one with a good tone and then was crafted by hand until it became a great instrument. A modern Telecaster is manufactured in a factory with the guy in charge looking at what kind of extra profit he can make if uses a cheaper volume pot.
You are a big fan of the Endless Analogue CLASP (Tape to DAW Synchronisation Software) which you acquired recently. How has this changed the way you work and why do you recommend it so highly?
CLASP just takes what you have done to get great tones and enhances the whole thing further. I think being able to work with tape at the same speed you can work with Pro Tools is one of greatest achievements in audio for years.
I used to use tape for the bulk of the live tracking and then take the time to transfer and organise everything afterwards. That process used to be a tradeoff in session momentum that I was prepared to pay to get the tone and glue of tape.
When all your audio (despite being recorded through a whole plethora of different mic pres, microphones and outboard) has a common theme infused into it by hitting tape, it all just gels together better.
The Neve 8232 isn’t the best-known Neve console, so for people who have no experience with this desk what would you describe as its key attributes?
It’s a great desk. I helped choose it when I was the house engineer at the Motor Museum years ago. It had been in a radio studio in Johannesburg and was in near mint condition. The thing that I love the most about it is the huge Low end it has. It has some pretty hefty transformers in it that give it a strong colour that is very quintessentially Neve. The EQ is very musical and vibey. Engaging the circuit with no boost or cut really gives guitar tones agility and energy. The mix bus has a sweet spot where everything just comes alive.
There’s a big appeal at Motor Museum for fans of vintage equipment, but we should also give credit to the comprehensive selection of software and plug-ins at your disposal too. How important do you feel it is for there to be a good balance of digital and analogue technologies in recording studios?
I find that when you are making music, it’s important to not let the technology get in the way and slow the session down. Having a large Pro Tools rig (HD5 48 i/o) with lots of plugin effects really helps maintain momentum. You can try anything quickly and efficiently and stay creative. There is not much chance of maxing that rig out and I think its worth going beyond the traditional HD3 for that reason.
I also love having lots of plugin effects at my disposal so if you just want to try a whacky delay or an obnoxious distortion you can do so instantly and get a feel for if its going to work or not.
I really dig the soundtoys plugins for creating strange atmospheres and Audioease’s riverrun gets a lot of use for creating backdrops and psychoacoustic textures that make the depth of the track stretch deeper.
Plugins are fast to use and a lot of them sound great these days so they have an important role in the Motor Museum to enhance the very analogue led side of the front end recording.
Do you feel the rise of digital audio is having an effect on the overall quality of recorded music, and are you fussy about using particular convertors in the studio?
Whilst tracking, I am not particularly fussy about conversion as the microphone, preamp, musician(!) are much much more important to the sound that goes down. For mixing, however, I have made sure I have a great 2 channel Lavry converters for printing a mix through and a Cranesong converter for confidence monitoring that process. It’s peace of mind to know exactly what you’re hearing is what will be printed as the final result. Us mixers don’t like nasty surprises at then end of a long mix!
There are certainly pros and cons to the rise of digital audio. The main drawback for me is that it can breed a lazy way of working where you can hit the tape at any level you want and get away with it, you don’t have to have to get a great drum sound or drum performance as you can beat detect it later and use samples for all the hits. You don’t have to push the vocalist to hit that note as you can autotune it later.
This is a massive shame I think, there are too many records with not enough of a human element to latch onto. There’s nothing better than catching the raw energy of musicians hitting their mojo and it sounding exciting and everyone in the room buzzing off what just went down.
With these kind of processed records, I can like the song but never fall in love with the record.
I guess I’m a bit old fashioned about that stuff, I still use editing and am a proficient long term Pro Tools user but I like to keep my editing to a minimum and find myself using tempo maps that follow the performers rather than have the performers follow the computer.
Tell us about your own education in the record industry… who did you learn your trade from and what were the invaluable lessons they gave you which helped you forge your own successful career as a producer?
I started playing in bands when I was about 13 years old and got the audio bug very young. When my band and others from school couldn’t get a gig in a pub for being too young, I started my own band night in a veggie punk cafe/venue in Belfast called Giros. We were able to put on gigs, hire a PA and an engineer and have the night advertised as “bring yer own gargle!”.
With a lot of young people preferring to come to Giros rather than drink their cider in the local park, it became quite a success. The engineer used to show me how the desk worked and eventually he dropped the PA off and left me to it.
The next step was a cassette 4 track just before I turned 15 and that was it, I was hooked!
I moved to Liverpool in 1998 to go to LIPA to study sound technology and that is where I first got my hands on real studios.
In hindsight, I think the thing I really nailed was to get myself visible on the local scene outside of LIPA while I was there. It was very easy to get in with the best local bands when I had free studio time on offer! That allowed to really get stuck in and make all my mistakes and learn from them without having the pressure of paying clients etc. It’s a great course at LIPA and the head honcho there, Jon Thornton, is an incredibly knowledgeable and switched-on guy.
I met Andy McCluskey who would later give me my first job at The Motor Museum whilst I was still at LIPA. He had a small record label at the time and he kept getting demos of local bands landing on his desk that I had been involved in. Eventually he sought me and Mike Spink (who I had been working with in college) out and got us in to do some mixing for him.
A few months later he got his first pro tools rig installed and needed someone who knew how it worked and so I ended up working for him for the next 3 years.
I learned a lot in that time from Andy who has a natural ability to really prioritise the hook and the essence of a song. He really taught me simplicity in arrangements and came from a very pop-orientated side of songwriting. At the same time, I was lucky enough to be working alongside a guy called Pat O’Shaunessy who came from the flipside of the coin who got me massively into analogue tape and the vibe side of production. He has loads of great old school engineering chops that he shared whilst I taught him the (then) new technology of Pro Tools and digital editing.
You never stop learning in music production and I find you pick stuff up from everyone and anyone you come into contact with. The guy making your tea one day might show you a little Pro Tools chop that saves you a hundred hours over the next 5 years. I think it’s important to realise that and be open and respectful to everyone. Music should be good fun and the vibe should always be good in the room.
What’s the best advice you give to the engineers and assistants who work for you up at The Motor Museum, and what are the major pitfalls the younger guys should avoid if they are to make it in today’s industry?
The most important thing for me is that they enhance the atmosphere and make everyone feel relaxed and creative. For an assistant, it’s really paramount that they get stuck in and put no barriers up during a session. Positivity and an open personality are very important.
For example, if the engineer wants to move a drumkit and all the microphones you spent hours setting up into a different room, you just need to get on it and do it efficiently and be excited by the fact that you get to hear the same setup in a different space and see how much the room variable changes the sound.
The worst thing you could do would be to sigh and be annoyed by that prospect. It’s a creative process and the assistant really needs to be on board to facilitate that to the best of their ability.
You can learn something huge everyday if you get on board and tune in to what’s happening in the room. The best assistants have great instincts and can preempt whats going to happen next and be already preparing that next process in their head.
It seems in the current climate that there are many producers and engineers following a similar suit to yourself by looking for a their own tailored studio 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 difficult to tell just yet, not everyone wants to take on the burden of a full time facility to fill so I guess there will always be some kind of demand for a commercial studio. I also believe new artists will always need experienced people to help them make a great recording.
It’s a real shame that the budgets are really shrinking for studios; it’s another drawback to the digital revolution. I guess when you can just record some drums at a studio and then do all your overdubs in a bedroom on Pro Tools, it’s not so good for our business.
There is also a real danger of music becoming very vanilla and ‘Pro Tools preset’ sounding as a result which will be no good for music fans and will be even worse for creating new ones that are the lifeblood we all rely on.
So I choose to be optimistic and hope that it is just a trend and the music industry will eventually find an equilibrium where all the good people are left with plenty to get on with. After all, I don’t think we are going to see music ever being something that people don’t want. I just hope we can keep it interesting and exciting enough to get the new generations into it and become lifelong fans and consumers.
You’ve worked with a catalogue of some of the most popular UK bands of the last 5 of so years and have played a major role in the production of some great albums. Are there any projects you look back to with the fondest memories, and similarly consider to have been a major stepping-stone to your current success.
It’s very hard to single out certain albums. Every single one has been a huge learning experience and I get very attached to them all!
It would be difficult not to mention being part of the early Arctic Monkeys recordings and watching that explode more massive than I could have imagined.
More recently, I was incredibly proud of the last Blood Red Shoes album Fire Like This. It feels like a stepping-stone as it was the first album I tracked and mixed at The Motor Museum after taking it over and it has led to a lot of great projects this year from artists who have been fans of the tones on that album.
The first Blood Red Shoes album I produced led me on to mixing Foals which then led to other great projects, so I think that band are a real lucky charm for me. I am very much looking forward to recording a third album with them soon!
What bands/artist characteristics do you look for when considering new projects, both on a musical level and personal one?
When I meet a new potential artist to work with, it’s really just a matter of having a good feeling about them and of course loving the songwriting and vibe of the band. I really trust my gut on this. It’s a pretty big commitment to record an album with someone. For me, I pretty much live and breath the music for a few months and nothing else exists outside of that, so it’s important to make sure we’re going to be on a level and have an enjoyable experience. Every album session so far has been a lot of fun and everyone has been sad for it to end, so (touch wood!), hopefully that trend will continue.
What do you think should be done to improve the current state of the music industry?
It’s easy to point the finger at downloading and the like when you get asked this question, but for me, we have much bigger issues.
As with any creative industry, it is essential to get the young people at grass roots passionate and inspired about music again. There are so many other distractions available to the young today than what we had.
Music really unifies people together, I know when I was a teenager, I dressed, lived and breathed my particular taste in music and you meet like minded people with the same patches on their schoolbag and that gets you into your social circle. Music then becomes a lifelong passion from that point onwards, the connections you make when you are young are so much stronger than in later life.
I think the computer game for example, is such an insular useless pastime for kids now, so I say ban the Xbox! Get the teenagers out of house living again, being social and going to gigs and trying to attract members of the opposite sex like you are supposed to do when you are young.
We need some young artists coming through with more to say and creativity flowing through them again. It’s sad that whole generations are living in a virtual Facebook world buying whatever is marketed to them as their age group and social demographic. I shudder to think what another 20 years or so could do to the youth!
We need some true real deal stars and they just aren’t going to breed like this. I have no idea what the solution is though. Ha! Keith Richards for Prime Minister perhaps.
You’ve had an action-packed 2011 so far. Is there anything else in the pipeline for the rest of the year lined up which you can tell us about?
The next thing for me is a trip to Israel to work with a female solo artist called Ninet Tayeb. We will be working at The Motor Museum for 6 weeks or so after the pre-production process in Tel Aviv. She blew me away with the songs and her voice so I am very much looking forward to that.
I have also heard some amazing new demos for the third Blood Red Shoes album so that is something I can’t wait to get going on later in the year.
Mike Crossey was talking to Miloco in June 2011.
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