The Richard X Producer Interview instalment of Miloco’s ongoing interview series came at the end of a hugely successful year for one of the leading UK pop record producers. In 2011 Richard co-produced with Pete Hofmann Will Young’s fifth studio album, Echoes, which entered the charts at Number One in the summer. We sat down to talk about the album’s production, Richard’s thoughts on the ever-changing recording industry and his pop career to date…
How are you and what are you currently up to?
Hello! I’m currently working on a new artist who has just signed to Sony. She’s at the tender age of 16. I’m just working on the first few tracks that she has written, so it’s early days . We’ve completed drum recording in The Pool yesterday and working on some arrangements this week.
Much of your year has been taken up by Will Young’s latest album, the number One Echoes. Congratulations on another number one record! Have you had time to catch your breath yet?
No, and I really think I should have had a holiday afterwards! I’m learning that this is what other producers do after big projects and feel a bit foolish. Normally I just work, work, work. I like having that busy schedule, but it takes so long and you spend so much mental energy doing an album that I think a holiday would have been wise. Blackpool maybe.
You produced the whole record which is a rarity these days, with production contributions from your engineer Pete Hofmann and songwriter Jim Elliot. Tell us a bit about how they both contributed?
Well in terms of how the album started, there were a set of songs written by Will with various writers whose work he has liked over the years, or who have worked well with him. So it was going in the direction that he wanted. In the world of writing you can write songs with a different person every day of the week and you just won’t find the songs that are right for you. But Will had come across a group of writers – Jim Eliot, Mima Stillwell, Pascal Gabriel, Donnie Sloan, Andy Cato and others where things had clicked and they’d produced some great material.
So basically the songs were ninety percent written when we started the project. That’s stage one for me, just making sure that the record has a solid foundation rather than having to write whilst recording, that can work or can add too much pressure. We did some arrangements and some tweaks on demoes then we moved into the studio. Generally how I work is that I start sketching some production ideas, and then Pete Hofmann will come in and we’ll take a raw demo or even a guide vocal, just generally play around with a few things in Pro Tools to see how it works. And then as this project developed there was a lot more live recording than on other things I’ve done in the past, which obviously Pete was in on as well.
When I’m happy with a track’s direction and rough monitor mix of a backing, Pete will come in to record vocals, guitar and the rest with me. It’s good to have another great set of ears. It really helps on a project because you can get really stuck in your ways even though you know what you want, but to have that other person who has experience as well is invaluable. So Pete was basically with me from the start of things right until the end and has been for some time now.
You gave The Pool a spin for recording drums on the album. How did you utilize the room to get the results you wanted, and how much did the sound of real drums contribute to the sound of the album?
It was always a definite idea that we’d use live stuff as well as programming. Although much has been written about it being a dance record, it was never going to be as full on as dance music has become in 2011, I don’t think anyone wanted that relentless stuff and with the songs we had it didn’t feel right. So the decision was made – wouldn’t it be great if we could tie this set of songs together with a certain sense of it, not so much being played by a band as we didn’t want to be that traditional, but having a similar instrumentation whether you’re doing a ballad or an upbeat one or a strange, moody track. So we wanted this coherence and having a small band of Tim Weller, Jeremy Shaw and Alex Meadows helped give that coherence.
The sound of the The Pool’s main room is great for drums. You’ve got a lot of flexibility also as you can set up in the booth for another sound. The ambience in there with the overheads setup ready to go is great, that’s what we use and that’s what makes it sound big. There’s a great sounding kit, and obviously we had Tim Weller who is a brilliant drummer – you’ve got to start with a good drummer to get a good sound.
I love that there’s a load more outboard in there, which massively helps getting a good sound in the first instance. We’ve got a setup which we like with certain pre’s, and maybe we’ll use some of the esoteric compressors which we’ll strap across one of the mic’s and print to Pro Tools as we’re recording.
The Pool has a great setup and it’s also very vibey, and the fact you’ve got so many instruments just lying around you basically just see things and think, ‘let’s try putting that there, and let’s mess about with that’, which is what I like to do.
The record shows a big mixture of both analogue and digital production. Speaking as a pop producer what are your thoughts on the analogue/digital debate?
Well I would most likely never do an album exclusively on tape. I don’t really come from that background. It’s a generational thing as much as anything, and I’m the generation that came from Atari ST sequencing and ADATS which was what were available for doing vocals and other live stuff. Then you’d just chop it up in a sampler. In fact, just as when I was starting you were getting these dance studios appearing which had no tape and were pretty much just running a live midi setup to DAT. I appreciate that obviously tape has been used to make hundreds of my favourite records, but actually, in terms of practicality of it I don’t think it works for the sort of music I do. There’s this thing that everyone sort of immediately thinks about tape, which is that it brings something straight away. Well I don’t think that’s true – it can bring something that you don’t actually want, and you need to have a really well set up tape recorder and know how to work it really. I love digital because it sounds the same every time you use it. I feel like I’m one of the only people in the world who actually really likes Pro Tools, it normally gets a right slagging. Without it I probably wouldn’t have been able to make half the records that I have done.
Moving onto the subject of keyboards, how many does one man need? We’ve heard your collection has been getting a bit out of control recently.
The trouble is, when I have some extra space it doesn’t seem to be a problem to have that extra poly synth that you always wanted, and to be honest I don’t think I have a problem! But I have always regretted selling keyboards, like my Fairlight IIx which I ran out of space for in a previous location. I don’t care so much about reverbs and compressors. I need more keyboards, is the simple answer to that!
What’s the rarest item in your collection?
I think the reasonably recent addition of an EMS Synthi, or maybe the Maxikorg 800DV. Those two are generally things that you don’t find in second-hand shops.
You’ve also got some amazing outboard gear, how do you and Pete find working outside the box and do you always split things up?
Yes we have a hybrid system that we have refined. It’s based around 32-output Lynx Auroras on our Pro Tools HD rig, and we basically split that out to an SSL X-rack with summing modules in it, and run another setup of hardware inserts in Pro Tools. With this hybrid setup some things stay in the box, some things go through a selection of outboard, or we might send effects to the AMS DMX 1580 or Eventides. We’ve been using stereo groups, so we might have a Vari Mu or a Fatso on a pair which the vocal will run through back into the SSL. Then it will all come back to be recorded in Pro Tools. We get the best of both worlds, we have this desk-like quality through the fact that we’re running stuff through outboard and getting the natural variations which happen with hardware, and we’re also importantly having easy recall, because sadly in my world no matter what you do and how good you think it is, people will always now want to tweak stuff. 5 years ago that wasn’t even an option unless you wanted to pay for another full day of studio time, which is something record labels certainly don’t want to do these days!
So with this way of working it sounds really good and gives you that little bit more than just being in the box would, plus it gives you that extra flexibility. However, to be honest I don’t mind in the box stuff anyway because I think it does have a sound, which is a modern sound and might not be timeless, but a lot of the records I like are made by kids on a laptop so I’m not averse to that, and I don’t think you have to spend thousands of pounds as we probably have to do the hybrid thing.
In some ways Echoes has been quite an irregularity for you, as in the past you’ve been strongly associated with the production of singles more so than albums. What was different about taking on this particular project?
Well the reason Will asked me was because I did an album with Steve Mason called Boys Outside which he loved and that was the reason he wanted me to produce it. I think for me I do really like singles but over the years you just want to move on. In pop music, what was exciting about disparate producers doing different tracks on an album is actually less exciting now because the logical outcome is that every producer tries to make a single. So you have ten tracks on an album and ten different producers all recording with the same artist, and everyone’s brief from the label is “make a single”. So what happens in an album context is that you get these records that don’t feel like albums of old, or seem to be a bit one dimensional. However now that I’m in a position where people want me to make albums it’s great to be able to do the light and shade and be able to know that a certain track that we’re working on doesn’t have to have a brazen, radio-friendly production. You can back that off and deliberately do things a little bit odd. That’s great, because it means over the course of an album we can experiment with different colours.
So I’d love to do more albums, but the thing is you have to be enjoying the songs and you have to be loving the artist. Any producer will tell you that and luckily with Will it happened.
With that in mind what do you generally tend to look for in an artist before deciding to work with them?
With me it’s, ‘will I be or am I a fan of this artist?’, and that’s the same whether they’ve put out their first single, done 3 albums or haven’t done anything and they’re just singing in the room. So it’s ‘Am I a fan of this person?’ first and I don’t generally think about the British public’s taste or anything like that, and that has pretty much been my personal rule from the beginning. Sure it’s great that people might sell lots of records but for me if I don’t feel it then I don’t do it. I’m lucky to be in a position where I don’t have to do things.
Will Young has enjoyed a decade in the limelight allowing him the time to gradually develop his sound. This length of shelf life is becoming a more unlikely opportunity for today’s new artists, even those who have similarly gained mass exposure through platforms such as the X Factor. Why do you feel this has become the case and what could be changed in order to give more support to artists’ long-term careers?
Well I think you can have a longterm career if you are on an indie level or are happy with a sort of bedroom existence, in fact that’s easier now than it ever has been. So you can have smaller bands or singer-songwriters who are quite content with just self-publishing and doing their own thing. You can do that if you keep up the momentum.
On a larger scale, I guess this has happened and you kind of have to blame the record labels, because you really only get one chance now, and without wanting to say the olden days were much better there was certainly more allowance for an act to develop by putting out smaller releases, or maybe that if the first one doesn’t work then here’s another two. A lot of my favourite bands from the eighties and nineties were certainly 4 or 5 singles in before they even had a sniff of the charts. Now, there’s a massive turnover of acts who might make an album and it never even comes out, or they’ll spend two years looking for a single before getting dropped. So from that angle I guess the blame is on the record labels and their demands.
Their point of view would be to say that this is the only way we can tell if the public are interested, and if the record comes out and doesn’t do well then we’re proved right in dropping them. But it takes time for an artist to find their feet. This influences the music as well as it’s self-perpetuating. The first record has to be big so therefore it has to be a certain thing, it has to be radio friendly, brash, commercial, whatever. So it immediately removes a lot of options and a lot of exciting music is probably lost along the way.
I work with record labels everyday, and there are a lot of great people who work at the labels. It’s not like they’re one hive mind which operates on the same basis, but culture is so fast-turnover now and money is so tight within the industry I fully understand why they might not want to back an artist beyond a single that no-one seems to like. But, presumably the reason why the artist has been signed is that somebody there has seen something in them, and I think that’s the problem certainly with a lot of pop acts. It’s a shame because the older you get the more you see the whole human side behind the scenes, and you see these artists that you love getting thrown around the label system.
At the start of your career you were cited as one of the pioneers of “bootlegging” under your Girls On Top pseudonym which led to successful mash-up productions with the likes of Sugababes and Liberty X. What inspired you to get into bootlegging in the first place?
At the end of the nineties there was some exciting things going on. Throughout a lot of the nineties I was involved in dance stuff and I was doing a bit of engineering, but the music I really liked, and is probably what I still like now was synthpop, electronic bass, post-punk – that sort of creative late seventies/early eighties thing where it seemed like anything goes. Around the time of the late nineties there were acts like Chicks on Speed and Adult, it was pre-electro clash and it seemed like there were these really exciting records coming out that had exactly what I loved. There hadn’t been a sniff of that in all of the nineties, nothing. But suddenly it was really exciting. It sort of coincided with what was the electronica scene suddenly feeling dull and old, this sort of intelligent dance music had become something I really didn’t like about electronic music.
So anyway, I did this Whitney Houston / Kraftwerk mash-up; a term I’ve finally come to accept because it’s basically what it is!! Anyway, I made the track, designed a sleeve, so just thought I’d put it out as a 7″. It felt right, like an art statement as much as a track. It seems a long time ago now, in fact it was it’s tenth anniversary recently…
Are you ever tempted to resurrect it all, or is that a closed chapter as far as you’re concerned?
Well it’s sort of become a technique that any musician can use. It’s always been there, it’s not like I invented it and there was stuff done way before what I did. It’s become almost like the acoustic cover version which over the last few years has become de rigueur. You’ll be watching Strictly Come Dancing or something and there’ll be a ‘mash-up’. It’s a technique, and I have no problems with people doing it. I don’t think I’d ever consciously do one again but the idea of two different genres meeting is one that is definitely within me…
You moved onto producing entirely original material with many different bands and artists, including the likes of Steve Mason, Roisin Murphy and St Etienne. Are there any sessions from this era you look back to with the fondest memories?
I love all my artists dearly. I don’t remember much about my life generally (!) but I tend to remember every recording session I’ve been in and I’ve been lucky to meet some amazing people. As I say, being a fan of these people I am always in awe of artists when they come up with the goods and are firing on all cylinders. But yeah, I had a great time with Steve, we made the record over the course of a year. He’s an amazing writer and a great bloke. But I can’t think of any example of the record coming out where I haven’t enjoyed the session. I don’t think I’m going to give any artist the luxury of being my favourite artist. The ones who bring me presents, they are my favourite ones.
You have also forged a successful long term song-writing partnership with Hannah Robinson. Why do you think you work so well together?
Well I think we are on a similar wavelength with what we find appealing in pop music and what we find funny. And that’s a lot of it, how you get on in a room with people. I think the best stuff I’ve written is with Hannah. Early on when I was signed to my publisher I met a lot of writers, who I wrote some ok stuff with, but you need to have a good relationship to be able to write good songs together. So basically I have ended up writing with Hannah and very few other people. If I don’t write with her I will write on my own or with the artists themselves.
The digital age has forced the music industry to adapt, albeit slowly, to an entirely new environment. Forgetting the obvious problems P2P sites have caused the industry, what do you feel are the most positive things the internet has given music which it never could have benefited from before?
I think the excitement of what was going to a shop and buying a single has been replaced by the instant appeal of being able to buy someone’s music online, hear their single as soon as it comes out, or the accessibility of virtually every bit of music ever made, which you can hear within a few clicks. Brilliant. As a teenager now I’d probably be going out far less than I did because I’d be so obsessed with the world of music and the fact that you can hear it all. That is mind blowing for people of an older generation. But I love it. You can look at the charts and whatever you think of the music it has become a very exciting thing now, the fact that they are instantly influenced by people hearing things on TV or radio and then instantly buying them. It’s very much of our time in 2011 – fast-paced, high-turnaround, ruthless but exciting.
And do you feel there is anything screaming out to be done to improve the industry’s prosperity?
For me, I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I’m always working. But I see the eco-system around the studios and engineers who are normally the first people affected when budgets are being cut. And that will only improve when everything else does. I think it is all linked to the world we live in to be honest. It is a difficult place for people to earn a living.
In the decade or so that you’ve been a prominent pop producer the industry has of course changed a lot. What different challenges might new producers face today which you may not have had at the start of your career, and what is the best piece of advice you could give to anyone trying to breakthrough into music production?
Well it’s certainly more crowded now but there’s no definitive career path to becoming a producer, it’s always a mixture of luck and ability. But nowadays even if you make a great record it’s actually hard to get it heard. Of course it’s easy to get it online and accessible but it’s how you stand out from the crowd. When I made the Girls on Top records, for example the Whitney Houston track, I got it on the wall at Rough Trade because they liked it and it seemed like the whole world changed from that moment because it was a focal point. Today there are less focal points, attention is spread all over the world. You might be popular on Pitchfork but that doesn’t necessarily translate into this bit of the UK or that bit of somewhere else.
In that sense it has changed massively, but at the same time do what you do and get it out there, and that’s the oldest bit of advice. You can’t just sit in your bedroom and not play your stuff to anyone. Have the confidence. Sadly I guess there’s a marketing aspect which you need to have which doesn’t come naturally to a lot of musicians. There’s a certain self-promotion and shamelessness that you have to at least tolerate to be able to survive, when actually most of the talented people I knew when I was a kid were probably the opposite. Not everyone wanted to get on stage and give it their all behind a microphone. There were a lot of people who were quite happy to be the shrinking violets, that was probably me as well. So I think whatever you are like as a person you have to realise that the world requires you to put a bit more of yourself out there, whether you are a producer, songwriter or whatever. You can have the internal soul conflict at some later date.
What’s been your musical highlight of 2011, and which artists and producers do you feel are making the biggest impression right now?
Well for me personally the highlight has probably been making the Will album. It was a great experience and possibly the most stress free record I’ve ever made – that alone was a highlight!
Otherwise, well there’s still the dominance of the American/Swedish Euro-Dance type Hip-Hop thing. The other day I heard it called Turbo-Pop, which I think people may understand. But in terms of what I actually like, I still like a lot of the dance-based producers, people like Grum who I’ve shouted about a few times, and then the older school people like Fred Falke and Stuart Price. Sound Of Arrows who I’ve been working with over the year I rate highly. I still like dance-based production. Then there’s people like Arp 101 who are doing very interesting stuff in a totally different direction. It’s also great to see people like Paul Epworth, someone who I bump into every now and then, get right up there and being the new generation of producers people will aspire to.
Last but certainly not least, how did you meet Miloco?
Well then, how did I meet Miloco? I made the album in what is now The Engine Room and The Square – I was signed to Virgin and my A&R guy introduced me to Pete. It all went downhill from there really!
Richard X was talking to Miloco in October 2011.
You can find out more on Rich’s work at www.blackmelody.com.
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