Nick Blagona is an extraordinary engineer/producer with an impressive list of credits. If it were the practice of the music industry to mention the technicians who worked recording sessions in the 1960s, his list of credits would be even longer. In the following interview, Nick provides insight into a life dedicated to music and technology. Onwards, from his first four-track analog tape session with Tom Jones, to when he assumed ownership, and took over the role of chief engineer, at Le Studio in Quebec, Nick’s career has evolved alongside the technological changes of the recording industry. Throughout this interview, Nick unpacks an implicit understanding of sound engineering and music production garnered from professional experiences in Britain, Canada, and the United States. His stories reveal how a natural affinity with sound and music has allowed him to make great recordings by adapting engineering/production processes in response to the demands of artistic diversity, communication media, and industrial change. He describes insight gained from producers Tom Dowd, Phil Ramone and Roy Thomas Baker, and from working with the likes of Deep Purple, Nazareth, Cat Stevens, The Bee Gees, and The Police.
These days, as the chief engineer at Jukasa Studios in Caledonia, Ontario, Nick is supervising the creation of a film audio post-production studio. He recently finished Canadian progressive metal band Protest the Hero’s new album Scurrilous (2011), mixing the tracks on his instrument of choice, a Solid State Logic 8072 G/G+ console. Though considered a consummate mix engineer by most who have worked with him, Nick follows a holistic understanding of record making, and he explains much of that understanding below. Canadian rock bands such as April Wine, Kim Mitchell, The Tea Party, and Alexis On Fire have all benefitted from Nick’s unusual approach.
During the transcription process a final, and somewhat humorous thought occurred to me: Nick Blagona has necessarily forgotten more about the landscape of sound engineering than most people will learn in a lifetime, and if the goal of this Q&A was to gain a better understanding of his tacit knowledge, more interviews are needed to unpack almost half a century of professional experience.
How do you account for the ease with which you combine sound and technology?
Nick: As far back as I can remember I’ve always had sound in my head. My parents gave me a crystal radio set at the age of six because they noticed I was always interested in the radio. When I first heard a radio station it was in the middle of winter. I got it for Christmas. I heard a radio station from Chicago and I remember, to this day, the music was Count Basie. I even remember the sound of the band. When I think about the old bands, any record or any genre, I hear and see the sound in my head. And when I work with sound my body produces as a gut reaction. I’ve always had that response to music. It’s like a child prodigy playing piano instinctually.
Like playing an instrument by ear?
Nick: Yes. That’s what it came to mean to me. When I took up the bass as a kid, I already heard the sound of the band. Even to this day when I start a project I can hear the final product.
What kind of music were you playing?
Nick: R&B. We were called TJ & the Germs; an all white band with a black singer. I had a Silvertone bass from Simpsons bought with money from a summer job with my father.
But, I’ve always had that feeling inside me of making records and every time I saw a movie like The Girl Can’t Help It or High School Confidential or one of those Rock’n’Roll movies from the 50s – where they’d show people in the recording studio – I always thought, “How did they get that sound?” Or when I watched the Perry Como Show I thought, “That vocal sound is incredible!” I found out that it was a boom mic and I wondered, “How the hell can they get that fat sound?”
Are you talking about the Crooners?
Nick: Yeah, and all the great TV shows in the 50s had great audio. So the sound of it always intrigued me. When I got into making my own records in the basement with a Heathkit tape recorder…
Nick: Heathkit was a mail order company that sold electronics kits you’d assemble yourself. They were an American company with a warehouse up in Oakville, Ontario. One day I was looking in their catalog – because I was already a Hamm radio owner and operator – and I saw this tape recorder that really intrigued me. I bought it and the parts came in a box with instructions. I already had a soldering iron from the time I built my radio. So I used that to build a mono tape recorder, and then I built a compressor.
Did you build your compressor from a Heathkit?
Nick: No the compressor design came from Popular Electronics; they had a schematic of a simple optical compressor like an LA2A or something like that. I built it from scratch, from the chassis up.
What year is this?
Nick: 1956, ’57.
What year in high school?
Nick: [Grade] twelve, Thirteen. ’55, Ten, Eleven, Twelve …Grade ten was when I had my Hamm radio system set up…
Did you build the Hamm radio as well?
Nick: Oh yeah, I built everything. It was cheap. I mean it was cheaper than buying the real thing and I loved building them. And I always had parts left over… [laughing] I could never figure it out. I don’t know why.
I’ve always had this inner vision of sound. My whole curiosity about sound peeked when I was at a concert at the first or second Montréal Jazz Festival. I think I was twelve when I saw Duke Ellington and his band. I’d heard them on record and radio, but when I saw Ellington at the Capitol Theatre – it used to be a movie theatre on St. Catherine and McGill – my jaw dropped. I said, “I can’t believe this sound!” The sound…the sound of it! From that moment on my senses began to focus on recreating the sound in my head.
Why did you go to the United Kingdom instead of looking for a studio in Canada or the United States?
Nick: My parents and I had moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland and my first priority was get out of there. There were only two studios in Canada in 1965; both of them owned by RCA. One of them was in Montréal and one was in Toronto on Mutual Street. In those days the United States were very slack about immigration. You could go there to work and you wouldn’t have the problems you do today. However, I had to consider the fact that, if I stayed there for more than six months I would have been eligible for the draft, and back then, of course, the U.S. was in Vietnam. England seemed like the closest safe destination and I knew somebody there, so it was the ideal move.
At that time of my move, there were only three big recording studios: EMI on Abbey Road; Decca in West Hampstead; and Pye in Mount Lawrence. All three were major military electronic industrial companies. They made everything from television sets to gun sights, to cannons, to radar systems. Decca was a radar specialist, but they also made record players and radios. As well, they held part interest in the new independent radio stations.
When I got the job at Decca they asked me what I could do. I said, “Well, I’m a pretty good editor,” because of the practice with my home studio when I would splice create different takes. I also discovered that you could overdub by taking the erase head off to go sound on sound. I read a lot, but in those days there wasn’t much literature on how people made records, so I learned to record and edit mostly on my own. By the time I got to Decca I knew how to edit and with my background in music I had a basic understanding of form. John Middleton hired me: first as an editor and then as an engineer. They saw this talented kid from Canada, so I didn’t last very long as an assistant engineer. Actually, as dumb luck would have it, I went directly to engineering sessions because folks were sick. My boss said, “Nick you’re the only bloke that can cover. The rest are in the hospital or in bed.” So I did my first session with Tom Jones. He loved my sound and because I already had it in my head I worked really fast. But, the most important consideration – even back in my basement – was to always get a good drum sound.
Were you working on a 4-track for the Tom Jones sessions?
Were you close mic’ing the drums?
Nick: No, we weren’t allowed to close mic drums. You couldn’t get very close to drums because the ribbon microphones would blow up. There were strict rules in the studio.
In Geoff Emerick’s Here, There And Everywhere he describes the studio environment and what the workplace was like at EMI with all the rules.
Nick: When you’re finished I’d like to read it. EMI was heavily into rules, Decca too. I can remember Ken Scott, who produced Supertramp and a lot of other great records, worked at EMI as an assistant and then an engineer. He did a lot of the Beatles records too. And he was always in trouble with the manager because of the set rules about recording. So he left for Trident and he became a producer, too. Similarly, when the manager at Decca heard one of my sessions he said, “You can’t have this kind of bottom end.” He had his rules, too and I was constantly breaking them; we all were. I said, “Well the band and the producer like it.” To which the manager replied, “No matter what the producer says we have set rules and that’s why they come here.”
Did Decca make you wear a lab coat?
Nick: No, but we had to wear suits. Though in the end it didn’t matter because I left for Wessex.
Did Wessex come to you with an offer?
Nick: The folks at Wessex were making offers to everybody because they knew we weren’t very well paid at Decca. When I arrived at Decca, Britain’s recording industry was changing because pirate radio stations were starting to flourish. Earlier, all aspects of recording were tightly controlled in English studios, so there was no autonomy. You knew you had to record a certain way. You were afforded no artistic expression and never included on album credits. As an employee you were expected to wear a shirt and tie, and you had to have a haircut. And then, all of a sudden, the BBC and the pirate radio stations started to offer everybody a lot of money. That’s how I ended up working at Wessex. And Tom Jones migrated, as well.
Can I run some names by you? Les Reed.
Nick: He was a songwriter and he was quite well known for songs he wrote with Tom Jones. He was also a partner at Wessex.
With the Thompsons?
Nick: Yes. Very good, Ted.
Those names came up when I looked into your session for “21st Century Schizoid Man” with King Crimson. They kept the first take! Unbelievable.
Nick: I recorded The Moody Blues there too. They left Decca and went to Wessex…
Did you work on In Search of the Lost Chord at Wessex?
Nick: Yes. I had a real problem at Wessex. I was hired because of the overflow of work. Michael Thompson and Robin Thompson were both engineers, so I was the third engineer. They were a tightly knit family and they referred to me as the Canadian chap. The Thompsons always took the credit, even when they weren’t there. Consequently, I never received credit for the sessions I engineered there.
Here’s a funny story about Michael Thompson – I’m skipping ahead here. André Perry and I were recording the music for the Montreal Olympics (1975-6). At the same time, I was working with the Bee Gees and didn’t have time to mix all the anthems and the opening and closing day ceremony sessions. André suggested that we needed to bring in another orchestral mixer. I said, “Well, hire Michael Thompson.” So I flew my old boss into Morin Heights to help with the mixes. It was very strange, very surreal that I was giving orders to a man who used to abuse me verbally.
Giving orders to your old boss Michael Thompson sounds like the sweet taste of success. I’ve read that Wessex was built in an old church and you couldn’t record when it was raining.
Nick: You couldn’t record when there was thunder and you couldn’t work on Sundays, but that was a general rule in Britain. Anyway, the Thompsons wanted to fire me, but they couldn’t because there were too many clients asking for my services. So they fired me because I broke the Lord’s Day Act by working till 2am one Sunday morning. I ended up going to the Middle East, picked up some work on a spaghetti western that went bankrupt right off the bat, and got stranded in Tel Aviv, Israel.
I’m astounded by the lack of credits for the music you’ve recorded.
Nick: George Martin never got credit on any of the first The Beatles records because he was employed by EMI. In fact, he didn’t get any royalties until he left EMI and then the Beatles gave him royalties. He became a rich man from that deal, but, like him, none of us were credited. It was never considered part of the business. The labels avoided the possibility of their engineers and producers becoming stars because it meant that they’d have to pay more money to their employees. Being freelance in those days didn’t exist. You had to work for somebody. If you wanted to work for yourself, you had to start your own record company like Jack Holtzen of Electra Records. The only reason A&M Records started was that nobody wanted to buy The Tijuana Brass. The Lonely Bull (1962): nobody wanted to buy it; they thought it was a lousy record. But a young lawyer, Jerry Moss, who believed in the song and Herb Alpert, who believed in the song, obviously, recorded it in a garage. They said, “Forget it, let’s start our own record company A&M from the first letter of their names.” They released it, and bang, a big hit, and then they signed more artists. Every small company, like Geffen; he started Asylum and signed the Eagles when nobody else wanted to sign them. Back in the 50s there were a lot of small labels like Cameo in Philadelphia; Regency label that had Little Richard; and the Brunswick label.
Right, these labels would find and develop the talent and then the majors would take them.
Nick: Sure, Buddy Holly was signed to a small label a first.
So when you arrived in London you were in a situation where you had to work for a major label.
Nick: I had to work for somebody.
Were the other studios in England at the time – like Trident or Olympic – associated with a record label?
Nick: No they were independent and the major studios didn’t like the competition. Since the major studios were all major electronics companies they had staff to build their consoles and their tape machines. As a result, Decca had a different sound than EMI. To start an independent studio you had to be able to build your own equipment. When Rupert Neve started making consoles and Willie Studer started making tape machines, they made it possible for the independents to exist. They were the first two men to build off-the-shelf audio equipment. You could make a call to Rupert Neve and ask, “I would like to have a 24-in-8-out console.” And it would be delivered in a month or so.
Were tape machines 8 tracks at this point?
Nick: Yes, however the main change during this period was that people decided to start making their own consoles. On the other hand, independent studios like Trident designed and built their consoles. Malcolm Toft, who was Trident’s chief engineer, had a technical background. He designed the Trident A console, which was Le Studio’s console before the SSL.
The rest of us could make a phone call, buy a console, buy a tape recorder, buy microphones, and be ready to go. All of a sudden these independent studios like Trident, Olympic began to establish themselves and the recording industry opened up. You would be hired as an engineer and if you were making good records you’d make a good salary. The same thing happened in the states when companies like MCI and Ultrasonic developed consoles you could buy off-the-shelf. That’s what started the whole independent studio boom.
Normally, engineers develop their listening skills in the controlled environment of an acoustically balanced recording studio. Over the course of your career it must have been challenging to get good results working in the wide variety of situations, varied environments, with different styles of music and sound.
Nick: I’ve always had good results because I have the sound in my head. It doesn’t matter where I record, it always works out quite well. Keep in mind also that I can think rather abstractly, so I like diversity. For instance, right now I’m producing a smooth jazz record, but I’m also doing a rock record, and I’m doing a hip hop record. On one day, I’ll master an album at Metalworks, the next, an artist will come to my place to master. It could be anything from hip-hop to classical to spoken word records. The music I work with changes constantly, which is good. I wouldn’t like every project to be the same. All my life I’ve been involved in music. From my earliest childhood memories I can’t remember a time when I haven’t thought about music.
After the Middle East fiasco I went to Canada to see my parents because my wife Veronica was pregnant with our son Sasha, who was conceived in Israel; he’s a holy baby. While I was there, I looked into the studios in Montréal and that’s when I met André Perry who had a beautiful place in Amherst Square. At that particular time we got on extremely well. It was the fall when the colours are beautiful and he invited me up to his place in Morin Heights. We had dinner and drank some wine and that’s when we decided to build a studio. It was André’s idea to build a studio out in the country where artists could get away and stay at a five star villa. I designed it, we built it and the studio worked out very well.
When you were designing the studio floor and the control room did you bring in an acoustician?
Nick: It was all Andre Perry’s idea. Designing the studio was a series of discussions we had in what we liked and didn’t like about studios and the end result was Morin Heights.
Le Studio was built beside Andre’s summer home. It must have been a beautiful setting to work in.
Nick: Yes, it was a nice house. Right next to it there was a private lake.
Did you add the villa when you were building the studio?
Nick: No actually, when we first built the studio we had a guesthouse, which was about a half-hour drive away. That place burned down.
What happened? Did a rock star burn it down?
Nick: What happened was Roy Thomas Baker and Ian Hunter forgot to put the grid back onto the fireplace when they went to bed. The fire was still burning and sparks landed on the carpet.
Roy Thomas Baker talks about the incident in an interview I read recently. He said it was the middle of winter.
Nick: He had to jump from a second story bedroom into a snow bank with no clothes on. Anyway, just through the woods from the studio was another house that was owned by a retired army colonel and it was a big place. It had eight bedrooms and we added four more when we bought the place and the grounds. It was right across the lake and it was for sale because he was moving back to England. We used the colonel’s place as our guesthouse and breakfast was included. We had a wine cellar and one of the first huge analog satellite dishes. We had a deal with a restaurant in Saint-Saveur in which their Chef, André Bastion, would make meals and bring them to Le Studio or the band would go to the restaurant and eat. The guests loved it.
Eventually you hired a Cordon Bleu chef.
Nick: In the latter part of the studio’s life we had a Cordon Bleu chef and his wife on staff. There was always a party atmosphere at Morin Heights. That’s what we tried to create. We created the stationary Love Boat with drugs, drink and sex. Nowadays many behave like they’re at work when they’re in a studio. In those days, there was always a party happening. There were always girls around. That’s rare now. Still, all the bands want to hear my stories of debauchery because they can’t believe that it actually happened. I say to them, “Even you guys can make the choice.” But they say, “Oh, I don’t think my girlfriend would like it.” Everybody is so straight these days.
I’ve been listening to many of the albums you made at Le Studio. What kind of gear were you using back then?
Nick: Generally, it was all the same equipment. The recording I did at Le Studio in Morin Heights was through an SSL E console with a Studer 24 track. We had very minimal outboard gear. The thing with the SSL is that every track had a gate and compressor. But that was it.
You must have had a good variety of microphones.
Nick: Oh yeah, we had great microphones: Neumann U87s, U47s, Telefunken tube mics that are standard for professional studios. Microphones were really cheap in those days; two hundred dollars for a U87. These days that mic costs thousands of dollars because it’s considered a valuable retro mic. People say, “David Bowie sang on those!” It’s all bullshit. In those days tape was forty dollars a reel; a good microphone was one hundred and fifty bucks; and SM57 only cost forty bucks. We thought that was normal. Now it’s one hundred and seventy-five for a 57. That’s the way it goes with inflation.
Considering the rural setting of Le Studio did you ever have periods when the equipment was down?
Nick: No. We had an incredible maintenance staff. Every month they would take the 24-track machine apart. I brought Roger Ginsley from Wessex; he used to work as a maintenance man there. And, Jean Luc Lareotour; I found him working as a carpenter when we were building the studio. He also worked as a ski instructor during the winter. I learned that he had a degree in electronics from the University of Zürich and asked him, “Why don’t you work for us?” They were both great, but all we had was the SSL and the tape machine and none of the equipment broke down. We never had one session ever interrupted. We had other problems with other things. We had a very bad grounding problem initially, but we hired a helicopter to drop a thick copper plate the size of this room in the middle of the lake and that solved our problems immediately.
So you ran a couple of leads to the copper plate which then served as a ground for the studio. How long did the grounding problem last before you corrected it?
Nick: The first four or five years. When the Northern Lights were on, we used to get Voice of America broadcasting in Spanish from West Virginia. Oh, we had no ground at all. The land surrounding the studio was all sand.
You didn’t have a backup tape machine?
Nick: No, but we did have extra power supplies for the console. During the first two years the only time we had problems were power failures because of the snowstorms up there in the mountains. So we bought a big Mercedes hospital generator.
As a drummer and a fan of Stewart Copeland, I have to ask how it was working with the The Police? Did you collaborate with Stewart Copeland for the delay sounds on any of the drum tracks?
Nick: I didn’t have anything to do with the delay settings. I got the lines coming in from the band and then the drum technician said, “Here’s six more lines.” I asked, “From the drums?” He replied, “Yeah.” Stewart Copeland had delay machines at his side. When he threw a switch and hit one note and it would go “Ch-ch-ch-ch.” So his playing was delayed continually and everyone thought, “Great hi-hat pattern.” It was a great hi-hat pattern, but he had just hit it once! They were all programmed delays.
Did he tell you he wanted you to mix these sounds?
Nick: Oh yeah, absolutely, but I was told exactly how to do it by Sting.
Okay, so how did you find working with Sting in the studio?
Nick: He was very calm and he knew exactly what he wanted.
Where did you find the keyboardist that played on the recording?
Nick: Well, I knew Jean Roussel very well from my time working with Cat Stevens. He was Cat Stevens’ keyboardist. I brought him into the Police session because Sting came alone from Montserrat in January. I asked him, “Well, what are we going to do?” Sting said, “I’m going to write some songs and I’ll need a keyboard player.” I said, “Well, Jean lives in the next village.” And Sting knew of him because Jean was quite well known from the Cat Stevens days; and that was that.
So the tracking happened at Le Studio in the middle of winter?
Nick: Just for one song, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” Maybe a few other songs, but I don’t remember exactly. I do remember that there was a major rift going on between Sting and the band, which involved Hugh Padgham. It was really political.
Was Hugh Padgham there for the sessions?
Just you and them?
Nick: No, just Sting and me. I recorded the vocals, keyboards and everything else and then he took me down to AIR Studios in Montserrat to mix.
I thought you had recorded the drum tracks for “Every Little Thing…”
Nick: For “Every Little Thing…”? No, the drums I recorded were for a live album.
Are you referring to the time you joined them on their world tour?
Did they ever release a video or live recording?
Nick: I don’t know.
You don’t know?
Nick: I don’t know. I’ve never kept a complete record of my discography.
But they were one of the biggest bands in the world!
Nick: I couldn’t have cared less about that. They weren’t very happy. At the time they didn’t like each other at all. Now that I think of it, I do remember drums being set up at Le Studio and I do remember recording some beds because they all had a fight about whose turn it was for the B-side. Then they did a whole jam of songs. I think all three of them came up to Morin Heights at one point. I know they were up there for Synchronicity. That’s when I refused to work with them. I hate being a referee.
Having to settle artistic disagreements?
Nick: No, there were fistfights between Stewart and Sting. So I just walked away. I think I made a mistake though because when Sting asked me to work on his solo album I turned down the offer. Hugh Padgham stayed with him and the rest is history. It’s one of those decisions. It was a crazy period in my life. In those days I didn’t have a manager or anybody to handle the business aspects of my career.
Who was taking care of the studio’s business?
Nick: Yael Brandeis. She was living with André Perry; now she’s married to him. They’re still together. The three of us ran the studio.
While we’re discussing your experiences as an engineer, what were some of the fond memories or special moments?
Nick: Special moments…hmmm… mixing live sound on Saturday Night Live with the Bee Gees was a special moment only because they were wonderful people to work with…
They had an amazing bunch of players in their band.
Nick: The Bee Gees were very intense, very creative and very smooth. Another highlight of my career was Perfect Strangers (1984) with Deep Purple. The sessions were very creative and a lot of fun. I don’t know how much fun you can have making a record, but that was a tremendous amount of fun. Of course it went downhill after that, but everybody loved each other. Ritchie was in great spirits during that record.
The Deep Purple biography I’m reading portrays Ritchie as the emotional one in the group.
Nick: No he’s just the opposite. He was very cold, but I got along very well with Ritchie. It was Ian and Ritchie that had spats; I never got into it. It was none of my business. I made a decision to bring a great bedside manner to the sessions. Part of making a good record requires understanding human nature, well, at least understanding musicians and the artistic temperament. Since the moment I started working with them, I noticed common traits among musicians. There’s good reason for the stereotypes of bass players, guitarists, drummers and singers; particularly singers, they’re a breed apart. The character fits because that’s what happens when they interact in an artistic setting. Deep Purple have been big part of my life and still are. I recently finished Ian Gillan’s latest solo album and I’ve known Roger Glover since 1972. We used to hang out together for a long time.
Did you first meet Roger Glover when you were hired to engineer the Nazareth albums?
Nick: Yes, Roger was their producer. I ended up taking over for Roger, not as a producer, but as an engineer. Ah, the Scottish boys. I did three albums for them. Playin’ the Game (1976), Close Enough for Rock’n’Roll (1976), and Expect No Mercy (1977). Roger and I became close friends. I’ve always had repeat clients; they’ve always come back to me for the next record, which happened with both Deep Purple and Rainbow. With Rainbow the follow-up recording was Straight Between the Eyes (1982), and “Stone Cold” was a hit.
So the relationships developed during those records made you the obvious choice for Deep Purple’s reunion album Perfect Strangers (1984). How did that come about?
Nick: I was in New York at Quadraphonic Sound in Times Square. I don’t remember what I was doing. Oh! I know it was a reggae guy called Fabiano. He came from Guadeloupe and ended up living in Montréal. Anyway, I was in New York doing his record and I called Roger from my hotel room and said, “I’m in town doing this thing.” He said, “Okay, we’ll meet up.” He called me back and asked, “We’re going to have dinner. Are you free?” I said, “Yeah, it’s my day off.” We ended up at this French restaurant across from Sam Ash, the music store. We were sitting down there and he said, “Rainbow is no more.” I asked, “What happened?” He answered, “We’re going to reform Deep Purple.” We met in Greenwich…
Right. Greenwich, NY was a base for the band.
Nick: They said, “We’d like you to engineer.” I said, “Thank you. Great! Yeah!” Then he asked me, “How are we going to do this recording?” Because the boys were rehearsing at a property in Stowe, Vermont and they like it there.
Did one of them own the place in Vermont?
Nick: Yeah, I can’t’ remember who owned it, but it was a large property with two houses and a pool. It was an estate. So I organized the sessions by bringing up Guy Charbonneau with his Le Mobile from San Diego. He drove up with his Neve console and two twenty-four tracks. Oh, it was great! We set up shop there and it was a lot of fun. Every second day we played soccer.
The creative energy must have been flowing.
Nick: Oh, the energy was great. We recorded in a basement. The ceilings were quite high, but it was all concrete. I’ll show you a video of it. It was a great summer.
After the tracking was completed Ritchie wanted to mix it in Hamburg, Germany because he had a son there and he wanted to play soccer. It took me a while to find a studio with an SSL console, but I did and we ended up mixing at Tennessee Tone Studios.
You searched specifically for a studio with an SSL desk?
Nick: Yeah, I like the combination of recording on a Neve, which Guy had, and mixing on an SSL.
I get it, the warmth of the Neve and the facility of the SSL.
Nick: Yeah. It was a great record. I believe it was Deep Purple’s largest selling record.
You’re mentioned in Dave Thompson’s Deep Purple biography. It says, “Nick Blagona, the Russian-Canadian engineer who’d put up with so much in Vermont, was still available.” Thompson explained that the sessions for House of Blue Light (1987) were difficult which eventually spurred Glover and Gillan to ask you to come to AIR Studios in Montserrat and record the Gillan/Glover duo album Accidentally on Purpose (1988).
Nick: Well yeah, Ian had a separate contract to do solo albums. They were so burned out from Blue Light (1987) that Ian and Roger decided to do a solo album together and go to Montserrat to just chill out, but they had no songs. So they wrote in Montserrat. We went there twice; once in the rainy season in the summer and once in November or December. I can’t remember exactly, but that was a lot of fun.
It must have been a nice change from sitting in the back of Guy Charbonneau’s mobile truck in Vermont.
Nick: Oh yeah, for Blue Light (1987) we were using Guy Charbonneau’s truck again in Stowe, Vermont. Originally somebody decided we would use a studio in Massachusetts called Longview Farm. One of the problems with the farm was that nobody liked living in the same house together. I snored so loud everybody complained about it. Ritchie was in the room next door to me and John Lord was on the other side. It was just too much. There were also a lot of horses on the farm and the smell of horseshit was everywhere. We couldn’t stand it so I called Guy and we ended up back in Stowe.
Back at the same place?
Nick: No we stayed in this condo estate that was part of a golf course. The estate had a playhouse that we used as our studio.
So you were recording the group in an auditorium?
Nick: It was a little theatre; it had a stage and about three hundred seats. It was a good sounding room.
And this is where you recorded the bed tracks?
Nick: Everything. We used the theatre and the dressing rooms downstairs. Ian took up one room for song writing and that’s where we’d do the vocals. We had cameras everywhere to communicate from room to room. It was a tough record to do, but between Ritchie, Ian, Roger, Ian Paice, John and myself we had a lot of fun. After that album we did another, but it got too cold in Vermont. So we moved down to a studio in Orlando. Oh, Florida was where we did that terrible record with Joe Lynn Turner.
Joe Lynn Turner talks about making Slaves and Masters (1990) and maintains that he was the scapegoat for the rising tensions in Deep Purple.
Nick: It was Ritchie’s idea to bring Joe in. Ian left because there was a power struggle and Ritchie won. He had always liked Joe’s voice and Joe was easily handled. Joe liked that commercial American sound that Ritchie was looking for. You know Journey, Foreigner, but that sound didn’t work for Deep Purple. Slaves and Masters (1990) was a terrible record to make. That was my last record with them. I couldn’t take having… You see making these records takes seven months out of your life. Then to try and find work afterwards was very difficult. Basically you disappear for a while and then nobody knows you anymore. Whereas these days I’m freelance, and everybody knows I’m working. I’m always busy, and the difference is the diverse projects. I couldn’t do an album for seven months these days unless you paid me a tremendous amount of money.
Over the course of working with the guys from Deep Purple can you remember a moment of personal creative input or inspiration?
Nick: Roger Glover’s solo album, The Mask (1984), was instigated after I read some of Roger’s poetry. He’s a great poet and talented painter. I kept telling him, “You have to make a record based on your poems.” Finally, I got through to him one night when Rainbow was playing in Montréal. After the gig Roger, and me, and the girl I was with went to Ben’s Delicatessen; you know the one that stays open late with all the pictures of famous people on the wall. It was 2am, we were eating the sandwiches and that’s when he decided we were going to do it.
Biographer Richard Thompson referred to The Mask as “masterful”.
Nick: Yeah, it’s a good record. We tracked it at a studio called Bear Tracks, which was owned by a jazz band out of Buffalo called Spyro Gyra. I basically produced it, but Roger wrote all the music himself.
Well these stories speak to an interaction that’s a big part of making music.
Nick: Ninety percent of making records is in the social interaction between people and that creates that magic.
I’m interested in those moments that reveal your tacit knowledge of engineering. I think of you as a mixing engineer. I’m sure most people do. When you mix on an SSL it becomes rather obvious that you’re making a number of implicit decisions that shape and reshape the sound. It’s an amazing performance to watch and hear, and often the details of your creativity are overlooked because of the speed with which you work.
Nick: Basically, my approach to mixing is always the same; I just hear it in my head. I bring out the drums first. The meat and potatoes are the bass and drums. And if you have a great drum sound the mix is already done. From my point of view a bad drum sound is a bad record. That’s one of the first things I was taught.
A lot of the young engineers have gone back to the most boring way of making records which is the traditional American way where they record everything flat. I don’t agree with that approach. The thinking being, if you record everything flat no matter how bad it sounds; it’s flat; it’s the truth. Then you fix it in the mix. My philosophy is the British approach which is to make it sound right on the playback no matter what it takes. At this particular juncture in my life I already know the sound, so I’ve already set the EQs even before the drums are set up. My assistants can’t believe that I come up with the same basic EQs out of my head from total recall: same thing with bass, same thing with guitars.
You’re methods are a result of over 40 years of accumulated experience and knowledge. You were born knowing the sound in your head, but these preset EQ’s contain an implicit account the room’s acoustics, the microphones used, their placement, the type of music, and the musicians’ performance styles. These are the factors that contribute to how quickly your sessions are set up and running.
Nick: What I also do is get the drummer to play in front of me. Just a back beat. I don’t do sound checks where I ask, “Can you play the kick drum?” and you get a kick drum sound. Checking each drum individually is totally unrealistic. It’s like getting a guitar sound by asking, “Can you play the strings separately so I can get a sound?” I see the drum kit as one instrument. I see a guitar as one instrument; it has six strings or twelve strings or a bass has four strings.
I ask the drummer for a back beat and go back into the control room. When the band comes and listens after I’ve recorded it they’re all amazed by it because I get a drum sound in about twenty minutes. Lately, I’ve been using the woofer cone from a Yamaha NS-10 as another microphone for the kick and it works great. I use a Sennheiser 421 right at the head so you get the attack and the NS-10 has that compact and controllable bottom end sound. Recently, I was doing a band called “Protest the Hero” with producer Julius Butty and I thought, “Okay, besides using microphones for a bass amp, let’s try the NS-10 speaker. And let’s try the same thing on the guitar amps.” The resulting sound was incredible because it created a bottom end that’s unique; that no EQ can give. So now I’m using a speaker as a microphone for much of my stuff.
So you use it on a bass?
Nick: Yes, I put it right against the woofer of the bass amp; woofer-to-woofer. I actually use the NS-10 because one of the amplifiers blew on the V8s in the studio. So I asked the tech to set the speaker up as a microphone and it works really well. It creates so much amplification. When you put the speaker in front of a kick drum, that cone moves. With that big magnet and the way that speaker moves it creates quite a voltage and quite a signal.
Do you pad the signal?
Nick: I have to pad it down, but I don’t use EQ. When I started using the speaker I thought, “I need a really big sound.” We were using two different guitar amps, on the same guitar with a couple of SM57s, but as soon as I put the woofer speaker in front of the amps, all of a sudden, the sound was fat. Then I played with the phase relationship between the two microphones to create the distance. For instance, if you want a tighter kick drum sound then put the mics out of phase. If you want a big rock sound you put them in phase. Here’s an example of the phase relationship between kick drum mics from a band I’m working on right now called Talk Radio. [Listening to playback] That’s my kick… there’s the 421… and that’s with the NS-10.
That’s a great kick sound.
Nick: Combined together this creates a tighter bass drum out of phase. Using a speaker as a mic has been around for a long time. I used a 15” woofer with Nazareth. I did a lot of experimentation because I could; it was my own studio. I had the whole studio at my disposal: the microphones, the environment. I even experimented with trying to write between the left and right speaker.
Trying to do what?
Nick: Write… I’m still trying to figure this one out. You can really hear the effect with headphones, particularly today with iPods; everyone listens to everything on headphones. Depending on the phase relationship you can hear tom-toms go either below you or above you…. When I start panning during playback – I still like to move things around – you know, moving guitar solos back and forth like the old Hendrix stuff. Well, one time while I was working with Nazareth I heard something going like this…
Oscillating in the air between the speakers?
Nick: Yeah. There was depth like X, Y and Z. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out how to manipulate the phase relationships to write something in the air between the speakers using phase relationships.
Most advice on phase relationships suggest avoidance when it comes to out-of-phase sounds, but you seem to manipulate phase relationships as part of your toolkit. I remember once at a jazz session you inverted the phase on the drum set overheads to create a 3D effect with the drummer’s brush technique.
Nick: The phase relationship gives it a lot more depth. For instance, mid-side, MS mic’ing technique… what happens is you accomplish incredible depth in the sound. It really works well in 5.1. I did that with Tea Party when we recorded the acoustic guitar. I had the acoustic guitar coming out of the centre speaker and I had the mid-side out-of-phase coming right at you out of here. It’s like you’re right inside of it.
The most important thing when I started as an engineer was phase relationships because we did everything in mono. And then, when we moved to stereo, it was even more important to consider the compatibility between stereo and mono. You couldn’t have anything 180 degrees out of phase like you can today. You could record in MS stereo, but it had to be placed in the back of the mix. If anything were 180 degrees out of phase when you were cutting vinyl, the needle would blow up. The voltage would build up because it would keep feeding back on itself and the stylus wouldn’t know where to go. The other problem with tracks that were recorded out of phase was that the cancellation would cause the sounds’ image to disappear in mono. I still think mono is very important and when I listen to a mix I’m building I listen to it in mono. I know the sound of phase relationships so well that nothing disappears for me, but there have been many records that have disappearing images when stereo is collapsed into mono.
When I master I switch playback to mono and, on occasion, the vocals suddenly disappear. The artist may have had some effect on it that sounded great, but I’ll know instantly that the track was out of phase if the centre drops out in mono. Once when I told a client about this occurrence he said, “Well, that doesn’t matter anymore.” I said, “Okay, there are still some mono stations around, but what happens if your song becomes a video? Many people still have a mono speaker on their TV.” I hear it a lot on MTV or Much Music. The vocal is not there and this reveals the inexperience of the engineer.
How have computers affected your approach to mixing?
Nick: Here’s a technique I use in the digital format. I kick the shit out of the SSL compressor plug-in coming from the Liquidmix. Notice when I bypass the SSL the mix distorts.
How did you come up with that trick?
Nick: It’s just feel; same thing with the drums. I have the whole drum sound compressed. The room sound is heavily compressed. This plug-in emulates Abbey Road. And this compressor is a distressor, very little attack and very little release. That’s my drum sound on a Neve. These are real drum sounds, no EQ’ing. Actually, with the toms I added a little top end. He had a great drum set. It’s a custom made Sonor. One of the best drum kits I’ve ever heard.
This track sounds great. Are we listening to a finished mix?
Nick: No, but I tend to mix while I’m doing overdubs so at the end I don’t have a long mixing session. By the time we finish overdubs the mix is almost complete.
You’re mixing the instruments as you track.
Nick: I’m tweaking constantly. The reason I can do that is because of the computer’s recall. Previously on an SSL you couldn’t do that. The SSL was said to have total recall, but it never worked properly. It was a misnomer. So you would have to have a separate mixing session at the end. You’d try to get it close, but you could never get it exact, whereas, on a computer you can store everything.
The computer workstation has democratized audio recording by providing a low-cost format to musicians and amateur recordists. How do you feel about the proliferation of home studios?
Nick: It is common for everybody to have a recording studio at home, but the situation is comparable to me owning a formula one car. I have this two hundred thousand dollar vehicle and I can go fast, but I won’t win any races. In fact, I’d probably kill myself first. It’s the same thing with home computer engineering; I get a lot of mastering work from these musicians and the sound is atrocious. They have no idea what goes into building a sound.
A common problem with project studios is that people have a hard time finishing their recordings. Many amateurs re-track over and over in search of the right sound or overdub without end in attempt to find the right arrangement.
Nick: Yeah, that’s because they have had no real experience with the recording process and no sound vision. Consequently, the recording sounds like a piece of shit. And then all I can do as a mastering engineer is polish a turd. That’s the dilemma today. In the early days, everything was set. You had agents or an agent, who booked the bands. You had A&R guys who did their job. You had producers who did what they were supposed to do. You had engineers who did what they were supposed to do, and artists who were signed to the label. The label paid for the studio time. Everybody agreed on the price. Everybody made a good living. The record might not have been a hit, but everyone still survived. If the record was a hit, so much the better and it made everybody happy. Back then we got free gold records; nowadays we have to pay for them. The music industry has changed.
Though, on the other hand, besides the big studios like RCA, Columbia, Capitol, EMI, and so forth, the real pioneers of recording were people who had studios in their home; like for instance Les Paul inventing overdubs. I saw a picture of his studio. It was really cool.
He was cutting discs to do sound on sound recordings.
Nick: And Motown made their big hits in a garage in a suburban area. It was in a house. Hitsville, U.S.A. was written in signage across the living room window. The real pioneers were not the big studios, but the little guys in a room. That will probably be ever the case.
I get the impression that the big studios have always looked to the independents for new music.
Nick: Yeah, like Sam Phillips and the mom-and-pop shops. All over the world somebody was building something innovative in the basement; like Scully, who invented the eight track recorder. Ampex was started by a sergeant in the US army who found the schematics for the Telefunken tape recorder after they entered Germany and he took them and started Ampex in California.
What are your thoughts on the recording industry’s change from analog to digital?
Nick: The application and approach to engineering in the digital domain is totally different from analog. I think digital resolution is better now than when it was first introduced. For instance, this Focusrite Liquidmix has compressors and EQ’s from 1945 on. You can A-B the sounds with the original waves on their website. The emulation technology is incredible; Universal Audio is also very good. Plug-ins today are as good as the real thing; same with the debate over hard disk versus tape. Originally, I was so used to tape I thought tape was better. We did a test a few months back with Protest the Hero. I asked, “Do you guys have any tape left around?” So we recorded the bedtracks with the tape and ProTools at the same time. ProTools sounded better.
Even hitting the tape hard?
Nick: The recording on the tape was squashed. The two didn’t sound the same. Whereas the ProTools tracks through the converters sounded great. I’ll never go back. Today the ProTools HD system is pretty good. If they used Apogees or SSL converters it would be even better. The technology has evolved to the point where there’s no need for the debate. I like to use tape sometimes when I’m mastering to warm it up with 1” tape, but I would never go back to tape for tracking.
Everything has changed with digital recording technology. I started on a three-track tape with so much hiss. Then to Dolby and that cleaned it up, but changed the sound. Then the first computers were integrated with recording technology and then SSL created the new evolution with total recall.
One of Studer’s major mistakes was that they didn’t believe in digital technology. They could have been in a market position like ProTools is today, but they didn’t believe in it. They still believed in tape. They thought tape was going to go on forever. As soon as I saw a computer that could record two-track audio with the capacity for non-destructive editing I thought, “Here we go.” That was the beginning of the end for tape.
Was it the change from 16 bit to 24 bit that improved the fidelity of the digital medium and made it more desirable to change from analog?”
Nick: No, the change from 16 to 24-bit makes no difference. People send me files that are 24/96. The thing you have to remember is that 24/96 is good if you’re doing a string quartet with a lot of dynamics because the noise floor is a lot lower. But you know when you’re doing pop music and you’re ramming it right to -0.1 I don’t hear any difference between heavy rock 44.1 at 16. However, I like 44.1 at 24 for this medium because at 24 bits the reverb sounds better. I would like to go up to 32 bits, but it doesn’t exist. 96kHz is just too high because most hard drives are running at 7200 rpm. If you’re running at 96kHz you need a hard drive that runs at 15000 rpm at least. The processing is so slow at such a high resolution.
Isn’t today’s standard 24/48?
Nick: Yeah, but I like 24/44.1. In fact, right now I’m mixing an album from Newfoundland and they gave it to me at 24/96 and I can’t work with it because at 96kHz this Liquidmix only works on two tracks and my plug-ins don’t work well because they only work at 4 tracks. At 44.1kHz I can run 32 tracks and the session runs a lot smoother. The other problem with running at 24/96 is that once you finished mixing and you have to crunch it down to 16/44.1, that’s a lot of number crunching for all those individual tracks, which makes the mix sound different. Whereas, it sounds better when I only have to convert from 24kHz down to 16kHz. What is interesting is when someone gives me tracks at 24/96 and I crunch them down before I start mixing, it changes the sound slightly. It makes the top end a lot more glossy, which I kind of like.
So there is an advantage to it?
Nick: There is an advantage before I mix. It’s pretty cool.
When you say “more glossy” is it a high frequency thing?
Nick: It’s the timbre of the top end. The harmonic structure changes… What is good is the fact that I can still hear up that high. At 65 I can still hear the top end very well.
I sometimes have a little problem where I have to concentrate on distortion because sometimes when I’m mastering I pump the mix pretty hard. If the band says they hear a little distortion I’ll put on the headphones and there it is. I used to hear it well in my twenties, but at 65 I’m still pretty good.
Musicians are much more involved with the complete process these days.
Nick: They also have younger ears.
Right, but in the past musicians would record, leave, and at the end the band would approve the mixes. Today many bands insist on taking part in the whole process.
Nick: Even back then the mix depended on the band’s input. The only problem with musicians’ involvement with the recording process is what I call “the anal syndrome.” In the earlier days you would mix it, everyone would agree on a mix, and it would be sent out. The reason why was that they were signed to a label. They had a deadline. The art department was ready for the artwork. They were scheduled to go on tour, and the release date was set… and so on. Today independent bands have none of that. Often, if there’s no finishing date, musicians get a completion complex. It gets really stupid. Sometimes when I do a mix, they listen to it and say they love it. They take it home and then come back later and ask, “Can we make some changes?” I say, “Sure.” The requests could be “vocal up or vocal down.” I don’t mind any of that, but when I get requests two or three months into changes and they ask for an adjustment to the hi-hat, “Can you just bring the hi-hat down a half a dB?” Or they ask “Can you bring this thing up,” and so forth, I have to draw the line. That’s why I used to have a clause in my freelance contract that said they have three revisions included in the price, then after that it’s $100 per song. It’s amazing how happy they become with the mixes as soon as they have to pay for the changes. Anyway, it’s that kind of scenario I really dislike about the ‘indie’ world. Plus, many of the bands aren’t disciplined enough.
What do you mean by disciplined?
Nick: Lack of experience. Many independent bands I’ve recorded haven’t been on the road. All they’ve been doing is rehearsing and recording. They have no contact with the outside world. I have an ideal scenario in mind. Normally, when a band gets signed they have songs. The group rehearses the songs during preproduction and the songs are fresh and untested and unsettled when they’re recorded. I’d love to do a record where I do prepro’ with a band; the band goes on tour for six months, rocks hard on the songs, and by the time they come back to record the songs they’re tight. You know they’d have the songs down. Traditionally, bands learn the song in prepro’ and record it immediately. A lot of times I’ll go out to see a band a year after their record is done and they play the music so well. They always say, “We wish we could do the record again right now.”
The bands that have been on the road, like a band from Montréal called “Pete Moss” that I did four songs for – they’re road worthy. They are on the road constantly, so their songs have matured in front of live audiences. They were the easiest band to deal with on the mix. The listened to it, loved it and made no recalls. When you listen to the mixes, there they are and that’s what they sound like.
They’ve already developed their musical identity before entering the studio.
Nick: Yeah, most bands have an identity crisis because they don’t tour. The problem with Canada is that it’s a very hard country to tour and Canadian bands, by nature, can be very lazy. In the United States it’s a whole different scenario. Every 90 miles there’s another city with colleges. For instance, around San Diego there are roughly 200 colleges in a 200-mile radius. Bands can travel to a show and come back home the same day. And the colleges pay, so you can build a fan base.
In terms of distances, population and exposure, touring in the States is a lot easier for bands. We both know that great music has been produced in Canada, but, in spite of that, a lot of Canada’s cultural cues come from the States.
Nick: Canada has its own cultural contributions to popular music, for instance Francophone culture: they make their own films and they have their own stars. I mixed a Linda Lemay record a few years ago and it sold three million copies in Québec, alone. That’s why, when you look at Soundscan and find at least two French records in the top twenty, many people in the rest of Canada don’t know who these French artists are. A significant part of my career involved French Canadian music. When I arrived in Québec in the early 1970s, there was a vibrant music scene. I did three records with Robert Charlebois. I did three records with Jean Pièrre Ferland. Actually, I’d like to get a of copy of Les Vierges du Québec. That was a really interesting record. Jean Pièrre’s album sold a million.
Québec was a really comfortable place to make records. That’s why Nanette Workman – I think I did four albums with her – ended up singing in French because she was having trouble making it as a hit singer in English. She’d come from Arkansas; her father was a trombone player with Glen Miller. Her claim to fame was singing backup vocals on Let It Bleed. She was in Paris trying to get her career going. She was in a bar and another girl said, “The Rolling Stones need another backup singer. You wanna come?” So that’s what started her career.
In between those projects I recorded a slew of other French Canadian artists. At the time French artists had a big fan base and they had huge budgets; 130 grand was nothing because their records sold. Many were signed to major labels and the labels made a lot of money from them because their records sold. All these artists were selling records; it’s and incredibly unique characteristic of our country.
Your time a Morin Heights also provided you with the opportunity to work with Tom Dowd. Would you talk a bit about that experience?
Nick: Tom Dowd was a great guy; I worked with him on the McGarrigle Sisters’ Love Over and Over (1982). Mark Knoffler played on that album. We did it at Morin Heights, we did it in London, we did it at Muscle Shoals, we did it in LA, and we did it in New York. The logistics were a pain because in those days you had to transport the tapes between each studio. You had to make safety copies in case something happened like if they were put under an x-ray at the airport security. We used a company called Rocket Cargo that specialized in transporting audiotape because I certainly wasn’t going to carry around a bag of tapes.
How many tapes were transported between studios?
Nick: Well, we kept the numbers under control by making a master reel. From the multiple takes you would find the one that you liked or assemble a complete song with edited sections from multiple takes. Then you would put these on a master reel by splicing leader tape in between the songs. Each reel was roughly fifteen minutes in length, so you would end up with something like four reels for the project.
How did Tom Dowd influence your approach to engineering?
Nick: Tom Dowd was an influence in terms of feel. Roy Thomas Baker influenced me in the technical aspects of making a record: How to be over-the-top. If anything was worth doing, it was worth over-doing. I worked with him on Pilot’s Morin Heights (1976), and I also did Ian Hunter’s Your Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979). Roy Thomas Baker said, “You have the talent to be a good producer.” But I was shy of the position, because I’ve always liked engineering more than producing. I didn’t like the responsibility of being a producer because you had to deal with a lot of record company bullshit. I ran into that very situation while working producing April Wine. After we completed First Glance (1978), we started Harder Faster (1979). At one point during the bedtracks the Capitol Records’ brass from Los Angeles decided to pop in and they were acting like assholes. While we were doing the bedtracks they were saying things like, “Make it sound like The Knack.” At the time “My Sharona” was Capitol Records’ biggest hit. Ohhh, I was mad and told them off. One of them said, “Well, you’ll never work in this town again.” I said, “I hope not, Morin Heights a small town. He yelled, “LOS ANGELES!” I answered, “I don’t live in L.A. so PISS OFF!” Of course, later I received the concerned call from the powers that be.
Yet in spite of that confrontation you continued to accept the roll of engineer/producer on future projects. Roy Thomas Baker provided a pivotal influence on your career. Can you give an example of his “anything that’s worth doing is worth overdoing” approach to sound?
Nick: Yeah, there’s a trick I learned from Roy Thomas Baker. If there were a four-part harmony we would create twelve tracks of each by recording the same thing over and over again. Then take those twelve tracks, invert the phase on every other, and then – because we were working within the limitations of analog – bounce those down to each of the four parts. In the end we would have four tracks each comprised of twelve bounced tracks. The phase relationship that was created in each bounced track gave the vocals a unique character. He called the sound “Gassy Vocals” because it sounds airy.
You’ve told me a few stories of Roy Thomas Baker’s extravagance.
Nick: Oh yeah, he was very extravagant. He would listen to playback so loud even I would have to walk out. He sat in a Lazyboy chair in front of the console with an ice bucket and champagne – always Dom Perignon. He made really good records and he was a great engineer. His career was similar to my own, in that he was an engineer that became a producer; whereas a lot of producers are musicians who become producers. He knew he had a sound, but he knew that it wouldn’t last forever. When I worked with Phil Ramone on Chicago 13 (1979), he was the one that told me that you always have to diversify. And I’ve been lucky because I’ve had the opportunity to record everything from Hard Rock and Heavy Metal to Classical records with orchestras. I’ve learned how to survive. I can go and record a Jazz date, then an orchestral session followed by a heavy metal project.
Phil Ramone must have hired you because your contribution to the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack (1977) – arguably one of the biggest dance records ever produced – yet, in spite of that association you’ve been in demand for hard rock recordings most of your career.
Nick: After that record was made I had so many phone calls to do disco records, but I refused them because I didn’t want to become typecast. It’s weird how one’s career evolves: After I’d accepted the offer to do Perfect Strangers (1984), the Rolling Stones asked me to engineer a record. We were into the third day of bed tracks in Stowe when I got the call from the Stones, but they couldn’t wait for me to finish Deep Purple’s project. At that time Robert Palmer and then Roxy Music called as well. I had all three offers at that time. There were more offers, but I wouldn’t back out on the band. I couldn’t go up to Roger Glover and the boys and say, “I’m leaving.” Who knows how my career would have been affected by those offers. I’ll never know, but I had a hard time sleeping that night after the Stones called because they were one of my favourite bands. I remember they called on a Wednesday and asked if I was ready to start on Monday… in Paris.
Anyway, that’s the way this business works. Similarly, we didn’t know that Saturday Night Fever was going to be such a huge record. We were doing Children of the World (1976) and Robert Stigwood came to the studio with a script and told the boys to read it. Everybody thought it was a piece of shit: A guy who works in a paint store and wants to dance in a disco in Bensonhurst?
When you put it like that the story sounds pretty dry.
Nick: Yeah. Robert asked them to write a song, which became “You Should Be Dancing.”
You once mentioned that they started the sessions down at Criteria Studios in Florida and then came up to Canada, switching studios for tax reasons.
Nick: At that time they couldn’t work in England because they had terrible tax laws for artists. If you earned over a certain amount you were taxed 80-90%, and they would assume if you made a million dollars you made a million dollars every year. What they didn’t realize was that if you made a million dollars on a record or book it was probably the only thing you’ve ever done. In England, I think they still have a law named for Brendan Behan, who was a famous writer, poet and a terrible drunkard. He wrote one novel that made him millions. The government taxed him to the point where he was broke, desolate and living on the street. Subsequently, there were many in parliament who thought that it was disgusting. So now, if you’re a writer or a painter or sculptor you’re not taxed the same way. U2 took advantage of that law by earning millions of dollars tax-free. England has changed the laws and many artists have returned because of the new tax laws.
Anyway, Canada was the only option for the Bee Gees. They’d been in the States for too long and they were going to be taxed. They heard about Morin Heights, came up and they stayed.
How long were they there?
Nick: Five months. There were three engineers in total and two engineers were also the producers. Karl Richardson was one producer/engineer, and Albhy Galuten was the second producer and I was the third engineer. Literally, it was the three of us who handled the board for mixing because Le Studio had no automation. I handled the bass and drums; Karl handled the instrumentation and Albhy controlled all the vocals. It was a great session that was mixed on the Trident A console.
What tracking occurred up at Le Studio?
Nick: Everything from bedtracks to overdubs.
So the tracks that were written after they read the script were recorded in Morin Heights and the rest of the tracks on Children of the World (1976), like “Jive Talking,” were done down in Florida.
Nick: Yeah, at Criteria. The process was a mixture of both studios. They did some of the tracks at Criteria and then they redid some of the tracks at Morin Heights for continuity of sound. Though at one point, they almost left Le Studio because our reverb, the EMT plates didn’t sound like the Criteria EMT plates, which were a lot warmer sounding. I had conditioned the EMT plates in our place to make them sound more British because we had a lot of British bands. Roy Thomas Baker liked the cold icy kind of reverb. They said, “Well, if you can’t get that straight we’re going to leave. We’re going to go back to Criteria or find some place in Toronto.” I was determined to keep their business so I stayed up all night with headphones and I listened to every record I had from Criteria to listen to the reverb. Then I went back at 5am, put a graphic EQ onto the reverb and as I listened to the reverb on my headphones – I took the records with me – I EQ’d it with more bottom end, took the middle off, and so on. So the next day when they arrived and started working and when they heard the new reverb they said, “That’s better than the Criteria reverb.” I said, “Well, I want you guys to stay. I’d be really lonely without you guys.” They all gave me a hug.
How far into the project were you when that occurred?
Nick: Two months. You know, they had been complaining about the reverb not being correct, but after that they decided to stay. With an important client like that leaving it wouldn’t have made us happy at all.
The rhythm tracks on that record have a deep groove.
Nick: I learned a lot from those two producers. A lot about tight bottom end for that kind of music, you know R&B, the American sound. I learned a lot about American sound.
There is a real difference, especially in the bottom end.
Nick: Yeah, you know the tightness of the drum kit is different than the British approach, which is fatter and slightly bigger. The New York sound is tight. I programmed these drums for this smooth jazz record and since their music reminds me of a Steely Dan arrangement, I wanted to make the drums sound as if Steve Gadd was playing them. A simple hi-hat, kick and snare pattern, but it sounds like Steve Gadd. They were programmed, but they sound real.
I was fortunate to learn from some of the best American producers. As an apprentice at Decca I learned the British method of engineering sound, which was different from the American approach, because we EQ’d at the source; whereas when Karl got the drum sounds, there was almost no EQ at all. They would work on the drums themselves and microphone placements. In England, the thinking was “I’m going to change the drum sound anyway, so I’m going to make it sound how I want it to sound right now.” In the 50s & 60s the Brits sound was more hi-fi than the Americans, but that difference doesn’t exist anymore because everyone is using the same gear and the same format; plus, today many engineers trigger the drums and add the same generic drum samples. Another difference in the old sound was that American drummers tuned the drums differently than the British drummers. In those days the American drummers would take the bottom skins off the toms; whereas, in Britain they would leave them on. So Americans would get this different sound, particularly for R&B. Anyway, in the bed sessions with the Bee Gees we used dynamic microphones like the RE20s, SM57 for the snare, 87s for the top.
With the bottom heads removed wouldn’t the engineer mic the toms underneath or inside the shell?
Nick: Yes, both, but I always miked it from the top to get more tone. Inside the shell it would sound a little more tubular. Also the R&B drummers would set up the snare with the Memphis sound; the pitch was lower and they’d put their wallets or whatever on the head.
That brings me to another point concerning Canada, the States and for that matter the world; the unfortunate thing with Canada is that Canada has no sound. There’s no such thing as a Vancouver sound or a Toronto sound. There might be such as thing as an east coast sound because of the Celtic influences, but that makes no difference to popular music. In America, for instance, there was the Kansas City sound. You can tell the difference in sound from Chicago and New York to New Orleans to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Memphis and Nashville. I mean you can place the music in a setting. For instance, if I’m doing a blues album I can ask a band, “Where do you want to go? Where do you want the music to live?” With the Tommy Z album it was Memphis; we had Memphis horn styles, the snare was flapping in the wind, the playing was “Memphis” with everyone playing on the shady side of the beat, you know? Just a little laid back. You have to put it into a perspective of where you are.
Some bands sound uptight. Everybody is on top of the beat. Everyone’s anticipating the next change whereas the American roots music approach is, “So I’m a little late on the downbeat.” And every region has its own unique take on the timing around the beat. That’s what jazz is about too. If everybody hits the downbeat precisely there’s a smaller sound. If everybody hits on a little flam it makes the music sound fat and wide, particularly with a big band. That’s the difference between Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lawrence Welk’s sound; Lawrence Welk sounds like some kind of uptight machine; Guy Lombardo too. “White” people like that. Guy Lombardo made a fortune, but his music was straight as an arrow. Whereas Dorsey and Miller, those guys swung. The best one was Les Brown and His Band of Renown out of Los Angeles, particularly when they had a young 18-year-old Doris Day singing. That’s the West Coast Big Band sound; laid back and swingin’.
Engineering and production are not just combinations of technology and sound. They involve so many compilations of elements encountered during one’s career that you have to make an effort to understand each form that you’re working in: the personalities involved, the environment where you work, the equipment that you’re using and the picture that you want to have at the end of it all. It’s the same with film directors. Film directors must already have a picture of the final product, but their job is even more stupendous because they have to deal with a large crew, cameramen and actors. The elements of the movie are created in bits and pieces; whereas in music you record a song and that’s the song. But imagine recording a song’s chorus first because you’re in an environment that allows it. They almost never film a movie by following the storyline from beginning to end. They make a movie in non-linear bits and pieces.
In music it’s a little more linear, but at the same time you have to create this kind of magic. The problem we’re having today in the digital mode is artists don’t understand that. The reason why music sales are down is that the public knows why they don’t like some kinds of music. They may not give you or know a reason, but I can see/hear what’s wrong with it. They start with a click track; they start with drums first. The guy plays the song as he’s learned it. Then the bass player comes and puts bass on it; and then the guitar player comes and puts the guitar on it. Whereas in the old days you put the whole band in one room; everybody looks at each other; and everybody feeds off the energy from each other playing the song. That’s how great records are done.
So a good sound begins with a good recording of the rhythm section playing together, but I’ve heard engineers’ mixes that have wrecked the feel of the song in spite of good bedtracks. I’ve also heard mixes you’ve done that have saved the feel of the song.
Nick: Thanks, Ted. I’ve done it many times. It’s injecting a feel into it. You have to imagine that you’ve just recorded the band live and sometimes the difficulty is trying to figure out what to put in it. Whether I play it myself or use someone else, I normally put a shaker in it. Sometimes what I do to loosen up the feel is I replace the hi-hat track with a shaker.
The hi-hat is there, but the shaker is on top of it.
Nick: Sometimes I take the hi-hat away totally. People don’t notice it’s missing because it’s just part of the feel, but with the shaker it feels wider. With modern technology I have a thing called Drumagog so I’ll take a hi-hat and replace it with a shaker. But, most of the time, I’ll take a shaker or a tambourine and create a feel myself, and record it live.
Phil Ramone taught me about feel. In the old days, if you weren’t using a click, and the song was speeding up approaching the chorus you put a rhythm guitar playing half time and then you’d play it full time in the chorus and visa versa if it slows down you’ play double time.
If it slows down in the chorus… if the tempo physically slows down?
Nick: You have one guitar playing a part in the chorus and it slows down. You try and grab it and then you add another guitar in the background playing half time. And all of a sudden it evens out the perception to the human ear. So that’s a trick we used to use.
In the old days there were a lot of people who didn’t like using click-tracks. So what we did was hire the right drummer; players like Steve Gadd and all those other great studio drummers. If you started a click at the beginning of a song, at the end of the song the tempo was exactly the same. The drummer was the traffic manager. He was the one who kept the beat. So that’s why those guys were in great demand and demanded great money because they were solid. Tempo issues are why, in the 60’s, and to some degree in the 70’s, when the band came in to the studio, the band didn’t play. Like the Beach Boys using the Wrecking Crew. In New York they had Tony Levin and Steve Gadd. You know the New York Mafia; David Spinoza on guitar, Hugh McCracken on rhythm guitar. These guys were hired constantly because their timing was impeccable. They didn’t need the click and consequently the feel was amazing. They could keep the groove right on the button. They were masters of time. When producers decided that the band needed to be used, you know good or bad, well then the click came in.
You have to learn how to work with a musician’s performance capability. So overdubbing bedtracks is probably the easiest way for most producers to proceed. Having said that, can you take a moment and explain your approach to mic’ing a band for bedtrack session?
Nick: Every microphone is like the lens of a camera. But I’ve already explained to you how turning the mic preamp all the way down and fader all the way up reduces the size of the mic’s field.
That’s how you can create discrete tracks recording bands live off the floor?
Nick: Yeah, I do it with very little spill. For example: If I’m talking into this microphone and I have the mic preamp all the way down and the fader all the way up while you’re over in the corner talking, the mic won’t hear you that much or not at all. Even at this distance. However, if I had the microphone preamp up and the fader down to match the same level this microphone could probably hear a pin drop in the next room. It’s like setting your depth of field with the F-stop on a camera lens.
If I’m recording drums the snare mic is right on the snare, and I have its preamp all the way down, very little hi-hat leaks into the snare mic. People are always commenting that they can hear the hi-hat over here. Whereas many of the records you hear today it’s just a mush. A lot of the times when I mix a record, the hi-hat track they give me is louder than the snare track, because the guy had the hi-hat mic’s preamp all the way up.
I’ve noticed records being made in Studio One at Metalworks and, you know what it’s like, you hear three hours of kick drum and two hours of snare and then they only listen to eight bars of the drums as a set. Or they record four bars of drums and copy/paste it so that becomes the verse. Or do four bars of chorus and copy that to make eight bars. And then they use a thing called Beat Detective on ProTools. No wonder a lot of the records today sound stiff. Producers are becoming so anal. They think that if you’re using the right material it has to be perfect. Therefore they depend on the machines instead of their instincts for their input. T-Bone Burnett is an example of a good producer, he’s a musician as well, but he doesn’t use clicks. He produced that album with Robert Plant and Allison Krause. There’s another album out there of duets featuring Yo Yo Ma with Allison Krause, with James Taylor and other famous artists. It’s live off the floor; nothing overdubbed. So in some circles the trend in the production process is returning to capturing complete performances.
There’s always a backlash in bad work ethics. The problem with that process is the fact that many bands are so bad you can’t capture a good feel when the band plays together. In spite of that fact, I use the band for tracking as much as is possible. When a band is in the studio I try to record bass, drums and guitar at the same time. And if the guitar player is not playing very well, then I have to conclude they don’t have their sound together.
The light that comes on for me every time is the song. If the song is bad I have a really hard time engineering. I can deal with bad musicians to a point and I can deal with bad singers to a point. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to deal with bad singers because we have the tools. In those days you didn’t have the tools. You really had to have the person sing until they got the right notes. There were constant punch-ins and there were only twenty-four tracks on one machine so it was tough. Sometimes we spent days doing vocals.
But, the light only comes on, and it still happens today, when the song is good. That’s what I look for. That’s been the case with most successful recordings. There’s a difference between finding a good song and finding a commercial song. You’re lucky if you can find a song that’s both. I’ve engineered a lot of records that weren’t good songs, but they were hits because a hit is also a matter of being at the right time and place for that song.
Anyway, that’s a brief look, for now, at my conception of music and how it sits. You know, for me, nothing’s changed. I still have the same view of making records. The tools change and so does technology. When I arrived in this industry, they were just changing from round dials to faders. The old guys couldn’t stand the faders. I didn’t like the pots, so I went for the fader.