Interview with Wendy Page

Interview conducted July 6, 2004.

Originally published at http://www.theartofmusicproduction.com/Wendy_Page_Interview.html

How long have you been producing?

I’ve been producing for ten years.

How did you get started as a producer?

I was in a band in the U.K. called Skin Games. We produced our own tracks and co-produced songs with other producers. We felt we had a clear idea of what we wanted. It is difficult for other people to interpret what you want and sometimes the only way to find out is to do it yourself, so we did. We bought a four-track, then moved on to a Fostex machine, then ADAT. The first record I produced for an artist was at a U.K. residential studio called Ridge Farm where there were Solid State Logic desks and state of the art equipment. Even then I had my own Behringer desk and Logic set up to do vocals on.

What interested you about producing as a career?

Nothing! I got into production because I wanted to make the songs I wrote sound how I wanted to hear them.

Do you prefer to write the material for the artists that you are producing?

That is the way I have come into production but I like producing other people’s material, too. It’s great to hear a song and feel you can bring something to the table.

Do you find most A&R people to be helpful and knowledgeable?

Some A&R people have a passion for music and many of them come from a production background or have been artists in their own right, however briefly. They can empathize and bring something extra because they are objective, i.e. not the writer, not the musician. They are the lay listener, which can be very helpful. Unfortunately, there are some A&R people who don’t know anything about music and they feel they have to do something to justify their jobs. This is always going to be a difficult area because it is where the artistic meets the commercial and a good producer should be able to recognize this. I haven’t met one artist yet who doesn’t want to sell records.

Do you mostly produce whole albums or individual tracks?

I started out producing whole albums, which I prefer to do. This is getting less and less possible, particularly in the pop world. When you produce an entire record there is an organic feel to the whole body of work, I think, and you have a better chance of presenting an aural snapshot of where that artist is at. This is why the best albums are mostly forged by artist/producer relationships where either the magic is there immediately or grows over a period of time. Nowadays, people come to songwriters for songs and most songwriters produce their own demos to such high standards, they are pretty much records. The A&R person will want the ‘record’ they have heard and fallen for, so you find most pop records have multi-production teams on them. The phrase “there’s no such thing as a demo” is true today more than ever. Songwriters submitting songs have to make sure the song is of “master quality”. So you get a lot of song “reproduction”. Sometimes I feel this is commerce sacrificing the artist; the chances of the record being a cohesive whole and being great are slimmer. The best albums are where an artist or a band capture their own brand of magic from the first note to the last. And the best producers are the people who allow that to happen by ensuring the most creative and stimulating atmosphere they can.

Do you have any ambitions beyond producing?

I’m a singer in my own right. I’m also a songwriter and I love performing. I have had two record deals with major labels in the U.K. and three indie deals. I am putting the finishing touches on my solo album right now. Songs from my record First Lifetime have already been played on the radio in the U.K. I would say my ambitions extend to making more great records and taking production/singing/songwriting and performing as far as I can. I’ve come from a tiny village in Wales to Hollywood so who knows what may happen!

What kind of training did you have that you feel made you qualified to produce?

Sitting with other people [and] watching them do their jobs; and looking, listening and learning. As a band in [the studio], producing our own demo recordings, learning to “comp” vocals and guitars. Learning by trial and error how to record drums, position microphones. You train by being experimental and develop what I call “studio patience”…. [and] by being lucky enough to work with other professionals. Necessity is the mother of invention. You need to be able to make your demos compete with records so you have to learn. It is an ongoing process. Obviously, when you have your own setup and are not working to a record company’s deadline, you can take your time over learning new software etc. I think this is the reason home studios are so popular, as you can be very free and creative. However, the discipline and excitement of working to a tight schedule can often spark incredible ideas and “magic dust moments” in the studio. It is those moments that make my job worthwhile.

Do you produce and engineer?

Yes, I have produced and engineered. However, I do not see myself as an engineer as this is a separate and fine craft in itself. A good engineer is worth his/her weight in gold. He or she can let you get on with the whole vision of the record whilst he/she concentrates on the specifics of sound. For example, when I am recording a vocalist who might be a little nervous making their first record, my job is to put them at their ease and get a great performance. It is good to know I can rely on my engineer to sort out the mic levels and EQs.

If you use outside engineers do you use the same person or people or do you just use the house engineer at the studio?

If you have the choice you always use an engineer you know and trust. I have experienced house engineers in the U.K. who range from committed and helpful to falling asleep on the desk. Two of the best engineers I have worked with in the U.K. have been female. These days it is ultimately liberating to work with an engineer you know and trust to do their job whilst you do yours. Trying to be specific and analytical about this is so hard because, really, making records is an emotional roller-coaster for everyone: the artist, the record company, the producer. It is a huge act of faith and it depends on talent, luck, good management and studio magic. All of these ingredients are very hard to come by.

Do you mostly mix your own productions or are they mixed by someone else?

They tend to be mixed by other people, and this can be a really good thing — a fresh set of ears, etc. However, often the original vision of how a song should sound is right and it gets blurred or lost “in the mix”. The trick is to make the monitor mix as close to perfect as possible. Often, when it comes to mixing and putting out a record, the politics of putting out that record can take as much of a priority to the record company as the sound of the record itself. But, again, part of the producer’s job is being able to take this on board and make sure that everyone is happy. The goal is to not compromise the artistic vision, and deflect sabotage, if possible.

If someone else mixes are you present when the mixes are done?

Sometimes; not always. If someone else mixes the record, it is unusual that they call the producer in. On the albums I have worked on I like to be involved with the baby all the way, so often I will go and listen, pass comment and assist if required. I have to be invited of course!

Do you choose the person who mixes and/or remixes your stuff?

Sometimes. Most of the time it is a record company decision.

Do you usually have any approval rights over the mixes?

No, there are some producers maybe who do when they get to the top of the production tree but it’s very rare that you have veto. Because once you produce a track, the song becomes the property of the record companies and as long as they have contracted you, they always want their rights to do whatever they wish with the song.

What credit do you prefer on the albums you produce?

Produced by.

Are there usually other producers credited for other tracks or executive producers for your tracks, album producers, or any other assistant, associate, additional or co-production credits?

If the track was co-produced then obviously your fellow producers are credited. Sometimes the record company gets the song remixed and the remixer wants an additional production credit. This can be a contentious issue and is something to be aware of.

Do you work mainly within the mainstream for major labels or large independents or do you ever do less commercial productions that will have little chance of getting played on commercial radio?

I usually work in the mainstream. This is where I have had the most commercial success. However, I have done a lot of work that is critically acclaimed but not “commercial”. I have worked as a featured artist and songwriter on the drum’n’bass record “Essence”, dance records with U.K. act Tin Tin Out and with Talvin Singh. If I feel passionate about a project, whether for myself or another artist, I will make time to do something.

Are there any books, web-sites, magazines that you would recommend as having interesting content about or for producers?

Books? The Art of Music Production! A colleague of mine has just taken on a young engineer who aspires to being a producer for whom this book is essential reading. It is good to read biographies on artists. I read biographies on Lennon, Dylan and The Rolling Stones because they are my heroes as artists and lyricists. Songbooks are great, too. I have been buying songbooks since I was very young! My collection ranges from pop and rock to jazz and musicals. It is also good to learn how people made their records. Web-sites, obviously; to keep abreast of technical advances, the web is superb. Magazines are useful too. There are the technical specialist magazines like Sound On Sound (U.K) which gives you great articles on lyric writing/how to position mics/hot new gear. But as producing involves a huge amount of psychology, books on human behaviour are interesting, body language etc. Also, I read a lot of the gossip magazines and teen magazines because they reveal the image the artist is projecting, provide a great source of lyric material, and are often a stress-busting way to keep you informed on all aspects of this business, especially from the fan’s perspective. Most movies, unless they are documentaries of bands/artists recording in the studio can be woefully inaccurate about the music business. However, I would recommend “The Rose”, “The Coalminer’s Daughter”, [and] all musicals! Especially those with Judy Garland in, any footage of live shows you can see. My collection ranges from Sinatra to Coldplay. Other great movies about the “biz” that I have seen are Madonna’s “Truth Or Dare”, “Almost Famous” and “Laurel Canyon”. The latter film captures the sense of pressure you both feel and have to field as a producer making a record. The atmosphere of creativity and spontaneity is also accurate. Interestingly, the protagonist is a female producer! However, in my experience, the drug-taking, excessive drinking and fraternizing with the artists that the movie depicts is a complete rock and roll myth.

Do you like to record digitally or on analog?

I have recorded on both. My own studio is a digital studio, which has huge advantages, but when I get the chance it is good to record on analog. Also, it depends on the style of music. My solo album First Lifetime was recorded both digitally and on analog. If you are working with a live band there is something special about the analog sound. It adds warmth, particularly on drums. With electronic music, it is easier to work in the digital domain.

Do you use Protools or another digital system?

I use all systems. Most studios have Protools. In my own studio, and in the U.K., I am a Logic person.

How tech savvy do you think a producer has to be these days?

It is good to be tech savvy but it is not necessarily essential. It is quite difficult to keep up with the constant development of new technologies. You could say knowledge is power, so there is a pressure to be aware of the ever-evolving tech world. However, I have done projects where I have literally been not “hands on” at all. I have produced in the old sense of the word, with an engineer, artist and musicians, programmer and Protools engineer. My role at these times has been as an arranger or conductor, keeping everyone focused but being able to step back and see the bigger picture as well.

There have been other projects where I have been very “hands on” recording vocals, programming backing tracks and comping using Logic and Protools. Comping is something I have been doing for a very long time; it is like doing a sonic jigsaw puzzle. As a singer, I enjoy compiling vocal performances, my own and other artists. Many old school producers think having to comp a vocal from many takes dilutes the end result. In my experience, most singers like to record at least three or four takes. I have worked with very young singers who are enthusiastic but inexperienced. There, I like to relieve what I call the “red light syndrome pressure” by getting them to relax and enjoy what they are doing. After all, that is what it is all about!

I like to get as many vocal takes as possible until I feel the singer has given his or her absolute best. Then I like to ask for a few more extra takes! I have often found the magic moment comes from those last few takes, maybe a spontaneous ad lib or creative scat. The craft and the graft comes in when you put together the vocal from a number of takes without losing any sense of continuity, creating an entire performance. Sometimes you find there are two or three takes that stand out. Strangely, with the artists I have worked with (this is also true of my own performances) the first, fourth and sixth take are usually the best! Most of the time there is something in every take. Then it’s all down to personal taste and staying true to your vision of the song. I apply this principle to guitars as well. My favourite comp that I ever did was a flute comp. I spent much longer on it than I should have! You get the best out of people when you create a fun atmosphere to work in, session musicians are as eager to enjoy the experience as band members. I am lucky in that I have rarely come across a jaded soul in music.

Do you record exclusively in commercial recording studios or do you work out of a home studio?

Both. I work in commercial recording studios and I work out of my own home studio. I often write or co-write the tracks I produce so the song will start life in my own studio and then I will usually go into a commercial studio to do overdubs, guitars and drums etc.

Do you own your own studio?

Yes, I have my own studio at home. It is essential for me as a singer-songwriter as I need to develop ideas and record songs to master quality. It is also a great facility to have as it means I can create any time I choose.

Do you think that having downloads for sale is changing or will change how a producer makes recordings? Is this going to put the focus on singles, rather than albums?

I don’t think this changes the way a producer makes a record. You still want to capture an artist’s vision and make the record sound as fine as you can. If people are only downloading the tracks they are force-fed on radio then they could be missing out. Obviously, people will download singles because that is what they have heard and like about the artist. Usually, this leads to an interest and even a passion for that artist so they will be keen to hear the rest of the album. As a producer, this seems to me to make an even stronger case to make the whole record organic and essential listening. It is not, and never has been, good enough to make a “record by numbers” or have “album fillers.” For me, all songs on the record are important. I feel let down if I only like two or three tracks on an album. Records that are special to me and become the soundtrack of my life for weeks at a time are always whole albums where the artist’s essence has been captured e.g. Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Coldplay, both Parachutes and A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Radiohead’s The Bends, David Gray’s White Ladder, The Beatles Revolver, The Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street & Beggars Banquet, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On?, Joy Division’s Closer and anything with Billie Holiday on it.

Why do you think there are so few women producers in the business?

This is an easy question! I think before the advance of computers and home studios, production in music was a man’s world. I am not talking about female artists here. Many great female artists have co-produced (and I suspect, often more than co-produced) in their careers. But it is unusual to find a woman producer who is not an artist and is solely a woman producer.

I think the powerful side of the business (i.e. record labels) are male-dominated and more than a little mistrustful of giving a woman the reins of an immense, creative project like making a record. Remember you are talking about thousands of dollars of budget, intense pressure on the artists/bands to come up with the goods, and extra besides. Then there are the sheer politics of fame. Is the producer known? Do they have a good track record? Have they produced hits? So, it is hard for women to break into this field.

However, if you are determined, patient, obscenely hard-working and have a talent in music, you can break through. I have worked in all aspects of the business. I have been. and still am. a recording artist in my own right. I am a songwriter for myself and other artists. My dogged determination to not give up on music — because giving up would have made me ill — meant when I was struggling in London for ten years after college that I took a series of menial jobs that gave me the time to concentrate on recording, rehearsing and songwriting.

I was lucky in two respects. I was able to keep singing and performing (the jazz gigs would pay the rent) which I loved, and I began a songwriting partnership with Jim Marr. This songwriting and production partnership still works today. As likeminded musicians, we were able to keep each other bouyant through dark days and tough times. This made sharing our first number one hit record together all the sweeter.

Back to the question: the ridiculous hours don’t attract women, I’m sure. The fact that you go into a recording studio and often don’t come out until dawn does not appeal to many of my female friends! They see behind the glamour of working in the music business and have long come to accept my obsession with music. There is never enough time, of course. Record making is no exception. That is why even with the best intentions and the strictest discipline you run into round the clock sessions. The other thing is I swear when you are making music time speeds up and suddenly hours disappear down a black hole somewhere!

[There are also] the sacrifices you have to make. Of course, I can only speak personally, but I do not have a normal home life. Making a record requires the same intensity, dedication and concentration of mind, body and soul, that it must take to make a movie, only without the reasonable hours! There is no 9-5, or 5 a.m. to when-the-light-goes, schedule. Usually, recording whole albums take a little shorter than three months. From conception to mastering can be a longer span. If the experience has been total, i.e. if you have been involved in all the writing, it is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

You live and breathe the record. It does not leave much time for having babies. Songs are, and always will be, my babies, although I hope someday to add a few real ones! Relationships can suffer too with the anti-social hours and shop talk. It is easier if you are involved with someone who understands the creative process and is patient. This all probably sounds rather depressing. However, don’t forget there is a reason I have made these sacrifices. I love music, I love my job. I consider myself blessed to be able to do this and I cannot imagine living my life without singing and songs.

A brief answer to your challenging question should have been: there ought to be more!

Do you feel like you have encountered any particular difficulties because you are female?

The difficulties I have encountered because I am female are usually very short-lived. Once people realise that you can do your job, sexism tends to lower its ugly head. On stage the difficulties I have encountered have been the usual heckling etc.. You just start singing and this stops. In the studio, sexism can take a more subtle and sinister shape. Nowadays, however, I tend to create a happy studio “family” where everyone is glad to be there, especially the artist. Good communication and diplomacy usually sorts any little problems out.

Do you feel like being female gives you any advantage in any particular area? If so what?

The advantages of being a female producer may be that the studio experience is less intimidating for female artists, particularly if they are very young. However, if I accept that this is an advantage then I am conceding to a stereotype of “female” producers being more sympathetic and sensitive etc. than male producers. Honestly, I don’t feel there is an advantage to being a female producer, only in being the best producer you can be for the artist in question. You want them to be able to trust you with their music. Gender should become irrelevant. They say music transcends all barriers and it’s true.

What would you recommend that other girls do who are trying to break into the business?

In general there are three ways females seem to come into the business: 1) as a songwriter; 2) as an engineer; or 3) as an artist. I would recommend that girls learn as much as they can about music and develop a thick skin! It helps to learn an instrument if you can. I play guitar and a little piano, enough to write with. See as many gigs as you can. Get yourself a home computer setup. Garageband is fantastic. It certainly beats the dictaphone I borrowed off my Dad when I was a kid to record my first songs on! Don’t give up. Remember you cannot fail, you can only quit.

Is the studio environment you work in primarily female or male? And does that matter to you?

The studio environment is primarily male and whilst that has never mattered to me, it has been a problem for some of my male colleagues in the past. However, as soon as they see I can do my job they are fine. I like to work with female engineers too and there are very few out there, so go girls!