Tony Swain is a record producer, composer, session musician and A&R consultant. He has been active in the industry for over thirty years. He achieved significant success during the 1980s in a production and song-writing partnership with Steve Jolley, working with acts such as Imagination, Spandau Ballet and Alison Moyet. Their work has subsequently appeared (as direct samples or close emulations of key elements) in records by Mariah Carey, PM Dawn, Boards of Canada, 88 keys (featuring Kanye West) and The Pharcyde. Swain then went on to solo production work as well as A&R consultancy, eventually becoming Head of International A&R for the Universal Music Group. He has been nominated for Ivor Novello song writing and BPI production awards, was awarded a BPI technical excellence award and has also seen his work as executive producer (for Michael McDonald’s Motown recordings) nominated for a Grammy award. This interview took place in 2013, thirty years since the release of the albums True by Spandau Ballet and Night Dubbing by Imagination, which epitomise the contribution made by Tony Swain and Steve Jolley to pop and dance music production in that era.
Tony, at what point did your career in music production begin?
I was trained a long time ago by Geoff Calver, who used to work with the Walker Brothers. I had been working in television, but left when I was twenty-six: I had a great job in as a cameraman but I was so desperate to get into the music business that I left and went into the studio. So I really learnt from the ground up about recording and engineering and, although I was a musician at the time, went up via that route. Geoff taught me the basics. I’d been recording on a Revox since the age of eleven and track bouncing, but he showed me ‘this is how you use a compressor’, ‘this is how you use reverb’, ‘this is what you do with gates, de-essers’, ‘this is how you don’t overload tape’. He was a great engineer and really gave me a ‘from the ground up’ training on how to use everything properly, this enabled me to go further and experiment within certain audio parameters, ‘how do you get a clicky sounding bass drum?’ and things like that.
Your work with Imagination began with the single ‘Body Talk’ in 1981. It is a very distinctive sounding record, and it certainly has a ‘clicky’ sounding bass drum. You’ve said in another interview [Myners, 2007] that you wanted the bass drum of ‘Body Talk’ to cut through so it’s high in the mix, and in that sense it anticipates house music.
I think the key to ‘Body Talk’ was the bass and the claps. Also, Morgan Khan who ran Street Sounds, when I mixed it, he was going to the clubs all the time and he sat with me and he drove me as well: he’s going to me ‘we need to go louder’. People ask me ‘how did you get that sound?’. Obviously it was the attack of the bass drum, and that was due to the DBX 160 we used; but it wasn’t just that, it was the fact that we got a balance and then we put it up another 6 dB. So when we thought it was right we put it up much higher; so it dominated the mix, and drove it.
So the bass and the kick would go up by another 6 dB (leaving everything else as it was)?
Yes, we’d sit there and go ‘yes, it sounds right’ and then: ‘let’s put it up louder’. We didn’t sit there and say ‘that sounds great, that’s right’ but instead ‘it’s right, but let’s put it louder’. I used to take mixes home and play them in the car – the drawback of that was cassettes. We were always struggling with cassettes because that was the only way that you could take mixes out of the studio; when you played them on a hi-fi, whatever you thought in the studio was toned down, so you had to push it. We were listening to this stuff on studio grade monitors with a great sound and then you had to put it on to vinyl, so you’d have to think that if you were going to overdo it then you were going to have to overdo it twice as much as you thought, otherwise it just sounded too subtle.
We once had a meeting with The Human League as we were going to produce them. They’d already had success with Martin Rushent who did their early records and he was working at Red Bus Studios as well as with us. Phil Oakey said about the bass drum ‘it sounds like two billiard balls clicking together’! But they liked it, that’s why they wanted to meet us. There was a lot of love for Imagination then. It’s difficult to understand the changes in the production sound of that era. There was a lot of crossover from engineering. Engineers weren’t just the people who could get a great drum sound any more. I’m a drummer, so I was able to do that. I got a lot of work because of that, I understood the drums. But engineers weren’t just these people anymore, roles were changing. It was a case of ‘can you do this too?’ and becoming a science.
The bass drum for [Spandau Ballet’s] True was a spin-off from the Imagination drums: lots of boost at 3.5 kHz and DBX 160 compression. When I heard it on the radio in mono it sounded pretty loud but it didn’t bother me, in fact it made it more R and B. Someone else I worked with who thought he knew everything phoned me up and said ‘God, the bass drum’s loud in that’, I said ‘who cares? It’s number one!’ Sometimes overstatement can make a mix and too little bass drum is a real disaster.
I’ve got a pair of DBX 160s. They’re just incredible (although they’re costing me a fortune to maintain): they wouldn’t distort; you could put a compressor across a vocal, from a decent Neumann mic or something, and it would sound alright and then you would put a 160 on it and it just didn’t distort. Its capabilities are just amazing. I would always use it on vocals and then limit them with a Urei 1176 on the mixes. You’d have to ride them a bit anyway. The thing is, it’s trying to control this stuff and not ruin it.
The whole album is very distinctive: Leee John’s vocal, down-tempo grooves with big bass drums and claps. Most tracks have a standout element: for example the flange in Flashback, the repeating parallel motion of the piano riff in Burnin’ Up (which, like the bass drum levels here and elsewhere, anticipates house music as Frankie Knuckles has acknowledged). The IMDB entry for yourself and Steve Jolley sums the album up as ‘a sophisticated fusion of emerging new wave synthesised pop and Motown R’n’B arrangements’ adding that ‘today it is considered a landmark in dance music’ [‘TP’, undated].
That’s interesting. The thing is that they were pop records and we never pretended that they were anything else. That sound on Flashback is the noise coming out of a Roland SH1000, through a Drawmer gate keyed from a hi-hat. My SH1000 had a sustain pedal input but apart from that you couldn’t do anything with it – you couldn’t trigger it, you couldn’t do anything with it, you just played it. So anything like that, you could hold notes, and that’s what we used to do and to trigger them, we used the gate.
It’s a very bold production stroke for a pop record like that.
I suppose so.
That’s one thing that stands out in those productions: the kick and the bass line are prominent, which anticipates a lot of current pop music; and, particularly delay-based effects like flanges, you were prepared to say ‘this isn’t going to be in the background; this is the main feature at the moment’.
It’s going to blow your head off! I think because we were so limited at the time on the equipment, we just got every new thing that we could lay our hands on that we knew would do stupid stuff. On ‘Burnin’ Up’ I played that piano riff but I couldn’t keep that up, I played all the solos and everything else and it was hard work. If you’re not playing the piano all of the time, you’re playing synths, your fingers just go to pieces, and they feel like spaghetti. So that riff was a tape loop. I thought ‘I can’t do this for however long’ so I just did it with the bass drum on one track, piano on the other in mono and then we made a quarter-inch tape loop. That’s what it is, just going round and round and round; and then Tim Goldsmith dubbed the drums on it and it became a cult record in New York.
You then consolidated that sound on Imagination’s second album In the Heat of the Night from which the singles ‘Just an Illusion’ and ‘Music and Lights’ came which were both very successful commercially. ‘Just an Illusion’ has to have one of the most well-known synthesized bass lines in pop music. Recently, on your blog and on UK national radio, you ended all of the speculation about which synthesizer was responsible for the sound (it was a Roland SH1000) [Myners, 2006; Swain, 2013]. You followed that with Night Dubbing, which is an unusually bold collection of remixes of some of the tracks from the first two Imagination albums. What was the motivation for this album?
The record company. They said ‘why don’t we do some remixes?’ I said ‘oh my God, I’ve got to get the tapes out again!’ I always felt that when you’d finished something you’d finished it, you’d put it to bed. So this felt like a sort of regurgitation to me and we were doing so many other things at the same time. I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy it and we went mental on it! There’s one track, ‘Heart and Soul’ where we swung Neumann microphones over two loudspeakers at the end. It was ground breaking because I was tired and I didn’t really want to do it. What kept us amused was ‘let’s do something really nuts’ and that was it; because otherwise what was the point? We’d done what we thought were great versions, the twelve inches, we’d had hits with them, we were getting work and getting approached by people because we were having chart and dance hits. Madonna was phoning me all the time when she had ‘Holiday’ out, ‘Tony when are you going to work with me?’ because she absolutely loved Imagination, I met with her at a hotel after one of her Top of the Pops performances and we talked and she said ‘I want to do it now, I can’t wait ‘til August’. You tend to think, ‘my God! I should have done that one’. I said to Seymour Stein who was head of Sire, her record company at the time ‘oh my God Seymour, we should have done that’ to which he replied ‘no, you did the Alison Moyet album, that was great’. To be honest, we would have done a few tracks with Madonna and she would have fired us, like most people.
With Alison Moyet, we did one album with her and then there was a falling out which we still don’t understand. The bad thing about that is we could have done another album, and we had a lot of success with Alf. It cost, say, around £95k to make and Raindancing, her next album, cost something in the region of £400k. Alf sold five million and Raindancing sold one million. But she didn’t like Alf and she was going through a difficult time herself. We worked with Muff Winwood on that album and his brief to us was ‘Dusty Springfield!’ That said, the end result is not particularly like her work, but she loved the album and flew over to meet us with a view to writing and producing something for her but sadly it never came together. Steve Winwood, who is one of my heroes, he came to the concerts and loved Alf. He asked us to do the Higher Love album, so I’ve got all the demos for that, but unfortunately that fell apart in negotiations so we didn’t do that either, never mind!
But despite those setbacks there have been lots of successes
There have been some terrible stories but when I was at Universal I did work with Michael McDonald [as executive producer on Motown and Motown 2] which was my greatest ambition: I’m a huge fan of his. He is absolutely brilliant, absolutely brilliant. But, it’s a business and things go right and things go wrong. It’s quite upsetting because you put your heart and soul into things and we were sometimes criticised for stamping too much of ourselves on to the acts.
What did the record company think of Night Dubbing when you’d finished it?
I don’t think they understood it. I think they went ‘er, yeah’. It’s what they wanted. I mean this is a brilliant thing for them isn’t it? They don’t have to make a new album, they don’t have to record anything, it’s another album made from existing material.
The first track they would have heard would have been ‘Flashback’ where you sped the tape machine up and that’s probably the strangest sounding of all of the remixes.
Although they’re all pretty adventurous.
Yes, but people loved it. It was summer; everyone was sitting in their cars with the roofs open. I remember sitting in a car when it came out, hearing it coming from someone else’s car. People just loved it. I think it stimulated people because there were genuinely things that were done in that record that had never been done or attempted. Absolute madness, ‘what can we do next that nobody’s ever done?’ including swinging the microphones. I can’t remember what loudspeakers we put on the floor, maybe Yamaha NS10s but I can’t remember if they were out then, maybe it was two Auratones. We just put them flat on the ground and we got the Neumanns, held them by the cables and began to rotate them.
A sort of reverse Lesley cabinet effect?
Yes, and I think we might have knocked one of them out of phase at the desk; we were always messing around with out-of-phase.
In that track as well there seems to be almost granular stuff that BT was then doing fifteen years later, with a lot of re-triggers of the lead vocal, where we’re getting Paul Hardcastle style stuttering, but even beyond that in terms of the granularity. Was that with a sampler or were you triggering a digital delay?
That would have been triggering an AMS digital delay and also we triggered stuff with a Drawmer DS201 gate. We did some of that on the pre Night Dubbing stuff: ‘Flashback’, that sound that I mentioned earlier which is the noise coming out of an SH1000 gated by the Drawmer.
Night Dubbing made the top ten album charts.
Yeah, and I was shocked.
As you’d expect for an album of dub remixes there’s a lot of delay processing going on with that record, but what else were you using?
The Publison Infernal Machine, which was a French unit. It didn’t glitch like everything else did. We used the Eventide 310 Harmonizer a lot. I used that on everything, set in a certain way: 15 ms delay on the left, I think 25 ms delay on the right and a pitch-up on one side only on vocals; Earth Wind and Fire used it a lot on vocals and I used to use it on a lot of the stuff that I did because it spread the stereo width. The bass I’ve been questioned on so much and have spoken about elsewhere [e.g. Myners, 2007]. I’ve also used a Fender Rhodes which you’d normally record with a stereo chorus. I found one decent Fender Rhodes in the UK that we could hire, because they’re all dull as ditch water sounding, and I’d do a direct injection on one side and chorus, only one side, on the right, rather than stereo. So what you’d actually get is a true stereo chorus coming out, not an artificially treated stereo chorus, which makes it sound completely different.
How did you start with each track? How did you assemble it?
On ‘Night Dubbing’?
Yes, parts just seem to come out of nowhere and you think ‘what’s the basic material here?’ Sure, you’re swinging microphones around, you’re spinning in triggered delays and that kind of stuff but how did you begin?
Sections, really. You just say ‘right, we’re going to go from this bit to that bit and we’re going to do this, and you do that, and you flick the mute on that, I’m going to kick the Publison. That’s what we did; we did a performance in sections. Actually, and this is what’s changed now, it’s not dissimilar to doing a movie take. You go ‘right, we’re going to go up to the first chorus. You do this, you do that, you do the feedback, you do this’ and some of them would go horribly wrong. I’ve got a box of cassettes of different mixes of all the stuff I worked on and I will get them out and listen to every now and again them because there will be some disasters in there. Sometimes the feedback just went crazy or you flanged the thing and it was just sheer luck. I wish I hadn’t sold it now but the greatest flanger ever is the Bell flanger: this thing is wicked. It’s digital but you can control it manually. I had some specially made Bell 26 second delays, stereo paired, in my studio when I had it built in ’89. This flanging thing was just unreal. That was something I used later. The units we used on ‘Night Dubbing’ would have been MXR phasers and flangers, Drawmer gates….
You gated the electric piano sound on the Night Dubbing version of ‘Body Talk’. There’s something about the treatment of that which just makes the sound very ‘sticky’. You’ve talked previously about making the keyboard sound like a guitar. The thing about rhythm guitar is that the gesture is ‘down and up’ so for every one sound, you get another one which is exactly what you don’t get on a piano: when you take your fingers off, nothing happens. How were you doing that, were you programming the release and the sustain to give ‘it’s on’ now ‘it’s off’, via some kind of filter lift?
I was playing everything, but I don’t play guitar. The reason wasn’t really anything to do with the Imagination stuff. The guitar riffs were turned into keyboard parts. Steve Jolley did play guitar, but it gave it a different sound.
The electric piano sound on the dub version of ‘Body Talk’ almost sounds like a pad sound.
That would have been the same Boss CE-2 chorus pedal that we used on the bass with the DBX compressor. The bass was the Roland SH1000, the CE-2 and the DBX160. For the ‘Flashback’ dub the multitrack tape is half-speed and the vocals are pitched up with the Publison. So there are things like that happening with everything going in opposite directions.
At the end of the ‘Flashback’ dub you seem to have gone up a major scale, rather than doing a semitone each time it’s tone, tone, tone, semitone etc. It’s as if you’ve done the pitch shifts according to the key that of the piece.
We probably would have done that with the vari-speed of the tape machine: we knew the speeds that needed to be applied so we just shifted it up, up, up like that.
It seems to be a pattern of semitones and tones, but then it speeds up dramatically. I wasn’t even aware that tape machines had that range of speed variation.
They could go really fast. They were MCIs and they looked more like an American fridge and they either worked or didn’t work, but they sounded good. Something that we found out was that Studers didn’t sound good.
They looked the part, they certainly didn’t look like a fridge
They were like a Swiss watch and they were fantastic until one went wrong and then you’d have to try and battle with it. The A800s which, when they came out, everyone just went ‘Oh my God, this is a Rolls Royce’ but I’ve seen them spool in opposite directions, out of control: you’ve got a master with one motor spooling one way and the other going in to reverse and you can see the oxide coming off the tape and people would have to dive for them to switch them off. The basic thing always with a Studer was that it had a sound to it where you’d record drums on it and say ‘what happened to my drums?!’ they’d sound as if the wallop had gone out of them.
So it wasn’t doing enough to the sound in some ways, it was too neutral?
It was to do way the recording amplifiers were designed. People modified them, but it just wasn’t good. The MCI sounded much better, a bit crunchy but better. There was probably more noise with the MCI, but we always used Dolby A noise reduction because of that.
The only remix on that Night Dubbing that you didn’t do was Larry Levan’s remix of ‘Changes’. That mix also has its own classic status. His work on that seems to be a lesson in choosing the parts of the multitrack that go well together. There’s Leee John singing ‘I know you think you’ve got where you want me’ over a short, pulsed synthesizer sound with lots of delays on and it’s a striking moment in the record but it doesn’t sound anything like the rest of Night Dubbing.
Did you think of other remixes to put on there?
I think that was the only one that was available. It was hard, because there have been so many bad remixes done where they don’t work. It’s difficult because the essence was always driven from the bass, so when you take those elements away a lot of it doesn’t really work. I think people think that they can just take this stuff and remix it. Actually there’s a classic example of this, I can’t remember who did it: in order to cover up the joins on tape edits we used to put extra things on the multitrack: ends of sung lines etc. to mask the transition. Well someone did a remix and left all those bits in the remix, they didn’t even think about what they were doing! And you just think ‘these people shouldn’t be allowed to do remixes’. I’m happy when someone picks up my work and makes a good job of it but it’s quite tragic when they don’t because it’s like someone painting over your own work.
The tempi are very consistent within the tracks on Night Dubbing and the other Imagination records too. Were they sequenced or played to a click?
On the Imagination records the only sequencing was the Linn drum. Graham Jarvis, a session drummer who has since sadly died, played Body Talk. Then Errol Kennedy started to play drums and we also copied the drum parts from some songs and used them for other songs. The drums for So Good, So Right are sped up from Body Talk.
A lot of records from the disco era don’t have that same consistency of tempo. Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ is one that comes to mind.
Earth, Wind and Fire as well, they speed up, a lot of disco records get faster. We used a click on every track, even on something like Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ and if you didn’t do that then editing them later was a nightmare: you couldn’t move anything about because it was going to be at a different tempo. If you were to say ‘I love that bit at the end, let’s put it at the front’ then you would be stuffed and there was no way of manipulating the tempo. There was nothing like Serato’s Pitch and Time (which I think is the greatest thing ever invented) available back then.
Going back to the motivation for Night Dubbing, the record company wanted it because presumably there was a fallow period before Scandalous, which was released that Autumn? That was the final Imagination album that you were to produce.
Yes, Scandalous was a difficult album and the depression of what was going on, there were publishing arguments and litigation. It’s in the album, in the grooves. I’m struggling, there’s a DX7 all over that, the sound of it is spiky.
It does sound spiky, ‘State of Love’, the style of that is what I recall the magazines of the time were calling electro-pop or electro-soul. It’s a very different groove, it’s certainly not as laid back as ‘Body Talk’, but it’s a very sophisticated sounding record and some of the slower numbers, such as ‘Wrong in Love’….
… I love ‘Wrong in Love’! About two years ago I re-stretched it and sampled it and sped it up to be a dance track, because it really works. But finally I decided ‘no, I’ll leave it as it is’.
Scandalous was an album that was difficult. It was the timing of it, it was the pressure that we were under and the technology was changing. I borrowed Steve Levine’s DX7 and what I also used on that was a Quantec QRS, a digital surround reverb, which had a ‘freeze’ function. It was great, you could freeze a reverb and it would just hold it. I used it on ‘State of Love’. It was also used on ‘New Dimension’. We also used a Sony DRE2000 reverb, which was a stereo one. But nothing else other than the Quantec had a freeze function, it was brilliant. I used the DX7 a lot on the Alison Moyet album Alf. On ‘Love Resurrection’ I knew that there was a kind of Telecaster or Stratocaster strummed sound that I wanted. So basically what we did was we got the ‘down’ sound of it, which was sort of like a guitar, on the DX7. Then you’d get the echo repeat (via a delay) and we’d EQ that and flange it so that sounded different from the down-stroke.
So every time you play a note you know you’re going to get something a quaver later.
Yes, an up-stroke, so once you get into it you get something that starts to sound like a guitar. Alison actually said to me, when she was doing ‘Love Resurrection’ on Top of the Pops, Scritti Politti were next after her, they were all miming to it on their guitars so I thought ‘great! Maybe they all thought it was a guitar as well’.
They too were making some fantastic records around that time weren’t they?
Yes, unbelievable: Arif Mardin’s production.
Then they followed Cupid and Psyche ‘85 with Provision which wasn’t very successful. I don’t know whether you’d agree with this but Provision was almost a parallel of Scandalous in that it pushed the technology but it didn’t seem to take off from a sales point of view. The singles from Scandalous didn’t do nearly as well as those from the first two albums. I think ‘Looking At Midnight’ was 29; ‘New Dimension’ was 56. Was that behind the decision to stop working with them? You’d done four albums with them by then, three of original material.
We were tired. As I said, it was in the grooves. It was the same, but in the opposite sense, with the first album we did with Spandau Ballet, True, which was recorded in Compass Point in the Bahamas. The place is in the grooves: we’re all relaxed. But it was a bad time as we were in litigation with the record company, Red Bus. We were just tired and we thought it was time to move on. It just fizzled out, it was a shame. Leee John and I are still friends and we’ve done stuff not that long ago, including remastering the Imagination back catalogue for Sony.
Your success with Spandau Ballet came in the same year as Night Dubbing and Scandalous. In the last few months of 1982 you produced their album True, released in March of 1983. Both the album and the singles from it enjoyed great success in Europe and the United States.
The single, ‘True’, was my only UK number one. When it was recorded it was intended to just be an album track, not a single. When I was told it was going to be a single I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding, this thing is six and half minutes long! It’s an album track, it’s mixed as an album track, it sounds like an album track’.
Structurally, it’s a song where everything happens at the end: there’s a constant tease all the way through and then in the last chorus you get this instrumental play through of where it was going to go, it all unfolds.
Yes, but six and half minutes! So I put it through a Harrison desk that was in the smaller studio at Red Bus, compressed it with the DBX 160 and cut a minute out (which was a struggle).
Was there a single minute that you could take out, or was it a case of 20 seconds there, 20 second here?
There’s a technique that you use where you look at it like a haircut. You look at the intro: well that’s eight bars, can you get it down to four bars? If you imagine that section is in quarters, you would cut the middle two quarters. You keep going through like this: there are links at the end of the chorus, and then the instrumental. All of the Imagination stuff was recorded and mixed as 12” singles, and then the nightmare was cutting them down. It took me two days to cut ‘Just An Illusion’ down. The beginning of the final single version of ‘True’ is actually taken from the middle of the original track, with the drums muted. For the recent three disc Spandau Ballet anthology CD [released in 2003], Gary Kemp and I did a mix of ‘True’ as it was on the original multitrack so it’s got that different beginning. I’ve got the parts for it so we just did it in Pro Tools, but in that version you’ll hear how the beginning was originally intended. It’s listed on there as a new remix, but it was actually a reconstruction of the original version on tape. You’ll hear the difference in having the chorus at the front. Interestingly enough, that construction, the chorus at the front with the drums muted, is the thing that gets sampled by others.
Presumably you had to splice all of this [with tape]?
Yes. And then you’d got no overlaps: you might want to cut something but then you’ve got a piano that suddenly gets cut off, so then you’d have to lay that overhang into the multitrack.
Continually trying to shave bits off until you’ve got it down to the required length?
Yes, there was no cross-fading because there was nothing like Pro Tools to do it with.
So all of the edits have to be on a bass drum or some kind of percussive event?
Yes, and ‘True’ was put together literally in edits. Even though we had an automated desk I decided not to do it via automation. It was the early days of half-inch mastering and I decided to mix it in pieces: we’d get the intro, construct it by muting stuff etc., then elongating the strings and then there’s a cut there etc.. There are hard edits everywhere through that track.
Were you editing the multitrack?
No, the half-inch master that we were mixing to.
The resultant opening is very powerful, an example of ‘less is more’.
It’s another thing that I’ve used on a lot of records which I guess I learned first when doing the Imagination stuff, that was my first success: If you go through a track and you think ‘I love this bit’ or ‘I love this middle eight bit’ or ‘I love that bit where the synth drops out’ or whatever, then put it at the front. It immediately creates an identity for it and it sets it up, why wait three minutes for it?
There were a lot of vocal drop-ins on ‘True’ and then with ‘Gold’, when I came to mixing that it’s literally ‘thank you for coming…’ drop ‘…sorry the chairs are all worn…’ drop. I can remember, it’s still in my head because we were doing it through the night and we were all going mad. I think that’s down to care and correcting tuning where it needed correcting. The point is that myself and Steve [Jolley] were both musicians. There are records out there that I’ve heard where I think ‘whoever’s produced this is tone deaf!’ I couldn’t stand out of tune vocals. The vocal for ‘True’ took over a week to record. One time Colin Thurston was working with Duran Duran in the studio next door to us and Colin and I became friends. Simon Le Bon was really learning to sing at that time with Colin. It was a challenge when you’d got singers who were struggling. We had no Autotune then, we had a harmoniser with which you could tweak things a bit here and there but we had no constant control. (Sat nav and Autotune are the two other greatest inventions in my life!) So I came up with this double tracking thing, the Beatles would use something like a 27 ms delay, but I thought that you could sense that it was artificial. What I used to do on the 24 track was jack out the vocal into the harmoniser and change the pitch slightly and then bounce it to another track with the machine in record but winding the varispeed all over the place, so the varispeed was shifting the delay between the two voices. So the machine would be varispeeding all over the place: 30 ips down to 7 1?2 so it was fluttering and wowing and everything else, plus it was changing the delay all the time. When you played it back it sounded very close to a proper double track. Colin said, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ and in the same way I’d go into his room and say ‘how are you doing that?’ and that’s what happened, we used to exchange ideas because we were all struggling.
One thing that I used to do a lot and some people didn’t was riding the reverberation on vocals. I’d have my fingers on the reverb sends all of the time. I wouldn’t just leave it stationary, at the end of the lines you’d quickly turn it up and by doing that you’re keeping it alive. These days, people put their computers on, they’ve got the track in their digital audio workstation (DAW) and they don’t really do much when the mix is rendered, the DAW just goes ‘whoosh!’ and that’s it. Yet, there’s an interactive thing in doing, for example, live reverb rides in a real-time mix down. You’re sitting at an actual desk, whereas there’s no physical desk now. Some of the comedy times my engineer [Richard Lengyel] and I would have if we were alone mixing which we were most of the time: I’d go ‘right, you do those faders, I’ll do this, do that for the chorus, lift that at this point’ and then I’d make a mistake and I wouldn’t say anything and then I’d wait for him to make a mistake and say ‘oh for God’s sake Richard, come on!’ and he’d say ‘but, I saw you mess up the first chorus!’. The thing is though that you’re playing the mix.
There are some great mistakes in my records. For example we had no digital pre-delay so I used tape pre-delay, which is what people used to do, on ‘Body Talk’ it ran out so there’s pre-delay on the strings but then at the end they’re dry! Those things used to happen. I was working so much at that time that I’d hear it on my alarm-clock radio and I’d wake up going ‘God almighty! What’s going on with the echo on the strings?’. In ‘True’ where it goes ‘why can’t the truth be said?’ and then into the long reverb, that chorus has the hi-hat and the bass drum playing but the sidestick has disappeared, it’s muted by mistake. It’s just not there! Actually that did it a favour, what happens is that chorus sits down and then it picks up when it comes back in.
For the thirtieth anniversary of True Sky TV made a documentary. We got the multitrack from Metropolis Studios and pulled each of the parts up to have a listen. There’s this piece of gear called the Marshall Time Modulator. It did time wobbling, flanging and all manner of quirky effects – brilliant, absolutely brilliant. In the verse of ‘True’ there’s a piano with a sort of wow and flutter effect on it and that was done with the Marshall. We did it and printed it to tape out there [at Compass Point] I think.
There are quite a lot of modulation effects going on in Night Dubbing: pitch comes and goes and you get tape stops.
Well we probably used it on that as well.
There’s an extended mix of ‘I’ll Fly for You’, a track released as a single from Parade, Spandau Ballet’s second album with you. This ‘Glide mix’ appeared on the 12” vinyl release of the single, as the B-side, and on subsequent extended reissues of Parade. In terms of both style and technique it feels very much like a continuation of what you had done with Night Dubbing. There’s a tape stop effect that ends this mix. Is it actually a tape stop or is it a modulated delay that grinds to a halt?
It’s probably a tape stop because we got a bit obsessed with what we could do with the track, with the varispeed etc. We were doing everything that we shouldn’t have done. Did we do any backwards stuff on that?
I think there is, certainly some speeding and slowing down going on.
My Otari multitrack tape machine used to play backwards, that was the great thing about it; you could play the multitrack backwards without having to re-lace the tape on the machine.
You were involved in the Imagination ‘best of’ that was recently released by Sony. What was your input?
I wrote and produced a new track called ‘Art Of Love’ with Leee John. I actually remastered some key tracks a while ago due to many master copies for international use being made on badly aligned analogue machines with mis-tracking Dolby noise reduction, I decided to track down the original analogue masters and transfer them with some EQ enhancement to digital media. This was done some years ago and these digital masters have been re-sweetened recently.
As you’ve already touched on, the technology of the studio has changed dramatically over the thirty years since True and Night Dubbing
Recently my partner and I were working on track using Garage Band on the iPad which is an incredible piece of software. First of all I thought ‘this is amazing’ and then ‘oh no, it’s a toy’ and then ‘no, this is actually pretty amazing’. I started to write this song and because it’s eight track and restricted like that it has turned out in a completely different way. It turned out so well, I just transferred the audio into the main computer and we’ve used it. It’s amazing. The thing is it reminded me of having a Tascam eight track.
Well it’s almost back to the same constraints that you were under thirty years ago for a completely different reason.
Yeah, I think the new gadgets for recording have made us very lazy. When we used analogue equipment and went to the studio, if we were going to put a guitar down or anything like that, we’d get the guitar sound, we’d mic it up, DI or split it on an amp or whatever, decide what the balance of that was, usually because we were running out of tracks we couldn’t just say ‘let’s put a DI on that and put the mic on that one’, we’d get a sound, put compression on it, chorus it and lay it down. So when you come in in the morning and you put the tape on, pull the fader up, the sound is there as you want it. The important part of that is that that sound that you’ve got on the guitar is the tape saturation, the compression, the mixture of DI will influence the other parts: the way they sound, what you’re doing and all of that and you don’t up with this sort of infinite changing mush, which I’m guilty of, I do it: cut and paste, cut and paste.
It stops you and it makes you think, when you’re restricted like that. There are some brilliant records that have been made on eight track tape. Sometimes in my car I’ll put some jazz on or a compilation of some sixties stuff. And on the sixties stuff a lot of them have got split stereo so I just throw the balance and listen to, for example, the Hollies isolated and then listen to the drums. It’s fascinating, even for me who’s sat in a studio for thirty years, it’s really interesting to hear this stuff isolated. It’s quite eerie, it’s the only medium where you can get the multitrack and revisit it and it’s like isolated history, you can’t do that with film. You put the tape on and you can hear the person singing, hear their guitar part and it’s just frozen.
But analogue technology comes with its own set of stresses. The lack of an ‘undo’ button on tape recorders for example.
Oh, you haven’t lived until you’ve wiped a lead vocal! I remember when we got the Studer A800 multitrack machine the most annoying thing about it was that, whereas on all the other manufacturers’ remotes the safe, sync , play etc. controls were in groups of eight tracks, the idiots at Studer decided to do it rows of six. It used to throw us all the time! You’d realise ‘oh no! I’ve just dropped in on the lead vocal track’. It was one of the tape-operator’s jobs to leader-up a tape and if it was a master it would have to have line-up tones on it, 1 kHz, 10 kHz etc. so that they could line the machines up. Usually they’d be doing the tones afterwards , so there’d be leader, master, mixed master (stereo, no backup) and something would happen, like the phone would go, the tape-op would get distracted and it would go through the leader and wipe the master. That’s happened: I had somebody drop in to record on all twenty four tracks with line-up tones at the end of a groove track that I mixed for Street Sounds where all the ad-libbing was and it just stopped. I had to break it down and do it in edits and so it just went round and round; I played it to them and they said ‘where are all the great solos on the end’, I said ‘I didn’t like them’!
Good for you! You saved the tape-op’s bacon.
They looked at me but I couldn’t say that the tape-op had bloody wiped them! It was released actually and I think it was hit.
Myners, Neil. The Producers: Swain and Jolley. Produced by Magnum Opus Broadcasting. Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 7 May 2007. ‘TP’, ‘Tony Swain Biography’ at Internet Movie Database, undated, <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1788172/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm> (accessed 17th July 2014). Swain, Tony. Comment on ‘Tony Swain Producer Composer’ blog, 5th February 2013, < http://tonyswainproducer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/tony-swain-producer- composer.html?showComment=1360063648803#c5724806522905584155> (accessed 22nd July 2014).