Throughout the years, Nick Launay has worked with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, PiL, Gang of Four, Lou Reed, Kate Bush, Midnight Oil, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, INXS, Talking Heads/David Byrne, and The Band of Skulls. Here he discusses why raw sounding records take as much work as polished ones, why live albums require a different mixing approach — and why he prefers small drum rooms to big ones. And beyond all of that: the idea of capturing an enthusiastic performance.
You've worked with artists that produce themselves, like Kate Bush. Often an artist is too attached to the music to carry out the dual role. What does it take to make it work?
I think if the artist is established enough and have their finances in place, they can simply choose to produce their own album. The only other decision-maker would be the record company, depending on their participation. Whether they can actually succeed in doing so successfully depends on their understanding of the technologies, as well as the confidence to arrange their own songs. However, most talented artists know that they will benefit hugely from an outside opinion and perspective to bounce ideas off of, so they will usually choose someone who aesthetically has similar taste, or someone who has made albums they admire. Sometimes — as in the case of Kate Bush and her album The Dreaming — they will choose to have a good engineer who can get the sounds they'd like to hear on their album. Often, in my early days of record making, I would be hired solely as an engineer. But I ended up playing a larger role, regarding making decisions about arrangements and so on. So when the album was finished the artist kindly credited me as co-producer — Public Image Ltd. and Killing Joke, for example.
I remember a quote from you where, on a superficial technical level, one might say the bands like those two are not very good, but you'd found out they were great musicians.
I think there are two types of musicians: The first are the ones who go to school and learn how to technically play their chosen instrument. The second are the type that just feels music, and does the best they can with their instrument to express what they feel; learning along the way, and driven mostly by the mood they want to achieve. I prefer the second type. I find that musicians who have been taught the "proper way" tend not to experiment as much, because in the teaching they were given rules. Most great musicians that inspire us often don't know exactly what the chords they are playing are called. Much to my surprise and delight, I found even someone as famous for their skills as Eric Clapton didn't know what chords he was playing when asked by other musicians in the room. I think it's true to say that some people, like Johnny Marr and Warren Ellis, are born into this world with fantastic gifts and dexterity; and, with practice, their passion of music becomes extraordinary.
What constitutes a good producer?
To me, a good producer — of artists and bands who write their own material — is someone who, after listening intently to their demos, can then take the songs and transform them into the best and most engaging versions imaginable. At the same time, they can get the best performance the artist can perform at that point in their life, without losing any magic that may exist in the raw demos. A bad producer would be someone who fails to grasp the essence of what is good about a song. Or, if working with a band, ignores what's unique and special about the chemistry of that group of people, and imposes his or her ego onto their recording.
When you worked on Midnight Oil's Earth and Sun and Moon, the band changed to an "indie" type of sound, away from the polished '80s rock style of their hit records.
I think having made a few adventurous sounding albums with them in the early '80s —10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and Red Sails in the Sunset — and the band then making two very polished sounding albums after that — there was a strong feeling from us all to want to make something that sounded very raw, honest, and warm. It was more a decision based on sound, and involved just as much effort and production tricks to make it sound "raw" as a polished "produced" album. The equipment used, and way of getting there, is just different. For example, we did not use click tracks. We had the whole band play at once, capturing all instruments together without replacing anything in the basic backing tracks.
In contrast, The Swing by INXS — which you also mixed — sounds like a typical '80s record, with polished tones and digital reverbs of that era. Were you trying to create a cutting edge vibe back then?
I was very young — 22 — when I made that album and was completely driven by enthusiasm — as I still am. My aim, at the time, was to make an album that sounded fresh and different to anything I'd ever heard before. The truth is there were many producers trying to do that. We were all going out of our way to get our hands on the latest recording technologies. Looking back, many of those albums had similar sounds, because we were all receiving the few new gimmicks at the same time: the Eventide Harmonizer, AMS and Lexicon Reverbs, and [Yamaha] DX7s. This lead to what we now know as the '80s sound. With The Swing, musically we were all very influenced by our favorite bands at that time, Talking Heads and XTC. A lot of the '80s sound comes from the use of very primitive digital reverbs and digital delays, and in some cases the more advanced analog delays, which I still use to this day. The sound of that era was very much to do with the limitations and need to push what little outboard equipment we had into doing something spectacular.
You mixed the Animal Serenade live album by Lou Reed. The show was recorded on a DAT multitrack and, according to co-producer and bassist Fernando Saunders, the captured signals sounded a bit thin.
I'm very sad Lou passed away recently. I was very fortunate to spend time with him after he asked — ordered [laughs] — me to help him mix this album. My first conversation with him was when he woke me up at 6 a.m. one Sunday with some questions he needed answered immediately. It was like an inquisition. He was fascinated with technology and asked me, with his incredibly low, demanding voice, "What equipment are you going to use on my music?" He warned me before answering that there are two types of opinions, "Other people's," and "his," and he preferred to go with the latter! Apparently I answered satisfactorily to his taste, and was on my way to help with a smile. It's true the live recording was a bit thin, due to the low bit-rate digital format, but it was actually very well recorded. Lou quite liked elements of the sound of the rough live mix from the night, but it wasn't balanced well enough to release. I thickened and warmed a lot of the sounds, using various pieces of tube equipment that I could get my hands on. I also used a lot of vintage Roland Space Echo RE-301 on things. I like the way those are inconsistent. Distortion makes things sound more organic.
How does the process of mixing a live album differ from mixing a studio record?
Mixing a live concert album is very different from a normal album. The flow and continual feeling of being there in the audience is important, so I've found it best to get an overall sound for the whole gig, then go back and refine detail on each song, while keeping in mind what's coming next. I really wanted to create the illusion of being in the room on the night, paying particular attention to Lou's amazing voice and charisma. Lou was truly an amazing person, and a true innovator. I will miss him enormously.
Fernando also mentioned that on Animal Serenade, apart from using the main speakers of the studio, you used the Tivoli Model One radio speaker for mixing decisions.
Lou gave me a Tivoli AM/FM [mono] radio as a present. I had never heard of them before, and was amazed at the sound from such a tiny speaker. I often like to monitor through various different speakers, so I used it as an alternative to see how the balance could be improved. Lou was very into technology and inventions. It was a lovely gesture to give me a Tivoli as a gift; I still travel with it and use it often.
You seem to view rental equipment as an integral part of a studio production. What do you usually rent, say, for recording Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds?
Renting extra equipment from outside the studio depends very much on what equipment comes with the studio chosen. I usually choose the studio mostly based on its acoustics and vibe, but tend to prefer to use studios that have vintage Neve or API consoles. With recording a band like the Bad Seeds or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I find it very necessary to use mic preamps that can handle extreme dynamics, because these bands tend to play from very quietly to very loud at any given and unexpected moment, so I will often rent Neve 1081s and Urei compressors that can handle the extremes. I also rent an assortment of tube and ribbon mics. Mix-wise, these days I use a lot of plug-ins combined with unusual vintage external outboard equipment. I use a lot of tape echoes, like an Echoplex and Roland Space Echo; also Eventide harmonizers, Furman spring reverbs, and other characterful gear. I don't rent even an eighth of what I used to rent in the '80s. I still love the sound of analog effects best, but the truth is that with Pro Tools' plug-ins there are so many new possibilities that didn't exist before.
With Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, you're working with really fast creators. When is it good to actually take some time and let the material mature?
Nick Cave has set up a very unique, but deliberate, situation in that he's chosen to surround himself with very unique musicians, all of whom have a similar aesthetic. They can all go into the studio with very little rehearsal and just start playing the songs, which naturally develop into something pretty special within two or three takes. For example, with Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! the basic tracks took just four days, and overdubs took maybe another three days more. Same with the Grinderman [side project] records. Usually, if after three takes it's not sounding good, the song is scrapped or approached again another day with a completely different feel. I think the process of doing things very quickly keeps things fresh and very natural. Usually we will do the basic tracks with live vocals for a few days, then take a month or two off while they tour and I do some other album. We then return to the studio fresh and know exactly what we need to do to finish the record.
You've been working recently with Band of Skulls and Arcade Fire. It seems to me that they are sometimes mimicking the sound of their heroes in the '70s and '80s. How do you prevent a band from sounding like a retro version of something that was greater originally?
I think every band I've worked with is influenced by something, or someone; but there is also a natural want to not repeat what has been done before. I point it out to be discussed when things do sound a little bit too close to the influence. There is a big difference between mimicking because people don't have any fresh ideas, versus wearing your heart on your sleeve and doing things with admiration for the style of artists who've come before. I think the bands I work with have a tendency to be original, but want to capture a vibe that moved them in the past.
How do you encourage a band to dig up the energy and enthusiasm of their youth again when making a record?
I usually simply remind them that it has to be fun. I also ask them to think about the reason they chose to be musicians and form a band in the first place. To me, if it's not fun making the records we may as well not do it. I really believe you can feel the enthusiasm when you hear the music back.
When you're producing a band you go into the rehearsal room to work out the songs. What time span do you usually schedule for this part?
For an album of 12 songs I will usually go into rehearsal for up to two weeks. I think time spent in a rehearsal room, learning and arranging the songs, is time well spent; and it saves a lot of money that you would otherwise spend in the expensive recording studio. The usual process is that I will receive demos from the band, which I will make notes on. I will then go into the rehearsal studio with them and pull the songs apart, trying all my and their ideas, sometimes reconstructing them completely. At the end of the day, if the original arrangement feels better we will go back to that. It's more a case of using the rehearsal studio to be able to try every idea without pressure, or running up huge costs. We then go into the studio prepared, and all the band needs to do is concentrate on performance.
How do you set up a session? Do you take much time before the band arrives?
Yes, in some cases I do go into the studio a day before the band arrives in order to set up all the microphones and fold-back systems so the band isn't waiting around getting bored. I feel it's very important that the band come in relaxed and have fun making the record. Nothing is more boring than sitting around waiting for technicians to plug in cables. It makes people anxious and impatient, when all they want to do is play their instruments. I go to big extremes to make the sessions flow, and to gain momentum and enthusiasm.
For the Midnight Oil record 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, you recorded drums and cymbals separately. Your goal was getting a huge drum sound with lots of compression, but without the artifacts this would cause to the cymbals.
10, 9, 8... was recorded at Townhouse Studios' Studio 2 [in London], which had a very unusual stone recording room. It's not a huge room, but the floor and all the walls are made of a very hard rock, so everything played in it sounds very, very, loud and trashy — which is great for snare, kick, and toms. But cymbals sound unbearably harsh, to the point where it's unpleasant. So the only way to keep the bombastic room sound — which is truly a magical thing — is to record the drums without cymbals, and then overdub them later, in order to have control.
While the cymbals were left out, the hi-hat needed to be tracked right away.
The hi-hat is, of course, a very important part of creating a groove and so it needs to be played at the same time as the kick and snare. My solution for this was to make a sound-damping tent around the hi-hat by using microphone stands, blankets, and a lot of sticky tape. It looked quite ridiculous, but worked well.
What skill level does a drummer need to be able to pull that off?
The trick is to keep the drummer happy. Not telling them they cannot hit cymbals is actually very simple: remove the real cymbals and replace them with fake plastic ones that make no sound. These are available for a film and television work, or you can make your own by covering real cymbals with blankets. This way the drummer has something to hit when he feels the urge.
In contrast to many other recording engineers, you're quite fond of recording drums in smaller rooms.
I do prefer small live rooms to large ones. I find that with small rooms the slapback off the walls is very usable, because it's still in time enough with the groove to be able to place very loud in the mix. Whereas with large rooms, the slapback is simply too long and distracting, and therefore unusable. Also, if the room is too large it simply sounds like reverb, which to me is not as interesting as a small wood room with character.
Let's look at the communication with artists. How do you avoid misunderstandings, because everyone may be talking in his or her own terms?
I always found that when working with talented, creative people it's a huge benefit to listen to their ideas and find out what is going on in their crazy minds. It is their record after all. I find that in order to get my ideas through to them, with my impression of how I think their ideas could best be realized, it's important to communicate clearly. When things are explained clearly, it's much easier to get things done because everybody is on the same page, with the same goal. I've been very lucky, in my time, to have worked with some truly gifted, original, and eccentric artists. I do believe that one of the reasons they keep coming back to work with me is because I listen and communicate well. I feel it's very, very important, and respectful too!