Even among recording, mixing, and mastering engineers, Richard Dodd's career has been a unique one, covering many styles of music. His work began in the early '70s and continues today. In that time he's recorded hits like (Carl Douglas') "Kung Fu Fighting," and artists such as Tom Petty, Boz Scaggs, Stephane Grappelli, George Harrison, Clannad, Roy Orbison, Wilco, Green Day, Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton, Robert Plant, the Travelling Wilburys, Freddie Mercury, Placido Domingo, and the Dixie Chicks.
Back in 2010, F. Reid Shippen and I sat down with Richard at his studio on one of my visits to Nashville. We talked for far too long and this interview proved to be difficult to chop down to "print magazine length," so here it finally is!
LC: The first time I could find you on the radar you were working in London?
LC: Where were you before that?
My first studio was in Marble Arch, London; the West End of London. It was called Recorded Sound when I joined it. About a year later somebody else bought it and changed the name to Nova Sound. Then somebody else bought it and changed the name to Nova Suite.
LC: How'd you end up working in a studio? What led you to that?
School friends. I was in a band at school. One of my friends, Peter Coleman, got a job in London because his uncle was a manager at CBS Studios. So he got a job there as an assistant tape op. Another friend of mine, Ashley Howe, thought, "Well, if Peter can get a job in London in a studio, so can I." So he wrote to every studio. Called every studio. Got no replies. And then he decided to knock on the door of every studio. And he knocked on the door of Lansdowne Studio just as they had fired somebody. There literally was someone walking out the door. And he got the job! I had a job in British Aircraft Corporation as an electronics apprentice. So on Friday nights, I'd get on the train, go up to London, wait until his session would finish about two in the morning, and then grab the master tapes and just start mixing and stuff. It was real fun, because he was working with a band called Uriah Heep. We'd chop out all the guitar solos, copy them, and make one three-minute long guitar solo. Just to make it spicy we'd put some in backwards and learned to tape phase and stuff like that. We just made up our own little thing. After that, one of the engineers at Lansdowne was offered a job as a tape op at another studio, and he declined it because he was just about to be made up to engineer at Lansdowne, and he said, "But there's this assistant we've got who's got a friend who seems quite keen." So Ash called me at work and said to come up and have the interview. Peter and Ash gave me the answers to the two questions that needed to be answered, which were: What interests do you have, other than [recording]? And you go, "None." And what sort of music do you like? "Everything!" "So you're available to do anything, 24/7, 365 days of the year? You get the job!" So, I got the job. That was it.
LC: What was your first kind of responsibility?
This wouldn't be a part of a curriculum at any college: The first day was to find out the names of the people working there, where the different parts of the building were, and how to make tea and stuff. Second day was sitting in the session, not saying anything, and helping the tape op when he needed help. We then progressed through various sessions that week, watching different sorts of sessions, string sessions, tracking sessions, vocal sessions, and always helping, doing any errands. A week after I started, the function of my particular position was to be the autolocator on the tape machine, because they didn't have them. There were no clocks or anything, and people wanted to go back a verse, a bar, or whatever they wanted, and you had to get a feel for where you were in the tape on that particular song, and when to press stop after rewind to be there, and marking the tape with a piece of paper and all that sort of stuff. So that was my job. The next week I was doing that job. During that first week, I did my first punch-in on a master.
LC: Did it go okay?
Thankfully. If the first one doesn't work out too well, it also becomes your last one.
FRS: How was the punch-out?
Well, I don't recall there being one. I think it was just drop in for the second verse and keep on to the end or something like that. If you turn and say, "Well, I don't think I can do it," then you're history. You're no use. So that's within a week, you have the potential of ruining somebody's master.
LC: I don't think anyone popping fresh into a studio's going to even get the chance these days.
No, because there's undo now, anyway. We only had redo.
LC: So from there, you ended up being an engineer in studios in the London area, right, was it Marquee Studios?
I worked at Marquee, but I was already freelance by then. I had a meteoric rise, as it were. In that era, the major recording establishments (the most major really being EMI) would have a course that their engineers would follow before they'd be considered an engineer — balance engineers was the term. Before you were a balance engineer, you'd go through everything. You'd spend time in each of the types of studios, in mastering rooms, you'd be proficient at cutting a lacquer, and all that sorts of stuff before you even got your hands on driving a session. So it's a minimum of three years, typically four. The more independent studios would have a three-ish year period. "If you've been here three years and haven't screwed up too much, you can have a go if the appropriate client comes along." Mine was a very small independent studio, and it was a case of — I unconsciously engineered my way towards becoming an engineer. In retrospect (this wasn't thought about at the time), just by being the me I was then, I did some good things for people coming into the studio. We're talking the beginning of the '70s, and there weren't many women in the industry. And those who were, if they weren't the artists (if they were on the other side of the glass), were typically in advertising and jingles where they would be liaising with clients. Jingles were very much made by the arranger and not the producer. So you'd have a situation where you'd get a very well known arranger running the session, great musicians, and very often a female in the control room, taking the part of what we might call today the producer, and liaising between the engineer, the client, and the arranger. And usually the arranger would liaise with the engineer. On many occasions, it was a case of the guys wanting to show off, to be guys, and they'd give the woman a hard time.
They'd embarrass her, [like by saying], "Can you play along again with yourself?" "You want me to play with myself?" You know, so everyone would have a laugh, and eventually they'd concede that they knew what she meant. That wasn't the way I was brought up, so I thought (being green and naïve), "Why are they doing that?" I thought it was obvious what she wants, even to me sitting at the back of the room with my hands on a stop button. I knew what she wanted. It just so happened that the producer would sit just in front of the patchbay, and occasionally I'd have to go over and patch or check something. So, if I saw her struggling to communicate, I would go over to the patch bay and whisper what she wanted in her ear, so she could come out with the accepted terminology, in studio-speak, and that sort of calmed them down a little bit. She obviously never turned around and screwed me by saying. "Thank you." She knew what was going on. And I just thought. "Oh, it's good. She's a nice person anyway." I just kept doing it. One day I was coming out of the control room into reception, and there she was, booking another session. She was asking the girl doing the bookings if she had Tuesday morning or Wednesday morning of next week available to do a jingle. And the girl said, "I have both mornings available, but Mike's only available on Tuesday." Mike was the guy that does everything, the chief engineer. And she said, "Okay, well I'll have Wednesday." She said, "But Mike's not available. He's in the other room." And she said, "Oh, well that's okay, is Richard available?" And she says, "Yeah, Richard's available, but he's not an engineer." She goes, "Oh, it's okay, it's simple, it's just a piano and a vocal. He can do it." So I got my first session. And in continuation with that same client, she'd book me again, there'd be a rhythm section, and put the strings on. Following shortly afterwards, the studio decided to upgrade the gear. From one Neve console and an 8-track M23 (3M machine) we were going to go to 16-track, M56 (3M), and a new console.
The console was delivered on a Thursday. Friday was commissioning day. Monday was set aside for the engineers to familiarize themselves, and the first session was booked on Tuesday. That's the way that it worked. And the studio, being independently owned, got a booking for the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, for a film thing. And the chief engineer said, "You're crazy if you think I'm going to do a session before I even get a chance to touch the board. There's no way." So the studio manager said, "But the money...we're losing that much money! We'll let boy wonder do it." You know, because I had stolen one of his clients — acquired one of his clients. [laughter] So I thought, "Oh, shit." And the first thing I heard from the other assistant was, "I'm not working with him!" "So, okay, let me get this right. I can do my first actual session, on brand new gear, untried, without an assistant."
Hey, what's to lose, right? It was explained to me as simple, just a rhythm section and vocals, and that was it. It turned out it was a rhythm section, and it was drums, bass, guitar and piano, and the vocal. And it was wonderful. It was funny, the piano player I'd never seen before, it was the drummer's first week as a session drummer (not his first session, but his first week as a session drummer), and apparently the bass player and guitar player I'd seen before, but I didn't know particularly well. The piano player was very striking, because the way the studio was positioned, when I looked out of the control room, which was to my left, I'd be looking at the back of the piano player. And this guy had hair so long that when he sat down, he was almost sitting on the end of his hair. This was a real rocker, not a session guy. And the arranger, the late Stanley Myers, one of the nicest people, a genius. He was the guy that trained and taught and encouraged Hans Zimmer, and Hans was his assistant for a while. They did the first take of a song, and they seemed to all be deferring to this piano player. They stopped, and Stanley's checking for notes, or doing the Times crossword, or both, and it was just silent. Oh shit, you know? And then this piano player says, "What have you done to that fucking piano?" Oh shit. I remember saying something like, "Well, I did EQ it and compress it a bit. But I can take it off, if we do it again!" He goes, "No, no, no! That's the best piano sound I've ever heard." It probably wasn't, but you know, he was being really nice.
And the drummer, Barry De Souza it was, said, "Oh, the drums sound good as well. Yeah, good." Stanley just smiles. We do the session, get through about five or six o'clock, get everything down, and he said, "So, tomorrow then, strings and brass? Some more vocals, and we'll mix it." What?! So we did strings and brass the next day and some other bits, and we mixed it all. So of course on Monday, my chief engineer said, "So, how'd it go?" So I played it to him. And he said, "You're joking, you didn't do that." [laughter] Yeah I did. And that piano player was Rick Wakeman!
LC: I was kind of guessing that, with the hair!
FRS: How old were you?
Eighteen. I wasn't officially an engineer by then, so I was on twelve pounds a week, which with the exchange rate at that time would have been about 30 or 35 bucks a week. It cost me four pounds, ten shillings, and sixpence, which is four and a half pounds, just for train fare to get back and forth to work. So there's no money left over, but it was okay, because I was always working anyway, so I had no time to spend any money.
LC: Were you living at your folks' house at this time?
Yeah. I gave them a couple quid a week towards my board, and then taxes come out of that 12 quid, so I think I might have had a pound a week left over.
LC: So you started engineering, but they were paying you as if you were just an assistant?
Oh yeah. I was being paid from 9:30 in the morning 'till 6 at night, and from 9:30 'till 1 on Saturday. So it was a 42 and a half hour week the way it was for 12 pounds. And then you'd do it from 6 'till 9 during Monday to Friday. That was overtime, you'd get paid your hourly rate. From 9 'till midnight, you'd get time-and-a-half. Midnight on was double-time. If you worked past midnight, you were eligible for a cab fare, up to a maximum of half of what it would cost me to get home. Saturday you were being paid until 1 regular time. From 1 until midnight was time-and-a-half. After midnight was double-time. Sunday was double-time all day. I loved Sundays.
LC: Yeah, right.
Sundays were great. But that change of ownership while I was still officially an assistant, not yet an engineer, the change of ownership brought yet another incredible thing for me, because the new owners had a production company, and producers, and the need for studio time. But they also had to finance the studio. So they had an arrangement that 10 'till 6, the studio was independent of the owners. Six o'clock until 11 o'clock was for their in-house producers to make use of the studio. And it would be 7 o'clock mostly, because at 6 o'clock the session would end and have to be stripped down and stuff, so they'd kind of get 7 'till 11, four hours a night, where they could do their in-house productions. At the same time as that started, they brought in another engineer from Advision, and I didn't like him. He was a real asshole. I'd been in business six months now, and I'd also been told by the previous chief engineer to not ask questions. Just watch, do as you're told, don't ask questions. So I get to do a session with this new engineer, and he told me to do something, and I didn't know how to do it. He goes, "How come you don't know that? How long have you been doing this?" I said, "Nearly six months." He says, "Six months, and you don't know how to do that?"
LC: Oh man.
I don't remember what he wanted me to do, but he wanted me to do something that was pretty out there. And he said, "That's crazy." There were clients there as well. He had a sort of persona where he loved to put people down. He was a little guy, a lot of the Napoleon complex going on, and he was also very talented (good at what he did anyway), but he also loved to really put the shit on his assistants. So, I bore the brunt of that. Afterwards he said, "Don't you want to learn? What are you doing this for? You haven't asked one question." I said, "I've been told not to ask questions." He said, "Well that's stupid." So I was like, oh, good, I can ask questions. And every time I'd ask he'd say, "Don't ask stupid questions!" You know, "Don't bother me now!" He did me the best favor ever. I hated his guts. I really hated him, and I was determined to come back at him somehow. I obviously couldn't do it from an ability point of view, because he had that covered.
So, I just tried harder to learn. I learned him first. And I was very fortunate that I learned early on that he was a guy of habits and routines. So that was pretty cool. The things he did were great, but he would always do the same thing — very predictable. So it got to a stage where he'd say, "I need a..." and I'd say, "It's ready for you," or "Patch me a..." and I'd say, "It's done." While he and the producer were deciding about what to do, I'd be listening in, and I'd form the conclusion that they were going to come to in a couple of minutes, and I'd already be on it. I'd have that.
FRS: The hallmark of a great assistant.
LC: That's true.
I was a really good assistant. So that brought us up to the time where he, the guy I didn't like, was now the engineer doing the in-house productions. He quickly did a deal with the producers, because there's never enough time to produce anything. So, he would work from 6 or 7, whenever they started, until about 8-ish, when everybody else had gone and cleared up for the day, and then I would take over.
LC: So he could leave, but would say he was there.
He'd leave, and I'd sign the job sheet, and his overtime would go until 11, when the session had to end. He said the session didn't end. The session had to end before the cleaners came in, and the cleaners came in between 3 and 4 a.m. So every session went 'till about 3 in the morning. So I was engineering from 8 o'clock at night until 3 in the morning. The sole engineer, no assistant, doing whatever came. We had some fun stuff come in and some crazy people. As long as we were out (because I was the one who had to lock up and everything, get the alarm set) before the cleaners came in, we were cool. And so that's what I did. However, because I only worked until 11, I was expected in at 9:30, regardless of whether I had a session or not.
LC: Oh my god.
And I had a 30-mile journey by public transport, which if it went well took an hour and ten minutes to get home and back in again. So, of the available six and a half hours, two and a half to three of them would be in transit. So I'd get three hours, enough to go home, get your head down, wash, get a change of clothes, and get back again. And I couldn't sleep there because of the cleaners. So sometimes I'd go to Lansdowne where Ashley was, and he'd be finishing legitimately about that time, and his cab fare went on the client's bill, and they paid it all the way home. So I'd go and hang out with him until he finished, and we'd get a cab, sleep in the cab, right to the door. Sometimes the cab driver (we got to use the same guy every night if we could) would wait for us, and bring us in the next day, because we've got to be back again, you know get on the 7 or 8 o'clock train. He said, "Eh, shit, I'll sleep in the station. Just come to the station, and I'll drive you in for free." So that was cool. And I just got so much experience.
LC: At that point, the projects that the production company was doing, the later night projects, were they album projects or were they for commercials and film use and stuff?
No, they were artist projects. None of them ever saw the light of day. It wasn't a successful...
LC: So they were kind of speculating on pop stardom?
Absolutely. Exactly. That's what it was. It was fun.
LC: A good experience?
It was a fantastic experience. Absolutely brilliant. Priceless. I mean, I'm working behind people that know what they're doing during the day, whether I like them or not, getting all those sessions, typical session guys, the cream of the crop, in and out all day. And then you get the newbies, and learning how to record somebody that doesn't know what to do. As you know, when you put a real musician in front of a microphone, most of your work's done!
LC: That's true.
You put an idiot there, and you've got a hard job on your hands. You've got to educate and compensate and all that sort of stuff. So that's the deal there. It's fun. It was incredible fun. In my first week, my very first session I was on was an artist called Atomic Rooster. And that was a weird setup. Vincent Crane was the organist, and he'd have this huge overcoat on. He had live kittens in his pockets, living in his coat while we're making the record. [laughter] So day one, it started at 4 o'clock. It was booked 4 'till midnight, and I was already there since 9:30, so it was no problem. They said if you're booked on a long continuous session like that that's open-ended, you were required to be there an hour before the start time. So, the next day I come in at 3 o'clock, and there's like these kittens on the floor looking at me, and I'm like what's up? Well they changed it to a 2 o'clock start. "You're an hour late, at least two hours late really. You should have been here at 1 o'clock."
LC: Right, how are you supposed to know?
Exactly. I didn't have a phone or anything. So it was a big meeting, I went into the session, did the session, the other guy came out, I went in and took over. I came in the next day, and before I started the third day, it was like, "Okay. That was your only chance. That was it. If you're ever late again, don't even bother turning up. You're fired. If you even think you're going to be late, you're fired."
FRS: This is fascinating because the engineers weren't talent. They were employees.
Oh, you're part of the gear! They think you're all 19 inches wide, you know? You're just part of the studio, a commodity to be used. So, which was a great thing for me, because when I got away with making this mistake, and I said, "How do I know?" They said, "You look in the book." It was a bit of a gray area, because they finished the session and said, "Let's start earlier tomorrow." But they didn't tell me. But they did write it in the book, so that when the people came in, they'd know. I apparently, before I leave, being the last person to leave, having worked there, having the keys, after I'd dragged a number of 2-inch, 16-track tapes across the street, down the steps, into the basement vault, in the middle of West End at whatever hour in the morning. After I've done that and come back, and done a quick tidy-up, I'm meant to look in the book. So I learned that. I always looked in the book. And I was never, ever late. Ever. In fact, I would make sure I was an hour before the hour before. That became my mentality. If I knew there was a possibility of me working, there's no way I'd be late.
LC: It's not a good feeling, or a good quality.
It's not. I actually became chief engineer at that studio a year or so later, and I had a little car, and I'd drive in. The little car decided to seize up on me one day. I'm driving in, and it's a full, all at once, rhythm section, brass, strings, backing vocals, all at once, and I'm the engineer, and it's a 10 o'clock start. I'm on what you would call the motorway on the side, with smoke coming out of the engine, a seized-up engine, no one's stopping, and it's an hour before downbeat. I walked and I thumbed and I eventually got to where there was a bus. I got on the bus that was vaguely heading in that direction, and it's like 20 minutes to 10. Then I got a cab, and I told the cab driver where I've got to be in 20 minutes, and he said, "Can't do it." And I said, "I'll give you double if we can." So, at 9:59, I walked through the door, walked into the control room, and sat in my chair. By 10:25 we're listening to the first playback. By then, I had an assistant.
FRS: So he set the mics up?
I set up the night before, because it was a big thing. It wasn't allowed, but I did it. Just like someone was tapping on the shoulder saying, "You could have a life lesson tomorrow. You better set this up." And I had it all written out as well, so musicians were there all set up, and thankfully the assistant had put the mics where I typically probably had them, and I was good.
LC: In a session like that when you're working on the 16-track, how many inputs did you have on the console, and were you sub-mixing some stuff, like drums or things?
Well, to tracks, but not prior to the console. You'd have a bass drum mic, snare drum mic, hi-hat mic, an overhead mic, and if you could afford the mics, you'd have tom-tom mics. Typically session players only come with two tom-toms, and then you'd have bass. I think the console was a 28-in. I don't think we had 28 mics. Not working at any one time, anyway, so then it'd be routed to some of the various 16-tracks. You'd need overdubs, at least a couple [tracks] left over. So if you thought you had a lot of room, drums were typically on three tracks, stereo of everything, and then a kick. If not, it'd be two tracks, sometimes with a tambourine mixed in as well, and the bass.
LC: Where were you learning? Were you doing research or looking for information to learn more?
That sounds like such a good idea, but at the time your source for information for research would have been the library, and I don't know that there were any "How to Record" books. No. Probably in America there was, but not in England. I can only learn by doing. You just watch people that either knew they helped me or didn't know they helped me. I'd get to visit other studios occasionally, unofficially, like Lansdowne Studio, which had Adrian Kerridge. Adrian did Dave Clark, Acker Bilk, and Miles Davis. He's a really good engineer, I mean really good. Adrian could also bullshit the client really good. Adrian would be able to foster that relationship and get them to do more work. They also had John Mackswith — he's probably the best engineer. Ever. Genius. He would do things that you don't hear of until years later. He'd been doing it for ages. Like window editing and stuff. He didn't think anything of it. He'd just do it. Edits like that.
LC: That's crazy. Were your friends still working at other studios while you were working there?
Pete was working at CBS, and then he went to an independent studio called Audio International. He hooked up with a client that I'd been doing as well, Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, and just as they were starting, the first hit with Sweet, called "Funny Funny." Mike did most of that, and I was the assistant on that. And then I think the next hit they had was "Co-Co," and I was the engineer on that, and then everything else they did at Audio International with Pete. Pete was a great source of knowledge, and the studio he worked at was run by Richard Millard, another very clever person. Different skill set, but very, very clever. It was all about service to the client in the studio, and he had it down. He could change (because we were in transition), from a 16-track session to a 24-track session, and back again, on one machine, in 5 minutes.
Well, the how was the Studer A80. He realized that the presets for aligning everything were front panel plug-out cards. The pots were in a little card that hooked onto the card that held the electronics. So he bought 16 extra sets. And a head block change on a Studer is a piece of cake! Change the top 16 cards, and you're 16-track. Change 'em back. We'd stop the clock and he'd check the alignment to prove that he was right. Yeah, he got it down in five minutes.
LC: When people talk about you, one of the things that comes up is your manner. Your temper in the studio and your work with people is something people directly mention when your name comes up.
In a good way I hope! Traditional British/English working-class upbringing. You know, everybody's more important than you. And women are at the top of that list. You're as polite as you can possibly be, and you're as helpful as you can possibly be, you put everybody before yourself, and you give a 110 percent for 90 percent return, if you're lucky. It's all about that. That was the upbringing I had, anyway. And that explains some of the earlier stuff. It was so weird for them to be making fun of this lady. I mean, given that she was in her 20s. It's not like she's sort of that worldly.
LC: You did a Matching Mole record in that era, and that's probably not something somebody will ask you much about these days, but do you know about that? Robert Wyatt from Soft Machine? A fantastic talent.
Not that I can recall the session, but elements of it I can recall — the first time I saw somebody with the top off of an electric piano, touching the bit that's hidden. It's like, "What's he doing?" Bending the notes! I was like, "This guy, what's he doing? Is he fixing it? Is it broken?" And Echoplexes, and it was just like, "Can you do that?" He's got guitar pedals on a piano. "Can you do that?" So you learn. Eventually you get to the stage where we're at now where input and output are suggestions. Anything's possible! That's what makes a lot of the older things so incredible, is what was achieved with what was available, thanks to The Beatles (and obviously a few others), the things that could be created by what you had. And now it's a plug-in. There's a plug-in for that, you know? There's an app for that. It was really amazing what we did. Incredible.
LC: You had to be ingenious.
Yeah, and another personal trait I had, being insecure just by virtue of being young and being surrounded by people that I obviously knew or thought were a lot better than I, I assumed when somebody said "Can we..." that the answer was, "Yes," and I'd better know how to do it. You know, if they've mentioned it, then that means someone's done it. Shit. I have this ability to work things out. The number of things I've invented or created that I didn't know already existed is incredible! I'm finding out what they meant was, they were in like some sort of spatial thing where anything is possible, no they can't do it, and I'm immediately, "How am I going to do this?" And nine times out of ten, we do it!
LC: Do you find yourself in this day and age still trying to solve problems in that fashion instead of sort of quick fixes with a plug-in, per se?
If something needs to be fixed quickly, I'll use the quickest way of fixing it. I do tend to probably still harbor that instinct, but I'm rational and realistic enough to realize that if something needs to be adjusted, modified, fixed, changed, whatever it needs to be, and it can be done to my standard using this, and that's there and working, then that's what I'll use. I won't run around the block plugging everything in because I can, unless it's going to be noticeably better. But then I'll do it. I'll go around the world to make it noticeably better if it's in the budget, time-wise or financially — but other than that, no. Get on with the next thing. The next thing's the most interesting thing. That was fun. Next.
LC: Solving problems?
I love solving problems.
FRS: Speaking of that, does the insecurity ever go away?
No. Nope. A level of acceptance develops. It's subdued. I've been on the receiving end of lots of compliments and awards and stuff, and they tend to temporarily subdue, but then the next session comes up, and it's like, "Oh shit, what's this gonna sound like?" My wife was pointing out that while I was a moderator for Gearslutz for a short period, she said, "You're telling everybody all your secrets! What are you doing?" And I said, "Look, it makes no difference. I could listen to what I just said and try it tomorrow and it may not work!" It just doesn't work that way. This is what happened. It's not what will happen. You just don't know. And that's the best bit about it. There are a few musicians, of course, that you can bring into pretty much any scenario, and you're going to get a great result, sonically and performance-wise, because they usually go hand and glove. But using all the methods I employ on a great musician on a great project with an idiot all bets are off. You're going to have to adapt to the ability of the person you're recording and what you're given. That's the deal we're in. I laugh at these "What's your vocal chain for so-and-so." Well...
LC: I mean you see that on a forum like Gearslutz all the time, those "magic" answers...
You do! And those forums, those forums are great. I must admit. There's a specific time when you need an answer to a question that can be answered, and that's where they're brilliant.
LC: So how did your career progress from the original studio? How did you end up in the States?
From there, around about '75, '76, my clients wanted to be 24-track. We were still 16-track. So I was going to other studios for some projects, and once I'd left and gone 24 I couldn't come back, I had to finish it somewhere else, and so the studio manager was saying, "Richard, you shouldn't be going to these other studios and working," and I said, "Well, you're not 24-track." Then the other people working at the studio were saying, "Unless you get a 24-track, we're going. We can't work here, we're not up to the standard of every other studio." I was chief engineer, so I was pushed to the meeting. We want 24-track or we're all leaving. And he said, "Actually, Richard, I think you'll find that you're leaving. Because I think if I ask any one of them if they'll actually leave, they'll say no."
LC: Oh, wow.
So I said, "Well, okay then, I'll go freelance, and I'll leave." So I left, and I went freelance. It must have been '76, because Gerry Bron had built a studio, Roundhouse Studios, and my friend I mentioned earlier, Ashley, left Lansdowne to work with another engineer, Peter Gallen, to be the engineers at this new studio, state-of-the art, CADAC, four speakers for quad and everything. I was being interviewed to be another engineer there by Gerry Bron. He said, "Well, you know, we'd love to have you, you've done all these great records, number one's and you'd be perfect for our new studio. We've got the best studio in the world." Which meant Studer and CADAC and his — that made it the best. He said, "So it's just a matter of money. What are you getting now, 55 a week? I'll make it 60." And I said, "Well, that's not enough." And he said, "Well, what were you expecting?" I said, "Well, 60 quid a day." "No engineer gets that! That's like five pounds an hour. Who do you think you are?" And I said, "Well, someone told me Glyn Johns was getting twelve guineas." A guinea was like five percent more than a pound. So, he said, "Well, you're not Glyn Johns." I said, "I know, but I'm worth at least half." Not that I ever was, but in my mind I was. So he said, "Well, how can I give you that money and not give it to everybody else?" I said, "You can give it to everybody else, I don't mind." He said, "I wouldn't be making any money in the studio if I paid you that much." So he said, "Well, thank you for coming in, carry on with your dream, but you'll never get that money." Okay. The very first session at the Roundhouse, the engineer was paid five pounds an hour.
LC: Really? How did that happen?
I came there as freelance. [laughter] Up yours, Gerry Bron. So, I did that, and I had some of my older clients, the ones with the most success, chart success, who wanted to keep me as their engineer. You know, they wanted to keep all the money, so I had discounts for my favorite people, 20 percent, so I was working for 4 pounds an hour really, most of the time. The best influence in my career was Del Newman, arranger/producer. He was by far the biggest influence on me, just by talking to me. He knew all about music. He was a music teacher as well as an arranger and a player, and all these big people were going to do string arrangements, and he's producing stuff, but he didn't know anything technically about recording. And I was the exact opposite of that. I thought I knew everything about recording, but I certainly knew nothing about music.
LC: Have you ever played music?
Yeah, just in a band at school. But it's just like "get the job done." It's not knowing what you're doing — it's just doing it, like the equivalent of driving a car but not knowing anything about the engine. So I had the ability to make it sound like music, but I knew nothing about music, really, to any significant level. When we were mixing something, Del said, "We use the echo," (reverb was typically referred to as echo) "but what does it really do?" And I'm thinking, "Makes it sound like it's got echo on it." He said, "No, Richard, what I'm asking you is what's it doing to the sound? What's the difference between a lot and a little bit? Long echo and short echo?" You know, one's right, the rest are not. And, he said, "Well, let's try it." So we had a song with a cross stick on it, and we started to just listen to a cross stick in reverb. You know, I'd been doing the job for a couple of years, using reverb for years, but never actually thought about it. Just doing it. So you get to hear, "Oh shit, it does make a difference. It's a different sound. It's not just more reverb." He said, "Now you're learning the sound of the sound, Richard." What? He said, "It's not the sound that matters. It's the sound of the sound." Right. You know. I knew he liked those funny cigarettes, but that was going a bit far. He said, "Just like, it's the notes of the music. It's the spaces between the notes that make it special. It's what you don't play that has the biggest impact." Wow, this guy's nuts! I didn't realize he was a genius, just so way above my pay grade. He would be patient enough with me to put up with my ignorance, because I was good to work with, probably, and I did my job all right as far as the technical side. I think he kind of, without telling me, or making me feel like it, he obviously mentored me — to take those rare opportunities where he saw a little light on, and try to fan the flame, you know?
LC: I mean, you can teach anyone to engineer, to go in and put mics up and record.
Of course you can.
LC: But to take that further step, to be able to really get exemplary sounds to fit the material, to understand that less is more, and how to sculpt things that fit together better, I mean it takes a lot more thought and a lot more passion than just being there.
It does. I'm surprised — I've asked every student I've come across, "What's your first lesson when you go to college?" And it's not the same lesson, wherever they go, and it doesn't start with morning prayer, or anything, which should be "Do no harm." You know, just like the Hippocratic Oath. Rule number one: Do no harm. Rule number two: Get out of the way of a good sound. You know? You can take credit for it, but don't do something to it so you can take the credit for it. What you're alluding to is that thing that can't be taught. It can be learned, some of it, but it can't be taught, and that's the thing. In the whole school of learning thing, week number one isn't the boot camp thing that it should be, you know? "You are never gonna make it in this business. Here's your money back, less this week. Bye bye." Right? That should be week number one. Sort out the dross, and the people that just cannot make it. And then, god bless them, somebody's gonna leave there, they're gonna get their pink slip or whatever you say, and they're gonna say, "Fuck you, I'm gonna do it!" And that's gonna be the best thing that happened to them, because they are going to do it. It's gonna give them a kick up the ass, and it's gonna make them really passionate, you know? That's what it needs. It needs that filter.
LC: You went freelance, and jobs were coming from previous clients I assume?
Yup. Like everything else, you associate with success, and everybody wants some of it.
LC: What were Del Newman string sessions like?
He loved a certain sound. Again, I got lucky, partly because of ignorance. There's the standard, accepted way of recording strings. I didn't know it! My strings were like — a big section would be eight, three, and three. That would be a big section, typically, for all the clients. There are other people recording bigger sessions, orchestral-sized string setups, and there's a way of doing it, a very good way of doing it, but I didn't know it. So Del Newman booked this session, and there was only just enough room in the studio to fit the people, let alone arrange them in a classical fashion. He said to me before the session, "How are we gonna set this up?" I said, "Well, how would you like it set up?" Now, he certainly wasn't ignorant of the way it's normally done. I suspect he may have just been taking a gamble, and he said, "Well, what I would like is to have firsts, seconds, violas, cellos, and the basses, instead of the traditional, which is high-to-low, left-to-right." So fine, okay. And he said, "I would like a microphone between every two players." Fine, okay. Then it would be section mic, section mic, section mic, section mic, rooms. Okay, so I've got 16 mics up for 32 people. He said, "When it comes to recording them," (because it's down to two tracks, typically) "I want them as I'm seeing them. I want A's, B's, violas, cellos, bases, and if we've got five tracks, put them on a track on their own. I like to hear the air. I want to hear the air, okay?" Violin, microphone, okay. The room is about 40 by 20, with 10 foot ceilings. And so, we do it and just a little bit of reverb. And because he's good and he gives the leads to the violas and the seconds get the leads a lot, makes them very feel-good; really he gets everybody on his side. You get the reward. So there I am, this little kid, in the control room, with these great English string players. I was lucky. I've always been there for the best. So you've got these great players, Neumann microphones, Neve console, but more important than that, something worth playing. There it is. It just sounds like heaven. It's heaven, and it's the universe, all in one.
LC: It seems like it's going to bring them much more forward than if you just had a stereo pair.
Yeah, you can hear all of them, in a different way. They aren't making to quote Del, "the sound of the sound." They're all creating their own sound, and we're bringing them together. He makes them sound more than they are and sometimes deliberately makes them sound small. Anyways, he's absolutely brilliant, and it's this fantastic thing. The only other thing that ever went wrong would be someone would stand on a cable that was just about to go, and it went, or they're making the beds, because there was a hotel above. The hotel was just about the whole upper block of this block in West End, and the ground level was a car park and little odd corner shop and everything, and the studio below it, and we'd hear them making the beds sometimes. But it was just incredible. A great experience! All these players and just have fantastic times with all that. The biggest section we had in there was 36.
LC: Pretty full.
Pretty full and hot, 'cause no air conditioning. They had ventilation, but in the city in the summer, hot times.
FRS: Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting."
LC: Oh yeah. What year was that?
LC: That was a huge hit. That's a ridiculous song, obviously. Who was producing that?
Biddu Appaiah. He was Indian, tall, good-looking guy, talented, and long black hair. Very talented, very business-savvy, and he knew how to get every penny out of everyone that worked for him. But, if you did a deal with him, he kept his deal. He wasn't a shark. He was shrewd.
LC: That's a big difference there.
Big difference. I liked him, and we had fun. We did all this shit, had a few number one successes. I just got to do so much work with great people. From Biddu, I got to work with the late Gerry Shury, an absolute genius, and a sweet heart. A great arranger. He was like a bubble of love, just a lovely man, and really talented and unassuming, just dripping with natural ability. And he was so nice to be around. Of course that affected everybody else. So they were great sessions. I think he used me because I was cheap. I came with the studio.
LC: This was while you were still at Marquee?
Yeah, I think we first worked together in like '72 when I was first becoming an engineer. I think the studio may have been a bit cheaper with me as the engineer.
LC: How did you end up in the states?
What happened was I'd come to America for projects, and I'd be spending weeks or months here on a project. Then the friend I had mentioned earlier, Peter Coleman with the Sweet and Mike Chapman stuff, moved to America and lived in L.A., so I'd come see him a lot. When his kids were starting to grow up, he moved to Nashville, as a nicer environment to bring up kids, and to kickstart, I think, his career. I came to visit him, and I was introduced to the lady that's now my wife, Carolyn. We got married, and as I was traveling anyway for work, I thought I might as well — if I lived here, Nashville, I'm two hours away from everything. It's two hours travel time to New York, and two hours time difference to L.A. So it's cool. And I was traveling anyway, so why not leave the family set up here? I was doing more work in America, much more than I was in England. Then we had a daughter, and I discovered what it was like to be a parent. I liked it, and I decided I didn't like the idea of traveling so much. So I made a conscious decision to only travel for the important clients that wouldn't travel to me. I started eventually setting up shop here. Not doing country or anything, not doing anything that Nashville's typically known for. I do outside, peripheral stuff, and that's it. I got to a stage to where I could work more from here than have to travel, and now I don't travel at all.
LC: What year did you end up moving to Nashville and getting married?
I moved here in '91, got married in '92, and built the studio in '96.
LC: So what was happening up until that? You said you were traveling for work?
I was working a lot with Jeff Lynne in England and the United States. I got my green card before I got married. I did actually, in '91 then got married in '92, and so I was officially allowed to work. I've been a permanent resident here since '91. That's what I meant by "moved here." But I was spending a lot of time here from the late '80s, with the Wilburys.
LC: So at that point you were kind of commuting? Because I thought you lived in L.A.
The longest period I've ever spent in L.A. There's some lovely people in L.A., but I don't like L.A. Everything's too far away, time-wise. It's just...
I haven't got the patience for it. If I'm going to do a long day, I like it to be in the studio. I don't like it to be in the car. And it just gets longer. It doesn't get shorter. Those commutes get longer. And I see no virtue in going to L.A. and working in a house. It doesn't do it for me. Your time off is nice, because you can sit by the pool, and it's pretty much going to be nice weather, if you can breathe. But going out anywhere... "Let's go out for dinner." Okay, that's four hours if you want to go out to dinner for an hour. And if you make a mistake en route and get stuck on the 405, if you're stupid enough to do that, that's it, your day's gone, you don't even get to eat. It's the climate that's the only reason to be there, and your friends. But other than that...
LC: So at the time, when you were doing things like Tom Petty, the Traveling Wilburys, and Del Shannon, were you just staying somewhere temporarily while you were out there?
Yeah, Oakwood Apartments, usually. Ironically, you asked about when I moved here. I had just decided that L.A. was the place, business-wise, for me to be, so I put a deposit on a three-bedroom condo in a gated community. I think it was Thousand Oaks or something like that. It was non-refundable, and then I met Carolyn, so I lost some money. But it was worth it.
LC: Some things are worth more than money.
Absolutely. It's just not for me. I'm really torn, because I understand it for everybody else, but it's just not for me. Just like Manhattan. I can't stand it. I spent my youth in London. That's about as close as you're going to get to Manhattan, the West End of London. It was great. I loved all that. Single, too much money, not enough time to spend it, it's great, so you go out and you blow it all on fantastic restaurants, it's brilliant! Married with children is different. It's better, but it's different. You know, so this place, this is perfect for me. Absolutely perfect. I actually live in Brentwood, but I love the idea of living in Nashville, south of Nashville. It's fantastic.
LC: So you got this room together in '96? Was someone else working out of here?
No. This was rented to the grandson of Hank Williams, Hank III. This level we're at now was down at ground level, none of the windows and stuff, but yeah, that was it, all just eight-foot ceilings. It's really cool. I built it to record Joey Tempest from the band Europe. He was doing a solo record [Azalea Place], and I was picked to produce it. The budget was good enough that we could do whatever we wanted. I was renting the front half of Treasure Isle, two doors down. I was driving in one day and saw a lady was hammering a "For Sale By Owner" sign, so I made a note of the telephone number and called her. She answered the phone, and I couldn't believe it. I thought maybe she lived here. She actually lived a few doors down. Her and her husband had bought this row of houses as an investment way back, and so she was gradually selling them off. She didn't really want to budge on the price, and it was a bit high. But I thought what the hell, because I loved the location, so I bought it, and then proceeded to convert it for this job. The job was going to start in September. She sold it in June. I took possession of it in July, and in middle/late September I had the red light on recording. I had a new version of the console I was already using in the crate, hadn't started it, but it's a Soundcraft DC2020. I had the 2000 before, and it's one of the things I love about the Soundcraft, you just plug it in, and it's gonna work. Very little maintenance. It's all moving-fader automation, and even the mechanics — the only thing that has been really bad is the internal hard drive for the computer, they were crapping out like crazy, so a couple of years ago I just converted it to Compact Flash. It's not fast but it's convenient, and it's completely silent now, because the only noise it made before was the whirr of that drive. So it's perfect now, and I love it. It's been very slightly modified, but it knocks the pants off anything else.
LC: Did you track Joey Tempest's album?
Yeah we did everything — strings, brass, all the drums — all in pieces as overdubs. I did the whole thing here, mixed it.
LC: How did you get into mastering?
It's not easy, but if you're blessed with not having baggage, and blessed with being able to think, "Oh, that's right," without knowing what you've done is wrong or right, then those two go together very well. There used to be a mystique about mastering, and quite rightly so. And then CD came along. The mystique was still there, and people profited from that, which was wonderful, but the mystique in mastering isn't there anymore, unless you're back to vinyl. And the people doing vinyl don't need to be as competitive with each other as they used to be. I mean, no one's on their back saying, "Make it louder!" This loudness thing isn't new. It's been around forever. Everybody wanted their stuff to be louder. But then, it was fun. It wasn't a plug-in and overusing it, it was like, dragging in the helium, and betting your career on a $10,000 head, or your job at least.