Residing in a small town just south of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, is Nick Blagona. I met him over two decades ago at a recording studio in Toronto, and he always had valuable pointers for mic placements, as well as hearty, helping, hilarious comments to make about me and my friend’s lack of skill and the mixes we were making back then. I soon learned Nick engineered some hard-hitting records, such as the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever tracks, records by Alexisonfire, and (one of my personal favourites as a teen) Perfect Strangers by Deep Purple. Nick started out working for Decca Studios in London, even on the theme for the soundtrack of the James Bond film, Thunderball. He then went on to be a part of one of the first residential studios, the historic Le Studio in Morin-Heights, Québèc. Having been in the business for so long, he possesses a wealth of knowledge about engineering, and his storytelling ability is vast.
How did you get into this field?
I grew up in Montreal. I arrived in 1950, on a Red Cross boat from war-ravaged Europe. We moved to the Montreal area. I was mesmerized by what I heard on the radio here in 1953, but 1954 was a revolution. There was rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. But the best recording was The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert by Benny Goodman, with Gene Krupa doing a 15-minute drum solo that kills all drum solos. They used one microphone hanging in the middle of the stage. That’s what enthralled me when I was a kid, thinking, “How do they get their sound?” I kept building speaker cabinets to make my stereo sound better. I would save up money to buy turntables. I bought a lot of Heathkit [stereo equipment], where you would buy the kit and the manual and put it together. When I built a tape recorder, that was it for me. I could actually bring in bands and record them live – that’s what I wanted to do. I went from very simple sound-on-sound recording, to understanding, at the age of 11, what a compressor did; I even built one. By the time I got into a recording studio, I pretty well knew what things did. I knew that I had it in me. Besides going to McGill University, I also went to Radio College of Canada [now RCC Institute of Technology] in the summers I wanted to understand electronic engineering. It was the transition of tubes to solid-state; the transistor.
How did you end up in the UK?
Initially I wanted to go to America, but in those days you were liable for the draft if you worked for more than six months in the States. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I figured, “Well, I’ll go to England. That’s the closest place that I can go without the hassle.” I got on a plane and left for London in 1964, and I got a job at Decca Studios. At that time there were only three main recording studios in London. EMI on Abbey Road, Decca in West Hampstead, and Pye in the Marble Arch area on Oxford Street. Each one of these studios actually was [part of] a large electronics company; EMI built gunsights and Decca built radar units. What Decca, EMI, and Pye wanted to do was to manufacture record players, and they would provide the public with the records to play on the players. Eventually there were also pirate radio stations. Radio Free London and Radio Caroline. The BBC was really upset, because nobody was listening to their style of programming, which was really “stiff upper lip.” The BBC decided to totally change and hire the disc jockeys from all these pirate radio stations. So then the BBC, without commercials, was doing pop music; Radio 2 was the avant-garde, with John Peel and so forth. Society, on the whole, was changing. Getting a job as a recording engineer was quite something, because no matter what you did it was a hit record. I worked with Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, and a whole slew of British artists, but I was yearning for something else. I moved to Wessex Sound Studios, where I was respected and in demand for orchestral and big band recordings. I came back to Canada to see my parents, and I met this fellow, André Perry, who had a recording studio in Montréal. He had recorded John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” in a hotel [room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel], in the ‘60s. André and I had dinner, and we discussed the idea of building a recording studio out in the country – he had a weekend place up in Morin-Heights. It wasn’t long before he gave me a call and said, “I’m ready to do it.” There was the challenge: to build a recording studio that would be world famous. It wasn’t easy. We had to disprove a lot of prejudice. First of all, building a recording studio out in the countryside. Second of all, to build it in Québèc after the FLQ crisis. [The Front de Libération du Québec was a militant branch of the Quebec sovereignty movement.]
There was effectively martial law due to the FLQ terrorism at the time.
Why would anybody want to come? But they did. The first high profile client was Cat Stevens. We had this beautiful villa, and clients were taken care of, with breakfast and dinner if they wanted, and everything they needed to be creative. We always got the best equipment, and big name clients started to come. We became so busy I needed a rest, and as we’d recently hired Paul Northfield as our second engineer, he was the one who worked with Rush [on many classic records, with Terry Brown producing].
You’d hired Ed Stasium [Tape Op #98] and Leanne Ungar [#30] – both from New York.
Right, Leanne and Ed Stasium. Eventually, they both returned to New York. It gets lonely in the remote Laurentians. Paul Northfield really loved it. He was there until he went freelance.
You worked with the Bee Gees at Le Studio.
The Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever. They did that in Florida [at Criteria Studios] and later in Morin-Heights with us. At that time, we were working on their album called Children of the World. After that I started getting a lot of phone calls, wanting me to do disco projects, but I went right back into rock ‘n’ roll to do [several albums with] Nazareth. If you become known for just one genre, you can get typecast. I never liked getting caught up in any music: if you do just one genre, you can get pretty tired of it. At the best times, I’d be sitting in the control room and looking at the tape machine to make sure it was recording, because there was something really special going on. I’ve had many of those moments. It has nothing to do with the technical aspects. Whether you use this kind of console or that kind of console. Le Studio was the very first in North America to get both a Trident A Range console, and then our second console: the SSL-E, in 1978. I kept hearing rumors about automation and automated consoles, because “automation” in those days begat business. I got a call from Mick [Glossop], who was chief engineer at The Manor Studio [Oxfordshire, England] at the time, and they had the very first SSL. I flew over there and took a look, I told my partner about it, and we were the first ones in North America with one. Today the SSL is the default console. Before this, “automation” was bringing in the band members. The drummer would ride the bass fader and the bass would ride the drum faders, which was cumbersome. I also saw the whole advent of digital, so we were among the first studios to have a digital, 2-track mix-down machine, as well.
That was the JVC DAS-90?
Yes, JVC. Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” was the very first song to be mixed on that. We saw the difference, and we were sold. It was clean, with enormous depth. When I mix, and when I’m mastering, I always listen back to MP3s because that’s what the standard is these days. Back in the early ‘70s we’d go put it in the car in the cassette machine to see what it sounded like.
Then came 5.1 surround sound. I noticed in your credits listings that you’ve done some albums and DVDs in 5.1.
When 5.1 came about I embraced it fully. Many of us thought there was a market for it. Well, there was, for about five seconds. Unless you have a fancy car where you have 5.1, people don’t want to be...
…sitting in the middle of the room?
But people will listen to an iPhone and not listen to a 5.1 mix of a great record.
What was life like after Le Studio?
I ended up in Montserrat [the Caribbean Island] in various studios making records.
In 1984 you recorded Deep Purple’s Perfect Strangers.
Ian Gillan [vocals] and Roger Glover [bass] had a whole bunch of songs they wanted to get out of their systems. So we three went down to Montserrat; Roger and Ian went down there to write in July and then we came back in November to finish it off. It was a fun record to do.
A very live, off-the-floor type session?
No. It was all constructed with drum machines. We were down there for three months. There’s probably a video of me making the record.
You’re in the actual music video for the song “Perfect Strangers.”
Yeah, my bald head. I was in the truck.
Tell us about the mobile studio truck [Le Mobile Remote Recording Studio].
Guy Charbonneau is a native Québécois I’ve known since he was a young man. He decided to build a mobile truck. It was beautifully maintained, and I was really happy with the sound. We did this huge concert in the Plains of Abraham, where they had the fight of Jean-Baptiste [in 1759]. The next thing I know, he moved to Nashville. Then subsequently he moved to San Diego. He continues to record all the big live concerts shows. We worked together on two albums for Deep Purple; Perfect Strangers and The House of Blue Light. Both were recorded [at a “large home” named “Horizons”] in Stowe, Vermont. Ritchie [Blackmore, guitar] didn’t like using studios; he wanted a home.
What were the band dynamics like in Deep Purple?
A little touchy. I stayed out of it; I didn’t want to get involved. It’s something you just don’t do as an engineer, or even as a producer. Sometimes a disagreement is healthy for the benefit of a song, but I haven’t seen too many of them. A couple of weeks ago I listened to the vinyl version of that Perfect Strangers, and I must say that on a great system it was a pleasure to hear it. I did good on that one. You tend to forget, because once a record is done it’s in the past. What you need to do is look for future gigs, because you’ve got to keep going.
You’ve pretty much been exposed to every kind of technical scenario in studios.
As I sat in various control rooms around the world making these records, and looking at the outboard gear and what they have, most of the studios had the usual [Universal Audio] LA-3As and the 1176, which is fine. But you can’t keep spending money on gear, because it’s endless. You also can’t keep spending money on plug-ins. When I was running a studio, a client would walk in and say, “How come you haven’t got this plug-in bundle? I was hoping to mix here.” I would say, “Well, no. You want this bundle, and this person wants that bundle.” After a while, you’re $20,000 in the hole, and no one wants to use some plug-in bundle because it isn’t fashionable anymore. I watched it all pass by. You know what doesn’t change is the musician trying to be creative, and a listener trying to appreciate what the creative is doing. Gear either aids in this process, or it hinders it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it really hinders it. The problem with computers and technology is that you spend more time trying to figure this technology out than you would have by just doing something. I’ll give you an example: You record three or four vocal tracks, and you spend four or five hours putting this vocal track together, when all it would take would be to just go out there and do it again. It might happen in five minutes – that’s how long the song is. I find that when you say, “Do it again,” that people say, “Can’t you repair it? Can’t I just do it in sections?” I recently had this young man in, and the only way he did records was in four bar increments, even if he was playing straight rhythm. I thought, “You’re playing the same rhythm part!” He said, “Well, this is the way I’ve done it before. Every four bars I stop, and then you punch in.” It’s a very strange way of creating records. But, then again, you have other people who have some great music recorded live off the floor, who have incredible feel. A lot of the music that’s coming back has that.
You worked with Alexisonfire, an awesome, younger, aggressive band.
I didn’t know anything about that band when Julius Butty, who’s a fantastic producer, said, “You’re the only person I know who uses [Steinberg] Nuendo, besides me, and I’m wondering if I should bring my Nuendo down to Metalworks.” He said, “Oh, by the way, do you know any good engineers at Metalworks?” I said, “Yeah, but not as good as me.” That record turned out really well.
You did two of them, didn’t you?
One here at Metalworks [Crisis]. We went to Vancouver and did Old Crows / Young Cardinals at Armoury Studios, which was a lot of fun. I thought Vancouver was great. Mary-Jane [Russell] went too and we had a condo.
When it’s time to do a mix, do you like to get the artist and producer involved?
I like to ideally, mix alone and bring all parties in to tweak and approve.
You sometimes work at Grant Avenue Studio [in Hamilton, Ontario].
It’s nice having an engineer to help with the work. I usually produce and co-engineer it. I like Grant Avenue Studio; I think Amy King, the engineer, is a professional engineer and a fine talent. I also like Catherine North Studios; it’s got a very open sound. If you like that, then that’s the place to go to. There are a host of others, but those two rooms particularly work out very well.
And you bring parts of the process to your home setup, Psychotropic Studio?
I like recording here. It’s very convenient and I have all the gear.
You use your studio for guitars, vocals, mixing, and mastering?
Yeah. Drums I’ll do somewhere else. The rest I do here. With guitars I have the Kemper Profiler Amplifier. It has a whole log of great sounding amps. Guitar players always come in skeptical until they plug in. And I don’t need to book a large room to use one [channel] strip for vocals. I have some very beautiful sounding strips, and I’m happy with the Røde microphone [NT1-A] I use. But that’s it; it’s really simple.
You mentioned that you use [Steinberg] Nuendo. You helped with the development?
I helped a bit. Charlie Steinberg, Lindsay Warner, and David Miner – the local representatives here – have always been very generous to me and asked me for my opinion. The first thing I said is that Nuendo has to feel like a console, on which they’ve done a proper job. The whole world is Pro Tools. I always felt that if the whole world is using one app, then everybody sounds the same; and everybody does sound the same, whether it’s [Apple] Logic, [MOTU Digital] Performer, or Steinberg Nuendo. I think Nuendo has a meatier sound than others. They all have the same conveniences; otherwise people wouldn’t use them. Nuendo actually is the second most popular DAW in post [production].
You were saying that you’re not a gear collector, and I noticed in your studio you basically have one rack. Run us through what you use for outboard gear.
My mic pre is the Focusrite ISA One, along with the mic pre that I have in my MOTU [interface], which is phenomenal. I have my [HHB Radius 3] Fat Man tube compressor. For [electric] guitar, I have 999 different amps in the Kemper Profiler Amplifier that I can choose from. It used to be that we’d rent all this gear. There’s a picture on Facebook from years ago of when I was in the control room with 12 different guitar rigs going into 12 different speakers in the studio. That’s what we had to do to get that sound.
You were doing some mastering over the years, and no doubt you were disappointed when mastering for CD.
I was disappointed with CD because the level was so low and the sound was so thin. A long time ago I began mastering because I thought I could do better. I started mastering projects at Number 9 Audio Group in 1993, in Toronto.
On the Studer Dyaxis II?
Yeah. I used the Dyaxis, and I thought, “This is the way of the future.” I was surprised that a company like Studer didn’t get it.
It sounded fantastic with great converters, but the interface was very tricky, from what I recall. A steep learning curve.
It wasn’t too friendly! But for nondestructive editing, it was the way of the future. I fooled around with it a lot, because we had it at McClear Pathé Studios in Toronto. I heard Studer had a 24-track system all in place, and it was scrubbed. They made these beautiful converters that were just magnificent sounding. Eventually we saw the 48-track DASH System.
What do you use for mastering these days?
First I’ll master in Nuendo, and get my tailoring done, my levels, and maybe EQ. Then I transfer that, ready to be touched up, on WaveLab, another Steinberg product.
You told me that your doctor said you still have really good ears?
Yes. I don’t mix with volume cranked. I have it at a low volume where I can hear the finer points in a mix.
Mary-Jane Russell: I have a question. I’d like to know if you consider yourself a technician or a creative engineer.
Creative engineer, as it states in the liner notes for Perfect Strangers [“Creatively Engineered By Nick Blagona”]! I only see the gear as my paintbrushes. If you’re an engineer for engineering purposes, you plug in and get your compression and it’s just generic. I like to make it sound like it’s something super special. I like seeing the smile on the client’s face. When they’re happy, that means that I’ve done my job, in terms of going beyond expectations. When they say that, it’s even better.