Neil Brockbank is part of a dying breed of true pros. For the past several years he has been traveling with celebrated songsmith Nick Lowe on Lowe's solo tours, tirelessly wearing the hats of driver, guitar tech, soundman and tour manager. I had a chance to accompany Brockbank while he did live sound on a couple of Lowe's U.S. shows, and witnessed an artful engineering "performance," — equal parts choreography and improvisation. Neil knows Nick's songs back to front, and is able to deftly ride the vocals and instinctively add subtle flourishes of echo and reverb as needed. It always serves the song and enhances the audience's experience. The musical care offered every night was admirable to be sure.
And though he has a great deal of live sound experience, the U.K.-born-and-bred Brockbank is certainly no stranger to the studio. He's done records with some of the greats from both sides of the Atlantic like Bryan Ferry, Tanita Tikaram, Alison Moyet, Tres Chicas, Geraint Watkins, Tift Merritt and Linda Thompson. And it's Brockbank's astonishing work with Lowe, starting with 1994's The Impossible Bird, up through 2011's The Old Magic and beyond, that have garnered high praise for his natural, timeless recorded sound.
A couple of years ago I met up with Neil and his cohort Bobby Treherne (a producer in his own right and longtime drummer with Nick Lowe, Van Morrison and others) in the Camden Town neighborhood of London, where their cozy and beautifully set up studio, Goldtop, sat nestled behind sprawling wisteria in a former dairy mews. Sadly, Goldtop was recently forced to relocate, due to a lease complication. Nonetheless, Brockbank has been busy as ever under the name Goldtop@Gravity Shack at the South London studio run by Jessica Corcoran. (Please note that all references in this interview are to the original "open room" Goldtop Studio.) I enjoyed the easy-going nature of Neil and Bobby, as well as their brotherly, collaborative work spirit. Pints of bitter were quaffed down the street at the Princess of Wales pub, gear was discussed ("Ribbon mics are a godsend.") and stories were exchanged ("Of all of Van Morrison's drummers over the years, I've lasted the longest. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing." chuckled Bobby).
You've been Nick Lowe's producer/engineer for all of his albums since 1994's The Impossible Bird.
He was a huge inspiration for me. He was the guy who convinced me that records could be made live in the studio, that it wasn't too scary and that all you needed was somebody who was confident enough on the mic to take control of the situation and believe. Nick's attitude is always, "I know how this song goes. Just play along and it will all be fine." He's got confidence himself that what he's got is really good, and the whole thing goes forward like that. He invests confidence in the people around him.
That's probably infectious.
It's totally infectious. He's also very pragmatic. He usually sets out a four or five-day period of recording, and he's maybe got three to five songs to cut. We might miss one of those — it really doesn't matter because of the amount of time he saves not having to overdub a vocal and all that stuff down the line. He can afford to miss on a couple of songs over the course of an album and have to come back and re-cut them. We've done that, but it's very unusual for his songs not to be got in the end. He'll do three or four of those sessions and that will be it. He really wanted to make records where you started with his vocal and then figured it out. When I met him I was pretty frustrated by the way the records I was making at the time were sounding. I never listened to them when I went home.
But you do now?
I do now, and I get really excited when I hear them — if I can feel what I felt when the red light was on and it was, "My God, I hope this is being recorded!" I can still hear that moment in them — especially Nick's records. I never tire of listening to them, nor does he.
His 2007 album, At My Age, just sounds fantastic. Were most of the vocals live on that?
All of them, in fact. I've cut more than 50 songs with Nick over five albums, and only on two songs the vocal wasn't cut live. He had a bad cough on that day, and we happened to get really good backing tracks. His philosophy is basically this — if you don't get the vocal, you don't use the backing track. He never comes to the studio if the song isn't finished. If he doesn't get the vocal, it probably means it's because there is something wrong with the approach, something wrong with the tempo, the way it's been played or the weight that we've given it in terms of dynamics. All of those things mean that probably the backing track is wrong and that is why we didn't get the vocal. The idea that then you could take the backing track and force the issue by doing the vocal on his own in a booth with nobody else around is not a better situation.
You've developed a reputation for live recording in the studio.
If it's not right for your band, it probably means that I'm not right for your band. The real reason it came about was the kind of gang of people I was knocking around with — Nick Lowe and Geraint Watkins. All of these recordings were taking place at RAK Studios, just around the corner from here, which was Mickie Most's place. Once the records were tracked, we didn't want to stay there because it was way too expensive. We would typically go there for a week and then retire to a much cheaper studio — sometimes even a home studio — and work out our few overdubs and do any editing that we needed to do. These kind of little studios were all closing. The sort of work that people were formerly doing in those rooms were now being done at home and in producer's own rooms.
What era is this we're talking about?
Around the turn of the millennium is when I spotted it, but it had probably been going on for some time. I perceived the way to deal with this was to get our own place — a bit like a home studio, but more so.
Any favorite vocal mics you use?
It really depends on the dynamic of the song. We use the Neumann KMS 105 a lot. It's designed as a high quality stage mic — phantom power, quite good rejection and lots of separation.
Is Nick right on it when he sings?
He can be a little further off it than a standard [Shure SM]58 or something. It's got a wider pickup than that. If the drums are real quiet, we'll sometimes use a Neumann valve mic of some kind. We never play loud, but if it's a bit beat-y, the 105 works well. Or even a Shure SM58.
You played me some Geraint Watkins tracks last night with a 58 on the lead vocal and they sounded great.
Yeah, it's so focused. The great thing about 58s and 57s on all kinds of instruments and vocals is they absolutely only record what's necessary. They really focus up acoustic guitars so that you don't have to EQ them too much in the mix. They just sit there. They're never wooly. It's not the poshest or the airiest sound in the world, but it works.
You strongly embrace the live-in-the-studio aesthetic. Why is that important to you?
It's important because you're really there to capture the performance. The more you can invest in the performance and the less you can do afterwards, in my view, the more magical the record is. You have to look at it on an artist-by-artist basis. Some people just can't do it. If an artist can, it's incredibly empowering for them. It gives them real confidence in themselves — that they're in charge, that they're determining the course of the session. It puts the power back where it belongs — with the performers rather than the engineering staff. I've had people say to me, "I'll never be able to do that. You get these guys together, and I'll sing it when I'm good and ready." No, the only time to sing it is now. How on earth can you imagine that there's going to be a better time? Once they come and listen to the playbacks, they see that it actually starts to sound like something with a lot of heart and soul. Having said that, if you're going to track live vocals and have everybody play, you still might have to do a lot of editing. You might have a really good take and it has a bad introduction, or they messed up on the play out, so you're going to have to edit the tracks together. But you're going to get something where, wherever you hear the vocal, what you're hearing underneath the vocal is performed with it. It might be an instrumental record — a sax record — but it's the same principle to apply. There's something about when you listen to instrumentalists, people on the backing track, you sometimes get a sense in records that they actually can't hear the vocalist. They're playing the chart. They're not actually listening and responding. The detail of timing and phrasing of the vocal can affect the way people play. It has a really good effect on the singer, but it also has a really good effect on the tracking musicians. If the singer starts to be good in the headphones and the drummer and bass player are like, "This is happening right now. I better get with it or I'm going to be the one who is spoiling it." All of a sudden everybody brings everybody else along.
It's not necessarily a bad pressure.
Modern technology has taken quite a lot of pressure off musicians. Give me an A and I'll give you the record. It's not quite as bad as that, but they can, to a certain extent, give producers every possible option and let them worry about it later. I find that incredibly boring as a producer. I don't want to plow through hundreds of takes of rhythm guitar.
Do you still occasionally get sessions where you do that?
Of course, and lots of things are overdubbed — guitars, keyboards, strings — so there's enough of that anyway without having to do that on the rhythm track and the vocal. You're always going to want to put stuff on. In a smaller room I don't like to have more than four people playing musical instruments at the same time, because I think the room starts to close down a bit — there's too much going on. At the moment where we go, "Who's going to count it in?" I want to hear the record. I don't want to hear just a little bit of it. There might be a couple of overdubs, but essentially I'm getting nearly all of the information about what the record is going to finish up like.