The following interview was taken from the now-defunct but undeniably eccentric Italian music magazine ‘Let’s get Technical!’, the undisputed gear bible for continental anoraks. The journalist, Lucia Paradiso, was, by all accounts, in London for the football and met Tim on a day off. One of the students at our local language school did the translation, so apologies if it’s a bit rudimentary.
L.P. Tim, a lot of people think the Talk Talk albums to be reference points in recorded contemporary music. Why do you think that is? And can I just say, I really like those shoes……they’re just wild!
T F-G Thanks! I don’t know really, because to me they have no consistent sonic thread. ‘It’s My Life’ was a synthetic eighties album, ‘Colour of Spring’ was more acoustic, but recorded incredibly cleanly; only the last two, ‘Spirit of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ have any common ground. This was because by then we had refined our approach, attitude and playing style, and because Phill Brown engineered both of them. Phill had a particular way of recording, and we had a particular way of playing.
L.P. Shall we talk a bit about recording techniques then? Perhaps you could say a bit about your early days in studios, and the influence on you of the people around you, the artists you worked with and so on….
T F-G Well, basically I started as a tape operator at Wessex Studios in North London in about 1975. It was a family-run studio then, a concept which I’m sure will strike a chord with your Italian readers, and turned over a massive amount of mainstream music. It wouldn’t be uncommon to do a voice-over for a jingle in the morning, and a large string and rhythm section in the afternoon, and some editing in the evening. This sort of variety really kept assistants on their toes, and was a solid grounding in all aspects of recording. Because tape remotes were not yet commonplace, tape operators sat as close as possible to the engineer and producer at the console. This allowed us to see exactly what the engineer was doing, and kept us feeling involved in the session. This whole area of operation no longer exists, because remotes allow engineers or producers to operate the tape machines themselves if they wish, thus giving the assistant nothing to do but make tea and chat up the receptionist. I think this is regrettable, because so much learning could be done by observation.
L.P. You could argue that there was a lot of learning to be done by observing the receptionist!
T F-G And indeed there was, but I couldn’t argue that it ever got me a better kick-drum sound (laughter). However, there is one aspect in which the studio experience in the UK has improved for novices, and that is that now engineers move much more freely between studios, which allows them to observe many different techniques. The engineers at Wessex were good, but did things in a particular way, and did it the same way every time. I used to observe them putting in equalisation on string mics before the players had even got in the room. When the studio was sold to Chrysalis a couple of years later, the place went through many changes, the best of which was that Bill Price became studio manager.
L.P. Bill Price is something of a legend isn’t he….having been responsible for some classic albums, like the Clash, Chrissie Hynde, Sex Pistols, Guns and Roses; it’s a long list.
T F-G Yes, and yet it was one of my greatest regrets that I was made a house engineer in my own right shortly before he arrived, and thus I never had the chance to be on a session with him. I did, however, used to sneak into the control room after his session had folded, and try and see what he’d done to get it to sound like that. And the frustrating thing was, usually he hadn’t done very much at all. Irrespective of how you personally feel about the music on the records, the way the sounds all hang together, linked up but in their own space, is a work of art. I thought his punk era was his best – he had a real empathy with it. I used to listen to his mixes with something approaching awe.
L.P. So would you say his influence continues to this day? And what other engineers crossed your path that made an impression on you?
T F-G Yes, I’m still very preoccupied with the way sounds interact. Getting that balance between separation and cohesion; it’s a fascinating subject to study and I still consider myself a novice. I’m getting better, though…….the only other engineer I had much contact with was Mike Stone from Trident, who came to Wessex with Queen, having done the rhythm tracks at Rockfield. I don’t remember much of it from an engineering angle, but that was probably because I was concentrating so much on trying to be a good tape-op; there were no counters on tape machines then, so one had to identify sections with chinagraph pencils, interpreting your marks as you spooled at high speed.
L.P. And Roy Thomas Baker produced didn’t he? I should think they were all quite demanding!
T F-G Well, yes they were, and rightly so. I think a lot should be demanded of studio staff. I think I demand quite a lot myself.
L.P So what kind of equipment did Wessex have around this time? What console did you have to learn on?
T F-G When I first got there they had a large Neve in Studio A with 1081 modules in, and an even older one in the mix room. Monitoring was Tannoy Golds in Lockwood cabinets. Soon after Bill arrived Chrysalis invested quite heavily in the place, for the first and last time I might add, and got in a massive Cadac desk, and a smaller one for Studio 2 which now resides at Karl Wallinger’s studio. All these desks sounded fantastic of course, most of the top-end desks in that decade did; it wasn’t until the advent of SSL that things started going downhill. Bill also gave me a virtually blank cheque to go out and buy a new piano, a challenge I met with enthusiasm by going and ordering the largest Bosendorfer in production. At the time I thought it was the business; and it did record beautifully, but it was impossible to get any kind of intimate sound on it. I was then in the bizarre position of having to hire in pianos for the two Talk Talk albums that were recorded there – a 7’6” Yamaha for Spirit of Eden, and for Laughing Stock, a beaten-up old Rogers which I found covered in a dust-sheet in the basement of the Steinway showroom. The Bosendorfer is still there, but it never sounded the same since Rat Scabies poured a bottle of Valpolicella into it. The rest of the Wessex gear was pretty standard; a couple of Fairchild limiters and a decent flock of C12As would constitute the best of it. Really, after the decent-sounding consoles went, the vibe was all the place had left worth having.
L.P. So what went wrong for you when SSL desks arrived?
T F-G I found I just had to learn the job all over again. They required such a different approach. Like a lot of people, I found the equalisation harsh and unmusical, and so virtually stopped using it overnight. I think SSL desks, at least until they sorted the EQ out, got a whole generation of engineers into subtracting frequencies rather than adding them, and spending a lot more time getting sounds right at source by putting the right mic in the right place. This, in retrospect, was almost certainly a good thing, at least it was for me. My first instinct even now, if I think a sound is basically there but just needs a bit of help, would be to find something to take away from it. Having said that, I would have to say the SSL computer revolutionised the way we all mixed, and in a positive way. For the first time you actually had your brain free to listen to what you had, without having to put a chunk down on the 2-track machine. And of course, for some sorts of stuff where that hardness is required, the SSL would be the console of choice.
L.P. What was the impetus behind moving from engineering to producing? And do you think trying to do both at the same time inevitably leads to compromises?
T F-G I wanted to stop engineering because I was sick of being accommodating to producers that I thought were useless. I signed to management in about 1979, but I regret that now. If I were in the same position again I wouldn’t sign a management deal with anyone. And yes I think it’s difficult to engineer and produce at the same time, especially if you belong to my school of production, which involves spending a long time in an easy chair blowing smoke rings at the ceiling. Trying to sort out the bass-player’s headphones and that annoying crackle on the left-hand overhead mic doesn’t leave you enough time for that. However, an engineering background never allows you to back off completely. Whatever sound an engineer presents me with, the chances are I will question some aspect of it. Actually I was relieved when I stopped engineering. I love doing it for myself, but take no pleasure in doing it for other people. This comes down to a basic personality flaw; I’m convinced I’m always right.
L.P. But surely that must be the same for production too?
T F-G Yes it is, which is why I pick who I work with very carefully these days. I have to be sure everyone’s working in the same direction; record company, management, artist, but particularly the artist. I believe that all artists have sovereignty over their own work, so in any argument, if after putting my case my point of view does not prevail, I feel bound to give way. That leaves me with my name on a record on which there may be things I dislike. This rise in artist knowledge and studio savoir-faire, largely due to an explosion in the market of home-recording equipment since the late eighties, has led to a shift in the way the artist/producer perceive each other. That is why I refuse a production credit these days, and go for the rather more low-key ‘Deviced by…’, which implies a lessening of responsibility, and hence, in the case of the record being crap, culpability.
L.P. How was it you managed to make four albums with Talk Talk under those rather strict conditions?
T F-G I think the longevity was actually to our benefit. Starting at point A and getting to point B quite a long way away meant that we evolved together, and rarely got into the situation previously mentioned. Even if my approach didn’t prevail, the one that did wouldn’t be crap.
L.P. So what sort of evolution happened in sound terms over the period? How did your approach to sound alter over the ten years?
T F-G It was largely driven by the material. The kit, for example was approached very differently on all four albums. The first one that I was involved in, It’s my Life, was Lee playing a conventional kit with some Simmons bits and pieces added on. On the Colour of Spring, quite a few drum parts were conceived on my Fairlight II. Most of that ended up on the record with some overdubbed conventional kit. Spirit of Eden was written largely at home with drum machines which were replaced by Lee in the studio by a conventional kit multi-miked in a conventional way. Laughing Stock was conceived in a rehearsal room, and written around drum parts played on the fly by Lee. He then duplicated those parts at Wessex with what was essentially a jazz kit, miked from a great distance.
L.P. What was the thinking behind the very distant miking?
T F-G To put the kit at the back of the speakers, where we felt it belonged. You could only use a distance like that, some 15 metres I think, in a studio as dead as Wessex. Most drum tracks on that album were done with a single U47 and a D112 on the kick drum. Only on After the Flood, as I remember, did we deviate from that, where we used a Ball and Biscuit ribbon mic instead of the 47.
L.P. What about guitar and bass sounds? They changed quite markedly over the period didn’t they?
T F-G Yes, well in the beginning we had outside players in to do most of the guitars. Robbie McIntosh played most of it; he played an old Telecaster through whatever we had hanging around in ( the studio. Mark played most of the guitar on the later two albums, which would be his Gretsch Country Gentleman through either a Boogie, an AC30, a Fender Vibrolux, or a Champ, although he played the riff on ‘Desire’ on my Vox teardrop 12-string. The opening guitar riff on Spirit of Eden, thieved very comprehensively from Steppenwolf’s ‘The Pusher’, I played on a cheap Vox guitar through an AC30, miked with a C12A a few feet away.
L.P. Now, you’ve got solo records out yourself haven’t you, which take the idea of cheap guitar sounds a bit further…..
T F-G Well, at the moment there’s only an EP, but the Heligoland album is nearly finished. I wouldn’t call the guitar sounds cheap exactly, although the lofi recording techniques probably emphasise that aspect of them. The guitars were either a Hofner Verithin or a Mozrite played through any one of my many amps, almost all of which are inexpensive British ones, usually Selmer or Watkins. I’m a big fan of both these makes, because they’re small valve combos that sound like nothing else ever made, and you can pick them up for very little money because nobody else wants them. Most people go for the classic Vox and Marshall rigs, neither of which interest me because they are so stylised. For the price of a decent AC30 you can pick up just about every valve amp that Charlie Watkins ever made; I think I have pretty much most of them, dating from 1960 to about 1965. None of them is probably more than 10 watts. I’ve also broken the circuit between amp and speaker, so I can plug any amp into any other speaker, or combination of speakers.
L.P. What’s the attraction of valve equipment for you? Do you use it in the control room as well?
T F-G No I don’t, apart from a pair of hand-made valve mic amps. I don’t really use outboard gear enough; the only things I would routinely compress are bass and vocal, and I’m quite happy to use solid state stuff for that. I think the question of guitar amps is rather different. Transistors tend to avalanche very suddenly when overdriven, and I find it difficult get a good graduation from clean to dirty. Valves saturate little by little, and I find that much more interesting to play with, and more responsive to nuance. I think it’s very easy to get obsessive about equipment, especially old equipment. Sometimes I feel this is to compensate for a lack of original ideas, or an unhealthy desire to recreate the past. Apart from my quest to find a pool of guitar sounds I felt comfortable with, I’ve managed to avoid getting into all that, largely through poverty.
L.P. So you’ve never felt the need to go out a buy an original U47?
T F-G No, I would consider it a massive waste of time. Besides, I would fret over the world-shortage of valves for it. There aren’t many things you can’t record with dynamics or ribbons, and besides, with condensers the extended top-end starts to piss me off after a while. These days I usually record guitar amps with a SM57 or 58, although I went through a period of using the ‘press-conference’ technique on amps, which basically consisted of putting every available mike in front of the cabinet, and blending them together in various combinations until you found one you liked. The key was to put a time limit on the exploration, in order to arrive at a result before your head got done in. I suspect I was into John Cage at the time, and thus examining the role of chance in the creative process. It was really the only way of approaching it without going mad, given that a simple request to the assistant to move one microphone half an inch to the left resulted instantly in another 30 million sound combinations.
L.P. Not really a technique suited to the budget project then?
T F-G Listening to 30 million permutations can be rather time-consuming…
L.P. Obviously, through your use of samplers and beat-boxes you must have listened to a certain amount of dance music. Where do you stand with regard to that, both in listening terms and how it affects the way you record?
T F-G Yeah, well it depends what you mean by dance music. Pure dance music as I would define it celebrates that which we have in common with animals, and song-based music celebrates that which separates us. They’re both valid approaches, and both have about the same ratio of inspiring to uninspiring. Really th he only genre I feel much kinship with would be hip-hop, and that’s because of the weight of it. I can’t really get comfortable with fast fidgety stuff, and I can’t enjoy anything with a predictable, unimaginative, over-embroidered, cut-up faux-soul vocal on it. I probably get more pleasure out of listening to hip-hop than anything else at the moment , though I have to get past some questionable lyric content first. It’s just a shame that sampling is by nature retro, and has a certain weight of nostalgia attached to it. Ideally one would sample from a record that hasn’t been made yet. I also think it’s a shame that people find a great sample and flog it to death for 4 minutes. I’m often left thinking how much more significant it would have been had it only been used once. I’m not sure how much hip-hop affects what I do, apart from the way I generate rhythm tracks. They’re all done on an old Atari running C-lab Notator, triggering an Akai S1100 sampler. Everything I record goes through a cheap Soundcraft desk into a Fostex G24S. Doing rhythm tracks and ambient samples is about as far as I’m prepared to go mechanically, for two reasons. Firstly because I would much rather be playing something than tapping into a digital workstation, and secondly because there are so few possibilities for exploring nuance. I don’t consider the 128 graduations of MIDI to be anything like sufficient to capture it, and you can’t write it in retrospectively because it becomes too cerebral. Gratuitous looping annoys me in a different way. I don’t like things to be the same everytime I hear them. I get bored.
L.P. So how many instruments do you play? Because you do all the instrumentation on Heligoland records yourself don’t you.
T F-G Yes, except for areas where I want something specific and I know I have no chance of coming up with it myself. But those occasions are rare; I would usually rather play a part myself inexpertly than get someone else to play it. Logic dictates you must end up with a purer, more personal result. You just have to come up with an approach to turn your lack of technique into a virtue rather than curse. The only instrument on which I would consider myself technically proficient is the piano, and it’s that very proficiency which makes it of questionable use to me, simply because I am so ly turns into tragedy on a fretted instrument.
L.P. Is it right that you only use five strings?
T F-G Yes, I broke a G-string once, and because I didn’t have a replacement with me I moved the B and top E to fill the gap. I’ve never strung a guitar up with 6 strings since.
L.P. So what are the advantages for you of this?
T F-G I think there are several. My default tuning is E-A-E-B-E, which gives you a lot of flexibility with regard to inversions. I used to find the guitar quite limiting in this respect, after the massive number you have access to on a keyboard. Of course the limited compass of the guitar in relation to the piano can never be overcome, but shifting the third around within the root and fifth throws up some interesting possibilities. Also with three strings potentially in unison there is plenty of room for ambiguity within a chord, without having to pussyfoot your way around unwanted strings; you can still give it a hammering. But the thing I like about it the most is the fact that even simple triads sound different to those played on conventional tuning, and therefore you feel less connected to the history of the instrument.
L.P. And what about the future, what does that hold for you?
T F-G Well, I never plan very far ahead. I would like to do some film music really, but it’s hard to find a project which would meet all the criteria. Heligoland will go on for a while I hope. It’s difficult to imagine life without it.