Studio Engineer, Mixer and Producer
In the first entry in our Sound Professionals series, we speak to Richard Wilkinson, a man whose technical expertise and willingness to experiment has helped define British pop music. We discuss his views on the ‘loudness wars’ and his projects with Adele, Spice Girls and Hot Chip.
When Richard Wilkinson was seven years old, his dad bought him a microphone with a low-range FM transmitter built-in. Before his eighth birthday, he’d re-wired the microphone, hooked up a stronger transmitter and was broadcasting his voice, and the selected discography of Michael Jackson and A-Ha to the old people’s home down the street. This innocent and excited foray into pirate radio kick-started a fascination with technology and electronics that would become his gateway to the world of music production.
Richard welcomes us into his North London studio during April’s heatwave. From the outside, the space is inconspicuous: no obvious signage points to a recording studio, and it’s only after a quick chat with the proprietor of a nearby laundrette that we learn the entrance is the large metal slab of a door behind the building. Out of the heat and into the cool, bunker-esque building, there’s no doubt what this space is used for. Meticulously designed by John Flynn (Abbey Road, Olympic and Sarm Studios architect) and Richard, and only completed 12 months previously, the studio is a testament to his technical expertise and shrine to his love of music technology.
We’re given a quick tour, but before long we’re deep into a geeky discussion about the gear that proliferates the room. Richard explains that he’s designed the space with patches in most walls, so guests can easily plug in wherever they are and quickly share ideas and creations – or just play some music from their iPhone. He talks us through the three sets of impressively large stereo monitors set up against the back wall, lamenting that his ATCs are currently out of action as they’re blocked by the Linn 328As. And he talks us through the Focusrite mixing desk sitting centre stage in the studio that required delicate rewiring and refurbishment to bring back to its former glory.
As Richard talks us through his set up it quickly becomes clear how intricately he knows the tools of his trade, that he’s not just a producer, but an electronics expert. When we finally remember that this is an interview – not just an opportunity to talk toys – and turn the dictaphone on, the starting point is obvious: technology.
From the toy microphone, his music technology collection snowballed. “I ended up, age eight or nine, with a little DJ set-up in my bedroom,” he explained. “My dad had built me a worktop around a couple of record decks, [I had] my Sansui [amp], a Philips twin tape and an early karaoke machine. It was all kind of jumble sales-y stuff, but I was figuring out what I could do with it. My early recordings were sort of playing on this deck and recording on this deck and then playing along with it. I got quite good at keyboard – that was my first instrument – which I got Christmas ‘87.
“Basically, every Christmas and birthday was a piece of kit. Basic hi-fi stuff. I had a Goodmans amp, some Sony hi-fi speakers, I’d take any speakers any one was giving away.
“I was probably more interested in the mechanics of how it all worked – how do I get this to go here, how do I get my voice onto the radio. How does this equipment interact? And then that…” gesturing to a slightly vintaged cassette multitracker he’d pulled out from storage during our initial gear geek-out, “came along. That was in senior school. I found the one my school had, which was the model below, in a cupboard in the music department. A previous music teacher had bought it and the new music tutor had left it on a shelf.” Richard explained that he asked his tutor if he could use it, to which the they agreed. He eventually returned it – four years later.
As Richard recounts the stories of recording the various bands of his friends and family, it’s clear his approach was always very DIY. He used whatever kit he could get his hands on – old mics, PA systems, whatever was available – and made the best of it. Which begs the question: did these limitations force him to think more creatively about the way he produced music?
“Absolutely. Yeah. I worked with Tony Visconti for a bit, he worked in the UK for a while – from the mid-70s to the early-90s. He always said, ‘the thing about you British engineers is you’re so much more creative than the Americans’. The Americans do everything really well but it’s within the constraints of the ‘rules’.
“Back in the early days of studios, a British engineer would say, ‘I don’t have a bit of kit that does ‘this’ and the technical engineers would disappear off and return the next day with a solution – a filter that would sound like a telephone or whatever it was. And I think he’s right in that sense. We were taught to think our feet and overcome obstacles however we had to go about that. I think that remains a very British approach.
“Possibly, I was a great example of that coming up through the engineering system because there was always a way to get around a problem and having the experience of being a kid plugging things in and working out what can be done and understanding the electronics of it. I learnt that there is so much you can do – it’s a bit naughty, but you can do it – you can plug a line out into a guitar amp and turn the amp down. There’ll be noise because of the noise floor of the electronics on the line out, but you can do it. And you’ll get a lot of people at the studio who would say, ‘oh no, you can’t do that, you need an interface’. But you can get away with a lot in record making, and if you try things you end up with fascinating, interesting sounding results and I think that’s probably what Tony was getting at.”
Technology was the route in for Richard. And, arguably, it’s what gave him an edge when he was starting out as an unpaid intern. He explains that early in his career he felt the pull of both the metaphorical left and right brain – whether he should focus his energy on the creative or on the technical.
“Technology was the thing that fascinated me, and I often debate how much left brain, how much right brain I am because I’m fascinated by both the music and the technology of capturing it. I think I got [my first studio job] because I showed an understanding of electronics. It was quite hard to get great techs at that point and [my employer] said, ‘you know I can make a lot of money with you, do you wanna go the route of being a tech? You’ll be a great tech.’ But I said, ‘no thanks, I’m happy for it to be an interest, it is about making music.’”
For Richard, it was Motown that had helped him come to the realisation that making music was his calling. “After an initial interest in ‘80s synth pop, I went back to Motown and I suppose what I got from that was great songwriting. It became about songs. I probably didn’t realise it because I was so excited about trying to capture sounds, but underneath I think what I appreciated and absorbed was great song writing and artistry which I think Motown was a pioneer of.”
Richard’s career accelerated as he honed his skills engineering pop music – acts like Atomic Kitten, All Saints, Spice Girls – something he admits wasn’t really his cup of tea, but nonetheless taught valuable lessons. “I always see being an assistant engineer in a studio like an apprenticeship. You’re there every day doing anything from making tea to helping mix the record and you don’t always appreciate that all this time in that environment is training for your ears, raising your expectations and teaching you all these ways of doing things. It’s a bit like the Karate Kid, Mr Miyagi thing. Wax on, wax off? ‘What the hell am I doing?’ He doesn’t understand it. And then when he’s in a fight it suddenly makes sense.
Whilst British pop music of the early ‘00s was probably outside the sphere of interest for a producer that, by his own admission, had moved away from the fizzy pop he enjoyed in his younger years and had been all about ‘bands in rooms’ since his mid-teens, the experience helped shape his work on one of the most important albums in his professional journey: Hot Chip’s second record, The Warning.
“To me at the time, Hot Chip was very much dance music, with synthesisers and drum machines and not musically where my attention was focussed at that stage. It just wasn’t my thing at all but that record was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. From the first moment I heard the rough mixes I was really excited by it. It was a real turning point for me to be involved in the mixing of that record and since then I’ve been excited by loads of electronic music records. From pop through to more interesting leftfield stuff. It definitely stands out as a record that was important in my development as an engineer.”
Richard is a consummate professional, dedicated to his work. A common theme in his stories is a readiness to burn the midnight oil in the name of the perfect end product and an expectation that others bring the same level of dedication. Tantamount to this professionalism is an understanding of the tools he needs to do the job, and a huge amount of respect is placed on artists that do the same.
“If I know my gear and I can get the best out of my gear for this situation, for this thing we’re gonna record, then we’re all better off if the artist knows their instrument too. We can make a better record if they know when they’ve hit their best performance, whether it’s ‘mostly there, but we could comp from a previous take’ or whether you’ve got another better one in you. I think what we all look for in a recording artist is a confidence that you’re delivering your best, or your working toward delivering your best whether that’s your first take or your tenth, a confidence in what you’re doing goes a long way.”
Whilst working with Adele on her first album, it was this confidence, this understanding of her instrument and her performance that convinced Richard he was working on something special.
“With Adele confidence was just there… she just knew her voice. I remember when we recorded Hometown Glory, we got to the end of take three and we were sitting like this,” Richard stops for a beat, jaw agape before letting out a comically exaggerated, but warmly sincere “wow”. “All of us just looking at each other. And then this voice comes through the mic… ‘nah, I can do better’.
“It was brilliant, just to be in a room with someone who knew that. We were absolutely blown away. It was live – piano and vocal. The session pianist had learned his part half an hour earlier from a demo on his Walkman on the way to the studio. He sat down at the piano it was something like…” Richard mimes impressive virtuoso piano. “And to be in that situation where someone knows their part of the jigsaw so well is brilliant. That will always be an important record for me both because, yes it was very successful but also because it was an incredible experience to record musicians who were all working at such a level. Capturing a young Adele, who despite being confident as a person and as a singer probably didn’t realise the level of her talent and more importantly her instinct. She talked about it like, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if they used my song on Sex in the City?’ I mean, she’s the biggest artist in the world now, but back then saw that as a distant dream.
Recounting the formative work on Adele’s debut naturally had Richard thinking about what it is that makes a record great. “I think one of the things that worked so well for that record; not to take away from what we were there to achieve or how hard we worked to achieve it, was a low to medium commercial expectation from the label – suffice to say, nobody was expecting to shift millions of records and to that end we we’re left to get on with it. I think this is a prominent thing in record making; All too often when an artist is new and exciting and have signed for a large advance, the label will have very high expectations of the project commercially speaking. This results in them feeling a need to hire expensive production teams with big CVs who may or may not actually be invested in doing their best work on this particular project… or they may simply not be the right producer for the record. So we get many high budget records that don’t perform how the label need it to.”
“For me, when there is less need on the business side of things for huge commercial success, this is often where really exciting breakout records are made because decisions are based on the creative ambition of the artist, producer and the overall process far more than the commercial needs. There isn’t this the same fear that, ‘oh godm we’ve got X amount invested and we need hits so we need to tick boxes to get radio playlisting’. Instead there is a confidence that putting the artist with the right producer, whether that’s his friend in a bedroom, or a high end established name in a big name studio facility and making the most interesting record true to the artist and producer’s vision will connect with and engage listeners. These records often turn out to be the ones that connect with many more listeners and create huge stars of their creators. Artists like Adele, Amy Winehouse, Franz Ferdinand, Ed Sheeran and Arctic Monkeys all made their early offerings in this way because the labels put the art ahead of a need for commercial revenue.
“I think it’s a really exciting way of approaching record making and nods to the British bands of the ‘60s who would take a mobile recording truck to an interesting building somewhere and hole up for a few months to create a great record, this idea of, ‘let’s just do the best we can do in the environment we’re in and let’s all pull our weight to make something great’ is evident in the results of such records and is often a huge reason why records become successful or they cross into people’s consciousness – the creative process isn’t compromised in the name of commercial needs.
“I think what we did with Adele, which was eight or nine tracks, were initially the ones intended to be album tracks, while a couple of singles went elsewhere with co-writers intentionally to make something a bit more pop, with the aim of helping Adele ‘cross over’ – but with it being the early days of downloads, the figures spoke for themselves and a number of the tracks we did ended up becoming the singles because they connected, because people reacted to those and the download figures reflected that.
“There was something of a isn’t-she-great-let’s-do-the-right-thing-for-the-record attitude that we had at the studio that meant our tracks weren’t overcooked, they weren’t over-thought. I mean, the songs we did – we only did two with drums, which for a ‘pop’ record is unheard of. I think there was an expectation this might do X copies. The idea was: this is a really cool thing, she’s got a fantastic voice, she’s got some cool songs, let’s make a record with her, and it was made relatively quickly – over a period of six months, but not a lot of days.
“I reckon I edited three notes on that album, which is by modern standards…” Richard shakes his head, indicating this is an incredibly small amount of editing. The performances spoke for themselves.
It’s difficult to talk about Adele without segueing into a discussion on the current state of the music industry, and music production in general. Speak to some engineers, some audiophiles, and they’ll tell you that records aren’t produced as well today as they used to be. Headroom and dynamic range have been sacrificed for loudness in an effort just to stick a nose out in front of the competition. By some, this has been dubbed the ‘Loudness Wars’ and for a producer and engineer like Richard, it’s often seen as happening at the expense of great sonics.
“There’s a lot of pressure within the engineering/production/writing field, there’s a pressure, and an often unspoken belief that ‘louder is better’, that we are naturally drawn to believe that. Compare A and B. B is louder; ‘woah that’s amazing’.
“A desire to be louder has been there in many guises over the last 60 years, but it’s become a major issue in the last 15 since a move from tape recording to computers and the introduction of loudness limiters in those computers. Initially just a few engineers would use these fast, digital limiters which helped them to deliver seemingly more impacting (louder) masters, but it soon became commonplace and for the last 10 years so much music has come to be limited to extremes and I believe this is far more as a result of pressure or insecurity to compete with other records which have had success and which are also very, very loud.
Early on, the problem mostly reared it’s head in the mixing process but in the last decade, the loudness war has affected everyone throughout the production process, feeling the need to notch the volume of the track up little by little at each stage in order to “beat” the previous version of the song or compete with other relevant artists.
“So to break it down,” Richard begins, “start of the process: the artist goes in to work with a co-writer to come up with some songs and by the end of the day there are chords and a top line, they’ve put down some vocals and there is a demo of the basic idea. The writer may also be a producer, or they may also be a musician with basic demo engineering skills and equipment; at this stage it shouldn’t matter. The demo is simply to demonstrate the song. Maybe there is a beat, a bass, guitars, synths and a fairly rough vocal sung through a handheld mic next to the computer and covered in spill from the speakers. Either way, as the demo comes together and the day is drawing to a close, the writer wants this demo to knock everyone’s socks off and so they go for the easy fix and whack a limiter over the track, limiting to within an inch of it’s life in the hope of making up for the lack of finished production with impact or ‘loudness’.
“So from early on in a creative process, many people are heavily limiting (pushing the overall track level up until the track is now a lot louder and the peaks are hitting the limiters hard), and the artist, their manager and everyone at the label/publisher gets the demo and ‘wow it’s amazing’ – often because the song’s actually good, the melody’s good, the chords are interesting, and the drums sound nice. Not necessarily because it’s loud. But that immediately sets a precedent in the process. So now everything is referenced to this version. ‘The demo is so exciting’. It’s exciting because it’s a great melody, a good song, great words, raw energy etc. It can be for all manner of reasons, but it is probably not actually because it’s really, really loud. It’s a misconception that louder is better. But the loudness of the demo becomes a point of reference anyway.
“So, now let’s take that into production. They hire a producer – here’s the demo. Redo those drums, change the sounds a bit, etc. As the track comes together, they check the demo to see how it compares, to see if there is something they’ve missed that was good about the demo… ‘oh wow, it’s really loud. It’s really bright and loud’ and so the producers or engineer feel the need to make their new version a little bit brighter and a little bit louder so it “has the edge”. And so, this process goes on.
I think there’s a pressure on many in the creative process and there’s inevitably creative doubt with most of us and “louder” is a quick fix solution in the moment. Engineers/producers/writers these days seem to feel they must do this at their part of the process in order to remain competitive, and as a result, a great many creatives will hammer a mix even when it is to the detriment of the music for the sake of being louder.
I’ve personally had comments on a mix that, “the rough mix has a bit more excitement than where you’re at with your mix” reading between the lines and knowing that the rough is very loud, I have just limited mine even harder and sent it back and they reply with, “oh wow, it’s so great now”, not knowing all I’ve done is turn it up through limiting it harder. But you can’t say “Hey… see your volume knob, turn it up more… now is it better?” so to avoid this, you fall into the trap of sending heavily limited reference mixes out off the bat.
“So, it exists, it’s real. In an industry that has many freelancers who want to stay busy and who therefore need to ensure that they deliver great results whilst keeping clients happy, most play the game to ensure there is never any doubt. In music doubt can a very dangerous thing. Nobody wants there to be any doubt relating to their own part of the process.
“I should be clear that very few mixers that I know of actively mix through extreme limiting. Most will just add it as they bounce the reference mix that will be sent out. What is funny about this, is that once approved, the master will then be run off without the limiting and a more dynamic “quieter” master is then sent to mastering.”
“So you have now sent a version whose peaks are maybe 15 dB quieter with heaps more dynamic range than the approved reference mix, to a mastering engineer who (may) only choose to put 8 dB of limiting back on instead of the 15 you had because he doesn’t need to play by the same rules because at this point everybody is happy with the mix/production/song so often this detrimental loudening can become kerbed in the final stages, but often the mastering engineer feels he too has to compete against earlier versions.
“There is some light at the end of the tunnel on this however. Now we’re working more and more in the streaming realm we’re all starting to look at the LUFS metering system used by many streaming services and this form of metering is more about average levels rather than peaks and this approach is encouraging people to maintain more dynamic range and not feel the need to be as loud/squashed with their final masters. Despite this, final levels are still so often being dictated by meters and seemingly not by people actually listening to what is best for the recording.
“I think a lot of hi-fi lovers and reviewers will hear all this limiting and will criticise the mastering and engineering process – and they’re right to some extent – but I think it’s mostly the pressures on people in the creative process to maintain the momentum and the enthusiasm for the track with their music business counterparts. If the track starts slamming they want to keep it slamming at all costs.”
Of course, whilst there may pressures in the creative process, there’s also incredible output and Richard’s outlook on the future of music, in Britain in particular, is optimistic. Whilst discussing his work with Honne, he noted a wave of people making records with “really solid musical background and performance skills”.
“Since home recording on laptops became commonplace in pop music there has been a fall in the number of people learning to play instruments and general musicality in the traditional sense. Instead of picking up guitars, people are being more, ‘let’s get a laptop and bash a song out’. Recently however this appears to have changed and we are seeing plenty of really talented musical artists. Bruno Major, as an example: an incredible musician, self-producing, absolutely has the respect of everybody worth their weight in music right now. I haven’t worked with Bruno, I mixed something he wrote for another artist, but as a standalone artist-producer: brilliant. I think that’s happening more, artists like Honne, who’ve gone to music school, have a high level jazz background, incredible musicianship, understand the nuances of performance. Not just, ‘I know two chords! Bosh!’ punk ethos – and that is just as valid – but it’s great to work with artists like that and who hear the detail.
In addition to Bruno Major, a number of artists have Richard excited about the future of music. In particular, Richard highlighted new British band Banfi who he’s been working with. “They’re a brilliant new band signed to Communion Music and the record is one I am super proud of. Only a few tracks are out so far, but I think songs like Happy When You Go are great examples of a British band in 2018.”
We discussed the musicians and producers that have helped fuel Richard’s creative flame over the years. In addition to the formative music of Michael Jackson, A-Ha, Motown and the Flash Gordon soundtrack (one of only three records Richard’s dad owned), Richard cites American rock band Jimmy Eat World as an inspiration.
“Exceptional production. Almost, at times, in some of their early records, electronic production. That’s where I think I was really drawn to it – the idea of recording live drums and then chopping them up and creating soundscapes and textures that were real, but not real, has definitely contributed hugely to how I produce. I’m not afraid to go to a large live room record a drummer and then use the samples I’ve made to replace an entire beat because that’s an interesting aesthetic.
“I’m pretty sure their early records were produced by Mark Trombino, who I wrote to when I was 23 and said, ‘I want to come and work in America with you,’ and he said, ‘You’ll need a visa – good luck’. He’s a computer science guy, he studied music with computers and became an absolute leader in the manipulation of live recorded instruments and was a huge inspiration in my approach to production.
“He opened a lot of doors to what we could do with computers. I came in right at the end of analogue. In ‘98 when I started most things were coming in on a 48 track, two two-inch machines. It might have been dumped from midi from a sampler or drum machine or whatever. Richard Pierce, the owner of the studio I worked for at the time, which was the Pierce Rooms in Hammersmith, was very forward-thinking. He became involved with Pro Tools quite early on. One of the few studios in London that had Pro Tools installed from day one. He always pushed us into the idea that DAW technology was the future.
“Most of us were like, ‘Nah’, but he really, really pushed us and I probably pushed back at first but once I realised what you could do, which was the same time I was listening to these [Jimmy Eat World] records that were heavily manipulated real instruments, I definitely… I wanted to be able to do that. One of the things that helped me move forward was being really proficient at Pro Tools at a time when others in my position weren’t.”
Inspiration for Richard extends beyond just a handful of producers and engineers. Put on the spot there’s a handful of professionals he speaks about affectionately.
“Tony [Visconti]’s incredible because he’ll listen to a track and say something like, ‘I just think what it needs is a bassoon’ and you’ll be like ‘What?’ No one else will ever offer that up and he’ll have a musical reason as to why that instrument works so well to fulfil a sonic or musical objective.
“From an engineering perspective I worked with Steve Fitzmaurice very early [in my career]. He took me under his wing, taught me a lot. Taught me to never do less than you can, always do what you must for the song: stay later, start earlier. He’s very talented. He’s been involved in so many hits. One of the hardest working people I’ve been around.
"I worked with Craig Silvie. He’s a British-based American. I learned recording from him, absolutely phenomenal recording engineer. Tom Elmhurst: he’s a mixer I worked with for about 4 years. Brilliant. Very much more focussed on the song’s needs over sonic superiority, but he managed that at the same time!
“Alan Moulder – an absolutely phenomenal mixer. I grew up listening to his records without realising it – Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails – and he definitely had a great approach to mixing. Whereas a lot of people boost frequencies when they EQ, he would look for what’s preventing it from being exciting and take it away. He was one of the first people I worked with that would take low-mid out of things to give them clarity rather than always boost top. So, his records always sound very natural but also very exciting.”
Before we left Richard, we circled back to new music. He’s a staunch advocate of supporting new bands trying to carve out a path in a hugely competitive and increasingly challenging market – so much so that he asked to hear our photographer Harry’s band’s most recent demo, which had come up briefly in conversation at the top of the session. Richard’s career is one built around incredible music and, whether it’s an ambitious young, start-up knocking together their first demo, or an established act trying something new and exciting, his technical expertise has been there to get the very best from every session. For Richard, it is about making music.