Producer, singer/songwriter Trevor Horn has been at the forefront of technological innovation since his earliest work with The Buggles, in a career that has yielded countless classic singles and albums.
From Band Aid to Bob Marley, SARM West has seen some action over the years. One of the most prestigious studios in the UK, on the cold October day when I visit it's even more of a hive of activity than normal. It's less than a week before Produced By Trevor Horn, a one-off concert for the Prince's Trust will be held before an audience of 6500 at Wembley Arena. The plan is to celebrate 25 years of hit-making and get on stage some of Horn's most celebrated collaborators. Most of them are buzzing around SARM West this morning, and Mark O'Toole is in reception ready to rehearse with a reformed Frankie Goes To Hollywood. "It's great to have the Frankies around again," Trevor later tells me. "They just bring a real buzz to everything."
Meanwhile, in a lounge off SARM's main control room, Trevor Horn is methodically learning the bass line for one of his classic hits — Art Of Noise's 'Close (To The Edit)'. It was probably the first ever sampled and sequenced bass line, but he wants to get back to his roots and play it live on an electric five-string at the concert. On the wall is a whiteboard with the running order for the show. It's a Who's Who including Tatu, Seal, Frankie, The Buggles, ABC, Dollar, Propaganda, Pet Shop Boys, Lisa Stansfield and Yes. And on the coffee table are master tapes dug out of the vaults for an accompanying box set, which includes all of those artists plus Shane MacGowan, LeAnn Rimes, Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet, Godley & Creme and the Frames. The bass playing comes to a bit of an abrupt end when I unplug Trevor's bass amp to power up my tape recorder. What's it been like, I wonder, to go back through his earliest recordings to prepare for Wembley and the box set, and listen to how they were made?
"It's been astonishing," says Horn. "We've been going through multitracks for this show, and 'Living In The Pastic Age' and 'Video Killed The Radio Star' were both played. We played them from one end to the other because there was no way that you could drop in on the machine that we had. It was a 24-track machine that you could drop in on but it was very hard to get out. You had to do the backing track in its entirety, so both songs — 'Living In The Pastic Age' and 'Video Killed The Radio Star' — were started with just piano, bass, drums and a [Korg MP7] Mini Pops Junior rhythm box, which we played to.
"But listening back to the piano, bass and drums tracks was extraordinary. Paul Robinson played the drums on 'Video Killed The Radio Star' and Richard Burgess played the drums on 'Living In The Plastic Age', and I do remember that by the time we'd finished playing 'Living In The Plastic Age' Richard Burgess was pale! He was so worn out because we insisted that it sound perfect and that he played it perfectly. And the funny thing is that when you listen to it, it sounds like a drum machine. Both tracks sound like drum machines because at the time we were so manic about them having that spot-on perfect techno feel, not some sort of bullshit Elton John groovy album feel."
There are far more singers than bands in Trevor Horn's discography. "With a band you're lumbered with four or five people, and with a singer you're only lumbered with one person!" he says. "There's only one person you have to please and then you make the track around them. Bands are, traditionally, generally done by engineers. All a band really needs is someone to record them really well and stop them wandering off! And stop them going up their arses, generally. There's not really very many bands that I would like to work with or indeed would like to work with me — they'd have to be very brave I think. The kind of bands I've worked and been successful with are people like Yes. They were very imaginative people, they weren't like a normal rock & roll band. And the same with Belle & Sebastian — a very imaginative band, all very good musicians. But bands don't hand themselves over to you in the same way that singers do, because a singer just sings, so he or she needs a backing track, so therefore you have to generate a whole thing. But with a band you don't have to do that.
"If you're a musician it can be frustrating sometimes working with a band where if they'd all just sod off for a couple of hours you feel like you could sort it all out, but you're not allowed to do that because you're not allowed to play on it, because the people in the band are meant to play on it! It's a very different protocol with a band and there's very few bands that appeal to me. If I'm going to have to be stuck in a room with them for weeks on end... there's just very few.
"Belle & Sebastian are one of the few that I felt I could be stuck in a room with and actually enjoy. But I really didn't have very much input into their music. My input on their record was really just keeping the record going forward. Every minute, making sure it was going towards a result. A finished record, sooner rather than later."
Trevor Horn's move from pure playing towards the increasing involvement of technology began when he wrote and produced four tracks for Dollar. "The Dollar stuff was the first stuff I really produced, after being in Yes in 1982, and by that time I had a rig. Very few people had rigs back then, but I had one and it consisted of a Roland TR808 and a set of Simmons drum modules. Dave Simmons had modified my TR808 and put on a set of triggers so that the kick drum from the 808 would also trigger the Simmons kick drum. On top of that, I had a Roland sequencer. I've forgotten what serial number it was, but I've still got it somewhere. It had four buttons — 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D'. You put lists of notes in it and it played the list of notes. You sent a trigger to it. I used to use the cowbell from the 808 as a trigger — you sent it and it would play through the list of notes. So you might put four 'G's and an 'A' and a 'B', and however you played it, it would loop that list of notes. That sequencer was hooked up to a Minimoog that had CV and Gate on it. And with that rig I thee wed! You know, those CV/Gate things were much tighter than MIDI. They were spot bollock on! Spot on. Much better feel than just your normal MIDI rig these days.
"I could program in drums and very basic sequences using the Minimoog, and that's how I did the Dollar records. By the time Malcolm McLaren arrived, I'd got a Fairlight. I'd already seen one — Geoffrey [Downes, Horn's partner in The Buggles] had a Fairlight but he'd gone off to form Asia. So when he went, I bought a Fairlight. That, actually, I must admit, freaked my wife out because it was £18,000 and that was a fortune back then! There was only four of them in the country and I had one of them. But what was even more important was I knew what it was capable of, because I understood what it did. Most other people didn't understand at the time — sampling was like a mystical world... But when the Fairlight arrived there was no real way of locking it to my little rig. It was very primitive. I realised almost straight away that it was a full-time occupation for somebody, but luckily there was a guy called JJ Jeczalik [co-founder of Art Of Noise, now occasionally recording as Art Of Silence] who worked with Geoff Downes. He was bored and looking for work, so I did a deal with him and I gave him the Fairlight and he worked on it night and day.
"One of the first really interesting things we did that blew me away, was we sampled Thereza Bazar going 'aahhhh' and 'la! la!' And we used that on Dollar's 'Give Me Back My Heart' and it worked perfectly. What was clever about what we did, though, was that Thereza Bazar didn't just sing into the machine, we made up the samples. We 16-tracked her for every note. This was still in the days of analogue tape, and we bounced it down so we had a beautiful bed that was 16 tracks of her, across the range of an octave or whatever. And JJ disappeared into the back room and he spent weeks with her voice — fucking weeks! — and finally he wheeled it out and we played her onto the track. It was one of those fantastic evenings where I had to phone Thereza up and say 'Thereza, you won't believe it but we've put your backing vocals in from the Fairlight.' She didn't really know what we were doing, but when she heard it she loved it. How could you not love it? It was so good!"
The next year, things moved on further when Trevor started working with ABC on The Lexicon Of Love. "ABC was a slightly different ball game but it all became useful, because the first track we worked on was 'Poison Arrow'. They first played 'Poison Arrow' like a sort of live band in RAK Studios, and they played it quite well because they were pretty good musicians, so we had a recording of them and I said 'Is that what you want, or do you want it better?' And Martin Fry said 'I want it as good as it can possibly be.' And I said 'If you want it as good as it can possibly be we'll have to start again. And this is what I propose we do. We take the drum track and I'll program it into the TR808 exactly with David [Palmer, ABC's drummer]. We'll go through every note. And then we'll get a nice Simmons drum kit, so that will take care of the drum track, and then the bass part I'll program into this Minimoog and CV/Gate thing. We'll lay that down on tape and then you play on top of it. Play the drums and then play the bass, but we'll use it like 'tracing', you know?'
"They were completely into that, and I remember I brought the rig over, the Dollar rig, and it took me about 12 hours because to put a song into the 808 was a pretty buggy thing. You had to fuck around quite a bit and fiddle. You had to input the song in real time. You had to let it run through and make the changes as it ran along. That took a little bit of time, but eventually I got it and what we had was like a very crude blueprint of the song running from an 808. So that gave us a skeleton. ABC were fascinated by the idea of that. You've got to remember that we're talking about 1981/82 — the very, very early days of sequencing. But the technology progressed quickly, and by the time we did 'The Look Of Love' — which I think was the second track of theirs — I had a Linn drum machine. But even though we could program the drums into a Linn Drum I couldn't lock it to anything apart from tape, and that was sort of dodgy."
- Lisa Stansfield: The Moment (2004).
- Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003).
- Seal: Seal IV (2003).
- Tatu: 'Not Gonna Get Us' (2003).
- Genesis: 'The Carpet Crawlers' (1999).
- Art Of Noise: The Seduction Of Claude Debussy (1999).
- Tom Jones: 'If I Only Knew' (1994).
- Original Soundtrack: Toys (1992).
- Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells II (1992).
- Betsy Cook: 'Docklands' (1992).
- Marc Almond: The Tenement Symphony (1991).
- Lomax: 'Waiting In Vain' (1992).
- Seal: Seal (1990).
- Inga: 'Riding Into Blue (Cowboy Song)' (1990).
- Rod Stewart: Storyteller Box (1989).
- Paul McCartney: Flowers In The Dirt (1989).
- Simple Minds: 'Belfast Child' (1989).
- Pet Shop Boys: 'Left To My Own Devices' (1988).
- Grace Jones: Slave To The Rhythm (1985).
- Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984).
- Yes: 90125 (1983).
- Malcolm McLaren: Duck Rock (1982).
- ABC: 'Poison Arrow' (1982).
- Dollar: 'Give Me Back My Heart' (1981).
- The Buggles: The Plastic Age (1980).
"And then, if I remember rightly, the next thing I did after ABC was Malcolm McLaren. I used the same rig with Malcolm McLaren, again with JJ Jeczalik, except what happened with Malcolm was we went all around the world. We went to New York and we met DJs and people. The thing about scratching back in 1982, 1983, or whenever it was I did McLaren was that it was unheard-of over here. And actually 'Buffalo Girls' is the first rap record ever. The only other record with scratching before 'Buffalo Girls' that I know of was Grandmaster Flash's 'On The Wheels Of Steel', which is where he's just using a record and dubbing it — but not performing on top of it and having rapping and singing all on the same thing. So 'Buffalo Girls' was the first record and, believe me, it was no easy thing to work out. We were on it for weeks! It was one of those daft ideas. We had the World's Famous Supreme Team but the World's Famous Supreme Team were very conservative. I showed them the Fairlight — I thought their heads would explode, but instead their eyes went blank and they just wanted decks. Once I started to say 'digital Mellotron' — phew, it was a non-starter!
"By the time I did McLaren I'd bought an Oberheim sequencer and drum machine, a DMX and a DSX. I told the World's Famous Supreme Team to tell me their favourite drum beat. It took a couple of hours for them to actually communicate it to me, but once I'd got it, that was 'Buffalo Girls': 'du du — cha — du du — cha'. That was done on this DMX and DSX and they just scratched on top of that.
"It was an amazing time because it was all exploding. Just as the McLaren thing came to an end, Page R arrived on the Fairight. And that was gobsmacking because that was the first time you heard those sort of sounds sequenced. And that's where the Art Of Noise came from. We were in a very lucky position because when Page R arrived I was doing Yes. So I had Alan White's drums and it was Alan White's drums that became [Art Of Noise's debut single] 'Beat Box'.
"One of the big things at the end of the Yes album [1983's 90125] was that this gizmo came along called the Conductor. It was a device that allowed you to connect a Linn drum machine to Page R. And that might seem like a minor detail now but, boy, that was breathtaking for us back then, because it meant you could lock a Linn drum machine to Page R! And all of the early Art Of Noise stuff was locking things to Page R. The very first thing was 'Beat Box' and it came from JJ Jeczalik messing around with Alan White's drums while I was working on 90125. I brought the Fairlight into 90125 for all that stuff on 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart'. We did use the Synclavier also at the time, but all of that 'da, ba ba ba' and all that stuff — that was the Fairlight. So JJ was screwing around in the back room and I remember him playing me that 'Beat Box' drum loop and I said 'Jees, that's fantastic, they'll love that in New York.'
"I'd met Afrika Bambaataa at a club and I'd asked him who his favourite band was and he said The Guess Who. I said 'The Guess Who? That's a Canadian old-school rock band! "American womaann!..."' They turned into Bachman Turner Overdrive. I said 'You like The Guess Who?' He said 'Yeah man, I've got a live album and there's a great drum break.' This was in New York in like 1981/82, and so when I heard 'Beat Box' I knew that they would love that groove in New York because I'd heard something like it from Afrika Bambaataa looping The Guess Who."
Another notable feature of Trevor Horn productions from this period were some of the earliest and best 12-inch remixes, a genre pretty much defined by Horn's early Frankie, Art Of Noise and Propaganda ('Dr. Mabuse') 12-inches. "We were just messing around with sessions," explains Trevor. "And you know when we did the 'Red & Blue Mix' for 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart' it was a pretty mad sort of thing to do, because nobody really understood 12-inches over here. They were just kicking off, and I was like the king of them at the time because I'd heard a lot of them.
"The ABC guys had played me some of them. We did a brilliant ABC 12-inch of 'Look Of Love', it's an all-time classic. We put whole chunks of the track — as much of the track as we could — into the Fairlight and played it just by hand, the bits of the track with his voice and things. And it was breathtaking. I remember Malcolm McLaren being very angry about it — he didn't want me to do it because he thought it was taking away from 'Buffalo Girls'! And I remember him telling me on the phone 'I don't think that 12-inch of "Look Of Love" works,' and I said 'Well, it's number one on the American dance charts, Malcolm, so it must work for somebody!'
"It was all this technology that was just exploding at that time, and [Frankie Goes To Hollywood's] 'Relax' was probably the pinnacle of all that stuff. It was a combination of Page R and the Conductor and locking it to a Linn drum machine. So the basic track was eights running in a Fairlight ('eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh'), fours on a bass ('ee ee ee ee') and a set of Linn drum machine patterns locked to Page R played on top of each other. It was an amazing feel."
By the time Seal's 'Crazy' came out in the early '90s, however, Horn was bringing in external remixers and concentrating on the album versions. "I just didn't want to do any more 12-inches. I'd had fun with them, I'd done everything, you know. I'd had the dry ice machine! I'd just tried everything I could think of, and when you've had enough of it you'd rather do something else. I'd won Best Dance Producer — the Stanton Cartridges award — five years in a row in the '80s. I felt like I had to move on. I mean, when you've got a track like 'Relax' or 'Two Tribes' it's great. But when you've got a track like 'Power Of Love' to do a 12-inch of, it's bloody awful. It's boring! Nobody really wants a 12-inch of it."
Trevor Horn's second hit with Frankie marked yet another technological revolution: 24-track digital recording. "Back in the mid-80s we had 24-track Sonys. I had one of the very first 24-track Sonys in 1984. And 'Two Tribes' I think was the first number one single on a Sony 24-track digi. 'Two Tribes' was completely digital."
By the early '90s, however, Horn was moving from hardware to software in the studio. "The first program that I really got into was Studio Vision, and on the first Seal album, 'Future Love Paradise' was originally recorded with two tracks of MIDI, one track of audio straight into Studio Vision — the drums were MIDI drums, and a keyboard and Seal's vocals. That's how we started and we built it all on top of that. And that would have been '90/91, one of the first ones that I did. That's where all that stuff began.
"The minute I saw Studio Vision I sold all my PC stuff and bought a Mac. When I saw a Mac I realised it was the computer for me, because it was built for idiots. And I always hate anything too complicated. I remember I bought a load of Line 6 pedals because I saw on the box it said 'Bonehead simple!' and I thought 'That's me — bonehead simple!' I hate having to read the manual."
Not everything, alas, has been as useful or as instant as Studio Vision. "If there was one piece of gear that cost the most and was the least useful it would definitely be the Synclavier. It cost well over a quarter of a million dollars and it's still there in a cupboard. We used it on a few records in the late '80s, but then it became too cumbersome. We more or less — Lippo [Steve Lipson] particularly with the Frankie stuff — we really kicked Synclavier into shape because their sequencer was crap when we first got it. It wasn't even as good as a Linn drum machine!
"With the first Synclavier, we tried to sequence the bass drum playing fours on a four-on-the-floor. It sounded dreadful. We phoned them up and said 'Is your sequencer accurate?' They said 'Oh yes, absolutely accurate.' 'Is it really accurate?' 'It's absolutely accurate.' 'How accurate is it?' 'Well it's accurate, give or take 200 milliseconds.' 'What the..! You think that's accurate? I know people that can hear a millisecond!' And they were saying 'That's impossible, nobody can hear a millisecond.' I said 'I know somebody that can hear a millisecond — Chris Squire [Yes] can hear a millisecond.' Then it came back again and they worked on it and they said 'It's perfect now,' and we listened to it and we said it still didn't sound right. And they said 'It's perfect but it corrects itself every two bars, to within plus or minus 10 milliseconds!'
"We wanted it to be perfect. If you listen to a Synclavier sequencer, it's absolutely perfect now. They got it perfect but it took a few months, and then it was so incredibly slow to use because you had to put the tempo in as a coefficient of 120bpm. So if you were at 80bpm it had to be 0.66! It was immensely complicated, and I remember Lippo and I got very angry with them, Lippo in particular. So we had a little competition. We insisted that Synclavier come down and bring their best programmer, and we showed them this software that we'd bought that we were using in some PCs that was called Voyetra Octave-Plateau and they had their guy on the Synclavier. So Lippo was there on the Octave-Plateau stuff and I gave them a chord sequence and I said 'program that'. Lippo did it in 25 seconds on Octave-Plateau and the Synclavier people admitted that it would take at least 20 minutes on the Synclavier! And we said 'That's our case!' The Synclavier's finest hour was [Grace Jones's] 'Slave To The Rhythm' and after that it sort of faded off. We used it a little bit on Simple Minds [the Street Fighting Years album] because it sounded fantastic."
It's easy to see Trevor Horn's work as falling into two camps — highly experimental (Art Of Noise, Grace Jones's 'Slave To The Rhythm', Malcolm McLaren's 'Duck Rock'), and highly commercial, but according to the man himself, it's not quite that simple. "I though Tatu was quite experimental and yet it was also quite profitable. So you never know. As for some of the hack stuff — I'm just like anybody else, I've got to earn a living sometimes. But I still try not to do anything I really don't like to do. If I'm talking about earning a living, I'm talking about the kind of stuff that I occasionally do for films [he has produced soundtrack songs for the likes of GI Jane, Pearl Harbor, The Sum Of All Fears, Coyote Ugly and Anastasia]. That's much more in the making-a-living department. The only thing about the film stuff is it's such fun, because the people in the film business are such a laugh. And normally for me I'm just doing the song at the end of the movie. I don't have to get involved in all the craziness."
1992's Toys soundtrack saw Trevor Horn reunited with composer Hans Zimmer, his former bandmate in Buggles, as well as other previous collaborators such as Seal, Thomas Dolby and Grace Jones. "I had to generate all this music and it was my first time working with film. So I sort of grabbed people that I thought would be fun because I wasn't used to doing those sort of things. The problem was the film!
"Hans wrote the music for that — although not all of it — and there were a couple of good things on the Toys soundtrack," admits Horn. "You know, I turned the TV on a few years back in Canada. I'd been ill and couldn't go skiing, so I was going though the channels in Canada and I found Pavarotti performing 'The Closing Of The Year' [the lead song from Toys]. I was absolutely gobsmacked! I was like, where the fuck did they get this from? I was really amazed. I saw him singing with a full choir and it sounded great. The thing is there's so few Christmas songs, they're always desperate for them, and Toys yielded a Christmas song — although it doesn't directly reference Christmas because I was trying not to put it in one religious bracket."
Seal, however, is the only artist for whom Trevor Horn has produced more than one album. "I suppose the reason I've done so many records with him is I like his voice," says Horn. "We have a certain sort of musical empathy where certain things that he does really appeal to me — the way he sings and the kind of tunes that he writes."
These days, Trevor Horn works mainly in software ("I'd say that Pro Tools is a fundamental part of everything now. That's the universe that we all work in"), and has no truck with the idea that older methods produced different or better-sounding records. "I can't tell the difference between something mixed in Pro Tools and something mixed through a board. The only way I can tell the difference is there's more distortion from the board. You can't really tell. These days we all sort of work the same way — 'workstation working'. You can work on two or three different projects at the same time and it lets you effortlessly move from one session to the other. I think it's very easy to forget that back in the day you used to have to put up a multitrack and throw up the faders. It was much more complicated. That focused you in a certain way but there's no doubt, if you have 20 vocal tracks to go through, it's quicker having them in Pro Tools where you can look at them."
Although this way of working might make it tempting to load everything onto a laptop, however, he still prefers to use a purpose-designed studio.
"The older I get, the more I like to work in a proper control room. I did a few years of that, but the reality of it is, you're better off in a proper acoustically controlled environment where you can hear what you're doing and it all makes sense. I went through a phase of working in houses and working in strange places — a castle in Ireland and things like that. But in the end it was bullshit because it sounds crap and you can't really hear what you're doing. In a proper control room it forces you into being realistic about what you're recording."
With that it's time to unplug my tape recorder and plug Trevor's bass amp back in. Rehearsals were top priority for a show that — back in November now — became a mesmerising evening. A night of true one-off live performances (it was captured on film and is set for DVD release in May) it may have been, but the control room will always remain Trevor's natural habitat. "I'm going to scarper back into the studio," he said as he left the Wembley stage, "and I don't think I'll come out again for another 25 years!"