Rupert Hine: Les Negresses Vertes

Interview | Producer

Published in SOS February 1995
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Influential producer Rupert Hine this year celebrates 30 years in the music industry -- and he shows no signs of slowing down, with a current solo album on general release, and a string of new Hine-produced albums, including one for offbeat French combo Les Negresses Vertes, waiting in the wings. PAUL TINGEN talks to him about technology past, present and future.

 

A few years ago Rupert Hine made a radical decision. This music industry veteran, famed across the world for his production work for Tina Turner, Howard Jones and Stevie Nicks, and admired by many musicians for his innovative solo albums, sold his Atari computer and assorted software, and declared that the VDU screen "removes me from my own mental picture. When playing keyboards I do everything predominantly intuitively, with the tiniest glances at where I am on the synth, or to twiddle a knob. But I find sitting in front of a screen very restrictive. I have to look at these tiny-drop down menus and use a mouse to change operators. I'm forced into the parameters of the software and have to think about what I'm doing all the time. I hate it."

Hine's contention was that a musician, or any creator for that matter, works in two different modes: 'creative' and 'editorial'. Creative mode is characterised by an intuitive, stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas, whereas editorial mode is a much more intellectual and slower process, during which rough ideas are painstakingly restructured, abridged, and polished. According to Hine, musicians were forced too quickly into editorial mode by many forms of new music technology, notably computer-based sequencing, but also the parameter-access approach to programming digital synths. "When I'm in creative mode I want technology to get in the way as little as possible," he explained. "Basically I just want to press a button that says 'record', and go. But computer and keyboard technology is so enticing that it often starts leading the way. It's so easy to get sidetracked -- you can get lost before you've started."

Nevertheless, Hine stressed that "computer technology is an abolute blessing during editorial mode," and that it was not the technology itself, but rather the interface between man and machine that was to blame. Like many, he welcomed units like the JL Cooper hardware MIDI control surface and the JD800 synth as important steps towards musician-friendly programming technology. After all, if a car's indicator light switches were to be found on the dashboard under a sub-menu called 'Electrics', which was itself part of a menu called 'Controls', nobody would buy the damn thing, would they? Yet most of us continue to buy instruments organised in similarly laborious ways.

As an accomplished synth player and rhythm programmer, Hine was hardly likely to abandon all modern music technology. Instead he opted for those pieces of gear that he felt had the most user-friendly interface. Thus the Akai/Linn MPC60, a favourite of many musicians, became his main workhorse. When I recently interviewed Hine again, he remarked: "I still use the MPC60 as an arrangement tool. It's very user- friendly and irreplaceable as a drum programmer. The actual input stage is brilliant. For example, if you hold the repeat button down and sensitively move a pad around, you can create the most fantastic repetitive hi-hat or snare patterns. Whenever people who use other systems see me do this, they start drooling. I'm sure that's why it's still used a lot in the New York dance scene too."

ENCHANTING

These last words by Hine were spoken at Metropolis Studios in London, where he was mixing the debut album of Ezio & Booga, an intense vocal/acoustic guitar duo who might, by the time you read this, be on the verge of taking the world by storm. Their album, Black Boots On Latin Feet, out late January, is nothing short of spectacular, and was made in a very unusual way -- more on this later.

On with Hine's battle with music technology interfaces. The arguments that he put forward several years ago are still relevant today and should give every musician pause for thought. Unsurprisingly, Hine still stands by them and bemoans, for example, the fact that the JD800 has turned out to be a one-off. What is surprising, and at first comes across as a complete volte-face, is the return of the VDU screen to his home studio. After a recent upgrade, pride of place now goes to a Macintosh Quadra 650, with 4-track ProTools hard disk audio, StudioVision and SampleCell software. Hine grins at the sight of a pair of raised eyebrows and launches into an elaborate explanation for his unexpected move.

As far as being forced into the software programmer's parameters is concerned, he reckons that today's software is much more varied and user-friendly, with often "delightful and enchanting interfaces that we hadn't even dreamt of five years ago." He also believes that the new hardware recording interfaces that have recently come onto the market, such as Digidesign's Session 8, represent a significant step in the right direction. Hine: "The Session 8 is really like a dedicated hard-disk 8-track unit, with eight faders that double up for all kinds of functions. It also gives you tape transport controls, just like the MPC60, so you can press 'record' and go straight into creative mode without technological restrictions. I'm using the JL Cooper CS10 control surface with ProTools. It has the same eight faders with function buttons for solo/mute, etc, plus tape transport controls and several knobs that can have EQ/Aux sends and so on assigned to them. It's the first time that these hardware controllers have given you access to the main part of the program in a way that can truly be called ergonomic. In other words, most of the grumbles that I've had for many years are finally put to bed."

There are yet more reasons why Hine has decided to once again take the computer plunge -- such as the flexibility and DSP power that comes with the TDM busses and Nubus cards which are part of the Macintosh/ProTools setup. He looks forward to being able to slot his Lexicon, Eventide or Alesis effects into his brand new Nubus Extension Chassis, and reckons that the studio of the 21st century, where one computer equals a complete recording studio, is only a couple of years away. He adds: "It will happen with the rise of new computers like the Power PC. I could have bought a Power PC, but for me it made more sense to buy the Quadra now, because until they have fully developed and tested 'native' software for the Power PC, it's almost certainly going to have initial problems."

FLASHING LIGHTBULBS

The SampleCell and StudioVision software, Hine elaborates, were chosen because of their "seamless integration with each other and with ProTools". But it slowly emerges that the main reason for his shift back to computers lies somewhere else. Hine: "To me the really interesting advance in computer technology is that computers can now help with the performance aspect. It's currently much easier to let artists express themselves in the most rampant, passionate outbursts, and go back later and 'harness' the event. In one way, ProTools -- or any hard disk recording system -- simply offers a faster and more convenient way of doing all the things that I've been doing with tapes since the '70s: cutting and pasting things, playing them backwards, and so on.

"But now you can really alter the feel of performances with options like time stretch, pitch change, or time offset. The engineer I mostly work with, Stephen Tayler, and I have already been doing this with the Akai DD1000 to great effect. Last year I produced an album by Katey Sagal, an American singer and star of the TV comedy program Married With Children. We had a demo for a song she wrote, which she'd completely fallen in love with. The master recording was done in a different key and tempo, and she simply couldn't better her demo performance. In the end we took the demo vocal, re-pitched it and re-timed it with the time-stretch program, and used it for the master."

Though he's only had time to dabble with his new equipment, Hine is already trying to extend the limits of what's currently possible: "With visual morphing, you establish pin-point references in both images and morph between them. What if you could put reference points in your audio recording, as well as in a metronomic time underneath and drag them closer together, stopping at a certain percentage between the two? It could make the groove work better and would be an enormously useful tool. Another option would be to morph between the relative timings of different instruments, rather than to metronomic time. And it would also be great to be able to morph dynamics, or any other performance parameter. I rang up the people at Opcode and suggested this to them and could immediately sense lightbulbs flashing. I understand that they're now working on these ideas."

 

"To me the really interesting advance in computer technology is that computers can now help with the performance aspect."

 

According to Hine, time morphing of real performances would be reminiscent of some of the more subtle forms of MIDI quantising, but would sound more fluid and organic. Moreover, the idea of morphing performance parameters between instruments opens up the prospect of a computer interface that's almost identical in approach to the way a conductor conducts an orchestra. Imagine, for example, being able to relate the timing of the bass and bass drum to each other in a fluid and ever-changing way, in search of the optimal groove, or to hold back that brass section slightly in certain places, all with the help of a bunch of dedicated faders. It would require great processing power, because in-built time stretching and compression technology should ideally be working in real time, but Hine maintains that "it would immediately be a fun thing to do. Ninety-nine percent of the time people feel obliged to start off with metronomic time, or if they have tempo changes they're still premeditated and worked out. With this technology you could completely let go of that, and just play things the way you feel them."

GOOSE PIMPLES

From the adjacent control room comes the sound of Stephen Tayler mixing the forthcoming album from Ezio, the abbreviated name under which the duo's album will be released. Listening to Hine elaborate about how he recorded this album gives an indication of why he came up with his time morphing ideas. Ezio and Booga have been very successful as a powerful acoustic guitar live act, and aware of how many of today's over-produced records have strangled feel and performance by chaining musicians to a click track, Hine decided on a novel approach. He opted to record Ezio and Booga live in the studio, without a click track or other instruments, and then add percussion, drums, bass, keyboards, and electric guitar, all mostly played live albeit by Hine on keyboards. Hine explains his approach: "Jamie Cullum, the engineer on the project, and I simply whacked Ezio and Booga down completely live onto analogue and decided that if there were any dodgy bits in terms of timing or tuning, we could fix them later in the DD1000. We attempted to create a MIDI clock track by 'tapping' along with the master acoustic performance into Studio Vision. The problem is that if you take the time to input every quarter note or smaller it sounds unnaturally tight, yet with substantially less reference points it quickly becomes 'disconnected' in feel. Audio time-morphing would definitely do the job. Then the ability to morph between totally accurate 'tracking' and theoretical constant time would have been immensely useful. The final morph point could, and indeed should, be different for each instrument in the arrangement. Notator Logic Audio's 'groove quantisation' and Steinberg's excellent ReCycle program are recent developments already going in the right direction. Basically, Ezio and Booga are such good performers that we didn't have any real problems during the overdubbing stage. The only adjustments we made were done just before the final mix, and they generally consisted of the odd time stretch or time compression when we felt something sounded a bit clumsy. But this could just as easily have applied to a drum fill as a guitar groove." (Naturally, audio time morphing would have come in very handy in this situation.)

Allowing Ezio and Booga to play the way they're used to playing, and thus capturing their best possible performance, also had implications for the way in which they were recorded. The duo were separated by a glass partition, standing only four feet apart, always playing together. "Ezio's vocals and guitar were recorded at the same time, with him singing close into an SM57 or an AKG C3000 -- a very good vocal mic with many of the characteristis of the 414. They are very physical about the way they play, so we placed a stereo microphone pair in front of each of them to capture the guitars and cover the fact that they moved around a lot. On Booga's guitar there was a stereo pair of 414 mics, approximately 18 inches in front of him -- if he wasn't moving about, of course. We varied Ezio's guitar mics quite a bit because we were trying to get some kind of separation between his guitar and voice, not so much with a view to replacing things -- which we never did -- but more because we were thinking ahead to the mix and wanted to have the option of giving the vocals a different treatment than the guitar. But we never got or really needed great separation."

What he did get, though, were absolutely sterling performances, with Ezio and Booga really going for it, holding back the rhythm or speeding it up as they felt, building from a whisper to great climaxes and vice versa, and generally causing goose pimples. Around their two acoustic guitars Hine has built a framework of arrangements that embellishes but never takes over, and always leaves the music free to breathe. The mix is striking too, with the voice and acoustic guitars mixed far upfront, and the mostly acoustic guitar solos panned sharp left and right, and mixed so loud that they grab you by the throat. Somehow it sounds as if Hine had decided to take more risks with this album than he's done for a long time, and his approach, especially the stark mixing, is remniscent of some of the radical approaches of American producer Mitchell Froom (see SOS November 1994).

DECONSTRUCTION

Hine has admitted to being a fan of Froom's recent deconstruction of current rock 'n roll production cliches in his work with Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos and Latin Playboys. "What he's doing reminds me of what I did 15 years ago, in the sense of trying to cleanse yourself of everything that is current and familiar, and trying to re-invent yourself. You drop everything you know and go back to whacking a bucket and yelling at the top of your voice, to try to find out what's essential to you. I think that this process is necessary for all of us at some point. It's a way of re-exciting your sonic taste buds. I very much felt like this around 1981, when I'd done 10 years of record production, and my work was getting more and more sonically beautiful and carefully sculpted. I just wanted to throw all that away and find out again what excited me without reference to professional techniques or classy sounds."

The album that resulted from this process was Hine's third, and most influential solo album, Immunity, for which he created a unique sonic universe with aids such as tape loops, kitchenware, hoovers and over-the-top processing. So strange were the sounds that many erroneously thought that he had used the Fairlight and was drawing heavily on new synthesizers. Highlight was the stunning 'I Hang On To My Vertigo', featuring a hypnotic rhythm track consisting of an CR78 drum machine fed into a pitch to voltage convertor. His other two early '80s solo abums were equally adventurous, but since then his emphasis has shifted away from sonic innovation and back towards bringing the best out of good songs with minimal distraction.

FRESH AIR

Another acoustic record to benefit from Hine's production skills was the exquisite debut CD of Milla Jovovich, The Divine Comedy. The youngest model ever to grace the cover of Vogue at age 12, and an actress who'd starred in Richard Attenborough's Chaplin as Chaplin's first wife, Milla was still only 16 when work on the album began. What could have been an exercise in naive or over-produced music turned out to be one of the best albums of 1994, even though Milla's singing and song writing skills clearly still need sharpening. Hine produced half of the tracks, which feature himself on keys, keyboard bass and percussion programming, and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's Geoffrey Richardson on instruments such as acoustic guitar, mandolin, violin, viola, flute or whistles. Milla's album was recorded during 1993, and Hine's production approach on it was similar to the way he's tended to work in the past. He mapped out the arrangements with MIDI equipment, such as the Emu Proteus 1, 2 and 3 modules, Procussion and Proformance piano module, Korg Wavestation, MPC60 and the Peavey Spectrum Bass module, and then replaced sections with 'real' instruments. A similar approach was used on his highly enjoyable solo album The Deep End, the first release under his own name since 1983. It contains 14 mostly excellent songs, even though the arrangements sometimes sound rather 'conventional'. Hine: "These songs were collected over a period of seven years. It's a real songwriter's album, something that I haven't done since my first two albums. I abandoned any attempt at trying to be original with sounds and tried to concentrate entirely on bringing out the song. If the first idea that came into my mind was a standard string sound that gave me the right feeling, I used it."

The equipment that Hine used on The Deep End is the culmination of 12 years of acquisition, including a Prophet T8, Prophet VS, Roland D50, Korg Wavestation, Emulator 2 with CD-ROM, and a DX7II, plus a Soundtracs IL3632 desk and Studer A820 24-track. Hine reveals that all of this gear (bar the Wavestation), plus a few other items such as the PPG Wave 2.2, are sold or for sale. "I'm fed up with these keyboards," he exclaims, "I've had enough of them." It gives The Deep End very much the feeling of a break from an era, a feeling which is strengthened by his comment that the album may mark a break from his working relationship with Jeannette Obstoj, his lyricist of 15 years, and by the fact that, arrangement-wise, the freshest tracks on The Deep End are the collaborations with the dance band Underworld.

With a collection of excellent acoustic albums under his belt, where will Hine go next? He denied that he now suddenly sees himself as an acoustic producer, but acknowledged that he's recently been attracted to this area: "I've never thought of myself as being especially interested in acoustic instruments, other than as simply being one specific set of colours in the overall sonic palette. And yet the projects I've recently been most attracted to have all been acoustic. The Deep End was definitely a cleansing process for me, and my next record will be very different. It will centre around much more conceptual ideas that have to do with the most extreme possibilities of the human voice."

 

LATIN PLAYBOYS: RECORDING LES NEGRESSES VERTES

Another recent Hine production is the third album from French gypsy/folk group Les Negresses Vertes, to be released on Virgin in February of this year. It's called Zig Zague and finds the group in superb form, despite the fact that their lead singer and main song writer, Helno, overdosed and died a couple of years ago, an event which fans and critics initially assumed to be the end of the band. But on Zig Zague Les Negresses Vertes sound in better shape than ever before, with great grooves and infectious, spontaneous playing doing justice to a bunch of excellent songs.

Hine explained that the album was recorded in a 19th century hotel in the French Pyrenees that was ideally suited to accommodate the wild and raunchy playing style of the band. "I'd joined them for pre-production towards the last week during rehearsals in Paris. Their tight grooves and arrangements were largely in place, and my role was mainly editorial: stripping away what was too much, or choosing between different arrangement options they had worked out. They were aware of the successes that they'd enjoyed in the UK and in New York with dance remixes of their stuff, and because their rhythm section had sometimes been a bit messy in the past, they were determined to get it absolutely right this time. What's great is that they rehearse in a circle, all facing each other. The person who sings, and there are four of them, jumps into the middle with a hand-held mic, and they therefore feel obliged to entertain. There's a lot of Latin temperament flying about."

As with Ezio, Hine and Cullum recorded Les Negresses Vertes in a way that was most likely to draw out good performances. The large central reception area of the hotel was turned into a recording area, with beds, mattresses and curtains functioning as acoustic screens. Hine: "The screens were never so high that they couldn't see each other. We recorded all nine members live at the same time, including the vocals, and then went back to replace what we felt needed replacing. You can get very neurotic about it, but we felt that we didn't need total separation. Only the drums would have been impossible to replace, so I had to make sure that they were absolutely right when they went down. The vocals were later overdubbed in an adjacent hotel room with the singers jumping around, holding an SM57, and singing with out-of-phase speakers -- the usual ploy for limiting monitor spill. There is one other interesting and unusual footnote to the album. All reverbs, ambiences, echos, etc, are natural and the product of the fantastic variation of recording spaces and acoustics in the hotel itself."

 

UNFINISHED PICTURE: RUPERT HINE BIOGRAPHY

Hine's recording career started in 1965 when he was 16 and recorded a single for Decca. In the early '70s he produced two solo records, Pick Up A Bone and Unfinished Picture, that were commercially unsuccessful. But his production approach attracted attention, and production offers began to roll in. Over the next decade, he produced artists such Kevin Ayers, Yvonne Elliman and Camel, and also had a self-penned hit in the mid '70s ('The Lone Ranger') with the band Quantum Jump. Towards the end of the decade he started the successful UK studio Farmyard, with former Quantum Jump drummer Trevor Morais.

The '80s saw Hine generally shifting into a higher gear. Apart from the influential Immunity (1981), there were two more solo albums, Waving Not Drowning and The Wildest Wish To Fly (1982 and 1983 respectively), and his involvement in Tina Turner's comeback album Private Dancer (1984) was one of his greatest artistic and commercial achievements. He also produced tracks on her subsequent albums, Break Every Rule (1986) and Foreign Affair (1989), as well as working on albums by Howard Jones, The Fixx, Rush, Bob Geldof and Saga. He recorded three albums with his own band, Thinkman, between 1986 and 1990, which were, for the most part, released only in Northern Europe, where he has a substantial following as a solo artist.

During the late '80s and early '90s, Hine produced Stevie Nicks' Other Side Of The Mirror, and more albums by Rush and Bob Geldof. One of the highlights of his career was, without doubt, the environmental chain tape One World One Voice (1991), featuring hundreds of artists, including Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega. He was also involved as keyboardist and producer in the band Spin 1ne 2wo, featuring Paul Carrack, Steve Ferrone, Phil Palmer and Tony Levin, which released one album in 1993.

Last year saw productions by Hine of Katey Sagal, UK band This Picture and the French band Touch, as well as the album The Divine Comedy by Milla. He also released his sixth solo album, The Deep End. At the beginning of this year, his productions of Les Negresses Vertes' Zig Zague, and Ezio's Black Boots On Latin Feet will hit the record shops. Hine, who currently lives just outside Paris, sold Farmyard Studios in the late '80s. Together with Morais, he recently set up a new studio called El Cortijo in an idyllic location in the south of Spain, close to Malaga.

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