Half an hour before the Brit Awards kicked off at Earl's Court in February, I homed in on John Leckie, seemingly lost in a reception full of anonymous record company execs, and wished him luck as a 'Best Producer' nominee. "You're bound to get it," I said, reminding myself of the year in which he was responsible for Kula Shaker's chart-topping K, Cast's uplifting million-selling debut album, and the first release by ex-Take Thatter Mark Owen. "I doubt it," he replied. "There's a lot of competition." It was a sign of the current popularity of the British guitar band that he wiped the floor with this perceived competition and rose to the lectern to collect the UK's ultimate producer accolade. A broad grin appeared across my lips. It was as if Music had come home.
Leckie's award came almost 27 years to the day that he walked through the doors of Abbey Road Studios for the first time as an EMI employee on February 15, 1970. Initially hired as a tape op, he quickly progressed to the position of balance engineer. But for all his early success in music recording, his original ambitions lay in the movie world. After completing a two-year course in film and television at Ravensbourne College of Art, Leckie turned down opportunities with the BBC and the newly-launched London Weekend Television to make obscure 16mm films at a small Wardour Street film company. Although the job lasted for just five months it was a useful outlet for Leckie's vivid imagination.
He says: "I was heavily inspired by the weird underground avant-garde films that were happening around 1968 and 1969, but there was a major obstacle preventing me from becoming a film director: I couldn't get into the ACTT [Association of Cinema and Television Technicians]." Survival tactics took over and his other great interest, music, provided the means for a new direction. Whilst at college, Leckie had written a thesis on electronic music, based on information gleaned from liner notes of albums by Stockhausen and the few other serious electronic composers of the late '60s. "I tied it all in with Hendrix and Floyd and the whole underground psychedelic movement, which was what I was into. I was always into experimental media, whether it was film or music, because it was stretching boundaries beyond their perceived limits."
Already familiar with the basics of putting sound on tape through his experience with film, Leckie decided to blanket the London recording industry with applications for non-existent jobs. He struck gold when EMI was the only company to reply. "I was offered an interview and got shown around Abbey Road, then three months later I received a letter asking me to start as a tape op the following Monday. Like every other new starter, I spent the first couple of weeks sitting around watching what the engineers did on a session and suddenly the guy wasn't there any more, so I was asked to take over. It was 100% practical experience and exactly what I wanted. The last thing I was interested in was training for two years with the BBC and sitting exams before I did any actual work."
At the time of Leckie's arrival, around 90% of Abbey Road's workload was EMI recording artists, and it was from the studio's Progress Office that the whole process of a record release was managed -- from the A&R department's booking of a session to the final mastering. Leckie saw it all, and when he was not directly involved in a session, he would find various essential tasks to fill his hours. "White label test pressings were always approved here, and checking their quality was often a good way of generating overtime money," he recalls. "You'd have a pile waiting for you which were identified by a catalogue number, not by an artist's name, and you would listen out for excessive noise, pops, clicks or jumps, and reject them if necessary.
"Another little job we had to do was the banding of 15ips quarter-inch tape copies which came to us from Capitol, or overseas subsidiaries like the Russian label Melodia or ABC Dunhill [once famed for Steely Dan]. They would arrive without white leader tape between tracks, so in breaks from sessions, I would spend an hour or two putting leader tape in the right places, and then top and tail it with white leader at the front of the tape and red at the end. If you were quick and did it in half an hour you could knock off early and go down the pub!"
Times may have changed but there are some aspects of working at Abbey Road which remain the same, such as the wide range of musical disciplines faced by the staff engineers. "Because of the huge range of music recorded here, engineers have always had the opportunity to work with different styles and become acquainted with the various demands of each type of session. When I was on the staff in the early '70s, it was expected that even though you might have stayed up half the night with Pink Floyd, you had to be in the next day to prepare the studio for a German opera singer. Even now, a young assistant engineer might find himself working on a four-week Oasis project and then go straight into recording a solo piano concerto. Abbey Road is one of the few studios in the world where you can gain that breadth of experience."
One of the first hard lessons learned by Leckie was that he and all of his young colleagues were dispensable. A session would always continue in his absence and should things go critically wrong, there would always be another wide-eyed, aspiring engineer ready to fill his shoes. He also discovered that accidentally erasing an in-progress tape could be dangerous to one's health! "When it's no one's fault but yours, because you pressed the red button, you just want to die. It only takes once and you don't wipe anything for six months or so because you double-check everything."
The tape operator's role was well defined in the era which pre-dated the use of the multitrack remote controller, and much responsibility was placed on the shoulders of the young Leckie as he nervously activated the controls of the tape machine. He says: "It was always someone's very specific job to start, stop, rewind and fast-forward the tape. That was the tape op's first priority because at any time the producer said 'Run the tape' or 'Go back to the second verse', the whole focus had to be on being able to act on his instruction as quickly as possible. It was down to you to record the tracks, do all the drop-ins and take care of the headphone sync mix, while the engineer positioned the microphones and made the balance on the desk. Invariably you had to be one step ahead of what everyone else on the session was thinking, but also be ready to go one step back. If you were working with a nutty producer like Phil Spector, you would never assume anything, and when he said 'Run the tape' you would need to know what song he was talking about. He'd say 'Play that song again!', and you'd rewind to the beginning of the track you'd just been working on and hit the play button, only to hear him yell 'Not that song, the other one!'. It was hard to know what was going through his mind most of the time."
Leckie is referring to the unique experience he gained within less than a year of joining Abbey Road when he 'tape opped' on the Phil Spector-produced sessions for George Harrison's All Things Must Pass triple set and the John Lennon/Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band albums, their first collections following the break-up of The Beatles. Along the route to excellence, however, a control-room nightmare resulted in Harrison's track 'Awaiting On You All' appearing in a shorter form on All Things Must Pass. "We were working with 3M 8-track machines on which the tape wound past the record head, around a roller and past the playback head in a kind of elongated 'S' shape. Running at 15ips, you had a good half a second between playback and record which, obviously, was a consideration when dropping in. You really had to drive these machines and slow them down before you slammed them into fast-forward.
"I was having a few problems controlling one of these machines and kept complaining to the famous maintenance guy Eddie Klein (now the manager of Paul McCartney's private studio in East Sussex). He said 'Oh, don't worry about it, I can't fix it now.' Five minutes later, during George's vocal overdub on top of the finished track, complete with strings and horns, I pressed fast-forward and stop, and the tape went flying across the room. My heart was in my mouth. I panicked and said in a quivering voice, 'It wasn't my fault, Eddie said it would be alright!' Fortunately the tape was retrieved, but I suspect part of the recording may have been damaged amidst the chaos."
Leckie survived the Spector sessions, credibility intact, and went on to work on a vast array of fascinating projects as an Abbey Road staffer during the 1970s, including Pink Floyd's Meddle, Be Bop Deluxe's Sunburst Finish and the early albums of Magazine and Simple Minds. By July 1978, however, he was faced with the choice of either remaining loyal to EMI or taking the huge leap into the world of the unknown as an independent producer/engineer. He explains: "I had produced XTC's first album [White Music] at The Manor during my holiday in late 1977 and purposely didn't tell anyone at Abbey Road about it. Although I had been working with Be Bop Deluxe in other studios, they were an EMI band so it was OK, and I could have recorded XTC at Abbey Road but not at a non-EMI studio. There had to be an EMI element and I was threatened with the sack if I stepped out of line. By the summer of '78, XTC had become quite successful and were ready to do their next album [Go 2] at The Townhouse, so I felt compelled to explain my predicament to my studio manager. But he once again told me that I'd be fired if I worked with them at The Townhouse. EMI wouldn't hire my services out to Virgin, so I had to leave."
Interestingly, Leckie's success has been totally built on a foundation of British artists, even though he has been offered the chance to produce American bands. Whilst with EMI, he turned down a job with Capitol Records in Hollywood, preferring to stay in Britain where, he says, the harder-edged music had more appeal. This decision, made exactly 20 years ago, ultimately steered him towards his landmark achievements in the '90s. "Britain in 1977 was a really exciting place for music but what was going on in America was the Eagles and a lot of what I'd call unadventurous, old-fashioned crap. I decided it was more happening in the UK and returned home.
"There are some great things in America; it's a land of extremes. You can always tell an American band from their attitude and the way they've learned to play, which is very different from the British method. An American band in rehearsal will jam for three hours, whereas an English band's idea will be to sit around and talk about it! I think there's more craziness and eccentricity here, which leads to greater invention. American music tends to be a little too conventional for me. The contrast between the UK and US dance scenes is a good example. In the UK it is a thriving market with some incredible, creative music that is more than just music to dance to; it's constantly breaking down the boundaries, and is everything I aspired to when I was at college in the late 1960s. What's happening in dance music today is not too dissimilar from what the Floyd were thinking about in 1968, but they didn't have the simple technology that people now have at their disposal to create the sound. If they or Hendrix had used it then, the results would have been phenomenal."
So is the dance market something that interests him as a producer? "Yes: it's all about fantastic sounds and there is immense control, but it seems that the best things happen when it goes out of control. That's when I get a buzz from dance music. I'm not inspired when I hear it thumping away in a predictable manner. It's the same with humans playing guitars and drums in bands. American musicians probably find it more difficult to get out of control than their British counterparts."
Since producing tracks such as the seminal 'Fools Gold' by The Stone Roses, Leckie has gone on to help define the sound of today's British guitar pop music with Radiohead, Cast, Kula Shaker, Ride and others, although he is the first to concede that finding an identity for each of these bands has been the result of a two-way partnership. "I feel that my input as a producer can only work if the band's music is already of a high standard before I step in. The bands I choose to work with are those who are halfway towards the sound that will happen on record because of their live work, and I think I contribute the other half in terms of communicating ideas for them to act upon or guiding them in that direction."
This 'other half' may include flavouring music with Leslie speakers, Mellotrons and other exotic hardware. "Both Cast and Kula Shaker are known for their use of Leslies and Mellotrons, and that comes from me. I just turned on the Leslie one day and they loved it. I might choose to set the Symphonic effect on an SPX90 and speed it up, but when you make the effort to use a real Leslie and you can find one that doesn't rattle or hum, it is a very special sound because it's the Doppler effect and it has a life of its own. Knowing when to use it is part of the secret. [Cast frontman] John Power instantly fell in love with the sound and, of course, there were all kinds of observations like 'It sounds just like [The Beatles'] 'Blue Jay Way''. The way I record drums and get a certain sound also appeals to them. What I hope I can do above everything else is capture the spirit of a band on stage so that when you see them play live after liking their record, it's not a big disappointment."
Cast's 1995 first album, All Change, was briefly the biggest-selling debut in the history of Polydor Records, and legend has it that immediately upon hearing their demos, an impressed Leckie headed straight for Liverpool, urging the band to hire him as their producer. What was it that attracted him? "The first thing I noticed was the quality of the songs and John's voice, which I knew anyway, having produced The La's. I could tell where John's head was at. When I heard 'Walkaway' it was a very scratchy acoustic guitar demo but I could tell it had the potential to be a classic record."
Nearly two years on, Cast are back with their second album, Mother Nature Calls, an incredibly mature and diverse collection of songs and styles, with Leckie once again at the production helm. The major difference between the albums (apart from the fact that Mark 'Spike' Stent mixed the new release) was in the approach to the sessions. Whereas All Change consisted of material routined on the road before recording, Mother Nature Calls relied almost totally on new, previously unperformed songs which were arranged with Leckie's input during a two-week stretch of rehearsals. There was also a glimmer of complacency to overcome. Says Leckie: "We made the first album for ourselves and there was a lot more excitement. This time there was the comfort factor which came from knowing that whatever we did was ultimately going to sell a substantial number of records. But I still wanted to make a great album and they needed a bit of a kick from me to get going!"
Backing tracks for Mother Nature Calls were recorded over four weeks at RAK Studio 1, in the room which Leckie eagerly describes as "the best in the country". After the Christmas break, Cast relocated to the Sawmills in Cornwall where they re-worked the backing for 'Free Me', 'I'm So Lonely', 'She Sun Shines' and 'Mirror Me', and recorded guitar overdubs. It was at this point that the clock seemed to be ticking too fast for comfort.
"Our original plan was to do all the backing tracks at RAK, the vocal and guitar overdubs at Sawmills and then mix in Studio 3 at Abbey Road, but somewhere down the line we ran out of time and ended up doing more recording when we got to Abbey Road. That included B-sides, for Christ's sake! Right at the end of the project, when 'Free Me' was about to be mastered for the single, the label were saying 'Give us as many B-sides as you've got, a minimum of four and a maximum of six. We need them now, finished and mixed, for the dual-format CD singles.' So I suggested to Cast that every night after dinner we should go back into the studio at 9pm and bang out a B-side by midnight, and by the end of the week we'd have five of them. I had the same problem with Radiohead, where a single was brought out before the album was finished, so you have to abandon the album for a while until you've delivered these bonus tracks. This is a major distraction to your focus on the main event. So my advice to any band is to get the B-sides recorded and out of the way before you concentrate on the album, otherwise your judgment can be damaged."
Much acclaim has been accorded to the guitar sounds Leckie captures in the studio. His miking technique usually involves the mixture of either a Shure SM58 or 57 dynamic mic with a Neumann 87 or 67 condenser. "There's obviously an amazing difference in the sound and coloration you get from adjusting the balance of each of those mics, and you can get radically different textures depending on your mix of the two. I always have the mics positioned right up close to the guitar cabinet, literally touching the speaker cloth, and never two feet back, no matter how loud the cabinet's being driven. Whether you have the mics in the centre of the speaker or to the side, off-axis, is a matter of experimentation. I tend to prefer a 58 because I'm not overly keen about the top lift of a 57. A lot of it is down to perfect tuning and the tone you get on the amp in the first place, because if you have a shitty sounding amp, it'll still sound bad no matter what you do in the control room. If the guitar sounds great in the room, that's most of your battle won. Very rarely do I use any ambient miking away from the cabinet. I might do on the odd solo or for a special effect, but it certainly is not the rule."
To my surprise, Leckie informed me that many of the guitar tracks on Mother Nature Calls (including the main riff of 'Free Me') were recorded with a £30 battery-powered miniature Fender Twin replica. "It wasn't out of laziness but because it sounded so great! I placed a 58 on the speaker and just added a touch of low-end EQ on the desk because you don't get too much bass out of those toys! One of the things about recording guitars is that although there are no rules, you have to be careful with EQ."
Maybe as a throwback to the era in which Leckie began his career, he is an enormous fan of the psychedelic-hued backwards guitar. This is mirrored in the new Cast track 'She Sun Shines'. He says: "I normally turn the multitrack tape over and get the guitarist to play completely spontaneously, do a few passes, then use the most interesting sections. The most difficult aspect of recording in this way is to know where you are in the song, and the result essentially depends on where the guitarist's head is at on the day. That's the beauty of the whole backwards guitar thing -- you never know what you're going to get until you turn the tape back over and play it. It's full of surprises and often if you are lost for an idea, the backwards thing might just produce a magical phrase that sends a track in a new direction.
"You can, of course, sample some guitar licks and reverse them via the sampler, and if it sounds good, then great. But if the whole point is to have a random feel, the old manual method of turning the tape is the best. One of the features of 'She Sun Shines' is Skin's backwards guitar riff which we spent a lot of time on and is actually a sample loop that was used by Brendan Lynch on the original demo of the song. However, if Skin had played to the reversed multitrack I'm sure a lot more strange ideas would have evolved."
Obviously, working with guitars has its limitations and there are few ideas and sounds left for Leckie to discover. It is not surprising, therefore, that he is constantly on the lookout for unique touches to add to his clients' tracks. His subtle contribution to 'Live The Dream', a wispy, swampy sound which appears in gaps between the vocal lines, is a typical example. He explains: "It was a sound I found on a Roland Sound Canvas (the actual setting of which shall remain a trade secret!) and I just pushed it up to the highest possible octave so that it no longer sounded musical, but instead produced an effect. I just love taking things to the edge and I've often stayed up all night listening to some of the craziest noises to see if they'll fit. Suddenly you'll hear something that totally captivates you and you then try to see how you can incorporate it without it sounding false. It's great to work with people who'll allow you to do that."
With so much attention given to Leckie's guitar-orientated achievements, it is easy to forget that ethnic music has played a significant part in his career. In 1981, he spent three months in Nigeria at EMI's studio in Lagos (the venue for Wings' Band On The Run) to assist with its transition to 24-track, and it was there that he recorded native artists such as Fela Ransome Kuti. He even rates his involvement in the Real World Recording Week (both in 1992 and 1995) as his most enjoyable studio experiences to date.
He says: "The whole studio complex is completely taken over by little World music projects. In '95 there were 16 separate recording areas, with everything from 48-track digital in the Big Room to ADATs on the lawn. It was held on the same weekend as the WOMAD festival, so we'd have all kinds of musicians walking in and contributing something to various recordings. It's like a mini commune, with everyone recording and the most unlikely groups of people collaborating, and totally unlike a normal studio environment where egos are at stake. Because there is no commercial goal the ideas flow differently and musical risks are constantly taken. It's just for the music -- you'd be sitting there with African drummers, Billy Cobham, Iggy Pop and Joe Strummer, and there'd be people calling each other saying, 'Hey you, can you play violin?' And you'd suddenly find yourself embroiled in a bizarre session."
Being awarded the 'Best Producer' prize at the Brits is something of which Leckie is naturally proud, but more than anything he sees it as a reflection of the healthy British music scene. "I think it's a really good sign that I got it rather than Trevor Horn!" he laughs. "I always tend to pick new bands and do their first couple of albums, by which time they have got an established sound of their own. That's the period in a band's career when they tend to be at their inventive peak and have the most energy. It is also when you are essentially recording them as they really are."
He is quick to point out that the award could have a negative effect. "Some bands who might have wanted to work with me before might take the view that I'm now in a different league and would not be on their level any more, which is probably very far from the truth. So that sort of acclaim can work against you. It's for a slightly similar reason that I'm debating whether or not I should produce the next Page & Plant album. I was approached by them because they liked Radiohead's The Bends. Peter Jenner, Billy Bragg's manager, recently told me that if I did it I wouldn't be hip any more. But I suppose that would depend on how the record turned out! It would worry me if people believed that just because I've won the Brit award, I've turned into Mr Big Time with a Rolls-Royce, because it will always be the fresh young bands who excite and inspire me."
Just a few months after joining the Abbey Road team, John Leckie received a major injection of experience as the tape operator on the sessions for George Harrison's classic All Things Must Pass album, co-produced by Phil 'Wall Of Sound' Spector, whose employment of a white chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and an armed bodyguard were viewed by several staff as being sinister and threatening. Leckie recalls: "I worked on nearly all of that album, which was recorded mostly in Studio 3 from April right through the summer of 1970. My experience of the Phil Spector sound was that it had less to do with the studio itself than the large amount of musicians playing together simultaneously in the same room. There were two drummers (Ringo Starr and Jim Gordon), two bassists (Klaus Voormann and Carl Radle), two pianists (Gary Brooker and Gary Wright), two organists (Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock), four acoustic guitarists (Badfinger), two electrics (George and Dave Mason), Bobby Keys on sax and Jim Price on trumpet, and a lot of it went down live.
"There were also a lot of overdubs with strings, guitar solos, vocals and backing vocals, and some of this work was done at Trident, which was the only studio in 1970 with 16-track facilities, and that was important for things like the massed 'Hare Krishna' vocals on 'My Sweet Lord'.
"Phil Spector was used to the 'what you hear is what you get' idea of recording and would expect the reverb and delay effects normally only heard through the monitors during recording to be put on tape. At his request we would have two or three machines running for tape echo delays, and a lot of time was spent working delay times out via the monitor. The next day, we would come in and Phil McDonald would pull up the faders and put all the reverbs and delays back into place because they weren't on tape. Of course, it never sounded exactly the same as the previous day, and Spector would know that and so he insisted that the effects and music were as one on the multitrack. So on things like 'My Sweet Lord' and 'Wah Wah' a lot of the reverbs were recorded. It was, of course, the album which defined George's double-tracked slide guitar style and also the one which enabled him to record all the songs that he was never free to do with The Beatles."
Immediately after the Harrison sessions, Leckie worked with Spector yet again on the Plastic Ono Band albums by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. "John's album was a much more stripped-down affair with just piano, bass, guitar and drums, recorded live and often in one or two takes. Yoko's album took much longer than John's, and both were recorded simultaneously with the same band. Yoko would essentially scream over the top of blues jams, and we'd spend about three weeks editing them. I suppose what we did was the forerunner of sampling because we would copy a vocal line from the multitrack on to quarter-inch and splice it into place at John and Yoko's instruction. It was a way of forming a composite article from half an hour's worth of improvised music. John was very spontaneous as an artist but I remember him being incredibly disciplined in the studio, as was George, and both of them were good at taking instructions and respecting Spector's wishes."
The guitar amps used for both projects were Fender Champs with American 110 volt tubes. Leckie remembers that because they were being run at 240 volts they inevitably blew up by the end of each session! "Every night, Mal Evans (The Beatles' roadie) would leave with two or three of these amps to have them fixed overnight and would return with them in the morning."
Mother Nature Calls was recorded at three studios and on three quite different consoles. Says Leckie: "At RAK we used their old API made by Boeing around 1975 -- I don't think it has been turned off since! That's a straight-through desk with no form of automation, and it has fairly basic EQ in 2dB steps. Sawmills has a Trident Series 80 which has been modified, while at Abbey Road the desk in Studio 3 is an SSL G Series 8000. That's my favourite mixing desk because you can do anything with it, but my favourite desk for recording is probably the API, although I manage to get what I want from most permutations of equipment."
Crispian Mills: "We recorded 'Tattva' at first in a Kilburn 8-track studio with the riff going round and round. That's when we were learning about recording. We did some full-on psychedelic rock epics on 8-track, I'll tell you."
John Leckie: "There were two demos. The very first one had no verses and it was more of a jam with tabla and a drum loop, and it was pretty wild-sounding. Then they did a demo which had verses and still had all of the ingredients, but with a much lengthier structure, lasting about 10 minutes."
Mills: "The 'St. George's Day' version was recorded at a place called Eastcote and it was the first time we'd used a Mellotron. It wasn't '90s enough or where we're at now, but the charm and magic of it was wonderful. It was the first time that song really started to happen as a possible single."
Leckie: "I knew it was a brilliant single but it sounded a bit tame to me at this stage, so we went back into rehearsals with it and formed a new arrangement before going into Townhouse 2 to record the single. Crispian had the idea for the slide solo even though no one definite solo existed; he plays it differently every time they play live and it was a question of picking the right one for the mix. What makes Kula Shaker great is that they work really hard at their music and there is always room for spontaneity and improvisation. Crispian has a classic musician's soul ethic and nothing scares him. He'll happily make mistakes in pursuit of something outstanding and he'll instinctively know when it's right.
"Unlike a lot of today's keyboard players, Jay Darlington is not ruled by synths and MIDI. He keeps to his Hammond and provides keyboard colours for the rest of the band to fall back upon. And he's bloody good! Despite how it might appear, we didn't use any esoteric valve gear to record K, but instead did it more or less totally on SSLs at different modern studios like Eden, Livingstone and Townhouse 2."
"When you're laying tracks you're going with the vibe of the energy that is around you and the band, and your aim is to get the best from the musicians. With mixing, you are trying to please everyone but it really isn't possible because everyone has a different opinion. There are so many different ways of mixing. I mixed some tracks for Elastica which I part-recorded, and I was aware that they wanted an upfront, hard punky sound. I noticed that the bass drum sounded particularly awful and it amazed me how easy it was to turn Elastica into Shampoo when I notched the bass drum's EQ! You really can make huge changes to anyone and anything at the mixing stage.
"If you are working on a single, the priority is for radio and the mix will be vocal heavy to ram the song home because that's where the melody is. Most of the time it seems unnecessary to me when it's a great record, but that seems to be the way for radio. Given the choice, I prefer to make records that sound good at home on the hi-fi. A mix can sometimes take four days, but it might just as easily take half an hour, and what's the best one? You can play people a string of mixes of the same song and they will all have different ideas about which is best, none of which are related to how much work you put into it. There might be some sort of magic that leaps out at the listener, but that magic was first recognised by the producer who, at the end of a take, put his finger on the talkback button and said to the band, 'Great guys, that's the one.' But that same producer may not be allowed to say 'Hey, that's a great mix', because it's a decision that is made by the A&R guy or the band's manager. So it's ironic that at the end of the day, despite all the time and effort spent on a project by the producer, he is powerless when it comes to the very end result."
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In a rare interview, legendary engineer and producer Humberto Gatica explains how he and singer Michael Bublé breathed new life into big-band swing music — with stunning results.