Richard Stannard - Julian Gallagher - Ash Howes: Biffco Productions

Published in SOS December 2001
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

In recent years, Dublin has become one of Europe's hottest centres for pop production, and Biffco Productions are one of the top hitmaking teams who've made their home there.

Paul Nash

Songwriter-producers Richard 'Biff' Stannard and Julian Gallagher and songwriter-engineer Ash Howes have established an impressive client base and track record as a pop production and writing team. Their prolific output includes U2's single 'Elevation', David Gray's 'Sail Away' and 'This Year's Love', Dido's 'No Angel', Charlotte Church's 'Dream A Dream' and tracks from Kylie Minogue's hit albums Light Years and Fever, including new single 'In Your Eyes'. Recent work with Emma Bunton has yielded among other tracks the UK number one hit 'What Took You So Long?', which Biff and Julian produced and co-wrote. The collaboration with Emma Bunton goes back to Biff's Spice Girls days, and he and Julian have also produced and written solo tracks by Melanies C and G, while Ash mixed Geri Halliwell's 'Shake Your Bootie, Cutie'. Biff and Julian produced and co-wrote several tracks on Gabrielle's Rise album and are working on her new album. The team have also had multiple hit singles with Five, including UK number ones 'We Will Rock You' and 'Let's Dance', and the double A side 'Closer To Me'/ 'Rock The Party'.

The trio found themselves working at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios a lot, and liked it so much that they eventually decided to buy it. The resulting Biffco Studios is now the base of their Biffco Productions company, Biff and Julian's Biffco Music Publishing company to which Ash is also signed, and more recently Biffco Recordings. It's in the increasingly posh waterside part of Dublin 4's industrial Ringsend district, not far from Boland's Mills, and despite being a former Bovril factory and snooker hall next to the bus station, it's an art deco listed building. Three young but already experienced Irishmen work with them: songwriters Dave Morgan and Martin Harrington, both signed to Biffco Music Publishing, and engineer Alvin Sweeney.

Deals with major labels are handled through Biffco Productions, while Biffco Music Publishing company is for their songs, and as Biffco Recordings they are beginning to sign artists themselves. "We sign our own bands and our own artists with Epic, a division of Sony Records," says Biff. "It's something we only would have wanted to do with one or two people, and fortunately one of those people really wanted to do it with us, a guy called Rob Stringer at Sony." Mr Stringer is in fact the MD of Epic/Sony, and Biffco's status in the industry is so well established that they enjoy complete creative freedom with respect to the acts they sign to the label.

People Before Gear

I start with a question on equipment, but Biff (the name comes from the hairstyle of the character in Back To The Future) wants to get priorities right: "Even though we love technology, we're not ruled by it. We're songwriters more than anything."

Their attitude is based on working with "the right people in the right way", using their Aladdin's cave of equipment to serve the current writing or recording purpose. "When you do the real pop stuff, it's quite nice when these guys come in and they're almost programmed to do something by the A&R man," says Biff. "And what we love is to free them from that. The best work we've ever done is when we interpret the band — whatever they're like, an 18-year-old girl band or Bono — it's interpreting them as people. The best thing is when you get that right and you connect, and then they get excited as an artist and they connect too and they actually make a record that's a pop record, that they actually have got a lot of input in, and it has been a jam. So many songs are written for these bands, and they just go and sing them — brilliant songs, a lot of them, but there's something about a song when you know there's a connection there. It just feels right for the band."

While Biff is hoping that the Biffco name will become a recognised brand in the industry, the team's aim is not to impose a similar sound on every record in the Motown or Phil Spector manner. Their approach is more about tailoring the sound to the artist and song. As Biff puts it, contrasting their approach with Spector's: "He had already decided how he wanted his records to sound, but singers come to us wanting us to interpret them, and then we produce their songs around what they are about."

"Very few great songs are 'off the peg', are they?" agrees Ash. "They're always from the artists themselves."

Within the trio, Biff's knowledge of dance and the fashion business feeds into the video aspect of production, whereas Julian comes from a more traditional songwriting background. "He's very much about chords and proper old-fashioned songwriting, which is why we get on, and I come from a very visual way of thinking — 'How many times can you spin round to that bar and do this?'," explains Biff. Although videos are not part of the activity at the studio, his ideas for videos are often in demand as part of the creative package. "When we write a song I will take the dance routine and the video and all the ideas — I've always done it, right from when I was really involved with East 17. Not only do the record company get the song, but they get all my ideas for the video — they get dance ideas or visual ideas that I sit with the band and go through."

Pressures And Preparation

I ask about the pressures of the job, and it seems that getting that moment of creative connection is one of them, but the greatest is time: "We're the victim of our own success really," says Biff. "We can work really fast, but there's still never enough time!"

  Why Dublin?  
  Since they've bought a studio there, it's clear that the Biffco team like Dublin — but why choose to be based there, and not in a more traditional music-business centre like London or Los Angeles? One working advantage that Biff points out is that "Artists love coming here. It's a great place to be famous, because you don't get hassled."

Ash suggests another, more down-to-earth reason: "You get their undivided attention, as well. They've not got the sort of daily things they've got to do in London." Distance from London also means that there is, as Biff explains, less corporate and time pressure: "You don't feel restricted in the way that you do when somebody's coming down that night and you've got to do the deal. There's a trust there, the relationship between you and the A&R man, and then you just work with the artist and just make music."

Biffco do use Dublin session musicians, who also get Biff's approval: "It's brilliant, the best place we've ever worked from that point of view. For instance, we did a Gabrielle track and we wanted someone [Eamonn Nolan] to come in and do a sort of flugelhorn thing. If you arranged that in England, someone would want the sheet music and everything, then come in and play it, ner-ner-ner-ner, and then they'd be done. Here, it's like, 'How are you doing, cup of tea?'... I mean, if you want them to come in and just do it, then they will, but what I love about these Irish musicians is that they melt in with what you're doing and adapt themselves to that."

It's common for the trio to attempt three mixes in a day, and Ash explains that this is where their computer-based system shines, allowing quick switching between projects, setups and rooms. The computer "records much, much quicker, because you can boot up, everything's back, stop the computer for an hour, go to something else, do a recall, and then carry on — it's very smooth."

Despite their workload, they still manage to spend around 20 percent of the day listening: "We're always wondering what other people are doing," says Ash.

A constant factor is the need always to be prepared to record: "Always ready to record; that's something that we've always done," says Biff. "We learned that even more when we worked with U2 — you just have to be ready 24 hours a day."

"One of the hardest things is trying to recreate something great on Monday that happened on Sunday," agrees Ash.

Biff gives an example: "We work with Gabrielle quite a lot and she's a natural soul singer, so she just starts singing straight away. Quite often she does it in two takes, or the demo tape ends up on the record — that's happened — so we have to make sure that even our demo captures the vocal sound."

Most sessions happen in the two main rooms, Biffco A, the mixing room, and Biffco B, the writing room. And what microphone is kept on during creative sessions? The trusty SM58, and for a good reason, as Biff explains: "If the group's really loud, SM58s don't feed back as much as others. You can be getting that vibe and writing a song and getting them jumping about and forgetting they're actually writing the song — you can shout into it."

For less seasoned artists especially, their approach to recording vocals combines technology and psychology, as I found when I asked Biff about preferences in headphones. He produced a set of Sony MDR CD1700s the size of cereal bowls, about which both he and Julian are enthusiastic: "We like to make vocals quite an event for people when they sing in the studio, to be fun, so we've got a few stands and stuff like that and we put flowers in the room and candles, but we've also got really sumptuous headphones, which sound fantastic and don't get sweaty. When you go in there you're not putting your sweaty earphones on and it's not all bleak in the room, so it's not like 'I'm 16 and I haven't sung before.' We try to make it as comfortable as possible."

What Didn't Take Long

The team explained how they put together Emma Bunton's 'What Took You So Long?', Ash again emphasising that "We don't split the writing and recording process — it's organic."

The song began as one of about 10 backing tracks on an 'in progress' Biffco Music Publishing DAT tape. The chords had been put together in Biffco studio B by Martin Harrington, and the song was then used as the basis for a recording/writing session in studio A. The Biffco team work in an unusually organic manner, as Biff explains: "We did a day of going straight on to the hard disk with the mic. We just take it in turns — basically we put the microphone in the middle of the room, then play the chords, then we lay down tracks on it, singing the first things that come into our heads. You get up and kind of take it off someone else's hands and it goes round the room — that's how that was written. The lyric I had written on my hand from watching a film the night before. The lyrics took about an hour to write."

Melody is important to Biff, and this way of working makes it easy to compose melodies by just singing them over the chords. The team like to have a weighted keyboard for writing: among others crammed into the two main recording rooms are was what I was told to specify as a 'boudoir' grand piano — "a lot of songs are written on that" — and a Rhodes stage piano.

With "What Took You So Long?" their long-standing professional and personal relationship with Emma seems to have helped the creative process: "Because of the Spice Girls thing, we're old mates and we're kind of quite close, so she comes over and we write, and we just play down all our ideas," explains Biff. "With that backing track we just got writing straight away and before you knew it the words were done. We tend to work with a lot of our friends — it's all a bit of a band thing here!"

Spoilt For Gear

The 'What Took You So Long?' session, like everything at Biffco, was captured on hard disk using Pro Tools with a Logic front end. Ash describes this setup as "more creative musically, because all the eventual sketches from the backing-track recording and writing session are all in there, so that we can always come back to them. Both rooms are totally interchangeable — the drive will just be carried through from the writing room to the mixing room, and we can work it up."

"We've got all these flash plasma flat screens," adds Biff. "They look slick and you can see them from any angle. I like the fact that it's quite hands-on when we've got two screens going — we can sit down, the three of us together, and work at your own pace."

  Mixing & Matching  
  In the pure pop field in which most of Biffco's work is done, several different versions of each song are needed — one for radio, the single, the album interpretation, and a 'PA' one for backing during live performance. "It's quite difficult with the PA ones to get it to end!" explains Biff. "I think it's important that we do all the versions ourselves, because I've had things in the past where you've done a fantastic record and someone's cut 10 seconds off the front. If someone cuts 10 seconds off and it sounds great, then great, but we'd quite like to hear it to say that it sounds great before that. When you first start out in this industry, until you establish yourself, people will do things like that, so I think it's important to follow it through right to the end, right to really trusting the person that sends the tape off!"  
"The main vocal chain is an Avalon mic amp and EQ, and then Urei 1176s for limiters," explains Ash. "For mixing, we're big fans of the GML Stereo EQ, and the one thing the SSL desk is great for is the stereo buss compressor — it's worth having just for that." A Lexicon 480L reverb is also part of the armoury. Later, I had a look at the processing and storage end as Julian showed me the machine room, where today's Mac G4 looks down from a top shelf on yesterday's Studer 24-track. He couldn't remember the reel-to-reel ever having been switched on. The computer boasts four 18Gb drives and several Mix Farm cards, allowing any required amount of plug-ins to be run. A pair of 888 I/O interfaces carries the 16 channels from the desk where, as Ash explains, some mixing may be done "but not a lot — it' s all done in the Mac system."

Ash explains how he became so firmly committed to computer-based production and Logic with Pro Tools. "Most of the outboard is all in the computer, it's fabulous. It's totally revolutionised how I mix since coming here. Just before I came here I was mixing some Texas stuff and we were recording it in Logic, and because you've got the mixer in there and you've got the plug-ins, you are actually mixing all the time, so it seems crazy at the end of the recording process to then rip all that down and start again. If you've got something that's working, you just go with that, so it just became an organic process — we suddenly realised that we were using the desk less and less." Their impressive SSL G+ series desk is now seldom more than what Ash calls "a glorified submixer".

They confess to being spoilt as far as gear is concerned — a man from Roland calls round every few weeks to offer them things to try out. Dublin shops are also generous with loans of equipment, and Biff praises Walton's, who do all their repairs and "know all about guitars". Virtual equipment is also a growth area, as Ash explains: "We're just trying to get into soft synths at the moment. That's the new thing, and we're trying to incorporate them more and more."

Harvesting The Amp Farm

There is some guitar on most of their records, and it's Biff and Julian's main instrument — Ash is more of a pianist. Line 6's Amp Farm plug-in is often used to craft a distinctive guitar sound and, as Ash remarks, it's also used "on all sorts of things, not just guitars. I'd say there'd be one guitar in everything we do, so there's always at least one Amp Farm on there."

"We're big ones for playing with things for a different purpose, like SansAmp, putting a vocal through it," agrees Biff.

Experimental guitar work certainly came to the fore on one recent session, Five's UK number one cover of Queen's 'We Will Rock You'. Queen guitarist Brian May contributed to the record in a session involving the Roland DJ2000, a mixer and effects unit aimed, as the name implies, at DJs. "We flipped out Brian May with that," laughs Biff. "We did the record live. DJs use it with echo effects and stuff, but we use it with a filter, and more often than not we'll put drums through that, or we'll put vocals through it, and we'll cut in and out, like DJ does when they're scratching. We put Brian May through it for the Five record. Mister Dexter is a fantastic scratching DJ and he was doing the technique, cutting in and out while Brian was playing the guitar. It was a great experience for Brian because it was a brand new thing. Brian's totally into his technology and his music, he's brilliant, and very professional at the same time.

"But if you're recording a guitar, you don't have to have all the latest things — it's about how it feels and performance. Often we've recorded Julian's guitar while writing a song, then had a session with a large band where there's a budget there to get a fantastic guitarist, and 50 percent of the time we'll go back to the old one. Again, we'll always make sure that, even though the performance might be happening when the song's being written, it's got that urgency, it's still been recorded as professionally as the later session."

Among Biffco's favourite sampling devices is the Akai MPC3000: they have three, and use them on most of their drum tracks. There are also Akai S3000 and S3200 samplers. Other prized units include the Roland VP9000, which will be much used for vocal effects "when we eventually know how to use it!" (Biff) and their Korg MS2000 modelling synth. They also own an old Moog, and are very fond of their Roland Juno 106 and Access Virus keyboards.

In the 'real' acoustic domain, they also value their Ludwig drumkit, which can be heard (on top of a drum machine) on 'What Took You So Long?'. String players, complete with sheet music arrangements, have been brought in from time to time, and there is enough space upstairs for a full orchestra. According to Biff, the acoustics of the studio always sounded great, and most of the changes made after purchase were on the equipment side. However, spending most of the preceding year there had made them aware of a few deficiencies, and some damping was done, especially in the vocal area to "tidy up the sound of the room a bit."

There is also a couple of record decks in the studio, and a Neumann vinyl lathe is available for making acetates. Biff gleefully describes the way degraded sound is extracted from these hapless discs: "We might have a sample of a vocal or something, he might print it on to an acetate for us, and then we'll play it on the record decks and sample it back and it sounds like it's gone on a record — we use that a lot. Sometimes we'll want it to sound rough, so we'll kick it about, play football with it and then play it and record it. With one disc, we literally kicked it on the floor for five minutes and then recorded it."

Another unusual item more associated with the club scene is a free-standing JBL club system with Jodrell Bank-sized speaker cones. I thought this might be there to check mixes for club use, but though monitoring is important, that's only secondary, as Biff explains: "Martin puts this on sometimes to get a band turned on to what you're doing and to get everyone out of their seats. It's to make the backing track sound like you're in a nightclub, rather than like an expensive hi-fi." Two big JBL monitors are also installed in the room along with KRK and Yamaha NS10 speakers. Ash explains that the KRKs are used for monitoring accuracy, while the NS10s are used to check mixes for radio. Some listening is also done on the video games monitor.

Pastures New

Having bought the studio, the team feel a need to establish enough of a profile for the Biffco name to become, as Biff says, "a brand name that's out there. Whatever great artists there are out there — the next Madonna or the next Bruce Springsteen — it would be nice to be one of those two or three names that come into their heads because they'd love to work with us, giving us access to great talent. We're always trying to mix really contemporary things with pop things. It's always been a bit pop, what we do — there's great pop records and there's terrible pop records and they sell the same amount. We want to be old and wrinkly and have people talk about the sound of our records and how we made them!"

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