HUGO NICOLSON: You Only Live Twice

Interview | Producer / Engineer

Published in SOS November 2000
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

The studio business has seen huge changes in the last 10 years, and the equipment, techniques and fashions that were cutting-edge in the early '90s are often redundant now. Mike Senior meets a producer and engineer who, having made it to the top then decided to take a five-year break — and is now back with a vengeance.

The ability to adapt swiftly to changes in both studio and music-industry environments is perhaps one of the most valuable skills that an engineer or producer can possess. Those who can retain the professional flexibility to change their methods and style of working in order to address new challenges are those who are most likely to to be able to forge careers within the unpredictable business of music production.

Adaptability is something that producer and engineer Hugo Nicolson has had in spades ever since the very beginnings of his studio career. "When I first started looking for a studio job, I was already a painter and decorator by trade. The the first studio I went to had a boat round the back which needed repainting, and I offered to repaint it during the day if they'd teach me to use the gear in the evenings. So even though they didn't have any vacancies, I ended up staying there for about a year and a half, after which I had enough experience to get a job as a tape-op at The Townhouse Studios."

Further evidence of Nicolson's versatility is not hard to find: in spite of his training in the perfectionist techniques prevalent at the height of the '80s, his varied CV includes albums by Primal Scream, Embrace, David Holmes, Shack and the prickly Julian Cope. But what is even more remarkable is that he has managed to take a break from the music business and yet still return to an engineering and production career within a completely changed musical environment.


Some of Nicolson's best-known work is that which he did with Andy Weatherall on one of the most influential albums of the '90s — Primal Scream's Screamadelica — and it was in landing the job of working with the famous DJ that Hugo's experience working at The Townhouse really paid off. "While I was still at The Townhouse, I managed to get onto a session as tape-op for Adrian Sherwood, and he really opened my eyes to a much more intuitive approach to recording — I'd never seen anyone quite so aggressive with the mixing desk. He followed none of the established rules of the time, yet he got really great, interesting mixes quickly. It was really inspiring to watch and it prompted me to start working that way myself, doing everything how I felt it, allowing myself to tear the whole track apart and to be brutal with the equipment if necessary. Just after that, my management arranged for me to work with Andy Weatherall at Battery Studios — he'd just done Primal Scream's 'Loaded' and some Saint Etienne stuff. It so happened that he really liked Adrian Sherwood, and because I'd started doing things in a similar way we never really looked back!

"At the time Andy was just a DJ who had amazing taste in records and a massive record collection — he wasn't really that interested in having to deal with the operation of the studio and the gear from day to day. Therefore, I did all the engineering and programming for the tracks we co-produced: 'Don't Fight It Feel It', 'Inner Flight', 'Come Together', 'I'm Comin' Down', 'Higher Than The Sun' and 'Shine Like Stars'. It was great, but really stressful — I was thrown in at the deep end.

"We treated all the tracks we did as remixes. We had been given multitrack tapes with takes and overdubs which Primal Scream had done — all of them had melodies and at least a few chords, together with all sorts of other little sounds. Some of the tracks had complete band takes, though not done against any sort of click so the timing often needed tightening up. If you're going to add much in the way of sequenced parts to a track, then you really need your rhythm parts to be spot-on. It's all right in a sequenced track if a loop pushes and pulls against the beat over a one- or two-bar period, because people can learn the feel of that and can therefore play along just fine, but if you have live drums changing their relationship with the beat over longer periods it doesn't tend to work. If you don't need to use sequencing, because everyone's playing along live, then you can get away with much more rhythmic variation and it's best just to let the band get on with it. However, on Screamadelica the timing of the live takes had to be tweaked to match the sequenced stuff — one notable example was 'Come Together', though Andy and I were fortunate enough to receive the tapes from someone else who'd done it for us.

  The Youth Of Today  
  One of the producers Nicolson has worked with a lot recently, Youth, has something of a reputation for a having almost too relaxed a style in the studio. However, Hugo is quick to point out that this view of him underplays his contribution to the projects with which he is involved. "I worked with Youth on Embrace's The Good Will Out and Drawn From Memory, as well as on Shack's HMS Fable, and he always takes a lot of time in pre-production before he ever gets into the studio, sorting out the makeup of each track. Youth's great at sorting out structures and arrangements and with building up every tune into a finished track, and he's great at sorting out the dynamics of every song he produces.

"By the time he's in the studio, the record is at the stage where most of the work has been done, as far as he's concerned; he's already set it all up. Recording is always much easier if you've taken your time with the pre-production. Apart from anything, it can be a great opportunity to get to know the group of people who you're going to be spending the next month or two working with, learning where you fit in with them. It gives you an opportunity to find out what people want from you as well as letting you find out what you can get from them.

"Sometimes Youth gets a bit of a hard time, because once everybody's in the studio he'll often sit at the back of the control room painting or something! However, he's always absolutely on the ball, listening, and he's never out of the studio, even though he's often willing to let people get on with their work without breathing down their necks, especially if he's working with people he trusts. He might just say 'We want guitars on this; that's the right guitar; let's record!', and that's that — he carries on painting..."

"We started each remix by picking just those bits of the multitrack takes which we thought had attitude and would be good for the tune, and loading them into the samplers we had at the time: mainly Akai S1000s and S1100s. In addition to this, we just messed around with random stuff I'd sampled against the track — for example, on 'Come Together' there's a reversed cartoon skidding noise right at the beginning! It was just a case of throwing things in one at a time and working with them if they looked promising.

"We did everything with samplers and sequencers — systems like Pro Tools were in their early days back then and their sound was pretty nasty, so we never really considered anything like that to be an option. In fact, I can remember thinking at the time that 'This hard disk recording thing is never going to take off,' but I suppose I've been well and truly proved wrong now!

"I'd seen what gear I needed to do remix work from all the sessions I'd attended where they had used programmers: I usually hired a Korg M1 as a master keyboard (or a Prophet VS, if I was lucky), a couple of samplers, and an Atari 1040 with Emagic's Notator. Other than that, I just used the gear already in the studio — all the usual suspects along with an SSL out of preference. However, while I knew what I needed, I still wasn't really a programmer myself when I first started with Andy. It was all I could manage to get everything sequenced up in Notator and running in sync with SMPTE so that I could do arrangements using the SSL's automation. Fortunately, it worked really well like that and it had a really good feel."

Don't Fight It, Feel It

The remix mentality which Andy and Hugo applied to their work meant that the tracks often changed dramatically as they went through different interpretations on their way to the final cut. "We did two different mixes of 'Don't Fight It, Feel It', for example. The first was done over a day and a half and, though it was sounding all right, Andy said we ought to just try another one anyway in a few extra hours we had available. I gated the drums and keyed them off a cowbell which I programmed to do a rhythm I'd heard on a Jungle Brothers record. Then I grabbed a bit of bass fill from halfway through the song, turned it backwards and used that as the bass. I put Duffy's piano all over the top, gated all the other parts to play with the same rhythm as the drums, and finally added in Denise Johnson's vocal. We did it really quickly, but that was the one that everyone liked best, so it ended up on the album.

"And there were a number of accidental things that we ended up using, too: for example, on 'Don't Fight It, Feel It', the drums almost seem like they come in late at first — that was just a bad edit originally, but we realised it worked, so we kept it the way it was. Another one was when the Atari crashed halfway through doing 'Come Together' and we lost a bunch of work, so I had to quickly play everything back in again. I'm not really a keyboard player — I have to almost guess the notes when I play — and, as a result, even though I reproduced most of the track fine, the bass lines of the two halves of the song ended up being slightly different. It didn't matter, because it still makes you want to jump up and down and yet adds a little variety."

Drawn From Memory

Nicolson's ability to reinvent himself was particularly useful following an extended absence from record production. "After Screamadelica, I went on tour with Primal Scream, dealing with their MIDI rig on stage. After that I decided I wanted a break from the industry, and I ended up leaving the music business for about five years. When I got back into the industry, I was able to find work engineering with Youth (see box), doing Embrace, Shack and some of the Seahorses stuff, and have since gained a reputation as a recording and mixing engineer, rather than as a remixer."

Coming back to the music business has given Hugo a unique perspective on how profoundly it can change within the space of a few years. "When I first returned to the industry, for example, I was surprised at how competitive everything seemed to be — it felt like you had to constantly compete against the top people, to make everything sound as good as their records. This was something I'd never had to do before, and competition such as that tempts you to be quite anal about things. However, I soon realised that every record has to have its own sound, rather than competing for 'as good a sound as on such and such a record', that each record deserves to be made into its own unique thing.

"This extra competition means that it's definitely more difficult to get on in the music industry now than it was before, particularly for the bands. It always was difficult to get a deal, but now it's very unusual for bands to develop their own identity — people seem convinced that they have to fit in with everyone else. It's tough for a band to retain their individuality.

"And in the recording world it's a bit of a sad state of affairs as well, really. Studio hire rates, even in the top studios, are pretty much the same now as they were when I started in studios back in 1985. Yet everything to do with running a studio is more expensive than it was — wages, gear prices, repair costs. It used to be that setting up a studio as a commercial venture was a precarious thing to do, but now it's nigh on suicidal and loads of studios are going out of business. Where it'll end is anyone's guess, but my guess is that only the studios which serve as tax losses for record companies will survive.

"Fortunately, studio gear is now so cheap that it almost seems that any kid straight out of school could take his first pay cheque and buy himself enough gear to knock out complete tracks — a keyboard, a computer, a sampler and a DAT machine can get you a long way. However, I'm a bit disappointed that, in spite of the fact that bedroom recording is now so widespread, these home musicians haven't become the force of musical subversion that I'd hoped they would, in the way punk music was, particularly given that the Internet enables them even to distribute their own music. I think it shows that it's not been the inaccessibility of recording technology that has been holding people back, but rather the difficulty of developing the musical taste to produce really good music.

"A good taste in music is the reason DJs have done so well for themselves as artists — they know a good tune when they hear one. People only employ them because people like the music they choose. Their confidence in their own taste in music allows them to be critical about their own material, knowing that they have a feel for what people will like. I'm lucky to have worked with people who do have great taste in music and great record collections — Andy Weatherall, Primal Scream, David Holmes — people who live for buying, playing and listening to records. It's because a lot of people haven't developed a clear idea of when something is good enough and when it's not good enough that professional producers aren't likely to find themselves out of work in the wake of the home studio revolution, in spite of the fact that professional studios are dropping like flies."

  To Mix Or To Remix...  
  "Mixing and remixing are very different disciplines," insists Hugo Nicolson. "Mixing is usually to a specific brief, but the old style of remixing had no brief at all. Andy Weatherall, for example, had a good enough name that he and I could pretty much do what we wanted in the name of remixing on Screamadelica. With mixing, however, you have to balance something which other people have created, and you have to be respectful of that — while you're expected to beef it up a little, you can't go changing what it is. It is possible to cross the line a bit sometimes — some mixing engineers trigger samples for drum hits, for example. However, even then, you're mixing with the band sitting there, and it stands or falls by what they think. You have to deal with all the different opinions about what each person thinks is right, and then you're balancing those against what you feel the track needs.

"I mostly do mixes now, though, rather than remixes. It used to be that I'd go clubbing every weekend and I'd be part of it from day to day, but I'm not involved in it to that extent any more, so I don't really get involved in contemporary club remixes now, as the scene's changed a lot since Screamadelica. I'm not really a remixer any more, because I'm not really on the dance tip. I'm really trying to get more of a production thing going now, instead.

"As a mixer, I am fairly fussy about the control rooms I use, and I always use an SSL desk, because I've really got to know it. An SSL doesn't get in the way of me attacking the tracks — I instictively know where everything is and how it will sound when I use it. But the room is the most important thing. I need to know how a room relates to others: is it a bright room or a boomy one? I need to know if I'm going to feel comfortable working there. For monitoring, I use Yahama NS10s and KRK 6000s, as well as some little Radio Shack things that I got in Australia, and I'm pretty happy with that setup."


Getting The Ins

Though convinced that professional studios will become more and more scarce, Nicolson is still willing to share some advice with anyone with their eyes on the engineer's lifestyle. "If you're still dead set on getting into record producing, then you've got to get where it's actually happening in order to learn how it's done. One of the best ways people are doing this in studios at the moment is by being a programmer or Pro Tools operator. Not only do programmers often get to do a variety of tasks previously the preserve of engineers, but they are also always in the control room, learning all the time from what's going on around them, even though they often won't be allowed to have any sort of artistic input to the session.

"The most important thing is to just get yourself where the action is, however you do it, because you can only really learn what it's all about if you can get into that control room somehow. That's why session players and arrangers can also graduate to become producers — they've sometimes been able to spend a couple of decades sitting in studios watching and learning, developing their abilities and their musical taste."

Tools Of The Trade

Inevitably, one of the most dramatic changes which Nicolson has observed is the advance in studio technology and in attitudes towards it. "I was initially amazed that engineers and producers were now carrying around 20 grand's worth of their own gear from session to session — people used always to hire things in, except perhaps their own set of monitors. I imagine it's got a lot to do with record companies not wanting to shell out for rentals over the often indeterminate length of a session — they can save several grand a week if producers bring along a bunch of their own outboard.

"Finding out that Pro Tools had taken over the world was a surprise as well, and at first I didn't want to get involved with it because I knew it was going to slow me down — it gives you so many creative options, allowing you to completely change what you've got — and I didn't want this, particularly because I knew that Youth likes to work quickly. However, when I started working with Primal Scream again I began using it, because it's such a creative tool, and now I use it all the time. However, even though I now love Pro Tools and use it a lot, I still refuse to mix within the computer — I always have its outputs going through an SSL, using the desk's processing and automation. I also find myself having to be quite disciplined with it when I use it. I only allow myself a fixed amount time to mess around with something and then I just force myself to move on after that. The only other thing with using Pro Tools is that I never feel safe until everything is back on tape — it doesn't seem like it's really there until you've got it on tape!"

  Laptop Recording With Logic  
  Hugo Nicolson recently co-produced four tracks on the most recent David Holmes album Bow Down To The Exit Sign, recording almost everything using his Mac Powerbook running Logic Audio. "We started it all on my laptop, using Logic and one of those Digigram VXPocket soundcards. We did the majority of it on that — it worked really well! We got nearly 24 tracks on there, and because the Logic plug-ins don't eat up very much processor overhead we could do most of the processing in the computer. I've got a little rucksack with all the bits in it, so I could just pack it up and we could go wherever. We just recorded stuff straight into the computer through the VXPocket's analogue inputs. I couldn't get the soft synths working through it properly, though, without there being a delay, so we couldn't use those.

"Things are only going to go more this way — everything getting more powerful and portable. In fact, some friends of mine regularly go on holiday with a little battery-operated sampler. They went to Goa, they went to Mexico, making loads of samples in each place. They archive everything to Minidisc, do all the mixing and resampling when they get home, and produce several records per trip. We worked in a similar way to finish off the David Holmes album — we took the laptop to the studio, transferred everything to a Pro Tools system, did a few overdubs and a little work on the arrangement, and then mixed it."


Back To Basics

However powerful modern music technology may now be, Hugo prefers not to leave things to be fixed in the mix. "I always record with mixing in mind — by doing things this way, you're always aware that you're going to have to finish things off and you're less likely to leave any problems until it's too late to fix them. And funnily enough, as I get better at mixing, I also get better at recording — you know what you need when you get to the mixing stage.

"For example, at one stage all I'd do when recording a vocal would be to compress it. However, now knowing what sort of sound is going to work in the mix, I'll often do quite a bit of EQ'ing to tape — maybe adding a little top, removing a little harshness, adding some lower-mid warmth perhaps — in effect, anticipating much of what I might expect to do at the mixing stage. It does take a bit of experience to get it right, though.

"However, I don't record with any effects — I'm just a chicken, really, with that, because it's so difficult to tell how they'll sound until everything's in place. I know people who do this, and some people can make it sound really good, but because I've come from a remix background I like to keep my options more open, even though I always try to get everything sounding as good as possible at source."

Making A Splash

With his diary booked up now for a year in advance, demand for Hugo Nicolson's blend of eclectic studio experience and versatility is keeping him very busy. Not only is he doing more and more production, including a debut album for a new band called Arturo and Red Snapper's most recent album, but he is also working on a Hollywood film score with David Holmes for the remake of a film called Ocean 11. Clearly, he just keeps throwing himself in at the deep end...

  Coping With Julian  
"While I was still at the Townhouse I got a gig to assist with the engineering on Julian Cope's My Nation Underground. Ron Fair, who was producing, liked to do a fair bit of the engineering himself, but I got to do more and more. We got on well, and so I got asked back to do Peggy Suicide, Skellington and Jehovahkill.

"My favourite one was Skellington, which we did in a single day. He'd had some ideas which we'd banged down onto DAT just with acoustic guitar and voice. We decided that we'd do some overdubbing against those ideas, so we laid them back onto multitrack. We quickly did a whole load of overdubs on it, and then mixed it that evening. I like working quickly — it keeps everything fresh. However, there is the problem that if you want to make something that's really unusual then you have to take your time over it, taking three steps forward and two steps back the whole time as you experiment. Balancing those two conflicting interests can often be really difficult."


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