The creative force in the modern pop music business seems, increasingly, to reside with songwriter/producers like Gary Miller, who specialise in getting the best out of artists in collaboration.
"You always need partners and people to work with," says Gary Miller. He's emphatic about the importance of collaboration — but then he's worked with some pretty impressive partners. As a session player he worked with Nik Kershaw and was MD on George Michael's Faith tour, before joining Pete Waterman's PWL stable as a songwriter and producer. Today, although he works out of his own studio in South London, he's part of the highly regarded Metrophonic production stable alongside Brian Rawlings and Mark Taylor, the hitmakers responsible for Cher's 'Believe' and Enrique Iglesias' 'Hero'. His current songwriting and production projects include David Bowie's forthcoming single 'Everybody Says Hi' and tracks for Simply Red, as well as production and mixing on an album by opera/Europop crossover singer Emma Shapplin.
"I'll be doing stuff in here," he admits, "and Brian will come in and say 'How's it going?' and I'll say 'You know what? I don't know any more!' You get a bit of cabin fever, locked up in this room, and a lot of the time you're making things worse. I did a mix of one of the Emma Shapplin tracks yesterday and the guy from Universal was here. He said 'Can we have the bass drum a bit louder?', so we put the bass drum and the snare drum up a little bit, and it sounded all right. Half an hour down the line we were still thinking 'Are the drums loud enough?', but when they took it away and played it in the Universal office, all they could hear was this whacking great R&B bass drum."
Collaboration helps to sort the wood from the trees when mixing, then, but it also has more fundamental virtues: "I prefer to write with the artist, because I think that if you're writing for an artist, they've got a specific thing that they want to do, and it's much easier to get the song through if you've got the artist in front of you, and you're saying 'Well, what do you want? How do you want this to go?' You can't go to Seal and say 'I've just done this for you, sing this.' It's easier if you can get writing with the artist, unless you're asked specifically to write a song for someone."
Flexibility and the ability to adapt to an artist's chosen working method is the key to success for modern songwriter/producers. "I've just done what's supposed to be the second single off David Bowie's new album," cites Gary as an example. "Tony Visconti had done the vocals with him in America, so we got them over and recorded the track here. It was a song that Bowie had written himself, and I just worked from the vocals. It started off like a remix, but ended up as a fully-fledged production."
Gary describes a typical session working with an artist in his studio: "First, I'll find out what style they want to do. It can start in different ways — usually I'll come to the session with a title, a melody, or maybe some more complete backing tracks. Sonique was here a few weeks ago, and the record company was saying 'We want something like the big hit,' so I basically put a track together which sounded like a Sonique record. She went into the vocal booth and sang a few melodies, and took it home and sorted some of the lyrics out. That's one way of doing it.
"Usually I like to get the melody first. I'll get an acoustic guitar, start with the chorus, sing the melody, make sure the hook's there, and then get the lyric afterwards. The lyrics are really, really important. I think things have got to sound a bit real, like they did on the stuff I was brought up on. I just found an old copy of the first Ricky Lee Jones album, and the songs really sound like they mean something to the person singing them. I think heartfelt songs are definitely where it's at, and I think that's becoming more and more the case.
"Usually we'll program some things up, I'll decide on a groove, and maybe just do a really rough sketch, and get the guide vocal on quickly. Then the singer will most probably go, and I'll just carry on and get the track. It can change quite drastically. I'm working with an artist at the moment from Nashville called Jonathan Pierce, and that started off with some of the songs being like country songs, but they wanted to go in more of a dance direction, so I was getting demos of country songs and turning them into dance tunes. I used to do that a lot for Almighty Records, which was a big remix label that would turn ballads into dance tracks. I did a dance version of 'I Will Always Love You' with a girl called Sarah Washington, which was quite a big hit.
"I always get the drums going first. I've got an Akai S6000, which I've got a massive sample library for, and I'll load up a bank of bass drums, snare drums, hi-hats and loops before I even touch anything. Once it's all loaded into the sampler, then I start planning what bass drum I want to use and so on. I like to make sure that the groove's happening just with the vocal, so I'll get all the drums going, and then I'll just sit here with the vocal and make sure that's right."
Data security and archiving is not perhaps the most fascinating aspect of studio management, but it's crucial if you work on a lot of different projects, any one of which you may need to go back to at short notice. As the computer takes over more and more roles within the recording studio, this is one area where it's making life much easier. "I've got a LaCie DAT backup system, and I'm just getting a couple of FireWire drives, they're so cheap now," explains Gary.
"For this Emma Shaplin record that I've just done, we just got a big envelope with a FireWire drive in it. That's how they sent it — it was a Pro Tools session of an entire orchestra, so rather than putting it onto loads of CDs they just sent the drive. They sent it on FireWire, and then on the Pro Tools setup we've got down in Ripley [where the main Metrophonic studio is based], that was copied into Sound Designer format. All the individual tracks started at the same point, so I loaded them up into Cubase and mixed it in that. Everybody seems to use Pro Tools, so I sometimes think I'd better do that, but I like the way I work at the moment, and it's quite powerful. On the Bowie record there was loads of live stuff and I didn't have any problems with it.
"I used to back the samplers up onto Jaz, but now there's an Akai program in the G4. So when I've done a track, I just fly all the samples into the computer. I've got an Akai list here with the songs and the Akai samples — everything's together, so if I ever need to recall a song, rather than trying to find the samples again on a Jaz disk, I just fire them all back into the sampler. The only reason I'm still using the Jaz drive is that I haven't collected all the samples onto the computer yet — I'm doing it as I'm going along."
Gary now has two studios in outbuildings at his South London house. Both are based around Mackie digital desks, with Apple G4 Macs handling recording and sequencing duties. When you work on as many different projects as Gary does, the two primary concerns in setting up a studio are quick working and total recall. "I don't turn any equipment off, so it's there all the time," he explains. "I like to walk in in the morning and just start working. I've got every piece of equipment you can think of, all ready for me to go with. The minute something new comes out, Digital Village just send everything down and I try it out. They just go 'Here's a load of gear', send it in a taxi for me, I go 'I don't want this, I want that,' and usually I end up buying it anyway — so what they do is send me a load of stuff down knowing that I'm going to buy it. I don't think I've ever sent anything back!"
Although he's moved all his recording and editing from Tascam DA88 multitrack recorders to an Apple Mac G4 running Cubase, Gary has no immediate plans to ditch his Akai or other instruments in favour of software alternatives: "I've got all the soft synths, I've got HALion, but it's what you get familiar with. I'm so familiar with the S6000, and because there's always a deadline with what I'm doing, I don't have the luxury of sitting around sampling and doing this and doing that. I've always used Akais. I like this because of the memory — before, in the earlier samplers, you had to keep loading disks in, but this has got 198MB of memory, so I just load it up once."
Alongside the samplers in each of his rooms is a well-stocked rack of synths and sound modules, while Gary also has a few vintage synths at his disposal. "The Novation Supernova I use for all the Chicane dance-type sounds, and the Clavia Nord Rack is quite analogue-y too. The Access Virus is wonderful, you can be really creative with it, you can get sounds that nobody else has got. It's the same with the Prophet 5 and the Korg MS2000. The Waldorf Microwave I've had for years, there's just a few sounds in there that I like, and it's a little bit different. The Roland JV1080 and XV3080 are good workhorses for strings, pianos, the obvious things. The Emu Planet Phatt I use for R&B sounds, and the same with the Proteus 2000. The Korg TR-Rack is really good, it's really easy to use and there's some nice sounds in it.
"All the keyboards are hard-wired into the Mackies. Channels one to 16 are hard-wired to the sampler, I've got all the separate outputs there, then I've got all the keyboards on the channels above that, and then all the audio comes through the MOTU 2408. My original idea was to have one Pro Tools room and one Mackie room, and I was really close to getting that Pro Tools setup, and then I heard about the new HD system, and I thought 'I might as well wait and check it all out, and use what I know.' I got this all installed instead and I was working straight away. I'd only just got it rigged up and Samantha Mumba was in here. Also, when I was thinking about Pro Tools I was going to get a Pro Control in this room, but I think you can only have 64 inputs. That's no good for me, because I'm so used to having everything on a slider. There's a new Mackie desk coming out in September, which I'm going to get, but these are brilliant. I've had them since they first came out, and I've done so many records with them. The sound of them is great now they're bringing the plug-ins out. I'm going to get the UAD1 DSP card for the Mac, because I'd rather add to this system than get rid of it all."
The Mac-plus-Mackies setup also meets Gary's requirements for a totally recallable studio: "It's a matter of seconds to recall anything. That was always a problem before, when you were doing records you tended to do a lot of mixes where you'd do one run with the vocal up, one with the vocal down and the snare up, and at the end of the day you'd get lost in it. Now I just do the one mix, I never ever go 'I've done three mixes of this, what do you think?' I just go 'This is what I think, tell me what you think,' and if there's something that they want changed, I can recall it in a few seconds. It's much easier to do that.
"The only thing I'm going to get is a Smart Research compressor to go over the master buss, which is like the SSL compressor. The Drawmer Dynamics plug-in's really good in the Mackie, but I want some hardware. I like things to be simple as well. I don't like to faff about, I'd rather just push a button or turn a knob, like you can on an SSL desk. When I was with Pete Waterman I worked in the SSL room all the time, and when you'd finished doing your mix you'd just stick the button in on the SSL desk and the compressor would be there, and you'd have got it as you want it. It's the only thing I feel lacking in this studio, just something to give it that final gloss."
It was Gary Miller's partners at Metrophonic, Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, who were chiefly responsible for the craze for using Auto-Tune for its distinctive vocal effects. Hundreds of copycat producers found that extreme settings for Antares' plug-in allowed them to recreate the peculiar 'stepped' sound of Cher's 'Believe' vocal, and proceeded to use it to death. Perhaps because of this, Gary is reluctant to use Auto-Tune on an entire performance, even for its intended purpose of straightening out dodgy pitching.
"Even when you put it on a track, I hear it all the time," he says. "I don't mean the Auto-Tune effect, I mean just when somebody bungs it over the top of a vocal. There's nothing wrong with a few little inflections, so I won't use it if I don't have to. The good thing about Auto-Tune is that if you do get a brilliant performance out of somebody and it's a little bit flat or sharp, that's when I think it's really useful. The times when I used to record vocals, and you'd get something great but you couldn't use it because it was a little bit flat — I wouldn't do that now. If it was a great performance, I would just go 'That's all right, I can fix that.' And singers don't have a problem with it."
Gary records vocals and other acoustic sources using a vintage Neumann mic through a Focusrite Platinum Trakmaster input channel, which also serves as an input for bass guitar: "For bass, I just plug the bass straight into the Focusrite Trakmaster. I tend to use it just as a DI box, keep it really clean and do any processing using plug-ins in the computer. There is a difference between hardware and plug-ins, but you can still get things sounding really good by putting them straight in. The Waves plug-ins are great — the Renaissance mono compressor is ideal for vocals, it just levels them out nicely and you can't hear it breathing or anything. A lot of the time when you've got the track going it's much of a muchness really. I like things to be as simple as possible."
The small vocal booths in both of Gary's studios receive a fair amount of use, not only for tracking singers' contributions but for percussion, live brass and strings, and especially acoustic guitars. "I always like to put acoustic guitars even on dance tracks, and I like to use real bass," insists Gary. "I'll usually track the acoustic guitars up, maybe four parts tracked up the same, and then I'll use a 12-string tracked up once on either side of the stereo field, which just gives it that really wide feeling. I work on the verse and chorus separately, but I don't do a lot of chopping up if I can help it. I'll sit and I'll work it out until I've got the right feel, and I'll play it all the way through, and I'll keep going until I get the feel down accurately.
"The way I do vocals is the same. Say I'm going to do the verse now, I'll cycle round the verse, recording straight into Cubase, and they'll keep singing, and I don't stop and I don't drop in. I just let them run, and it records each one. I'll have a lyric sheet, and as I'm going round I'll tick the first line, second line and so on, and even if I just want the end line, I still let them keep doing the whole verse. Then I'll move on, and I'll comp it afterwards. That way, I feel that you get the performance. Otherwise, when you're doing vocals one word at a time, you lose the vibe. I think if the singer feels like he or she is singing, they feel more confident and they get warmed up and they get better and they'll try different things, softer tones, harder tones, and you can mix and match. It's always been successful doing it that way, which is the beauty of having Cubase."
The list of people with whom Gary is slated to work in the next few months is impressive: he and Brian Rawling are in negotiations with Seal and Lionel Richie among many others. Such is the workload that he's recently hired an assistant, Jez Larder, to occupy the second studio. So how do you get to be such an in-demand writer and producer? "I think you've just got to do it really," insists Gary. "Jez, who's working with me now, he hasn't been with me very long, and he said to me last night 'What do you want me to do? Do you want me to sit in here and watch?' I said 'The only way you can do anything and improve on anything is just by doing it. Don't be afraid if you mess it up, just go for it.'
"You've got thousands of records out there that are really great productions, and to me, they're your library books. All you have to do is buy the CD and put it on and listen to what's going on, and try to do it. You do mixes, you think 'I've done a great mix', then you listen to somebody else's mix and you realise how bad yours is. I'll make a record and I'll think 'Yeah, I'm really pleased with this,' and then I'll put a Babyface record on and listen to that and realise how much I've got to learn. I'm learning all the time.
"It's a lot easier for young kids now, because they've got the technology — but I also find that they haven't got the staying power. People think it's a lot easier than it is. It's like anything else, it's hard work. At the end of the day you can do all the stuff, but to get a great song, you've got to have something I think you can only get from experience."