Best known for his collaborations with Elton John, Gus Dudgeon is one of the most successful British record producers ever. He talks to Sam Inglis about his work.
"One of the problems producers of my era have is that we're very often written out of the picture as being someone to approach, because artistes and A&R think 'He's going to want a big budget, he's bound to want some ridiculous advance and he's going to want to be in Abbey Road.' But that's not the case at all. I don't really mind where I work at the end of the day, as long as I don't have to work on an SSL desk. That's my only stipulation." Gus Dudgeon is at pains to make clear that he's not a prima donna or a control‑freak producer, and that being at the top of his profession doesn't mean he will inevitably choose big, high‑profile projects rather than working with new artists or in project studios.
"If there's something really superb on a demo, my attitude is 'Great. Let's keep it.' I don't have a problem just because it's somebody else's work. There have been occasions where I've worked on projects that another producer's already worked on, and if there's something the guy has done that's really great, I'm not about to go 'Hey, I can do even better than that!' I've been doing it too long, and my ego doesn't need that kind of stroking. My manager will turn around and say 'You realise that if you do that, he's entitled to a point?' Well, f**k it. If what he's got on that record is adding to the value of that record, and I lose a point as a result, why should I care? It could very well go on to sell more records.
"Mind you, I can say that, because luckily this industry has provided me with a bloody good income, so I'm not worried about making money. What I'm more concerned about is working and enjoying it."
The music industry has, indeed, done rather well by Gus Dudgeon. After a lengthy stint as an engineer in Decca Studios, he took the plunge and became a freelance producer in the late '60s. The gamble quickly paid off through hits such as David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and John Kongos' 'He's Going To Step On You Again', but the cornerstone of Gus' reputation was his enduring creative partnership with Elton John. A string of hugely successful singles and albums in the '70s cemented their status as a team comparable to George Martin and the Beatles, or Tony Visconti and David Bowie.
In his time at Decca, Dudgeon engineered such now‑classic records as the Zombies' 'She's Not There' and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton LP, as well as helping to audition Tom Jones, Lulu and the Rolling Stones for the label. "I was at Decca for five and a half years," says Dudgeon. "Up until then I'd worked at the original Olympic Studios, which was off Baker Street, but I was only a teaboy there, and I was terrified of the idea of ever getting on the console — I never thought I'd ever get near it. The thing I loved about it was just the volume and actually hearing real low end! At home I had a Dansette, like most kids, and it never had any bottom end on it. I did suss out that to get bottom end you had to have a bigger speaker system, so I had an external speaker which I managed to rig up in a separate box, but you still couldn't hear a great deal of bottom end. So when I first went into this control room and actually heard bass, it was like 'Bloody hell! That's bloody marvellous!' I just loved the power of the big speaker system, I'd never heard anything like it.
"When I was an engineer, sessions were three hours long, and there wasn't time for perfection. You hired in anything between four and 15 musicians, all of whom were incredibly good at just sitting straight down and reading and playing a chart, and the session would begin right on the hour. In three hours you very rarely did less than two, and very often three songs, so we strove to get the best we could in the time allocated, but spending nowhere near the same length of time you'd use up nowadays. I only did four‑track sessions at Decca, I never even got as far as eight‑track, so by the time I was starting to do my first productions, eight‑track came in, then 16, then 24. Obviously, as soon as you get more tracks it makes the whole job a hell of a lot easier, because you don't have to commit to a balance at that particular point, and you have time to consider your overdubs. What I was used to was committing to a balance, and once that balance was done you were buggered on the mix, if you hadn't got the majority of it right in the first place. You had the whole rhythm section on one track, the vocal on another, maybe the backing vocals on another and whatever orchestration or solos on the other tracks. So your balance was pretty much set at the end of the session, and you'd probably spent an hour recording each song. There was a mixing stage, but you'd probably only spend half an hour or so mixing the four‑track down. That's my argument against technology‑led recording. There was f**k‑all technology then, and there's tons of it now, and records haven't really got that much better. They sound louder and they're more beefy, sonically, but that's nothing to do with the performance — that's all to do with the technology. When I play an old record I did from that period, they do sound a bit thin and scrawny, but it's only the sound you're talking about, you're not talking about the performance, and I think there's an awful lot of sound and f**k‑all performance nowadays. Very few records have feel, although many of the best programmers understand that, and have a technique to insert feel. But it never quite makes up for the real thing."
Perhaps because he was so used to committing a balance to tape as a Decca engineer, Dudgeon's production style involves doing a lot of the mixing as he goes along, even to the extent of printing level changes on individual overdubs to tape as the musicians lay down their parts. He feels that having a good monitor mix is crucial to getting the best and most appropriate performance out of a singer or musician: "Everybody that's working on the project — engineers, musicians, even someone you've just brought in for an hour to do some backing vocals — it's great if they can hear a great, full mix in the cans or the monitors, and have some idea what it is that they need to project over, where they need to pitch it, how quiet or loud they need to sing or play.
"I've been on odd sessions sometimes where people have the weirdest monitor balance. When we started Rocket Records [Dudgeon and Elton John's record label], we signed Neil Sedaka, and I went to one of his sessions in Los Angeles. I walked in and I thought 'This is obviously a joke balance that they've just quickly thrown up,' but two hours later, no‑one had changed anything. They were doing overdubs which were so out of whack with where I would have heard them in the mix, and the whole mix was so way off, I was thinking 'I don't understand how you can work that way,' but the musicians didn't seem to think it was weird — or maybe they did, but they didn't like to say so!
"I have to start with the bass and drums. Within the drum kit you have every frequency you're ever going to have, from the highest high to the lowest low. Once you've got the drum sound together, someone can come in and say 'What do you think of this bass sound?', with it in solo. But you don't know how good it is until you've put it up against the drum kit, because it may be a great bass sound in its own right, but does it work with the bass drum? And if it doesn't you sometimes have to alter it quite drastically to make it work.
"So working on that principle, whatever I do, be it piano sound or guitar sound, I'll always try to sit it in the mix where it should be. If you get a great guitar sound and it sounds great in the intro, and then as the track builds it sort of disappears and starts to get swamped out, I would actually increase the level going to tape as it went down, so that when you set up the monitor balance again a week later for doing another overdub, you wouldn't have something that started at the beginning and was fine, and then disappeared, and then at the end in a quiet bit would suddenly be loud enough again. I would try to make sure that if something's getting lost in the mix, I'd bring the level up so it matches. All the time I'm recording, everyone who's working on it knows everything that's going on and can hear everything that's being played throughout the song, and won't be saying 'Can you turn that up at that point? It's disappeared in the cans.' So, in fact, at the end of the day, the mixes aren't a massive surprise."
Although he's always been happy to let others handle routine engineering duties on his productions, Dudgeon likes to tackle the mix himself along with the engineer, and his approach to mixing is also distinctive. "The way I used to work was to do however many mixes I thought I needed to cover everything," he says of his work on the Elton John albums. "Every mix I did I was trying to get the whole thing, knowing full well that the chance of getting it absolutely right all the way through in one hit was fairly slim. But I would do enough mixes — maybe eight, 10, however many it took — and then when I got to the point of thinking I'd probably got it all there somewhere, I'd divide the song up into small sections on a piece of paper, and I had a sort of heiroglyphic system I used to mark them. I'd play one and tick it, and think 'That's a great intro,' but then I'd play the next one and think 'Actually, that's an even better intro,' so I'd tick that and put a circle round it, meaning 'That was good, but this is possibly even better.' And then once I had columns of heiroglyphics across the whole song down the side of the page, a bit like a musical score in a way, I could see that there was probably one section I'd never quite got right, but I wouldn't just go and do that section. I'd think 'Right, this is my opportunity to maybe try a couple of things I haven't tried earlier on, where I've been a little bit cautious about that drum fill that really could have come up a bit, maybe I could give that an extra push,' but make sure I covered the one section I hadn't really covered before. I'd probably do a couple of takes that way, and then I'd go back and listen to those bits. If I had those covered, I might in the process of that decide that actually, the first verse of these new takes is better than any of the others. And then I'd just cut all the bits together on the analogue master. So it was kind of like a Neanderthal method of producing the same result as computer mixing."
Since then, console automation and computer‑based mixing have become widespread — a development which, you might think, would have enabled Dudgeon to perfect and simplify his approach to mixing. Surprisingly, however, he finds that the reverse is true: "I have a problem with computer mixing. I'm never satisfied with my computer mixes. I keep trying, and I keep trying different ways of doing it, and I'm never really happy. When I go back and listen to the older stuff, pre computer consoles, that I've done, I'm much happier with it, and they're all hand‑cranked. I find that when I'm doing computer mixing it's too relaxing, because you can do a mix and sit back and do absolutely nothing at all knowing that the computer will repeat the mix, and listen to it over and over again, and know that you can change anything. I get over‑critical, so my mixes come out too linear. I don't like mixes that are too linear, I like mixes where occasionally something comes out that's a bit of a surprise.
"If you lift a drum fill at a certain point, you're listening back to the drum fill thinking how happy you are with it, and then you think 'Oh, but actually the bass disappears slightly at that point, I think I'll just poke that up,' so you poke the bass up a bit, and then the third time around you notice that the piano's got slightly lost at the same point, so you poke the piano up, and you just go round in circles. So actually what happens is that the mix that had nice highs and lows, and had some sort of dynamics, is getting slowly flattened out again. What happens is that the whole mix has just got louder, so you pull the whole master level down and stick a fat compressor over it, and you've just got a flat mix, so eight hours later it doesn't sound like you did any work at all. The amount of people who will tell you that their rough mix was better than the master mix — it happens all the time. Now why is the rough mix good? It's probably good because you did it in one hit, you probably said 'Look, just roll the tape, I'll run off a quick one.' And there'll be things wrong with it, but if you could just stop there and say 'Look, the only things that are really wrong are these half‑dozen points. There's a bit where the voice gets lost here, the beginning of that solo which I missed...' And if you could go back and say 'Let's just take that and tart up those few bits that are wrong using the computer, so as not to lose the essence of the rough mix,' that should be your mix. But you never do, because you always think 'This is my chance to make it even more fabulous!'
"What I have started doing recently is doing semi‑computerised mixes, using the computer to do absolutely crucial things that are just a pain in the arse, like that little percussion thing you had to drop in on that track because that's the only place you could fit it in, and you hadn't printed it at quite the right level or it needed a different EQ or something. I'll let the computer look after that sort of thing, but still do a lot of the mixing by hand, because it's much more involving. It's like being a member of the band, in a way, all of a sudden you're part of the playing process. And I'll still cut the bits together."
Apart from handling the mix, Gus Dudgeon makes a point of not getting involved with the engineering on projects that he's producing — not only because of the potential pitfalls associated with trying to produce and engineer at the same time, but because he wants to get a positive contribution from others. "As soon as I quit engineering, which I was quite glad to do, my only concern then was finding an engineer that I could work with who understood what it was I was after. And I actually found that wasn't that difficult. I've worked in loads of studios, and I've found that engineers are keen, if asked, to put forward their ideas — which I welcome. As soon as the engineer realises you're asking him to give you his opinion, and his core values, and he's able to demonstrate to you something that maybe he's been messing around with quietly in the back room which is quite a nifty idea, he comes alive, because he thinks 'Oh good, he's not going to sit there and say "I want such‑and‑such a mic on the vocal, and what kind of mic is that on the bass drum, and so on and so on...".'
"If somebody sticks a microphone in front of a bass drum and it sounds like shit, it sounds like shit. You've got to change it, or look for better EQ, or it could just be the way the bass drum's tuned, it could be because you're using a soft beater instead of a hard beater or vice versa, but there's usually some way round it. But as for going in and having some sort of dictatorial opinion of 'This is the way I work and this is the only way I work,' that's never appealed to me. I'm interested in someone bringing something to the party. It's like when you bring a guitarist in, if you're booking a great guitarist, you're booking him precisely because he is a great guitarist, and you say 'Right. Here's the track, have a listen to it a few times, what would you do?' And there might be specific things you want, but let him have free rein with his ideas, let him show you what he can do.
"I get hands‑on when it comes to the mix, and I'm pretty hands‑on when it comes to the monitor balance, because I've got a thing about monitor balances, but that's it. I think you're sitting on people's creativity if you're too demanding. And also, what are you going to learn? You're not going to learn anything from anybody if you've got an attitude of 'I know what to do,' because probably what you'll be doing is following the same old routine for years, which works for you. But there's not going to be a flash of inspiration from anybody else, because they're going to think 'He doesn't want to hear what I've got to offer.' There's never been a session I've done without learning something. Sometimes it's a new way of doing things, or sometimes it's 'Don't ever do that again!', but it's impossible to do a session without learning something."
These days, it's clear that it's the potential for learning something new, or doing something unique, that inspires Gus Dudgeon to take on new projects. In recent years he's worked with an eclectic selection of artists including XTC, The Frank & Walters, Fairport Convention and Menswear, and his current projects are equally diverse. He's remixing an old single by Bonzo Dog Band drummer 'Legs' Larry Smith — a version of 'Springtime For Hitler' from the Mel Brooks film The Producers — for an imminent re‑release, and has been compiling an album of classic soca tracks which includes a forthcoming single on which he'll have a rare composition credit. On top of this, he's been producing a live album recorded at a recent tribute concert to Burt Bacharach, featuring Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello, Bob Geldof, Lynden David Hall, Paul Carrack and many other singers as well as the great songsmith himself, and also managing a new band called Slinki Malinki.
Somehow, Gus Dudgeon even finds time for his other lifelong passion — tending the impressive grounds at the back of his immaculate 16th‑century Surrey house. And the jewel in the crown, naturally, is his rock garden...
Gus Dudgeon is an active member of the Music Producers' Guild, and joined the panel for their recent Making Music tour. The MPG can be contacted on https://mpg.org.uk.
"The classical engineers at Decca had a bit of a snobby attitude towards the pop guys, but then I started doing a few classical things — not engineering but editing — and then I found out that they get up to just as many things as the pop guys do, they just don't do it in quite such a blatant way," laughs Gus Dudgeon. "I did about four or five days' editing on a big classical project, a version of Wagner's Ring cycle, and I was putting in sections that were a quarter of a bar long, on analogue tape. The scary part was that in the pop department we used a block to cut the tape — not the classical guys, though. It had to be done with a pair of brass scissors, so you had to get the angle of the cut just right! You had to wear white cotton gloves, and after you'd done the join, you then had to dust it with chalk. By the time I'd finished, I probably did about 50 or 60 edits in the course of those four or five days, and when you played the tape it looked like a zebra crossing going past! Brown, white, brown, white, a long bit of brown, then white again... It was ridiculous. Their cheating was just as bad as ours, and I've been a bit more relaxed about the whole classical ethos ever since!"
Although Gus Dudgeon is still a keen seeker after new musical talent, and goes to two or three gigs every week, he's not a fan of most modern sample‑based music. It's ironic, then, that he's about to be honoured for his own contribution to the genre.
"When I was a kid and the first Guinness Book Of Records came out it was the Pokemon of its day, it was the ultimate thing to have. And I remember thinking 'Wouldn't it be great to get into the Guinness Book Of Records?' It was one of those weird dreams that I had when I was a kid, but then it faded away. But then I was working on something else recently, and the tape jockey said to me 'Didn't you do 'He's Going To Step On You Again' by John Kongos?' And I said 'Yeah'. And I was driving home after that, and I thought 'Wait a minute, that was 1971. That might have been the first ever use of a sample!', because the whole record is built on a loop, and I mean an actual analogue tape loop, going round and round, lifted from an African tribal dance recorded in some jungle somewhere. And although they haven't printed it yet, the Guinness Book Of Records have actually sent me a fax saying that they recognise it as the first sample ever used on record, which I was delighted about.
"I remember playing this loop to the musicians, and they said 'Yeah. Now what happens?' And I said 'Well, you're going to play on top of that.' And the drummer was like 'What? It's got drums on it already! And it's not an even length, it's two and a quarter bars long — I can't play to that.' So I said 'You just go straight down the line. Believe me, you can play to it.' It took about half an hour to persuade him to even put the cans on and try, but once they got into it, they were there. All the time they were doing it I was terrified. No‑one had ever done it before, I was thinking I was going to have my arse sued off, but the point was you could never have faked it. If I'd played that and said to somebody 'Let's recreate this,' you couldn't have done it. And it is a fabulous loop — not that I created it in the first place.
"The guy who did the demo had created the loop because he wanted some drums to play to — he just lifted this bit off and made a quick loop out of it, and that's why it was only two and a quarter bars long, because as long as it stayed in time, he wasn't concerned about whether it started at point A and finished at point B and went back to A again. The reason it was two and a quarter bars long was because that was how long it took the tape to go round once without being too wobbly or too tight to move. So we just repeated what he'd done on his original demo, went through the process of making up the loop, dubbed 10 minutes or so of it onto a 24‑track machine, finally got the drummer to understand it would work, dubbed the drums on, and then the rest of the musicians. The entire record is based on that loop. It runs loudly throughout the entire song. So consequently it is the very first record to ever use a sample, and produced by me, of all people! I'm probably the very last person anyone would think of as being the sample pioneer!"
Apart from his forcefully expressed distaste for SSL consoles, which he dislikes because of their sound, Gus Dudgeon doesn't insist on any particular choice of studio gear. He does, however, have fond memories of the consoles made by now‑defunct American company MCI.
"The MCI desk in my opinion was the best‑sounding desk of all time, because it didn't have any quirks or weirdness about it. I came across the MCI desk by accident, when we went to do the stuff in France with Elton. I went to the chateau when I was checking the studio out, and in order to get into the control room you had to walk through the live area. There was a band playing, called Zoo, and as I walked through the studio, I could hear their drummer playing. I walked from the studio into the control room, and I heard exactly the same sound. That had never happened to me in my entire life. I kept walking in and out of the control room and into the studio, and I thought 'I can't believe this. I'm hearing, near as dammit, exactly what I'm hearing out there.' And it turned out to be an MCI desk.
"The nearest you get to MCI nowadays is the Focusrite, of which there are very few — I think there's only two left in the UK, sadly — and you can also tweak a Euphonix to sound a lot like an MCI. Most of the Focusrite outboard boxes you can buy all have that kind of MCI quality. People love them, but they don't realise that there was a console once where the whole console sounded like that."
Many of the tracks on Elton John's classic '70s albums were based around live studio takes, with Elton playing piano alongside a drummer, bassist and the other members of his band. This was clearly the only way to capture the feel of a band performance, but it did pose obvious problems when it came to recording the piano in sufficient isolation to permit it to be treated independently of other instruments, or notes to be dropped in. Gus Dudgeon explains his innovative solution:
"When I first started off, we did it the same way anybody does — you lift the lid up. I never close the lid on a piano. It's the worst thing you can possibly do. Taking the lid off is even better, if you can get the lid physically off. The lid is only there to bounce the sound out into the hall when you're playing live with an orchestra. The problem is that you lose separation in a studio situation, because it's very unlikely you're going to be able to get the piano somewhere isolated, so with rock & roll you'd like to be able to keep it shut to keep some of the noise out. But the trouble is, when you do that you've got the mics only a matter of inches from the strings, so you're going to hear all the harmonics which you're not supposed to hear, and the sound's going to be way out of balance, because you cannot get a balanced sound across the whole keyboard unless you've got a mic every couple of feet, which would be ridiculous.
"So I started off the traditional way, and then when it started getting a bit more complicated, and I really wanted to get the mics up higher and higher to get the most natural sound, I found the thing to do was take the lid off, and then get a carpenter to build the shell of another piano, upside‑down. So, in other words, on top of the original frame of the piano we built another one about three times as deep, so physically the piano was now about 10 feet tall, and it was padded inside. We had two holes at the side, and we just poked the mics in there, and then you could get the mics high above the strings. You could put the piano right in the middle of the rhythm section, and you might just hear a little bit of low rumble from the bass or the bass drum or something, but you could usually filter that out without spoiling the piano sound in any way. I think we had about three built altogether. There are upside‑down piano frames dotted all over America!"
"If you tell a songwriter, 'I think this section's great, and this section's great, but you could really do with a better verse,' or whatever, they always say 'Yeah, yeah, you might have got a point, I'll do something about it,' but they never do," says Gus Dudgeon. "What they do is go off and write another song which they think is better. So you never get from A to Z. You always get as far as K and then they stop. It drives you mad. I would love to be a terrific songwriter who people brought songs to, and then I could sit down and write the missing bits, but songwriting's not a skill that I have."
A project that has occupied much of Gus Dudgeon's time in the last couple of years is remastering Elton John's back catalogue for CD. Like so many others, Elton John's '70s albums had been victims of a shoddy original transfer to the digital domain: "I was complaining about it for years, and eventually someone in America listened and said 'OK, you've been moaning about it for a long time, you go and do it,'" says Dudgeon. "No‑one used to bother in the early days of CD mastering, they just used to look for the loudest peak, set it, and then f**k off and have a cup of tea while the CD master ran off. I wish they'd go back to the engineer sometimes and ask them if they'd like to be present at the mastering and do the thing properly. It's a real art. The early ones were awful, embarrassing. Some of them were even back to front — the left and rights had been switched, which is pathetic. There was a live Elton album called 17/11/70, which obviously fades in with applause on the original vinyl and fades out at the end of side one, and then fades in again on side two. At the point on the CD where they crossfaded trying to go from side one to side two, the whole thing goes completely out of phase, so the audience goes all strangled and horrible and it sounds like it's coming down a phone. The person who did this obviously couldn't give a tuppeny f**k."