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Producer Chris Tsangarides & Rainmaker Studio By Tom Flint
Published July 2001

Chris Tsangarides at the TLA VTC desk in Rainmaker Studio.Chris Tsangarides at the TLA VTC desk in Rainmaker Studio.

Over the last three decades Chris Tsangarides has produced some of the biggest names in heavy rock and has perfected the art of capturing the excitement of a loud, live band on record. Tom Flint finds out about some of his trademark production and engineering techniques including his work on the latest Gary Moore album, Back To The Blues.

"When my son turned 14 years old I suddenly became cool to him because his friends were talking about Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy. He thought, 'Hang on, my dad did that — the old git's not so bad after all!'," laughs engineer and producer Chris Tsangarides. Since he first became a producer in the late '70s, Chris has cemented his image and reputation by working with almost every conceivable type of metal band, ranging from punk metal experimentalists The Tygers Of Pan Tang to speed‑metal pioneers Anvil. As his production credits demonstrate, however, he has also worked within a wide range of other musical styles. Notable luminaries from Chris' impressive CV include Ian Gillan, Helloween, Killing Joke, Jan Hammer, Japan, Phil Lynott, Girlschool, Magnum, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie Malmsteen, Bruce Dickinson, Depeche Mode, Exodus, The Tragically Hip, Concrete Blonde, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and many more.

Almost since the beginning of Chris' career, artist and bands have approached him hoping to have their recordings benefit from his unique production touch. Yet Chris is philosophical about his reputation and what it really means in the music industry: "You don't start out thinking 'I'm going to be a rock producer,' because you don't know what's going to happen. Like an actor, you get stereotyped into a role, but for every metal band I've done there has been something that wasn't metal, and that is fantastic. In sales terms my biggest successes have been non‑metal bands like Concrete Blonde and Tragically Hip and we've sold millions of records with these groups who play an alternative style of music.

"Concrete Blonde were a very original three‑piece with a female vocalist and a fantastic guitar player who sounded like Chet Atkins on acid. It was the respect they had for work that I had done on rock projects like Thin Lizzy which led them to pick me. Similarly, I recorded an American band called Christine In The Attic who were a very early techno band with violins, samplers and all sorts of things and they asked me to produce them because they loved Judas Priest's Pain Killer; and then I did Exodus' album because they liked Concrete Blonde. If you look at the correlation between those types of music you think 'What the hell's going on?', but all people look at things differently."

Starting At Morgan


Chris' musical interest was first aroused by the performance of Jimi Hendrix on the Lulu show. "Something happened to me," he explains. "It sounds a bit daft now but something came out of the TV screen. It got to me, touched me or whatever you want to call it. That was my first interest in music as a way of expression."

At first, Chris had concentrated on the performance aspects of music while studying economics at college, and had given little thought to the possibility of recording it. However, a schoolfriend who had landed a job as tape‑op at Morgan Studios while Chris was completing his economics qualification suggested he try to become a recording engineer. "I explained to him that I didn't know anything about knobs and dials but he said it would be like an apprenticeship. He told me to write to every studio in England. I got the standard rejections, but then Morgan had an opening and because he was my buddy he got me an interview. So I had two interviews, got the job and that was that.

"At Morgan I'd walked into one of the major independent recording studios of its day. There was Black Sabbath in Studio Four, Yes in Studio Three, Jethro Tull in Studio Two and Rod Stewart and The Faces in Studio One. And I thought 'This is pretty damn good,' but after about two weeks of working from 10 in the morning until four am the next day and getting paid an absolute pittance I asked for a day off. They said 'no, you're the new boy, you do all the crap.' So that was the end of the star trip and I realised what it was about. Really all that boot‑camp stuff was just to see if you could hack it and take the demands. After about a month it started easing off just a little bit and I got a day off here and there.

"The wages were £75 a month in 1974 and the overtime was 75p an hour after 6pm and at weekends. My first pay packet was £300, so just figure out how many hours I worked! My take‑home was £200, so it was £50 a week for working virtually 20 hours a day. The tape‑ops at Morgan doubled as assistant engineers — you would do anything that had to be done but you'd also run the tapes back and forth perched by a big multitrack machine. Morgan was so tight they didn't even have counters, so you would have to sit there scrubbing it as it went through and marking the the verses on the tape with chinagraph pencils. You got to know just by feeling the length of time in your head how far to rewind to get back to the first verse. On particularly boring sessions I mastered the art of reading a book at the same time. That lasted about a year.

"Then I was tape‑op on Judas Priest's second album and the engineer got taken sick and they said 'Go on then, carry on.' I didn't know what I was doing but I jumped in and carried on — it was sink or swim and luckily I swam, or at least floated! Then I went back to tape‑opping and got to engineer bits and pieces as they came in — cheaper sessions, jingles, little things that were suitable for a trainee to do."

Eventually, Chris got given the chance to engineer and produce a session all of his own. The project was a success and he never looked back. But the track was a far cry from the heavy rock and serious alternative music he is now known for. "A chap came to Morgan with a funny idea for a song and he wanted a very cheap studio rate and somebody who was a bit zany to work on the track — so the studio said I could do it!

"This chap arrived with a Punch and Judy man and an ex‑singer called Joy Sarney who had become a housewife in Southend. We recorded this song called 'Naughty Naughty Naughty' which was a love song between Joy and Mr Punch. The bloody thing was atrocious but it was a hit single. So this chap thought he'd found his production team and started bringing in these rockabilly acts for us to work on. After about three months I'd been engineering all the time so I became an engineer. It will haunt me, but I'm grateful because it was a break and it gave somebody confidence in me. He thought my touch had helped him have a hit and therefore he wanted to repeat the successful formula and that is how it works in this business.

"So I became a recording engineer, and with that I got some pretty damn fine sessions. I got to engineer Japan's second album Obscure Alternatives, and I got to do all the bands that were going through Morgan at the time like Colosseum II. Because I was into guitar, I formed a good relationship with Gary Moore who was in Colosseum II. Gary was signed to a company that was owned by the recording studio, so they put me on his album Back On The Streets. About 10 minutes into that session I was told I was the producer. I thought it was a joke but after a couple of days I realized they were serious! I thought 'What do producers do?' So I said to Gary, 'You play, I'll record and that will be that,' so that's what we did. That album had the single 'Parisienne Walkways' which was a big hit. Through Gary I met Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy. Suddenly I was a producer."

Recording The Blues

The Vortex. Note that the distant mic has been moved closer to the amp for the purposes of the photo! The amp itself is a Catamp Custom 50 custom‑built for Tsangarides.The Vortex. Note that the distant mic has been moved closer to the amp for the purposes of the photo! The amp itself is a Catamp Custom 50 custom‑built for Tsangarides.

The straightforward live‑in‑the‑studio approach Chris used so successfully on Back On The Streets has remained his preferred style of recording bands, and he used it again on Gary's most recent album Back To The Blues. The whole of Back To The Blues was recorded at Chris' new South London studio, which operates under the name Rainmaker, and is based around a TL Audio VTC valve desk and an Otari RADAR hard‑disk recorder. The studio occupies a space in an enormous business complex called The Music Bank along with a large PA hire company and two huge rehearsal studios upstairs, known as Waterloo Sunset. The session for Back To the Blues was set up in one of the Waterloo Sunset rooms and then recorded over a period of just a few days.

"On Back To The Blues we said we'd go for three or four takes and if we didn't get what we wanted, we'd move on. It was all about performance and music. If a blues record doesn't move you then forget it, you've failed. But with him we would normally get it within three of four takes. We'd listen the next day and if we weren't happy we'd have a go again."

Chris holds strong opinions when it comes to the rights and wrongs of recording and these have shaped the way he now approaches a recording session. "I always get the sound right at source," he insists. "All this 'fix it in the mix' crap is crap, essentially. There are a few things that you can do with the technology we have these days, but if people are live musicians it ain't gonna happen!

"If it's a band that plays live I'll try to record most of it in one go. I tend to use the spill as the reverb. It always depends where I am, because I work in so many different locations that I have to cut my cloth accordingly, and in certain places I can't do what I would normally do. In those situations I would perhaps use a guide guitar and bass so that the drummer has somebody to play with and can get the feel, and then overdub the rest on top of that."

Despite Chris' preference for a natural‑sounding recording, he still uses the technology at his disposal to give the music on record the same feel as it would have in a live situation. "You have to do unnatural things to make recordings sound natural," he explains. "With this studio setup I don't have to do much to it, because I use valves and valve compressors. They're not necessarily compressing much, but they beef up the signal and add to it. I used just a little compression for Back To The Blues but for some things I'll compress very heavily because compression can be your friend if used properly.

"The types of compressors you use on different instruments allow you to do different things with them. I tend to go for compressors which have a character and a sound to them. For example, on drums I tend to use my Chiswick Reach stereo compressor over a subgroup of all the drums and then possibly the Summit valve equaliser over the entire thing. Any reverbs that I might want to use or not will go on the entire group so it all sounds like it's one. Then it goes to the RADAR, and that's the drum sound done. The drummer remarks 'Gosh that's just what it sounds like when I play them,' and that's the idea, but that's always the hard bit. Again, you have to do unnatural things to get it to sound natural. To me, the producer's role is to get that over in the most exciting way possible. There's no picture when you listen to a radio or CD, so to make something sound natural you have to go through some electronic jiggery‑pokery."

Entering The Vortex

Chris' compressors and other gear (from top): graphic equaliser, Chiswick Reach stereo valve compressor, Focusrite ISA430 input channel, Prism Sound MEA2 EQ and MLA2 stereo compressor, RSP Hush 2000 noise suppressor, Dbx 274 (x2) dynamics processor and 120XP subharmonic synthesizer, Yamaha REV500 (x4), D6000 and SPX990 multi‑effects, Summit Audio EQP200B EQ, and Esoteric Audio Research compressors (x2).Chris' compressors and other gear (from top): graphic equaliser, Chiswick Reach stereo valve compressor, Focusrite ISA430 input channel, Prism Sound MEA2 EQ and MLA2 stereo compressor, RSP Hush 2000 noise suppressor, Dbx 274 (x2) dynamics processor and 120XP subharmonic synthesizer, Yamaha REV500 (x4), D6000 and SPX990 multi‑effects, Summit Audio EQP200B EQ, and Esoteric Audio Research compressors (x2).

One particular production technique which Chris has perfected and used on a great number of his recordings is something he has named the Vortex. Once again, this is a method Chris has developed to enhance the excitement of a recording whilst aiming for a natural overall sound. If anything can be identified as a Tsangarides trade mark it is the Vortex. Chris tells the story: "I was working as tape‑op in the 1970s with Brand X, who were Phil Collins' jazz‑rock fusion side band. Each person got to do a solo on the album, but when it was the turn of guitarist John Goodsall, no‑one was interested in recording his one‑minute musical jerk‑off so they said to me 'You can do this,' and then went to the pub. So John and I were stuck there and he was saying 'We've got to make this really heavy man, really loud man,' because he was a bit of a metal‑head. He had a Marshall 4x12 with JBL speakers and a Fender guitar so it all sounded extremely harsh and lacking in bass. At first I didn't know how I was going to make it heavy, so I asked myself the question 'How does a bass bin work?' In those days there was a speaker in the back and the sound would be thrown out through a flare, so I decided to make a huge bass bin. The studio happened to have some really large separation screens, and so I made a good 25 to 30‑foot wall on either side of the cabinet in the shape of a big flare — and bugger me, was it loud!

"Being young and naive I started getting all the mics out, miking the floors, the walls, the ceilings, everywhere. I mixed everything that was close to the speaker cabinet to the left and anything that wasn't to the right. We had a Cadec desk in that studio that was quadraphonic, so I plugged some of the microphones into this matrix quad joystick and was panning the shit out of John's lead playing. I stopped to get a cup of tea and it was still panning. I realised later on that different mics were cancelling each other out. They were going in and out of phase so as he was playing fast runs it was appearing on different sides of the stereo field giving the effect of panning. So I asked John to listen and he went 'Whoa, man! Trippy Circus Electric Eel, that's a f***ing vortex!'

"Over time, I honed it down a bit more sensibly to just a close mic and a couple of distant mics. I'd walk around while the guy would be playing and find a sweet spot and put the mic there. If it's a solo you get some great panning effects by balancing the two together. If it's a rhythm part you get this huge sound because the whole thing is spread across the stereo spectrum.

"Mic placement depends where I am recording and the type of music, but at that studio the ambient mics would be at 15 feet and about 30 feet and I'd mix those two. I would then double‑track the lead or rhythm part and reverse the second track so the close mic was on the right instead of the left and the distant was on the left rather than the right, so you'd get the two close mics on either side but their ambiences opposite. If there were two guitarists in a band I would record them like that, so you got a wall of sound that had a transparency that would allow the drums and bass to come through. If you're recording a band live you can't use the Vortex because you'd be picking up everybody else's nonsense on the ambient mics, so it has to be an overdub. In the studio it's always there, but I use it to varying degrees."

Chris now uses the Vortex as a tool to create ambient space in a recording instead of using reverb. The only exception made to this rule is when the guitarist chooses to use reverb on their amp, as Gary Moore did on Back To The Blues.

Standard Issue

Chris is a big fan of TLA gear, and as well as his VTC desk owns an entire rack full of their Ivory‑series input channels, compressors and EQs.Chris is a big fan of TLA gear, and as well as his VTC desk owns an entire rack full of their Ivory‑series input channels, compressors and EQs.

When it comes to the actual mechanics of recording, Chris has some favourite techniques and equipment which he uses to a greater or lesser extent on many of his productions. "In a metal or rock environment you're confined to a guitar, bass, drum, vocal scenario, and maybe the odd touch of keyboard if it's an adventurous band," says Chris, "and because of that scenario it's pretty much like everybody else sonically. The differences come from the songs and the arrangements and the way you go about recording.

"Over the years I've learnt to take advantage of the microphones I use because they are the ear that listens to the source and it's very, very important to get that right. If I'm happy with the sound acoustically but the mic sound isn't good I'll start changing the mics, because that's where it starts from. If it sounds shit on the floor there's nothing you can do about it later, so the source is all important.

"I normally go for a Neumann U47 on a bass drum, but first of all I'll ask the guy to play and hear what the sound is like. I can pretty much make an educated guess whether that microphone is going to work on that type of kick drum. It's not a case of always using the same kind of microphone on a bass drum and therefore using it irrespective of what the bass drum is. The drum might not be padded enough, it could be a really huge 26‑incher or a little 20‑inch one, so I make a mic choice, be it condenser, dynamic, RE20 or whatever. The same goes for guitars, which is why you have to have an amplifier or a combo first. I don't particularly like heavy guitar sounds made from synthetic sources. I have heard stuff and thought it sounded really good, but then you put it next to a real guitar and you realise it doesn't, so your mind plays tricks with you all the time.

"If I'm recording a metal band, as far as guitars go I would use a Shure SM56, 57 or 58 because the pressures and distortion levels they can handle lend themselves to that kind of colour. But for a clearer or purer tone, like Gary Moore, I would use Neumann U87s. The 87 will be close up, which is still a good nine inches away from the speaker, and I would put another one further away. On Back To The Blues, for example, he was playing either a Fender Dual Showman head or a Marshall DSL50 or 100 through a 4x12 cabinet, and Gibson Les Paul, 345 and 335 guitars. The guitar channel went into my Chiswick Reach valve compressor on the way in with no EQ. I used a bit of compression from the Chiswick, so the needle was just moving. We still wanted the guitar to sing and do its thing. The bass drum and snare went through a Focusrite compressor. I used the EAR compressors on the bass and everything else went through the EQs on the desk."

Here Comes The Rainmaker

The main control room at Rainmaker.The main control room at Rainmaker.

In recent years, Chris has scaled down his freelance production work so he can concentrate more of his energy on other activities: his production company, web site, studio, his own band projects and record label, all of which go under the name Rainmaker. "There are quite a few different bands and band names, but one project called Monochrome that we did was incredibly successful in Korea — someone's got to be!" laughs Chris. "That was a hybrid of me playing metal music on the guitar and bass over programmed synths and traditional Korean percussion instruments which were used to create different drums and loops. We went on tour and ended up at the Seoul Olympic stadium and I hadn't played a gig in 20 years! I couldn't care less if the thing sold just one copy, but the fact that I could make my own racket was great, and it was a bonus that we could tour. It opened up my eyes again to that excitement."

Chris also intends to run Rainmaker as an independent record label and is on the lookout for new talent. His activities are a reaction to the way the music industry has changed in recent years, to the point where independent labels now serve the majors.

"The independent record labels act as the A&R departments for the major record labels and the independents are the ones who go out to the gigs to see what's going on and sign up bands for not a whole lot of money. Some of them make these amazing records, then the major comes along, they see how many hits are on the web site and how many copies are sold, and then the band gets signed. The risk factor is removed.

"There are now only five big record companies, which are basically owned by the hardware manufacturers like Sony. They've bought the record companies so they have access to catalogue, so they can repackage it for their next invention that they're intending to sell to everybody, be it MP3, DVD or whatever. All power to anybody that can make any money out of this business, but if we don't invest in people were going to shoot ourselves in the foot, because you can't have any more catalogue if people aren't writing songs. How many times can you rerelease Frank Sinatra on a new Minidisc, CD, cassette, DVD?"

Chris is adamant as to the best method for discovering new talent: "You have to go to crappy little pub gigs. There's a nice little circuit in London. It's down to the bands finding enough money to get to it and to get their rehearsals and shows together and sometimes play to three people and a dog — which is completely soul‑destroying — but if you keep going, maybe somewhere along the line somebody will sign you. It's really, really hard, but there are some up‑and‑coming English bands doing really well on small labels, doing gig after gig to build up a base — which is how it used to be. There is a bit of a resurgence in that, but it's small and it is the independents doing it."

After so many years in the music industry it would be easy to become cynical and disenchanted. But somehow, Chris has remained optimistic, cheerful and ambitious.

"I've been doing this for coming up 27 years and my head might be a bit old but my heart is still 16 or 17. I still think 'Whoooa, look at this new toy, I must have that.' That enthusiasm is what it's all about. I am the luckiest bastard in the world really. 'What do you do for work daddy?' 'I go and make a load of noise and sometimes they give me some money for it. Fantastic.'"

Becoming A PWA

Chris has been labelled a PWA, which apparently stands for 'Producer with Attitude'. Chris explains how he came by the label and exactly what his attitude towards production is.

"PWA was something I got called in Canada. I was mixing a project over there and they said, 'Dude, you're a producer with attitude!' So they made me this badge with Producer with Attitude and a skull and crossbones that I had to wear.

"Part of the job is to get people in the best possible mood and then do the recording. I say 'It doesn't matter, don't worry about it. Forget your troubles and your woes for the time you're doing your recording, because it's going to be there forever and somebody might buy it and you might make somebody happy and that's the whole point of it.' Emotion is what it's about."

One of the biggest aspects of the job of producer is the management of people and time. If a band turns up late and in a bad mood following a late night, or having consumed too many mind‑altering substances, Chris clearly believes there is only one course of action. "It's pointless to try to record so I send them home; or we'll just listen to some music or watch Spinal Tap again for the 1500th time. And there's a cutoff point as well where you can't do any more. Long gone, thank God, are the days of working all night. If you can't play any more and can't hear any more, go home and come back tomorrow. People are getting that kind of attitude and it's working. It's a whole lot better to do six to eight hours' concentrated work than to be in the place for 20 hours where 90 percent is arsing around, like it used to be. You can't afford to do it. And it does you in."

Rainmaker Studio

Although Chris has been accumulating his studio gear over a number of years, the studio itself is relatively new and is centred around a TL Audio VTC valve desk. Almost everything else in the studio is valve‑based too, including two vast racks of compressors which Chris uses to process almost everything. The entire room is set up so the equipment can be easily removed and taken to another location for recording.

"For recording I use a 16‑bit RADAR 24‑track digital recorder. That has become the machine of choice of guitar‑type people and bands because it's more like a tape and it sounds, dare I say it, even better than analogue. If you use some nice valves on the way to it from the VTC desk and the Chiswick Reach, it gives a bit of saturation that you don't get from digital. But the beauty of the RADAR is that when you come to mix you don't really have to do anything, because nothing's changed. The RADAR plays back exactly what it records.

"Using valves is old‑fashioned, but today they're making them for the year 2001, which is the way it should be. You shouldn't 'retro' stuff, you should use what you've got to the best of your ability. This desk I have here wouldn't have been possible years ago because now there's the electronics that go between the valves, which have made the whole thing smaller, cheaper and more reliable. On the VTC there are different valve stages to choose from, so I can decide whether I want two or three stages before it gets to the tape recorder.

"I'm not an old dinosaur. I do use technology, anything going — bring it on, Pro Tools, Emagic Logic , whatever, fantastic. I do all that and I have my own band that mixes the rock side with the dance side and it's great fun and as valid as any sort of music, but don't let that technology rule your musical creativity. If you've got a computer recording setup in your bedroom, fantastic, but we still need the big studios to take that stuff from your bedroom and make it sound massive like it should be."