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HUGH PADGHAM: The Master Craftsman Behind Sting & Phil Collins

Engineer | Producer By Richard Buskin
Published October 1996

Hugh Padgham is one of a select band of producers whose work is always in demand by top musicians, and whose style always seems current and relevant. Richard Buskin catches up with him on a rare break in his busy schedule, to talk about his latest projects with Sting and Phil Collins.

From Phil Collins, The Police, XTC and Paul McCartney, to Sting, Genesis, Melissa Etheridge and David Bowie, the artists and the awards continue to line up for Grammy‑winning producer/engineer Hugh Padgham. Padgham has consistently been at the cutting edge of the music scene for almost two decades, courtesy not only of his good ears, astuteness and application to his work, but also his well‑proven ability to match the sound to the talent and the direction to the material. When the talent and material belong to the likes of Sting or Phil Collins, that's no mean feat. Obviously Collins recognises this — after seven years and a one‑album hiatus, the two men have recently been working together again, in the setting of a rented French chateau instead of the usual air‑conditioned studio. Coming in the middle of a year which had already seen the successful completion of projects with Sting and new LA act The Beth Hart Band, the Collins sessions had already reached the mixing stage when I caught up with Hugh Padgham at his home in London. A few days later, he would be flying to Miami to produce a couple of tracks on the new Bee Gees album, but, after battling his way through the Friday night traffic, he was still able to take the time out to talk about his work, his preferences, and his views on technology old and new.

Production Democracy

Do your roles as a producer and engineer vary from project to project?

"Yes, although the bottom line is always that we want to go in and do the best job possible. Whether I'm working with new artists, such as Beth Hart, or people whom I've known for a long time, such as Sting or Phil Collins, it's a totally democratic situation. We'll discuss the way in which we want the album to go and then we'll work in conjunction with one another. For instance, on Phil's new album every track has drums. When we started the record I pointed out to him that his last album only had three songs with drums on them, and on one of these you could hardly hear them anyway. So I said, 'Look, Phil, you're a great drummer and I think you deserve a bigger and better drum sound.' There again, I remember working with Paul McCartney years ago and him asking, 'Well, who should we get to play bass on the album?' I said, 'You've got to be joking! You're the best bloody bass player there's ever been!' He genuinely thought that there might be someone better than him, so in that case I had to provide confidence, for want of a better word."

Has the degree to which you offer advice and express your own point of view increased over the years?

"It's difficult to say, because I've always had the same kind of approach. You see, although I did learn to play musical instruments as a kid and can read scores, I'm not really a trained musician. Therefore, my input with regard to making records is basically coming from the punter's point of view. Artists like McCartney and Sting don't necessarily need somebody who's a fully‑trained musician to come in and try to change their songs. I mean, one reason why I think Sting and I get on so well is that he presents the music and I then translate it into the sonic medium. That's where my main production values come from; being able to comprehend what the artists want to do with their songs."

I think there's more that can go wrong with a CD these days than there was with a vinyl record.

Do you ever have difficulty understanding what they actually want?

"No, that's never a real problem, but I suppose I've been doing this for quite a long time, so I'm used to seeing where people are coming from. There again, it's also down to me getting the kind of projects that I'm good at, because I doubt that I would have many r&b groups asking me to work with them."

When you work with the likes of Sting and Phil Collins, how do you bring something new to each project? Are they looking for you to do this, or are they basically just relying on you to do what you've done in the past?

"That's a difficult question. In Sting's case, the music he writes is always quite different from one album to the next, and the minute I hear one of his songs I can 'see' the sound in my head. I can see what he's getting at, and that therefore becomes a new challenge in itself. With Phil Collins, on the other hand, just the fact that it's been seven years since we worked together has renewed the excitement in a way. I wouldn't say that Phil's albums progress musically in the same way that Sting's do, but what's interesting about Phil is that he writes these really good songs that only have about three chords in them. If you asked Sting to write a song with three chords, I don't know if he'd be able to do it! So that's where I think Phil's strength lies; a lot of it has to do with the simplicity of his approach, and that comes from many different facets, including the fact that he's self‑taught. If I had to do a Sting record all the time, or if I had to do a Phil Collins record all the time, or if I had to do whoever's record all the time, that would be boring. But it's because everybody's different in so many ways that my interest remains as high as it is."

Chateau Collins

In past interviews you've explained how you achieved Phil Collins' trademark drum and vocal sounds. Have you modified your approach or your methods with regard to the new album?

"Yes, in some respects. I mean, we certainly don't go for the big Phil Collins drum sound on every track because a) it wouldn't fit and b) it would become a bit tedious! However, as far as the vocals go, his favourite mic is still the same old Beyer 88 dynamic. The thing with Phil is that he sings to the sound, and if you put up a different mic, he himself sounds different. On a couple of songs we put up a different microphone, but generally he sings to what he knows. In many respects that will produce a better performance, and that's the most important thing for me."

Why did you opt to use Sting's portable studio in conjunction with the French chateau for Phil's album?

"Well, Sting has, I think, the only known portable SSL board, by which I mean you can literally pack it up in two or three hours and stick it in its flightcases. It's a 64‑channel G Plus with Ultimation, which was designed to be pulled apart and put back together again, and because Sting was on the road, we had this idea to rent his studio. What's brilliant about the system is that it has much shorter cable runs than a normal studio. In a normal studio, you have to put all of the wires through walls, go around corners and that kind of thing, whereas with Sting's setup it's as short as we want it to be. We have long cable runs and short cable runs, but all of the runs are still shorter than normal and I think that always helps sonically."

What was the setup in the chateau?

"We had three huge rooms on the ground floor and, unlike Sting's record, where everything — apart from the power supply and tape machines — was in the same room, in this instance we were able to put the drums in the room next door to where we had the equipment. This made it slightly easier from my point of view, as I could listen to the drums through the speakers a bit more. Then we had another room where all of the machines were."

How did you and Phil see each other?

"We had video cameras with remote controls. However, we did all of the vocals in the same room together, and as the room with the drums was right next to the control room I sometimes didn't even have to press the talk‑back. He could just hear me talking through the door!"

As the rooms were so big, how did you avoid too much reverb?

"Apart from the old thing of closing curtains, putting rugs on the floor, and gaffa‑taping bits of carpet onto the walls, we also used studio screens, as well as things called tube‑traps. If, for instance, someone is playing an acoustic guitar in a quite reverberant room, you can surround the microphone, the player, and the instrument with some of these tube‑traps and they'll radically change the reverberant characteristic of the sound. There again, on one song, we even recorded the drums in the garden..."

Have you ever done that before?

"No. I think I once did some outdoor recording with McCartney, but it wasn't as successful as this."

Was it a particular desire of Phil's to play in the garden?

"No, it was just a really nice sunny day, and I thought there would be a great sound outside the chateau because some of the sound was reflecting off the walls. In a normal studio situation we wouldn't have had this kind of opportunity to go outdoors."

What about extraneous noises, such as birds, or cars passing by?

"Yes, there were birds, but actually the biggest problem was the breeze, so I had to put wind‑shields on quite a few mics. We worked a little bit, setting the drums up in a position that wasn't too affected by the wind, but I also didn't use that many microphones. In the end we were all really surprised and pleased with the sound, and in some ways I wished that we'd done more tracks like that! However, we'd already done nearly all of the drum tracks by the time there was a day nice enough to work outside. There was a little bit of bird noise in the background, but you don't notice it once the music's in there. You only notice it at the very end, and then it's like, 'Oh, that's a good laugh. Let's keep that in and see if anyone can hear it'."

The Old Chestnut

Do you prefer digital, or analogue?

"I'm well into keeping up with the modernity of everything, yet ultimately I still think that in terms of warmth and sonic integrity analogue has the edge over digital. Even though we've now got 20‑bit and 24‑bit digital recording technology, as well as the higher sampling rates, I still have many problems making records on digital that I know I don't have on analogue. I don't really want to get into a whole conversation about that now, but I could easily write a thesis on it! When I'm working fully digital I'm still very much in learning mode, and the interesting thing we did with the new Phil record — which is actually the same as I did seven years ago on the But Seriously... album — is record the drums, bass and horns on analogue, and everything else on digital. I've had the luxury of having both and being able to choose between the mediums."

I still have many problems making records on digital that I know I don't have on analogue.

How come you didn't go for more warmth on the vocals, by also recording them on analogue?

"Well, it's also a sort of hassle doing this recording on both systems, because you're always sitting there making slaves and then having to slave things back in, and so on. At the same time you've got code on one track and you can't record on the track next to the code if you want to be safe, and so by the time we'd put two bass tracks on, and 12 or 14 drum tracks, there wasn't a whole lot to play with. Generally, I prefer to record bass on analogue because of the warmth, as well as drums — the transients are uncontrollable on digital. With vocals, you don't really have those kinds of transients. Having said that, I've recorded the last three Sting albums totally digital, even though I've then put things through valve equipment to try and warm them up."

Was the decision to record completely digital down to Sting?

"No, it was really a question of it being the only way we could work. We're always doing multitrack edits and moving things from one end of a song to another, and it's much easier to do that on digital. With Melissa Etheridge, I've done both of her last two albums on analogue. We've gone into rehearsal and totally worked out the album before going into the studio, so then there's no screwing around in that respect. We can record it onto analogue and virtually never have to edit anything, whereas with Sting that's not the way it works. With him, things change during the course of recording the album. Melissa's setup is much more of a rock band kind of thing, so we work it all out, we go in the studio, everybody plays live and we record it! Obviously it's easy to do that on digital as well, but it's very easy to do it on analogue and I think most rock 'n' roll music sounds better — warmer and thicker and gutsier — that way, at least to my ears. I just desperately hope that in the years to come A/D converters will improve to the level of analogue sound."

Computer Love?

While we're on the subject of technological advancement, do you feel that the momentum of the late '70s and early '80s has declined?

"No, not at all. I think it's increased quite a lot, in terms of computer and microchip technology. I love computers, and now we've got these things like hard disk recorders cropping up all over the place. It's brilliant not to have tape any more. However, I still don't say that music is any better now than it was 30 years ago when they were recording onto 8‑track analogue. I mean, look at The Beatles — their records still sound good!"

Compared to those years when the music was the thing, do you feel that technology today is looked upon as something of a crutch, in the absence of strong material?

"Not necessarily. We've now got the techno music that came through in the '80s with Depeche Mode and so on, and obviously that kind of music couldn't have existed in the '60s, because they didn't have the technology. Whether you like it or not, it's a new form of music, and to me it's no better and no worse."

But don't you feel that studio tricks now allow some artists to get away with sub‑standard performances?

"With that you've touched on an interesting point, really. It certainly can be the case, but personally I can't be bothered with all that. I'm really not interested in working with somebody who can't sing or play. This may sound very elitist, but luckily I have always been able to choose what I've wanted to do, and so I've never got myself into a situation where I've had to do a total repair job. Some producers and engineers would absolutely love the idea of being able to sit in front of their Macintosh and go crazy and change it all. For them, that sort of electronic manipulation would be very satisfying to do. It's like when you first get onto the Internet after weeks of messing around with applications on your Mac — 'Yes! I've done it!' I can't tolerate that kind of thing. I'm not interested and I haven't got the time for it. Occasionally, if an artist has an aberration, then OK, we can stick it through Sonic Solutions and mend it, but I would never work with an artist who I initially considered to be incapable even on a good day. It's fantastic when you're sitting there in the producer's chair, watching and hearing someone perform and they're really into it, and you go, 'My God, that's fantastic!' It's like when Melissa Etheridge sings: there'll be 99.9% of it there in one take, and that's because we've got her at the right time, the sound is right and it's a brilliant feeling. That's not to say that other people don't also have a brilliant feeling after they've spent two days using a Mac to manipulate the voice of somebody who can't sing. It's just that personally I prefer to do it in three or four minutes."

Good Gear

What equipment do you yourself carry around from project to project?

"Mostly microphones. Favourite microphones: a few old Neumanns, a couple of KM86s, which you don't see in every studio, and I've also been getting into some mics by Audio Technica. I was mixing at Rooster Studios in London, which is a wonderful little place with a 36‑channel Harrison desk, and the owner, Nick Sykes, said, 'I've got this fantastic dynamic bass drum mic from Audio Technica.' I think it's called the RT3. Well, the following week I had a recording session and Nick lent it to me, and it really was fantastic. A month later, Audio Technica then lent me one when the Sting sessions were coming up, along with the company's version of a U87 condenser mic, which is also really, really good and about half the price of an 87. For the Sting album, we also bought a very expensive Sony G800 valve mic — the one with the fins on it — and that was absolutely fantastic on his vocals. I could record flat and his voice would sound 'present' and full. As far back as 1990, the people at Sony lent me prototypes of this microphone, and I would report back my views on its performance. I'm not saying that I had anything in particular to do with its design, but at least I was able to give some sort of feedback that was generally positive. The end product came out really well, but obviously it isn't fantastic on everything. Every mic has its uses and so, even after having worked for years and years in the studio, it's still fun to discover new microphones and to experiment with them. Another couple of mics which I have are these Russian Oktavas..."

I would never work with an artist who I initially considered to be incapable even on a good day.

And why do you like them?

"Because they're cheap! When they first came out, some guy came into The Townhouse saying, 'You've got to try these mics out! You won't believe how cheap they are!' So I put them up against some Neumann 87s and Neumann U47 FETs. I was surprised at how good these Oktavas were, so I bought them right there and then, and I still use them. In terms of other equipment, I've got a few reverb units that I quite like, such as an old Roland. That's because, in typical Japanese style, they make a device and then when you go back for another one the following week, it's already been discontinued and replaced by a new model which isn't as good! You're left wondering why they didn't leave the old version alone, and so I've got a few bits of equipment for that very reason. Overall, however, I pride myself on not ever using very much outboard gear when I make records. As for Sting's gear, I myself spec'd up the outboard aspect of the studio. As a result, there are quite a few valve mic amplifiers, and some valve equalisers and valve microphones, so there's a lot of choice between solid state and valve. There are also things like old Lexicon PCM42 delay lines, that have a very nice kind of analogue sound to them, even though they're digital. So there's a lot of stuff that I like which I can borrow off him, and since I'm able to make do with very little outboard gear anyway, that's why I myself don't have a huge collection. When I'm mixing, I love using EMT 140s. I realise that a lot of young engineers today would rarely use an echo plate — the EMTs at The Townhouse are always free whenever I want to use one there — but I'm not a massive fan of digital reverbs. The plates have a real warmth and spread of sound, and there are certain ways in which I use them that I'm not prepared to talk about... Job security, old boy, job security!"

Monitoring & Mastering

When you're trying to get as good a sound as you possibly can, is it easy to lose sight of what the average listener at home is going to pick up on? Perhaps their ears aren't as trained, their equipment isn't as good... Are they even going to hear the work that has gone into the making of the record?

"That's one very good reason why I use AR18s, which cost me $150 a pair. I find that I have to work on those speakers to make things sound good, or at least what I think sounds good. I've worked with many speakers and I love those by ATC and Roger Quested. They both make smallish nearfield monitors, and when I put them up I can hear the sound so well through them that I don't want to EQ or change anything. I can really hear things change, or I can hear phase shift when equalisation is introduced — but with those speakers, the end result would probably be a record that would not sound 'present' or 'vibey' enough through the average person's hi‑fi system or radio."

How involved are you with the mastering process? I've spoken with a number of mastering engineers over the years, and I've been amazed to learn how much they will change certain records. Do you keep a tight rein on that sort of thing?

"Oh yeah, I do. For 16 years I've used Bob Ludwig, who's generally recognised as one of the best mastering engineers in the world — if not the best — and 90% of the time I will attend the mastering process unless there's some very serious reason preventing me. To me, it's an integral part of the overall recording process, and it's also wise to keep an eye on the quality control of the resulting CDs. I think there's more that can go wrong with a CD these days than there was with a vinyl record. Many people think that because we're now working in a digital age everything is either just a dot or a dash — or a '1' or a '0', depending on how you want to describe your binaries — and therefore everything is always perfect. A lot of record companies still have that attitude, but there's actually a massive amount that can go wrong. When I hear the quality of some of the CDs out there, it really frightens me. It's very difficult to keep in total control of that, but there are freelance quality‑control people who you can hire to make sure that everything is alright. I've listened to the CDs of artists who I've worked with which were manufactured in France, Germany and America, and they've all sounded quite different, and this leads me to another problem that I have these days: years ago we would always get final test pressings to listen to, whereas now it's very rare for producers to get CD pressings; that's a real shame. I get a really hard time from some record companies and artist managements for trying to maintain quality control... It's a real bug in my software right now!"

Keeping It Simple

Looking back at your career, what would you say have been some of your best or most interesting sound innovations?

"I can't really think of any one thing. Every day I'll learn something new, and every day there will be something that surprises me. The one basic rule I still adhere to is simplicity, and that applies to my production values as well as my engineering. Using the simplest and cleanest signal path to tape is very important to me. I also think that empty‑sounding records are much harder to make than ones that include everything but the kitchen sink. I love it when a song has that minimal aspect to it, although that's not always the case. There are some songs on Phil's new record which have a very full sound because that's how they were written, so I couldn't then say that I was going to take everything away from them. I think that the producer is always at the mercy of the artist's songs. I haven't written the songs. All I'm doing is trying to present the songs that the artist has written in the way that both they and I hopefully think is the best way."