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Martin Rushent: Producer

From Punk To Electro By Tom Flint
Published February 2007

Martin Rushent: from Punk to Electro

Martin Rushent managed the rare double feat of working at the artistic cutting edge and having colossal success — until disaster struck.

Martin Rushent began the '80s as a wealthy, in-demand producer and studio owner. Having helped the Stranglers, the Buzzcocks, Generation X, Altered Images and the Human League all achieve massive chart hits, he seemed to be riding the crest of a never-breaking wave of success. But behind the scenes things were not going so well, resulting in his sudden and dramatic retirement from the industry. "I ended up a virtually bankrupt single dad with three kids, and had to sell my home and studio to pay off my bills," he recalls. "I didn't know what clinical depression was, but that's what I had. I could barely make a cup of tea and for a year I drifted like a soul lost. I'd been working on mixing consoles since I was 16 and it had been completely instinctive, but suddenly I had to think about every move. I took on a couple of projects but had to own up that I couldn't think straight. Now, people are more aware that someone who is perfectly sane can plunge into a serious depression for no reason — I had plenty of reasons, but no one spotted it!"

Thankfully, the Martin Rushent of today is a happy man. A little worse off financially than he once was, perhaps, but passionate about music, mentally sharp, intuitive, and totally up to date with the latest technology. In his Berkshire home he has turned a large room into a powerful mixing and recording space, stacked to the roof with gear and overflowing with patch leads.

Martin Rushent's home studio might lack the glamour of Genetic Studios, but it's "a thousand times" more powerful.Martin Rushent's home studio might lack the glamour of Genetic Studios, but it's "a thousand times" more powerful.Photo: Peter Cooke

Projections For The Future

Martin's first taste of the recording industry came when, as lead vocalist in school band, he got the opportunity to make a test recording for EMI in their Manchester Square demo studio. The recording process was immediately appealing to the young singer, who thought it was a "brilliant experience", although he'd already learnt how to track bounce on an old four-track bought for him by his father. "I made versions of 'Stay' by the Hollies, multitracking my voice and guitars," he remembers.

Nevertheless, after school Martin found himself working in a chemicals factory doing a job he didn't like. "I had reason to leave when I pulled a big deal and made them a lot of money, but because I didn't have the authority I got told off. I thought 'This is not for me,' and went to work for my dad in the motor trade while I looked for a studio job.

"There were lots of studios then, so I'm sure getting a job in one must have been easier, but it was still tough. I got rejected by everybody before being interviewed at Advision, which, in those days, was quite a small place in New Bond Street. I got the job, but it was actually as 35mm projectionist for their dubbing theatre! My interviewer, Roger Cameron, whose claim to fame was that he was the drawing on the Yardbirds' Roger The Engineer album, had muddled up the applications, giving me the job in error, which, I suppose, was my luckiest break.

"When I got there they said 'Here's the stock, go lace it up.' I said, 'Look, I don't know how to lace a 35mm projector, but if somebody shows me and gives me an hour to practice, I'll be the best projectionist you've ever had,' which I did and was. I only did that for about three months as I made it clear that it wasn't what I wanted to do. I started helping out as tape-op on evening sessions for free, gradually became the senior assistant engineer, and then when it moved to Gosfield Street, which is when it really came into its own, I was already staff engineer. I got promoted to senior engineer, then head engineer, and after that I went freelance."

What followed were many years of freelancing, as Martin built his reputation, eventually leading to a job with United Artists. "I did a lot of sessions with Martin Davies, who was the UA MD in the UK, doing middle-of-the-road stuff like Shirley Bassey and people like that, which I used to enjoy. The head of A&R at the time, Andrew Lauder, was the best A&R man I've ever worked with. I'd met him several times before, engineering for him on stuff like the Groundhogs. What Andrew didn't know about music wasn't worth knowing.

"Martin asked me to help Andrew in the A&R department. He said 'Andrew signs the right bands, but somehow it goes wrong in the recording process because he doesn't fully understand studios, producers and engineers.' He said I could carry on freelancing if I'd advise Andrew on what producer and studio to use to get the sound he was after. They offered me a lot of money, and one advantage was that I, along with Andrew, made the decisions. It wasn't like having a job as a record company producer working for an A&R man who has a vision, and you're thinking 'This is so wrong,' yet you have to adopt a production style you think is madness."

Sample Beginnings

It was while working on the Human League's 'Fascination' that Martin Rushent invented one of the most popular studio tricks of the '80s: using the 'loop triggering' facility on the AMS DMX1580 digital delay as a primitive sampler. "I used it for the bass, snare and bass riff," he says. "I knew AMS reasonably well by the time they brought out this very high-quality digital delay line, so I asked if they could adapt it so that it wouldn't erase its sample. I'd been working with the Linn Drum and realised that it was just a memory of drum sounds, but I wanted to make my own sounds. So they put in four seconds of delay for me. All you had to do was feed in the signal and it would start sampling the moment it saw a rise in voltage. Then you could edit it a bit. After that you'd set it to Fire mode and trigger it via a click fed into the audio input, so I used the Micro Composer to send it a pulse. AMS asked me to show them what I wanted it for so I did a demo by feeding in a bass drum sound and triggering it via the Roland. After that, they made it standard on their products, sold it to the Japanese, and I made fuck-all out of it!"

The Man With The Golden Touch

Up until that time, Martin was probably best known for his freelance work on Shirley Bassey's records. Her album sales during the '70s had been sizeable, enabling UA to sign new acts. One of these were a punk-branded band who are reckoned to have sold more records in 1977 than all the other UK punk acts put together. That year the group, named the Stranglers and produced by Rushent, released two hugely successful albums.

What looks at first glance like a gigantic modular synth is actually a gigantic, er, patchbay.What looks at first glance like a gigantic modular synth is actually a gigantic, er, patchbay.Photo: Peter Cooke"The first day in my new office at UA I heard a demo of 'Grip' by the Stranglers and I thought 'This is fantastic!'," says Martin. "I ran in to see Andrew, saying 'Who's that?' He'd seen them play but was um-ing and ahh-ing about whether to sign them because he wasn't sure if they were part of the punk scene. We saw them play three or four times and all the time I was saying 'We've got to sign this band,' but Andrew was worrying about recording them, so I offered to produce to make sure it was done right. I knew they needed to get it down quick, which is what we did, recording Rattus Norvegicus and most of No More Heroes in one go."

Before signing to United Artists, the band, comprising drummer Jet Black, bassist/singer Jean Jacques Burnel, keyboard player Dave Greenfield and guitarist/lead vocalist Hugh Cornwell, had made their attention-grabbing demo of 'Grip' in London's TW Studios. Engineer on the sessions was TW resident Alan Winstanley, who, in partnership with Clive Langer, would later go on to have huge success producing Madness and many other bands (often using Rushent's soon-to-be-built Genetic Studio to do so). Given a choice of where to make the album, the band picked TW again.

Meanwhile, Rushent and Lauder were deciding on how to produce the raw sound. "When we saw them live we loved it, so we wanted all the energy and fire without getting mired down with endless guitar overdubs, so I made them do everything live and three, or maybe four, takes of each song back to back, before moving on.

"We had Jet Black in the corner with a couple of screens around him and everybody else out in the open. We didn't get much spill because TW was a pretty dead room, but they'd played live a lot and knew how to balance themselves so whatever spill you did get fitted into the overall balance. You could stand in the room and it sounded balanced."

As far as microphone choices and placing were concerned, Martin remembers it as being standard stuff for the time. "For Jet we used one mic on the bass drum, a couple for the tom-toms, two more on snare and hi-hat and a pair of overheads. So we'd have had seven, and I'd have thought they would have been put on separate tracks.

"Dave had a Hammond L100 and Leslie cabinet so we took a DI from the L100, miked up the Leslie top and bottom, and I think he may have had an amp as well, which we'd have miked. And we mixed the whole lot together, bouncing it to stereo there and then. Hugh played one rhythm guitar live in the session and sometimes did the solo live as well. Occasionally he'd overdub the solo or we'd add a second rhythm guitar just to beef it up a bit.

"For bass it was a mic on the amp plus a DI, but the sound is down to him. He was originally a guitarist, so he played in that style using a pick and heavy-gauge, flat-wound strings, which give a lot of twang. Then he'd drive the amp really hard and wang on loads of middle and top. I remember we had almost all the knobs up full! I also recall that it used to be a little thin out of the amp — not desperately so, but it didn't have real sub, so we picked that up from the DI and EQ'd the signal. Then we'd blend the two together. Oh, and I'd compress the bollocks out of it using a fast attack and release. The distortion it caused on the back end didn't matter because there was loads of distortion coming in."

To treat the aggressive, rap-like vocals delivered by Cornwell, Burnel and occasionally Greenfield too, Martin remembers using the first Eventide Harmonizer, which made it possible to shift the pitch of a performance. "The Stranglers were the first band I'd ever used a Harmonizer on, and I always used it on their vocals. Obviously, processors didn't run at the speed they do today, so there was always a noticeable latency of something approaching 15 milliseconds. I'd Harmonize it once pitched a tiny bit below, and once a bit above, recording the results to tape and then mixing them down with the original vocal. So what you hear is the thickening effect from both of those coming in fractionally behind the main vocal."

No gear snob, Martin Rushent is happy to give pride of place to a Yamaha PSR270 home keyboard.No gear snob, Martin Rushent is happy to give pride of place to a Yamaha PSR270 home keyboard.Photo: Peter Cooke

Love Your Limitations

Martin Rushent: from Punk to ElectroFor most of Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes Martin only had 16 tracks available, forcing him to bounce multiple inputs down at every opportunity. In retrospect, he views the limitations as a good thing. "You had to make the decisions there and then, but the fact that the number of options was fairly restrictive was an extremely good thing for the creative process. On my computer now there are an infinite number of tracks so I don't have to make any decisions, but I think the wrong decision is better than no decision at all.

"In my experience, the longer you spend making a piece of music, the more likely it is to be a pile of shit! People just get fed up with it, but stuff that's written, organised and put down very quickly seems to have an energy. I can think of albums I've made as an engineer where the producer and band went on endlessly, and at the end it was just a bodge, whereas there were times during sound-checking that if we'd recorded then we'd have been home and dry!"

Martin Rushent: from Punk to ElectroBy today's standards, the first two Stranglers albums were also made at breakneck speed. In the first six-day studio session, 13 songs were completed. Those that didn't make it onto the first album or as 'B' sides were kept for the follow-up, together with nine more tracks laid down during a second 14-day stint. Surprisingly, though, Rushent recalls that the schedule wasn't at all hectic. "Because of the way they were done it was actually quite relaxed. We used the same sounds throughout and let the band make alterations for each song as they did live, so we'd get the sound at the beginning of the album and then it was just a matter of checking each day to make sure no mics had moved. We'd do one run-through to check levels, then three performances back to back, before moving on. We may have edited some takes together but the object was to pick the best one. Then we'd slam on the vocals and instrument overdubs. We already had the mics, compressors and the Harmonizer all set up, so it wasn't exactly hard work. We bashed the vocals out in no time and they sounded great. I loved making those records."

It seems that the band also had a good time. Hugh Cornwell, in particular, has said he remembers Martin telling jokes and helping them to feel comfortable in the studio at a time when they were still pretty green. "People management is half the job," responds Martin. "Some people may have misinterpreted what I was doing as just telling jokes, but they didn't see the rest of the work that went on when they weren't in the room! But you've got to have a good vibe in the studio and making a record must be fun. Most musicians become musicians to escape from working in a bank or factory, so if working in the studio is like being in the bank then what's the point?"

Despite the good vibes, Martin and the Stranglers went their separate ways after a third studio album, Black And White, and the concert compilation Live (X-Cert). "I think you can only work with a band for so long before you run out of steam," reflects Martin, "and that began for me during the making of Black And White. Some people say it's their favourite, but I thought it contained some weak songs. I also didn't feel I had any more to contribute, that the Martin Rushent book of how to produce the Stranglers had been written and, if they were trying to change, they should move on with someone else at the sound helm."

Dare To Be Different

Martin Rushent: from Punk to Electro A year after the release of the Human League's Dare, Martin Rushent released one of the very first remix albums, Love And Dancing, using Dare as the raw material. The project was arguably even more influential than Dare itself, but would not have existed if it weren't for the practical need to produce material for release. "The dub mixes started because we didn't have time to do 'B' sides," admits Martin. "We'd send Virgin a track and they'd want to rush-release it. I'd been listening to Grandmaster Flash and played it to Phil. He liked it so I suggested doing a remix of 'Love Action' by chopping it up and adding effects, then we could get Virgin off our backs!

"When it was all finished I had four or five remixes. Phil wasn't sure about releasing them on an album and left me to make Love And Dancing on my own. It was mixed on a board, so I had the multitrack of Dare feeding in, a Harmonizer on send one, delay lines and phasers everywhere and I'd flick it about. I'd do a section and if I liked it I'd make a tape cut and splice it in. There were thousands of edits on the master and it took forever to do."

The New Wave

By the end of the '70s, Martin had tired of commuting to London for long recording sessions and began setting up Genetic Studios in his own back garden in Berkshire. At the same time, he was keen to take a break from producing guitar bands, and started investigating new synthesizer and sequencer technologies. "I'd done a lot of work with synthesizers when I saw a Roland Micro Composer advertised, and thought 'This looks pretty good — I'll buy one.' I bought a Roland Jupiter synth to go with it and started experimenting."

Another of the bands signed to UA in the punk era, and produced by Rushent, was the Buzzcocks, led by singer, guitarist and writer Pete Shelley. When Shelley went solo he recruited Martin, and his Roland setup, to help him produce some demos, resulting in the album Homosapien. "I programmed all the drums and synths, while he played all the guitars," says Martin. "The initial plan was just to demo his songs because he was out of his UA deal, so we pumped it to people like Island and Virgin and they loved it. It was signed to Island, but Simon Draper of Virgin heard it and called me to talk about their band the Human League. They'd done demos of 'The Sound Of The Crowd' and 'Love Action' in a Sheffield studio, but Simon didn't think they were getting the punch they needed. He loved the drums on Homosapien and asked me to do a track. So the band turned up at Genetic with their 'The Sound Of The Crowd' multitrack. I think Simon had conned them a bit and told them that I'd mix it! I said 'We're going to start again and do it a lot better.' There were a few grumbles but by the time we'd finished they were really pleased.

"That got to something like number six, by which time we'd started 'Love Action'. Everything we put out was a bigger hit than the last and when we sent Virgin 'Don't You Want Me?' they went absolutely bananas."

Martin Rushent: from Punk to ElectroThe band's Dare album proved to be a huge global seller and an extremely influential project in terms of its production, demonstrating that synths and drum machines could be used to create mainstream pop. Martin remembers the process. "It took forever to make, not because we were indecisive, but because it was so laborious to edit the sequencer. You had to input all the parameters, such as the gate time and pitch, and in those days we had a simple clock code on tape, so even if your bit was at the end you still had to run it from the beginning, and if it wasn't right you'd have to alter it and start again.

"I also tracked up all the synths and detuned them, so one synth part could be a mixdown of as many as 26 tracks playing at once. It sometimes took three weeks to do a tune. On top of that, the girls were very young and inexperienced so it took two days per song to do their backing vocals. Phil [Oakey] was good though. I don't have any cast-in-stone techniques, but I usually heavily compress vocals, so his were pretty heavily compressed and EQ'd."

'Fascination' aside, Martin remembers that work on Dare 's successor was not going well. The band suddenly had a lot of money to enjoy and the songwriting was suffering as a result. The only guitar on Dare had been used to gate the synth sound on 'Don't You Want Me', so Jo Callis, originally a guitarist, was feeling frustrated. To top it all, singers Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley wanted more involvement in the recording process, but became impatient when Martin was crafting sounds. "I've always held the view that the critical sounds on a record are the bass drum, bass and snare," he insists. "Get those right and the foundations of the song are OK and you can lay all the fancy stuff on top without it falling over."

It came to a head when a frustrated Susanne aimed an off-the-cuff insult at Martin, causing him to resign on the spot and walk out of his own studio! After 18 years of intensive studio work, Martin knew he needed a break. Unfortunately, things were more serious than he realised, and soon he was selling up everything, including Genetic, which, after Dare, had become one of the top studios in the world. Initially Martin landed a consultancy job through Virgin, but found that the overseas travelling meant he couldn't look after his children, so he effectively became a full-time dad and retired from the industry.

A New Start

It was when Martin's youngest son showed an interest in DJ'ing that Martin became involved in the industry again, starting a club called Gush at Greenham Common, which had the Prodigy performing for its opening. It wasn't long before he recovered an interest in recording, although he had a lot of technology to catch up on first. "I decided to learn all of it. I wasn't a slouch with computers, having used Fairlights and Synclaviers, so I had the foundation of how it all worked," he says. "It's a different game now. My first hard drive, attached to my Synclavier, was 250MB and cost £4000, but now I can get a 300GB drive for £80. I'm putting together a new SX4 dual-processor workstation with twin 3.8GHz processors and a couple of gigabytes of RAM, and I'll be able to do huge projects without it falling over. The air-conditioning alone at Genetic cost me £35,000, Fairlights were £25,000 and at one point we had a MItsubishi 32-track digital recorder that cost £70,000. So for a fraction of the cost I've got a studio a thousand times more powerful than anything I had then."

Martin's most recent venture has been recording a new act for the BBC's Electric Proms festival, an event offering bands the opportunity to do something creative aside from the usual touring and recording. The 'Next Stage' part of the project, designed specifically to showcase up-and-coming acts, selected the best bands from each region via a competition. Enid Blitz, winners in the Brighton area, wanted to work in an unusual location with a big-name producer, and someone at the BBC just happened to know Martin's niece! For the session, recorded in a 15th-century manor house in Brentford, a BBC truck was used as a mobile control room and contained a Calrec desk and Studer tape machine, although the latter required so much power that the recording was eventually made using Martin's own Alesis HD24. "We recorded in a beautiful room with wonderful acoustics," says Martin. "It had textured flock wallpaper walls, wooden floors and a decorated plaster ceiling. It sounded great with just the ambient mics up. You could record anything in there."

Despite making the occasional album for other people, such as Hazel O'Connor's acclaimed 2005 Hidden Heart, Martin's aim is to make his own albums, and he currently has several projects on the go, including a '70s-style American disco record and an updated version of Love And Dancing. He also has a sideline in mixing Cubase files for bands from his home studio, allowing him to avoid the sort of 18-hour studio sessions that took their toll on his health before. This time it looks like he's got the balance just right.