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MIKE HEDGES: Recording Manic Street Preachers, The Audience & Pure Essence

Interview | Producer By Paul Tingen
Published June 1998

MIKE HEDGES: Recording Manic Street Preachers, The Audience & Pure Essence

Acclaimed producer Mike Hedges has filled his studio with equipment that is almost as antique as the ancient French chateau that houses it. Paul Tingen catches up with a man who's far from manic but quite ready to preach the virtues of analogue.

Somewhere deep in the heart of the French countryside, acclaimed British producer Mike Hedges lives in a chateau. It looks rather like a gigantic mansion house, and is royally placed on the side of a hill, with a spectacular 180‑degree view of rolling countryside up to 16 miles away. Hedges himself is equally striking: well over six feet tall, sturdily built, with flaming red hair and beard, he strides rather than walks. He's been said to look like a Celtic nobleman, and with a bit of imagination it's not hard to imagine him holding court at this very chateau centuries ago.

In short, Hedges, like his house, looks as if he doesn't quite belong in modern times. But that's not all. Enter this idyllic, oversized pied‑a‑terre and you'll find an exquisite collection of recording gear, much of it not quite belonging to modern times either. The heart of this studio is formed by historic equipment from Abbey Road Studios, designed in the '60s and dating from the very early '70s. Dark Side Of The Moon was recorded on it, John Lennon's Imagine was recorded on it, Kate Bush's first two albums were recorded on it. You get the picture: priceless, classic stuff.

The historic chateau, the historic gear and the historic‑looking producer form an entirely fitting set of extremes, but the producer's pedigree provides an interesting contrast. Normally, 40+ producers gradually tend to lose touch with the cutting edge of the youth culture of the day. But rather than becoming an old‑timer as a producer as well, the 44‑year old Hedges has remained entirely up to date. Synth or sequencer‑based music is not his thing, so dance music in all its variations is out, but in the category of live playing musicians he has maintained his position at the forefront ever since he became known for producing indie and alternative bands in the '80s. Hedges started his career as the proverbial tape‑op‑cum‑tea‑boy at Morgan Studios in London in the late '70s, graduated to engineer, went freelance in 1981 and quickly moved on to make his mark as an engineer/producer. He's worked with the likes of Bauhaus, The Shamen, The Undertones, Everything But The Girl, The Associates, Siouxsie & The Banshees (five albums), The Cure (three albums), The Beautiful South (three albums) and Marc Almond (again three albums). In more recent years, he's been involved with hits and albums by Geneva (Further), Texas (White On Blonde), McAlmont & Butler (Sound Of) and Manic Street Preacher's Everything Must Go — which was voted best album of '96 by Q, Vox, Select and Music Week, and which won the Brit Award for Album Of The Year.

The Rouge Motte Treatment

MIKE HEDGES: Recording Manic Street Preachers, The Audience & Pure Essence

Hedges moved to his Normandy chateau from his previous home in Willesden, North London, in 1990, after a fruitless search around the British Isles for an affordable and large enough residence. Instead he found Chateau De La Rouge Motte, meaning something like 'castle of the red (or ginger) hill'. (Motte can mean something solid or sturdy, so ironically the name can also be interpreted as a tongue‑in‑cheek reference to Hedges himself). Since he moved to Normandy, he has recorded most of his productions at his home, where castle, equipment and 'rouge'‑haired owner have combined their classic, old‑time qualities to produce some very contemporary music, usually positioned left of centre. (The Hedges credited next to Boyzone and the like is producer Ray Hedges, who is no relation). Recent recipients of the Rouge Motte treatment were The Audience ("pop with a dark edge"), Pure Essence ("a guitar band") and the Manic Street Preachers recording the follow‑up to Everything Must Go. In all these cases, and as with many other previous productions, Hedges didn't produce the whole album, but produced only a number of tracks. Producing album segments is a relatively recent development, and one which he welcomes, because "it's less stressful and time consuming, and it keeps me on my toes. When you do five tracks on an album you want them to be at least as good as the other tracks. So there's an element of competition that makes it a challenge."

When you record a sound with analogue it will come back at you enhanced. So it's a tool for improving the sound purely through recording it, rather than just getting the same thing back...

Recording the follow‑up to the very successful Everything Must Go must count as a sizable challenge in itself, for both Manic Street Preachers and their producer. Hedges produced almost all of Everything Must Go, sharing production credits with hit‑producer Stephen Hague on one track, and leaving one other track to the band's regular engineer Dave Eringa. Most of the new album, which is due out in September, is again produced by Hedges, with Eringa taking production credits for the remaining tracks. Hedges explained that the album was recorded "at my chateau over three lots of 18 days, in October, end of November/early December, and February." Some overdubs, mainly orchestral, and mixes took place at Abbey Road Studios over the course of March and early April. Before entering more deeply into the story of the making of the as‑yet untitled album it's necessary to put all the ingredients that are the essence of Rouge Motte fully in the picture. First there's the chateau itself. Its original 12 bedrooms and one bathroom have been renovated and transformed into 10 bedrooms and four bathrooms. On the second (top) floor live Hedges and his family. The first floor is the residence for bands and musicians, and the ground floor and basement house the control room and recording areas.

Hedges expands: "There are two huge rooms on the ground floor with oak floors. One of them, the former salon‑cum‑ballroom, we've set up as the control room. The other, the former study which is separated from the salon by sliding doors, is a recording area for acoustic instruments. Next to that is a very large conservatory, which has a very live sound. In the basement there are four recording rooms: one small and very dead room, one very live‑sounding mid‑sized room that we use for recording drums, one medium‑dead, mid‑sized room where we record guitars and basses and where there are several cupboards that can house amplifiers and speaker cabinets, and then there's a hallway which is also pretty live. All the rooms in the basement are connected to the control room with closed‑circuit TV. The cupboards are quite sizeable in some cases: there's one made out of stone which sounds quite live, one is medium live, and one is dead sounding. I had them purpose‑built as part of the renovation process so that I could record bands together in one room and still have separation. The basement needed to have the most work during renovation, because it used to flood after heavy rains, so we had to drain it. Other than that, I spent quite a lot of money on the roof, and on plumbing and rewiring."

Cool, Trendy, Exclusive...

The ground floor offers two huge rooms with oak floors, one set up as the control room and the other used for recording acoustic instruments.The ground floor offers two huge rooms with oak floors, one set up as the control room and the other used for recording acoustic instruments.

Pride of place in Chateau De La Rouge Motte goes to the huge EMI desk that fills up the former salon‑cum‑ballroom, and the ancient 16‑track Studer A80 Mark I tape recorder. These are complemented by assorted late '60s/early '70s gear from Abbey Road Studio 2, which Hedges rescued about 10 years ago from the studio's vaults, way before the current vogue in vintage gear: "The desk is the ultimate EMI desk, the best and biggest they ever made. It's a Mark IV and it has 60 inputs — 40 channels, four echo returns and 16 monitoring channels. It was installed in the legendary Studio 2, where The Beatles used to work, in 1970, and removed in 1981. They dismantled it and stored it in a rather humid place, so it required quite a bit of renovation work after I bought it in 1989. The TG12345 Mark II is a 28‑input mobile desk, which I also own and which I use when I mix in Abbey Road. Mark III was used by The Rolling Stones at the legendary Pathe Marconi studios in Paris, and the original Mark I was used by The Beatles. EMI made no more of these desks after the Mark IV, so it's unique. I also have an old Siemens patchbay that comes from Studio 3 and that contains self‑cleaning plugs, so it doesn't crackle. The Studer 2‑inch 16‑track is from 1969, and is really an updated 1‑inch 8‑track machine with new 2‑inch heads. I use it at 15ips with Dolby A, because the low end sounds better at lower tape speeds."

The desk, tape recorder and other assorted '60s/'70s gear all look quite spectacular, but Hedges didn't acquire it for the reasons that, say, vintage car owners buys their cars — looks, exclusivity, image, and certainly not performance. According to Hedges, the real reason is that it simply sounds better than today's gear: "There is a very short signal path in the EMI desk. It's a hundredth, or maybe a thousandth the length of that of an SSL. That means that it sounds very natural. I had Optifile automation retrofitted on it, but it's separate from the desk, so we can switch the VCAs off when we're recording and not lose any sound quality. The EMI may not be as easy to use as an SSL and it needs more maintenance, but it sounds better than any other desk I've ever worked with. The EQ is limited but very musical (2‑band with bass cut on all echo sends and returns), and the desk has amazing compressors on each channel, as vicious as Pultecs, plus there's an oscillator to check internal connections. As far as the tape recorder is concerned, 2‑inch 16‑track simply sounds better than 2‑inch 24‑track, and certainly better than digital."

Secret Ingredients

Pride of place in Chateau De La Rouge Motte goes to the huge, ex‑Abbey Road EMI TG12345 Mark IV desk: "The best and biggest they ever made."Pride of place in Chateau De La Rouge Motte goes to the huge, ex‑Abbey Road EMI TG12345 Mark IV desk: "The best and biggest they ever made."

If all this makes you think that Hedges is another one of the growing number of producers and engineers who are defenders of the analogue faith, you're right (though he also has a great fondness for Digidesign's Pro Tools digital editing system — more on this later). His passion for vintage equipment also extends to outboard, of which Chateau De La Rouge Motte has an enormous collection, much of it rare and esoteric. Hedges' favourites include the Watkins Copycat tape delay, the Roland RE201, 301 and 555 echo machines, and the Roland SVP vocoder. Then there's his extensive microphone collection, in which almost two dozen Sennheiser microphones play a crucial role. Just as we begin to discuss mics and mic techniques, Ian Grimble, the engineer with whom Hedges has worked for 12 years, walks in, and the two of them join forces in talking microphones and microphone techniques, in the context of the forthcoming Manic Street Preachers album. Hedges: "I do very little pre‑production with this particular band. They recorded their own demos for this album in a studio in Cardiff called Big Noise, and they sounded fantastic. They did everything on a Tascam DA88, and got a really good drum sound, which we used in a couple of tracks. In one song we actually kept the drums and bass, transferring the DA88 material to the 16‑track. Overall their demos focus more on the feel of the song and less on the arrangements, so when they came to the chateau we rehearsed and worked on arrangements and playing things at the right speed. As with Everything Must Go, all backing tracks were recorded live by the band, usually without a click‑track, in the two basement rooms, with the drums in one room and the guitars, bass and keyboards in another. They're a very good live band, and it tends to be the first, second or third take that's the master. I didn't want them to do more takes. When you keep trying to get a perfect take, the band gets tired and you lose the life that you get in the first few takes. So if there were mistakes or problems with these first takes we'd stick things in Pro Tools and fix them in there, rather than do drop‑ins or extra takes."

Everything Must Go was characterised by the striking contrast between the heavy, aggressive playing of the band, and the use of very gentle, acoustic sounds, such as harp, acoustic guitars, strings and some environmental sounds. The new album, remarked Hedges, is "darker, with even stronger melodies", and doesn't thrive so much on these stark sonic and textural constrasts. There are a few tracks that feature strings, but there's no harp and there are no environmental noises. Moreover, they went for a very different drum sound this time, a much more close‑miked sound with less ambience. Hedges: "We recorded the drums in a separate room because we wanted to have enough separation to be able to use the guide vocals. The guitar, bass and keyboards amps were in the custom‑made cupboards, and all their monitoring came through headphones. This means that the headphone balance is very critical for a good performance. Ian took care of this."

Ian Grimble: "Sean (Moore) has a Yamaha kit, and we surrounded it with four '60s‑style very dead baffles, to stop the low‑end reflections from creating a boomy sound. I used a lot of compression on the drum mics, so boom could have been a problem. For the last album I miked up the drums with old valve mics, such as Telefunken and old Sony models, but this time I used a Shure SM57 and Neumann KM84 on the snare, an AKG D12 close to the bass drum and a Sennheiser MKH20 three feet away, a Sennheiser 421 on the toms, and for overheads we used Sennheiser MKH20 or BPM microphones."

There's no way I'd use a hard disk to replace a tape machine, because firstly they don't sound as good, and secondly I just don't see the point.

Zen And The ART Of Mics

Engineer Ian Grimble, who has worked with Hedges for the last 12 years: "There's not a lot of EQ in the EMI desk, so you have to get the sound right at source, and use the right mic in the right position."Engineer Ian Grimble, who has worked with Hedges for the last 12 years: "There's not a lot of EQ in the EMI desk, so you have to get the sound right at source, and use the right mic in the right position."

BPM are a relatively little‑known German company. Hedges comments: "They make very good modern valve mics. We used the TD94 and the TD95. They're great for ambience and to add a little 'valviness' to the sound. We were in part inspired by the drum sound on the band's demos, and were initially going for an ultra‑close sound with no ambience at all. Later we decided to add some room sounds." Grimble: "We recorded especially the low‑end drum sounds at a very high level, because the tape compression makes it sound better. This rounds off the transient a little bit, so we might record other drum sounds at a lower level." Hedges: "In the '60s, before noise reduction, people tended to put on a lot of level to avoid hiss, and then in the '70s, when Dolby came out, they recorded drums at lower levels, because tape hiss was less of a problem, and the transients aren't rounded off so much. In the '80s, creative use of tape compression came into its own and people started to use the tape recorder not just as a recording tool, but also as a sonic tool, as an effect."

Grimble: "Another crucial factor is mic positioning. There's not a lot of EQ in the EMI desk, so you have to get the sound right at source, and use the right mic in the right position. This results in a much cleaner sound. So I tend to fiddle around with mics a lot, and often spend more time downstairs in the basement, trying out mic positions, than in the control room.

"Mics used on the other instruments included a Sennheiser MKH40, stuck up close to the guitar and keyboard cabinets. The keyboards were mostly analogue — Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Vox Continental — all put through guitar amps. I used an MKH40 and Neumann U87 on the bass cabinet. I usually stuck the microphones through a Vortexion 4‑channel mixer and mic pre‑amp and then straight onto 16‑track. Occasionally we would record upstairs in the room with the oak floor, especially for acoustic guitars. I recorded them with a Neumann 87 or BPM pencil mics as close mics, and Sennheiser MKH20s as ambient mics. The vocals were recorded with a Sennheiser 4032, or Sony C800G valve, and the acoustic piano with the C800G or two Sennheiser MKH40s."

Hedges: "The Sennheiser MKseries are our favorite microphones at the moment, and they played an important part in the making of the new Manic Street Preachers album. There's the MKH20, which is an omni, the MKH30 is a figure‑of‑eight, the MKH40 is a cardioid, the MKH50 is a hypercardioid, and the MKH80 is a multi‑pattern mic. These are our workhorses really. I started using Sennheisers when I was working with The Beautiful South. I started off with two, and now have more than 20. I think they were originally designed for classical recording, because they have very high gain and very low noise. This means that you don't have to use a lot of gain on the mic pre‑amp, and you get a very clean sound. They also accept massive amounts of volume, so you can put one against a guitar amp on full and it will take it."

Biggest Step Forward

The Studer 2‑inch 16‑track is a converted 1‑inch 8‑track from 1969. Hedges prefers the sound of it at 15ips with Dolby A.The Studer 2‑inch 16‑track is a converted 1‑inch 8‑track from 1969. Hedges prefers the sound of it at 15ips with Dolby A.

After the Manic Street Preachers laid down their basic tracks, various overdubs were added, usually recorded in the same room with the cupboard doors open to get some room sound, and guide vocals were replaced. All material was initially recorded on the 16‑track, but when Hedges and Grimble ran out of tracks they recorded the other material on a Studer A80 Mark I 24‑track. (Hedges: "We locked things with the Adam Smith synchroniser, and recorded 16‑track (15ips, Dolby A) on BASF 911 tape, and 24‑track (30ips, no Dolby) with high level BASF Maxima tape. BASF is the most reliable tape, and it gives us the least slipping problems.")

Aside from the EMI TG12345, the 1969 Studer A80 16‑track and the assortment of Sennheiser microphones, the fourth essential ingredient of Rouge Motte is Digidesign's Pro Tools. The chateau houses an impressive three systems (one 32 I/O and two 16 I/O, totalling 64 tracks). Hedges explains that they're mainly used as post‑recording editing and effects tools: "Pro Tools is probably the biggest step forward in recording in the last 25 years. But not because it's a replacement for the tape recorder. Most hard disk recorders are designed to replace the tape recorder, and to me that's just weird. There's no way I'd use a hard disk to replace a tape machine, because firstly they don't sound as good, and secondly I just don't see the point. Hard disk recorders can't record backwards, you can't turn the tape over, you can't record half and double speed, and get the same same effect as a tape recorder.

"So I don't use Pro Tools as a tape recorder. Instead I see it as a very easy interface for experimenting with and manipulating sound. The editing possibilities in Pro Tools are just streets ahead of anything else. Most other hard disk recorders are basically tape machine equivalents, with some mediaeval editing facilities. They are meant to be intuitive to an engineer who is used to multitrack tape machines. That's ridiculous. The whole reason for using a hard disk recorder is that it isn't a tape machine. It can't record music any better than a tape machine. The very point of hard disk recording is that it can do things that tape can't do. The manipulation possibilities of Pro Tools are so extreme; 99% of it you wouldn't even dream of doing with analogue tape. The stuff it can do is mind‑blowing. I'm not going to say much about what I do with it — people should play with it to find out for themselves what it can do. I don't use it for its EQ or compression, because it's too drastic. But I do use it for things like turning sounds over, changing the relative pitch of a section of the sound, changing the position in the stereo spectrum, whilst changing the pitch, whilst having it go partly backwards and partly forwards... Things like that. I don't know how to describe it, really. It does anything. It's fantastic."

How I work depends entirely on what the band is after, how they work and how they sound. They write the songs and usually know what they want.

Hedges' enthusiasm for Pro Tools appears to be on par with his passion for his ancient gear and his Sennheiser collection. But what, then, about this minor detail that was so important before — namely sound quality? Hedges: "Well, analogue still sounds better. But there are digital tape machines that sound good. The thing with digital is that it now gives things back to you that sound very close to the way they sounded at source. Digital has finally, and only just, surpassed the 'toddler' stage. But there are still problems. When you do lots of bouncing and comping on digital, it doesn't sound good to me. Something changes. To my earsit gains a strange kind of distortion. Analogue bouncing also results in phase distortion and stuff like that, but it's much more forgiving. Secondly, when you record a sound with analogue it will come back at you enhanced. So it's a tool for improving the sound purely through recording it, rather than just getting the same thing back. Digital doesn't offer you that possibility. Thirdly, digital EQ and dynamics still sound very crude to me. A digital compressor is a nasty thing. Having said all that, the 24‑bit version of Pro Tools is as close as you can get to a good digital sound. It definitely sounds better than 16‑bit."

Analogue Edge

MIKE HEDGES: Recording Manic Street Preachers, The Audience & Pure Essence

So Pro Tools gives amazing options for manipulating sound, and it sounds pretty good for a digital system, according to Hedges. But why have three systems? Is this not overkill? What does he use them for? Hedges: "I do different things on them. You have to be careful with Pro Tools that you use it to enhance the music, and not to the detriment of it. So I have different things set up on different systems. We use one to run certain kinds of effects, the other will be chopping up pieces and creating other effects, and I may use one as a slave machine. When I have 16 tracks of strings, I may put them into Pro Tools and lock it up to the 16‑ and 24‑track analogue tape machines. I'll occasionally use Pro Tools in the mix as well, as an effect. The stuff in Pro Tools can be slipped in time against other instruments, or done backwards, or re‑pitched, or the sound changed dramatically, or put into QSound, or treated with any of the other TDM plug‑ins.

"We mix to half‑inch analogue (30ips, no Dolby), DAT and Pro Tools. At the chateau that's to a Telefunken 2‑track tape recorder and a 20‑bit Panasonic DAT. Half‑inch tape is my mastering medium of choice, and the DAT becomes the listening copy, so we don't have to touch the master for playback. We may do additional editing and sequencing and crossfades in Pro Tools after the mix, and then we'll put that down to half‑inch as well."

So is it a good thing or a bad thing that hard disk recorders should replace tape recorders? It's all very well for someone in Hedges' position to criticise this trend, but for many poorer musicians, including readers (and writers!) of this periodical, the hard disk recorders that are put on the market at the moment for £700 and upwards are an absolute godsend. Hedges sees the point: "I agree that that's a good development and that it's totally valid to use these hard disk recorders as replacements for tape recorders in those situations. The fact is that the difference in quality between analogue and digital recording equipment is not huge. It's a slight difference. And analogue is now the more expensive medium. Just consider the cost of tape: 24‑track tapes cost £120 each for 15 minutes of tape running at 30ips! So you're paying a lot of extra money for a small increase in quality. Having said this, that small increase in quality does give you an edge. It's an edge that's especially important if you want your record to last for 10 years or more. It's possible to record very good‑sounding albums on home systems that cost a fraction of what a studio costs. It's just that as one progresses one should really explore all possibilities for improving the sound to the highest possible level, whilst keeping in mind that the performance and the song are the most important things. Capturing a great performance with fantastic sonic quality means combining the best of both worlds, and that's what it's all about."

As we near the end of the interview, Hedges muses a little on his exact role as a producer, asserting that a lot of it has to do with being "almost like a counseller to the band", getting them into the "best psychological frame of mind to play a great take." According to him, the essence of much of his work is "definitely a vibe thing. I don't think there's a Mike Hedges sound. I don't have a formula. How I work depends entirely on what the band is after and how they work and how they sound. Most of it comes from the band. They write the songs and usually know what they want. You occasionally get a band that needs a lot of production input and where you have to change a lot, but that's rare. Most bands know what they're after, if not in production terms, then in terms of the emotional effect they want to have on the listener. That's the central issue, and my job is to help them create sounds and arrangements that evoke those atmospheres and emotions in the listener."

MIKE HEDGES: Recording Manic Street Preachers, The Audience & Pure Essence