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MIKE HIGHAM: Digital Doctor

Interview | Engineer By Sam Molineaux
Published September 1997

An expert at hard disk recording and editing, Mike Higham has developed his career alongside Digidesign's Pro Tools. Sam Molineaux talks to an engineer who's on the fast track...

I first met Mike Higham at Digidesign HQ in Northern California's Silicon Valley. As a dedicated user of their Pro Tools hard disk recording system, he was giving an impromptu interview with a group of representatives from Apple, demonstrating how their computers were being used at the professional end of music‑making. Having worked with Pro Tools right from its outset, Mike is one of its most informed users and has maintained a close relationship with Digidesign during the last four years, first as assistant to producer Trevor Horn, and more recently as an independent Pro Tools editor.

Despite his presence in California, Mike is, in fact, a Brit. Managed by Sarm Productions, he's normally based in London, but it's a testimony to his widening reputation that he regularly finds himself working on both sides of the pond. At just 26 years of age, he's already notched up an impressive array of credits: artists such as Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Seal, Genesis, the Moody Blues, Boyzone, the Pretenders, and many more have benefited from his hard disk recording and editing skills over the past few years.

His visit this time round is to work with producer Ed Buller at San Francisco's famous Plant recording studios, on a debut album by newly signed US band Velour. A short ferry ride across the bay from the city, at the northern edge of the continental‑style town of Sausalito, the Plant has played host to the cream of the San Francisco scene over the years — Journey, Metallica and Sammy Hagar, to name just a few of its regular clients — but on my Sunday visit, the place was the embodiment of calm. As we sat in the control room surrounded by state‑of‑the‑art recording gear and the biggest modular Moog I've ever seen in my life, Mike began to tell me the enviable tale of his accelerated career path.

Lucky Break

Having learnt classical piano at school, Mike went on to take music 'A' level at the progressive Dartington College Of Arts in Devon where, as a boarder, he first started developing an interest in electronic music‑making. What started out as a pastime swiftly turned into a passion, and before long he'd set up a small studio in his dormitory, any thoughts of a career as a pianist dispelled by this new focus for his musical attentions. On completing his 'A' levels, he decided to remain in further education, enrolling on a three‑year Music Technology degree course at Guildhall University, London. It was a brand‑new course, so he was able to steer his own way through it to a large extent.

"I studied sequencing, and using computers to record classical music — a little bit practical but incorporating all the technology that was available. Then I saw hard disk recording coming out, where you could record and manipulate stuff, and it was right up my street," he explains. "When I'd finished the course and got my degree I thought 'How am I going to put this to use?'. I'd always loved the work of Trevor Horn so I wrote to him and asked him for a job. He just happened to be looking for an assistant who'd look after all his computers, and that's where I started."

I never use Pro Tools to substitute people; you've got to get a good performance out of them in the first place.

As I gawp in disbelief, Mike is quick to point out that he's well aware that the gods were smiling on him that day.

"It was an incredible break, the luckiest break in my life, and I'm indebted to Trevor because he completely put me on the map.

"I remember, really early on, we were working on Seal's second album and one day a keyboard player couldn't turn up for the session. There was a piano part in the middle eight of one song and I didn't know whether to say anything. In the end I tentatively said 'Shall I play that?', and I did. I was completely fazed out by it; three months after finishing university I got the chance to play on a major Seal record. What a beginning!"

First Projects

Going straight in as Horn's assistant meant skipping over the conventional runner, tape op, assistant engineer route, but becoming a sound engineer in the traditional sense was never Mike's main focus. In very much the same way as he'd carved his own path through a new degree course, he set about developing the relatively new role of a hard disk recording specialist — a role that has become more established in recent years.

"I'm definitely not a sound engineer: I don't sit at a mixing desk all day and I wouldn't know precisely where to put the microphones to get the best sound," he explains. "I never started off making the tea, hoping to be an engineer — I was fine about doing that, but I wanted to incorporate some of my playing and creativity. I saw hard disk recording as the ideal way to be creative."

So back in 1993, just as the first version of Pro Tools was being replaced by the upgraded Pro Tools II, Mike was involved in some of the earliest commercial experiments with the new medium of multitrack hard disk recording. He tells me about some of his early projects, the very first being Seal's second album (confusingly titled Seal — the same as his first)...

"We used Pro Tools II a lot on that, mostly for tightening up the drums — we were after a really metronomic feel — but there was one song which changed key and they'd had to re‑record the orchestra part at Angel. We were able to use the first take, pitch‑shift the whole orchestra, and then fuse it with the new take to double it up, all in Pro Tools — we were amazed that it actually worked!

"After Seal I worked on the Tom Jones track 'If I Only Knew', the one where Tom does a rap in the middle. That was fun: I did a lot of keyboard playing on that, and a lot of the drum programming. We got the Stereo MCs' drummer in to do a drum loop and just whacked it into Pro Tools and looped it up. We had a hybrid going, a live drummer and programmed stuff, so we could chop up the real drummer's sounds and put them across a multitrack. Normally with a sample you just have a stereo pair, but we were using maybe eight or ten tracks, which gave us the ability to change the level of the snare relative to the kick and the overheads relative to the room ambience, and so forth. It wasn't the first time anybody had done it, so I don't think we were breaking any new ground, but it was a good mix and it was a really good song — I think it reached number nine in the charts.

"Then there were a whole bunch of individual things, such as a Shane McGowan and Sinead O'Connor duet for the film Circle Of Friends. That just involved moving vocals, swapping verses around — it's done all the time now — but it was useful because we could get all the information from the performers, put it in the computer, and work on the arrangement elsewhere without wasting costly studio time. Sometimes Trevor would give me the more tedious stuff such as de‑essing vocals; you can do that with outboard gear, but because you can automate the faders really quickly with Pro Tools, you can just duck the level of the 's' much quicker — so that might take a couple of hours, but I could go back to his house and work on that while he was working on something else in the studio."

When Digidesign released Pro Tools III, the capabilities and scope of multitrack hard disk recording and editing were vastly expanded. Mike remembers making a conscious decision to really explore its potential to the fullest. The project that afforded him this challenge was Rod Stewart's 1995 album Spanner In The Works.

"That whole album was done in Los Angeles: we had two Pro Tools systems, one at Trevor's house and one at Rod Stewart's house. Rod's quite a private person and doesn't like being in the studio where people are always coming and going, so they had a huge portable recording studio at his house, and the recording was done in his summer house. Back at Trevor's house, Steve MacMillan, the engineer, was putting it all together; he'd give us a stereo mix which we'd load into the computer, and every day between five and seven Trevor and I would take the music up to Rod's house and let him sing over it. We had a vocal booth set up in his summer house and he'd sing in there; we'd bang it into the computer and then go back to the studio, put it together, and finally put it onto tape. With Trevor producing, I recorded about 60% of the vocals of that album — all directly into the computer.

"I can remember a few hairy moments. One time I hadn't set the directory properly in the Mac and, instead of recording to the external drive, I was recording to the internal drive on the actual computer. When we got back to Trevor's after that session, I plugged the hard drive in to back it up and there was nothing there. We both looked at each other in horror," he remembers. "I got back into the car and drove like a maniac to Rod's house — I was terrified — but when I got there all the audio files were there and safe in the internal drive. I was very relieved."

As to whether there was any manipulation of the vocal line, Mike says definitely not. "Nothing at all: it was really good. Rod's a very good singer."

Going It Alone

Soon after that project, in response to increasing offers from other artists and producers, Mike decided to go freelance. Still managed by Sarm Productions and often finding himself employed on a freelance basis by his former boss Trevor Horn, he divides his time these days between the larger London studios, such as Sarm West, Olympic, and the Townhouse, as well as regularly travelling to studios in Europe and the US. His tools of the trade are his Apple Macintosh computer, Pro Tools III hardware and software, and various hard disks and backup drives (see the 'Mike's System' box for a more precise description) which he claims he can get at least half of on a plane with him as hand luggage!

Some of the more diverse projects he's been involved with since going it alone have come from the London club the Ministry Of Sound, for whom he's worked with DJs such as Masters At Work and CJ Macintosh on the club's last seven compilation albums. The one that brings back the most vivid memories is the album AWOL (A Way Of Life):

"The Ministry Of Sound wanted to release a live album, so they recorded one of the club nights where they play loads of jungle and drum and bass music. They had two tracks coming from microphones over the audience, then another two tracks coming from what the DJs were mixing, and they also miked up the speakers to capture the bass there and that whole live vibe — everything was going straight into a single Tascam DA88. However, they had a technical problem, and on one of the tapes there was a 30‑second drop‑out on the right‑hand channel. It was a chaotic night: one of the leads might have fallen out or it could have just been a dodgy connection, I don't know. But they were left with an album that couldn't be released, and no way of recreating the missing part without repeating the entire evening. So they phoned me. I'll never forget this voice saying: 'Is that the digital doctor?'

"I spent two solid weeks working on it, repairing the holes where the tape had dropped out. There were loads of little gaps, so what I was typically doing was using the second before the drop and having to repeat that to patch up the holes. In that type of music everything happens very fast, so there could be a bar with 55 snare hits and I'd have to find a similar bar somewhere else and copy that. There was the sound of the microphones as well, so I had to move the appropriate microphone noise; there was an MC rapping over the top and his microphone was picking up some of what was coming out of the speakers, so not only was I having to edit him and the DJs, I was also having to edit the microphones. Anyway, it worked, and I then remixed it all for them, entirely in Pro Tools. When I played it to Harvey Eagle, the A&R guy at the Ministry, he couldn't believe it!

"I was in Virgin Records a short time later with my wife Jessica and she noticed it on the shelf — it was number eight in the dance charts, which I thought was amazing, because they couldn't have released it if I hadn't patched it up."

...three months after finishing university I got the chance to play on a major Seal record. What a beginning!

Since then Mike has worked on most of the Ministry's albums to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes fixing things that have gone wrong or occasionally just cleaning up little bits — such as a scratch on a record — but also working with the club's DJs on remixes.

"Someone like CJ Macintosh might come up with a mix which is done entirely on turntables and we can put it into the computer and fly stuff over the top — maybe time‑stretching vocals or speeding things up. We've come up with some mad things that way."

Another assignment that offered a diversion from his regular album projects was the soundtrack to Peter Richardson's eight‑part Comic Strip series The Glam Metal Detectives. Trevor Horn and Lol Creme wrote the theme song 'Everybody Up' before passing the project over to Mike who, as well as coming up with the sound effects, also wrote all the incidental music to the series. He used regular synths such as the Kurzweil K2000, and Akai samplers, as well as sampling sounds directly into Digidesign's Sample Cell, and remembers really stretching the creative boundaries of Pro Tools for this particular project.

"I was doing mad stuff: chopping stuff up, repeating, reversing, putting DINR [Digidesign Intelligent Noise Reduction] all over it, using mad EQ settings, just getting loads of weird stuff going on. I had to write this thing called the 'Splat Theme' which was basically about the moment the characters drink this drink called Splat which makes them feel really strange. So I was trying to get these shimmery effects with the music and making it go in and out of phase — but because most people's televisions are in mono I had to find a way of making it work by using pitch‑shifters in Pro Tools and slowing parts down, to make it sound as if they were drunk.

"I came up with a lot of the sounds myself, hitting bottles and all sorts, recording them directly into the computer and then messing around with them. The characters in the show went to Australia, so I had to put my Australia hat on and think of appropriate sounds: I got a didgeridoo sample and had to make it go all peculiar, 'cause the didgeridoo player had just taken the Splat drink. Then they went to the Wild West, so I did the same with a banjo sample using a bluegrass banjo riff. That was such a weird time in my life!"

As for timing considerations, working entirely in Pro Tools meant that everything was perfectly in sync.

"All of that was really easy. I created a reference by recording a click track, and then put in tempo changes and recorded it into Pro Tools. The click track then shows up as visual waveforms which as it slows down, for example, get wider apart — so I could line up points in the music or sound effects with the click to get the timing right. Then I could just synchronise it up to the video and play it all back perfectly in time with the film."

Happy Accidents

One of the criticisms of hard disk recording, indeed of modern recording techniques in general, is that these days virtually everything can be corrected 'in the mix', whereas older technology forced artists and recording engineers to make creative decisions at the time of recording, often resulting in 'happy accidents'. With a little imagination, however, Pro Tools can be incredibly creative, far more than just a tool to correct shortcomings — as Mike has discovered on several occasions.

I wrote to Trevor Horn and asked him for a job. He just happened to be looking for an assistant, and that's where I started.

"Say you've got a buzz on a guitar and you want to get rid of the buzz but not the guitar: if you were to EQ the buzz out, you'd lose some of the guitar sound. But with DINR you can take a little bit of the buzz and the computer will learn it, then you can process the sound file so it'll only remove the buzz, leaving the guitar sound intact," he explains. "I was working on the track 'Fly Like An Eagle' with Seal just before Christmas — we were using real drums and programmed drums, chopping them around in Pro Tools, and at the same time working on the vocal. I remember there was a noise that Seal had made and I was trying to get rid of it using DINR, but quite by accident I went the opposite way. It sounded kind of cool and Seal thought it was brilliant, so we worked on it by distorting it even further, taking the character of his voice and kind of synthesizing it, all in DINR. It was only a half‑second sound but, incorporated within the drums, it made a rhythmical loop and we used that as part of the drum track. So things like that can happen.

"I'm not going to sit here pretending to know exactly what DINR does, but if you can twiddle around with noises and get something really good that everybody likes, then that's great. It may mean using it in totally the opposite way to how it's meant to be used, but that's all part of it. I'm sure as time goes on we'll find even more ways to be creative with this medium."

I wondered if there are ever times when an artist disputes the way their performance has been changed. Mike:

"A lot of the time the artists I work with, especially vocalists, will sit with me at the computer. If they like the performance but maybe it goes a little flat, then they'll suggest I tune it, or move a word slightly if it's a little off the beat. It's great to be able to do that. The only problems I've had are with drummers, because you might move phrases or put them rock‑solidly in time and then you have to explain that it didn't work as it was. It's hard for a drummer to always know the arrangement of a song; if they do a take or a fill that's really good you might want to move it to the first chorus, or whatever — they can get a little bit sensitive, but not always."

Mike insists that he's not in the business of making hit records for mediocre performers, and the quality of the artists he's worked with is ample proof of this. Indeed, in many cases — particularly when he's working with vocalists — he has very little to do other than the actual recording and the occasional tuning or copy‑and‑pasting of a note or a phrase. On his most recent project with US band Velour, however, he had the chance to play around a little more than usual:

"Ed [Buller, of Suede and Pulp fame] wanted to get a double‑tracked sound on the lead vocal and the backing vocals, so the lead singer, Harley, just needed to sing two good takes, and I was able to match the voices up using VocALign. It saved him from wearing his voice out trying to sing exactly how he'd sung it the first time," he explains. "I made the backing vocals very tight, big block chords that sounded really nice and thick."

On the guitar part, Mike used Pro Tools to create huge distorted 'chords' made up of eight identical notes, for what he describes as a 'Nine Inch Nails effect'.

"The guitarist played the same note a few times and I tracked it up to make a big thick sound. Then I placed it throughout the track. It's no different to the tricks that were done in the past with tape, but rather than having to do eight separate guitar takes on tape, you can just do one note into the computer, and just copy and paste really quickly, to build up the guitar performance.

"The drums were also a major part of what I was doing. They wanted to go for a real American tight‑sounding record, so I was using Pro Tools a lot on the drum part, almost making him sound like a machine. But that was okay — the drummer knew we were doing that to him, and he didn't mind.

"One thing that's got to be said: never can you make a bad performance good. I never use Pro Tools to substitute people; you've got to get a good performance out of them in the first place."

Future Plans

As the interview winds to a close, Mike glances at his watch and realises we've over‑run. He's got to get to the airport to fly back to London, where later in the week he'll be starting work on a new Eric Clapton album with Simon Climie. Following that, he'll be back on the West Coast to work on a major Trevor Horn, Lol Creme, Anne Dudley and Art Of Noise collaboration. After that, he's unsure of what's coming next: when asked, he replies, "I'd love to do more film stuff, definitely. And I'd love to work with Bowie!" Somehow, I imagine, he probably will.

Hard Disk Recording VS Tape

As the costs of computer hardware and high‑capacity re‑recordable storage media continue to fall, and as manufacturers like Digidesign and their third‑party developers provide the means by which traditional studio tasks can be undertaken in less time and with greater sophistication, the whole area of hard disk recording is becoming more and more relevant to the professional recording industry. So much so that Mike is convinced that hard disk recording will supersede both analogue and digital tape‑recording in the not‑too‑distant future.

"I'd say within four or five years. For a start, hard disk systems are portable — you can go anywhere to work. They're also cheaper — you can be working at a small studio, on not much of a budget, and you can get far better results because the quality's so good. You don't have to worry about a tape machine not being serviced; you know what you're dealing with. It's faster, of course: even with digital tape you have the rewind time, which, if an artist has an idea in their head, is really frustrating — they just want to bang it out. With the new Pro Tools software (version 4) you can loop‑record, so every time it loops round, a singer, say, can keep on singing until they've got the take they want. It's non‑destructive, so you can always go back to a previous take — that can happen a lot in the studio, especially with harmony vocals, where someone may be trying to work out a line. It's the same with drop‑ins: if you make a mistake you can get back what you've just 'wiped'. If you mess up a drop‑in on tape you're stuck: you can't do anything about it.

"I can see why people feel safe with tape, because you can touch it. You can't touch this. But in the same way as you can lose stuff that's on a hard disk, you can tear a piece of multitrack tape or lose it, or whatever. The important thing with this is backing stuff up very regularly; although admittedly there's still the possibility that a file will get corrupted. I think tape will still be around, but more as a backup."

Mike's System

  • COMPUTER: Apple Macintosh Quadra 950.

"I've had this 950 for two years — it's a bit out of date, but it's really good. I'm currently upgrading to a Power Mac 9600 with 128Mb of RAM and a 4Gb internal drive, which will be much faster.

"I've got about 16Gb of hard drive space. When I'm working with Trevor we have an arsenal of 32Gb, so it can get quite frightening keeping track of everything!"

  • PRO TOOLS III: two 888 I/O audio interfaces; two DSP Farms.

"I've been working with Pro Tools since day one, practically. Pro Tools III is the professional end, it's really being taken seriously. With the version 4.0 software, everything is automatable and you can loop‑record — there's much more control. I think more and more studios will be ditching their multitracks in favour of it."

  • PLUG‑INS: Digidesign DPP1 pitch processor; Digidesign DVerb reverb/ambience; Digidesign DINR noise reduction; Focusrite d2 EQ; TC Electronic Tools reverb and chorus/delay; Synchro Arts VocALign auto‑synchronisation; DAD Valve Simulator.

"My favourite plug‑in is DINR, which is a digital noise reduction system. I think I'm one of the few people who use it in the opposite way: to add noise. I've come up with some very peculiar effects that way.

"Singers can spend hours double‑tracking their vocal, trying to match the up the phrases and wearing out their voice in the process. With VocALign you can get a couple of good takes and make the second phrase exactly the same as the first, all in the computer. It makes it very tight. We've also used it on a new project with Trevor, Anne Dudley and Lol Creme where we've taken a kick‑drum rhythmic pattern and a vocal line and matched them up. The result is a string of rapidly changing percussive vocal sounds, which is in keeping with the Art Of Noise type of sound."

  • BACKUP: Iomega Jaz Drive; Panasonic SV3800 DAT player.

Wildest Dreams

Interestingly, if you buy Tina Turner's Wildest Dreams in the US you'll find a certain Barry White providing backing vocals on the title track, but if you happen to purchase your copy in Europe, not only has he shed half of his body weight and changed his complexion, but he also has an entirely different voice. In fact, Antonio Banderas' vocal was used for the European version of the song, neatly slotted into the space previously occupied by Barry White's. To further complicate matters, neither singer was available when the recording sessions were being held in London: Barry White was recorded in Las Vegas and Antonio Banderas in Los Angeles, and the results were sent by ISDN over to the UK.

"We just flew Barry's vocal over the top of the track and I mixed it all in Pro Tools. When we did the version for Europe, we used exactly the same track but just replaced the voice; it meant we didn't have to re‑record any of the track and the record company were quite happy because it kept the costs down," Mike explains. "No‑one had to get on a plane: the whole thing was done between computers using an ISDN link."

His role on the album mostly involved tweaking the vocals, moving the odd word, and copying parts but, one evening in the middle of mixing the single 'Silent Wings', Trevor Horn and mixing engineer Steve Fitzmaurice decided they needed a guest vocalist to round out the track:

"Trevor phoned up Sting, who agreed to come down after he'd finished his dinner! As we were in the middle of a mixing session all the faders were at the right level, and even though it was automated it would have been a real pain to turn the mix computer off and start recording vocals at that stage. So what we did was lock my computer up to the multitrack so it was running the mix. We set up a nice signal path through some good mic amps, and when Sting came in, we recorded his takes straight into the computer and then just flew it back over to the Sony 48‑track [a PCM3348], and carried on mixing the track. The whole thing took less than an hour. If we hadn't had Pro Tools we'd have had to make up a slave, a condensed version of the track, and gone to another studio to record it, so it saved a lot of time and effort.

"Sting was really amazing: he didn't know the song, just came down and sung it straight off. When you record in Pro Tools the takes show up as different colours, and he'd be saying 'Can I just sing a little bit of the purple one again and then replace that other bit with the green one' — of course we thought this was really funny, but it was interesting that he soon latched on to how easy it is to use."