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Nigel Lowis: Producing Dina Carroll

Interview | Producer By Sue Sillitoe
Published September 1994

Nigel Lowis has made his name producing female soul vocalists like Dina Carroll and Judy Cheeks, but his skills also include songwriting and remix work. Sue Sillitoe joined him at Sarm West, his home from home, to talk about songs, synths and success...

With musical influences firmly rooted in Motown and the Philadelphia sound of the 1960s and 1970s, and an accent which immediately gives away his South London roots, Nigel Lowis probably wouldn't land one on me if I described him as a South London Soul Boy. But just to make sure, I'll add that he's also a very funny, very likeable bloke with a disarmingly laid back and relaxed attitude, the kind of person who's easy to get on with — which is precisely why he's currently so much in demand as a producer.

Lowis' recent production credits have included Eternal, Judy Cheeks and Dina Carroll. At the moment, he's back in Sarm Studio in London — a place he considers to be his second home these days — recording tracks for the new Dina Carroll album, which should be finished later this year.

As well as producing, Lowis also writes songs and does the occasional spot of remixing, which is how he originally got into production. He explains: "I used to be in a band called Gunshy, which was signed to MCA, and after a while I started writing songs as well as playing guitar. Because we had a recording deal with MCA it was a natural extension for us to also sign a publishing deal with MCA Music. After 18 months I found I was far more interested in songwriting than playing in the band, and through our association with the publishing company I found I was being invited to write songs for other artists who had deals with MCA. It was really co‑writing with many of them; we were going into the MCA studio and putting together demos for the A&R department.

"Eventually some of these demos turned into proper recording projects, and because I had built up a good relationship with many of these artists, I was asked if I would re‑record the demos we had already done, because the sound the record company wanted wasn't so far removed from the demos I was already producing."

This introduction into production meant that Lowis had two different skills that occasionally worked in unison. But he has discovered that this can have its drawbacks — mainly because improving an already high‑quality demo is not as easy as it might appear. He says: "Some of the demos I've done have been of such good quality that it's hard to know what more we can do with them. This is something I'm now very aware of — if I have written and demo'd songs with an artist who is then using them on an album that I'm going to produce, I occasionally find that I have to take care not to over‑demo them. If anything, the success I have had with Dina Carroll has made this problem worse, because in the last two years I have been able to get every toy that comes out. If it comes out and they are advertising it, I've got an order in for it — and if I like it I buy it. So my rack is massive now, which is great for production, because if I take my songwriting cap off and put my producer's cap on I have all these wonderful toys to play with. It's a bit like whoever has the fastest racing car wins all the races. But in contrast, when I go in to write songs I'm using the state‑of‑the‑art gear that I normally use, for producing on a demo that really doesn't need to be of that standard. So two weeks later when the record company says "we love it, go and produce it,' you feel at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, because you've used up all the good ideas and gut reactions, which is what made it interesting in the first place. Really, all you can do then is improve the sonic performance because it's only really in a fidelity sense — in a purely technical sense — that it needs to be improved.

"I'm wary of this now, and in fact when Dina and I went to Ireland for two weeks to write some songs for the new album, all we took was a ghetto blaster, a bag of CDs and a guitar. We rented in a piano and that was it."

Although Nigel Lowis' skills as a writer were instrumental in introducing him to production, it was his skills as a remixer that really got him noticed. Through MCA Music he met Nick Philips in MCA's A&R department, and Steve Wolf who worked in A&R at Chrysalis. They became good friends and started to feed Lowis remix projects. Lowis: "The project that got me noticed was a track I did for Adeva. It was the fifth single to come off her album, so it wasn't too important for the record company but it was a good break for me because it gave me a chance to show what I could do as a remixer. For the first time I was able to take someone else's song and completely remix it. The song didn't do well but it generated a lot of interest and brought in lots of remix work, which helped me make the move into production."

Now that he's established as a producer, Lowis finds his work tends to split quite evenly between songwriting and production projects. He rarely writes songs that he doesn't then go on to produce, and often, if he is producing someone else's songs for an artist he will also be asked to write and produce a couple of extra tracks as well.


Jetting around the world working with best‑selling artists is obviously something Lowis enjoys, but it must all seem very far removed from his initial ambitions, which were to be either a musician or a professional footballer.

"I could play the guitar when I was four, and at the time I also had a cousin who was a professional footballer, so as a boy it was tempting to think I would either play football or play music for a living. I used to listen to music and strum along, so even at that early age I developed a strong sense of rhythm. My mum wanted me to have guitar lessons at night school but I was only seven and you had to be 14 so I couldn't go. But she arranged for the teacher to give me private lessons so I learned some basic chords. It was classical guitar training, which was a good grounding, but really all I wanted to do was play along to The Beatles. But even if you can't master playing an instrument there are lots of avenues you can follow — most DJs don't play instruments but they still make a good living from the music business."

Although Lowis played guitar, he says he never had aspirations to be a star because he lacked the confidence to be a singer or a front man. "During my teens I used to write songs that sounded like Jean Vincent, but I didn't want to sing them. I liked the quieter life of writing the songs and I enjoyed that much more than standing up in front of people — that seemed like a chore. And anyway, I was always convinced that if you had the songs you could get a deal without playing live — look at the influences of that time: Yazoo, Depeche Mode and all that early synth stuff.

"These days I only have to look at Dina to know why I'm not a front man. Let's face it, she's got lovely hair, she's lovely looking and she's got a beautiful voice, so she's a much better front man than I'll ever be! And I tell her that whenever she has any doubts about what she does — what a sorry state we'd be in if I was singing these songs!"


As a producer, Lowis doesn't feel he has a particular sound but he accepts that other people may feel he does. And although he feels he is working in just the same way he was 10 years ago, technically the equipment has changed and this has probably affected the sounds he is creating. His love of '70s soul music has obviously influenced his work — even now, that interest leads him to spend every free Saturday morning in import shops or cut‑out shops buying original '70s releases, as well as keeping up to date on the latest sounds from the club scene.

"Dina's really into the Temptations and Motown as well," he says. "So when we set out to do a ballad I might start with the chords for a Whitney‑type song and she'll say she wants it more like Aretha Franklin. What we end up with is a song that incorporates both of our influences — and it helps that they are so similar."

Lowis has recently begun experimenting with real strings, using them on a number of tracks he has produced over the last year. He says: "Whether or not I use real strings and real orchestras depends entirely on the song. I like using real instruments on ballads because they give the song class and status, but unfortunately not every artist has that kind of budget.

"When we were recording 'Perfect Year' we had the budget for an orchestra, so on the same session we backed it up with a house track for the club scene — which is something we often do because it is a great marketing tool. We put real strings on this house track, which is unheard of, and it went down really well. But I don't think it would have worked for an artist of less stature and credibility. We certainly couldn't have done it when Dina first started, but we got away with it that time because it was so outrageous."

In general, Lowis says he has an incredible love of strings and he thinks it's sad that synthesizers forced orchestras to take a back seat during the 1980s. "Synths are great and I'm not knocking them," he says, "because for a while they made everything sound new and fresh. But it was damaging for orchestral players and I think in many ways technology killed off the art of songwriting. It is only now, 12 years later, that things are beginning to turn round again.

"Technology may be great for the kids because they can experiment, but it's not good in terms of someone who has crafted the art of song writing. In some ways, technology has made it too easy for people to make music, but in another way it has created a new art form — that of the DJ and the remixer. You only have to look at how dance music is dominating both sides of the Atlantic to see that. These people have an ear for the music rather than an ability to play or write songs, and their art lies in being able to judge a dance floor and see what works there. Songwriters can't do that because they get too musical and too chordy for the dance market, where all the kids want is a thumping beat and a minimum amount of lyrical content."

Coming from a producer who does a lot of dance‑based work, this might seem like an odd comment, but one has to bear in mind that Lowis is really two people — the dance‑based producer and remixer and the songwriter who also produces. But no matter what path he is following, Lowis believes the secret of his success lies in his ability to get on well with whoever he is working with. Eternal are a case in point — Lowis produced a few tracks for their first album, including the hit single 'Stay', but although he also wrote a couple of tracks, they didn't make it onto the album because they were not geared towards the US market, which is where EMI wanted to take the band. However, he is convinced that he will have an opportunity to work with the band again because they all got on so well. He says: "Having a good relationship with the artist is so important. Between 30 and 50 per cent of the success of a project boils down to how well you get on. You have to bring the best out of them and relax them so that they are not scared to try something new.

"I've done a lot of gigs where it has taken me the first two days out of six to settle down the artist, the record company and the management company and do a juggling act between all of them. Once I've done that I can get on with making the record!"

Ultra Vox

Working with artists who have powerful voices — like Judy Cheeks and Dina Carroll — means that Lowis often has to concentrate on getting the best from their vocal performance. He nearly always records at Sarm because he gets on well with in‑house engineer Ren Swan, who he leaves to look after a lot of the very technical side of the project. This means that he can concentrate on the artist's performance and the overall feel of the recording.

For vocals, Lowis tends to try out several mics until he finds the one that the singer likes best: "With Dina we did a lot of experimenting. For the first four tracks that I recorded with her we used a Neumann U87 and an AKG C414. She has a very powerful voice and we needed to find a mic that she felt comfortable with. Then, after four tracks, we went to New York and recorded some stuff there. We did three tracks in America and the engineer bypassed the SSL board by putting the sound through some Focusrite channels. We also used a valve C12 and she seemed so comfortable with that — and the sound was so good — that when we came back to London we immediately hired in the same combination of equipment."

But finding the right mic is only part of the problem: "The singer's attitude and ego have a lot to do with it, but beyond that it's the environment that matters just as much. If you are working in a big room like one of the studios at Sarm you may need to screen them off to lull them into a false sense of security. I know how it feels because I've come out here to do guide vocals and felt like a lemon this side of the desk. It's like being in a goldfish bowl. You look through the control room window with headphones on and you might see the engineer or producer laughing because one of them has cracked a totally unrelated joke and if you feel a bit insecure you can easily imagine they are laughing at you. I find the best way to get over that is to booth them off so that they feel as though they are in a bedroom. Then, when I turn the lights down, they don't feel there's a big hole behind them. Sometimes it works in reverse — for example, someone like Judy Cheeks would never allow me to stick her in a booth because she wants to dance around the studio. I'm told Roger Daltrey is the same — he wants to feel like he is on stage."

Lowis also believes in getting a singer to learn a song inside out before they even go near a studio. "I tell them to imagine they are on stage in front of thousands of people, singing it as if it had already been a million seller. Then we really get the vibe — it's all psychology again. I also believe in having a meeting first to find out what they like and talk about the song. I find that with just one meeting I can get at least a quarter of the information I need. At least I can tell if they are going to be a pain in the arse — and if they are I book an extra week in the studio! "

Toys R Him

Lowis doesn't like his vocals to sound too over processed, because he thinks the voice should be good enough to stand alone. He points out that the public buys a record for the singing, not for the reverb sound — but then admits he's the world's worst offender when it comes to buying any new toy on the market.

"I'm so into keyboards that until recently I never saw much scope in something like a guitar — even though I play one," he says. "But now I've learned that there are so many different types of sound one can create using a guitar, so I've expanded my ideas and I like to experiment more. I tend to chose the guitar that's right for the project and once I've sorted that out Ren and I will use an amp and dedicated effects processor like a Korg A1 or Boss SE70. We don't do anything too elaborate. We just try and pick up the instrument and the ambience of the room so that it sounds intimate. If you want intimacy you have to mic it up in such a way that you get fret buzz, which is something you can't do with samples because they are too clinical. I prefer miked‑up guitar to DI'd guitar, but it's horses for courses — on something like the Eternal project there's no point going for intimacy because the drums would kill it for a start."

Turning the conversation to keyboards, synths and samplers, Lowis maintains that he uses anything he can get his hands on. His favourite synth is a Studio Electronics SE1, which he likes because it has a great bass sound and is "brilliant" for '70s‑style funk. He adds: "I use Akai samplers as opposed to Emu or Roland, and I have a massive CD‑ROM library. It's great to get new gear but because I'm dealing with artists and songwriting as well, I have to be careful not to spend too much time learning how to use all this new technology. I tend to find that many new bits of gear are similar in design to existing equipment so at least the learning curve isn't too steep. It may just be an upgrade on something I'm already used to." Another favourite synth is the Korg 05R/W, which, in his opinion, has the trendiest house remix sounds — the module is favoured both by Nigel and by remixer CJ Macintosh: "and it's cheap," says Nigel.

Because he still does a lot of remix work, Lowis feels it is important to keep up with the latest sounds. He buys a lot of records and gets a lot more from A&R friends who pass on their surplus stocks. He doesn't underestimate the importance of listening to other people's records. He says: "If I hadn't listened to any records for six months and was thrown into the studio to do a current up‑tempo record, I'd miss by miles. I listen to see if there is anything new that I'm missing. Remixes that are really only for club use are sometimes a bit too left‑field for the pop work I'm doing. I might be able to introduce elements of the sound but sometimes it is too far removed for a pop hit. Still, it's good to keep an open mind. I'm a bit of a vibe merchant and I think if something is exciting people then it's working. I really like the Emu Vintage Keys because it's exciting, and I've recently bought a MIDI'd Prophet 5 and MKS80, so I've got analogue fairly well covered."

In the studio, Lowis prefers to use analogue tape because he feels comfortable with it, but he likes digital for vocal comps. Often he is guided by Ren, who, he admits, handles most of the nitty gritty parts of the mix. He says: "I put sounds on tape and arrange them but his knowledge of that part of the studio is far greater than mine so I tend to let him get on with it. I'm the technical expert on MIDI and keyboards but the desk is something I trust Ren with. I tell him my ideas and then get out of his way because I think it would irritate him no end if I sat in the control room and picked fault with everything he was doing. I prefer to leave the room and then come back later so that I can hear the track as a whole and make changes at that stage. In any case, for me the art of production is about getting the best performance — people don't care how you mix something, they just want a catchy tune. You can repair things in a mix but you can't repair a really awful song or dreadful vocals."

Nigel Lowis' partnership with Ren Swan is one reason why he tends to use Sarm for recording projects, but he also likes to stay in one place because he now has so much MIDI gear to cart around. He certainly has no aspirations to become a studio owner: "I'd have to be a millionaire to build a studio that compares with one of these at Sarm," he says. "And anyway I don't want to work from home so if I spent money on a studio I'd be shooting myself in the foot. I'm an SSL fan — I like the warmth of the Neve desks but in the end I prefer an easy life and the SSL is a desk I know my way around. The same applies to any piece of gear — there are a few bits that you use out of choice but the rest you use because they are what's available in the studio. I tend to use the equipment that's in the studio and supplement it with my own equipment."

Apart from Budweiser, the only thing Lowis insists on having in the studio is a pair of Meyer HD1 speakers. "They're not expensive but they are brilliant. We had them in on trial last year when we did 'Don't Be A Stranger.' We were using NS10s and then we tried these and they sounded like a million dollars. There was definitely an upgrade — we couldn't stop playing the track. The record went to No. 3 so we begged Sarm to buy them because it seemed like a good omen. We take them wherever we go because they are so great. I think if Ren had the chance he'd probably sleep with them!"

Quality Sells

In spite of his current success, Lowis still doesn't feel that he is in a position to turn down work — mainly because not so long ago he was begging for anything to have a go at. He says: "It's hard to refuse, but because I'm so busy I do have to turn down some things when I simply don't have time. I should be doing the whole of Dina's next album but I think it's likely that A&M will get a US producer in to do a few tracks because they want to break her in that market."

Whether or not one needs a local producer to make hits for a local market is something Lowis doesn't really want to be drawn on. He feels it can be argued both ways — a top US producer can help sell something in America by lending his weight to it but then again, if the songs are good enough, it shouldn't be necessary. "The quality should stand on its own," he says. "Dina's first album sold over 1.5 million copies in just one country — the UK — so if it doesn't sell in another country there must be something wrong. In that particular case I'd like to think that our machine works but theirs doesn't, rather than assuming that there was something wrong with the product. In my opinion that was a fantastic album and it should have sold well everywhere."

"Songwriters get too musical and too chordy for the dance market, where all the kids want is a thumping beat and a minimum amount of lyrical content.""For me the art of production is about getting the best performance — people don't care how you mix something, they just want a catchy tune." "If I hadn't listened to any records for six months and was thrown into the studio to do a current up‑tempo record, I'd miss by miles.""I think in many ways technology killed off the art of songwriting."

Tracks: Dina Carroll's 'Don't Be A Stranger'

"My favourite track on the So Close album was 'Ain't No Man', purely because it was a track that we wrote very early on and were both really excited about. We were struggling for an up‑tempo track and when we nailed that it had a real sense of excitement about it. We used a small string section as well as a lot of synths, and created a song that was both danceable and lush.

"But in terms of production, a more interesting song was 'Don't Be A Stranger'. It was a song given to us by Howard Berman, the head of the record company. He wanted us to cover it even though we had proved our own abilities as a songwriting team, so we did it for a quiet life.

"I didn't like the demo but it didn't put me off the song. I just thought it should be on the second album because it was a bit up the road from where we were at that stage. But anyway, I went in and did a very self‑indulgent John Barry, James Bond type arrangement and told Dina to sing it however she wanted to. I felt she should approach it with an open mind because it had quite theatrical overtones.

"We did a demo using a lot of synthesized string sounds and put it under the record company's nose for judgement. The pizzicato strings were done on the Proteus 2 and there were loads of washy pads and synth sounds. Everyone gave it the thumbs up, but we changed it because the original song was about adultery and Dina didn't want to sing about that because she felt she couldn't do it with authority. She isn't a goody‑goody — she does things that bad girls do and she's no angel — but she has a high sense of values and she didn't want to sing about something she has no experience of. So we changed the lyrics and adapted the sentiment.

"The version we did for the album was real synth city, but when they decided to release it as the fifth single, I got a call from Howard asking how I would re‑do the song if he were to give me a clean sheet. I said I wanted to use a full orchestra and re‑do the vocals, so he agreed.

"We went back into the studio and now I really did get to be John Barry. Some of the synth stuff was kept — the belly lines and the pizzicato, because you would literally need 60 musicians playing at once to make it sound as big as that. But for the first time ever we really got to go to town with real strings.

"The timing was perfect — she had earned the right to do something that expensive and the result was her biggest hit. We wanted it to sound larger than life and that was exactly the effect we achieved."

Nigel Lowis's Travelling Studio


  • Ensoniq KMX8 MIDI Patchbay.
  • Oberheim Matrix 1000 Synth.
  • Roland MKS80 with Programmer.
  • Studio Electronics SE1 Synth.
  • Studio Electronics Prophet 5 Rack (MIDI).


  • Akai S1000 with 20Meg memory.
  • Akai CD3000 with 16Meg memory.
  • Akai S3200 with 32Meg memory.
  • DAC MD4000 dual CD‑ROM and 128Meg optical drive.


  • Emu Proteus 1.
  • Emu Proteus 2XR.
  • Emu Vintage Keys Plus.
  • Ensoniq KMX8 MIDI Patchbay.
  • Korg 05R/W.
  • Kurzweil Micro Piano.
  • Roland D550.
  • Roland JD990 with Vintage Expansion.
  • Yamaha TG77.
  • Yamaha TX81Z.


  • Alesis D4.
  • Boss SE70 multi‑effects.
  • Roland R8M.
  • Roland TR909.
  • Yamaha RM50.


  • Apple Macintosh LC475 running Cubase.
  • Opcode Studio 4 MIDI Interface.


  • Kurzweil K2000 with 16Meg memory.
  • Roland Rhodes Piano.
  • Roland Octapad Percussion Controller.


  • Epiphone Semi‑Acoustic.
  • Fender Stratocaster.
  • Tanglewood Acoustic.