Whether your bag is pop, jazz, or classical music, or even if you just watch TV occasionally, you've almost certainly heard Richard Niles's work. Mike Senior talks to one of the most versatile men in modern music.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to design a business card for Richard Niles. It'll be a tough job, even though he sports no quadruple‑barrelled Hungarian surname and has only one, rather unassuming, email address. You might think you'd got it nailed with 'Richard Niles, Arranger': there's no denying his success in this field over the last 25 years. After all, this is a man who has worked with some of the greatest pop, soul, jazz and classical artists of the last two decades — Tina Turner, James Brown, Pat Metheny and Placido Domingo to name but a few — and whose work has graced a host of chart‑topping records including recent hits by boy‑band sensations Boyzone and Westlife.
But, pithy as the description 'Arranger' is, what about Richard's increasingly long list of production credits, which includes work with Paul McCartney and The Pet Shop Boys? And before you say 'Richard Niles, Arranger and Producer', I can tell you that Ray Charles (amongst others) would think it unfair unless you made it 'Arranger, Producer and Songwriter'. But that's fine. Just make the font a little smaller and it all ought to fit in...
...until BBC Radio 2 listeners begin writing in to remind you of Richard's successful national radio series The New Jazz Standards and until his 20‑piece big band, Bandzilla, turn up on your doorstep to insist on the inclusion of Band Leader, Conductor and Musical Director. That lot ought to have you considering printing on both sides of the card, but when I add that he's also a composer and guitarist with two solo albums to his name, the director of his own record company (Nucool Records), a regular music magazine columnist and a prolific writer of music for TV (both for programmes and advertising), you could find yourself attempting the first ever wallet‑sized gatefold!
It's hardly surprising, then, to find that Richard Niles was born into a musical environment and has always had varied musical tastes: "My Dad worked with Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope — all that generation. He played with Stan Getz, he got stoned with Dizzy Gillespie, you know, so he had a direct relationship with past music which he passed on to me. But I also grew up with the fantastic music of the '60s and '70s. Of course, I'm mostly known as an arranger for pop hits, but I also do an enormous amount of jazz — I have a whole jazz career as well. The amalgamation of all that has given me a pretty broad musical overview."
If The Cap Fits?
Niles's substantial commercial success as a pop arranger has unfortunately led some record companies to view him as a one‑trick pony, which is a source of some frustration for him: "People like to pigeonhole you, to label you. The assumption is that if you're an arranger then you can't possibly be a producer. I would like to get more pop production work myself, but it's very difficult to cross the line in the view of A&R people, because they don't understand that working on all the hit records I've worked on as an arranger, I can now have some insight into producing a record myself. Look at Quincy Jones: in the '60s he was an arranger, but look at the albums he produced!
"There's also an assumption that if you're a jazz musician you can't know anything about what's commercial. I get a lot of flak from the jazz community, because they think that I'm just some kind of commercial pop guy, but I just try to ignore all of that as long as it doesn't get in my way. The fact is, I enjoy doing a lot of different things, I enjoy the versatility that my career has been able to offer — I've been able to work with fantastic people from all disciplines, from Paul McCartney to Ray Charles to Pat Metheny. It's great working with all these people because of what you can learn from each of them."
Practice Makes Perfect
It's clear, especially from his personal web site (www.1212.com/a/niles/richard.html) that Richard Niles has many more strings to his bow than just telling string players what to bow. But this is not a man who has arrived where he is by any sort of accident, and he remains adamant that hard work is the only way to achieve any sort of lasting success: "Our culture sadly does not value hard work, but rather the quick fix and the easy option. However, there is no way around the hard work if you want to acquire musical skill. You've got to put in the hours of practising and studying. That's what all the great musicians did and what they all still do.
"You want to know how to write a hit tune? Go to the charts and take all of the top 20 tunes and analyse them. How do you analyse them? First you look at the form: this tune has an eight‑bar intro, it has a verse which is 16 bars plus a four‑bar ramp up to the 16‑bar chorus, then it repeats all of that before going to some kind of instrumental break and a further set of choruses. So you look at the form of all these 20 tunes and you look for parallels — you might notice that 16 of them have almost identical form. And guess what: now you analyse them for rhythm feel and you might find that 12 of them are similar in this respect. And then you look at the vocal range and style, and the instrumentation, and so on. This will tell you what is commercial within the field where you've concentrated your analysis.
"It's no different with performers: if you want to learn how to play a certain way, then you should definitely spend a lot of time listening to other players and transcribing their solos. Go to the greats: if you're a saxophone player, lister to Mike Brecker, transcribe his solos and try to learn them, not just by rote, but in order to try to understand the harmonic basis of all the patterns he's playing.
"The same principles apply if you want to learn how to arrange. If you want to know how best to manifest a song, the first thing you have to ask yourself is 'What stylistic area is this material best suited to?' Song arrangements must always serve the sort of voice that you're dealing with. You've got to make sure that the target sound suits the singer's vocal tone and style. Only by getting to know a singer's voice can you get an idea of what sounds will complement it in the arrangement. When you've decided on a suitable style, you have to listen to 10 different successful tracks in that style and copy slavishly the exact drum grooves on each of those tracks, either by writing them down or by programming them into your sequencer. Do the same with the bass patterns, particularly looking at the rhythms used. Work out what instruments and sounds are used on each record — for example, they might be using an electric piano, a certain type of pad, some funny little sound that's like a clavinet, or a guitar which is doing an interesting line.
"If you want to write for strings, brass and woodwind then there's only one way to learn: if you don't have a teacher, then you have to go out and get some books on orchestration and read them and absorb them. You have to know the range of every instrument. You have to know how they sound in each of of their ranges — you have to know, for example, how a baritone sax sounds in its low register, and why writing above high F sharp loses the particular tone you want from that instrument. You have to know a great deal about every instrument you write for. Equally, if you're working with electronics, you have to know the instruments you've got. I've got a Korg Trinity, so I have got to know the palette of sounds that I have in it, and what those sounds are good for. And if you have four different modules then you have to know what each one is capable of. So if I want a sound that invokes angels flying overhead singing Bach chorales, I know that there's a sound in the Wavestation which is really good for that. You've got to build up a memory for the palette of sounds within your own particular studio setup."
Given his success as an arranger, I was keen to find out how Niles goes about an arrangement project. But he has no secret weapon, only manuscript paper and a pencil: "When I work as an arranger, I never go anywhere near the computer. I just use a pencil and put little dots onto little pieces of paper, the old‑fashioned way. When I'm done, I'll just send it straight to my copyist. I do it all just by ear — I never bother to mock it up at all. I was very fortunate to study at the Berklee College of Music, so I was able to acquire the tools to do this. Obviously, when I started arranging it sometimes took me four days to tackle a particularly difficult arrangement, but after 25 years practice that's come down to more like four hours.
"I play the track through and make a chord chart while listening to it, writing chord symbols on one of my little A6 manuscript pads and marking down any important melodies which I have to catch. I also write down some indications of the form — verses, choruses and whatever. Then I just write the first thing that comes into my head, because it's invariably the best idea. I don't agonise about things, I just make the decisions straight away. If you keep trying out different things, two hours down the line you'll still be no closer to a completed arrangement.
"The introduction to a song can often benefit from a little hook, though the first verse usually works best with nothing on it so that you can enter with, say, the strings at the ramp up to the chorus — some soft pad with a flourish up to the chorus itself. Incidentally, whenever I do string arrangements, I will always also use a harp, because harps are very good for that sort of pop 'whoosh' up to choruses. During the chorus you might want some sort of counter‑melody, or perhaps a high pedal or some rhythmic figure — I don't have any particular formula for it, I just write.
"Having said that, you have to remember that if you're going to spend the money to have strings and brass on a track then they'd better be doing something that's fun to listen to! You've got to give value for money, so you've always got to look out for where you might be able to add hooklines that are important to the track. I'd rather hear from a producer that my arrangements are 'a bit busy' than hearing that they're 'a bit boring', so I always err on the side of too much rather than too little — you can cut something out much quicker than you can put something in.
"Every once in a while, I might just pick up the guitar and play through the chord chart and sing some stuff, because I always think in terms of melody. The most important thing that people hear is melody, so that's what I concentrate most on. I'm very fortunate that I was brought up listening to great singers and instrumentalists who made fantastic melodies, so I'm always thinking melodically. The first thing that people hear is melody, the second thing they hear is counter‑melody and the third thing they hear is rhythm. The last thing that they can have any awareness of is harmony, in spite of the fact that it's something we musicians like the most — the punters don't really understand it even though they may have a feeling of whether they like or dislike it."
Even though he's written more for live ensembles than most people in the industry, it's refreshing to see that Richard Niles is also no stranger to the art of programmed arrangement, and he was happy to pass on a few of his own tricks for achieving a natural and musical result from modest resources: "When I do demos, obviously I can't afford a real string section. However, it can be difficult getting synthesized strings to sound anything other than cheesy. What I do to avoid that is to keep them pitched fairly low, because they tend to get cheesier the higher you go. However, if you want the typical high string line, then keep it low in the mix — a little bit of it with tons of reverb goes a long way.
"I do have my own specific technique for programming strings, which I find amazingly effective: I normally use the Korg Trinity's 'Stereo Strings' patch, and I program the parts using step time — I am the step‑time king — such that every note of each line is entered into the sequencer as a whole row of 64th notes. This means that there are hundreds of events going on every bar, each of which has a velocity value. By going into the controller editor, I can create swells and sforzandi just by tweaking these velocity values, which makes the string sound much more real. Sometimes this isn't necessary, but I do end up using this technique a lot, particularly for long held chords and lines which need some movement. Obviously, this trick doesn't work with every synth sound, but it's great on the Trinity.
"Dynamics are everything in music, and I think that the saddest thing about the way people use sequencers is that they don't use dynamics. When I program drum parts I'm very conscious of dynamics so that every snare hit isn't exactly the same. It's great for making little snare rolls and ghost beats. That's really important, and most people don't do that. I hear a lot of drum tracks that just sound like machines. If you're going to use programmed drums, then let's at least give them a little life — use your creativity and make them musical."
Pros And Cons
Having worked with so many famous producers and artists, Niles has had the opportunity to experience a wide variety of different production styles and working habits. With this perspective, he has an unashamedly traditional stance with regard to what constitutes professionalism within the music and recording industries: "Absolutely the most important thing about any kind of professional work is getting breakfast, lunch and dinner! This is not merely a humourous comment, it's also a serious one — you have to have good work habits. I hate these guys who want to stay up all night, just smoking and drinking lots of coffee. I think that's stupid: you don't get any good work done like that. Getting into some kind of spiritual state of angst over every little note isn't worth it. It is true that some records couldn't have been created outside of that sort of environment, but I'm just glad I wasn't there, because it wouldn't have been any fun.
"I've got to a point in my career where I don't have to work for people who are belligerent or clueless. These days, because I'm involved in so much production and other projects myself, I don't work for that many other producers any more. They have to be someone who I know is talented and easy to work with.
"I will say that, if I'm not the best producer in the world, I'm certainly the fastest and the most economical. In the studio, 'time is money and money is everything'. If you have it all in your head already, then it's just a question of recording. I am ridiculously efficient and the biggest thing that works in my favour is that I am professional. You ask me to do something, and it will be done perfectly, under time. That's it, and I expect other people to be the same."
And, of course, he's hit the nail squarely on the head. What could more concisely sum up such a multi‑talented producer, arranger, songwriter, radio presenter, band leader, musical director, conductor, composer, solo artist, journalist and record‑company director than 'Richard Niles: Professional'?
In The Spotlight
"Creatively, I fulfil myself through my jazz work. I've now got two albums out — Santa Rita and Club Deranged, which has just been released. I write my tracks initially by programming everything myself, and then I record, substituting real instruments for the programmed ones. Steve Hamilton might add some piano, Danny Gottlieb some fantastic live drums, and I'll often get a live bass player in if I don't want a synth‑bass sound. I leave gaps for solos as necessary, and I'll always put my guitar on afterwards so that I can take a little time over it and experiment with ideas — I really enjoy the melodic and compositional elements of the solos I take and I like to make them suit the track."
There are links to Richard's CDs, as well as detailed information about the numerous projects he's worked on, featured on his web site.
Niles Productions: Working At Home
Richard Niles's home studio is as compact as it is fully featured. Although measuring only about 7 x 7m, it has been carefully designed in order to incorporate a control room and three different recording spaces — four if you include a clever isolation box for isolating guitar amps — each complete with prints of great jazz instrumentalists to provide inspiration. "The ergonomics of this studio are fantastic, so it not only makes it a very comfortable place to work, but also means that you can also get a hell of a lot into it!
"I really enjoy working here in my studio: I can use some of the time to do my own projects and use the rest of the time to record some of the really talented friends who I welcome into my studio. Jim Mullen's been recording here, and quite a few other people as well, and I like to be involved with those kinds of things — this is not an invitation for everyone to write in, though, because it's something I reserve only for friends. I designed this studio as a great place for musicians to sit down together and create in a pleasant atmosphere. And that's exactly what it's turned out to be!"
The studio is based around a Mackie D8b digital mixer recording to a Pro Tools 24 Mix Plus system. "Once you've worked with the Mackie, you'll just wonder why the hell you ever worked with anything else. It's just so straightforward and easy to use. It's cool that it stores all of its setups, so that when I walk into the studio wanting to start programming or recording, it's there! If I have a six‑piece band in my studio I can be ready to record in about 20 seconds. That is extremely cool."
Niles's editing software of choice is Opcode's Studio Vision Pro, which he uses with the Pro Tools hardware and a MOTU MTP AV MIDI interface. "Unfortunately, Opcode have now been bought by Gibson and the Opcode products aren't really being supported well. It's so stupid, because Vision is such a great program. I went out and bought Emagic's Logic Audio, on the strength of so many people using it, but I couldn't get on with it — it doesn't work the way I want to work. It's probably really good if you're not someone who reads dots, because everything's done graphically, but I like to work on things in a very simple, musical way. Vision allows me to do that and lets me see everything clearly. However, I do use the Pro Tools software for a few things, like editing and for jingles when it's mostly sound‑design work.
"Some people seem to worship analogue recording mediums, but it's just bullshit! Do they like tape hiss? I don't. I never liked it when I had it. Yes, it's a warmer sound, if you like that, but the trade‑off is not having the ability to move things, to transpose things, to slightly shift things to get the groove better, to drop in on the head of a pin. These are things I'd never trade off for a little more warmth. Definitely, as a producer, I'm very happy that we're now in the digital recording age."
Processing is handled mostly using plug‑ins, though an Avalon VT737 valve preamp and a Dbx 160x compressor provide a quality front‑end channel where required, and there are still trusty Alesis Midiverb and Digitech Studio Quad multi‑effects in evidence. What's more, there are a number of Lovetone guitar pedals, about which Niles enthuses. A particular favourite is the Wobbulator: "That box is the key to my guitar sound. Tremolo isn't unique in itself, but using it (especially the Wobbulator's version) for jazz is definitely different. Also I don't play fast, and when you sit on a note it's nice to have a little movement going. The guys who make these things are geniuses."
While Niles's main keyboard workstation is the Korg Trinity, there are also a number of other useful modules in his rack including an Emu Proteus 2000, a Kurzweil Micropiano, a Korg Wavestation, a Roland D550, and an Akai S1000 sampler. However, the studio has been designed for live performances as much as for programming and editing: a full Pearl drum kit and a Yamaha C3 grand piano are both in residence, making the studio ideal for live jazz. "I just did the Jim Mullen album here. It's incredible the sound we got on that recording, and it's typical of what we do here. I must say that I have a fantastic engineer, Rob Jenkins, which is a good thing, because I am to engineering what Adolf Hitler was to nursing! I don't really like it and I'm not particularly good at it. I just try to stay away from it unless I really have to do it myself.
"Obviously, what everyone says is that the advent of all this new technology has put the power in the hands of the people. That's basically the deal. When you're talking about a few grand for a desk with capabilities which rival a Neve or an SSL, it gives almost anybody the power to make a great‑sounding record. But technology is, of course, not the answer. The answer is taste and all the advertising tries to con people into thinking that if you buy a certain bit of gear or a certain guitar, it's going to make you into an artist. It isn't! What it's going to do is, if you have talent, make it easier for you to get what you have out. The technology isn't important. Make music."
"In terms of popular music, the only thing we've got in this country is dance music and boy/girl bands. You've got very few bands any more that actually play and sing together. I'm not saying that there's nobody decent out there being signed, but I'm saying that I don't see innovative new acts supported by the record companies. As the record companies become more corporate they seem to think only about the bottom line, and the most reliable way to sell records quickly is to sell to girls aged eight to 15. So they just manufacture what it is that these customers will like: some attractive young men, or some cute girls that they can see as role‑models.
"It's a myth that there isn't an adult audience in the UK. When Tower Of Power were at the Astoria a couple of months back, there were queues which stretched all the way round the corner and down Oxford Street — in spite of the fact that that venue is barely civilised — yet the small‑minded attitude in this country asks, "who's heard of Tower Of Power?" The music of a lot of fantastically talented artists isn't being given the exposure it deserves in this country, because it's more sophisticated than record companies will accept. Now that's a real waste.
"British record labels could be making a ton of money with all these talented people around, but they're not doing it because they're only thinking in such a limited way. If anybody in this country would get serious about developing the adult market, they'd be selling a lot of records. A lot of people aged 25 to 65 go into record shops all the time: they have the money and they want to buy records. But they want to buy something that makes them feel like they're still happening, and you can't blame anyone for that. But what can they buy? Everything in the shops seems aimed at younger age groups.
"It doesn't help that there's no place to perform anymore. This is a great tragedy, because 'in the old days' people wouldn't have to get a record deal to start off making a living in the music business: they'd go out and they'd play live for a couple of years and they'd build up a following. What chance is there for anybody to do that now? None. Zero. So you're stuck having to go the record‑company route."