Will Mowat made his name first as a sequencer expert and then as a writer with Soul II Soul. As a world music producer, his recent projects provide inspirational examples of how to combine performance with programming and overcome the limitations of a bare-bones budget.
I first met Will Mowat over 15 years ago when he was helping Sound Technology to demonstrate and support a new piece of Atari sequencing software called C-Lab Creator. What I didn't appreciate at the time was just how busy he was as a session musician. One of his session jobs was for Soul II Soul, after which began a long period of involvement with the collective, culminating in Jazzie B asking him to join them full-time. Will ended up doing a lot of the writing for the band, though he also got involved in what might more broadly be termed production, working alongside Jazzie. For the last few years, however, he's focused his energies on world music, recording and producing a string of acclaimed albums by artists from South America, Africa and Europe.
"People tend to assume that I produced for Soul II Soul, but that's not the case," explains Will. "I was a kind of Music Director for the time I was there, which was from 1990 to 1993, which meant I worked as Jazzie's co-writer, which meant writing for James Brown as well. On Soul II Soul's third album Just Right, I composed most of the music on it. Of course a lot of what I did strayed into production territory — the demarcation was necessarily very fuzzy — but Jazzie B being the main artist and the man with the clout and also with the vision of what he wanted, there was of course only room for one producer. It didn't occur to me to be producer, though I was absorbing the whole ethos of production all the time. When my first production job came along, I just continued doing what I was doing, but this time I was responsible for the whole project! An aspect of production is the mental shift you go through, from 'only' being engineer or musician, to producer. Most of the things that have happened in my life seem to have happened organically, against my better judgement!"
Will's Creator and Logic expertise earned him the reputation of being a technology guru. As his confidence as a producer has grown, however, he finds himself making fewer demands of his equipment. "Intrinsically, I really don't like technology. I'd rather be walking in the hills, but technology just happens to stick to me like a burr, and I seem to be able to get my head around it even though I'd rather not! When the C-Lab opportunity came up, I took the attitude: in for a penny, in for a pound — and I actually grew to like working with it. Increasingly though, you realise that what's important is not the technology but the 'blood and guts' relationships between people — the quality of the musical vision and ideas. If the fundamental structure is there, everything else falls into place. As I've grown, I've got better at what I do and used less and less technology to do it.
"When I started playing in bands I only had a Korg 700S synthesizer, and went on to get paid for selling and programming Oberheim and ARP synths, which was great fun — I got to work with U2, New Order and Gary Numan. You knew where you were since the technology was limited. The parameters were narrow and well defined, but you pushed the envelope all the time and extracted maximum energy out of what little you had. Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke was brilliant at that, turning his Oberheim OBX into a screaming machine! As the Atari, then the Mac, took over from the mid-'80s on, those parameters have widened more and more. You now have so much flexibility, you can do so much, that there is a danger of losing focus and of using technology because it's available, rather than because it is necessary for the job in hand. You use plug-ins because you can, not because you need to. That's where technology and me part company. I can do most of the things that I need to do just using an old beige Mac G3 tower running Logic 6. If I need any other bits of technology, I'll hire them in — I don't actually have to own them any more. If anything, I'm using my experience to get the desired results rather than relying on plug-ins.
"When I started producing under my own name in 1992 with artists such as Angélique Kidjo [the album Ayé with the hit 'Agolo'], I had upwards of 60 tracks because I felt it highly important that little shaker should be doing what it's doing, but as you progress, you realise that people are only listening with half an ear anyway and if you take out half the stuff, the mix actually sounds much better! You have more space, less is being crammed into those two little speakers left and right, and the fun and games now is to see how little you can get away with to produce your album. The people involved in the production of Norah Jones have got it absolutely right. You have brushed drums, double bass, her voice, some electric guitar lazily noodling around and piano, and that's all it needs."
"One of the problems with today's shrinking budgets is that we're all being forced into roles that we don't want to do," muses Will Mowat. "I don't want to be a studio engineer — I loathe most engineering with a passion. I love recording vocals because once everything is set up, it's a blood-and-guts thing between you and the vocalist, but I'd really much rather have an engineer do all the other stuff. But I just can't afford it now. The labels are wise to this — they know you have a studio and the right software so they pressure you into recording it yourself. I'm only glad that there are mixing and mastering engineers around who can take the stuff that you've done and work with it, because that is something I won't touch. When mixing I always work with an engineer, and I cannot wrap my head around mastering so I always go to people who I know are good at it and can extract the very best from your mixes, but then you still have to give them good stuff to start with — they can't make anything out of a sow's ear!
"Fortunately, because we had plenty of time if not money on the Daúde project, we were able to do a mix in Pro Tools and then leave it for a while before listening to it. There's nothing like time for telling you what a track needs. Sure it's important to do things in the heat of the moment, but if you can do a lot of work in a short space of time while working under pressure, then leave it for some time before coming back to it, the track will almost give you a shopping list of what it needs. And one of my tips is to sit down when you first play a track after a period of not hearing it and write down any problems as they occur to you. Doing it on the second play-through is too late as you'll already have got used to the sound — your psychoacoustic perception has already made allowances. You make your list and then stick to it. Then, if you get the opportunity, fix the problems and then listen again a few days later. You can do this when you're working on an album as you can cycle around the various tracks at different times."
As a producer in his own right, Will Mowat has specialised in world music. "We whites have stolen enough black musical ideas to last quite a few lifetimes," he explains. "In Soul II Soul there was a feeling that whenever the black community came up with a feel or an idea, the white-dominated industry was very quick to take it and put their marketing muscle behind the white equivalent. It was the same with blues where Eric Clapton and his contemporaries made the megabucks and all the original black players were sidelined. Perhaps that's why I've spent my entire production career 'bigging up' the Third World, or Southern Hemisphere. I've worked in Africa and South America — and Glasgow. Well, that's the third world as well..."
Among Will's recent projects is an album called Daúde, Neguinha Te Amo, recorded with Brazilian singing artist Daúde (pronounced dah-oo-jee), which is a good example of his general production philosophy. "My approach is based on deconstruction — not accepting things as they are. If you are given a song to do, you don't accept it at face value but rather pare it right down — skin it right down to the bones and the sinews, then you pull the skeleton apart before reassembling it. You roll up your sleeves, get dirt under your fingernails and really get to work on it by trying to understand what the song is saying and what the artist has to say.
"Most of the tracks on the Daúde album are either extremely old Brazilian songs or songs that haven't been played for some time. Most people probably wouldn't recognise them until maybe halfway through because I've completely changed them in the process of finding out what I could say about these songs that hadn't been said before. They had such strong skeletal structures that I was able to be quite invasive with them and still come up with something meaningful.
"On this particular project, the artist came to me with old vinyl and moth-eaten cassettes of these old songs so my first job was to spend time listening and understanding what the harmonic structure was. Then I thought 'What can I extract from the original that will be useful — is there anything I can sample or use?' It might just be an obscure timbale roll or a weird noise that acted as a catalyst to get me interested in the track. Sometimes I'll replace these sounds later but occasionally I'll keep the sample if it's not an important part of the original recording.
"At the time I started this project in 2000, I was also into UK garage, so I chatted to people in my local specialist outlet and bought a load of vinyl albums to see what they were doing. I deconstructed some of these in Recycle and analysed the rhythms before using my own sounds to construct a rhythm that was maybe based on that Recycle template. I wanted the album to have an 'up' garage feel, but it had to be feminine, cool, dancy, warm, Brazilian, African, urban, sophisticated, accessible, highly produced yet organic, and so on. So I wrote this mission statement and pasted it to my wall and stuck to it. I've worked on albums lasting a year, recording in Johannesburg, Durban, London and Paris, and if you haven't got a mission statement to work to, you're going to wobble. You need those self-imposed guidelines, where you say 'That's what I'm going to do with the album.'
"So, I may have my Recycle template going in Logic with some samples running on EXS24. And what Soul II Soul taught me was not to be afraid of using a one-bar loop through a whole song — don't be too clever. A lot of my stuff is one constant undertow throughout, but you probably wouldn't know from listening to it as on top of that is live percussion and perhaps a live drummer. Give me a rolling groove and I'm happy!
"It's also a good idea not to add the music too quickly — and don't bring the musicians in too early because you don't want them to hijack your track and take it away from your direction. I also like using the unexpected, for example, analogue gear like the Oberheim Matrix 1000. When you first hear a lot of the sounds in that box, you might think they're unusable, but when you play them into the mix, somehow they fit. I even use my old Korg M1R where the sounds are complete rubbish for modern productions, but there are certain things on there that work. I've also used a fair amount of the World card from the JV1080. Even if the part only acts as a placeholder that you take out when the percussion player comes along, you know what that part is going to be doing.
"A few chords are usually enough for the singer to pitch to, and I always approach the vocal recording as if it's going to be the master, never as a demo, because nine times out of 10, they won't better that first take. In this case we used an AKG C12VR through the very wonderful Avalon 737 preamp. Once they've sung, you take all the music away and deconstruct the chords to see what you can add to the song harmonically that wasn't in the original version. Sometimes you can juxtapose a melody with what appears to be a jarring harmonic structure underneath it and come up with something weird but that makes sense. I did a lot of that on this album and a lot of the Brazilian standards on the album would be unrecognisable to Brazilian purists.
"Then you start to manipulate the sounds or add retro things, like the M-Tron vibraphone and some of the M-Tron string phrases. Am I the first to have found a use for the entire phrase in the library? I didn't build the song around the phrase — the phrase happened to fit the song. I don't hunt for sounds — if I find myself trying more than 15 patches, it just isn't the right day! If it doesn't come easy, it probably isn't right."
Like many of Will's projects, Daúre's album needed to be easily transferable between studios. "I didn't want to go above 24 tracks simply because I didn't know where I'd be recording next, whether it would be a studio in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo or my own facility in London, and so I wanted to make sure that my project could fit into any Pro Tools system I was likely to come across. My original pre-production recordings were made in Logic, but once all that was recorded, I pared it down to a manageable number of audio tracks. As it happened I did go over 24 audio tracks but I needn't have done.
"I started the album in London with Daúde back in the summer of 2000 and everything was done in Logic up to the mix. I always start new projects in Logic; I feel Pro Tools is unfriendly as a creative tool, compared to Logic. It's a wonderful tool for boffins and engineers and people who are into lots of processing but that's never been my bag. I'm more concerned with the philosophical and musical side of things, though I very much appreciate Pro Tools for certain things it does for me as a user, and its graphics are second to none. So, I tend to start work in Logic and then transfer to Pro Tools. I work as long as possible with real-time MIDI until the time comes when you have to nail your colours to the mast and say 'OK, I'm happy with this performance, this Moog bass sound is working well so I'm going to record it as an audio file and work with that from now on.'
"The album took a long time because it was a speculative venture and I had to fit it in between other paying projects. I treated Daúde's project as my baby as I really wanted to do it and she was absolutely convinced about her vision. She chose the repertoire, so it was just a matter of shoehorning it in between other projects. A label might call me up from Africa or Brazil and ask me to produce something for one of their artists, so working around that, we did a month in 2000, a month in 2001 and a month in 2002. I was financing the album and so couldn't risk that much of my own money. Two of the artists I produced during that time were Brazilian stars Daniela Mercury, and then latterly the brilliant Chico César.
"Even in 2002 I had a list of things that I thought I wanted to improve on Daúde's album, but by that time the idiosyncrasies in the performances were so ingrained in the project that fixing them wouldn't have made it sound any better or have helped to sell any more records. It wouldn't have made me feel any better about the project either, so in the end I ignored just about everything that had been on my original list to repair."
The album has been released on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records to extremely positive reviews in the press. It combines obviously studio-manipulated sounds with loops, acoustic percussion and some great vocal and instrumental performances to create a very sophisticated and yet easy-listening, almost lounge, feel.
"My approach is to try to create a marriage of organic and technical," explains Will. "I call it 'technorganic' and if you listen to Soul II Soul and the stuff I was writing with Jazzie, it was all done on the Atari with Notator, using samples from Akai 1100s, but we also had live musicians. Of course we didn't get into the situation of cutting audio recordings up into segments and manipulating them as we do now, but there was definitely technology in play. Nevertheless, it was very much a feel thing and for me the important elements were the message, the song and the groove. I learned a huge amount through that, and my aim has always been to end up with something where you can't tell where the joins between real and manipulated are."
"On this album, budgets being what they are, we had to cut our cloth to suit our pockets. I had to close my parameters right down to achieve maximum bang for minimum bucks. I wanted the highest possible quality of artistic, musical and sonic quality for the minimum outlay. I managed to do that by spending as little time as possible in paying studios, and doing as much work as I could in my own studio. I also minimised the time working with musicians, who naturally had to be paid. So rather than get somebody in the studio all day trying out things until they got it exactly as I wanted it, I'd record less and then spend a lot of time cutting and rearranging what they'd played. So, there was Logic with all its plug-ins, some MIDI instruments, the bass line from my 10-year-old MIDImoog... Originally the Moog bass was just a placeholder to give me something to work to until I could replace it with a really good bass part played by a top funk player from São Paulo or somewhere, but all the while Daúde was saying that the Moog part sounded fantastic and that I ought to keep it as it was. I argued against the idea, saying that it was electronic and wasn't appropriate, but in the end she was right. I just had to play it to a few people to confirm what she was saying. Then I had to find a mastering engineer who could deal with that kind of sound!
"If I'm doing a Moog bass part, I always use just one oscillator, never two, because I don't want any of that beating stuff that can play havoc with acoustics and frequencies. It would typically be based on a square wave or a pulse just off square, very careful filter and envelope settings, but the most important thing always is getting an appropriate part. My bass lines are never just root notes — they're melodies in their own right.
"There's also quite a lot of sampled stuff on the album, but these were all samples that were played for me for this project or ones that I already had from previous, relevant, projects. These would be cut up as audio files or used in Logic 's EXS24 sampler, and before the EXS24, played via an Akai sampler. I've never bought a sample CD. It's become a bit of a mantra now, but the truth is that I didn't need to because I was always working with artists who had their own scratchy records or whatever. I've always been involved in productions where there's been a budget for musicians to come in, and being environmentally minded, I like to recycle ideas, sounds and samples, albeit in different ways each time. I do have my trademark motifs — there's a kind of slur I do on my Moog bass that crops up in several of my productions — but the way I see it is that it's an organic progression from production to production. There may be different countries and different artists, but if they're involved with me, then they're also involved with my musical history.
"I also set out to extract the maximum energy out of something. For example, what's the point of having a really nice bass line if it's only going to be used on one track and is only going to be listened to once? If you have a particularly nice bass line or groove, the chances are that most people in the world won't have heard it, so why not use it again in another context? Sometimes I'll do this consciously, sometimes unconsciously, so that my productions have a certain joined-up continuity to them. I'm not imposing anything on the artist, but rather just bringing in my personal instinct."
Will Mowat is scornful about the potential benefits that new formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio might bring for musicians and producers. "More and more artists are engineering themselves — and the technical expectations have become lower, even though we've never had access to such high-quality audio technology! You can get away with recording a number one hit in your bedroom on a Minidisc, so I find it hard to come to terms with this split between SACD and all the other esoteric formats at one end of the scale and the MP3 culture at the other. Most people listen on crap systems, maybe on MP3s, maybe on a hi-fi where one speaker is out of phase and facing the wrong way on a shelf — the other speaker is on the floor and has got a biro stuck through it! Or they're listening in the car where the first 200Hz are dominated by the engine noise, or on cheap headphones.
"It just doesn't make sense. There seems to be a schizophrenic approach by the recording technology industry — it's not driven by the needs of the marketplace. On one hand the industry encourages us to think we need high-end tools to achieve the best quality. On the other, the audience doesn't want to pay for the music, and anyway is willing to sacrifice quality in the interests of getting it cheap or free. The market needs fairly traded, accessible music that people will want to pay for, and we're not going to achieve that by being distracted by the likes of 24-bit, 96kHz or surround sound. SACD? What SACD? Classical music sales have never been so low. Yes I appreciate if you A/B a 16-bit CD against one of these new high-end formats, there is a difference, but it really won't make your life any better and doesn't address the real problems. I feel very strongly that the whole music technology industry is not coming to grips with its real structural problems and the labels are, at their peril, chasing the fast buck and neglecting the long-term health of the market. I think surround sound is a red herring, a complete irrelevance to our end of the market where music is made on minimal budgets. Our concern is whether we can sell the CD, let alone a DVD!"
What is particularly impressive about the album is that it was completed on a budget of under £20,000. "That figure includes lawyers' fees, flights and everything," asserts Will. "The budget dictated what we could do, so as I was paying for this album and there was no guarantee that it would be picked up by a label, I had to ensure I used my money wisely. That meant I had to do a lot of the stuff myself. When I hired a musician, I hired them for as little time as possible in a studio that cost me as little as possible, and I had to do deals everywhere. I had to play God with everyone's performances simply because the budgets forced me to.
"Musicians are savvy now — they know you are working digitally so their expectations of what they have to do are lower. They know you can chop and paste fairly quickly, and I get the impression that some musicians have become very lazy. They expect you to manipulate what they've done after they've gone home. In this case, however, I simply didn't have the money to spend in the studio for a long time perfecting their parts, so I might record three or four tracks of a trumpet solo and then say 'That's fantastic, thank you very much!' The more honourable ones might question whether they'd given me enough for their money, but I knew that I could edit the part and come up with exactly what I wanted: it is still their performance, and I always make sure the musician is properly credited for it.
"Even if you've recorded something where the timing or pitch is cruddy, you might still just find a piece that has that magic 'X' factor and works. In fact, on Daúde's album I was working on one session where the trumpet player played two notes, one after the other, which to him sounded abominable, and right away he stopped playing and asked me to erase them. But I was jumping up and down because knew those two notes had captured exactly what I wanted for the track. Now when we do the live show, the poor trumpet player is going to have to learn all these new parts that I've created by editing his studio performances. But he is still credited with the original performance, and I like to think that what you hear after my editing is what the player would have done himself if I'd had the budget to have him in the studio for long enough. You could argue that slashed budgets do sometimes bring out your creative side!
"In a pop production, I think it's important that the musicians should be proud of what they've done, but at the same time they're not here to show how well they can play; their role is subservient to the main thrust of the album — the product. The artist and the production come first. So yes, we'd spend maybe an hour each recording the trumpet, clarinet or percussion parts for a couple of songs, then I'd spend literally days manipulating those performances, after which I'd leave them for a few days before listening to them again.
"To make an album of this quality for what amounted to around £12,000 excluding air fares, expenses, lawyers' fees and so on is quite an achievement, and with hindsight it might have been done for even less than that. Even so, I didn't want to compromise on quality and I wanted to have good mastering, but even then I cut a deal with this brilliant mastering engineer in São Paulo and got a fantastic result. It was really down to getting a good balance between the various demands — it would have made no sense to cut corners recording the album, then have to pay a fortune for a mastering engineer to try to put it right."
When margins are so tight, cost is a constant worry. "You just have to hope that you cover your costs during the making of the album and then hope that it's going to be taken up," explains Will. "I try to structure a deal where I have a share of the synchronisation fees, so if Adidas or somebody else comes along and wants to use the track, we've made some money. It's a gamble, but if you're not a gambler in this business, you shouldn't be doing it.
"There isn't a huge amount of money in this for me, but the artist comes away with an amazing-sounding CD that the label is pleased with. What's also important for this section of the market is that they can go away and play live. Though live performance may seem a quaint notion in the UK, there's a very healthy live music market outside the British Isles, where you can earn a hundred times more from playing live than you ever get from your CDs. Very few world artists make much money from their CDs — they make it from live performance. In Brazil, the price of an album is four pounds or less, so nobody makes any money out of it unless you sell a million. Piracy is also an issue of course, and if you have any kind of name, as soon as the album is released, it's cloned and sold on the street at a quarter of the price. Live music can't be pirated so live music rules out there, and the CD is more of a calling card."
This applies to Will as producer as much as to the artist: "Unless I'm doing something that is specifically speculative, I know that people high up in the business are going to hear what I do. It's effectively part of my showreel, so it's worth waiting for the right collaborations to come along.
"As a producer, the first test you have to pass is the one with the record label — what the fickle buying public is going to do after that, you don't know. I'm much more involved in this Daúde project because I'm also the production company, so as well as having the label on board, I also want the reviews on board. So far, that side of things is panning out OK, after which you have to be sure the artist can cut it live — and Daúde is very good live so we're OK there. After that, you can just hope the record-buying public are going to go for it..."