Q&A: Producer, engineer and cellist George Shilling20 February 2017
You might know him from his writing and reviewing in the wider pro-audio press. However, earlier in the New Year, engineer and producer George Shilling appeared in the national media in a story highlighting more strings to his bow. Literally, in fact: Shilling played cello on a choral work written by former Ozzy cohort (and cancer survivor) Tony Iommi for the Birmingham Cathedral Choir.
Readers might recognise your name from kit reviews and your producer interviews at RecordProduction.com…
That’s only a day or two each month. Otherwise I’m mostly producing and engineering records, sometimes playing instruments on them. I also do mastering. Reviewing gear means I get to experience loads of equipment and software, while talking to other producers is inspiring.
Where did you cut – or should we say ‘Coldcut’ – your teeth?
Indeed! I dropped out of the Royal College of Music and made the tea at Livingston Studios when Jerry Boys was the studio manager. My lucky break was engineering for Coldcut in the mid-’80s, DJ-producers who were starting to have success. The more senior in-house engineers couldn’t get their heads around the idea of people turning up for sessions who didn’t play an instrument or sing — the DJ-producer was a new thing then. I was a rock fan, but being young and keen, and still in touch with schoolmates who ran a pirate house music radio station, I thought it would be a cool gig, and I was soon engineering chart hits including The Only Way Is Up – #1 for five weeks!
Give us a quick rundown of your current studio set-up…
At Bank Cottage I use Pro Tools HD with a couple of black UA Apollos, and ATC SCM100A monitors which I always loved when I was doing more freelance engineering. There’s are plenty of mics, various preamps and outboard — the AnaMod ATS-1 tape simulator is a favourite.
There’s a great drum room, but the control room is larger, with grand piano, Hammond, Wurlitzer piano, percussion, synths, guitars and basses. And mad things like a harmonium and an Autoharp.
You found yourself in Abbey Road recently: what was that about?
That was the London Hospices Choir and Paul Carrack, re-recording his Mike & The Mechanics hit The Living Years for a charity single. I recorded the vocals, and was arranger and producer Jim Hawkins’ trusted ears upstairs in the control room. The amateur choir was 300-strong, so we recorded them in four batches. They sang incredibly well on just one rehearsal. Jim is amazing at getting the best out of people.
How did the record do?
The bookmakers predicted a Christmas #1, and it sort-of was… Not counting streaming it was #12. But in the physical CD sales chart it was the Christmas #1 and stayed there for two weeks.
Then you got asked to play with the Sabbath guitarist…
Tony’s fairly local to me, and my mate Mike Exeter is his engineer. Knowing I play the cello, Mike suggested me to Tony, who needed some strings to ‘gel’ the guitar and vocal sections on ‘How Good It Is’, his collaboration with the Birmingham Cathedral Choir. Mike is brilliant, he recorded some of the last Black Sabbath album with Rick Rubin. I think the choir was recorded in the summer, I did the cello before Christmas, then it was released on YouTube and as a free download (from www.birminghamcathedral.com/news) in January.
You any good on the cello then? How’s your Suite for Cello Solo No1 in G?
I pretty much stopped playing when I started at Livingston, but eased myself back into it over the last 16 years. The Prelude of that Bach Suite is one of probably four party pieces that I can just about play from memory, so it’s not too bad actually! I’ve got to the point where I have had a few cello pupils achieve distinctions in their exams, so at least I know where your fingers are supposed to go, but I don’t practise enough: Melodyne comes in handy occasionally!
Do you often play on recordings?
Yes, frequently with clients I’m recording, and even online sessions. I’ll invent arrangements and multitrack the parts – like I did with Tony.
What was it like in the studio with Iommi?
Wonderfully relaxed. I’d already worked out a few bits; we met at Woodworm Studios, he listened, then left me with Mike to work out the rest. We recorded demo cello parts, and Tony then recorded his lead guitar. He’s a lovely chap — incredibly down-to-earth.
What was the process recording the cello?
I recently commissioned a new instrument made by David Alabaster that sounds amazing. I recorded with a Neumann U 87Ai or Sontronics Aria (I can’t remember which!) into my UA 6176. The multitracked bits are generally three cellos per part, up to a maximum of eight. Plus a few sparser duo and solo bits.
Do you play any other instruments?
I got Grade 8 piano years ago, and I’m a self-taught bassist and guitarist, and not a bad percussionist. I’ll even have a go at backing vocals. I love recording bands, but it’s also wonderful working with solo artists who let me loose with more of that stuff, like recent clients Sophia Dady, Mike Finnigan and Nikki Loy.
Have you recorded any other famous cellists?
I recorded my hero Julian Lloyd Webber on the Classical Relief For Haiti single, which I engineered at Metropolis. I later had a consultation cello lesson with him, and I’ve performed (brother Andrew’s)Variations with a 10-piece rock band.
Any other talents you care to tell us about?
I’ve started every day with yoga for about 25 years, and I can nearly do a headstand. Nearly.