On February 28, the 2019 MPG Awards will honour legendary producer Hugh Padgham with this year’s Outstanding Contribution to UK Music gong, recognising his incredible career to date.
With a career spanning more than three decades, Hugh Padgham’s status as one of the UK’s most revered and successful producers has been established for some time now, his name gracing the liner notes of some of the biggest albums and singles of all time. Over 150 million units bearing his name have been sold worldwide, having engineered, mixed and produced records for the likes of David Bowie, Sting, The Police, Genesis, Phil Collins, XTC, The Human League and a great many others.
Later this month, in recognition of his glittering career, he will be honoured with the 2019 Outstanding Contribution to UK Music award at the 2019 MPG Awards, which take place on February 28 at London’s Grosvenor House.
PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble spoke to Padgham ahead of the ceremony to discuss some of his career highlights, gear, the ever-changing role of the producer and what the future holds for the major studios in which he has plied his trade for so many years...
Firstly, how does it feel to be recognised with the MPG Outstanding Contribution to UK Music award?
It’s a great surprise and an honour to be given this award, especially as it’s been voted for by my peers and not just from commercial sales or something.
What was it that first drew you towards a career behind the desk?
When I was at school, a friend of mine had a connection to an artist who had recently had a couple of big hit singles called John Kongos. He had built a home studio in his house in London which we went to visit one day. It blew my mind, all those knobs and lights. I had wanted to be a bass player but after that all I wanted to be was a recording engineer.
How did you hone your craft in those formative years? Were there any key figures or projects that helped shape your production style?
Well, to start with, my aspiration was to become chief engineer at a top studio, as it was so hard to even get a job at a studio in those days. It was only later when I was an engineer for Virgin at The Townhouse Studios that I realised, in my opinion, half the producers I was sat beside didn’t seem to know any more about producing than I did. I persuaded Simon Draper, who ran Virgin’s record label, to let me have a go at producing one of their junior acts. It just went from there, with me also engineering for some incredible acts, including XTC and Peter Gabriel. One of the key figures in my life back then was an engineer called John Macswith who was the chief engineer at Lansdowne Studios where I worked before joining Virgin. He was properly ‘old school’ and amazing at recording everything from orchestras to rock bands. I learnt all about proper recording and mic techniques from him as he took me under his wing. I was very lucky to learn from him.
You’ve worked with some huge artists over the course of your career. Which ones have been the most memorable?
This is a very difficult question to answer, and I would never want to upset any great artist that I haven’t mentioned here, but here are four that come to mind. XTC and Peter Gabriel albums were very happy times for me as an engineer and also among my first major successes. Such great guys as well. Phil Collins’s first album was very exciting to make and it was my first properly successful production. Also The Police, as they were the most amazing band and to have made an album as successful as Synchronicity, when the creative studio environment was difficult at best, was particularly gratifying. And Melissa Etheridge’s Yes I Am album: this was my first big success with a US artist. It was her biggest hit to date and the album that really broke her there.
The industry has changed immeasurably since you first started out, particularly with regard to studio gear and recording techniques. What have been the biggest transformations you’ve encountered and how have you overcome them?
Going from analogue to digital, undoubtedly. There was nothing to overcome other than digital didn’t sound as good as analogue to start with (and even though it’s obviously much better now, I still believe well recorded analogue sounds better). However, digital is just so much easier to work with in regards to editing, manipulating, compiling and never having to worry about whether something got erased. It’s also just so much more time effective.
Has the rise of the so-called ‘bedroom producer’ and easy access to recording so ware for artists changed the dynamic between artist and producer?
The fact that almost anyone can have their own studio for very little money compared to the analogue era is a really wonderful and liberating thing. However, because people are often on their own and send files to people (who are probably also on their own) to overdub, for instance, for me, takes away the camaraderie and, very often, humour and banter that makes making records such fun. Also creative accidents tend to happen less.
Is the title of ‘producer’ harder to define these days, given artists’ ability to produce serviceable sounding recordings outside of the confines of a big or ‘traditional’ studio?
Nowadays, very often the producer will be the writer or co-writer or co-owner of the music. It is a necessity of the financial way the music business works today. The method of producing that I was brought up on hardly exists anymore.
Do you have a preferred way of working in the studio or any core principles you like to stick to? Or does every project differ from one to the next?
There are never two projects that are the same, so I tend to go with my gut instinct and experience, but I still like recording real musicians live and applying good recording techniques in order to make a record sound as good as I can make it. I also try to limit my track count to 48 so that when I come to mix I don’t have thousands of spurious tracks to sort out.
What’s your ideal studio setup?
These days it is to have very good microphones and mic amps (nice old Neve 1084s for instance), and very high quality A to D converters so that I have the best possible signal path into Pro Tools. I also like to have a small but good quality console to monitor through, a few trusty old bits of outboard gear, and lastly whatever my favourite monitors - probably several different makes and sizes for home comparison reasons etc. There have been a number of high profile recording studios that have closed or been threatened with closure of late due to development plans or a lack of revenue, such as London’s Strongroom Studios.
How crucial is it that facilities like this are protected for future generations of artists and studio professionals?
Sadly this is a sign of the times and I’m afraid that the one thing you can’t change is change. Apart from the large orchestral studios and enthusiasts who can run their own home studios with lots of lovely old gear, the kind of commercial studios that I grew up with will soon just be memories, I expect.
What advice would you give to up and coming studio engineers and producers?
You need to make sure that you have some sort of ownership of the intellectual copyright of the music you are recording, or else you’ll only be doing your work part time or as a hobby.
Who would be your dream artist to produce (that you haven’t already)?
What’s the greatest sounding record of all time?
Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The chat and the laughter.
What do you enjoy least about your job?
Compiling a lead vocal from someone who’s not a great singer.
Record you’re most proud of?
Face Value by Phil Collins.