Conspiracy theories, serial killers and people losing their virginity as well as music, films, studio gear and recording, were all discussed in a packed room for PSNPresents 4 in Londons’ Sway Bar last week.
Grammy-award winner Andrew Scheps (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day) appeared alongside the Pro Sound Awards’ Sound Engineer of the Year Wes Maebe (UB40, Ellie Goulding), and Peter Gabriel arranger/collaborator John Metcalfe for the panel on recording studios, hosted by writer/consultant Barney Jameson.
Scheps has worked with everyone from Johnny Cash, Metallica and Michael Jackson (he started off his career mixing for the so-called ‘King of Pop’). But he admitted he stills gets star stuck every time he meets a musician. He said the Chili Peppers are one of his favourite acts to work with after he heard them play at Punk Flow in 1986, but never got to meet them after the concert, as a brawl broke out.
“With the Chili Peppers, being able to work with a band I always liked was tremendous, and it turned fantasy into reality,” he said.
“They are amazing musicians and have worked together for so long, that they write in the studio constantly… and just jam… and if you see them live they may play a riff a few times on stage and that will then end up on their next album. It can be chaotic recording them – you just have to be prepared for everything – and always have everything miked up.”
Scheps also worked with Johnny Cash on his seminal recording of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. “It was one of his simpler songs and it was just about how loud can you get Johnny’s voice and still hear some instruments,” he quipped.
Maebe has also worked with a range of famous faces, but originally started out studying the psychology of serial killers, before he was kicked out of a Belgian university. With the help of his father, he moved to London to study sound engineering at the City of Wesminster College (now part of the University of Westminster).
Maebe recalled how, while recording a presidential campaign song at Sensible Studios with a Congolese band called Wenge, a fist-fight broke out in the control room after it became clear the band couldn’t use the studio overnight to make their own album.
Mostly recently he was recording with UB40 (the Ali Campbell version of the outfit), who they have been reworking their hits as an “acoustic, reggae album without bass – it’s going to freak people out”.
Maebe is based at RAK Studios and said his favourite part about it is the API console. “I haven’t heard anything like it – it’s so much fun. My wedding ring has the faders of the console and they move – that’s always good fun at trade shows as the API guys always find me and drag me around and say, ‘You think you’re passionate – check out this dude’.”
When it came to the audience Q&A, Scheps was asked about his switch from mixing on a console to a computer – or “the box” – as he calls it. He said it gives him the ability to remain fresh and mix an entire record at once.
“My favourite conspiracy theory is that I still mix on the console, but I lied about it as I want people to buy my plug-in,” he said, to much laughter all round.
“I use a MacBook Pro with some plugs… When I first made the move [to it], it was revelatory and terrifying, but I love it and wouldn’t do it any other way. I don’t track as much as I like – I love being in a room with a band or orchestra, but the fact I’m mostly mixing means I could move here and no one noticed. A tonne of people still think I live in LA.”
He doesn’t, of course: earlier this year, Scheps moved to the UK and set up his equipment in Monnow Valley Studio in South Wales, after spending 25 years in California. Scheps said he loves the weather in this country. “When I’m at the local [pub], people don’t care what I do; when you’re in LA you spend your entire life talking about the gigs you didn’t get,” he said.
“You’re bringing art to the masses… and it’s amazing what we do, but we do not save lives or we’ve not creating things to save lives or feeding people, so it’s nice to get perspective.”
Meanwhile, Metcalfe – string player by training – recently recorded his own album The Appearance of Colour and said he was more interested in the sound of words, rather then writing songs about love or “Jeremy Corbyn”. This spills over into his arrangement work as well.
“Technology is changing very fast, but with mixing desks or ribbons or controllers… what really interests me is the actual quality of the interface when furnishing something and the gradation or resistance it gives you – I’m interested to see how it develops over time.”
Being asked to rework Gabriel’s songs was a “completely terrifying and onerous task”, he said. He had to do 14 or 15 arrangements for 30 songs in two months. “The songs are already written, so you’re adding another dimension … Peter gave me a blank canvas, but you have these incredibly well known songs like Heroes… and everyone has the DNA of the song in them, it might be the first time they had sex… I’m sure someone out there lost their virginity to Heroes.”
The second panel was made up of Munzie Thind (pictured middle), sound designer at Grand Central Recording Studios – the man behind the audio sync for the BBC Music’s God Only Knows video, along with James Mather (pictured right), supervising sound editor on the last four Harry Potter films.
Mather said he decided to work in sound as the digital technology was way more advanced than in film and he is also a fan of working “in the box”.
He said his job as a supervising sound editor on films is about collaborating with the editor and director and understanding people’s ideas. He then goes to a team of editors to either explain exactly what they want or try 15 different versions of something. He admitted the composer is the “biggest pain in the ass” out of all the sound roles in film. But working in sound means “we are the midwives of the film – we are the last people to bring the film out,” he said.
Thind has worked on a range of advertisements from the ‘Flat Eric’ Levi’s Jeans ads, to dubbing on the ‘You’ve Been Tango’d’ ads, as well as PG Tips, when the brand bought back ‘Monkey’.
“TV audiences are 10 to 15 million people on prime time, so you’re influencing a lot of people,” he said.
Thind said he was particularly proud of working on an advertisement promoting the diversity of Radio 2 – where he had the unenviable position of using Elvis’ iconic voice to introduce a range of musicians. But he faced the dilemma of when did Elvis ever say names such as Marvin Gaye.
“The only dialogue I had was ‘I want to introduce the band’ and the editor’s voice saying ‘Noel Gallagher’ etc … but how does Elvis say Noel Gallagher – we listened to old tapes, but he’s just a Southern boy who speaks in a certain way,” he said.
He brought in actor Tim Whitnall who had played Elvis in the West End musical. “When Elvis was doing concerts he was in a happy place, he had audiences of 1.2 billion, and he looked a bit sweaty and hairy, so I got Tim Whitnall to run around the block so he could be in that sweaty zone to record.”
PSNPresents 4 was sponsored by Focusrite and Roland. A prize draw, held at the end of the night, saw student Harvey Allen of Rose Bruford College, Sidcup, walk off with a Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 USB audio interface, worth around £140.
Watch out for audio clips from the night, online and downloadable soon!