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Out of the Box
If you think that most contemporary records are constructed “in the box” by young musicians endlessly peering at screens and applying multitudes of plug-in effects, or that conventional recording studios are for an older generation on its way out, meet Gil Norton. Consider this list of rock musicians, all of whom he recorded and produced using his tried-and-tested old-school ways: Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, Feeder, Gomez, Ben Kweller, and Morningwood.
With 26 years of working in recording studios, Norton, an Englishman, definitely qualifies as old guard. At the same time, with credits including Echo and the Bunnymen, Foo Fighters, the Pixies, and Throwing Muses, he's that rare combination of living legend and contemporary, happening producer (see the sidebar “Gil Norton: A Discography”). Norton specializes in producing bands of the post-new wave and grunge varieties, with the occasional oddball thrown in, like the acoustic-alt rock sound of Counting Crows and Gomez or the pop sound of Morningwood.
Norton's productions feature guitar-driven walls of sound, played by real bands in traditional recording studios — in other words, projects that involve strings, pedals, amps, drums, microphones, baffles, mixing desks, and outboard gear. In short, Norton deals in everything that sitting behind a computer screen is not.
Instead, he delivers an invaluable service by carrying old-school studio know-how into the 21st century. The ongoing commercial and artistic success of his approach shows how relevant it remains. The roots of Norton's methods can be found in his beginnings in the late '70s when he studied music and trumpet at Mabel Fletcher Technical College in Liverpool. While there, he played bass in bands and recorded musical acts in the 8-track demo facility of Amazon Studios. Norton recalls, “A lot of bands couldn't tune their drums — some couldn't even tune their guitars [laughs] — so I ended up getting heavily involved in the musical side of things and drifting into production.”
FIG. 1: Adrian Bushby often engineers for Norton, who prefers to concentrate on the -production aspects and leave the knob twiddling to others.
Speaking from one of his favorite studios, central London's RAK, Norton agrees that his approach is “totally traditional,” and adds, “I mainly do bands, so it's not like I'm involved in dance music, which has more to do with sonics, drum machines, loops, and keyboards. When you're working with a real drummer and a real kit, you get a lot of character. So most of the time I work in a traditional studio environment, and it's all about capturing the band as best as possible. It's all about the songs and giving guidance about performances and why you think they're great or could be better. I like the whole psychology of working with a group of people. I like human interactions.”
After engineering at Amazon, Norton worked for nearly a decade as a producer-engineer, but the last album he engineered entirely himself was the Pixies' Doolittle in 1989. Since that time he prefers to have a good engineer at his side. “When you are worried about the technical aspects of things, it's harder to concentrate on the music and the band,” he says. In the past five or so years, he's worked frequently with engineer Adrian Bushby (see Fig. 1), who is a producer in his own right. Bushby has engineered for Norton many times, working with Dashboard Confessional, Feeder, Gomez, Natalie Imbruglia, Minogue, Morningwood, My Bloody Valentine New Order, and Kylie Placebo.
FIG. 2: Norton''s belief in preproduction was in -evidence when he produced Gomez''s How We Operate. The band refined the arrangements by -recording all the songs first in their home studio.
Norton and Bushby collaborated recently on Gomez's How We Operate (see Fig. 2). The CD is the band's fifth, and its first on the independent ATO Records label. How We Operate climbed to No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart and No. 7 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart, receiving widespread acclaim (allmusic.com called it “a quiet stunner”). It was also the first Gomez CD that wasn't self-produced. Norton's influence is clear; the songs and arrangements are more downbeat, acoustic, melodic, and integrated than the band's previous offerings.
“When I met the band, the big thing for me was that I wanted them to work as a band,” says Norton about recording How We Operate. “I didn't want a bitty album of individual writers doing their own thing and the others acting like session musicians. I wanted to put them in a room together and work them through the songs. I am a firm believer in preproduction before going into the studio; to me, it is the most important part of recording. Gomez had never done that, because they tended to do everything in the recording studio. I wanted to make sure that we all understood what each song was about and that everyone had their parts worked out before we recorded. They've been touring a lot, especially in the U.S., and I thought it'd be good to have some of that energy on the record.”
In addition, the budget for How We Operate was relatively limited, which added to the incentive to come to the studio as well prepared as possible. Preproduction took place at the band's rehearsal room and studio in Brighton. “It's a nice environment,” says Norton, “and we would try out different arrangements and lots of different drum parts and feels. We didn't demo to a high standard and didn't use any of the demo recordings. It was more a matter of putting ideas down and checking whether they worked. Nearly all the lyrics, arrangements, and rhythms had been completed by the time we began recording in Studio 1 at RAK in October 2005. ‘See the World'' was the only song that wasn't quite worked out, so we had to spend time in the studio on the rhythm section for it.”
Shock and DAW
Norton's main reasons for recording in RAK Studio 1 were its API desk, enormous live room, and extensive mic collection. “We tried to do as much as we could live, and then added overdubs,” he says. “The room at RAK is big enough to be split in half, so we had the drums in one section and the amplifiers, keyboards, and vocal mics in the other. The band members were all playing at the same time; there was a little bit of spill, but not a lot. We had lots of screens and blankets and stuff. We made sure the tempos were sorted out and recorded the tracks live as much as we could. We were in the big room for 15 days — each day recording the basic tracks for one of 14 songs, even though only 12 made it to the album.”
Norton confesses to having a predilection for older Neve and API boards when recording. “That is where you get the sound,” he explains. “So most of what we recorded in Studio 1 went through the API. It's nice and clean; it sounds great. After the two weeks there, we went to RAK Studio 4, which is just a back room with only an SSL and a small overdub booth. We did a little bit of fiddling with the acoustics there to turn it into a great-sounding mix room. We were there until Christmas, overdubbing mainly guitars, keyboards, vocals, and finally mixing.”
For the longest time, Norton considered himself a purist — a man who preferred tube and analog gear. But even though plenty of analog compressors, mic preamps, and EQs were used on How We Operate, the CD was tracked using Norton's two Digidesign Pro Tools systems, both filled to the brim with plug-ins.
Norton became a digital convert about two years ago. “Until recently, digital wasn't very good,” he explains. “I used the Mitsubishi X850 digital 32-track recorder with Echo and the Bunnymen, and that sounded okay in the beginning. But the more I added, the more I could hear the digital processing, and it sounded harsh. I was still using analog when I did Recovering the Satellites with Counting Crows, and ended up filling 100 reels of 24-track tape because we had recorded the preproduction as well. Then, when producing Jimmy Eat World's Futures album in 2004, we did a big A/B shoot-out at Cello Studios in L.A. and compared a 2-inch, 16-track Ampex machine with Pro Tools HD 96/24. We all felt that the Pro Tools sounded better, especially for rock music. That was a bit of a shock.
“The big thing is the HD sampling rates. That is where digital has become as good as analog tape — you start getting the air around the sound. It's more punchy than what's coming off the analog tape, so everything that we record now goes straight to Pro Tools via the 192s. I still use analog because it can make things sound softer and warmer, so I mix to ½-inch analog and master off that. Occasionally, I'll move something over to analog tape and back to Pro Tools again just to get the tape compression, and I still enjoy doing tape edits with razor blade. But digital is great for the convenience of editing and recording lots of takes. Tape is so expensive, and you can only record three takes on one piece of 24-track tape. Now you can do eight or nine takes in Pro Tools and see what you have.”
And so, to his own surprise, Norton has found himself recording exclusively in the box since 2004, and his working methods are now a blend of old and new. “I have a little [Digidesign] control surface,” he says, “but I still prefer to use conventional desks. I'm running one Pro Tools system on my old [Apple] Dual 1 GHz G4, which I use for recording, and the other, which runs on a G5 Dual 2 GHz, is for editing. I try to have the editing done in a different room than the control room, so it doesn't get in the way of recording. I don't think bands like sitting around looking at a screen all day; they prefer to be creative and record stuff. They don't want to sit there while someone is editing, so I tend to keep that away from the band.” More Gil Norton >>>
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Norton has also become increasingly enamored with plug-ins. “Most plug-ins sound good, but it's very difficult to compare them with outboard gear. You can't say that plug-ins sound better than outboard gear; an 1176 plug-in doesn't sound better than a real 1176. They just each do a different thing. And you can overuse plug-ins, just like you can overuse outboard gear. If you have good instruments and good players and good microphones, you don't need to do a lot of EQing. You shouldn't be using plug-ins to rescue something; they're really for adding a little bit of enhancement here and there.”
Norton rarely processed the tracks on the Gomez CD before sending them to Pro Tools. When he did do some processing, he used outboard compressors such as the LA3A, 1176, and Empirical Labs Distressor, as well as the Thermonic Culture Vulture (tube distorter). Once recorded, the material was edited and subjected to all sorts of treatments. (For more technical details about the recording process for How We Operate, see Web Clip 1.)
Some of the CD's tracks were either recorded or processed remotely, such as the drum programming and vocal mangling on “All Too Much,” performed by Ben Frost, an Icelander living in Australia. Frost, a friend of Gomez singer-guitarist Ian Ball, added effects to audio files sent to him over the Internet. MIDI string arrangements were done by another friend of Ball's, Fil Krohnengold, who sent MIDI files back to London, where Norton and company fleshed them out with the aid of a MOTU Mach 5 sampler and samples from one of the Miroslav string libraries and from Norton's own collection.
Pushing the Boundaries
Norton's G5 Pro Tools HD3XL rig has 24 outputs, but the system he runs on the G4 has only 16. Because he and Bushby wanted to be able to move freely between the two systems, the duo premixed a lot to 16-tracks in Pro Tools as the project went along. This made the final mix, performed by Norton and Bushby together, straightforward. “With all our recent projects, we mixed as we went along,” says Bushby. “If we got balances that we liked, we saved them. When it came to mixing the Gomez album, we added a few more plug-ins and used the SSL desk a bit more — especially its stereo compressor, which gives it a sound.”
“I like the idea of mixing in the box,” adds Norton, “but for now I still prefer mixing on SSLs. I like their automation; it's very simple, and I'm very familiar with it. My HD3XL system is quite powerful and has a lot of plug-ins. I like the Sony Oxford plug-ins. Their EQ sounds great — very sweet; their compressor is good; and I really like their Inflator — we used that a lot. I have the Waves bundle and use the C1 compressor a lot. Reverb is the only area in which I always prefer using outboard, often the Lexicon 224 and 480. I enjoy plates on vocals, with a little bit of a Pro Tools delay.”
When asked about the ratio of plug-ins to outboard gear, Bushby estimated that more than 50 percent of the effects used on How We Operate were plug-ins. Understandably, his list of favorites is similar to that of Norton's, though he adds a few of his own. “The Waves TrueVerb is probably the best-sounding computer-generated reverb, but springs and plates sound more natural. I love my old spring reverb. I enjoy the [Sony] Oxford Dynamics, which has a little setting for warmth that blends in well and gives it a really nice sound. Waves has a great de-esser that does the job very nicely without being heard too much. Focusrite and Bomb Factory also make good plug-ins; I particularly like the Bomb Factory 1176. As for outboard gear, I used my Chiswick Reach and ADL stereo compressors and my pair of Neve 33114 EQs. I also managed to get a Chandler TG1 compressor and an API EQ into the mix room.”
Asked whether he foresees an entirely in-the-box future, Bushby shakes his head. “I don't think I'll ever use just plug-ins. There's something about having gear that you can get your hands on; it reacts in ways that plug-ins can't emulate. You can already do a mix without using any analog gear, but things done entirely in the box can sound a little flat, and there's something that analog brings to everything. If you are doing everything in the box, however, I'd advise at least putting a good outboard stereo compressor and EQ across your mix. It's important for things to go through that stage at least once.”
Norton says, “I'm not a purist anymore. It doesn't matter to me where things come from.” As ever, his focus is less on the technology and more on music and performances. This is exemplified on Gomez's How We Operate. The sound of the album is first-class, but the atmospherics and performances are what come across most strongly. “My job is about making sure that I get the right performances and that people enjoy being in the studio,” concludes Norton. “I'd like them to experience it as a creative place where they can work and feel that they can push their boundaries.”
Paul Tingen is a writer and musician living in France. He is the author of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books, 2001). For more information, visitwww.tingen.co.uk.
GIL NORTON: A DISCOGRAPHY
Gomez, How We Operate (ATO, 2006)
Ben Kweller, Ben Kweller (Red Ink, 2006)
Morningwood, Morningwood (Capitol, 2006)
Jimmy Eat World, Futures (Interscope, 2004)
Dashboard Confessional, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar (Vagrant, 2003)
Feeder, Comfort in Sound (Universal, 2003)
Patti Smith, Gung Ho (Arista, 2000)
Foo Fighters, Color and Shape (Capitol, 1997)
Counting Crows, Recovering the Satellites (Geffen, 1996)
Belly, Belly (Sire, 1993)
Catherine Wheel, Chrome (Fontana, 1993)
The Pixies, Bossanova (4AD, 1990)
Del Amitri, Waking Hours (A&M, 1989)
The Pixies, Doolittle (4AD, 1989)
Throwing Muses, Throwing Muses (4AD, 1986)
Echo and the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain (Sire, 1984)
NORTON'S OLD-SCHOOL ADVICE
Norton divulges his five top tips for successful production:
- Be prepared“As a matter of principle, I do at least two weeks of preproduction with almost every band I work with. You can't get the best results when you write and arrange in the studio, because there's too much pressure. You need time to sit with things and make sure you have the right ideas. The more work you have done before you go into a studio, the faster the whole recording process becomes.”
- Don't settle for less than best“A producer's job is about bringing the best out of people and their music and making sure that they enjoy being in the studio. One important thing is to be sure that they don't undersell themselves. Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, that will do,'' but in reality it may not be good enough. It's important that you challenge them to do better.”
- Always explain yourself“You have to be very articulate as a producer. If you confuse a musician in the studio, it's the end. You can't just say, ‘I don't like that.'' You have to give people a good reason why you say what you do and warn them about the things to look out for. It's important for musicians to feel confident and to know what they're doing.”
- A click track is essential“Lots of drummers these days don't like playing to a click track, but clicks prevent bad takes. That's because click tracks stop bands from pushing or slowing down when the musicians get tired. Some songs need to move in tempo, and you can move the tempo up and down a bit using a tempo map. Having a tempo map also makes editing a lot easier.”
- Record as a band“I always try to get the whole band to play the songs together live in the studio, and normally I get them to do about three or four guide vocal takes at that time. When you work all day on a song and there's a vocal on tape, it refreshes your head and the band gets to know the song better. You also get very fresh vocals that way. It can take a while for vocalists to get into the mood of a song, and so I normally get a lot of the vocals during these backing-track takes.”