Ian Catt - EMusician

Ian Catt

Ian Catt — musician, producer, creative consul — has been churning out productions regularly described as mood-evoking, ambient, and imaginative from his South London Cat Music studio for the greater part of 20 years. Working closely with everyone from the Trembling Blue Stars to Nosotrash, Catt has become well known for his incredibly collaborative production style, seamlessly switching roles from engineer to performer — often in the middle of single sessions.
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Perhaps most widely credited for his decade long, genre-defining work with UK-based electronica ensemble Saint Etienne, Catt has once again stepped up to the plate to produce the group’s newest release: the soundtrack to their critically-acclaimed short film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, the followup to 2003’s Finisterre. Though working expressly for film scores is a relatively new pursuit for Catt, it just seems to make sense that he would eventually wind up producing music for the screen, especially considering the naturally atmospheric, dare we say “filmic,” quality of some of his past collaborations (e.g., Northern Picture Library, Trembling Blue Stars, and The Occasional Keepers). “[Producing for] a film involves a very different discipline,” Catt relates. “When you make an album, all you are concerned about is what the music alone is saying to you. For a film, there is the old adage to abide by which says ‘If you’re aware of the soundtrack it’s not doing the job — you should just enjoy the film as a whole.’ You find that, for a film score, some traditional music production approaches end up being too intrusive.”

TO CONVERGE AND COALESCE

Whether working on an album or a film score, Catt finds that the artist must lead the process: “I don’t impose my working methodology on people, because that never ends well,” Catt says. But, thankfully, for both Catt and the band, the process of working on the film score for What Have You Done Today . . . was a natural extension of past Ian Catt/Saint Etienne collaborations, one where a clearly understood artist-to-producer framework has evolved naturally. “We have a defined language now, and I know how to get the things they’re hearing. Quite often Bob [Stanley, keyboardist] will come in with something, and say ‘How do we get this sound?’ And we’ll get it pretty easily. Pete [Wiggs, keyboardist] will also produce some basic ideas; the title track is a good example of that. When the idea came in, it was pretty well formed. The only real work was in overdubbing additional sounds, getting real drum sounds, and making the track sound deeper, fuller.”

Wiggs works, at first, in Apple Logic Pro using Spectrasonics’ virtual instrument Stylus to trigger his loops and samples. These sounds are then brought into Cat Music studio, where most of the live instrumentation is added before the components are mixed and all sonic undesirables are massaged out. “Quite often we’ll keep the original sounds and the sequenced parts because they are defining characteristics of the piece,” Ian says. “But what I can offer is a more physical, live sound. We overdubbed drums and guitars here, for instance, which certainly lends to a more organic feel.” Though traditionally Saint Etienne has programmed many of their beats, using MIDI sequencing and then dropping in “natural” sounds afterwards, for the What Have You Done Today . . . sessions Catt decided to outsource the rhythms and hire a studio drummer. “It was so refreshing to be able to concentrate on the feel and artistic side of [the drumming] rather than obsessively asking ourselves ‘Is it sitting on the click?’ We got a better sound because we didn’t get to listen to 900 kicks before making a decision.”

SMALL ROOMS/BIG DRUMS

Cat Music studio is by no means a huge work area, but the lack of large spaces to record in doesn’t strike Catt as a hindrance: “I recorded the drums in a booth, which is very small. The walls were so close to the mics that I didn’t think I’d get a good room sound, but they ended up sounding great. My setup was pretty standard, and I wasn’t going for a particularly huge stereo spread.” And traditional it was: Catt claims that the standby Shure SM57 was placed on the top head of the snare, and the old faithful AKG D112 was stuck in the bass drum, about six inches back from the beater head. As tracking in a vocal booth is hardly a scenario conducive to huge sound, Catt decided to mic each piece of the kit individually, minus the crashes: “I used a couple cheap AKG [D220s] on the toms, a Beyerdynamic MC740 on the hi-hats, and put up a matched pair of [AKG] C 451Bs as overheads.”

IT’S A MIDI WORLD

Catt’s clients regard him as an incredibly efficient engineer, and he attributes his ability to streamline a project to a case of gear xenophobia — he avoids integrating new gear into his workspace, or even updating his software, at all costs. “I am very difficult to seduce with new technology,” Catt confesses, “so I don’t just run out and get the next new, great thing. In fact, I’ve just bought another Atari! I found this guy in the north of England who is Atari mad, and he rackmounts old Atari STEs. When all I need is a MIDI sequencer, I’ll still use an Atari.”

Catt’s tracking platform of choice is Soundscape. “I’ve been working in Soundscape on a PC for years, and it is absolutely reliable. Hand on my heart; it has never crashed on me. The converters in Soundscape are really good,” he observes. “However, there is no MIDI sequencer in [Soundscape], which is a bit of a nuisance. If the tune is a sequence-based thing, I’ll usually start in Cubase.”

Catt has been working with MIDI sequencing for much longer than many of his peers, and having programmed most of the parts in real time in the past, a sense of programming danger is a cornerstone to his style — and he does everything to retain that urgency in spite of technological leaps. “One of the techniques I use now, which I never used to do, is to print the MIDI parts as audio first, then work with audio entirely. I just find it’s quicker that way. I used to keep things off tape until the bitter end, and if I had a big arrangement going with lots of MIDI, I would just save it and make it recordable later. So if I’m happy with a sound now, I’ll put it on Soundscape and forget about it.”

REMIXING EXTRAS

What Have You Done Today . . . was originally mixed in stereo rather than in 5.1, as originally proposed by the band, solely because Catt doesn’t currently have the facilities at his studio to accommodate a full surround mix. However, the band rectified this situation during a live performance at London’s Barbican Hall, in front of a sold out audience, by tracking the entirety of the soundtrack live and then remixing the soundtrack to allow for two rear channels — channels Catt tells us were used almost solely for the effect of increasing ambient space.

But whether it’s a standard album, a film soundtrack, or a remix of a live performance married to an existing recording, what is most evident in all of Catt’s productions is an extraordinary sense of space and depth. As all producers know, dimension can be the most difficult aspect of a band to translate into a recording. When Catt’s is posed with the question “How do you get your albums to sound so deep?” he doesn’t have to ponder for long, as he swears the secret lies first in the construction of the song and, secondly, in not going overboard with overdubs: “If the arrangement, the performance, is right, getting a good mix becomes much, much easier. When things start sounding crowded and have difficulty breathing it’s usually because there are too many things going in the mix.”