INSIGHTS: Alan Douglas
One of "The Good Ol' Boys," London Style. Working with Eric Clapton a number
of his recent successes, and starting a new project with Echo & the Bunnymen
Interviewed by Mel Lambert in August 1998
In this business, as with many creative occupations, getting your first break is everything. Be in the right place at the right time, and your career drops into place. For Scotland-borne engineer and co-producer Alan Douglas, being at The Manor in the late-Seventies proved to be a turning point. Without a day's experience of working in a professional recording studio, Douglas managed to secure a position at Richard Branson's rural retreat in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire and, as they say in the best clichés, never looked back.
During the past two decades this talented individual has worked with a literal "Who's Who" of recording talent, including The Jam, Queen, Adam Ant, Grace Jones, Wet, Wet, Wet, Squeeze and, most recently, Eric Clapton, including remixing the "Motherless Child" single, plus recording the albums "From the Cradle" and "Pilgrim." He also engineered and mixed Clapton's soundtrack contributions for "The Van" and director Gary Oldman's remarkable "Nil By Mouth."
We caught up with this canny Scot at an unusual location: Barry Barlow's The Dog House Studios, located within the wooded grounds of his country house close to the River Thames, west of London. Douglas was recording tracks for a new Echo & The Bunnymen album, and wanted to minimize distractions. That the band had been working until dawn the previous night suggested that his tactic was working.
Tell us a little more about your background.
I had worked in an office for 18 months while waiting to get a job in a studio - I always wanted to work in a studio. I loved music and had a technical interest. But it was actually sparked by reading the back of one of the early Steely Dan albums. They talked at boring length about the expensive German microphones they used. At that point I realized that someone actually did the recording. Then I got into reading "Studio Sound" in the college library; I'd never been in a recording studio.
I wrote to the [then] editor of "Studio Sound," Mike Thorne, and he very kindly photocopied the pages from Kemps [a trade directory]. I wrote to about 70 studios and got a dozen replies. I had an interview at IBC Studios [central London, close to the BBC's Broadcasting House in Portland Place], where the guy was really sweet, but pointed out that I couldn't possibly survive in London on 30 quid a week! [Then, about $80.00.]
Out of the blue I got a letter from The Manor, which had just upgraded to 24-track and had a new Tom Hidley-designed room. So I started as a Tape Op [operator; equivalent to a second engineer] at The Manor in November 1976. I was very fortunate that the chief engineer there, Mick Glossop [later a successful producer/engineer] was a demon! You learned very quickly - or you were out. I was really lucky; I got the job.
You obviously handle the technical aspects of engineering very well. Are you musical in any way?
No, not really. This may sound odd, but I never had enough patience. There was always someone who played better than me, and I just thought "Well, this isn't going to happen to a degree where you're going to be happy. So don't do it!"
As an engineer/producer, what do you bring to the party?
I'm good with people, I guess. If you don't get on well, then you're not going to have a good session. I've always been lucky; it just seems to have worked. I'm fairly technical, but not nearly as technical as a lot of engineers I know. The thing about being in studios practically every day of your life is that you learn a lot about music, even though you can't play. You can appreciate when things work, emotionally and musically. Your ear becomes trained in the way it would if you were a musician, but with other people doing the playing. It's a sort of "second-hand" musical training.
Do you specialize in any particular genre?
I'd say that guitar-based bands are my favorite - I love the performance aspect. When great musicians play in a room together, sparks fly and magic happens - an out flowing of creativity - in front of you!
What do you want to know about a band before a session?
Unless they specifically want to revisit old ground, I don't listen too much to what they've done before. I don't want to pigeon-hole them or lock the band into something that they may not feel is current. Generally, we meet and sit around chatting. Then you get a feeling for whether you can bring something to the date, and the band gets a feeling whether or not they can live with you. After all, you spend weeks of close time together [in the studio].
The band or artist takes subtle direction; I don't want to dictate. I'm trying to capture them the best I can, and get it on tape. And, at the same time, subtly influence it to make sure that whatever emotional or musical point they're trying to make comes across. If it's possible, I like to see them play live, but it's difficult because you tend to go straight from one project to another.
Rehearsal, for me, works better with people who need more direction and focus - younger bands. But I'm not that keen on it, because I hate "Chasing the Demo." You end up making a demo that's not necessarily so good, technically, but so definite in its direction that you've left yourself nowhere else to go. You can spend forever trying to make something as good as the demo. So much of it is perception, rather than reality. Maybe when you did the other version the only thing that stood out was the solo because it was a very raw track. But, when you go back to the one you've spent a bit of time on you discover that it is actually much better. Everyone's just remembering that the other one was "better" because that was the only thing they had to hang onto.
What do you look for in a studio?
Today, I'm working in what you'd call a project studio. It has got a great ambiance and it keeps the band [Echo and The Bunnymen] away from distractions. Yes, it suits the purpose to be here [in The Dog House Studios, Lower Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames, owned by Ex-Jethro Tull drummer, Barry Barlow]. If the board was not up to par, I'd just make it work. On a technical level, I'd much rather be in Olympic Studios, because they have great sounding rooms, great mike cupboards and great consoles. But, if this is what it takes, then you make it work. That's the engineers job!
And your favorite is the big room at Olympic, Studio #1?
Yes, for everything. I had a lot of input into its design. I picked what's in the mic cupboard. It's got an SSL J-Series so it's really comfortable for me. All of Eric [Clapton's] "From the Cradle" was recorded in that room - live blues, with no overdubs. I think it sounds pretty good.
What was you favorite project?
There has been so many, on so many different levels. My Top Three? "From The Cradle," because we spent 10 weeks total and eight weeks of that was just recording. Eric was absolutely insistent on capturing every nuance that he heard in the originals. We did maybe six takes and then moved on to another song. But just having a fantastic band, playing live all day was great.
One thing about [Olympic] #1 is that at the far end of the studio there's an isolation booth on each side that makes the center - the main room - narrow it down. But it is flared like a horn. You can bring baffles down from the ceiling to accentuate the spread. If you put the drums there you get this fantastic throw down the length of the room. I had overhead mics [on the kit] plus a closer ambiance mic and then four distant mics - three pairs in all. The room and its flare lets you develop some remarkable natural ambiances, which we captured on the album.
And the other two projects to round out your Top Three?
I'm really enjoying this Bunnymen session; it's really exciting and fresh. We started with a couple of tracks that were potential singles, "Rust" and "Fools Like Us." It was just to see how well we would get along. It went so well that now we're doing an album. We're getting on very well, and I love the guys. We're the same age; we've got the same musical background and interests - it's really exciting.
Ian McCulloch is fantastic songwriter with a great sense of melody, and Will Sergeant, the guitarist, comes from a completely different direction to Ian. The combination of Will's weirdness - plus his intuitive playing - and Ian's songs is just fantastic.
Squeeze [the album 'Ridiculous] was also great. Everything I've done with Steve Lillywhite, including [remix of the Rolling Stones'] "Harlem Shuffle," was a great experience - he's the most intuitive producer I've ever worked with. Just observing him work with bands was a fantastic education; he really gets them. He knows exactly what it should be and grabs it. Without imposing, he captures the absolute essence of what they're doing, and gets it on tape.
Adam Ant ["Friend or Foe" album, plus "Goody Two Shoes" and "Stand and Deliver" singles"] was great fun, working with Chris Hughes, who's a great producer. The guitarist, Marko Prenty, is fantastic with a very weird, eclectic taste - that's when guitarists are the most interesting.
Have you any experience working at a US studio?
Oceanway, Hollywood, is the only facility that I've spent a lot of time at. We used the Big Room - which from the pictures in the lobby looks entirely unchanged from its United Western days - to record "Pilgrim" with Eric [Clapton]. It's a fantastic room. We were there for two months, but Eric wasn't really hearing what he wanted - he wanted it to sound more contemporary. When your band includes Steve Gadd, Nathan East and Greg Phillinganes, it's gonna be great. But it wasn't what Eric wanted. So we went back to England and pretty much started over again.
Eric wanted "Pilgrim" to sound contemporary; like the records he was listening to. He found out that they were heavily sequenced, and wanted that genre. [Co-producer was keyboard player Simon Climie]. Having someone like Steve Gadd playing with you, [means] that once you have the song structure, in two takes it's done. (Probably is was done with the first take; the second is an alternative.) But, if you want to write songs in the studio, like Eric wanted to, you can't do it with Gaddy fulfilling the function of a click-track - it's totally disrespectful, and would kill the vibe.
Maybe what all Blues guitarists love about drum machines is that they don't get tired! For me, the "feel" is probably the most important aspect so it wouldn't be my first choice as a way of working. Predictability is great if you're playing a guitar against it, and you're trying to discover something.
What do you use to record Eric Clapton's guitar?
If the mics are available, I pretty much use the same setup every time. Eric has an old 50W tweed Fender that's been hot-rodded to 75W. The very first time I worked with Eric - a film soundtrack for "Communion" - his guitar tech arrives five minutes before we are due to start. Completely out of breath, he brings in Eric's guitar and dumps it. So I said: "Where's the amp?" Well, it turns out that he didn't think that we needed an amp on the date. So I said: "I'm going to record Eric Clapton and you couldn't be bothered to bring his amp?" In the end, I had to plug it straight into the board, but this was not a good feeling!
Anyway, Eric comes in and asks: "Did you bring an amp?" And the tech says: "No, I had a bit of a problem with it this morning." "What are we going to do," Eric asks? "We'll go straight through the board," I replied. The thing is, you plug Eric's guitar straight into the board, put some delay and reverb on it and it sounds exactly like Eric Clapton. It's all in the fingers.
When we did "From the Cradle," he used a couple of different amps and a lot of different guitars. But on "Pilgrim" we used the Tweed amp pretty much with his Signature Strat. For guitar, I use pretty much the same mics every time, close on the cabinet. A Beyer M88 in the center. And I place a SM-57 offset from the middle of the cone, and something like an [Electro-Voice] RE-20. And then whatever room or ambiance mics might be available. At Oceanway, we were using [AKG] C24s and [Neumann] M50s, both of them in stereo. At Olympic we used an M49 and lots of [Neumann] U67s. Sometimes I just used whatever vocal mic we had up, just depending on what was in the room there. That's pretty much how I approach guitars, because it means that I use less EQ and I can effectively move the microphone by moving the faders. So you've instantly got at least three choices of sounds without leaving your seat. And we used all the toys - Lexicon 480s and the rest - to process the guitar during the mix.
What vocal mic did you use?
For a gritty, bluesy sound it would be a Beyer M88. I've gotten a special edition - silver - M88 that I really love, despite the fact that [the design] is over 30 years old. It's a fantastic vocal mic, through a Summit Audio valve mic-pre. People use dynamics to record guide vocals - SM 57 and 58s - just because there's always lots of them around. But, depending on the voice, the M88 works really well. Sing close, standard technique. Or I'll use whichever condenser suits the artist best.
I've just started using one of these DW Fearn valve [tube] mic pre-amps - it's the only valve mic-amp I've used that sounds really good on drums. It's really punchy on bass drum and snare. I'm also using it extensively on keyboards and acoustic guitars, as well as electric guitar. It manages to sound fat while still retaining a nice very open top-end. Highly recommended!
I also use a Summit [TPA200B] valve pre-amp. The beauty of the Summit it that it's very easy to go from a clean to an over-driven valve sound. We used it a lot on "From the Cradle" on a combination of vocals. And on a couple of tracks for "Pilgrim."
Do you comp a lot of Clapton's vocals?
Once he's got the angle, it's pretty much there. I think he's singing better now than he's ever sung. Part of the reason that he took 14 months to record "Pilgrim" was that he was just loved coming into the studio every day.
Does Clapton work well to the mic?
"From the Cradle" was really easy because, apart from one song which was in a difficult key for him, Eric is completely consistent. "Pilgrim" was very different because he's using a lot of breathy vocal sounds - and almost falsetto in places - so there was a lot more attention needed in terms of limiting and compression on that album than "From the Cradle."
What do you use as a limiter?
It depends on the voice, but I like LA-1176s as a record limiter, occasionally coupled with an LA-2A. Vintage stuff. And for the mix I really love the UREI LA-3A on the vocal. I usually always use my [Valley People] Dynamite for guitar - it's my favorite guitar compressor because it lets you get more of the attack and the pick on the string.
I read that you mastered "Pilgrim" at 24-bit/96 kHz using DCS A-to-D converters into a Genex GX8000 MO recorder and a Nagra D. Why that choice?
It sounds great! Yes that's what we used, but it's expensive. Since that 24-bit/96k experience, I've gone back to half-inch, 30 ips at +6, no noise reduction as my first choice instead of DAT. When we compared mixes made onto the Genex with analog half-inch and DATs, the DAT just sounded [lousy] - I couldn't believe how [bad] it sounded. The sound of the DAT was really not so much shredded as "smeared." And then, of course, 16-bit is not good enough for a mix - it's barely adequate for tracking. With 24/96, you hear all your reverbs, sustains and delays all the way down - it's really difficult to go back to 16-bit after that!
What do you normally track to, analog or digital?
I really like the [Sony] PCM-3348 because it is such a functional machine; it's bulletproof! The digital I/O is great - I just wish it was 24-bit/96k. I use two-inch [analog] a lot, but synchronizers need to be better. I'm just not seeing mastering to anything less than 96k/24-bit, or half inch analog.
The most annoying thing about digital is that we threw analog out too fast. You know, the baby, the bath mat, the soap and everything went out with the bath water. For years, new analog equipment either sounded better than what you were already using, or it didn't. Or it added something else. But what can we say about DAT other than it's easy to find songs [laughs]?
I know from your experiences at Olympic that you are huge fan of SSL J-Series consoles. Have you had any experience with digital boards?
No, none at all. If they sounds as good as the J-Series, then I'm looking forward to digital boards. That's the benchmark. The resetability of digital really appeals, but I'm not convinced about digitally-controlled analog.
I have no idea what the J-Series' spec is, but it sounds incredibly clean and quiet. It's sonically transparent; the bottom-end goes on forever and is really detailed. I just love the automation - the switch automation is so simple to use. You can also group aux switches; if you want to put a different reverb tail on the end of a string sustain or something, you just bash one button and eight aux sends come on. And it's automated! The J is so complete for me. It has brought a lot of joy back into mixing, because it's making it so much less hard work. You can spend more time listening to the song, and making sure that it's working musically, rather than getting tied in knots.
Do you ever think about owning your own studio?
Absolutely. Lack of cash has stopped me! I'd put in a J-Series, and I've have Sam Toyoshima design it. I've always wanted the ultimate home studio, but built in a setting like Olympic #1 - put that in my 100-acre garden when someone gives me all this cash. Yes, that's exactly what I would want.
What does the future hold for you? Who would you most like to work with?
Jeff Buckley. Emotionally and musically, "Grace" is such a fantastic album, sadly no longer a possibility. His voice was fantastic. I would really like to record Counting Crows; they're one of my favorites. I love Peter Buck , REM's guitar player. I'd really like to work with Sheryl Crowe; she's one of the nicest people I've ever met, and a great songwriter too. Radiohead are another band I'd love to work with.
Listening to Steely Dan records was what made me want to be an engineer. Later on, when I'd started to understand the recording process, I realized that the arrangement is the most important thing. I used to think that it was because the sounds were immaculate, which of course they were. But arrangement is the key!