Interview: George Shilling

Working out of Bank Cottage, a lavishly equipped home studio tucked away in the Cotwolds, George Shilling is a record producer and recording engineer with an extensive list of claims to fame, including work with Primal Scream, Blur, Teenage Fanclub, Marc Almond and Yazz.

Have you always wanted to put together your own self-sustaining studio?

It’s always been a dream, but when I started it was a bit of an unrealistic dream. The technology has changed over the years to make it something that you can actually do now. When I started I was making the tea in a big expensive studio in London (Livingston studios) – the console desk in the studio cost £350,000, the acoustics were all custom built and there was a tape machine that probably cost £30,000. There was just an immense amount of cost involved, and all these things that sit in racks – which you still see, and which still can be really expensive – but the investment required to set up a professional studio was just enormous in those days, whereas now, anyone can go buy a Mac or a PC and get pretty good results. I had a porta-studio after I started working at the London studio, and it was the most frustrating thing ever trying to make anything half decent – it was essentially a four-track tape recorder.

This studio sort of became a necessity. It’s gone from twenty years ago, when I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d have a studio as lovely as this, to the point where I needed it to continue with my profession.

Did you gain a lot of music technology expertise working in that London studio?

All of it, yeah. I knew very little before I started. My interest came partly from having a tape recorder to play with at home, as my father was a professional opera singer – he was one of the principal baritones at English National Opera at the London Coliseum.  He’d been using tape recorders before I was even born. At the point at which he moved onto using a cassette machine in 1982, I got to play with his old reel-to-reel machine. I worked out that you could do little multi-track experiments – and it had three speeds so you could fiddle about with that – so I started recording myself. I was interested in music – I’d been learning the cello since I was seven and the piano since I was nine, and I’d had just started learning the electric guitar too. So the reel-to-reel was something to plug the guitar into, as I didn’t have an amplifier for a long time. So I started experimenting and recording my own things on the tape machines.

I’d started music college when I left school. I was dead good at playing the cello and got into the Royal College of Music, but I didn’t enjoy the commuting and was more into rock ’n’ roll than classical music at this point. So I wrote to the BBC and had an interview there, and then started writing to loads of commercial studios and landed a job. So I didn’t do a music tech course or anything like that – they did exist, but they were few and far between. I had applied at Surrey University for the Tonmeister Course, which is still thought to be one of the best for that kind of thing, but they wouldn’t even interview me as I wasn’t doing maths A-level or something.

Maths is a big part of these courses it seems.

I suppose so, yeah. I kind of wish I had done maths A level! But Surrey was only really my back-up plan if I didn’t get into Music College anyway. It was only after a few weeks at the college – I was already getting fed up with it, and had decided that it wasn’t really for me – that I wrote to the studios and had a few interviews.

I didn’t go to the best studio by any stretch of the imagination. It was a fairly scuzzy place. But I turned at 10 o’clock in the morning and the goth band Sisters Of Mercy had been there all night, and they were sitting on the sofas looking dead leathery and black, and I thought “They’ve been there all night – how cool is that?”

So I got a job there and just worked my way up, and just watched a lot of people like The Smiths coming in to record sessions. It wasn’t a major studio so there were some fairly dire sessions as well. Quite a lot of people just coming in to mix a song, or do an advert jingle, or to record strings.  And it was the 80s, so people were spending money on making records. It was all still happening on tape machines, so I learned all of my techniques on how to do things properly. The studio manager (Jerry Boys) was an ex-Abbey Road employee – he’d been the tape operator when they recorded “Lady Madonna” – and although it was quite a ropey old studio, he knew how things should be done properly, so it was quite well disciplined.

So I just learnt by watching people, and making the tea, and being a smart arse and being told to shut up, and it gradually got to the point where I got offered a few jobs as “in-house engingeer”. By the 90s everyone had gone freelance and that job didn’t really exist anymore, so I was lucky to be there at the time in the 80s when it did exist. And it kind of exists again now, because people like me have their own studios and are the in-house engineers I suppose. But it’s all become so much cheaper to just buy a computer and some gear – and even if you buy the cheapest Behringer pre-amp, and microphone, keyboard…you can still get pretty good results.

Is there any gear you discovered in the 80s that you prefer to the new range of technology that has come with the digital revolution?

Well people are still inventing analogue gear – one of the many jobs I do is writing for a magazine which reviews sound equipment, so I get sent things to try out. It’s astonishing to see the number of things that still have valves or transistors in them.

Microphones haven’t changed much – well I guess there’s these cheaper Chinese ones you can buy now. But my favoured vocal mic is a Neumann U87 which was invented in the 60s, and is still essentially the same sort of thing. And these Yamaha NS10 speakers, which I still occasionally use, came out in the 80s. When I worked in Livingston studios they had them in every room. They’re just cheap old hi-fi speakers really, but they suddenly became the popular thing for everyone to have in their studio. I’ve got used to how they sound over the past 25 years, so they quite a good reference point!

The main difference is that the computer now takes on a lot of the jobs the console does and makes it a whole lot easier and quicker to do. Even in the case of the effects and instruments – you’ve got pianos and drum machines and all sorts in there – so really that’s the biggest difference.

I know quite a lot of people are quite hesitant when it comes to using virtual instruments, as they’re concerned about how they sound.

Well certainly, they sound different to the real thing – if you’re using a digital piano on the computer, compared to a playing a real grand piano…I certainly react different when I’m sat in front of a real piano to when I’m sat in front of the computer. However good the samples are, there’s something about the organic nature of it I suppose. You know, you put the pedal down, and it all vibrates and fills the room with sound, and you probably end up doing all kinds of things that you wouldn’t think of doing with a computerised one. And I play the cello as well – it’s going to be along time before you can have a virtual cello that sounds remotely convincing.

I see you’re running Pro Tools. Is that your personal preference?

Yeah. You can get Pro Tools LE, for which you have to buy one of their interfaces for a couple of hundred quid to make it work. But this is the HD System, and a lot of the processing goes on in PCI cards in the back of the computer, which are enormously expensive. You’re looking at spending between eight and 10 grand just to get a basic working HD system.

The main advantage of HD is that there’s virtually no latency. So when I’m recording a band, I’m using the Pro Tools system like I would use an old fashioned console. In the old days you’d route all of your microphones through the tape machine, and have tape machine returns coming back through the channels in the desk, and that’d be what you’d listen to – the mix on the faders of that. And of course as it’s analogue, there’s no delay. Whereas if you’re going via a computer, there can be a bit of a delay, which can cause all sorts of confusion and problems.

And I guess that becomes more apparent the more elaborate the recording process is.

Yeah. Every effect you put through on a channel delays the signal of that particular part. You start getting into automatic delay compensation, which delays everything by the biggest amount so it lines up perfectly. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly knowledgeable about that kind of stuff – I’m an operator rather than an engineer. As long as I can make it work and sound alright, I’m happy.

How much creative input do you have when working with these bands?

It varies really. A lot of the job is about knowing the politics of what to say to people. So if somebody has got strong ideas about how they want to do it…if they’ve just booked the studio, if they’re not expecting me to steam in and throw ideas at them, then I won’t. But if I think there’s something quite simple we can do to radically improve what’s happening then I’ll say something.

I’m probably more confident about doing that these days than I was 10 or 15 years ago, partly because I’ve got back into doing more playing and composing myself. I pretty much stopped playing cello when I started work at 18, and then about nine years ago I started playing again. I played in a ropey old amateur orchestra and a string quartet, and started writing music for TV and had a little success with that. That’s another advantage of the technology really – it can put me in tune and in time when I’m not quite good enough!

And you offer yourself as a session musician as well?

I don’t really push that too much. I don’t think I’d know how to promote myself as a session musician. Even when I hadn’t practised for years, if people found out I had even the slightest knowledge about how to play the cello they’d want me to play on the record sometimes, however appallingly rusty and out of practise I was. I did an album in Denmark having not played for eight years or something, and they borrowed someone’s cello so I could play it. It was hopeless – I couldn’t play at all! Whereas I was in China and the same thing happened about five years ago, and I had this cheap £150 cello and it sounded great.  I really enjoyed doing it – it does give you a bit of a buzz.

I guess I was discouraged when I first started working at the studio. It was sort of frowned upon to have a musical opinion, and it was very much like an old-fashioned apprenticeship in that respect. You had your role in the studio – there was hierarchy, and I suppose that was especially present because of the Abbey Road history of my boss.  He had that proper way of doing things, and when he’d been there, there were men in white coats and you clocked off and filled all the forms in. So I was strongly discouraged from telling the band what I thought and stuff like that.

Do you think that’s just in aid of keeping everything rigid and in order?

Well I guess it’s a political thing as well. You don’t want to frighten off the clients because there’s some 18-year-old twit telling them what to play, which is still the case now I suppose!  But I think nowadays people are more open to you having an opinion.

It’s a funny business really. Everyone has an opinion about music – you know, if you were doing a session and the accountant walked in you could ask them what they think. Whereas if you walked into an accountant’s office, they wouldn’t go “what do you think of these figures? Have I added them up correctly?” It’s because it’s an entertainment industry I guess.

I guess it’s quite accessible as something you can have an opinion on.

What I tend to say to people is: “who do you want to sound like?” Even if they don’t want to sound exactly like someone else, people usually have some sort of inspiration – it’s nice to know where they’re coming from, even if we’re not copying anything directly.

I was working with a band once, and the drummer was playing a different pattern every eight bars. Each verse was something completely different and the most bizarre patterns were going on – he was saying that he liked all of these bands that I’d never heard of. So we went on Spotify and listened to them, and they were doing the same thing every verse. So he was like “Oh, alright then”. I mean, I’m not in the business of putting people down, but it was just something that instantly made it a much more enjoyable track I thought.

It’s funny – when you’re listening to things in the studio and then you bring them up on Spotify, they’re never how you remember them. Music is a memory thing, and your memories of things aren’t always accurate! It’s like when I was driving back from the gym the other day listening to “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart – I didn’t know there was a deafeningly loud glockenspiel on that record before, but it’s there! I thought I’d entered a parallel universe where it wasn’t there before, but then a couple of weeks later they’d added it in.

I guess something similar can happen with your own music as well – you can get immersed in it, only to come back to it a couple of weeks later and realise that a particular guitar part is really loud or something…

Oh yeah, you always want to change something when you hear it. Last night a band emailed me and asked for instrumental versions of some tracks they did with me a few years ago. And so I brought them up…and you almost feel as though you want to spend a couple of hours tweaking the mix a bit.

How long do you tend to spend on a mix? Do you tweak things, go away and then come back at a later date?

Well it’s important to take a lot of breaks when you’re mixing in order to get a bit of perspective. Especially when the studio’s at home – it’s sometimes difficult to get away from it. It’s a matter of realising that point when you’re not actually achieving anything. Sometimes you’ll come back the next morning and know exactly where you need to go next. So doing things in small doses is good. I quite like it when bands go: “We don’t have much money so we can do a couple of songs, then come back and do a couple more”…my best work has been done like that. I never feel that satisfied with things that I’ve done in one long chunk.

With The Soup Dragons, which was my first big success as a producer, all of the recording was done on a very small budget over a series of weekends, as they’d spent all of their money working with someone else and then scrapped it all. And so over four or five weekends we did the whole album again and it sounded great.

George’s website – http://www.georgeshilling.com/

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