Archive for November, 2011

Nick Smith in conversation with record producer John Leckie – E&T magazine, November 2011

November 28, 2011

Man at the controls

John Leckie is one of the UK’s most successful record producers. His CV reads like a who’s who of rock’n’roll. Here, he reflects on the technological changes he’s seen in the recording studio over the years. Interview and portrait by Nick Smith

E&T layout. John Leckie interview by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, November 2011

From Pink Floyd to Simple Minds, John Lennon to Muse, Public Image Limited to XTC, John Leckie has produced or engineered records for everyone who’s anyone in rock’n’roll. He’s picked up countless awards and accolades along the way and has been inducted into the Record Producers Hall of Fame by legendary guitarist and no stranger to the faders, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

He has also seen just about every technological change to happen in the way music is recorded. And with every change he’s adapted and evolved, finding new ways to exploit emerging trends in both analogue and digital production. Leckie says that these days he doesn’t do interviews about his experiences with A-list clients. So when it comes to finding out more about what it’s like to work with the Stone Roses or Radiohead, ‘I’ve said everything I want to say.’

Fortunately, he’s not so reticent about the buttons, rotary potentiometers and faders that have been his stock-in-trade for more than four decades. Sitting in one of the demonstration suites in Solid State Logic’s headquarters just north of Oxford, he seems more than happy to chat about how all that’s changed.

Record producer John Leckie at Solid State Logic. Photo: Nick Smith

John Leckie in the control room at Solid State Logic's demo studios in Begbroke, Oxford. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I’ve been at this for 42 years, I think. I started at Abbey Road studios 15th February 1970.’ Although this date is clearly one burned into his memory, to understand the technological landscape he entered as one of EMI’s first hippie employees (‘I only got the job because I had long hair’) we need to go back a few years further. At school, he ‘managed to get’ A-Levels in physics and geography (he was ‘useless’ at maths), before progressing to Ravensbourne College of Art in Bromley (where a young David Bowie did his foundation course.)

‘They’d bought four black and white TV cameras from Associated-Rediffusion that had just closed down. There were two courses running: an arts side, and I suppose a science side. The science people got in as technical operators and the others became producer/directors. My training there was setting up a 4-camera TV studio, doing all the maintenance. This was all tube and valve equipment.’

By 1968 Leckie was writing a thesis on electronic music. ‘I was always mad keen on Moog synthesizers, or anything that was a new sound.’ Finding that there were very few books on the subject, Leckie copied notes from the back of Stockhausen sleeves. His thesis eventually covered all aspects of electronic music, from the design of oscillators and filters, to an appreciation of classical electronic music, taking in Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix along the way.

After a brief stint with a film company in a dubbing theatre, making industrial training films for Shell BP, it was time to move on. Unable to gain membership of the film union, the 19-year-old was stuck. Leckie wrote to all the big recording studios in London: EMI, Decca, ICP and Olympic. Only EMI replied, offering him an interview, and a few month’s later the lowly position of ‘Tape-Op.’

When Leckie arrived at Abbey Road the set-up was based on 3M 8-track one-inch tape machines with the legendary analogue TG consoles running them. In terms of ‘outboard’ – separate sound processing devices connected to the desk – there were only ‘a few Altec compressors and Fairchild limiters. Microphones were by Neumann. I never saw a single Shure microphone, either an SM57 or 58, until I left Abbey Road.’

At that time, audio recording was a scientific process, and although EMI engineers had long given up the habit of wearing white coats, they still had clearly delineated roles, with job titles often containing the word ‘engineer.’ Leckie remembers a strict regime. ‘Basically a Tape-Op’s job was to run the tape machine. Which was important because if you left the tape room, the session finished. But you didn’t set-up the studio. The Amp Room guys, who plugged everything in and did all the line testing, did that. The Balance Engineer did the session sheet, which was the layout for the orchestra and a mic list.’ Some of these layout sheets still exist, including those for Beatles’ sessions. Everything at this point was analogue: ‘we simply couldn’t dream of anything else.’

John Leckie at the controls, Solid State Logic. Photo: Nick Smith

John Leckie at the controls, Solid State Logic. Check out the old-style record player in the background. Photo: Nick Smith

Towards the end of his eight-year stint at Abbey Road, Leckie started to notice digital technology creeping into the mix. ‘It happened very slowly at first,’ most obviously in the form of Solid State Logic’s inroads into computerized recording desks (‘We were blown away by the SSL computer being able to print out the channel lists.’) But what the integration of computers into the process really meant was greater control over the faders and cut-buttons on mix-down. ‘That was the prime thing.’ Change was rapid: mixing desks had gone from 4-track to 16-track – the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ desk was ‘considered huge’ – in the blink of an eye. With the 24-track desk on the horizon, EMI simply couldn’t provide the technology to its global network of studios. The market erupted and the door was left wide open for a new generation of manufacturers such as Neve and SSL.

Times they are a-changin’

Two major technological changes affected Leckie most as a producer. The first was simply the availability of more tracks to work with. To have a 24-track machine and to be able to slave together two of these ‘easily and reliably to produce 48-tracks was a big breakthrough.’ This was market driven. Everyone knew this was coming, says Leckie. ‘When you were 8-track you always wanted nine. When you were 16-track you always wanted 17. And when you were 24, you always wanted 25 tracks. And so one of the turning points was access to more tracks. There’s always one more overdub, one more harmony.’

This expansion was a two-edge sword, because ‘the fewer the tracks, the simpler it all was. And if you look at today, when there are an infinite number of tracks available, it’s all a bit silly. But at the time, up until the arrival of Pro Tools, this was the norm. It was a very complex system. But it was all you had.’

The second revolution was the advent of digital. ‘When I look at the big picture it’s strange really because in the 1960s and 70s, and even the 80s, there used to be an area of recording that was called ‘semi-pro’ – essentially ‘demo’ equipment and studios, where equipment was by manufacturers such as Tascam, Teac, Fostex, Akai… people like that. I’ve got nothing against this, but they weren’t professional. They weren’t Studer, Neumann, SSL or Neve.’ But somehow over the years that distinction became blurred, ‘because now you can have a pro recording studio in your bedroom.’

Did this frighten Leckie at all? ‘At first I stood aloof from this in the way a professional photographer with his Hasselblad would frown at taking pictures on an iPhone [Our portrait of JL was taken with a professional Canon 5D MkII – ed]. But it’s the end result that counts. If a recording sounds good on the radio, it doesn’t matter if it was recorded at Air Studios or in someone’s bedroom.’

‘The other thing that’s changed,’ says Leckie, ‘is the way people listen to music.’ In the 1970s consumers were proud of their hi-fi systems. ‘I can remember inviting friends around to listen. It was, hey, let’s go around to John’s house and listen to the new Pink Floyd record there because he’s got great speakers.’

Record producer John Leckie, October 2011. Portrait by Nick Smith

Record producer John Leckie, October 2011. Portrait by Nick Smith

But it’s not like that any more, according to Leckie, due to the rarity of hi-fi retailers promoting their products on the basis of audio quality. ‘There doesn’t seem to be the stimulus for people to listen on good speakers. Everyone listens on laptops, mobile phones, MP3 players. And, more people listen on headphones now.’ Does this cultural change in listening affect the way Leckie makes records today? ‘It should. But it doesn’t. I don’t mix records on iPod headphones.’

Making records

Leckie recalls that one of the main challenges of mixing for vinyl was the time limitation imposed by the format. In essence, the 33rpm ‘long player’ was a compromise format developed to allow record publishers to get an entire symphony onto one piece of plastic, allowing 22 minutes per side. This became the marker for modern musicians making LPs.

‘The problem was that there was always a fight to get more onto the record. If you had 26 or 28 minutes that you needed to get onto one side, then the level dropped. In other words, the challenge was to make the record sound loud.’

With the advent of the CD all this changed. Faced with potentially 80 minutes of uncompressed audio on one disc, recordings expanded to fit the space available. The resulting bonus tracks, disco remixes and various other filler did much to dilute the experience of listening to a conventional ‘album.’

‘That wasn’t really anything to do with the bands themselves,’ says Leckie. ‘It was more to do with the record companies asking for albums with 20 tracks on them.’ Every time a band went into the studio in the early days of CD, they were under pressure to record material of a length similar to the (much more rare) double studio album. ‘And for a while we lost the sense of a band making an album, as such.’

Was this a case of technology leading the creative process by the nose? Does Leckie miss the idea of deliberately sitting down with a band and making an LP-length record? ‘I still do that, actually. That’s what I aim for… to make a 10 or 12 track album.’

Artists in the house

Although we’re not here to talk about the household names that Leckie has produced, there comes a point where it’s impossible to go forward without discussing the human factor. Anyone who has even a passing interest in mainstream rock music in the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond will recognise the importance of Leckie’s work. But presumably, not all bands work the same way, and so I ask Leckie what happens creatively in between Day 1 and Day 30, from the band walking into the studio with an idea, to them walking out with a hit record. How much of a role does the producer play in the creative side?

At this point Leckie smiles knowingly before bursting into laughter. ‘You have to put in a lot of commitment. And the band has to be up for it. Very often records get difficult or even remain unfinished if one member of the band doesn’t really want to do it.’

But the key is to start off positive and keep the ball rolling. ‘I very often say that a producer is the person who says something when the music stops. Invariably in the studio, the band’s going to play, or the singer’s going to sing, and you come to the end of the track. And there’s going to be silence. Everyone’s going to look around, waiting for someone to say something. And the person who speaks is the producer. Very often that’s the hardest part of the job.’

In amongst the monitors. John Leckie in classic 'producer pose', leaning on those NS10s

In amongst the monitors. John Leckie in classic 'producer pose', leaning on those NS10s. Photo: Nick Smith

When it comes to disclosing details of his client-base Leckie is discreet and diplomatic. Reading between the lines, there appears to be different levels of professionalism from band to band. ‘Of course, some need more encouragement and help than others,’ says Leckie. I ask him what were the best bands to work with: who are the ones that just walk in and nail it, when it seems like sitting on the riverbank with the fish jumping into your net? Leckie laughs again. ‘None of them. None of them are like that. But XTC are the most musical, imaginative, creative band you can get. They’re the funniest and the most serious, and the most rock’n’roll. Except they’re not rock’n’roll. They’re the ones that just get on and do it and the end result would be great. Whether it would be a hit or not…’

Back into the future

Having reflected on the pre-digital days and the key revolution of the increase in channel capacity, the discussion turns to the future. Once there were 120 recording studios in London. But now there are only three places where you can record a full orchestra. Despite SSL shipping big consoles in healthy numbers, the market for audio technology is changing and things are getting smaller.

But, Leckie thinks that all musicians aspire to working in big studios, recording their music on ‘big equipment with plenty of knobs and buttons, working on tape and hearing their creation reverberating around in a professional environment. On the other hand the future is going to be, for the most part, digital and miniature. We’re going to have mixing desks on iPad. All your plug-ins and software will be in the Cloud somewhere. The iPad will change a lot of things.’

Which is a long way from Abbey Road four decades ago, sweltering over all those valves. Does John Leckie feel his was a privileged journey, or would he like to start all over again and just work in the digital domain? ‘It’s been a great privilege. I’m really pleased I’m not starting now. I became a producer through the engineering route and these days that would be a very difficult thing to do.’

The author wishes to thank Niall Feldman of Solid State Logic for the generous loan of his recording studio demo suite in Oxford, where the interview took place

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Nick Smith interviews legendary ‘mad scientist’ Heinz Wolff in E&T magazine, October 2011

November 4, 2011

Heinz Wolff and the future of technology

After a high profile and life-long career in engineering and science, Professor Heinz Wolff thinks that technical innovation is only part of the solution to the challenges facing future society. Words and portrait by Nick Smith

nicksmithphoto portrait of Heinz Wolff, by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, October 2011

Walking into Heinz Wolff’s office in Brunel University I can see that there’s an engineering crisis of sorts. ‘I’m fashioning a new set of spectacles,’ the 83-year old professor informs me with a twinkle in his eye.’ In fact, he’s recycling components from two broken pairs to produce one functioning unit. It’s slightly bizarre to see this variant of the Theseus Paradox performed by the hands of a man more used to solving complex scientific challenges on our television screens. But it’s a conundrum he evidently enjoys. He informs me that the original products cost no more than ‘£1.99 in Boots or something such,’ as though analysing a critical line in a project build-cost spreadsheet.

Proud of the economies made by the simple use of his hands, Wolff explains that ‘all western nations will have to adjust to what is essentially a war economy, where we will need to make things that last longer and repair what is broken.’ He tells me that he lectures at the department of Human Centred Design at Brunel, ‘where I explain that the future of design will be to make things better – maybe more expensive – but with the potential to have a longer life cycle and less waste of materials. All this without removing the adventure of having something new.’

We’re sitting in Wolff’s office surrounded by photographs of several generations of his family, gadgets he’s invented (including an early prototype electronic book) and a much-modified moped. I ask him if today’s universities have got it right when it comes to delivering opportunities for young engineers.

‘I tend to think of things ten years too early. But I do think that we might teach people the wrong things at university. Of course, we need to produce engineers to maintain the technology systems we already have in place. And we need to produce bright people, and the UK seems to be very good at that. But whether there is a real need to produce a lot of engineers that we are going to notionally employ in production of one form or another, I don’t know.’

But that’s not the real question, he tells me, because the issue is why schools don’t produce people who want to be engineers. ‘In the development of a child, when the brain is still plastic, the feature of their education that we neglect is to nurture the ability to manipulate things.’ After the brain, Wolff explains, the ‘most marvelous thing we have’ is the hand: an actuator that can thread a needle one minute or wield a sledgehammer the next without modification. ‘I firmly believe that the continual iteration of hand-eye-brain is how we became Homo sapiens. We started to make tools, acquired manual skills and could imagine a tool that would be better. And then there was a very important point in our development, which was that we could imagine a tool that could make a tool, which could then make something. This is a very sophisticated way of thinking.’ His obvious Implication is that this is the origin of engineering.

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

His hands flash across a QUERTY keyboard. ‘Apart from typing, we don’t use our hands. Girls don’t embroider; boys don’t play with Meccano. With these things you effectively develop an eye at the end of the finger, and you do this when you’re seven years old. And it’s really very clever. But it’s gone.’

Wolff has lectured on the ‘death of competence’ and he thinks it’s brought about by the abandonment of micromanipulation – doing something small and critical with the hand. ‘Our engineering students can’t make things. They might be able to design things on a computer, but they can’t make things. And I don’t believe that you can be an engineer properly, in terms of it circulating in your blood and your brain, without having a degree of skill in making things.’ He explains that this is why apprenticeships were so good, because ‘you actually made things while learning a bit of the theory.’

In neglecting to teach basic manual skills we are producing a generation that carries within it the seeds of its own impotence. Wolff believes that while all teachers agree that children should be articulate and use language with precision and skill, ‘they don’t attach the same values to the use of their hands.’ Is this a health and safety thing? Wolff accepts this might be a part of it, ‘but even a three-year-old knows to stop sawing before his finger falls off.’

This is one of the reasons why our engineering capability is less highly developed than it might be. He knows he’s going to upset people when he says it, but ‘engineering isn’t going to be as important to your future as it has been to our past.’ Interest in SET subjects, he tells me, is in inverse proportion to the wealth and comfort of the country. ‘So in Japan it is quite low. And so also in Britain. In Botswana it’s enormously high. Maybe we’re just growing out of it.’

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I should state that I’m 83 years old and I joined the university late in career terms having worked on the Medical Research Council for thirty years.’ He saw the dark clouds of civil science coming under financial pressure gathering on the horizon. It was obvious that we he was going to run into ‘financial buffers and I thought that if anyone were going to trim my wings I would trim them myself.’

Wolff’s response was to head to the nearest university where he offered to found an institute that would be financially self-supporting. The Vice Chancellor agreed to the proposition and ‘I started off in two rather broken down Portakabins that you can still see at the other end of the campus. We did quite well financially because I was working a great deal for the European Space Agency where I had a split personality job: I was chairman of a number of policy committees, but I was also a contractor. We made things for astronauts to use to do science in space.’

As the project became more successful Wolff scoured Exchange and Mart for more Portakabins and ‘so started a village that we called the Brunel Institute of Bioengineering.’ His growing team set up space research programmes and also a project called Tools for Living. ‘I’d made a forecast that elderly and disabled people would require technology to assist them and at the time this kind of technical research seemed to be rather downbeat. We formed a company as well as a charity and we became an appreciable sized institute within this university.’

This burst of activity occurred in Wolff’s late fifties and by his mid sixties he retired ‘for the first of many times,’ and the institute became more absorbed into the university. The modern building that houses the faculty today concentrates on biosciences of ‘various kinds.’ The building, he informs me, only bears his name because ‘I have a certain degree of notoriety.’

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

‘If there were to be an epitaph for me and it had to appeal to the public, it would refer to the Great Egg Race. I was on the screen for the best part of 30 years. I would be remembered for that, and not as the scientist that worked for the Medical Research Council. This is unless I bring Care4Care off.’ (See box.)

Wolff cheerfully admits that he’s a ‘TV science boffin’, but is critically aware of the serious point that lies behind this: the advocacy of science to the wider public. I put it to him that in a world where the majority of young people have aspirations no higher than becoming a celebrity or a footballer, it’s vital that technologists are visible on television. ‘Yes, but it doesn’t happen any more. I used to get an audience of 2.5 million on BBC2. People interacted with it, some even recorded it and went into their kitchens after the problem had been set.’

Experience taught Wolff that ‘you don’t have to be a Nobel prize-winning scientist’ to be an effective communicator. ‘This doesn’t impress children or even adults. They have to like you. They don’t care two hoots about how famous you are. It’s much more about the frequency of exposure and a degree of trust. Of course, you need to have a certain talent for explaining complex concepts in a domestic analogy. But don’t have to be a great scientist to do this.’

I put it to Wolff that in the UK at least it is not very conventional to have a TV presenter who is a German Jew with a heavy European accent. With his unconventional hair and spectacles, the bow tie from another era and an apparently distracted manner, Wolff satisfies in the public the desire to be educated by an eccentric. We laugh as we agree that Albert Einstein wouldn’t be half so well remembered if he’d had sensible hair. Virtually everyone outside the technology community knows more about the photo of Einstein poking his tongue out than they do the Manhattan Project.

But what of Wolff’s appearance? ‘Oh I think I’m guilty of being a notorious eccentric. But, I don’t get my hair cut that way, if that’s what you’re asking. And I don’t put on my accent. I think in English. Although I might sometimes count in German. There are reasons for this connected with the archaeology of the mind. If you drill down into people’s memories you’ll come across a few words that were very important to them when they were young. The memory erodes in a certain way and concepts like this can be important in researching Alzheimer’s.’

Wolff on the end of technology in the western world

‘I’m not far off a century old,’ admits Heinz Wolff with allowable exaggeration. He was born in Berlin in the late 1920s and has clear memories of standing at the window of his family’s library in 1933 watching the torchlight procession that put Hitler into power. ‘I was five at the time and as such a conscious human being. And so I have an overview of what the world is about that a 20-year-old doesn’t have. For a 20-year-old even the Moon landing is history.’ He marvels at how something so recent to him, exploiting technologies that have been central to his career, can seem so remote. ‘It’s like a forgotten war. Exactly where did it come in the order of things?’

He can’t remember the author, but he can remember the title of the book. The prediction made in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (‘The Downfall of the Occident’, by Oswald Spengler), Wolff tells me was that the West would cease to be the epicentre of science and technology, as it migrated to the East.

‘There still seems to be an overwhelming conviction that the way to alleviate the economic problems of this country is to intensify technological research.’ He tells me that while a lot of clever technology will be developed in the UK, ‘I suspect that, because of the numerical superiority and enormous investment the tiger economies are making in technology and education, we will face considerable competition in innovation.’

But it is not so much the challenge of the East that bothers Wolff, so much as the societal trends that affect the way we think about technology. ‘If I had to explain this in historical terms, you could see it like this. Clearly Britain and other parts of Western Europe had the Industrial Revolution, with their spinning Jennies and steam engines… and we got through that. And then we had the information revolution and we largely speaking got through that to the point where – and many people won’t like me saying this – much of the communication equipment that we produce are simply toys.’ He looks at my iPhone and pronounces it ‘a fantastic device, but I wouldn’t argue that the world can’t live without it.’ Increasingly, technology is being driven by what people want, rather than what they need.

Now we are at the beginning of what Wolff calls the Human Revolution. He tells me that in one of his lecture presentations he shows a slide ‘which I use to annoy my engineering colleagues.’ It’s the one that says: ‘Innovation in the 21st Century is not going to be in science and technology, but in the way in which society organises itself.’ He tells me that he’s reached the conclusion that if his career is to have a lasting and beneficial effect on society, ‘it’s unlikely that it will be by devising some form of technology. It’s much more likely to be achieved by assisting in real cultural change.’

Social engineering – reciprocal care

‘Three or four years ago I made a resolution that was almost like a religious conversion,’ says Wolff. This was when he reached the conclusion that the problems facing Britain, in terms of caring for an increasingly aging population, wasn’t one that could be solved by mechanisms, but was going to be solved by ‘pairs of hands.’

‘I’m now working on a scheme called Care4Care, the basic idea of which is that we have to produce more resources, which the country can’t afford.’ Essentially, this is a credit system where younger people provide care for older generations in order that their care further down the road can be paid for by credits they’ve already accrued.

‘And so it will go on. And we have produced a resource without putting up taxation. There is now real interest in this and I’m spending virtually every waking moment propagating this. This is because for a nation where we are used to the state doing virtually everything for the past three generations, this is a major cultural change. We will have to become much more prepared to become much more self-supporting. This seemed to be in line with the idea of Big Society, which has largely disappeared.’

Because of the way in which modern career structures tend to move people about geographically, ‘we have to overcome the reduction in kith and kin care, and the way to do this is to get people to take out insurance. But this insurance needs to be paid in kind: you invest hours and not money.’

Wolff thinks that this is going to be ‘possibly the most important thing I will have done in my life.’ He admits he hasn’t ‘got many years left to get this to happen,’ but as we sit at his desk he tells me that there is someone coming to see him this very afternoon ‘from the banking system that deals with alternative currencies.’ Wolff explains that the ‘hour’ is an alternative currency with the merit that it cannot be inflated or deflated.

For further information on Care4Care visit www.care4care.org

For further reading, go to Nick Smith’s other interview with Heinz Wolff:

Nick Smith's article on Heinz Wolff in IET Member News

Nick Smith interviews Heinz Wolff in IET Member News. Photo: Nick Smith