From a student at SAE, to freelance engineer, to producing Radiohead's Number 1 album OK Computer, Nigel Godrich has taken a career path many would like to emulate. Andrea Robinson meets the latest production prodigy.
"They say you can be in the right place at the right time", says Nigel Godrich, pondering the nature of success. The affable 26 year old producer/engineer is having a taste of it after co-producing OK Computer with Radiohead, producing the critically acclaimed debut album from Silver Sun, and engineering for McAlmont and Butler.
"I've been lucky enough to be able to pick and choose. The Radiohead thing is all to do with just meeting them, getting on with them, and having a good vibe. It's been a godsend. I don't really enjoy being in studios anymore, and Radiohead have never really enjoyed recording. So it was quite an interesting thing, because we got together and ended up outside, not in a studio, we ended up in a country house."
Seven years ago, the picture was somewhat different. A former student at SAE (School Of Audio Engineering), Godrich was employed at the now defunct studio complex Audio One. It's not a time he has fond memories of. "I was literally a tea boy. It was a five-floor building, and I had a pager. All day it would be like, 'three teas and two coffees in studio one please', and I was like, 'I hate this, I hate this'. I remember sitting there, thinking, 'I'm on the fucking bottom rung of the ladder, this is terrible'. And telling myself, 'I've just got to stick with it', because I knew I was going to have to go through something like that."
When Audio One closed, Nigel was taken on at RAK, a studio frequently used by award-winning producer John Leckie, and this was to be his workplace for the next four years. It was through Leckie that he got involved with Radiohead.
"John uses RAK a lot because it's a great studio for recording bands, and I was house engineer there, so I'd known him for years. I tape op'd for him, I engineered a Ride album, a Denim album, and then he asked me if I wanted to do Radiohead." That project was The Bends, a notoriously difficult album for the band to make, described by bass player Colin Greenwood as "eight weeks of hell and torture".
Godrich doesn't quite remember that side of it. "I had no responsibility on The Bends, I was just an engineer. For me it was just like, hey, they've gone off to have another meeting, they're all looking a bit stressed out and they all disappear for half an hour." Though he was brought in as an engineer, Godrich also got a taste of producing Radiohead when Leckie was absent.: "John went off to a wedding or something, and we did a load of B-sides. It was like the parents had gone away, and everybody had a really good time. And one of them, 'Black Star', ended up on the album."
These tracks would eventually lead to more work with Radiohead, but in the meantime Godrich quit his job at Rak to go freelance, and set up dance studio Shabang with partners Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker: "I didn't go freelance thinking I would have a career, I thought I was going to go and do dance music in my studio."
But then the phone started ringing, and six months down the line he found himself engineering and mixing on The Sound of McAlmont and Butler...
"That was a really brilliant experience for me, because Bernard Butler, who was producing, is so talented, and it was very inspiring. One of the things I learned from Bernard was to be a bit more adventurous. He was not a studio guy, but he knew what he wanted. One of the things I don't like about music these days is that it's so polished, you lose the character, the bare grit of it. So if somethings a bit wacky, or untidy, it's good. I think I learned that off Bernard."
Godrich continued to work on and off with Radiohead, producing more B-sides including Talk Show Host', from the Romeo and Juliet film soundtrack, which was recorded and mixed in four hours, and 'Help' for the Bosnia War Child charity album, done in five hours.
"Those things are the most inspiring, when you do stuff really fast and there's nothing to lose. We left feeling fairly euphoric. So after establishing a bit of a rapport work-wise, I was sort of hoping I would be involved with the next album."
Having had a bad time in the studio with The Bends, Radiohead set about creating their own environment for the making of OK Computer. "Pariophone gave them all this money on spec – a huge outlay, to go out and buy gear. They asked me what they should buy, and three months down the line I found myself sitting in front of all this gear. So Radiohead have a mobile studio now - there's a big mixing desk, two massive racks which you just plonk down, plug 'em in, pull the front off and all the gear is there, and a 2-inch tape machine, and it's great. You've just got the freedom to go anywhere, and that was the idea in the first place."
The first recordings for OK Computer were done in the band's rehearsal space in Oxfordshire.
"There's a lot of fruit farms around there, and they leased out this refrigeration unit, a sort of empty metal box. We set up a little control room and did some recording for a month. About four tracks off the album were recorded in this little tin hut. The idea was to get them while they were still developing the songs, to capture them before they got stale. Sometimes they needed a bit more working out and we got better versions of them later on."
The recording of the album then moved onto St Catherine's Court, the Tudor mansion near Bath owned by Jane Seymour, where the Cure recorded their last album, Wild Mood Swings (interview in The Mix, July 1996). The set-up was done with a minimum of fuss -the control room was located in the library, and Godrich and the band opted to preserve the atmosphere rather than treat the room's acoustics.
"For the Cure, the consultant people got this stuff to put round the desk for some kind of deadening, but it looked fucking awful. So rather than using something like that, and having to sit and look at it all day, we just had beautiful lattice windows that we could open, and these glorious gardens, and we could hear what was going on; it was fine."
After setting up, Godrich and the band were left on their own to get on with the recording, without even an assistant engineer or technician to sully the landscape. "This was literally the band, me, and a cook. We were like a bunch of kids. We were like, hey, we can just do what we want, which was the beauty of the situation."
Most of the album was recorded live, without letting technology overwhelm the task.
"When you're recording a band, it's a bunch of microphones, a mixing desk, and a multi-track tape machine. That's it. There's a bit of computer jiggerypokery if need be. but basically they're a band, and they play together really well."
He recalled the scene: "Everybody's in a big room, like it would be if they were onstage. Everybody can see each other, they've all got their own foldback mixer, so everybody's happy, and they can just play.
"A lot of the time we kept the guide vocal, or the vocals were quite quickly thrown down. 'Paranoid Android', the first single, and a few of the other songs on the album, are one takes. It's the kind of thing where if you get too analytical, you try and create a false atmosphere. The vibe is there when you start doing the track, and that's it, that's how the song should be sung, because Thorn's bouncing off everything else, reacting to the bare elements. If you then try to create this false atmosphere where 'okay, now we're gonna do the vocal, you go out there and sing it', it's always going to be a bit weird."
Vocals were recorded alternately with a Neumann valve 47, and an Australian Rode valve mic, through a Urei 1176 compressor, and a Pultec valve EQ on a few things.
"With months of hindsight, I actually think the Australian mic is a bit too bright, but if it's a good performance, that's it. Maybe the vocal sound suffered from the fact that it was occasionally just thrown down, but I don't think so."
He displays a similar attitude when it comes to the recording of guitars.
"It's just really, really basic. I'm not particularly anal about miking up guitars and stuff, as far as I'm concerned you stick an SM-57 in front of the amp and it is what it is. If the sound is good out of the amp then it'll sound good. And more importantly, you just want to get everything set up so everybody can play! My engineering may not be the most refined of anybody's, but I have learned that that's not what it's about. It's not about getting the most hi-fi sounding thing, what makes a good record good is the vibe, and how everything just falls together."
The band did have a sampling and sequencing set-up, although loops were used only on 'An Airbag Saved My Life'.
"It's made up of lots of drum loops of Phil playing. It's all a bit sort of tatty; it's roughness is it's strength. The rest of the tracks are live; if there's a sample its a sound that we made, or a sound that Thorn found and had an idea to use."
As for click tracks, they were used for establishing tempos on some songs, and then switched off. "Obviously clicks will hold you back, expression wise. They're useful as a tool, but they can take the performance out of it."
Recording was onto Otari MTR-90II two-inch: "When you're recording a band, two-inch is great, 'cause you can wobble it about and cut it up and that is like another part of recording. I do a lot of two inch editing. With analogue tape you can do whatever you want with it, you can throw it on the floor, you can record it too hot and you know it sounds okay."
Godrich's editing skills were tested on 'Paranoid Android', with its three distinctive sections.
"The heavy sections in the middle and at the end are similar musically, but they were recorded months apart. With the middle section we did different versions of It, and then ended up with the one. And I managed to stick the whole thing together so it runs from one piece of 24-track tape. So I'm sitting there going, "I'm a fucking genius, I can't believe I've done this, I can play the tape from beginning to end and it all works." It wasn't really difficult, but it was really good fun. I had my littie engineering hat on, and was feeling really proud of myself."
One concession to digital technology was made in the form of a Pro Tools system, which was used for tidying up little mistakes.
"It's been really handy", he admitted. "But again it's something that you have to learn not to use. Because when we first got it, I was trying to do this and that with it, and ended up sitting in front of the thing for two days. And everybody gets pissed off, and you lose the feeling that you're excited about something. The trick is to do something fast enough and then keep going so you can't get bored with the thing you've just done. You just go and go and you don't stop, and when you go back later and look at what you've done, you can say this one doesn't work but that one is great. The best times have all been really fast, with everyone that I've worked with."
While co-producing an album with a band that has a reputation for being moody might bring out the whip-cracking tendencies in some producers, Godrich firmly shuns the role of dictator. He explained why.
"It's just not the right way to work. With Radiohead, we all shared the responsibility for producing the album. It was kind of like mob rule, if everybody was pissed off, we stopped. Everyone was there doing their bit, but my bit just completely covered the technical side as well. I've spent a lot of time in studios, and seen records being made a hundred different ways, so when they were looking for the right way of doing something, I was there to push them in a certain direction."
Although he is a guitarist himself, he took a back seat when it came to musical decisions on this project.
"Thom and Jonny are so talented, and between them they took care of that. Part of my role was to not tread on their toes. It's a funny dynamic when you have something that works. It's a real fine balance, and in a way personality management is quite a big part of what I do. When you have a group of people in close proximity, trying to be creative, it can be difficult. With every band I've ever worked with, that's always been the case."
When it comes to mixing, Godrich confesses that this is not his favourite phase of a project. He said: "I feel like I get too into it. I start fiddling with things and I fuck it up. At the end of the day it's okay, but I much prefer the recording." The Neve rooms at Mayfair and Air in London were the studios of choice for this project. Of Mayfair, he said "I've done a lot of work there, because for some reason stuff comes out sounding more exciting. A lot of the time you find in studios you make stuff sound really rrrr! and when you take it out, it's toned down.
"I generally take about half a day to do a mix. If it's any longer than that, you lose it. The hardest thing is trying to stay fresh, to stay objective. It's so hard to let it all go and become a listener. But when I hear things, months later, I just think, oh, that's fine. You have to, otherwise you'd shoot yourself."
"With Radiohead, the vocals are obviously important, but I haven't used much processing, just a bit of plate reverb, or a short delay. Some singers just have a great tone, and he's one of them, so it's not hard work. The vocals haven't ended up very loud because it's not a pop record, but it's something I'm very conscious about. I'm always thinking, can you hear what he's saying, because his lyrics are so great."
For monitoring, the studio standard Yamaha NS10's were used, as well as Godrich's own Acoustic Energy AEl's.
"The NS10's are a tool; they don't sound nice, but you know what you're listening to. People say I mix loud, but with the NS10's if you turn them up too loud, they're just so bright that you can't tell what the hell's going on. With the AEl's, they're nice to listen to, they sound like my hi-fi at home. They've brought out a newer version with very bright tweeters; mine have the old tweeters, and I'm worried I'm going to bust one, 'cause that'll be it.
"I don't use the big monitors in studios for anything, because they don't really relate to anything. Unless you work in a studio a lot and you know what they sound like, they're fairly useless. They're sort of like...you wanna hear the bass? Put on the big speakers, if somebody's complaining."
And what does Godrich have to say about OK Computer?
"It's one of those records that requires some investment from the listener, rather than songs that you get immediately and then get bored with. You have to listen to it a few times, and then the payback is larger. Compared to The Bends it's fairly uncommercial, it's definitely a step sideways, but it's the right thing for them to do. As a band they're very innovative musically, and in their approach to everything they're very open minded. It's an art to them, and that is so refreshing to be around because with the guitar thing people always wanna go backwards.
"I'm so uninspired by the rebirth of the guitar band. It's been a double-edged sword. There's much more innovative stuff in dance music now, but a lot of the guitar pop around at the moment is seriously bad. I would never ever name a name, but," he paused, "I'm lucky to be able to choose not to do a lot of stuff."
Silver Sun are another guitar band to receive the Godrich touch; he produced their critically acclaimed debut album, which was released in May.
"They're a great band, they're really quirky, but the guy writes loads of serious three minute pop songs with Beach Boys backing vocals. He did these demos that got him the deal on his home 8-track, and they just sound ridiculously over the top, messy but in a great way, really trashy and dirty. So the brief was to try and recreate that, as well as just to sort of bring it back into listenable territory, and I think we did it quite well."
He's also worked with the Sundays, one of his favorite bands, mixing a track, 'She' for their forthcoming album. "I did one mix for them, but I felt I couldn't really bring anything to it. I'm too much of a fan, and I just wanted it to sound like their other records. So I'll just have to go and buy the album when it comes out."
As for the future, Godrich has turned down a couple of offers while waiting for the right project to come along. "I hate the whole idea that you do work because work is there", he said. "I've got to be really into something to do it, otherwise I would find myself in the position I was in five years ago where I worked for a studio and I felt 'this is a job.'
"I'd love to do somebody unknown, for some band from nowhere who I could get on with, and who were good, to inspire me. As far as established bands go, I know something will come. Whatever is right will happen. What I really want to do is make records that people will remember."
His current listening favorites are Pavement, the new Supergrass album, and Joni Mitchell "because I always listen to Joni Mitchell."
So it seems that it is possible to be a rising record producer and still be a fan.
"Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that's because I look at what I like and I look at what I do, and I'm just striving to get the two together. I just react to people performing good songs well, and that's something that's going to stay with me."
OK COMPUTER KIT LIST
MTA series 980 and Soundcraft Spirit 24
Otari MTR 9011 2-inch analogue multi-track
Tascam DA88 digital multi-track
Project 8 track
Studer A80 2-track
Panasonic SV3800 DAT
Neve 33609 Limiter
Palmer Stereo speaker simulator
Drawmer DS201 Noise Gate
Pultec PEQ1A valve EQ
AMSDMS1580 stereo sampling delay
AMS RMX16 reverb
Yamaha SPX1000 effects
Mutronics 'Mutator' envelope filter
EMT 140 Plate analogue reverb
Macs running Cubase
Akai S3200 sampler
Emu and Roland sound modules
Mellotron and Moog analogue keys
Movement analogue drums
Yamaha NS10m and Acoustic Energy AE1 monitors