Artist Spotlight: Gil Norton - Respected And Influential Record Producer
As a highly respected and influential record producer, Gil Norton has worked with some of the biggest names in rock. A large list of Internationally acclaimed artists trust Gil at the controls. These have included Foo Fighters, Counting Crows, Echo &The Bunnymen, Feeder, Pixies, Marmozets, Band Of Skulls, JOANovARC and Jimmy Eat World, to name but a few. He takes up the story…
“I distinctly remember at the age of 12 how I wanted to be a sound engineer or a TV camera man. I felt so strongly about taking this path throughout my school years, that I left the 6th form after a year to take up an Audio Visual youth opportunity scheme that Knowsley Council were offering to promote the borough. We had a studio, 6 video cameras and sound equipment to use during the day interviewing local businesses and filming on location at many of the area’s sporting events. We also did educational videos for various industries. In the evenings we were allowed to borrow all the stuff to go and record videos of local bands. I recall that one of the bands was called Thunderboots. We used them as a project to produce a documentary about them writing and rehearsing a song, and preparing it for the studio. It was the first time I went to Amazon Studios in Kirkby, Liverpool. It was a very formative period and I loved everything about it. Working creatively with the cameras and sound equipment led me to believe I wanted to make it a career. I needed a qualification to do this so I went back to college to study art and music. I kept in touch with Amazon Studio and after a year at college I was offered a job as a runner and tea boy in the studio.
So it was at Amazon Studios in Liverpool that I quickly learnt the knowledge and important roles that a record producer has to play in a studio environment. Apart from being patient”, he laughs “You have to be creative and innovative. It’s in these surroundings that I feel at home.”
How important is it for you to know the band personally and have an insight into their sound and the tracks they are going to bring into the studio?
“Before going into the studio with a band, I would already have been sent demos of their songs. It’s important to understand what they and their record company are trying to achieve. I listen to their ideas and talk about what’s good and what could be better within the songs. My Job is to get the best out of the band and their music. Sometimes there’s a need to be assertive with bands to drive the project, but this is about being motivational and bringing out their strengths. I’m only the catalyst. It’s my responsibility to constantly reappraise where we are at, and if I think we can do better I work through how to do that with the band. If I can bring something to their compositions, maybe a stronger chorus or ending, then that’s a good thing. It’s all about making the songs as interesting and dynamic as we can and keeping the band fully engaged in the development of their songs. The last thing I need is a bored band in the rehearsal room or the studio.
Preproduction is key. It’s really important because once you have the songs and structures sorted, and everyone understands what they have to do, it makes the recording so much easier. It takes about 6-7 hours of rehearsing a day and we’re in there for about two weeks, roughly a song per day.
I watched a documentary about Buddy Holly and the Crickets recently where they just set up in a studio and started to write songs, trying things out and recording them there and then. It was different then. Now we have to be really well rehearsed as studios cost a lot of money and you can’t afford to have a day when you don’t achieve anything. So the preproduction is a vital part of the recording process even though I haven’t pressed the record button yet.”
Digital recording is evolving so fast now with excellent sound samples that represent the golden age of tape recording, what are your personal views about digital versus analogue?
“The first album I recorded in a digital format was Echo & The Bunnymen in 1986. Digital then had hard overtones and sounded a bit brittle. But over the years it’s become so much better to work with, although I do still like working with tape sometimes. I’m not an analogue snob though, most young bands just can’t afford tape so it’s not an option.
About 15 years ago, a lot of studios stopped using tape because there was a problem in the production of good affordable tape. The quality had deteriorated and we noticed we were losing some of the high-end frequencies recorded because the oxide coating was disintegrating on sessions. Tape is better now but there are many digital plug-ins that simulate the qualities and sonic characteristics of tape without the same problems and costs.
I keep thinking it would be great to go back to 24 track tape. There’s something romantic about it, but it has to be the right band who are very well rehearsed. With digital, I have more control over the sound and so many more tracks to work with, so greater room to experiment if needs be. If the lead guitarist isn’t happy with his solo, we can go again and keep each take and choose the best later. If we were using tape, we’d be limited to how many times we could record each instrument.
I recorded a Del Amitri song called ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’, on their album ‘Waking Hours’ in ’89 using tape. The lead guitarist played a solo on the last track, it was great, but he wanted to redo it. I really liked what we had and wanted to keep it as it was on the last available track, if we recorded again, the original would have to be erased. Against my better judgement the guitarist convinced me he could do it better and we recorded over it, I regretted it and still think the lost take was better. Now with digital, I don’t have this dilemma anymore.”
When we listen to some of the earlier guitar bands, from the 70’s for example, would you agree that there seems to be so much headroom on the tracks, room for dynamics, light and shade within the volume levels for the instruments and the vocals?
“Yes certainly, there are a lot of conversations going on about volume levels. There is an ongoing debate about compressing music to make it as loud as possible at the expense of the dynamic range – the ‘volume wars’.
People have become used to tracks being homogenised onto one level, which I don’t particularly like. Someone might buy a track from ITunes that’s not as big or loud as other tracks they’re listening to and they feel let down, even though all they have to do is turn up the volume.
I remember a conversation about this with Dave Grohl when I produced the Foo Fighters album ‘Echoes Silence Patience and Grace’ in 2007, (a Grammy winning, multi-million seller for the band). We didn’t want the volume levels to be over the top and the tracks to lose any dynamic range, so chose to cut the master at a lower volume with minimal compression.
Another current volume-related issue comes to mind, to do with levels within the mix. It’s the trend for rock guitar levels to be kept low these days, people want them there, but not too loud, whilst drums are still way up in the mix. Getting the right balance between the guitars and drums for the Foos was key. Dave Grohl is both a great guitarist and one of the best rock drummers out there, along with the band’s drummer Taylor Hawkins. They’re equally talented, like lost twins with distinct styles. Taylor is an exceptional drummer, especially in his use of the hi-hat, which to me is the most expressive part of the kit, the part that speaks. Good drummers are in complete control of every aspect of their kit. It’s not just about making the snare drum crack the loudest. It’s about keeping it consistent and controlling the power. It might look like they’re beating the shit out of the kit when actually every move is carefully considered.
I’ve worked with a lot of great drummers, most recently Josh Macintyre from Marmozets. He’s really cool. Matt Hayward from Band Of Skulls is also a fine drummer. I produced their last album ‘By Default’. Matt, Emma Richardson the bassist and guitarist Russell Watson were all fantastic to work with. Russell is a great guitarist, loud but not over the top. He can make just a few notes sound really expressive, full of character and personality.
For me, it is not about individual egos, less is more. Speed playing can be boring, it’s like your brain just switches off. If you focus, bend the note and play the right riff, it can send shivers up your back. However, I recently produced the ‘Ride Of Your Life’ album for the all-girl British rock band JOANovARC. Guitarist Shelley Walker’s is very fast and accurate, but she’s also emotive and can make notes really sing. Her style of playing is particularly visually interesting on stage.
Being an exciting performer is obviously a key factor for live work. I went through the shoe-gazing phase in the 80’s when bands didn’t want to be that active on stage. I remember questioning this as for me, we are in the entertainment business and a big deal from a record company means that you are supposed to entertain and connect with an audience, performing is a massive part of this.”
You’ve travelled the world as a record producer, what’s the most bizarre request you’ve had?
“There’ve been many,” he laughs “But when it comes to weird, I would say working with the American band Counting Crows is up near the top of the list. I went to Los Angeles to record their ‘Recovering The Satellites’ album. We rented an old house once owned by Charles Bronson up in the Hollywood Hills next to the Hollywood sign. To make a studio, we soundproofed the whole house and double-glazed the windows. We also put up scaffolding to create a canopy over the mixing desk in the large ballroom to keep the sound from bouncing around. We lived and worked there with a full time cook and cleaners coming in once a week. It was interesting to say the least, a communal home on steroids. We had drums in the galleried hall and band members being recorded all over the house and in their bedrooms.”
Your role as a respected record producer literally takes you around the world, what would you say is the most important piece of equipment you can’t leave home without?
“A good range of microphones is always useful to take on sessions. I have many, so I’ll choose the ones that I feel will benefit the vocals and instruments of the particular band I’m working with and best supplement the studio’s mics. The Shure 57 is a tried and tested microphone but I’m also working with the new Integral 10 and 12 from Samsystems a lot now. These are permanently installed on the speakers inside guitar amp combos and cabinets. You just hook them straight up to the desk, PA or monitors. It saves so much set up time and these microphones are consistent and sound really great.
Sometimes I’m limited with what I can take abroad but wherever the session, I take a range of guitars. I have strong Fusion Urban Series gig bag for this as my guitars are always kept secure in transit that way. When working with bands, it is often hard to get a perfect guitar sound so I need to have alternative guitars available to try. I generally carry a Gibson 335, a Fender Strat, Fender bass VI and a Baritone guitar as these cover most sonic requirements. I also have enough Fusion bags to take the Fender Precision bass with me if needed. These sturdy high quality gig bags have lots of compartments so I can stuff all the extra strings, straps, plectrums and other leads and bits I might need around the guitars. Once I have my bags of guitars ready to go, I know I can head off to any session with what I need getting there safely.”
Interview by Lars Mullen.