British producer Richard Formby is a distinct musical force with a unique appreciation of the obscure and obsolete.
Throughout a 25 year career, which started with a bang when he produced the mind-expanding synth and guitar musings of Spacemen 3, Richard has learned the old fashioned basics, kept abreast of the digital revolution and maintained a handy side line in real analogue production.
He now uses a combination of tools, including in-the-box PC package Logic and old school analogue gear – the results of which are best heard on recent albums by Mercury Prize-tipped Ghostpoet and Ivor Novello Award-nominated Wild Beasts.
Throughout his career, he’s always been up for a sonic challenge, working with a mystifyingly diverse range of artists and having a hand in some classic records from Herman Dune, Hood, Egyptian Hip Hop and Archie Bronson Outfit.
Here, Richard discusses the ways digital perfectionism is replacing analogue anomalies and human performance error within modern music.
He also explains how the role of the producer has changed over the years and how his aversion to blandness feeds into everything he does…
You’ve been a producer for more than 20 years. How do you connect with the artists you work with?
Everything tends to come through management, generally related to any previous records I’ve done. In recent years I’ve had a lot of people want to work with me off the back of what I did with Wild Beasts. I also worked with Spaceman 3, Spectrum and Telescopes years ago, and occasionally people will come to me through that.
You change over the years, but the thing with the internet is that verything is available all the time, isn’t it? Music from 25 years ago is out there just the same as music from 25 days ago. Your past life catches up with you, it’s all there. It’s a strange thing really.
How do you feel about those Spacemen 3 and Spectrum records now?
I keep thinking I’d quite like to go back to making those sorts of records. I often think about the records I made at that time. I just recorded a tape, mixed a tape, got the razorblade out and started editing tapes. It was normal. I don’t think bands today actually have a concept of it. I don’t think they understand it at all.
What don’t they understand? The linear nature of working with tape?
Yes. Recently I was working with a band called Zola Blood from Hackney Wick. It got to the point where I just wanted to mix it old style. I just felt I was in my comfort zone; I wanted to take it out of the box.
I explained to them how we used to do it: you do your mix and at the end of the day it’s done, that’s it. There’s no recall. Matt, the singer from the band, said, ‘That just sounds horrific.’ He looked deeply shocked that he wouldn’t be able to just go back and fiddle and mess about with it endlessly.
I do miss the old way of making records. You’re constantly striving to find the perfect mix, the perfect take. You’ve got all the tools to cheat, basically. If the drummer is slightly out, you can put him in time. If the singer is out of tune you can put them in tune. I think, for most of us, those are still the last resort tools. I still don’t think there is such a thing as the perfect mix or the perfect take. I think it is just a matter of opinion.
You can do a mix and think, ‘Okay. That’s the mix. That’s the way we like it today’. A week later the band will say, ‘We just want to change a few things’. They want to do that not because it’s wrong, but because they’ve changed their mind. Then a week later they’ll change their mind about something else. This happens all the time.
The musical outcomes must be significantly different when you can carry on forever making changes…
Yes. There are still bands out there writing good songs and doing them well. There are people making really good productions. But there is something about the sonic quality of everything, to me, it’s all beginning to sound and feel a bit the same. Everything is perfect. It’s when you hear something that’s not quite in. A band that is brave enough to put something out which is bit out of time or a bit out of tune, they’re the ones who stand out. But they’re almost frowned upon.
I’m old enough to have started buying records just before punk happened. Then when punk happened, everything changed. People said: ‘Here are three chords, go form a band. You can do it’. This whole idea of just doing it was the important thing. Whereas, prior to that it was about technique and perfection and how clever you were. All those big rock bands. I just feel like we’ve gone back to that really.
That makes sense…
The special atmosphere and characteristic that you get from people making records isn’t really there now. Every time you correct something on Pro Tools or Logic or whatever, every little digital correction is a little bit of character removed from the original person’s performance. The more of those you do, the more character you’re taking out of it until you end up with something, I think, is quite bland.
How do you fix that?
There has to be some other way. I don’t think you can go back. I don’t think people would accept the old way of doing things. This whole digital way of doing things – and correcting and making everything as perfect as possible – is here to stay. We’ll probably get to the point where there will be algorithms where you can mimic a particular vocalist’s performance or the way a drummer plays or something like that.
How do you feel about programmes like Pro Tools and Logic?
Logic is a weird thing, I think it’s quite a good tool. I’ve used both Logic and Pro Tools. I’m in Logic at the moment. I seem to vary between the two. It is crazy. You open up those guitar band things and everything has got an EQ and a compressor and a reverb on it. Don’t let something else decide for you.
A lot of music today is influenced by the tools – and the tools are created by very few people. I was reading something about an American producer who said when he’s hired by someone, the desired outcome is to ‘produce a satisfactory result.’ I thought that was a strange way of putting.
What is ‘satisfactory’ in production terms?
It has to satisfy all the people – the labels and managers. Managers seem to have a huge say in what bands do now, on the artistic side as well as the business side. They want a product that fits in with all other products. If everybody is making perfectly in tune, perfectly in time music, then that’s the criteria. But for somebody like me, I’ve notched up a character report. I don’t care if the odd bit is slightly off.
It’s interesting that people are going back to old ways of working now, trying to get a bit more air into their sound…
That’s exactly it. I do get quite a few bands who’ve done great demos saying they don’t want to sound like they’re just making music in the box. The problem is, it’s quite difficult for a lot of bands to actually let go of what they’ve done themselves.
Once you get to the studio and you’re using analogue equipment, the band has to think differently. When I produced the Egyptian Hip Hop album [Good Don’t Sleep], I don’t think they had ever recorded on tape before. I remember Nick, the bass player, was determined to get a really good performance from beginning to end. That’s what he wanted to do. He raised his game a little bit, and a lot of people do that when they record to tape.
But at the same time, I’ve recorded bands on tape and they say, ‘Can we hear the very first take, 10 takes ago?’ And it had already been erased hours ago! They’ve got no concept of the restrictions you have with tape. You’re making your decisions as you go along.
In a way, it gives you less control, which may make some people insecure…
Yes. It’s a different way of controlling things. I think the right balance is good. Most of the records I’ve made on tape I end up running in sync with Pro Tools or something. The tape isn’t the storage medium anymore, it’s a process. You’re recording through it. Whilst you’re recording on tape, your head is thinking about the old way of doing it. But you know, at the back of your mind, you can just dump it and edit it in Pro Tools.
So, you’re using tape just for the sonic quality?
Yes, there is probably no other reason. I think a really useful by-product of the process is that bands change their attitude and raise their game when using tape. But really it’s about the sonic quality.
When I first started using digital multitrack machines, I had real trouble with the bass. I’d listen to the bottom end of a track, the bass and the bass drum and all that, thinking, ‘This just isn’t sitting together. It just doesn’t sound right.’ I really love the way sounds gel on tape. It’s just a thicker sound.
How has your role as producer evolved over the years?
I was always producing records and running a commercial studio. Now I’m just a freelance producer. In some ways the roles haven’t changed, it’s just the tools that have changed. Really, the bottom line is, when you’re producing something, it’s just about the songs. It’s about the notes. That’s your first fundamental.
For me, when you’re making a record, you’ve got to do the legwork. You’ve got to get the drums, the bass guitars, all the stuff the band already do live, recorded. At the end you’ve got to mix it. Between those two things you’ve a window to experiment, where you can come up with things you hadn’t planned on. For me, that’s the fun bit. The bigger that bit is, the better it is. I don’t think that has ever really changed.
I wanted to ask you about your own music and the stuff you listen to outside the studio – how does that influence your production work?
I must admit, I force myself to listen to current music. I do like a lot of it – people like Luke Abbott and James Holden. I listen to new and old music – it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. I like twenties’ blues but then this morning I got The Sea of Wires through the post. It’s a double album of cassette releases from about 1980.
I don’t think you need to consciously lift anything from anybody else’s music. If you listen to music it comes out in what you do, whether you make your own or whether you’re producing because you can’t help it. You don’t exist in isolation.
I’ve been buying records since about 1975, so my reference points tend to be in the past. When I started listening to music I liked stuff from the sixties, like Syd Barret. I don’t really know how people view that kind of music these days…
They can listen to it online all at once in a big jumble and the date doesn’t count so much anymore, does it?
Yes, any obscure band is there to be listened to. It’s funny because I always hear the linearity and context in music. If I listen to something from 1972, I’ll listen to it with my 1972 head on. I’ll think about what was going on in the world and how it fitted in, culturally, to the music scene – not how it fits in today.
If I listen to something that sounds a little bit rough and ready, I don’t compare it to a band that’s around now. I’ll think about it in terms of where it came from. Because you’ve got hindsight, you can see where music went afterwards.
Is there one record you’ve worked on that really stands out for you?
No, there’s not one in particular. It depends. I really loved the Darkstar record out of all the ones I’ve done in recent years. I say that because it’s probably the lesser known one.
There’s also a Hood album that springs to mind – one of the three I did in the mid-nineties – The Cycle of Days of Seasons. I saw it right through. It was really interesting to work with them. It’s that thing when you start with a bunch of blank tapes and you think, ‘In three weeks time that’s going to be full of an album’.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a desire to record by bouncing between two stereo tape machines. I’ve been thinking in the last few weeks that I want to completely limit myself so I can step back and then start progressing again. I always worry about losing old skills, such as editing with a razorblade. I want to step back and think, ‘What have I lost in the move from analogue to digital?’ I don’t want to lose anything.
Do you think you’re most creative when you’re restricted?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve always tried to treat Pro Tools and Logic as a virtual tape recorder. I don’t even know half of what you can do on them. I just haven’t bothered learning, out of laziness really. Quite often the bands I work with are better at using them than I am, so I’d get them onto it.
I agonise over it. I can’t use all the automatic beat protected tools. I’ll look into something and I’ll make cuts where I would cut with a razorblade. I can’t seem to move on from it. It probably makes me a bit slow, but it makes me think about what I’m doing. I think you need to slow down.
Today when you’re mixing something, you might cycle a small part of the track around 100 times, fiddling with it. But when you’re rewinding a tape you have a few seconds where you can just gather your thoughts. I used to put the song on at the beginning, I’d mix the intro and the verse would start. I’d mix the track from beginning to end and I’d know the whole song. I’d move faders and switch channels on and off, changing EQs as I was going. I used to put my whole body into it and it felt like I was actually playing the song. You knew the song inside out, from beginning to end. You just felt it as you’re moving, as you want something to get louder, almost like as though you were playing an instrument.
We interviewed Richard Formby for our Hands-on Hardware feature in the latest issue of M magazine.