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Interview: Trevor Horn on Recording Seal, Embracing New Tech, and Finding “the Money” in the Studio

Trevor Horn got his break with the 1980s hit “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a song by his band The Buggles that soundtracked the launch of the music video era. While playing bass, guitar, and percussion with that band, he also wrote and produced the songs with Geoff Downes. After the pair joined Yes for a short time, Horn would go on to continue producing the band, notably on their 1983 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

Horn developed a knack for using the newest technology available, whether producing other groups or creating music with his own band of fellow pop sound-collagists in The Art of Noise. He was an early adopter of the TR-808, Simmons drum modules, and the Fairlight CMI, which he used to help craft classic ‘80s albums like ABCs The Lexicon of Love and Frankie Goes to Hollywoods Welcome to the Pleasuredome.

But it was a bit later in his career that Horn realized what, to him, is the most important part of any recording: the vocal. In the ‘90s, he produced albums by some of the biggest singers of the time, such as Tina Turner, Seal, and Tori Amos.

But he never sacrificed his forward-looking embrace of studio gear, drum machines, and synthesizers. Trevors SARM Music Village Studio has just about all the gear you can possibly imagine, spread across six suites. As well as housing the best of the latest in-the-box recording technology, it also boasts a great lineup of vintage gear and modern boutique equipment.

We sat down with Horn to ask about his wide-ranging career, some of his favorite synths and drum machines, and when he learned to fully appreciate the voice.

First, what about those many and varied projects? Which stand out after nearly 40 years behind the console?

If I had to say who Id had the most fun in the studio with, I would have to say Seal because he is the only person I have made six albums with. Seal and I had our bad moments, but when we were having fun, it was the most fun.

I also had a great time with the Frankies, most of the time. The pressure was hard, but while we were making Welcome to the Pleasuredome, they were out promoting and they would come in and hear it, and they loved it. Nasher [Brian Nash, guitar] played on it and it was Mark [OToole]s bass part on all of it. So we had a good time.

I had a great time working with the Pet Shop Boys, too. They really know how to treat an old producer and are lovely.

And thank god most of the people I have worked with I have also had a good time with.

Your projects seem to be united by not only epic productions but also incredibly distinctive vocalists—Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Holly Johnson, Seal, to name just a smattering. What is your secret to a great voice recording?

Ive been doing it for a long time, and first off, you have to remember that the vocal on the record is the most important thing, and it determines the rest of the record. This isnt something that is original to me.

I dont know if you remember a producer called Mickie Most? I always remember doing a session at [Mosts] RAK Studios and asking the engineer there if hed worked with Mickie Most. And he said, “Yeah, I work with Mick Most all the time,” and I said, “God, how does he make those records?” He said, “Mick is not so bothered about the backing tracks, they are done pretty quickly. Its the vocals, he spends weeks on the vocals.” And I was like, “Really, I never thought about that,” but once I got going as a producer, I realised that that was the key to it.

We call it “the money.” “I cant hear the money, turn the money up.” The money is the voice. If you dont know what you are doing, it is very hard to make a record with a bad singer—it really is—however hard you try. And its also very important that whatever you do on a track is all in the right place to make the voice sound good, just the musical arrangement, that is just the start of it.

I suppose you can describe it in one line: I always try and be like a one man audience, an audience who is appreciative and encouraging. Its a trip, you know. Doing vocals in a studio, you hear it with a microscope, and if you are not in the right frame of mind, you can get discouraged.

Your studio has a huge collection of gear. Whats your opinion on vintage gear? How about software?

Plugins and totally computerised synths are okay, but theres always this feeling that they are one step slightly removed. Whereas, the real thing is more tricky to deal with but has a thicker sound. These days, there are a couple of great boutique synths that you can get, like Ive got a Moog Voyager, Moog bass pedals and a Dave Smiths Instruments Prophet 6.

Its all beautiful stuff and unlike the older stuff—I used to have a Minimoog and I still have a rack-mount Minimoog—which is so unstable. Theyre a pain in the neck, and the Voyager sounds fabulous and stays in tune.

Do you still have much classic gear from your older setups?

We kept everything that is worth keeping. I have a set of Fairchild compressors from the ‘50s, but most of it is in the box now. There are just too many advantages of working in the box with Pro Tools, you just cant compete. Working in analogue is a whole mentality, and I could still remember how to do it if I had to do it, but boy, it takes time. There is stuff that we can do so fast now and just as well, and it all ends up on a CD anyway.

What advice can you give from your four decades at the top?

If you manage to get a successful record label going, make sure you hire lots of punchbags, people to just talk to the artist and keep everybody happy. That would have been worth whatever we did, but we had no idea about that or I had no idea about it. When I was working with people, it was great, but when I wasnt there, it was much more difficult.

If you want to be really successful, make sure you know what you are doing. We have SARM Music Village and still train engineers and producers. A couple of years ago, the three engineers up for Engineer and Mixer of the Year were all guys who I have worked with—Stephen Fitzmaurice, Rob Orton, and Tom Elmhirst, all SARM guys. We have our own exam paper and still try and train people to be proper engineers so they can mix, record a drum kit, a drum machine, and they can work all of the programs like Ableton.

Recording studios have become more like a mixing place and a place to do your final overdubs and finish off your tracks. So what advice would I give them? In order to really understand what you are hearing in a recording studio, it takes you a few years, but if you like it and have the right qualifications and you are the right kind of person to do it, it is a great way to spend your time.