Behind the music: how to make a singer sound great
Super-producers Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson on the subtle art of coaxing an outstanding performance from a singer
Fri 23 Mar 2012
When technology companies say artists should view recorded music as a promotional tool and make their living by touring, they forget that making records is almost always a group effort. The person who pulls it all together is the producer. Now, three legendary producers have decided to come out of the shadows, releasing an album and touring under the name of, you guessed it, the Producers.
The supergroup—Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson and Lol Creme, along with session drummer Ash Soan—have over the last 40 years racked up more than 200 hit singles and albums between them. Creme, one half of Godley and Creme and a quarter of 10cc, directed some of the most famous 80s videos, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes. Horn’s discography reads like the soundtrack to our lives. A member and producer of Buggles (Video Killed the Radio Star), the Art of Noise and Yes, he produced some of the most groundbreaking records of the past three decades, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome and Grace Jones’s Slave to the Rhythm, as well as albums by Seal, tATu, Pet Shop Boys and Robbie Williams. Steve Lipson was Horn’s right-hand man in the 80s and has since then produced Jamie Cullum and Paul McCartney.
Horn, we learn, is not a fan of Auto-Tune. “There used to be a lot more people who sang out of tune [before Auto-Tune], and there was something quite interesting about that,” he says. “Nobody gave a damn back then, because you were used to everything being a little bit out of time and a little bit out of tune. The generic sound of this generation is thin little voices perfectly in tune.”
That’s not something, though, that Seal can be accused of. But Horn was not impressed the first time he heard him. His wife (and business partner) had been looking for a modern-day Nat King Cole and claimed she had finally found him. She played him the demo of Crazy. “I liked the line, ‘We’re never going to survive unless we get a little crazy,’ but for some reason Seal had put a phaser on his voice and I thought: ‘He doesn’t sound that good.’”
Still, Horn decided to meet him. “He’s an imposing-looking fellow—6ft 7in. He said: ‘Can I play you something I’ve just written?’ He put a cassette in and it was the backing track to Violet.
He says he’s a great believer in not crowding musicians or jumping on them too quickly—it makes them “turn off”—instead he gives them breathing space. “If you use good people, what comes naturally is what you want,” he explains. “And it never, ever helps to lose your temper.”
Lipson’s tip is to beware of the “the big moment” when recording vocals. He used to produce the American Idol winners’ singles, each of them recorded by the four finalists in LA. “I’d have them for two hours. They’d come into the control room. We’d sit and talk for about an hour and 50 minutes. I’d keep an eye on the clock and then they’d go in and do two takes. It worked every time.”
“I never used to organise vocal session with Seal, because if I did he wouldn’t be there,” Horn says. “I’d stay in the same house with him and he’d come back at about 2am. If he brought a girlfriend [into the studio] it was always a great moment. Seal would sing the song to them. I’d say: ‘Give me black Elvis,’ and he’d do the moves. Robbie [Williams] used to like to have somebody to sing to, too.”
For his second album, Seal tried a few other producers before coming back to Horn. “One of them phoned me up, asking: ‘How do you get him in the studio? He’s been gone for two weeks.’ I said: ‘He probably doesn’t like the tracks, and just hasn’t told you. I used to live with him. That’s the only way I could get him.’”
He dispels the myth of the tyrant producer. “You’re a hired hand. You don’t have that much power. If you had a contract that said somebody’s got to sing and they wouldn’t, and you went to court, you would lose. They’d say: ‘I don’t want to sing for him because I don’t feel happy singing,’ and there would be nothing you could do about it.”
Next week: the secrets behind some of Horn’s and Lipson’s biggest records.