From “Video Killed The Radio Star” to The Art of Noise – as well as Yes, Seal, and Paul McCartney – record producer Trevor Horn’s made a name for himself on both sides of the glass.
Trevor Horn is rather unique among his peers in that he enjoyed a highly successful career as a musician before moving to the other side of the glass as a record producer. As half of the eighties pop duo the Buggles (he was the one with the nerdy glasses), he co-wrote, co-produced, and sang lead on their smash hit “Video Killed the Radio Star,” perhaps best known today as the first video ever played on MTV. He and co-Buggle Geoff Downes were then briefly integrated into prog-rock kings Yes (an experience he later described as “awful”) before he made the decision to end his touring days and focus full-time on record production.
Since then, he’s gone on to work with an eclectic collection of artists, meticulously crafting lush soundscapes for the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones, Barry Manilow, Paul McCartney, Cher, Rod Stewart, and Tina Turner, as well as several albums with British soul vocalist Seal, one of which netted him a Grammy award in 1995. As if that weren’t sufficient proof of Horn’s impressive work ethic, he also collaborated with ex-bandmate Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack for the 1992 movie Toys and even wrote the official song for the 2004 Olympics!
Did you always want to be a record producer?
No, it had never been my intention to become a record producer. I started out as a bass player, but I was always absolutely fascinated by the recording process. When I first came to London, I played on a lot of sessions, and after each take I was always the one who wanted to go into the control room and have a listen.
Then, with a friend, I decided to build a recording studio. Because we didn’t have much money, we had to do it all ourselves, and it was a real education for me – I had to learn about soundproofing and a lot of technical things. I suppose that, like a lot of young people, I didn’t really know what I wanted; I just knew that I wanted to be in the music business rather than the normal world.
“Video Killed the Radio Star” took three months to record. That was a really long time to make a single track, even by the standards of the eighties.
Part of the reason it took so long is that we had made a great demo of the song, which had gotten us the record deal. We didn’t want to sign a contract with the person who had put the money up to make the demo, so we had to make it again from scratch. But when we started it again, we became a bit cavalier, and we ended up having to scrap everything we’d done because we’d wandered a bit too far away from the good ideas in the demo. It’s a very easy mistake to make; there’s a great temptation to change everything, but you’ve got to be very careful to keep everything that was good about the demo exactly the same. That experience taught me a really hard lesson that has stood me in good stead ever since, which is: you always need to keep every bit of magic that’s on the demo before you try to create additional magic.
I imagine it’s tough to see things objectively when you’re producing yourself.
It’s part of the problem with producing anybody, actually. [laughs] In some ways producing yourself is easier in that you don’t have to worry about anyone’s opinions except your own. Artists can occasionally freak out – especially if things are going on for a long while – and try to get you to do things that aren’t right for the record. The thing is, if you spend all your time in the recording studio, like I do, you know so much more about it than someone who just comes in for a couple of months. Making a record can be quite hard: there are so many pitfalls, so many places where you can go wrong, that artists sometimes fall into the first hole that comes along.
In addition, everyone is so much more relaxed when they’re recording a demo because they think that few people are ever going to hear it.
That’s true, and to retain that freshness when you’re making the record, you have to keep listening to the demo the same way you have to keep checking the rear-view mirror while you’re driving a car.
These days, of course, most demos that people make are usable, so if you can’t recreate that same feeling a second time, you can just import the original demo itself and build on it to create a master. Back when I started making records, demos were usually done on an inferior medium like a TEAC four-track, or half-inch eight-track tape, so you had no choice: you had to do everything again in order to get an acceptable sound. Nowadays, with everyone using computers, that’s not an issue, so that’s what I generally do: I work on top of the actual demo.
How do you think the role of the producer has changed since you first got into the business?
Well, for one thing, there are loads of songwriters calling themselves record producers today; there seem to be a lot fewer people around like me who are prepared to work on other people’s material. Many of today’s producers insist on co-writing the song with the artist; they won’t just take your song and make it into a record.
Also, now that you don’t have to play in real time, there are lots of people masquerading as musicians who are barely literate musically. That’s fair enough, but the problem is that it does tend to make for a certain kind of harmonic mediocrity in many of today’s records.
I guess another thing that’s changed is that you don’t hear as many out-of-tune singers! [laughs] Of course, there are some people who spent an entire career constantly singing out of tune, and there can actually be something quite appealing about that. Nowadays, every singer seems to be impossibly perfectly in tune. There’s something a bit irksome about that.
So I take it you’re not a big fan of autotuning?
No, it’s perfectly fine. It’s a brilliant piece of software, and we all have to use it, because everybody’s using it. It is true that it can move you up a division. But if you’re fourth division in the first place, it’s only going to move you to third division.
Do you feel there is a distinctive “Trevor Horn sound”?
I don’t feel all my records have a similar sound, though I seem to be identified with some of the records I made in the eighties. I don’t know that Seal really sounds like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but there are certain things that all the records I’ve made have in common. One is that I’m pretty manic about them being entertaining to the very last note; I don’t give up on a track two-thirds of the way through. I like the records I make to build and I like them to have interesting arrangements that don’t go exactly where you’d expect them to go all the time. If I have any kind of recognizable sound, maybe that’s the reason.
As producer, I have to keep the big picture in mind at all times, but the big picture is often severely affected by the minutiae; there really are times when you have to roll up your sleeves and truly sort something out. So there’s lots of hard work that goes into all the records I make because I’m always trying to get things that little bit better. To that end, I always make sure to use really, really good musicians. It’s generally the same cast of people that keep popping up on my records, because I haven’t found many players that have that little extra something.
Not only do you tend to use the same musicians on your records, you tend to use the same team in the control room, like Phil Spector did. Was Spector a big influence on you?
Actually, no. I think Phil Spector made some good records in the early days, but it seems to me that his great contribution was making musicians do things they didn’t necessarily want to do and would not normally do in live performance. Those early “Wall of Sound” records were the first records where the musicians played in a way that they wouldn’t play onstage. He deserves credit for that, and overall he was a reasonably effective producer, if a bit heavy-handed at times. But I always preferred George Martin’s style of production.
Having said that, I hated Let It Be . . . Naked. Why the hell they took the orchestra off “Long and Winding Road” is a mystery to me. “Long and Winding Road” is a great big cheesy ballad, and it’s not going to be any less of a cheesy ballad without the orchestra on there. Even though I’m not a big fan of Spector, I had a little more respect for him after hearing that. But I think once you took Phil Spector away from being the producer of a concept record – records like “River Deep, Mountain High” or “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” – he wasn’t nearly as effective; once you put him in charge of The Beatles, or John Lennon, I wasn’t very impressed.
And if you think of the entire Beatles catalog, there are exactly two cheesy string arrangements: one of them is “Long and Winding Road,” and the other one is “She’s Leaving Home” … and neither of them was done by George Martin. [laughs] George just had a way of arranging strings so that they didn’t sound MOR or cheap. His work was understated, and he also made some great records post-Beatles. But then, of course, he never made “Leader of the Pack” or any of those kinds of records.
You were one of the earliest adopters of digital recording. What made you gravitate to it even when it was still in its infancy?
Primarily because of its consistency. If you record a band through a proper analog desk onto analog tape – 16-track, 30 IPS, preferably – you’ll get a really good sound. But if you record at 15 IPS with Dolby, you’ll get a different kind of sound. Good or bad, the problem is that they don’t stay like that for very long, because the more you run analog tape past the heads, the more the sound degenerates. If you listen to the Beatles Anthology, you can hear that the final masters sound quite small compared to the original backing tracks, which were big and open-sounding. That’s because those rough mixes were probably run off at the time of recording; by the time you get to the final master, it’s been down a couple of generations, and the tape has run over the heads a thousand times.
There were ways of getting around that, mind you. The last album that I made completely analog would have been Yes’ 90125, and we did all the backing tracks on two-inch 16-track and then copied them and put all the original tapes in a cupboard for ten months; we didn’t get them out again until it came time to mix the record.
So when digital came along, it was like manna from heaven for me. It was wonderful, because it meant you could do all kinds of things without losing quality. And I felt that the quality of even the very earliest digital machines was fine – it just took people a long time to get used to the sound. Engineers recording on tape used to print things really bright – the drums, particularly – so that, as the oxide wore off, there would still be enough top end there. That’s where a lot of people screwed up in the early days of digital – they’d EQ the hell out of everything on the way in, and then you couldn’t undo it.
We never had the same kind of problem with digital, thanks to Steve Lipson, who’s a very good engineer. He learned early on to record things flat and to then make any necessary EQ adjustments afterwards, during mixing. I remember going to a Sony event in the early days of digital, when we were one of the few people using it. There were a bunch of old guys there moaning about the sound of digital, and I’ll never forget Steve saying to them, “But that’s not the point. The point is, the sound never changes.” With analog, it changes all the time.
It’s funny, I was working with a band recently and they were asking me what I thought about analog recording. They were making the argument that everyone used to record that way. I said, “Well, my grandmother used to have an outside toilet on her house.” [laughs] While there may be certain advantages to having an outside toilet, nobody actually builds a house with one these days. That’s how I look at analog.
Do you think that the sound quality of records today has been negatively impacted by the fact that most people are listening to music over earbuds or tiny low-fidelity computer speakers?
How can you even talk about hi-fi in an era when people think that iPods sound good? An iPod is like a cassette. If you play an MP3 over proper speakers, turned up loud, you can hear how shredded the music is and how awful the sonics are.
Sadly, these days it almost doesn’t matter, because a fair percentage of records are being made solely from pre-prepared ingredients. It’s like a cook in a kitchen who doesn’t buy actual meat; instead, he buys cans of processed meat and a can opener. For many people these days, a studio isn’t a gourmet kitchen – it’s just a sophisticated can opener and a pan for heating things up. And if you’re just heating things up – if you’re just using prerecorded drum sounds and sequencing the whole thing in Logic – you don’t need a great big set of monitors so you can hear the what the drums really sound like and look at the sound through a microscope. Because those drums are prerecorded, when it#8217;s all put together, it’s going to sound fine . . . but it’s a completely different approach to the way records used to be made, when you’d create all the ingredients fresh, from scratch.
How do you feel the democratization of recording – the fact that anyone today can make a record in their bedroom – has affected the music business in general?
Music is just like any other area of endeavor. If you were to take a hundred people and give them each a large sum of money and tell them to use that money to go start a business, probably half of them would be broke in a year. Maybe three or four of them would be running a multi-national conglomerate, and I suppose the rest would be muddling along in the middle.
In much the same way, if you give everyone an electric guitar, an amplifier, and a drum machine, you’ll get the same results. It doesn’t matter what you give people; some people will use it to create crap, and some people will create something worthwhile. It’s always been like that. If you think of how many rock groups have been formed since the fifties, you can still only count the number of meaningful bands – the ones that have truly made an impact – on your fingers and toes. Yet they’ve all had access to the same thing, so, clearly, having access to equipment made no difference.
Buy Behind The Glass, Volume II by Howard Massey at HalLeonardBooks.com. This excerpt reprinted with permission.