John Leckie is one of the UK's most successful record producers. His CV reads like a who's who of rock'n'roll. Here, he reflects on the technological changes he's seen in the recording studio over the years.
From Pink Floyd to Simple Minds, John Lennon to Muse, John Leckie has produced or engineered records for everyone who's anyone in rock'n'roll. He's picked up countless accolades along the way, including the 2001 'producer of the year' award which was presented to him by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
He has seen just about every technological change in the way music is recorded. And with every change he's adapted and evolved, finding new ways to exploit trends in both analogue and digital production. These days Leckie doesn't do interviews about his experiences with A-list clients, saying: 'I've said everything I want to say.'
Fortunately, he's not so reticent about the buttons, rotary potentiometers and faders that have been his stock-in-trade for more than four decades. Sitting in one of the demonstration suites in Solid State Logic's headquarters north of Oxford, he's happy to chat about how all that's changed.
'I've been at this for 42 years, I think. I started at Abbey Road studios on 15 February 1970.' Although this date is clearly burned into his memory, to understand the technological landscape he entered as one of EMI's first hippie employees ('I only got the job because I had long hair') we need to go back to school, where he 'managed to get' two A-Levels in physics and geography before progressing to Ravensbourne College of Art in Bromley (where a young David Bowie did his foundation course).
'They'd bought four black and white TV cameras from Associated-Rediffusion, which had just closed down. There were two courses running: there was an arts side, and I suppose a science side. The science A-Level people got in as technical operators and the others were producer/directors. My training was really setting up a four-camera TV studio, doing all the maintenance. This was all tube and valve equipment.'
By 1968, Leckie was writing a thesis on electronic music. 'I was always mad keen on Moog synthesisers, or anything that was a new sound.' Finding that there were very few books on the subject, Leckie copied notes from the back of Stockhausen sleeves. The thesis eventually covered all aspects of electronic music, from the design of oscillators and filters, to an appreciation of electronic music.
After a brief stint with a film company in a dubbing theatre making industrial training films for Shell BP, it was time to move on. Unable to gain membership of the film union, 19-year-old Leckie was stuck. He wrote to all the big recording studios in London: EMI, Decca, ICP and Olympic. Only EMI replied, offering him an interview, and a few months later a position.
When Leckie arrived at Abbey Road the set-up was 3M 8-track one-inch tape machines, each with a legendary TG mixing desk running it. In terms of 'outboard' – separate sound processing devices connected to the console – there were only 'Altec compressors and Fairchild limiters. Microphones were by Neumann. I never saw a single Shure microphone, either an SM57 or 58, until I left Abbey Road'.
At that time, audio recording was a scientific process, and although EMI engineers had long given up the habit of wearing white coats, they still had clearly delineated roles, with job titles often containing the word 'engineer'. Leckie remembers a strict regime. 'Basically a tape op's job was to run the tape machine. Which was important because if you left the tape room, the session finished. But you didn't set-up the studio – that was done by the amp room guys who plugged everything in and did all the line testing. The balance engineer did the session sheet, which was the layout for the orchestra and a mic list.' Everything at this point was analogue, tape-based and, according to Leckie, 'we simply couldn't think of anything else'.
Towards the end of Leckie's eight years at Abbey Road, he noticed digital technology creeping in. 'It happened very slowly at first,' most obviously in the form of Solid State Logic's first inroads into computerised recording desks. The integration of computers into the process meant 'greater control really. The reason computers were brought in was to control faders and cut-buttons on mix-down. That was the prime thing'. Because mixing desks had gone from 4-track to 16-track – the 'Dark Side of the Moon' desk was 'considered huge' – and with the 24-track desk on the horizon, EMI simply couldn't provide the technology on a worldwide basis and so the market was open for manufacturers such as Neve and SSL.
The times they are a-changin'
Two major technological changes affected Leckie as a producer. The first was simply the availability of more tracks. To have a 24-track machine and to be able to slave together two of these 'easily and reliably to produce 48-tracks was a big breakthrough'. This was market driven. Everyone knew this was coming, says Leckie. 'When you had 8-track you always wanted nine. When you were 16-track you always wanted 17. And so one of the turning points was access to more tracks. There's always one more overdub, one more harmony.'
This expansion was a two-edge sword, because 'the fewer the tracks, the simpler it all was. And if you look at today, when there are an infinite number of tracks available, it's a bit silly. But up until the arrival of Pro Tools this was the norm.'
The second revolution was the advent of digital. 'It's strange really because in the 1960s and '70s, and even the '80s, there used to be an area of recording called 'semi-pro' – essentially 'demo' equipment and studios, where equipment was by manufacturers such as Tascam, Teac, Fostex, Akai. I've got nothing against this, but they weren't professional. They weren't Studer, Neumann, SSL or Neve.' But somehow that distinction became blurred, 'because now you can have a pro recording studio in your bedroom'.
Did this frighten Leckie at all? 'At first I stood aloof in the way a professional photographer with his Hasselblad would frown at taking pictures on an iPhone. But it's the end result that counts. If a recording sounds good on the radio, it doesn't matter if it was recorded at Air Studios or in someone's bedroom.
'The other thing that's changed,' says Leckie, 'is the way people listen to music.' In the 1970s consumers were proud of their hi-fi systems. 'I can remember inviting friends over and it was, 'hey, let's go around to John's house and listen to the new Pink Floyd record because he's got great speakers'.'
But it's not like that any more because, says Leckie, it's rare for hi-fi retailers to promote their products on the basis of audio quality. 'There doesn't seem to be the stimulus for people to listen on good speakers. People listen on laptops, mobile phones, MP3 players and headphones now.' Does this cultural change in listening affect the way Leckie makes records today? 'It should. But it doesn't. I don't mix records on iPod headphones.'
Leckie recalls that one of the main challenges of mixing for vinyl was the time limitation imposed by the format. In essence, the 33rpm long player was a compromise format developed to allow record publishers to get an entire symphony onto one piece of plastic, allowing 22 minutes per side. This became the marker for modern musicians making LPs.
'The problem was that there was always a fight to get more onto the record. If you had 26 or 28 minutes that you needed to get onto one side, then the level dropped. In other words the challenge was to make the record sound loud.'
With the advent of the CD all this changed. Faced with potentially 80 minutes of uncompressed audio on one disc, recordings expanded. Bonus tracks, disco remixes and various other fillers did much to dilute the experience of listening to an 'album'.
'That wasn't anything to do with the bands themselves,' says Leckie. 'It was the record companies asking for albums with 20 tracks.' Every time a band went into the studio in the early days of CD, they were under pressure to record material of a length similar to the (much more rare) double studio album. 'And for a while we lost the sense of a band making an album, as such.'
Was this a case of technology leading the creative process by the nose? Does Leckie miss the idea of deliberately sitting down with a band and making an LP-length record? 'I still do that, actually. That's what I aim for' to make a 10 or 12 track album.'
Artists in the house
Although we're not here to talk about the names that Leckie has produced, there comes a point where it's impossible to go forward without discussing the human factor. Anyone who has even a passing interest in mainstream rock music in the '70s, '80s, '90s and beyond, will recognise the importance of Leckie's work. But, presumably, not all bands work the same way, and so I ask Leckie what happens creatively in between day 1 and day 30, from the band walking into the studio with an idea, to them walking out with a hit record. How much of a role does the producer play in the creative side?
At this point Leckie smiles knowingly before bursting into laughter. 'You have to put in a lot of commitment. And the band has to be up for it. Very often records get difficult or even remain unfinished if one member of the band doesn't really want to do it.'
But the key is to start off positive and keep the ball rolling. 'I very often say that a producer is the person who says something when the music stops. Invariably in the studio, the band's going to play, or the singer's going to sing, and you come to the end of the track. And there's going to be silence. Everyone's going to look around, waiting for someone to say something. And the person who speaks is the producer. Very often that's the hardest part of the job.'
When it comes to disclosing details of his artists, Leckie is discreet and diplomatic. Reading between the lines, there appear to be different levels of professionalism from band to band. 'Of course, some need more encouragement and help,' says Leckie. I ask him who are the best bands to work with. Who are the ones who just walk in and nail it? 'None of them. None of them. But XTC are the most musical, imaginative, creative band you can get. They're the funniest and the most serious. They were the ones that just get on and do it and the end result would be great. Whether it would be a hit or not...'
Back into the future
Having reflected on the pre-digital days and the key revolution of the increase in channel capacity, the discussion turns to the future. Once there were 120 recording studios in London. But now there are only three places where you can record a full orchestra. Despite SSL shipping large-scale consoles in healthy numbers, the market for audio technology is changing.
Leckie thinks that all musicians aspire to working in big studios, recording their music on 'big equipment with plenty of knobs and buttons, working on tape and hearing their creation in a professional environment.
'But, on the other hand it's all going digital and miniature. I think we're going to have mixing desks on the iPad. All your plug-ins, all your software will be in the Cloud somewhere. I can see the iPad changing a lot of things.'
Which is a long way from Abbey Road four decades ago. Does Leckie feel that his was a privileged journey, or would he like to start all over again and just work digitally? 'Oh, it's been a great privilege and I'm really pleased I'm not starting now. I became a producer through the engineering route and these days that would be a very difficult thing to do.' *