For the latest in our ‘Engineer behind the desk’ series, we thought who better to talk to than one of the original sound engineers to join mixingAudioPros.com, Pat Collier.
Pat is a fantastic sound engineer and has had a long and illustrious career lasting 35 years going back to the UK Punk scene in the late 70’s. He has worked with artists such Jesus and the Mary Chain, Katrina and the Waves, The House of Love, The Wonderstuff and many more.
Read on to learn about Pat, he certainly has some interesting stories to tell!
mixingAudioPros: How and when did you start your musical career? Can you give me a bit of background info? Who were your early influences, early recording studio you worked in etc?
Pat Collier: I got a job as a tape op at Decca studios in West Hampstead in March 1974. I had done the rounds of London studios knocking on the door and asking if there was a job going for about ten days over six weeks and was amazed to be offered two jobs, the Decca one and a vacancy at DJM studio. The Decca offer came first and I jumped at it. It was unusual as they wanted some one a bit older than the normal tape op (I was 22) to work with two sound engineers in the MOR department. I was there two and half years and the people there were incredibly kind to me. A point was made to show the tape ops all the facets of the recording studios which had cutting rooms, duplication suites and equipment design and construction facilities as well as the main studios. We were run through the basics of signal flow, functionality of equipment and all technical aspects of studio life. It was an amazing experience working along side very experienced and talented people. The main draw back from my point of view was that I was working on everything but rock/pop music so when the band that I was playing in for a hobby got a deal and the band went pro I didn’t think twice about leaving. Punk rock in 1976 was an interesting experience.
The band was called The Vibrators and we wandered unknowing into the birth of Punk Rock. Our first gig was supporting The Stranglers, the third supporting The Sex Pistols etc. Things like that seemed to happen quite a lot looking back. At the time it was all very run of the mill, playing in a local band sort of stuff but the people then became famous and the perspective of what was happening changed. The first band I ever played in was called Bazooka Joe and when I left, to take the job at Decca which meant that I couldn’t make the rehearsals, the singer replaced me with a friend from Hornsey School of Art who later decided to use the stage name Adam Ant. Then after not playing in a band for a couple of years I went to see Bazooka Joe play at the drummers college St. Martins where they were supported by The Sex Pistols doing their first ever gig. I wasn’t aware that this was a watershed in modern music but I enjoyed the evening so much I decided to join another band for a spare time hobby. That band was a Rock’n’Roll outfit called The Cafe Racers who had a very duff bass player in me but a pretty good guitarist in the form of Mark Knopfler. I left them when a friend suggested we start a band which led to…
The Vibrators made two singles in their own name and one single backing Chris Spedding with the producer Mickie Most at what was then Morgan studios. This was a very interesting experience as Mickie had a great fund of rock n roll stories as can be imagined from the amazing roster of people he had worked with. The second single we did never got a proper release on RAK records, Mickie’s label, as we jumped ship to CBS (Sony) as the deal on offer there was many multiples better. Whilst making that single (Bad Time) Mickie mixed the track himself which seems odd now. It was fascinating to watch and listen to him doing it and after attempt number one I took it upon myself to tell Mickie that the snare wasn’t loud enough and that this sort of music is more snare than bass drum driven. Listening to him put the mix together he was working off the bass drum and it struck me that this may relate to a Hot Chocolate record better than The Vibrators. He took it very well and actually redid the audio mix for us. If I had my time over I would probably omit telling Mickie Most how to make pop records.
We made an album at CBS studios in Whitfield street with Robin Mayhew producing, as he had done our live sound on a tour we did supporting Iggy Pop with Bowie on keyboards. Robin had done Bowie’s sound back in the early days of Ziggy Stardust and had a PA company called Ground Control, as in Major Tom. The sessions had Steve Levine as tape op. Perhaps we should have asked him to produce it instead.
The band after that was called The Boyfriends and was trying to be as poppy as possible (Power Pop was the branding), not such a shrewd move in late 1977 early 1978 as the nation decided en masse that they loved Punk Rock. Particularly annoying as I had spent six months touring, playing Punk to them, when they were very much of the opposite opinion. We signed to UA (United Artists) under the auspices of Martin Rushent who had actually left the A and R department by the time we signed but who did produce, with Alan Winstanley engineering, our three singles and various other tracks. Again a great experience to watch these people in action although now I wish I had paid more attention to what was going on in the control room. Obviously my job was being in the band but I did have experience of studio work so knew what was going on and perhaps could have looked over shoulders more. I am a fan of both of them but Alan in particular. I thought then and more and more as his hits rolled out that he was a fantastic sound engineer/producer. Martin had come across him working as the house engineer at TW studios in Fulham. Far from being a well known London studio it was a small demo facility where he had gone with The Stranglers to do initial demos for UA. It is very much to Martin’s credit that having met Alan he knew exactly what he had there and pretty soon the pair were partners in the construction of Genetic studios in what was basically Martin’s back garden. I would like to say that I pinched loads of tips and techniques from watching Alan work but in common with a lot of other very successful sound engineer/producers that I have witnessed in full flight they just seem to do the obvious unremarkable things with the notable exception that when they eventually stop and look mildly tired the stuff sounds amazing. How did they do that ? I must watch closer next time. But some how I could never catch them in the act of doing the magic twiddle it is just an amalgamation of many tiny decisions, all of them right rather than the more widely popular wrong.
mixingAudioPros: When did you first start running your own recording studio and how you made that progression from first working in studios to running your own?
Pat Collier: I pretty soon left the Punk band (The Vibrators) and started a Pop band (The Boyfriends) which found me renting a railway arch in Waterloo (Alaska Studios) to use as rehearsal space. When that band was dropped and we split up I had a sort of rehearsal studio business by default. Lots of fun but I wanted to record so I took one of the rehearsal rooms and the office and put in a Teac 4 track. It was great. Indie labels were just arriving and a good time was had by all. Progressed through 8 track to 24 track and beyond. Left the railway arch after a few years moved to a building in Old Street and put two studios in a four storey building (Greenhouse Studios now Fortress). Things there got very interesting as we were big with indie style bands as the majors all decided they wanted one. In 1996 moved to Tooting Bec (Gravity Shack Studios) as a deliberate move down the financial scale. I had bought several desks that cost considerably more than my house and I wasn’t living in a small place! Although I didn’t think this through at all it was a very fortuitous piece of timing. Now I have my base at Perry Vale Studios in Forest Hill which I have actually bought (well a big mortgage aside). Studio number four and thirty nine years later I still enjoy doing this.
mixingAudioPros: Do you have any particular methods or preferences of note? i.e using certain gear for certain sounds? Any preferences of ways if working or even preferences of musical styles etc? Do you prefer producing live bands, jazz, classical etc?
Pat Collier: Probably due to age and experience I very much prefer working with a band and then to keep it as live as possible. Not that everything is done live, in fact a lot stuff is pieced together painstakingly but i always try to start the process by getting them set up and playing it through for one live take. This is invaluable information even if there is nothing used in the finished product. You can usually tell if the tempo the band suggest is actually the one they naturally play it at. Also playing as a band instead of alone in a control room often changes the performances immensely, it is worth knowing about those discrepancies. Often when you point this out to a player they are as surprised as you how they have altered what they do.
mixingAudioPros: You are obviously adapting to the changes in technology and the music industry in that you are offering online services. How do you feel that the industry is adapting to “‘remote services” such as online mixing and mastering for instance?
Pat Collier: As a lot of information becomes routine to have existing as digital only mixing and mastering on line seems a logical thing to do. No more will we worry about master tapes being wiped on the tube whilst travelling to the cutting room. Shame really as the tin foil everyone wrapped the tapes in kept it all nice and fresh. But moving files on line beats two inch tape hands down.
mixingAudioPros: What has been your biggest challenge?
Pat Collier: Not too much in the challenging line but avoiding telling the wife how much the new desk was costing seems frought with disastrous possibilities in hind sight.
mixingAudioPros: Simple but extremely complex. Favorite band?
Pat Collier: At the moment probably Tom Petty. Dunno why but I have found his stuff really great for a couple of years now. Past winners would be Little Feat, Television and Green Day.
mixingAudioPros: What is the single best decision you have made in your life so far?
Pat Collier: To take the job at Decca. Over the years I have had a lot of young people work in the recording studio with me and although everyone at a young age thinks that they would love to work in a recording studio it is a small minority that actually like it in the cold light of day. It is or can be very boring and long-winded and particularly not glamorous.
That and marrying the right woman!