Online Mixing Q & A With Top UK Producer & Engineer George Shilling
One of the reasons we started AirGigs was to open up new music production possibilities for independent artists. So when we connected with George Shilling we were really excited, because we knew this was a unique opportunity for indie artists to get their tracks mixed by a world class talent. George’s production credits would be too long to list here, but they include names like Steve Winwood, James Brown, Lisa Stansfield, Primal Scream and The Soup Dragons. His professionally built home studio is packed full of a ton of great gear, but when you work with George you’re getting so much more than gear. You’re getting years of experience as a sought after multi-instrumentalist, producer and recording engineer. Aside from that, George is a real easy going down to earth guy, who fully embraces the world of online music collaboration.
You can check out George’s gigs here: http://www.airgigs.com/user/georgeshilling
You apprenticed at LIvingston studios under producer / engineer Jerry Boys (Ry Cooder, Buena Vista, REM and more) and others…is that where you first learned to be a recording engineer? What was that experience like?
I knew nothing about how studios worked before I got the job there; I didn’t even know how to make a good cup of tea! It was so exciting – before the internet, there was great mystery about things like recording technology, and I was completely in awe of the engineers at the studio, and the producers and bands who came in. Livingston grew in stature over the few years I worked there – they bought a big SSL desk in 1985, three months after I started (which was still there until last year), then expanded into a second building, with four SSL studios, restaurant, snooker table… I watched and assisted a huge variety of sessions, from major league bands like REM, Icehouse, The Clash and The Smiths, to odd three hour jingle sessions, jazz bands, and odd (and sometimes VERY odd!) theatrical and TV projects. It was a friendly place, with a relaxed feel, but behind it was Jerry’s Abbey Road training and experience. The standard of engineering and professionalism was very high, and I was very lucky to have that experience.
In the last 20 years the music & recording industry has undergone some serious changes. How has that shaped the evolution of your career?
When I first started, the only sign of the digital revolution to come was the Sony F1 system which recorded stereo CD quality audio onto Betamax video tape. It was only really used as a ‘safety’ copy of the half-inch analogue reel to reel master. Then my big break came when Coldcut booked in, a pair of non-musician DJs with a box of records and an Atari computer for MIDI sequencing, the whole concept of which was completely alien to the established engineering staff at Livingston. They had credibility on the dance music scene, and I was lucky enough to be involved with their big hits as producers with Yazz, Lisa Stansfield and even a James Brown cut-up medley single. However, many years later I was a rather late and initially reluctant convert to computer recording – proper sessions still used 2” tape and big desks! But I bought a Mac and got stuck in and soon found it to be many dreams come true, with the speed and ease of editing that clients now take for granted. Not that long after getting the computer setup I built my studio and my whole career changed from freelancing at places like Abbey Road, AIR, Townhouse and Rockfield to mainly working at my own place. That really wouldn’t have been possible without the advances in technology.
You have a long list of impressive credits, among which was engineering and producing The Soup Dragons worldwide hit “I’m Free”…was that a major game changer for you?
It was, in that I moved out of London and thought that I would be set up for life, travelling the world and producing artists. I had a very fruitful 1990s with some terrific projects, a lot of stuff for Creation Records, and some great foreign trips. I got to work in some amazing studios and with some fantastic musicians. But with the invention of the internet and the building up of my own studio as a business, things have ultimately turned out different from what I expected; in many ways more enjoyable – I love not having to commute! And knowing my setup so well now, and having all my favourite toys here, I think I can get better results now than I would turning up to unfamiliar rooms.
Tell us a bit about your home studio…
With the decline of the UK music industry in the late 90’s and early 00’s I found myself increasingly working in the spare bedroom. This wasn’t ideal, so I set about building a ‘proper’ studio, and fortunately had the space to build it next to my house. I fired the architect and designed it myself on the back of an envelope using my experience of working elsewhere, and it has turned out great. I would ideally have liked even more space, but I’ve got a separate recording room which is plaster and wood and can make a great ambient drum sound. The control room is airconditioned; it is pretty big and some recording goes on in there, which is great for ease of communication. There’s a Yamaha Grand Piano, and quite a variety of other instruments, Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos, some synths, guitar pedals, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Hofner guitars and oddities like Autoharps, harmonium and Omnichord. I’ve got a great raft of mics and outboard, and an ever changing variety of ‘guest’ hardware outboard due to my occasional role of equipment reviewer for Resolution Magazine. But I’ve been working in the same spot for eight years now, so I’m pretty familiar with the monitoring, and I love mixing projects where I can fit things in and take breaks when I feel like it.
How does being a musician and composer inform your mixing work?
Good question! I was a pretty good musician, a cellist and pianist before getting the job at Livingston, at which point I pretty much stopped playing for a few years. But I’m really glad I made the effort to get my chops back, because to be a good cellist requires very careful listening to intonation, and also avoiding scrapes and bumps when changing bow direction or hand positions. So each role informs the other – sound engineers are paranoid about clicks and bumps too! It’s all about listening ability, something that is rarely touched on in magazine articles about mixing or studio gear. It is a skill that is learned through experience, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it! As a composer I’m very aware of song structures and arrangements, so if that’s something the artist needs help with I’m happy to pitch in with my ideas.
Do you have a particular instrumentation, genre or style of music that you prefer to mix?
Not really, I like a challenge, and I relish learning new techniques and styles. It is always good to know the artist’s influences and favourite records which can help to inform my decision-making. One can tend to get pigeon-holed if successful with a particular genre, but I’ve done a wide variety of records which perhaps can be to my detriment – I’m not always an obvious choice for a particular style. But I’m a music-lover and I like to think I bring freshness to a project rather than churning out a style of music or mix that is potentially clichéd. I mixed an album recently by Stornoway, and I thought they’d come to me because I’d done Teenage Fanclub. But later they said in an interview that it was also because of Primal Scream, which was rather a different-sounding thing! So I guess there has to be a small leap of faith to hand over the reins to someone who has done so many different kinds of projects. But I love to get immersed in different and new things, I’d get bored otherwise! So I say, bring it on!
This is a wide open question, but would you be able to offer any general direction or advice for a band or artist in search of major label quality sound on an indie-ish budget?
Well I think things have certainly become cheaper, and I now charge about half the rate of a day in Livingston in 1985 (even at 1985 prices!), and that includes me producing and engineering as well as the studio! Perhaps in the past, artists wouldn’t even get in touch, thinking I’d be too expensive, but there’s a lot of competition around now and people are offering to mix for free or very cheaply. It’s worth paying a reasonable rate for quality and using someone who you think will care about the results, and that goes for recording as well as mixing. I’d focus on the person or people and their skills rather than the studio gear. But I would also say invest in the best possible instruments. And there are no shortcuts to writing and recording great songs, it takes a lot of work on the part of the artist! Quality starts right there!
From the perspective of a potential client, can you tell us about your process or approach toward online mixing?
I’ll always ask about influences and favourite records, even if they don’t seem directly related to the song. And of course if there are any specific things that are being aimed for, whether particular elements or an overall sound. It’s good to have a rough mix, especially to check that I actually have received all the elements! Ideally I’ll want as many decisions to have been made beforehand – I don’t want outtakes and guitar tracks with six separately recorded microphones. But if I do get that, I’ll first of all do any necessary housekeeping before getting to the creative mixing. Taking plenty of breaks during mixing is essential, and that’s another reason why it’s better to be here rather than in a commercial facility where you feel time pressure. I’ll work mostly on one set of speakers, but towards the end of the process will check on Auratones, headphones and in my front room where I’ll often pick up on one small thing – there’s nothing like checking on your home hi-fi!
How do you handle situations where a client has a specific production “sound” or “vibe” in mind that they are shooting for?
I like it if the artist has a focussed idea where I can have some reference tracks to help guide me. I’ve often discovered great records I didn’t even know about in that way! I like the challenge.
Does online mixing produce comparable results compared to working with you in person?
Absolutely; even with local clients I’ll send them away when I’m setting the mix up. I much prefer them to listen with ‘fresh ears’ rather than torturing them with the process. I’ll feel inhibited about trying crazy stuff, even if it’s just my cat listening in the room! So even with a band like Stornoway who are just up the road in Oxford, they came and brought me the files and we had a chat about the mix, but they left me to do the mixes and I sent them files over the net so they could listen on their own familiar setup.
In your mixing gig, you also include mastering…can tell us a bit about your mastering process?
Well I’m not necessarily aiming to compete with specialist mastering facilities, but 99% of the time I reckon I can get as good a result for a fraction of the price. Again, it’s all about listening and comparing. With vinyl there are particular skills to mastering (which I don’t have!), and there are certainly some specialist skills to digital mastering, but essentially it’s an extension of the mixing process, to give a bit of extra polish and consistency to the end result. I’ll use different techniques depending on the nature of the music. For example, I had some pumping dance music to master recently which had an overly-wide stereo image in the bottom end, so I had to bring that together with a frequency-dependent imager before working on the tone and dynamics. As with mixing, it’s useful to have some references.
You’ve worked with some amazing people…any experiences, insights or anecdotes you care to share?
Well, boringly, most very successful and famous artists are actually really lovely people! I guess they have nothing to prove. So going for a beer at the pub with Steve Winwood is great fun, because he’ll just wear his favourite old jumper with holes in the elbows, and we will talk about music or whatever. I’ve got some great stories about incidents on sessions with Malcolm McLaren, Primal Scream and Joe Strummer, but they’d take a long time to type in and I’m not sure they’d work so well written down, so you’ll have to come over and take me to the pub for those!
Who is your biggest inspiration (musical or otherwise)?
My roster of favourite artists and producers is always changing. It’s the variety that keeps things interesting, and at different times I’ve been inspired by the likes of people I’ve been lucky enough to work with, like Mike Oldfield, Julian Lloyd Webber and Bernard Butler. So it’s very difficult to say, but perhaps my biggest inspiration is my late father who was an incredibly hard working (and moderately successful) opera singer, and the most down-to-earth, good humoured (if occasionally intolerant!), reliable and honest person.
For even more on George you can check out the video below:
You can check out George’s gigs here: http://www.airgigs.com/user/georgeshilling