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Gil Norton lists his favourite studio gear

Gear and recording knowledge from the great alt-producer

PRODUCTION EXPO 2013: A doyen of the rock production world, Gil Norton's illustrious career has seen him fashion classic albums for the Pixies, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World and Echo & The Bunnymen amongst many others.

Drawing upon his incredible experience of making guitar bands sound godlike over the years, for Production Expo 2013 Norton gives us direct insight into the rock producer's mindset, discussing how it's the little details that might make a big difference to your productions.

While running through his essential gear, he also advises that careful planning and pre-production might be the key to saving a whole heap of studio time and money.

The basics

"Production is like any trade so you have to understand the fundamentals like mic positioning, clean signal paths and what mics work best on different things. Making an arbitrary statement here, I'd say that recording a proper drum sound is an art form within itself.

"To do that you need good mics, a good room, a good desk and a good drummer, so there are quite a lot of elements that go into getting that drum sound.

"There are still some good studios where young people can learn the basic principles of engineering. They are still important because they're the building blocks of any production; knowing how to record something. You have to practise, try out different things... There are no 'good' or 'bad' sounds, just 'different' sounds."

Platforms: Logic, Reason, Pro Tools

"It doesn't really matter so long as you find a platform that you understand, are comfortable working on and that does what you need it to do. If you're more of a programming producer, Logic or Reason will be perfect for you. If you're recording performances then, for me, Pro Tools is the more logical choice of platform just because it's more like a tape machine.

"We are all sculptors, trying to create a sound"

"Sometimes when you're recording into digital it can sound a little bit brittle. So, again, you have to learn what the different recording formats do. Once you understand them, you can make them work for you. People have made great music on 4-track machines and I've seen people doing things on Reason.

"We're all sound sculptors, trying to create a sound. Some of the things you can do within the Reason or Logic environment are amazing. People can now have quite inexpensive yet really high quality digital platforms that enable them to be creative at home. That's the bottom line with all music."

Norton's focus on pre-production had a huge impact on the Foo Fighters Colour And The Shape album

Pre-production

"Pre-production always has been, will be and shall forever more be the most important part of production. To be a good producer you need to be organised and to understand the band, what they need to achieve, their abilities and what everyone's expectations are.

"Then you have to manage all the different elements. If you haven't got a plan, everything goes to pot. The worst thing you can do to any artist is confuse them - confusion on a session is just deadly! Everything goes out the window then.

"That's where pre-production is invaluable because it's the cheap end of the production deal. I've been in some ropey old rehearsal rooms... I remember going to Boston to do Throwing Muses and Pixies, and we were stuck in a square little box room with nothing.

"There's no use going in thinking every drummer is going to be a Dave Grohl because they're not"

"We had little amps and a dodgy PA but that's where the music is created. We sat down with acoustic guitars and worked out arrangements. As a producer, pre-production is so important because that's where I get to work out what I'm doing.

"I find out what the songs are, what the band are, how they interact, how they work with each other and their abilities… There's no use going in thinking every drummer is going to be a Dave Grohl because they're not."

Microphones

"I was at Sear Sound [Recording] in New York working with Patti Smith, and I was talking with Walter Sear [late vintage synth and analogue studio legend] about his amazing vintage mic collection. I asked which mic he would choose if he was only allowed to have one and he said, "An SM58". That's genius as it's totally the only mic you would need.

"Realistically, you can do nearly anything with a [Shure] SM58. It's such a great workhorse. It sounds great in front of a guitar cab, on snare drums, for vocals... It's got a great top end and doesn't feedback. They're fairly inexpensive, great quality, capture most sounds you might want to capture and, if you're young and wanting to learn about recording, you can drop them and they still work."

Monitors

"I feel so sad admitting this but I'm happiest with my old Yamaha NS10s. So long as you get to know your monitors, I don't really care what they are. Some people like Genelecs or Adam Audio, but when I'm recording I quite like the KRK E8s as they're vibey and great at handling bass end.

"I don't mind using stuff from a demo if someone's done a great backing vocal - I'm having it!"

"If you're doing a bass overdub or getting a drum sound, you need to be able to really feel it when you turn up the speakers.

"The way I look at it is that, if you listen to and reference lots of different types of sounds and different mixes on any speaker, then it comes down to preference as to what you want to listen to your music on. Some speakers, if you're mixing, can be a bit too hi-fi and everything sounds great on them.

"That's why I still like the [Yamaha] NS10s while I'm mixing just because they don't make everything sound great and a bit middley.

"A pair of Auratones are essential to me - I've actually got a pair of Avantones, which are like powered Auratones. I've got five sets of monitors in front of me at my home studio, which I swap in and out. I've got a pair of the [SE Electronics] SE Munro Eggs. When I got them it was pleasure to listen to music again, then when I tried to mix on them I wasn't sure because they sound a little too good. But I use them quite a lot now."

Ways to work

"In this day and age you have to work fast. Sometimes I get demos that sound fantastic but that haven't been recorded in high enough quality that we can use any of them. I don't mind using stuff from a demo if someone's done a great backing vocal - I'm having it!

"Sometimes trying to recreate something that happened spontaneously in the studio environment is a complete nightmare. So, if you're doing demos, hard-drives aren't that expensive anymore so you don't have to record at 44.1khz/16 bit, I think, at the minimum, you should be on 48khz/24bit.

"That way, if anything magical does happen, you can bring it into my environment and I can still use some of the performances you've captured. I did go through a phase of doing everything at 96khz sample rate but it was killing the machines!"

Mixing desks

"I don't use them anymore. I mixed the new Pixies stuff at my home studio, which is a really simple set-up as I didn't want it to be complicated but I wanted good equipment. I have a Chandler summing mixer, a Manley Massive Passive EQ and an SSL G-Series compressor. That's all the outboard I use now, really.

Norton also worked on the Pixies' classic album Doolittle

"I got the Chandler because I wanted something that was clean, had headroom and wasn't coloured. With the Manley, it's just so flexible: you can use it a little bit, not at all, or you can really dig into it if you want to. The SSL type compression on the end of a mix just to hold it is great."

Essential kit

"Signal distribution boxes. I've got two that I use and wouldn't go anywhere without. One is the Little Labs PCP Distro and the other is the Radial JD7 Injector. They're both amazing boxes because you can put a guitar into them. I can feed three or four different amps, lift earth, which is one of the drawbacks of using multiple amps - you get all sorts of earth and phase problems.

"So those little boxes are essential. You know, you're getting good line-level signals into each of the amps."

Gil Norton produced the Pixies recent EP1 and is currently finishing an album with Twin Atlantic.

Interview by Hamish Mackintosh


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