Guy Sigsworth on working with Madonna

PRODUCTION EXPO 2014: Last year's brilliant electronic collaboration with Alison Moyet, The Minutes, showcased the song-writing and innovative production skills that keep Guy Sigsworth at the top of the UK's production tree.

Previous productions have included Seal, Bjork, Alanis Morissette and Madonna to mention but a mere few. The ideal man, therefore, for MusicRadar to discuss the modern producer's shape-shifting role, working in the box and just what it feels like to collaborate with Madonna.

Seal - Crazy

In this constantly evolving music landscape, what does production currently entail?

"I guess it can involve anything. In R&B and hip-hop 'producer' means the person that made the beat. Classic production does still exist although sometimes you get situations where, really, people get a songwriter and they get a mixer and there isn't really a producer at all.

"I think another thing that's tricky for producers is when they don't also co-write the material, since the revenue is increasingly in the live streams, the trouble is that you don't collect producer royalties on live performances!

"I'm lucky that I still tend to get enough people who want to work with me. The budgets are obviously smaller compared to what they were when I first entered the field, but I tend to work with the artists so there's an element of co-writing, which does help. I'm not sure how it would all work if I was more of a traditional rock producer who didn't really help write the material but just helped the band get the performances into the computer."

"Psychotherapist is definitely part of the role. The more you know the person then the more you're able to push them a bit"

What do you feel a good producer brings to a project?

"It's hard to answer that, really. Brian Eno once said that when his kids were trying to describe to people what their dad did said, "He helps people make records". That's not a bad definition. I love his production and it's interesting to ask what exactly it is Brian Eno does bring to his productions?

"It appears to be different each time, sometimes I think he champions the songs that nobody else likes or shows people a different way of working or even just helping you not just be a straight rock and roll band.

"It can involve any number of things; in my mind certain jobs are inseparable. For instance, I think engineering, you know, EQs, balances and things like that are distinguishable from producing. The first producer I ever worked with was Trevor Horn and I don't think he was really an engineer. There are some people who come from engineering into producing but Trevor was more coming from a background of being a musician. He would have a sonic picture in his mind that he would then help the artist realise.

"I love that approach and, ironically enough for someone who produces other people, I think that some of the producers who I most admire are often people who produce themselves.

"I think Kate Bush is a brilliant producer even though she only produces her own music. Think of her great records and they're incredibly bold and brave in production terms and they inspired lots of us to then try and learn some of those lessons and apply them to other situations. Prince, in his heyday, was another brilliant producer who only really produced himself."

Is agent provocateur part of the producer's role?

"It can be if you have that kind of trust with an artist. Psychotherapist is definitely part of the role and if you have a trust with an artist then you can prod them and be a little bit more critical. Obviously, I you're dealing with somebody really insecure then that's not a good strategy! So, it's a matter of the more you know the person then the more you're able to push them a bit."

What are essential tools you use to produce?

"We always seem to think we need more and more and I got to the point where every month I'd read the music-making magazines and think, 'Oh my god, all my equipment's become museum pieces already!'. You definitely need good, analytical ears, which is not just about frequencies but it's also about when something isn't working being able to analyse what isn't working and help talk them through.

"Saying that, we all know that talking about music is one of the hardest things to do because it's not language, its music. I think you need to able to encourage people to at least see what the options are in a situation and analyse the fault - perhaps, in the arrangement one instrument is fighting another, or fighting the vocal.

"You have to convey that the song structure needs to be changed, repositioned or replaced. The more you do it the better you get at noticing those kinds of things and figuring out what can fit and what can't."

You're a big fan of working in the box, aren't you?

"Again, I don't think it's a matter of it being one way for everybody but I like it. and it works for me I made the upgrade to ProTools 11 as I'm sure a few people have recently and I was surprised how many little things when I go back to a session that was done in ProTools 10 aren't quite right - plug-ins that don't exist anymore because they haven't done an AAX of it.

"You just think, 'oh well, it's just a compressor' but then you're listening to it and the different character of a different compressor changes everything! It's almost like going back to those days when you would do recalls on old SSL desks and they never came out the same, no matter how well the assistants had written down the settings on everything.

"It's not the end of the world, really but there are a few little things like with PSP's Pianoverb, which emulates the reverb of a piano sustain pedal. They've upgraded from V.1 to V.2 only Pianoverb V.2 doesn't really sound like V.1. I found that there's one old track where I'd heavily used it and the new version just doesn't sound the same as the original one no matter what I do with it."

Madonna - What it Feels Like For a Girl

How did you approach working with someone the stature of Madonna when you collaborated on What It Feels Like for a Girl?

"That song was quite an unusual situation. I sent Madonna a backing track, which already had the spoken word bit in and then she wrote a vocal to it. At the start of our meeting together she sang me her guide vocal, which I thought was great. There was just one thing, in that it worked perfectly against the chorus but it was a little odd against the verse.

"Madonna said she wanted the music adjusted to better fit her melody so I moved a bar to bring it in line with the verse and she said she thought was too simple. She wanted to use the sounds that were already there so there was no question of overdubbing things so what I did was to create the arrangement by basically just chopping up and re-positioning sounds that were already in the mix in different positions around her vocal to create the verse.

"That was a wonderful challenge because I stuck with what I'd brought on the demo, obviously Spike (*co-producer Mark 'Spike' Stent) made sure it sounded even better but we never went into opening up a load of new synths or samplers to find new sounds. It was just 'where do we place the sounds we have to make the verse work?' It was a problem but in a way it was brilliant in the way she imposed a restriction on it that made us be more creative."

"It's nice to be able to play a chord or a melody idea even when you're not routed into the DAW"

So, restrictions aren't always a bad thing in production?

"Exactly. I'm not a minimalist but some of my best productions are ones where I had some kind of idea in mind of what it was going to be like right from the start, or at least very early on. I'm not claiming that I heard every hi-hat of a final mix but it's like there was a particular vision that I was working towards. Those productions tend to come out better than the ones where I'm just trying things out to see what works. Maybe that's because there's such infinity of possibilities these days that you can drown in it.

"I did a track where I'd only use sounds that had come off a piano even though it wasn't just chords; knocking the piano to create a bass-drum and other noises generated from the piano. That wasn't just to be arty and it was interesting as it gave it a character it wouldn't have had it we'd just thrown everything we had at it."

Other than your ProTools rig, what else is essential to a production job for you?

"In terms of hardware I'd make sure that the mic and the channel-strips etc are good for the singer. I've got my own favourites. I really like my Sony C800 microphone for most singers and I've got a really nice SE mic for using with certain singers as it brings different things out of the voice. The thing you're trying to capture is the emotion and the warmth but with enough detail too. That's why I like the Sony as you get that warmth and you can hear everything you want off the voice.

"I have plenty of in the box stuff to play around with, as well as a guitar or a piano, that aren't connected to the computer so that you can always try an idea. It's nice to be able to play a chord or a melody idea even when you're not routed into the DAW and not be worried that somebody has to open a channel for it. It's in that moment that the harmonies might change or something really creative might happen.

"What's also important is to try and trick yourself into hearing a song that you've already listened to a thousand times as if you're hearing if for the first time. Obviously you want other people to listen more than once but you want to make sure that that first listen fundamentally makes sense.

"You can have all your hidden details and treasures that people will discover after repeat listens but you really want that fundamental emotional character and essence of the song to hit people immediately on the very first listen.

"It's a hard thing to do as you're no longer surprised by a track when you've heard it several times over while you were putting it together but it's really important to remember how you felt the first time that day or after a break before you'd allowed it to become something you'd endlessly repeated."