The Lego Attitude: An Interview with Blake Devitt

 
 


Tech to the glitterati of the music production world and technical curator of Superhet, Mr Blake Devitt, our Blake, has just flown back into the country after his top secret mission to San Francisco. (Extended attempts by Blake to explain the arduous nature of his work over there were somewhat tempered by his marvellous sun tan.) Recently he gave rather a good interview and now would seem like a timely moment to unleash it - a roller-coaster of an interview in which the world's most google-able studio tech reveals the detail in the foundations of great music production.

 
 


What does a studio tech do?

I like to look at it as being part of a team rather than being on your own. Harking back to the classic days of recording, you were there to oil the wheels, just like everybody else was. You were all important and the client could tell when they walked through the door that "this system works", and it's worked before, and it's going to work now. It put them at their ease. When you've got a client who relaxes, the session works better - I swear you can hear it on the record.

Preparation as well: like an assistant does, preparing the studio for the client coming in. "What went wrong the last time? Right, I'll come in on the Sunday. No on knows I'm coming in but I'll just double check that this doesn't make that funny noise again, or I wasn't happy with that, I wasn't happy with this" - a good studio tech will automatically do it. Just like 'the good assistant' will have automatically tidied the place up, cleaned all the patch cables, zeroed the desk, found all the recall sheets, made sure they're understandable, ordered more gaffer tape and china-graph pencils - all the old things you used to do that are still pertinent and important now.

But haven't studios stopped having tech departments?

The old days, when there were actually tech departments (which to me is the first thing you have to have to be able to have a tech), they're coming back in a way. I think it's becoming very hip to say you have that sort of backup. If you've got proper old gear - that responds better to being fettled and loved and looked after - then it's easier to keep it in tip-top condition. I mean, you do need a tech there all the time.

It's nice, from my point of view, to be in a studio again. Because, to be honest, when you're sitting in a workshop on your lonesome just fixing gear, you don't feel part of the system. So a lot of people I still get on with are still proper studio techs - there are places in London who have brilliant tech staff. I was down in London last week and spent most of the time laughing and telling stories about ridiculous studio sessions and awful equipment - the usual things.

 
The old-school way of doing it’s becoming hip again.
 


Studio tech-ing (I think) is coming back. The old-school way of doing it's becoming hip again. Anyone can sit in their back bedroom with a copy of Cubase and a few Waves plugins or whatever and go "I'm a Producer". No! I think people are wise to it. Just look at the funny cartoons on YouTube about stuff like this - the whole world just pokes fun at it now. Places are actually realising that they should have a studio tech and make them part of the studio, it's all coming full circle again. I said it would, it's brilliant!


Many people will be wondering how you got into all of this?

Well, I walked in on a Jamiroquai session at Great Linford Manor. They were recording 'Travelling Without Moving' so it was one hell of a baptism of fire. It wasn't like it was the first time I'd fixed stuff, I'd been fixing stuff since '77. Good stuff and bad stuff: lighting and sound, high-end audio and installations, and night clubs (so you got used to hammering sound systems and finding out what would work and what wouldn't). So, by the time I went into a studio on a session (because they had problems with certain bits and bobs) and I started looking inside all the equipment, I knew half of it, because you recognised all the passive components particularly. You thought "ooh those are good switches... those are cheap switches" and you notice things like a Neve module: you took the lid off and went "oh what!?", this hasn't been made to a budget, it's just been made properly.

So I recognised most of the components and just dived in and I realised how Neve stuff actually worked - the fundamentals are so simple it's a joke. Everyone thinks it's some sort of black art, it's not. It's just "don't lose track of the fundamental way of doing it". I can have conversations with people who track properly (the one's who always get a good drum sound) and it's exactly the same thing. Once you know what the fundamentals are, you just grab them and do not let go. And it works.

You mentioned the make Neve a couple of times back there...

Oh yeah I do do a bit of that. It's funny that, and strange. I'm a bit of a collector and a hoarder of the stuff. I look at it like audio Lego because everything was made in a certain way. People seem to think that if you do Neve you have to have done 15 years designing electronic circuits or something. No, I say to them: the person who builds the best Lego model hash't done a PhD in polymer chemistry to understand how plastic works or done injection moulding to understand how to make the bricks. You just have to see them as agreed parts that have been honed to do a job the best they possibly can for that era. They were built so expensively - hand wired and all this business - all the best ways they could do it. They didn't know any better, they just did it the best way they could do it, then applied those separate parts all the way through the whole chain in the studio.

 
The bricks are great. That’s why I like Lego, and then I found Neve.
 


And it's how they fit together too. It's not just the console, it's the patch bay that you're confronted with, knowing every single hole on that patch has an agreed impedance and noise floor, and you can connect that to this and it will just work. It won't hum or be a little problem with things not mating properly. That's why I don't like cheap equipment in a studio: it never works with a patch properly, it doesn't quite like this load or earth loop or something. You don't get that when you're looking at a Neve console. You can patch anything into anything and it's going to have a go - it's going to work. And you're not going to go "well that sounds fantastic, but the noise floor's terrible". If it is, it's the person who's mixed it or tracked it or whatever. It's normally not the console. If you make a Lego model that's unstable and falls apart or is ugly, it's the fault of the builder! Not the bricks. The bricks are great. That's why I like Lego, and then I found Neve.


What do you think it is about the Neve tone that Producers love so much?

 
 
 
 


So you think this does have a bearing on the listener?

Yeah, I'm convinced of it. I think when it has a bearing on the band it automatically does. As soon as the band, producer, engineer and assistant - the ones who are actually at the cutting face - and say it's been a difficult day (they had problems with this, that didn't work, there was a hum problem there and they're not in the mood), once you get it all to gel and it kicks off and you get that track that's a first take, I'm convinced you can hear it in the end result.

You can hear the mood people were in when they were making it. You just know with some albums that they had a damn good time making it. And I don't mean round the table later on at night telling stories with a few bottles of wine, I mean actually physically doing it. It just worked. You have to have the right equipment and I'm pleased to do vintage Neve because consistently people leave with their record in the can - or whatever, so to speak - smiling, saying "This is gonna be great".

I think it's really important, people lose track of this. You get bands that come in, or a solo artist, and they've written songs - it's their entire world. And they don't seem to realise themselves. It's them, it's the most important thing in their life right now; or it should be. They're recording an album of songs they've written, how personal can you get? They've given up so many things to sit down, not go out, write these songs. Then they want to go into a studio and record it and they start cutting corners! I don't get it at all! The ones who've learnt this don't cut corners and they say "we're gonna have what's so personal to me done so properly" and then the painting they've produced is put in the correct frame and lit properly for people to see.

You're kind of implying there's a return to old-school ethics at Superhet. You're here with a workshop and there's a production ethic going on, and an attention to detail. Do you think, in this day and age, it can still be made to work?

 
 
 
 




So you, as a tech, you're close to the music. Are you actually into music, do you like music?

I listen analytically to music. But not from the point of view of as to how it was made. I never used to think of how it was made. I used to try and understand why what I got from a certain piece of music, I didn't get from another piece. It's only now, looking back at certain classic recordings, that what I was getting from half of them wasn't just the performance - it was who recorded it, on what and where. So now I look through my old albums and you can see this pattern of who the engineer was, who had the 'ears', where it was recorded, on what. And Neve and stuff like this pops up over and over again.

I suddenly realised that there was a parallel running with what I was getting out of music and my work. The two went hand in glove. So now I really, really enjoy bringing albums in to play to an assistant who's never heard that particular piece of music and would never get it presented to them.

 
When you go into a very good restaurant it’s not just full of chefs.
 


I'll say "Sit down. Listen to this." and watch their face when they get to that particular part of the chorus that I know has a certain chord change or a certain drum sound and you see them go 'oh what!?' in exactly the place I was hoping they would. And good music's got all this in it; it's in there for everyone to enjoy - not just the people in the recording industry. I mean, when you go into a very good restaurant it's not just full of chefs. It's an easy concept to appreciate - you can immerse yourself so much in the recording industry that you sometimes feel you're making music just for you. But you're not, it's a product.

Most people, sadly, never hear the end result properly - not hearing everything that's in it, but then again they're not necessarily needing it for that. A lot of people like just very good fish and chips and don't want very clever sautéed new potatoes that have been flown in from Jersey that morning. They're not into food from that sort of point of view, but they know damn well that this chip shop's better than that chip shop. They don't care why, they just use that one because that's the one they like. So they buy the album, like the sound and say "oh this'll work for me! I can play in the car, I can play it on the computer. There you go!" And yet a lot of those people get a similar thing out of music that I do: the emotional aspect of it.


From listening to you, it's fair to say you've got about a bit. You've seen one or two people in order to amass this level of knowledge. Where have you been?

Bearing in mind that a lot of techs have been in on many more sessions than me, and been in more studios, I was quite quite fortunate for doing a vintage Neve at Great Linford Manor for like 10 or 15 years, a wonderful experience. I've since, because I'd done the Neve bit, got about and gone all over the place.

I put the monitor wing from Abbey Road into Metallica's studio in San Francisco - that was an experience! It's the most bizarre building. I'd describe it as the headquarters of SMERSH but with pinball machines. Which just about sums it up. Next time they have a building it should actually be in an extinct volcano - just to follow along with the almost James Bond angle of what they're already doing.

I looked after Max Martin in Stockholm for a long time, when he had his old Neve up there. That was a nice place to be in - a place that couldn't be further removed from Metallica's HQ. It was typically Swedish: everything almost crystalline in its cleanness and their approach to things too. The design of the place and the way it looked was wonderful. I knew what they wanted from me and did exactly that.

 
Metallica’s studio... I’d describe it as the headquarters of SMERSH but with pinball machines.
 


I've worked with some great producers - people I know who are wonderful people but with such good 'ears'. Michael Ilbert in Berlin is a case in point. I've never seen anyone but him who will find every fault on a desk. If I had a magic way of lending out a console for testing, I'd lend it to Michael to do an album on because I know damn well I'd get a report back of every single fault. 90% I wouldn't find by testing it; you've got to find them by actually using it. And some people, like him, are absolutely amazing. Their 'ears' are incredible and the way they work is so wonderfully methodical and structured because they understand the Lego way of doing it; and how one stage leads onto another. You get about and you meet these people.

So I've done a lot of Europe. There's quite a few I look after. There's one of my old favourites at ICP in Brussels. I like the whole attitude there, it's just Rock 'n' Roll gone mad - you've never seen so many guitar pedals in your life. They just have an attitude of "well, we may as well have it, people like to use it". It's just ridiculous. So wonderfully over the top.

I did one in Taipei. Everyone should go to the Far East, it's an absolute cultural eye-opener. But I must admit, having like, a chinese meal for breakfast, is very strange. They couldn't understand, they said "well it's chinese food". Yes, but I'm only used to it in a 'hey we'll have a takeaway!' kinda way. That took some getting used to.


Different countries attitude to equipment is extraordinary as well. But I do like the Scandinavian way of doing it, I must admit. They really do like old-school, like people in America do. But, they don't have such a history of their own equipment and old studios. They're modern but wanting to do it old, based on... what? They haven't really had the experience of it. People like Benny Andersson. When I put his console in (Dave from Superhet came and helped me move it in the first place), we took it from Max Martin and then put into another place in Stockholm. Their attitude there is "well, we've been in studios and we've seen this gear, so now we want it".

There's Hansa in Berlin. You walk in and the live room's the same. Even the sofas I wanted, and they went "you're not having those, they've been here since 1970" - whatever. It's part of the whole ethos of the feel of the place. So the history in a lot of these places is wonderful and you think 'ooh who recorded here?'. You start to listen to your old album collection again, in a completely different way.

I did Sigur Rós's console - about three trips to Reykjavik - and the way they work, the way they record their stuff and the way they put it together, is so unusual and refreshing. A typical Icelandic attitude. The attitude was there, in how they wanted the console and how they wanted their whole room, let alone the view out the window - fantastic!


It seems like there's a take home message here: that making music, is a meeting of the right attitudes more than anything else?

Oh absolutely. From my perspective the right attitude can only come from people with empirical knowledge or experience who've realised that keeping up the standards with equipment is the first thing, keeping that equipment running the best it can, is another thing. It's a small part of it and there are hundreds of them. It's the 1% here, 1% there, 1% there. And the tech is back from that, like the chef is the engineer/producer combination and the sous-chef is the assistant, the tech is the person who made sure all the ingredients were there, ready to go. That's the way I look at it. It's like you grew them all.

I guess people are wondering, after this surfeit of interesting information, whether we're going to be hearing some more from you over the course of time?

Oh no, I'm going to run away and hide. No, I want to do more and more. I want to do more here, inasmuch as I'm going to now, for the first time, with the new workshop, going to be putting parts back together that were taken apart over the 20 years ago (from all round the world). So, I've got rather a lot of modules and Neve parts, but they're all going to be run into the studio before anything ever happens. And, I'm going to be building things particularly for the studio to use - little bespoke bits and bobs, so watch this space. I want the results of the studio recordings to be self-evidently more and more interesting, involving, and of a higher quality. Where you can actually hear that the people who made the record enjoyed it because of my input. That's the whole point. I'm not just here to fix gear.

So you're definitely going to be part of the records?

Oh yeah, a good tech always is. However much they feel that - because their name isn't on the album, they don't get a credit and they certainly don't get a percentage of the royalties - they're somehow not part of it. But, a really good tech knows that they are, just by virtue of the fact of the smile on a producer's face when you walk in - you've worked with them before and they go "oh great it's him!".

It's so nice when you've had that result, especially on a difficult session. I've had it before. Two weeks after a session had finished, a famously difficult producer found the time to phone me up after an awkward session just to say "I'm sorry I but I forgot; I didn't thank you for what you did on that session". It made my month, let alone my day, that he noticed. Because good people do.

They're only trying to do it properly, to the best of their ability, just like you are. If you all realise you are, you just get on. The quality has to be kept up all the way through - you just have to! If everyone in the studio does this, upwards is the only way it can go.