Top audio engineer gives away his secret of recording singers
Over the past20 Years, he has mixed some of the most successful singers and artists on the planet. Among them, U2, Florence and the Machine, Tom Jones, Nick Cave, Graham Coxon, Blur, Snow Patrol, New Order, Jamie T, Kaiser Chiefs, the list goes on. So what tips does Cenzo Townshend have for us.
He’s kept good company over the years on his side of the desk too, cutting his teeth alongside the likes of Alan Moulder, Flood and Mark Stent in the capacity of producer and engineer, before branching out on his own as a mixer.
Prior to becoming one of the industry’s most sought after studio figures, he spent a number of years DJing, before pursuing a career away from the decks. “I started DJing in Miami in the mid ‘80s. I was already DJing here, then I went on holiday and ended up staying for two years. After a while, I thought I ought to get a proper job so I applied to some studios. I ended up working in Trident Studios in the late ‘80s with people like Alan Moulder, Flood and Mark Stent.
“I then left and joined another studio where I met a producer called Ian Broudie and ended up recording his album in Belgium and working with him for about ten years after that, on albums for Northside, Terry Hall, The Lightening Seeds, The Wendys, The Wedding Present, The Birthday Party and The Fall, among others. The Fall I worked with a lot afterwards, and The Wedding Present.
“Ian then started doing more with The Lightening Seeds, so I moved down to London from Liverpool and worked with Stephen Street. I started specialising in mixing, with bands like Editors, Snow Patrol – we had a couple of big hits with them, including ‘Chasing Cars’. I also started doing a number of alternative/indie mixes for the likes of Late of the Pier, Klaxons, that kind of thing.”
After more than 20 years in the business, Townshend has amassed an impressive haul of mixing and recording tools, having developed something of an obsession with vintage gear. He regularly frequents MI stores in search of new equipment and the proverbial hidden gem.
“It began with collecting guitar pedals and amps, and ended up with having two studios! I found that young bands we were working with back then weren’t able to have great amplifiers and were really into pedals, so by providing good amplifiers we got a great sound for them and by providing interesting pedals we got them really creatively enthused.”
The shifting buying habits of consumers from high street to the web since the turn of the century aren’t lost on Townshend.
“The music shop on the high street is incredibly important; although you can buy things off the Internet, if you haven’t tried the piece of kit first you’re less likely to buy it. Unfortunately, a lot of people walk into a shop, try it and then buy £3 cheaper elsewhere. Hopefully things will change and people will start to add value to a shop that can give after-sale service and steer them in the right direction.
“Without them things would have been very different for me. We recorded all over the place and we’d always go and find the local music shops, whether it was to buy strings, find a drumhead or buy a tuner. You’d often end up finding a gem; it was exciting and you’d come away from that shop with something. Now there’s less of that because everything is delivered to you; it’s a lot more clinical. It doesn’t have the same romance.”
Among the essential brands Townshend has come to rely upon throughout his career is Palmer. As a long-time user of the firm’s products, he is quick to point out the central role the brand has come to play in his work.
“I’ve been using Palmer since the early ‘90s. A friend of mine who’s a guitar builder told me to try out this thing called a Speaker Simulator, which to me was an alien concept; the only way to get a guitar sound is to put a microphone in front of a speaker. However, I ended up using them enormously, particularly when we were in the studio recording backing tracks. To get separation from the instruments I would plug the simulator – the PDI03 – between the guitarist’s amp and his speaker and while they were rehearsing they’d have their amplifiers on and I could get a headphone balance for them. Then just before the take I’d go round and disconnect their speaker, because the PDI03 loads the amplifier. The amplifier doesn’t mind having that – you can’t just take a speaker out of an amplifier or disconnect it from the circuit because it will blow up the amplifier – you have to have a proper choke or something that takes the load and the Palmer did that very well. I’ve been running my HiWatts for ten years with these simulators and nothing has gone wrong – completely trustworthy.
“Half the time, when I would disconnect the speaker, the bands wouldn’t even notice. All I’ve given him is the sound of the Simulator in his headphones, so I can pull the speaker, have a silent room to record drums in and the guitar player doesn’t even realise. Also, for bass, they are amazing. If you’re at home and want to record a good bass and you want more than a DI, one of these is invaluable. Even in the studio I find a lot of the time it sounds better than a speaker, as you don’t get any of the artefacts of the speaker crapping out, or if you want a clean bass sound without any distortion it’s amazing. It’s almost become a trademark for me.
“Another thing they’ve got is the Fat 50 amplifier. It’s like an old vintage amp that’s built like a brick shithouse. It’s got an incredible reverb and I use it a lot just for that. Through a simulator I’ll then send stuff from Pro Tools to it; vocals, guitars, anything. I can either overdrive it for the guitars or just use it for the reverb – it’s clean, and obviously it’s valve so it introduces third harmonic distortion. I was amazed at how good it was.”
Townshend was recently introduced to the firm’s Headphone Amplifier; another product with which he was previously unfamiliar but has since become a key part of his set-up.
“We were sent it to evaluate it and it was amazing, although it shouldn’t be amazing really, because with these bits of kit that you buy with a headphone output, generally it’s a fairly cheap amplifier that’s involved – it’s as small as possible and creates as little heat as possible, whereas if you’ve got a bespoke headphone amplifier externally you have a lot more room and generally it sounds ten times better. I had no idea as to the difference it can make; it really is quite an eye-opener. It’s not harsh and it can go incredibly loud without distorting or hurting your ears. I’d recommend it to anyone.
“They have another thing called a Line Driver that enables us to send guitar signals through long distances without any loss. It’s a line drive booster.”
Palmer aside, he regularly calls upon a number of other staple components.
“I use Pro Tools every day and I have an HDX system; I use a Solid State Logic desk but I also use a lot of old Neve compressors and equalizers. I use a company called Cartec – Liam Carter from Cartec makes some great equalizers – valve and solid state. For reverbs I use a firm called Bricasti, along with old school Lexicon reverbs.”
With a penchant for vintage gear, Townshend believes that a professional studio offers an altogether different experience for musicians, as opposed to working solely from their laptops.
“Technically, it’s a different thing. I remember tape machines in the ‘80s would cost about £80,000, now not even the biggest Pro Tools rig in the world would cost. In the ‘80s, Trident was charging around £1,200 per day, not because they were making a fortune but that’s what the gear cost.”
He is, however, keen to emphasise that great results can still be obtained outside of the conventional studio.
“You look at OK Computer by Radiohead. They rented a house in Bath and set up a studio in a ballroom and a library and recorded. You can still make fantastic records without a professional studio, but the know how really helps.”
Through mixing such a diverse array of artists during his career, Townshend has become accustomed to working in variety of ways to suit the needs of the performer. “It’s interesting, working with people like Mark E Smith. They know what’s expected and what they want.
“If you’re mic-ing up a kit and he thinks it sounds too posh, he’ll just go in and take away five mics. He won’t know what they are or what they’re doing, he’ll just think there’re too many.
“I’ve been in a room with the guitarist, and he came up behind him with a mic boom stand and starts to hit the guitar while he’s playing, because in his opinion it was sounding too accomplished.
“Once he appeared behind the backing singers with a megaphone and started shouting at them during a take. You can get nervous in those situations, but it produces things that are different.”
With a raft of projects in the pipeline, it looks like 2015 will be another busy year for Townshend. Recent mixes for the likes of George Ezra, The Maccabees and Jamie T continue to illustrate both his versatility and widespread appeal. And with a new, high-end mixing facility almost complete, his reputation as one of the industry’s most in demand mixers looks set grow further still.