How Nick Launay harnessed The Force during his forty-year career.
“I tend to work with bands and artists with character and passion, who are absolutely focused and hellbent on making these kind of anarchistic records, often to the point of craziness. I seem to be blessed with the people skills to be able to work with artists who are this obsessed with music, and when you get on the right path with them and are in sync with their way of thinking, you can help them make fantastic records.”
Nick Cave, Johnny Lydon, Lou Reed, Kate Bush, Michael Hutchence, David Byrne are just a few of these obsessive artists that producer, engineer and mixer extraordinaire Nick Launay has worked with during his long career, resulting in classic music by them and bands like The Birthday Party, Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke, Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, INXS, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and many more. While the musical genres involved are diverse, what ties all this music and his working methods together, says Launay, is a focus on feeling and emotion.
“That’s what it is all about, as far as I am concerned. Recording and producing is like capturing musical intoxication. People ask me how the albums I work on are so moody and emotional and take them on a journey, and I’m like, ‘you just answered your own question. That is what I’m trying to do!’ The top reason why I am a record producer is that I want to capture the moods and feelings of artists in a room. It’s about attitude and vibe.”
“I know a lot of technical stuff about how to make records, and about choices of microphone and microphone positioning, and preamps, and effects, and so on, but what has really allowed me stand out over the years, and kept me consistently in work over the years, is the love and passion for the mood and the rebellion of music.”
Love, passion, and rebellion were at the heart of Launay’s spectacular early career peak-year, during 1981-1982, when he recorded and produced the albums The Flowers of Romance by Public Image Ltd, What’s THIS for…! by Killing Joke, and 10, 9, 8 , 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 by Midnight Oil, and the singles “To Hell With Poverty!” by Gang of Four, “Release the Bats” by The Birthday party, and “Earthbeat” by The Slits, and engineered most of Kate Bush’s The Dreaming. It’s a quite unbelievable list of credits, and what’s most astonishing is that Launay was at the time a rookie who was still learning his craft. Stronger still, it meant the recordings were better for it, as he explains…
“Yes, 1981 was an amazing year, the best I ever had! I was in the right place. I had the luck of being in an incredible recording studio in London, Townhouse Studio 2, and so I had all this equipment to play with, though I didn’t really know what I was doing. I really was purely driven by being a huge music fan. I wasn’t and am not a musician. I had seen all the artists I worked with live, and I wanted to capture their live energy. I was channeling my desire to get that onto tape.”
“If I was to analyze my career, I’d say that the more I learned, technically and the more proficient I became at making records sound good, the worse the records got. Towards the end of the 1980s I made some pretty lackluster records, because I had started to concentrate too much on the technology. Of course, it was an interesting time with technology going wild and all of us being spoilt for choice as to what to use, but that did not in itself improve the music.”
“I was lucky that my kids were born towards the end of the 80s, because I had to stop making records for a while, and this gave me time to reflect, and that made me realize that the records I had made when I did not know what I was doing technically in the early 80s were better. As a result, the 90s and early 00s were a sort of rebirth for me. It’s when I got to do great recordings with Talking Heads, Silverchair, Girls Against Boys, The Veils and reconnected with Nick Cave.”
“There was a new attitude in the 90s, a new rebellion, with grunge music being popular, and for me it was a return to my roots, where, once again, it’s all about mood and feeling. When you put a record on, you want to escape from the mundane reality of every day, and for the music to change the vibe in your room. Especially in lockdown! (laughs) It’s like watching a great movie: you are completely absorbed and all your worries are gone. That is what making records is all about.”
Launay’s total commitment to feel over technology may have found its roots in his unusual background as a child of artistic and adventurous parents. “I was born in 1960 in London, and when I was two my family moved to a small village near Taunton in southwest England. Then, when I was eight years old, my parents did something that to this day is extraordinary to me: they packed up everything, and moved to a small village halfway up a mountain in the south of Spain called Frigilian that had no water or electricity in the. The old soap factory they bought was a ruin, and they put a new roof in and got water and electricity installed.”
“My dad is French and a writer and my mother was a successful model and then a painter, and while she’s English, she’s half of French ancestry. They became very bohemian people in Spain, hippies I suppose, and the friends that came to the house were artists, writers, painters. At any given time there’d be eight to 12 people in the house, and someone might be throwing paint at a massive canvas on the wall, while the Rolling Stones were blaring at full volume, Meanwhile, everyone was high on hashish.”
One can see why Launay didn’t turn out to be 9-to-5 material. His straying into music, however, still was a little unexpected. “I started playing with my Dad’s Grundig tape machine, which he used to record interviews he did for his many books. I recall making a loop of the percussive intro of ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ on the Grundig, transferring it to a cassette recorder, and then feeding that loop back into the Grundig synced up with a mono vocal I got from The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, where they panned it to the right side only. I used coins to slow the turntable down to get the Beatles vocal and the Rolling Stones rhythm to match up. I must have been 9 or 10.”
In 1976, the family moved back to the UK, where the then 16-year old Launay immersed himself in the London music scene where punk was just exploding. “Of course one wishes one was younger, but I am glad I was born in 1960, because I got to experience the rock ‘n roll of the 60s and 70s while it was happening. Then, in 1978 I managed to get a job at Tape One studios, where I, amongst other things, got to edit songs for K-Tel compilation albums.”
One such edit, a 12-inch version of a song called ‘Pop Muzik’ by M made by Launay for his own enjoyment, impressed the singer, Robin Scott, so much that it was released, and became a number one in the US, the UK and Australia. In 1980, Launay decamped to Virgin Records’ Townhouse studios, where he worked as an assistant with big name producers like John Leckie, Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham.
As luck would have it, in 1981 he was assigned as assistant to a session for Public Image Ltd. John Lydon liked working with Launay so much that he locked the actual engineer out of the room, and Launay ended up engineering, mixing and co-producing the band’s The Flowers of Romance. The sonic experimentation of the album impressed many contemporaries, and inevitably the phone began to ring. Launay’s magical year had begun. Despite being still on a learning curve technically, and on a wage of only £28 per week, Launay did have the benefit of having watched some greats make some legendary records.
“I started at Townhouse at the very end of the sessions for Peter Gabriel’s third album (called Scratch in the US), when some editing was being done, and that is where I met Hugh Padgham and Steve Lillywhite. After that I was lucky enough to be an assistant on the Black Sea album by XTC, which is one of my favourite records, and just like Gabriel’s album it had Hugh engineering and Steve producing. These two are the main teachers I learned from, and I am forever grateful. Other producers who were big influences on me are Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, but I have not worked with them.”
Launay’s time at Townhouse Studios set him up for the above-mentioned early 80s peak year, followed by many more successful projects, until his dip later in the decade, and his subsequent 90s “rebirth.” He’s been on a high ever since. This century he’s worked with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Supergrass, Arcade Fire, Lou Reed, Maximo Park, Anna Calvi, IDLES, Shakespeare’s Sister, Grinderman, and most of all on some Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ most celebrated albums: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Push The Sky Away, and Skeleton Tree.
Nick Cave is the prototype of the charismatic, obsessive, musically intoxicated artists Launay likes to work with, and the two clearly are kindred spirits in always prioritising feel and spontaneity over technical perfection. Launay’s work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is therefore one of the highlights of his long career, and the perfect arena to apply all the lessons had had learned, in particular about balancing feel and technology.
“Before any session I do I go through extraordinary lengths in terms of where and how I set up the drum kit, where I put the amps, where I place the mics, how the headphones sound, and so on. I do all this to make sure the band does not have to think about the technicalities of recording. I want them to be just in the moment with the music.”
“With Nick Cave this actually turned into a thing, where would not tell him what time I’d be getting to the studio. So I’d say to his personal manager that we start on August 1, for example, but meanwhile I’d get there on July 29 to set up. The reason is that the moment Nick walks into the room, he walks straight to the piano and starts playing and he’s right there in the moment. There are no demos, and there’s no time to wonder about where the mics should go.”
“The drummer does arrive the first day I get there, and I get the drum sound. This could typically be a BeyerDynamic M88 on the kick, with me EQ-ing lots of low end into that, a Shure SM57 or a Unidyne 57 on the snare, AKG 414s on the toms, Neumann KM84s on the overheads, Schoeps 402 pencil mic on hi-hats, plus most important of all: room mics, which can be Neumann 87s, and a tube mic like a Bock 507 or an AKG C12, with lots of compression. All mics will go to Neve 1081 mic pres if I have enough, or if not, I’ll always have 1081’s on the kick, snare and hi-hats, and will use whatever desk is available for the other mics.”
“Sometimes the other players will also come in early to set up the sounds on their instruments, and on guitar amps I like to use something like a BeyerDynamic M88 close up and a tube mic a bit further away, on the bass cabinet a Sennheiser 412 close up and a something like a Shure SM57 a bit further away, and if the piano player also sings, like is the case with Nick, I’ll have a two AKG C12Bs in the piano with the lid down, so there’s no bleed from the vocal mic to the piano mics. My favourite vocal mic, which I use on Nick, is the Neumann M49.”
“So in general I go to extraordinary lengths to set up before the session, and make everything sound as great as possible, with as little bleed as possible. When working with The Bad Seeds, the musicians have arrived from different parts of the world, Nick comes in and presents his songs, the band joins in, and within three takes we have captured a song that no-one had heard before they came in.”
With Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and in general these days, Launay works with a hybrid of analogue and digital equipment, and makes ample use of the many options Pro Tools offers that people could only dream of when he started around 1980. During his four decades in recording studios, Launay has obviously witnessed the entire development of music technology from working with multi-track tape recorders and large mixing desks to the emergence of hardware samplers, drum machines, and digital recording, and eventually, the current in-the-box approach. As someone whose work over the decades has predominantly existed of working with bands, his love of analogue comes as no surprise.
“I was still using analogue tape in 2010! In the past I might do razor-blade edits on tape, in some cases up to 30 per song, not to achieve perfection, but to get the best feeling. Now I use Pro Tools to cut and edit things and moving them around in a track. Most of getting the character in the sound is done with real-world, analogue equipment, and the problem-solving—ie editing, getting rid of annoying frequencies, noise gating, etc—I now do in Pro Tools. Sometimes I’ll move an entire vocal take slightly in time, again to get the best feeling. But I never abuse Pro Tools to get technically perfect recordings, like fit the drums to a grid or tune things. If something feels good, I’ll use it. This is what my job as a producer is all about: capturing and recognising great bits of magic, and then editing and manipulating them, and Pro Tools is an incredible tool for that.”
“I still record all my basic backing tracks, drums in particular, on analogue. I then transfer them to Pro Tools, in which I work at 96kHz. I find it bizarre that people record acoustically recorded instruments on anything less than 96kHz. I’m like: why? It doesn’t cost anything, and the difference is clear. The sample rate doesn’t matter when you’re doing electronic music, but for acoustically recorded instruments I can hear more depth, ambience, and feeling. The bit rate makes no difference for electronic music, but for acoustically recorded things it makes a big difference. I’d prefer to record at 192kHz, but your rig keeps crashing, and many plugins don’t actually work, so I stick to 96kHz.”
Launay acknowledges that many people have trouble hearing the difference between sample rates, and between digital and analogue, but says it’s because they’re listening for the wrong thing. “People listen to the top end and the low end, and the frequency responses, but that’s not where the difference is. If you sit straight in front of your speakers and try to listen objectively, you indeed won’t hear much of a difference. But if you listen to an entire song, not necessarily facing your speakers, and compare how you feel at the end, there is a difference. There’s a depth of sound that’s different, between digital and analogue, and also between 44.1 and 96.”
“It is almost like some kind of Star Wars Jedi Knight approach to listening: ‘feel the vibe, man!’ Analogue fills the room, it has a warmth and a reality about it. It’s not about frequencies. That’s where people get it wrong. The inventors of digital analysed the numbers, and they got that right. All the numbers are represented correctly. But somehow that doesn’t capture the depth of sound, the emotion, the feeling of the music to the same degree.”
Launay’s analogue-digital hybrid approach is similar to that of many of his colleagues who started their careers at a similar time. For 15 years this century he had exclusive usage of a top of the range analogue studio in LA called Seedy Underbelly, and finished his mixes there in digital. After the owner of the studio sadly passed away about five years ago, Launay built his own home studio where he settled on a new a variation of his former best-of-both-worlds approach…
“Seedy Underbelly had absolutely everything: an API, a Neve and the best mic collection I had ever seen in my life. The studio does not exist anymore, and my new way of recording albums is to go to top studios in LA with great vintage, analogue gear, like Sunset Sound or The Village. After that I do the overdubs, editing, and mixing at the small studio I built in the garage in my house. It has big windows and a fantastic view, overlooking Hollywood—I can see the Capitol building from my window!”
“My setup is very simple: I have a Pro Tools system with lots of plugins, an Avid Omni 4-in 4-out soundcard, a Bock 507 microphone, and Neve 1081 mic pre and Tube-Tech CL-1B compressor. My speakers are older Adam P22s. I think they are incredible. They have great mid-range, so are really good for rock music, but actually, they are good for anything. I have six pairs: in Australia, London, and four pairs in this room. I keep blowing them up, because I use them so much and I play them loudly! They are not big speakers, so usually the low-end speaker blows, and the only way to replace them is to buy another pair. I am always looking on eBay for a pairs!”
Launay says that the main reason his studio is used mostly for “postproduction and mixing,” is that budgets have dropped dramatically over the decades. “In the 80s, in England, it was not unusual to work with a brand new band that no-one had heard of but that was signed to EMI or CBS or whatever big company, and be given a budget of £200.000, ie about $300.000, to make an album. Today, I’m often asked to make a record with an unknown band for $35.000. And they want the same result: 12 songs that sound like a real rock band! I just say no.”
“You often go, ‘thank God that Pro Tools exists,’ because of what it can do, and while it may be possible to spend ages fixing recordings done in bad rooms, with bad microphones, it is not fun. I’m at a stage in my career where I want things to be fun and to feel passionate about them. I’m not doing it for the money. So nowadays I work more for budgets around $80.000 for a whole album with a band, and we may do pre-production and then spend two weeks recording in a proper studio, with great tube mics, great headphones, a great desk, API and Neve mic pres, all recorded at 96K.”
“After that I can do the rest at my home. I mix entirely in the box now. It’s something I never thought I’d do, but honestly, the UAD plugins are so good, I can do everything with them that I used to do in analogue. I can things pretty much achieve whatever I imagine with plugins. The SoundToys plugins also are extraordinary, and I use a lot of Slate Audio plugins, like the one where you can select a desk sound for each channel. I also really like the FabFilter stuff. The only thing I notice is that when you play a digital mix back on good speakers, the clarity and depth are not quite the same. It sounds a bit like an MP3. It’s grainy, and lacking in high and low end.”
“So I do the best I can within the digital world to get that analogue sound. Once I finished my mixes, I take my Pro Tools session back to a proper analogue studio, like Sunset Sound, or Sphere, and I send everything through a desk, with EAR compressors on the stereo bus. The EAR compressors are made by Tim de Paravicini, and they’re hard to find and extremely expensive, like £12.000 each, so you’d need $24.000 for a stereo bus. I find that sending the mix through the EAR compressors makes a massive difference. Recently I’ve also used the Kush Audio Clariphonic EQ on the stereo bus, which really is something, and opens the sound up even more, and adding more depth and feel. Once again, what’s important is the way music makes people feel. My focus has never been on what’s fashionable, or what’s being played on the radio. What matters is how music touches people.”
Or, as a Jedi knight said in Star Wars, “your focus determines your reality.”
Written by Paul Tingen.
Watch the video below to learn more about Nick Launay and how he came to be one of the most sought after record producers!