What do you call an engineer/producer whose credits include The Rolling Stones, Marillion, Peter Frampton, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Ash, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Gipsy Kings, Ten Years After and Johnny Hallyday? How about Ďa specialistí? Why? Because Chris Kimsey's discography reminds us of something easily overlooked in an age when people tend to get pigeonholed as dance music gurus, metalheads or some other conceptual straightjacket. A top flight producer/engineerís speciality is his ability to coax great performances out of artists and record them sympathetically and creatively. That is Chris Kimseyís speciality and itís a craft he has adapted to many different flavours of music.
These days, Mr Kimsey is most often to be found in his own dedicated production suite in Batterseaís very happening Sphere Studios, but the Chris Kimsey story begins, at least as far as our purposes are concerned, at that source of so much 1960's musical and recording legend - Olympic Studios, in Barnes, West London. Olympic, was founded by Cliff Adams (yes, the Cliff Adams of 'and singers' fame and BBC Light Programme ubiquity) and in the late 1960s became a second home to the Rolling Stones, not to mention some of the giants of British sound engineering.
Back in those days before university courses in audio, Mr Kimsey started his career as Olympicís tea boy and it's hard to imagine that fate could have chosen a more propitious time, or a better place, to start transforming his amateur fascination with sound recording into a career. Not that he'd not had a fair share of above average experience as a schoolboy, having had legendary percussionist Ray Cooper as a music teacher, who, aware of the young Kimsey's interest in recording, asked him to record his Jazz band.
Despite knocking on Olympic's door and being told there were no jobs going, the young Chris Kimsey wasn't about to be put off, so he just kept trying - again and again. Finally Olympic gave way.
'In the end, I got a call and off I went,' he laughs. 'Suit and tie, gabardine mac, sweating profusely and there I met the studio manager - Keith Grant.'
That's the sort of place Olympic was at the time, home to the renowned Keith Grant and the no less renowned studio manager, Anna Menzies, with Glyn Johns a regular, who was to become a close friend and mentor to the young Chris Kimsey.
'I was so impressed when Keith showed me around. Wow! They had four track machines and four speakers for playback, because they did a lot of film work - Left and Right stereo, plus Sound Effects and Vocal. There was also a smaller studio called a "reduction room", which was for mixing. Afterwards Keith said: "Right, I'm going to ask you some technical questions now." At which, I though "Oh, fuck!". "Now, how do you wire a 13amp plug?" That was ok - I got that one right and that was about it. But he said they still had no jobs available, and they'd get in touch, so I went back to doing mundane jobs.'
Without the intervention of the aforementioned fate, Chris Kimsey might actually have become a shop-fitter, but on the very eve of his first day in a white van, Olympic finally came through with a princely offer of £11 a week.
'There I was, first thing on Monday morning and Anna said to me, "Studio 1, just sit on the couch and observe. So I went into Studio 1, Alan O'Duffy was the engineer on a jingles session and I noticed there was no assistant engineer. So I didn't sit on the couch, Alan looked at me and asked "Do you work here?", I said "YesĒ, and he said "OK, let's go". I knew how to work the equipment, so away we went. At the end of the 45 minute session, after the client had gone, Alan looked at me and said, "I don't know you - how long have you worked here?" to which I said "Umm, about an hour and 15 minutes."
It was a pretty good start, followed by working on film soundtracks with Keith Grant. 'The great thing about Olympic, about studios of that time in general, was that from about 8 am- 11am it would be jingles, from midday till six, it would be big string sessions, with someone like Frankie Vaughan - an orchestra and a rhythm section with everyone live. Then, from seven o'clock on, it would be Rock and Roll, so you had this huge diversity of music and recording technique and you learned very quickly.
'One of the most invaluable things that I learned was that everything has to work. You couldnít afford for anything to break down, so you had to plug it in and check it beforehand and if something didn't work, you had to know how to change it quickly, without destroying the session. Nowadays I get completely pissed-off when you go to a studio, tell the engineer or assistants that you want drums, bass, two guitars, vocals and piano and you tell them what microphones you want. Then you turn up at 11 in the morning and nothing's set up because they haven' a clue what to do. Itís quite sad - they can plug-up MIDI or a drum machine, but there seems to be a lack of that basic knowledge these days. That was what you learned at Olympic, where there were so many different sessions that you learned just by observing what you had to do.'
Does he feel, then, that the university and college courses springing up like mushrooms are of little use?
'Theyíre only good if people like myself actually go and teach the new generation how records were made. Whatís happening now - and itís very sad - is that the majority of records are made with a singer who maybe can sing, or maybe canít, but the engineer puts Auto-Tune on just for the sake of it - and thatís complete bollocks. I don't use Auto-Tune unless I'm really, really in a fix and I will never put it on for the whole damn song - it just blands everything out. People donít sing in tune all the time and that slight out of tuneness is what the punters actually like. They may not realise it, but they do.
ĎThe thing about music is that it is, or should be, a group of people playing together - an ensemble - and they move and play at different speeds, but staying together. This business of saying, "well this song's at 102 BPM, thereís your map and you have to play that all the way throughĒ is rubbish. Some stuff, well ok - if youíre making music that has to sound like that, then it does. But it isnít the sort of music I listen to. The music I listen to moves.'
It is, undoubtedly, one of those areas in which, while technology has bestowed great gifts, it has taken others away - sometimes by stealth. Basic techniques, prominent among the victims.
ĎAfter Pro Tools and computers came in, where you could linearise the performance because of the click, and because you could chop it up to grid, when people saw me editing 24 track - six takes of a song - and I'd be told, "You canít do that, itís not the same tempo." But you can. Obviously, I'm not going to pick a chorus that goes slower - in your mind you start somewhere and if anything, you're going to go up a bit, but I do that all the time making records and yet people reckon it canít be done.
'A lot of music has suffered because of that whole issue of timing. What intrigues me is that itís been applied to Pop and Rock - anything but classical. You canít do a grid for an orchestra and you wouldn't for Jazz - so why do you need this grid for Pop music or Rock?'
Which doesn't mean Chris Kimsey isnít a fan of technology - nor that he refuses to use it. 'Oh, I love Pro Tools and I use it all the time, but I use in certain ways. It's the most wonderful editing tool, for example, but even there youíve got to be careful, because when you were editing multitrack tapes together you obviously had to take all of the performance, say the first verse, and glue it on to all the performance of the second verse on - you didn't take the drums from this bit for the first 25 seconds and then the bass, just 18 seconds. With Pro Tools you can do all this underlapping and overlapping and though sometimes its handy, I've seen people spend days doing that when, to be quite honest, theyíd have been better going snip-snip.'
As you might expect from this approach, though he doesnít altogether eschew plug-ins, he doesnít make a great deal of use of them, either. 'Take a guitar part - as a player you should be playing to the sound from your amp and if you change that sound, using a plug in, then the relationship of the way you are playing should be different, but it isn't.'
Given the above, you might expect Chris Kimsey's suite at Sphere to be filled with valve esoterica - all clustered round, say, a vintage, steam-powered Neve. Not so. Thereís not a lot of esoterica and in pride of place stands a Sony DMX-R100.
'I never wanted a studio, you know. I was always like a gypsy and Iíve worked in hundreds of studios all over the world. I loved that, it was great fun, so I think probably pretty much every desk that's been out Iíve worked on at some time or another. What happened was that I decided I'd spend a year writing. Pro Tools had just come out but I could never mix on Pro Tools, two channels out of the computer, I had to go into a console, partly because I perform when mixing - so I donít like automation. All my mixes are live - theyíre never the same, so I played around with a lot of desks and, yes, I love old Neve analogue desks - not the VR Series, which is one of the worst they ever made - especially the mic pres - but the old ones, I love - they had a wonderfully sound, but I couldn't afford one. Eventually, what I found was that with the Sony that I eventually bought, I actually found an EQ that would keep me doing things I wouldnít think of doing. And it didnít sound digital to me - it sounded the way I wanted it to sound - and that's my whole view on converters. Some people get very anal about converters, they have to have X or Y, but I'm using the converters in the desk and it sounds great. They donít make the DMX R-100 any more, but itís a remarkable desk. In fact they thought they were going to sell 70 or 80, but they sold about 6,000.
'The secret of making a great sounding record is to have lots of different EQ - a bit of SSL, a bit of API, a bit of Neve, because each EQ has its own characteristics and when you have that choice and you can, say, put the drums through the Neve, guitars through the Avalon, all the sudden you get this wonderful tonal blend.í
This, he feels, is one of the joys in working in studios like Ocean Way, where here is just so much choice. He did, however, find a single console that did it all.
ĎYes, the old EMI TG desks, on which I did four Stones albums in Paris - that desk is now owned by Terry Britton, the songwriter. He bought it from EMI-Marconi Pathe in Paris. He called me up about four years ago, asked me to go down and have a look at it. I said what for? And he said "I want to know what fader Keith was on!" It was on fader nine - I remember that,í he laughs. ĎI've done two albums since then on that desk and it is really exceptional. Everything is stepped, with gold contacts - even the faders are stepped - there's not one rotary pot on it and I think that gives it a sound. Even the EQ - bass is just "Bass" plus or minus, then you've got "Presence" - just ďPresenceĒ and it's such a musical desk - you can crank 10dB of anything and it just gets sweeter and bigger.'
Asked which of the hundreds of studios he has worked in was the best, he says Fulham's Maison Rouge was one of his favourites, as was Olympic No 1 in Cliff Adams days - but a special place in his heart is reserved for Little Mountain in Vancouver.
'I will only record bands in the same room. I will not put a bass player down in the girls' toilet and the rest of the band scattered around the place. But to do that, you have to have a lot of screens - and that's how a lot of the best records are made. Isolated, but standing in front of their amps and able to hear themselves.'
This, no doubt, explains Chris Kimsey's reputation for creating fantastic live band sounds. 'Again, a lot of young engineers will tell you canít do that - you'll get leakage and so on. But why are they frightened of leakage? Leakage actually creates a sound and an atmosphere that you can hear. When they're all playing in the same room and youíre doing the vocals too, then everything is going down that vocal mic, just a little bit it, and if you've got that vocal mic EQd to make the vocals sound good, when the singer steps back the band pops out and you get this great effect! Put musicians in little boxes and you lose all that. So, I love a big room with lots of screens.
ĎWhen I was working with the Stones in Paris, I set them up in a semi-circle, with little kennels for them, screen at the back , two down the sides and two or three at the front. They were all playing into the middle of the room and because Charlie's such a light hitter and Iím not a fan of headphones - they can destroy a session if someone doesnít get the headphone mix right - I put a little Shure column PA up in the room with just the vocal and Charlie's snare and bass drum, just so Keith, Ronnie and Bill could hear where they were. That created a sound, as it went back into the mics, a fantastic, metallic unique sound.'
And, of course, you never stop learning. A year spent in Jamaica with Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff provided its own lesson. 'I love ska music, but it wasn't till I got there that I figured out how they got their sound - or, in fact, didnít get their sound. Drum sounds on ska and reggae records are all bass drum, snare, hi-hat and no cymbals - no top end. All below 2k and the reason is because they donít have enough microphones, so they end-up with this dark sound because they don't have overheads - wonderful!'
Not only did starting as a young apprentice teach Chris Kimsey invaluable technical skills, it also means that, notwithstanding a vast body of work, he is still comparatively young. One can only hope that academics are making good use of him, before his generation finally hangs up its cans. As he says: 'You can't learn that mic technique from Pro Tools, you can't learn it from a computer. In fact young engineers would learn more if they went on the road. Studios canít teach people, because they canít afford good engineers a weekly wage to sit there and do nothing - so who are the new engineers going to learn from?'
Meanwhile, Chris Kimsey continues to work hard - at the time of our interview with a young Southampton indie band, Fleeing New York. Theyíve got some pedigree behind that desk - you can only hope they took full advantage of it.