Instead of simply giving rock fans more of the same, Roy Thomas Baker has managed throughout his long and distinguished career to produce audacious and distinctive projects while successfully reading the pulse of the mainstream rock audience. His credits include a staggering number of bona fide superstars, including Queen, The Cars, Foreigner, Journey, David Bowie, Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne, the Rolling Stones, Free, Alice Cooper, Devo, Santana, Ten Years After, T-Rex, The Who, Yes and Frank Zappa. Many other less vaunted artists have benefited from his creative touch, too.
He got his start at Decca Records in England at the age of 14 and later at Trident Studios, where he was fortunate enough to work under such producers as Gus Dudgeon, Peter Sullivan, Tony Visconti and Ken Scott. RTB became one of the founders of Trident’s in-house production company, Neptune, where he signed Queen and other acts.
During the last half of the ’70s, RTB relocated to Los Angeles and scored huge successes with Journey, Foreigner and The Cars, among others. By the mid-’80s he’d become a senior VP of A&R for Elektra; during his tenure there the label signed 10,000 Maniacs, Simply Red, Yello, Peter Schilling and Metallica. But late-’80s American rock and pop held little interest for him, so he found himself spending most of his time back in Europe, where he produced a number of commercially successful and critically acclaimed releases, including discs by The Stranglers, Chris De Burgh and T’Pau, whose chart topping album and singles remained on the European charts for over a year. T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul” was a Top Five hit in the U.S. as well.
Today, Roy Thomas Baker spends most of his time in the U.S. While keeping Los Angeles his home base, he has built a beautiful studio complex of his own, complete with tennis court and olympic swim spa. His elegant facility is a three-and-a-half hour drive from L.A. in the foothills of the Mojave mountains, above the shores of Lake Havasu. His fabulously appointed and well-equipped studio contains hard-wired TLA, Summit and Neve mixers; a rare Stephens 40-track (fine-tuned and maintained by John Stephens) with Dolby SR; and six Tascam DA-88s. Fans of his work will want to look for upcoming releases by Local H, Other Star People and Caroline’s Spine.
Much of your production work draws from the best of American and British popular music idioms. What music helped form your tastes growing up, and what elements of that have carried over into your work?
The thing that I loved was the way American blues went over to England and got bastardized with artists like Clapton and the Stones, and then went back to America. It was this continual bouncing back and forth between the two places that all started off with Southern blues players. One of my main inspirations was black music. It didn’t matter whether it was Tamla/Motown or Stax or the early blues, which I loved. In fact, I didn’t know that the early blues existed until I heard the Stones and Clapton as a kid. I suddenly realized, “These guys are great. Where did they get it from?” That’s how I learned about it.
I also loved American pop. I loved the stuff that was being done by Bob Crewe and Phil Spector. When I think of the Four Seasons, The Ronettes and the Beach Boys wafting away with their four- and five-part harmony vocals-those kinds of great vocals were not coming out of England at the time, except in opera.
One common element found on many of your records is huge, thick harmony vocal parts. Now I can see the connection with the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.
Oh, yeah. You can hear what was inspiring me as a producer, to inspire bands I was working on to do that, or connecting me with the bands that were good at doing that.
With The Cars, you had this band with a sparse rhythm section and a unique singer in Ric Ocasek, but when the harmonies kicked in, it was a wall of sound. They came at a time when rock radio really needed some freshening up.
I was going through my own little demons at the time. I had been doing Queen, which was kitchen sink over-production, which I loved. But in the same way that we had the alterna-music thing in the early ’90s, the end of the ’70s had the punk era. I would run into the Sex Pistols, because they were working over at Wessex. They were saying the usual, “All you bands are going to be gone because you’re over-produced and you’re all fags,” and all that. [Laughs] It was really funny. I thought, “Maybe there is a point where I should be a bit more sparse.” So when I did the first Cars record, we purposely did it very sparse, but when the harmony vocals come in, there are as many vocals there as there were in a Queen record. The only difference is it was in and then it was gone. “Good Times Roll” is a classic one for that. When they sing those words, it’s huge and then it’s gone, and everything is back to sparse again. I was able to put big vocals on a sparse, punkish background, sort of inventing post-punk pop. With Other Star People, which I recently finished, we’re inventing post alterna-pop. [Laughs]
I remember when the first Cars record hit Number One on the charts, I was driving on Sunset Boulevard with Ric Ocasek. We drove past a billboard for the Cars’ record, and he said, “If someone had told me a year ago that I would be driving along Sunset Boulevard with Roy Thomas Baker looking up at a billboard of my record that is Number One, I wouldn’t have believed him.” On T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul,” your approach to the rap portions of the song was unique.
We did “Heart and Soul,” and there was this rap vocal for the first verse; total rap. Instead of just going out to a mic and just talking, I did 12 tracks of talking vocal for one speaker, 12 tracks for the other speaker, 12 for the middle, and then 12 tracks that were put out of phase to wrap around you, and that was just for the rap section, before any singing started. It was scary and was hard work, and it took a couple of days to do it. I remember Carol Decker [the singer] walking out of the studio, bursting into tears, and saying to my wife, Tere, “I hate your f–ing husband,” but when the record hit the charts everywhere, it was all fun. [Laughs] So even when I did a straight rap record, it wouldn’t be someone merely rapping into a mic; it would have to be something totally unusual and different.
With Queen, the whole idea of big vocals were taken to outrageous, operatic levels.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was totally insane, but we enjoyed every minute of it. It was basically a joke, but a successful joke. [Laughs]. We had to record it in three separate units. We did the whole beginning bit, then the whole middle bit and then the whole end. It was complete madness. The middle part started off being just a couple of seconds, but Freddie kept coming in with more “Galileos” and we kept on adding to the opera section, and it just got bigger and bigger. We never stopped laughing.
That was at a time when rock bands were so intent on being heavy. This was not exactly a cool idea. It was very left of center.
Exactly. It started off as a ballad, but the end was heavy. For the technical people, who may want to know, the end of the song was much heavier because it was one of the first mixes to be done with automation. What happened was we had VCAs built into a Trident board over at Sarm Studios in London. They put it in with the old Allison computer. If you really listen to it, the ballad starts off clean, and as the opera section gets louder and louder, the vocals get more and more distorted. You can still hear this on the CD. They are clearly distorted. When we got to the end section, the part in Wayne’s World where they start doing this [he bobs his head up and down], there was no headroom on the VCAs, yet there was loads of headroom on the Trident mixer. So we got them to disconnect the computer and literally take all of the VCAs out of the faders and give us a direct feed for the faders to the mixer. And we mixed the whole of the end section by hand.
The way we used to mix Queen was very odd, and it evolved over time. We had a big Trident board in the control room, and every one of the guys would have to look after their own little parts. They were turning on tom-toms and riding bass runs and Brian [May] was turning on and off all of his guitar parts. Then we would take all of the outputs from the Trident down to a separate mixer, and I would control all of the drum fills and bass fills and do all of the stuff that I’m good at. So they would be looking after their little bits, and I would actually be using their fingers as automation. Then I basically had the main mix in front of me. It wasn’t done on computers. It was done live. The main feed from my mixer was going to the 2-track. So that was the way we would mix a record.
“Killer Queen” was done that way. All the phasing parts weren’t done in the mix; they were done live. For example, the part about the “laser beam” was printed to tape with the effects during recording. If you listen to the multitrack, all the effects are on the tape. The only thing different is the end of “Killer Queen” is actually real tape phasing. That was a post-production decision.
So do you typically print effects to tape when you record?
I’m not one of these, “Oh, we’ll cut this and leave the effect for the mix.” I actually record the effects. There is the artistic reason: People play differently when they hear the effect and are playing to it. Secondly, it makes it so much easier to mix, because the effects are already there. You’ve got to make these decisions up front. Except for just basic echo, I tend to also use the effects as we go, when we record vocals.
For the really effected vocals on the new Local H record, we did the effects live with the performance. We had already visualized what we needed, so we did that as we went along. When Scott, the singer, sang with the effect in his headphones, he could work with it and make the effect work a million times better.
I always visualize the overall sound of the album at the beginning. You voice the parts and arrange the instrumentation that you use right at the very beginning. With Local H, we knew the running order of the album before we even started recording, so we could work out our segues. We had the plans on how one song would go into another and make the whole album a non-stopping entity. We even recorded everything in the running order, so we could actually edit together the tracks from the 40-track Stephens, so they were flowing together before we even did any overdubs. I never just leave it up to the mix and just hope.
One characteristic found on many of your records is the artful segue.
I love segues, because I like records to be continuous and it gives me a good excuse not to turn off the music and put on something else. Sometimes the record company initially didn’t like them, not for artistic reasons, but because they thought that disc jockeys would have a problem taking the record off at that point. So an alternative copy for radio with these big five-second spacings between each song would be made, as in the case of Journey’s Infinity. What made it funnier was disc jockeys played the segues even more on that album. They played the first three or four songs of The Cars’ first album together, too. [Laughs] Even now, they are still playing the segues.
Your records have always sounded like they were practically exploding out of the radio. What things did you do to help ensure that effect?
As long as you know up front that a certain song is destined for radio and MTV, you should come at it straight out of the gate from the beginning in pre-production. We make sure that the sound is together from day one. The whole idea is to make you sound louder, so that it jumps out in your face. The trick to this has to do with creating apparent volume, as opposed to actual volume. See, the radio station’s compressors will react to actual volume and turn the music down. That’s why some people’s mixes will actually sound quieter than the song previous and the song being played after.
When we first record, we’re always saturating. We have all the machines lined up in such a way that we have everything hitting the end stops. I run everything in the red all of the time. I don’t look at meters. We run the consoles in the red, especially the tube ones like the Summit and TLA tube mixers and the Neve. We run the machines in the red, right down to the tape. We check back to the tape to make sure that we’re not over-saturating.
From what I understand, you’ve startled more than a few “proper” engineers with your methodology.
Oh yeah! All the time. I just whack those faders up. That’s what I do. Especially when I’m mixing the drum rides-I would whack them up so loud that they would saturate the mixing board and then they would saturate the tape machine. Obviously, after a certain level, they don’t get any louder on tape. It gets louder when you’re watching it, but it doesn’t get any louder on tape, because it has reached its peak. What happens is the bottom end fills out. It is technically distortion, but it is also bringing out those nice third and fifth harmonics that you want to hear. Doing it this way adds a tremendous value to the bass end. It makes it grind and pump out on the radio more. It’s apparent volume, as opposed to actual volume.
Many artists seem to feel that they should produce themselves. What are your thoughts on that?
Every artist would like to produce their own records. That to me is a bit like someone wanting to be their own lawyer in court, and even if you are a lawyer, you shouldn’t represent yourself in court. I think, even if you’re a great producer who happens to be an artist, and you’re great at working with other artists, you should never produce yourself. You still need somebody else around to make sure you get the best out of yourself, because you can’t be in two places at once.
A lot of artists will go to an engineer, who is probably a great engineer, but as of that stage has not seriously produced anything. They forget that there’s more to a production than getting a nice, polished sound. People will not go out and buy a nice drum sound if the song isn’t there. When Ric Ocasek does his own records, he doesn’t always produce himself. He lets other people produce him. Yet, Ric is a very good producer and has produced some hits himself, like Weezer.
Was there a pivotal moment where a light went off and you thought, “I want to be a producer”?
No, I think I always wanted to be a producer from the age of 11 or 12. My opportunity came with my internship at Decca. We called it apprenticeship over there; you call it internship in America. It’s basically where you do all the dull work for 24 hours for no pay. [Laughs]
And nothing has changed.
Nor should it change. It’s a great way to sort out the people who are really genuine and the people who are in it for a quick buck. You can’t make a quick buck in that route. You have to work very hard and eventually, if you are given that opportunity, and you succeed at that opportunity, then there are big bucks to be made. It is hard work up to that point. I think I was paid the equivalent of 12 pounds a week; no overtime, nothing. I subsidized my pay by being a race car mechanic, which I actually thought was great fun anyway. It gave me Saturdays making sure there were great fuel injectors on these race cars.
What would you say is a primary guiding philosophy behind your production work?
My whole thing is, the more different you can sound from anything else around but still be commercially successful is great! Over the years, I’ve always hearkened back to that philosophy. Back when I did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” who would’ve ever thought of having a single with an opera section in the middle? The first Cars record was totally unique. Even projects I did when I was going from second engineer to engineer, like T-Rex’s “Get It On (Bang A Gong)” or Free’s “All Right Now,” had a different twist on what was basically the same thing.
People need an identifiable sound. When your song is being played on the radio, people should hear who that is, even without the DJ mentioning who it is. That’s true with all the great bands, even ones that have been around for hundreds of years, like the Stones. Even though they have had a lot of different changes of sound, you can hear who it is instantly. That rule applies for every great band of the last 30 years. There are thousands and thousands of bands out there with these really smooth, great, generic-sounding records that nobody gives a toss about. Then somebody like Beck comes along and he hits a can and sings about being a “loser” and he gets a Number One, and who knows what that was recorded on? [Laughs] And who cares? I loved it!
If you don’t have that identifiable sound, you are getting merged in. If the DJ isn’t mentioning who it is, then nobody will know who it is. It will just be another band, and nothing is worse than being anonymous. That is exactly what you don’t want.