Multi-talented Producer/Songwriter/Artist - Simon Climie
When you’ve had your songs recorded by the likes of George Michael, Aretha Franklin, and Written for Artists as diverse as Smokey Robinson and the Swedish House Mafia, you are probably pretty good at your craft. When you’ve had No1 Singles & Albums all over the world as a Singer/Songwriter with your band (Climie Fisher – “Love Changes Everything”&, “Rise To The Occasion”), been a session musician at Abbey Road, composed movie scores with U2’s Larry Mullen Jr, and then as a producer worked with legends like BB King, Stevie Wonder, Toni Braxton and Grammy winning efforts with Eric Clapton, well, that would suggest you’re better than good. Producer/Songwriter/ Artist - Simon Climie is all of that and more. With an eclectic professional track record and countless years of studio experience, he relies on many world-class tools to get the job done. There’s one he always uses on every production and mix – the Sonnox suite of plug-ins.
How did you get started?
I was a huge Beatles fan. George Harrison was my favorite, so watching him on TV I decided, “When I grow up, I want to be a musician.” (I now realize … you can’t do both!)
So I left school & was scratching a living playing in pub bands and as a session guitarist around London. Finally I got lucky and got signed as a songwriter, believe it or not, to Ringo Star’s publishing company – then Chrysalis. A year or two and about 20 songs later, I wrote a song, I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), which I was convinced was perfect for Aretha Franklin. But Clive Davis heard it and said “No, this isn’t for Aretha. It’s the duet I’ve been looking for, for George Michael and Aretha Franklin!”
Nice way to start!
Yes, first week it was pretty much number one all over the world. Although on the way, I was still broke, but having a great time making music. Record producer Steve Lillywhite became a friend and I managed to pay the rent by helping him out in the studio with keyboards & arrangements. One day Steve was producing a track that needed some backing vocals and I said “I can do that..” Once he heard my voice, he said, “You Idiot!! – You’re not a programmer - you’re a Singer! We could be having big hits with you!” So I played him the demos Rob Fisher and I had made - he loved them and offered to produce our first Album. Steve was busy for a while working with U2 and the Rolling Stones, so we waited and then went in the studio with him and started our first Climie Fisher album for EMI.
I got to work with the world’s best mixing engineers like Bob Clearmountain, who mixed Love Changes Everything. It was a good record but his mix took it to number one. The track was full of great musical parts, but we couldn’t hear the vocal, so we asked Bob, “How can you make the voice come forward?” About ten minutes later it sounded like a massive hit! In those days he’d use something like an LA 3A & a Pultec. I also started to recognize the difference using valve microphones, Telefunken 251 etc, and vintage Neve EQ’s as mic-pre’s.
I soon got the hang of recording vocals so they already sounded and felt like they were in a finished mix. That led to me being very in demand as a record producer. There were lots of great people in London making tracks, but too often the vocals got lost, so they didn’t chart. Working at Olympic Studios in London, I got to meet one of my all time heros - Eric Clapton. We started writing and then producing together - this evolved into many years of working together, the first Album being Pilgrim.
We asked legendary mix engineer, Mick Guzauski to mix this for us. He’s another genius! And in a way working with Mick on his ‘Million Dollar’ Sony Oxford console opened my eyes as to the potential and what was possible mixing with what has become the Sonnox plug-ins.
How do Sonnox plug-ins fit into your productions?
I’ve been using Sonnox for quite some time, but since they’ve been 32-bit / 64-bit, I’ve really noticed a massive sonic difference. They really have overtaken the best analogue equivalent now. For instance last year Eric and I produced The Breeze - an Appreciation of JJ Cale – among others Guest Artists we had Tom Petty and John Mayer sharing lead vocals with Eric. So a classic JJ Cale trick would be to put a stereo compressor across all the vocals and pull them forward. In Pro Tools, I would have a backing vocal bus which is often a good idea, but also I had a bus dedicated to the two lead vocals, panned slightly left or right and I then used the Sonnox Dynamics & EQ, stereo linked to just hold everything in place and fine tune the EQ. It’s really quite fantastic what you can do with it. I would say 50% of a really great record, has to be the vocals.
I also just finished mixing Slowhand at 70, Eric’s live shows from the Royal Albert Hall. The big issue with live shows is always the huge amounts of leakage on the stage mics. In the old days, you’d really have trouble with a conventional console, trying to get that to sound good, because so much goes through the actual lead vocal mic. Now, I have a real secret weapon - the Sonnox Dynamics. This is an incredible tool for filtering in an intuitive way, and I don’t mean just gating. With Sonnox Dynamics, you have limitless possibilities with Range and ADSR on the Expander to let as little or as much through as you want on any instrument before you compress or limit anything.
With the Eric Clapton project, you did surround and stereo?
Yes. Check out the Blu-ray if you can! The Surround is stunning, especially at 32-bit / 96kHz. On this project, we effectively built a Sonnox Oxford ‘console’ in the box by using the bussing within Pro Tools. I had all the tracks routed to one 5.1 buss, and across that I created what felt like a Classic Neve Surround Summing Mixer, using the Full Oxford Dynamics, GML EQ, and then finally the Oxford Limiter, which is really quite an incredible tool.
It’s great to have the GML Option for more sophisticated EQing, but all of the settings have their own benefits. Type 1 is more like an SSL 4000 for instance, Type 2 you can pull out frequencies such at those on toms. Type 3 is more like a Neve to my ear and I think of Type 4 as Mastering.
Finding the Magic frequency
All singers have a magic frequency and some have more than one. So for instance Tom Petty is more mid-range. Michael McDonald has some wonderful overtones, so 12k is always going to bring out the air. This all depends on the key, recording microphone, EQ etc. But as a rule you can usually find that frequency and bring out the character of the voice. One of the most useful things with the Sonnox EQ is how you can grab a frequency and fine-tune it with the mouse to look for that magic spot.
Sonnox Mixer in the Box
Sometimes I get great results by splitting the outputs of Pro Tools in pairs through a studio console, or a summing mixer then inserting EQ and compression across the master buss. But if you don’t have the luxury of a $250k console, you can re-create this using Sonnox in the Box. Let’s say for example I’ve got 16 busses on a surround project, I can literally put Sonnox EQ on every one of those busses (as opposed to master faders if summing externally). Then by linking them together and adding a shelf @ 12kHz, I can add a little bit of presence. Because the EQ’s are linked on parallel busses, when you sweep through parameters on one, it’s automatically mirrored on all the others. This is a brilliant feature so you don’t have to do so much individually EQing ( helps phase coherence too.) Then for the final ‘icing on the cake’ I usually group all of those master busses together and put a VCA across that group. This becomes the equivalent of your master fader on a console - then with one touch you can control how much you’re effectively pushing into the Sonnox ‘mixer’ that you’ve made. In essence, I effectively recreate a vintage Neve mixer and outboard inside Pro Tools, using only Sonnox plug-ins! This is very useful if you’re mixing an entire album or show - when it comes to matching track levels.
The Inflator is another secret weapon. A lot of DJs like this and I’m not surprised! Say you have synth part that’s a bit dull and lifeless, rather than using conventional EQ, I often try the Inflator. I guess it’s somewhere between tape saturation and compression. It’s like the energy and lift you’d get with great outboard. It’s a mystery what it actually does, but I love the results! It’s just incredibly good at bringing out the character of a sound.
A huge thanks to Sonnox and partners for creating the tools we use to sculpt these records!
Interview and editorial by Rich Tozzoli