Terry Britten interview. 25 June, 1993.
Organic writing and Grammy awards

For Home Studio and Recording magazine.

If we assume that the vast majority of Home studios have their origins in the desire to write songs, then the subject of this months interview should be of special interest.
I don't have any statistics to back up this comment, but I feel secure in guessing that each year, around the world, millions of people write songs. From this immense pool of material, the system purges those found wanting in terms of commercial credibility, reducing the numbers to a handful of perhaps a few thousand titles which are released for public consumption each year. Of those thousands perhaps fifty become number one hit songs, and of those fifty, possibly half a dozen will enter mainstream pop culture as "classics."
So despite the randomness of my calculations, which could be argued, I am sure you will agree that the chances of writing a song which receives recognition by the Grammy awards panel as song of the year, make that achievement one of unarguably heroic proportions.

Terry Britten has enjoyed tremendous success since his early hits with Cliff Richard, (Devil woman, Carrie etc.) including a track on Michael Jackson's Bad album (Just good friends) culminating in two Grammy awards. One as a writer, for song of the year with "What's love got to do with it", and another for record of the year as a producer.

Sitting in his studio in Petersham, I asked Terry about his first home studio.

My first serious machine was a Teac four track. I was over the moon when I got it, after years of bouncing from side to side on a two track Sony. I had a shed at the bottom of the garden which I lined out, and that became my first home studio. I did all the demos for the Cliff Richard songs there. Devil woman and so on. This was in the pre drum machine days. Everything was guitars and voice.
When the drum machine came out, obviously it made a huge difference for everybody.
I first heard the Linn when I was staying with a friend in Los Angeles, John Farrar. He took me into his music room and said, "Your not going to believe this. I've got this machine, a drum machine. Its in this box."

Its hard to think now that people are brought up on drum machines, but at that time it was unbelievable. He put it on and I was just blown away. He took me down to Roger Linn's garage, and he had one on the bench, and he said you can have this one, so I brought it back to England. In fact it was the first drum machine in the country. The LM1. What a breakthrough.
Up to that point if I wanted to do a serious demo I had to book a studio, which might cost me a fair bit of money. Book a bass player, a drummer, a keyboard player. Rush in, finish maybe four tracks in a day. Suddenly the drum machine comes along and you could take a little bit more time getting things right.

The thing I did miss though is the interaction with the other players. That's been the down side. The social side of music went out the window at that point. People stopped working together. Now the whole country is full of these guys working away in their bedrooms in isolation.
I mean I used to be like that. I used to write by myself all the time. Never would have dreamt of co-writing a song, until the seventies when I started writing with other people. I found it really helpful because, firstly, you have to get over your nervousness and your shyness of playing your ideas to other people, which is good, and secondly, you've got someone else to bounce off.
I think people who are sitting at home working alone, should consider a writing partner. You have to be prepared to put a day aside to work with someone. If it doesn't work, no problem, just keep trying, until you find someone whose strengths are your weaknesses. If you have it in mind, you'll find them.
That's what happened to me. I was bored with my lyrics, then I met Graham Lyle. We just hit it off straight away. Its as if we have been working together forever. Although were very different, I'm much more poppy, he's more on the Country side, and he wasn't specifically a lyricist, but our relationship just progressed that way. Suddenly he became responsible for more of the lyrical side.

Then there's another guy I write with, Gerry DeVeaux who lives in New York. That's a totally different situation. He comes in, I give him a tune on the walkman, a groove, a melody, some lyrics. He takes the whole thing away, does the demo in New York, and sends me a copy. So I have no involvement in the demo. I think you have to open yourself up to working with other people in different situations. Not to say 'This is the way I do it.'

The problem with working at home is that you get stagnant very easily. There comes a point with writing songs that you have to be able to put it out there, and wait for criticism. I've learnt that the only way it works for me, is that you have to know that you are totally happy with what you've done. So that even if people don't like it, you can say to yourself, well I do. Some of my favourite songs are ones that others haven't picked up on. But for me they represent something new, perhaps a new chord progression, a new way of arranging it, something that's taken me in a different direction. All of which is part of the growing experience.

So, for the guy working at home, getting a good groove, nice chords, and then saying now I'll go in and put a melody over it. He's not writing a song. For me it doesn't work. I think all the great songs are written from the walkman point of view. That you can literally pick up a guitar and sing it and it works.
All this thing about doing a track, and getting somebody to put a melody over it afterwards. To me its not organic. Its contrived. I think a song happens with just the chords and the voice. A song that you can stand up and play that will actually move somebody without all the padding.

To this day all the stuff I do is written on a walkman. That walkman tape stays with me right to the end of the production, as a reference. There's always the temptation to rush in and do the track from the moment a song starts to emerge. Now I know, to be true to the song you should stay at the walkman stage until the song is finished, The whole gist of the song, the angle of the lyric should all be done before you get involved with the demo, cause then you can spend a week on the demo having a great time. If you haven't got the melody and the lyric right, you'll end up with a nice track which will do absolutely nothing.
Honestly I would stress that very strongly, cause I've made that mistake myself (pauses) many times. If your seriously writing a song, it has to work at that point.

If you haven't got the nuts and bolts at the start, all the incidentals, like the latest fashionable sound are ultimately meaningless.
Its hard, cause with all the gear now, people know they can make these amazing sounding compilations of sound, in the privacy of their own bedrooms. It takes enormous discipline to resist using these wonderful toys before the basics of the song are complete. You cant blame people, because you play one note on this new synth and this sound goes Wooee and you go WHAT, its amazing. But I'm afraid the public aren't listening to the great latest synth sound. They want to hear a song that expresses something, lyrically, musically. It could be an atmosphere, a mood. That's why people by records, not because its got the latest synth sound or whatever it is. People want to buy songs, and that's one reason why people aren't buying as many records anymore.

Often I sit here surrounded by all this gear, and think its a detrimental thing, because what it can do is take your attention away from what you should be doing, which is concentrating on melody, and lyric, and the craft of the song, rather than the putting together of the demo.

Sometimes it happens, you hear a sound that inspires a song, but as a rule, technology, from a song writing point of view, can be detrimental.

So, now you've written your song, and its time to finish a demo. Frequently this means bringing in a singer, and with that comes the need for dealing with different personalities.

I've had that on every level. I always sing my own demos, even if I'm writing for a female , be it Anita Baker, or Tina Turner. I think its easier for a woman to relate to a song sung by a guy than vice versa. I'm sure a lot of singers could sing my songs a lot better, but I have a pretty good idea of what it should sound like, and that's more important. So if it comes to the point where you get someone else to sing your demo, you should know what you want it to sound like.

I've found that the most important thing is not how good the singer is, pitch wise and so on. Its the feel, and the rhythm. That's why I tend to sing my own demos because I know the way I want the rhythm. Even if you're not the greatest singer in the world, the way it sits in the track- the rhythm of the vocal, is everything, because lets face it, that's your lead instrument.
In production, sometimes you can get a wonderful track. Everything's happening. You get a singer in, and if the singers not up to scratch, the track sounds worse. Then you can get a very simple track, an example is 'What's love got to do with it', which had very little on the demo, but you get a great vocal performance, and it lifts the track, and it sounds a hundred times better than it is, so there is that funny element. Its to do with the rhythm of the vocal. You listen to any Michael Jackson record. His rhythm is fantastic. He can transform a song. I had it where I wrote this song for him. I did it in his style, and it was very close, but then when I heard his version of the song, he changed the rhythm on a couple of lines which just made me go WHAT. So rhythm is incredibly important, and its worth getting it right.

When you write a song, you know how it should come out better than anyone. So you have to endeavour, no matter how it comes out, to communicate with the artist.
I've had it with Tina. Because a lot of the songs she's recorded since her come-back are not natural for her, she's opened up to all sorts of musical influences, because she's sees herself as a rock and roll singer, and now she's singing tender ballads, almost reggae some stuff, lots of mid tempo stuff. On one occasion where the rhythm just wasn't happening, I told her to imagine she was jogging to the track. Sounds silly but it worked. For me the art of production is getting the best out of the person, and that requires communication. Everyone needs direction at some point.

I think its because I had so many years as a session player, on the other side of the glass. You do what you think is a great guitar solo, and afterwards there's deathly silence on the other side. Its a very lonely feeling. A good producer will keep going until he communicates his intention. Its a concentration thing. You don't let go for a minute. I find it can be really exhausting, cause you have a window in time in which to do it, and all your energy has to go into it. I find doing the vocal with people an incredibly intense experience, cause the whole crux of the song is at that point.

So working with artists, you have to keep the importance of the song as paramount.
Mind you I've lost a few myself. I've been overawed and forgotten my responsibilities to the song. I had it with Eric Clapton, who was something of a hero of mine when I was a kid in Australia. I used to play all the Cream stuff with my band. Hours working out solos. So obviously when Eric arrived to play on one of my songs I was just overawed. The first thing he said to me was, "You should have done the guitar on this. I don't know why you want me to play". Tina also said to me, "You should be doing the guitar on this, its your time." I never quite understood what she meant at the time. So Eric arrives with this little Gallien Kruger amp, Fender guitar, sets up in five minutes flat, and there's this almighty guitar sound. Now I've got this little Gallien Kruger amp, and a Fender guitar, and it sounds nothing like that. (Laughs).

So here you are, trying to tell this guy whose been your hero for how long, what to play. Very difficult, because your suddenly overwhelmed by all your feelings. I cant tell you. He played so well. I was just listening to him play, and I forgot about the track. His tone. Whenever I'd seen him playing he looked like he was very cool, and just sort of touching the strings. A very easy attitude. I sat next to him while he played, and I could not believe how hard he was hitting the strings. I was just knocked out by the tone he was getting.
After the session, I picked up his guitar and had a play, and it sounded like Terry Britten playing a Fender through A Gallien Kruger amp, which just proves once again what we all know Its not the gear but the player.

Then a funny thing happened after he left. I put the track up, put in the vocal, and realised I had made an almighty mistake. The register of the guitar part was the same as Tina's voice, and the two were fighting. In fact it would have been better up an octave. We had to go back to plot one, which is that I played the guitar, as we couldn't get him back. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. Luckily we managed to use all his guitar parts on the 12" version of 'What you get is what you see', but despite the fact that the song was a big hit, my dream of having him play on it was shattered by my own problem of not being able to get over the hero worship thing, and just to be totally detached. I learnt my lesson from that because when Steve Winwood, who is another of my heroes, came in the next week to do a minimoog solo, I didn't make the same mistake. Now when I listen back to that session, its just fantastic.

On home demos.

Kids in a sense are so lucky these days. You can go out, spend a couple of hundred quid, and get this incredible device, unlike when I first started where basically everything was 'reverbs in drain pipes'. If I was starting out now with limited resources, I would concentrate on getting the best vocal sound. A reasonable mike, a reasonable mike amp, and a good compressor limitor.
Its possible to make a great demo with very little equipment. Just as long as the vocal sound works.

Also not falling into the trap of doing great demos. I think the demo is the place where you make your mistakes. As far as the arrangement goes, as far as the sounds go. Its your time to experiment, without the pressure of thinking about perfecting the track. That should be a separate stage that comes later. In once sense that's where the gear thing can be a double edged sword, because the stuff around today is good enough to release, quality wise, so that process difference is less defined. I think its good advice to think of a demo as a demo, and not in terms of a finished master.
To a large extent its insecurity about the song which makes us want to fill it out with loads of sounds. If your confident about the song. The nut and bolts of it. Rhythm and melody, then its much easier to resist the temptation to overproduce the demo.
I hear a lot of demos that people send me, and usually there's too much going on. The ones that work are usually pretty basic. One keyboard, bass line, and simple drum pattern. I'll say it now. If you hear my demos, 'We don't need another hero, What's love', whatever, they are very simple as demos, but what they do have is, the melody is there, the atmosphere - the intention is there.
It comes back to self discipline. Not being tempted to lose sight of the song when all these tasty bits of gear are crying out to be used.
When people listen to a song, they are listening to the lead instrument, the voice, so that's the one to prioritise.
So if you make any money out of this, a good mike is worth getting. It also makes sense financially. I have mikes that I bought years ago that have held their value well.

On digital vs. analogue

Recently after hearing so much about the new digital multitracks around, I decided to take the plunge. I sold my Otari, which I was very happy with, and bought 24 tracks of ADAT. I can see why they are great for a lot of applications, but for me the biggest difficulty is that with analogue there is something warm and friendly. It draws you in and invites you to listen. Digital is the opposite. The more I put on the less I liked it. Everything stays separate, and it lacks that gelling factor that you find on analogue.
I'll give you an example. With the older Steely Dan stuff. There are little things going on in the track. Little parts that underpin the whole groove, and you cant actually hear what they are, but you feel them. You just sit there and marvel at it. Now with digital you sit there, and you can hear everything. Its taken some of the mystery out of it. There is a certain mystique in a lot of these old recordings, Elvis, the Beatles etc. There's an atmosphere about the sound which is much more warm and friendly. Stuff I hear today just makes me feel like I haven't been invited in to listen.

The analogue stuff draws you in. I find I'm always outside with digital. Saying 'very good, beautiful arrangement, great playing', but that's where it stops. So I've flirted with the digital thing, but I've gone back to analogue. I found with the ADATS I just couldn't go past a certain point. Because everything is so isolated, I just couldn't get the voice to gel in the track properly. I guess its just that analogue is like a different medium, better suited to my taste.

I've never heard a better guitar sound than a lot of the Beatles stuff, or drums for that matter. Early Led Zeppelin drum tracks. For me its not got any better. Lots of the early recording equipment simply hasn't been bettered. I've heard arguments that its a coloured sound, but so what. Things like the old Fairchild, old Neuman's etc. So its not true, its better. For me its like an effect. Listen to the Beatles vocal sound, and tell me if you've heard a better sound on any digital recording. I think this thing about coloration is important, it always has been in Rock & Roll music, which is basically dirty, and if its a pleasing dirty sound, all the better.

On Samplers.

I use the Roland S770. I tried others, but I liked the sound of the S770. Unfortunately when Roland sold the machines they promised a great many things which have not been delivered. This is another example of a manufacturer selling an expensive piece of machinery with bugs, which they promised to fix. I think we should be able to return stuff under the trade descriptions act when it doesn't live up to the manufacturers promise. I'll stick with the Roland though, cause I like the sound, and I am still hopeful that they will honour their promises.

Ends: 3300 words

The equipment in Terry's studio.
Desk Amek Einstein with Super true automation.
Monitors Dynaudio, and NS10's.
Power Amp. Adcom.
Multitrack. Studer A80 (Using Ampex 499 tape.)
Signal Processors:
Lexicon 200
Lexicon 480
Lexicon PCM 60
Quadraverb (x2)
Demeter Tube direct box
Demeter tube mic preamp
DBX Boom box
Drawmer dual gates (x2)
Focusrite Equaliser
TLA 100A Limiter
A & A Compressor
DBX 160 Compressor
Publison Harmoniser
Binson Echorette,
Rocktron Intelefex
Rocktron Hush
Sans Amp
TC Spatial expander stereo chorus.
Marshall JMP1
Keyboards, modules & Sequencers.
Korg O1W
Roland vocoder
Fender Rhodes
Roland S770
Roland D50
Roland P330
Vintage Keys
Cubase (Atari 1040)
Sycologic digital midi matrix
Akai Linn MPC 60.
Roland R8M
Guitars, Amps & effects.
Stepp Midi guitar
Roland GR1 Guitar synth
Custom Lesley with JBL's
Loads of guitars in various shapes, style's and sizes.
Loads of amps, many with valves.
Loads off effect pedals, several by Demeter.
Neuman U67 (X2)
Neuman U87
AKG 414 (X2)
AKG 415
Shure SM58 (X4)
Beyer MC740
Gefell UM70
Other bits.
Panasonic DAT
Aiwa cassette deck
Denon CD