Some weeks ago, my browsing of music blogs brought a track called "Stranger" to my attention. I thought it was pretty good, and went hunting for the producer. So here we are, with an interview of Hugh Worskett, a London-based music man whose work with independent and major label names alike is garnering him a good reputation. You can read about his background and how he produced Alfie Connor's "Stranger" below.
Hi there Hugh. Can you tell me about your start in the world of music?
Sure. In my teens, I was mucking around in bands, recording demos with friends, gradually becoming more interested in the sound of records. I did a classical music degree at King’s College London. I used to play the oboe, of all things, and I still draw on my classical background a lot when I'm producing particularly when it comes to musicianship and arrangement.
After finishing my degree, I got some lucky breaks meeting some producers who offered me the chance to work with them. I also did some early recordings with Jamie N Commons who’s now off doing stuff with the likes of Eminem and Jay Z.
Was your first break the Jamie N Commons stuff?
Yeah, definitely. He was a friend of my sister’s, and I convinced him to work with me. I went through his demos, and chose the one I thought was the best, which was called “Caroline“. I badgered a bunch of my friends from university to play on it for free, worked out the arrangement and convinced someone I knew at Universal to put us into their demo studio, and the end result was good. Jamie went off and got his publishing and management, and it was enough for people to start getting in touch with me.
Interesting. So doing good work led to people wanting to get in touch with you, instead of you having to chase them down, which a lot of up-and-comers tend to do.
I didn’t know much about the industry at that point, so I was lucky that a few people did approach me, but I think in general you have to be out there, chasing stuff down. It's a cliche but you're judged on the last thing you produced, so you have to be out there meeting people if you’ve done something noteworthy.
Do you still feel like you have to convince people to work with you?
I think you always need to let people know what you have to offer as a producer. I don’t think there’s a job description for it - it can involve being a musician, engineer, sound designer, arranger or a combination of all these. So you need to let people know what you can do, and find the projects that suit you best. I let people know I play a variety of instruments, that I’m big on arrangement, and generally I guess have a left-field approach with a view to bringing things across to the centre.
I only see a few instruments in your studio, like a guitar and some synths. Do you have any intentions to expand your setup?
Yes, the plan is to have a piano in here and gradually collect more instruments and gear. A lot of instruments cross-over in functionality and design so if you know your way around a piano or guitar, you should be able to pick up most other things in here and get something out of it. The idea is to collect a variety of things so an artist can come in here and really explore musically.
There's a lot more on the computer that I use if I haven't got the real thing - I have the Arturia bundle, Native Instruments libraries, my own drum sample collections etc.
I do think it’s important to blur the boundaries a bit between physical sounds and synthesized ones. If you just make a record on the computer, that’s one thing. And making a record using only acoustic instruments is another. I think contemporary production is about creating a hybrid of both, taking the best from each.
Take me through the things you have here. What’s that small amp I see over there?
That’s a little practice amp, which can be quite fun - it creates some interesting lo-fi sounds that you can play around with.
The Fender Deville is great for fuller guitar tones.
My ukelele gets used a bit too. I had a session a few months ago were the artist said he hated ukeleles. So I handed it to him and said “come up with something", and he found this sort of shuffling rhythm on one held chord that completely changed the direction of the track. The fact that he was playing something that his fingers' muscle memory wasn’t dialled in to led him to a part he wouldn’t have found on the guitar.
My drum machines are some of my favourite things to muck around on - the Teenage Engineering PO-12 is getting used on everything at the moment
Synth-wise, I have the Doepfer Dark Energy 2 synthesiser, a Juno 106, and a Prophet is on the way. It’s very easy to slip into the 80s with the Juno but I've had mine modded so I can patch external stuff through the chorus which is fun. I have some Casiotone keyboards too which are great for esoteric sounds.
My monitors are a pair of Acoustic Energy 22s, which I love. They’re flat and detailed and not fatiguing at all. Very good all rounders.
Do you mix in this studio?
Not yet but that's not to say I won't. At the moment I'm working on a lot of projects where I get involved early on with arrangement and writing before producing them up. I think it’s good for a fresh pair of ears to mix and offer perspective at the end of that process.
Let’s talk about “Stranger”. The arrangement for that tracks is sparse, yet still manages to sound interesting. Was that deliberate?
Alfie and I wanted it to be sparse. We tried adding more things in, but it worked better stripped back. The guitar parts are interesting because they’re not just strummed chords, they have great melodies in them. The guitar was a Fender Strat through a Princeton. I think there’s a plate reverb on it too. Once you get to the chorus, the guitar is double-tracked to fill things out and we harmonised a few of the guitar licks in between the vocal gaps. The vocals are similarly treated: single-tracked in the verse, double-tracked for the chorus, along with harmonies, which are also double-tracked. The background vocals are layered up multiple times at the end.
Tell me about the process of recording vocals for “Stranger”.
We recorded through an SM7B. As a mic it seems to work on a lot of male vocals, and has good presence. There wasn’t a lot of thought put into that. It was what we had at the time, and Alfie sounded good on it. I tend to record my vocals without compression, unless there are dynamic problems. I’ll add in-the-box compression afterwards and vocal rides if I have to.
Were the drums programmed?
They were completely programmed. We tried live drums but they didn't have the weight. I wanted the drums to have an organic feel about them so we didn't drift into remix territory. There’s a lot of velocity stuff going on with the kicks and rim-shots to try and achieve that.
I wasn’t sure whether I heard a bass in there or not.
There’s a bass synth in the chorus. We tried a real bass, but with the kind of arrangement we had the bass didn't add much and we were in danger of moving back into band world, which we didn’t want.
Did you handle the mastering, or did the label?
I think his label had someone they wanted to use. It may have been someone over at Metropolis but I can't remember.
Cool. Anything you’re currently working on that you can tell me about?
I just finished the debut album of a band called Movie which was a lot of fun and I’m working with a guy called Will Joseph Cook, who’s signed to Atlantic. He has a really original voice and writes amazing songs. We're spending a lot of time on arrangements exploring and refining which is an exciting process.