Paul Fox: College Rock Wizard

PRODUCER PAUL Fox came up as a keyboard player in the skinny-tie era. “When I first moved to L.A., there was a big banner on Sunset Boulevard that read, ‘Welcome — the Knack.’ Everyone was trying to jump on the new-wave bandwagon. A group of us became the rhythm sections to a lot of bands you never heard of.”

Fox built his resume and his contacts, graduating to studio work as a player, programmer and arranger for Patti LaBelle, Motley Crüe, Bernie Taupin and a host of other artists, under a battery of producers including Richard Perry, Bob Ezrin and Jellybean Benitez. Fox’s first shot at producing came via Virgin Records, and he landed a solid one-two punch. His work with Boy George helped take the single ‘Live My Life’ into the Top 40 in February 1988; a month later, he scored again with Scarlett & Black’s ‘You Don’t Know’, which hit number 20. As a budding heavyweight, Fox was asked to run down Virgin’s roster of artists who were looking for producers. His finger stopped at “X,” for XTC. Since that day in ’88, Fox has produced XTC’s radio-friendly Oranges & Lemons, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians’ smartly crafted Perspex Island, the Sugarcubes’ typically bouncy Stick Around for Joy and the Wallflowers’ debut.

Lately Fox has been holed up in Bearsville, the Woodstock, New York studio-in-a-barn that Albert Grossman built, adding 10,000 Maniacs’ new Our Time in Eden to his already considerable college-rock credits. Bearsville, with its beautiful Neve 8088 board, spacious live room and proximity to New York City, is the L.A.-based 38-year-old’s favorite East Coast port o’ call.

Including intensive preproduction rehearsals with the band, Fox has been on the job seven weeks, with a few more days of tracking left before he takes the master tapes back to L.A. to mix. “I’m not sure that people who spend a year making a record make better records than people who just bash it out,” Fox allows, settling back into a soft couch in Bearsville’s control room. “My philosophy is that if you can’t make a good album in two or three months, something’s wrong. You’re trying to create something that doesn’t exist.”

Nailing what does exist to tape is Fox’s goal. And while he likes to take each recording situation as it comes, he does have some rules. For starters, he travels with his own vocal mike. “If I have any secret for recording vocals, it’s the combination of using the mike that I own, a beautiful-sounding AKG C-12, and the right amount of compression. I haven’t found anyone that doesn’t sound wonderful on it — although I’ve also been privileged enough to work with great singers. The mike’s very expensive. It costs $100 to $150 a day just to rent one, and most budgets I get can’t spend $400 to $500 a week on a mike, so I bought my own.”

On the compression end, Fox credits the touch of engineer Ed Thacker, his studio sidekick since Oranges & Lemons. “Ed has a way of using compression and gain to help singers get more excited, because the soft tones become more present. Those soft tones can be very endearing — you hear a little vibrato, a little more of the mouth tones.”

So to capture the huge breadth that singing Icelandic spitfire Björk Gudmundsdottir of the Sugarcubes contains in her petite frame, Thacker “put a lot of preamp on her vocals, so they could be cranked up loud and the soft stuff — the nuances — came through. The compression doesn’t react until the singer’s volume rises, so when Bjork got louder — which she sometimes does in an instant — the compression kicked in and she didn’t have to move on and off the mike. We ask the singer to sing the loud bits before we roll tape so we can find out where the vocals might distort or overload. Sometimes we’ll ride the vocals manually to control that as we record.

“Another thing that’s important in tracking vocals is the kind of desk we use. One thing I love about this Neve board is that it warms it up and brings it into that classic range. Combined with compression and going to analog tape, which I prefer to digital, that’s the vocal sound.”

Gudmundsdottir’s voice is the most volatile instrument on Stick Around for Joy, where she swoops across her soprano-to-rootcellar range, popping notes out of the mix and pinning them high and hard with sheer lung power. Fox was smitten with her prowess and dead-eye pitch — and shocked when he put on her headphones and heard only bass and drums.

“I asked her if she had trouble focusing her pitch without keyboard or guitars. She smiled and said, ‘No. It’s okay’ That’s all she wanted, because she was determined to make a dance record.”

And a dance record demands gorgeous drum sounds. “For this record, we used a combination of Noble & Cooley and Drum Workshop drums. We found the Noble & Cooley is a different wood, and it has less resonance than the Drum Workshop, so you get some isolation. And we tuned the kit high and cracky to send really live rings out. I love open drums. Maybe I’ll put a wallet on them or a little gaffer’s tape for control, but mostly I try to get a nicely tuned drum that will excite the room so I can get a really nice room sound.

“Miking-wise, we did two things with Siggi Baldursson’s drums. One is something Ed and I usually do: We miked both sides, which is especially important for a record where we’re trying to get a lot of tone out of the drums, ’cause the tone comes straight from the bottom. Also, to get a rich sound out of the kick, we used a small, very deep drum, took the front head off, rigged up a contraption to support a mike in there, then put the head back on. We had a mike inside and one on the head as well.

“Usually experimenting like that will lead to other new ideas. On the Maniacs’ record, we took a big 24-inch bass drum and stuck it in front of the drummer’s regular kick. We miked the front of that drum as well, because the air pressure was continuing through it.”

As a session programmer, Fox became an ace with drum machines and developed a strategy for using them in his productions. “I never use a click track per se. I always like my clicks to be as musical as possible. If somebody’s playing to a click and not the band, I’ll take the click away. Rigid time is not as important to me as getting the energy and emotions out of the players.

“When we were rehearsing with Robyn and the Egyptians, we decided it was time for Morris [Windsor] to learn to play with a click. Nothing is worse than going into a studio with a drummer who’s never heard a click before. When drummers listen to a click, they play two to three dB lighter to match the volume in their headphones. With a click, I’m always careful to avoid duplicating any of the drummer’s kick or snare licks. That way it’s like he’s playing with a percussionist in the room, who just happens to have perfect time.”

And if the electronic timekeeper slips a cog, so what? When Fox was rehearsing Oranges & Lemons with XTC, “the drummer must have accidentally switched the program during ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, and the tempo halved. Everybody kept playing, and we decided to go for it as part of the song.”

Fox prefers cutting as many live tracks as possible — isolating drums, amps, and other sonic bleeders as well as he can. Through the glass of Bearsville’s control room, you can see the Maniacs’ gear sprawled throughout the studio. Natalie Merchant’s piano is at center, a rack of hand percussion nearby. The bass rig’s upstairs in the old hayloft. Drums are pulled tight against a back wall, keyboards tucked in the far right-hand corner. And Rob Buck’s rack of guitar effects is in the control room, ready for D.I. cutting.

Fox and the Maniacs are out to explore the edgier side of their music as thoroughly as the band have already mined their gentler folk-rock inclinations. To prep for the sessions, Fox sent 10,000 Maniacs on the road before pre-studio rehearsals. “I think that was kind of inspiring to them, because they’re not working in a vacuum; they know people will get excited by these songs.”

That Fox’s phone keeps ringing during the recession is as strong an endorsement of his work as the albums themselves. “Budgets these days are smaller than they used to be,” he observes, pegging a typical recording bill for a major-label debut at $80,000 to $120,000, with established acts spending $150,000 and up. “So if you want to make a good record, you’ve got to work harder and faster. But what really inspires me is working with people who write great songs and give great performances. And to have those artists turn around and — regardless of commercial success — say, ‘That’s the record I wanted to make’ is really gratifying.”

© Ted DrozdowskiMusician, October 1992

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