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Backtalk: Q&A with James Towler

James Towler, Steve Winwood's engineer and producer of the new PiL album, talks to Simon Duff from his Cotswolds studio

James Towler is a familiar name to the readers of PSNEurope, having won the 2009 Music Producers Guild Award for recording engineer of the year for his work on Steve Winwood’s Nine Lives album. Towler’s musical influences go back to his home town of Bristol, the trip hop of Smith & Mighty and a wealth of electronic dance music, but it is his long partnership, as both live and studio engineer, with Winwood that has shaped his professional career.

He is studio manager at Wincraft Music Studios, Winwood’s idyllic residential, commercial facility in Cheltenham, in the Cotswolds, and recently produced the Public Image Ltd (PiL) album What the World Needs Now… at the former barn.

What makes Wincraft special as a recording studio?
Steve [Winwood] and I make sure we always keep up with the latest technology, [something reflected in the choice of equipment at Wincraft].

The control room was designed by Nick Whitaker at Black Box. Monitors are Focal SM9s; we went to Focal Twins about four or five years ago, then as soon as the SM9s came out we went for those. On the SM9s I love the focus mode, the passive sub on the top – I really do know where I am with the low end. I just find them a great box to balance on really fast.

I use Millennia HV-3D mic pres, and Focusrite RedNet Dante network into either Pro Tools HD or PreSonus Studio One, which is a DAW I rate very highly. Microphones include a Neumann U 87, sE Voodoo ribbons – which I love for brass and guitars – Audix D2, D4 and D6 for drums, an Audio Technica AE3000, a Neumann KM85 and DPA 4099s on strings. I use a Slate Raven touchscreen for console/DAW duties – it’s a great way to progress from the hegemony and boredom of a mouse and gives you that creative tactile advantage – and choice outboard includes two Summit TLA-100 compressors and Bricasti M7 reverb. I use a lot of UAD plug-ins but the Bricasti was a must.

I have converted the entire studio and all the live racks to Dante, and now I can roll them in and out into different rooms. We have just built a new rehearsal room at Wincraft for production rehearsals, so having the ability to use different gear so quickly and seamlessly is essential for my needs. It’s brilliant having a router at the back of a rack with all the mic pres which you can just roll into a room and connect it to the Wincraft network.

I have fibre linking all the buildings with cat-5 ports in all the rooms. The future of both studio and live is about being ale to connect things creatively, quickly and easily. I have to thank Simon Short at Focusrite for all his support and Dante expertise.

Turning to the new PiL album, What the World Needs Now… – the second album of theirs you’ve produced – what was the recording workflow?
It is worth noting that What the World Needs Now… is the first 100% Dante album I have worked on. It was written, recorded and mixed in a single eight-week block starting in October 2014; we finished mixing on Christmas Eve. Initial tracking work was done with guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Frith, and drummer Bruce Smith laying down ideas to Pro Tools running at 96kHz. Singer John Lydon was set up in the dining room area with an SM58, listening to those ideas and reacting, writing lyrics, recording vocal ideas.

Input-wise, some 32 to 36 channels captured 20 song ideas. Edits and arrangements followed: Ideas worked on and parts re-recorded and replaced before lead vocals and overdubs. Tom Colwell, assistant engineer, played an invaluable role managing the Pro Tools files. The final album mix took three to four days, with Lydon and John ‘Rambo’ Stevens, PiL’s manager, in attendance.

And how did you approach working with that great voice?
John is great fun to work with: Very focussed and very into getting a good, positive vibe and then going for it full on. He’s hugely intelligent and knows what he wants, and works in a very theatrical and experience-based way. We did a lot of vocals in the control room, sometimes with no headphones; generally we would do four or five takes for each song, then comp and edit as we went. The workflow and communication was easy. Vocal harmonies were done, with the band, in the final hours before the band left.

What about mastering?
John Dent at Loud Mastering in Taunton mastered in one day. He did Arc of a Diver for Steve, so I know and trust his views entirely. He uses ATC monitors and his set-up includes the Culture Vulture valve enhancer and Manley Slam compression. He really brought out the low-mids I was slightly shying away from during mixing.

Outside of Wincraft, what’s your live set-up like when you’re engineering for Steve Winwood?
For our live operation we have recently taken purchase of a DiGiCo S21. It was supplied by HD Pro Audio and demoed for us by [HD Pro Audio managing director] Andy Huffer. The S21 is a 96k live desk – we were previously mixing at 48k – with a small footprint and a really flexible operating system, as it the first DiGiCo desk that works on Linux as opposed to Windows. It’s that clean path that you would expect from DiGiCo.

Steve and I are mixing a new live album recorded on the Steve Winwood Band’s American tour from April last year. Other projects coming up include some FOH work for Lisa Stansfield in Spain.