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Mark Ralph on the ever-changing role of the producer and walking the line between critical and commercial success

Daniel Gumble spoke to artist and engineer Mark Ralph about his working methods, the ever-changing role of the producer and balancing commercial success with indie credibility...

Mark Ralph has carved out something of a niche for himself in the pantheon of great British contemporary producers. His background as a recording artist and session musician prior to taking up residence behind the desk has imbued his technical prowess with an acute understanding of what makes artists tick, how to get the most out of them and, perhaps most importantly, how to coax out a hit, both critical and commercial.

This combination has culminated in Ralph becoming one of the UK’s most in-demand producers for chart- topping, mainstream acts as well as those at the edgier end of the musical spectrum. In 2016 he achieved a Christmas No.1 hit on the UK singles chart with Clean Bandit’s Rockabye, while in the same year producing or co-producing works with the likes of Years & Years, Foxes, M.O, Kygo, Jax Jones and many others. Scour his client list from the past 10 years and you’ll also find production credits with such critically acclaimed artists as Hot Chip, Franz Ferdinand, Anna Calvi, Daniel Avery, Jagwar Mar and a great many more. PSNEurope spoke to Ralph from his North West London studio to discuss his approach to work in the studio, production influences and some of his most memorable projects to date…

What first attracted you to the idea of becoming a producer?

I came from the musician route. I learned guitar at a very young age and never thought of it as a viable career until I was about 18 and I got the chance to play as a session player, replacing Nile Rodgers on a We Are Family re- release. I was all set to go to university to do electronic engineering and then I got this gig, a £50 session, and it was a big hit. That inspired me to take a year off before going to university, doing lots of gigs with local bands up in Stoke-on-Trent, where I’m from, and doing some guitar teaching to fill out my working schedule. Then I took another year off, then another, and after about 10 years realised I probably wasn’t going to go to uni!

I moved to London when I was 21, joined a band and tried to get a record deal. From there I ended up getting a development deal with Telstar with that band, then we got dropped and I got another deal a few years later with a band called Filthy Dukes, which signed to Polydor. That eventually fizzled out and it left me with a choice: carry on pursuing the artist career or get behind the desk and develop newer artists. All those skills came together at that point. I learned through trial and error – I had no formal training. I see the value of formal training but I feel you don’t really start learning until you’re doing it.

So how did you hone those studio skills?

I first learned how to use all the equipment you needed to make records when I was in my first band. I had a job at Tickle Music Hire driving stuff around London to studios and fixing bits of equipment. I learned lots of useful technical stuff in that job. At the beginning of the Filthy Dukes album I bought a mixing desk from [legendary producer] Conny Plank’s son, and I brought it back here from Germany and reassembled it in my studio. When I was working for Tickle I had to take a mixing desk and assemble it on the set of the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies – there’s a scene where he gets punched over a mixing desk. Having done that I knew how to reassemble a desk. Eventually I started doing more production for other people. It’s really important as a producer to have some kind of music background as well as a technical background. the ability to encourage people to do things you want to achieve a certain result is something that comes with experience.

What were key projects that helped establish you as a producer?

The more left of centre projects helped with getting artists interested in me. I did the last two Hot Chip albums, that’s how I got involved with Years & Years. They were aware of the Hot Chip stuff I’d done and some things with Daniel Avery and they wanted that kind of ‘coolness’ on their record but still have a commercial success with it. Clean Bandit was another good example. If you can prove to record companies not only that you can create a credible record but also a very successful one that definitely boosts demand for your work.

What’s your approach to producing?

I meet the people I’m going to be working with and try to suss out how we’re going to make this a successful venture, how we’re going to make what the record company wants and what the artist wants to be one and the same thing. It varies every time. You’ve got to make a bespoke method every time you enter the room with different people. That comes with experience, the ability to improvise in different environments, rather that saying, Right, we have to start with this, and then we’re going to do this. Some people I’ve worked with are very hands-off, like, Here’s the song, you do your production and we’ll come in and make a few changes and that’s the record. Others, particularly bands, want to be there for the whole process with everything pretty much already fully formed.

Do you have a preferred way of working?

I like variety. If I did everything the same way every time I’d get bored. One of the hardest things for me about being in a band was that I was just making the same record over and over again. The people I was in the band with didn’t have the same reference points and we would tread the same path every time we tried to make a record. I find that quite suffocating and boring. You also learn a lot from the people that come in. People who are 20 years younger than me will come in and show me the way they work and I’ll pick things up from them, and they’ll play me things I haven’t heard before. It’s useful for me to have a variety of different people coming through and informing me as much as I’m informing them. I don’t have any ego about an 18-year-old showing me how to do things on Ableton.

As technology changes there are infinite possibilities and ways of making music. There are still certain formulas that work in terms of song structures if you want to make pop records, and there are certain fundamentals and recording techniques that are a constant throughout your working practice, but the tools with which you can approach it are infinite.

Who are your key influences as a producer?

When I came into it ‘producer’ meant something different to what it does now. These days it’s taken on more of an artist role. The reason there are so many ‘features’ on a record now is because producers are becoming the artists. Clean Bandit is a good example. But when I first started being inquisitive about producers, Tony Visconti would have been a big influence because of the David Bowie and T Rex records that I loved. John Leckie and Radiohead’s The Bends was a huge influence. Around that time I got to know Flood and Alan Moulder, they were working on Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins. There were little nuggets I would learn from Alan about how he did things with Billy Corgan and also with Depeche Mode. And I got to know David Allen who produced all The Cure records and we’ve worked together a few times – he also produced me when I was in a band. He has imparted lots of priceless information about producing. And Paul Epworth who did Bloc Party’s first album [The Silent Alarm]. Hearing that drum sound was a jaw-dropping moment, like, What am I doing wrong?

From the new crop of producers, I guess Disclosure had a big impact when they released their first album. Any producer that spawns lots of copycats is one that has definitely broken the mould somewhere.

What have been some of your favourite records to work on?

As a body of work I would say Communion by Years & Years is one I’m particularly proud of. It’s a big, commercially successful album that will also stand the test of time. They are a band who put the quality of the songs first and foremost. The production is very important as well, but if you have production without the quality of songs, they don’t last. Another really exciting one was Rockabye by Clean Bandit, which got to Christmas No.1, so that was a special Christmas for me! Hot Chip’s In Our Heads I have really fond memories of; getting to know the guys and hanging out over the course of six months was great. There is a track called Flutes that was created all in the analogue world, we had all these synths out and we recorded it all but we needed to do a live filter and EQ modulation all the way through; because it’s so repetitive we wanted to do something subliminally to make it sound like it was moving around, so we got every member of the band, plus me on the desk, with a different channel just doing our bit for seven minutes. Those great moments stick in your mind. Some records you perhaps don’t remember years later because they don’t have those special moments.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently finishing the Clean Bandit album, we’re down to the last little bits, which are the hardest to get right. We’re doing little tweaks and whatnot. And there are a few other singles and bits and pieces lined up before the end of the year.