Interview: Roger Lomas
Roger Lomas is a Grammy Award–winning producer from my home town of Coventry. He has produced records for key 2-Tone/Ska bands that the city is well known for including Coventry’s own The Specials and The Selecter as well as Bad Manners. From this he became highly regarded in reggae circuits, producing for Desmond Dekker and Lee “Scratch” Perry, the latter of which he won his Grammy for. More recently Roger has become one of the country’s most prolific mixers of live performance DVDs for bands such as Ozzy Osborne, The Happy Mondays, ELO, and Echo and the Bunnymen.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Roger for several years now and his insight and expansive back catalogue should prove an interesting read.
APT: Let’s get the elephant out of the room, firstly. Analogue, digital or hybrid? How do you approach your mixing workflow?
RL: I record through an analogue desk onto a hard disk recorder, but prefer to mix through a digital desk. By the time I get into mixing, I am virtually 90% there as I tend to mix along the way.
APT: After delving into your history I see that your first big break was as guitarist of the band The Sorrows. Did you have any interest in record production before being in bands?
RL: No!! I went straight from school into playing professionally in a band, but got into recording virtually straight away, bouncing from a mono reel-to-reel tape recorder to a mono portable cassette recorder (with home-made connecting leads, as you couldn’t buy them off the shelf in those days) and back again, adding another track each time I bounced. I didn’t know what a record producer was in those days — I was just totally into the creative side of guitar playing and composing.
APT: You are arguably best known for your work with Ska bands like The Selecter, Bad Manners and The Specials. Being a producer myself, I find a way to enjoy any music that I am involved with, but did you enjoy Ska music before you became involved with those bands?
RL: Absolutely not! In fact I didn’t like ska music at all. However, after recording an instrumental track called “The Selecter” by The Selecter in 1977 (two years before 2 Tone Records) I could see the potential in modern-day ska music, so, having no idea how I should record ska, I just did my own thing and have continued with this approach to this day.
APT:I want to focus a little bit away from Ska and more on audio techniques. Do you ever get fed up of being asked about the Ska bands and that aspect of your career?
RL: Yes!! Although I am more than happy to talk about my Ska recordings, provided that the listener wants to hear about it. After all, it was Ska music that launched me full-time into record production (I sort of just dabbled in it up to that point).
APT: You’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years mixing live concert footage for well known bands across multiple genres including: The Happy Mondays, Ozzy Osborne, The Bluetones, InMe and Hundred Reasons. When mixing these live performances, how much is usually overdubbed or re-recorded?
RL: I can honestly say that out of around 50 or so “live” recordings (mainly for DVD release), I can count on one hand the amount of overdubs or re-recordings I’ve had to do. That’s not to say that some of them didn’t need fixing here and there, but a bit of copying and pasting usually saves the day. One great example of this was when a Sunday newspaper gave away an audio release of the Happy Mondays DVD soundtrack, the problem being Shaun Ryder’s excessive amount of swearing, generally substituting some of the lyrics with the word “fuck” etc. They weren’t prepared to issue it without the expletives being edited out, so, luckily, in most songs (but not all) he at some point sang the correct words… which I copied and pasted over the swear words.
APT: You also mix some of these concerts in 5.1 surround sound. How does this change your workflow and can you give us the basics of how you usually spread the parts and ambient noise across the different speakers?
RL: Believe it or not, about the first five or six 5.1 surround mixes I did were mixed through my analogue desk using aux sends as audio outputs into the various channels. This, as you can imagine, was a very long-winded way of doing things. As my workload increased it became evident that I would therefore be required to include the amount of surround mixes needed for DVD release, so that’s when I bought my first digital desk, which had the 5.1 (plus other multi-channel formats) surround software included.
I would always start by mixing the stereo audio channels. The settings for this (EQ, level balance, effects etc.) would be the basic template for the surround mix. By doing this, you can set up a surround mix by just using your eyes! No need to even listen at this stage! On the desk’s monitor screen there is a simple ‘surround grid’ with a red dot in the middle of the screen (which represents the selected channel you are about to pan). At the front of the ‘grid’ there are three boxes that represent the surround speakers (front left, centre, front right). Similarly, at the back of the ‘grid’ are another three boxes (rear left, low-frequency (subwoofer), rear right). Where you pan things depends entirely on the type of music you are mixing. For example, I remixed an ELO concert which started with a flying saucer taking off, so the obvious thing to do was to “spin” the appropriate channel round all of the speakers. This is the extreme side to “surround panning”, but, generally speaking, (for me) the left and right pan positions remain the same as the stereo mix, but mainly selected in the front left and right channels and, to a much lesser degree, in the rear left and right channels. The channels that are usually panned in the centre of the stereo mix would also be sent into the surround centre channel. As for what you send to the low-frequency channel (subwoofer; the .1 in 5.1) is common sense really. If a channel contains low frequencies (usually below about 80Hz or so) then you send that to the low-frequency channel.
As for where I place the ambience channels, in an ideal world, I like to record at least four audience channels with shotgun mics (one each for front left and right and rear left and right).
I generally mix the ambience in the front left and right speakers a lot quieter than the rears except for the applause in between songs, encores etc.
If I am mixing a band with multi-keyboard channels, then the main keyboard parts would just blend in with the rest of the band (as in the stereo mix). However, if there are the occasional overdub type keyboard parts in the performance, I may send them louder into the rear channels to enhance the effect.
APT: Another facet of your recent work is remastering older records for some of the major labels. How do you balance getting more modern (higher) RMS levels against the sensibility of the original mix?
RL: I work on a lot of back catalogue re-releases. Some of them come to me on CD which, for many of them, I generally “de-digitize” if it’s for vinyl release. As they are already pre-mastered, they very rarely need level changes. However, I also master from the original reel-to-reel tape studio masters for which, depending on the type of music, I will raise the levels accordingly, in addition to any necessary EQ changes.
APT: Does a lot of the mastering you get this way come on tape? How do you deal with this, and do you like to incorporate bouncing a mix to tape on your recent productions?
RL: As per previous answer, yes I master from tape, most of which sound better (generally) to my ears. I never play a tape without “baking” it first. After doing so, they sound every bit as good as the day they were recorded.
As for transferring my recent digital recordings onto tape, this is something I am considering, but haven’t done… so far.
APT: If you were on Mortal Kombat, give us one audio “trick” that you would consider the Roger Lomas special move.
RL: Pass! I’ve never played Mortal Kombat (or any other computer game).
APT: As well as the more high-profile bands that you work with you also work with a select number of talented artists in your local area of Coventry. Do you consciously try and give back to the community or do you just see talent as talent wherever it is from?
RL: I am guilty of the latter! (Rightly or wrongly) I do just see talent as talent. Unfortunately (again, rightly or wrongly) I’ve been totally independent as both a musician and as a producer all of my working life and (I hate to say this, but) with very little help from Coventry as a city. Unfortunately, although I have always considered Coventry as my home (I’ve worked extensively all over the world and lived in Rome for quite some time in the ’60s), as a city, Coventry has not until recent years supported musicians and/or bands to any significant degree. If I could earn a living giving something back to the community, I would love to do so, as there is a lot the music community of Coventry could learn from both me and the many other globally experienced and successful musicians, producers and technicians who still live in Coventry. It was my intention to set up a music academy a few years ago to do just that, and to involve all of the local successful people (both technical and musical) to have them all under one roof.
APT: In a studio role you have been an engineer, producer, mixer and mastering engineer but I also know that you have done a lot of FOH live sound. Do you think that being able to handle all these different jobs and be flexible is important to an aspiring audio engineer?
RL: I most certainly do! My personal motto is: “Jack of all trades…. Master of all of them.” I mix live like a studio engineer, and I mix in the studio like a live engineer. To do that (if it’s your preferred way of mixing) then you have to do both. I love the control you have in the studio, but I also thrive on the spontaneity of live performance. I also strongly believe that any aspiring studio engineer should be given the opportunity to learn the art of analogue recording as well as digital recording. Like I did, when you have learned on analogue recording equipment and understand the pros and cons of the format, then learn on digital which also has its pros and cons, then you develop what I call “analogue ears”. Once you understand what you can and can’t do on analogue, and the same on digital, you can make digital recordings sound like analogue if that’s what you want, which is the preferred sound of most artists these days.
APT: If you only had the choice of doing one of these disciplines, which would it be and why?
RL: Without a doubt, I would give up everything else I’ve done over the years and join a band again! But only if I could earn a living doing so.
The reason is that, as a musician, especially when I was touring and living in Italy as a member of Coventry band The Sorrows, by the time I was 18 years old I had had hit records (as a musician), in addition to playing regularly in sold-out football stadiums, having bit parts in films, recording film soundtracks with the likes of Ennio Morricone with a full orchestra in RCA Studios in Rome… It doesn’t get much better than that!
APT: Listening to your records it is clear to me that you value the vibe and musicality of a performance over “super tightness”. Audio editing is rife on modern material — do you feel that too much musicality is lost with such heavy editing?
RL: Yes!! Vibe and performance is what makes great records. I have fallen into the trap myself of heavy editing on occasion and, more often than not, hate myself for doing it. However, sometimes, as an afterthought on song arrangements, it’s necessary.
APT: In terms of your tracking routine, do you like to record bands live together? Or does that depend on whom you are working with?
RL: Yes!! Always (for basic backing tracks),whenever possible (depending on how many people are in the band).
APT: Let’s talk about your Grammy win for Jamaican E.T. It is obviously going to be a career highlight, but how did working with Lee “Scratch” Perry come about?
RL: Trojan Records approached me to record him. I was very reluctant to do so at first (I turned the job down three times) as he is a little more than what you would describe as “a bit eccentric”. I thought he would be very difficult to work with — plus, rumour has it, that he burnt his own studio down over in Jamaica some years ago. I agreed to record it on the condition that I would (and I was adamant) only record it my way, not Lee’s — which was agreed! As strange as he was to work with, I got on with him like a house on fire (no pun intended) and wouldn’t have changed a thing. I recorded bass, drums, guitar, keyboards and Lee’s (first of many) vocal tracks live. The songs were written recorded and arranged, at the same time. We recorded 30 backing tracks in six days, recorded the overdubs over the following week or so, and I mixed 15 of the tracks for the Jamaican E.T. album in a day and a half — ten on the first day and the remaining five on the next half-day. In theory, it shouldn’t have worked — but it obviously did, somehow! And it won Best Reggae Album in the 2003 Grammy Awards.
APT: Did you find that the Grammy had an effect on the amount of work you were offered?
RL: Hard to say, really, as I’ve been relatively busy with one thing or another virtually all of my working life… luckily.
APT: During your recording career can you give us an example or two where you have thrown the rule book out the window and done something that might make an audiophile squirm?
RL: The simple answer to that is: virtually everything I do! There are no rules as such in my book. It’s breaking the rules that can, most of the time, make records sound a bit special.
APT: You have done so much in your career, where do you see the next few years taking you?
RL: I have absolutely no idea! To be honest, I don’t, and never have, thought very far into the future. I’ve lived from one day to the next since I left school. Go to bed when I’m tired… get up when I wake up… start work (most of the time) when I feel like it.
APT: For those reading this looking to get into the industry, how would you best advise them to get involved in the music industry?
RL: Everything I’ve learned, I’ve taught myself! From learning to play guitar, learning to drive, learning to be a sound engineer to ultimately becoming a producer. My belief is that if you want to do something bad enough, you will learn, with or without help from anyone. If you need help, ask for it, but at the end of the day, you’re on your own. If you’re any good, you will get recognized! You are entering into a very difficult industry to succeed in. If I can, you can!
APT: For the gear-heads among us, what are your favourite pieces of equipment and why?
RL: I have no “favourite” pieces of equipment really. They’re all toys to me. It’s good people that make good records or make a band sound good live. It’s not, and never will be (in my opinion), about any sort of “special equipment”. Yes, it’s nice to work on certain equipment, but at the end of the day it’s all down to you! If you’re any good, then the end result of what you do will be good, equipment or otherwise. Ever heard of the expression “polishing turds”? Get used to it! There are plenty of turds out there that need polishing — a lot of them, very successful people (believe me — I know!). And it’s your job to be able to polish them, and as a record producer or live engineer, it’s your job to get the best out of them.
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