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Mixing with Phil Harding

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  Mixing with the mix master Phil Harding at PWL

 

A little about Phil

Before I start I just need to say a few things here, first of all that Phil is the nicest man I have ever worked with in the music business, it was an honour to work with him for 3 years. He took time to explain how records were recorded and mixed and was the best teacher you could want if you were an assistant engineer. I can say he never lost his temper in the 3 years I worked with him, he is a kind, honest and gentle family man.

And just to say, from my point of view, Phil Harding was the best mixer / re-mixer at PWL. Dave Ford and Pete Hammond are not in the same league as Phil. SAW would back me up on that I’m sure.

Phil Harding

Phil Harding


How I got to work with Phil

When I started at PWL in 1988 at 16, I really only wanted to work as a tape op in the Borough studio with Mike and Matt. The boys back then had about 8 tape op’s running around for them and two engineers, Karen and Yoyo.

So after about 8 months I thought, well I’m not gonna become the new SAW, and the jobs were taken for engineers already, with a lot of other tape op’s higher up than me and first in line if Karen or Yoyo were to leave.

Why get trained by the b-team engineers when I could make a smart move and work in the Bunker studio with the master himself, Phil – At that stage he was one of the best mixers in the world.

Tony King was already Phil’s assistant but was starting to do his own remixes for PWL and outside record companies so there was a job going and I took it – No Regrets! It meant I would start doing mixes for PWL on nights and weekends at such a young age, and mixing a Kylie single before she left.

If I had continued to work in the SAW studio making tea and running to the café every 5 minutes I don’t think I would have mixed as many PWL record as I did. But I still know a little about Mike and Matt and how they record, because when Phil was off I would work on Stock – Aitken – Waterman sessions (The best of both worlds really).

Let’s get going!

‘The Bunker’ studio was the main mixing room, even though ‘The Borough’ had mostly the same gear, Phil wound have the latest ‘Out board gear / Fx units’ in the Bunker.

For any Phil Harding mix session it was my job as assistant to set-up the tape for mixing before Phil came into work, he would go to the Gym across the road (David Prowse's Gym – Darth Vader in Star Wars) before starting so this give me time to set-up the mix session. I’m gonna pretend Phil’s mixing a SAW Kylie single say ‘Hand on your heart’ because I remember that session very well.

On the morning of the mix I would arrive at PWL, late as usual (10.30am), I would go to ‘The Borough’ studio and get the master digital multi-track for ‘Hand on your heart’. I would take it down stairs to ‘The Bunker’ machine room (Photo) and put the tape on our 24tk Sony digital multi-track machine.

All the songs recorded on the SSL desk (SSL means Solid State Logic – it’s a British recording and mixing desk made in Oxford, it’s world famous and the American’s love it (Eminen is always sitting by one in his videos) I would have a large floppy disk with a track list, cue list, notes about the song and tempo information in the tape box. That floppy disk was then put into the SSL ‘Bunker’ computer for reading.

I would then go into ‘The Bunker’ main studio load the floppy, and write up the track list that was on the floppy. About 24 tracks for ‘Hand on your heart’

The track list for a typical SAW song would look something like this……

Tk 1 : Chords (L)
Tk 2 : Chords (R)
Tk 3 : Poly - Rhythm Seq (L)
Tk 4 : Poly - Rhythm Seq (R)
Tk 5 : Guitar
Tk 6 : Juno Seq
Tk 7 : Piano
Tk 8 : Bass
Tk 9 : Kick
Tk 10 : Snare
Tk 11 : Clap
Tk 12 : Hats
Tk 13 : Tambo
Tk 14 : Congas
Tk 15 : Rim
Tk 16 : Loop
Tk 17 : Matt Rhythm Keys
Tk 18 : M8 Vox loc / tom fills
Tk 19 : Bv's Lo (L)
Tk 20 : Bv's Lo (R)
Tk 21 : Main Bv's mix (L)
Tk 22 : Main Bv's mix (R)
Tk 23 : Lead Vox
Tk 24 : Lead D/T
 

I would put the faders up and have a listen to the over dubs on tape to check that they corresponded with the track list on the floppy, and the cue list was also correct. The cue list is simply the times of verse, bridge, chorus, m8 and so on, with the cue list on the SSL desk you could tell the tape machine to go to a point in the song and maybe loop it, play it so on….


The Out Board Gear (Racked effects) - Pictured Below

Bunker Studio

Right, so the tape is on, and the track list is written up on the SSL desk. Next step is to plug up the ‘Out board gear’ used by Phil on all mixes via the SSL patch bay. Phil would add more ‘Out board gear’ during the mix (sometimes) but to get him going he would have his own unique ‘Out board gear’ set-up.

Since we’re mixing ‘Hand on your heart’ only one side of the SSL desk is used up for overdubs channels 1 to 24. This meant Phil could use the other side of the SSL desk, channel 25 to 48 for ‘Out board gear’ returns and any overdubs he wanted to do (more on that later).

On any Phil Harding mix session if the last 8 channels were free as they are here then the ‘Out board gear’ stereo / mono returns would return here on channels and monitors 41 to 48.

Basslines had some Dimension D - Setting 4 on it.

Dimension D

Track 41 : SPL 160 : 200ms delay # Group output 21#
Track 42 : Dimension D (L) Setting 4 –  (Used on bass sounds) #SSL Cue send left#
Track 43 : Dimension D (B) Setting 4 – (Used on bass sounds)  #SSL Cue send left#
Track 44 : Spanner (L) – Pans from left to right (Used on toms / congas) #Group output 22
Track 45 : Spanner (R) – Pans from left to right (Used on toms / congas) #Group output 22
Track 46 : SDE 3000 Delay (Set to 4’s delay) #Group output 31#
Track 47 : SDE 3000 Delay (Set to 8’s delay) #Group output 32#
Track 48 : SDE 3000 Delay (Set to trips or 16’s delay) #Group out 33#

Monitor 42 : Rev 7 (L) Symphonic #Group output 27#
Monitor 43 : Rev 7 (R) Symphonic #Group output 27#

Monitor 44 : Rev 5 (L) Symphonic #Group output 23#

Monitor 45 : Rev 5 (R) Symphonic #Group output 23#
Monitor 46 : Eventide (L) Various Fx’s # Group pout 24#
Monitor 47 : Eventide (R) Various Fx’s # Group pout 24#

Monitor 48 : Nothing

Yamaha SPX 90

Yamaha spx 90

The SSL desk also has 4 hard wired Auxiliary sends as well as cue send left and right.

Aux send 1 : Ams reverb : Non linn short room
Aux send 2 : Lexicon 224 : Plate
Aux send 3 : Lexicon 480 A : Vocal plate
Aux send 4 : Lexicon 480 B : Med room

As standard Phil would have the hot Pultec valve EQ inserted over the Kick and Snare or Claps. The bass would have a DBX 160 compressor inserted over it. The vocal would have DBX de-ssers and compressor over them.

Phil would expect all of the above ready when he came in.


Phil Arrives

A cup of herbal tea, a few phone calls to banks and record companies and Phil would start.

First job was for Phil to get a very rough balance of all overdubs and play the song over and over a few times to learn the song, arrangement and have a little play around and see what overdubs worked well, try a few quick ideas and cuts on the desk.

Then all faders were pulled down to start the mix!

Phil would start with the Kick (as most mix engineers would), then Snare, Hats and the rest of the drums would follow. We had 3 pairs of speakers that Phil would mix on, Yamaha NS10, JBL control 1's with sub box, and the big boys URI in the early days and then Genalecs. Phil would switch from speaker to speaker to ensure the mix was sounding good on the small speaker (NS10) as well as the monster club speaker like the Genalecs.
Just quickly, one thing about Kicks, claps and snares: In the early days before Akai samples if Phil wanted to change a Kick, clap or snare sound it was very easy by using a early sampler call AMS. It wasn't midi but you could trigger your samples (maybe a new kick sound) by an audio feed. Not sure if we changed the kick or snare sound on 'Hand on your heart' from the one SAW had recorded, but if we wanted we would simply sample new a kick, clap, or snare into AMS and then trigger it from the kick on tape - simple!

As a good mix engineer you need to make the mix work and sound good on the radio as well as the clubs. So using a big speaker as well as a small one is vital for any mix.

Anyway back to mixing, after the drums were balanced, EQ’ed, fx’s added, and were sounding red hot on the speakers the baseline was next. The SSL desk has onboard compressors on every channel, which was used often on SAW mixes to get that punchy sound.

It also has a stereo compressor in the centre section for the stereo mix, which also was used loads for keeping level peaks at bay and overall compression. 

After the baseline would be keyboards and guitars, then vocals. Nice reverbs from the Lexicon’s for the vocals, Rev 7 Symphonic on the pads and chords for a nice stereo sound, 8’s trips delay on rhythm and poly keys, 4’s delay on vocals, Good Eq’s like Focus Right / Neve Eq’s inserted on vocals and bv’s.

As Phil would balance and mix he would start marking the faders with a black china graph pencil for rides (changing levels) on vocals, or keyboards. He would be thinking about changing fader levels of certain overdubs at different parts of the song. Things like maybe turning up the Piano / guitar in the chorus, more pad in the bridge, so on.

To make the vocal sound level throughout the song, loads of vocal rides are sometimes needed, if a certain vocal line was too loud or too quiet then a ride would sort it out.


The first mix pass on the SSL
 

After all overdubs were in and balanced, EQed and Fx’s added. The SSL mix computer is then turned on for a full mix run. This simply means you play the song / tape from top to bottom so the SSL could record all fader levels.

All the fader rides and fader cuts Phil noted in his head are then slowly programmed in the SSL computer. These are done manually by moving the faders and cutting the faders, the SSL mix computer then remembers them when you play the tape back. Simply really!

Nowadays more advance mixing desks are remembering EQ movements,  and Auxiliary send movements, even my little Yamaha 02R at home.

During any Phil Harding mix, things can change, more outboard FX’s added, more inserts on the SSL added.

Stock-Aitken-Waterman would mostly record their song in a 7” format, which mostly is…

Intro            8 Bars
Verse 1       8 Bars
Bridge         4 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars
Verse 2       8 Bars
Bridge         4 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars
Middle 8      8 Bars
Bridge         4 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars (On a mix you would start fading about the end of this chorus – 20 Seconds auto fade on the SSL would do the trick nicely).
Chorus        8 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars
Chorus        8 Bars

Phil would listen to other PWL records mixed by him so make sure he had the right PWL sound on the mix. In those day we were plotting our new records on the big PWL hit records, we were in a very cool position back then. As well as listening to PWL hits, he would listen to current dance pop hits in the charts or new on the dance floor. Just to make sure the drums and bass were pumping like the other big club tunes at that time. You need to reference your mix to other records to make sure you sound as good. I still do this now and I’m sure Phil does as well.
 

After Phil had done all his rides and cuts on the mix. He would take a break, breaking from mixing is vital, you need to rest your ears and come back to listen to the mix fresh now and again.
This was table tennis time with Mike, Matt and Yoyo. The boys loved to play table tennis that’s why you see a table tennis table set-up in the Borough vocal booth in my photo.

Pwl table tennis room

As the boys played table tennis I would do little jobs for Phil, one would be to sample off the chorus vocals in the Publison sampler, the Publison sampler was midi not like the AMS sampler and played a very important part of working, recording and mixing at PWL.
PWL had 3 of them, they were very expensive, and one of the only samplers of mid to end 80’s that could sample in stereo for 28 sec at a high bandwidth, just enough time to sample a full chorus or verse (8 bars). Mike also used it to fly -in vocals, like chorus’s, to other parts of the song by using a keyboard midi trigger.
And yes the ‘Publison’ was a French sampler.
 

Publison

The chorus I sampled in the Publison, would be spanned across a midi keyboard, Phil would then use this to make up a thing called ‘Vocal Locs’, a ‘Vocal Loc’ is a vocal cut-up and tuning  / pitched effect which is what you hear on the intro of the ‘Hand on your heart’ 12” after the acappela intro and the drums come in. Most PWL 12" records have 'Vocal Locs' and the Mel and Kim records are famous for them. 'Show, show, sh, sh showing out' - Something like that anyway.

The Straight Run mix Anyway after a few breaks and changes, the first pass or ‘Straight run’ would be recorded to DAT and ‘Half inch’ reel to reel running at speed 30ips. Sometimes the ‘Straight run’ would become the main 7” mix / Radio mix. Before we laid the ‘Straight run’ down Pete might come in have a listen, turn up the congas or hats, and say that’s it, sounds good now. But basically the 'Straight run' would really be how SAW had recorded the records. No drum loops and vocal locs yet. It was a pure reference mix to have on DAT, which sometimes became the 7" anyway, but not on 'Hand on your heart'.
As well as the 'Straight run', we would cut the lead vocals and lay a 'Backing track' mix and then cut the backing vocals as well and lay an 'instrumental mix'. The ‘Hand on your heart’ mix was very straight forward from memory, but please believe me, if Pete didn’t like the overdubs or something wasn’t working on the track then Matt or Mike would come down to the bunker and start changing overdubs (A nightmare). Sometimes the mix would be called off so more recording in ‘The Borough’ studio could be done. But as I’ve stated on this site so many times when the boys (SAW) were hot and at the top of their game the overdubs didn’t change to much if at all. The tapes were mixed, the record was cut and about six weeks later we had a no.1 record. ‘Hand on your heart’ is a perfect example of that! After the ‘Straight run’ was on DAT and Half inch. Phil would start doing his main 12” master. Pete and Kylie would prefer to listen to the song in a 12” format most of the time really. And Phil Harding could deliver a killer 12” mix, I must say. Because at this stage Mike, Matt or Pete hadn't really approved the mix, all the work on laying ‘Straight run’ mixes down and starting 12” mix parts might have to be done again if SAW wanted a small or big balance change or overdub change, which is a pain but part of the job. But with Mike, Matt or Pete sticking their heads in ‘The Bunker’ control room now and again and saying ‘Sounds good Phil’, Phil would be confident to get on and start creating the Phil Harding 12” Master mix. Some Stock - Aitken - Waterman records were easy and trouble free to mix (1 day mixing) and some were hell to mix, re-over dubbing over and over again and 100's of various mixes. Glad to say 'Hand on your heart' wasn't to hard at all.
Doing the 12” mix As I’ve said SAW would record songs in a 7” format (about 4 and half minutes on tape). So for Phil to do a 6 or 7 minute 12” he would have to create different 12” parts and I would edit the sections together on the ‘Half inch’ tape machine. The 12" of ‘Hand on your heart’ or any record mixed by Phil wound normally have about 6 or 7 edits to make up a 7 minute 12” mix. But before Phil would start creating 12" parts he added a couple drums loops to fit in with the SAW drums that they had programmed. Can't remember where the loops came from, but I'm 100% sure they were just sampled off a current dance record laying around the studio at the time. Sampling and adding drum loops to records at PWL in 1989 was quite a new thing. Phil was one of the first, if not the first to do it. Soon after all mix engineers were adding loops as the norm, even SAW would add loops to their productions very soon after this.
The loops on 'Hand on your heart' can be heard at the end of the main 12" mix - The drum outro.

As well as drum loops, sometimes Phil would need a dance baseline, a simple baseline just a few notes looping over for a 12" intro or dub mix. This never happened on 'Hand on your heart' though.

After the drum loops were done and recorded onto a new 24 Track analogue tape which was in sync with the main song 24 Track digital tape, then Phil would do the vocal locs.
Phil would set-up on the SSL computer for the Multi-track tape machine to play the outro chorus after the middle 8 on a loops. The outro chorus's are always a good place to start, as it's chorus after chorus and that would be the starting point for the 12" mix.
Armed with the Publison and a midi keyboard, Phil would mute the vocals on tape and start playing around with vocal locs, by playing live over the tape on the outro chorus's.
When he had a good vocal loc in his head he would then program it via the Linn 9000 over 8 bars. Phil might come it with 3 or 4 different vocal locs, record all of them on the analogue multi-track and choose different ones as he went along mixing the 12 parts.

Just a couple of points to add, Mike and Matt would also do 'Vocal Locs' in the middle 8 of their records before mixing. Sometime during mixing if Mike or Matt walked pass 'The Bunker' as Phil was doing his 12" vocal locs then Mike or Matt wound have a quick go and come up with a couple vocal loc ideas.
 

The Linn 9000

The Linn 9000 was used by SAW to sequence most of they hit records, but the SAW Kick, snare and claps were sampled in the AMS samplers as explained before and the Linn 9000 only acted as a trigger for the real SAW drum sounds in the AMS samplers.
Timecode from tape and a sync box (can't remember name) with a 20 second start time would trigger and sync the Linn 9000 with the multi-track all the time.

Studio



Sorry about that, just need to clear that up. Back to mixing!

So the drum loops and vocal locs are done, Phil would balance the loops and add Fx's to vocal loc like delay and reverb.

12" mix parts

From playing the mutli-track tape from the outro chorus's Phil created an acapella intro, then drums, bass and loops came in, and slowly builds the 12" intro with 'Vocal Locs' and keyboards coming in until we get to the main song of 'Hand on your heart'. All the cuts on the SSL channels to create the 12" intro are programmed into the SSL computer, so you don't have to keep doing it over and over again.
Phil would then do the song run and breakdown sections and finally the outro 12" parts, by bringing back in the 'Vocal Locs', cutting keys out, cutting drums and so on to create the full 12".
When all the 12" parts are programmed on the SSL computer, maybe about 5 or 6 parts, then we laid all the 12" parts onto the 'Half inch' tape machine for me to edit all them together, creating a finished 12" mix. Phil would show me where the edits needed to be as we laid it to tape. Sometimes the boys (SAW) would be already in 'The Bunker' control room waiting for me to finish the edits and have a listen - No pressure really!

After all the edits were done we then copied the full 12" back into the DAT while listening back to it very loud on the URI speakers. When Phil was happy it was then time for the boys to listen to the mix.

It was about 9 pm that evening and Mike, Matt and Pete were going round to 'The Gladstone Arms' for their usual night cap before going home. As they were passing 'The Bunker' I called the boys in and said the 12" was done. From memory this mix had no real problems, Mike would normally want the chords and vocals up a bit, Pete the rhythm stuff like hats and congas up a bit and Matt not bothered.
Any changes to the mix meant all mixes would have to been re-laid and re-edited.

Phil then went to the pub with the boys and I re-laid the 12" parts with the minor SAW changes and re-done the edits. The boys then came back from the pub slightly pissed and had another listen. They were all very happy and the rest is history.
'Hand on your heart' is one of the easy SAW mixes that Phil did, but believe me some SAW mixes were not so easy and quite complex, with hundreds of versions, edits and overddubs. But this was more to the end of their life at PWL when things weren't going to well for the boys.

Writing the mix up

One really good thing about the SSL desk was it's 'Total Recall' function. This meant all settings on the desk, every single knob could be saved, so we could recall the desk / mix exactly how we left it in case of anymore changes days or weeks later.
The SSL took care of the desk settings and mix information. But one other job as assistant to Phil would mean I had to 'write up' the mix. At PWL we had special mix recall sheets. All the 'out board gear' in the bunker would be on the recall sheet in a way of a photo of some sort. We would use the recall sheet to go through each bit of 'out board gear' and write up and draw the settings, input levels, delays times, reverb times, everything really. The SSL patch bay would also have to be written up, which at the end of a mix, would look quite complex and not easy to write up and get it right.
The true test of how well an assistant wrote up a mix would obviously come if or when we had to recall the mix for some reason. I've heard some recalls that sound bad, but not being big headed when I wrote a mix up it always recalled spot on, sometimes the mix would sound better (Ha ha - Only joking).
I would write up the 'Hand on your heart' mix slowly over the course of the day and double check it before I when home that evening.

Leaving the mix up overnight and the big PWL play in the morning

If no one was mixing over night in 'The Bunker' then we would normally leave the mix set-up overnight for a final check in the morning. 'Hand on your heart' was left up over night, Pete was always up early and I remember him having another listen again in the morning and okaying the mix.

Finally at about 10.30am before Mike and Matt came in, all the office staff everyone really would be summoned by Pete in 'The Bunker' for the big PWL first listen. Pete would sit at the SSL with a big fat Cuban cigar, with all the staff members behind him and turn the volume to deafening and say 'Play the 12" kid'.
Everyone would then pat each other on the back and say well done Pete. It's funny really the people who did all the hard work, Mike, Matt and Phil weren present for the big play down.

To have these memories in my head and there are hundreds more, I am honoured to have worked at PWL and be trained by Phil Harding. It's something I will never forget. I have the utmost respect for Phil Harding and Stock - Aitken - Waterman for giving me the opportunity to work, and watch how they created such classic pop songs.
Writing this web page made me listen to the 12" mix that Phil did all those years ago in 1989. I don't think I'd heard the 12" for maybe 15 years, but listening back to it just confirmed one thing to me, what an incredible pop song 'Hand on your heart' was and what a fucking great time I had at PWL.
Jealous? You should be!

 
 

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