In 1983 after leaving the army, Slater attended the National Centre for Orchestral Studies, after which he joined the jazz orchestral collective Loose Tubes. Over the next few years, he was the bass and tenor trombonist of choice for George Russell, Carla Bley, Andrew Poppy, El Sonido de Londres, Billy Jenkins, Django Bates and Andy Sheppard.
1. How did you start producing and what gave you the motivation to stay with it?
For me, it all started in 1988. I signed my first record deal with Antilles/Island with Microgroove and I used my advance to buy an Atari 1040 ST, and S900 and I was off. What keeps me at it is noticing improvement all the time, and wanting to continue improving. I’m definitely getting better all the time, (why wouldn’t I?) and that keeps me thirsty for more.
2. What other producers, songwriters and/or artists do you see as your primary inspirations?
Wow. That’s a tough one. I grew up listening to a LOT of easy listening music, so I was really into the arrangements of Oliver Nelson, Sammy Nestico, Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones etc. That’s what got me into wanting to play the bass trombone, George Roberts’ oleaginous sound really hit me right in the thinker and the heart. I have those colours in my arranging and orchestration palette now. I don’t get to use them a lot, but when I get to, I know what to do. I can’t say that any particular artists inspired me more than any others, but I learned about string arranging from the same musical background. Prince was a revelation for me, of course. He was quite ground breaking in his approach, and managed to make 80s drum machines and programming pretty funky, something which the rest of the world took another decade to do. I have an ability to listen to something and analyse and understand it quite quickly, which is a blessing. When I made my Bone Idol album, which visits a lot of ‘world’ music for inspiration, the best compliment I got was from my friend Kim Burton, who said that I’d managed to get the essence and sound of everything just right. These days, I listen to everything from mainstream pop to quite underground stuff for inspiration. I also talk a lot to producers young and old about their techniques and approaches to mixing, producing and arranging. I’d never compare myself musically to Miles Davis, but I definitely share a lot of his of his attitudes to keeping up with what’s happening now and not settling into a comfort zone.
3. How do you approach the sensitive task of discussing changes and rearrangements with artists?
Well, I make something clear from the outset of every project and that is this: We all want the same thing and that is the best possible outcome. Many of the people I work with are women, and they all say the same thing to me, which is ‘You listen to me’. I do. I’m happy to try out any idea, if I can figure out a way to make it work. I’ve worked with numerous producers who, when asked if they can try something unusual, usually tut and sigh and explain to me, as if I was an idiot, all the reasons why they can’t do it, instead of just trying it. I do have a way of working, a method or ‘workflow’, of course, but I’m so comfortable in LPX that nothing really freaks me out. One of my regular clients, David McKean is very used to me saying ‘Dave, I can make anything out of anything’. And that is what’s so great about modern digital DAWs. If you have the imagination and the knowledge, you really can make anything out of anything else.
4. What is the one thing every song must have for it to be solid?
I’m all about ‘the nut’. That’s the lyric which is smart, possibly clever and it somehow determines the way the whole song is put together and what it’s about. I’ll often get a chorus written first, then reverse engineer the song from that. I love melody. There’s nothing more annoying than working with a writer who just bumbles around the minor pentatonic scale hoping for a miracle. I apply that to all the parts within the song. I want the listener to be able to sing every part. They all have to have a melodic and rhythmic purpose.
5. Can you describe, briefly, how the two of you work with Hattie Snooks on a musical project?
It’s a great process with Hattie. We never get together with an idea in mind, what happens on the day is what the song is going to be. I will admit to being a bit of a cheater here. When I’m working with Hattie, I get Loopcloud out. We just listen to a lot of random loops (which may or may not end up in the final mix) until we hit something that we both like the sound of. I do the same with my own vast loop collection. There’s always something which will fire our imaginations, and then we’re off. I sit in front of the computer messing around with it until we have something resembling a song format. Hattie sits on the couch mumbling and singing to herself and then presents me with an idea for the song. She’s fantastic at melodies, so I usually leave her to get on with that and lyrics, with very few suggestions for the way a melody could go, or a small lyrical adjustment, then we get to recording the vocals quite quickly. I try to go for the vibe in her vocals, vibe is the one thing they haven’t managed to make a plug in for. So, I don’t get her to sing something 100 times, looking for the perfect take. I leave that up to Melodyne to sort out, and it’s bloody good at that, in the right hands. For me, when it comes to pitch and timing, close enough is good enough.
6. What is the first thing you listen for when listening to a new recording?
Literally everything. I’m terrible at listening to lyrics, I can rarely hear what they’re singing, and I tend to treat (when I’m listening) the voice as another instrument. That’s probably a pretty strange thing for a lyricist to say, but there it is. I’m weird.
7. Do you have a favourite musical project that you've worked on?
Today, Queen Mab is the thing I’m most proud of, but I think my next album (a duets album) will be the next thing I’m most proud of. I think that’s fairly normal.
8. How did you build contacts and/or clients?
I’ve been around longer than dirt, and I had a very active career as a live and session musician through the 80s and 90s, during which time I met and played with a lot of people. I stay in touch with many of them through Facebook, which I love for that purpose. I always say that a good producer is a set of great ears and an even better phonebook… If I hear someone who turns me on with their approach, they are logged in my mental directory, and I always try to find an opportunity to work with them. These days, budgets are low, if they even exist at all, but my main pool of players always comes through for me. I do them favours, they do me favours. It’s the modern way, baby.
9. Is there an artist you want to work with that you have not yet had the opportunity to work with?
Dozens of them! I’d love to do something with Arianna Grande, she’s making some pretty interesting stuff these days.
10. Do you have advice for young people who want to become a music producer?
Keep your mind open and your ears more open.
11. What do you like to do for fun outside of working on music?
Ummmm…. What is ‘fun’?
12. If there was one word you could use to explain your experience so far while working as a music producer, what would it be?
13. How important is pre-production for you?
If it’s a band, very. I want to know what everybody is playing all the time and how that contributes to the final version of a song. If it’s a solo artist, I will want to hear their demos so I can get a handle on what it is they’re trying to achieve.
14. How do you usually prepare for your studio work?
I wake up. That’s about it. These days, I need a coffee. If I have someone coming over to write or work, I ask them what they like to eat, and make sure I have that in the house.
15. Have you ever embarrassed yourself? If so, how did you overcome the incident?
All the time! I just laugh at my idiocy, encourage others to laugh at it too and accept that I’m a human, an imperfect being.
16. There are times in a career when life isn’t going your way, how do you keep your mind on your work without losing focus?
To be honest, I don’t always. Life is real, it’s not a straight line. I accept that and I don’t give myself too hard a time if just not in the right place to approach something. So much of what we do is ‘in the mind’ and the mind has to be in the right place to get the best result.
17. Have there ever been a time where you haven’t gotten your work done on time? If so, how did you deal with it?
Of course! I just whip out my endless charm, and keep communicating with the client. What most people hate is the ‘vanishing producer’, so I try to make sure that I’m updating the client so they know I’m still alive and working on their project. Communication is what causes about 95% of all problems, so if you can keep on top of that, you’re doing the right thing.
18. What goals did you have set before you started your career?
I wanted to be the best bass trombone player in the world. Now I know that that’s impossible, and very subjective, but I was definitely in the global top 10,000 for a while!
19. Could you tell me how you usually start working, mixing the vocals?
When I’m mixing a track, I don’t do what a real mixer would do. I don’t pull down all the faders and start from the beginning again. That’s not how it needs to be any more. When I’m working on a song, I’ve already chosen sounds that will work well together. That is a VERY important thing to do. The most important. And having a background as a player really helps in that situation. So, when I start my mix, I have everything up as it went down. Then I will get to the foundations first, drums and bass (if the song has those). I’m not a ‘real’ producer, in that I won’t spend hours getting a hi hat sound. I know what I want the hi hat to sound like, and I know how to make it sound that way. A lot of that work is done during the writing stage anyway, so for me, mixing is really polishing what’s there, balancing it, placing it in my ‘mix cube’ and dealing with any frequency clashes.
When it comes to vocals, Melodyne comes out of course, after I comp a vocal. Sometimes I don’t tune vocals at all, sometimes I have a bit of Autotune on the BVs if I can’t be bothered to get them all super conformed, but all of those decisions are dependent upon what genre I’m working in and what I want the end result to be. If I’m doing ‘pop’, I time the BVs and Melodyne everything. If it’s more ‘soulful’ music, I relax in those areas. A song is ALWAYS about the vocal though, and that’s something I know as a singer. So, that lead vocal has to be RIGHT!
I’m not going to say much about my vocal processing chain, but I generally keep it simple. Compression choices again are genre specific, and most of the EQ I use is corrective cutting, rather than pushing frequencies.
20. A Schmitt said that “A producer should have a great knowledge of music. He's got to know what the artist wants. He's the guy that captures what the artist is trying to do and comes up with the ideas, and maybe helps with the songs. They got to have a great knowledge of music. Hopefully, they should have some knowledge of the equipment that we're using, and be able to be a psychologist in a sense, to be able to handle difficult artists. Some artists can be very temperamental and he has got to know how to handle them. Other artists need to be encouraged to get the best from them. So, a good producer has all those qualities.” So, let’s now enter the shoes of the producer... What should a good producer have?
Exactly what he said. It’s a multi-disciplinary job. You should have a working knowledge of just about any kind of music there is, or at least the ability to analyse, deconstruct and reconstruct it. I think that the ability to ‘handle’ people with all sizes of ego and all levels of ability is probably the most important element. You’re there to get the best out of them. The best tools a good producer can have are the ability to understand, listen and empathise with the artist. Its your job to get a good idea of what they want to achieve and then to help them realise that. Another very important tool is the ability to communicate with everyone involved. I can talk to musicians like a musician. I can talk to singers like a singer. And I can talk to drummers.
21. Let's talk about the Babelson Audio products you use….
Well. I love your stuff, but the M4 is my baby now. That is a fantastic bit of kit and can make virtually anything sound ‘more’. I’ve got other producers to try it out and they all say the same thing. It’s buttery, baby!