Interview: Liam Howe (Lana Del Rey, Marina and the Diamonds) on Production & Song Writing

Having sold over a million records with Sneaker Pimps in the ‘90s, co-founder, Liam Howe, talks music hardware and the process of working with Lana Del Rey, Adele, and Marina and the Diamonds.  

Ask: There’s an impressive collection of new and old hardware in your studio. Is this where you’re heading more, as I know you’re deep into the software side too?

I remember in my first studio in the '90s when everything had to be physical we couldn’t afford exactly what we wanted. At the end of the '90s I switched from Cubase to one of the early versions of Logic, and after a long period of time having a shared ‘band’ studio I eventually moved my studio to my home. I built a studio on top of my house. From 2000–2010 I jumped into the world of plug-ins with both feet. It was incredible. I think my old synths sat in the corner collecting dust. I think my Oberheim wasn’t turned on for 6 years, which is kind of a disgrace when I look back. 

"With my new studio I’m trying to take the best bits of hardware and make them available and accessible for people to actually touch."

But something started to happen. Even though plug-ins improved and living in the box was getting more comfortable. I felt there was a shift amongst a lot of people going back to hardware approaching 2010 and I didn’t expect I’d be such a part of it being so content in my virtual ‘world’. But the tide’s were turning back to hardware and I too started to. With this new studio I’m trying to make it as hands-on as possible, or rather, taking the best bits of hardware and making them available and accessible for people to actually touch.

Ask: Some might say software provides a more immediate path to creating sounds. Do you find setting the hardware up in the way you have makes it a more immediate and gratifying experience for making music?

Yes. The decade of the plug-in brought more convenience for sure and for the first time ever we had total recall on a session and millions of handy presets which became the expected thing. If someone wanted a Juno sound, I’d be able to say ‘I can get you that sound in 3 minutes from one of my plug-ins that will sound just like a Juno’. So, there was this illusion of immediacy that the plug-ins created. What often happened though is that everyone huddled around the computer and If you were composing or writing then everyone would gravitate towards it like a TV. I think that became stifling.

A lot of producers came to the same conclusion, that this fast-food concept of virtual machinery wasn’t as productive as it seemed. It was convenient. But when you go towards a physical piece of equipment you engage with it physically and you have a totally different relationship with it. It even changes what you want from the sound. As soon as you start to twiddle with the parameters of a synth you feel like you own it. You’ve put time into making it. It means something, it’s unique and physical. It may not have been a sound you’d have chosen if you’d flicked through a thousand presets. 

"I was brought up on the idea that synthesizers didn’t have presets. If it had presets I thought of it as an organ! To me presets were a dirty word!"

Physical hardware changes the way you think and what you want from music. What became immediate and easy in flicking through presets with plug-ins became unrewarding. Over 6-7 years of using synth plug-ins I felt like it was too easy and I was finding it hard to tell the difference between certain plug-ins. I found a samey-ness… and, for instance the emulation of the Minimoog, however fabulous the programming was on it just didn’t behave like the original. 

Liam Howe working away at his studio desk in The Laundry, London.

Liam Howe working away at his studio desk in The Laundry, London.

Ask: More polished than the originals, perhaps?

Yes. And people were adding extra functionality to the software versions. So, suddenly the MiniMoog has polyphony and extra waveforms and cross-modulation which is great fun, but because of that everything started to sound the same. I think it’s the limitations of the physical hardware that bring the uniqueness and stimulation. When you have to work hard on a synth to find a sound and you come up with something you didn’t know you wanted, that’s a rewarding process. Technically, you could do this on a plug-in, but it’s more unlikely as you’re always tempted to flick through the presets. 

When I started my love of synths when I was 12 or 13 and I got my SH-101 I was brought up on the idea that synthesizers didn’t have presets. If it had presets I thought of it as an organ! To me presets were a dirty word!

Ask: You’re well known for being the co-founder of the Sneaker Pimps back in the '90s. How did that come about?

Sneaker Pimps began life as me and my friend Chris Corner who I met when I was going out with his sister. Before that I formed a school band with my brother called Castro to Deodar when I was 14. We made an album when I was 16 and sold 300 cassettes at school. That was the start of my entrepreneurial beginnings. I met Chris and started to teach him guitar and within three or four months he was 5 times better than me which is still annoying: he had a natural ability. I went to university but we kept on making music. After that we started a band properly in the early '90s. We were into Mowax, James Lavelle, Kruder and Dorfmeister (‘Head Music’ which pre-dated Trip Hop really). We made a two-piece, instrumental, electronic band called F.R.I.S.K. 

I used my student grant to make a white label record. I was at Art School and printed off 500 physical copies of the record and took it round Soho to all the little shops. One of the guys at one of the record shops loved it and wanted an extra 1,000. So we ended up pressing more and got signed to a small label part of One Little Indian for a pittance, about £15,000 GBP. 

"I used my student grant to make a white label record. I was at Art School and printed off 500 physical copies of the record and took it round Soho to all the little shops."

As we developed we released a couple of EPs but were getting bored of the non-vocal format. We really wanted to make a pop band. Chris sang the demos, but we felt the kind of music we were writing suited a female vocal. We were recording on an ADAT and it had varispeed which was brilliant. I still use it every week for something because I think it’s a great technique. We’d slow it down, record Chris’ vocals and then speed it up so he sounded like a girl. 

The record label thought it was good and hooked us up with Kelli who’d just sent some demos in. Within 5 weeks she’d sung all the songs which we recorded up in my studio in my dad’s spare bedroom. It was all quick, and although we were ambitious, we didn’t expect anything. It snowballed into something much bigger and the record got signed to Virgin America and it did very well and we ended up touring the record for 2 years. It sold over a million copies over time. It was a great experience.

Essential reading as recommended by Liam!

Essential reading as recommended by Liam!

Ask: How did you find touring with Sneaker Pimps, bearing in mind you’d been mainly studio-based before then?

Funnily enough the reason why I’d wanted to be in a band was because I wanted to be a producer. I didn’t want to be in a band to be on stage. I’m naturally not very comfortable on stage and I struggled with the idea of touring. I enjoyed the traveling and the cultural experience, but the actual stage performance was traumatic as it’s not my natural habitat.

I’m not sure how I knew this then, but it seemed like the most fun and expedient way to be a producer was to be in a band. People like Brian Eno, for example, has all the fun of being in Roxy Music and then becoming a producer. That was the model I was looking at.

"In the music industry there is still a consideration that an Engineer Producer who comes up through the ranks of working in studios is technically superior to a producer who’s come through the band conduit."

Another big factor was the fast-track issue of this model. A lot of my friends like Flood or Jim Abbiss did it properly. They started off at the bottom. Did the tea boy, tape op, assistant engineer, and went through the ranks. If you’ve got 15 years and want to be up until 3 a.m. most nights that’s fine. But that didn’t seem glamorous to me. Why not be in a band, travel the world and then jump in at a much higher level? So, that’s the cheeky route I went for. 

In the music industry there is still an old school consideration that an Engineer Producer who comes up through the ranks of working in studios is technically superior to a producer who’s come through the band conduit, perhaps it’s considered cheating.

Ask: Do you wish you’d gone the “studio” route? Are there any benefits to that route?

Well, I think there are. The one’s who do well from the band route have to be very motivated in terms of technology and in terms of the craft. You can’t pretend to be a producer, you have to know your stuff. The worst scenario is where someone who has been in a band and enjoyed it realizes the clock’s ticking and they decide they fancy being a producer now. They then drop themselves into a studio situation with a good engineer and then coordinate the recording of a record. I personally don’t think that works. I think you have to be naturally inclined to the technology and the craftsmanship of making records to be a producer. Unfortunately, because I came from a band, some producers will never think I’ll be as good as the pure-breds! Obviously, I disagree!

Ask: But, you actually have a very technical background…

Exactly. Tech was my thing, it’s just that I took a different route to get there and I didn’t go to college to learn the technical nature of music. At Art School I learned different things and think that’s more important. In the same way as Brian Eno… But, his success is in his art school mentality: it’s creativity with technology rather than technology and then creativity. I think what I’ve gained from going through art school is learning a creative language rather than a technical language. You can always pick up the tech language if you have the will and interest.

One stack of Liam's impressive collection of hardware synths he's currently using.

One stack of Liam's impressive collection of hardware synths he's currently using.

Ask: How did you pick up the tech side of music? 

I’ve always been very scientific. I did physics, chemistry and biology and I found the combination of science and art fascinating. If you look at Kraftwerk, this is where it’s exciting: machines and people! I felt the best combination was to put science and creativity together. Technology companies that have done well, have done this. A good invention isn’t enough. It needs to be marketed creatively, it needs to be cool, cultural. 

"Being open and being able to pick up other people’s techniques is really important. I’m still picking stuff up from everywhere."

When I worked with Jim Abbiss and Flood I was stuck over their shoulder with a note pad just sucking it all in! On our second Sneaker Pimps record I worked with Mark 'Spike' Stent and absorbed everything he did in his studio. I needed to know what made him a world class mixer. I’ve really benefited from that. Being open and being able to pick up other people’s techniques is really important. I’m still picking stuff up from everywhere: young musicians that come in might show me a shortcut on Pro Tools or Logic. It’s a real democracy of knowledge sharing. Also, it’s interesting that “band” producers will often misuse equipment in a way it wasn’t intended to be used. Someone who’s come through the ranks often won’t overdrive a mic, use EQ in a peculiar way, etc. So, I’m not saying everything should be distorted or weird, but that kind of creative mentality can be important. 

Next to the window is Liam's other stack of racked up synths.

Next to the window is Liam's other stack of racked up synths.

Ask: Like being playful or disruptive in the approach to using music gear?

Yeah. Art school teaches a certain disrespect and irreverence to the institution. Everyone goes in with a certain amount of bravado thinking, ‘I’m gonna change the world.’ And they don’t, but some interesting experiments happen because of it. They may not be life changing, but it’s part of that desire to do it differently. There’s a certain anarchy in that which I think is important and is a punk ethic which is integrated into what British music is even though the punk sound isn’t here anymore. 

Ask: You’ve worked with some huge names: Lana Del Rey, Marina & the Diamonds, Adele and Ellie Goulding. You seem to work with a lot of female artists.

Yes. I wonder if it’s a kind of typecast. Because Sneaker Pimps was female fronted, that’s how people know me. So people might be saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got a girl who needs a producer who understand that kind of thing… and I’ve become a go-to person to sort out young, cool, female pop. I have worked with male artists and bands’. I enjoy it. I do a lot of work with one-on-one female pop. I find it easier than dealing with an Indie band though I enjoy working with bands too. 

Ask: It seems co-writes are becoming more popular these days. What’s the typical process for a modern co-write with artists?

Well, in the last 10-15 years what the industry call the co-write has become the norm of how to write a record. It’s generally the way a record company will want to approach making a record. Bands are few and far between. We don’t have many “true” bands anymore and even bands enter the co-writing arena. They’ll go on the co-writing circuit and there’s probably about 25 in London, 30 in the LA, and 20 in the Stockholm ‘A’ list cowriters.

A co-write is a strange thing for anyone who’s never done it. When I was in Sneaker Pimps, me, Chris and Ian would sit around with an acoustic guitar and write songs on the weekend. The album really came from that friendship. When we decide to put the band on hold and do our own things, I seized the opportunity to fulfil my production vocation. Along with that came the co-writing thing which was weird. The idea of a stranger coming to my door and by the end of a couple of days having written and recorded a song was a peculiar concept. 

"It might take an artist 10 years to develop a style, but by the end of 6 months of co-writing you’ll have 40 songs."

It’s the way the vast majority of songs are written now. If you look at Lana Del Rey’s album, every single song is a co-write. Even on Adele’s last record every song was a co-write. On her first record that I worked on 6 of them were written by her and then the other’s were co-writes because the record company didn’t think there were enough hits. If you haven’t got hits then artists are encouraged to co-write. It’s also a quick way for someone to fast track to a more developed place. It might take an artist 10 years to develop a style, but by the end of 6 months of co-writing you’ll have 40 songs and you’ll have developed hugely along the way because you learn your trade. It’s an interesting part of modern music making. 

The other thing about co-writes is that it’s a free process. Generally speaking no money changes hands. It’s hugely popular with the record companies because they can get a record written and recorded for almost nothing. Back in my day we wrote 14 or 15 songs and then chose 11 or 12 for the album! A modern act usually co-writes about 60-80 songs before choosing the songs for the album. That will be more or less a free process and then a producer will be brought in to unify it, sometimes re-record it and sometimes not. It’s a commercially savvy way for them to do it. The problem is you then get lots of competing songwriters throwing all their work in for nothing and so the trash can overflows and there’s a lot of waste of songs that don’t get used. I think it’s a bit gratuitous. 

Ask: What’s your personal approach? Is it a case of forming a connection first?

I always have a meeting first. I need to feel that I like the person and I’m going to enjoy it. If I’m not going to enjoy it then I don’t feel a good song is going to come out of it. Some people disagree. Often big American co-writers say it’s the personality clashes that bring about great songs…! I personally need to feel like I can empathise with someone and jointly collaborate on the song writing process with the artist. My first meeting is usually an hour where the artist plays demos and I decide whether we’re a good match.

Ask: Tell us about the software you tend to use in your productions? You mentioned Logic and Pro Tools earlier…

I started off with Steinberg Pro 24 on an Atari 1040 ST, then went to Logic 3 in 1997. I’ve stuck with Logic from then on. Logic Pro’s in my blood. I’m on Logic Pro 9 which runs very nicely and I’m quite fast with my workflow in this version. I find it good for MIDI and have all my sample libraries in Logic. I sometimes mix and record bands in Pro Tools which I feel is more of a multitrack tape recorder than Logic. But Logic is my natural home. 

Ask: What about 3rd-party plug-ins? 

For my posh stuff I have a UAD card. On vocals and high-detail stuff I use the UA plate reverbs, EMT and the very good emulation of the Roland Space Echo. I’ll also use the Teletronics LA-2A compressor. That’s more or less what I use on every single vocal. My other absolute go-to plug-ins are SoundToys. Everything they do is brilliant. When I first got EchoBoy I couldn’t stop using it and I’ve kept on with it. If you took it away I’d cry!

My next favorite is Valhalla. Probably the best reverb I’ve ever used. The dude behind the programming is absolutely, totally awesome. Valhalla Room and Valhalla Shimmer are simply brilliant and they’re cheap to buy. I can’t say enough good stuff about them. I use them on every single mix. Audio Damage plug-ins are also great. I’m a sucker for their choruses.

In terms of instruments, even though I gave software plug-ins a kicking earlier on, I couldn’t live without Native Instruments Komplete. I use it all the time, more so than Logic’s own libraries. I’ve got three East West libraries I use all the time. I use Storm Drum which is a crazy, cinematic big banging drum thing. I use a lot of the East West sample libraries, which are superb if you can stomach the cost. 

Liam Howe shows off his Novation Bass Station upon a comfy couch!

Liam Howe shows off his Novation Bass Station upon a comfy couch!

Ask: What about hardware? You’ve got quite a collection here.

Synth-wise I love my Roland JX-8P with PG-800 programmer. It’s a slightly unpopular synth mysteriously but I’m really into the digital/analogue hybrids of the mid '80s. To the more analog world is my Oberheim OB-Xa. Here’s my Roland Juno-60 with Minerva MIDI retrofit. It’s the future of taking an old synth and giving it DAW accessible add-on chips. There’s a chip that goes inside and gives you loads more and is all controllable from your DAW. My DX7 everyone knows. My Oberheim Matrix 6 is great for Boards of Canada style sounds. My Minimoog is one of my first ever keyboards. I bought that for £200 (approximately $400 USD). It’s a model D which is one of the more collectable, if more unstable ones.

My go-to drum machine is the Elektron Analog Rytm. I love it and can’t get enough of it. I use an old Premier Powerpak analogue drum synthesiser as well which is really good. On the outboard front, I use Vintech 273 preamps and an API 3124 preamp. On the mic side of things, I have a Telefunken U47 AE which is my main one. It goes into the Vintech and then into my Urei 1176 compressor. My Roland Space Echo is a regular too.

Ask: I couldn’t help but notice your Novation Launch Control and Bass Station II here too.

Yes, here’s my lovely Bass Station II! Actually, I use my Novation Launch Control in conjunction with the chips you stick in old synths. That way I can control the software parameters of the hardware synth in my DAW and control those from the Launch Control. With some synths despite all the parameters being system exclusive, I can control them from this box without doing any data entry. 

Ask: Are there any tips you’d give to those getting into songwriting and producing?

I’d suggest trying to write songs without turning your computer on. Do half a day without the computer because you can get stuck in an unproductive place if you go to your computer too early and get obsessed with a snare drum sound. Try and separate the production and songwriting processes in your mind. As a producer, I’d say if you like synths, save up and buy a real synth. Try and squeeze as much out of it as you can. Explore it, dig into it and enjoy the physicality of it. Enjoy something with knobs on!! 

More about Liam Howe: http://www.discogs.com/artist/580609-Liam-Howe

Liam Howe on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LiamHoweMusic

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More

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