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Evolution of the Art: Paul Northfield

Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Kevin Young had plenty of leftover material from his extensive interviews for "The Evolution of the Art," his feature story on the past, present, and future of music and production technologies and workflows for our March/April 2019 40th Anniversary issue.

Here's more from his conversation with studio vet Paul Northfield, slightly edited for length and clarity.

As Northfield has said previously, his willingness to embrace new technology – and sometime wrestle it into submission during a project – has informed his career from the start in his native U.K. in the early 1970s and throughout his work over the years with acts including Rush, Suicidal Tendencies, ELP, Ozzy Osbourne, and Dream Theater.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with him on numerous occasions and have seen that ethic in action as he applied various digital recording technologies and vintage gear to the recording process.

“So this is kind of cool, doing a Canadian Musician interview,” Northfield says. “I realized that when you said it’s the 40th anniversary and started in 1979, that was the year after I came to Canada. Probably, one of the records that I did when I came here would’ve been in Canadian Musician: Rush’s Permanent Waves.

CM: You’ve always embraced technological change.

PN: Absolutely. That was my strength. What I did was sort of the tactical, technological aspect of it.

CM: You’ve said that the digital workstation changed everything. In your opinion, is there anything, in the past 5-10-years, that’s changed everything again?

PN: Not one specific thing. For me, for instance, I’ve got a bunch of studio gear at home I’ve collected over the years, and a computer and you always sort of think, "What happens if I had to get a new set up; if the house burnt down, or this that or the other?" And I realize that I could mix a record, buying all of the gear from scratch. You can get fabulous A to D/D to A converters - something like a UA Apollo, because when you’re mixing you only need two playback channels. You don’t even need an A to D, unless you’re feeding stuff through a lot of analog gear, which has its merits, but there’s a lot of great software, virtual stuff, which doesn’t always sound the same, but has qualities about it that are just as good, or interesting in a different way. So the way I see it is that digital technology has the ability to deliver very rich, warm, great sounding records. It doesn’t work the same way – with analog, historically, you’re dealing with its limitations, but the limitations had interesting qualities and so you worked with them. There was a high-quality mix bus compressor on an SSL, and that changed where people started to more regularly use mix bus compression. They did before, but not to the same degree. Then we got more and more clarity because we were using better quality converters, and you suddenly started missing saturation, so then you needed emulation software. And some of that looked pretty, but didn’t really sound anything like the originals. NO2 they sound a lot like the originals, but still not the same. I’ve got probably 10 different versions of 1176s and they don’t sound anything like mine. If I had them worked on, they’d sound more pristine, but I like that they sound the way they do, because they’re interesting.

CM: Is there anything in terms of virtual instruments or new gear that you’re finding particularly useful currently?

PN: Again, I wouldn’t say there’s any one thing… You hear things in your head and go hunting new kinds of distortion, or musical instruments. One of the things the iPad brings, which is incredible, are instruments where you can slide pitch wise and yet lock to pitch so you don’t have to have the dexterity of a violin or, for instance, a pedal steel player to stay in tune. There are a number of instruments like that, which, in theory, provide a kind of expression you could never have (before). At the same time, we always get back to the instruments that you just learn to live with and love. I don’t know if you still use it a lot, but do still have your Wurlitzer?

CM: I do.

PN: It’s such a tactile thing. You learn its idiosyncrasies and get involved with it, and I think one of the things with digital technology, because it’s so crisp and precise, it’s harder to be involved with it. There’s something to be said for a cool looking box that’s got history, that gets you hooked in, but that’s to do with your emotional relationship with your gear.

CM: I do have an emotional relationship with my Wurlitzer, like some people have with the piano, or a specific guitar. But people may have the same kind of emotional relationship with a virtual instrument, or with a platform like Ableton, for example.

PN: Absolutely. I was a Logic user from very early on and it drives me nuts when they change it – you get used to it, and fast with it, and then suddenly you call it up and it’s totally different. I understand we have to move forward, (Laughing), but did you have to change everything? Now I feel like a complete Philistine using it. So that can be frustrating. At the same time the basic architecture of the system, in order to be able to progress, obviously they have to make changes. I jump back-and-forth between using ProTools and Logic. I think they’re both perfectly equal from the point of view of mixing and are both capable of making great mixes. Logic is great because it’s got all of the built-in stuff, and if you want to full on system that can do some incredible stuff I wouldn’t hesitate to go with Logic every time, but if you’re jumping back-and-forth into professional studios, you’ve got to be a ProTools user because it’s the standard. It’s nothing to do with the sound. So, yeah, I was emotionally attached to an older version of Logic for a long time and was incensed every time I pulled up the new one because it looked ugly to me – all neon and bright. Now I can choose between twenty colours and they’re all neon. So I was emotionally, sort of, distraught by the change, but you get over it.

CM: What about the potential impact of the computer/human interface, AR/VR, AI – the sci-fi thing of getting the music out of our minds and directly onto some storage medium?

PN: I’m not convinced. A good example would be – for all of our technology – how much people love old analog gear. And I think we need some inherent restrictions. Pat Metheny used to have this phrase that he used, which was like, "option anxiety." Sometimes the restrictions any environment gives you force you to start working on something and suggests a process.

I think all art forms are similar. The visual art form, to me, is a precursor of what happens in music: painting got progressively more sophisticated until it was at the photographic level of precision and skill. Photography kicked in and suddenly you didn’t need to have skill to make an accurate picture. Art became progressively more abstract. We go through that with sound. We don’t try and make records where it sounds like you’re standing in front of the band. You might with a chamber ensemble, but that’s always been the idea with the reproduction and the recording of orchestral things. That’s always been the goal. But that’s never been the goal in popular or contemporary music. It’s always been, to make something nobody’s ever heard before. And that’s a very different thing. But when you make music like that you still want restrictions. The idea that you can have instrument that’s driven by your position in space, moving your fingers, or body, those things exist. They’ve existed for a long time… But you still need something to work against – the tension of the strings or the physicality of the piano, and I think it’s the same with ideas; we still need these tactile things that are connected to us directly, not cerebrally.

CM: As you’ve said, by putting limitations or parameters around what you’re going to do, it helps define your vision, not limit it.

PN: Yes. It provides a structure to work within that your creativity has got to work against. I think there’s a certain tension between limitations and freedom in creativity that’s really important. You could, potentially, have a direct cerebral connection that allows you to dream music. But it’s like playing in a band… Yes, some people do play all the instruments themselves, but the greatest music, with bands, has kind of grown out of the tension of the players playing together, battling it out, finding their way, being inspired by each other, and getting mad at each other.

CM: Do you see increasingly fluent human/machine interfaces having an effect on the music industry in any other way?

PN: At the end of the day, the music industry is a business. It’s how we make our living. If people aren’t buying it, it’s going to fall by the wayside – pure economics. One of the difficult things about making music today is making a living. Even though there’s more music made now by more people, and more records released than there ever was, it’s hard to make a living because there are so many records, where people make something that sounds good, but can’t make enough money doing it to refine their art, to tour and become better players and performers. So it becomes more of a hobby. And that’s caused by the proliferation of the ability to be able to record yourself. On one level it’s a great thing that more people can make music, and be creative, but that’s made it harder for you to define yourself. Now you have to be great at social media or self-promotion and do a great video that goes viral. There are brilliant musicians who are not capable of putting together a video.

And there was a time when software was super-expensive. Now it’s come down to a more manageable level. So I think that’s probably the biggest change in the last few years, the pricing of quality software coming down to appropriate levels. High-quality converters and software are now ubiquitous – anybody can have that stuff. What’s the sound in your head and what tools do you use to make that sound? That’s where it’s really different now, because you can get there without having to spend 100,000 bucks on gear. Five or ten grand will get you everything you need. Not to say you don’t want to get a few fun things and a bit of analogue gear if you like it. Why not? It’s like buying an old guitar.

CM: Here’s the sci-fi, flying car question. Do you ever find yourself sitting there going "I wish someone would make this?" Or, "We could do this if the technology existed?" And, as was pointed out to me, we do have flying cars now, but they’re not common.

PN: No. And I hope they won’t be because they’re going to be really annoying. I can’t say that I have because it’s quite a lot of effort to stay current with what is out there. There might be the odd things that you go, "Well, I wish…" I can’t think of one off of the top of my head, but I’m constantly kind of inventing things in my own mind… I’m always interested in the interface between (musicians and instruments). Guitar, for instance, is an instrument that you’re physically involved with in so many ways. Inherently that’s a part of the instrument. It’s very hard to bend notes on a piano.

CM: Absolutely – takes a lot of work.

PN: So the palette as a keyboard player, if you’re put in front of a grand piano, is expression, the fluidity and balance of your playing, the tension you can create from how hard you play, or how you voice chords. There’s a lot to be said for that because you’ve got that in front of you. You can play a wide span. Whereas with the guitar it’s much more pattern oriented. And the same thing is true of other stringed instruments. You’re very connected, and I’ve always been intrigued by that; how to be able to get guitars to have even more of the sonic dimensions that you can get with keyboard patches, but at the same time the tricky thing with a keyboard is how do you get expression? And the walking around on stage with a keyboard around your neck is never… It’s not a good look. There’s nothing natural about it. There’s a natural connection between some physical instruments – guitar being probably the most significant, and a lot of solo instruments that have beautiful expression capabilities, like horns.

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Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.