Martin Hannett

I’d heard of Martin before he came into Cargo, he had a bit of a reputation as a “name producer”. I’d only just built Cargo when he came in with Factory to record the Factory Sampler with Joy Division.

I remember being sat behind the desk when they all came in, I’d never met Joy Division before or Martin so as there were no formal introductions from Factory it was a bit of guess work as to which one was Martin, I thought maybe it was Hooky he looked like he might produce something but I was told he was the bass player so eventually by the process of elimination it had to be the guy skulking round the studio with the curly hair. This was the only time I remember him being in the studio, rather than the control room, apart from when he played bass on Nico’s “All Tomorrows Parties” . We had two enormous reclining chairs behind the desk in the control room, once he was sat in one of them there was no moving him.

We seemed to get on reasonably well mainly because we didn’t have an awful lot to say to each other which actually suited us both. As a “big name producer” I expected him to tell me where he wanted mics placed, what sort of sound he wanted, but it soon became evident that was going to be left to me. Though he wanted a good recorded sound I soon realised that he expected to sort out any problems with the sound during the mix. In this respect we worked well together I did most of the recording side he did the mixes.

When he first arrived he certainly had an air of arrogance about him which got my back up immediately. It was a sort of looking down his nose at this rough and ready studio, where were all the luxury sofas, the palm plants, the Westlake sound system?

After that first session I asked him what he thought of the studio he said “it’s ok” that’s was all. I didn’t expect to see him again, but he did come back through his own choice. I assume as more finances became available he had the choice of studios but he ended up back at Cargo producing bands like Joy Division, OMD, Nico, Crispy Ambulance, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Tunnel Vision, Section 25, and Stockholm Monsters.

During one of our rare chats he told me he’d got used to the rough edge of Cargo and now liked the feel because it worked well for the bands as they were in an environment that they were used to, a bit like a rehearsal room not some intimidating mega bucks studio. He also liked the live sound, which is something he wasn’t used to at first but got to like. And he liked working with me because I didn’t hold long conversations and I would leave him alone to do what he wanted to do and I worked fast.

I was always up for trying anything out which Martin always appreciated, like placing the drums downstairs and having the mics recording the kit upstairs, recording trumpets in the loo was another one, plugging one Fx unit into another and then another and so on producing some amazing effects, sometimes it worked sometimes it didn’t. But putting the drums on the roof as per the film “24 hour party people” was often suggested but it never happened. There would have been too much traffic noise for it to have been a viable proposition.

He has often been called a genius I wouldn’t go along with that, I would say he was a good producer, a good producer with some good ideas. I would call a producer a genius if he could work with any band and produce a good sound. Martin was almost limited to a Manchester /Joy Division/Factory sound, which was a good sound no doubt about that, but you must remember he had some good songs to work on and some talented musicians like Joy Division and Vinni Reilly to work with. Drums played an important role in Martins recordings, the drums on “Atmosphere” being one of the best recordings of drums I’ve ever heard (I’m slightly biased as I engineered “Atmosphere”) and the impressive sound on Crispy Ambulance “The Presence”.

Whenever he was in for a session he would bring all this extra gear in, his AMS Digtal Delays, AMS Digital Reverbs, several synths and that along with all my Rebis delays and noise gates, Compressors, MXR delays, MXR harmonisers and echo plates, Roland chorus units, various analogue delays and effects he had a phenomenal amount of choices. Because he had so many choices it was inevitable that he would come up with some interesting effects, and many of his good sounds came about by accident. I was always impressed by his use of very fast delay on the snare drum, it did sound good and very punchy. His mixes were a combination of very obvious effects and a lot of very subtle effects, just a hint of delay here or a touch of reverb there. The result was often stunning.

However he got it the end result was really all that mattered and most of his productions were very impressive and I was glad I’d had the chance to work on them. All in all I enjoyed working with him though in all that time I knew nothing of his private life, in the studio however we worked well as a team.

Martin has often been criticised for preferring to do his mixing on his own ie without the band present. I actually agreed with him to some extent. Bands who worked with Martin expected him to come up with this amazing sound just like that, unfortunately that often didn’t happen in reality. Martin liked to play, he’d play for hours with his AMS digital Fx and his synths and you knew sometimes he really didn’t have a clue about the sound he wanted. But if he played around enough he would eventually come up with an amazing sound almost by accident and he would then attach it to the track he was working on whether he had planned to or not, as far as he was concerned it was a good sound and it had to be used regardless as to whether it fitted the track. Sometimes it worked well though, the bird sounds on “Sketch for Summer” by Vinni Reilly happened this way. To Martin it wasn’t relevant whether the band liked it or not. On many occasions I used to sit in our reception area leaving him alone in the control room sometimes for hours while he worked often in almost complete darkness striving to find his “lost chord”. I would often dim the lights in the control room or switch them off all together with only the glow from the VU meters for any illumination. In this way he could concentrate, without distraction, on the mix, Martin seemed to like it that way. He was very secret about his set ups. If I was mixing with him he would hold one hand in front of the buttons used to set the delays on the AMS so I couldn’t see what setting he’d chosen. Can’t say it really bothered me. We hardly ever spoke during mixes, he seemed to like that about Cargo he was left to do his own thing without chatter about the weather and the drug situation in Manchester.

I agreed with him that sometimes it’s a good idea not to have the band at a mix. When you’re trying to concentrate on a mix or striving for a particular sound it doesn’t help if the bass player sulks in the corner muttering that he can’t hear his “fucking bass” or “helpful” suggestions from the vocalist about what Fx should be on his voice. The whole band would easily get bored with hours of waiting whilst you tried this effect or that effect till the right one was found. Unfortunately Martin introduced so many variables that it often took a long time to do his mixes compared to the time spent recording the track. To help the situation I often suggested to the bands to have a wander round Rochdale for a couple or four hours or visit the San Remo or Roma cafes or better still the Galleon pub right next door. After a couple of hours in the Galleon anything sounded good.

Someone at Factory decided it would be good idea to send Vini Reilly in to Cargo with Martin “as an experiment”. I don’t think Vini had any real ideas as to what he wanted to do, it was just sort of a solo jam session over three days to see what would happen. Over the first two days we recorded bits of stuff from Vini, who just sat on the studio floor with his guitar. Martin had arrived with much more than his usual amount of effects, I had a job fitting it all in the control room then we spent what seemed an awfully long time connecting it all up and getting it all fed into the desk. In hindsight Martin should have been in studio two days before Vini arrived, one day to get all the gear in and connect it up and a second, because a lot of the gear was new to him, to work out how it all worked. While Martin and I were sorting all this out Vini was turning out ideas in the studio, Martin showed little or no interest in what Vini was doing. Basically I just kept the tape running. Occasionally Vini would come in to listen to playbacks and then back into the studio but he got no feedback from Martin as to whether what he was playing was good, bad or indifferent. Martin was far too engrossed in his Time Modulators and AMS Digital units. But this was one of those occasions when Martin gave himself too much gear, too many options, some of the gear was new to him and basically he just played around until by accident he came across a sound he liked, to me it seemed he really wasn’t sure what he wanted but if he tried enough combinations then by the law of averages something good would come up. Unfortunately he was so intent on finding these sounds that he completely ignored Vini. This eventually got to Vini accumulating into a serious row between the two of them and Vini storming out. I didn’t know what to say being caught in the middle. Vini was rightly saying that his music was the most important thing, Martin was saying that without his effects/production there was no album.

Vini left and didn’t come back. I just looked at Martin and Martin looked at me gave a shrug and a sort of “what did I do” look and muttered something about “fucking prima donners” . Followed up by “we’ll just have to do with what we’ve got” and there was I thinking I’d get an early finish. We spent the rest of that day and all the next day trying to find sounds to fit the little Vini had left us with. One problem became immediately apparent and I hope Vini doesn’t mind me saying this but the guitar tracks he’d put down were what I suppose you’d say had a leaning to free form jazz and the feel was much more important than the timing, but drum machine and synths are absolutely accurate with no room for error and no feeling. Because we now didn’t have Vini we obviously couldn’t get him to play to the synths so we had to try to do things the wrong way by adding the recorded guitar tracks to the synths, Martin had to find sounds to add that didn’t matter if the guitar was slightly in front or behind the backing.

The main track on Return of The Durutti Column album a track called “Sketch for Summer” happened that way. It was impossible to put a strict tempo behind the guitar so by chance Martin came across the bird sound which turned the track into something quite different and unique. But the whole sound happened by accident it wasn’t planned, but maybe it worked better that way. I don’t think it worked quite as well with the second track “Requiem for a Father” where to me the guitar is playing one thing the percussion synth sound sounds like it’s from a different track it just doesn’t blend and the guitar and synth are playing in different tempos though anyone listening to it would no doubt be impressed thinking Martin was some sort of genius to have the instruments on the track playing in different tempos. Some of the tracks we could only add delay or reverb to the guitar as we failed to get the guitar to hold to the strict tempo of the synths, they just got too far to out of time with each other.

Occasionally Martin used to insist on having the drummers he worked with pull their kits apart and rebuild them and that sometimes he used to record one drum at a time. This in fact is not an unusual thing to do for any engineer or producer, I had to do it many times.

Drummers are notoriously bad in getting a good recording sound out of their kits. The usual problems were snare rattles from loose snares or broken snares, and rattles from the little springs inside the skin tensioners. The other major problem was from resonance within the drums, particularly the bass drum and tom toms. Drummers on the whole seem blatantly unaware that tom toms can be tuned. I was not a drummer but I could rebuild and tune a kit to the amazement of the drummer and vastly increase the quality of sound from the kit.

We would take off the front skin from the bass drum and remove the lower skins from the tom toms to stop the resonance. A pillow in the bass drum and cloth on the tom toms held on by gaffa tape would deaden the sound giving a much punchier sound. Gaffa on the snares would result in a harder sound without the after rattle. We would also put gaffa and cloth on the top skin of the snare. Almost always the snare needed detuning to stop the “bong” sound and to give a lower “thwack” sound. All the tensioners would be gaffered to stop the rattle. Martin didn’t always insist on the drums being rebuilt, in fact it was often the case that the drummer would arrive some 3 hours before Martin showed up by then between myself and the drummer we had sorted out any problems.

If you record a full kit it’s almost impossible to get a good clean sound off one drum, you will always get spill but that in itself is not always a problem as it all adds up to the full drum sound. However in Martin’s case he knew he wanted to use effects like the AMS Digital Delay or the AMS Digital Reverb on individual drums and he had to have the cleanest sound possible, otherwise when you start to add effects the whole sound can descend in to a sort of mush. When we had to record each drum individually we would either remove the rest of the kit or excessively dampened it like throwing a blanket over the kit. It was abit of a pain for the drummer when we recorded say a tom tom not to hit the snare drum where he would normally have done. I seem to remember that “Atmosphere” was done this way.

On one session Martin was late, about three hours late, by then I’d set up the drum kit and miked it up. I was happy, the drummer was happy. Martin arrived listened to the sound for all of about two minutes before declaring that the sound wasn’t what he expected and not what he wanted, and I needed to sort it and then he left again without leaving any clues as to what he wanted changing. I looked at the drummer, the drummer looked at me, I just shrugged and we had a few games on the space invader machine. Martin came back an hour later asking if it was now sorted, I said it was, he listened again before saying “That’s what I want to hear”. I hadn’t changed a thing.

Martin was also well known for his unusual turn of phrase to describe what he wanted out of a sound. We’d done several takes on this particular session and he wasn’t happy with what the drummer was doing but the drummer didn’t know what was wrong and Martin was having difficulty explaining what he wanted. The drummer was getting frustrated cos whatever he did wasn’t right with Martin. Eventually Martin just sat back on our reclining chair behind the mixing desk, not saying anything, just staring into space for about 5 minutes before reaching for the talkback button “I think it needs to be more purple”. The drummer looked quizzical, not knowing what to make of this, he nodded and they ran through the number again. It sounded exactly the same to me, but to Martin the whole drum sound was now purple and he was happy.
John Brierley

(see also Dave Stowells revealing letter about Hannett, you’ll find it in the stories about Cargo section)