Peter Walsh is a multi award winning producer, who began his career as a sound engineer at Utopia Studios, London, working for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Heatwave, Donovan, Spandau Ballet, Shalamar and the Boomtown Rats.
Focusing more on freelance music production from 1981, he moved fluently between many contrasting genres: punk and pop, electronic and folk, Latin and indie rock. Peter’s body of work with such diverse artists as Heaven 17, Simple Minds, Alphaville, Miguel Bosé and Scott Walker is still revered in production circles. More recently, his work with Daniel Blumberg and FKA Twigs have shown him to be equally comfortable in the digital recording age as in the analogue world.
But, for the keen-eyed Peter Gabriel fan, Peter Walsh’s name may resonate most clearly for featuring prominently within the sleeves notes of two landmark live recordings, Plays Live and Secret World Live, both of which he mixed and co-produced with Gabriel. To coincide with the re-release of these albums on LP over the next few months, Peter (W) has kindly shared some of his memories of working on these classic recordings, thus providing a fascinating and personal insight into his time working with Peter (G).
When did you first meet Peter?
I think it was a month or so before mixing Plays Live.
I drove down from London to spend the afternoon with him at Ashcombe House, just outside Bath. I remember sitting in his kitchen, listening to the cassettes of all the concerts, drinking Lapsang souchong and talking about all kinds of stuff. Tea, life, family, music, even furniture. It was a great way of getting to know each other.
That’s when we decided which version of each song would be mixed and the running order for the album.
The Plays Live album is based on recordings from the USA tour of 1982, did you go to the shows?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t be at the shows. I was in the studio with Simple Minds. The only time I had seen Peter perform live before was when he was with Genesis, when I was still at school! I went to the last Lamb Lies Down concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley in 1975. It made a huge impression on me. The sound, the lighting, I had never seen or heard anything on such a large scale before.
You mixed the album at Ashcombe House and the artwork memorably states that a bit of “cheating” took place, but it does still feel like a live album. Presumably there’s a balance to strike between the best possible sound and keeping the essence of the moment in time?
That’s right. Peter had a studio in a stone barn in the grounds of Ashcombe House.
We came up with the credit “FIX ‘N’ MIX”. By today’s standards we didn’t actually fix that much, but we wanted to be honest about what we had done.
Peter’s lead vocal needed a few touch-ups. Not because of the performance, more for technical reasons. It’s hard to get the best sound quality out of a vocal when you’re falling backwards into an audience (Lay Your Hands on Me) or hanging upside down from a piece of scaffolding (Shock the Monkey)!
Another reason was to add a little more consistency to the overall sound of the album.
The recordings we selected came from different shows, different venues, so we had to replace a few elements here and there to make it sound more like it was all coming from the same performance. We also changed the running order of the show for the album, so I needed to re-record some of Peter’s spoken introductions. It was quite tricky to make them sound authentic and brings back memories of the two of us in the studio, late at night, trying to get the perfect take without bursting into fits of laughter.
We didn’t fiddle around with the music too much, just a few keyboard additions and some background vocals. I remember re-working the synth parts for On the Air. This was to get separation between the numerous sequencer parts and to have everything in stereo.
Larry sent me a cassette by post – in the standard mail, not registered, no courier – from New York with the new audio and time code. I then synchronised it with the originals, which had been recorded in mono on a single track on the multitrack. It was all very basic back then.
Everything we replaced I fed through to a big PA system which we had set up in the barn. It worked really well. Anything I sent through there came back sounding like it had been performed in a large arena.
We affectionately called his studio “Shabbey Road”, as Peter was in the process of re-wiring the control room while I was mixing. He had a lovely-sounding Decca console, a great selection of outboard gear and the original Decca valve compressors, but there were cables absolutely everywhere.
When did Peter ask you to be involved in the Secret World Live project?
I had been working a lot at Real World Studios on my own productions around the time they started brainstorming ideas for the show and I had a few conversations with Peter and his management about it then.
We had had a very good experience working together on the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope Tour for Amnesty International in the USA, and Peter was interested in taking that collaboration further.
At first, I was a little apprehensive. I had never been involved in a major world tour before and was concerned it might take me away from my own production work for too long.
I agreed to do the first European leg and see how it went from there. I really enjoyed the energy and excitement of mixing live. One show led to another and after a few weeks I was hooked. I ended up doing the whole tour, 162 shows in total, plus all the WOMAD festivals, the US Lollapalooza tour, the Woodstock festival, the Grammys and a few TV appearances along the way.
You oversaw the recording in Italy with Kevin Killen. What do you remember of the night(s)?
Kevin and I first met in 1984 when I was working on an album at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, and we have been friends for many years. Since then he had also worked with Peter on numerous projects, so it was great to work together again on something so ground-breaking. For the recording he was in the truck and I was in the arena mixing the show.
It was a very large and complex setup as you can imagine. Two stages meant we needed two of almost everything. Two drum kits, two mirrored sets of vocal mics and a complicated cable run from one stage to the other connecting all the other instruments.
Integrating a recording system with this kind of live set up was a huge task and took a lot of planning. We were running a 32-track digital recorder synchronised with a 24-track analogue tape machine. Manu’s two drum kits and Tony’s basses pretty much filled up the analogue, and the guitars, keyboards, vocals and audience went on to the digital.
Did your approach to mixing Secret World Live differ from that of Plays Live?
From a technical point of view things had progressed massively from when I mixed Plays Live. By the time I started mixing Secret World Live in Paris I had compiled all the audio onto two Sony 3348 digital tape machines. That’s 96 tracks, so we needed a huge desk with mix automation to put it all through.
It was a very different scenario mixing Plays Live at Ashcombe through Peter’s old Decca console which only had 28 / 32 channels if I remember correctly. No computer either so they are all manual mixes on that album.
Another major difference was that with Secret World Live we were mixing to picture, so we had to make everything “look” right as well as sound good. There was not as much scope for enhancements, and if we did replace or repair anything, we had to be very accurate with the sync to picture.
My basic approach to the mixing of both albums remained pretty much the same, using the same technique and treatments to enhance Peter’s music as I have always done. I had a PA system installed at Guillaume Tell, as I had done at Ashcombe, so that I could add an element of “arena” when necessary.
On a purely creative level, though, the mixing of the two albums differed enormously by the simple fact that I was way more familiar with the material for Secret World Live than I was with Plays Live. Mixing the Secret World Live show on the road for more than a year in so many different settings gave me a unique insight in to how best to represent Peter’s live experience in a recording. I had a very clear understanding of the mood and excitement I wanted to portray.
Remixing the album at Real World in 5.1 surround sound format in 2003 gave me the opportunity to build on this. Hearing everything, especially the audience mics, in surround sound really places the listener in the very centre of the arena. For those who were not lucky enough to go to the show, this is as close as it gets to being there!
Do you remember why Guillaume Tell studio was chosen for some of the mixing?
They had a great table tennis table there (ha ha)… no actually, there were a number of reasons.
The studio spec was very similar to Real World at the time. We were running two rooms simultaneously. I was mixing in Studio A where there was a 96-channel SSL J series and Dickie Chappell was upstairs in Studio B on a Sony Oxford, compiling files, checking the sync and liaising with the film editing team back in the UK.
Peter felt it was good to have some distance from everything that was going on in London, so Paris was ideal. It was easier to focus on the mixing but at the same time stay connected with the film production whenever we needed to.
Thanks very much to Peter Walsh for taking the time to answer some questions and please do visit his website for more info on his illustrious career and current projects. www.peterwalshmusic.com
Plays Live is released on 28 August, 2020 and Secret World Live will follow in October.