As an audio engineer, frequently turning your head to a wide variety of musical genres and productions comes with the territory. In the following Engineer Spotlight feature, we speak to recent UK MPG Engineer of the Year winner, Olga Fitzroy who we learn is no stranger to applying her skills across a broad spectrum. From assisting the late Sir George Martin, to working on records for Coldplay, The Foo Fighters and Muse, as well as film scores for top composers including Hans Zimmer and Dario Marianelli — Olga has plenty of experience to share…
At Shure, we recently asked the Sound Hub team to highlight one album that made them pursue a music industry career. If you were to pick a defining album, which one would it be, and why?
It’s difficult to pinpoint. I guess listening to the Beatles Anthology albums while reading the very extensive sleeve-notes played a big part in making me aware that recording studios, engineers, and producers even existed. I was definitely intrigued by the whole recording process, but it was probably a couple of years later (having done a few stints of work experience in theatres, live venues and recording studios) that I decided I wanted to go down the studio route.
When I was first at college in Glasgow we were listening to a lot of Belle and Sebastian. “The Boy With The Arab Strap” had just come out, and they had actually attended the same college a few years previously — so they were another source of inspiration.
To learn which albums the Shure Sound Hub team picked — and to share your story — check out the article, here.
The World-Famous Air Studios played a big part in your early career, and you recently joined the management team in 2013. In your eyes, what makes Air Studios special and how does it compare to other studios you’ve worked in throughout your career?
I think the most important thing about Air Studios (pictured below) is the people that work there. Yes, the acoustics in the Hall are of course magical, and the desk, and the old Bosendorfer in Studio 1 are pretty special, but it’s the people that make the studio. This is something that Sir George would always say when he was around. Even when I started and he was pretty much retired, he would always make everyone working there feel valued. Quite a few staff have either worked under Sir George or been trained by those who have.
The assistants at Air are pretty much engineers in their own right — nothing is too much trouble. And, everything works, which, sadly, isn’t a given in many other studios. I always have complete confidence in the tech department there; even if something unforeseen happens during a session, I’m never stressed about it as I know it’ll be fixed. The only other comparable place in terms of staff, equipment reliability, and acoustics is Abbey Road – I’m always happy recording there as well. Although AIR and Abbey Road are technically competitors, everyone at both places knows each other and gets on well. Together, we are able to provide London’s film-scoring infrastructure, which would be very much depleted if one studio were to close. It saddens me that the future of AIR Studios is currently at risk from property developers hoping to dig out a “super-basement” next door. If anyone wants to sign a petition in support of AIR, it can be found here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-air-studios
Air Studios is synonymous with the late and great Sir George Martin, who was famously often referred to as the Fifth Beatle. We often hear about extended band member style relationships when it comes to artists and their producers and engineers; what makes a successful engineer-band relationship in your experience?
I think they’re all different, and it depends on what the band needs at the time. Often, it’s the producer and engineers job to give a band confidence in their own ideas. It’s also important they give new ideas a chance by working on them until they’re as good as they can be rather than just dismissing something because it seems incongruous, or it’s simply late in the day. If you’ve worked really hard on something and it still doesn’t feel right, everyone is in a better position to pass judgement, and you never know, something else useful may have been created along the way.
You’re credited with working on Coldplay’s last two albums. Both of these albums are very different from one another — how did the process differ, from the dark, melancholy of Ghost Stories to the euphoria of A Head Full of Dreams?
We started working on Ghost stories in the very “unofficial” setting of Guy Berryman’s home studio. Then, gradually, we moved on to recording at the band’s own studio with some sessions taking place at AIR. Some of those early recordings are very much part of the album; for example, the song “O” was pretty much all recorded in those early sessions. The track is very delicate and fragile thanks to the piano that was used.
I think a lot of the difference in mood is of course in the songwriting itself, so you’d have to ask Chris on that one — but I do think the recording process had a part to play as well. A Head Full of Dreams didn’t really have the home-recording elements. There were also more dancy elements, and lots of layers recorded in “proper” studios, including the AIR sessions that I was a part of.
Another artist you’re credited with that I personally enjoy a lot is Seasick Steve. He’s well-known for his down-to-basics, authentic blues sound (complete with hubcap guitar), how would you describe the difference in approach between capturing a raw sound like Sea Sick Steve, and say, a more polished pop machine, like Coldplay?
I think there are more similarities than you’d think. I’d say both artists definitely believe in the magic of a special take, even if there are imperfections. Where they differ is that Steve will often stop once he gets that take, whereas Coldplay might continue to work on a piece for longer. Often, they’ll keep adding things to a “magic” band take, or perhaps try recording it again in different ways — always pushing themselves to make the end-result as good as it can be. Interestingly, Steve used to be a recording engineer at some point in his life, so although his recordings are often simple, he knows the value of using a quality mic through a great desk recording onto a fat piece of tape.
If you could pick a stand-out moment from your career to-date what would it be?
Mixing the music for the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2012 was pretty immense — no pressure or anything! And, of course, winning the MPG award for best engineer last year was also pretty cool.
Many engineers have a “sonic signature” that makes their work stand out. Do you think your work has a signature sound of any sort, and if so, how would you describe it?
I’m not sure. I work across such a wide variety of genres, so it’s difficult to tell. Different artists call for very different approaches, although I often learn something new on one project that I might then put into practice on others.
What trends do you foresee for music production in 2017?
The past few years have been all about modular synths, and I think people are now also getting into their vintage drum machines (CS80s SR120s). It’s definitely more fun to have the real thing than use samples.
To learn more about Olga Fitzroy, please visit http://www.olgafitzroy.com/