Record Production in the 90s
Andrián Pertout speaks with Chong Lim about his beginnings, his live work with George Martin and Kylie Minogue, and the art of record production in the 90s.
The genesis of Chong Lim’s musical career was initiated at Melbourne University, where he began crafting music with pop crusader David Hobson. Once associated with Venetta’s Taxi and the ensuing Gospel Jubilee band, the consequent exposure of his technologically intuitive keyboard style soon turned his art into a commodity, leading to its employment by the Eurogliders, Germaine Jackson, John Farnham and later Tina Arena. The Roland Corporation certainly embraced the opportunity, and partook in the action by hiring Chong as a principal clinician, adding prestige to the affair by making him one of a handful of sound design consultants around the globe. In recent times he has also been achieving high outcomes as a musical director, and his credits to date include television game show ‘Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush’, ‘The Logies’ presentation for Channel 9 and Aboriginal musical ‘Bran Nue Dae’, as well as an eminent clientele that lists legendary Beatles producer George Martin, Boz Scaggs and Kylie Minogue. As a producer, Chong Lim has been involved with the ‘Spirit Of Christmas’ album project for the past three years, sonically enhancing the musical offerings of Christine Anu, Deni Hines and Lisa Edwards among many. In 1998, he not only produced Tommy Emmanuel’s upcoming album ‘Collaboration’ and Human Nature’s contribution to the screen production of ‘Paperback Hero’, but also accepted a commission to compose Crown Casino’s atrium music and toured with Kylie Minogue’s ‘Intimate and Live’ extravaganza. He is currently about to embark on his latest MD adventure, being ‘The Main Event’ Australian tour with John Farnham, Anthony Warlow and Olivia Newton-John, which will be supported by ‘The Farnham Band' and a 40-piece orchestra. In view of the facts, Chong Lim’s future within the Australian music industry is a bona fide prediction.
How did you initially get a break as a record producer?
CL: " I don’t think there was a break as such, because it was actually a natural progression from playing live, and then playing on sessions, on people’s records. And somewhere along the line someone decides that you are good enough, or when you first start, cheap enough to produce a record (laughs). But my first job was for the ABC, and it was for an Aboriginal band from Broome called ‘Scrap Metal’. And that was my first sort of foray into production. That was the first time I was called, but it’s kind of like being asked to play in a band. You know, it’s no different, it’s just a different level.”
Tell me about your set-up at home. What are the essential and non-essential ingredients of your studio? There must be a lot of stuff collecting dust too.
CL: "Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff at home, but I’m actually a little embarrassed because I hardly use it. What I use in almost everything I do at the moment is the Roland XP-80 Music Workstation as the controlling keyboard, and of course with a sustain pedal and an expression pedal connected. And then as far as synths are concerned, I’ve got one Roland JV-1080 Sound Module and two Roland S760 Samplers all loaded up with thirty-two megabytes, and really that’s about all that I actually use. Software wise, I use Cubase Audio, and I’m hoping that the new version, Cubase VST version 4.0, is better than what I’ve been living with for years. And within it is of course the Pro Tools Triple 8, which I use a lot. I’ve got a Tascam DA-88 Digital Multitrack Recorder and a Yamaha O2R Digital Recording Console. And I use the effects on the O2R, but I also have two dedicated effects when I need them, the Roland RSP-550 and the Roland SRV-330 Dimensional Space Reverb. One is a multi-effects processor, which is fantastic, and the dedicated reverb unit is also great, it’s got a lot of really nice algorithms. And occasionally I will take out my Super Jupiter, Minimoog or Jupiter 6 and do a bit of a pass, but really the basis of everything that I do at home is the XP-80, JV-1080 and two S760s.”
How do you generally approach the production of an album? Could you guide us through the process?
CL: "I listen to songs first, workshop songs, and I because I’m a keyboard-player a lot of my workshoping is done at home with my equipment. And I always like starting with a groove, so whether it’s a slow or fast song I start off with a groove, and then I try to find ways of making it interesting harmonically, also adding twists in the arrangement that sound natural. So I always start with a rhythm or groove of some sort, and what that does is it provides me with this hidden beat. You know, where the beat falls is where you sing and where you play. And eventually I may take out almost all the elements, but I can always hear them even when they’re gone, and that’s how I like to work.”
What were some of the recording techniques you explored in the studio on the upcoming Tommy Emmanuel album?
CL: "My philosophy towards this record was to make it a little bit more organic than records he’d done before. I had a listen to his previous albums, and they are all really great, but there’s a lot of programming on those albums, and I wanted to try to get away from that, even though I program. And apart from one song with ‘Human Nature’ which is completed programmed except for guitars, all the other tracks are mainly pianos, Wurlitzer, Rhodes and Hammond. So that’s the direction I went for, and real drums, real bass. And we recorded the drums in Metropolis Studio 1, we used the live room there, and because the Studio 1 control room is not available anymore we cabled it into Studio 3, and used the usual micking techniques that you use anywhere. And we recorded some rough guitars in Melbourne, but we did a lot of it in LA with his favourite engineer, because he loves the sounds that he gets and loves the environment that LA provides for him over there. The amount of hire equipment available in LA is also quite amazing.”
In the last few years the ‘Chong Lim’ name has additionally become associated with the position of musical director. How would you describe the experience of working as MD for Beatles producer George Martin?
CL: "Ahh, that would have to be one of the absolute highlights of my career. And because his idea of the concerts was slightly different to ours, I had to prepare some additional arrangements and orchestrations. You know, the concerts here were really motivated by Glenn Shorrock, and he had a particular idea of how he wanted to do it, but George had already been doing these concerts for years in Europe with his particular brand. We wanted a more edgy Beatles orientated thing, whereas his idea was a bit more sort of laid-back, so we had to marry the two attitudes to the concert. And a lot of things were kind of half-discussed on the phone and through faxes, but nothing really registered until he turned up and explained to him what we wanted. For example, he had an arrangement of ‘Sargeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’, and he had his sort of instrumental arrangement that chopped the song around, but we wanted to do it like the record. So we had to get him to chop his orchestration around at rehearsal, and it got a bit confusing and complicated, but you know, we pulled through. And then of course we wanted to do things like ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ and ‘Penny Lane’, which he didn’t have so had to orchestrate myself. And I can tell you I worked really hard on the orchestrations, and I was so nervous doing them, because there’s the great man himself who actually did them all originally. And I had to reproduce them, and make sure they worked out, and I was worried that he wouldn’t like them or that he’d think that they were wrong. I also had never met the great man, so didn’t know what he was like. But he turned up to rehearsal, and he was just the greatest guy, a total gentleman, and he was really musical. And then when we finally did develop a relationship, it was a really good working relationship, and he was very relaxed with the orchestrations and arrangements, including the additional ones. We worked very well together, he was a joy and a pleasure to work with, and even voiced that he wanted to do some more together, which was a real compliment. But it was just great to play those songs, and one of the highlights was that we did the entire side B of Abbey Road, from ‘Because’ to ‘The End’. You know, from start to finish just like the record, and I don’t think that even the Beatles had ever done that.“
Tell me about your recent involvement with Kylie Minogue. What are some of memorable moments of that tour?
CL: "That was fantastic, and the great thing about the concert was that we had to get concepts together. And it was a well-planned concert, as in that it was more a show with a concert inside. So Kylie and her designer William had already designed the sort of philosophical attitudes to certain sections of the concert, and with that I helped out in carving the musical side of it, together with her record producer. And the thing that I loved about the concert was the varied styles. You know, like from techno to cabaret. Well, maybe not quite cabaret, but more of a French Edith Piafish-thing with jazz chords in it. And you know, how many ways can you play ‘I should be so lucky’, how many harmonic twists can you give a straight pop song. And from disco, like ‘Better the Devil You Know’, to really exotic pop songs like ‘Confide In Me’, which is really a good pop song. I also had the chance to use some of my programming, because the techno songs obviously needed cutting-edge 90s sounds, to rockier things where you needed your more traditional rock sounds, so it was a challenge. And the audience reaction and success of the tour was way beyond what any of us expected.”
Do you still do much work as sound designer for the Roland Corporation?
CL: "To be honest, I haven’t done anything for a long, long time. I mean, the last time I worked for them was on the JP-8000, but I’ve been a little busy recently and so haven’t had a chance to really work on things with them. Although their direction at the moment is not so much synths, it’s DJ-type, dance-type modules and so on, that don’t really require a lot of sound sculpturing anyway. And you know, whatever’s coming out are hybrids of the JV series. But I’m hoping that I can do some more work with them at some stage, but at the moment I’m so busy… I feel a little guilty (laughs).”
What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
CL: "Right now I’m producing ‘Human Nature’ for a song on an upcoming Australian movie, and in fact I’m heading down to my studio now to do some pre-production for the mix. I recorded their vocals last week in Sydney, and we did the arrangement up there. That’s what I’m working on right now, and then I’ve got to start getting ready for ‘The Main Event’, that’s with John Farnham, Anthony Warlow and Olivia Newton-John, and I’ve got to do a bit of leg work beforehand because I’ve got to finalize some of the repertoire with the powers that be. And then I have to orchestrate some of the stuff that we have to do together, and that’s my immediate projects at the moment.”
'Music Trader Online' ~ September 16, 1998
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Chong Lim: A Composed Olympian