You may not instantly recognise his name, but his signature is all over some of the biggest hits to have graced the dancefloors of clubs all over the world. Mark Ralph is enjoying a very productive music career, sometimes behind the desk working alongside the likes of Hot Natured, Jamie Jones and Hot Chip to name but a few, and at times taking centre stage with his own Filthy Dukes project and numerous other productions. Mark invited DJ Mag to his wonderful Club Ralph Studios in North London for a little tete-a-tete...
How did your journey into music production begin?
“I started playing guitar aged six and got my first break at eighteen, playing guitar on 'We Are Family', the Sister Sledge re-release from 1993. I spent years as a session guitarist in London at the same time as playing and writing songs in bands and learning to engineer, mix and eventually produce. I became inquisitive about musical performances and the whole world of fascinating electronic devices with which to capture them.”
Has working with so many top-flight names within the scene helped you to develop what you do and how you work in the studio?
”Yes, everyone I work with brings with them something, which helps me develop my skills, and I hope I can always reciprocate. I worked on a few albums with Sly & Robbie a few years ago, and Sly Dunbar told me even after 50 years of making records, he still learns something new each day from the people he works with — many of whom are 40 years his junior! I very much take his attitude with the people I’m in the studio with.”
What is a typical day in the studio like for you?
”The mornings are always the most productive — usually the first two hours. This is a perfect time for mix tweaks, and I’m often doing that first thing if I’ve had a mix on the desk the day before. I then spend the rest of the day recording, writing or mixing — sometimes with loads of people around, sometimes on my own. Most important is the lunchtime trip to the sandwich shop for Joe Goddard’s all-time favourite No.9 sandwich!”
Talk to us about your hit factory, the lovely Club Ralph Studio...
“My studio consists of three rooms — a control room and two live spaces, which I use to record bands and do overdubs in. We did a lot of live band performances in here with Franz Ferdinand on their last record, and all of the last Hot Chip album here as well.”
Give us a rundown of the kit in your studio…
“At the heart of the studio is the unique Conny Plank custom-built 56-channel analogue console, one of only two ever made. Building began on it in 1974 and it was used to record Kraftwerk, Can, Brian Eno, Ultravox and Eurythmics amongst many others. This is complimented by lots of outboard dynamics and effects, and also lots of old synthesizers, guitars, drums and drum machines, sitars, organs and piano.
“I run Pro Tools 11 on an HDX rig, but I also use Ableton Live 9 and occasionally Logic X, although mainly for converting projects. I like experimenting with different programs, different ways of creating. I dislike it when I hear people who try to argue that their software is better than someone else’s — it’s a bit like telling a painter that you think his or her palette and brushes are crap, while ignoring their work of art…”
Tell us more about this rather unique mixing desk?
“Conny Plank built two of these desks, and the other one was built for the band Can and currently resides in the German Rock N Pop museum in Gronau. He was using the channels, which eventually became my desk during the making of Kraftwerk’s 'Autobahn', and continued to develop it throughout the Seventies. It has very unique-sounding preamps and EQ, the nearest thing comparable would be an MCI console. Apart from its historical kudos, all I can say is that it just makes everything you put through it sound fantastic, and that is all one can wish for.”
What is your attraction to analogue gear?
“My attraction is two-fold; firstly and most obviously, I love the sound of a lot of external instruments — be they synths, drum machines, pianos, guitars, live drums and percussion, or strings. This also goes for a lot of my outboard gear, early digital as well as analogue — EMT, Lexicon, AMS, Eventide, Urei, Neve, Barth, Valley People and more.
“Secondly, quite apart from the sonic aspect which some people will argue is no different to their plug-in counterparts, the creative process by which I arrive at a sound and the way in which I perform with a piece of hardware is completely different to staring at a computer screen, moving a mouse around a picture of a piece of equipment. I’m not saying one is universally superior to the other, and in many cases the software versions are much more versatile and controllable. I spent years working in the box with Pro Tools, but when I finally got out of that box, I found it very refreshing to be able to use the best of both worlds.”
Which hat do you prefer to wear as you capably flirt between producer, mixer, artist, musician, nice bloke…?
“I’m happiest when I have as much variety in my life as possible, so the answer is all of the above in equal measures. I occasionally still dust off the 'axe' for the odd guitar gig, most recently with Hot Natured at their Brixton and Glastonbury shows, and I always manage to venture up the dusty end of the neck on at least one track on 2 Bears albums.”
What projects are you currently working on?
“At the moment, I’m just finishing off Clean Bandit’s debut album, which I’m loving working on, and will be completing albums over the next two months with Ali Love, 2 Bears, The Magician, New Build, as well as starting work with Friendly Fires and continuing with the next Hot Chip LP.”
Can you share with the readers one tip for making better-sounding music?
“Here are three: firstly, do some research and spend some time and money making your studio space as acoustically pleasing as you can. Secondly, get the sound you’re recording right before pressing record — don’t just whack it in and hope the plug-ins will save it. Thirdly, ignore everything anyone says to you about how to make music, and make it all up yourself, by trial and error. It’s by far the best way to learn. After all, no one can really tell you what is right or wrong.”
Do you have any memorable studio stories?
“Being throttled by Ronnie Wood in his house at 4am whilst trying to record Cilla Black. Second most memorable moment: pretending to the Pet Shop Boys I could play pedal steel guitar and doing an aurally painful two-hour studio session with them on it, having never seen the instrument in my life before…”