This month’s guest lecture profile we look into career the of Ger McDonnell, music producer/mixer/engineer with credits including U2, Manic Street Preachers, Dido, Texas, Def Leppard, Kasabian to name a few. Dublin born and bred, at the age of eight, he began to study orchestral percussion at the College of Music. Having studied there for eight years, poised for a career in teaching, he decided to follow his long-harboured desire to be involved in the world of “making records”. Having served his time working as an assistant/trainee recording engineer In various studios around Dublin he had a chance meeting with producer Mike Hedge. Ger went on to work extensively with Mike and various high profile artists such as U2. Working in many of the best recording studios in the UK Ireland and France Ger gained invaluable experience along the way.
Q1. You started your music career at the tender age of eight. Where did this love of music come from?
I would have to say that my love of music comes from my parents, really, you could argue that it’s in the genes! Neither of them played an instrument, but are great singers. When growing up there was always music on in our house, be it on the radio or on the turntable. My Mum loves The Beatles and a lot of pop music, my Dad is a fan of Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash, so we had a bit of a mixed bag of tastes in there. I tried to get them into some classical music and Joy Division in my teens, but to no avail. Can’t think why!
Q2. You were set for a career in teaching, what changed your mind?
I guess I was probably on a path towards teaching orchestral percussion, as I enrolled at the College Of Music in Dublin when I was eight. I was driving my folks crazy whacking the living daylights out of biscuit tins, so they were advised to help me get it out of my system. So, parallel to secondary school, I went through the grades studying music, but I’d always had this fascination with the mystery of recorded music, and I’d been dabbling with four-track cassette recorders. So when it came time to leave school and make my choice for adulthood, so to speak, all of this combined and sound engineering seemed like an obvious choice.
Q4. How did you manage to break into the industry, was it hard?
Well, I wouldn’t call it breaking into the industry as such, more like ‘burrowing’ into it… around the time I left school in 1990, there weren’t really any training courses available in Dublin, so it was a case of trotting around the various studios I knew about with my C.V. under my arm, and from there managed to get in on work experience. And the rest, as they say…
Q5. Tell us about your career background, you have worked with some of the top artists in the world from The Cure to The Manics and most famously U2.
I have been quite lucky and stuck with it, I guess it pays off in the end. I basically studio-hopped for a few years, assisting and making tea/getting experience at various studios around Dublin, Westland, Sun, Windmill, Sonic Studios, plus I did manage to get some experience with live sound and rigging PA systems, but I realised I much preferred the safe cocoon of studio life! Doing live sound at a local level I found quite unrewarding. Good front-of-house sound is a proper skill, but it just bored me, really. I ended up settling in as assistant engineer at the wonderful Bow Lane Studios, that was where I really started to get my teeth into engineering, learning the craft. I had great freedom there. I got to work with Def Leppard and an artist called ‘Dara’ (Daragh O Toole), whose demos I worked on there came to the attention of Sony UK, and of course, Mike Hedges. Daragh himself very kindly pushed to get me involved in engineering the album sessions with Mike, so after meeting him in Dublin for a quick interview, I went over for a few days’ trial at his studio in France. I’ve been working with him ever since. It opened up a whole new world to me really and I’ve been very lucky to have worked on a lot of great projects as a result, lots of amazing studios (which are getting rarer these days…), Abbey Road, Air, Wessex, Westside, Miloco, Strongroom, Whitfield St….
Q6. What have been the highlights of your career to date?
Highlights, hmmm, every session is different, I think it’s important not to expect the same experience from one session to the next, but I find enjoyment in them all, really. Obviously the higher-profile projects have their moments, like being in front of a fantastic vintage Neve console and having every member of U2 at the other end of each microphone. That was quite cool. Having the pleasure to work with real talent, James from the Manic Street Preachers is amazing. Every time an artist approves a mix I do, for me that’s a highlight. As a mixer or recordist, you aim to please, but we all need these little pats on the head from time to time, it keeps you going. I’m sure Mr Rick Rubin does it for exactly the same reasons.
Q7. What has been the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
Diplomacy is the greatest skill you can aspire to have as a producer…! From a technical point of view, perhaps some of the U2 remixes) I worked on with Mike were fairly tricky, purely from a track-count point of view. It was our task to sift through the original multitracks and be a bit creative with rebalancing, they gave us free-reign to look for alternative takes of songs, etc. Because the digital ‘MDM’s had just come out when they were recording it, when we got hold of them all and eventually transferred the whole lot into ProTools, there were something like approaching 300 tracks on each song. There is always something in the studio, computers crashing, mics crackling, dodgy cables, tapes snapping, tea with too much milk in it, tempers flaring, artistic toes being trod on, egos to be massaged, record label personnel to be appeased… just count to ten and find a happy place. It’s only music.
Q8. You have worked in studios all over Europe. How does the Irish Music Industry compare?
By comparison to the UK or Europe, the Irish recording studio scene is obviously quite small as an industry, but it does seem to be weathering the recessional storm quite well, many major studios in the UK in particular have closed down over the years, landmark spaces like Olympic in Barnes with a huge history of classic recordings just vanished, seemingly overnight. Quite sad, I think, but as commercial spaces they just weren’t viable anymore. Even Abbey Road is up for grabs, that I find interesting too. So the whole technical software-based studio revolution that we all screamed for has definitely called the whole concept of the term ‘Recording Studio’ into question, and as much as I welcome the ‘anyone with a laptop can do it’ approach, I can’t help worrying that basic engineering skills are suffering as a result of the studios’ demise. One little gripe I would say has always been a problem for me here in Ireland has been that of studio maintenance. I suppose I was lucky enough to have worked at great studios with in-house fixers, but in Ireland there just aren’t the in-house maintenance skills or wages available to pay them, more to the point.
Q9. What drew you to Pulse College as a Guest Lecturer?
I was asked by the lovely Pulse people to attempt to impart some ‘grand-old- man-of-the-studio’ wisdom to their students a couple of years ago, and I’m always glad and flattered to help out. I’ve always loved the atmosphere at Pulse, genuinely, I’m not just saying it! There is a certain pride in what they do that is infectious, staff are always polite and fun at the same time. I’ve enjoyed great work there, and hope to do so again soon. I’m particularly pleased by the Windmill Recording acquisition, I think it will prove to be a great facility.
Q10. As an industry expert what advice would you give to Pulse graduates?
Industry expert I most certainly am not! That would be my first bit of advice, probably because I’m frustratingly modest. But I think that the moment you assume you are an expert, then you’re in trouble, you’ll lose your edge. It’s all about gathering experience, balancing that with healthy doses of confidence, having infinite patience and sleep deprivation, eventually you’ll get there. Wherever that is… oh, and use your ears as well as your eyes occasionally.