Top producer gives hit making masterclass

Music producer Trevor Horn CBE gives a Masterclass at Heath Street Baptist Church on November 4 2021.

Music producer Trevor Horn CBE gives a Masterclass at Heath Street Baptist Church on November 4 2021. - Credit: Supplied

Songwriter and producer Trevor Horn gives a masterclass in hit making in Hampstead next month.

Originally from County Durham, he lived for years in Maida Vale with his late wife Jill Sinclair, and has been based for the past 12 years in Belsize Village.

The 72-year-old taught himself bass guitar at a young age and learned his first producing lesson aged 11 from his dad, who played double bass with a big band.

"I loved Bob Dylan, The Beatles and the Stones but before that I was listening to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra," he says. "When beat groups and rock and roll started, the first thing I noticed was you could never hear the singer. Everyone played too loud. I started playing with a dance band and Dad told me 'when the singer comes in, drop the level so they can listen, they can't hear if you are too loud.'"

Music producer Trevor Horn performs during a charity concert, to celebrate the career of music produ

Music producer Trevor Horn performs during a charity concert, to celebrate his career at Wembley Arena. - Credit: PA

By 18, he was earning a living as a session musician, built his first recording studio at 25, and got his first hit at 30 as one half of The Buggles with Video Killed The Radio Star.

He went on to produce hits by Yes, Dollar, ABC, Malcolm McLaren, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Grace Jones, Seal, the Pet Shop Boys and Robbie Williams and is behind such songs as Slave to the Rhythm, Relax, and Kiss From A Rose. He also founded ZTT Records and owns the Sarm Studios in Ladbroke Grove where numerous legends have recorded, including the Live Aid single Do They Know It's Christmas?

The November 4 masterclass begins with two hit singles from 1979 and 2000, discussing the different ways they were made.

Martin Fry from 1980s group ABC, performs during a charity concert, to celebrate the career of music

Martin Fry from 1980s group ABC, performs during a charity concert to celebrate the career of music producer Trevor Horn. - Credit: PA

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Horn, whose influence on electronic music led him to be dubbed 'the man who invented the 80s,' says synthesisers and drum machines "changed things forever".

"Before that you couldn't manipulate anything. If you wanted a rhythm track it had to be played from the beginning, but from the early 80s you could programme things that sounded real."

It was while playing in bands "to pay the rent" that he became frustrated by how the live act sounded different from the album.

"I knew something was going on and was curious to find out," he says. "By the time of Video Killed The Radio Star I had put in a lot of work. In film parlance producers bring the money together and sell the film, but in our game the producer creates the sound of the record. It's a complicated job and a good idea to play pop music live before you try it."

Horn credits Sinclair with making him focus on producing. After a year on the road with Yes, she sent him back to the studio and managed his career, "made sure I saw all the right people while keeping the bad ones away."

Producing is "a pretty unselfish job," he says. "You have the responsibility for delivering the record and spend a year getting everyone through it, then they go off on the road, and you don't see them. But it's fine that they go and have a career."

Inevitably, evolving technology has changed the job. Horn with a computer can now do the job of a team of people, but he misses the creative camaraderie of old.

"The best part of the 60s and 70s was being in the studio with a bunch of musicians, who are good fun to hang out with, all that input. Now on you are on your own and it's not the same." 

He's too discreet to reveal the drunken rows or studio meltdowns, but says it was more late nights than boozing in the studio: "I am not a shouter, in 40 years I only lost it a couple of times. Usually I would try to get everyone in a good mood because musicians work better if they are enjoying themselves."

He does mention "a couple of moments when I thought 'the five of us are the first to hear this.'"

"When we put Relax up on the big speakers with Holly's voice on it, we felt 'boy we are so lucky, lots of people are going to hear this'. You generally know when you have something really good, it's just a question of getting it to people."

While there's an element of luck and timing to hit records, he's a great believer in talent and persistence.

"When you look at Roxanne by the Police, released three times before it did anything, you realise once you have, something just keep going, get people to listen, and something will always happen."

He adds: "Today there's never been so much recorded music, it's getting people to listen to it. Someone might have 10 million hits, but the question is how that translates into a music career."

Asked if bedroom producing has democratised the industry he says: "Love them or hate them, if the record label is putting money into something we are picky about what we invest in. That can make you too conservative, but lots of great artists from different places came through in the 60s 70s and 80s, so something worked."

"I still really enjoy making music," adds Horn, who plays in several bands and produces projects like orchestrating Rod Stewart's Christmas album.

"I don't go out and find new talent. It would take a lot of balls for a young band to work with me."

Trevor Horn CBE gives a Masterclass at Heath Street Baptist Church on November 4.