Archive for September, 2009

Porn for gearheads

Friday, September 11th, 2009

When I occasionally need to record a group of musicians I don’t have room to do it in my lifeboat studio, the Nutmeg. I have to go and rent a studio elsewhere. Trouble is, I’m very hard to please in that department. When I lived in LA, Bill Bottrell introduced me to the delights of vintage Neve mixing consoles, and I was hooked. The mixer is the heart of a studio and directly affects the sound of a record, and these just have a great sound that’s all their own. Twiddling their knobs is like tuning a beautiful guitar. There are a handful of enthusiasts in California that own and maintain these old lovelies that had their heyday in the 1970s—the era of Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Nile Rogers—but most commercial studios have long since replaced them with newer, more powerful, but much less delightful Neves or Solid State Logic mixers. Bill single handedly changed the face of American music production when he recorded Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club on his old Neve in a vacant shop (!) in Pasadena in the early 90s. This album was raw and gritty and the arrangements stood up for themselves. It won several Grammys and signalled the end to 80s production excess (you know, ultra-compressed tracks running through giant automated SLL desks with big snares and tones of digital reverb, kinda like my productions for Prefab Sprout!)

But I’m very pleased to have found a little recording studio in East London (the right end for me) called The Way that owns one of only two left in Great Britain. It’s a custom 8078, 40-input board that lived at Sony’s studios in Tokyo for many years. It’s manned by an enthusiastic young staff who have inherited the passion for this board.

I just spent 20 hours recording a small Latin ensemble there, consisting of upright bass (Chucho Merchan), drums (Nic France), percussion (Bosco De Oliveira) and acoustic guitar (John Paricelli). I’ve had this strange song in my head for about ten years now, and in my imagination it was always played by a Latin quartet. It’s called ‘Simone’. It’s a dreamy slow groove that belongs in the ‘Oceanea’ section of my album. It has a simple melody but an odd Brazilian chord sequence, which is not my forte at all. Over the years I would sing it occasionally to myself in the shower, walking on the beach, or falling asleep; but on the occasions I’ve tried to work it out on the piano it’s always perplexed me. It modulates every few bars. Not only that, there are different options for each modulation. Each section is in a completely different key, so every time I would arrive back at the verse, I had to relearn the complicated chords. And I’d usually just say, fuck it I’ll go and make a cup of tea.

Well, I decided ten years was long enough for this puzzle to remain uncracked so I took the plunge and booked these musicians into The Way, giving myself two weeks to unravel the mysteries of the song. In the end I decided to run a click and just sing the melody, then work out the chords to go along with it. It was like solving a Rubik’s Cube–no, a Rubik’s Polyhedron. I finally managed this in the nick of time, and sent Chucho a demo so he could chart it out for the other guys, not being a reader myself. We came together in the studio for the first time and recorded the song, finishing up about 4.30am this morning. I think it sounds fantastic, and they gave me something I could never program in a million years. We also did a second song, ‘A Jealous Thing Called Love’ which I played on my last tour.

On aspect of modern recording versus the ‘old days’ is that you can do unlimited takes and record endless tracks. Before, you had to make decisions and choices as you went along: let’s say you had a near-perfect conga take with a couple of stray hits out of place, you would painstakingly go through and identify the bad bits, then ‘punch in’ ie get the conga player to repair the bad hits on the fly. Now you just let them slip by, knowing you can later do a composite of several takes, cut and paste a good section from elsewhere, or even physically move each hit forward or back a few milliseconds in time until it sits right in the song. While this is great because the real premium is the musicians’ time, plus the hours spent in a for-rent studio, the downside is that for every hour I spent at The Way I will probably spend half a day in the Nutmeg editing what I recorded! So I won’t know the true value of what I captured for another two or three weeks. It’s all very well to just let the musicians go wild while trying out different tones and EQs, but in the back of my mind I cold see myself sitting there in the Nutmeg for hours on end, looking out over the sea, playing god while I move huge chunks of multirack audio around in time, making it all groove perfectly. Still this is infinitely preferable to me than twiddling knobs on a synth or tweaking MIDI notes in Logic.

Anyway, here’s a cameraphone snap of me with the venerable 8078. I’m sure to most of you it looks just like any other mixing board. But to those in the know, this is like a vintage Bentley.

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