Anyway, on with the story!
I have always loved big, female harmony vocals and many of the tracks on ThirtySix lend themselves to a liberal application.
Over the years I have discovered that even though professionals are seemingly expensive, it’s far better in terms of time, energy, quality and hard cash to hire the best.
At Steve Boyce-Buckley’s, suggestion I called up veteran’s (I am not talking old here, just hugely experienced) Yvonne Shelton and Sue Quinn hereafter referred to as the ‘Delta Sisters’.
First to arrive was Yvonne, and I mean ‘arrived’ – wearing in a black sequinned dress with high heels looking just like she was about to go to a Sunday service in Harlem. Total star. Sue soon followed, looking suitably cool and bohemian – a couple of charismatic personalities!
We sat down in front of the board and worked out the harmony parts. Each track took no more than five minutes of arranging and a maximum of 30 minutes of recording. And that’s with multiple, layered harmonies. Totally professional and bang on.
I wasn’t expecting such speed, expecting them to return the day after so they ended up singing along to a guide vocal of the brand new ‘All I Have Left’!
Making smalltalk I asked Yvonne if she had been to Glastonbury that year. “Yes, but I was only there for one day” she said. “Were you playing?” I asked. “Yeah – it was fun”, “Who with?” [tentative question], “The Gorillaz” she replied…
After a moments reflection I asked “Fancy a cup of tea?”
During the vocal session, Sad Café‘s Ian Wilson popped in for a brew and some Jaffa Cakes!
Next up was brass and again we employed some top professionals for the job. Malcolm Melling (Trumpet and Flugle Horn), Pat Hartley (Trombone) and Dave Bishop (Saxophones).
As they are all working in West End shows they drove up from London on Sunday Morning arriving at about 1100. They unpacked their instruments and by 1130, following a cup of strong tea, started playing.
Having given Steve (BB) a brief over what I wanted in the last session, he arranged, transposed and wrote out the parts for eight tracks – what a man.
I fancied a sax solo at the end of ‘Misgivings’ and asked Dave if he could oblige. The first take blew me away but the second was amazing and thats the one that was used. At the time I didn’t know that he was the UK Yamaha endorsee and had played with everyone, from Robble Williams to Amy Winehouse.
Earlier Malcolm said they had a curry booked in Watford that evening and by 1430 they were walking out of the door. Unbelievable.
During these sessions I was still laying down guitar parts. Originally I had set up the rig in the dining area but as the drums had been recorded, I was set up in the live room – it just didn’t sound the same. So I went through arduous the process of moving microphones and trying new ones.
To add to my tone woes, the ‘unnamed” Ribbon Mic that we had used in the earlier sessions became a casualty of accidental application of phantom power – a nasty business…
I had set up the Two Rock and Van Weelden with my two Two Rock 2×12’s plus the Marshall 4×12 which I had to run from the Two Rock as the Van Weelden has one impedance selection – four ohms.
When recording the solo for “You don’t have to (take this shit)”, which sadly didn’t make it onto the album (although will be released individually), I thought it may be a good idea to doff my musical cap to Brian May and to this end wanted a thick harmony part to finish off.
Steve and I thought the only way was to use multitrack tape so we dusted off the 24 track OTARI 2” machine.
Chris Taylor, who was the ‘digital assistant’ on this session, looked with horror as we explained ‘punching in’ and ‘punching out’.
“Yes Chris, if you press the wrong button you will wipe the previous recording or might even miss recording the part.”
In one way ‘going back’ was great but you soon realise that if we recorded the whole album this way, it would take six months as opposed to six weeks!
The other thing it hammers home is that, as with photography, we are all getting lazy when it comes to going for takes. If you know it doesn’t really matter how sloppy you are, you become sloppy in the knowledge that takes can swiftly be edited together.
I started singing by accident. Every time I turned up to a jam night, there were loads of guitar players, fewer bass players, even fewer drummers and the occasional singer. So, I was forced to get up and croak along to some tunes.
When Little Brother split, I wanted to form a new band and at this point thought it may be a good idea to give vocals a go. They were pretty ropey at first but after a few lessons with a vocal coach in Middleton things started to improve and could speak the day after a gig!
This was a looong time ago and standing up in front of the Neumann U87 with everyone looking through the control room window is not the best time to feverishly try to remember the techniques.
One interesting tip that I had never seen before is that Steve placed the mic slightly to the left side of my mouth as having listened to me sing, he reckoned it achieved a better tone.
I am very loud and to achieve the dynamic I used the proximity effect of the mic to achieve varied vocal tones. “All I Have Left” being the best example of this.
The Neve/AMEK 9098 channel strips have a massive headroom and we tried to keep the EQ and effects to a minimum, so whilst recording, Steve only used a hint of compression and low cut – that was it.
I planned the mix over eight consecutive days. We had recorded 16 tracks and was going to choose the best 12, but wanted to mix and master them all.
Mixing this number of consecutive tracks is problematic as your ears get tired.
Fortunately the drums were pretty consistent as we only used Kev Whitehead and one kit. So these were set up through the whole mix schedule.
Similarly Steve Rowe’s bass was set up throughout but this was only processed by a classic DBX 160 compressor and judicious use of the desk’s beautiful Neve EQ.
The rest had to be set up for each song, introducing brass, backing vocals, percussion and keyboards.
There was limited EQ used throughout out the mix and virtually none on the guitars, as we had recorded them with great care!
The only effect used on the electric guitars in the mix was a little classic Lexicon ‘Prime Time’ delay, with the exception of AMS DMS 15-80X delay “Island Of Rust”. Note the appropriate delay setting.
The vocals benefitted from the magnificent, Audio Design Recording F769X-R Vocal Stressor, well known for the vocal compression Led Zeppelin I & II. The compressor section of this device has been lovingly recreated by Audio Maintenance Limited and was so impressed I bought one!
The beauty of this unit is that it doesn’t sound like it’s compressing at all, even at high settings. We mixed ‘I Like It Like That’ without this unit abut once we had used it we went back to mix it again. The difference was immense.
Reverb on the vocals was via the very rare and somewhat temperamental, Publison Infernal Machine 90 mainly using the ‘spring reverb’ algorithm.
The danger and temptation when mixing is doing it too loud which causes listening fatigue. We kept changing the lighting and monitor selection to adjust the mood during the session. Most of the final paybacks were through the industry standard Yamaha NS10’s.
To add warmth we mixed down to 1/2” tape running at 30 inches per second using Gracieland’s excellent Ampex ATR-102 machine and Dolby SR noise reduction. Marvellous!
I was staying in hotel and every evening, following the ubiquitous curry, listened to the mixes over a couple large glasses of malt.
Of course there are always things that you would change. There are quite a few guitar fluffs on there, but many were first takes and some even tone test runs (such as the solo in “Still Got Time”). Also I do think the vocals are a bit too far back in some tracks, but hey ho…
I didn’t have an unlimited budget and honestly think that the result is as good as it could be. When I finally packed up, I felt satisfied, but sad that it was all over .
There are very few records in the last 32 years that I have worked on that I am proud of both musically and technically. Simon Campbell’s forthcoming release is one of them and joins an elite team which can now be counted on one hand!!! Award winning engineer, Stephen Boyce-Buckley: Gracieland Studio Diary
I have never been physically involved in the mastering process before and it is considered a ‘dark art’ by many. So what the fuck is it all about?
Well in the studio you produce your best work on many tracks, mix them to create a two track ‘stereo’ master of the recording and most people would say “that’s it”.
The issue is that you have recorded and mixed your ‘masterpiece’ using the monitors in the studio.
Once you take it outside and listen on other system you notice that it doesn’t just ‘sound like a record’ and the ‘sound’ all the tracks are slightly different not sitting together as a cohesive body of work – why not? Well it’s not been mastered.
The process of mastering involves a ‘Mastering’ Engineer listening to the album then subtly tweaking the EQ (tone), adding overall compression and enhancements to the recording plus creating the very important space between tracks.
This process standardises the sound allowing it to stand up against other tracks that you hear.
There is a lot of talk about the amount of compression that Mastering engineers now use as many record companies want their artists to sound ‘louder’ and ‘fuller’ than the competition. It’s fashionable to do this right now.
By it’s very nature, compression removes dynamic range, which is the difference between a very quiet passage and a loud one, and as a result the whole album can sound loud but very ‘flat’ and ‘wearing’.
After all the time and effort spent on the album, I didn’t want just anyone messing with my recording so I chose Metropolis Studios, the very top of the tree of independent mastering.
Even within this temple of mastering excellence you have choices in the engineer you choose to do the work and there is a menu of people who you can use. After research and should searching I chose John Davis who had under his belt albums for Sade, U2, Jimmy Page, Florence and the Machine and Prodigy.
I had never been involved in the ‘dark art’ so this time it was essential to attend so Angela and I tripped off to London.
We arrived a day early, staying at a friends flat and taking the opportunity to hook up with top Nashville Manager Monty Hitchcock and his latest signing Dylan LeBlanc who was playing the 100 Club with his band.
The gig was ace but it went very ugly indeed and we piled back just after dawn!
On the day of the session I set off early and made my way to Metropolis. It is housed in a converted power station and has an interesting arrangement of mezzanine levels.
I met John and walked into the suite. Steve Boyce Buckley arrived and we set off.
It’s really difficult listening as it’s very difficult to tell wether or not the sound is correct as you you are listening on monster unfamiliar monitors so I left it to him. But it was fascinating to watch him switching between tracks to even out the EQ between tracks and adding multi-band compression.
The equipment they have there is totally world class and John gave me total confidence.
I couldn’t help but notice on the desk John’s next project which was the remastering on Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ – bloody hell!
When I returned home I listened in depth but found that the tracks were still bass heavy. This is really the only criticism of Gracieland is that the monitors are a little bass light, so you end up mixing too much low end in there.
I contacted Metropolis and they remastered a number of the tracks and when I was happy they sent through the ‘red book’ masters to a very, very excited me!
The picture of the album cover was a total fluke.
Phil Kneen arranged a ‘Gentleman’s Evening’, which is another name for a huge piss-up on the beach.
One of the features of these events are big fires for BBQ and warmth.
For this event, my friend Kris Fargher managed ‘acquire’ a Tesco trolley for use as a brazier.
We were all a little worse for wear when someone, and anecdotal evidence points to the enigmatic Bonzo Slater, suggested the burning trolley would make a great album cover. So Phil pointed his camera and voila!!!
I don’t like CD’s. They are not as tactile as vinyl and the whole packaging is just wrong. But, I had to have one so chose the company which had a good reputation and environmental pedigree.
Breed Media were the final choice and they were very efficient. The artwork was put together by my great friend Barry Kinder, formally of Funnel Creative.
I could write a separate article about the launch, but will keep it brief.
It was appropriate to have the event on the Isle of Man, which was the place that inspired me to start playing again and the only logical choice was the Centenary Centre in Peel.
We brought over virtually all the musicians that had played on the album and it was a great event indeed. The after party finished at 0630 – rock ‘n roll…
Pictures tell 1000 words so, if you have time, take a look!
Since the launch there have been some great reviews, details of which can be found in the journal on the music site.
So thats it, the story of making my first solo album in thirty six years of spanking the plank. It’s not blues, it’s not rock, it’s not folk; it is an eclectic mix that will take you on my very personal musical journey. Each song is written about real people, with real lives.
If you would like to see more picture of the recording of ThirtySix, take a look at this Flickr set.
Finally, why not grab a cup of tea and watch the videos…
‘The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.’
James A. Michener (1907-1997)