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Northeast Performer (interview)
The Abbey Road recording diary
Thursday, April 10, 2008
I was so excited about recording at Abbey Road, I can’t even begin to tell you. I really expected someone to put the kibosh on the whole thing at some point, like someone from the studio would just call and say "Are you crazy? You’re not allowed to spend all day in studio 2." The whole thing was really tweaked and finessed by my friend Martin. Not only did he handle the communication with the studio (translating all my bullshit and gibberish into proper English for them), but he assembled a crack band for me, got his producer (Charlie Francis who has worked with REM, Robyn Hitchcock, High Llamas, many other cool bands) to volunteer his services and arranged for instruments. Abbey Road, surprisingly enough, has no instruments available. They don’t own a drum set, a guitar, an amp, nothing, you have to rent it all and it’s very expensive. Martin borrowed some gear and had Charlie bring his guitars from Cardiff so we wouldn’t have to rent everything.
I met up with martin the night before the session and it turned out that the drum set he thought he had in a rehearsal room was actually in another city for some reason. I had arranged to rent a Hofner bass and Ampeg B-15 from a rental place and they said no problem if you need drums as well, so we figured we’d just do that for another 60 pounds ($120 to you and me).
Next morning, the Hilton in Holland Park, a full-service world-class hotel, just blows my wakeup call. No hugey as I was up just a half hour after it was supposed to have come, but what the hell? jump in a cab and I’m off to this rental place in Swiss Cottage, not far from Abbey Road. I found smiling Martin and the ever-wonderful Sweary Mary already chatting with the older rocker types who have this rental company. Two small speed bumps: I gad e-mailed AND phoned to make sure the Hofner would have flatwound strings, but when I got there, there was a bit of beard- scratching and "We weren’t sure if you, uh, wanted the flat strings. Not sure if you realize, but those are quite old fashioned, people don’t really use them anymore." Mmmmm, uh, yeah, session at Abbey Road starting in 30 minutes, not really into changing strings right now. They had an old Gretsch Monkees bass with flats, so I took that instead. Secondly; "Oh yeah, drums...drums, right. No problem at all. Of course, they’re not kept here. They are at our warehouse ON THE OTHER SIDE OF LONDON". Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck. That last line was mine. Sweary Mary was angelically willing to go fetch the trap kit, but I decided that the wisest thing was to pay them another $40 to deliver them. One normally starts a recording session with micing up the drums, but I figured we’d just start with the lead vocal and work our way backwards while waiting for the drums.
Anyway, zoom over to St. John’s Wood, sign in at the reception desk and they show us where to load in down a little alley way (Martin & I joking about about a blue plaque for Mal Evans thousand load ins there). They won’t actually let us back the van down to the door, but the promise to send out a helper to hump the gear. Of course, by the time someone actually shows up, wiping crumbs off their chin, the gear is already humped. Anyway, a short hallway past the canteen and we’re...in.
Studio 2, where it all went down. I got a bit light headed for a second, just taking it all in. First off, it’s huge. 30 foot high ceilings. I had seen it in photos so many times that I knew the layout already. I felt like I had been there a hundred times before, knew exactly where everything would be. Martin and I kept smiling at each other. Drummer Bobby Boo was there (he used to be in the Boo Radleys with Martin and it was nice to see them in a studio together for the first time in years). He had taken the train down from Manchester and was surprised that we turned up with no drums. he had his cymbals and pedal all ready to go. Producer Charlie was up the famous stairs and came down with a couple of assistants from Abbey Road to say hello. And then, in all his splendor and magnificence, I finally met the Ed Ball.
Ed Ball is in Television Personalities, was a major fixture at Creation Records and has released 7 million albums as the Times, all of which I have purchased in multiple formats. He was the Boo’s touring keyboardist and Martin is always amused at the awe with which I regard Ed. He’s also a major, major Beatles geek and there was some concern that if the three of us (Martin, Ed and myself) got together at Abbey Road that our heads might actually explode. Anyway, Ed is a most charming fellow, very nattily attired for the occasion, and he immediately sits down at the Steinway Baby grand, the one used on "A Day In The Life" and starts playing my song. While setting up, Ed regales us with an entire history of British pop in a cocktail lounge piano style. I have a half hour of it on video (which Ed has probably already released somehow), but it was all Kinks, Bowie, Mott and Beatle songs.
Anyway, we troop up the stairs to the control room, which is small but comfy. There’s a ginormous Neve desk and, on the side, looking out the window a gorgeous old EMI TG mixing desk from around the Dark Side Of the Moon session. It was actually the desk George Martin used when he worked on the Anthology series. Guy from Abbey Road says "You can use that one if you want" Oh yes, my friend, we’re having that. We had arranged to record to a Studer 1" 8 track machine, but the assistant said that, although available, they are notoriously tricky to use for overdubs. There’s an audible gap between the play and record head that makes it very hard to monitor when overdubbing. He has taken the precaution of setting up a Studer 2" with a custom 8 track head-stack. How could I resist that? I mean, that is fidelity.
I had gone into the session with merely the expectation that we will record something by the end. I didn’t want to walk away disappointed if we didn’t get a lot done because it was such untested water. Mostly, I was just trying to remember to breathe on occasion. Anyway, we gather around the piano and work out the changes for the first song, "badfinger bridge". Martin is on his beautiful Gibson acoustic and we’re having a fine old sing along when the drums arrive. Bobby Boo sets them up and Charlie mics them just like I asked: like the Beatles. AKG D20 on bass drum, A D19 between the snare and hi hat and the Coles ribbon mic that looks like a shower head right over the drummer’s head. Mind you, these are the actual microphones used on Ringo’s drums. There are also dozens of old German mics on boom stands throughout the stdio. Go google Telefunken U-47 if you don’t know what one is. Twenty of them. All used by the Beatles at various points, plus a bunch of Neuman 087s, and u-67s. Being British musicians, nobody laughed at my "Hello Neuman" joke. A half hour later, Martin said "Was that Seinfeld, that thing you were saying earlier?" Charlie puts the Coles through the Fairchild limiter, brings up the faders on the EMI desk and the drums sound....absolutely perfect. Zero tweaking required, they sound just great. Every other recording session in my life has featured an hour of someone hitting a snare while the rest of the band gets suicidal. This was easy and painless instant gratification. I run down and step up to the U-47 about 8 feet in front of the drums, put on the cans, they guitar sounds genius as well. 15 minutes later, Bobby and I are starting our first take.
Friday, April 11, 2008
When I recorded my last album, I really hit upon a recording method that works for me. It's very simple; I play acoustic guitar while facing the drummer and we keep it to to 2 or 3 takes of each song. I don't worry about bleed- the drums in the acoustic mic sound lovely- I don't sweat about a headphone mix (I try to avoid using them if possible) and I don't do 60 takes looking for the perfect one. I'd rather have a few small mistakes, but have the drummer sound awake and interested. Of course, this method requires some simpatico with the drummer. Drummer Rob was fabulous. I knew his playing by virtue of having listened to the Boos millions of times, but I was still surprised at how easy it was for us to lock in and get the tracks done. 45 minutes and we had suitable takes of two songs. We got "badfinger bridge" and then another one called "Second Hand Halo".
Then I jumped on bass, again getting a very good tone quickly by micing up the amp with a U-47 and combining it with a DI track. The nice thing is taht we didn't move mics around at all. the assistants had everything mic'd up beforehand so you could just move from instrument to instrument with no wait. Luckily, at that point I asked Charlie to turn up the kick drum a bit in my headphones, and he replied "How can I do that when the drums are all on one track?" The penny dropped. I had been nattering on about the power of mono drums and he took me at my word and recorded them in mono on the same track. What I actually meant was no stereo spread; 3 mics onto 3 tracks- so it was my fault for not being clearer. The single drum track sounded amazing, but I had to make a fast decision as to what we should do. 3 drum tracks is incredibly minimal by modern standards, let alone just one. I just couldn't see not having the flexibility to tweak the drums when mixing, so I called Rob back in and we re-did the basics. In another setting, I might have allowed this to cause me stress, but I just felt very calm and focused throughout the session and we nailed suitable takes for both songs in about a half hour. I think Rob preferred his performances on the original takes a little, but I reassured him that the re-takes were just as strong. Anyway, it was a very good thing that we figured this out when we did before we added any other instruments.
Charlie is a bass player, so I wanted to give him some nice bass tracks. I could see him watching me from that window way up at the top of the stairs. He made a funny face whenever I got too busy on the bass (which is usually from the word go, I'm afraid), but we got both tunes sorted fairly quickly. And then we had Ed Ball on the Lady Madonna piano, again with the U-47 and U-48s. The studio refers to this piano as the Mrs Mills piano if you'd like to google it, but essentially it's a Steinway upright with hard lacquer on the hammers so it's got it's own sound. Not like a tack piano, but in that general direction. I believe it's also the piano used on "Hey Bulldog" and Paul McCartney used it on his last album, so it's no joke. Ed played some beautiful piano, very minimal in the verses and much more ornate in the bridge.
At this point we decided to take a little lunch break and we all trooped off the canteen. While signing in earlier, I had noticed Ken Stringfellow's name in the guest book and Charlie knew him from working with REM. I am merely a fan, really loved his last album "Soft Commands" as well as his work with the Posies and Big Star. Charlie and I went sniffing around and found Ken in one of the mastering suites on the top floor (where they actually have a cutting lathe, you don't see that in your average mastering room). Abbey Road is a very busy place with three recording rooms and about a half dozen mastering suites, so the hallways are bustling. Anyway, Charlie introduced me to Ken and of course we invited him to stop by after his mastering session. Charlie reassured him that I was a relatively decent songwriter and that it wouldn't be just embarrassing for everyone if he stopped by.
After lunch- during which time I asked Ed if he had a job and he looked absolutely horrified- we all trooped back in and I was showing Ed the piano part for "2nd Hand Halo" when he suggested that I should just play it myself. I have such awful piano technique that I avoid playing in front of other people, but he was most encouraging and I got it in 2 takes. We had moved over to the Challen piano for that song- that's the piano Paul used for the famous David Frost clip of "Hey Jude" and I believe he played it on "Fool On The Hill". I wish I had a copy of that "Recording The Beatles" book here, I could be more accurate. I'll double check what I'm nattering on about and correct any mis-statements.
Next up: guitars. Martin had brought his beautiful Gibson Chet Atkins- his main guitar from his Boo Radleys days- and I brought a tuner (I know my British indie musicians, they always show up without a tuner) and my new janglebox. The janglebox is a little compressor with a treble boost that sounds like instant Roger McGuinn on a Ric 12 string. I've found it to be more interesting on other guitars, actually. Anyway, plugged the guitar into the janglebox and into a Fender amp Martin had borrowed. By this time, he and Rob had retired to the canteen to watch the Liverpool/Arsenal match so I went down to see if he fancied playing some guitar. He was very generous and said "You should just do it. You know the part, I would only be copying what you do or it would take me hours to come up with something." He had shown me a different voicing for the F- chord in Badfinger Bridge earlier, so I felt like his input was there and I decided to just play the guitar parts. I kept the parts nice and simple and we got them down fairly quickly and at that point our 8 tracks of tape were full. Time to transfer to digical so we could carry on.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Compressor clarification from Charlle: " In fact it was the (UA/Teletronix) LA-2A which I chose for the vocals. The Altec did bass duty. Fairchild for overhead."
So, you see, I just make things up if I don't know. My only excuse is that the staircase up to the control room is awfully high and I was a bit light on oxygen by the time I got up there to look at compressors. Seriously, I bet those stairs really kept a lot of lippy artists from mucking up the production over the years. You have to really commit to an idea before you start that trek. Anyway, I think the Altec is the secret weapon in the Abbey Road mix. According to my (Roger's) Recording the Beatles book, everybody is always so crazy for the Fairchild that they overlook the Altec compressors that were used just as much. In my youth, I recall there being tons of old Altecs gathering dust in music stores, but of course now you can't find them for less than the cost of a good used car. The ones at Abbey Road were heavily modified by the technical staff in the early 60's and are still in working order.
Anyway, so it was time to do some of them pesky vocals. I had assumed that this would be the most time -consuming aspect of the session. I like my voice now, but I spent many years not really being able to control it and being insecure about it and those moments of self- doubt tend to pop up whenever I'm recording and hearing it back through cans. It's just such a claustrophobic, unnatural way to work and, if at all possible, I prefer to cut vocals without headphones and just use monitors in the control room, but I wasn't going to miss the chance to sing in the same room, on the same mics as the boys with the haircuts. So, as I say, I can get a little intimidated in a friendly casual studio, but imagine the possibilities of freaking out in the scenario I described. I mean, it's John Lennon's mic and I'm going to sing into it? The assistant engineer said that in the case of some of the mics, they could use the serial number to figure out which songs were sung on it. I was clear that I didn't want to know. I mean, don't tell me that it's the mic used on Happiness Is A Warm gun or something or I will be paralyzed. So, anyway, I says to Martin I says "This is no big deal, I'm just going to sing this song for a few friends, no trouble at all." and he agreed that I shouldn't be freaked out and should just do it. As it turned out, it was not a problem. I loved it, it felt fantastic. Charlie was very encouraging from on high and I sang two passes, he asked me to sing two spots over and comp'd a perfectly good vocal take in no time. I mean, what am I, Paula Abdul? I don't need hundreds of takes or anyone to sing my songs for me, I'll sing the fucker, right?
Just then, Ken Stringfellow's head appeared in the glass. I ran up to say hello (huffing and puffing) and thank him for coming down to visit. We spoke for a few minutes while Charlie tidied up the editing and by the time I asked ken if he would sing on the song, he has pretty much worked out a part in his head. He mentioned that he had to catch a train to Paris and only had a little bit of time, but he nailed his vocal in about 15 minutes. He's a real serious singer, sounds just like the guy who sang on all those Posies songs I listened to a million times. He really gets into his singing, waving his arms around and rocking on his heels- but with great mic technique. Total pro, super duper nice guy, made his train with time to spare.
Somewhere around this point, Darcey and Harrison showed up for a visit. they had been to the Museum Of Natural History to look at Dinosaurs and came to see what Daddy was up to. I was very happy to see them both and told Charlie that I'd like to wheel a bed into the studio for Darcey and mic it up in case she had any ideas or comments for the songs. The studio walls groaned at the memory.
Preposterous as it seems, my little monkey man got his chocolate fingers on every piece of gear he could reach. Martin was taking tons of photos the whole day (it will be a miracle if you can't hear his shutter on the vocal tracks, but let's just call that an homage to "Girls On Film") and he's got shots of Harrison moving faders on the Neve board (and at one point while I sang, Charlie stopped me to say "someone, someone very small, has just put your tracks in solo and I lost my place.") He had quite a good bash at the drums, too. Yes, it's an incredibly expensive studio, but if the wee man wants to play drums, what better place than Abbey Road? He also had a fine time pushing our effects pedals around and making car sounds. Martin's vintage Couloursound tone bender? Yellow car, according to my little friend. He gave me a good talking to for playing the guitar so loud, too. One of his shows, Pinky Dinky Doo, has a character named Bobby Boo, so I was happy for him to meet the real Bobby Boo. When it was time for Darcey to take H back to the hotel, I asked the front desk to call a car for them and a black Mercedes sedan showed up. Well, if you're gonna ride..
Earlier in the evening, we had turned off the white lights and put on the colored lights in the studio for more of a vibe. The old mics and the other gear really looked beautiful with purple backlighting. Also getting lit was dear Martin who had returned to the canteen for beers. I coaxed him out to sing some backgrounds and took some photos of him for a switch. Nobody makes me laugh as hard as him, I was howling at the one- sided commentary while tracking his vocal. He would sing a line and then yell "Should I sack it? Sack the vocal?" It's a Liverpool thing, he's explained to me that if you're walking down the street In L'Pool wearing a hat, rotten kids will yell "Sack the hat, mate" at you- or whatever it is about your appearance they can mock. Anyway, he's funny, trust me. He always has this thing that he's just an instinctual musician and not technically proficient, but I've seen him be very skilled and I call shenanigans on that idea. He laid down his backing vocal and doubled it in about 20 minutes and then we got Ed to sing his before he had to run off back to his lair near Primrose Hill. Trust me children, it's 1967 in Ed's trousers. I love him. In fact, I said to Martin "I love Ed. let's take him somewhere and just be with him."
By this point, we had two songs 90% finished with just a few instruments I'd like to add at home. There was about 40 minutes left, so I asked drummer Rob to track another song, "Sgt. Sunshine", a short XTC-ish number. We had a couple of bashes at it and once I said the magic phrase: "Teenage Fanclub", we were able to track basics for it and decided to call it a night. We all had one last stare at the studio and I thanked everyone profusely. It was a magical day for me, totally ruined me for recording anywhere else. I just want to record there every day forever. Martin and I had a wee cuddle on the front steps- I couldn't even find the proper words to thank him for putting it all together for me- and took a photo under the Abbey Road sign on the door. Then I clicked my heels together 3 times and woke up in Kansas. The band, not the state.
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