Within Without, November 12, 1998

 

The Colour of EQing

Phill Brown - the man who engineered the last two Talk Talk albums plus the albums from Orang and Mark Hollis - reveals exclusively for Within Without some of the technical 'secrets' behind the recording of some of the most brilliant records in the history of music. He has produced/engineered a lot of major acts during the last four decades and he was the man behind the remastering of Talk Talk's EMI catalogue in 1997. Earlier this year he released the album AV1 together with artist Dave Allinson which featured a guest appearance by Mark Hollis.


I hope you can understand my ramblings, and it's of some use. It's a little involved explaining how Talk Talk records are made, because the recording approach, in my opinion, is quite unique, but here is a basic outline. Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock both took almost a year each to make, and Mark's solo album about seven months.

Spirit of Eden

I used no Dolbys, and we confined ourselves to equipment and microphones that were around prior to 1967 - Neumann U67, Neumann U48, Shure 57 and AKG C12a, recording to analogue. A few exceptions to our 1967 'time frame' included a Neumann 'Head' microphone and a set of 'contact' mics (for Lee's drums) and a Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape machine. Otherwise, where possible, we used relatively old-fashioned equipment. We all disliked the sound of the Solid State Logic (SSL) console and tried by-passing it whenever possible. We hired Neve and Focusrite mic amps and EQ units and plugged our mics directly into these units instead of the SSL. We only used the SSL as a monitor desk for our returns from the Studer and to feed headphones, monitors, etc. Once we had the backing tracks recorded for the six songs (working titles - 'Modell', 'Camel', 'Maureen', 'Norm', 'Inheritance', 'Snow in Berlin' and 'Eric'), we made safety copies and transferred our 24-track analogue masters to the Mitsubishi digital 32-track machine. We recorded them in the desired running order of the album and left approximately two minutes of clean tape between each song on side one. These gaps would be used later to record an intro and two 'link' sections. With the help of multi-track 'slave' reels, we began to build up our songs, adding electric guitars, dobro, acoustic 12-string guitar, piano, harmoniums, Hammond and percussion. We could run the whole of side one when overdubbing - 24 minutes at a time, bouncing down anything we wanted to keep to a new track. We mixed using only an old spring echo, an EMT echo plate, and a DDL. All sounds were obtained from source, with little or no added eq. All instruments recorded individually.

Laughing Stock

A more conventional '80's set-up..... We worked with a Studer A800 24-track machine with SR. Dolbys, at 30 inches per second to make editing easier. This time we used the SSL, but did not eq anything. After setting-up Lee's drums against the far wall of Wessex Studio 1, we hired a collection of valve mics including Telefunken U47, Neumann U48, M49 and a 'Tube'. These, along with the old Wessex collection, (two Neumann U48s and three AKG C12As) were carefully listened to before we decided on the rented Telefunken U47. The usual rock arrangement when miking up drums consists of about ten microphones all close to the kit - bass drum, snare, hi-hat, tom-toms, overheads, ambient etc. On 'Spirit of Eden' we had used the Neumann head, contact microphones, bass drum and snare mics. This time, however, we placed our single U47 mic 30 feet away from the kit near the control-room window. This miking distance caused a 26-32 millisecond delay and obviously caused problems.... Once we had our backing tracks, we did the same as Spirit, and made up Mitsubishi Digital masters. However this time we used many analogue slave tapes - 5 in all, giving us access to over 120 tracks, for recording ideas. We continued to overdub more and more instruments and textures including harmoniums, pianos, guitars, cellos, violas, double bass, percussion, harmonica, Melodica, drums, water heater, kettle, Hammond organ, and Variaphon. There was also sampling, looping, off-setting, and the odd backwards F/X. We mixed using only an old spring echo, an EMT echo plate, and a DDL. All sounds were obtained from source. All instruments recorded individually.

Spirit and Laughing were both recorded with distant miking techniques, i.e. six feet from acoustic instruments, and about twelve feet from amplifiers.

Mark Hollis

The original idea was to record the album in a similar way to a 1940/50's Jazz album. We decided on trying two valve microphones at the front of the studio room (classic approach, updated to stereo). We recorded everything on these two mikes, (again individually) without changing the e.q. - moving the musicians around the room to the required location in the final stereo - (in the '50s, one microphone would have been used, everyone would play live, and soloists would have stood up for extra volume). We finally settled on a crossed cardiord pair of M49's, at head height when sitting in a chair, at the front of Studio 1, at Master Rock Studios - in front of the control-room window. A stereo Urei 1176 was plugged across these mics, but with a setting of only a 1db reduction on peaks. These two mics were not touched for the whole of the four months recording. No eq, level or compression changes were made to these mikes. We wanted all the natural dynamics of the instruments. Again we recorded first to Studar analogue, and then synched up to a Mitsubishi 32 track digital. Like the previous albums we 'off-set' the tape machines and 'moved' instruments, or single notes, within our song structure. (Although the final results could have been achieved with samplers etc. Mark and I prefer this way of working, as you judge where to position things by listening and feel, and not by a visual cursor.)

Unlike Spirit or Laughing, there were demos of almost all the songs, it was easy to know where we were heading and what was required. The previous albums had been recorded by chance, accident, and hours of trying every possible overdub idea (during the recording of Laughing Stock we probably erased over 60% of what we had originally recorded). However, on Marks project everything was scored and written down. Again we mixed using only an old spring echo, an EMT echo plate, and a DDL, this time at AIR Lindhurst. It became a job of balancing our stereo pairs of instruments for level and continuity.

There seems to be a six seconds difference between the length of the remastered   and the original Such A Shame on It's My Life. If you play them side by side, nothing has been removed from the song, it has just been speeded up a little bit during the remastering. Why?

Not intentional. EMI could not find the original masters and I cut from a set of Production Masters' - one generation copy. The difference is down to tape machines and their playback speeds.

You've been involved with a lot of very different artists. Which music do you listen to yourself? Do you like Talk Talk at all?

I listen to a wide range of music that includes Beethoven, Sibelius, Messiaen, Morton Feldman, Neil Young, XTC, Ladysmith Black Mambozo, Tracy Chapman, The Vulgar Boatmen, Gregorian chants, Hendrix....The list is endless.

Yes I like Talk Talk. I was a huge fan of the Colour of Spring album, a classic '80's pop record. Spirit of Eden I find beautiful and calming. Laughing Stock is a different beast. I am very proud of the album, it's probably one of my best projects.... but I find it dark and claustrophobic. As to Mark's album, I think it is the opposite to Laughing - open, restful and at times fantastically beautiful. Talk Talk were quite unique, and Mark's writing always atmospheric.


Could you tell us a little about the AV1 project and your plans for the future?

Artist Dave Allinson and myself have now staged a collection of installations - including Circulation Darlington, The Cornerhouse Middlesborough, and this year's Edinburgh Festival, plus the release of the CD.

Voiceprint have asked for another project for release next year. We are currently looking for sponsorship and mailing Art's councils. It's time for the project to move up a gear!!!! We would like to stage something at this years' Medem.

What are you working with at the moment?

I am currently working with Rollo and remixes for Faithless, Kawala and Rob Deacon plus we have just started a 'Chill-out' album. I hope to be working on an album with The Walkabouts in the States in January. This is a connection made through Norway band Midnight Choir (huge Talk Talk fans) who tracked me down a couple of years back. Album just released, produced by Chris Eckman who is guitarist and writer for The Walkabouts.


Phill Brown - short biography :

ASSISTANT ENGINEER OLYMPIC STUDIOS 1967-1968
JUNIOR ENGINEER REVOLUTION 1969-1970
ENGINEER ISLAND STUDIOS 1970-1976
FREELANCE 1976-

1990's:
FAITHLESS - SUNDAY 8PM
SKINNY - THE WEEK-END
MARK HOLLIS - 1st SOLO LP
THROWING MUSES - UNIVERSITY
KRISTIN HERSH - HIPS AND MAKERS
TALK TALK - LAUGHING STOCK

1980's:
TALK TALK - SPIRIT OF EDEN
EAT - SELL ME A GOD
PAUL ROBERTS - KETTLE DRIM BLUES
CHINA CRISIS - FLAUNT THE IMPERFECTION
KING - STEPS IN TIME
KING - BITTER SWEET
PAUL CARRACK - NIGHTBIRD

1970's:
ROXY MUSIC - MANIFESTO
STEVE WINWOOD - 1st SOLO LP
ROBERT PALMER - SNEAKIN' SALLY THROUGH THE ALLEY
ROBERT PALMER - PRESSURE DROP
ROBERT PALMER - SOME PEOPLE CAN DO WHAT THEY LIKE
ROBERT PALMER - DOUBLE FUN
JOHN MARTYN - ONE WORLD
BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS - BURNIN'
BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS - LIVE AT THE LYCEUM
JOAN ARMATRADING - TO THE LIMIT
ALEX HARVEY -  STORIES
JEFF BECK - ROUGH AND READY
HARRY NILSSON - NILSSON SCHMILSSON

1960's:
TRAFFIC - MR FANTASY
TRAFFIC - 2nd ALBUM
SMALL FACES - OGDEN'S NUTGONE FLAKE
ROLLING STONES - BEGGARS BANQUET
STEVE MILLER - SAILOR
JOE COCKER - 2nd ALBUM
JIMI HENDRIX - ELECTRIC LADYLAND



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