It’s fast becoming my generations stock explanation – “it happened on Twitter”.
Let me explain. I was in Boston performing a concert of solo cello and interactive electronics music back in March 2009, when @bowers_wilkins started following me and we started talking. I remember it well – it was raining, I was jet lagged and drinking coffee in Starbucks on Boylston; it was concert day…
In the months that followed, the tweets turned to coffee and the coffee turned to contracts – it was decided: I would and record an album for the Society of Sound! I was chuffed – being an aspirational audiophile, I was excited to produce something that, by its own commissioning blurb, would have to add to “a unique library of stunningly recorded music”.
After my first lunch visit to Real World Studios in Box, rural Wiltshire (featuring the now legendary soup, baked potato and salad), dates were confirmed, engineers met and mic ideas and album concepts discussed.
That was October 12th. Recording started on October 20th, so there was a lot of work to be done!
Producer and co-composer Milton Mermikides and I set to work as soon as we got back to London – at that time, the only fixed piece was Steve Reich’s mammoth Cello Counterpoint, and the other pieces you will hear on the album were but twinkling sketches in my compositional eye, so there was plenty of work to be done, and not that much time!
Having written, edited and recorded guide tracks for the 6 new pieces, we arrived at Chippenham train station in time to catch dinner and last orders at the local pub.
We started bright and early at 9am. The the first morning being spent choosing microphones, seat positions and raiding the biscuit cupboard – getting all the essentials in place before cracking on with the Steve Reich.
The keen microphone enthusiast will recognise the Neumann binaural head in the middle of the room: this remained in a constant position throughout the recording, while the combination of close mics (pictured above) moved with my trusted green chair to the variously spaced positions. This allowed us to record all the detail and subtleties of the part writing in Cello Counterpoint, the octet written in 2003 that Reich himself claims to be “one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written”.
To really hear the positioning and interplay between the parts, listen on headphones – it’s all as it happened in the room; the balance between parts was barely touched in the mix, as this mic combination allowed me to play accurate dynamics on each pass and there was no additional panning!
Once we had finished recording and editing the Reich, (pictured above, me in my comfy sofa, score following), we turned our attention to recording the other pieces.
A cunning combination of caffeine, Greg Freeman’s mad engineering skills plus discovering that 18 hour days are actually possible meant we got all the tracks done… except we hadn’t mixed them.
So, when Amanda Jones from Real World records came in on the final Saturday night for the play through, we rather sheepishly had to explain that we had spent the entire time recording and hadn’t left enough time to fairly polish it up. We played what we had, and two weeks later, we were back at Real World for an intense burst of mixing!
By this point, a game of Scrabble with breakfast was standard protocol; some members of staff would come and offer me advice, others would simply offer to make the coffee. Being resident at Real World spoils you, and I am slightly apprehensive about going to a non-Scrabble-tolerant studio.
But on with the mix.
We decided, unlike with the recording, to start with the new Gregson/Mermikides tracks, as they had the most “creative” mixing to do; playing with reverbs, EQs, vocoders, pitch shifters, ring modulators, plates, springs, tapes, plugins… and the rest. Tapes? Oh yes.
A perfectly good tape delay setting had been made on a plugin in preparation for the mix. It worked, it sounded good and more importantly, using the plugin was one less thing to have to do “on the clock”! When Greg saw this, he looked ill – “no, hang on”, he said.
Five minutes later, he came into the Production Room triumphantly wheeling a great big Studer tape machine. We spent the rest of the day making tape delays, playing with varispeeds, feedback loops and I learned how slow you can make it go before it stops very loudly and embarrassingly.
There are a lot of wide influences in the production of this album; the oscillating triplety gated electric cellos at the very start of “-” were initially influenced by Peter Gabriel’s gated guitar used on the Wall-E soundtrack; the high shrieking sounds in “Flight Path” were made by pitchshifting a reversed and pitchshifted pizzicato sample, which was then harmonized. This was all done to sound, bizarrely, like a bit of a Rihanna record that I particularly like.
Orb was recorded in the extreme positions of the binaural room setup, cello spot 1, 4, 5 and 8 (giving hard left, two distanced central positions for the melodies and hard right). This, like with Cello Counterpoint, was very simple to mix because the balance was played in the room, but we spent a lot of time finding just the right cello sound and playing with reverbs. In the end, this piece was put into Mechanics Hall, Worcester MA – for those of you that read the sleeve notes, you’ll maybe know that this is where Sony record most of their string music, specifically cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It’s just a stunning hall, so it seemed appropriate to use their reverb!
There are other moments where, in order to get a real sense of depth, we were doubling things in octaves. This can sound pretty clunky, so we got creative on where the octave lives – sometimes it’s direct, sometimes it’s only in the reverb, sometimes it’s pushed into another effect… sometimes it was taken out entirely! This is particularly prevalent in Spin, which is a totally live performance – the delay was made in a fabulously complicated plugin that had all the frequency modulations, panning information and pitchshifts pre-programmed, so that I went in with my electric cello and we pressed record..! Actually, the only thing that was overdubbed are the high gliss sounds – recorded on bonfire night, it turns out you are be influenced by external noises..!
Perhaps my favorite sound on the entire album comes at 2:05 – that bubbling sound in the reverb is something Greg did in the mix and wouldn’t tell me what it is, so if anyone knows, please drop me a line!
To keep it in the nerdy realm for a moment, Dark Light was originally started as this pre-Reich meditation. It ended up as this cinematic deluge of sound design and intricate detail… For example, the mega-bass rumble at 1:29 is just a reversed cello pizz with everything taken out and repackaged but sounds epic. All those weird hits, scrapes and noises that appear regularly? Yes, that’s a cello drum kit. We sampled all sorts of sounds and made them into a MIDI instrument, which I then played on my MIDI cello. Harmonically, this piece is seriously simple, but there is a lot of detail to be heard under the music “surface”.
After Cello Counterpoint, comes +. Nominally inspired by Lost+ by Coldplay, I loved the idea of extending an existing piece and then making it its own animal.
The first chord of + is the same as the final chord of Cello Counterpoint, but that’s where the similarity ends. It’s an elegy with no protagonist; it never quite resolves, which is quite a sad state of affairs in the microcosm of this album. Like with Orb and Cello Counterpoint, mixing this was pretty straightforward. The key thing was to allow enough space for each part to come through. It’s largely about the reverb choices, and it’s a mixture of plate reverb on the background, with the top gently pushed through a cathedral.
Instrumentally, it’s a bold 50/50 split between electric and acoustic cellos – normally, I would use acoustic for exposed solo work and the electric for detailed tweaking, but in this case, it’s a real mixture. Can you tell which is which?!
Every single sound you hear on this album was made by a cello. Sometimes, yes, heavily processed, but a cello nonetheless.
It was a real joy spending so much time with all the fabulous people at Real World and to produce this music for the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound. Looking back on the seven days I spent there, I don’t know how many hours we spent in those rooms, but it’s well over 100 – they went by in a flash! We left tired but happy and raring to go on the next project!