To celebrate the launch of Peter Gabriel’s New Blood album, and its exclusive Society of Sound sibling, Half Blood, we have an interview with famed Peter Gabriel engineer, Dickie Chappell.
Situated under a leafy canopy on the edge of Real World Studios is Peter Gabriel’s writing room. Here we catch up with his engineer Dickie Chappell with a view to finding out about this month’s Society of Sound release.
Hi, my name’s Dickie Chappell and I’m currently Peter Gabriel’s engineer here at Real World and we’ve just finished our latest project which is a record called ‘New Blood’ which is using Peter’s voice to sing almost in an operatic way with an orchestra.
Where were the orchestra recorded and what size and layout was used?
We would have loved to have done the recording here at Real World Studios. We did a lot of the arrangements and orchestration between Real World and Peter’s studio in London and actually tried to do some of the recording with the orchestra to begin with actually in peter’s house but we kept increasing the number of players until even the large room that we’ve got in London wasn’t big enough.
In the end we opted for AIR Lyndhurst studios in Hampstead as we’ve worked there quite a few times before to do various soundtrack work. The hall there just sounds fantastic for the kind of thing we’re going for on this record, which is a very open, unprocessed and natural sounding orchestra. Peter has for years liked to treat things and turn things upside down, turn things in reverse and really play with sound and this project became a real discipline of just recording pure instruments.
It took a while when we did do the test recording in Peter’s house Bob Ezrin who was working with us at the time as a co-producer had an idea to set up the brass in front of the strings which at the time we thought might be quite interesting but it turned out that actually didn’t work at all so we learnt then to keep to a more traditional way.
In our normal layout we tended to have the violas opposite the first violins. All of the album arrangements were written by John Metcalfe with Peter. John is a viola player himself so there’s a lot of viola happening in the arrangements, a lot more than would normally happen. So there’s a lot of answering between violins and violas across the stereo in some ways. So it worked out really well to have the violas always opposite the smaller strings. Then woods are over to the upper left and horns just across from them with the basses central at the back. On the right was the brass section. Percussion gets added to taste when we mix to see what can go where. In a live position Joby, our percussion player, is right at the back but we tend to find that live percussion goes everywhere in the room so even though we did record the percussion at the same time he was in separate areas of the studio rather than mixed in the room otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to control it.
Is it essentially one take or were there any complex overdubs or experimentation taking place during the session?
There was a lot of preparation for these recordings. The process works like this: Peter comes up with an idea of the way the direction might go then John takes it away and does some live overdubs, which is a real strength for working with John. John will record his own violas and his own violins on top of something to demonstrate an idea the way he wants an arrangement to go adding samples as well to taste. Generally you’re dealing with an amazing sounding demo to begin with, which gives you a great understanding of the way something might go which would give Peter even more juice for creativity so that he would always be then changing voices and making it better and then John would go back and re-record and so on and we’d eventually get to these final arrangements. So when we got to AIR, we’re dealing with a very expensive room and a very expensive set of musicians so once it was done, it was pretty much done.
This was a learning process so we did a record a year before which was a covers record called Scratch My Back, which was with the same orchestra basically. Moving on from that we started to do this new recording and we’d learnt from the way we’d done stuff at AIR before that we could organise the session in a faster way so John was always ready to start changing things when Peter had had a new idea. But most of the time nothing would change – it was done. Then it was just about listening to take after take and marking stuff and spotting noises and spotting tuning and the rest of it. All of us between myself, Steve our orchestral engineer at AIR, Scott the assistant, Olga the assistant and Peter and John, all of us together would really work to make sure we’d get the right takes.
Was there any influence on the standard make-up of the orchestra from Peter Gabriel’s interest in world musicians and instruments?
We begun with a set of rules because Peter likes rules particularly so that he can break them! But this was going to be an orchestral based record and kept very pure. Maybe we could add some reverb to it but there will be no other treatment involved, nothing strange involved with it and particularly no world instruments. That was a rule that Peter put down because he’s king of that kind of stuff so he wanted to create a very different sounding record.
Talking about the process side of it I’ve got a great friend Alan Mearson who works with Hans Zimmer who’s a fantastic engineer, I’ve learnt from him over the years. He mixed the first New Order record that I worked on and I’ve stayed in contact with him for a long time. He’s a real expert in working on the film side of things where they’re mixing samples with live takes and backwards and forwards and they create this huge, processed film sound which is fantastic for “Pirates” and all the films that they do. But for us we didn’t want that kind of sound so it was very much open, natural, slight use of EQ to boost parts, to boost the resonance of a particular chorus. We can go in and we can ride EQ’s to bring out certain frequencies that are musical. That kind of processing we would do but everything else would stay as natural as possible.
And that continued throughout the mixing process? You mentioned earlier that Peter Gabriel’s a big fan of Post Production, reversing, often applying a lo-fi style to the mixes but in this case did it just stay straight? Was it very fidelity conscious?
Peter is one of the ultimate perfectionists. So he’s perfectionist with his song writing and the way he’d work with his arrangements. So the arrangements would change a lot. It wasn’t like ‘let’s do an arrangement, let’s get each arrangement done’ that might take a few weeks and then we can go into the studio and that will take maybe a week and then we can mix in a week and we’ll be done. This was a process of a year of looking at arrangements again and again and again refining those arrangements and really listening to them and working with them and then booking the musicians and getting them in because we used basically, I would say, the best musicians in the world. They are like the cream of what you can get so you’ve got to really book those players in early. So the New Blood Orchestra is a real hybrid of some of the best quartet players in the country, if not the world.
They would come in and work with these arrangements that have been months and months in preparation and then we’d comp and then Peter would be listening to the comps and changing the comps and making that work. We are editing within takes to get the best performance out of it and then we start to mix and this mixing process takes months because it’s trying out different ways of hearing this orchestra. Yes we’re using a natural way of mixing but different ways of balancing the voice, different ways of making the orchestra sound either roomy or close or far away and then changing that throughout the mix to bring out different emotion. So yes, Peter’s really pushed and pushed this record until he’s got all of the juice out of it. It’s a good example of what this kind of artist can do with just a voice and an orchestra.
What are the main differences in mixing an instrumental version?
You just mute the vocal!
Is there anything that takes over from the vocal? Do you start looking for lead lines in the instrumentation and pull that out to create some focus?
No that’s not what it’s about. This record is essentially two records. It’s the vocal, orchestral, maybe operatic or new kind of hybrid record. On our last tour the bass player couldn’t stop talking about the fact that he really thinks this is a new form of music. Because it’s not classical, it is a different kind of thing and it’s not a rock record. You hear the songs in a certain way when you listen to the vocal but when the vocals are taken away and you’re left just with the instrumentals it’s just as valid if not in some ways even more so because you really get to hear the work that’s gone into this and the way that the harmony can come and go and the way that there’s so much space involved with this project. Peter’s renowned for filling things up and making things really busy and this record is a real sign of an artist maturing and being able to really step back and say no. He would sit down at the piano and reduce voices until they’d get right back to the minimum of whatever voicing that they could put in there. It is two records and the instrumentals really take you somewhere else. It’s a real journey to take by listening to each piece that way.
A lot of film directors have been listening to the instrumentals in the last few months and have been getting really excited about the atmosphere that’s there and the uniqueness of it. You’ve got Peter’s songs but you’ve got this amazing orchestra playing the songs and it’s like a whole……..it is like new blood; that’s why it’s called new blood as it’s a whole new take on what Peter’s back catalogue is full of; these amazing songs full of crazy harmony.
Can you give us a quick run down on the recording equipment used on this session from the microphone choices, the microphone techniques employed to the digital converters? Also the DAW used throughout this process?
So we made a decision to make this a Pro Tools record. I know that some people don’t even like the fact that some records are even made on Pro Tools but we made that decision because editing wise it would make it quicker and easier and we all speak that language. We were using Prism convertors all the time and so when we did the record we brought in our Prisms but also had to hire a whole bunch of extras. The main microphone pre-amps used were from the main Neve console and then additional mic pres that I brought in were all Millennia; all of the hybrid Millennia which are renowned for being a classical microphone amp. Some people have said in the past that Millennia are boring, they don’t sound of anything but I’ve started listening quite a lot more to it when I brought it back to the studio and I really like the sound of them.
Way back when we first rehearsed the New Blood Orchestra in Notting Hill we used a large church near Peter’s house and we really started to listen to what was going on with all the instruments in this fantastic acoustic there. In some ways I regret that we went anywhere else because the church there was big enough for rehearsal and we could have just brought a truck in.
When we were there listening to it we started to think about how we wanted to mic it up. Steve Orchard came along and we discussed what microphones to use. It was split between using the room mics; the standard orchestral room mics that AIR and big places like Abbey Road have are Neumann M50s and the main orchestral semi-ambient sound in the room comes from Neumann microphones. U87s on the violins, KM84s on the violas, TLM103s on the Celli and then the basses and horns were basically using U47s. The woods we’re using 4038s and then the brass had some Royers, more U47s, 4038s and some AEA ribbon microphones. So mainly going between the ribbons and the valves for anything that was being blown in the room.
Then Peter had this idea that everything had to be very close or wanted to have the option rather that he could bring the orchestra to a real close point sonically when we were mixing so I spoke to my friends at DPA about what they had going on because we’ve used their 4066 mics a lot in the past for close micing. They provided us with a whole bunch of 4066s and then these new mics the 4099s which more or less I used solely for the bass front pickups.
This record is about involving a lot of bass that we’re not creating artificially but we were using EQ and it’s down to basically where you can put those DPAs, particularly on to the bass and making sure you get it in the right place to get as much body and thump as you can. We were left with a mixing situation, which was fantastic so we’d have the rooms on a bunch of groups and then, because there’s different levels of room, we would mainly concentrate on the M50s, then the Neumanns, the semi open mics, next which is as far as the strings were concerned and then we had some mini DPAs which were on a whole bunch of other fader groups which you could bring up to get really close and finite by listening to lots of string noise and detail that way. It made for a very flexible situation, which we’ve now taken onto the road and in fact had to increase our road crew accordingly because we’ve got so many extra microphones. The orchestra sounds fantastic through PAs and also we’ve got some fantastic mixes out of it because we’ve got so much more flexibility by adding all of these microphones.
I think when you talk about the process at AIR Studios we were a bit of a nightmare for the staff because we had so many inputs going on. But it turned out to make a great sounding instrumental mix so we were really happy with it.
What speakers were used during this project and in particular the speakers the record was mixed on?
Mixing is an interesting situation with Peter as he likes to use lots of different speakers all the time, which he’ll reference to.
Often we’re using Mackie’s because it’s something Peter’s been used to for quite a long time now. He just really likes the amount of body and bass he can get out of those speakers. In addition to the Mackie’s we’ve got a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 805s that we use at our editing station for the really detailed work. To get a vibe in the room we’ve also got Bowers & Wilkins 801s. In addition to that when we’re out with Peter we listen to the system in his Lexus and using this we seem to be getting a lot of similarity between what we’re hearing in the Lexus and what we’re getting from the 805s so I don’t know whether there’s something there that I don’t know about, tech-wise, but I thought there were a lot of parallels there.
Do you mix with any lo-bit rate formats in mind? So for instance Sonnex have just brought out their Fraunhofer Pro-Codec plug-in, which allows for real-time auditioning of alternate codecs and their varying bit-rates. Do you audition the mp3 format or check your mixes in iTunes and spotify?
We do. I have to, these days more and more, before it used to be check back the ½”, check the vinyl and check it when you get sent a CD but now it’s like checking it all over the place. I’m not a fan in anyway of any kind of compressed audio because it sounds terrible regardless of what ever Apple can do with anything crazy and lossless I just think it’s all about the higher the numbers the more you’re going to hear and it really pisses me off the amount of mp3 audio that’s around these days and ‘kids today’ all they’re doing is listening to this crazy compressed audio that when you really start to compare it with something that’s got anything that has a non-compressed source you just kind of go ‘what’. I’ve done it with younger friends that I have and I’ve played them music on speakers and on headphones and they can tell the difference when you start playing them something at 48, 96kHz and a screwed up mp3 format. I understand the uses of it for live streaming and everything else, I mean it’s useful but I just hate mp3. It depresses me, it makes me sad…..physically, it leaves me……I don’t feel happy.
But you do check the mp3?
Yes, you have to check it. You need to check it because you need to see what it does. I was just saying yesterday to the assistant that we needed to send something out for reference and just make sure you put it on mp3 because right now we still haven’t got a released product so just get it to sound as bad as you possibly can compression wise because it’s just there for a reference. That’s where the use of it as a kind of anti piracy tool comes in. That’s a way of doing things, that’s the way I see it but I just hate mp3.