Recording Ed Harcourt by Abbey Road engineer Pete Hutchings

Ed Harcourt, Back Into The Woods

Recorded in six hours straight, these production notes by Abbey Road engineer Pete Hutchings explain how he set about recording Ed Harcourt’s pared-back and beautiful new album, Back Into The Woods:

“When I first spoke to Ed about making the album there wasn’t actually an album to be made. The idea spawned from a late night chat with Ed at Abbey Road Studios, about how great it would be to make a really stripped back, no thrills, honest album. Ed was playing one of the pianos in Studio One when the idea came about, and I think it’d be fair to say that the reason for this album existing was largely due to the inspiration he drew from the studio itself. Right there and then Ed came up with ideas for some of the tracks. There was a real purpose to what he was writing and clear vision to what this album was going to be about.

By the time a month had gone by Ed had written all the tracks, sent me demos and we were due to start recording. We had one last minute late-night session booked in Abbey Road Studio Two so time really was of the essence. We both wanted to record the album in track order, that way we’d both treat making the record with a greatly enhanced dynamic perspective. I knew that nine piano songs all sounding the same could risk sounding repetitive to listeners, no matter how beautiful, so I set up three pianos, the RT3 Hammond organ, the Abbey Road celeste, Ed’s Ampeg guitar amp, vocal mics and a small string set up for ‘Lil Bruiser’. The set up was done before Ed started playing anything; I knew his first takes were most likely going to be the master takes.

The first piano was the Abbey Road Studio Two Concert D Grand Piano. I used a pair of C12s very close to the strings and a pair of Schoeps MK2Hs about 8 feet away from the piano and 8 feet high. The second piano was an old Challen famously used by the Beatles, a very soft warm piano, and my own personal favourite. This was just used on the opening and finishing tracks “The Cusp and the Wane” and “The Man That Time Forgot”.

It was such a beautiful way to start and finish the record. I used U47′s behind the piano and kept the lid closed to capture as much of the resonance of the piano as possible. Ed’s vocal was a U47 going through a Fairchild 660. The guitar amp had a pair of Sm57s, one on axis, one off axis, summed together to get a much fuller tone. I would have also used the piano ambiance mics when recording the guitar. All the mics were going through the Neve 88RS pre amps with some desk EQ straight to tape.

So once set up we would have a very brief chat about the track we’re about to record and simply get on with it. Ed has a real gift for performing so the takes were always going to come fast. He would put two, maybe three takes down and then we’d agree on the best take, have a quick listen back and maybe comp two takes together. Perhaps a middle 8 was better in another take so I’d edit that in, but that was it and I think that only happened on 2 tracks. No vocal editing was needed whatsoever, and we couldn’t do vocal overdubs as the piano mics were picking up as much vocal as the vocal mic was! Basically we had to get it right. Once the take was done we’d start overdubbing parts right away, get the track completely finished and then move on to the next track in the album. There was no going back or revisiting, which made everyone involved focus so much more. We had Ed’s wife and a friend of theirs play the violin and cello on “Lil Bruiser”. The rest was done by Ed. All the piano, apart from the first and last track, was played on the Steinway so as the night went on I’d make changes to try and colour a song in a character that better suited how Ed was performing.  All in all, the entire record took just six hours to record.

We then spent the next night mixing it. I went to Ed’s studio and we did exactly the same thing as recording – just mixed from the start to the finish of the album in track order. The mix was done in the box, which I think works brilliantly as all the signal paths had already been treated in the analogue world. The only mixing we did was bits of reverb using TL space, mainly a plate and a chamber, a little more EQ and fader balance. Nothing complicated, as we loved how everything was sounding in the rough mixes. In fact, the final track we used for “Murmur In My Heart” was the rough live desk mix. Very little processing on the mix buss, just a touch more EQ. Ed then mastered the album to tape which added the final warmth to this record.”

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