Vinyl is still the listening format of choice for some consumers. However, using it as a recording format is more of a challenge!
The resurgence in the popularity of the vinyl record continues. The annual Record Store Day has become an event for which both new and established artists feel moved to produce exclusive seven-inches and LPs, and the 180g, typically double 12-inch release of any major new album is now seen as the connoisseur buyer's choice. Taking this fascination one step further is Nitin Sawhney, whose next release, One Zero, is a five-record, vinyl-only box set, with an impressive twist: its 17 tracks were recorded entirely live and, forgoing any tape or digital media, were cut directly to vinyl.
"It was an interesting thing to me 'because, as somebody who DJs a lot, I'm a massive vinyl fan,” says Sawhney. "When I was a kid, I used to really get excited about holding a piece of vinyl in my hands and looking through the artwork and the sleeve notes. So the whole concept of doing something direct to vinyl, really recording old-school, was quite a challenge.”
The idea was first floated when Sawhney was talking to Ian Brenchley, the managing director at Metropolis Studios in West London. Nearly 10 albums into his career, the musician, renowned for his fusion of Indian influences with elements of jazz and dance music, was looking for a project that could simultaneously revisit his past and point the way forward. As such, One Zero features reworkings of older compositions such as 'Homelands' and 'Tides' alongside new songs 'Accept Yourself' and 'I Ask You', the latter performed by Joss Stone. "I thought this would be a good way to actually do a past, present and future unplugged thing,” Sawhney says, "and to celebrate it on vinyl.”
At root, the project harks back to the pre-war period, when there was no other way to achieve good recording quality. Following the end of WWII, magnetic tape became the standard recording medium for its practicality, but there were still a few audiophile engineers who chose to cut live to disc, most notably Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga of Sheffield Lab. The last time such an endeavour was attempted was by US soul singer Thelma Houston, on her 1975 Sheffield album I've Got The Music In Me. "She did eight tracks, and I think they did them over three days,” Sawhney explains. "What we were trying to do was crazy, in a way, because we were doing 17 tracks in literally one sitting, including getting a guest like Joss Stone to come in and record this brand-new track.”
As a technical undertaking, One Zero was to prove a hugely ambitious affair, presenting a number of challenges for Sawhney's regular studio mixer/live engineer David McEwan and Metropolis mastering engineer Stuart Hawkes. The former explains that initial preparations for the recording with the nine-piece band were done off-site, in the 50-metre-square live room in at the Dairy in Brixton.
"We brought in enough equipment so that everyone could have their own stereo mix,” McEwan says. "Mainly to get them used to being on headphones and rehearsing and performing in a studio environment. Most of the guys are probably more used to live, and although they're used to in-ears, the headphone thing was quite different. It was just getting everyone to lock, with the drums isolated, where the eye contact wasn't as good as you'd normally have on a stage. It was getting everyone used to that separation, I guess.”
"The rehearsals at my studio were just to make sure that the band was as tight as it could be,” says Sawhney. "Just really making sure that we could literally deliver all the tracks in a single take. Because even if one of the musicians is not playing at their very best, it's a real issue. It was just about getting everyone up to speed.”
On April 5th, the day before the actual recording, the band and crew began setting up in the 90-metre-square live room in Metropolis Studio A. First of all, David McEwan and Metropolis chief engineer Sam Wheat isolated Martyn Kaine's kit in the 'dead' room. "I guess the interesting thing was what Nitin wanted to do with the drums,” says the former. "We weren't using a real kick drum, we were using an old leathery, plastic-y tom case. It does present a lot of problems, in that to get the best sound out of it, you have to mic it from the beater side. So I put a [Shure] 52 on the beater side, and then on the back side about two feet away, I had a Sennheiser MKH40. It can sound quite hip-hop, quite Timbaland when you get the EQ right. Nitin didn't want the drums to take up so much space [in the mix], so Martin predominantly played with brushes and rods.”
For the rest of the drum miking, McEwan chose Shure SM57s on top and bottom of the snare, and Neumann KM84s for overheads. "Unfortunately, even though Martyn plays quite lightly,” says McEwan, "the drums did actually spill into the main room. We had four large condenser mics for vocals in that room, so it was very hard to lock down the ambience. Nitin wasn't concerned, but I was constantly trying to make it less ambient. Nitin was like, 'Look, it's a live thing, let's just embrace it.' So that's the way it went.”
Elsewhere, the engineers placed tabla player Aref Durvesh in Studio A's stone room. "It worked quite nicely,” says McEwan. "We put the Sennheiser MKH40 right in the middle of his tabla. He has a mic inside his bayan that I also use for a little bit of sub, which is an old Audio Technica Pro 35. Then I just had a 57 on the dholak, and we used a [Shure] SM7 on his vocals on 'Breathing Light'.”
Having only two isolation rooms at their disposal forced the team to put the two cello players on the session, Ian Burdge and Danny Keane, out on the live-room floor, where they were miked with Coles 4038 ribbons. "Normally, when we tour, we would only have Ian on cello,” McEwan says. "Danny deps for Ian quite a lot. They're both amazing cello players, so I think it was a good move of Nitin's to bring Danny in as well. Danny basically picked up all the bass parts and Ian did all the bowing parts. Normally, Ian would switch between playing bass and bowing parts. So they had a solid bass playing all the way through, which was really good because quite often in gigs, suddenly the lower end will disappear because Ian will go to bowing. This was just a nice way of having someone playing bass throughout, really, and having the lushness of a cello bowing on top.”
The most complex setup in the live room was Sawhney's, comprising four different guitar configurations — his workhorse being a nylon-string acoustic with an LR Baggs pickup system. "That's quite a lovely sounding guitar, very unique,” says McEwan. "It has a non-DI pickup sound to it, which is great. But I did blend that with his Sontronics ribbon mic that we brought in. The DI was through an Avalon U5 [preamp]. Then acoustic guitar two is a nylon string as well, which is an open tuning to 'C', miked with the same mics and into an Avalon U5. On 'Accept Yourself' he played sort of John Martyn-style fingerpicking on a steel-string Guild guitar, with an amp channel just for a bit of a grit. Then we had electric guitar for one track, called 'Longing', which is a Telecaster going through a Vox AC30 with a bit of grit, miked up with a [AKG] 414.”
As well as his guitars, Sawhney also played Metropolis's Fazioli grand piano. "It was apparently owned by Freddie Mercury,” McEwan says. "A really nice-sounding piano. I used two Royer R121 ribbons on it. They just work. I have to do so little. I only own one of those, so it was nice to be able to use a pair on the piano.”
Fronting the group were three female singers — Rahel, Tina Grace and Nicki Wells — positioned in a line in the live room, alongside Ashwin Srinivasan on Bansuri flute and vocals. "Ashwin travels especially from Mumbai most times we do a gig,” McEwan explains. "He's a very, very important member of the band, he adds this fantastic flavour. I put a Neumann U47 in front of him and we baffled him off as much as we could because of the nature of the flute, it definitely carries. He sat between the cellos and the rest of the vocalists.
"Nicki's quite unique in that she's a white girl who sings Indian. We used a U47 on her as well. Then Rahel we had with a U67, which I love actually. I dunno, the U47 is supposed to be the best vocal microphone in the world and it's nice, but I thought the 67 was a much nicer-sounding microphone — it was just more full-bodied and warmer and more present and more direct for me. So I had the same again on Tina Grace.”
"You've got singers who can do things that no-one else in the world can do,” says Sawhney. "Nicki Wells can sing in Hindi and English equally well, and Tina Grace can sing in six different languages fluently. So you've got people who are just really exceptional at what they do.”
McEwan admits, however, that when preparing for Joss Stone, the team were running out of options in terms of microphones. "So I just used a good old U87, which worked quite nicely. She got quite lively. You do sometimes hear her in the rest of the mics. She's got a belter of a voice and we'd run out of baffling and isolation, so we just had to roll with it, really.”
The major problem that surfaced on the Friday before the actual recording on the Saturday was the monitoring setup for each of the musicians. In trying to give each of the nine an individual monitor mix, the team quickly realised that they'd used up all of the outputs on Studio A's SSL 9072 J-series desk. In the end, they brought in a Digico SD11 digital desk to handle the monitoring. "They're very fussy people and they need to hear what they need to hear and not be sharing a mix,” says McEwan. "So, including Joss Stone, we had 10 stereo mixes running, split from the SSL's multitrack outs.”
Once fully set up, McEwan began to shape the sounds on the SSL, which he confesses he hasn't had much experience of working with. "I love SSL EQ, but I found the compressors a little unruly,” he says. "But it's just getting used to them, to be honest with you. I don't always get to use those larger consoles, particularly SSL, 'cause I'm more used to Neve and working in the box. Metropolis have got a lot of nice outboard — their API pres we used, and we had some Shadow Hills pres as well.”
In working live to vinyl, McEwan had to be careful with peaks in the high end on the vocals, processing them through a chain of Universal Audio 1176 compressors and Maselec de-essers. "I had the Maselec Prism mastering [EQH2] EQ across the mix, along with the SSL bus compressor. With the EQ across the mix, I took out the cumulative 200Hz thing, because it ended up being quite roomy. I notched a bit of that out and put a bit of air in on the high end, around 10k, just a little sparkle. I didn't over-compress, 'cause I knew that Stuart upstairs was doing his thing.”
Two floors above Studio A in the mastering suite, Stuart Hawkes was already beginning to work on the live stereo feed he was receiving. "I'm up here just getting a feel for what the music's doing,” he says. "How it's peaking, anything that I feel is going to cause a problem when going straight to vinyl. 'Beause normally when you're cutting a record, you play it many times, so you're sure it's not gonna distort or jump and it's going to fit on. Whereas obviously when you're cutting live to vinyl, you don't know what you're going to get until you actually hit the piece of vinyl. So you can take a good run-up to it, listening to the rehearsals as many times as you can to get a feel for it. But on the actual performance, when everyone says, 'Right, this is the real thing,' it often changes slightly.”
Normally Hawkes uses a digital SADiE system for playback, editing and recording. In this case, it was, of course, redundant. "Nearly all of the time I use analogue equipment to master a record, even if it's from a digital source,” he says. "What was different about doing this was that I'd get the analogue feed come up, and that goes through the Metropolis-built mastering desk, where you can insert analogue EQs, compressors, limiters, stereo width control, all sorts of things. I control the sounds in the analogue domain. So what you're doing on the rehearsals is seeing how it peaks, and if it's too peaky, putting some compression on to try to contain it.”
The live context meant that Hawkes had to employ his Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe in a different way from usual. "The main difference, really, with cutting a record live, is that you have to cut using what's called Fixed Pitch,” he says. "Over the years, a computer was put onboard the cutting lathes that tells the lathe, 'This is what's coming up.' And then the actual music that cuts onto the vinyl is digitally delayed, for only a second or so. But it just gives the lathe a bit of time to open up and close, so that when it's a quiet passage, the grooves bunch up and they're sitting nice and close to each other. They're not using too much what we call 'land' across the disc. So they're all bunched right up, and then when a great big bass note suddenly comes in, it sees it coming, it gives it time for the grooves to open up to allow a bass note to hit. If you imagine a wave frequency like the tail of a tadpole or something, it flickers left and right, so it needs room to flicker with the bass. So the grooves have to open up.
"That's how you normally cut a record. But of course without digitising the actual signal, 'cause you're cutting live, what you have to put in place is a Fixed Pitch groove, so there's no opening up or closing down, it's just going across at a fixed rate with enough 'land' in between the grooves to allow for anything that's loud. It doesn't cause any problems if you've got your maths right. You know what your ceiling volume is that you can go to safely without the grooves potentially crashing and overcutting. Also, if you're going across a fixed pitch, you know exactly how long that side can be at its maximum length until you get to the end of the record and up it pops.”
Originally, the plan was to cut each side over 12 minutes at 33rpm, but at the last minute, the decision was made to cut eight-and-a-half-minute sides at 45rpm. "Then we started the day and found out that some of the sides were nearly 10 minutes long!” says Hawkes. "So you have to start quickly doing the maths again and finding out how you can squeeze things on. Turn it down a bit, close the grooves. It's a bit seat-of-your-pants. Cutting it at 45 is technically better. You'll get closer to the original sound.”
Hawkes says that for One Zero he had to do very little in terms of tweaking the signal being sent to him from the studio. "I had my Shadow Hills compressor over the whole mix, because it just gives a certain sound that I like. It was really cosmetic. No real limiting as such, because it was unnecessary: just a bit of EQ, sort of broadening the stereo a bit. Getting the volume right was one of the crucial things. The mastering process with a project like this is really trying to capture what comes out of the studio as well as possible.”
On the morning of Saturday April 6th, the musicians and engineers regrouped at Metropolis for the day of the actual recording. The plan was that everyone would do a live run-through cutting to vinyl to create safety copies, before an audience was invited into the control room of Studio A for the actual session. To synchronise the start times of each vinyl side, the team employed a system using three analogue clocks: one in the drum booth, one in the studio control room and one in the mastering suite. "We'd say, 'OK, let's go on the next top of the minute',” says David McEwan. "I thought I was just gonna be there to mix. But I ended up feeling like the director, 'cause Nitin's looking at me going, 'How long?' And I'm like, 'OK, 45 seconds, 30 seconds.' Our faders were down at this moment and Sam [Wheat] would basically push up the main fader right as we hit the top of the minute, so we had a nice clean start. We did pretty well. I think we only had to throw away maybe three pieces of lacquer — 'cause if you messed up in the middle of a side, you had to start again.”
"The afternoon was also a rehearsal for the engineering side,” says Sawhney. "So from that point of view, there weren't many of those cuts that sounded as good as the ones that happened in the evening. By and large, we used the evening performances.”
"Everyone was a little bit more relaxed in the evening, because we knew we had one set in the bag,” says Hawkes. "If everything else went wrong, we had one.”
The tracks were recorded two at a time to make up each side of vinyl, with an automation 'snapshot' on the SSL taken to set the levels for the first song. The tricky part came with the five-second gap between songs, where the team — not trusting the moving faders to be fast enough to make the level changes in such a short snatch of time — had to very quickly make the changes manually. "I'd know which channels we were muting and what the fader positions were gonna be for the next track,” says McEwan. "I mean, it makes you respect how the guys used to do it in the old days before automation and computers.”
In practice, on the day, there were only a few small accidental problems that forced takes to be aborted. "It was just little things,” says McEwan. "One of them was a mobile phone, unfortunately, which we think might have been upstairs. We had that typical mobile phone kind of interference, and Nitin's guitar is a bit of a beacon for that. One of them was quite funny — Aref's headphones came off in the middle of his tabla solo, so I actually want to get that piece of lacquer and put it in a frame and give it to him. He just cracked up laughing in the middle of the take. Then there were a couple where Nitin thought it could be better. One track called 'River Pulse' is very demanding on Nitin as a guitarist and I think he felt that one of his takes was better than the other.”
"'River Pulse' is a very tough piece of music to play,” Sawhney says. "I mean, any guitarist who tries playing it will see what I mean. It's also very precise rhythmically. There were a lot of demands on some of these tracks.”
For Sawhney, one of the highlights of the Saturday evening session was seeing the expressions of the audience members above him in the control room. "They're listening through the speakers they've got in there and, watching their reactions, even though you couldn't hear them, was fantastic. Just seeing their faces, and they were really excited. They'd all give me a big thumbs up and be clapping afterwards. That was really cool.”
At the time of these interviews, the test pressings of One Zero had yet to come back from the plant, so no-one involved had heard the finished vinyl version of the album. "What I have heard is the rough mixes that came off the desk,” says Sawhney. "So I'm very excited to hear the vinyl. Stuart played me some that he threw away, just to give me a sense of it. They sounded great. When we finished and we went through to the control room, David said, 'Let's never do that again.' But would I do it again? Yeah, I would, actually. I found it really challenging and rewarding, because I absolutely love vinyl.”
"Of course I would do it again,” McEwan laughs. "Because I know how I could make it better and, y'know, that's sort of like the drug of it, isn't it? That's why we do what we do.”
Many argue that vinyl is the perfect format for listening to music. But anyone who's ever cut any of their music to lacquer will testify that it colours the sound in different, and often sonically pleasing ways. "It's interesting,” says Stuart Hawkes. "It adds a distortion, and most people think distortion sounds like a terrible thing. You imagine nasty, crunchy, horrible, unpleasant sounds. But distortion can also be pleasant. Vinyl also adds space to things. The main thing you'll hear, when you listen to a digital version first and then something that's been cut, is that it sounds a bit wider, a bit more open and just more musical. And that's a sound that people like, obviously.”
As Hawkes points out, however, in live cutting, certain problems that may occur when cutting a record in the regular way might result in a performance being lost. "One problem, sometimes, is that when you're cutting into the lacquer, what you're cutting out gets sucked away down a tube, and that's a very precarious process that often goes wrong. If the swarf doesn't go down the tube, it collects around the cutting head, and it builds up and can actually catch fire. It's highly flammable. You can have smoke and flames coming out from the cutting head!”