NICK BRACEGIRDLE * RECORDING CHICANE'S 'DON'T GIVE UP'
Matt Bell talks to the man behind Chicane, and unravels the story of a Bryan Adams vocal mangled into anonymity by an unreliable vocoder, and a number one hit produced in a home studio without so much as a patchbay to its name.
Why are you reading this magazine? Given SOS's unashamedly specialist slant, it's a fair bet that you're a musician of some kind who gets a kick out of recording at home. And, let's face it, it's also highly probable that at some time or other, you've dreamt of having your tune warbled in off-key fashion by millions of casual listeners to the chart rundown every week, whistled poorly by tone-deaf milkmen strolling up garden paths all over the country, and layered (at no small financial gain to yourself, of course) over the latest ultra-hip series of TV ads for anything from mortgages to muesli.
Of course, popular music fashions come and go, and there are times when the chances of a project studio-based musician hitting the big time seem greater than at others. Right now, the omens seem good; there's Moby, for example, at number two in the album charts at the time of writing, reaping the rewards of years of beavering away alone in his home studio. And there's Chicane, whose recent number one, 'Don't Give Up' knocked Madonna from the top of the UK charts. But Chicane have been enjoying radio-friendly hits for years, and 'Don't Give Up' featured vocals from none other than blue-collar rock anthem generator Bryan Adams -- surely this has nothing to do with home-studio derived success, and everything to do with a market-researched, major-label-backed rock/dance project, the brainchild of someone in A&R thinking it would be 'fly' for Adams to 'go techno'?
If this is what you thought, think again. For the man behind Chicane, former graphic designer Nick Bracegirdle, runs his own record label, and licenses his work to another independent label, Xtravaganza, for release. And by the time you read this, his second album Behind The Sun will be in the shops -- an album he recorded on Cubase VST in his home studio, monitoring via a budget Spirit mixer and on speakers powered by a Technics hi-fi amp.
The last five years have been good to Nick Bracegirdle. One of three brothers classically trained in guitar and piano, he has been composing electronic music "with an emphasis on melody" for over 10 years, following teenage inspiration from the likes of Vince Clarke, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Vangelis. He first cracked the Top 20 in 1996 with 'Offshore', a trancy but laid-back instrumental which seemed to perfectly capture the post-Balearic mood of many clubbers returning from Ibiza. Over the past four years Nick has revisited the mainstream Top 20 several times, released his debut album Far From The Maddening Crowds, and turned his hand successfully to remixing, retooling tracks for everyone from B*Witched to Bryan Adams -- of whom more later.
Where's The Studio?
So what does Modena One, the home studio of this top-selling artist, look like? Well, as you can see from the photos accompanying this article, the studio is very clean -- in fact, at the time of SOS's visit, it was downright empty, Nick having decided to completely refurbish it following the completion of Behind The Sun. Rather fittingly for a former design student whose clutter-free, stylish CD sleeves perfectly complement his smoothly produced electronica, Nick still favours an uncomplicated approach to recording and production, even when he does have gear in his studio. He sums this up perfectly during the course of our interview: "When you make music for a living, you have to keep everything as simple and as basic as possible!" Hence the studio at home, which has expanded over time from a classic bedroom-based affair into the as-yet-unfilled space covering a whole floor of the house. At the time of writing and recording 'Don't Give Up' last year, the studio took up a mere two bedrooms, and was based around some pretty ordinary project-studio kit: a Soundcraft Spirit Studio mixer, an Apple Mac G3 running Steinberg Cubase VST (using a Digidesign Project card and a couple of 888 Pro Tools interfaces for I/O), and an array of Roland samplers -- an S750, two S760s, and an SP700 sample-playback module. Complementing these as the main sound sources on 'Don't Give Up' were a couple of Clavia Nord Leads and two analogue Roland SH101 monosynths hooked up to the G3 via a Kenton MIDI-to-CV converter. All recording and editing on the single, and indeed the rest of Behind The Sun, took place in Cubase, recordings being made to a couple of 9Gb SCSI drives connected to the G3. Simple, huh?
Verse Chorus Verse
Nick describes the instrumental backing track of 'Don't Give Up' as "a cross between disco house and trance elements." Sure enough, the disco-ish verse and bridge feature the kind of repetitive filtered funk guitar loop that seems to have been a staple of every disco house hit for the past year and a half, and both are stylistically quite different to the trancy chorus, with its spacey background pads, rounded trance bass line on off-beats, and cycling arpeggio-like hook line. It should therefore come as no surprise that Nick came up with verse and chorus separately, and then decided to weld them into one song.
The chorus hook came first. When starting to write, Nick likes to experiment with just a couple of keyboards, recording via MIDI into Cubase, and playing to either a basic self-programmed rhythm from a familiar drum patch or a sampled loop. While messing around with one of his Nord Leads, he hit upon the hook line. "It's actually a chord that moves around, not a single-note riff. It's arpeggiated low notes on the left hand, but with a pretty choppy top line with the right hand. It's almost impossible to play it live, so I played it in at a very slow tempo. I do that with most things; I don't like to mess around drawing notes in Cubase with the pen tool. Everything that I put into Cubase generally goes in from the keyboard.
"I wasn't thinking in terms of a vocal at all at first; I was just playing around with this funky riff, to be honest. At the beginning it reminded me of the electro riff at the start of that '80s track by Chaka Khan and Rufus, 'Ain't Nobody'. I put some trancy rounded bass with that from my SH101. I can't remember for sure, but I might have layered that with a harder, more cutting bass sound from the 101, too."
Going for the archetypal trance sound, Nick then added a quiet choral pad, and some dabs of a guitar from his Roland sample library, which sound like occasional piano chords during the chorus of the finished single. Asked to divulge the source of the pad sound, however, Nick gets cagey. "It's a typical Chicane atmospheric pad, the source and secret of which I'd rather keep close to my chest. You can hear it more clearly during a long breakdown between the first verse and chorus on the extended version. I will say that my pads feature a lot of delay and reverb, and are also very wide-sounding -- I use things like the stereo-width enhancer on the SPL Vitalizer. It works by putting things out of phase and feeding part of the out-of-phase signal back into the original signal. That can create a nice cinematic effect, but it can be lethal when you're doing mixes for clubs, as sometimes they'll play the track in mono, and the pad can cancel itself out and totally disappear! You just have to keep checking the mix in mono."
The disco-ish verse revolves around the filtered funk guitar loop, which sounds as though it has come from an old '70s record. In fact, he put it together in his studio, with the aid of his long-time studio and live guitar collaborator Rob Bujakowski.
"It's something that I got Rob to play through a Line 6 Pod preset into my Spirit, and we compressed the sound a bit to give it a vintage sound and up the grunge and noise. I added some rhythm from my sampler, and then resampled everything as one disco-style loop. Then we passed it back through the Pod and sampler several times to degrade the sound further. We were trying to get it grungy and messy, so that it sounded like a sample from an old record. Even when I'm looping something I've recorded myself, I try to give it that quality. Dirt somehow gives a loop a whole new lease of life, like the Chemical Brothers' breakbeats, which can sound really ordinary if you listen to them clean. Once we'd got the rhythm and guitar together as one loop, I had it repeat in one of the Rolands and swept the sampler's filter via MIDI."
Nick added a bass to this section from a Nord Lead, and on the second and subsequent verses, he added some rapid filter-swept trance arpeggios. "Again, I did all of those in Cubase, just played in slowly from one of my SH101s. Like with sweeping the disco loop, I'll assign a spare mod wheel to the filter cutoff, record my filter sweeps into Cubase, and touch up the curves for the controller data afterwards with the draw tool. My current version of VST does go a bit haywire when I try to draw all these controller curves in, though. That's one area Steinberg definitely need to work on!"
As the disco section developed, Nick began to experiment with the part with the arpeggiated hook, and decided to join them together. "I had real difficulty getting the two bits of the track to go together." In the end, he resolved the problem by creating a bridge section without a bass line, featuring both the filtered funk guitar loop and the arpeggiated hook. A tearing resonant filter sweep on the SH101 helped the eventual transition from the bridge into the trancy chorus, as did the eventual addition of some crescendo triplet rolls on TR909 samples, triggered from one of the Roland samplers. These, as with all the drum sounds on the track, came from Nick's extensive personal sample library.
Nick often programs his own rhythms rather than using pre-sampled loops and 'Don't Give Up' was no exception. "Normally I do the majority of the programming myself and then just thicken the rhythms a little with some loops. I often roll off the bottom end of the loops and just leave the treble in -- that helps a track to sound busy without cluttering up the low end. Sometimes I use the Quieten function in an editor like BIAS Peak on just the decay portion of the hits in a rhythm loop, so that the transients are not affected. That can be a good way of making a loop less prominent, or removing reverb from a sampled breakbeat.
"One thing I hardly ever do is layer kick samples. I find MIDI isn't tight enough to ensure that every hit falls right on the money every time, so you can get horrible flamming effects, unless you're stacking a very boomy sound and a really cutting one. Even then it can sound a bit strange."
Wot, No Processing?
With programmed rhythms, loops and filter sweeps in place, and the two stylistically different parts of the track knitted together by the crescendo bridge, the finished backing track exhibits a surprising sense of dynamic contrast for a dance 'choon'. As Nick explains, this is not altogether surprising. "It might be because I hardly ever use compression. Unless I'm recording a really screaming vocal -- and only then to prevent it distorting." Similarly, Nick plays it simple when it comes to the application of EQ and other processing. "You can get really tied up in EQ, but I don't go mad on that. I use very little, either on my desk or within Cubase. I prefer to be picky about the sounds I choose in the first place. I do use EQ, but generally I do very basic work with it I'll just roll the bottom off something and give it some top, say... and I'd rather do it all by ear. It cracks me up when people say 'try rolling off a few dB at so many kiloHertz...' I don't think of it in those terms -- I'm not literate in Hertz! Maybe I should be taking more care with the EQ, but I don't seem to be suffering. I don't really seem to use EQ, or compression. I use very few outboard effects, too."
Paging Mr Adams
By the time the backing track of 'Don't Give Up' was complete, Nick had decided that he would like to add a vocal. He tried out various vocalists (though he won't now reveal who), but none were to his satisfaction. With hindsight, his eventual choice, Canadian MOR rock god Bryan Adams, was a winning selection, but back in Summer 1999, what on earth made him think Mr Adams would be interested?
As Nick explains, the collaboration actually made perfect sense to both musicians. Nick had done a dance-friendly remix of an country and western-flavoured Adams track, 'Cloud No. 9', and watched it sail into the UK Top 10, so further collaboration was far from impossible.
"I was working on my album, and Bryan lives in London, so we saw a lot of each other. We worked on bits and bobs for each other, and developed quite a good working relationship. So when vocalists weren't working out for 'Don't Give Up', I gave Bryan a call and asked him if he'd like to have a crack at it.
"Bryan and I rewrote the lyrics on the verses, and I changed the vocal melodies a few times here and there. We eventually recorded the vocal at Mothership Studios, which is owned by one of the guys I worked with on the album, Ray Hedges [B*Witched's producer to you -- Ed]. We re-recorded a couple of bits at the studio in Bryan's house in London -- he's got a computer-based hard-disk recording system that he can take around the world with him. We recorded the vocals dry, then I took them back on a DAT to, uh, work on them..."
If these sound like the words of a medieval torture practitioner, it's no accident. As we all know, the vocals on the released version of 'Don't Give Up' might be those of Dame Edna Everage for all the resemblence they bear to Bryan Adams' usual vocal style. So how can Nick claim that he likes to avoid excessive processing? And was Mr Adams not a tad peeved? Nick's calm answer makes perfect sense.
"I don't like heavy processing, but I still thought it was important to process Bryan's vocals quite heavily. Bryan has a very, very distinctive vocal style, and I didn't want 'Don't Give Up' to sound like a 'danced-up' rock record -- after all, it is a Chicane record. He understood that totally, and left me to it."
To achieve the effect he sought, Nick turned to Steinberg's then-recently released Orange Vocoder plug-in for Cubase VST. Sadly, thinking about the processing proved to be the easiest part of it. "It's bloody temperamental, that plug-in. It sent my whole computer mental! Mind you, they're pretty demanding on DSP, vocoders: I am only using Cubase, after all, and it's host-based, unlike Pro Tools which has its own processing. I decided ages ago that when you're using computers, the best approach is to be aware of what they're not very good at, and avoid it if you can. So I never ran the Orange Vocoder in real time, because it kept playing up. I ended up having to vocode the vocal off-line until I got it right. You get a little graphical keyboard on the plug-in to generate notes to use as Carrier signals, but it was still very unpredictable to use. I would get something nice, try it again and it would come out utterly different. In the end I just buggered about until I had an effect I liked."
Also adding to the processed sound of the vocals was the reversed reverb, which opens the completed single. "I did that manually. I reversed the processed vocals, on my sampler, reverbed them, put them onto DAT, resampled them and re-reversed them. You get by far the best effect that way. When Bryan came round to listen to it, I warned him that it was pretty extreme -- but he was really excited by what I had done."
Normally, you would expect the mixing of the track to have occurred around this point, but as Nick explains, he doesn't go in for mixing in the traditional sense. "A track can take me three or four weeks to make, but by the end of that time, it's mixed itself. I balance stuff as I go, and I might stop at some point to clean something up or edit some tracks, but I don't ever really pull all the faders down and start from scratch. It's just because of the way I do tracks; I like to take a long time over putting things together, and take time out to listen carefully as I go."
Surely this makes good monitoring essential at all stages of the recording process? It would seem so: "I have several good reference systems which I play stuff on. The car I had while I was making the album had an acoustic shelf, and the boot resonated to act as the bass bin. It was acoustically quite sound, much better than your average car boom-box system, and dance records sounded really good; I could really gauge bottom end on it. The main monitors I've used in the studio for years are A&R Red Boxes. I'm desperately trying to get another pair, actually, in case I blow this lot up, because I know exactly how everything sounds on those! I've also got a pair of Quested powered monitors; they sound very alien and different to me, but they're good for contrast."
The final touches to 'Don't Give Up', like all Chicane material, were applied at Masterpiece Mastering by engineer Walter Coelho. As always, Nick attended the session, no doubt to ensure that excessive compression was not added to the mix! "Walter knows what I want and we have a good understanding..." he comments. "I never miss mastering -- it's essential."
Though he might be tempted to bask in the afterglow of his number one, Nick has instead plunged straight into his studio refurbishments. "I'm getting a patchbay, for a start! I've never had one, and as time has gone by, it's done my head in more and more! I've got a few new gizmos coming, like proper air conditioning, soundproofing, and acoustic treatment for the walls, but nothing excessive. Generally, I'm just making the studio a professional environment in areas where I've always had to struggle in the past. I'm replacing my Spirit desk with an Otari Status, for example, but not to be flash -- it's just because I've used it before and know it's easy to use. It's also because of the number of inputs it's got, and the fact that it has total recall and automation. If my old desk had all those options, I'd have stuck with it. People can get very hung up about the equipment they use. I did my first Top 40 record on a Boss BX16 mixer!
"Likewise, I have some pro boys coming in to sort the acoustics out for me, but again, I don't want to go crazy. I know how I like this place to sound, so I have a fair idea of what I want already.
"So it is expansion, but in keeping with the way I like things. I have my way of working, and I'm happy with it; I've been very nervous about making even these changes. I've run all my monitoring from a single Technics hi-fi amp until now, to the amazement of some people, but that's been the sound that I've been used to and known, and now I'm changing my amp, I'm changing the desk, I'm changing the room... I'm just slightly nervous that it won't work out -- we shall see."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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