GUY CHAMBERS & STEVE POWER: Recording Robbie Williams' 'Millennium'

Interview | Engineers

Published in SOS November 1998
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

GUY CHAMBERS & STEVE POWER:
RECORDING ROBBIE WILLIAMS' 'MILLENNIUM'

 

Sue Sillitoe meets the producers
of Robbie Williams' recent number one
hit to find out how it was put together.
Additional material by Matt Bell

 

Since leaving Take That in 1995, Robbie Williams has been working hard to lose his pretty-boy image by reinventing himself as a serious singer-songwriter. This change of direction has already borne fruit in the shape of two smash hit singles, 'Angel' and 'Millennium', plus two solo albums -- Life Thru A Lens, which made number one in the UK charts, and I've Been Expecting You, released at the end of October.

Robbie Williams' recent hit 'Millennium' was co-written by Guy Chambers, a former member of World Party, who produced the track in conjunction with Steve Power. Their collaboration, which dates back to 1996, when they co-produced Life Thru A Lens, is already achieving critical acclaim. Indeed, when SOS caught up with Power to discuss the making of 'Millennium' he was still nursing a hangover following the International Managers Forum awards dinner, where he and Chambers won the Producer of the Year award.

"We got a bit drunk," he explained. "Robbie even came along to present our award. It was good of him to come, especially as he's zooming all over the place at the moment."

Mersey Beginnings

Steve Power and Guy Chambers are both native Liverpudlians and have known each other for many years -- according to Power, they met when the then-15-year-old Chambers was chosen to replace him as the keyboard player in a local band.

"I left the band to run The Pink Studio in Liverpool and, after engineering an album for them, the band went on the road with Guy playing my old keyboard parts. Later, when Guy left World Party and formed the Lemon Trees, I helped out by doing a couple of mixes," he says.

Power's own music industry career eventually took him down the production rather than musician route. He says, "When I was 18, I shared a flat with Wayne Hussey and started doing some live mixing for him. I was just helping out as a mate because he needed somebody to turn up the guitar solos at his first gig. Then we got a 4-track studio together and it developed from there. Eventually I got a job as the engineer at The Pink and, when I was 22, I moved down to London to work at Battery Studios."

One of Power's first projects at Battery was engineering the Billy Ocean album containing the UK number one hit 'When The Going Gets Tough', not to mention five US top ten singles. That album led to numerous other projects including Black's 'Wonderful Life', Blur's first single 'She's So High' and the hit Baby Bird album Ugly Beautiful.

Power and Chambers' collaboration on the Robbie Williams sessions was actually initiated by Chambers, who didn't feel sufficiently confident to produce Williams' first album on his own. "Robbie was casting around for people to write with after leaving Take That and someone put him touch with Guy," Power says. "The writing was going well, so Guy was asked to produce the album. Guy's got an awful lot of talents, but there are some areas where he clearly thought my strengths filled in his weaknesses! He came to me and said 'Steve, come and help with this; I can't do it on my own'." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Millennium Done

'Millennium', the first single from the new album, was chosen as the trailer because it is quite different from any of the tracks on Life Thru A Lens. Power explains, "There are a few tracks on the album that contain a fair bit of programming, to show some musical progression, and this is one of those."

The song was conceived by Robbie Williams, who these days is very much involved in the creative process. Guy Chambers, who describes his collaboration with Williams as a good partnership, says, "Rob steamed in with the words which were written very quickly. It tends to break down that Rob does the lyrics while I concentrate on the music, although he's a clever guy and comes up with a lot of the melodies as well. He tends to make a start and find the general direction he wants the song to go in, then if he gets stuck, I help.

"Robbie came up with the idea for the song. He wanted to use the string section from 'You Only Live Twice', but put it to a hip-hop beat."

"Anyway, Rob had the chorus but didn't have an obvious title for the track, so I added the word 'Millennium' which worked because it was both strong and topical. Then we needed the football chant -- we had a very pretty melody for it, but no words until Rob came up with 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'."

'Millennium', which was written over a year ago, was initially meant as just another album track until Williams and his production team spotted its potential as a single.

Power says, "It had the more programming-based feel that we wanted to introduce on the second album in order to get away from the guitar-based feel of the first album, and it already had the chorus hook, the Bond theme sample, on the demo version, which I remember mixing before last Christmas."

In terms of track composition, Steve Power describes 'Millennium' as 'quite sparse'.

"It's mainly vocals, backing vocals, strings and programmed bass and drums, really, with a few interesting sampled noises. There's also a drum loop that we took off the original demo and that, in turn, came from a sample CD discovered by Nick Hannan, the engineer at Blah Street Studios where the demo was done. We programmed more drum samples on top of the original sample, pretty much echoing what the loop was playing. There are some little bits of programmed percussion on there as well, which are subtle but make a difference. We did overdub some live percussion during mixing at Battery, too; a shaker or a tambourine -- I can't remember which -- just to give it a bit of extra movement. Oh, and we got a DJ in to put some vinyl scratching on the master tape, but we mixed it out in the end and didn't use any of it."

Blah Street Studios in Hampshire -- a facility described by Guy Chambers as 'totally hip and cool' -- was used for all the writing, demo-ing and pre-production work on the album. For 'Millennium', the drums, bass and samples for the backing track were programmed and recorded at Trident, while the strings were recorded at Angel Studios in Islington -- the same facility used for strings on Williams' first album. The musicians played to the programmed backing track, with a guide vocal over the top.

To program the backing track after the demos were completed, Power and Chambers called in programmer Steve McNichol, who used Pro Tools and Emagic's Logic Audio running on a Mac, with Akai S3000 samplers. "Steve programmed up the drums and a bass line," Power explains. "The bass sound was made up from a combination of a synth bass from a Clavia Nord Lead and a bass sample on one of the Akais."

The Bond Connection

Listening to the track, you don't need to be a genius to recognise the influence of John Barry's 'You Only Live Twice', the title song from the eponymous 1967 Bond movie. This begs the question: was the song structured around the sample?

"Well, I wasn't there when it was written," says Power, "but I think the sample was in there from a very early stage. Guy is a big fan of John Barry and it was already on the demo that I mixed."

Guy Chamber takes up the story. "Robbie came up with the idea for the song. He wanted to use the string section from 'You Only Live Twice', but put it to a hip-hop beat. Once we had decided that, it was just a matter of finding a beat that worked -- something that we eventually achieved by speeding it up."

Music industry politics being what they are, the actual Bond movie sample didn't stay on the track for very long because the cost of using it was prohibitive. Power explains, "It was up to Chrysalis Records, Robbie's record company, to find out what the deal would be if we used the original sample. It turned out that we would have to pay a lot of money to the company that originally made the film -- I think the figure was around £60,000. In comparison, recording it again was going to cost between £6,000 and £7,000 -- so unsurprisingly, we did it again! We used a 26-piece string section, a harp and four French horns. We added the French horn parts and changed the string part a bit, using Nick Ingmann to rearrange them. It's not exactly the same as the original arrangement, which was in the wrong key for 'Millennium', although we did want it to sound like the original sample in the choruses and we did refer to John Barry's original score for that."

Chambers adds that what they were trying to achieve was a highly recognisable pastiche. "It had to be recognisable in order for the track to work," he says.

The pair did consider sampling the orchestra playing to drop into the chorus, but in the end they opted to have the orchestra's performance playing during much of the track; in the choruses, middle eight, and the playout.

Vocal Lines

Robbie Williams' vocal performance was recorded in the peace and quiet of the countryside at Jacobs Studios, a residential facility in the heart of Surrey. Power says, "Robbie rarely does more than three or four takes for a vocal. We used a Neumann 149 -- a lovely, lovely mic, that -- for pretty much the lot, with a Focusrite Red mic preamp and compressor as well. After doing the lead vocals, we went back to Trident, where the backing track had been recorded, to do the backing vocals. We had three female session singers involved: Nicole Patterson, Beverley Skeet and Claudia Fontaine. There was also a male backing singer, Gary Nuttall, the guitarist in Robbie's band, who sings along in the verses, doing the 'ooo-eee-ooo's."

By this stage, Power says, the multitrack tape was filling up rapidly. "We recorded to 48-track analogue tape. We didn't fill all of those, but we came close. We had about six tracks of backing vocals, and nine tracks for the strings -- inputs from a couple of stereo ambient mics, and spot mics for the first violins, second violins, cellos, double basses, French horns and the harp. Then there were the programmed tracks; and when you get into programming, you'll layer about four kick drums to tape! For speed, and to keep the creative flow going, we put them all down to separate tracks rather than spend time deciding which one we wanted loudest when recording. So we had a lot of independent outs from the programmed backing track onto separate multitrack channels, like the programmed percussion and sampled noises. Then there were the unused scratching tracks, and the live percussion --all in all, I think we filled maybe 36 or 38 tracks in total."

Mixing

'Millennium', like the whole of Robbie Williams' second album, was mixed at Battery Studio 4 on an SSL desk. Power explains, "To keep the creative flow going, I tend to record quite quickly, concentrating more on the musicality, parts and arrangement. If at all possible I like to get the balance of the track right in the arrangement, so I record with minimal EQ and processing. The aim is to get all the sounds working together so you don't get any nasty surprises at the mixing stage. If two things sound crap together, you probably shouldn't be trying to EQ them so they'll work at the mix. If they sound crap, just don't put them together in the first place because you probably won't rescue them with EQ.

"Having said all that, I do put the finished stereo mix through an outboard Prism stereo EQ and Prism compressor, and EQ everything at once at the end. But I don't often use individual channel EQ on the desk."

During the actual mix, Power put everything through a Prism Maselec MLA2 compressor and Maselec MEA2 EQ. He adds, "My favourite outboard is an Avalon EQ, which I like because it sounds so expensive! I also used a Fairchild stereo compressor on bass and vocals, along with another Prism MLA2.

"This isn't all my gear, by the way. I pick my mixing studio for the gear I want, and what I can't get, I hire in. I also use Joemeek stereo compressors and Focusrite Red and Blue EQs. I don't like digital reverbs very much, so I only use those minimally. I prefer plate reverbs, which they have at Battery and which were used for this mix."

The track was mastered at Metropolis where very little was done to it -- no EQ at all on the radio promo, just a tiny bit of compression. Power adds, "By the time we came to master the single, I'd thought of something that needed a tiny bit more EQ, so I got the Prism out again, but that was it. We varispeeded it as well, at the cut; we sped it up about half a percent, just to give it a bit more edge."

Although 'Millennium' was an obvious trailer for the new album, it didn't give Power and Chambers too many writing or recording headaches. Guy Chambers says, "What's interesting is that this is the simplest song Robbie and I have ever written -- only two chords. And it's written in D flat major, which is very unusual in pop music. In all, it took us about four hours to write, but then we always work fast."

"We actually worked much harder on other album tracks than we did on 'Millennium'," Power adds. "With 'Millennium', it was just obvious what we had to do and we didn't need to think about it very much. Actually, compared to the rest of the album, I think it's one of the weaker tracks!"

But despite that, 'Millennium' still made it to number one -- which must bode well for other tracks earmarked as future singles. And, more importantly, it must satisfy Robbie himself who, according to Steve Power, is at last making the kind of hip-hop-influenced music he really enjoys.

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