KEN NELSON: Recording Coldplay's Parachutes

Interview | Producer

Published in SOS October 2000
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Ken Nelson favours the old school of recording, based around clean signal paths, live playing and analogue tape — but that hasn't stopped him working with some of the hottest new bands in Britain. Among them are Coldplay, whose debut Parachutes album crashed straight into the charts at number one. Sam Inglis finds out how it was recorded.

"I like bands who can play live," insists Ken Nelson. "That's what I've done more or less all my recording life: I try to get bands to play together. That's the way they rehearse, that's the way they play live, so why change anything when you go to the studio?"

It's an old-fashioned approach, but one that has brought Nelson considerable success, along with the opportunity to work with some of the most exciting new bands around. He made his name as engineer on Gomez's remarkable debut album Bring It On, which won the 1998 Mercury Prize, and its follow-up Liquid Skin. And if favourites Coldplay should fall foul of the notoriously fickle judging process this year, there's always the possibility that Badly Drawn Boy Damon Gough — whose Hour Of The Bewilderbeast album Nelson also worked on — might walk off with the gong. (By the time you read this, the result will already be public knowledge...)

In The Beginning

"I've been a musician since I was 11," says Nelson. "I always wanted to be a pop star, and so I went down that route of being in bands. When I decided that I wasn't going to make it — I must have been about 26, I think — I packed in the band and decided that I wanted to be an engineer. I'd done a little bit of recording, I had a four-track, and I'd quite enjoyed it — and I'd done a lot of recording in the different bands I was in."

Most of Ken Nelson's work as an engineer, including the bulk of the Coldplay album, was done at Liverpool's Parr Street Studios, a recording venue he's known since his band-playing days. He spent several years there as a house engineer, and though now freelance, still treats it as home from home: "This studio used to be called Amazon, and the band I was in recorded at Amazon, so I came up to see the boss, because he kind of knew me — we were actually signed to his label at one time, the same label that China Crisis were signed to. I came and asked him for a job, and he said if anything came up he'd give me a ring. But he didn't, so I ended up running my own studio for a couple of years with a friend, just up the road. It was kind of in at the deep end, because I knew very little apart from what I was reading in magazines. I was doing all the engineering and my mate was running the place, and then I had a little family and I just couldn't afford to do it any more. It was great experience but we weren't ever going to make any money from it.

"I did little bits and bobs around the studios in Liverpool, and then the owner of Amazon heard some stuff I'd done, and said 'Come and work for me.' And I worked there for quite a number of years. You're always waiting for a band to come in who's going to give you your big break, and Gomez were that band. They just booked into the little room upstairs. It's basically a demo room, but it's a good studio — they call it the project studio. I've done a lot of records there. The first Gomez album was done in there completely, on 16-track. They had some demos, they'd recorded a little bit of it in the garage, and then we transferred it to the 16-track and added bits and bobs. It was just lucky that I got that job, and we got on so well. It's quite hard, 'cause it can be very poorly paid — we're all self-employed, and you don't know where your next job's coming from. You always just sort of scrape by, but since Gomez, I can charge a bit more."

A Ken Nelson Co-production

The success of Gomez's debut album naturally raised Ken Nelson's profile as an engineer, and the job offers began to flow. One of them came from new band Coldplay, who had previously released only an EP and a single on indie label Fierce Panda. "Pete [Ken's manager] said 'Oh, there's this band Coldplay, they're going to be good, have a listen to this.' There's a track called 'Bigger Stronger' that's on the Blue Room EP that they did, and as soon as I heard Chris Martin's voice, I realised that he was something special, and I really loved the songs. They're probably some of the best songwriters around at the moment, Coldplay.

  Precise Placement  
  Ken Nelson's fondness for classic recording techniques leads him to place great emphasis on proper mic placement. He explains some of the techniques used on Coldplay's album: "I tend to use quite a lot of mics on drums, although we may just use the overheads and a bass drum mic in the mix. But I'm the kind of person who'll try to cover every eventuality. I'll mic toms top and bottom, for example — obviously this causes you more problems with phase and the phase relationship between the mics, but with a little bit of time and a patient drummer, it works. For snares, it'll be an SM57 top and bottom. They have some little Sennheiser mics at Parr Street that you can actually clip on to the drum, which are handy. I can't remember the model number, but they're quite good for, say, underneath the snare drum. On hi-hats I'll use a Sennheiser 451, or we have Neumann KM84s here, which I like. Generally I'll use AKG C414s over the kit, or Neumann U87s, depending on what's around, and AKG D12 or D112, or Neumann U47 on bass drum. For toms I tend to use Sennheiser 421s, top and bottom if I've got them, and if I've got a room like the big one at Parr Street I'll have a couple of room mics — U87s, or I like B&K omnis. Also, here they have Beyerdynamic pressure-zone mics — big wooden boxes. They're really good, you just put them on the floor.

"I don't like the sound of DI'd acoustic guitar. I'll usually use KM84s, again, or a U87. They're all good mics, it's just a case of placing them. What I tend to do sometimes is have something like a KM84 cardioid mic, and I'll have say a 414 set on figure-of-eight as a room mic, that way you get a bit of the room sound.

"I like to record piano with two mics as a crossed pair of cardioids, one to pick up the high end and one the low. But on 'Trouble' I just had two microphones. One was a brighter-sounding microphone, one was a fuller sound. I just wanted to keep it quite simple, and we ended up using the fuller sound in the mix. It depends on the situation — when we were recording in one room I'd possibly only use one mic, just to keep the spillage down a little, but if you're recording a piano properly you need to get the mics away from it, that's always the best way.

"Coldplay also had this little pump organ, and you had to mic it up at the back. The sound comes out at the back, but you've got to be careful because he's pumping away like mad with his feet, and there's this noise going on — but it's all part of the instrument."

"The night they offered me the job, they were actually playing a gig in Liverpool with Gomez. They were being beamed out live to Radio 1, and I think they were very very uptight about it, and they rushed through the set and it was quite difficult to listen to. To me, it didn't come over very well, so I was thinking to myself 'They just need to calm down.' And in the studio, that's basically what we did. We'd go through each song and get them to learn how to play it live, get them to learn what tempo to play the song at, and so on — and I think that's why the album sounds so organic. There's a lot of life in it, and what I call 'soul'. It just has something. Because it was a co-production, we were all learning how to get along with each other, and I think that was a very important thing."

Unusually for a new band, Gomez had insisted on being their own producers, so Ken was credited as engineer; and it is central to his philosophy that even when he takes a production role, he is assisting the band in realising their own ideas, rather than imposing his own views about how the project should sound. This clearly made him an attractive choice for Coldplay: "What happened was that the band had started to record the album last year, and did an EP with another producer [Chris Allison], and it went a certain way that wasn't exactly the way they wanted it to go. They wanted a bit more control over what they were doing, and they decided to stop what they were doing and look around for somebody they could work with, rather than somebody 'producing' them. I think that was important to them. And my philosophy is that I'm not producing the band, it was a co-production. It says that on the sleeve and we talked about that early on and, to be honest, I think that's possibly what got me the job, because they could have worked with anybody.

"I've been very lucky with who I've worked with. I like the idea of working with bands who are 'green', if you like — but you do find that with magazines like SOS, people know a lot about recording, which is why the co-production thing is important. I'm not telling people what to do: they have their own ideas, I just like the idea of guiding them down the road. If somebody wants to have a tweak on the EQ, that's fine by me, and sometimes something good will come of it, even if they don't know what they're doing. Even if they don't understand how a parametric EQ works, they'll just have a go — as long as I know where it was so I can put it back! Or I might say 'I know another way you can get that and there'll be slightly less noise.' I don't keep any secrets.

"I do believe that co-production is the best way. I think it's actually harder in a lot of respects to co-produce than to be telling someone — to have this vision of how it should be. Trying to manage a group of four or five people can be quite difficult. There tends to be one person who is the leader, if you like. I always try to stick up for the underdog and get everyone's views across. There tends to be one person in the band who likes to push, but that's great, that inspires you. In Coldplay I'd say that person's Chris [the singer]; the others are a little more laid-back."

  Parachutes Track By Track  
  • 'DON'T PANIC': "One of my favourite tracks on the album. I love the way it's been arranged. This was a live take — acoustic guitar, vocal, drums and bass. Johnny did two takes of overdubbed guitar and we used a little bit of one, a little bit of the other. And they have this little pump organ, they don't use it live, it's a two-and-a-half octave keyboard where you have to pump with your feet — Chris plays it, and he can sing at the same time. It's on quite a few of the tracks, though it's very subtle."

• 'SHIVER': "This was one where Chris's vocals were done in one take. He recorded more than one take, but the one we picked was one take, warts and all."

• 'SPIES': "The backing track for this was recorded at Rockfield. It took a few days to get a backing track that we were all happy with, but once it was there, it was fairly easy from then on. But the difficulty is actually getting the backing track! We had Chris in one room, it was like a little cubby hole, and he was in there for about three days while we were trying to get a decent take of this. And we had Will the drummer in another room, and Guy the bass player was playing in the control room. So they were quite separate, but that was the way we decided to do it, and it just took a long time to get a really good take of it. You get to a point where each take they do will be quite good, and you know you're close to it, and you've just got to keep going. It's quite frustrating. The final take of that track is fantastic — the guitar you hear is the guide guitar that he did, and he redid the vocals. So there'll be things like spillage of the vocal onto the guitar track, but it doesn't matter. Trying to redo that guitar would've been very, very difficult — and why do it? That was part of the philosophy. Keep as much live as you can."

• 'SPARKS': "This was another one that was recorded at the same time as 'We Never Change' — basically a live take again, and then Johnny added his guitars later."

• 'YELLOW': "We started recording that one upstairs in the project studio. The problem we had with 'Yellow' was getting the tempo just right, because a beat either side of the tempo we picked didn't have the same groove. It lost the feel of it. So we got it live and then Johnny overdubbed his guitars and we did the vocals. We did the backing vocals, the falsetto 'Oohs' and 'Aahs' in the control room as we worked them out. It all sounds very easy, but it was quite intense because we recorded it two or three times until we were happy with what we got. You can imagine that if you've recorded something and put quite a lot into it, then to decide that you're going to do it again can be quite depressing.

"'Yellow' was written at Rockfield when we were there. The studio we were in is called the Quadrangle Studio — the studio is along one side of an open courtyard about 50 yards square, and we went out one night, and because there were so few lights, the stars were just amazing. And Guy just came up with the line 'Look at the stars'. And then they went away, they had some time off at Christmas, and they'd been gigging it and it was ready to record."

• 'TROUBLE': "This was recorded four times before we got the take that we wanted. The backing track was recorded, and then each time we'd add to it to see if it was working. But we decided on the first three versions that it wasn't really happening. For the last one, we got Pro Tools in, and it was recorded into Pro Tools with a shaker providing the rhythm. Will played drums and Chris played piano in the little wooden room, and that was the backing track. The bass went down quite quickly and then Johnny did his guitars."

• 'PARACHUTES': "This is just a 50-second acoustic guitar and vocal track, which again took quite a few takes to get right."

• 'HIGH SPEED': "This wasn't done by me, it was done by the other producer [Chris Allison] last summer."

• 'WE NEVER CHANGE': "One of the proudest things on the Coldplay album for me. It was actually done live, the whole track, including the vocal, upstairs. It was basically straight into the mic amps, straight to tape. I remember when we got the take of it I was just sitting there thinking 'This is fantastic'. They were saying 'Let's try another', and we tried different takes of it, but I knew that take of it was great. And that track was sent off to Michael Brauer to be mixed, just to give him something to do, 'cause he was waiting, 'cause we went a little bit over time. And that mix came back, and when we put it on I was simply blown away by it."

• 'EVERYTHING'S NOT LOST': "We did a take of this at Rockfield, and it didn't quite work out, so we did it again here. And we ended up recording it in the last week of recording, it was the last thing we did.

"There's an extra hidden track on the album called 'Life Is For Living', which is a little 3/4 thing they had. It's mainly pump organ — you hear the pump organ quite clearly on that one — which was recorded upstairs, live again."


Straight To Tape

Parachutes was begun at Rockfield in Wales and at Matrix Wessex, but the bulk of it was recorded at Parr Street. The facilities at Parr Street consist of two large studios — one SSL-based and one Neve-based — and the smaller project/demo studio upstairs, which Gomez had used. Nelson and Coldplay worked in all three, and quite a lot of the album was actually tracked in the project studio.

  Dealing With Guitar Effects  
  One challenge facing recording engineers working with guitarists can be persuading the guitarist that it might be more useful to record clean than via their elaborate effects rig, so as to keep more options open at the mixing stage. Ken Nelson explains how he got around this problem: "Johnny has a Fender Twin Reverb, and he has all these delays going into it, and it was quite a delayed sort of sound, and I was thinking 'How am I going to get around that?' I just wanted to have the option of a bit more dryness. They had another Twin Reverb, a slightly different version, and I said 'What would be great would be if you could use both amps, one having all your delays going into it, and one that's completely dry,' because I'm not a great one for effects. I'd rather hear a guitarist who plugs straight into his amp and gets his sound. But Johnny's quite good, he has a little Rat distortion pedal, but he uses it very subtly just to change his sound live and add a little bit of grit to it, so he'll have a fairly clean sound on the amp and then a little bit of grit from this box.

"All his effected sounds would come out of one amp, so we'd mic that up, and mic the dry one as well, so every time, we'd record both amps. I think that worked really well — both were used in the mix, and we just balanced it, and then reverb was added, 'cause his sound is fairly reverb-heavy, he likes it to be towards the back of the soundscape. There was no reverb on the amp itself; we used proper digital reverb.

"It'd go through quite a few delays. He's got a WEM Copicat, which kept sort of slowing down — the tape loop would sometimes stick, because it's quite old, and it would produce strange choruses and delays, it wasn't perfectly in time. And he has a Lexicon effects processing unit which he uses for the delays again, and the only other effects that he uses are tremelo and wah-wah."

Ken Nelson's approach to the recording process is best described as 'classic'. He prefers to record to analogue 2-inch tape, if possible bypassing the desk's mic amps and using high-quality stand-alone preamps instead. "I like different mic amps. If I haven't got any I'll hire some. The project studio at Parr Street has only got an A&H desk; the mic amps are OK, but they're not as good as some of the mic amps that I have myself. So it's quite a lot of trouble and it means a lot of leads, but I'll plug into the mic amps, and then go straight through a compressor to tape, or straight to tape. I use whatever's available in whatever studio I work in, but there has to be a certain amount of gear, like compressors, to make sure that the session's going to go smoothly.

"On the Coldplay album a lot of the stuff just went straight to tape, as clean as I could — the shorter the signal path, the better — and a lot of it wasn't compressed. It's not something I've really concentrated on before, but because we had the time, we decided that that would be a good way to do it, to get it so that what goes down on tape is what was played. When you haven't got the time, it is quicker just to compress things to make sure that you're not peaking. But we were recording to analogue anyway, so we could go a bit hot, especially as we were doing it without noise reduction. Obviously you can always compress later. I did compress the bass, and some of Johnny's guitars, but there's no compression on the drums, and the acoustic guitars were all put down without compression, and any keyboards as well. It adds more life to the track.

"As the album went on there were a couple of songs that we couldn't quite get on analogue. 'Yellow' was one of them: we tried it a few different ways, and a few different recordings of it, and we were never really happy. We ended up using Pro Tools; we got Pro Tools in to get the feel of it just right. We enjoyed using it, and once we'd got all the takes into the computer, we then put it down to the 2-inch, which I found was a great way to do it. In the future I'll work with a hard disk recorder, whether it's Pro Tools or whatever, because that suits — not so much for the editing side of it, just to get perhaps three takes, and if one bit's good from one, you can just cross over between them. And trying to maintain the live feel of the track, which I love. I'm not into sitting in front of the computer, chopping everything up and saying 'Does it look like it sounds good?' I'd rather just listen."

Healthy & Organic

Maintaining the feel of a live performance is, in Ken's eyes, crucial; a couple of the tracks on Parachutes were actually recorded completely live in the studio (see the 'Track By Track' box on page 200), and the most important backing parts on all the songs tended to be recorded live: "Most of the tracks would be laid down with an acoustic guitar or piano, depending on the song, drums, and bass. We'd tend to redo the bass, but if we could, we'd keep as much of that original first take as possible. That was the plan when we first got together: they wanted it to be as organic as possible, and I think that's a good policy.

"We tried click tracks on all of the songs, but on very few of them — I think about three of the tracks on the album — a click track was used in the end. We didn't make things easy for ourselves. You can play to a click, but if you were to listen to them playing without a click and then to a click, it would sound completely different. If you listened closely you'd hear that it ebbs and flows without the click, but obviously with one, it can't do that. So I'm not the biggest fan of clicks, I like a song to ebb and flow, and the band are the same."

You might expect that such a straightforward approach to recording would allow the album to be done quickly, but the total recording period lasted over six months. "We started in the middle of November, and it was finished towards the beginning of May, but they had two tours in the middle of that, one was for about a month, and the other about three weeks — so there were probably about nine or 10 weeks of recording."

Whereas some bands would spend this studio time recording thousands of overdubs, applying Auto-Tune to every note, or editing individual drum beats in Pro Tools, Coldplay and Ken Nelson simply took their time trying to get that elusive 'right' performance: "We recorded tracks again and again. If it wasn't exactly the way we wanted it we'd just do it again. We were just determined that we were going to get it to be a certain way.

  Mixing Parachutes  
  Parachutes was mixed by American mix engineer Michael Brauer in New York. "Originally, what the record company wanted to do was pick the singles and just have those mixed by a mix engineer," explains Ken. "The mix engineer they wanted to use wasn't around, so they picked Michael Brauer, and I think he's done a great job. And it was a big relief for me, really, because it was such a long process recording it, to have mixed it as well — I would have lost the perspective, and also I would have been absolutely shattered.

"Some of the mixes had to be redone — a lot of the time Michael Brauer was working on his own, because we were still recording, and some of the mixes came back and they weren't quite as we wanted them. For instance, on the first mix of 'Trouble' the vocal was overcompressed and the piano was too bright — but it wasn't really his fault, it was because we weren't there to tell him."

"From the outset, we decided that we weren't going to use lots of trickery. Most of the vocals were one take. Chris has got that attitude of 'It's a great take; it's got that line there that's not great, but let's keep it as one take.' It's a brave thing to do, but it seems to have worked. There's probably one word that was Auto-Tuned on the album, where it was a great line, and there was just one word out of tune.

"I just like that way of working, and I'd like to try and stick to it. But working with a hard disk recorder actually makes that easier. You'd think 'Oh, yeah, hard disk recording — all the editing and stuff' — but I don't really see it like that. I just like the idea of using the equipment to my advantage, the main thing being preserving the live take. I like singers who can sing a whole track rather than piecing it together. It does very little for me. I find I get lost in it. If you've patched it together, how do you know if it's any good? Whereas if someone's singing in there, you know whether he's singing well, you know whether it's a good take as it goes down. It's a gut instinct.

"I'm very proud of the Coldplay album, because I think it's got quite a lot of that energy and soul, and I can actually listen to it. Not a lot of the work I do I can sit down and listen to, but I love that album. I love listening to it as a fan of the band, which is fantastic, considering I've been working on it for six months."

Firm Plans

At the time of writing, Ken Nelson has just finished an album for Norwegian singer-songwriters the Kings Of Convenience, and is deciding which offer to take up next. Whoever he ends up working with, one thing's for sure: Ken's not about to change his working method. "There are hundreds of producers and engineers who are prepared to sit in front of a computer screen getting it to look like it sounds good. And I'm not slagging them off, because I listen to a lot of music and I know it was done that way, but I still love it. I mean, if you listen to the David Gray album, it's been programmed to death, but the songs are great, and it's the songs that matter in the end. I like to work with a band, or a singer/songwriter who can sit there playing an acoustic guitar and singing. I like people to play together, and I know this is the way it was done in the past, and I want to keep it going as long as I can. My heroes are the old producers like Andy Johns, who produced Free and Led Zeppelin. They were limited as to the number of tracks they had, so they had to bounce things onto one track, and those limitations make you much more creative, I think. Obviously we don't have those limits any more, but you're going to be limited by something, whether it's time, or money. I'd like to be seen as that kind of engineer and producer. I like the idea of working with bands who I know can play live and just trying to get something extra out of them. And I think it worked with Coldplay."

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