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ALAN DOUGLAS: Recording With Eric Clapton

Interview | Engineer By Richard Buskin
Published April 1998

ALAN DOUGLAS: Recording With Eric Clapton

With his fame and status as a world‑class musician and recording artist, Eric Clapton can afford to spend as much time as he thinks necessary honing his next release. Richard Buskin talks to engineer Alan Douglas about the lengthy sessions and changes of heart surrounding the recording of the new Clapton album, Pilgrim.

"The conventional way of making an album is often to record the backing tracks and then do the overdubs, so you're always cycling through the songs," says engineer Alan Douglas. "On this album, however, we could literally go for six weeks and maybe only touch on four songs. It was incredibly intense."

The album: Pilgrim. The artist: Eric Clapton. The recording procedure: not exactly the norm.

"We'd work on one song until Eric couldn't stand working on it any more, and then we'd work on another, before returning to the first one," Douglas recalls. "It was certainly a little unusual."

For Alan Douglas, certainly. A man who thrives on live recording, staking his reputation on being able to acquit himself quickly and competently, Douglas was involved at both ends of the recording spectrum on the Pilgrim project: the live and the programmed, the improvised and the extensively reworked. It was, as he puts it, "always evolving, always interesting".

From Manor To Townhouse

ALAN DOUGLAS: Recording With Eric Clapton

Douglas started out as a tape operator at The Manor studios in Oxfordshire in 1976, and when Virgin Records opened The Townhouse in London two years later, he moved there and began engineering for artists ranging from Queen to The Jam. Eventually he progressed to Chief Engineer status, oversaw the installation of new studios within the Townhouse facility, and, together with Sam Toyoshima, helped redesign Olympic Studios in Barnes. Remaining with Virgin until the EMI buyout in 1991, he then went freelance.

"The period during which I worked on Olympic in the mid‑'80s was when sequencers were beginning to make the first inroads, and I just hated it," Douglas recalls, giving a fair indication of where his professional tastes lie. "The problem with working with machines and bad programmers was that nothing ever changed, and of course these were also very poor sequencers that we were using. I can clearly remember doing a session at Townhouse 2 with some act or other; we started at about 11.30 in the morning, they began running this sequencer and quickly got some sounds to work with, and we just worked and worked and worked, and I sat there and basically did nothing all day and all night. Finally, at about 2.30 in the morning, one of the guys said, 'OK, let's just run it one more time before we go to bed.' Now, nothing had been recorded at this stage, the sequence was just running live, and I sat there and thought, 'That sequence is exactly the same as it was when we started this morning!' Nothing had changed, nothing had happened.

We could literally go for six weeks and maybe only touch on four songs. It was incredibly intense.

"For me, the buzz has always been live musicians — and preferably great live musicians — interacting, because there's a spark that happens when you get great people in the room together. So, I just became very disillusioned and basically buried myself in projects, which was a way of keeping working without anyone saying, 'Hang on a second, what does he actually do?' When the Olympic project came along I threw myself into that."

As long as Douglas was involved with design and installation projects he was relatively contented. However, once the projects were finished, tedium set in. "By the time the Olympic project was finished I basically hadn't done much engineering for nearly three years," he says. "That was apart from some sessions with Steve Lillywhite, and I was bored senseless. Also, the other problem with being the Chief Engineer at places like Townhouse and Olympic is that, because of their stature, all of the great clients they attract come in with their own engineers, and so you tend to end up just filling in and doing all of the crap."

Clearly, it was time for Alan Douglas to branch out on his own. This he did.

"When EMI bought out the record company and discovered that the studios were all part of the package I found myself with a golden opportunity to be made redundant, get a payoff and go freelance," he says. The fact that he took that opportunity represents a decision he wouldn't regret, and he's now forged a reputation based on live band recordings and an ability to work calmly and efficiently with sometimes complicated situations. "If people are pushed for time, they know that I'm not going to be messing around, taking ages to get sounds," he says. "I'll work quickly to get the drum sound and set everything else up, and then I'll be running tape in 'record'."

The Engineer's Tale

ALAN DOUGLAS: Recording With Eric Clapton

Fast‑forward to September 2, 1996, and the start of sessions for Pilgrim. Previously, Douglas had worked with Eric Clapton on the Grammy Award‑winning From The Cradle, in addition to a couple of soundtracks. This time around, the venue was Ocean Way recording in Los Angeles, and, initially, Clapton was acting as producer for his own material, which Marcus Miller was producing some songs that he himself brought to the project, whilst also working on the music for a Giorgio Armani fashion show. Such are the demands made on one of the world's great white blues guitarists. Nevertheless, somewhat out of his milieu with the Armani assignment, Clapton had turned to songwriter/producer Simon Climie (formerly of Climie Fisher) for assistance. The two men had worked on the Armani songs at Climie's small Pro Tools‑equipped facility in the UK, and Climie had then travelled with Clapton to LA where, it was intended, they could continue their collaboration in conjunction with Alan Douglas, while Douglas, Clapton and Marcus Miller would also be working on Pilgrim. However, as time progressed, Climie became more and more involved with this record as well — a somewhat informal start to what would turn out to be an increasingly convoluted production.

Recording originally took place in the large studio at Ocean Way. There the control room houses a custom 80‑input Neve 8078 console which, constructed from two 8078s in a single frame, and courtesy of 32 additional monitor mix inputs and 64‑channel metering, is one of the largest desks of its type anywhere in the world. "That room sounds fantastic," asserts Douglas. "In fact, it's one of the best live rooms I've ever worked in." Sony 48‑track digital machines were employed there and elsewhere throughout the project.

Positioned at the far end of the live room was drummer Steve Gadd, who was miked with an AKG D112 on the bass drum, a Shure SM57 or AKG 414 on top of the snare, with a 57 on the bottom, 414s on the four toms, a Neumann KM254 on the ride cymbal, a Schoeps CMC5 on the hi‑hat, Neumann U67s for the overheads, an AKG C24 for close ambience, and Neumann M50s for the room. Nathan East was playing bass, and was recorded with a combination of DI and a valve Neumann U47 on an Eden World Touring Series cabinet. Also DI'd was Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, while Eric Clapton's guitar contributions — performed mainly with his signature series custom Fender Strats — were recorded in the way that Alan Douglas prefers to deal with all guitars: a Beyer M88 on the center of one speaker, an Electrovoice RE20 off‑centre on the same speaker, and an SM57 on the centre of another speaker of a custom 1950s Fender Tweed Twin. Guitar ambience was recorded with a C24 (in LA) or a Neumann M49 or U67 (in London).

"I've done things that way for years," Douglas says, "because I can get pretty much any guitar sound in the control room just by moving faders. So, in other words, if you want it very middly, you go for more of — or exclusively — the 57; the 88 does the high, bright stuff; and the RE20 gives you the bottom end and the grunge. Ever since I started recording I've always had one microphone in the brightest spot in the center of the cone and another offset, and it's just evolved into three microphones. I invariably use the same microphones — they're also microphones that studios always have — and it's a case of just moving the faders without having to move the actual microphones on the guitar cabinets."

A Beyer M88, going through a Summit dual tube pre‑amp, and an AKG C28 were employed for Clapton's vocals, which were recorded at the same time as the band played live together in the studio. As for the main man's guitar playing, according to Alan Douglas there was no difficulty in coaxing a performance out of him. Indeed, it was sometimes almost a case of stopping him when more than enough was already in the can. "Sometimes I'd be mixing or doing whatever and he'd be sitting at the back of the room," Douglas recalls, "and he'd just get bored, so he'd pick up a guitar — like he always does — and start playing, and he'd come up with a part! Not necessarily for the song I was working on, but for another song!"

Out of about 20 numbers that were worked on in various guises as the project progressed, 14 made it onto the finished album, most of them written by Clapton himself. A couple were also co‑written with Simon Climie, while 'Born In Time' is a Bob Dylan composition that was originally offered to Clapton back in 1987. At that time the guitarist was enthusiastic to record it, only to have his nose put slightly out of joint when he discovered that Dylan had just recorded it for an album of his own. Nonetheless, nearly 10 years later Bob had the nerve to send him the original demo of the song once again, and this time his perseverance paid off.

In terms of songwriting, arrangements, guitar parts, styles of singing and styles of guitar playing, every single avenue was explored on every song.

All Change

"Aside from a couple of songs that Eric had already played live, none of the material had been demo'd or rehearsed with a band when we entered the studio," Alan Douglas recalls. "It mostly consisted of ideas, around which Eric could develop guitar or lyrical ideas, so everything kept evolving and nothing was fixed until the record reached the shops. It was all in a constant state of flux until he was absolutely happy with something and we hadn't touched it for a couple of months. Only then could we be fairly sure that the arrangement of the song and the style of the vocal and guitar were here to stay."

Note that Douglas says "fairly sure," not "totally sure," which is highly significant in the light of how things eventually turned out. More about this in a moment, but suffice to say that, even in the short term, a tune that started out with, say, a funky rhythm could turn into quite the opposite, courtesy of EC adding new and varied guitar parts. Then, at an even later stage, the funk element might well reappear. There was no way of knowing what direction the material — or, indeed, the album — would be going in from one month to the next.

"After we'd returned to England, 95% of the material that we'd recorded in LA was basically scrapped," says Douglas. "Let's just say that Eric didn't feel it was 'different' or current enough. I mean, as a band recording it sounded fantastic, but he just decided that it wasn't what he wanted the record to be. I think he considered it to be too ordinary and, since he really loves contemporary American R&B and hip hop records, he wanted to get that type of feeling on the record... As time went on it became much more of an Eric album, with his own compositions largely replacing those of other people."

Fortunately, since this was the middle of November 1996 and June of 1997 had been mentioned only as a rough delivery date to the record company, there still wasn't too much pressure on Clapton to come up with the finished goods. It was just as well. Work on a film soundtrack and the much‑touted TDF project (more on this shortly) had to take place before sessions could resume in mid‑January 1997 for the Pilgrim album. These took place in Olympic's Studio 1, which was newly equipped with a 72‑channel SSL J‑Series console that Douglas asserts is "sonically brilliant. I think it's the best sounding analogue console I've ever heard. I just love it."

Meanwhile, Olympic 2, with its 56‑channel G‑Series, Townhouse 1, with its 72‑channel G‑Plus, and a Focusrite‑equipped room at Metropolis also came into play."We'd originally intended to do the whole album in Olympic 1," Douglas points out, "but it was booked, so we went to LA."

Remake, Remodel

The subsequent re‑recordings (and re‑re‑recordings) would eventually last until November of '97: "For the new sessions the initial idea was to keep the tracks and simply add programmed drums. Almost everything had been recorded to a click, so there was a tempo. However, it rapidly became apparent that, for a variety of reasons, this alone wasn't going to be enough to make it work. All of the keyboards and bass were programmed, although, apart from one song, the bass was re‑played by Nathan [East], Pino Palladino and Dave Bronze. Chris Stainton also played some piano, Paul Carrack played Hammond and Luis Jardim was on percussion, while Tony Rich, Kenny Edmonds and an English singer named Chyna added backing vocals. Then there were the strings — 24 to 30 pieces — arranged by Nick Ingman and played by the London Session Orchestra.

"In essence, the programmed bass and keyboards were really intended to kick‑start things, but in many cases they stayed, while in others we ended up with the real thing."

'Broken Hearted' is the only one of the live band tracks to have survived, and to have made it onto the finished album, albeit with the addition of programmed drums. Still, in charting the development of particular songs on Pilgrim, a number entitled 'River Of Tears' encapsulates the mayhem that normally surrounded the evolutionary process. Initially, Clapton came up with a song idea based on a pair of contrapuntal guitar parts. These were duly recorded, while Simon Climie produced a fretless bass arpeggio on a Korg Trinity, to the accompaniment of sleigh bells, snare and bass drum samples. Paul Waller — a programmer who is particularly good at finding obscure loops that are perfect for a track — did the programming and Emagic's Logic Audio 2.62 was the sequencer employed. Simplicity was the key here, but then...

"We ended up working on that track for weeks and weeks and weeks," reports Alan Douglas. "I mean, nothing's that simple! We'd had the bones of the song recorded in about four hours and it was in shape — which, on this album, was a completely alien concept — but then we spent several weeks rearranging and editing it, so in that way it joined the rest of the cast... We actually needed to edit it, because it was something like 30 minutes long at one point! Pino ended up playing roots for the arpeggio — which is probably an octave above where a bass would play — while Eric contributed slide guitar and vocals. Still, the guitars and the original arpeggio never changed, other than any amendments that were necessitated by the changing arrangement.

There are no words to describe how great it is to be in the engineer's seat when Eric is improvising a solo.

"This kind of approach really originated with the TDF project. The basic concept for that was simple; Eric had written music for a show with Simon Climie and, since it was far too good to leave hanging around, he decided to do an anonymous record so as not to clash with his own album's release. I did a mix of a short piece for the Armani show during a lunchbreak at Ocean Way, and, inspired by the Underworld track on the Trainspotting album, I had a very close repeat on the bass drum. Then, because I was getting bored, I started to feed it back in a mad dub style and it made this great sound, like a helicopter. I didn't think much more about it, but then a loop of those mad, fed‑back drums became the basis for the TDF track 'Sno‑God' — this stupid thing that I'd done in half an hour during the lunch break! However, because of that attitude towards working, everything pretty much had to be arranged in Pro Tools or Logic Audio.

"Anyway, when were mixing one of the TDF tracks, on the second day Eric said, 'You know, I've never liked the way that bit follows that bit. Why don't we try...' At that point everything stopped. It was the second day of the mix and we had to rearrange the entire song. Simon sorted out the new arrangement in Pro Tools and, because we always worked digitally, it was very easy to transfer in and out of Pro Tools digitally and avoid the level and speed problems that you'd normally get with analogue. So the song was rearranged, and then it would be a case of 'I think it needs a guitar.' The capacity within Pro Tools to do something, get it so that you liked it and then say, 'Well, actually, I don't know if I ever did really like it. Why don't we try this...' sort of set the scene for how the Pilgrim album would be done.

"Sonically things were always pretty straightforward — I didn't have to put microphones down toilet pans or anything like that. However, in terms of songwriting, arrangements, guitar parts, styles of singing and styles of guitar playing, every single avenue was explored on every song, giving me the opportunity to work with some of the best musicians on the planet. There are no words to describe how great it is to be in the engineer's seat when Eric is improvising a solo. Still, even though it may sound self‑indulgent, with a lot of over‑refining, it really wasn't as overblown as you might think; it was much more of a groove thing, where something would feel good and Eric would just keep playing... After all, Eric was enjoying himself and the drum machine would never get tired!"

Vox Top

"His [Eric Clapton's] singing on this album is the best I've ever heard it," says Douglas. "His performances were extraordinary, and in that respect credit is certainly due to Si [Climie] because he's very, very good in terms of the psychology of recording vocalists. That's mainly as a result of him working with a lot of people who can't sing at all, and consequently this album must be heard for Eric's stunning vocal performances... not to mention his blinding guitar work.

"Since we were always in 'record', including a couple of warm‑ups we might do six vocal passes, comp them, and then that would be the vocal to try to improve on. So, we could either comp into it or, more often than not, he'd want to take a different approach; he'd sing it softer or harder, or with some other variation, and as a result there would end up being as many as three lead vocals, all taking a different approach."