After a break of almost 10 years, Eurythmics are back with a new album — and a new hit single, 'I Saved The World Today'. Mike Senior talks to gifted programmer and producer Andy Wright about his role in the project.
A couple of years ago, the chances of finding Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart in the studio together might have seemed fairly slender. However, following their lifetime achievement award at the Brit Awards in February last year, the Eurythmics have reunited to record a new album, Peace, which on its week of release sold four times more copies in America than its closest UK competition. The first single from the album, 'I Saved The World Today', has already been a number one airplay hit in Europe and has charted all over the world.
To help them realise their vision for such an eagerly anticipated new album, the duo enlisted the expertise of programmer and studio collaborator Andy Wright. Andy established himself as a programmer with acts such as Massive Attack, Reef, Bon Jovi, Natalie Imbruglia, Alisha's Attic and Hanson. However, more recently his reputation has grown with an increasing number of production credits, notably for Simply Red's Blue and Love And The Russian Winter. I caught up with him at work in the imposing Metropolis complex, where he is leasing one of the studios for the year.
The foundations of Andy's involvement in Peace were laid a few years ago, when Dave Stewart called him in to do programming on the debut album by Alisha's Attic, Alisha Rules The World. As Andy explains, it was the beginning of a fruitful partnership: "I've now done four or five albums with Dave. He and I had great chemistry working together, right from the beginning. He's a catalyst: he's one of those people around whom things happens. He can't help it, he just walks in the room and something happens! I'm in sympathy with that, so I have to stay quite organised because, working at that level with people, your job is to keep up with them half the time. We work together very well — we're really decisive and there's never any faffing about."
Singing In Church
This working relationship was a vital ingredient in the success of the recording sessions, a trust that made possible the intense environment within which the album was conceived. "We recorded pretty much the whole album at Church Studios, in Crouch Hill [the studio owned and run by Dave Stewart], and there were only four of us in the studio for most of the process. Some players came in towards the end — a drummer and a bass player were there for a few days — but for the four or five months when the record was being made it was Dave, Annie, myself and Nick Addison, the engineer. Nearly all the tracks on the album were written in the studio as they went. In the first three days of writing they came up with '17 Again', which is the big single off the record, 'Beautiful Child', and one other track. For most of the other tracks, the writing session became work in progress towards the finished master. As a general rule, I like it that way: demos are a waste of time!
"As a normal songwriting process, Annie sits at the piano, singing and playing some chords, and Dave goes in and they collaborate on the song. Dave's really good at structures, so he directs bits that she's doing. I'll already be working in the other room, maybe on one of the other tunes, so when they've got something, they can just come in and say, 'have a listen to this' or 'what's your view on this?' I record a bit on a dictaphone and, while they carry on, I'll come up with a groove for it, maybe a beat or a couple of loops put together. They continue developing their structure, and when they're ready they come in and hear the beat I've done. If they like it, I have input one of the Pro Tools set up for Dave's guitar, input two for Annie's vocal mic, and sometimes two MIDI inputs as well, which will be Annie with a keyboard and me with a bass synth or something. But oftentimes it's just them, and they play the song down to the beat."
Andy frequently speaks of the importance of pre‑production, but for this project a different approach was needed. "Dave and Annie are seasoned songwriters, so although I'm used to having a fairly large involvement at the outset, I was trying very hard not to influence the direction of the record in any way. I felt that I was in a very privileged position to be in the studio with Dave and Annie, making their first record for nine years, so I was there in the room only as a collaborator, really. However, I did contribute a lot towards the arrangements as the songs developed."
Peace‑ing It Together
Andy elaborates on the next stages of the album's production process: "I built the drums up a bit and put a guide bass line on, though this often turned out to be pretty close to the final version. Then we added a few keyboards and effects before Dave came in and replayed the guitars. There were a couple of the songs where we added a new section at this stage, with some new chords, so we had to edit into the structure, and make something new. But generally the songs came together really fast, and it was just a process of development from there.
"A lot of the drums are programmed, though we did live drum and bass takes as we neared the end of the project. Often, the live drums were edited down to one‑bar or two‑bar loops with a couple of fills, though for the more rocky songs they were left as they were. Even though the drummers we had were great, if you're working with loops and you want to accomplish a really satisfactory groove all the way through a song, you often need to extensively edit the live take. If you're going for a more belting rock thing, then you're almost better off not bothering with your loop, submerging it down under the live drums.
"Of course, Pro Tools is ideal for editing drums. I usually record the eight or 10 tracks of live drums on analogue first, before I transfer them into the computer. If I've got a loop that I've been using that I really like, then I have the loop up, take all the live tracks out except for the simple sounds — bass drum, snare and hi‑hat, without the overheads and all the other stuff. I run those together, sometimes in a bit of a strange balance so that I can really hear if things are flamming, and I go through marking out the sections I think are good. Sometimes I have to cut within bars to get something really 'on the money' all the way through. Then I edit all the live tracks simultaneously, even though I'm monitoring only a few of them, to get a fantastic loop, which I can copy across the song. Sometimes I find that the crash cymbals aren't helping me in my quest for groove, in which case I overdub sampled ones on top of the live take. Finally, I look through the take again for any special moments, for example fills and extra open hi‑hats, before dropping them all back onto tape to be mixed."
Of the two main guitar sounds on 'I Saved The World Today', one is an unusual harpsichord‑like part during the choruses. "This is actually Dave playing a 12‑string Rickenbacker, and it's tracked up about four or five times, all in the high register. To this we added a steel‑string guitar sound from the Roland JV1080 playing the same part."
There's also a distinctive opening guitar sound, though Andy can't remember exactly how it was produced: "Dave and I both have a set of Lovetone pedals, and there's one, the Doppelgänger, which is a kind of phaser that gets duller and brighter and comes out a bit like a wah‑wah. It's probably that which we used for that sound. Also, Dave uses Yamaha electric guitars most of the time — although he often uses his beautiful Fender Custom silver Stratocaster — and we had various different amps out in the room."
Andy is obviously fond of his own collection of Lovetone pedals, using them to process not only guitars, but also synth sounds. Indeed, the synthetic loop which closes the single came about in precisely this way, carefully synthesized on the Nord Lead 2 and put through the Lovetones.
West Side Story
With much of the backing, and some of the vocals (see below) recorded, Andy retired to a different studio to consolidate everything recorded so far: "By the time we'd built up most of the backing for 'I Saved The World Today', what with everything coming live out of the computer, I was fast running out of processor headroom and things were starting to get a bit tricky. So I went to West Side Studios for a week, where I printed all the songs to tape. I made some good rough submixes of the work in progress and added the odd bit of percussion while I was doing it. Then I set up monitor mix levels in the computer, so that whenever we wanted to look at the songs, do a vocal or whatever, it sounded the same. It was a consolidatory week — it gave me the benefit of being able to ride things a bit on real faders, not just the ones in the c omputer, and to EQ things a little more nicely. You can work with submixes really easily, and because they use only about a dozen mono voices and a few stereo voices, I could take the strain off the computer. This left room for more vocals and any additional things."
Voice Of A Diva
"During the process of building up the track, Annie sits and writes lyrics on a little laptop at the back of the control room. We always kept a Shure SM58 plugged into input two of the Pro Tools, so that we can just pop something down whenever she has a great idea. In Annie's case, she's such a brilliant singer that she'll often nail a vocal in a single brilliant take. On '17 Again', she did just that: she gave her all to it, and while she was singing my hairs were on end, just from being there while she did that. Even when she doesn't get it straight away, you only ever need two or three takes of her to create a fantastic comp. She's got one hell of a voice! It's so strong — when she's singing it's amazingly loud. And, of course, all the years of performing and recording experience just add up. A lot of the guides stayed, because she just had the spirit right. We even used some of the ones she did on the SM58, because she seems to sound good on any microphone, through any system.
"'I Saved The World Today' sounded most of the way there after about a day and a half, so Annie did the vocal the day after the song was put together. We used a nice mic, a Neumann U87 or something. It wasn't a vintage mic or anything esoteric, I don't think, but we did compress on the way to Pro Tools with a Urei 1176."
Andy Wright: "People these days don't realise that there are artists out there who can still really sing. Everyone thinks 'Oh, it's all just computers these days, and they don't have to do anything', but it's not true."
Andy is full of admiration for Lennox's voice: "People these days don't realise that there are artists out there who can still really sing. Everyone thinks 'Oh, it's all just computers these days, and they don't have to do anything', but it's not true. You can't make a computer sing for you. You can put vocals in tune, even then not always satisfactorily, but it doesn't make it great. Oddly enough, 'I Saved The World Today' is the only track on which we did use any Auto‑Tune, not because Annie couldn't have sung everything in tune given another take — it was the first thing she sang and she wasn't really warmed up at all — but because her first performance was magical. We tried it again and she could easily get the tuning, but she really loved the way she'd sung it the first time. And I think it's a compliment to her that she was happy to embrace this technology, because you'd normally expect only to use Auto‑Tune for those people who can't sing. Very occasionally you do find it comes in handy even with people who can, so you can make use of something magical that is impossible to recreate.
"On 'I Saved The World Today' Annie added most of her ad libs and overdubs at the end of the session. It sounds like there are more backing vocals than there actually are, because Annie didn't go in and stack them much. She just did a few, like on the 'everybody's happy now' countermelody. She did all the BVs herself — we didn't use any other backing vocalists — so all the ideas and everything were entirely Annie Lennox."
Andy's programming skills are displayed in his speedy use of MOTU's Digital Performer, both as a sequencer and as a hard disk recorder in conjunction with the Digidesign Pro Tools interface and processing hardware. "The first time I used Performer was in 1987 in France. I started using it about two years later and it was just the main program I knew. I've supported it since then — I haven't seen any reason to change, because I can't be nearly as quick on vocal comps using any other system."
Andy Wright: "All the tracks on the album were written in the studio as they went... I like it that way: demos are a waste of time!"
Andy demonstrates how he can compile vocal takes at speed — a blur of mouse and keyboard movement — and there can be no doubt that this is a man who knows not only the art of record‑making, but also the essential craft of using advanced technology efficiently. "I adore the computer, I love it. You can debate until the cows come home whether digital sounds as good as analogue. Analogue tape does sound great, but the amazing thing about the computer is being able to manipulate a song into the position you want. One of the things I learnt from working with [the renowned producer] Flood is that you occasionally find a track which, although really good in its own way, has unrealised potential, and often the only way to improve it is to start again — the possibilities of the melody need to be fully explored. In the computer you can experiment with that — record a bit of vocal, take out any dodgy chords, put in some new ones, some new styles, some new angles. One of the most critical things is being able to readdress a song's structure — maybe it's not a good idea to have a double chorus the second time around, for example. People often spend too much time recording and not enough time writing and arranging. Committing to tape should be easy if you have a good arrangement for your song; likewise, if the song just doesn't come through it's not going to work, no matter how long you spend on sounds. My Performer system is about being creative with song structures, being creative with arrangements and being able to work very efficiently with people."
The power of Andy's system is amply illustrated by the trumpet part on 'I Saved The World Today'. At an early stage of the production they recorded some trumpet jamming along with the track, but the part wasn't really very well structured, so Andy set to work editing it into shape. He extensively reordered the elements within the two available takes and from these snippets, some less than half a bar long, he constructed the entire solo. The result is a testament not only to his programming skills, but also to the strength of his underlying musicality. A similar, but more extensive editing session managed to transform a 10‑minute impromptu jam session, which occurred during the recording of 'I Tried Everything', into the completely new track 'I Want It All', while keeping most of the original performances! Andy is full of enthusiasm for the way in which digital editing allows you to use such flashes of inspiration which would otherwise have been wasted. "Things like this really couldn't have happened in the past. Yes, you could have had microphones set up all the time and that sort of thing, but if you were working on analogue tape, you wouldn't be able to catch all the moments of magic so that they could be used. Because of the Pro Tools/Performer system, even if the moment of inspiration is a 10‑minute jam session, everything is still eminently usable within the context of a different structure."
With new albums from both Eurythmics and Simply Red in the shops at the moment, and with his phone ringing incessantly with new work, things are looking very rosy indeed for Andy Wright. And he seems to be enjoying himself immensely, into the bargain: "I'm really privileged to make music. I say that because I've been lucky in recent years to have had a degree of success doing it, and that's brilliant because it's my hobby. All I ever wanted to do was to carry on doing it, not to be told by anybody that I had to have a 'proper' job. I didn't really want to do anything else," he laughs. "I'm always just hoping that I can blag it for another year or two!"
The second track on the CD single of 'I Saved The World Today' is a raw version recorded in a single take at The Church, using only lapel mics! Andy explains why: "A lot of people loved Dave and Annie when they saw them on TV, with him just playing guitar and her singing the song — it always seems to impress people. So that's why they wanted to put that second track on. It was just the two of them in the live room at The Church, through little collar mics! To be honest, it was a bit of a nightmare dealing with the hiss on the tape, but people really love hearing that kind of thing. Some like it, in a way, more than the album version. You do hear people saying, rather glibly, that it should have just been released like that because, even so raw, it sounds fantastic, but it's only because they're not used to hearing things that are so stripped‑back. People do like a great tune, with just guitar and voice, but you couldn't actually release it like that as a single, because no‑one would play it. You need all the styling and all the extra ideas."
Andy's Akai Angst
Like many professional programmers, Andy has been a long‑time user of Akai samplers. However, he has had an unhappy experience with the latest generation: "I used to have an Akai S3200, with an S3000XL as my 'second sampler'. Then I sold the S3200 to buy the S5000, which I've still got in the box down there! I'm sorry, but Akai should never have put the thing out. Maybe they've improved and upgraded it now — I ought to try out the most recent software again, because there are a lot of good features on it — but why did they not make it operate the same as the S3200, just with a better feature‑set? Instead, they changed everything around, which is crazy. I've met a lot of people in studios, who've all got their S6000s still sitting in the box. So the company ought to learn from this and redesign it to make it useable. Everyone loves Akai units, and want to work with them, because they are reliable (or they used to be), but I'm now having to do top albums on my old S3000XL, because I like it more that the new machine they've just brought out!"
An Orchestra Of Angels
The orchestral arrangements on 'I Saved The World Today' are unusually lush, but for Andy and Eurythmics the evolution into such a rich scoring was a very natural one: "We had quite large orchestras on about eight of the tracks — horns, oboes, harps, the works. You see, Dave, Annie and myself are all very orchestrally minded: I have orchestras on most of my productions, budget permitting. Annie thinks in terms of strings and I normally gave her string sounds to play with, so she ended up playing a lot of the string parts in. As for Dave, he's got great melodies floating around his head all the time.
"After we'd all played parts in, we got together with David Whitaker, a really wonderful orchestral arranger who's worked with Serge Gainsbourg and did the arrangement which The Verve sampled for their single 'Bittersweet Symphony'. He's one of the most in vogue string‑arrangers in the world just now, because he's always right on the ball. He did a very beautiful orchestration for 'I Saved The World Today', though most of the lines were worked out between the three of us: David took print‑outs from my computer and scored them up.
"We did most of the string recording at AIR Studios, in the big room there, and it was fabulous. I always find recording a real string section emotional. Steve McLaughlan engineered the orchestral recording. He's very famous for his film recordings — he's probably done something like 70 movies! We transferred the strings from tape to the computer and most of the time we ran rough submixes from there, though we kept the original separated tracks safe on disk — we just had to buy two or three more 9Gb drives."