Bored with ordinary commercial studios, The Cure decided to cut loose for their latest album, and set up their own recording facility in a Tudor house in the country. Nigel Humberstone visited the band on location to discuss the technology that made the move into the country possible, and the group's working methods.
The Cure are the great survivors of the punk era. They have been together — albeit with an ever‑changing line‑up — for nearly 20 years, during which time their mix of gothic, independent, and quirky pop styles has allowed them to transcend the vagaries of fashion and enjoy enormous, and continuous commercial success.
But with success comes routine, and after so long in the music business, the album/tour/album/tour treadmill can prove stifling to creativity. One of the many ways musicians can escape this trap, finances permitting, is to invest in an affordable, high‑quality and portable studio system, and move from location to location recording on the same setup wherever they go. U2's enormously successful experiments with portable studio facilities, which resulted in the albums The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, are well documented (see Paul Tingen's piece on the subject in SOS March '94, for example). When The Cure decided the time had come to record the follow‑up to their 1992 Wish album, they opted for a similar approach, and retreated for 16 months to St Catherine's Court, a secluded Tudor house in Bath, where they recorded and mixed what has become their new album, Wild Mood Swings.
Breaking The Routine
After a few years with a seemingly ever‑changing list of members, The Cure sported a new line‑up for the making of this album: Robert Smith (guitar, vocals), Simon Gallup (bass), Perry Bamonte (guitar and some keyboards), and Jason Cooper (drums), with Roger O'Donnell returning to carry out main keyboard duties after a five‑year absence from the group. It was Roger who acted as my host for a short guided tour of St Catherine's when I arrived there to meet the band and their producer/engineer Steve Lyon. As Roger explained, the beauty of the setting had proved to be both a help and a hindrance to the recording:
"It's been so relaxed here. There wasn't a deadline, so we kept pushing it back. It's comfortable and big enough that you can get away from everybody else — so everyone's not on top of each other."
In keeping with the fresh approach to the project, reflected in the choice of recording location, various long‑standing conventions in the Cure's working methods were broken or altered for the making of this album. The working title, Bare, was ditched when it became obvious to Robert Smith that it wouldn't be appropriate for the album's vibe; instead, he substituted Wild Mood Swings, originally the title of a solo album he started writing 10 years ago. The band also chose to work for the first time with producer/engineer Steve Lyon, best known for his work with Depeche Mode. Smith clarified the group's reasons for the new choice:
"I thought that it was time to have a change from working with Dave Allen [the group's previous producer/engineer] — I was worried that nothing new was going to happen. We've never really needed anyone to help on the creative or artistic side, but I thought it would be best to get someone in who was younger and didn't have any preconceptions about the group."
Steve's approach was to be ready for anything, as he explained: "I've tried to keep things as open as possible. If, at any time, there's been the opportunity to capture something, I've made provisions so we could do it. Even during rehearsals for the band's festival tour last year, I arranged to record the rehearsal. The four ADATs we've been using have been very useful for that, as they have for putting drum takes together and changing arrangements in songs where lyrics have been added. There have been four or five different versions of some songs, where edits have been tried and sections have been moved around, by sampling from ADAT into our Akais."
Such rearrangement was necessary because Robert Smith's distinctive vocal and lyrical ideas don't usually emerge until late in the songwriting process. Smith explains that after song demos are completed, the most he'll usually come up with is a working title, which is sometimes retained all the way through to the finished track. As Roger O'Donnell puts it: "you come to know your songs as instrumentals. Then, overnight, they're changed when Robert sings on them."
Steve Lyon described the process of recording Robert's vocals: "Robert would live with a vocal for three or four weeks, then come back and sing through it, and it would become obvious which parts needed backing vocals or not. Then, within 20 to 30 minutes, you'd have the multitracked backing parts — because he knows his own voice so well."
It was at this point that the songs occasionally needed to be rearranged (Smith: "Sometimes, I'll nick one of the tunes played by an instrument as a melody, so that instrument will have to be scrapped") — though this was avoided where possible.
Despite the restful surroundings and propitious atmosphere, most of Smith's vocals were recorded elsewhere. "Somehow, I didn't feel comfortable singing them here. It's different working in an environment that isn't a studio. And because we've actually lived here, and the music room hasn't been just for recording, it's been a social focal point — it's meant that that line has been blurred between making the album and living. Nothing we've done before has been like this. If you're in a studio environment — apart from the fact that you're paying £1,000 plus a day — you know that when you're gone, somebody else is arriving, and you're just part of the treadmill process of making another album. Here, it's never been done before, and there's a different feeling."
Strings And Things
Another notable development for the new album was the use of real strings and brass instruments, with the strings (a quartet) most prominent and effective on the track 'This Is A Lie'. The idea to use strings was formed at an early stage (see the 'Demo‑ology' box for more on The Cure's demoing process). "That track was originally an acoustic guitar part done by Perry," recounts Smith, "and when I started playing around with it, it evolved into a string piece on the keyboard. I always had in mind that we'd be using strings, right from the very outset. In that way, the house helped — there was an instant atmosphere for any string quartet walking into that room."
Audrey Riley's string quartet was chosen for the work: a wise choice, considering Smith's general disdain for classical musicians.
"I'd looked through a lot of CDs with strings that I thought sounded good; contemporary stuff, because I didn't fancy working with strictly classical musicians. Initially, Audrey Riley wasn't available, so we got another quartet to come down, but the problem with classical musicians is that they can't play in strict time. Well, they can, but they don't, because they feel it's demeaning. Their tuning was awful as well!
"Audrey, on the other hand, was very aware of recording for contemporary pop, as you might call it. She's very honest about it, and if they are playing something wrong, then she's not afraid to say so. With the other lot, I had to go in myself and say 'Look, can't you hear that you're playing out of tune?'"
Wild Mood Swings also saw the band making greater use of computers than previously. Having been away from the group for five years, Roger O'Donnell was particularly well‑placed to notice this change: "When I left the group in 1990, there wasn't a computer in sight. I came back, and there's computers everywhere. We've really started using sequencing — all the keyboard parts have gone through it [Cubase Score for Macintosh]. The use of a string quartet and brass section is a strange contrast!"
Strange, perhaps, but Cubase Score proved a considerable help when it came to communicating with the classical players. Smith: "It's been good using the Score package, because anything I play in can actually come out as musical score. Audrey would then hand‑write it for the players, but it's really excellent, because you can instantaneously change pieces. Before, it was like trying to put your ideas over in another language."
Of the 14 songs on the album, five were mixed at St Catherine's Court by Smith and Lyon, while eight different people (including Adrian Moulder, Flood and Spike Drake) undertook the remainder. A Neve VRP Flying Fader Console was astutely purchased by Smith for the two‑month mixing session, as he gleefully explains: "I bought and sold it in the same week! I even made a profit." Perhaps the swift resale was a good idea, as the Neve turned out not to be his cup of tea at all: "The Neve is an engineer's desk. The computer inside it is so archaic — even though Steve will tell you the opposite, and say it's very obvious. I suppose it's because I've worked with SSLs so much that I take the command functions for granted. It's about artist involvement, really — Steve had wanted to work with a Euphonix desk, and I wouldn't, because that has assignable channels, which keeps the artist at bay even more. With the Neve, you might touch a fader and go 'Oh no! The yellow light went on instead of the red!' I just want to be able to maybe push the bass up in level, without having to go back two mixes, or whatever. That is really frustrating — that's why, even though the Amek's got automation, we never turned it on."
Smith always gets involved with the mixing of Cure albums, if only as a pair of fresh ears: "I walk into it towards the end, when it's reached a certain stage. I'm not really interested in the way that things have been routed, or what's plugged up where. Also, a lot of the time, I just haven't had enough time, because we were doing promotion for the record as it was being mixed. After doing six or seven hours of interviews, I was knackered, and Steve would be waiting for me to say what I thought, so that he could move onto the next stage. So, it's been very broken up; more than it should have been."
Mixes were laid to half‑inch tape at 15ips, not in an attempt to add warmth to the ADAT recordings, but merely as a long‑term preference of both the band and Lyon. Smith: "With half‑inch tape, at least you get a decent‑sized box, which feels like it's worth something. A DAT is like a Swan Vestas box! I regret the demise of vinyl albums as well — they're so big they actually meant something, and the artwork looked good.
"Adrian Sherwood mixed a track using 24‑track analogue, but then he mastered onto DAT. His was the only mix returned on DAT, even though he's Mr Analogue! The only difference was that we had to reduce the level compared to all the other mixes from half‑inch. But the difference in sound quality wasn't noticeable."
Finally, and in another break with tradition, Robert Smith's involvement on this album extended to supervision of the album's final mastering at Metropolis, London. Previously, Cure albums had been mastered at another facility, and Smith was not present. But this time, he wanted it done differently: "I was very frustrated, especially with the last couple of releases we had, where I hadn't turned up. This time, I thought I should get involved. Ian Cooper at Metropolis was recommended to us by Flood.
"When using a cutting engineer, you have to have faith that the person knows what they're doing — because that's the final link in the chain that you really have no control over. We were discussing all the details for the cut, and I said 'How are you calibrating all this?' — and it was just with his ears, basically. So you've got to trust that he can actually hear!
"This album was a difficult one to cut, because it's been mixed by so many different people. Steve went down two days before, because I knew that that would be a technical day — for lining everything up, putting it into the computer and EQ'ing. I got a CD‑R the next day, listened through, and there were things I heard that I wasn't really sure were necessary. It was mainly EQ, but also compression. When I went along, I went having heard what they'd done — and heard it in one hit through a hi‑fi, unlike them. They'd spent 12 hours piecing it all together, and by the time you get to the 14th track, you just can't hear the same as you did on the first one.
"I'd made notes, and felt that if my feelings when I was in the mastering room the following day corresponded to how I'd felt listening in the house, then I'd know I was right. So I made a new set of notes, and asked Ian what he thought, and we agreed on five songs that had been either over‑EQ'd or compressed. In the end, it was quite an easy process."
The album Wild Mood Swings is out now. The Cure's world tour — The Swing Tour '96 — starts on May 21st in Aberdeen.
The Cure's Country House
Home to the actress Jane Seymour, St Catherine's Court is a late Tudor/early Jacobean manor built in the Renaissance style, with Benedictine origins dating back to the 14th Century. The story goes that Robert Smith had an agent look for houses with enough bedrooms to accommodate the band, and sufficient space for all their equipment. When St Catherine's was suggested, Smith came and stayed for a month during the summer of '94, sought technical advice, and finally set up an enormous portable recording system at the house. Some of the gear used at the house was already owned by the band, but most of of it — including a 44‑input Amek Big By Langley console and 32‑track ADAT system — was purchased en masse from London‑based studio equipment suppliers Stirling Audio Systems. Recording at the house finally started at the end of the year.
Despite its rich heritage, St Catherine's Court had never played host to a modern recording facility, and some construction work had to be done before recording could commence. A dining room had been chosen as the location for the control room, but the acoustics were not entirely suitable, and required analysis and treatment before the room could be used. In the end, a London firm of acoustics specialists, Recording Architecture, were employed to carry out the work, and they installed one of their Black Box acoustic conditioning systems to solve the problems. Ultimately, little else in the house was altered, and recording finally commenced at the end of 1994. In addition to the dining/control room, a stone room was used to record most of the drum tracks for the new album, and then became a general living room for the band recently, as they prepare to leave the house and embark on a world tour. But it was the vast, wood‑panelled ballroom and music room which saw most use, serving as both the main recording area and a rehearsal room for some live festival dates the band played last year.
Seduced By Technology?
As mentioned elsewhere in this article, this album has seen the Cure making greater use of technology than ever before. They are launching an Internet Web site in June, and according to Roger O'Donnell, the band have all bought Apple Powerbooks. Nevertheless, he remains sceptical of some of the freedom technology can offer.
"I'm not really one for quantising — I don't see the point in recording a part, quantising it, and then putting human feel on it! But then I'm from the old school, even though I've been using Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer and a Mac since 1987.
"I also think that using computers creates a different performance. If you're playing a piano part, and you know it's going straight to tape, you give a special performance. But if you're playing into a computer, you know that you can change every tiny part. I use the computer in a freer way — but also just as a MIDI tape recorder."
Despite the increased use of technology by the band, they evidently remain clear‑headed about its limitations. In a similar way, the recent resurgence of interest in analogue synths appears to have passed them by as well; although Roger O'Donnell has amassed a formidable collection of vintage analogue gear (including Moogs and Sequential Circuits Prophets) during his career, none of these have yet found their way onto a Cure recording.
"No — though I tried! Most of the keyboards on the album have been either piano or organ. We have used an Emulator II quite a lot on this record, though. We've got the Universal Sounds CD‑ROM, and it has some really good sounds, even though it's only 12‑bit."
Roger O'Donnell On The Cure Live
At the time of my interview, Roger O'Donnell was trying to finalise his keyboard rig for the forthcoming Swing Tour '96, like a holidaymaker deciding what to pack.
"It's got to be the Kurzweil PC88 mother keyboard, because I always prefer a weighted keyboard, and I think this is the best on the market at the moment. It allows me to have multiple splits across the keyboard — I need at least three or four. The Roland XP50 is used as a backup, because it's got so many sounds in it. The PC88 drives the rack, but if that goes down, then I can always resort to the XP50, to fill in for a song. I've also just got the Yamaha ProMix 01 mixer — and it's amazing. All the songs are programmed in the PC88, and as I flip through them, everything changes on the desk as scene memories — levels, effects sends and EQ.
"The heart of my rack is an Emu EIV. I wanted something that had enough memory to store data for all the songs, so I wouldn't be waiting if Robert decided to change the order. It meant resampling every old sound and storing it on there. That added up to between 72 and 100Mb. I use an Emu Proteus — especially the stereo piano preset — and an UltraProteus for basic sounds. I have a MOTU MIDI Time Piece II, and use an Apple Powerbook to make editing and routing of the Time Piece easier.
"I also use the Mac, with Alchemy editing software, to juggle samples round in the EIV. I just send a stereo feed out, much to the dismay of the front of house sound engineers, who usually want a feed pre‑master level. I always run up against this, because they seem to think that you're going to ride the master volume pedal, but I don't — I just need to fade out the tails of strings and stuff.
"I've just got the keyboard version of the EIV, the E4K. And Perry's going to play keyboards on a couple of songs, so we're both going to have E4Ks. It's a great keyboard for live use — they've really worked out the logistics of using a sampler in a live situation."
The job of recreating real instruments live falls to O'Donnell — a task which can sometimes prove difficult.
"I've taken some samples off the recordings, but I've also just got the Emulator CD‑ROM sound library, and I'll be using sounds off that. Simulating a string quartet is essentially about getting the voicing correct. The brass is easier to recreate."
Interestingly, the band's new fondness for computer sequencing has yet to extend to their live performances. "We've never used any sequencing live — it's just not the Cure way of doing things. I don't think anyone would feel comfortable, and it would be too restrictive."
Robert Smith — Vocals And Guitar
I was keen to know what equipment Robert Smith used on the album. "I've used an AKG C12 mic since the Wish album, because, for me, it's much more forgiving. I have a hard edge to my voice when I'm singing, which peaks at about 3kHz. The only piece of outboard I know of, which I've used for the last three albums, is a Massenburg 8200 EQ — just because, again, it's notching out rather than adding. My voice changes dramatically if I'm tired or emotional. It's difficult, because I've got a window of opportunity to get vocal takes done — I reach a point where I'm mentally and emotionally geared up, and then I pass that point and can no longer sing — even if I think I can.
"Most of the guitar work has been done on a limited edition Gibson Chet Atkins — a huge guitar, with gold all over it. I have actually played every single guitar in the ballroom; each one's been recorded, but they've not all made it onto the record. My goal was to use them all, one last time, before I get rid of them. I've been getting about one or two for every album, and now there are just too many. I don't collect them — I do like three of them in particular, but the rest just go back in their cases and stay in storage the next year. Maybe I'll give them away as tour prizes!"
No Jamming Please, We'Re The Cure
Robert Smith: "I always see jams in two ways: they either degenerate into a farcical situation — or they start off as a farcical situation, and get worse! We tried recording some stuff to DAT, but it's painful, listening back to jams — it really is quite depressing".
The Cure's Gear
ROBERT SMIT(GUITAR, BASS, LEAD VOCALS, KEYBOARDS)
- AKG C12 mic
- Ampeg Combo SVT112
- Banjo (5‑string)
- Boss effects pedals
- Coral Sitar guitar
- Emu Emulator II
- Fender 6‑string bass
- Fender Jazzmaster
- Gibson Chet Atkins ltd edition guitar
- Gibson SG Custom guitar
- Gretsch Tennessee Rose guitar
- Jen Cry Baby Wah Wah pedal
- Marshall Bluesbreaker Combo
- Mosrite guitar
- Ovation 12‑string guitar
- PHD Custom guitar
- Takamine 12‑string acoustic guitar
- Takamine 6‑string acoustic guitar
- Vox AC30 amp
- Yairi Classical guitar
SIMON GALLUP (BASS)
- Ampeg 1x15 SVT cabinet
- Ampeg SVT 200T bass amp head
- Ampeg 2x10 SVT cabinet
- Boss effects pedals
- Dick Knight Custom bass
- Fender Jazz bass
- Fender Musicman bass
- Semi‑acoustic Washburn bass
PERRY BAMONTE (GUITARS, KEYBOARDS, BASS)
- Boss effects pedals
- Left‑handed Fender 6‑string bass
- Left‑handed Gibson Chet Atkins electric
- Left‑handed Gibson Les Paul
- Left‑handed Peavey Musician 4x12 (6‑string bass)
- Left‑handed Ovation 12‑string acoustic
- Marshall Bluesbreaker
- Peavey Chorus 2x12 Combo
- Vox AC30 amp
ROGER O'DONNELL (KEYBOARDS)
- Apple Powerbook 5300CS (plus CD‑ROM drive)
- Furman power supply
- Emu E4K keyboard sampler
- Emu EIV rack sampler (with Emu CD‑ROM library)
- Emu Proteus synth
- Emu UltraProteus synth
- Kurzweil PC88 master keyboard
- MOTU MIDI Time Piece II
- Roland XP50 synth
- Yamaha ProMix 01 mixer
- Zip Drive
JASON COOPER (DRUMS)
- Akai ME35T Audio/MIDI Trigger interface
- Akai S3200 sampler
- 10/12/15/16 toms (power)
- 14x8 Ludwig Colosseum
- 14x8 Tama
- 14x14 Noble & Cooley
- 14 brass shell DW
- 22 bass drum
- Dauz pads
- DW pedals
- Emu EIV sampler
- Pearl rack
- Roland Octapad SD11
- Yamaha Maple Custom kit
- Zildjian cymbals
Portable Studio Facility
- AKG C451E mic preamp (x4)
- AKG SE3000B mic preamp
- Alesis ADAT (x4)
- Alesis BRC and meterbridge
- Amek Big By Langley 44‑input console with patchbay extension
- ATC SCM100A powered monitors
- BSS AR116 DI boxes (x10)
- Fostex D30 DAT
- Genelec 1030 monitors
- IBM 486 computer/monitor (for Amek automation)
- Opcode Studio 4 MIDI interface
- Rane headphone amp (x2)
- Yamaha NS10M monitors
SIGNAL AND EFFECTS PROCESSORS
- dbx 902 de‑esser module
- dbx 160XT (x2)
- Dolby 363 2‑channel SR/A noise reduction
- Drawmer DL201 (x2)
- Drawmer DL231 (x2)
- Drawmer DP320 universal noise filter
- Focusrite 4‑way rack module
- Focusrite ISA110 equaliser/mic PA
- Focusrite ISA130 dynamics module (x2)
- Focusrite ISA215
- Focusrite Red 3 stereo compressor
- Klark Teknik EQ
- Massenburg mic preamp
- Massenburg 8200 EQ
- Tubetech LCA2B
- Urei 1178 compressor
COMPUTERTS & SOFTWARE
- Macintosh Powermac 8100
- Microsoft Word 6
- Steinberg Cubase Score
- Akai S3200
- Akai S1000 (x2)
- Akai S950 DAC optical drive
- Eventide H3500 UltraHarmonizer
- Lexicon PCM80 effects
- Lexicon PCM70 effects
- Roland Dimension D chorus
- TC Electronic TC2290 digital delay
- Yamaha SPX1000 effects
- Yamaha SPX900 effects
- Yamaha SPX90 MkII effects
- Zoom 9050 effects
- AKG C3000
- AKG C414B ULS (x2)
- AKG CK1 capsule (x4)
- AKG CK98 capsule
- Bruel & Kjaer 4007 (x2)
- Crown SASSP PZM
- Electrovoice RE20
- Neumann U87 (x2)
- Sennheiser MD421 (x2)
- Shure SM57 (x8)
- Shure SM58 (x5)
The starting point for the majority of Cure songs are demos submitted by individual band members, who all get together to decide which ones are best. The ideas are then fleshed out by the other members in the studio, as Roger O'Donnell explains:
"On some songs, Robert had specific ideas of what he wanted played. But for other songs I just played along, and it was a perfect experience to be allowed to play what I thought, and see what happened. There were bits that I thought had no chance of staying on which Robert would come down and say he liked. It was very rewarding for me, more so than when I played on Disintegration [The Cure's 1989 album], because then, it was more a case of playing a part that had already been written. This time, it was more creative for me."
I asked Robert Smith how far the final songs are from the original demo tapes.
"Some of them are immeasurably different, but if nothing else, they retain core elements of the original. "When I do demos at home, I play a lot and build up the song. I use a little Casio home keyboard, a Musicman bass and an electronic Casio guitar with plastic strings [a DG20, possibly? — Ed], as well as an Ovation 6‑string acoustic. Then there's a Tascam 8‑track Portastudio. I also use a Roland R8 drum machine, but I always use presets on that, or drum sounds from the Casio keyboard as a basic timing.
"I like to work out the melody lines and how they are going to work with each other, but I don't tend to bother with the drum patterns much — I keep it as simple as possible, because working with a drummer, it would be pretty dumb for me to say 'Here's the drum part.' I've tried to relax a bit more about the whole thing, even though there are key elements. When I'm doing demos at home, it's generally after a few drinks, so I want the simplest route from playing something to getting it on the tape.
"Simon (Gallup) sometimes gets a raw deal, because the bassline is usually intrinsic to the song, and it doesn't change that much. Simon's demos are usually stripped back to a bassline with top melody line. Perry (Bamonte) tends to do just an acoustic guitar or a piano, 30 seconds long and that's it — because he thinks that if I like something about that 30 seconds, then it can be developed. And Roger's demos are always very accomplished."