Wedding Present frontman David Gedge and engineer/producer Steve Albini are both associated with brutally loud guitar‑based alternative music — so what would happen when they collaborated on an album influenced more by Serge Gainsbourg than The Stooges? Tom Flint investigates...
"When I explained my idea on the phone he said 'That sounds hideous!'" laughs David Gedge, describing Steve Albini's initial reaction to the Cinerama concept. It was perhaps not entirely surprising that the idea of arranging and producing Gedge's indie rock/pop compositions in a style more typical of John Barry and Ennio Morricone should provoke such a response from Albini, given the latter's history as a producer and engineer. Having first gained notoriety as leader of American hardcore‑punk band Big Black, Albini went on to produce Nirvana's In Utero, The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, and PJ Harvey's Mansize. To most, therefore, he would not have seemed the most obvious choice for such a project like Cinerama, but David Gedge has often been unpredictable in his choices.
David Gedge is best known as the guiding force in The Wedding Present. From the release of their 1987 debut album George Best, the band were championed by John Peel and considered by the music press to be the natural heirs to The Smiths' indie‑pop throne. Although their music was typically based around drums, bass, two guitars and Gedge's straightforward vocals, the band were never afraid to experiment, even recording an entire album of Ukranian folk tunes called Ukrainski Vistupi v Johna Peela. They also displayed a taste for TV themes and film‑score music, recording covers of the themes from Shaft and Twin Peaks among others.
Over a decade after the release of George Best, Gedge put The Wedding Present on hold to concentrate on his new project, Cinerama. The new band's first album Va Va Voom, released in 1998 by Cooking Vinyl, was a co‑production between Gedge and engineer and producer Dare Mason. Now, two years later, Cinerama's second album Disco Volante has been released on Gedge's own Scopitones label, with accompanying singles 'Wow', 'Lollobrigida' and 'Your Charms'. This time production duties were shared between Gedge, Mason and the sceptical Steve Albini.
Gedge explains how the whole Cinerama project began: "I've always been interested in cinematic music, by which I mean soundtracks and TV themes, and I've always wanted to do something in that kind of field. The Wedding Present is an established guitar band so it was never going to happen in that context. We did cover some theme tunes, but it didn't really satisfy my desire so I decided I'd like to start a solo project.
"So many rock bands write and record a song then slap a string section on to make it sound posher and bigger. Well, I hate that, so I wanted to build it into the songs rather than writing a song then tagging on a bit. So I started listening to a lot of soundtrack CDs — Ennio Morricone, Italian Westerns, John Barry, Eric Winstanley, and things you remember like the theme from Department S. I also became more interested in vocals. The Wedding Present were not seen as a vocal band because the guitars were so important. I've always liked the female backing vocals of easy‑listening records, so I was writing with that in mind."
Before any work got underway on what was to eventually become Va Va Voom, Gedge asked his manager to help him find a suitable producer who could help him realise his vision. As luck would have it, ex‑Townhouse engineer Dare Mason had just hired the same manager to find him artists to work with, so the two were naturally brought together. Immediately, the limited project budget dictated the nature of the recording. "I would have had to spend all my fee on booking a studio!" admits Dare. "I wouldn't have been able to pay myself, so I couldn't do the album unless I could do some work at home. I had an Akai MPC60 and a 16‑track Fostex D160, and for Va Va Voom I was still putting the MIDI onto the MPC60 and the Audio on the D160 — but now I've graduated up to a Mac with Cubase."
Gedge's first problem to overcome was how to get his ideas for strings, brass, and other typically cinematic instruments from his imagination into reality. "I didn't learn music at school and I haven't had any classical training, I just wanted to be in a rock and roll band!" he admits. "A friend gave me a copy of Cakewalk and I started writing with that. From then I realised it was what I needed, so I got a better version, a digital 8‑track, and an Akai S3000 sampler. I started programming using strings from sample CDs."
"David had the basic idea of the kind of music he wanted to do, which was a sophisticated cinematic type of music," explains Dare Mason. "He sent me a tape of loads of stuff he was into, which was a very eclectic mix, and to tell the truth, it didn't help me at all. That was a learning process for me as much as him, because I had to get into his head and see what kind of sounds he wanted. Then he sent me a rough four‑track demo of his album which contained a drum machine, guitar, vocals and maybe the odd bit of keyboard. Originally he thought he wanted all programmed drums so I created loads of loops and I even programmed a few keyboard sounds. Some of the sounds worked, some didn't, but it quickly became clear that loops were not his taste. He was asking 'Where are the fills?' all the time. He'd been used to having a talented drummer playing behind him.
"I think I opened his mind to a few sounds. At first David didn't know what a lot of them were called, so we narrowed it down. The horn he likes is a French horn, so on the last album we got a French horn player in to double all the sequenced parts. He was also really into John Barry‑type sounds so I got a sample of a zither and played it to him, He said 'Wow, what's that? I've got to use that!' so that became part of our library. Now I've got a 'David Gedge' disk that's got zither, strings, theremin, vibes, Mellotron flute, Mellotron strings — anything Mellotronic basically — plus an old instrument called an Optigan."
Gedge describes some of the compositional stumbling blocks he encountered. "Originally I thought I could just plunge in and do it in three or four months, but it took me years of trial and error to work out how to do those things. For example, I was inputting the piano parts one finger at a time, then I'd print the score from Cakewalk and the pianist would say 'I need three hands to do this!', or the violinist would say 'I can't possibly play this because my instrument doesn't go that low.'
"I also wrote an idea for two oboes, with a harmony thing going on. The oboe player said, 'You can't have two oboes playing together.' I said 'Yes you can, I've just done it on this demo.' He said 'You can't because it's not a natural tone. The flute produces a clear note, but the oboe has weird overtones.' So he played it, and the first part he played sounded fine, but the second part sounded awful! Now I'm aware of what the limitations can be I'm a little bit more capable of writing."
The completed Va Va Voom contained cello, violin, flute, oboe, trumpet and theremin as well as the usual guitars, bass drums and vocal. Female backing vocals also featured heavily, courtesy of Sally Murrell.
Reviews were favourable, but the album fell short of Gedge's own ambitions. "In retrospect it didn't really achieve what I set out to do, so I wanted to do it again. That was the driving emotion behind Disco Volante. On Va Va Voom I was so desperate to get away from the Wedding Present sound that it ended up sounding a bit acoustic. I'd first thought it might be interesting to use loops and have everything sequenced and I did start going down that path, but after we started using a real drummer it seemed to come to life and sounded miles better. So with Disco Volante I set out to purposely write for those people. There's some sequencing in there, but it is mainly musicians. It's not as though I don't want to do the Wedding Present kind of thing any more, so I merged the two together more on this record."
For Disco Volante, Gedge decided to set up his own label, named Scopitones (See the 'Keeping Your Independence' box on page 182). By doing so he took on the responsibility of financing the album himself, so as with Va Va Voom, the budget was a limiting factor.
As if to acknowledge the John Barry influence and to firmly set out his intentions for Disco Volante, Gedge named the album after the hydrofoil owned by Largo in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball. Once again Sally Murrell was available for backing vocals, but also joining the band was Wedding Present guitarist Simon Cleave who supplied what were to become the Disco Volante 'surf guitar' parts. Aiming to introduce a little more of the Wedding Present feel into the project, Gedge decided to re‑establish his collaboration with Steve Albini, who had produced The Wedding Present's 1991 album Seamonsters. "I chose Steve for quite a few reasons," explains Gedge. "I think he's one of the best engineers in the world and I've really liked the sound of everything he's done. His technique isn't anything mystifying. He's got a massive collection of mics, so for his drum sound all he does is get a great drum kit, then mike it up in an acoustically perfect room with great mics. If you think about it, it's so obvious to do that and it works. I thought it might work with Cinerama as well, but a few people in the band were saying it couldn't possibly, which made me more determined.
"I gave him a list of 'influences' which would've included The Wedding Present, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Burt Bacharach and surf music, amongst others, but it was probably when I mentioned Serge Gainsbourg that he went 'Aaaaargh!'. He always uses the adjective 'French' in a disparaging way, so after that I played it down a bit and was a bit more sparing with the information! From that point on, whenever he didn't like something we'd done in the studio he'd say 'That sounds sooo French!'
"I didn't give him an advance cassette, and in the past he didn't work from tapes. When we play the songs it's the first time he hears them. I was thinking that if it didn't work I'd have to do it again with a more sympathetic producer, but when he got into it he wanted to do the whole project, which was a relief!"
Albini explains his initial thoughts on the proposed album. "In the abstract, it sounded like an exploration of territory that quite a few people were covering at the time — light orchestrations, soundtrack influences. But I had innate faith that David would be smart and tasteful enough to avoid the formulaic triviality of many of the laid‑back orchestrated pop projects, and Cinerama is better than you would expect if the music had been described to you."
All of the initial band recording was done at Electrical Audio in Chicago, a facility designed by Albini and constructed to his own specification. One of the most significant design features of the studio is its deliberate 'all analogue' setup, based around a Studer 820 24‑track, Neotek Series II console, Ampex ATR102 half‑inch mixdown deck and B&W 805 Matrix monitors. The exclusively analogue setup at Electrical Audio determined which elements of the Cinerama album could and couldn't be recorded there, as Dare Mason explains. "David wasn't sure how he wanted to do the second album but he did want Albini to do the really crucial things, like the guitar and the drums. Again it was down to budget constraints. If he'd done it all on analogue it would have taken weeks, we wouldn't have been able to fly in any vocals, or do all the cutting, pasting, dragging and dropping that you can in digital audio, so they would have had to play and sing everything on the album, which would have taken far too long and cost far too much. The plan was to bring the project back here and have lots of time to do things like vocals and strings. We knew the string, horn and trumpet players we wanted to use so it made a lot of sense for the overdubs."
Given the music's heavy John Barry influence and the vintage analogue surroundings, it would only have taken the addition of a few men wearing white coats and clutching clipboards to complete the image of the SPECTRE headquarters from a 1960s Bond film. And, as Gedge explains, that image was surprisingly close to the truth: "All the people who work there wear overalls. It's like the technical department of BBC Radiophonic Workshop or something. Albini said they just felt that they were at work and in a different frame of mind when they put their overalls on, so they kept wearing them."
Albini reveals more of the reasons behind the curious protocol. "It isn't a dress code, any more than when fly‑fishermen all wear wading boots. One day I came to work and one of the guys had gotten a bunch of these overalls made. He handed me a set and said, 'Here's your jumpsuit.' I've worn them in the studio ever since, and so do most of the other guys here. They are an ideal work outfit — big pockets for carrying things around, heavy protection from bumping into things and for carrying things, and they keep my clothes from getting dirty and torn up. Most of making a record is like working in a warehouse (without the forklifts) — carrying things from one place to another, lifting things, crawling around under things, tidying up, and so on. The jumpsuits are great for that."
Although no strings or brass were to be recorded in Chicago, they were integral to the Cinerama sound, so Gedge took his Akai S3000 sampler loaded with the relevant samples and a laptop running Cakewalk to trigger them. "When we rehearsed, we played to a click track and I had the sampler going through a PA into the rest of the room," explains Gedge. "It was a bit weird, because the band had to play knowing that would be added later, but it was well rehearsed. That's the other thing about Albini, you have to be well rehearsed because he loses patience quickly."
Once again Albini is emphatic about his preference for well‑rehearsed bands and his approach to recording. "It stands to reason that if a band is ready to play its music before arriving in the studio, the end result will be more confident, and that decisions about it can be made more efficiently than otherwise. If you've never heard a song played all the way through before, how will you know if it's played to its full potential? It always helps to have a memory of the song being played as a reference.
"I try to audition things as they are set up, starting with the drums and moving from one instrument to the next, readjusting whenever something sounds bad. It isn't my style to use a standard setup and make adjustments after the recording is done. Certain songs require a different technique on one instrument or another depending on volume, tone and mood. It is part of the job to be sensitive to such things and make adjustments on the fly as necessary.
"I don't remember which mics and preamps I used precisely, but there would have been close mics on the drums, overhead mics and distant ambient mics. I was trying to be prepared for any eventuality in the final mix. There is occasionally some spillage, but I try to ensure that it is never a problem. I wasn't there when it was mixed, so I don't know if there were any later complaints. I seldom use any compression, limiting or EQ, except in specific trouble cases. I probably brightened the snare mic, and I think I limited one of the overhead mics as a special effect. That's probably about it. I don't recall which mics I used on the rest of the session. it could have been any of a dozen mics for each, depending on how it sounded on the day. I have over 200 microphones, and each of them has special characteristics that make them useful or not in different circumstances. Knowing them is part of the job. I don't recall using any effects, but I may be mistaken. The studio has a huge collection of equipment, so anything that was required was available, but I don't recall what was used in each instance."
By the end of the Chicago session, the drums, bass, some of the electric guitars and some vocals had been recorded. Albini then sent the 24‑track two‑inch master to Dare Mason for the addition of the overdubs. But before any work could commence, the audio had to be transferred into Cubase.
"It was a bit of a nightmare!" admits Dare. "Dave is nothing if not methodical and organised, but it wasn't as simple as he though it would be. The sequenced sounds and click had been dumped onto a couple of analogue tracks. The main problem was that the click was not generated by SMPTE so it wasn't tied to any kind of timecode. I received a 24‑track tape with a shaker for a click which was just 'shhh shhh shhh', and it had crosstalk all over it from the guide tracks. On top of that, the tape had been edited by Albini between various takes.
"I found a way around it with the help of another engineer called Chris Madden. Firstly we transferred it from 24‑track onto RADAR so we knew it was going to be stable with no wow and flutter problems. We managed to sync RADAR and Cubase via the word clock and MIDI sync at the same time via a very complicated process that I can't even remember now! It was like being a bomb disposal expert for two days."
Once the audio was successfully sync'ed and transferred, the business of adding the overdubs began in earnest at Dare's home studio. "The first stage for me and David was to listen to what had been done in America and see if there was anything that needed to be redone. By and large it sounded pretty good apart from one or two of the guitars. Unfortunately Simon had just been playing live with the bass and drums and didn't really get a chance to examine his sound, so we decided we'd keep all the bass and drums and redo some of the guitars. We decided some of the cleaner guitars could sound better, especially the tremolo ones. The distorted guitars were all fantastic and all the acoustic guitars sounded fine.
"After that I think we started working on programmed sounds. The string samples on this album were off David's S3000. We transferred David's programmed MIDI into Cubase via MIDI clock. Then I went through all the programmed strings he'd done and made sure it was all in time with the Chicago session. Once that was in, we got the real string players in, which was one violin player and one cello player. We found that until you multitrack them up at least three, possibly four or five times, you don't start to get the benefits of multitracking. Even then, you're still talking about the same player with the same style and same violin. It works but it's a particular type of sound, so we found the best thing to do is get one really good track of a violinist doubling the programmed part then mix that in with the programmed part. That gives it a lot more life than just having programmed strings."
Between the recording of Va Va Voom and Disco Volante, Dare Mason had upgraded his recording setup. His main recorder was no longer the Fostex D160, but an Apple Mac equipped with a MOTU 2408 interface. He recorded the acoustic instruments straight into Cubase at his home studio using his standard rack of equipment, plus a hired Neumann U47 for strings and vocals: "I put the string players out in the hall with the Neumann U47 valve mic. That went through the Mackie desk preamp without any EQ, then through my TL Audio compressor as clean as I could get it into the MOTU 2408. I didn't want to colour anything, because I knew when I got to the mix I could do it there."
The mix took place at Intimate Studios, London. "I had to ship the whole lot to Intimate including the monitors, samplers and the Roland Sound Canvas which we used for an organ sound and vibes. We used my Emu for a few sounds but mainly the S3000," explains Dare Mason. "There were no more than 24 tracks of audio on any song, so I used the outputs from the MOTU. It's got a bank of 24 ADAT output channels, so I patched 16 of those into the D160 and its converters to shove analogue out. I also used the eight analogue outputs on the MOTU to get a full 24 outputs.
"At Intimate we used a Harrison MR2 desk. Anything through the Harrison immediately sounds right to me. I didn't use any outboard EQ on the tracks, which I know will shock some people — but if the desk has got it, why bother? I'm a big fan of compression and they've got some UREI 1176s, a couple of Summits, a Dbx 160S and some little upright compressors called Gain Brains, which you can put together in a rack. I used those on guitars, although the guitars didn't need much compression.
"The drums had an awful lot of compression. I ended up submixing them to a stereo track then compressing them. There were 10 tracks of drums to choose from. He'd put mics on the front and back of the bass drum, and there were four or five ambient mics. Two of those were overheads with loads of room sound on and I think he'd tried to compensate by moving the other overhead mics quite close to the cymbals. Albini had had to record 13 tracks in four days, and 'Wow' had to be completely finished apart from strings and horns because Dave wanted to release a single before the album came out, so they did work the poor guy's butt off. I had the luxury of working in a very relaxed fashion here.
"Absolutely no reverb was added to the drums. I know it's hard to believe, but it's all just the live room. Albini must have recorded it in a massive room with the mics quite distant. If anything that was a problem, because even the close mics sounded like they were recorded in a big room. It's all about your taste and subjectivity, and if it had been up to me the drums wouldn't have been so ambient because I like things to sound like they're recorded in the same space, but David has a different vision, which is great because it sounds more unique than it would if I'd mixed it to my taste. David would be saying 'Can't we make the drums sound a bit more ambient?', while I was saying 'For f••k's sake man, it sounds like Led Zeppelin already!'
"If I'd had the choice on this album I'd have definitely had a spring reverb, a plate reverb and ideally a chamber. We didn't have any of those at Intimate so I used a Yamaha SPX1000 preset called Old Plate on the orchestral instruments and a Lexicon 224 Rich Plate as needed. Unlike the drums, David likes his vocals to be fairly up‑front and dry, and on 'Lollobrigida' I didn't use any vocal effects at all. There's a program on my Alesis Microverb called Reverse which I find is a fantastic effect for making a vocal sit in a mix. At, say, a 200 millisecond delay, it works in a different way to slap‑back delay at that setting because it's smoother and more subtle, so it's cross between a short reverb and a slap‑back. I'm a real fan of anything budget like that, because they're just so simple to use, and you usually find there's one or two things they do better, in a less complicated way, than expensive effects.
"Once I've got organised on the first mix in terms of channels on the desk and where things are coming up, it pretty much flows through. I get the band sounding pretty good then put the vocal in and work on that. Then I start putting all the bits of icing around. Once I have everything in at a balance that I like, Dave will come in and ask for a little bit more ambience on the drums, and say 'Aren't the vocals a bit loud?' That's usually what it boils down to and that's usually a bit of a fight between me and him. I think I've persuaded him that the vocals do need to be a bit louder than he thinks. He's so used to them being buried under the guitars in The Wedding Present. The lyrics are at least 50 percent of what Cinerama is about, so I really like people to be able to hear the words, but Dave gets his own way with the drums and the ambience!"
Once the mixes were complete, the album was mastered at Hilton Grove by Guy Davis and released in the summer of 2000. A special heavy vinyl edition was sent by Gedge to Albini (knowing his preference for that format), and was the first opportunity for the engineer to hear the finished result. While describing the album as 'a fine record' Albini had reservations about the process. "I always prefer to be involved from start to finish because I have high standards, and I like to see them maintained. It breeds inconsistencies and compromised results when a project is taken from one engineer and environment and thrust into another. This is as true for Cinerama as anything else."
While happy with the results of this hybrid project, Gedge also sees a full project with Steve Albini as a possibility. "I'd like to do a whole project with Albini from beginning to end with all the orchestration because he's quite into that. He's known as this grunge producer, but his big idol is George Martin and he loves Abbey Road studios. I think he gave Disco Volante a certain edge it wouldn't have had otherwise — and the drums sound great! I do want to do some more Wedding Present stuff again in the future but I'm not sure if I'll try to bring in more instruments or just enjoy the limitation again. Only time will tell."
You can hear samples from the Cinerama album Disco Volante on the SOS web site. Surf to www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb01/a....
Visit the Cinerama website at: www.cinerama.co.uk
David Gedge explains some of his thoughts on cinematic music and composition: "What appeals to me is the hugeness and the emotional quantity of film music — it's so big! I used to think to get a big sound you just get a great drum sound then pile it all on. It does sound fantastic, but when you've done that there's nowhere left to go. These cinematic things work with the dynamics of the instruments. The horns may come in for a change of level but it's not always the horns, sometimes it's the strings, so it's they way it all fits together. For example, I quite like the flute which can really cut through because it's so high‑pitched and clear, and when I need a big sound, it will probably be a cello at the very bottom with horns over the top. There are certain instruments I come back to time and time again because they sound great, and others I hate. I don't like the sound of saxophone. To me it just sounds like '80s MOR as soon as I hear it, so I never use it.
"I see Disco Volante as quite modern‑sounding. At the moment, many of those instruments have the connotation of being retro and the tremolo guitar can be seen as that as well, but I've drawn from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '90s for this sound. With technology now you have all these great sounds at your disposal, so you should use them."
The move away from distorted guitars towards orchestral instruments certainly hasn't dented the power of Gedge's music, however. "The track 'Wow' starts off massive and ends up gargantuan!" exclaims Dare Mason. "David was saying 'When that guitar comes in it's got to be louder!' and I was saying 'Look at the compressor, it's already doing that!' So I have to back off on the compression then get the guitar coming in as loud as he wants. He's built up a knowledge of how that wall of sound works. At the end of 'Wow' there must be at least five separate guitar parts in addition to bass, drums, flute, cello, violin, horns, and there's probably a couple of keyboard parts in there as well.
"At the end of 'Manhattan', which is a single we did before the album, we totted up what was going on and there were something like 24 different instruments. Everything David loved was on at the end of that song. It's great as a mixer to try and find a way to fit all that in, and you have to use all the tricks. You have to find the right frequency range for the instrument, you have to pan it into the right place and use tricks with reverb and delay so it's in the right acoustic space. There isn't any space at the end of that track."
Disco Volante is just one of countless projects that Steve Albini has engineered at Electrical Audio — but his philosophy has remained consistent across all of them, as he explains. "I don't know how many specific techniques are common to the work I've done with other bands, but the underlying conceptual rules would be the same:
- Be prepared for anything the band wants to do.
- Fix it now, not later.
- If it doesn't sound good to the band, it doesn't sound good.
- The band is the boss. I consider myself to be an engineer. The producer is responsible for artistic decisions on the record, and I am not. An engineer is responsible for the technical execution of the recording, as I am.
- Don't take shortcuts if they will be noticeable."
Disco Volante is an independent album in the truest sense of the word, having been released on Gedge's own Scopitones label. Gedge explains why he decided to go it alone: "The Wedding Present used to have their own label called Reception Records and we signed other bands. Cud had their first single 'Never Mind The Gap' on our label.
"When my label manager, Steve Young, left Cooking Vinyl it was the final straw, because he was a really good bloke. There were a few other record labels who were interested, but they were all about the same level as Cooking Vinyl. Then Steve said 'If you want to set up your own label, I'll manage it on a freelance basis,' and that's what we do. He takes a commission as distributor, does all the day‑to‑day running and just phones me if he wants to make a big decision. It works really well and it make sense for bands who want to run their own label. You get 80 percent of the income rather than 13 percent, but the main thing is having the control. If it happens or if it fails it's because of us rather than someone else."
"I think it's a great way for David to go," agrees Dare. "He owns his own record. He's been in the business long enough to know that means a lot. The only thing some bands want is to get signed, but you have to think about it. OK, so you've made an album, but the record company own that album, and the master tapes as well. They can delete it, license it, can sell it at whatever price, and they've got choice over the distributors. If you continue as a band on a different label and you want to put out a 'best of' or a re‑release then you have to go cap‑in‑hand to the record company. I think David has chosen the right way for the level he's on. I hope he earns a fortune from it."
Steve Albini explains why digital equipment has no place in his studio: "Analogue sounds better than digital to my ears, more true to the sound of the instruments and voices. There are no real advantages to abandoning either the proven equipment or techniques, and analogue masters are permanent — lasting 100 years or so at last estimate — while digital masters are not. There's an arcane technical discussion involved here, but the gist of it is that digital recording systems keep being discontinued, or are no longer functionally adequate, and the masters are either hard‑disk files with no physical being, or physical tape/disc copies, which deteriorate of their own accord in a relatively short time period, and I consider the minimum requirement of my job to be making a permanent recording.
"Digital systems invite an entire slew of problems, akin to computer glitches in all other walks of life, into the studio, and I don't want to inflict them on the band or their audience. Analogue systems are more reliable, faster and easier to use. They're more robust with respect to abuse, easier to maintain and repair, better suited to creative/experimental recording techniques and less fatiguing on the operators and listeners. Lastly, analogue equipment holds its value far better, which is a consideration when investing in equipment for the long term."