Legendary rockers Deep Purple are back with a new, self-produced album. Sharon Stancavage talks to bassist Roger Glover and engineer Darren Schneider about how it was recorded.
Amazingly, it's now more than 30 years since Deep Purple first burst into the charts with their version of Joe South's 'Hush'. The intervening years have seen them produce classic albums like Fireball and Deep Purple In Rock, with numerous personnel changes yielding high-profile splinter groups like Rainbow and Gillan. Their latest offering features four members of the classic 'Smoke On The Water' Deep Purple line-up, including vocalist Ian Gillan and Jon Lord, whose distinctive keyboard style still makes the band stand out from other heavy rock acts.
In late 1988, Deep Purple were ensconced in Vermont, working on their Slaves And Masters album and playing soccer in their free time. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and when the ice and snow started to appear in earnest, the decision was made to relocate to a comfortable writing and recording studio with a soccer field nearby. The band ended up in the more temperate climate of Altamonte Springs, Florida, a suburb of Orlando, at Greg Rike Productions. The studio has become the band's second home, and they've been there for every single album since then.
Abandon, the title of the current Deep Purple project, began production in September 1997, and was completed in April 1998, including two breaks for touring. It was produced by the band and engineered by Darren Schneider, who has been working with Deep Purple since their 1992 album The Battle Rages On.
This time around, Deep Purple (consisting of Ian Gillan on vocals, Roger Glover on bass, Jon Lord on keyboards, Steve Morse on guitar and Ian Paice on drums) came into the studio after a year and a half on tour supporting their album Perpendicular, and had definite ideas on where the current project was heading. "I think it was an unconscious desire on behalf of all of us to echo our road experience in the studio. I think Abandon started out with the unspoken intention of being a harder album," states bassist Roger Glover.
The band spent the early part of recording in the live room at Greg Rike Productions, which is essentially transformed into a pseudo-mobile recording unit during rehearsals. "When we rehearse, the rehearsals are literally just the band. Then, a week or two into it, we'll usually put up a couple of mics around the drums and one mic in front of each amp. It's very very rudimentary and really just for demo purposes, just so we can remember what went on," recalls Glover.
After the primary musical structures of the songs were established, they were recorded first as live tracks, then each instrument was replaced as an overdub one instrument at a time while the musician was playing to the original recording to re-create the live feel. Even so, there were some songs, and sections of songs, where the original 'live' master tape tracks were used, notably 'Seventh Heaven'. Paice's drum track was recorded first, and Glover then added a scratch bass track. Morse then recorded his guitar overdubs, playing in the control room with the amp head while the speaker cabinet was miked up in the studio. Lord then added his keyboards, after which Glover laid down his final bass track. When the writing process was finished, Gillan's vocals were added.
According to Glover, "The room in Greg Rike Productions is superb — acoustically and in terms of atmosphere." The room measures 30 feet by 50 feet, and is divided into two sections by an oak walkway. One side is carpeted, while the other side (which is considered the live side of the room) has a cement floor and is surrounded by a cyc wall (a curved wall used in video as a backdrop). The cyc wall "creates a different kind of atmosphere than most studios," says Abandon engineer Darren Schneider. Paice and his drum kit were situated on the live side of the room, along with Morse and his guitar rig, the pair segregated by a baffled wall. On the other side of the room is a separate area where Glover and his bass rig were situated, along with Lord and his multitude of keyboards. In the early phase of recording, Gillan used the middle walkway to offer suggestions for the musical structure of the songs, as well as to generate lyrical ideas.
Schneider recorded the project on two Sony digital DASH machines — a Sony 3324 was used for the first two months of recording and later, as the tracks progressed, they were finished on the Sony 3348. The 3324 at Greg Rike Productions has a warmer sound than most digital recorders, the result of a converter filter upgrade that was done in Nashville, Tennessee. The outcome is a project that has a "much warmer, beefier sound," says Schneider.
Abandon was recorded on a vintage API 40-channel discrete console. "People want the older equipment to record and the newer equipment to mix, which is exactly our case," Schneider explains. The rebuilt API board (originally from ABC Television in New York) provides Schneider with the vintage rock sound. "My philosophy is that when you're tracking and you're looking for that rock sound, you've got to go through a vintage board," he says.
During the tracking phase, Schneider used a minimalistic approach to outboard gear. "Everything is created out of a musical jam — it always originates from that, and we try to keep that through the whole process."
One of the workhorses in Schneider's stable of outboard gear was the Manley Variable-Mu compressor. On Abandon, Schneider used this tube compressor primarily on drum overheads as well as the rhythm guitar parts. "The tube compressor brings a lot of warmth and personality," he explains.
Schneider also used a Tube Tech CL1B compressor on the lead guitars and bass, while other guitar effects were controlled by the elaborate pedal board Morse uses. A Dbx 160 compressor/limiter was also used on the bass, while Schneider used the Dbx 165 Over Easy compressor/limiter on Lord's keyboards. On the Hammond, he used a 4:1 or 5:1 compression ratio on the Dbx 165, primarily because of the dynamic range of the instrument. Finally, for the vocals, Schneider used the Manley Vox Box — a compressor, limiter, equaliser and mic preamp all rolled into one. "It's a one-stop vocal shop," Schneider says with a laugh. For the vocals on Abandon (some of which were recorded by engineer Keith Andrews) Schneider ran the Vox Box through the API console, to get more of an organic, classic Deep Purple sound. Schneider and Glover also depended heavily on Digidesogn's Pro Tools 4.0 to edit throughout the tracking phase of the project, sometimes combining the best sections from several different takes and just occasionally moving things around in the arrangement. During post-production, Pro Tools was used to assist in the mixing process, when Darren used it primarily as a reference or library to archive all the mixes — Pro Tools wasn't actually used for mixing.
On Morse's guitars, Schneider had to deal with miking a total of three cabinets — a left and a right dry cabinet, with a wet (effects) cabinet between them. Each Peavey cabinet (with Peavey 5150 heads) was separated by a baffle to eliminate phase problems. On the wet cabinet, Morse controlled the effects with a floor pedal, while Schneider miked the cabinet using a Sennheiser 421 or a Shure SM57. For the primary dry cabinet, he used an AKG 451 with a 10dB pad, placed about an inch or so from the cabinet, off-axis with respect to the centre of the cone. On the secondary dry cabinet (which used a modulated delay) he used a Shure Beta 57A, for the extended frequency response. Schneider took the two dry cabinets, split the signal, and used it to create a stereo guitar sound. All of the guitars were close-miked, which is what Morse himself wanted on the album.
Meanwhile, Glover used two bass rigs — one a Mesa/Boogie, the other an Eden — while he played a Vigier bass. "I think these days I'm achieving better bass sounds than I ever did," Glover reports. An AKG 414 was used for Glover's bass rig, placed eight to 12 inches away, aimed directly at the centre of the cabinet, which is operating at maximum capacity. "The amps aren't going to give you that big, crunchy distortion if they're not turned up. You just have to push the speakers," Schneider explains.
Schneider also found that volume control was the key to achieving the Hammond organ snarl that is Jon Lord's signature sound. "Part of getting the growl out of the organ is turning everything up as loud as it can possibly go and pushing it without worrying about blowing the speakers," claims Schneider. The other crucial element in the equation is Lord himself. "He can manipulate the organ to do that," he says with a chuckle. "I'll sit there and try to do it and nothing will come out. Jon knows what to do and how to push the Hammond to get it to grind like that." To get the growl on to tape, Schneider used two Shure SM57s, positioned to the left and right of the Leslie, about an inch off the wood. On the bottom of the Leslie, he placed an AKG D12 (chosen for its lower frequency response) in as far as he could get without hitting the rotor. "I like the airy sound the Leslie makes when it rotates and I get that off the bottom of the cabinet," Schneider explains.
Finally, for Ian Gillan's vocals, Schneider and Gillan felt most comfortable with the Neumann U87. "The U87 is a large-diaphragm microphone, so it produces a lot of low end, yet has the big, breathy sound that Gillan likes to hear." Gillan doesn't use a pop shield in the studio, leaving Schneider and Keith Andrews (who recorded several vocals while Schneider and Glover were in post-production) to carefully scrutinise the vocals for unwanted popping. Schneider says that Gillan "knows how to play the microphone. If he's looking for a real tight, upfront sound, he'll sing right on top of the mic. Other times, he may back off six inches or so, and during the screams, he'll pull back up to a foot."
Another hurdle for Schneider in the studio was dealing with the headphone mixes for the band. "That's probably the biggest challenge I faced on this project — doing the headphone mixes for a band that primarily doesn't like to use headphones," says Schneider. When overdubbing, the entire band had individual headphone mixes with the exception of guitarist Steve Morse, who only used headphones for his click track.
As the months passed, deadlines were nearing, and Schneider and Glover (who was in the studio every day with Schneider for the entire project) decided that it was time to start mixing. Schneider was originally planning to mix in either Nashville or New York, but was now limited by the fact that the vocals weren't quite finished. So instead he found himself at Platinum Post in Orlando, the only facility in the area that had an SSL 9000J console — Schneider's primary requirement for the post-production work. And, as always, Schneider applied the minimalist approach in the mixing process. "We might want a little pixie dust here and there," Schneider concedes, "but what we have on tape to start with is pretty much what we want."
So, while Gillan and Andrews were finishing up the last week or so of vocal tracking, Schneider and Glover decided to try something a bit more unconventional in post-pro. Instead of working on each song individually until it was completed, the pair mixed every song in multiple stages. As a result, Schneider and the band had a rough idea of the entire album very early in the process. "It might have been more productive to mix the album the conventional way," Schneider admits. "I really could have focused on a lot more of the little details I hear now." In the end, Schneider and Glover came into post-production with an average of 10 to 15 versions of each song, and finished mixing with "literally hundreds of versions."
On Abandon, Schneider was looking for a natural, organic-sounding Purple album, which he achieved by using more room mics and integrating the instruments as a whole, rather than strictly isolating them. "I actually try to pre-think as much as I can," Schneider remarks. "You have to think of the tracks as a finished mix, and decide where you're going to place things in the mix to keep it symmetrical." While mixing, Schneider paid special attention to the aural interplay between the drums and the guitars. "I try to put all of the guitars in the same room as the drums," Schneider explains. "The guitars can have a harsh, upfront sound to begin with, so I use the Lexicon 480L reverb to try and give them the same atmosphere the drums are in."
Like every engineer, Schneider has his favourite musical moments on the project. Throughout the recording process, he focused on giving the listener an accurate portrayal of the band in the studio, rather than creating an artificial sound that reflected his machinations as an engineer. His favourite track, the one that best expresses what he wanted to achieve in the studio is the blues jam 'Don't Make Me Happy'. "For me, from the time it went down on tape, it was the most real moment of the whole project. Steve's solo is so classy, so tasteful, and it was one of those things that just happened. It expresses the band as individuals and genuinely reflects their personalities," Schneider concludes.
'Seventh Heaven', one of the harder songs on Abandon, was born out of a moment of spontaneity that, according to Glover, wasn't meant to be repeated. "'Seventh Heaven' was recorded during one of our early writing sessions," explains Glover. "When we came to actually doing it properly, we couldn't come close to the spontaneity of the live feel. So we just salvaged that demo recording." This spontaneity matches Roger Glover's ideas for the future: "I'd like to be able to spend more time writing the songs and performing them, either in clubs or in rehearsal situations, and then just going on to a recording studio that's basically a stage set and just playing."
In the end, 'Seventh Heaven' turned out to be one of Glover's favourite tracks. "To me, 'Seventh Heaven' is really one of the best songs on the album. I think it exemplifies the spirit of Deep Purple more than any other song," Glover asserts. "It doesn't sound like anything else we've ever done, but it does have that raging spirit."
Technically speaking, Schneider considers 'Watching The Skies' to be one of the more ambitious songs on Abandon. 'Watching The Skies', which evolved out of one of Glover's riffs, emerged in the sessions as a powerful track, but wasn't completely realised as a song until much later in the process. While mixing, Schneider added a plethora of effects to the answer vocal on the chorus. "We used the Eventide GTR4000, we used a Roland SDE2000 delay, as well as a little bit of the Lexicon 480 reverb on the vocals," Schneider explains. "We wanted to create a certain atmosphere." In Schneider's eyes, "There's something for everybody in 'Watching The Skies' — it's got a spacey, almost psychedelic verse, its got the real hard chorus, it has a lot of elements that could reach a lot of different people."
In the end, regardless of the logistics of recording, Schneider is pleased with Abandon. "It's a real album that expresses who this band is. I didn't change that, I didn't colour it, and, as an engineer, that's a pretty big thing."
Looking at Abandon as a whole, Schneider claims that the drums are "probably my proudest moment." Paice played a custom seven-piece Pearl maple-shell studio kit that included a six-inch maple free-floating snare and a six-inch deep brass snare, which was used on most tracks. To round out the package, Paice used Paiste cymbals, with 20- and 22-inch crash cymbals, which is uncommon in the studio. Generally speaking, Schneider tried to keep the drum sound natural, and didn't bother with MIDI or triggers on this project.
Schneider and Paice arrived at the drum sound mainly through careful tuning — Paice being an expert at tuning his kit. The microphones Schneider used included two Shure SM57s for the top and bottom of the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, and an EV RE20 on the kick drum. For the cymbals, Schneider put two Neumann U67s on the overheads and used an AKG 451 on the ride, and a Shure SM81 on the hi-hat. Two AKG 451s were set up as room mics, located about 20 feet away from Paice, with a 20-foot spread between the pair.
For the cymbals, Schneider placed the Neumann U67 overheads about seven feet above the kit and pulled slightly forward of it, to create a stereo image of the kit as a whole, rather than simply isolating the sound of the cymbals. "When I use the overhead tube mics with the Manley tube compressor, it seems to take off the initial edge, the harshness of the crash. It gives us great sustain, and it just washes into everything," Schneider says. For the kick drum, Schneider created a makeshift tunnel using a packing blanket draped over the top of the drum, to contain the resonant frequency produced by the drum. He then placed the mic about one inch or so outside the hole in the front head, inside the tunnel, shooting straight at the beater. "We didn't take the front head off," he says. "It creates a lot of sound and gives it more depth."
Schneider and Glover used a unique way to reference their mixes in post-production. Rather than burning a CD or using a cassette tape that might produce inconsistent results, they simply wired the console at Platinum Post to their car stereos. "We took a cue send off the board and actually wired it to two cars," Schneider says with a chuckle. "The CD player in my car had a line input, so all we did was plug the headphone box into my CD player. Roger had a portable DAT player, which had an adaptor that goes into his cassette, which we also wired to the board." So, while the pair were mixing "we'd literally walk out the door, hop into the cars, and the mix was playing in them." Since everyone listens to music in their cars, they wanted to have an accurate representation of what the mix would sound like in a vehicle. "A reference from anything other than the studio is handy," Glover adds.
However, Glover also remembers working in a studio in Paris that had a radio transmitter on the roof. After mixing, the engineer would simply pick up a transistor radio, switch on his tape machine and the tape would be playing via the rooftop transmitter — allowing them to sample what the tape would sound like on French radio, with all of their EQ and compression added. "That was taking it a bit to the extreme," Glover laughs.
The Abandon sessions produced a total of 12 original songs, one of which was eventually scrapped from the project. To round out the album, the band decided to re-work one of their classic songs. 'Bloodsucker', 'No One Came' and 'When A Blind Man Cries' were all considered; in the end, 'Bloodsucker' (from their 1972 breakthrough album In Rock) was chosen. Originally, Schneider envisioned the track with a huge, punchy sound, but that plan didn't come to fruition. Although the final version of 'Bloodsucker' was quite different, Schneider is happy with the end result — a song originally written and recorded 25 years ago that aesthetically meshes with the current album.