Eliot Kennedy has carved out a highly successful career for himself as a hi‑tech producer and songwriter for a wave of groups at the 'teen sensation' end of the pop market, all without leaving Sheffield. Nigel Humberstone finds out how he did it.
With a couple of Number One hits under his belt — the Spice Girls' 'Say You'll Be There' and Take That's 'Everything Changes' — Eliot Kennedy is a renowned producer with an international reputation. Despite his tremendous success, Eliot has remained in his home town of Sheffield, initially producing and writing in a home studio on the outskirts of the city. When the need to expand his studio became acute, he still resisted the pull of the capital, moving his equipment into the professional environment of what was once FON studios, in the heart of Sheffield. In fact, in taking over the vacant and liquidated studio complex, Eliot pooled his resources with two London‑based producers, Tim Lever and Mike Percy (now his studio and production partners), and as a result of this move Tim and Mike actually closed their studio on the outskirts of London to move up to Sheffield! Together, the three of them reckon there are very few of the teeny pop stars that they haven't produced during the last five years.
"We used to work on the same projects purely by accident," recalls Eliot; "people like Pauline Henry, Dannii Minogue and Higher Ground. But we got together properly through working on The Journey [the album by 'boy band' 911]: I started it at my house, then Tim and Mike got involved and at first we commuted between my place and their studio."
Six singles have now been taken from 911's album, and the production trio's workload shows no signs of diminishing. Together, they've shaped the old FON studio (now called Steelworks) into what can be termed their 'production line' facility. Certain items of FON's old equipment have been kept (the classic Eventide Harmoniser, EMS Vocoder and Urei 1176LN compressors), but the Amek Mozart console has been replaced with a 40‑channel version of the same desk, and structural changes have done away with the redundant multitrack, machine and cutting rooms, incorporating the space into a second programming suite/studio designed by electro‑acoustic specialist Andrew Parry.
Now that Eliot has transferred his home studio equipment into the existing second studio, upgrading his Soundcraft Spirit 24 to a 32‑channel Ghost and adding new Absolute 4P monitors and a Korg XP master keyboard, Steelworks comprises three fully compatible facilities with Apple Macs, Emagic Logic Audio and Audiowerk8 I/O cards, and 24 tracks of ADAT.
"The majority of what I do is vocals and arranging," explains Eliot, "even though we do swap and change. I'll get a track going, but Tim might also be working on the same track in his room doing a load of keyboard and drum programming. And Mike, in the main control room, will be mixing the track that we've just finished; we'll just have to pass the ADAT tapes through. In an album situation you can turn things round very quickly. Last week we had 911 in for the weekend and we got through seven tracks in three days — and that was just using two rooms.
"We've got so much work on that we've got a backlog — there's 10 or 11 mixes to do just to bring us up to date with our production schedule. That's simply because there was a period of three or four weeks when we moved in and we weren't working together properly — so all that time I was stacking songs up. Luckily I'm going to America for a month [to work with Burt Bacharach] so that will give Tim and Mike a chance to come up to date."
Being in Sheffield's cultural industries quarter, Steelworks cannot help but absorb some of the creative vibrancy that the area is renowned for.
"To be honest, it's refreshing to get away from the London music scene," admits Tim. "I think that, in 10 years of producing records in London, only five percent of our acts were actually from London. So it wasn't that relevant us being based there. The vibe in this studio is about 500 times better than it was before; because it's a multi‑studio complex, there's always someone here. Yesterday there was a band in Eliot's room and we were doing a track in the main room, so I just went through and asked the guitarist if he wanted to do a quick session."
"It doesn't matter what you're doing," says Eliot, "because you're all working towards the same thing. Maybe you'll get some horn players in and they're in two studios doing two different sessions. So everywhere's buzzing and exciting. One of the things I liked about working at my house was that people would enjoy coming over to play, not just because they were being paid to play, but because it was a good crack. I wasn't sure if that would continue here, but it has. More importantly, with Tim and Mike being here as well, they've got to know everybody that I know on the local music scene. We've got local session musicians who come in regularly, and it's more important to me that they're comfortable with the whole process. They come in, have a bit of lunch and stop around as long as necessary."
For Tim, the new studio and environment even have a touch of classic recording traditions.
"What I like about it is that we've nearly got to the stage of having a house band like Motown — and I really like that idea. In the Motown studio they had the drum kit set up permanently with all the same microphones. You get such a good relationship with the musicians that they come to know what you're after. You only have to hum it to them — actually, yesterday we got a kazoo out and said 'This is what we want!'"
"I always wanted to be a musician," says Eliot, "but never had the wish to be a performer." He began writing songs at 13, along with his brother, using two Wasp synths, a portable studio and a Roland Drumatix drum machine.
"I started a band at school, entered the TSB Rock School competition and came third, but what I wanted was to write and get into studio work."
Through apprentice engineering at weekends and after work at Blank Tape studio in Sheffield, Eliot learnt how to operate studio equipment, then went to Spain for a year. On his return, he was involved in a car crash, and the insurance pay‑off allowed him to buy some gear and start up on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme as a freelance engineer. The varied studio work ultimately led him into production work and programming.
You can't lie to kids, so when there's a new act on they either like it or they don't.
"In 1990 I started working with a couple of songwriters in Sheffield under the name 5 Boys and it all started coming together — I'd found an outlet for my songwriting as well as being able to do the production side."
After about two years of constant demo'ing with different artists, Eliot met with Lulu through his new manager, and produced the hit 'Independence'. That led onto other projects, such as a Pauline Henry album, Dannii Minogue's 'This Is The Way', and Kenny Thomas' 'Destiny'. Then came a phone call from RCA asking if he wanted to make a record with Take That.
"We went down to London for a meeting, and they played us a tape and said 'Pick a song'. On the demo tape were 'Pray' and 'Wasting My Time', which we chose because I thought I could create more of an effect by incorporating live musicians. So I put a band together, using mainly Sheffield musicians, then delivered the song — and Gary [Barlow] asked if I wanted to produce another one.
"I got on really well with 'the boys'," recalls Eliot, "mainly because we're all about the same age and have similar interests in music. Then I got a phone call from my publisher, saying 'Gary wants to co‑write, do you want to do it?' The next day he was over, and 20 minutes later, in the kitchen, we wrote 'Everything Changes'. Gary came along with the title, we sat down and I put 'but you' in brackets. After a couple of hours, we had the whole structure and song — so it was a very quick process."
Eliot's aim has been to work with different people all the time, rather than one writer. As a result, he has broadened his base as a producer. His R'n'B style has also led him to America, where he was called to work with MJJ Records (Michael Jackson's label) — writing for Rebe Jackson, 3T, Brownstone and other acts on the label.
As an aid to lyric‑writing, Eliot has a small collection of reference books sitting on the shelf (see the photograph, right) .
"I don't actually use them very often, but every now and then if you're stuck, the quotations are useful. Maybe you'll be trying to say something, so you look up phrases in that area and someone's said it much better than you're able to, so all you do then is make it work for your song. The rhyming dictionary is just invaluable — it's like the Bible for lyricists."
Abbreviations and titles are also a constant source of inspiration.
"I work a lot from titles. Titles inspire me to think of a direction; if it's one of those really hip titles — like with Kavana, one of the titles was 'MFEO' — everyone who hears the song asks what it means, which is what we want. 'MFEO' means 'made for each other' and the whole song is about the title. Another song we've written is called 'The Swing', and it's about being young — when you're hanging out you're actually swinging. I like creating hooky phrases.
"Funnily enough, with our own new act, these three girls from Nottingham called Blush, we've done a title track called 'Blush' and the whole concept of the project is future funk: disco music but really spacey. Futuristic but accessible. So Blush is a P‑Funky disco tune about the whole concept of being a Blush girl or Blush babe, being young and among a group of friends who want to be pop stars."
But doesn't he find it difficult relating to a teenage market?
"It can be, but at the same time there's a lot of bullshit that goes with it. You hear an A&R man talking about marketing and all the rest of it, but if you just go to any of the Mizz or Smash Hits roadshows, you can look at the kids and see what they're into. You can't lie to kids, so when there's a new act on they either like it or they don't. They don't have to tell you why they don't like it — they just don't buy it. You can tell by their reactions what works and what doesn't."
When it comes to making pop tracks 'radio friendly', a different approach to arranging and production is required, and Eliot is well placed to elaborate on some of the essential points.
"Take the Sean McGuire single 'We Can Make It Right', for example. The song had a double verse, and immediately I knew that the radio mix should only have one, so that you get to the chorus quicker. What I consider a radio mix is something that'll allow the DJ to talk over the intro, by which point I want to be able to hear the chorus — what this song's about. So my radio mixes start with, say, four bars of groove or instrumentation and then build up to the chorus or backing vocals from the chorus, so you immediately get the hook. Then once you're into the song, just keep it concise and punchy.
"There is also a different reference to EQ when I'm doing a radio mix — generally it'll be brighter, and I'll want the mix to sound wide. Radio compression is very severe, it has to be, so if you deliver a song that's already been treated then it's going to sound better. With a PA [personal appearance] mix, I'll mix it as a 7‑inch with the vocals and then take the lead vocal out so that I know it's going to sit right. Another thing I might do is raise the level of the backing vocals, just to give the track some more dynamics. As a rule I deliver instrumentals as well, along with an album version, which will be the full length with double verse, and might have an instrumental verse and extended fade."
A recent project that Eliot has been involved with is the Boyzone track 'A Picture Of You', the theme for the new Mr Bean movie Bean, made by Working Title Films.
"Doing the Boyzone track for the Mr Bean soundtrack was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life because there was such a strict brief from the film people. They said that they needed a song that had no love interest, in fact no gender reference whatsoever, but it had to be a story about the film. But from Boyzone's perspective the track had to be a love song! Eventually we found a way — and it looks as though it's going to be a massive record."
Among countless other projects on the go, Eliot is working with Kenny Thomas, Shiva, Blush and another new act called Six Pack. But despite his hectic schedule, he obviously thrives on the variety and diversity of the work.
"That's the great thing about it. If I was working on just one project for a period of three months, I'd be stale. But, because every two days the product changes, it's refreshing. To be honest, I don't enjoy doing more than four or five tracks on an album — for one thing, you start repeating yourself. With Take That I did 'Everything Changes', the Beatles medley, 'Wasting My Time', and 'Whatever You Do To Me', along with the backing vocal arrangement on 'Relight My Fire' — and after that I thought 'Well, what do you do now with Take That?' You've covered all the live aspect, you've done the disco/pop angle, and I really felt we'd achieved something on that album. I don't want to be known as a producer with a certain sound — instead you go to Eliot Kennedy because of what he does to a record."
Among all this, Eliot doesn't appear to crave the recognition of his involvement with chart‑topping acts.
"I'm quite cool about that — I don't mind, simply because I want to get on with my life. I'm going to be a Dad soon and the idea of not being able to spend time with my baby scares me to death. I like the idea of coming to work, working sensible hours, going home and still having a life."
- Emu Planet Phatt
"I've used the guitar samples on just about everything I've done in the last two months. I use it for getting loads of things that I would normally have used the sampler for, like getting little snatches of sounds. And of course you don't have to worry about copyright. All the grooves are useful for when you're writing."
- Emu Morpheus
- Emu UltraProteus
- Emu Vintage Keys
"This has some great analogue patches, and I also like the Hammond sounds. I've also been able to get into it and program a lot of my own stuff."
- Korg M1R
- Korg Trinity ProX
- Novation BassStation
- Roland JV1080
- Yamaha TX7
"I've got two of these DX7 modules, which again I've got permanently set to one sound: it's like a Rhodes piano. And they're both the same sound, but one has a higher frequency filter open and the other is slightly detuned. I pan them left and right to create this fantastic Rhodes sound that seems to move."
- Yamaha TX81Z
"The TX81Z is always set to one sound, which I adore, a bass sound called 'Lately Bass'. It's a factory preset that I've tweaked slightly, but it's fantastic — a classic dancefloor bass sound. It's like one of those bass sounds that Babyface always uses."
- Alesis D4
"Because it's got some fantastic percussion sounds. Things like the cymbals and hi‑hats — once you've put them in the back of a track or behind a loop they sound great."
- Akai S3000XL (32Mb)
"I'm not one of those people who have lots of sample CDs — I'd rather build my own sounds up over a period of time, creating drum and percussion loops with drummers that I've hired. What sounds like a lifted sample is in fact a carefully constructed and multi‑layered loop, including crowd atmosphere, scratching and various drum sounds."
- Apple Power Mac 8100 running Emagic Logic Audio & Audiowerk8 I/O card
- Atari Megafile 30 running Creator 3.1
"I'm going to have to keep this, because the hard disk is just full of my career."
- Alesis ADAT (x3) plus BRC
- Alesis Midiverb II effects
- Alesis Midiverb IV effects
- Axxeman guitar effects
- Drawmer 1960 compressor
- Drawmer DL441 quad compressor
- Drawmer M500 stereo processor
- Lexicon Alex effects
- Spirit Absolute 4P active monitors
- Soundcraft Ghost 32 mixer
"The EQ is brilliant. I was a bit sceptical at first because I'd got so used to my old Spirit 24, but this is fantastic — loads of options. It also sounds really loud, and so punchy that I have to watch that my output levels are not too high. I can do something in here, take it through to the main room and it sounds like a record, it's so close to being a master, which makes my job a lot easier."
- Tascam DA30 DAT
Vocals are an Eliot Kennedy speciality — especially backing vocals, or 'BVs' as he calls them.
"What I do is multitrack onto the ADAT, balance the levels and harmonies through the desk, sample a stereo mix and place it, and then re‑record it back to ADAT via the Drawmer 1960 compressor, which gives real warmth and a slight compression that really gets the backing vocals sitting nicely in the track."
- Emu Proformance piano module
- Korg Trinity Plus
- Oberheim Matrix 1000
- Roland MKS50
- Roland Super JV1080
- Waldorf Pulse
- Yamaha TX7
- Akai S3200
- Mac clone 200MHz 604E running Emagic Logic Audio/Audiowerk8 I/O card
- Alesis ADAT 8‑track (x4)
- Alesis Midiverb IV effects
- Amek Mozart 40‑channel mixer (with 32 Rupert Neve EQ strips, 8 stereo)
- BBE 4428 Sonic Maximiser
- Bel digital delay
- dbx 120XDS bass enhancer
- Digitech Studio Vocalist
- Drawmer 1960 compressor
- Drawmer DL221 comp/lim (x3)
- Drawmer DS201 gate (x6)
- EMS 1000 Vocoder
- Eventide 8910 Harmoniser
- Fatar Studio 900 master keyboard
- Genelec 1022B main monitors
- Genelec 91031A nearfield monitors
- Lexicon 224 reverb
- Lexicon PCM90 reverb
- Marshall JMP1 valve preamp
- MOTU MTP AV synchroniser
- Roland SDE3000A delay
- Sony D7 delay
- Sony R7 (x2) reverb
- Sony M7 modulator
- SPL SX2 (prototype Vitalizer)
- Symetrix 544 expander gate
- Syquest EZ drive
- Tascam DA30 MkII DAT
- TC Electronics Finalizer mastering processor
- TC Electronics M5000 effects
- Urei 1176LN compressors (x2)
- Yamaha SPX990 reverb
- Yamaha REV5 reverb (x2)
When I first met Eliot Kennedy during the summer of 1995, he was working from his home studio on the outskirts of Sheffield, consolidating his success with Take That, and the names scrawled on his wall chart included both the great and the unknown: Dannii Minogue, Sean McGuire, Danny Campbell, Jadie, B‑yond, Kavana, Lulu, Kenny Thomas, Rebe Jackson, 3T, Intastella, Pauline Henry, Kim Appleby, Melanie Williams — and a group of five girls who were then but a twinkle in the nation's eye: the Spice Girls.
I must admit that I didn't take too much notice, but Eliot was so enthusiastic about these five adventurous girls who had stayed at his house while they demo'd and recorded in his front room, that I couldn't help but think that something great was going to become of them. Their worldwide success has been so enormous that even Eliot describes the scheduling of studio time for the next album as a logistical nightmare.
"Trying to allocate the time is unreal — they're either doing the script, in make‑up, on set or doing interviews for their movie. There's not a moment to record the next album."
"One of the main areas that we've become known for is development," explains Tim Lever. "With 911, we'd basically made the album before they signed a deal because we had that much confidence in it. There were a million boy bands around, but we thought that they were the most likely. We made the album for nothing, essentially, which allowed the management to create a vibe by putting out a couple of singles first and then sign a deal with hits under their belts. Having a facility like this gives us the confidence to go out and do things like that."
"We're prepared to put the effort behind an act that we believe in, without the cash up front," professes Eliot. "It's a good philosophy and I can sleep well at nights knowing that we're doing the best that we can. Then when you do eventually get your wages through royalties, it's an excellent feeling because you've believed in that project and it's become successful. 911 are pop stars now because we believed in doing it."