Will Gregory took the unconventional decision to base Goldfrapp's latest album around a single instrument — which he couldn't play!
"The albums tend to be a little like antidotes to each other, and the one we did before was very, very synthetic, with a lot of big synths on it,” says Will Gregory, explaining how Goldfrapp's latest album, Tales Of Us, differs from its predecessor, Head First. "We wanted to step away from that and towards something more acoustic.”
Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, the duo who write, perform and produce under the name Goldfrapp, are certainly not known as an acoustic act. During their 14-year career together so far, their music has incorporated trip-hop, synth pop, electronica, glam rock and dance music, but it has always been notable for its striking use of processed sounds and cinematic atmospheres.
For Tales Of Us, however, Will and Alison chose to base most of the songs around the acoustic guitar. The resulting album is full of wistful, delicate tracks, bathed in expansive string arrangements and topped off by Alison's breathy vocals. The electronic drums and percussion that have featured prominently in earlier Goldfrapp productions, like the glam rock-inspired hit 'Ooh La La', are absent on most of the tracks, and those that do feature drums use them relatively sparingly.
The decision to rely so heavily on acoustic guitar posed one obvious problem for Will Gregory. "I can't play the guitar!” he laughs. "It's a daft thing to try and make a very guitar-based album when you can't play the guitar — so a lot of different guitarists came and played.”
Being a non-guitarist, Will developed his guitar parts from the keyboard using sample libraries, some of which he created himself. "In a lot of cases, I just used a Logic guitar sound,” admits Will, "but not always. In some cases I made my own multisampled instrument, and for that I just asked someone to play up the scale and I recorded it. At least that was getting away from some of the factory sounds I was using in Logic.
"I often make my own samples because I find they are more inspiring. If I am feeling energetic, I'll play a chromatic scale from the top to the bottom of the instrument, leaving nice long gaps. I quite often do it to a click, which means I can cut it up really quickly later on. In some cases I borrowed a guitar and did it myself. It didn't sound very good when I did that, I have to admit, but you can sample a piano even if you can't play the piano — it's that sort of thing.”
To create the guitar lines, Will played the sampled instrument to a click track, and then quantised the notes, favouring accuracy rather than feel. On some tracks the MIDI was eventually replaced with performances by session guitarists, but where Will's work was deemed to be more quirky or less conventional, he and Alison decided to stick with what they had. "The fact that I couldn't play the guitar helped, because it meant I was usually playing things that guitarists can't play or wouldn't play. When they did come to try and reproduce them they found them fiendishly difficult! So sometimes that meant that what we got was different to what a guitarist would have done, and a bit fresher.
"It is always a gamble when you are writing on a computer and then trying to replace various elements with the real thing. It's a throw of the dice as to whether or not what comes out is going to be better. One assumes it is, but you might have got used to what you did originally, or it may be that the real thing can't actually do what you imagined it doing, and what you've done is better anyway. So you have to be open-minded. We've done ridiculous things like recording real strings and then going with MIDI strings because they sounded more atmospheric!”
Although Will is very experienced at recording Alison's vocals and other incidental acoustic parts that are used in Goldfrapp productions, he freely admits that he was not used to recording acoustic guitars, and found himself on a steep learning curve when he started doing so for Tales Of Us. "Recording acoustic guitar is a black art, it turns out,” insists Will, "because when someone sits in a room and plays it sounds very natural, beautiful, self-contained and self-balanced, with no nasty bumps or lumps in it. But as soon as you put a microphone near it, something comes out that sounds nothing like what you are hearing in the room! So step one was to point the mic where the fingers were playing the guitar, but pretty soon you find out that's wrong. You've got a horrible lump in the spectrum, which you have to do a lot of EQ'ing to get rid of. Then we tried an expensive mic and then a cheap mic, and sometimes a very basic mic like an SM58 sounded really good.
"There were a few phone calls to guitarists and producers asking how to record an acoustic guitar, and there were quite different answers. Some said if you put a microphone over the shoulder of the guitarist then you are hearing there what the guitarist is hearing. I tried that and it was interesting, but still never quite sounded like what was in the room. The other thing people say is to point a condenser mic at the 12th fret, which is equidistant along the string, and put another posh microphone down at hip level and a bit further from the instrument. That's probably the textbook producer's suggestion, but it can drive you absolutely nuts, because every time you move the mic a little bit it sounds totally different. Tiny incremental movements make huge differences.
In the end, whenever anybody came in I put about five different mics in different places.
"I've got a nice [AKG] C12-type mic, and a nice Neumann KM mic, but in the end I found a lot of the time I'd record one posh mic and one SM58, and very often the SM58 pointed somewhere near the 12th fret did the job. The name of the game seems to be getting rid of the waffliness at the bottom because — it's the same with the piano — these are instruments that are designed to sound self-sufficient, and so if you are trying to put them in a track, they are going to eat into the frequencies that you want other instruments to inhabit. Therefore you have to make a decision about what the sound should be. You might want it to be a jangly, toppy thing that provides the rhythm element, or whatever.
"The best acoustic space was the control room because it is bigger than our live room, which didn't sound very good. I think what's really important about acoustic guitars, and maybe acoustic instruments in general, is getting a lot of air and space around them.”
Not all of the songs on Tales Of Us are underpinned by acoustic guitar. The opener, 'Jo', for example, uses a piano and an acoustic double bass to carry the strings and vocals. The two featured double-bass players were jazz expert Chris Lawrence, who was recorded by engineer Gary Thomas at Angel Studios in Islington, and Charlie Jones, who often plays in the Goldfrapp live shows. To record Charlie, Will was aided by engineer Greg Freeman, who set up Will's Percy Bear mic and an AKG C12a. "There was a man who worked at AKG who came away with a lot of C24s, which is a stereo C12, and he chopped them in half and made a load of these things he called Percy Bears,” explains Will. "I think they sound pretty much like the C12.”
Double-bass samples feature in the mix too, but for certain tracks, such as 'Drew' and 'Stranger', a lusciously deep pizzicato bass is provided by the double-bass section of an orchestra recorded at Angel Studios. "A bass section is lovely,” says Will. "We had three musicians in the session and that makes a beautiful rich, rumbling sound. And sometimes there might be a synth going alongside it or something that puts a lot of bottom end in.”
Although they were using acoustic rather than electronic sounds this time around, Will and Alison employed their familiar improvisational approach to writing material. Once the pair settled on a sound that they found inspiring in some way, Will played around with it on the keyboard, while Alison improvised, scat-style, with her voice. "We'll just see what comes out,” explains Will. "We'll record a load of things, and there will be a lot of listening, editing and deciding, and then a lot of throwing away. Sometimes Alison comes in with a melodic idea and we decide how to flesh it out. Or I'll throw up a sound and that starts the process. But the process is usually jamming.
"Sometimes she's in the control room jamming on a [Shure] SM58, or Beta 58, because they don't feed back in the room, and that sounds great. So when we record, if Alison has done a lot of jamming on one particular mic and we love that, then we will get her to do it on that. Alison's voice sounds brilliant on more or less any microphone, but most of the time it's done with the posh Percy Bear mic. It has that very transparent, glassy top end which is really suitable for Alison because she has this sensuous, breathy quality to her voice.
"The vocal is the most emotive part of what you are hearing, so we spend a lot of time getting that right. That involves Alison doing it over and over again and getting it absolutely perfect with the right inflections. Sometimes it's a frustrating process, because the vocal melodies are jammed and we have to find lyrics to clothe them in, but when she comes up with the lyrics the sound of her voice won't be the same because it is adifferent day, and it can take time to get back to that initial spontaneous emission of emotion and sound.”
To achieve the all-important vocal sound, Will fed his Percy Bear into a refurbished Audix preamp and then a Symetrix compressor, recording the signal into Logic via a Lynx Aurora 16-channel converter. "There's a lovely man in Bath called Neil Perry who rescued some Audix preamps and put them in a box and I've got four of those,” says Will enthusiastically. "They are sort of Neve-y, but not as expensive! I use them all the time. And then I've got this very old Symetrix compressor that I always put the mic through. At one point I thought 'This is ridiculous, it's lo-fi,' so I took it out of the chain, but the signal didn't sound as good so I put it back again! It just provides a bit of something I like. I record it because that's one decision less, but it's just to help Alison sing, really, and just takes away a bit of dynamic range.
"I have a [Yamaha] O2R that I use almost as a monitor mixer, and if I am lazy I just go into that and use its A-D [converters]. But if I am being diligent, I go in through a Lynx Aurora, which is also the master clock. Then I just use a Mac with Logic. It's supposed to be powerful, but I don't keep it up to date particularly.
"Alison has a lot of bottom end in her voice that we usually take out. Most of the things I am trying to do with the voice are subtracting, so I just tend to use the factory EQs in Logic. I will add a bit more compression because it's only going in with a little. There are some vocal plug-ins that I'll try, not just from Logic, but from other things, and then there is a decision made by the mix engineer. He will always take the processed voice, a dry version, or various stages in between, so he can decide how much of what we've done is integral to the sound and how much he can improve on. But for me it is sculpting out lumps and bumps and trying to get the vocal to sit over the music and have its own space.
"I have a lovely old AKG BX20 spring reverb that has a very dark but natural sound, and is quite wide. It doesn't have any 'boing' to it like a Great British Spring. It also has a built-in delay. It's as if the sound whizzes around the spring coils and comes back a bit later, so you get a bit of space, and obviously you can try delaying it as well. On all of these tracks I use that as a guide sound for the voice, and in a lot of cases we kept it and mixed it.
"I used to use a Roland RE501 Space Echo a lot on the voice, but we didn't really on this album, because we wanted it to sound more naturalistic. It's got a nice chorus but we didn't really want that. In some cases I like putting the vocal through my ARP 2600 [synth]. I love its reverb, but it's like putting your lovely big colour photograph into a machine that turns it into a Polaroid, so you have to be careful. It can take too much colour out, but it definitely gives it an atmosphere that can be very attractive.”
Will and Alison have always used orchestras to great effect in their work, and Tales Of Us is no exception. A 32-piece string section was recorded at Angel Studios, but the arrangements were based on mock-ups Will put together in Logic using samples. Will says that in most cases the songs were 100 percent complete by the time the strings were recorded, so the arrangements for those compositions were very specific. Nevertheless, there were some tracks, such as 'Simone', for example, that were still in doubt, so the orchestra was asked toplay single notes that Will knew would be of use.
Will explains how the arrangements were composed. "Fleshing out the songs was all done with MIDI, and I've got a mixture of factory stuff and stuff that's more inspiring that I've made from records. I often go through records and wait for the moment when the strings just play a note on their own and I'll have it, just to mock up something that has more vibe than factory sounds.
"Once Alison and I have decided on the arrangement, I give that MIDI to a string arranger called Nick Ingman. I'll have a meeting with him and he'll look at me over his glasses in a slightly schoolmasterly way and say, 'Did you really mean this?', and I will say, 'Ah, what I was trying to do is this,' and he'll say, 'Well, surely what you really want is this?' He'll guide me towards something that is going to sound good on strings, and he will be careful not to put any major thirds down the bottom in the double basses, and things like that. There are a few things you just mustn't do. He came up with a couple of really special things that went with the vocal, and obviously he conducts the session and translates my gobbledygook into something the musicians understand. As we have done this for a few albums together now and we've worked with specific people, Nick and I requested who we wanted to come and play, so it's not just how many, but who, as well.”
One thing Will is not keen on is working with hundreds of recordings from individual mics, because they take up huge amounts of disk space and require a lot of mixing. His preference is to work with just a few stereo submixes, which are usually made by the house recording engineer at the end of the orchestral session.
"We were working with one of the engineers at Angel called Gary Thomas,” recalls Will, "and he's used to working day-in, day-out, with different ensembles, so he will have a sound up on the desk which is pretty much great. I've always taken the view that it's worth having that, because that's what you've been listening to all day and that's what you've arrived at, so there's no point taking it to pieces. You can always go back to the multitrack, and in some cases I do, but it is good to limit the number of decisions. In most cases I'll think it through beforehand, and if I know there is a MIDI element that's very much part of the atmosphere, I won't get the real strings to replace it, and will leave it as MIDI. But immediately after the session I am very keen to go through the tracks while it's all fresh in my mind, editing the takes and putting together a master take.
"I asked Gary to put down the separate violin, viola, cello and bass sections, just as stereo tracks, and his guide mix of the whole thing. I ended up working with seven stereo tracks, including the reverbs. We had a single old-school mic recording the whole room, there were mics positioned in the room to create the ambience, and we borrowed these lovely '60s [AKG] C12s from Craig Silvey, who mixed the record. He just dropped in and put them in an M/S configuration, and that sounded amazing.
"I was nervous about recording everything together, so for some songs we did that awful thing of doing a take with just the sections. That gives you total control of balance, but sometimes it doesn't have the same chemistry as when they all play together, and what you get is very different. But sometimes you just have to, because you can't tease out the balance that you want. You might want to bring out the viola line, but you can't, because when you turn the viola part up, all you can hear is cellos.
"The first thing I do in the studio is put up all the tracks that I want to be real, and put them against the other elements, balance them to my guides and see what I've got. And then I go backwards and forwards to the point where I think I've made an improvement to the song!”
Of course, this being a Goldfrapp album, synthesized and sampled sounds are not completely off the menu, although they tend to feature in a supporting role. When asked which synths and instruments were used to create the textures and effects that feature in most of the tracks, Will is often unsure, partly because the recording process spanned a two-year period, but mainly, it seems, because the details are not particularly important to him.
"I can't remember particular things,” he admits, "so in some ways I'm beginning to realise that it doesn't really matter, because they all do something great that's inspiring! I'm a synth collector, so what usually happens is that if a synth has arrived that month I'll probably decide it is the best thing I've ever had and will be jamming with that on everything. Then I'll tire of it and move on to the next one. I should probably just use one synth and really learn how it works, but that hasn't happened!
"But there's a Korg Sigma on it, because I got one of those recently, and I do like that. There's also a bit of EDP Wasp, and I always go back to the Wasp. You can double high string lines with it and that just kicks them out of the ordinary somehow. Alison also jams on the Wasp and other things too, but it's usually what is currently being plugged in and played.
"The other thing I got really excited about last year is a Baldwin harpsichord. On 'Simone' it is quite exposed, and it's there on a couple of songs. It is a solid-body harpsichord with a big electric guitar pickup across it, but it's got two outs so you can put it into an amp, which I did sometimes using the tremolo, and then you get a kind of guitar harpsichord sound, or you can DI it and get a much bigger, richer, deeper sound. It has a nice deep clangy bottom end.”
When Will and Alison felt that they had taken the song production as far as they could, they called in Craig Silvey to do the final mixes. His brief, however, was not to take the multitrack and start afresh, but to start with the mixes already done by Will and find ways of improving them. What's more, both Will and Alison oversaw the sessions to ensure that the process did not start heading in a direction they had already decided against.
"These are not demos that are just thrown together,” insists Will, referring to the mixes given to Craig, "they have evolved over a long period of time and in a lot of ways they are correct. There are sounds that have been put in there specifically because they are a mix decision. When you are composing, writing and arranging, it is difficult to say when you are not mixing, because a lot of things are put in for dynamic effect. Where do you draw the line?
"It is quite difficult for someone to take over the mixing for us, because they are pretty hedged in, but Craig was very relaxed and happy to work like that. It is good to have a third pair of ears when you have been working on something for two years. You hope that they'll make it bigger, wider, deeper, brighter — all those things. On the vocal, for example, Craig added some lovely effects that definitely made it sound better. And we are there to help the mixing process and make sure it doesn't go too far off track. We get all the benefits of Craig's experience, without him going down blind alleys that we collectively don't want to go down.
"He's another person who likes to collect old things, but his are more to do with mixing whereas mine are more to do with sound producing, so all three of us were in the same place aesthetically. We talked about 'mid-fi' a lot, because we are trying to create a picture, not just produce the most beautifully recorded vocal, and he understood. He works with Portishead, so he comes from that stable where they are interested in degraded and stressed sounds.
"Craig works in Pro Tools and on a nice old Neve desk, and has a range of outboard valve compressors and some nice delays, so it was a case of giving him something that was as flexible as possible. On a track there might be two EQs, a compressor, and something else on the vocals, so sometimes we gave him everything minus the EQ or the compressor. When I'm working I try to record everything I want as an effect into the machine if it is not 'in the box', so that it's portable and I can work wherever we are, and I have a laptop that mirrors my computer. It means that when we were mixing and Craig says 'I could really do with this part like this,' I can print it for him.
"The other things worth saying is that because I work in Logic and mixers tend to work in Pro Tools, there is always this conversion from one to the other. An engineer will want you to print out all the tracks at a good level, so immediately you lose all your bounces, and that is not a good idea in my book. You might have some slightly low levels, but it can't be more strongly emphasised that if you build a track over a long period of time, some of those level balances that you take for granted are so crucial that there is no point chucking them away. You should keep them. If you need to you can reprint it and slot it in, but otherwise you are in danger of getting someone else to paint a picture that you have already painted. My message was that it should sound exactly the same in Pro Tools once it was converted as it did in Logic. So when Craig pressed play he got back our demo mix from the multitrack and was starting from that point and could go where he wanted from there.”
Although they took the acoustic guitar as their starting point, Will and Alison have produced an album that is ultimately as much an orchestral soundscape as it is an acoustic record. 'Drew', for instance, is very reminiscent of Harry Nilsson's version of 'Everybody's Talkin'', which combines acoustic guitar with a huge cinematic strings, and was used in the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. That might be a little different to how the project started out, but Will and Alison are still more than happy to have made something so cinematic.
"We've always loved what strings do, that whole association, and the kind of dreaminess, glamour, Cinemascope, width, and the intensity that you get from a big bunch of people coming in at you,” says Will. "You don't want to sound retro, but there is no doubt that I'm very influenced by the atmospheres you get in those Morricone and John Barry scores. When you hear a big sweeping top line on a John Barry soundtrack you know that he hasn't recorded it with the latest posh microphone that produces the high harmonics. Most of the time it sounds like you're listening to the reverb return on something really old! But that's the sound, and these guys knew what they were doing.
"We were quite strict about keeping focused and not putting anything on there that we didn't think was good enough, so it's not a long album. We've all had that experience of putting on records where you only listen to three or four tracks and just fast forward to those because the others have tired you out too soon, so we tried to make it an album you can listen to all the way through without having to fast forward!”
Together with guitar, acoustic piano is used quite extensively on Tales Of Us. Perhaps the most interesting piano sound of all is the exposed, atmospheric intro to the track 'Laurel'. As it turns out, this sound comes from a multisample Will Gregory made many years ago. "I was in a room with an old clunky piano and a stereo recorder,” recalls Will. "The piano had that lovely ringy, almost ballet-school reverb, because it was in a big space, so I sampled it using a pair of binaural headphones that are also microphones, and if you listen to that track on headphones you can hear the piano slightly to the left in the room. It is very noisy, and if you play an eight-note chord, you are getting eight cassettes hissing at you, but I do love the sound. I like to collect pianos. I was in a studio with a nice Bösendorfer and all I had was the iPhone, so I just sampled it into that and played it back out of the headphone socket, and that sounded quite good!
"It's a pastime of mine to make samples, of anything really. It is so easy now. With Logic, you just play it in, splice it up, put it into an ESX instrument, and half an hour later you have something else to inspire you to write. I usually play up the scale on the white notes, but if you have a lot of time, then you'll probably want to record a chromatic scale over the whole range of the instrument, holding down the note for as long as you can bear, and really you should do the same with the pedal down so you get the sympathetic resonance of the strings. You can decide which you want to use later.
"Pianos are wonderful because they are all so different, and sometimes the more distressed they are the more character they have. Obviously you can tune them up a bit once you get them into your sample player. Sometimes these old pianos have a particular note that sounds good and you record that. Often it is something down the bottom that doesn't sound like a piano at all — like somebody dropping a metal bar into a bath. They can be more like effects than notes. At the top end there will probably be tuning problems, and at the bottom there are big fat strings, probably hit by hammers that are worn out.”
Goldfrapp are certainly not a band who are afraid to use prominent electronic drums to help drive their songs along, but Tales Of Us hardly features drums at all, and where it does they are more of an accompaniment than an essential element. Will Gregory explains why he and Alison sidelined drums and percussion.
"A very important lesson that I think that I've got to grips with is that drums and space are difficult to reconcile. In other words, as soon as you get a big drum element, your Cinemascope will disappear, because you can't have that weighty object in the middle of the picture and expect to get the width and space to exist with it.
"So drums can implode the possibilities immediately, sending you down a very narrow path, and we felt that with this record. But if you have already got a rhythm element there, then the drums become like a dynamic building block. You can introduce them as a rhythm element to support what is already there to create more of a journey, so they become very much like orchestration, or a colour, rather than the meat and potatoes of the rhythm part. The great thing about an acoustic guitar is that it provides rhythm and harmony very effectively together. If you have a picking guitar line then the drums are not the essential element that everything is hanging off. Then you can start to think about how you are going to flesh it out. There are two approaches to fleshing out a track. You can either put as much in as it will stand until it bursts, or you put in as little as you can and take everything away until there's almost nothing left, and if it falls over, then you know you've gone to far. It's finding out what's the scaffolding and what's the building. But you have got to be aware of both ways of doing it. We like the 'less is more' approach, but I've certainly been guilty of putting everything in, and sometimes when you are listening to all the tracks before mixing, you realise that there's loads of really nice stuff in there that you can't really hear any more.”