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JON JACBOS: Recording Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Interview | Engineer By Richard Buskin
Published November 1996

Richard Buskin talks to top engineer Jon Jacobs and learns about his partnership with legendary man‑behind‑the‑board, Geoff Emerick, and the novel techniques they employed during the making of the latest album by Elvis Costello & The Attractions.

"It is an unusual situation", says Jon Jacobs about his working partnership co‑engineering with Geoff Emerick. "On most of the projects I'm involved with I am the engineer and things go my way, but when I work with Geoff it's often a different story. You see, he's not always as in favour of the new technology as I am. We challenge each other, and you can be sure that we'll come up with a different result than if he had done it his way on his own or if I had done it my way on my own."

Geoff Emerick, of course, is the legendary engineer who worked on many of The Beatles' most revolutionary recordings. An innovator of studio techniques that are often still applied today, he exerted a a major influence on the career of Jon Jacobs when Jon worked as his assistant during the '80s. "Geoff taught me a lot about miking techniques, acquiring sounds, and so on", he confirms. Now, after nearly a decade of pursuing separate projects, the two men are working together again, on recordings with the three ex‑members of The Beatles (the new tracks for the Anthology project — see the feature in the December 1995 issue of SOS for the full story), Elvis Costello and, most recently, Paul McCartney. Geoff and Jon have been on an equal footing while fulfilling different but complementary roles.

"Although Geoff was a great innovator during the early days of multitrack recording, a lot has changed since he started in the business, and he engineers from a very straightforward perspective", Jacobs explains. "He's only interested in the music, so I take care of a lot of the technical requirements. At the same time, Geoff oversees the sound and the overall balance, and while we often have different views on certain things, there's absolutely no conflict of egos between the two of us. There's always a way of finding the meeting between our points of view and we often suggest things to one another."

Back Together

Back in the 1980s, John and Geoff teamed up with Elvis Costello for his Imperial Bedroom album. Then, after running into Emerick at one of his gigs about a year ago, Elvis decided that perhaps it was time for the two men to work together again. So it was that they recently co‑produced Elvis' latest album, All This Useless Beauty, while Jon engineered and took care of matters technological. Lasting two and a half months, recording sessions began at the end of last summer at Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, in a room equipped with a 72‑input Neve V Series console with flying faders, and Studer A820 tape machines.

Costello had already rehearsed the songs with his band, and when the sessions were due to start, the entire ensemble was set up to record live in the same room. There were as few screens as possible, while for Elvis Costello a small self‑contained booth with a roof was erected in the centre of the live area. Jacobs: "It is of paramount importance for an artist to feel comfortable. Most studios are just an austere environment in which the session has to forge its own personality, so if the attitude is good and the vibe is positive, it can make an incredible difference to the outcome." Positioned about 15 feet in front of the drum kit, the makeshift booth enabled Elvis to see everybody, and there was also some degree of control over the sound spillage. Still, this in itself created problems. "We were often trying for live vocals, but there would sometimes be a lot of spillage from the drums into the vocal mic. Then, if we wanted to patch bits later with dropped‑in overdub vocals, we might lose some of the ambience. I got around this problem by recording an extra drum ambience track, and for this I used a mic positioned just outside the booth, with the same EQ as the vocal, in order to replace the kit ambience over any vocal drop‑ins."

Live & Dangerous

The main aim of the sessions was to keep everything as live as possible. "We recorded absolutely everything they played, because that band can switch ideas so quickly. The second they pick up their instruments you've got to be in 'record' on the multitrack, otherwise you could lose a one‑off moment that they'd never be able to recapture." Nevertheless, there would often be quite a few different versions of each song recorded, while numbers that did not appear to be coming together with the band setup were treated to a more piecemeal approach. Jacobs: "We'd set up a drum loop of Pete [Thomas] playing and then build everything on top of that with overdubs, sometimes replacing the loops with real drums once the song had taken shape."

For the live setup, drummer Pete Thomas was positioned at about three metres from the right‑hand wall of the main room, with glass screens around his Ludwig kit. The bass drum was miked with an AKG D112 on the inside and a Sennheiser 421 on the outside. Jon has a personal preference for cutting a large hole in the front head of the bass drum. "I either like to have the head removed, or to take the front off it, otherwise you get a very choked bass drum sound. For some reason, a lot of people try to get the mic inside a small hole. To me, it seems that when you do that, the bottom end is cancelling out, because it's reflecting straight back off the front head. The low end seems to be phased out, leaving a limp sound with no middle punch. So I tend to cut a large hole so that I can move the mic about, and then send the assistant out to shift the up‑front mic around until I get the sound that I'm after."

Elvis and Geoff said that they didn't want to make an ordinary,nice, clean, polished‑sounding album.

For overheads, Jon employed AKG 414s, Neumann U87s, and STC 4038 ribbon mics, as well as Sennheiser 421s on the toms, a Neumann 84 alternating with an AKG 451 on the hi‑hat, and a pair of U87s or 451s for ambients. On 'It's Time', Thomas played a drum loop and a percussion loop to a click, and then these were sampled separately and mixed together inside the sampler. The result, referred to as the 'guide loop', would later be broken down into individual elements and placed on separate tracks.

Immediately in front of the control‑room window, in an area of the live room screened off by glass panels, Steve Nieve was seated at a grand piano, with a Hammond organ on one side of him and a Vox Continental on the other. Two Leslie cabinets were used for this setup — one each for the Hammond and the Vox — and sometimes even the piano was fed through one of them, via a Shure SM57. No DIs were used. Jacobs: "Steve could basically play live and use three different keyboards during one song. To my mind he is one of the best pop players of these instruments, and he hits the notes very, very hard indeed. In fact, he broke a string and we had to wait three days for a new one to be made and shipped out from England."

The Mics He Likes

"I miked the piano with two AKG 451s; their positioning largely depended on the dynamics and range of what Steve was playing. For instance, when there was a lot of arpeggio piano, I tended to place the mics so that they were about nine inches from the dampers, right up by the front end of the piano, and facing slightly outwards. The Hammond was miked with two Shure SM57s on the top with pop‑shields, because I had to get very close to the Leslie in order to keep out as much spill as possible from the drum kit. I used dynamic mics, as I didn't want the speed of the Leslie horn to pop the microphones with wind when running fast — which would have been the case if I had used condensers — and I also had a 421 on the bottom." The piano, Hammond and Vox were the main keyboards for the album, but there was some use of a Roland Jupiter 8 and a Solina string machine.

Meanwhile, in a screened‑off area within the keyboardist's booth, bass player Bruce Thomas was playing his Travis Bean through a Trace‑Elliot amp. Again, very rarely was a DI used. Jacobs: "The amp just seemed to give it greater character and more warmth. I know that in most situations where you compare an amp with a DI you end up choosing the DI, because it's got greater definition and there's more that you can do with it afterwards. But we didn't want something that was too hi‑fi, so I just worked hard on the amp sound to fit it in with what we were aiming for."

I feel it's of the utmost importance that a strong sense of comradeship and distinct lack of stress should characterise the session.

Elvis Costello, in his makeshift booth, was playing his Fender Jazzmaster and Telecaster, Les Paul and 12‑string Epiphone guitars through amps placed in a booth in the far right‑hand corner of the studio. These were a Vox AC30 and a Fender Bassman, each miked with a 421, a Neumann valve 67 and, in the case of the Bassman, a Neumann 89, while an 87 was used as a room mic. "Elvis has a set of pedals, so he was either using one of the amps or both together, with one side wobbling by way of a tremulator. Quite often he would come in, listen to the playback and say, 'Yeah, it's very nearly great, but the track's not quite working. The problem is it's too ordinary. It sounds like a combo playing, and I'd like to take it away from that and go in another direction.' Sometimes they'd go back out and play it again — they'd maybe play ballads full‑on, high tempo, almost like a punk track — while at other times they'd go for the loop idea, and we'd end up with what we called the 'loopy version' of this or that song."

Such was the case with 'It's Time', which was released as a single in the UK, and which was initially recorded live before then being broken down into separate parts. Pete Thomas worked on some drum and percussion loops, Steve Nieve played a D50 pad, and then Elvis Costello recorded basic acoustic guitar and a DI'd Strat. Jacobs: "Pretty early in the proceedings, we'd also lay down a good vocal for most of the tracks. In fact, quite a lot of the vocals from the live takes got onto the album, and in some cases he would then have to patch some lines [at West Side Studios] in London a few months later.

"Ninety percent of the time I used a Neumann 87 — I also tried a new [reissued] 67 and a Neumann valve 47, but they didn't have the presence that we wanted — and a big reason for staying with the same mic throughout the album was the need to later drop parts into the live tracks. I didn't use any special mic amps, although I did actually try using a Prism. However, as soon as Elvis heard his voice in the headphones he said, 'I don't know what it is, but the vocal sounds really alien to — and separate from — the rest of the music.' So I used the desk mic amps on the Neve and he didn't have a problem."

Mix Magic

On 'It's Time', drums were next to be overdubbed, utilising a very large room sound. To this end, while the kick, hi‑hat and snare were on separate tracks, the whole of the kit was also recorded as a stereo pair through Urei 1176 compressors. Keyboards were also overdubbed, yet for all of this work, a notable feature about many of the tracks is that they never really existed in their proper form until the actual mix took place at West Side Studios in London. "Towards the end of the recording sessions in Dublin, we did the rough mixes very, very quickly and they had a certain magic", asserts Jon. "So on some of the finished tracks there are moments that we've edited in from these rough mixes, and this often made it very difficult to do a new mix. Elvis is extremely sensitive about the way vocals sit, and maybe the amount of EQ and compression that a mix from a particular day had. He will pick up on this and say that, for him, the opening line of the third chorus isn't as commanding as it was on that moment of that mix from that day. It's extremely difficult to actually try to recreate that when you're in another studio and in a different situation. You can get close to it, but you can never get back exactly what you had."

The ever‑mindful engineer therefore had an 'edit plan', a scribbled note detailing what came from where — which, in the case of a track such as 'It's Time', ran as follows: the intro and first verse were from the rough Dublin mix; the first chorus 'A' section was from the new mix at West Side; the 'B' section was lifted from the superior third chorus later in the song; the second verse was from the new mix; the second chorus 'A' section was also lifted from the third chorus; the 'B' section was from the new mix; the bridge was from the new mix; the third verse 'A' section was from the Dublin rough mix; and the 'B' section was from the new mix!

"It's a bit of a minefield", Jon now admits. "However, Elvis and Geoff said that they didn't want to make an ordinary, nice, clean, polished‑sounding album. They wanted to push things to the limit. Quite often it would be a case of 'Let's compress the vocals. OK, they're really compressed. Well, now let's compress them again.' As a result, there were quite a lot of occasions where the lead vocals went through two sets of compression and were really screwed up and very loud above the rest of the track, and quite often I felt that the backing tracks were being sold short because of this. However, from an artistic standpoint that's what Elvis wanted from the album, and when I now listen to it, I can see why he approached it that way. It sounds great to me.

"For example, a track called 'Starting To Come To Me' would just have been an ordinary country & western‑type song with interesting Elvis lyrics had we not mixed it in the way that we did, with a very squashed‑up vocal that is right up front, almost as if someone is narrating. Elvis has a great amount of confidence in his voice, as well as in the lyrics that he writes, and this is what the kind of audience he's appealing to wants to hear."

'Shallow Grave', a very short, very live rock song written by Costello and Paul McCartney, went through four different versions before it was decided that a guitar solo from one of these had a "certain kind of magic to it" and should therefore be punched‑in to one of the other takes. The only trouble was that it was in a completely different tempo. Jacobs: "We managed to fly it in from half‑inch and it didn't fit at all, but what I then did was to fly each phrase in with a separate offset, and that remedied the problem."

Complicated Composite

Another track that led Jon into completely uncharted territory, with equally successful results, was the appropriately titled 'Complicated Shadows', which fused a studio recording with one deriving from a concert performance at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Elvis Costello had always loved the take and somehow wanted to use it on record; now he had an inspiration... "He said, 'I know this is crazy and it won't work, but let's make it not work.' From Windmill Lane we had a great start to the song, up to the point where it really kicks into gear, and we then wanted to cut into the live material from New York. Obviously, because we needed to do vocal, guitar and keyboard overdubs, it would have been a real pain to leave that edit until the thing was mixed and then find that it didn't work. What we initially proposed to do, therefore, was edit the multitrack of the live show onto the studio version, but by this time everything had already been recorded, and so of course the tracks didn't match up. I mean, on the live version they had two snare mics, three kit mics and four tom mics, so what I had to do was make a copy of this tape and re‑route the sounds of the drums, bass, guitars, and quite a few other things, to the tracks that would be relevant to our new studio recordings.

"Having done that, I had to also match up the levels, as well as trying to change the EQ and match the sound of, say, the snare as much as possible. One Friday night, after everyone else had left, I decided to tackle this job, and I can tell you it took quite a few hours, but I eventually got quite a good system going. I could play the tracks that I was copying to and listen to the studio drum sound, for example, and then, with the live tape playing, do a rehearsed drop‑in and match it up as near as possible. That worked really well, and then when it kicked into the live section, I had the live ambience from the gig on a separate pair of tracks and that gave it this huge sound, while not really having the feel of an edit.

"Originally, when Elvis came up with the idea, I thought it was going to be a nightmare. You know, we'd have to treat the studio and live versions as two separate entities, doing all of the overdubs separately, mix them separately and then tear our hair out when it came to mixing them together. But, after mucking about on my own for a few hours with different levels going to different tracks — and also selecting which of four separate amp feeds from the live gig I was going to use on one track — it worked very well. If you listen to the track, I think you'll spot the edit, but you'll also hear how well it works.

"This kind of approach can make an engineer's life very interesting, but it also takes a certain calibre of artist and the right atmosphere to bring about that spark of inspiration and then achieve the best results. I feel it's of the utmost importance that a strong sense of comradeship and distinct lack of stress should characterise the session. At the same time, there must also be a degree of tension to drive things on, and by this I mean that when people realise they have to deliver here and now, they often manage to find the necessary energy within and rise to the occasion. That's what this work is really all about — it's about people, as well as that magic moment when everything just comes together."

Jacobs' Ladder: Jon Jacobs' Career

Jon Jacobs acquired a job as tape op‑cum‑tea boy at the famous Central London AIR Studios complex in 1978. About a year later, while Geoff Emerick was working there, Jon struck up a friendship with him, and found himself being asked to assist on future sessions. A number of George Martin‑produced albums followed, including several by Paul McCartney, and then, when Emerick moved to America, Jon became Martin's right‑hand man behind the console, progressing to the position of Chief Engineer at AIR. He stayed there for 10 years, before branching out on his own and going freelance, since when his credits have included Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, The Pretenders, Yes, The Waterboys, and Heaven 17. He's also produced an Australian band, called The Slow Club, and undertaken a lot of co‑production work with Graham Parker.