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MERV DE PEYER & JIM SPENCER: Recording Electronic's 'Vivid'

Interview | Programmer/Engineer By Matt Bell
Published June 1999

MERV DE PEYER & JIM SPENCER: Recording Electronic's 'Vivid'

The new single by Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner's 'supergroup' Electronic is closer to traditional rock & roll than electronica, with its driving guitars and bluesy harmonica riff. But there's more to the simple‑sounding production than meets the ears, as Matt Bell finds out from programmer Merv De Peyer and engineer Jim Spencer.

When Bernard Sumner of New Order put together Electronic with guitar hero and ex‑Smith Johnny Marr, the sum of the parts proved to be a pretty effective whole. Electronic had several big hits at the turn of the '90s (including the superb 'Getting Away With It' and the quite extraordinary 'Disappointed', the latter featuring Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys on vocals) and released a successful eponymous debut album. And despite a slight falling‑off in fortunes following the release of their second album Raise The Pressure in 1996 (Curate's Egg might have been a better title), considerable expectations surrounded the recent release of their third album, Twisted Tenderness.

While Marr and Sumner have been at the top of their profession for so long it's hard to remember a time when they weren't famous, Electronic's new album has provided an important career breakthrough for at least two of the other people involved. For Merv De Peyer, who'd previously worked as a keyboard player and synth/sequencer programmer (see the 'Potted History' box), it represented a chance to break into production and mixing. And for Jim Spencer it represented the most important test yet of his skills as regular engineer at Johnny Marr's home studio (see the 'Lucky Breaks' box).

Back To The Guitar

Electronic, 1999: Johnny Marr (left) and Bernard Sumner (right).Electronic, 1999: Johnny Marr (left) and Bernard Sumner (right).

Following the cool reception afforded Raise The Pressure, Sumner and Marr had a rethink and decided the answer lay in emphasising Marr's guitar. Sick of his image as axe hero after leaving The Smiths, he had played down his use of the instrument in favour of sequenced synth lines (albeit often input via a MIDI guitar) on the first Electronic album, and though the guitar lay more to the fore on Raise The Pressure, the synths were still dominant. Marr moved his own Clear studio into new premises before recording for Twisted Tenderness began, and the new studio boasted a live room, which the previous one had lacked. As Merv De Peyer more succinctly puts it, "Johnny wanted the guitars to really kick on this album."

In the initial stages of recording, therefore, Marr and Sumner wrote songs on guitar (a break with past Electronic tradition) and rehearsed them at the new Clear. The emphasis was on spontaneity. Jim: "The main criterion for his new place was that rather than it being an amazing‑sounding studio, it needed to have a good playing atmosphere, so it's surrounded by windows and trees — it's very green. The control room is very basic; when we did 'Vivid' we just had a Mackie 8‑buss analogue desk in there." Marr summoned long‑term associates drummer Ged Lynch (ex‑of Black Grape) and bassist Jimmi Goodwin (of the band Doves) to Clear, and the new songs were captured on Marr's pair of original black‑face ADATs as rough‑and‑ready band performances. One of the earliest songs was 'Vivid'. "Bernard was away, and Ged was around at Johnny's place, and Johnny came up with this track. Johnny wrote all the music, and the main harmonica riff, and even sang on the demo. Later, he gave it to Bernard, who changed the melody a bit and added some lyrics to the ones Johnny had already written." At this stage, the song lacked the distinctive keyboard intro it would later acquire, simply crashing straight in with a drum upbeat.

At the time, there was no sign that these recordings would be anything other than demos; provisions for capturing high‑quality recordings were not in evidence. "When we started out, the plan was just to do some demos at Johnny's place. At the time, he only had one condenser mic, three Shure SM57s, a couple of Beyerdynamic M88s and an AKG D112, and I needed those for the drum kit! The single condenser was a Neumann TLM193, and it was all put down to ADAT. It wasn't really the best setup for recording...

"Much more by luck than judgement, his live room added a real character to the sound. It's stone‑walled, with a wood floor and a beamed ceiling, about 10 metres long and four wide. It's a very nice, lively room, and it made the drums work out. Everyone played along live with each other in there, whereas on the second album, any live drums were added later to existing tracks that had been played to drum machines or clicks. This time, they built it up from the ground, live."

Such was the simple nature of the studio that Johnny didn't even have any baffles for isolation purposes. Jimmi Goodwin's bass therefore had to be DI'd from his Ampeg amp, while Marr added electric guitar through his Matchless amp (which was miked up) and overdubbed driving strums from his Martin acoustic.

As demo recordings piled up, Sumner and Marr decided that they had captured something on the ADAT which they didn't wish to rerecord. Jim Spencer had apparently already sensed this coming: "I started to think to myself, 'They're really getting into this, and they're getting good takes with Ged and Jimmi...' After the first few tracks we demoed, I realised there was a good chance that they would be used, and that I ought to make sure they sounded a bit better than just demos."

Enter Merv

Merv De Peyer.Merv De Peyer.

At this point, Electronic's chief duo chose a producer to help them through the rest of the recording process: Arthur Baker, the man behind the classic early '80s hip‑hop cut 'Planet Rock', and with whom Bernard had worked while in New Order. With ultimately profound consequences for 'Vivid', Arthur brought along his regular programmer, Merv De Peyer. Jim Spencer was impressed. "Merv was one of the best things Arthur brought to that record. He's a genius with Logic and Pro Tools, a very talented musician, and full of creative ideas; all the sound effects and keyboard stuff on 'Vivid' are his."

Merv settled into George Martin's old office at AIR Studios with his racks, Pro Tools system, Mac running Logic and Arthur Baker's Yamaha Promix 01 digital mixer, while recording shifted to RAK Studios, where Jim Spencer continued to engineer overdubs onto the material recorded at Clear, with Arthur Baker overseeing. Jim's first move was to get everything that had been recorded to date off the ADATs"Johnny's ADATs are the older black ones, and... well, they frighten me to death, to be honest. He's only got two for a start, they take ages to lock up, and you can have problems with them chewing up tapes. So when we got to RAK, we dumped everything onto 2‑inch tape. We recorded a lot of the guitars onto the 2‑inch for the tape sound, and then transferred everything into the version of Cubase there. I've had a lot of experience with digital formats — Raise The Pressure was all done on ADATs and The Charlatans [Spencer's current recording project] are now using an Otari RADAR system, so I've developed my preferences for what sounds better; I think basses do, and some guitars. Some of the time we recorded directly into Cubase.

"The bulk of the recording was done in the room where I was, and then we'd hand stuff over to Merv to work on. We had two rooms going right throughout the project, and Johnny and Bernard were constantly flitting between the two."

Following the initial recording of 'Vivid' at Clear, a sampled loop was overdubbed to fill out the rhythm. It was to sort matters like this out that Merv was initially brought in, as he explains: "I was the 'fix‑it‑up' man — especially with respect to the live drums. Ged is a great drummer, but they wanted to have loops running over the top of the drums, so the drums had to hook in with those. I needed to do quite a lot of drum editing. I did a month and a half on my own at AIR; they shipped me ADATs and I worked on fixing things."

Bernard and Johnny visited Merv frequently at this time, and came to trust his resourcefulness and ideas. At one point, when Bernard wantd a sitar‑type sound for the album track 'Prodigal Son' and Johnny wasn't there, Merv reversed a section of Marr's guitar and processed it to obtain the desired sound. It wasn't long before Merv was not merely fixing up drum tracks, but also adding his own ideas. "Frequently, when people realise that you are thinking on their level, that you're making decisions that they would have made, all of a sudden, you get a free rein to be creative. Electronic was a perfect example of that; Johnny and Bernard were very quick to make that decision. They instilled me with this confidence that I could try overdubs of my own."

Merv's experiments at AIR culminated in him trying a full mix of one track covertly, and then revealing it to Johnny and Bernard in a near‑finished state as a fait accompli. "It had been going really well at AIR, so I took a couple of days off — didn't tell Johnny and Bernard, and didn't charge for it, either — and worked up a rough mix of one of the songs at AIR with the Promix and my old Nubus Pro Tools system. When they heard it, Bernard said 'Well, Merv, that was pretty close to being the final mix' — and that was just on a Yamaha Promix 01! They seriously started to consider using me to mix the album at that point."

From this point onwards, work on the album was split between Jim and Merv. Jim still engineered the initial recordings, but then handed some over to Merv for completion. Those that Jim retained, he saw through to the finished mix.

But what of 'Vivid'? This was one of the tracks Merv assumed responsibility for, having already done some work to make Ged Lynch's live drums work with the overdubbed loop. It wasn't just a simple matter of sync'ing the two rhythms together, either...

Jim: "To be honest, it wasn't an ideal situation; I was unhappy about the fact that some stuff had been recorded to ADAT, then printed to 2‑inch tape, put into Cubase, exported back out onto ADAT to go to Merv, then loaded by him into Logic... We didn't have any digital interfacing, so all this was done through endless A‑D converters. I was getting concerned about some of the drums sounding a bit brittle.&quot

Fortunately, Merv had a couple of solutions, one of which was simply to apply his Empirical Labs Distressor to the snare. "That's phenomenal on snare drums. You don't lose any of the snappy impact, but you can turn... well, put it this way. Jim's drums went from 'pfftht' to 'BLAAANNNNNNNNNNGGGG!!!!!!' It also emulates other tube gear very convincingly. You can go from very subtle to insane effects, and the audio quality is impeccable, as far as my ears can make out."

The other trick was more complex, but no less ingenious. Using Logic's audio‑to‑MIDI conversion routines, Merv turned Ged's live drum patterns into MIDI files, and then used these to trigger samples which bolstered the flagging drum sounds. "Logic is an awesome tool. To be really honest, audio‑to‑MIDI doesn't work too well on melodic parts, even monophonic lines — I could replay a line faster. But for drums, it's great. You work out the trigger threshold, process the audio, and erase all the junk the threshold hasn't caught. Then you just select all the events you've got, and make them all the same MIDI note — and there's your snare or kick trigger. You have to go in and tweak a few of them, but it's still pretty fast. And you get all the velocity information of the original drum in the MIDI file — so the dynamics are preserved. I have samples that I've collected over the years which I've got cross‑faded at different velocities, so I was able to get the samples sounding pretty live. I suppose I was using the kick sample like others might use EQ, just to give the kick sound more edge. I didn't replace the original altogether, just blended it with the original."

As well as using the Distressor, Merv applied the same audio‑to‑MIDI trick on the snare, this time adding a sample of a metallic clang low in the mix to round out the sound.

Synths, Arpeggios, Tremolos... Bowling Alleys?

Jim Spencer.Jim Spencer.

With the drums beefed up, 'Vivid' was already sounding good, but now Merv's creative imagination went into overdrive. "When you've got everything sounding good, then you can start to say, 'well, this is a very vibey song — at the moment the drums just crash in. Could we maybe have an intro?'"

Enter Merv's old Oberheim Matrix 6 synth, an arpeggio'd, vaguely oriental bell sound with a long decay time, and a reversed, reverbed snatch of Johnny Marr's harmonica, which Merv placed on the front of the song in Logic, to Marr's delight. Merv: "The combination of the notes I chose, and the reversed harmonica, created a real mood for the song; exactly what Johnny wanted. I picked the arpeggio notes so that it could run through the whole verse, and still work with all the chords. Then, each time a new chord is struck, it makes the arpeggio sound different, even though the notes in that riff stay the same. It's a device that everyone uses, but it works.

"I also doubled the acoustic guitar, by taking some of it from later on in the song, where it's playing the same thing, and layering it on top of the first. That works because like double‑tracking a voca, the guitar is playing the same chords but not in exactly the same way. You can't get the same vibe with electronics, and you don't want it to be a perfect double, or it doesn't sound as interesting.

"The break is where I really went crazy, putting tremolo plug‑ins on the guitar and auto‑panners on almost everything, so sounds were flying around the stereo spectrum. One of the sounds in the background at that point is actually a sample of a bowling alley — the sound when the ball hits the skittles. There are two or three weird loops in there which I concocted myself by processing material on the original ADAT. Johnny loved the extreme guitar effects, as it was one of his big concerns: how to make an electronic‑sounding track where it's actually guitar‑driven!"

Most of the special effects on the track were completed at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios, where Jim, Merv, Arthur, Bernard and Johnny relocated after the recordings in RAK and AIR. Here, they were joined by Arthur Baker's other programmer, Mac Quayle, who, while working on the album's title track in a third room, added some tom fills to Vivid's drum track in Logic in the closing stages of the recording, including the roll that sets off the song following the arpeggio intro. Merv: "That was originally just one snare hit and into the song. Mac's fill totally made the start for me." It was at Real World, too, that Bernard added his final vocal, comped by Merv in Logic, and the female backing vocals were added by solo artist Astrid Williamson, who happened to be at Real World at the time.

Mixing & Completion

More of De Peyer's processors and effects (top to bottom): Turntable, Lexicon PCM70 Reverb, Orban parametric EQ, Ibanez SDR1000 reverb (x2), Alesis Midiverb III multi‑effects, dbx 363x dual gate, CAD stereo compressor, dbx 160X compressor/limiter, ART MDC20001 stereo limiter, Empirical Labs Distressor compressor, ART Pro MPA mic preamp, Boss DE200 digital delayMore of De Peyer's processors and effects (top to bottom): Turntable, Lexicon PCM70 Reverb, Orban parametric EQ, Ibanez SDR1000 reverb (x2), Alesis Midiverb III multi‑effects, dbx 363x dual gate, CAD stereo compressor, dbx 160X compressor/limiter, ART MDC20001 stereo limiter, Empirical Labs Distressor compressor, ART Pro MPA mic preamp, Boss DE200 digital delay

The album — including 'Vivid' — was mixed by Merv at Mayfair Studios, London, on Peter Gabriel's old Nubus Pro Tools system, which he lent for their use. Merv: "What luxury! It had eight DSP Farm cards! I could not exhaust the DSP processing — and believe me, I tried! You know, 'OK... will it give me another 6‑band Focusrite plug‑in, then? Yesss! It will!!' I was like a kid loose in a cookie store!" Software plug‑ins once again proved their worth at the mix. "The Drawmer and Focusrite plug‑ins in the computer are awesome. The Focusrite limiter on vocals is one of the best I've heard — you can whack it up all the way on a vocal and you can barely hear it working. It saves so much time, instead of having to automate every little word. Bernard's voice also responded particularly well to it."

When mixing, Merv is careful not to become too precious about the sound of individual components of a mix: "A lot of people who come the engineering school route are very concerned about the sound of every instrument in isolation. So if you solo the acoustic guitar, they want it to sound like a really good acoustic guitar — but that's not really what doing a mix is about. You have to consider it as a totality. Most of the time, when I finish a mix, if you solo instruments, they're going to sound pretty crap. You're going to listen to the EQ I've picked for the acoustic guitar and say 'well, where's all the oomph?' But listen to it in the mix and it'll be taking up just the right amount of frequencies."

True enough; if you listen to 'Vivid' it seems to have an extraordinary clarity, as does much of the rest of Twisted Tenderness, no matter how dense the production becomes on some tracks. So Johnny and Bernard got the album they wanted, and Merv got the credit he has been seeking for so long — recognition as the mix engineer of a complete high‑profile album. Remix work continues to keep Merv busy, but he hopes to undertake more complete album projects soon, and to this end he has just purchased a pair of Yamaha 01V mixers, following his successes with Arthur Baker's Promix 01 (see the 'Pro Tools And Portability' box). "I think it's great that the technology is finally allowing musicians at every level such fine control of mixing. That's not to denigrate the position of professional or specialist mixing engineers, or engineers generally, but at the end of the day, who would you prefer to be mixing your tracks — a technician, or a musician?".

Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner certainly know...

Lucky Breaks: Jim Spencer

Merv De Peyer's synth modules (top to bottom): Roland RE201 Space Echo, Sequential Prophet VS, Oberheim Matrix 6R (as used on the intro to 'Vivid'), Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter,and Roland D550 synths, Sony cassette deck, Kurzweil MicroPiano and Voce Electric Piano modules, MOTU MIDI Time Piece II, Akai ME30P patchbay, Novation BassStation rack.Merv De Peyer's synth modules (top to bottom): Roland RE201 Space Echo, Sequential Prophet VS, Oberheim Matrix 6R (as used on the intro to 'Vivid'), Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter,and Roland D550 synths, Sony cassette deck, Kurzweil MicroPiano and Voce Electric Piano modules, MOTU MIDI Time Piece II, Akai ME30P patchbay, Novation BassStation rack.

Elsewhere in this issue (see page 136), David Mellor describes some of the lengthy stages an Assistant Studio Engineer can pass through before finally getting hands‑on experience and promotion. Jim Spencer vaulted all of these, thanks to an incredible stroke of luck. A graduate of Gateway Recording School's 1‑year course, Jim returned to his native Lincolnshire ("Not exactly the hub of the music business" as he puts it) after his studies, and managed to find work in an unashamedly provincial studio. To his amazement, one day Johnny Marr walked in with his own engineer, Owen Morris. Johnny had come to the furthest depths of Lincolnshire for a change of scene, and wished to make some recordings. As the in‑house engineer, Jim assisted on the sessions, and was forced to step into Owen's shoes when the latter was summoned for three days to a prior recording commitment with New Order, back in Manchester. Time passed and Lincolnshire life settled back into routine for Jim — until one day he got a call out of the blue from Johnny, asking if he wished to be the engineer on the sessions for the second Electronic album, Raise The Pressure, as Owen Morris had left Johnny's employ permanently to go and produce Oasis. Jim's three‑day engineering stint in Lincolnshire had obviously made an impression...

Jim ended up mixing half of Raise The Pressure, and becoming regular engineer at Clear, Marr's own studio. "I'm self‑employed, and go off and do other things sometimes, but most of the stuff I do is with Johnny. He's a real workaholic, and he's always playing or writing, so he needs an engineer a lot of the time. If he has an idea and wants to get it down, he gives me a call. I live in Manchester now, and he's just up the road."

Merv De Peyer — A Potted History

Merv De Peyer's effects rack, containing (top to bottom) BBE Sonic Maximiser 822A enhancer, Behringer Bassfex bass enhancer, Korg SDD2000 sampling delay, Drawmer 1960 valve processor, Rane ME60 graphic EQ, Yamaha SPX90 multi‑effects, MXR System II delay, Valley People processing rack.Merv De Peyer's effects rack, containing (top to bottom) BBE Sonic Maximiser 822A enhancer, Behringer Bassfex bass enhancer, Korg SDD2000 sampling delay, Drawmer 1960 valve processor, Rane ME60 graphic EQ, Yamaha SPX90 multi‑effects, MXR System II delay, Valley People processing rack.

The British son of a world‑class clarinetist, and holder of a degree in Performance and Composition from the prestigious American Berklee College of Music, Merv De Peyer spent the first few years following his studies in New York, earning a living as a very unelectronic jazz pianist. Indeed, his first brush with synthesizers was not a success. At Berklee he signed up for Electronic Music Composition lectures, but was immediately put off. "The lecturers were like scientists, dressed in white coats. They said 'if you come along to every class for six months and learn all the synth theory, then maybe, just maybe, we'll let you touch this' — and they unveiled an ARP 2600. But the music it produced just sounded like a lot of ducks quacking to me... So I only went twice!"

Disillusioned with jazz, Merv sought a change of scene in rock music, and began buying synthesizers. When the DX7 came out, he was one of the first people to actually understand it, and thus found a role for himself as a programmer. "I started to do sessions just designing sounds for people. You know, pretty mundane stuff. 'Uh — we want a bell sound here'. That was a great example of a business that was associated with the technology of the time; people made money out of it and some people — I never really did, to be honest — actually pictured making a consistent living out of it. Now it's gone. History. You want a bell sound? My JV1080 has 5000 of them. It was great for a bit though. 750 dollars a day for crossing a bell with a Fender Rhodes... or just making a bell sound decay for longer... The hilarious thing was that sometimes I wasn't even the player! I would design the sounds and they had someone else to play them! I hated it, really."

Eventually, Merv's programming work led him into the ranks of synth funksters Cameo, just as they enjoyed their biggest hit with 'Word Up'. Demand for the production services of Cameo frontman Larry Blackman soared, and as his MIDI specialist, Merv enjoyed Associate Producer credits on a wide range of high‑profile US releases, and toured extensively with Cameo as their MIDI programmer.

But the bubble burst. House music took off in the States, rendering Cameo old hat, and Merv not only parted company with Larry but actively stopped mentioning his name when seeking work, as he felt it was counter‑productive. Doors ceased to open, work dried up and Merv returned to New York, where he founded a small studio complex. To Merv's eternal good fortune, producer Arthur Baker moved in two units along from Merv's own studio, and Merv began working for him as his synth and sequencer programmer. "We'd met before, but he'd always had other programmers, like Mac Quayle, who he still does work with, and who did some work on Twisted Tenderness, on the title track."

Through Arthur, in turn, Merv met Jaz Mann of Babylon Zoo, and the pair hit it off so well that Jaz asked Merv to mix his second record for him, eventually bestowing a co‑production credit on him as well. Though the album was not a commercial success, Merv began to attract work again. "Mixing the album for Jaz gave me all the confidence I needed, and really pushed me over the top, to the next level."

Although he had been mixing as part of his job for years, this was Merv's first high‑profile credit in that field; and, as he points out solemnly, it's the mixing credits that count. "My heart goes out to programmers everywhere, because basically record companies look at three things on a record. Artist, producer, and mix engineer. Programmers get totally ignored. You will never get a call associated with how good that record sounds, even though they can often have done all of the work of the mix engineer. Not too many producers and artists tip the hat to the people they've worked with, either. That is just one of the nice things about Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner [Electronic have credited everyone involved in the making of their new album on the sleeve]; they're so gracious. Arthur Baker's like that, too. He will always tip his hat to you if he likes your work" [it's true — see the interview with Arthur Baker in SOS June '97, in which he does exactly that for Merv].

Pro Tools & Portability — Merv's Studio

Some of Merv De Peyer's more unusual studio gear: Akai ME30P programmable patchbay, Casio CZ101 synth, Yamaha DJX, Casio toy home keyboard (with built‑in toy sampler), Casio Rap Man (with built‑in sampler and scratching turntable), Korg PolySix synth.Some of Merv De Peyer's more unusual studio gear: Akai ME30P programmable patchbay, Casio CZ101 synth, Yamaha DJX, Casio toy home keyboard (with built‑in toy sampler), Casio Rap Man (with built‑in sampler and scratching turntable), Korg PolySix synth.

Intrigued by the possibilities Arthur Baker's Yamaha Promix 01 digital mixer afforded him when performing test mixes for Electronic at AIR, Merv has now splashed out on two of the newer Yamaha 01V mixers. Together with his recently acquired Pro Tools 24/Mix system, his G3 running Emagic Logic ("There's nothing to touch Logic for pop music." he says firmly) and the rest of his racked gear, he feels he now has a setup to be proud of. "This system is so powerful now. With the 01V, it's ridiculous what you get for your money. Four additional processors, each of which sounds much better than my old SPX90... The compressors in it are easily as good as the ones in SSL desks as well, if not better. Of course, I wouldn't use them for everything; I'll always choose a really nice piece of outboard over what's in the desk. They're really compact, too, and I can use one as a hardware control surface for my Pro Tools. Who needs Pro Control? Have you seen that? Seven grand, and not a preamp in it! I'm sorry, but that's a real con!

"The best thing about my system, though, is that I can dissassemble and reassemble it within an hour. It's all flightcased, and I can take it with me; I took the whole studio with me to Real World for Electronic.

"What's more, I'm already doing commercial mixes on it — I did one for Terrorvision recently — and no‑one's complaining about quality! All I really need now is a few more grand of outboard — some decent mic preamps — and then I can honestly say to people 'look, I have all this gear — let's rent some mics and a house near Nice, and go and do your album there with it'. I've been saying this sort of thing since I was in Cameo, but back then, I could only say 'let's go and do the pre‑production with this gear somewhere' — now it's good enough to do the recording and mixing as well."