Miriam Stockley is one of the premier session singers in the UK — but it's taken her until now to record an album of her own. She talks to Sue Sillitoe about recording the album in her new home studio.
If my husband said I had ears like a bat I'd probably thump him, but then I'm a journalist, not a singer, and in my mind this description conjures up images of Dumbo and Prince Charles which are not exactly complimentary. For vocalist Miriam Stockley — the voice behind Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge's hugely successful Adiemus — however, "ears like a bat" is praise indeed, and is more likely to earn her husband, engineer Rod Houison, a smack on the lips than a smack round the head.
"She's amazing," Houison enthuses. "She hears every tiny detail and is incredibly professional about projects she takes on." Given the list of artists Miriam Stockley has worked with — a list that includes such luminaries as Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Deniece Williams, Mike Oldfield and Brian May — one is inclined to agree with Houison's assessment of her ability. What is surprising, though, is that it has taken so long for Miriam Stockley to capitalise on her undisputed vocal talent by recording a solo album with a major record company.
Simply entitled Miriam and available through Virgin, this album is an exceptionally complex and versatile release that covers so many genres it is almost impossible to categorise. "I've worked with five different composers, all of whom have influenced the album to various degrees," Miriam Stockley explains. "It doesn't fit into any bag. It has elements of a contemporary classical album but encompasses a much wider variety of musical styles which reflect me as a contemporary songwriter and performer."
Stockley adds that after completing the third Adiemus album she felt the time was right to expand her musical audience. "I have always written from a contemporary standpoint, not a classical one, and I wanted this album to have a contemporary edge that would appeal to a much wider audience," she says. "People in this industry love telling artists they must 'choose' a musical style and stick to it, but I think that's rubbish because an artist should be allowed to develop and grow all the time. At the moment I have some pretty clear ideas about where I want to go and with the support of a company like Virgin, I know I'll be given the backing I need to do just that."
Originally from Johannesburg, Miriam Stockley began singing at the age of 11 when she and her sister Avryl formed a duo.
"It began as a fun thing to do," she says. "I guess we got lucky because we were pretty and cute and everyone thought we were a novelty. Then, when I was 12, someone thought it would be a good idea to stick me in a studio and record a single. It was the most awful thing you've ever heard — honestly, if I was brave enough to play it to my own kids I think they'd die of shame!"
Dreadful it may have been, but shortly afterwards Stockley was asked to record a jingle for a local building society, which began her session career. "From then on I was constantly in and out of studios recording jingles for various radio and television commercials. At first, my mother was very much against it because she was afraid it would interfere with my schoolwork, but my father was very supportive and encouraged me to carry on. However, halfway through my A‑levels I found the combination of singing and school work too much to cope with, so I gave up school and concentrated on singing instead."
Stockley says that although the South African studios were good, it was very difficult for local engineers to get a real international breakthrough or truly international sound. "We were just too far away and technically too far behind," she explains. "Back in the mid‑1970s equipment that was commonplace in Europe simply wasn't finding its way to South Africa because it was prohibitively expensive to import. And even when studios did get the latest gear, they often didn't know how to use it properly, because there was no‑one around to show them the ropes.
"In the end, the huge technical divide between South Africa and Europe became one of the main reasons why I left. People sometimes ask me if it was also a political decision, but I think when you are that young — I was only 18 — you don't see these issues as clearly as you do when you're older. To me there was no political issue in the music business. I came to Europe because I couldn't manage to bridge the technical and creative gap."
The catalyst that finally persuaded Stockley to leave South Africa was signing a solo deal with a local record company that had links with a French label. As a result she went to Paris to work with French composer Francis Lai.
"At first I was promoting the project by flying back and forth between Johannesburg and Paris, but I couldn't handle all that travelling — it was just too far away. In the early 1980s I decided to move and did so very impulsively. I literally packed a bag and left without even saying goodbye to most of the people I knew. I wasn't brave, just fearless as only an 18‑year old can be. Before I knew it I was in London, living in a house on the Western Avenue and picking up gigs as a session singer."
Stockley describes this period of her life as musical prostitution, basically tackling anything and everything that came her way. "I did a lot of work as a backing singer, but I also demoed songs for various songwriters and joined the occasional band for a few gigs. It was a good way of building contacts because I was in at the bottom with a lot of people who were obviously going places. Working with so many different people got my name around and got me noticed, which in this business is always half the battle."
Soon after arriving in London, Stockley met Rod Houison, a musician and engineer who cut his professional teeth at Eden Studios. When they met Houison was enjoying a great deal of success with Shakin' Stevens, who was in the charts with hits like 'This Old House' and 'Green Door'. "I'd just done a tour with Sheena Easton but had been fired for upstaging the singer," Stockley laughs. "What can I say? I always got on OK with Sheena but I must admit I never thought she'd make it. Boy, did I eat my words when she did!
"Anyway, I was drowning my sorrows at a party when I was introduced to Rod. The minute I met him I was totally in awe because I was always a studio groupie and he'd engineered a single that was at No. 1 in the charts."
Romance blossomed, and eventually the pair set up home together. Soon after that Stockley became pregnant and was faced with the prospect of fitting a child into her hectic and burgeoning singing career. She says, "Rod and I decided we were just going to have to find a way of making it work. But, as luck would have it, the minute I found out I was pregnant my session career rocketed sky high."
In true showbiz style, Stockley refused to let her pregnancy get in the way of her career. "I used to arrive at the studio looking like a whale and swigging milk of magnesia between takes to get rid of my heartburn," she giggles. "When I was seven months pregnant I did a Chaka Khan promotional TV show that involved a lot of heavy dance routines. I used to come home and apologise to my lump for putting it through so much!"
In 1984 their son Leigh was born and Houison decided to take a back seat with his career so that Stockley could concentrate on hers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Stockley was in huge demand, and her voice can be heard on numerous hits by an incredibly diverse range of artists. She also graced several film and TV soundtracks including Mick Figgis' One Night Stand, and Great Expectations starring Robert De Niro. On the live side, Stockley took part in many special event concerts such as the final Wham! concert, the 1997 Prince's Trust Concert and the tribute to Freddie Mercury AIDS awareness concert, where she provided backing vocals for the likes of Elton John, Annie Lennox, David Bowie and Seal.
"There is something so brilliant about doing a live concert," she says. "You die for half an hour before you get on stage, but once you're there you could go on forever. But although I really enjoy live gigs, there is a part of me that has always loved recording studios. I'm very much at ease in that environment."
Stockley's extensive studio work brought her to the attention of former Soft Machine members Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge, who were in the business of writing music for advertising. Explaining the background to this she says, "In the early 1990s I was involved in a project called Praise which had its roots in a Fiat commercial. My vocals were remixed by George Michael's cousin Andreas Georgiou and his partner Pete Lorrimer, who released the result as a dance single called 'Only You'. It jumped into the charts and suddenly there I was singing it on Top Of The Pops."
Karl Jenkins heard about Stockley's unique vocal style and invited her to work with him on the Delta Airlines commercial which later became the forerunner to the Adiemus albums. His compositions were recorded in 1995 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and released as Songs Of Sanctuary by Adiemus. The album became one of the most successful contemporary classical albums of recent years and, together with Adiemus II: Cantata Mundi, sold in excess of two million copies worldwide (see SOS June 1997 for more on the making of the Adiemus albums).
While Miriam Stockley's singing career was moving onwards and upwards, Rod Houison put his engineering career on ice to concentrate on his family's video business. At first he did explore the possibility of setting up a home studio but after years spent working in a professional environment he found the step down to very basic equipment hard to cope with. "In the early 1980s I bought a Tascam 16‑track and a Seck mixing console, but although they were good value for money they were a bit of a comedown for someone who had been used to working on an SSL," he says. "There was no headroom or tolerance, just bags of noise. I used to play back the music I had recorded and think what have I done? At that point I gave up with home equipment and decided to wait until the technology improved."
Stockley, however, was determined to get him back into the studio because she could tell he was still hankering after an engineering career. She says, "When friends began buying home equipment I used to pressure him to go round and help out. Reluctantly he would do the occasional engineering project, but for a long time he still wasn't happy with the results he was getting."
Then something happened. Over a period of time the productions began to get better, and projects Houison was engineering in home studios became good enough to go out on radio. At the same time, digital equipment was becoming more affordable and that, says Stockley, is when Houison became interested in engineering again. "I suggested we got rid of everything we already owned and started again from scratch," she explains. "At this stage I was already involved with the Adiemus projects and was working in major studios doing banks of vocals day after day. This was a very expensive way to record and I was keen to find an alternative that would give me the creative freedom I needed to experiment."
Miriam: "I have a sound in my mind when I'm singing, and then it's a question of experimenting with various pieces of equipment so that we get as close to it as possible."
Having made the decision to build a home studio, it took 18 months for Stockley and Houison to get the equipment in place. Houison admits that even then he was still confused about what to buy. "It seemed that everyone I spoke to had a different opinion," he laughs. "I avoided the original ADATs because they were too slow, and bought the XTs which were faster, although not as reliable. Now these have been superseded by the XT20s, which probably came out three hours after I bought my XTs. Still, I'm happy with the XTs because they are fast, although nothing is fast enough for Miriam."
Houison also bought an 8‑bus Mackie console, soon to be replaced with the new Mackie D8b digital desk. He also bought an Apple Mac G3 and Emagic Logic, various microphones and effects, a Kurzweil 2500 synth and — halfway through the project — a pair of Dynaudio Acoustics M2 monitors.
"The first half of the album wasn't done on Dynaudio speakers because we didn't get them in time," says Stockley, "but when we got our M2s and listened to them it was like removing the cotton wool after having had your ears blocked for three years."
Houison adds that, with hindsight, he would have preferred to invest in a full Pro Tools system rather than buy ADATs, but he wanted 20‑bit recording and at the time Pro Tools was only 16‑bit. "However, there was this wonderful Korg card, the 12‑in/12‑out Korg 1212 which, in theory at least, offered very good value for money," he says. "We bought one, only to discover that it wasn't a great success because we had constant problems getting it to address the other equipment in the studio. I had hoped that it would prove to be the perfect device for getting audio and digital information onto the computer and back again, but it doesn't do this in a trouble‑free manner. As a result we now only use it for backing vocals, but for lead vocal I always record onto tape. This is probably an old‑fashioned way of working but it makes me feel more comfortable.
"When the ADATs arrived I spent a couple of weeks messing around with them, losing everything and tearing my hair out before I got the hang of them. You have to remember that with Miriam I'm dealing with a singer who will do at least three voices with three tracks of each voice — in simplistic terms a basic melody, a high harmony and a low harmony, so you end up with a minimum of nine. Then Miriam would say 'OK, fly it in'. I'm sitting there with 16 tracks of ADAT, nine of which are filled up with vocals, and I'm wondering how on earth I'm supposed to do that. At this stage our computer was not running as satisfactorily as it is now, so my solution was to go out and buy yet another ADAT!"
These early teething problems were ironed out as the project progressed and eventually Houison and Stockley settled into a way of working that both felt comfortable with. Houison says, "Basically, we would record a backing track and get that onto the computer, then we would record a guide lead vocal which Miriam would add to. All these sounds were shipped into the computer before being flown back to tape. The vocals were flown back in pairs, but always pairs of the same voice, so that we ended up with blocks of vocals in nicely balanced pairs of maybe four voices, all of which were doing the same thing. If you are working this way it is very important not to mix the voices otherwise you run into difficulties when you start adding strings.
"Because this was such a vocal‑oriented project, we would end up with at least 24 tracks of vocals which we bounced across to a Sony 48‑track from the ADATs. This was generally done in a commercial studio, although we occasionally hired in a 48‑track. Once that was done, we bounced over any programmed material and then started adding strings."
These were recorded at Angel Studios with a 60‑piece orchestra which was put together by Bookers, Stockley's own company that specialises in hiring musicians for recording and film score projects.
Miriam Stockley co‑wrote the majority of her album in collaboration with various composers including Colin Towns, Glenn Keiles, Maggie Ryder, Ian Lynn and Julia Taylor Stanley. "The writing has my stamp on it, but it was great to have all these other people involved," she says. "Ian was particularly helpful because he handled a lot of the programming. He has his own studio which is compatible with ours, so it's very easy to move work back and forth between the two. Ian was the glue that held the project together because he was so brilliant at taking bits of ideas and arranging them into a workable form."
Julia Taylor Stanley was also a vital part of the project, as she acted as overall producer and project manager. "She kindly stayed away from the vocals and allowed me to produce those myself," says Stockley, "but her compositional contributions and ability to sort out musical complexities into a more workable state were vital to the project. Although she has a good knowledge of the classical market, she has a very commercial ear — she and her husband John Stanley used to manage Nigel Kennedy and were responsible for bringing him to the attention of a much wider public. She has also written songs for artists like Diana Ross and Elkie Brooks, so she understood the contemporary feel I was trying to achieve."
Working in the spare bedroom is obviously not ideal, which is why Miriam Stockley is planning to build a new home studio with more space and much better acoustics. "It's going to be an underground studio, because we are tunnelling into a steep bank at the back of our house to create room for it," she says.
The new studio — called, naturally, The Bunker — should be completed by the summer and will incorporate a proper control room and a live area large enough for a small string section. With the new Mackie digital desk there will also be the possibility of mixing at home.
Although specialist architects and builders are being used to create the space for the studio, Houison plans to tackle the acoustic design himself, probably with the help of his old friends at Eden Studios.
"I'm really looking forward to getting it finished," says Miriam Stockley. "I can't wait to start work on the next album and it will be nice to have a bit more space. My way of working is unorthodox, and often ideas will come to me as I'm wandering around the house listening to Rod messing about with different sounds. You don't have the luxury of working like this in an expensive studio. If you have to plan everything in advance there's no spontaneity, and I just can't work like that."
"The reason why this album sounds so good is because we used very high‑quality microphones," says Miriam. "Mind you, you'll laugh when you see how we did it because we had no proper separation between the live area and the control room."
Laugh? You're not kidding! The studio, which is about to be significantly upgraded, is currently a spare bedroom with one corner blocked off by two flowery divans stood on their ends and tied together with a piece of string!
Houison says, "You could say it's an acoustic technique I developed years ago when I used to do studio maintenance and one of my clients was Motown UK. They were a tiny outfit whose idea of an expensive studio was to stick a 3M 16‑track machine into a semi in Cricklewood, install the biggest monitor system they could find and throw cables through to the front room which became the live area. They used to take each house on a short lease and move on before the neighbours had a chance to moan about the noise. I was forever grabbing all this equipment and moving it to the next house — which is why I'm well versed in the imaginative use of mattresses!"
When it comes to microphones, however, things become much more sophisticated. Miriam explains, "The microphone I like best is the Neumann U87Ai which I first tried when we recorded Adiemus. Prior to that I'd always considered myself to be a mid‑to‑top‑range singer and hadn't really explored the full potential of my voice. Then suddenly I discovered I had this bottom range, although it never sounded as full and as clear as I wanted it to sound. I tried a couple of valve mics but found them too warm for me. I know a lot of engineers like a warm sound, particularly with someone like me who has an incredibly edgy voice, but I feel that the minute the edge goes, so does the excitement.
"Eventually I was given an 87Ai to experiment with and I couldn't believe the results. The bottom end response was just phenomenal, and I was getting this huge sound which was just great."
Houison adds, "This Neumann has a bigger capsule which, together with its improved electronics, makes it sound much better. The old 87 used to have a horrible 200‑cycle hump that everyone in the business hated, especially for lead vocals. But with the new mic that hump has disappeared and what you are left with is a much more powerful signal with a lot more gain."
Stockley started her solo project with just a Neumann, but soon realised she needed something else to capture the different textures of her voice. "As the project developed I was doing more pushed vocals — lots of shouty African sounds that needed a different kind of microphone. We experimented with an AKG 414, but although it was nice and bright for backing vocals it wasn't quite right for the leads. Then Unity Audio, who supply a lot of our equipment, suggested an Earthworks QTC1 microphone, which was something I had never considered."
Stockley tried it out but initially found it too toppy, although she was impressed by its power handling. Then she had an idea: why not experiment and use it alongside the Neumann rather than as an alternative? "When we did that, the sound was just amazing," she explains.
Houison adds, "We have now developed a system where I alter the sound of the Neumann by using a small amount of compression from our Joemeek channel. I let the Earthworks float alongside it with no compression so it's virtually flat. When we mix, I treat the compressed Neumann 87Ai sound as the main source sound — the one that you hear upfront and in your face — and let the effects (top‑end plates and so on) be kicked by the Earthworks which has this phenomenal top end. The result is that when Miriam hits a hard, edgy high the Earthworks and the effects take off so that any glistening appears naturally, without us having to work too hard to achieve it."
Stockley says this approach finally gave her the sound she wanted. "I have a sound in my mind when I'm singing, and then it's a question of experimenting with various pieces of equipment so that we get as close to it as possible. Having found a way of opening up the vocal, I can now hear what I want to hear in the control room and not just through my headphones. I must admit this has been a frustration for many years. I've lost count of the number of times I've stood there in despair wondering what on earth has happened because my vocals sounded great through the headphones but terrible through the speakers."
- Alesis ADAT XT (x3) and BRC.
- Alesis Midiverb III effects unit.
- Alesis SR16 drum machine.
- Apple Macintosh G3 running Logic Audio.
- Dynaudio Acoustics M2 monitors.
- Earthworks QTC1 microphone.
- Joemeek Voice Channel.
- Korg 1212 I/O card and SoundLink converter unit.
- Korg M1 synth.
- Kurzweil K2500 synth.
- Lexicon PCM91 reverb unit.
- Mackie 8‑buss mixer.
- MOTU MIDI Timepiece.
- Neumann U87Ai microphone.
- Panasonic DAT recorder.
- Yamaha TX7 FM synth module.