With years of record label legal wrangles finally behind him, George Michael set about making an album to put him back at the top of the charts and consolidate his status as serious artist/producer. Working the desk on the Older sessions at SARM West was engineer Paul Gomersall, who tells Mark Cunningham about the making of the album.
Twelve years ago this summer George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley as Wham! were bouncing around in their white shorts, singing 'Wake Me Up Before You Go‑Go' to a worshipful Top Of The Pops audience. Back then, there was little to suggest that Michael would make it big, then bigger still as one of Britain's premier pop songwriters and solo performers. The emotional ballad 'Careless Whisper', from that same summer, was the first sign that Michael had ambitions above Wham!'s apparent disposability, and his debut solo album, Faith, displayed clear indications of a burgeoning maturity. But it was in 1990, with Listen Without Prejudice (Volume One) and quality songs such as 'Praying For Time', 'Soul Free' and the beautifully‑textured 'Cowboys And Angels' that critics began to favourably compare Michael's writing skills with those of Elton John.
Owing to well‑publicised legal fisticuffs with his former label, Sony, Michael was unable to release new product for six years, but the public never lost interest, and the response to his recent dance hit, 'FastLove', and its new parent album, Older, has been little short of ecstatic.
Renewal Of Faith
The recording of Older, largely in SARM West's Studio Two, occasioned a reunion with engineer Paul Gomersall, who assisted producer Chris Porter on several Wham! records, as well as engineering sessions in Denmark's PUK studios for Faith, back in 1987. Not only did Older herald the launch of Michael's new regime following his split with Sony, which sees the formation with cousin Andros Georgiou of his own North London‑based record label, ÆGEAN, it was also notable for the artist's first use of a hard disk recording system, namely the Otari RADAR.
Gomersall saw little of Michael during his withdrawal from the public eye in the early '90s and was pleasantly surprised to receive a call to start work on Older. He says: "George likes to keep a regular team together and, having done so much with him over the years, it was great to be back in the frame. When we started on this album, Chris Porter made the decision to move strictly into production with people like Gary Barlow, so he quit the project and it created the space for me to work in.
"Compared with what I experienced on the Faith sessions at PUK in Denmark, it was very different this time around, with George a lot more in control, and playing most of the keyboards and bass guitar. We've used a lot more computers and synths on this album than George was previously accustomed to, and now that the technology has improved so much, along with his grasp of it, he's doing a lot more himself, as opposed to bringing in a lot of musicians. On Faith, the musicians were around all day, every day — Deon Estus on bass, Chris Cameron on keyboards and Hugh Burns on guitar. But he has always appreciated that his listening audience wants to hear George Michael, so he now tends to do most of the work himself. Chris Cameron was called in occasionally if George got stuck on certain chord progressions and he played a few takes into the computer, so that we could cut, paste or copy the sections George liked best. Steve Sidwell also came in to do some horn tracks but apart from a few other contributors, the album consists mostly of George's performances."
The sessions for Older took almost a year to complete, in fits and starts, and, unlike many artists conscious of the high costs involved in block‑booking a studio of SARM's stature, Michael did not demo his songs in advance. Gomersall observes: "He arrived with the songs in his head, and whenever he was ready to lay something down, he would call the guys into the studio and spend a few hours getting a basic backing track on tape, and then they'd leave."
Hard Disk Benefits
The recording of Michael's new album began on his own Mitsubishi X850 32‑track digital machine which, due to its reliance on regular servicing and tendency to emit strange noises, was beginning to wear the patience of the studio team. It was clearly time for a change and when good reports were received of Chris Porter's purchase of the Otari RADAR hard disk recorder, the team were keen to try out a system.
Gomersall: "Stirling Audio lent us one 24‑track RADAR for three weeks and we slaved it to the 32‑track machine. We found that there were certain aspects of the system that proved invaluable and, compared to the Mitsubishi's somewhat harsh sound, the RADAR's playback response is very faithful to what is recorded. So when it came to the end of the loan period, I said to George that it would be great if we could have one. He replied that we should have two! So that was when we stopped using the Mitsubishi, and we transferred everything onto the two RADARs."
Paul Gomersall: "I tend to find that the people who support analogue and criticise digital are the ones who have never used digital. For me, digital is the only way now."
Michael's favourite room in London, SARM's Studio Two, features an SSL E‑Series 48‑channel console, and in addition to the Yamaha NS10 and Auratone monitoring, his own Dynaudio monitors were installed for occasional beefier playbacks. Despite the fact that parts of Older display some rare, dry‑sounding vocals, the production of Michael's voice on torch ballads such as 'Jesus To A Child' has been traditionally notable for the use of long, lush reverbs. Debate over the processing used on that track in particular continues on the pro audio sectors of the Internet, but Gomersall provides the definitive answer. "It used to be the old EMT plate on the Wham! records, but we don't even plug it in any more. It hums too much. So we now put his vocals through a range of Lexicon gear — the 224X, 480 and PCM80. I prefer the 224X to the 480 because it sounds a little warmer, and the PCM80 is from the same family. George's favoured vocal mic is a Neumann U49; we got it from PUK Studios when we did 'One More Try' for Faith. He liked the sound of the mic so much that when we left, Chris Porter asked if we could buy it from them. He now takes it to every session."
The sessions also saw Michael engineering his own vocal drop‑ins on around half of the tracks. Says Gomersall: "An artist can get terribly frustrated when he is trying to direct someone in the control room about places in a track where he wants to replace a vocal, and when an artist is cooking, he wants to act now. Almost from the word go, the desk was in mix mode because George writes his lyrics and melodies as he is recording the song. In the past, he has sung a line and then asked me to drop him in on one of the words in that line that I've only just heard for the first time! So I've often asked 'which line?' But having the RADAR, we were able to set up the remote controller on a speaker stand in the studio just by the microphone and George used it to literally drop himself in and out."
Gomersall Goes To Hollywood
It was while attending a music electronics course at the London School of Furniture in Whitechapel that Nottinghamshire lad Gomersall first set eyes on a recording studio — SARM East in nearby Osborn Street — and decided an engineer's life was for him. He recalls: "A group of us from the college went there on a day trip, and I saw all these buttons and knobs, which immediately impressed me. As a kid, I had a Grundig reel‑to‑reel tape recorder, and I'd always played around with cutting up bits of tape and doing my own version of editing, as well as fiddling with short‑wave radio. I knew deep down that this was something I wanted to do, so I applied for a position there. At the first interview, I was faced with Trevor Horn, Jill Sinclair and Gary Langan, sitting in a row in front of me like the hanging committee! Even when I got the job, nobody ever told me what was expected of me, so I literally played it by ear and learned 80% of the job within the first three months just through enthusiasm and asking people things."
Gomersall joined the SARM team in 1984 and was almost immediately posted to a session with Trevor Horn and Yes after accidentally nudging a flight case and crushing the original assistant engineer's foot. "I filled in while he went to hospital! But I must have done something right, because I continued as an assistant, and went on to work with Steve Lipson and Trevor on Frankie Goes To Hollywood." His training was fortified by working alongside Horn and also a fresh‑faced, 21‑year‑old George Michael. The differences between the approaches of the pair were at the time, he says, worlds apart. "I worked with Trevor on 'Two Tribes' for about a month, trying lots of different variations of a song. Even when he was mixing it, he still wondered what it would be like if it was done in a slightly different way. Digital recording was just coming in, and it allowed him to save a lot of alternate takes and compile them with the computers. Of course, having lots of options means it takes longer to make decisions. Meanwhile, when George did Wham!'s 'Wake Me Up Before You Go‑Go', he walked in with everything clearly planned in his head and completed the task within a day and a half. I had assumed through working with Trevor that three months was what it took, so it was quite a shock to discover the vastly different approaches to creating Number One singles. I quickly learned that there are no rules in record production!"
Working for SARM may have been an excellent starting point for Gomersall, but after five months, the long hours became unbearable. "As a young assistant, you are out to prove yourself, and you go out of your way to do whatever is asked, otherwise you feel you are risking your job. But, in the long term, it is a very negative, self‑perpetuating situation, and one that I had to get out of. There were a couple of people who had gone freelance as assistant engineers, so I thought I'd break away and try my hand as a freelancer."
Twelve years down the line, Gomersall has engineered for some of the most successful names in the business, including Kate Bush, Phil Collins, Genesis, Blur, and Cast.
"After working alongside a producer and an artist on many occasions, I find it very refreshing to work on a purely one‑to‑one basis, as I have done with George. The artist is effectively producing and I have a direct line to him. It's always healthy for an artist in George's position to listen and react to a second artistic opinion, and I do offer such words of wisdom, but because he has always known exactly what he wants, especially in terms of vocal and musical phrasing, he generally ignores me!
"I think most people would agree that his track record more than suggests George is his own best producer."
George Michael's Studio
Within George Michael's newly‑acquired and highly attractive London office suite is his new writing studio, which is filled with the best of today's technology and maintained by his assistant and new programmer, Niall Flynn. Gomersall comments: "George realises the benefits of leaving your house every day to go to another place to do your work. So Niall has been getting the studio up and running, and ready for George to start work on his next projects."
Michael's studio includes the following equipment, with much of the same processing hardware used at SARM West for Older. Items marked with a star are in George's home studio, but were not used in the making of Older.
- AKG LSM50 cube monitors
- Aphex Expressor compressor
- Denon tape deck *
- Dynaudio Acoustics M1 monitors
- Lexicon PCM80 effects
- Lexicon LXP15 effects
- Mackie 32*8 32:8:2 8‑buss console
- Otari RADAR 24‑track hard disk recorders (x2)
- Tascam DA20 DAT *
- Yamaha NS10 monitors
- Akai S3000i samplers (x2)
- Akai S3200 sampler *
- Emu Procussion percussion module
- Emu Vintage Keys Plus module
- Emu Ultra Proteus synth module
- Korg Prophecy keyboard synth
- Korg Trinity Plus keyboard synth
- Kurzweil K2000 sampler/synth
- Roland JV1080 synth module
- Roland Juno 106 analogue keyboard synth
- Roland Vintage Synth MVS1 sound module
- Studio Electronics SE1 synth module *
- Yamaha SY77 keyboard synth
- Yamaha TG500 synth module
- DAC hard drive *
- Opcode Studio 4 MIDI interface (x2)
- Powermaster drive *
Digital Recording: "The Only Way"
Paul Gomersall strongly believes that the evolution of more intelligible, user‑friendly hard disk systems is at last contributing to the eventual breakdown in the argument between analogue and digital formats. Gomersall says: "I tend to find that the people who support analogue and criticise digital are the ones who have never used digital. For me, digital is the only way now. I know about the arguments over the bandwidth thresholds of digital, that it can't record anything past 20kHz, but in my experience, playback from digital is 100% faithful to the performances I record. When you start recording on hard disk, there is something psychologically strange about not seeing a tape moving, but once your brain becomes accustomed to watching a screen display move instead of the tape transport, you forget all about it.
Gomersall comments: "'Free' was originally twice as long as it appears on the album, and then it was hacked to bits on the RADAR, with chunks taken out and redirected throughout the piece. It was done mostly as an experiment, but it worked so well that the result sounds wholly intentional from the outset." Some work on Older, in particular the track 'Doesn't Really Matter', was carried out by Gomersall at his own home. While working on one of Michael's vocal tracks at SARM, the threshold setting on the compressor was accidentally knocked and although Michael liked its effect on his voice, the distracting saliva noises within the actual singing needed to be removed using Emagic's Logic Audio — "a very time‑consuming process," says Gomersall.