You are here

Peter Cunnah: D-Ream

Interview | Artist By Nigel Humberstone
Published August 1995

With a second album release imminent, Nigel Humberstone talks to the creative driving force behind D:Ream, Peter Cunnah.

Way back in 1992, D:Ream released their debut single, 'U R The Best Thing'. It was aimed initially at the London club scene, an area of energetic and euphoric music that had exhibited such a profound influence on D:Ream frontman, Peter Cunnah, following his move from Derry in Northern Ireland. It was the marriage of rock and dance that Peter wanted to achieve in his music, and once he had teamed up with (now ex‑partner) DJ Alan Mackenzie, the future was set.

Despite limited club success the first single attracted the interest of Rhythm King, who funded the next single, 'Things Can Only Get Better', which crept to number 72 in the charts. National chart success would have to wait until the re‑release of the track following D:Ream's signing to Magnet, at which point 'Things Can Only Get Better' became the anthemic 'feelgood' smash hit of 1994, followed closely by the debut album, D:Ream On Vol.1

Peter takes up the history lesson: "There really was no perception of us having existed in 1993 until we did the Take That tour, but we've now had four Top 30 hits with 'Things Can Only Get Better', 'U R The Best Thing', 'Unforgiven' and 'Star/I Like It'. It just shows you the power of the teeny‑bop market — it catapulted us to No.1 for a month. After that, it was like a downhill curve as we milked the album dry with re‑releases, which was mainly the record company's idea. I wanted to take time out to work on the next album, but they said 'no, let's remix this and stay with it'."

Once Peter had fulfilled his demanding promotional and touring commitments, he put together two albums worth of material in a matter of weeks.

"I took a month out in November to go and get a life, because I'd literally been on the road for three and a half years. I bought a house and set up a small studio in it. I was forced into moving because of problems with my neighbours, who complained I was making noise. In fact, I got a criminal conviction under the Criminal Justice Act for working on a track called 'Party Up The World' (the second single)! Ironically, that experience was also the catalyst for the track's lyrics."

Song Diary

Prior to interviewing Peter, I was generally aware that he represented the creative driving force behind D:Ream, but I was surprised to learn the full extent of his involvement in all levels of production. Not only does he write, sing and perform, he also programmes the instruments, demos, and co‑produces all his own material.

"I started work on the new album in January '95," Peter reveals. "I keep a song file system — it's something I learned from Sting, and I think Paul Simon keeps something similar also — where you catalogue all of your ideas and keep referring to them. I keep a Recording Walkman with me wherever I go and use the tape counter for a position, give it a date and description, and whether I think the idea's good as a song or as an inspiration for something. Usually it'll be vocal and MIDI stuff, maybe a guitar, or perhaps me just walking down the high street humming a bass line. Just as long as it captures enough of the atmosphere."

Intrigued, I asked Peter if he could trace back the origin of the current single, 'Shoot Me With Your Love', to this catalogue of ideas?

"Yeah. Just before I formed D:Ream I was working with a guy called Tim Hegarty, who's an old friend of mine from a band I used to be in back in Derry. One of the songs he was working on at the time was called 'Shoot Me', and I started producing it and turned it into a club track. Then I let it sit for a while, because I thought the lyrics weren't hard enough to fit the title. Later I demoed it up and added the choirs, played it to some people and realised that it would make a great single. At that stage I changed the lyrics, so we came to an understanding over the publishing side because I felt that I'd entirely changed the track. We tried to record the track last summer, but I was so busy that we just didn't get a chance to go into the studio. We eventually had 'Shoot Me With Your Love' recorded and mixed by late January and it went down for a remix by Loveland, but the pop/rock crossover sound from the dance scene that I'd been trying to achieve had been totally ignored by my record company, because they wanted to play safe."

So how did Peter feel the rest of the new World album compares to past D:Ream material?

"I was so close to the last album that I couldn't say which track I preferred. But on this album, because of the schedules imposed on it, I've included tracks which I didn't really want to go on, even though other people said they loved them. I'm surrounded by so many people who say 'yes' that I don't know if I can trust their opinions. I think it was Dave Stewart who said 'You never know when to finish an album, only when to abandon it.' And that's what I've done, in true artistic fashion."

Home Studio Upgrade

Upon starting work on the new album, Peter finally got the opportunity to update and reconfigure his personal home studio, which is based around an Allen & Heath GS3V mixer, Atari 1040/Notator sequencer, and Fostex M80 8‑track.

"My setup was pretty basic but then I went on to buy an Akai S3200 sampler, plus the digital interface and CD‑ROM stuff. I spent a lot of time building up a palette of sounds from various sources, and managed to ween myself off the old favourites, like the R5 [drum machine] for percussion. I find Akai samplers to be incredibly intuitive machines. With the S3200 I've got 32Mb memory, the optical hard disk, and all the options. I've also got a small, portable Sony DAT machine, so that when I go out I can record sounds, then digitally transfer them into the sampler when I get back."

At a time when more professional musicians are making the move to Macintosh‑based sequencing, Peter is sticking with his Atari. Why?

"I'm still one of those luddites who's using the Atari 1040 STE, simply because I know every key stroke and I'm very fast on it. I used to use Creator but switched to Notator, because Tom (Frederikse) reads music."

Peter's new palette of sounds consisted of tried and tested old favourites, sampled into his new Akai, plus the new source of CD‑ROM libraries.

"I had the Zero Gravity and CD‑ROM showcase stuff but I didn't want to delve into the 'Loopisms' CDs and all those 'ambient' things straight away. I just thought, 'Where are the good ones, the ones I've heard all the good beats from?' and I tried to get hold of those. If I pick up a good loop and I've got a song hanging around somewhere, they might match, and all of a sudden I've got the building block for the song. Then I'll move in with a bass line off the DX7 or the SH101."

I point out that the DX7 is a strange contemporary choice for bass sounds, although they are now beginning to find favour once again amongst the dance fraternity.

"Unfortunately, yes," admits Peter, aware that his preference is becoming less unique, "but the DX7 has been the one and only mother keyboard that I've owned and I was lucky enough to be given 1000 DX sounds for the Atari running through Chameleon [a librarian program], so I essentially use it as a bass machine. At the touch of a button I have a bass to fit the loop, and then I'll run up the TR909 and 808 stuff as standard."

Tom Frederikse

Producer and engineer Tom Frederikse has a respected background within the dance and remix scene. Having partnered Sasha for four years on countless remixes, he's now formed a new mix team with the guys from Cream (ex K‑Class) in Liverpool. His presence in producing successful dance records is often an unseen quantity, but his relationship with D:Ream has been from the very beginning.

"Tom's been involved since I did the first mix of 'U R The Best Thing'," Peter explains, "which was three and a half years ago. I'd been working with Alan Mackenzie on the remixing scene and Tom came down and started to iron things out. We had all the ideas but didn't realise how much detail you have to go into.

"Tom works mainly to tape, unlike a lot of bands that run the computer live in mixes, which is the reason why I think we get such a punchy sound. The thing about MIDI is that I challenge anyone who claims that they switch on their setup and the mix is there after being away for two weeks. But when printing to tape, apart from the effects, the track is there. For me it's a more secure feeling, because I know how volatile MIDI can be."

Working Practices

So what is the division of labour between Tom and Peter when working together to create a typical D:Ream track? Peter takes up the explanation...

"I usually demo the stuff at home and get the tracks up to a listenable standard, then Tom would come along and work out arrangements, the key and range for vocals, and the tempos. Then we'd come to the studio (Route One in North London) and begin what we refer to as the 'analy retentive' work of laying down the tracks."

Tom: "That's the thing about computers; once you've programmed it all, getting it onto tape the way that you intended it is such a time‑consuming task. Printing to tape just removes the MIDI hassle out of mixing."

I'm still one of those luddites who's using the Atari 1040 STE, simply because I know every key stroke and I'm very fast on it.

Peter: "It's also easier for remixes, because you can hand over the multitrack tape, which is what they usually ask for anyway; you don't have to worry about DATs and sound disks."

Being so involved in the whole project, I wondered what Peter considers to be the most enjoyable experience throughout the various stages?

"For me, it's cracking the back of a tune when I know that I've captured the atmosphere that I want, and a certain amount of lyrics in the chorus. After that there are certain shining moments: like finishing a vocal comp, which Tom's particularly good at."

Tom interjects: "There's a saying in Hollywood with scriptwriters facing countless rewrites that 'it only gets worse'. Unfortunately, it's the same with the music business. Pete loves that moment when the whole thing comes together for the first time ever. After that, you have to go through all these stages to make a record out of it."

Peter: "I'd say that the tracks have moved on a lot lyrically, and we've spent a hell of a lot more time on this album just singing. Because I was doing the vocals as well as the programming, the trick was to do that in the evenings and then come in next day and catch my voice at between 12 and 4 o'clock, when I was at my freshest.

"The best stuff we did was on a song called 'Heart Of Gold'. We tried that 10cc 'I'm Not In Love' effect, where they tracked up all the layers of vocals. So we went over to the slave reel and I spent four hours tracking each individual note in the key scale. Then we took the notes, looped them up, put them into keygroups on the sampler, and then played the vocals in again with some extra little diminished chords here and there to give it a nice little texture. And it really, really worked. A lot of people think we used a synthesizer, but what I like is that you can still hear the texture of my voice through it."


Despite the D:Ream sound exhibiting heavy club characteristics, there were a number of session musicians employed. But rather than just being featured, their performances were taken and manipulated in order to suit the intended feel of the album.

"We'd get players in and I'd loop their performances rather than use a lot of samples made by somebody else. Having demoed the songs to such a stage, we knew where live playing was required and we just captured the live vibes and all the attitude of playing, then stacked them to get the finished sounds on tracks like 'Save My World'.

Was the inclusion of live parts also a conscious decision on Peter's part, knowing that he would later be taking the tracks out and performing them with a live band?

"Yeah. I was very aware of how I wanted us to sound on this album. I've got quite a few good players surrounding me, and some of the best voices that I've ever worked with, like T.J Davis and Paul Simpson. I'm very aware of the band's input to the album, but I still think it was minimal, because I didn't want to go too far to the right of centre. I think on my third album I'll be a lot more experimental, but with this album I developed my songwriting more than anything."

One particular contributor was Simon Bates; a session sax player who also plays the Yamaha WX7 MIDI wind controller, for which he has built up his own set of sounds.

"He came in and just jammed over the track," Peter explains. "Then I looked at what he'd done and resampled it. There was also a demo session I did with Nick Beggs [ex‑Kajagoogoo] on the Chapman Stick, which is this great 10‑string instrument — a mixture between bass and guitar. He played it onto my little 8‑track Fostex tape machine and I resampled all of that."

Tom neatly sums up their approach: "I think that's part of the D:Ream sound — it's live sounds and live playing, but interpreted through a computer."

"Rather than nicked off records," Peter adds. "I never actually sit down with a record and say 'Oh I like this', then lift it. If there's something like a Candi Statton sound that I like, then I'll find something similar to it and re‑programme it in my own way."

So even when the pair are copying something, Tom explains, they prefer to emulate it rather than steal it.

"Even my guitar parts were played into the S3200," Peter reveals. "Like with 'Can't Tell Me You Can't Buy Love'; rather than actually work on a performance, the performance comes from playing my sampled guitar parts on the keyboard. That way you discover bits that you wouldn't normally play on the guitar, but which really fit with the track."

This preference for sampling whole performances extended to ex‑Squeeze piano player Jools Holland, whose performance was "too organic", according to Tom Frederikse:

"He came in and played live piano takes for 'Shoot Me With Your Love', which were really great. But unfortunately, the way Jools plays it, it's too live. So we took bits of what he played and made them work with the other machine stuff. He's an amazing player — and so fast. The track is very fast at 129 bpm, but he did a couple of takes and then actually asked us to varispeed it up even quicker. So he recorded these takes at 133/134 bpm, partly for the pitch but also because he prefers playing fast."

Session player Simon Bates also played piano on 'Save My World' and 'Heart Of Gold', with the latter track extolling Peter's willingness to experiment: "We did something special with the Akai on that track," he explains. "We had this spoken vocal part which was very rhythmical. I reversed the sample, wrote it down phonetically, learned how to speak it, and then we turned it round on itself again and put it through the filters to really bugger it up. Apparently, if you play the record backwards, it tells people to go and shop at Tesco!

"There was a lot of weird stuff on 'Heart Of Gold', Peter recalls. "I'd bought these death chimes from Portobello Road — they're like a mobile of bent and shaped silver spoons. We sampled them, reversed parts and played it in, which was quite eerie because the studio (Route One) backs onto a graveyard."

Digital Mastering On F1

The final mixes for the new D:Ream album had only just been compiled and mastered, ready for production, at the time I interviewed Peter and, interestingly, he announced that the process had entailed resorting to an old system which uses Sony Betamax F1 digital machines.

"We'd noticed that the quality of the A/D and D/A convertors involved in going to and from the Sound Tools system is still terrible. On the first album we'd actually mastered the whole thing using a SADiE system. This time, when Aaron at the Townhouse went to cut it, he played it back to back with the originals, and I couldn't believe what had happened — the amount of crunching that had occurred simply because it had passed through so many low quality convertors. A lot of the top end had disappeared and the sound was fluffed a wee bit.

"But it gave me the chance to recompile the album and I actually turned it around, because until then I'd had the wrong running order. You've got to think about the pacing between tracks and keeping things like the same tempo count."

Tom adds: "The vital element was to keep the club feel going on D:Ream this time. It was a constant effort throughout the album to remember that."

D:Ream Live

The new album's 'club atmosphere' was assisted by the involvement of Loveland and D:Ream's resident live DJ, Pierre. His live mixing introduces D:Ream and then continues afterwards, providing a real club performance environment. The live show has been meticulously prepared and configured, with Peter Cunnah taking an active interest at all levels, especially in the choice of gear.

"We've found the [Roland] MC500 to be the least volatile sequencer for live work. Then we have a Roland JD800 acting as a mother keyboard, the fully expanded Akai 3200 sampler, plus two S1100s for all the BVs (backing vocals) and samples. We cut down on the sampled BVs, because the two new girls (T.J Davis and Nicole Patterson) are so good."

Bass is handled by Derek Chi playing Musicman and Fender 5‑strings, plus a Roland guitar synth. Keyboard player Toby Chapman plays Rhodes and piano, with Pearson Grange on d‑drums (using S1100 samples controlled from the d‑drum 'brain'). James Mack plays percussion and, according to Peter, "he's got everything under the sun, including a piece of metal which sounds like a 909 clap. It's great, because we're now cutting down on sequencing — the sequencer is only used for stuff like flutes, effects, and strings. I play guitar — a Gibson Chet Atkins and Les Paul Custom through a Trace Elliot Acoustic T200.

"We do around 12 songs in the show, four of which are completely live, with everything running through two Yamaha DMP7 digital mixers. The click is generated from the MC500, and fed to the drummer's headphone amp."

Not exactly a one man band then, but D:Ream's Peter Cunnah certainly likes to keep his eye on things: "I'm involved with everything — even the programming for the live show. The only reason being that, at the end of the day, it's my responsibility."

D:Ream's second album, World is released on 24th July.

Recording D:Ream Vocals

Producer/engineer Tom Frederikse explains how he captures Peter Cunnah's vocals on tape: "Pete's basically a 414 (AKG) guy when it comes to microphones. But the best thing was having this old Teletronix LA2A valve compressor, which is brilliant — we used it on virtually the whole album, on the backing vocals as well as in the mix.

"For vocals, we tended to use tape as an effect most of the time and did a lot of thick texture backing vocals. Like on 'Hold Me Now' — we had 10 stereo pairs of probably 10 takes each, I guess. So there were around 100 to 200 tracks of Pete just sitting there going 'aaaah'. It sounds fantastic, but when he was doing it we were thinking 'This is a lot of effort, I hope it works'. The thing is, it's only subtely different from the amazing sounds you can get on keyboards nowadays, so you have to be a true connoisseur to notice that it's actually the real thing."

Songwriting On The Road

Peter Cunnah: "I'm at the stage now where I'm already writing tracks for the third album and I've invested in a Card Star laptop PC, which allows you to install your own soundcard. I've got a waveform sampler and the Rio soundcard, and I'm running Cubase Lite with a Novation BassStation keyboard and Technics headphones.

"The beauty of it is that a company like Nokia have a new digital telephone system, where you can use the laptop PC's fax modem. So now I can literally work on tracks on the tour bus and send them down to a computer setup at the other end of the phone line. The idea is for the whole package to fit in a cabin bag. It'll be interesting to test it out during the next few months, while I'm out on tour."

Route One Studio Equipment


  • Amek Angela 32/32/8/2.


  • Otari MX80 24‑track.
  • Otari MX50/50 2‑track.
  • Sony ES1000 digital 2‑track
  • Sony TCD5 portable 2‑track.
  • Akai GX912 stereo cassette.


  • C‑Audio SR606 power amp.
  • Yamaha 2010 power amp.
  • Quad 306 power amp.


  • Urei 813C main monitors.
  • Celestion Ditton 44 monitors.
  • Yamaha NS10 studio monitors.


  • Yamaha SPX1000.
  • Yamaha SPX900.
  • Yamaha R1000.
  • Alesis Midiverb II.
  • Roland DEP5.
  • Roland SRV2000.
  • Roland SDE3000.
  • Eventide FL201.


  • Dbx 160X compressor/limiter.
  • Yamaha 2020B compressor/limiter.
  • EAR 660 valve compressor.
  • Drawmer DS201 gate.
  • Yamaha 2031 equaliser.


  • Atari STFM 1040 computer.
  • Steinberg SMP24 MIDI processor.
  • Steinberg Pro24 (v3) and Cubase (v1.5).
  • Steinberg Synthworks editor (for DX7).


  • AKG 414.
  • AKG 451 (x2).
  • AKG 112.
  • Beyer MC160 (x2).
  • Beyer MC500.
  • ElectroVoice ND408 (x5).
  • ElectroVoice ND757.
  • Neumann KM84 (x2).
  • Sennheiser MD421.
  • Shure SM57 (x3).
  • Sony ECM 989.
  • Sony ECM250.

Moog Phaser

During the recording sessions for the new album, Peter hired in an old Moog Phaser: "It's like a 12‑stage phaser but it's analogue and makes everything sound as powerful as the synths from that era. If you listen to 'Save My World', the whole drum section at the end was dropped into that. Similarly we'd put a whole vocal mix, at certain breakdown moments, through something like the Eventide H3000, and if you listen to 'Enough Is Enough' on headphones, you'll find it does your head in!"

Peter Cunnah Home Studio Equipment

  • Akai S3200 (fully expanded with SMPTE and SCSI interfaces, digital I/O).
  • Akai S1100 and S1000 (8Mb) samplers.
  • Apple CD‑ROM drive.
  • Sony DAT Walkman (with digital interface).
  • Atari 1040 STE running Notator (v.3).
  • Allen & Heath GS3V mixing desk (16/8/2).
  • Fostex M80 8‑track.
  • Quad 306 amp powering Yamaha NS10 monitors.
  • Yamaha DX7 IIFD synthesizer
  • Roland SH101 synth.
  • Roland Juno 106 synth.
  • Roland Jupiter 8 synth.
  • Roland R5 drum machine.
  • Prophet 2000 sampler.
  • Roland S10 sampler ("good for strings, choirs and some piano").
  • Cheetah MS6 ("sounds trashy, but great because you can control the filters from the MIDI volume page in Creator").
  • Korg M3R.
  • Yamaha TX81Z.
  • Emu Proformance module.
  • Alesis Quadraverb multi‑effects
  • Sony DAT recorder.
  • Denon CD player.
  • Denon Twin cassette deck.

Interactive D:Ream Single

At the time of going to press, D:Ream's scheduled second single from the new World album is to be 'Party Up The World'. It is set to include a bonus CD‑ROM track previewing the video, other snippets like fan club information, general text and lyrics, as well as advertising for the album. Designed and programmed by Digital Arts from Oslo, Norway, the groundbreaking project will utilise the new 'CD Plus' format, where computer data is 'hidden' on an audio CD and only recognised by a compatible CD‑ROM drive.

Like all other elements of D:Ream's music, Peter Cunnah is overtly enthusiastic about the interactive possibilities being made available to music listeners: "It's going to have a feature where you can take control over different elements of the song (such as bass and drums, synth sequences and vocal samples) and you can actually remix the track, and record your arrangement of that mix into the computer. At the very least it's going to give the listener hours of fun, beyond just listening to the music."