Plan B entered the public eye as a rapper, but it's as a soul singer that he has conquered the charts. He and his production team revisit the tortuous story behind The Defamation Of Strickland Banks.
"I was always a soul singer,” insists Ben Drew. "I always wrote soul songs before I started rapping. But I knew that in order to have a career in music, you had to go and perform your stuff live, and I had problems singing live. I'd stare at the floor and mumble the words out. My manager at the time constantly kept on putting me in at the deep end, and I wasn't improving. I felt like I was going on that stage and embarrassing myself. I don't think it was that bad, but it wasn't up to scratch. I'd never been trained as a singer, so nobody had taught me about keys or anything. That infrastructure wasn't set in place at any point.
"So because I knew that I wanted a career in music and I'd have to perform live, I wanted to find a way that I felt comfortable being on stage, and through hip‑hop I found that. The lyrics, the things I was talking about, I strongly believed in, and therefore, when I came on that stage I was proud of what I was talking about, and it was a lot easier to rap than to sing. So when people started listening and giving a shit, I just ran with it — I invented Plan B, got signed, and that was me, making a hip‑hop album.”
Drew is explaining the artistic volte face that saw him abandon the angry rap persona behind his critically acclaimed but poor‑selling debut album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. In choosing to follow it up with an album of retro‑tinged soul music, The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, he was really returning to his first love — and scoring a number one hit into the bargain.
It was, it seems, the experience of touring the first album with a live band that sparked the change. "Because I'd always been writing soul from the start behind the scenes, the way I was writing it had matured, and through playing in a band with really good musicians, I'd learned about keys, about tuning the guitar down and what was comfortable for my voice. And as soon as that happened, I felt more comfortable about performing on stage. And so we had 'Love Goes Down', 'I Know A Song' and another song that didn't make the album, we had these three songs that we would play in soundchecks before gigs, and we'd look at each other and go 'That's such a sick song, I wish we could play it live.' It was never going to work in the Plan B world, but the more we played this stuff, the more I thought 'There must be a way.'”
Concerned about moving to a new musical style without alienating his existing fans, Ben Drew hit upon an ambitious solution. "I always said I wanted to do what I call a film for the blind, which is taking what I do in hip‑hop with storytelling, but making a whole album about one story, where all the songs are different scenes. And I figured if I tell a story about a soul singer, and devise this concept, it means I can do it 50 percent soul, which will be his story through his eyes, and 50 percent hip‑hop, which will be Plan B narrating what's happening to him.
"So we set out to make a soul record and a hip‑hop record. The hip‑hop was very reminiscent of the first record: very dark, almost sample‑based — except that we would create the samples and then resample them and make them sound like we'd lifted them from somewhere. So the way we made the hip‑hop record was very much one way, and the soul record was very much another way, and the reason I felt comfortable making the soul record was that I knew that this hip‑hop record, in my head, was going to come out at the same time. I was going to release them as a double‑disc CD.”
At this point, however, Drew's record label, 679 Recordings, threw a spanner in the works. "Sometimes the label have come to me with ideas and I've told them to fuck off because they weren't right. Sometimes they have been right, and one of the things they wanted to do was split the record and just promote The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, and leave [the hip‑hop album] The Ballad Of Belmarsh for me. They said 'You can take full ownership of it and do what you want with it, we can't market this record. We can't do the best job with the hip‑hop record. You saw how the way you make hip‑hop on your first record is not suited to the way we do things.' And I just thought 'Cool, if you're saying I can take full ownership of that record, then let's do this.' And in hindsight, the amount of work we had to put in to make The Defamation... as good as it is — mixing, getting the look right, the suits, doing the videos, all that shit — it was the best decision to make.”
The bulk of the material on The Defamation Of Strickland Banks was recorded by David McEwan and Eric Appapoulay (who also played bass on the album) at their own studio in South London, The Sanctuary. Partly because they were simultaneously working on its hip‑hop counterpart, the production process took more than two years. However, the 'sound' of the album was defined in a day thanks to producer Paul Epworth, who had worked on the first Plan B record. His knowledge of retro production techniques yielded a demo recording of 'Writing On The Wall' that made it to the album almost unaltered.
"Paul gave us the sound really, for this record,” acknowledges Ben Drew. "When I gave him 'Writing On The Wall' it was a lot slower in tempo, and had a kind of reggae beat to it, and it was in a lower key. The first time I played it to him I didn't have the track with me, so I just played it to him in his studio on a guitar. And straight away he said 'That needs to be in a higher key, you need to speed it up.' So I went back, recorded the guitar in here, sped it up, and sung the vocal, sent him the parts, and then he sat in the studio with Jodi [Milliner, Plan B's live bassist] and Tom, our guitarist, and he had a little drum kit in there. I left them all day, and I came back six hours later, and the way 'Writing On The Wall' sounds like now is basically how it sounded when I walked in there.”
Epworth takes up the story: "'Writing On The Wall' came about after Ben told me he had 'this song' and he didn't know what to do with it. The strength of Ben's songwriting was the big surprise for me. When we worked on the last record, it was clear what an amazing voice he had, but the major difference was he'd sung a lot of other people's hooks. The moment he played me the song I knew it was a killer track, but needed a dirty authenticity to it to stop it coming off as a straight pastiche.
"Ben came to my little studio in West London and we figured out a tempo and a groove with which to do the track justice. Ben went away and recorded some parts in an effort to provide parts with which we could easily work, but when he returned I decided it was important to record the track mostly from scratch.
"Bearing in mind that this was just a demo intended for record company ears only, I played drums on the track. We used a [AKG] 414 on the kick drum, an AKG D19 overhead, a Rode Classic on the snare and a cheap Chinese U47 copy as an ambient mic hanging from my ceiling. The Rode Classic was patched into a Universal Audio 6176 with a bit of compression and the rest used the mic amps on my Apogee Ensemble. Recently I've been using Apulsoft's Aptrigga on all my drums. It's genius and means you can get some interesting grooves from old loops using new sounds. In this case I used it to augment the drum sounds, using a kick and snare from my sample library, giving the kick and snare extra punch and weight.
"I'm in love with the [Universal Audio] UAD2 cards, and I've used the RE201 and SPL Transient Designer on most of my drums for ages. I love the Logic Overdrive [plug‑in] on most everything, as it adds a tape‑like distortion to sounds and you can EQ into it for coloration and use the tone as a 'bias' control. I bussed up the drums through Izotope Vinyl for a bit of degradation and then compressed through a UA 1176 plug‑in, leaving the Aptrigga sounds out of the bus so as not to flatten the overall mix out.
"Ben called in his band, starting with bass, and we laid down very specific parts in an real old‑school fashion, using 'C' shapes on the rhythm guitar and high stabs to back the snare. I've studied over the years how these older musical arrangements were put together, and it's as key to the authenticity as not double‑tracking. To double‑track would mean it dated the record to the availability of the available equipment, just as a digital reverb or sampler dates something as post-1980 (ish).
"It was mixed in Logic on a Macbook Pro — always the way these days. I balanced the original lead vocal through a [UAD] Pultec Pro and Fairchild into yet another UAD EMT 140 plate, using a little 60ms tape delay with no feedback to give it some space off the vocal, and put varying amounts of everything else into the RE201 plug-in, including bass guitar. We added some MIDI strings and brass and used one of my string samples played in on the [Akai] MPC2500 to lift the chorus, put an SSL bus compressor over the master, a Logic Adaptive limiter, and bounced it.
"All in all, it took about five hours. Little did we realise the final version would hardly deviate...”
Budgets and schedules meant that there was limited scope for Paul Epworth to work on other tracks, so using 'Writing On The Wall' as their touchstone, Drew, McEwan and Appapoulay began work on the rest of the material. Problem was, much of the material was unfinished, as David McEwan explains. "We'd get the band in and Ben would almost narrate it. He'd go 'Right, chorus now. This has to happen here,' and then we'd get a take that was the structure of the tune. And then he'd do a horn line and go 'Ba da da daa' or whatever, and that was how we chopped everything together.”
"I was forever saying 'This needs to be sped up, we need to change the key of this,'” adds Ben Drew. "We'd put down a whole backing track and then I'd realise it wasn't in a comfortable key, but I'd love the way the parts were recorded, so I'd try to make them slow the track down or speed it up, or change the key, which was a bit of a nightmare. But there's something to be said about demo‑itis — a lot of what we did was done by feeling. When we first started we were just working with Eric, and I loved the mixes. Obviously, I'm sure they were still 40 percent away from being finished, but nothing was jumping out, everything was at a nice level and coherent, and you could really hear the vibe. It was less about hearing than about feeling, and that's why I used to get very attached to the demos. And that's why a lot of the stuff that we've done was straight from the demos: it was the first version we'd done, and we just added on top.
"I get pretty 'German' about things. If one EQ changes on one vocal, it knocks everything out of balance for me. I don't know what to do with the buttons, so it must be a nightmare for him, because sometimes I'm explaining things to him with weird sign language, and he has to try and work out that means.
"The songs were written on my acoustic guitar without being influenced by any other artist — it was naturally what was coming out from me when I was writing the songs — but once we'd recorded a vocal and a guitar, then we'd look back at older records. 'Hard Times' we thought sounded a bit like Marvin Gaye, so when it came to putting a string arrangement on, we'd go and listen to old Marvin Gaye records, or Al Green, and just listen to the ingredients and find out what the tracks needed.”
Laying down the basic tracks posed stiff demands of Eric Appapoulay, who was simultaneously engineering, playing bass, and trying to make sense of Ben's instructions. "It was just Ben and myself and Richard and Tom. We would be in the room together, Ben'd be on his acoustic guitar in that little doorway bit with his mic, setting down the guides. I had guitar in the Fender Twin, drums just clean, and then the bass I put through the LA2A, because I love the way it warms it up. Then we were using the bass amp as well, because we had the whole band in one room — the control room was in the drum room that you see now — so we were jamming like in a rehearsal. It had a band feeling, like Motown, where they just used to sit in one room and record together. That was the idea with this place, I wanted the whole band to feel like it was a gig scenario, playing as a band.
"So [it was] kind of pretty much natural. Ben would come in with an idea, we'd put about three songs down a day, and I was engineering, I was in the control room with the bass. We pretty much leave the drums ready to go, so if an idea's ready, we just hit record and the mics are ready to go. The kit doesn't move, the mics don't move. So he'd be 'I've got three ideas.' I was breaking a sweat — what are the notes? 'Don't worry about that, we'll do it later!' — and jam it through once. I'd always record everything, because sometimes when you're searching for the notes you get the best ideas. So it was a really quick turnaround on recording the songs.”
Because The Sanctuary's kit is set up to be ready for any eventuality, it's surrounded by no fewer than 16 microphones. All of these were recorded, on the basis that they didn't have to be used at the mix, where a more retro sound was preferred. David McEwan describes the setup: "There's a toughness in the snare that you can only really get with close‑miking. We'll always try and make the snare as fat as possible, because it's easier to add ambience than take it away. We've got four toms, we've got kick, snare top/bottom, snare two, hi‑hats, stereo room mics, not that it's a very big room. We have an NS10 [woofer] set up [to mic the bass drum]; that was always combined with a dynamic. We've got the Audio‑Technica now but I think we were using the D112.”
"I got that from Jack Joseph Puig,” adds Eric Appapoulay. "I worked with him five years ago on a Daniel Bedingfield album and he had more mics than we've got, and I was like 'What's all this?' He showed me the combinations, and when I got home I found this studio space and thought 'I want to try that.' So we went nuts and put mics everywhere. We haven't got as nice mics as he has, but you know...”
The bulk of Ben's vocals, meanwhile, were recorded using an Audio‑Technica stage condenser, which seemed to provide an appropriately edgy sound. "I'm sure we had spoken about getting a really old‑school mic, but I don't think we needed to,” says Ben Drew. "It was hot, but not too hot when I'd hear it back. It felt like it had that tiniest little bit of distortion in it as soon as you'd record, or you could bring that out in it with EQ. Once you'd added the EQ and put those UAD plug‑ins on it, there was something about it: it sounded kinda warm and old.”
"A lot of the time that went straight into the TL [Audio M4 mixer],” adds David. "Sometimes I'd use the Chandler Germanium pre. I'd use the Germanium when he was rapping. I don't know why: it sounded right once and then I just kept on going back to the Germanium for that, it's got attitude.”
"This album was predominantly done in the box,” explains David McEwan. "We had all these big ideas about going back out to the desk, but just time and the fact that we were moving from track to track quite a lot didn't really allow that process. But we were getting the sound that was wanted out of output one and two, you know.”
Impressed with the results that Paul Epworth was getting from his UAD plug‑ins, David and Eric quickly decided that what their particular box needed was its own UAD card. "UAD was a big step,” says David. "I kind of went 'All right, we need to get a UAD and check it out.' And there it was, with the Roland Space Echo and the plates and the 1176s, there was the sound we were after. And then it was just trying to get the best out of them. But the UAD was definitely a giant step.”
Other plug‑ins that saw a lot of use included the Wave Arts Multiband ("I use it mainly on the drum busses but I also like to use it on anything that gets too harsh — the odd skank guitar line or crunchy room mics.It keeps things warm and doesn't use loads of processing”) and Trackplug ("A brilliant quick hit on the kick, snares and toms as it has an EQ, gate and two compressors ready to roll and it sounds great to me”), and Izotope's Ozone: "I know it was designed as a mastering tool, but I just love being able to solo the area of EQ you're trying to find by holding Alt and clicking. It's just a fantastic surgical EQ, I bypass all the other stuff and just use the EQ.
"We did spend a lot of time making things sound old, and so did Mark [Rankin, who mixed most of the album] and Paul. Like, we used Izotope Vinyl on subgroups of strings, or guitars, or brass. We'd insert it on anything that needed to sound a bit decrepit.”
"You have to be careful with it,” warns Ben. "Because when you distort something and then put reverb on it, you get this really high EQ. You had to be careful with that. Even some of the stuff that Paul's mixed, on the record it sounds perfect, but when we were putting the parts through a PA at live gigs, we'd get this really weird top‑end that was not very nice, so we've had to go back to these guys and to Paul and get parts clean.”
After much overdubbing, reworking and agonising, the songs were eventually handed over to Mark Rankin to mix. Rankin had engineered the three Paul Epworth‑produced tracks on the album, so was the obvious choice. "Motown was the brief, really,” begins Mark, "but not in the conventional, obvious sense. It was more the recognition that those mixes are really powerful, and that that power is achieved by a very particular balance. The bass really drives the tracks, and of course, trying to get a similar vibe to their echo chambers was quite important. A lot of it was actually achieved using the reverb from a Roland Chorus Echo, which has such a great character.
"They had been recorded in Logic, so all the files were bounced from there. We had the Logic sessions to refer back to, but it was a case of importing the files into Pro Tools and starting from scratch — which I kind of prefer, as it's like working from a clean slate.
"After owning my own MCI desk for some years, I find I'm mixing in the box most of the time now, often in conjunction with a Neve sidecar that I have. My training was analogue‑based, so I always gravitate toward that sort of vintage sound. In practice, this means that when I'm mixing just in Tools, I use quite a lot of distortion to give things guts.
"I have EAR 660 limiters which I use for vocals and bass, and a pair of old Pye limiters, which are really vibey when you need that punch. Although, alongside that I'll use Sugar Bytes' Vogue, which is an amazing channel strip — the plate is second to none — and also the Massey Limiters, which are really good.
"From a practical point of view, the first thing I do is get all the faders up and see what everything is doing. I'll then basically start submixing groups like drums, bass and so on, and treating those while still having everything else in to keep an eye on the bigger picture. I'll usually have a mult of the drum bus, heavily compressed and EQ'ed, tucked in there for a bit of excitement, and then a couple of delays and a short and a long plate.
"The album was recorded over quite a long period and in different studios, so naturally all the tracks differed to some degree. There was a general consistency with regards to the quantity of tracks for instruments when they had been recorded at David and Eric's studio, but we did have some songs with 40 channels of strings and similar numbers of BVs. They were all really layered, so I would spend a while listening through everything and submixing down into key stems. The strings would then have gone through something like Izotope Vinyl (I can see the colour draining from the string arranger's face!) to give them an older sound.”
A sonic highlight of the album is the bass sound. "As I mentioned previously, trying to emulate the Motown sound meant that a lot of time was spent trying to get the bass sound just right. I pretty much just used the DIs, re‑amping them through an old Vortexian PA head that I have running into a vintage Wharfedale 12‑inch bass cab. It's such a unique sound, which I've probably used on 90 percent of the recordings I've done. That was miked with an Altec 639 ribbon mic through a Telefunken V76 preamp, then into the EAR 660 limiter and then Pro Tools' Lo‑Fi distortion. Sometimes bringing the sample rate down really gives the bass nice presence, so I also used that to achieve what I wanted.”
Unsurprisingly, Rankin chose to prune the selection of drum mics to a more manageable quotient at the mix. "There were quite a few options, but I gravitated toward using as few as possible. When we recorded 'Stay Too Long' [one of the other Epworth/Rankin tracks on the album], we had the overheads in the Glyn Johns position — one over the snare, panned right, and one equidistant by the floor tom, panned left, plus kick, snare, a mic in front of the kit smashed through a compressor and one distant ambient mic. When it came to mixing the other tracks I was looking for a similar vibe, so I'd use the kick and snare, both augmented with a choice sample, but then probably no other close mics, just an overhead or two and maybe an ambient mic. These would have gone through the Pye, and then the whole kit bussed and compressed and then distorted using Lo‑Fi or Izotope Vinyl, and there would maybe be a mult compressed and EQ'ed heavily.
"Bus compression was a major factor in the overall sound. I alternated between the SSL, the Chandler Zener and a Manley Vari‑Mu — and then the Massey L2007 [limiter plug‑in].”
As Ben had become so attached to many of the demo mixes, the final mixing process involved a fair amount of recalls. "A lot of the sounds we wanted [Mark] to mix were based on the plug‑ins we were using throughout the process, so we made stems, and sometimes we did them without effects, sometimes with,” says David McEwan. "We gave him as many options as we thought we might like, but quite often Ben would say 'Listen, I need the sound of that kit, or that guitar — can you do me that again?' We ended up mixing five of the tracks back at The Sanctuary anyway.”
In the end, though, the persistence of everyone involved paid off, with the delivery of an album that both struck a chord with the public and realised Ben Drew's vision. "We wanted to have a nod to the old school,” he concludes, "but it had to have my sound, which sounded like nothing else. Yeah, it's soul. Soul's been done before. In interviews people go 'Don't you think you're jumping on the Amy Winehouse bandwagon?' and I have to stop and go 'What, did she invent soul music?' Bollocks! She reinvented it in her own way. And that's what I'm doing.”
Prominent in both The Sanctuary Studios and on The Defamation Of Strickland Banks is Eric Appapoulay's upright piano (pictured right). Despite its owner's reservations, this character piece has charmed many visitors to the studio. "I swapped it for a bass guitar,” explains Eric. "I thought 'Oh, it's not really a nice‑sounding piano, I want something a bit lush,' but then Ben came in when we met and he goes 'Oh, I love your piano!' I said 'Are you sure?' because it was a little bit honky‑tonk and I like a bit of Oscar Peterson lushness, and I was like 'Do you really want to record it? You don't want to use the MIDI?' He was like 'No, I want to use that!' And a couple of guys came in and fell in love with it.”
"Because of how old it is, and some things are slightly out of tune, it reminded me of those old hip‑hop records where the sampled piano does sound a little but gritty,” adds Ben Drew. "That's why I loved it. It looks great and it's got a proper resonance.”
The Sanctuary Studios boasts a very personal collection of gear — including rather more monitor speakers than seem strictly necessary! "PMCs are just amazing,” explains David McEwan. "The PMCs are our main monitors and we do love them for the sheer detail and punch they provide. We also have a 5.1 system consisting of five APS Aeons and an ADAM sub. The Aeons really work hard in our studio for tracking at vibey levels and for mixing as well, they do the job beautifully.”
The pair's TL Audio valve mixer, meanwhile, takes pride of place. "The TL Audio M4 is a great tracking desk, especially for drums, bass and electric guitar. It's got the punch and warmth we like to hear. Generally i wouldn't use it on acoustic guitars, as i prefer to use the Focusrite 428 or the Avalon for that.”
It has recently been joined by an SSL XLogic summing mixer. "We didn't have one during the Plan B recording sessions, but we implemented it into the studio while we were mixing some of the album. It's become a great summing desk, and a nice way to monitor and send pres like the Avalon 737 or the Germanium to Logic without adding the M4 colour. I don't like monitoring through Logic, so I try to avoid that. We now use the talkback off that rather than the Dangerous Music box.”
An SSL XRack also provides gating and compression "for the obvious things. Usually on the way in, we'll gate toms.”
The Sanctuary is a Pro Tools-free zone, running instead on a "rock solid” Apogee Symphony system. "I've never really seen the need for Pro Tools in here, although I would like to have it one day, because I like tracking with Tools more than I do with Logic. I like being creative with Logic, and actually Eric loves mixing in Cubase. But do you know what, I've got to say, Cubase sounds good. I'm convinced it actually sounds a bit smoother or warmer than Logic.”
David and Eric are also convinced of the benefits that balanced mains power brings to their studio. "We have a Westwick 4kVA balanced power transformer. We didn't want to believe it would make a difference, but we had it on demo for a few weeks, and when Robert from Westwick came to pick it up again, we wouldn't let him. The difference it made to our recordings was very noticeable, and we did blind tests on playing back certain material — it's like the difference between good converters and bad converters. The difference was evident in reverb tails and better imaging, and it also solved some noise issues we had with guitar amps.”