Twenty years after Steve Levine first produced Culture Club, he's been using a new generation of digital tools to restore those original recordings.
Steve Levine is no stranger to the pages of SOS. Since his breakthrough with Culture Club's 1982 debut album, he's kept pace with technological developments, and was one of the first British record producers to establish an all-digital setup. These days, he works out of a thoroughly modern home studio based around Apple G4 Macs running Logic and Nuendo. Much of his time is still spent working with new artists, but last year gave him a chance to use this computer technology to achieve a long-standing ambition: to put Culture Club's back catalogue in order.
Drummer Jon Moss had rediscovered a huge archive of demos (see 'A Case Of Demos' box), and the band got record company approval to put out a four-CD box set combining their hit singles and some album tracks, along with the best of these demos and a disc of new remixes. The plan was that the remastering would be completed at Metropolis with Tim Young, who had mastered the original releases. Rather than do everything there, however, Steve was keen to get as much as possible done in his own studio. "I didn't want to come to Tim wasting unnecessary time at Metropolis, so we did some of the preparation work here. All the things like the basic denoising, tidying up and that sort of thing Jon and I did here first, so then when I went to Tim I took a 24-bit CD-R of the masters, I just did them as Mac files, and he imported them into SADiE. Tim and I then went through all the boxes of tapes I'd found at Virgin and said 'Right, let's start.'"
Drummer Jon Moss ended up being Culture Club's unofficial archivist, and was the source of most of the demo material on the box set. "George tends to keep all the scurrilous letters and pictures, and I tend to keep all the tapes," he says.
"I had an old drum case, a really big one, and I opened it up and there were thousands of cassettes. The very first demo we did I had on cassette, it wasn't even a good TDK one, it was the cheapest one of the lot — do you remember red TDKs, the really crap ones? That was all I had of our first three demos, which were recorded on the Virgin barge. Before he signed Culture Club, Richard Branson didn't have any money and he lived on this barge. He had a studio on the barge, which was down in Maida Vale, and we just went in and recorded live — we did three songs in an evening, the first three tracks on the box set. When we actually ceased to function in about '86, over the next three or four years we'd meet once a year, and we had a couple of writing sessions. We had DAT by then, so everything was recorded onto DAT, and I kept them, but then George went off again."
Relations between Jon and singer Boy George were always stormy, and the process of compiling the box set involved some typical disputes. "At the end of last year I had it set to go, all the writing, the cover and everything — and then George decided he didn't want to do it!" says Jon. "We changed his mind eventually. Then when I finally got it I opened it up, and some of the tracks I'd never heard of in my life. It was a load of George's solo stuff. He'd just stuck all this stuff on it — 'Genocide Peroxide'? Hello? Steve said if he hadn't really put his foot down there would only have been about five Culture Club tracks on it!"
This was where things got interesting: not only did the demo recordings have to be salvaged from a ragtag collection of cassettes, quarter-inch tapes and DATs, but the existing CD releases of Culture Club's albums were also seriously flawed. "It really is appalling how bad they have been up until this point," says Steve Levine. "When we made the original albums, the first album Kissing To Be Clever was made only with vinyl in mind, there was no such thing as CD. It was recorded on analogue 24-track, and as half-inch was only just starting to be used, the majority was mixed onto quarter-inch. The second album was recorded 48-track on analogue, and mixed onto Sony PCM F1 [an early stereo digital recorder based around a Betamax video transport]. I did mix some of it on half-inch, but actually the F1 at the time was superior as the format was new, and that was my only master. I immediately transferred it digitally to Sony 1610 [a professional and very expensive early stereo digital recording and editing system based around a U-matic video transport] at Advision Studios, one of the only places to offer that service at the time, and having listened to the tapes again, the F1/1610 master still sounds superior. The third album was recorded digitally throughout, using a 24-track Sony 3324 digital machine, and mixed onto 1610.
"What was interesting was that we had no part in any of the CD making at all, so all the tapes that were used were wrong. On the first album I've no idea what happened, because it should have been a fairly simple process to transfer the master over to a 1610 and make a CD from it. Tim Young, who did all the original mastering and has done the mastering on this, had his notes, so it would have been easy if someone had asked him. But what obviously happened was that a copy tape was ordered somewhere and problems then ensued. The other problem that I think happened on all the Kissing To Be Clever tracks is that when digital systems first came out, early converters boosted performance using a system known as 'emphasis'. The idea was that high-frequency information was boosted during recording and then 'decoded' on playback; on Kissing To Be Clever, unfortunately, the 'emphasis flag' was not decoded properly, which meant that all of those tracks sounded incredibly tinny and thin. There was no bass on them and they were really brittle. As soon as we got all the tapes together we had a look at it, and Tim's got a DCS digital-to-digital interface that allows you to take flags off, change flags and do all sorts of things.
"On the second album, there was a similar problem. Obviously there was a digital master because I made it, but again 15ips and even 7.5ips analogue copy tapes were used, and on the third album I have no idea what happened. There was only a 1610 so I don't know how they buggered it up, but they buggered it up. And the problems had been multiplied because the act had been so successful: more and more copy tapes had been ordered, and more and more tapes had been used that were wrong. I went up to Virgin and we went through all their archives to try to find the right versions. If you went under your bed and found really old Revox tapes you might have used when you were 17, those were some of the masters that they were using. They were copies of copies of copies of copies. It was appalling, and they were in really tatty boxes.
"Even the masters weren't in great condition. I went up to Metropolis just for one day before working with Tim to test them, and we decided we had to bake them all because the oxide was coming off. It was Ampex tape, and some of them had stripey blue and white leader as well, which was a problem. With the blue and white leader, the paint on the blue section comes off and pulls all the oxide off. We did have a problem with the song 'Time (Clock Of The Heart)' but we were very lucky because there was an instrumental version, and the problem was just on the beginning of the tape where the leader joins, and luckily the intro on the instrumental version was exactly the same, so we were able to edit that in.
"The fantastic thing was that Tim still had his original mastering notes from 1982. We had a look at those notes to see why he did things. In some cases it was valid, in other cases he said 'I didn't know what I was doing.' What I found really surprising was how much better the digital masters sounded with modern converters and modern technology. For instance, I'm convinced that on the original 1610 we used, the D-A had a single card, and it's a multiplexed signal. What was very noticeable using the Prisms Tim was using to decode and the DCS digital-to-digital converter was that the stereo was so much better. It's hard to describe, but if you were there, the difference wasn't subtle. It was almost like pressing a mono button and then hearing it in stereo. The breadth of field and definitely the depth of field, no question about it, it was astounding."
In keeping with their position at the forefront of '80s pop music, Culture Club may have been responsible for introducing that decade's most notorious synth to the record-buying public. "The track 'Colour By Numbers' must be the very first use of a Yamaha DX7 on record," recalls Steve Levine. "The importer brought one down to the studio to show it to us. It was a Friday, and he said 'You can have it here for the weekend but I must have it back on Monday.' The first moment you heard a DX7 it was the Holy Grail, particularly for the famous Fender Rhodes sound. Most of the Culture Clubs tracks had Fender Rhodes on them, but we were always struggling to get the brightness in the sound, and then when this thing came, the fact that the MIDI didn't really work didn't matter — it was the best piano sound I'd ever heard at that time."
Culture Club were never the most harmonious band, and one track on their box set provides a vivid illustration of the arguments that could break out in the studio. This one came about when Steve Levine was attempting to get them to record 'Victims'. "Each person analysed everybody else's performance constantly, and we only wanted the best," says Levine. "That's why that argument came about. I knew this ballad was going to be tricky to record. I thought 'I want George to do the live vocal, so it will be piano, vocal and drums — but I'm probably going to have to edit the multitrack, because I think it's too much effort for everyone to get the thing in one take. So my plan was to run a two-track at the same time, make a note of the takes, and then cut the two-track up — and if I buggered the edit up, I could put it back together. That way, I'd get a master that worked on two-track, make a note of which piece came from which take, and then do a once-only slice on the 24-track. I didn't want to have to slice the multitrack and put it back together again if the edits didn't work. The problem was, the fight started — and of course the two-track was still running, and that's how come I recorded the argument. We've had the tape for years, and George finally said 'I think the time is right, we can put that out now.'"
"The argument was slightly edited," laughs Jon Moss. "It was actually even worse than that. You don't hear the violence that goes on at the very end of it. It ended up with a physical fight between me and George in the alleyway. We used to have some quite severe punch-ups. On the original one you can actually hear walls being hit and chairs being thrown!"
If the condition of the release masters left something to be desired, then the restoration required on some of the demos was even more drastic. It was, however, possible for Steve to do much of the work in his own studio, thanks to the denoising tools available on the Mac. "I had the demo of 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?' that I had produced before the band were signed to Virgin," he recalls. "It was 256 Scotch even though it was on an Ampex spool, so there were no problems at all with the tape. I had recorded it at Rondor, my publisher's studio, on their four-track, and it was even second-hand tape — it had something else on it before so I had to wipe it first. But this is the original four-track. It was a Roland CR78 drum machine, and Mikey [Craig] played bass and Roy [Hay] played my little Korg Delta 770 onto one track, because we knew we wouldn't have a lot of tracks to play with, then the first overdub was guitar, just DI'd into the desk, and then there was a lead guitar, with a Roland RE201 Space Echo, and then the lead vocal. On the actual master version of that track, I'd built a noise gate myself which didn't work very well. It chopped the front off everything, and on the master we had the guitar that went 'wha wha wha', which was actually Roy playing through that noise gate.
"I wanted it to still sound like a demo, and I haven't changed it, just tidied it up a little bit. I rented a four-track machine and at my studio and transferred the four tracks via my Apogee AD8000 in at 24-bit into Logic Audio. They were quite hissy, because of the tape noise, but at the front of track one was a nice bit of tape hiss, so using the Waves X Noise denoiser I was able to analyse that noise and put that across the individual tracks and de-noise them. As there was nothing going on on the vocal track when George didn't sing, I just cut those bits of audio out. Because it was a 15ips, non-Dolby TEAC four-track, the hiss was a bit irritating, but what's brilliant about that Waves stuff is that you really can just get rid of the hiss and not affect the quality of the track at all. As you move the threshold up you can hear it starting to affect it, and you just pull it back, so there is still some tape hiss on the finished version, but less of it. In fact I did a couple of versions with more and less noise and played them to Tim: the one we used had all the 'vibe' of the original demo, just better quality!
"I've also got Arboretum's Raygun, which I used on a couple of the cassettes that Jon had, because the first couple of demos were only on cassette, that was the only master. Then on some of the later stuff, particularly in the period when I didn't work with them in the late '80s, they would do a programmed demo and George would come down and do a live vocal to the track as they went to cassette — so that is the master. Although the track was playing back from Roy's Linn 9000 and a few keyboards, and he'd play guitar live, it would go onto a cassette or a DAT and that was the master, there was never a multitrack. So some of those needed to be cleaned up. Later on, Roy and Jon had Nakamichi cassette decks, and those Nakamichi cassette decks were pretty good, they almost sounded as good as a Revox. But the early ones were just on a standard Philips cassette. Luckily, there was a big silence at the front with the noise. So we sorted that out, I presented it to Tim with the noise down a bit and then Tim used a Finalizer to increase bass, get the presence through and make it sound powerful.
"There were a couple of DATs that had severe dropouts on, which we had to repair the best way we could by copious editing. On 'Moghul Tomb' the tape was actually scrunched up, so I flattened it as best I could, played it back off the Fostex and put it into the computer, and luckily the part where the crunchy bit was was duplicated somewhere else in the song."
Revisiting Culture Club's biggest hit gave Steve Levine cause to remember some of the difficulties that had been thrown up by the original recording process: "I used to print all my effects, because even though we were working with 24 or 48 tracks, it was never enough for me, so very often we'd work with slave tapes. We'd do a bunch of backing vocals and then I'd bounce that down to a stereo pair, but I'd print the reverb and the compression, everything as it was, so that was a stereo finished version. It meant that if we took the mix home and thought 'The vocal's not loud enough, the drums aren't loud enough,' or whatever, we could get the mix exactly the same."
Massed backing vocals were a major feature of the Culture Club sound, and caused more than their fair share of headaches: "I used to do each one of those vocal parts eight times. Every part was eight tracks bounced to two. Helen [Terry] was able to do a very wide range, and with a little bit of Varispeed here and there we could get quasi-male vocals, but the very low stuff on 'Karma Chameleon' is actually Phil [Pickett]. We Varisped it up a little bit. But each one of those parts would have been tracked up to eight times, and there are multiple harmonies. If I could get Helen to do the harmonies in octaves to make it even bigger then we would do so. So I would bounce eight tracks to two, eight to two, and so on, and then I'd have a bunch of twos, and then those twos would be bounced down to stereo.
"The interesting thing that I did on 'Karma Chameleon' was that it was one master chorus, but it had different elements on the different choruses, so the low bass vocals only come in on the breakdown, even though they're recorded on the same chorus. We had a very curious thing with that particular track — the track speeds up, even though the backing track was based around a Linn Drum. Because we did it in 4/4 and the song is really in 2/4, we were running the Linn at a very high tempo. The problem, which I didn't discover until later, arose because the Linn used a pilot tone, not SMPTE or anything like that. You'd program all your parts in the Linn, and when you're happy with it, you press Play on the Linn and record onto one track of the multitrack the pilot tone that comes out of the back of the Linn. When the Linn receives that pilot tone it then plays the drums back, which is fine. You'd have to always go from the top, but it meant that I could run the Linn live while I did some extra overdubs before I actually printed it, so I could tune the drums on the Linn to the appropriate pitch, and get a better idea of what reverb I wanted, because I would print snare with reverb from the Quantec Room Simulator.
"Anyway, because the tempo was running so fast it was actually skipping the pilot tone and running free, and on the time that I printed it, the song actually sped up very slightly as it got nearer to the end. Prior to current methods of simply copying the vocal audio clips to each chorus, the practice involved copying the vocal section to a piece of half-inch 15ips tape, then marking the front of the audio with a chinagraph pencil, then adding enough white leader to allow for the tape machine to speed up, then counting the beat before the vocal came in, pressing Play and hoping they lined up! After several attempts this became very quick although it could take two hours per song — frustrated with this I later got AMS to build me a 20-second delay line in which I could store 20 seconds of mono audio so I could put the backing vocals in and trigger the start with a cross-stick from the Linn Drum much more accurately.
"Spinning the backing vocals in on 'Karma Chameleon' proved a headache beyond belief, because they didn't fit — because of course the end choruses were slightly shorter than the beginning choruses, and we'd recorded the backing vocals on chorus one. We had to pull it forward a little bit, to use the space before the chorus as the thing to catch up with."
Listening to the finished box set is an interesting experience, not least because of the demos. Often radically different from the final versions, they emphasise that Culture Club were not simply a studio creation, but also a very capable live band.
Steve Levine is also relieved that their classics have finally made it to CD in a form that does them justice: "The difference between the old and the new CD masters is astounding. I always knew we did a good job originally, and I was always very disappointed with the sound of the Culture Club CDs. I kept trying for many years to say 'Please can we remaster these?' Everyone else on Virgin's catalogue seemed to have their stuff remastered, and 'Karma Chameleon' is still their best-selling single of all time; those are the crown jewels of the record company and it seems odd that no-one was able to appreciate that."
With the Culture Club box set, Tim Young of Metropolis was in the interesting position of remastering tracks that he'd originally mastered, 20 years previously. "I had all my original notes from the '80s when I cut the tracks, and it was interesting to see what I did and what I didn't do to them, back when I cut the records originally," recalls Tim. "Fashions change in sound, and the '80s was definitely a period of extremely bright records. There was probably way too much top end on things, whereas today we're a bit more sane in that area. Also, because of the advent of house music, people need a lot more low bass than they used to have in the olden days — in the '80s the emphasis was always on the top rather than the bass. It's a subtle change but you can hear it. The first album sounded so thin, and now I've finally been able to get some decent low bass into it. I boosted the very low bass and it's really helped it, because once you add the low bass, all the hard mid-range is all in balance.
"If you compare the remastered tracks in the box set to the original CDs that have been available in the shops since the '80s, it really is an extraordinary difference. It's like chalk and cheese. They way they were done originally, because I didn't have access to good-sounding digital EQ, the digital masters were converted back to analogue. Basically the tapes that were used for the vinyl mastering were used for the CDs, so it was converted back to analogue again, bits of EQ added to it — not a great deal, but little bits here and there — and then re-digitised again. What I've done on the second and third albums now is that it's all stayed digital, it hasn't been converted back to analogue at all.
"I use the Weiss digital EQ, and for limiting a TC System 6000. The other tracks in the box set that Steve wasn't involved with were just a mixture of DATs and some analogue half-inch tapes for Boy George's solo material. Steve's mixes were mastered off WAV files he'd mastered inside his computer. I just sort of beefed it up really, in terms of compressing it a bit, and boosting the bass and the high end of it. Some of it was taken off a quarter-inch four-track, a TEAC 3340, which was a very revolutionary machine for its time. I'd just boost it where it was lacking with digital EQ. It was really no different to the approach we took on the studio tracks from the albums."
Tim's work has made a remarkable difference to all the tracks, be they ropey demos or polished studio masters, but ultimately there's only so much he can do: "At the end of the day you're still going to have track-to-track differences. Obviously you try your hardest, but if you've got a track that sounds crap next to a track that sounds very good, all you can do is try your utmost to improve the bad-sounding track. You can't start degrading the good-sounding track so that it blends with the bad-sounding track."