Two successful new producers from New Zealand have used a unique blend of old and new technology to create two hit albums for the Stereophonics. Mike Senior talks to Bird and Bush about their role in a British rock & roll success story.
Marshall Bird and Steve Bush have come a long way since they started playing in bands a decade ago in their native New Zealand. Halfway around the world, in fact, for it was here in the UK that they made their name as a production team with the Stereophonics' successful debut album Word Gets Around. The multi‑platinum status of the band's second album, Performance And Cocktails, has cemented Bird and Bush's reputation as one of the hottest production teams in the UK.
The freshness of their approach is partly attributable to the unusual manner in which they side‑stepped the traditional studio apprenticeship. "I managed to get a job at Dreamhire [the equipment rental specialists], which is part of Battery Studios in London," explains Steve, "and as one of the perks of the job I inherited not only free access to the Dreamhire stock, but also any downtime there was in the studios. So Marshall and I went in and, over six or seven years, taught ourselves the ropes. We were so lucky with that situation, but we knew that it was a unique opportunity so we took full advantage of it. We owe Battery an enormous debt of gratitude: I'd hate to have seen the studio bill for all that time!"
Marshall: "It was the only way into production for us once we'd discovered that we weren't good‑looking enough to be rock stars! We were too old to be assistants, so we had to search for a side entrance. The time at Battery helped us get there, giving us not only a knowledge of the equipment, but also access to it, which was more than enough to entice bands to record with us."
Roll Up, Roll Up...
While using the downtime at Battery Studios, Bird and Bush offered countless bands their services, the experience of recording them allowing the producers to hone their skills without record company pressure. One of these acts was the band that was to become the Stereophonics. The band were quick to seize the opportunity presented to them, and a close working relationship was forged between band and production team. This, as Steve explains, was to bear fruit when the band signed to the V2 record label:
You don't make a worse record without Pro Tools, just a different one, and, at the end of the day, if you can't make a great record with an SSL and an A800 then you probably can't make a great record at all!
"Many record companies pay promising bands demo money in order to help decide whether to invest more heavily. The Stereophonics' manager had succeeded in getting demo money off four different record companies, so this allowed us to do four demos, all of which ended up on the album. If they had then been signed to a major label with a massive amount of money involved we could easily have got booted off the project, but fortunately they signed with V2 which was in its infancy and so the record company didn't really have the facilities to coordinate a project any better than we were already doing. It helped that the band were perhaps a little worried about ending up in a studio with someone they'd never met and who they wouldn't be comfortable performing in front of, so they were happy to keep going with us, knowing that we had the skills. However, V2 weren't in a position to let us do anything more complex than we had been doing before, so we continued recording in much the same way until the end of the album. Even then, it was by no means assumed we'd work on the second album, but we'd got on really well with the band so they invited us back to work with them again."
In the beginning, the Stereophonics had no real recording experience, so Steve and Marshall had to tread carefully at first. "They had rough demos," Marshall admits, "but when they came in with us it was the first time they'd worked in a real studio. The difference between their original demos and what we came out with was quite significant, because they did things with cheap kit. But, we'd be kidding ourselves if we believed that doing the demos for the first album was a production job. It was about establishing a relationship, which had to be based on trust because these guys had never been in a studio. The songs were basic, but they were good, so we just helped them to do what they did naturally.
"With a band like the Stereophonics, you can't be arsing around with it too much. However, they know a good‑sounding record — their history is AC/DC and big American records, so they weren't going to be happy with just 'a live performance'. From day one we were always trying to make records rather than just recordings. They were definitely a little uneasy when we wheeled in a bunch of studio gear for the first session, but they've come to realise the sort of role that it plays in their music, that it can enhance their sound."
But it wasn't just the sound of the band that progressed because of the experience of making the first album. Steve suggests that the seed for the material on the second album was sown in the earlier recording sessions. "I think what we did then developed Kelly's songwriting — suddenly he's got an idea to use a beatbox, for example, because we've introduced him to one. Things like that are the mark of a really smart artist, taking stock of what they've learnt and writing the next batch of songs to incorporate that. I've always liked it when my favourite artists progress, so I'm glad that the Stereophonics are constantly developing new angles.
"But at the same time, we learnt a lot from them as well. If we'd had our way on the first album, it would probably have been a carefully layered, overdubbed record, but the band insisted on it keeping its raw sound and I learnt a lot from that, because it sounded great in the end. So now we probably let a lot more things slide for the sake of vibe, in order to keep things from sounding flat."
The Tools For The Job
After recording Word Gets Around, Pro Tools began to become more and more integral to the working methods of the two producers. Steve had already set up a specialist Pro Tools department for Dreamhire, and so he and Marshall got to know the system in great depth. Yet, perhaps surprisingly for someone who is obviously a 'power user', Steve still favours a hybrid approach to production involving both analogue and digital systems: "My ideal gear for recording sessions is an SSL and a Studer A800MkIII 24‑track tape machine, in conjunction with the two Pro Tools systems that we own. Though, having said that, I did a session the other week without a computer in sight and I enjoyed it thoroughly — you don't make a worse record without Pro Tools, just a different one, and, at the end of the day, if you can't make a great record with an SSL and an A800 then you probably can't make a great record at all! Analogue tape still has a sound which, while not completely accurate, is really useful. As time goes by I like it more and more, but it can be a problem using analogue these days given that a lot of machines are poorly maintained now that studios have had to cut down on skilled support staff.
"The sound of our Pro Tools system still isn't really transparent enough for my liking yet, but it is worth using because of the power of the facilities it offers. I'm sure the problem is partly that we can't yet afford to upgrade our rig from the standard Pro Tools 16‑bit hardware — I'd like to try out some of the 24/96 interfaces available from specialist manufacturers like Apogee, for example — but I also wonder whether, because the computer spends most of its time chasing an analogue transport, the constantly varying speed of the digital clock is affecting the sound as well."
Typically one of the two Pro Tools systems is set up in the studio control room on the duo's sessions, not only to supplement the analogue tape's track count, but also so that sounds can be ferried to and from the analogue domain with ease. By setting up the second system in another room, Steve maintains that they work much more quickly and efficiently than otherwise: "The second system can be busy handling some of the tedious jobs that would otherwise slow the session down. We like being able to spend as much time as possible with the artists, so it's valuable if the technical aspects of production can fade into the background. Once upon a time all an engineer could do was concentrate on getting things technically done right, but now the technology can make that less of a chore, allowing you to spend more time focusing on the music."
Marshall: "But it's more than that! You can do almost anything you want with Pro Tools, manipulating audio as flexibly and easily as you can MIDI. A member of the band and I can mess around with an idea at any time — while Steve's overdubbing in the main room, for example — and that can bring extra creativity to the studio situation which wouldn't normally have been available."
While both producers are enthusiatic about the creative capabilities of Pro Tools, they are also the first to admit that it must be used carefully. Marshall: "The role the computer takes has to vary according to the nature of project in hand. If you're working with Ricky Martin or Britney Spears or whoever, it's an essential part of the process, a part of modern record‑making which isn't going to go away and which is undoubtedly the best way to get that sound. However, it's less relevant to the music of bands such as the Black Crowes, for example. And you also have to bear in mind that, although the computer can be a fantastic tool, you can go too far with it. It's often better just to play something again or to admit that an idea's not happening, than to sit in front of the computer for hours trying to make it work. Besides, nothing gets done with the band if we're both sitting in front of the computers, and this can suck the vibe out of the session. Incorporating Pro Tools into the way you work is a learning process, but we're fortunate enough to have been using Digidesign systems for more than five years and we learnt pretty quickly how not to go over the top."
One of the main disadvantages of Pro Tools compared to a more traditional setup is that, unless one invests in a dedicated hardware controller, so much has to be done with a mouse and computer keyboard rather than banks of faders and knobs. "I hate working with a mouse," admits Steve, "but unfortunately my budget doesn't allow much more than that — certainly not thousands of pounds worth of Pro Control, so I've had to become a QuicKeys fanatic instead. I have shortcuts programmed for everything on the computer, because I'm so sick of the mouse. I find manipulating the mixer in Pro Tools particularly tedious, compared to an analogue mixer like the SSL, so we never really use it much. I still think you've got to have a knob for every function on a professional session because it makes things so much quicker — it's real, it's tangible, it's tactile and you get immediate visual feedback. This is also why I prefer using hardware outboard processors instead of plug‑ins. It's handy to be able to draw in envelopes for automation in Pro Tools, but I'd still much prefer to have access to hardware control."
True Stereophonic Sound
No pre‑production work had been done for the Stereophonics' first album Word Gets Around, so much of the studio time that could have been used for recording ended up being spent working out arrangements of the songs.
Keen to avoid this situation on the second album, Bird and Bush were sure to allow the band enough pre‑production time to develop their new material before going into Real World Studios to lay down the 'proper' album recordings.
Steve: "It worked out great, but with the one drawback that we ended up having demos which were the freshest, vibiest, truest recordings of the tracks. It can be a real problem for everyone when you're faced with having to make more hi‑fi versions of songs when you already have fantastic performances. In the end we had to keep a fair amount of stuff from the demos. For example, we kept the demo drums on 'Roll Up And Shine', even though they were done in a little box room and didn't sound like they fitted the track, because they had the right energy."
Naturally, Pro Tools could now play a greater role in the creative process than it had done during the sessions for the first album. Marshall: "The song 'Pick A Part That's New', for example, was conceived from the beginning as technologically manipulated — a loop was built around the drums in Pro Tools, the rest of the band then did their thing and we built some noises and other funky stuff to go along with it. This sort of thing could never have happened on the first record, but it helped to make that song, soundwise, one of the more interesting on Performance And Cocktails."
The majority of the tracks, however, incorporated the digital system in a supporting creative role and were recorded in a more traditional manner. Steve: "We almost always try to get a full‑band take for every track, because every different band makes a specific sound which is best left intact. The best thing with a band is to just set them up, get them to play, see what it sounds like and then move on from there. Like I said, bands generate a sound, so there's not much point getting too fussy about your mics if the sound's not happening. We use the usual stuff: drums recorded with the band using Shure SM57s, Sennheiser 421s and lots of Neumanns U87s and U47s all going through an SSL. After that we replace any of the guides that need redoing and then do any overdubs, starting with bass and guitars and ending with the vocals."
One of the Stereophonics' greatest assets is the immediately recognisable voice of the Kelly Jones, the band's lead singer. The two producers remain characteristically down to earth about their role in shaping his vocal sound.
Steve: "There's no magic behind his voice sounding the way it does. A good singer automatically sounds great — he just sounds so hi‑fi now, with such a big range, that I can put the same mic up nearly every day. You can't not get it sounding right! It's partly because all the touring has developed his voice, but it's also been the result of Kelly learning that he's got to write songs a particular way, in a range where the band won't overpower his singing. Too many people don't understand the important relationship between the way a song's written and the way the vocal comes across. So many times, what makes a track not work is that the sound of the song doesn't suit the singing. The singing has to set the level for the the energy of the track, so you can't have a rocking sound with a wimpy vocalist. The vocals set the parameters for your soundstage.
Marshall Bird: "It's become a bit of an A&R buzz word, the verb 'to Pro Tools', and a stigma has become attached to it which makes a lot of bands understandably suspicious. It's not magic, it's a piece of equipment, albeit fantastically flexible and creative."
"If it were practical, you'd almost rather do the vocals first and do the whole session round the other way, because the thing which will be heard and focused on is the singing. If you start with drums, bass and one guitar, and you're obsessed with those parts sounding as good as they can, it's easy to forget the fact that it's not going to be very prominent in the end. The tone of the vocal makes every track sound a particular way, so we try to put a guide vocal down as soon as we start work, because you have to tailor the music to fit what the singer's doing. If you've got Slash playing lead guitar in a band with a Talk Talk vocalist, you know you're up against it.
"Kelly's voice is a big instrument and we tried to keep it totally dry so that it would sound enormous! We did smuggle in the occasional surreptitious reverb if we were convinced that the dry vocal didn't sit in the track right, but we had to make sure you couldn't hear a tail otherwise Kelly wasn't going to like it. But we're using less and less artificial reverb all the time: one thing we discovered on the Sterophonics albums was that if we used the small stone room at Real World Studios all the vocals had a really rich enhanced sound from the room! Normally you associate ambience and the sound of a room with drum kits, but in this instance all the best singing went down in this particular room, because of its sound. In fact, we recorded everything on 'Traffic' in that room! The ambience of this room helped the vocals sit in the mix well, because the tone of the space is just right. And when you find a space that works, you stick with it, so I guess we'll be booking Real World again."
However, the work of the vocalist isn't done when he or she steps out of the booth, as far as Steve's concerned: "Vocals are such an important part of the track that I think artists should definitely be involved in the process of vocal comping. They've obviously got an artistic agenda that you can't hope to guess, a way they want to sing something, the way they want to deliver a particular line. At that stage we might as well be punters, like anyone — we can say what we like, but the artist may have a totally different angle on it. So it's important for them to be involved. A lot of singers love to sing complete takes from top to bottom, and I appreciate that they don't like stopping the flow to drop in, but it's very rare that a singer does their best performance in one take. You'll always want to compile the bits where they really hit the pocket. Kelly's even talked about getting himself a computer so that he can do his own comps and I think that it's fantastic that he's so committed. It's great when bands are involved like that."
Building A Mix
There's a consensus between the two producers that if parts are written correctly and sounds are good at source then very little will need to be done at the mixing stage. "Great mixes build themselves", says Steve, "because the recording's been done right from the ground up. I've heard that from so many people over the years without truly understanding what they were telling me, but now I've found out myself and I can only emphasise the same thing: you've got to find sounds that work together really well right from the start, because you won't be able to fix a bad arrangement or bad sounds in the mix.
"For instance, I've just done a session where, as we recorded the track, I was doing little mixes at each stage on the SSL. Then we spent a lot of time deciding on the arrangement, so that every new instrument had its own little pocket. The second we'd finished recording we had 80 percent of a mix up on the desk and we could mix down almost straight away. Brilliant! Fantastic concept, though unfortunately you don't get that luxury very often — you're usually in a situation where you have to press on with track‑laying before coming back to the mixing stage — but building up a track like that often makes the results far superior.
Steve Bush: "Great mixes build themselves, because the recording's been done right from the ground up. I've heard that from so many people over the years... and I can only emphasise the same thing."
"We mixed the Stereophonics' first album, but by the time it came to mixing Performance And Cocktails we'd been working on it for four months solid and we'd just burnt out. We tried a couple of mixes, but we knew that they weren't happening. So we all decided that it would be better to get someone in with fresh ears."
"We had liked some of Al Clay's work with the Wildhearts and Del Amitri," Marshall continues, "so when we discussed with the band's management who might fit the bill we recommended him. And he came up with the goods!"
Steve: "We're not obsessed about mixing our productions ourselves. It's nice to do it, if you've got a vision for it, but you don't always get it right and someone who's really experienced at it can really bring something new. So when you're recording things and you know the artists well, you make mental notes of what they're trying to do, so that when you get the opportunity to get someone really hot onto the controls you can feed them all this information and it makes the results better than you could have achieved on your own."
Work Hard, Play Hard
Following their success with the Stereophonics, demand for the versatile skills of Bird and Bush is steadily growing and I was lucky to be able to catch them during a couple of days they had to themselves between sessions. Not content to rest on their laurels, however, the pair were busy in their personal studio, which they set up in rented premises in London. It has turned out to be very useful for their productions, as Steve explains: "One of the big reasons why we got this place is because we're committed to our productions being as good as they can. It's really useful being able to come back here for a few days, where there's no‑one on your shoulder. We can try out a few new ideas without holding up the session. We don't make money out of this place, but it makes life a lot easier for us. Deep in the back of our minds we know that we can get a recording to the best possible level without sweating too much about wasting expensive studio time."
"It also allows us to get on with some of our own writing," adds Marshall "which is something we've always been doing. And of course it also lets us get really good on the Playstation — another invaluable production tool..."
Bird and Bush's unlimited access to Dreamhire's stockroom has allowed them to become familiar with a bewildering array of top‑flight processors, though naturally they have a few favourites which have found their way into their personal rack. "I was useful to Dreamhire because I knew the gear," Steve explains, "but the only reason I knew it was because I took it out and used it every night until four o'clock in the morning. We ended up getting hold of a few things we liked a lot so that we could have access to them wherever we were."
- Line 6 Pod guitar processor.
Steve: "We bought this for doing guitar guides, but it's such a wicked piece of gear that we'll often end up using it as the master guitar take. However, a little dig at Line 6: make me a rackmount one! The only thing I want kidney‑shaped is my kidneys, or swimming pool. I feel a little ridiculous turning up at the studio with a stupid red bean! But it does mean that most bands are at least interested enough to come up and turn the knobs, which we actively encourage. I think that the Pod is excellent for making a broad range of sounds instantly accessible. However, one serious problem is that the processing delay varies from patch to patch, so it's difficult to mix it with the sound from a real amp because of the phase mismatch. You can adjust parameters to do with this using Sound Diver software on your computer, but try saying that to your average guitar player!"
- Roland SDE3000 digital sampler/delay.
Steve: "I still use my old SDE3000 because of its trigger mods, which most people have never heard of or seen, but which were once the be‑all and end‑all of drum triggering — Clearmountain carries two or three of them around in his rack permanently."
- Boss SE70 multi‑effects.
Marshall: "I think it's supposed to be all the Boss footpedals in a rackmount box, but it's not quite that. However, even though the editing's limited, it's great to just put it across something standard like a percussive instrument of some sort — you get some wild stuff."
- Sherman Filterbank.
- BSS DPR04 dynamics processor.
Steve: "It's a really fierce compressor, but I like that — when you turn the knob something really happens! If you use the main dynamics channel for de‑essing it's way better than many of the standard studio de‑essers. There's also a terminal strip at the back which allows access to a bunch of extra functions, but I never knew what it was for until one of the maintenance guys at Real World a few years ago wired me up a switch pot to switch between them all. You can do stuff like re‑emphasising the low frequencies, because low frequencies have a habit of hitting the compressor first so the sound can end up being tipped treble‑heavy. It's great fun to be able to just dial in different settings by turning the knob, just to see what they can bring to a sound. It's a good investment, I think, and it can be a bit of a saviour."
- Avalon VT737SP recording channel.
Steve: "This was used for some of the bass sounds on the second Stereophonics album. You can tweak the tone of the bass guitar's DI before you send it to the amp, which can help shape the sound reaching the cab."
- Roland Space Chorus.
Steve: "Expert echo‑manipulation can really make mixes come alive, but often echoes that are too squeaky clean just don't serve the music and start to become distracting — an essy echo on a vocal suddenly draws your ear and you don't want that. You want echoes providing tonal support, and that's where tape comes into its own, making sounds more ear‑friendly and familiar. For a similar reason I really like the sound of the Alesis Quadraverb for echoes — it sounds rounded and blends in with tracks."
- Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere.
Steve: "I was always looking for a good Leslie simulator, and this is the best one I've found. It's a very distinctive sound and easy to overuse, but it's great not having to carry a real one around for when you do need it, or having to bodge the one at the studio to work."
- Roland JV2080 synth module.
Marshall: "This is brilliant to write with, it's a workstation for me, even though it sounds a little bit thin like most Roland gear. I use it for classical presets as much as anything. I do find the user interface rather long‑winded, though. The Japanese never seem to get it quite right. For example, I can jump on an Alesis drum module and work it in seconds, but I always find the architecture of Yamaha and Roland stuff confusing, not to mention the fact that the Roland manuals are always translated terribly. I found out that Akai got their software written in Britain, so that probably explains something of their reputation for user‑friendly operation. I learnt sampling and programming on an S1000, but I hadn't used one in years until recently, and I hadn't forgotten a thing."
- Kurzweil K2000 workstation synthesizer with sampling option.
Marshall: "This would have to be my favourite piece of gear. It has a good library with it, even if you take it without the sampling option. It may be an old piece of gear now, but it's still a fantastic workstation. Whenever I sit down to do anything, I'll go straight to that. I can't be bothered with the sequencing in the K2000 though, because I much prefer the graphics‑based environment in Logic, which is just amazing."
- Gibson Les Paul guitar.
- Fender Stratocaster guitar.
Steve: "I try to split my equipment budget between keeping the technology side of things up‑to‑date and doing things which traditionally suit band recordings. I buy guitars and stuff like that all the time, because going to sessions where a guitar didn't do its job has forced me to go out and buy decent guitars for producing. I prefer to go and buy a good guitar, rather than buy a compressor or whatever to fix it — better to go back to the source and get that right. We're also about to get a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson SG, because we've learnt that you can only get those classic sounds out of the classic instruments — you can't just plug any old thing through a Marshall and hope that it'll be fixed."
Power To The People!
Steve: "The introduction of cheap MIDI gear gave a licence to dozens of clowns to make crap records, but it also empowered people who wouldn't have suited a normal record‑making situation to make music at home. For example, there are a bunch of really talented DJs out there who have now got the chance to put out records. Take Norman Cook: I met him the other day, and someone asked him what he did his stuff on. It turned out he only really uses an Atari with Notator and two Akai S950s! All that filter stuff is the samplers or a pedal of some description. Fantastic! He's not bogged down with the technology, he's just into making music his particular way, and I think that's great.
"But, having said that, professional studios give you a quality sound from whatever you're recording whenever you push the fader up, not least because they have such well‑designed rooms. If you get a good live room and control room, both your multitrack and your mixes sound will good wherever you take them: you don't have to work nearly as hard merely because the rooms are working with you. Not enough people realise how important that is. I can't mix anything at home — you can't gauge the bass end, you can't gauge the balance, it sounds wrong when you take it away. And that's where professional studios, and the sound of professional records, beats the home demos. You'll fluke a good record at home, the ideas may be good and the talent in the manipulation of technology may be good, but a big studio gives you a really versatile quality tool to work with. In my opinion, the full‑on professional recording studio will never die, because they give you what you need in a professional situation. I'm well into the advantages of the new technology, but I appreciate what's so good about the big studios and why they'll continue to work."
Two In The Hand
Steve: "People are always asking us, sitting in an A&R man's office, how it works with two of us. They just don't seem to be able to understand how you can have two producers on a job. But it works brilliantly: Marsh and I can both cover the engineering side and it's great to have someone other than the artist to bounce ideas off. How many times have you been doing something, and you just want to ask someone what they think? That extra opinion makes all the difference. We have a sort of unspoken language where it only takes a surreptitious shake of the head from one of us and we're off doing something new.
"What's more, any problems can be dealt with by one of us while the other one carries on working with the band. Honestly, I don't know how some engineer‑producers can handle it on their own — why do you think that, on most pro sessions, there's generally a producer, an engineer and an assistant or two?"
As regular users of Pro Tools within a studio environment, Bird and Bush come across a fair degree of technophobia regarding Pro Tools. Marshall explains: "It's become a bit of an A&R buzz word, the verb 'to Pro Tools', and a stigma has become attached to it which makes a lot of bands understandably suspicious. It's not magic, it's a piece of equipment, albeit fantastically flexible and creative. While it gives you a way of showing people what you hear, you still have to make production decisions for yourself."
"Some bands are scared that Pro Tools might take the music out of their control," continues Steve, "but it can't — it's just a tool, just like a tape machine or a reverb. But that technophobia is often still there at the back of their mind. You have to explain to them, before doing a comp, that even if we did it on the desk it's still putting something together which isn't genuinely one take. Pro Tools is just a quicker way of doing what, to be fair, people had been doing for years before it came along.
"In fact, I heard a story of some producers in the '50s whose style was to rehearse a single song all day, without the lead singer, until the band played it almost identically every time. That meant that, even though they could only take directly to the mono master recorder, they could still do vocal comps by splicing small sections of the master tapes together. It's always been done that way! We used to do vocal tuning with an S1000 and a pitch wheel, but it took much much longer than it ever would today with things like Auto‑Tune around. The goal has always been to get the end result to sound like the best possible performance, regardless of how this has been achieved.
"Even with Auto‑Tune you really have to work hard to make it do its thing without being heard. People seem to think it's some quick fix, but it's not. You can't just 'plug it in and forget it' — you're talking about music here. For a start, it's not always good at detecting what the correct pitch is, but also, even if a whole line is consistently a little out, Auto‑Tune will always shift note by note. So I still do quite a lot of standard Audiosuite pitch‑shifting, when it's necessary, especially when I just want a whole phrase up a bit."