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STEVE OSBORNE: Recording Suede's 'She's In Fashion'

Interview | Producer By Tom Flint
Published August 1999

STEVE OSBORNE: Recording Suede's 'She's In Fashion'

'90s glamsters Suede wanted a more electronic, produced feel for their latest album, Head Music, so they linked up with production supremo Steve Osborne. Tom Flint talks to Steve about the complex production of the group's latest Top 20 single.

Come the year 2000, and the inevitable flood of retrospective reviews of the 1990s, Suede, along with the likes of Oasis, Blur and The Manic Street Preachers, will surely be recognised as one of the most influential British bands of the decade. Although they have always produced 'pop' records, Suede's output has tended towards the darker, angst‑driven side of the genre, introducing distorted guitars, wailing vocals and a sexually ambiguous image, all of which have caused critics to draw parallels with the glam‑rock style pioneered by David Bowie in the '70s. Since their highly successful eponymous debut album was released in 1993 (containing the chart hits 'Animal Nitrate', 'Metal Mickey' and 'So Young'), Suede have had consistent success, following up the debut with the albums Dog Man Star, Coming Up and even a B‑sides collection, Sci‑fi Lullabies.

'Fashion' was a song that we started in the first week of recording, but didn't actually finish until the very last week!

For Suede's fourth album of original material, Head Music, the band (now comprising vocalist Brett Anderson, guitarist Richard Oakes, bassist Mat Osman, drummer Simon Gilbert and Neil Codling on keyboards) opted for a slightly different musical direction, aiming to create a more overtly produced, electronic‑sounding album. To achieve this objective, they decided not to work with Ed Buller, who had produced their previous three studio albums, and chose instead Steve Osborne, whose previous production and remix work (often in collaboration with DJ Paul Oakenfold) includes the Happy Mondays, U2 and Placebo. Steve himself explained why he felt the group picked him: "I think they just wanted to try a different approach; Brett was definitely into having more grooves. Previously, they'd recorded much more as a band, and he wanted to get away from traditional rock drum sounds, for example." After six months of recording, Head Music was finally released in the spring of 1999, spawning the hit single 'Electricity'. The follow‑up Top 20 single 'She's in Fashion' has been described as 'the most summery‑sounding pop song Suede have recorded,' yet its light feel disguises what proved to be months of heavy production work, several re‑recordings and a lot of experimentation. But let's start at the beginning...

<h3>On Trial</h3>

After working with Ed Buller for so many years, Suede naturally needed to get used to a new producer's working methods. Steve Osborne was initially hired for one week of trial‑run recording at Mayfair Studios, just to see how the process was going to work, or indeed if the two parties could work together. Steve bought with him some of his favourite studio gear (see the separate box on page 53), including an EMS VCS3, a Minimoog and various other analogue synths, and at the more modern end of the spectrum, a 9600 Power Mac/Emagic Logic/Digidesign Pro Tools rig.

A rough demo of the eventual Head Music track 'Savoir Faire' was used for the trial sessions. Steve: "We spent a day setting everyone up, playing the tracks live and putting it all onto multitrack. After the recording they left me to do my stuff. I programmed some rhythm sounds on my analogue synths using white noise, and worked them into grooves so that when the band came in the next day I could play them what I'd done. They liked it, so I then worked with the drummer on top of that groove." Fortunately, Steve's efforts were exactly what the band were looking for and the entire 'Savoir Faire' track, plus an additional B‑side track, was all but finished in just three days. "We only did a couple of bits of backing vocal after that whilst working on the album. It became the blueprint for how we did most of the other tracks."

From Demo To...

Suede (l‑r): Brett Anderson, Mat Osman, Simon Gilbert, Richard Oakes, Neil Codling.Suede (l‑r): Brett Anderson, Mat Osman, Simon Gilbert, Richard Oakes, Neil Codling.

During the recording of Head Music between August 1998 and February 1999, Eastcote, Sarm Hook End, Master Rock and Eden Studios were all used. The first venue for recording was Eastcote Studios, although at this early stage a rough demo including most of the album tracks had been prepared as DAT mixes for Steve and the band to work from. Steve: "Most of the demo was recorded at Protocol in Holloway, but a couple of the tracks were done by Neil [Codling] in his home studio. 'She's In Fashion' was one of them. Neil has a DA88 and Cubase at home, so he can put ideas together."

At this early stage, the demo had most of the core structural elements in place, including the verse, choruses and middle eight. Neil's demo also contained a repeating keyboard glissando which was the part eventually played by the strings on the finished tracks. However, the track was very lengthy and in need of some serious cutting‑down before any further work could be done. Steve explains: "There's only two chords, so after a while, you just got fed up. In the end, I shortened it right down, and mde it much more concise, so it became easier to work on. That demo was pretty much together but it was much harder‑sounding and very much a programmed sort of thing. There was a different bass, a drum loop, and vocal lines. He also had the string line, and there was a little bit of acoustic guitar."

Steve's working method for 'She's In Fashion' was to start from the rhythm parts and work his way up, but, as with the 'Savoir Faire' session, Steve began work by programming some basic grooves before working with drummer Simon. "I started off by taking the original drum loop from Neil's demo, which he'd made on an Alesis drum machine, and putting it through the filter of my VCS3 synth. That was something that remained all the way through to the final mix; you can particularly hear it towards the end, where it's more exposed. There's also another loop in there which I made on my Mac, with the Propellerheads' software drum machine, Rebirth. It's just one of the 808 sounds you get in that, with distortion, delay and a sweeping filter in the program. I took a big chunk and looped one or two bars where I liked the filter and then saved the audio file. I popped that file into Logic, then ran Neil's loop and my Rebirth loop alongside each other. Then we recorded live drums on top of that."

Drums & Bass

STEVE OSBORNE: Recording Suede's 'She's In Fashion'

With the basic groove arrangement in place, Steve had a firm starting point for the track and, together with Paul Corkett, who engineered for the first month's recording, he began work on the drums. A similar modus operandi to that of the 'Savoir Faire' sessions was in force, with Steve setting up the band to play live and recording the resulting sessions onto multitrack. Throughout the sessions for 'She's In Fashion', recording took place both direct‑to‑disk via Pro Tools, and to analogue tape, though Steve can no longer always exactly recall what was recorded where. The drums, though, were definitely edited in Pro Tools once they had been recorded. "Once drums are in Pro Tools, I can work with the drummer on his own and we can edit between takes, change sounds, and really get involved with the drums without everyone hanging around playing the same thing over and over. I got an early take with vocals, guitar and bass which gave Simon something to play with."

During the process of finding the right drum sound, a variety of miking techniques came into play. "Once we'd started recording we'd be pretty set on what mics we'd be using, but we'd move them around, fine‑tuning their positioning until it felt like the right sort of sound for the track. We had a Shure SM58 in the metal tube of the studio's air‑conditioning duct, which picked up a lot of the snare drum." An SM57 was used closer to the snare, while a Neumann U47 was used to record the bass drum, and an STC 4038 ribbon mic for the whole kit. In another effort to change the feel of the drums, a mix of all the drum mics was sent through an Ampeg SVT bass amp, which in turn was miked up and recorded to a separate track. As Steve explains, many of the experiments were simply spur‑of‑the‑moment ideas. "Someone has an idea and you just try it; the main thing is just to try lots of ideas. I like to do a bit of processing to see what else we can get, so you don't just end up with a straight sound."

Aside from the actual sound of the drums, there was still the basic drum feel or grove to get right, and this too required some careful thought and attention. "I re‑did the drum kit three times with Simon. I wasn't really happy with the groove to start off with, so we tried a harder one a little while later. That too wasn't feeling quite right, so we tried another one. Eventually, I spent a day going through all the different variations I had and decided I liked the first one best!"

Whilst Steve, Paul Corkett and the band were trying out different drum tracks, there were also various ideas for the bass guitar track. In the end, however, the original idea, played on a Fender Jazz bass, turned out to be the preferred one. The sound was a balance of the output of two mics placed near the Ampeg SVT bass amp: a Neumann KM84 placed very close to the amp's cone, and a U47 10 feet away to achieve more of an ambient sound.

As it turned out, Steve's efforts were not simply experiments for experimentation's sake. One of the problems with the track was the particularly 'sweet' sound to the song. "The instruments which drive the track are the drums, bass and acoustic guitar, but it just sounded really soft, because the chords, which at the time were D major 7 and G major 7, were very sweet‑sounding. It was all sounding very pretty and a bit too light — which I suppose is why I went on a journey trying different drums and different bass sounds; to try and toughen it up. But when we did that we lost the vibe a bit; at one point it was sounding really terrorist!"

Dirty Summer

STEVE OSBORNE: Recording Suede's 'She's In Fashion'

The band knew they wanted a summery overall sound, but still felt a dirtier production was necessary for it to really work as Suede record. "After the drum loop, drums and bass sessions, the strummed Gibson acoustic guitar was recorded [with the trusty SM58], but it too didn't add that extra grunge the track needed." Once again, Steve's EMS VCS3 came to the rescue: "The other rhythmic sound you can hear under the acoustic guitar is the same acoustic track run through the VCS3, which makes the acoustic sound much more chunky and adds a bit of grit. I achieved that by overloading the filter on the input until it distorted. The VCS3 has got a great sound; you can put anything through it and it comes out sounding a bit harder." A arpeggio Telecaster guitar line was also added to beef up the chorus.

Various guitar experiments followed, with Steve again trying out sounds and ideas, and even using bass player Mat Osman to play guitar when guitarist Richard Oakes was not availble. "We took some of the strings off one of the guitars, a Gibson 335, and tuned all the remaining strings to one note. Mat played that guitar for the duration of the track. The guitar went into an amp which was miked up with the SM58, and then that sound went into my Minimoog's external input and then to tape. He was thrashing away at the guitar and I was pulsing 16th notes through the Moog, and then playing around with the filters in time with the arrangement. The only time that really comes in on the final mix is in the middle eight, where it's one of the things that's pulsing away under the track."

By the time the sessions moved to Sarm, Millennium Strings, a 12‑piece string section comprising cellos, violins and violas, had been hired to work on several of the album tracks. All of the album's original string parts had been written by Neil Codling, and were scored by Steve himself and Ian Birch of Millennium Strings prior to recording, but nothing had quite been finalised for 'She's In Fashion'. "Neil's demo had been based around the original string line, so we'd always wanted to try strings on there, but we didn't know whether it was going to work or not.

"It was literally right at the end of the day, and they'd worked really hard on the rest of the session. I'd worked with these people before, and they're all young and very 'into it', so you can change stuff really quickly at the last minue. I went out and said 'can you play this?' I gave them a beat and a tuning note. They didn't have anything written down, so I had to sing the line and the phrasing to them. I asked them to keep on playing the same line over and over again until I'd recorded a long section. Afterwards me and Ben Hillier, the engineer and programmer, took the best bits and pieced them together in Pro Tools."

Despite a pleasing performance from the string section, actually recording the session was not without major problems of its own. One of the tape machines dedicated to the session failed to record, and so Steve found himself with only half the string section arrangement on tape. Fortunately, the instruments playing the root notes of the line had made it to tape, making it possible, with a little creative fudgery, to add the missing fiths.

"There are a number of things playing that fifth on top of the original line. Part of that is the string line going through my Eventide H3500 Harmonizer, part is a string sample, and part is a Jupiter 6 line. I used the Jupiter 6 because I know it really well, and anyway it didn't need to sound quite real. Ultimately, the string sound went through a Sherman Filterbank at the mix stage and it went through the EMS VCS3 too, so it's not a pure string sound anyway! There's also a little bit of flanging or phasing in the final mix."

The Big Shift

Steve's well‑worn but trusty keys: Moog Minimoog, Roland Juno 106 and Jupiter 6.Steve's well‑worn but trusty keys: Moog Minimoog, Roland Juno 106 and Jupiter 6.

Shortly after the Sarm string session, work on Head Music moved to Master Rock studios where most of the album recording was done. Even at this stage, 'She's In Fashion' was far from finished. The lead vocal tracks were yet to be recorded, and Steve was still finding it hard to get the strings to work. A fairly good lead vocal had been recorded as a guide track during one of the sessions, but something needed to change before full vocals could be added.

The dramatic decision was made to shift the whole track up a semitone, which meant some serious re‑recording was necessary. Why all the bother? Steve: "We had a lot of stuff recorded in C sharp, even the strings, but C sharp's not a particularly nice key. It was one of the things I wasn't happy with, so I shifted the whole thing up to D. I had a good vocal line, but it was in C sharp too, so it wasn't ultimately useable. As a result, it was fairly late when the actual lead vocal went on. I'd recorded a fair amount at that point so I had to re‑record the bass and the acoustic. The strings were time‑stretched in Pro Tools, and then pitch‑shifted up, so they were in the right key, but at the same speed as originally."

I re‑did the drum kit three times with Simon... Eventually, I spent a day going through all the different variations I had and decided I liked the first one best!

Having changed the key of the song to D, Steve began recording the vocals.The first problem to overcome was Brett's and Steve's opposing views on vocal effects. "Brett likes the vocals really heavily effected, and I like them quite dry. We battled over that one, but did strike a compromise we were both happy with in the end". The eventual outcome was a relatively dry vocal with some plate reverb and some of Steve's Roland RE201 analogue delay. "I use the Roland mostly on vocals. I'm not a big fan of digital delays, so I use the RE as much as possible."

Backing vocals were also added, including Brett's closing mantra of 'the sunshine will blow my mind and the wind blow my brain' towards the end of the track, and some female BVs. "Brett did backing vocals, and there are two girls singing as well. Their vocals are fairly wet to sit them in the background. They're not too noticeable, but are still filling the sound out."

The backing was mostly recorded and the vocals were done, but the elusive 'summery yet gritty' feel had eluded them. More instruments were now recorded to add to the overall groove. Steve explains why "I didn't want things to stand out that much; I wanted a nice groove with the vocal on top so you hear the vocal and the strings, but everything else is there to keep the groove interesting. I used filters to bring stuff in and out of the mix so the sound's never static, and put stuff through the VCS3, so it doesn't get repetitive even though the chords don't change much."

The rhythmic wah‑wah sound running throughout the track was one line added at this stage. Steve and the band took a distinctly lo‑fi approach, using an early Casio keyboard as a sound source and feeding the output through a wah‑wah pedal. Once again, Steve fed the signal into an amp (this time a practice amp) and miked up the speaker cone. As Steve remembers it: "Brett found this tiny Casio lying around the studio when we were at Master Rock and fell in love with it. We ended up using it quite a lot on different tracks. I had a go at doing some, and so did Neil, Richard and Brett. We all did different passes, and then I comped a take in Pro Tools from them.

Another addition to the sonic stew was created using Steve's vintage Minimoog. "That 'Woooooo' sound which floats in and out of the track is the Minimoog with portamento. The Moog idea and many other ideas came from late‑night sessions where I was just messing about. I use Pro Tools for experimenting; I can take a rough mix of what I want from the desk, fly it into Pro Tools, loop it so I can develop ideas and add them on top. At one stage, like I'd done for 'Savoir Faire', I made up a load of analogue drum sounds and turned them into loops. I created a bass drum sound with the Korg MS20, a snare drum using filtered white noise from the Minimoog and a white‑noise hi‑hat on the VCS3. I programmed up an electro beat with the sounds and looped it for the length of the track. That drum beat ended up as the bit that introduces the song. You can also hear it on the middle eight." Steve has firm reasons for using his analogue synths rather than ready‑made sampled loops from CDs, for example. "I didn't want to make an album which was Suede with loops; that would sound quite dated. The idea was that if we were going to use any sequenced things, they'd be fairly electronic‑sounding and made up from original sounds, rather than using samples."

After months of trial and error, and with many tracks of audio recorded, 'She's In Fashion' was almost in a state where it could be mixed, but one important component was yet to come — the electric piano line. Steve: "The Wurlitzer came quite late on, and that was one of the key elements that sorted it out for me — before that it was still sounding fairly static. The band have a Rhodes which they use quite a bit, but I decided to get a Wurlitzer in the studio for a different sound. Richard played the part straight away in one pass, and that was it. It was was one of the things we didn't know we were looking for, but when we heard it we knew it was right."

Fixing The Mix

The ever‑versatile EMS VCS3 synth, with Roland RE201 analogue Space Echo on top.The ever‑versatile EMS VCS3 synth, with Roland RE201 analogue Space Echo on top.

By the time 'She's In Fashion' was ready for mixing, some tracks were in Pro Tools, and others were on 24‑track analogue tape. There were around 48 tracks in all. "Anything that wasn't on 24‑track would have been running alongside on Pro Tools, although it would have been on a second multitrack as well. I just get really fed up waiting for slave machines to catch up all the time. If you use Pro Tools as the 'slave' it takes that delay out."

Steve's approach to mixing 'She's In Fashion' was to get everything recorded and tracked, and then experiment with different mix ideas, aided by mix engineer Danton Supple, who handled the EQ, compression and level‑balancing. "The song is two chords all the way through, apart from the middle, so where things are going to come in and out of the arrangement is important for the feel of the final thing. The strings still weren't working and we had loads of stuff going on so the arrangement wasn't really finalised, even at the mix stage. I knew I had enough stuff to do the mix, but I didn't know exactly where it was all going to go. The final arrangement was done on the desk. I don't like sitting down and moving things around in a computer; I find that very boring and non‑creative, whereas if you've got everything running through the desk you can bring tracks in and out with mutes, and interact with the music." Steve would often work into the evening experimenting with mix ideas in this way and playing different versions to the band the next day. "Some of the experiments would stick, and some of them wouldn't. But it's about working with the band, not excluding them; it's more throwing ideas up and letting the band hear, seeing if they like what you've done. If they don't then fine, we can do another one. You don't want to do something that sounds unnatural for the band — it's still got to sound like a Suede record, but with a few different elements."

It's Never Too Late For A Middle Eight...

Steve's travelling production rig, including Emagic Logic/Digidesign Pro Tools, Korg MS20 synth, Akai S3200 sampler, Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth, Emu Morpheus, Anthony DeMaria Labs valve compressor/limiter, Sherman Filterbank, and Eventide H3500 Harmonizer, as used on the string section for 'She's In Fashion'Steve's travelling production rig, including Emagic Logic/Digidesign Pro Tools, Korg MS20 synth, Akai S3200 sampler, Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth, Emu Morpheus, Anthony DeMaria Labs valve compressor/limiter, Sherman Filterbank, and Eventide H3500 Harmonizer, as used on the string section for 'She's In Fashion'

One of the parts of 'She's In Fashion' which still needed to have its arrangement sorted out was the middle eight. The band knew it had to sound different — but how, exactly? Steve: "At that point in the track, you need a break from what's going on. The middle eight was written to be like that from the earliest version, and the whole atmosphere of the finished track needed to change for that section."

The dramatic decision was made to shift the whole track up a semitone, which meant some serious re‑recording was necessary.

Much of this section, in which Brett's vocal is treated with psychedelic phasing and the backing becomes heavily processed, was done during mixing by Danton Supple. "Danton EQed out a lot of the top and all the bottom end, making it really middy, and put a flanger or phaser on it. There's a lot going on in that section: a mid‑heavy guitar sound and also what we called the wobbly guitar sound. The band's backline technician Pete Sissons built a mad oscillating guitar pedal and the wobbly sound is the guitars put through that, then through the Lovetone Wobbulator and Meatball guitar processors — so it's a combination of those three pedals tweaked to a point where they're cross‑modulating. It's not timed at all; you've got three different things oscillating together, so it's got quite a random effect to it.

"There's also a pulsing sequenced Minimoog line which comes in during the middle eight — you can hear it towards the end for definite. At one point I had that driving the track all the way through, but ultimately that didn't sound right, so I ended up using a bit of that to take it out of the middle eight intthe last verse, then the electro drum beat came in for the intro and middle eight and the Rebirth loop on the choruses. All of those sounds were running all the way through the track, and I'd just pop them in and out on the desk whenever I wanted them. I used pretty much everything in the end, but as we got more and more things going on, each part got less and found its own place in the mix. In fact, there was only one point in the mix when it all began to work..."

Having taken the best part of six months to finish, 'She's In Fashion' is a song truly shaped by the studio recording process and by the equipment used to do the job, so it was fitting that an equipment fault had the final say in the track's production. "For the final mix, we had all the drums processed through the studio's Eventide H3000 — but after we'd finished the mix, we discovered it hadn't been working properly! We got the thing fixed and re‑did the mix — but the drums sounded worse, so we used the original!"

Mastered at the Townhouse in April, 'She's In Fashion' was released at the end of June, and quickly went into the Top 20. Looking back, Steve is pleased that he and the band finally got the record done to everyone's satisfaction. "It happens quite often that you go on a journey, attempt various things and end up preferring the first thing you did. 'Fashion' was a song that we started in the first week of recording — but we didn't finish it until the very last week!"

Steve's Gear

It was clear from Steve's work with Suede that he had some pieces of studio equipment which he used more than others, so I asked him what his core studio tools are. "The thing I tend to use the most at the moment is my EMS VCS3. EMS started building them again, so I've got a new one of those! Also the Moog Minimoog, the Korg MS20 and the Eventide H3500 which I use a lot for processing. Those are the mainstays.

"I've also got an old Decca valve compressor and an ADL valve compressor. I use an Akai 3200 for sampling, Emagic Logic for sequencing and Pro Tools for audio work. I also use a lot of guitar pedals during recording. I use all the Lovetones, Sansamp, and Boss ones. I do like the computer‑based approach to recording in some ways, because it means you can do lots of takes, keep it all, find your best bits and then edit it around, but as far as processing is concerned, I prefer to do it with stuff with real knobs on. I don't like moving things around with a mouse, really; I find it very tiring, whereas if you've got bits of gear you know well, you just put your signal through them and mess around with the dials until you've got what you want. They're much more immediate, and I do like things to happen fairly quickly."

Steve Osborne: From Making Tea To Making Hits

It's traditional that even the most successful engineer or producer has to start off by making the tea — and that's exactly how Steve found his way into production. After gaining some experience working with an 8‑track studio, Steve realised that his musical interests lay on the production side of music. With lots of enthusiasm but no real experience of a professional recording environment, he managed to get an interview with the manager of Trident studios. As luck would have it, he got a job and begun his studio career producing... tea and coffee. However, it wasn't long before Steve took on the role of tape‑op and things began to change for the better. "At that stage there were Trident 1 and Trident 2 studios. I became in‑house engineer at Trident 2 when Trident 1 was sold."

It was Steve's eventual collaboration with DJ Paul Oakenfold which was responsible for bringing him into the public eye. "Paul was managed by a guy who also managed a friend of mine. Paul was looking for an engineer to work with, and my friend recommended me because I'd done a few club mixes. We got together and started working from there.

"The first remix we did together, which I personally really wanted to do, was the Happy Mondays' 'Wrote For Luck'. After that we did their track 'Hallelujah', the Rave On EP, and then the hit single 'Step On' and the Pills & Thrills & Bellyaches album. Once we'd done that, we were up and running, and went on to work with Massive Attack & U2."