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Classic Tracks: Madonna 'Like A Virgin'

Producers: Nile Rodgers, Madonna, Stephen Bray • Engineer: Jason Corsaro By Richard Buskin
Published September 2007

In mid-1984 Madonna arrived at New York City's Power Station studios with Nile Rodgers to record the album that would make her an international superstar - using cutting-edge 12-bit technology.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Madonna 'Like A Virgin'Photo: Echoes Archives/RedfernsAt the start of the 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs, some LA mobsters get embroiled in a musical discussion while having breakfast before a jewel heist. "'Like A Virgin' is all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick," asserts Mr Brown, the character portrayed by writer/director Quentin Tarantino. "The whole song is a metaphor for big dicks." He's convinced the singer is stating that painful intercourse reminds her of losing her virginity. Following the film's release, the girl in question actually took issue. When handing Tarantino an autograph, she wrote: "Quentin, it's about love, not dick. Madonna."

Not that her behaviour had exactly reinforced this view. Still, in the beginning, before the lifestyle became all-important, along with the public posing, media manipulation, movie outings, book ventures and mid-Atlantic accent, it was the music that counted most. And this loomed large en route to Michigan native Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone developing into the most successful female recording artist of all time, with worldwide sales in excess of 200 million albums.

Thirteen million of those belong to her eponymous Top 10 debut, remixed by then-boyfriend John 'Jellybean' Benitez, which sold three million at the time of its 1983 release and contained the hit singles 'Holiday', 'Borderline' and 'Lucky Star'. Nevertheless, despite 'Borderline' kicking off a string of 17 consecutive Top 10 US singles, it was her 1984 follow-up, Like A Virgin, that turned Madonna into an international superstar, shifting 12 million copies at the time of its release and providing her with not only her first chart-topping album and single, but also a slightly harder-edged pop sound and the platform to become the world's most provocative fashion icon.

Co-produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, who'd recently been responsible for David Bowie's Let's Dance album, the record actually spawned four Top Five singles in both the US and the UK. And while one of these, 'Material Girl', quickly became her signature tune, it was the title track, written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (who also composed Cyndi Lauper's 'True Colours'), sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks from December 22, 1984, that really launched the Madonna craze and served as a starting point for all the self-engineered controversy that was to follow.

Tougher & More Streetwise

In mid-1984, Madonna met up with Nile Rodgers inside New York City's Power Station, the 48th Street facility that is now Avatar Studios. He subsequently assembled a rhythm section comprising himself on guitar, Chic colleague Bernard Edwards on bass and former Chic drummer Tony Thompson (who'd played on Let's Dance), to attain a tougher, more streetwise sound than that on her previous dance-pop recordings.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Madonna 'Like A Virgin'Madonna relaxing at home for the cover shot of the Like A Virgin LP in 1984.Photo: Echoes Archives/Redferns"One thing that was amazing about Chic is that, when their tracks were great, the stuff done afterwards was just icing," says Jason Corsaro, for whom Like A Virgin represented the first project on which he was the main recording and mix engineer. "The overdubs were obviously important, but basically they supplemented a great rhythm track. The house was built with a really strong foundation, and you could actually listen to the basic track and vocals and be thoroughly entertained. These days, everything is so perfect it's not as interesting, whereas those guys would work until they got a really great groove. And I think that's why Madonna chose Nile to do the record. She really wanted that Chic kind of approach."

A New Jersey native, Corsaro attended a recording school in New York's Greenwich Village during the late '70s, before landing a job at Todd Rundgren's Secret Sound Studio and then moving on to the Power Station. The first project with which he was involved there was the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You (1981), working alongside mixer Bob Clearmountain as an assistant, and thereafter he also worked on records by Meatloaf, the Cars, Debbie Harry, Paul Simon and Chic. Thus the connection with Nile Rodgers, whom he persuaded to 'go digital' on Like A Virgin — Corsaro not only ensured that a Sony 3324 24-track digital tape recorder was obtained for the recording, but he also bought a Sony F1 two-track for the 12-bit mix.

"I was sure the digital medium was going to be the future," he explains. "Things were changing back then, and the Madonna record was a particularly good example of this. I got six or seven test pressings from different mastering houses and they all sounded very, very different. That's why digital was great. It always sounded the same. Nile and I both thought it was very important that the CD should be released simultaneously with the vinyl record, and when this was the case it was the first time it ever happened. We just never realised the album would be that big.

"The first day I learned that we would be working on it, I was in Bernard Edwards' car and we heard 'Holiday' on the radio. Before that I had not even heard of Madonna, and I don't think anybody expected the album to do as much as it did, or that she was going to be such an icon. It's not that we didn't think she had the capability, but the whole thing just really exploded."

Laziness Or Genius?

According to Jason Corsaro's recollection, the recordings adhered very closely to the cassette demos produced by Stephen Bray.

"I don't know if that was laziness or genius," he says, "but either way, what Nile did turned out to be the right decision. The demos were quite simple in structure, and so was the record. All we did was get better musicians in the form of Chic as the rhythm section, along with Rob Sabino on keyboards, Lenny Pickett on sax, and the Simms brothers and the Kings on backing vocals, and record them in a better environment. By leaving all that space on the recording, you could hear what everybody was doing, and that helped me to be able to get the drums sounding big. There was a lot of room sound on the drums, and in the beginning I don't think Nile was very thrilled with that. He thought it made the rhythm sound weird, whereas I thought it gave it an edge that made it different, and I think Madonna liked it too.

Nile Rodgers behind the SSL E Series desk in the control room of Power Station's Studio C. Behind him you can see the racks of 24 Pultec EQP-1A3 EQs.Nile Rodgers behind the SSL E Series desk in the control room of Power Station's Studio C. Behind him you can see the racks of 24 Pultec EQP-1A3 EQs.Photo: Echoes Archives/Redferns"Chic had a particular sound, and at the Power Station there was a big live room for rock, a room for jazz and a room for R&B. Of course, the R&B room was the deadest room, and even though Tony Thompson hit his drums real hard, with a lot of power, they would just be absorbed in there. I said, 'Why can't we record Tony in the big room?' and Niles said, 'No, no, R&B is in the dead room.' Well, I didn't agree with that, so I put Tony in the big room, Studio C, and found that I could get so much more of his sound by putting the mics further back. By getting a room sound going, it helped bring out what he was about. We did a few records like that, but I think Like A Virgin was the first one to be heard with that kind of R&B style; the very tight playing, very rhythmic, with a big sound that didn't get in the way.

"At that time, Tony was hitting his bass drum so hard he would blow up any mic that was near it. I mean, there was an Ambassador head on the beater side of that drum, and he was playing a soft beater, and I remember working on another record with him where, once he was done with the tracking, you could insert the beater in the indent that he'd made in the head. It wasn't broken, it just went in about a quarter of an inch. So when I started miking him I tried a load of different mics and found the only one that didn't blow up when I positioned it close was a [Shure] SM58 with a pop shield. As it didn't lend itself to very much bottom, I also put a [Neumann] U47fet behind it, and then about 10 feet farther back in the room I used a [Beyerdynamic] M160 dual ribbon.

"A lot of expensive mics couldn't handle Tony's playing. In fact, when he was a member of Duran Duran's side project, the Power Station, he hit a 57 and destroyed it so you couldn't even recognise what it was. I left the control room because something was wrong with the snare mic and all I saw were two wires hanging out. He didn't do it on purpose, he was just very powerful — he had long arms and long legs, and he used every bit of them.

"On the toms I think I used [Sennheiser MD] 421s. In those days I mic'd everything top and bottom; the snare, toms and the hi-hat. I just thought it was interesting to have more information. And I also used four U47fets as room mics; two behind the kit and two in front. I'm a huge fan of the Fet 47; it's got a big diaphragm like many of the older mics, and it produces a much larger sound. Nevertheless, no one seemed to like the Fet 47s. They were used to tube 47s. The Power Station had an amazing collection of mics, and I'd always get the back end of all the gear. Everyone else, those working with Springsteen or whoever in the other rooms, would get all the best mics, so I would have to find ways of using what I had."

Room For Effects

"One thing I did on Like A Virgin was get the bottom out of a room," explains Corsaro. "That room had a very bright sound and I wanted to get some bass drum in there. Well, I remember listening to Peter Gabriel's record, 'Intruder', and I was trying to figure out how they got that amazing tone on the drums. It sounded like everything started to resonate out — the high frequencies dissipated and the low frequencies lagged long. So, I took the room, put it into a Publison stereo harmoniser, fed it back to itself and pitched it down a bit. That gave the illusion that the high frequencies were getting deeper and brought out the bass drum. It worked and it sounded very big, and once it got going I would use the gates on the board to slow it down a little bit.

"The Publison wasn't all that popular because it was very expensive and it had a lot of knobs on it, but it was a great device. I used it when I mixed because it had two cross-points — one was at the beginning of where it took the sample and the other was at the end, and if you flipped them around it would make it sound like it was backwards. I found that if I flipped it with a large enough number, I could send it in one side and it would go backwards and send it the other side and it would go forward, and therefore send it back to itself and it would sound like it was flip-flopping all the time. It was an interesting effect, and I used that on a lot of things."

In addition to phasers, flangers and the aforementioned Publison harmoniser, the effects employed on the album also included Yamaha SPX and Ursa Major Space Station digital reverbs.

"There weren't a ton of effects," confirms Corsaro. "I would mic a pair of small speakers to add distortion, or I would send stuff back into the room, and we also had a couple of live chambers that I used a lot. The one that I thought sounded best was a small ladies' bathroom with pink tile — I used that on most things — while the other was the stairwell that ran the length of the building and helped create the sound on Bruce Springsteen records like 'Born In The USA'. I didn't use as much of that. I preferred the small bathroom — it sounded great and I thought the pink was cute."

Tres Chic

Sitting behind a 48-input SSL E-series console — supplemented on the EQ front by a rack of 24 Pultecs — and Urei 813 Studio Monitors, Corsaro could look out through the control room window and see Tony Thompson to the right of the large recording area. A small iso-booth was behind his kit while a couple of larger ones were to his right, and Bernard Edwards was positioned in front of the first of these, playing bass through an H&H cabinet with a Gallien Krueger head, mic'd with a 421.

"He preferred to use DI with Chic, but I tried to get him to expand and do different things," the engineer recalls. "He usually liked to play a Music Man bass, and for the Madonna sessions he used either that or a Spector, which had a little bit more of a twang. Nile, who played his Tokai guitar through a Music Man amp and a DI, was at the back of the room, to Bernard's right. Nile had an amazing guitar collection, but he loved his early Tokai, which had a mid-range dip in the controls and a really great sound. Around that time, [producer] Jack Douglas was working at the Power Station, and he had a very good engineer who'd put up two 57s on a guitar amp; one a little bit further back so they were out of phase, and when you brought them up even there'd be like a natural mid-range dip. That worked very well on Nile's sound, so that's what I did, too.

"Most of the things that were done at the Power Station back then were achieved with great Pultecs or great limiters. It was very unlike the California situation, where you'd start off with a really high-quality mic and a really great-sounding mic pre. I never experienced that until later, when I myself worked in California and in England, too. Usually, it was just a case of using whatever got the job done. And it's also different when you've got musicians who make you look good. You don't have to do very much. You can put up the worst mics ever and, with a great drummer and a great bass player and a great guitarist, you look like a genius.

"The musicians on the Like A Virgin sessions were positioned very close together in the studio, and in those days the headphone balances were mostly done on one system. Only Tony was maybe on a separate one, because his headphones had to be especially loud in order to be heard over his playing. Actually, they were so loud on one record that, when they hit the floor, they used to hop. When Tony played in a room, it was deafening. And he always loved to do this thing when I'd go in there to move a mic — he'd do a drum fill and hit the cymbals, and it gave him some sort of joy that they were so loud. He never broke them, but boy, he tired them out."

Into The Groove

With all of the album's rhythm tracks taken care of before overdubbing began, about half of them were also accorded drum machine parts, courtesy of Jimmy Bralower.

"In his time, Jimmy was way ahead of everybody else," remarks Corsaro. "He had a rack of samplers and sounds and gear that just did all different things, and he would sit there and blend them all together. He usually used the whole console to bounce down all the drum bits, so that instead of it being a simple sound it would be a hybrid sound. There'd be maybe three or four different snares all put together, three or four different bass drums, maybe more, as well as cymbals, hi-hats, toms and other sounds that were inserted. Sometimes I think he used Simmons drums that were keyed off it and pitched way down to give it a little bit extra oomph, and there were lots of different tricks on different things. Jimmy was always looking to create new sounds that would get everybody excited, and he made a huge difference in the way things sounded. So there was a balance between that and real drums, and it wasn't an easy thing to do, being able to make drum machines stay in the frame with a drummer like Tony Thompson."

Not least because the machines back then weren't the machines that are available now.

"Not at all," Corsaro agrees, "and neither was the triggering, which was very difficult. All the gear took up half the room, and it wasn't easy to get everything to work, but Jimmy was very, very good at it. I remember when he got a very high-end Linn Drum machine, the last one that came out. It did almost everything that all the other gear did, and it seemed so funny to have this in just one little box.

"The way records were made in those days, there was a kind of separation between the musicians who did the arrangements, figuring out the parts and how they were going to play off each other, and the producer and engineer who got the sound. Since Nile was playing, he usually left that up to me. If he came into the control room and didn't like something, he'd tell me and say, 'Let's change it,' but I worked very hard at trying to attain interesting sounds. Jimmy Bralower also had a lot to do with the sound of the gear that he brought in, and the two of us would decide how that would happen. Nile would sometimes contribute to this, but often he'd leave us alone, because unless you were into that aspect of the work it could get boring. It wasn't like now, when it takes two seconds to do certain things."

Room Dynamics

Madonna, meanwhile, although not required to contribute guide vocals for the Like A Virgin album, was present every minute of the sessions, observing and opining on all that was going on.

"She is amazingly smart, very capable and very focused," says Corsaro. "She made sure that everything went exactly how she wanted it to, and while some people maybe thought it was pushy I just thought it was powerful. She was very determined for the record to be successful, and she made no bones about it. She was there all the time, making sure everything was going right. If someone played a part that she didn't like, she'd make this clear and tell him how she wanted it. She had her say, and nothing went by without her hearing it.CLASSIC TRACKS: Madonna 'Like A Virgin'The live room in Power Station's Studio C as it is today. Along the far walls you can see some of the isolation booths used during the recording of Like A Virgin.

"Sometimes she and Nile were pulling in different directions, but she picked him because she liked his style, and when things became too much for Nile to deal with he would just take off. On the other hand, he would also say when he had a strong idea about something, so there was a balance. It was a good working relationship. The thing was, Madonna was very specific about what she wanted. For instance, Nile was really interested in playing a different style of guitar, and Madonna said, 'I don't want that. I want what you played on Chic.' He said, 'But I've already done that,' and she said, 'I want you to do it again.' So, that's what he did. If it was up to him he probably would have played things a little differently, but that's what she wanted and that's what she got. It wasn't a big deal.

"Madonna wasn't a taskmaster, but in those days people often fooled around and had a lot of fun, and she would say, 'Time is money and the money is mine. Let's get to work.' She was amazing. When anyone asks why I think she's so successful, I say it's because of all the effort she put into it. There was no other way: it was success or nothing. She didn't just come along and expect success to come to her. She went straight for it."

Once the rhythm tracks met with everybody's approval, Rob Sabino laid down his keyboard parts, playing mostly a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, as well as some Rhodes and acoustic piano, while Nile Rodgers also played a Synclavier.

Then came the backing vocals of Frank and George Simms, Brenda and Curtis King, and also Madonna, recorded quickly on separate days.

"There was always a lot of space for them to come up with great stuff," Corsaro says. "That way they could sing to all of the background parts. The pitch was absolutely perfect and very powerful, and that made for a very easy situation."

Nothing Subtle

Since Studio C's main room was very bright and usually added a little too much high-end to a vocal, Corsaro preferred to track Madonna's lead parts in the small, wooden, high-ceilinged piano room at the back, placing gobos around her while using the top capsule of a stereo AKG C24 tube microphone, with a Schoeps mic preamp and Pultec EQ. "I used to treat everything heavily," says Corsaro. "That was part of the Power Station way — nothing was subtle and everything had a particular sound.

"Nile was difficult on singers because he was very tuned into pitch. Chic always sounded perfect, and he was so meticulous about pitch that he'd work on stuff for a very long time. That meant sometimes it could be a little rough, but Madonna was always very, very professional and she really came through and did a great job. I remember, when she was about to do an R&B cover of 'Love Don't Live Here Anymore', it was very different from other stuff that she did and she was a little nervous about singing it. She told me, 'I'm not sure I should do this. Maybe it isn't right for me.' I said, 'I totally think you can do it. You just have to get rid of the fear,' and that's what she did. She did great. She was very determined. Doing vocals for Nile wasn't easy for a lot of people, but nothing was going to keep her from making that record work.

"We didn't do a lot of comp'ing with her vocals. What we did was just punch and punch and punch, and to be fair, that's what we did with a lot of things. Nile's guitar parts were punched bit by bit, and sometimes it used to make me crazy because he would only want to punch just one note and nothing else. I'd say, 'Why can't we just get the whole bar?' but he'd insist: 'No, just get that one note. It's the only thing that's wrong.' Fortunately, the 3324 had an auto-punch feature. So if we were working on a section, once we got the punch right we could do it over and over and over. That made life a little easier... not that it was ever hard. Life was not hard in those days. It was a different kind of recording situation."

Mixing With Madonna

The mix took place towards the end of the project, with Madonna present throughout, sitting next to Jason Corsaro behind the Studio C SSL.

"Nile was there most of the time, but she was there all of the time," he says. "She never left. That was the first record that I really ever did, and it was not easy to mix. Since there was space, you could hear everything, and if it wasn't balanced you could really hear that too. So I spent most of my time dealing with that and then trying to find different effects to fit certain spaces; mainly reverb units, phasers and flangers.

"We had a lot of gear, but it wasn't that different — it was just different brands of the same thing, and regardless of what I did, everyone would come together and complain: 'I don't like this, I don't like that,' and that meant changing things until they were right. It was mainly about how exciting the different parts were. Of course, what Chic was about was the rhythm section, and once that was done and that was grooving, the rest of the stuff was icing on the cake.

Jason Corsaro today in his role as 'Shop Foreman' at Barber Shop Studios in Hopatcong, New Jersey.Jason Corsaro today in his role as 'Shop Foreman' at Barber Shop Studios in Hopatcong, New Jersey.Photo: Echoes Archives/Redferns"Within the record's simplicity there were a lot of interesting things going on. If it had been just the same type of thing happening over and over and over, or if there was a drum machine that was so boring you lost interest, then that would have been a problem, but on this record that wasn't the case. All of the parts were played amazingly and you could feel it.

"The sparseness just made it clearer and bigger and better, and that, together with the fact that it was digital, gave it its sound. All of the space meant that whatever I wanted to be heard could be placed right up front, but there was also nowhere to hide, and if I made a bad move you could hear it.

"When I first learned how to mix, I pretty much taught myself. I used one finger at a time in automation, and it took me a long time. I used to watch Bob Clearmountain mix, I was standing behind him when he mixed [the Rolling Stones'] 'Start Me Up', and he did the whole pass with every fader, riding them all, and then he'd go back and maybe fix a couple of things. He worked and worked the balance until he made it a performance. I couldn't do that. No way was I capable of that. I did one fader at a time, made my mark, went back and adjusted and adjusted and adjusted, and wore out that computer."

Corsaro and many of his colleagues regarded Like a Virgin as just one of numerous projects with which they were involved. Still, the Grammy-winning producer/engineer, who would go on to work with Duran Duran, Robert Palmer, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker, Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker, Motorhead and Soundgarden, also acknowledges that even at this early stage in her career Madonna was clearly no run-of-the-mill artist.

"She was very different," he says, "and she had a star quality that was undeniable. Everybody in the building paid attention, good or bad, to the fact that she was there. You'd go downstairs and people would be talking about her. She was Madonna!"

That she certainly was. And Jason Corsaro was a man on a mission, trying to come up with a sound that blurred the line between R&B and rock, and achieving that on Like A Virgin.

"I never heard any complaints from either Madonna herself or from the record company," says Jason Corsaro, who is currently a self-described "shop foreman" at the state-of-the-art Barber Shop Studios in Hopatcong, New Jersey, which is about 45 minutes from New York City. "I think that everyone was really happy with the whole recording process. It involved great musicians playing in a great studio, and that helped to create a wonderful situation and a really great record."