The Police's final studio album was a technical as well as an artistic tour de force, and yielded one of their most memorable hit singles. Yet the three members were unable to play in the same room without a fight breaking out, so the recording sessions proved tough going for engineer and co-producer Hugh Padgham...
Following his engineering work on records by Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Yes and XTC, Hugh Padgham assumed production roles in 1981 for Collins, Genesis and the Police, en route to becoming the most acclaimed and sought-after producer of the decade. The Police album, Ghost In The Machine, spawned such hits as 'Spirits In The Material World', 'Invisible Sun' and, most notably, 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', and the band teamed up with Padgham once again a couple of years later to produce the blockbuster Synchronicity.
The Police were at the height of their powers in 1983. Their fifth long-player entered the UK chart at number one and soon climbed to the same position in America, where it would remain for 17 weeks. The concurrent single, 'Every Breath You Take', sat atop the US chart for eight weeks and the UK chart for a month. Nothing, it appeared, could stop the world's most popular rock outfit... apart from Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland themselves. Personal and creative tensions characterised the Synchronicity recording sessions at George Martin's AIR Montserrat facility in the Caribbean, and after these exploded during the subsequent concert tour, the trio took a sabbatical that turned out to be permanent.
"On the previous album, Sting's demos had provided a fair idea as to what he wanted, and so my production work really amounted to getting a cohesive sound," recalls Padgham. "There weren't any particularly deep conversations about the direction the record should take, because the music basically spoke for itself, and although they were largely Sting's songs, the other guys definitely put their imprint on the sound. However, by the time of Synchronicity, they were sick of each other — Sting and Stewart hated each other, and although Andy didn't show as much venom, he could be quite grumpy — and there were both verbal and physical fights in the studio. Often, when these would take place, I'd try to be Mr Producer and get in the way, saying, 'Come on, do you have to kick the shit out of one another?' but they'd just turn around and shout 'Get out of it! What do you know? You don't know anything about us!'"
In short, since Sting was writing most of the band's material, he saw fit to define the musical direction, and this attitude was less than warmly received by his colleagues, especially Copeland, who found himself isolated in all senses of the word when his drums were set up in a dining room whose only connection to the downstairs studio was a TV monitor. Never mind that Padgham achieved a memorably huge, ambient drum sound in there — if the talkback button wasn't pressed in the control room after Copeland recorded a track, he'd need to be an expert lip-reader to figure out the consensus of opinion. So it was that friction reared its ugly head, and Hugh Padgham found himself in the unenviable position of serving as referee, as well as being the man behind the Neve 8078 console (which now sits in Bryan Adams's Warehouse Studio in downtown Vancouver).
'Every Breath You Take' brought to a head the tension between Sting and Copeland. "Sting wanted Stewart to just play a very straight rhythm with no fills or anything," Padgham recalls, "and that was the complete antithesis of what Stewart was about. Stewart would say, 'I want to f**king put my drum part on it!' and Sting would say, 'I don't want you to put your f**king drum part on it! I want you to put what I want you to put on it!' and it would go on like that. It was really difficult. I remember calling my manager, Dennis [Muirhead], and telling him 'I can't handle this,' and I also remember quite clearly working full-on for 10 days in Montserrat and having nothing on tape that was playable."
The band's manager, Miles Copeland, was duly sent for, and a meeting was convened by the swimming pool next to the studio in order to determine whether or not the sessions should continue. "That album was actually one meeting away from not happening," Padgham confirms. Fortunately, it did happen, both at AIR Montserrat for the backing tracks and Studio Morin Heights in Quebec for the overdubs and mix, and the result was a classic blend of sophisticated sounds and skilful songwriting that included the aforementioned 'Every Breath' track, a haunting, hypnotic testament to lost love and obsessive domination.
Sting introduced 'Every Breath You Take' by way of a simple demo, consisting of himself singing over a Hammond organ part that would subsequently be replaced by Andy Summers's guitar (keyboards were never the strong suit of this band). The demo had been recorded in a small eight-track suite at North London's Utopia Studios and, according to Hugh Padgham, provided a solid delineation of the song in terms of the main riff, the vocal melody and the already-completed lyrics.
"Like most of the other songs, the actual recording started out with loads of takes of the backing track, because Stewart usually screwed up," Padgham asserts. "It was hot, there was no air conditioning where he was playing and he'd be really sweaty, so sometimes the sticks would fly out of his hands when it all got very exciting. In fact, I even gaffered the sticks to his hands and the headphones onto his head to keep them in place. So, that was part of the problem, and then there was the fact that Sting wanted to keep 'Every Breath You Take' really simple, meaning that we'd have to go for another take if Stewart played a fill that he didn't like, and then cobble the whole thing together. Remember, this was in the days before Pro Tools, when we'd have to use a razor blade, and even though it was Sting who'd generally be involved in those decisions, it would still be hard to keep his interest. He's not one to show patience or any interest in studio techniques."
And much the same could be said regarding Sting's attitude towards the techniques and thoughts of the band's drummer, even though by 1982 that drummer had earned widespread acclaim for his energetic, intricate and textured style of playing. On 'Every Breath You Take', instead of a complete performance, this took the form of separate overdubs for each percussive element: the hi-hat with the 300-millisecond delay; the kick created out of an Oberheim drum box; the gong and cymbal swell played with mallets for the swooshes going into the chorus; and the sharp backbeat created by simultaneously playing a snare in one hand and a Tama gong drum in the other.
"Stewart's snare sound was down to him putting a head on the snare and tightening it as hard as possible," Padgham explains. "When the lugs couldn't be tightened any more, that was it; that was the right sound. By that time I'd enjoyed some success recording Phil Collins, where the drums were very much to the fore, and I really liked that kind of crisp, loud sound, so I was comfortable doing the same with Stewart.
"At AIR Montserrat, the dining area had a gabled ceiling and reflective wooden floor, so I recorded Stewart's drums with room mics while also close-miking the kit, similar to how I recorded Phil Collins. There was a [Shure] SM57 on the snare, [Sennheiser] 421s on the toms, Coles 4038 ribbon mics for the overheads, and [Neumann] 87s as room mics, placed about 10 to 15 feet away and compressed a little bit. Obviously, we didn't use the room sound as much as we did for Phil, but it still provided Stewart's sound with a certain liveliness.
"The studio itself was one of those boring '70s designs with no life to it. So, it was nice to be able to take the kit out of there and put it in the dining room, because at that time we were totally into the much more open, thrashy sort of drum sounds. Then again, I also wanted to get as much of the transients as possible on the tape, whereas back then many people would overload it. We recorded at 30ips, with Dolby on some tracks, so I could put very low levels on the tape, not have any noise and retain the transients, which is what enabled us to get such a sharp-sounding snare. Still, we couldn't really record at night, because the room didn't have windows, it had shutters, and the tree frogs would get a little loud."
Sting, meanwhile, alternated between a DI'd Fender Jazz and a Steinberger bass, while also utilising Brian, the nickname bestowed upon his body-less Dutch upright electric double bass, to double-track the root notes. This, together with the small amount of chorus pedal on the guitars, thickened the sound.
"Sting would always overdub his bass," Padgham recalls, "and although he's a terrific musician, I have to say that his playing could be quite sloppy. This wasn't helped by him bouncing up and down on his jogging mat, and asking him to please bounce a little less would only encourage him to do it more." Ah, those rebel rockers...
Unlike the other songs on Synchronicity, which were accorded the straightforward approach of adding overdubs to a backing track, 'Every Breath' was assembled in a more piecemeal fashion, instrument by instrument, utilising a deceptively laborious construction process to create the simple sound that Sting desired.
For his part, Andy Summers relied on a couple of different setups for his guitars. One, used with his Fender Telecaster, Strat and Gibson 335, comprised a solid-state Roland JC120 Jazz Chorus amp, with the chorus always switched on in order to produce the slightly out-of-tune guitar sound that was all the rage during the early '80s. The amp's two 12-inch speakers would each be close-miked with a Sennheiser 421, panned left and right — one speaker would produce a straight signal while the other would be chorused, and these would sometimes be double-tracked the other way around in order to produce an especially wide stereo picture.
The second setup was employed for the keyboard-like parts that Summers played on his Roland guitar synths; one yellow, the other blue. With a built-in pickup on the guitar, the signal would be split between the synths, and would each go through 100 Watt Marshall amps with 4 x 12 cabinets. Cranked up to high volume, these would again be separately miked to attain a slightly different sound out of each speaker.
"A lot of the synth sounds were achieved that way," says Padgham, "although there were also some Prophet and Oberheim synths."
Back in the control room, Sting recorded his vocals with an AKG 414, compressed through a UREI 1176, to attain a brighter top end. "His voice was always fairly dull," Padgham explains, "and I was never totally happy with his vocal sound until we came upon the Sony C800 tube mic much later on. Recording him in the studio was always quite hard — generally, rather than doing takes, he'd just sing along, and then if he messed up or didn't like something we'd just stop, drop in and build a vocal that way. On things like choruses, where there are loads of harmonies, the actual lead track gets watered down to the point where you don't really need as much of a performance. In those days there was no such thing as tuning, so if a harmony was out of tune, it was my job to stop and redo it — to police the recording, so to speak."
Working with 24 tracks meant that there was plenty of bouncing down, not just in terms of the numerous vocal parts but also all of the guitars. It was for this reason that the vocals were recorded relatively early in the process so that Padgham would have more tracks to work with.
"Imagine recording something with that many harmonies on 24-track analogue these days," he muses. "In some ways, back then, you had to mix more as you went along because you didn't have all that many tracks, whereas now if you work on Pro Tools you can almost have as many tracks as you like. Still, I've always worked like that, because it makes mixing so much easier if you've got an idea how you want a record to sound and print the effects as you go along."
After the AIR sessions ended, Padgham and the Police sailed to the Caribbean island of Nevis for the Christmas 1982 and New Year break, before returning home for a couple of weeks and reconvening at Quebec's Studio Morin Heights in mid-January.
"Sting and Stewart both liked skiing, and Sting had been to Morin Heights before," Padgham remarks. "It represented a change of atmosphere, and it also had an SSL console, which was the one to mix on in 1983 because there was no automation on the Neve. When I'd mixed the Ghost In The Machine album, we had this weird little mixer with automated faders that you put between the tape recorder and the main faders. It was a system where you had two tracks of code and you bounced from one track to the other all the time — that's what drove the VCA faders. However, it was a bit of a pain in the arse."
Also less than comfortable was the situation that would arise during the overdubbing process, when one of the protagonists would choose to hit the slopes while the others remained in the studio.
"As Stewart and Sting really didn't want to be in the same room together, Sting would go skiing in the morning and Stewart would come in and say, 'Look, I want to add a hi-hat part,'" Padgham recalls. "I'd think, 'OK, well, he's the drummer,' so I'd record the hi-hat and then Sting would come in after lunch when Stewart was out skiing and he'd go, 'What's that f**king hi-hat part doing there? Get rid of it!' And he'd actually make me erase it. Then Stewart would come back in and say, 'What the f**k happened to my hi-hat part?' 'Well, Sting didn't like it...' This kind of thing kept happening, and I have to say that by the end of the sessions Stewart and I weren't on each other's Christmas card lists. After all, I'd sort of sided with Sting, really, because it was his song."
For all the song's merits, for quite some time it was laden with an incomplete, undistinguished middle eight, until Hugh Padgham hit upon a simple but highly effective solution.
"Sting would be the first to admit that he is not really a keyboard player," he says. "Well, he was fiddling around on the piano, banging away on the same note, and I remember shouting to him on the talkback, 'Yeah! That's it! Just the one-note thing is great!' I was always into one-note stuff, ever since we did a one-note guitar solo on an XTC song — I liked its hypnotic effect and thought it was really cool. So, suddenly, when I heard Sting playing that note, it was like 'There it is! We've got it!' And that was after he'd been fiddling around for hours, trying to find a part.
"Listening to the song now, I really like the dynamics going into the middle eight — the big, explosive 'shplang' guitar chords and overdubbed toms that were played with mallets — and that was all about experimenting until we got the right sound. In fact, the song's overall sound still stands up because it's not full of gimmicks, and the great thing is how it starts off with that guitar riff, which was due to Andy's beautiful playing. I mean, I wouldn't say it's the perfect record, but I do think we did a pretty good job. It's a classic song even though it's very simple, and I take pride in that because it's quite hard to make a simple record.
"Actually, it's a lot harder to make a simple record sound good than it is to achieve that with one that has everything but the kitchen sink. Often, you can spend a lot of time working out what to omit and exactly how to play the parts that are included — whether the bass riff should be played on the bottom string on the fifth rack or on the next string on open to determine the thickness of sound — all of which can be instrumental to making simple records. My whole production philosophy always was, and still is, about trying to achieve that, so you can clearly hear what is there while also filling up the sound spectrum. That's what I love doing, because as a producer it's terribly easy to put everything on everything when you want to fill a space."
While Hugh Padgham was in the Neve-equipped control room, recording everything to an MCI 24-track, the band members laid down their backing tracks in three separate rooms: Sting bouncing on his jogging mat in said control room; Andy Summers in the live area; and Stewart Copeland in the upstairs dining room of an adjacent house.
This was convenient in all regards, achieving separation from one another as well as in terms of the sound. "The drums sounded much better in that dining area," explains Padgham, "and while the bass was DI'd we also had no bleed with the guitars. So this setup worked both sonically and for social reasons."