In 1984, a dose of British soul resurrected Tina Turner's flagging career in spectacular style. For engineer John Hudson, the recording of 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' also provided a memorable example of the 'less is more' principle in action...
In 1984, after appearing to be completely washed up as a mainstream recording artist, 45-year-old soul dynamo Tina Turner made one of the great comebacks in the history of the music business. Having signed a solo deal with Capitol and enjoyed a Top 30 US hit with a sultry cover of Al Green's 'Let's Stay Together', she then struck paydirt with her next single, 'What's Love Got To Do With It'. Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, it topped the American charts for three weeks and, courtesy of Britten's slick production underpinning the singer's passionate and sometimes plaintive delivery, helped create what the New York Times described as "new blue-eyed soul from England".
The accompanying album, Private Dancer, spawned two more hit singles: the title track, penned by Mark Knopfler, and 'Better Be Good To Me'. However, if any one song marked the turning point in Turner's career, it was 'What's Love', and for this she owed a lot to both engineer John Hudson and Terry Britten, the seasoned session guitarist who not only co-authored the number, but who also made all the right moves when crafting both her vocal performance and the arrangement.
Commencing in 1972, John Hudson's career has seen him record, produce and/or mix projects by artists ranging from Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Elvis Costello and Judy Tzuke to A-ha, Ultravox, Cliff Richard, Gary Glitter, Wynonna Judd, Kylie Minogue, the Moody Blues and, most recently, Herbert Gronemeyer. In 1980, John and wife Kate launched Mayfair Studios, which moved to its current Primrose Hill location in North-West London the following year. Since then it has evolved from a single SSL room to a six-studio state-of-the-art complex that, in addition to some of the aforementioned acts, has hosted Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Tom Jones, Blur, Bon Jovi, Radiohead, Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Bryan Adams, Annie Lennox, David Bowie, George Michael, Travis, Pink Floyd, the Pretenders, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Tears For Fears, Kate Bush and Björk, among many, many others.
Hudson was in the middle of engineering some Ultravox sessions when the call came to work on a trio of Tina Turner tracks over the course of just a few weekends: 'What's Love Got To Do With It', 'I Can't Stand The Rain' and 'Show Some Respect'. Working with a 48-channel SSL 6000E console, Urei 813A main monitors and a pair of Studer A80 MkIV 24-track machines, he and his studio were more than up to the challenge.
"That desk was the first 6000 made by SSL," Hudson recalls, "and the brilliant thing about it was that it housed the integral Adams Smith synchronizer control panel. It was fantastic, and we were also one of the first studios to have the tape machines in a separate room. That threw a lot of people. In those days it was a bit of a revelation for the guy who sat at the desk to also be operating the machines. If you had two 24-tracks running in sync — and sometimes there were three machines, as we had set up the console with three lots of 24-track ties to the machine room — you could disconnect either one, make either one the master or put in offsets, all from the console. You didn't have to go into the machine room at all. Of course, there were a lot of bugs with that system, and we had quite a few teething troubles, but they didn't affect the sessions."
Terry Britten had got the writing assignment after sending demos of the three songs to Tina Turner's manager, Roger Davies. These had been recorded to a two-inch machine in his small home studio, and featured guitars, Linn 2 drums and his own voice, together with keyboards played by Billy Livsey.
"The demos were very well recorded and mixed by Terry," says Hudson, "and so the idea was to replicate many of the parts. For 'What's Love', Terry set the Linn 2 to '95' — to use it as a 'click' for building the track until we put on real drums — and we ran the machine and recorded it onto three tracks: the kick onto one track, the snare onto a second, and the rest onto the third. You couldn't overdub the Linn, because back then you couldn't run it in sync. Terry then recorded a guide bass guitar and guitar parts sitting in the control room, and he also played a recurring harmonica-type pattern on guitar and laid down a guide vocal.
"I remember for that bass part Terry didn't even tune the guitar. It was a DI'd Fender Jazz. I ran the tape, he played along, he thought it was good enough for now, and we ended up using it. There were a couple of times when he decided to redo it, and he'd spend four or five hours just playing away — seeing that we had a drum slave and a guitar slave, we had loads of tracks to play with and we could therefore keep everything. However, when it came to the mix, I told Terry that, in my opinion, his guide bass was the one to use, and after listening to it, he agreed."
Playing a Fender Telecaster that was alternately DI'd or fed through a Vox amp and Fender Champ miked with a combination of Shure SM57 and SM58 and AKG C12A mics, Terry Britten tracked quite a few guitar parts for 'What's Love' — varying the style, content and tuning — before choosing what worked best. And what did work included a reggae-flavoured part that came to the fore during the chorus, providing the song with its rhythmic backbone.
"Although, at this point, Terry regarded the bass as a guide track, he wanted his plucky and damped guitar parts to be the finished thing, and to get them spot-on with the drum machine," Hudson says. "That way, once the real drums were added, the whole thing would be really tight. I mean, the bass was pretty tight as well — we were just worried about the tuning and whether or not he had played the right notes. Nothing he ever played was scrappy.
"Since we wanted everything stereo, we recorded all the guitars in stereo, and a double-tracked, damped guitar might use anywhere up to four tracks for a single part. Then, if we tracked it, that would take up eight tracks, and at some point I'd have to bounce it down to a couple of tracks, but that didn't happen until the mix. Instead, to keep my options open, I would record a chorusy-type effect and keep that separate. In the '80s, because we had plenty of tracks, we'd usually record the effects on separate tracks."
To commit Tina Turner's voice to tape, Hudson had settled on a two-mic setup, one positioned close to the singer, and the other about four inches further away. "Years before I had done a couple of live recordings with Gary Glitter, who had a very dynamic voice," he explains. "He'd really let it rip and give a huge yell, and the way I coped with that was to have one mic really close and another further away. I mean, the way that a cabaret singer moves the mic away from his mouth by several inches whenever he sings a loud note is the worst thing you can possibly have in a studio environment, because the whole sound changes. Instead, you should set up two mics the same few inches apart and tell him to not move.
"For some of the low notes in the verses, I already knew that when you sing softly, close on the mic, and you hit a note that's going towards the bottom of your register, it's going to get boomy, a bit chesty. However, if you put up a second mic slightly further away, you can crank that up when the person sings low notes softly. That brings the presence back to the low note, and you can either roll off the bottom on the close mic or you can pull it down a bit. Usually you can do that just by having a couple of compressors correctly adjusted and automating that effect — the other mic comes up and it sounds like the person's right in your face. Then, when he or she lets rip, the close mic compresses out like crazy and, of course, you don't get the woofy sound that usually occurs when someone's singing quietly.
"That's what I did with Tina, close-miking her with a valve Neumann U67 while the distant mic, an AKG C12A, was there to pick up the loud parts. However, the C12 was overloading. She was so loud, it was unreal — we had the doors closed and they could hear her in the reception area! I had never experienced anything like it. I was absolutely staggered, and I could tell that Terry was in a bit of a panic. He said, 'It's distorting! It's distorting! Quick, quick! Fix it! Fix it!' Any valve mic that didn't have an attenuator on it couldn't cope, so what I did was put up a PZM, because I knew you could stick one of those on the side of a bass drum and it wouldn't distort. In this case it sounded a bit thin, but at least it was able to cope, and on the loud bits it was great when combined with the 67."
Thanks to the double-miking technique, very little vocal treatment was required at the mix. "I never compress a vocal very much during the recording, because I'll be knackered when I'm mixing it," says Hudson. "I won't have any scope. At the same time, you can't experiment on the singer, because he or she might run out of steam before you've even got the sound. With 12 years of recording experience already behind me, I knew that my first priority was to get Tina's performance on tape with an OK sound and leave as much undone until the mix, when I could sit there all night without taking up her time.
"I used a [Teletronix] LA2A for a little compression on the 67, but I didn't compress the loud [ie. distant] mic at all. If someone's got a really good voice and shouts something out, it shouldn't be compressed. I don't care what anybody says, even a Fairchild will change the sound and pull it in like a clenched fist. It won't have the freedom and the air that you want. That's why it was important to set up the PZM a few inches further away and not compress it, but just record it at a lower level. Turn the mic gain down so that most of the time it isn't peaking, and then when there's a shout it goes up to zero. Mixed in with the other mic, it sounds fantastic."
Meanwhile, for the keyboard parts, Nick Glennie-Smith used a rig consisting of an Emulator II, a Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter, the new-fangled Yamaha DX7, and Terry Britten's Oberheim OB8. With Tina Turner scheduled to record her vocals the following Sunday, Britten wanted to complete the basic backing tracks for all three songs during that first weekend and the Saturday that followed, so all of the parts were laid down fairly quickly.
"When there's only a basic rhythm track, you normally put a pad on before someone does a vocal, even if you remove it afterwards," John Hudson states. "It makes the track more comfortable for the singer to pitch to than if there are just these guitars with plenty of space in between. What's more, Terry had never worked with Tina before, and so he didn't have a clue as to whether she was going to come in and just rattle off each song, or whether she was going to do things verse by verse or line by line. That's not how he intended it to be, but he had to wait and see.
"As it turned out, when Tina came in and did her vocals on that second Sunday, I was blown away. Beforehand I thought 'OK, here's this artist who had some hits years ago and we've never heard from her since. I hope she can bloody sing or we'll be here all bloody night!' I was doing another session with Ultravox at 10 o'clock on Monday morning, so the last thing I needed was an all-nighter before that. We'd have to complete three songs, and at that point 'What's Love' hadn't even been selected as a single. Tina didn't like it, and she, like the rest of us, was probably assuming 'I Can't Stand The Rain' would be released, because it was a really rocking track. So, Terry decided to start things off with 'What's Love' as that was the one which was going to be the least demanding on her voice. He'd get it out of the way while hearing how she could sing.
"When we first put the track up, Tina sang like she was on stage in front of 25,000 people, belting it for all she was worth, and Terry was sitting there shaking his head, clearly concerned that this was going to be a disaster. He said 'Tina, you just need to back it off a bit,' and we spent ages trying to get her to do that, but she didn't appear to know what 'back it off' meant. She was in the studio, Terry, myself and the assistant engineer were in the control room, and for a time it was very, very tense. She began getting annoyed, saying 'I sing everything like this!' to which Terry said 'But this is a love song,' and he went into the studio and sang along with her to illustrate how it should be done. She liked how he'd sung on the demo, and he said 'Well, if you want it to sound like the demo, you can't belt it.'"
With his back virtually pinned against the wall, the producer had to think fast about how to encourage a little light and shade. "Nothing sounds good cranked full up," asserts John Hudson. "If you want something to sound really loud and powerful it's got to be below 90 percent, because otherwise you've got no leeway for those extra little spikes, whether they're vocal or guitar. In the end Terry told Tina 'Forget about the microphone. Imagine you're singing only to me, not an audience. Sing into my ear.' And when she did that, she sang quietly and I was going 'Yes!' I pushed the talkback and I said, 'Terry, that sounds great,' and Tina said 'Oh, whaddya mean, whaddya mean?' She didn't really understand what was going on. Terry just stood there with his ear by the microphone and said 'Right, sing the first verse,' and by the time we'd recorded the verses with him standing there with his ear in her face, she had totally got the hang of it. At that point, she was so pleased. She thought it was great, and I think it was really good that we did 'What's Love' first, because it put her in the whole mode of not giving 110 percent for every bloody note.
"As soon as she got a handle on it, she was brilliant. I mean, she locked into it within a couple of hours. It wasn't a case of playing it back and saying 'Right Tina, that was great. Do it like that.' There wouldn't be any point. She's a performer. She was relying totally on Terry and me, and once he'd sussed the way to do it, Terry was blown away by the results. He was going 'Oh, this is fantastic.' Her vocal was so smooth and powerful, and Terry was absolutely brilliant to get that performance out of her. Still, doing the ad libs was really funny, because she'd never do them in the right place.
"A lot of great singers aren't arrangers. Again, they're performers, so you don't want to stop the tape or say 'I'll give you a couple of bars to run up and do a "whoa-whoa" after the chorus.' You can't do that. Instead, Terry had to say 'Don't sing the verses, just sing the chorus, and then do some ad libs when you get to the end.' That way, although some of the ad libs were in the wrong place, we'd get a fantastic performance and so we could just move them. As we didn't have samplers in those days, we'd move the ad libs by offsetting the two tape machines. We'd have a click on both tapes, the guide mix on the second tape, and if, say, she did an ad lib two bars late, I'd just trim the offset until the clicks were in sync and then bounce the ad lib across. That's how we did all the ad libs."
After Tina Turner had recorded her vocals for 'What's Love' — later compiled by Hudson from a half-dozen takes — and the other two songs, drummer Graham Jarvis entered the picture. He listened to a drum-machine reference track on the drum slave to get the timing and then set about trying to recreate what he heard on the 'What's Love' demo. However, in those pre-Pro Tools days, this was no easy task.
"Doing drums, you could drop in, but of course, because of the separation, you couldn't drop in just on the snare track," says Hudson. "Thinking ahead, Graham agreed to record everything separately so we'd have total separation. Well, we did record the cymbals in one pass, the bass drum and snare in another, the hi-hat in another, and also the tom-toms in a separate pass. You see, we wanted to get a very close snare sound, so we didn't want a lot of mics open. I've never used gates, because to my mind you cannot gate a drum kit and get it sounding fantastic, and you also might miss a soft hit and not notice this until the mix."
Once the drums had been recorded, Fairlight strings were then added, Simon Morton played percussion, Tessa Niles contributed backing vocals, and several hours were also spent superseding the harmonica-like guitar pattern that Britten had recorded on the demo with real harmonica. This was played by session man Nicky Payne, who had previously fulfilled a similar role for the likes of Culture Club and Paul Young.
"He performed it in different pitches," recalls John Hudson. "Up the octave, down the octave, tracking it and trying every combination he could think of, and it sounded fantastic. We then did a rough mix of the whole thing — because we only ever did one mix, we never did a remix — and gave it to Roger Davies, but when it came back there was a note saying 'We don't like the harmonica, we like that sound on the demo.' Terry was going 'Oh, bloody hell,' and we got Nick back in to replicate that sound, but he couldn't do it, so Terry then said 'I'm going to phone Billy Livsey and see if there's any chance he can come in for a couple of hours and do it.'"
And that's what happened. Initially trying to recreate the pseudo-harmonica part by utilising the breath controller on Nick Glennie-Smith's DX7 — a mouthpiece that plugged in and controlled the volume of each note when blown into — Livsey subsequently achieved the desired result by using the DX7's harmonica patch and tweaking it to sound like something more closely resembling a flute.
Thereafter, it was time for the mix, during which the modus operandi would consist of John Hudson being left to his own devices and Terry Britten periodically gauging the results and giving his feedback. "I must have spent an entire Saturday morning bouncing things across from all the slave tapes, getting everything onto two 24-track tapes for 'What's Love'," Hudson remarks. "Then I started to get some sounds up; a basic rhythm-section sound as well as the vocal, really low just to hear the tune and see where it was going. Once I'd set up the mix, Terry then phoned late on that Saturday to ask how things were going and I told him 'It actually sounds pretty good,' which was Hudson-speak for 'incredible'. I said 'It's really rocking. In fact, when you get to the chorus, it's like "wow"! It's just brilliant.' He said 'Well, do you want to spend a bit longer on it?' and I said 'Yeah, I wouldn't mind that. If I work until midnight you can then come in tomorrow morning and have a listen.'
"Everything was coming together, there were all these effects, and I was thinking 'Ohhh, this is the best thing I've ever done! It's bloody amazing!' I was so excited about it, I could hardly sleep. I checked it before Terry arrived in the morning and it was all happening, and when he came in he said 'Don't play it too loud. I don't want to hear it blasting. I want to get a perspective on it.' So, I played it while he stood in front of the console, and as it was automated I just went and leaned against a wall in a corner of the room, which is what I normally do in order to get my own different perspective. Anyway, there I was, thinking 'This is pretty bloody good,' and Terry meanwhile was standing completely motionless and without any expression on his face. Then, when we got to the end and I stopped the tape, he still didn't say a thing, and what's more, he wasn't smiling.
"I was thinking 'Bloody hell, what's wrong? It sounds amazing,' and after several seconds he finally said 'Ah, that's not right.' Well, I nearly murdered him — I honestly could have grabbed him around the throat — and I felt like I was going to explode. I said 'What?' and again he said 'It's not right.' Outwardly I was quite polite, but I was absolutely seething. I was trembling, I could hardly contain myself. As far as I was concerned, he had given me all these options, allowing me to make the decisions, and now, after hours of bouncing things down, level tweaking, comping the congas, comping the backing vocals, setting up loads of effects and so on, he was suddenly saying, 'It's not right!'
"Obviously, Terry could see I was extremely upset, and he's such a nice guy; he's not the sort of guy who'd get a kick out of putting someone down. However, he pulled a cassette out of his pocket and he said 'Just play this.'"
What Britten handed Hudson was a cassette of the monitor mix from the day they'd recorded Tina Turner's vocal onto a basic track consisting of the Linn Drum, guide bass, some picky rhythm guitars and a rough synth version of the harmonica part. No backing vocals, no synthesized strings, nothing else.
"We put that on and listened to it all the way through," Hudson recalls, "and afterwards Terry said 'That's it. That is it.' It was such a shock to listen to a monitor mix with virtually nothing on it after we'd just spent four weeks burning this huge track with everything under the sun — the change was so drastic that I was having trouble getting my head around it. When you work with producers, the main thing is trying to figure out what they're talking about. Like when I was working with Imagination and the guy was going, 'More sex! More sex!' Which knob do you turn to achieve that?
"Therefore, when Terry played the cassette and said 'That's it,' I was wondering if he meant those precise instruments. I mean, he didn't really know either, but after I'd calmed down he said 'It's just too much. Play the vocal and the rhythm section.' By then I had cancelled the mix and I'd kind of recovered. I'd stopped trembling. So, we pulled most of the faders right down, including most of the overdub tracks — all of the strings and backing vocals — and retained just the rhythm section, more or less recreating what Tina had sung to on that first day. She hadn't sung to all this other stuff. And that's another thing I've learned since then: if you add or change things after the main vocal's been done, they're probably not going to fit.
"Anyway, we peeled it all back and got a balance — obviously, nothing was automated any more — so the vocal was up front, the drums were nice and punchy, the bass sounded fine, and all the guitars were tight and damped and gently powerful. We were listening to it, sitting there having a cup of tea while Terry was rolling a cigarette, and we both looked at each other and agreed that it nearly sounded amazing and that there was now only thing that didn't work: the real drums. These gave the whole song a different feel compared to the rough cassette mix. Almost simultaneously we thought the same thing: 'I wonder what it would sound like with the drum machine.' Terry had this horrified look on his face as he said 'Bloody hell, if only we had the drum machine.' I said 'Well, we have.' He said 'What do you mean? You can't sync it up.' I said 'It's still on one of the tapes.'
"You see, when you're using lots of tapes, making a slave for this and a slave for that, you don't have to wipe anything, and that allows you to be quite bold. I myself am a bit bold in terms of deciding what I think is good, and this is made easy when I haven't wiped anything. Well, in the case of 'What's Love', the Linn drum wasn't on the two tapes I'd been mixing from, but it was on the first 24-track tape that we had used. So, we just put that up, sync'ed it up, bounced it across, and there it was: snare, bass drum and fills. We were both sitting there, going 'Bloody hell, this is it!' As soon as I pushed the faders up, pressed Play, and took the real drummer out, it was so tight, and I honestly had no doubt — this was going to be a hit."
"We had never heard the track with Billy Livsey's DX7 harmonica part and the drum machine, because when he'd recorded that part he'd been listening to the real drummer. Although the intro sounded tight, it just didn't feel the same as the demo, whereas the second we removed the real drummer and played the intro with the Linn drum and the harmonica, we were going 'Wow!' Suddenly it had that solid, sit-down, quiet sort of punchiness. And that was before Tina's voice came in. Now the mix was really cooking!
"Next we reinserted the female backing vocal, but it didn't fit. Tessa Niles had been brought in to sing harmony because Tina wanted a soul-ish girl voice backing her in the chorus. However, Terry felt it took away from the intimacy, so he said 'Right, I'll do some backing vocals,' and that's when he did the little double-tracked parts, tracking Tina's voice. In fact, he had already recorded a backing to her 'Ah-ah-ah' going into the chorus — the best performance was going into the second chorus, and so we used that every time, for all the choruses. Again, this was achieved by offsetting a 'spin slave' or 'sub-slave' to bounce the required part in sync into each chorus.
"We were going 'Yes! This is it!' And the song basically mixed itself. Terry said 'Have you got any echo on the vocal?' and I said 'No.' He said 'Well, it sounds all right.' We just put a little slap-back in the chorus, and that was that. It was unbelievable. I mean, we wouldn't have ended up with the song that everybody knows if we hadn't done everything else. It was magic that we made a cassette of the monitor mix when we recorded the vocals, and it was also magic that we did the vocals right at the beginning, because another thing I've learned is that when you're doing a vocal and you've practically finished the track, you've got to be very careful about playing the singer the entire track in the cans. It can be a bit overpowering, and then he or she will start to over-sing. You might say 'Look, don't sing it like that, because you'll just sit right in the track. You don't need to be louder than the horns.' But then you'll take the horns out, the singer's performing without them, and the question is whether or not you should mix it without the horns. The whole process is so complex. There are no rules. And the way that 'What's Love' ended up was down to a series of events. It certainly wasn't planned."