The songs of ABBA are reaching new generations of fans, thanks to a second hit musical movie. Bernard Löhr was the engineer who recaptured them!
For a decade or more from 1972 onwards, ABBA were one of the best-selling bands in the world, yet also one of the least cool. Over the years, however, their leaden critical reputation has turned into gold, while ABBA recordings have continued to sell; the band are now among the top 20 best-selling music artists of all time, with an estimated 400 million record sales.
At the end of the ’90s, ABBA’s music was adapted for the stage in the hugely successful musical Mamma Mia! A decade on, the movie version became the UK’s highest-grossing film of 2008, and the soundtrack album went to number one in the UK and the US. Ten years on, ABBA are at it again, with the movie sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Again, they’ve enjoyed huge box-office success, and the soundtrack album has proved a major worldwide hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. To cap it all, ABBA have apparently recorded a couple of new songs, slated for release at the end of this year.
Bernard Löhr has been at the controls for the recording and mixing of all ABBA-related activity during the 21st Century, including the two Mamma Mia! movies and the two forthcoming ABBA songs. This was a role previously fulfilled by engineer and producer Michael B Tretow, who is a living legend in Sweden and was often called “the fifth ABBA member”. However, in 2001 Tretow suffered a stroke and he retired not long afterwards. Following this, ABBA’s main writers and producers, keyboardist Benny Andersson and guitarist Björn Ulvaeus, asked Löhr to take over.
By this time, Löhr had already been handling engineering and mixing duties on Andersson’s and Ulvaeus’s non-ABBA projects for a long time. The fact that he began his studio career back in the 1980s clearly still informs many of his gear choices and working methods today.
“I played guitar in bands from the age of 15. Later I studied mathematical physics at the University of Gothenburg, but I still played in bands and had some connections to studios. One day, just before my final exams at university, a studio owner called me and asked whether I wanted to work at his place. I thought this would be more interesting than being an engineer, so I said yes! I moved to Stockholm in 1985, and started work there as chief engineer of Polar Studios, one of Sweden’s top studios, in 1987. This is where I met Benny for the first time, and I started working with him, and with Björn, on mixing the Broadway version of their musical Chess. I went freelance in 1989, and while I mainly work for Benny, I also do a lot of work for other people. I have another company with two friends that creates sound effects for movies and computer games.”
Much of Löhr’s ABBA-related work takes place in Benny Andersson’s Mono Music facility, which houses a recording studio alongside publishing and record label offices. “Benny started Mono Music in 1987, and I am a consultant to him, and in 1998 helped him set up the studio. It actually is a mixing room, with a big 96-input SSL Duality desk, and 5.1-speaker setup. Benny has a writing room elsewhere in the building, where he has his piano and Synclavier. This studio is not normally commercially available, which is why Benny created another studio 100 metres from here, Riksmixningsverket. We call it RMV, and it features an old Neve 8068 desk, which is fantastic. It also has a big recording room where you can fit a rock band or a 30-piece string section.”
While the first Mamma Mia! was recorded and mixed between London, Stockholm, and New York, the studio sessions for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again took place solely in Sweden and England, specifically at RMV, AIR Lyndhurst in London, and Mono Music. Löhr took it from the top. “We decided to re-record everything because we did not want to end up in legal problems with Universal about the original recordings. All the instrumental backing tracks were recorded at RMV, and all backing vocals and most of the lead vocals were recorded at AIR, because the film was being shot at Shepperton Studios in England. I also did many of the cue mixes and much of the vocal editing in London, but I did the final mixes here at Mono.
“The way I work together with Benny is that I also take a lot of responsibility for the production side, but he always has the last say. Benny’s idea from the beginning, also with the first movie, was to remain as close as possible to the original arrangements. A number of songs are played in different keys, because of the actors’ vocal ranges, but otherwise we were trying to get quite close.”
Bringing in all the musicians who had played with ABBA in their heyday made the job of recreating the instrumental arrangements that much easier. “We did this for both the first and the new soundtrack albums. For both albums we had Per Lindvall on drums, he’s one of the world’s best players, Jörgen Stenberg, Lasse Wellander and Lasse Wellander on guitars, and Benny played piano and keyboards. The original bassist, Rutger Gunnarsson, died in 2015, so this time we used Mats Englund instead. These musicians also played on the two new songs that are coming up. This was more or less the band that performed on ABBA’s last albums, and that toured with them, so they know all the parts by heart. In fact, I think they know the parts better today than they did at the time!
“We recorded almost 20 songs and I think we took a week. There also would have been some extra days for guitar and brass overdubs. They are really fast players, so we could work quickly! For most of the time I recorded them all at the same time. RMV has a big main room, and three iso booths, and the way we set up was with the drummer in one iso booth, and the percussionist also had his own booth, while the guitarists and bassist were in the main room with Benny, but their amps would be placed elsewhere, in isolation. The tempos were usually wandering quite a bit on the old ABBA recordings, because they did not always record to a click track, but most of the new recordings were played to a click track, though there are some songs, like ‘Fernando’, where we followed the tempo changes from the past. These songs have ritardandos that absolutely have to be there.”
Although they were aiming to reproduce the original arrangements, Löhr did not feel bound to replicate the same instrument sounds and miking choices. “I did not try to make it sound like the old days, but I simply went for what works. I did not think it needed to sound ’70s or something like that. My microphone choices are therefore based on the techniques that I like today. I had a Neumann U47 FET on the kick, which I think is the best kick mic. On the snare I had a Shure SM57 on top, and an AKG C414 underneath. The toms were Sennheiser 421s, and the hi-hat an AKG 460 or a DPA 4011. For the overheads I used our two hand-made, valve Didrik de Geer mics — which also are great on vocals — in an X-Y configuration. They are fantastic mics, with tons of energy. The bass was DI, and the guitar amps were a Shure SM57 and a Royer 121 ribbon. I had DPA 4011 mics on the piano, and for the percussion it depended on what it was. Marimbas had the Neumann U87, and for tambourine or shaker I’d have something dynamic like a Sennheiser 421.
“All mics went through the old Neve 8068 desk at RMV, and then straight into Pro Tools. The desk has Class-A mic pres, and they are the best-sounding mic pres I know. They are the same as the Neve 1084, but they look a bit different. We recorded a few vocals at RMV, but most of the backing vocals and all lead vocals were recorded at AIR Studio 1. For most backing vocals I used the same mic, a Neumann 67 or 87, but the lead vocals were all done with the Didrik de Geer mics. Once again, the mic is amazing. If you have a good singer you need to add maybe 2dB at 10kHz for a little bit more brilliance, and the rest is fine. The movie director [Oliver Parker] was sometimes in the room when we recorded lead vocals, and would occasionally give directions for how he wanted the actors to sing a song, but for the most part it was Benny who produced the vocals.”
While recording, a large part of Löhr’s work consisted of creating rough mixes, and after he had recorded the lead vocals, he spent considerable time preparing them for his final mixes. “As soon as we had recorded a backing track and background vocals I did a cue mix of that track, so the actors had something to rehearse to. I did a lot of cue mixes all the time! This also involved grouping and editing the backing vocals. We did multiple takes of all lead vocal parts, and editing, comping and tuning them, using Melodyne, took considerable time. Not all singers were equally experienced! I often did that at AIR, because they were already shooting some of the scenes while we were still recording, and the actors could use these for playback. The sound guys also recorded many vocals on set, which were used to make the transitions between dialogue and songs as smooth as possible.
“The cue mixes provided a good reference point for me when I started doing the final mixes at Mono, but I did start all the mixes from scratch again. I started mixing by listening to all the tracks carefully, and working out what EQ and compression was needed, and maybe whether more edits had to be done. When I mix I usually start with the drums, and then the bass, followed by the guitars. Once I have quite a good backing track, I work on the lead vocals for a while, creating a good environment for them to be in, with reverbs and so on. I mix in backing vocals and orchestra at the end. Often when I mix lead vocal levels, I put the desk in mono and listen to one speaker at quite a low level. It takes me a lot of time, but the result is always really good. I have done that for many years.”
Löhr selected his mix of ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’ to illustrate his approach. It was the opening track of ABBA’s fourth album, Arrival (1976), and is also the opening track of the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again soundtrack. The Pro Tools mix session consists of 84 tracks, compromising, from top to bottom, 10 drum tracks (orange), two percussion tracks (yellow), one bass track (dark blue), four piano tracks (red), seven electric guitar tracks (dark green), five acoustic guitar tracks (light green), a ‘hard rock’ sample track, a couple of synth tracks, five lead vocal tracks, tons of backing vocal tracks (purple and pink), seven aux effect tracks (three with ‘fd’ in the name, and the rest called ‘480B’, ‘AMS’, ‘PCM70’ and ‘480A’), a VCA track, a mix bus, a mix bus with parallel compression, and a main out and mix print track.
Notable is that there are very few plug-ins in the session in general, and on the drums and backing vocals in particular. The drum tracks for the most part have just the Waves SSL G-Channel on inserts, and in some cases sends to the Lexicon 480A aux. The piano and electric guitar tracks all have sends to the AMS aux, which has the UAD AMS RMX16 on it. By contrast, all the main lead vocal tracks have an EQ and a compressor on inserts, and four sends. While there’s nothing on the individual backing vocal tracks, the backing vocals group tracks have the Waves SSL G-Channel on inserts and the AMS on the sends. Apart from a few plug-ins on the mix bus channels, that’s all.
“It’s a simple session,” Löhr agrees. “In general, I don’t really use a template, but after finishing the mix of one song, I copied the aux tracks over to the next session. So in a way you can say that the first song I mixed for this project provided a template. And then I varied it. For example, the Lexicon 480 reverb comes from the Altiverb plug-in, and I would usually have a ‘Jazz Hall’ setting on the snare and toms, but sometimes I would want something less big, and then I used the ‘Music Club’ preset, another 480 program in Altiverb.
“The ‘fd’ tracks are vocal effect tracks, and two of them have a delay before the reverb, ‘fd 20’ with the Waves H-Delay, and a send to my AMD RMX16 track, and ‘fd 17’ with the Avid Mod Delay 3 and also a send to the AMS. I like the AMS ambience program a lot, and I used the UAD version. If I put reverb straight on the lead vocal I always feel that the vocal backs into the track, and you can’t get it to sound really close. That is why I use delay before I send it to a reverb, like a 16th note, around 200ms, which drives the reverb. I combine the AMS reverb with a reverb from the 480, with a preset called ‘Ricochet’. I like to create ambience from two reverbs together. There’s also an aux called ‘PCM70’, which uses an old program called ‘Tiled Room’, from the Waves IR-L Convolution Reverb, and which gives a natural 3D feel to acoustic guitars and percussion in this song.”
“There’s not much going on with the drums, mostly the SSL G-Series from Waves. I’ve been working on SSL desks for so long, I know exactly how to use the EQ. I can fix things without having to listen to the result! The dynamics are better in the UAD version of the G-Channel, but the EQ is better in the Waves version. I also have SSL’s own version, but haven’t really used it much so far. I added a sample to the snare. This song became a bit harsh in general, and the snare sound got a bit too aggressive, so I wanted some more of the metal resonators underneath the snare, to get some more mid-range. There’s also an SPL Transient Designer on the snare, to get some more attack.”
“Sometimes it’s really important to hear the notes that the bass actually plays, and if the bass sound is too clean, you can’t hear that. So I added some slight distortion to the bass with the iZotope Trash 2. Normally I also record the bass amplifier, and you can blend the distortion from the amp in with the DI to make the notes easier to hear without raising the level.
“Some of the guitars have the Neve UAD 1073, which I think is great for enhancing top end. The SSL channel on the acoustics is for some compression and some EQ. The ‘Hard Rock’ track is a reverse distorted guitar which plays in the choruses. The sample was a little bit too much in mono, and I wanted it wider, and I used the Avid Time Adjuster for that.”
“The main lead vocals by Lily James are spread out over two tracks, with one of the tracks containing just one note that was tuned with Melodyne. Then there are tracks for Alexa Davies and Jessica Keenan, who are the two girls singing together with her, and also a track with Celia Imrie’s vocal. For the single version Lily sings the entire song, so I had to make a minor adjustment for that. Alexa and Jessica’s vocals each have the Waves CLA-2A and API 550A, with a send to the AMS aux. I almost always use the Waves API 550A for EQ on vocals, because it is such a good plug-in, with just three-band EQ with 2dB steps. I always used it on vocals in analogue, because I think it works really good with voices, and now use the Waves version. It’s also good for getting rid of the proximity effect.
“On Lily’s two lead vocal tracks I have the UAD Fairchild 670 instead of the CLA-2A. I like using the Fairchild because it adds valve character. It sounds the way I like a compressor to sound. When working with outboard I tended to use the UREI 1176, but I think UAD’s Fairchild emulation is really good. There’s nothing on the backing vocals, and very little in the session in general, because I like to get the sounds right by changing microphones, or the positions of the microphones.”
“Everything gets routed to the ‘mixbus’ track, and the channel next to it, ‘adcomp’, which is for additional compression. Both tracks have the Waves PuigTec EQP-1A EQ, and the ‘adcomp’ track also has the UAD Neve 33609 for parallel compression. These two go the the ‘mainout’ track, on which I have the Waves L3 limiter, just to get rid of some peaks. It’s not to gain level. ‘84’ is my print track. After I mixed the songs, I sent them to my friend Björn Engelmann at Cuttingroom in Stockholm for mastering. I don’t focus on getting my mixes to sound loud, I simply try to make them sound good. And then the mastering engineer has room to do what he wants to do, and make it louder if he wants.”
At the time of talking, Löhr is busy doing minor vocal tweaks to some other songs from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again for single releases. On top of that, coming up are the two new ABBA songs, which have already got fans hot under the collar. “Benny has been working on the songs on his Synclavier in his summerhouse,” says Löhr, “and we also will have a real orchestra on them. And then we will mix them. The songs themselves are pretty much finished, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done to get them ready for release.” From the sounds of it, there’s no resting on laurels for ABBA, or Löhr. Having come a long way, they both still have a long way to go...
In addition to the Duality desk, Mono Music possesses tons of classic outboard by AMS, Lexicon, Eventide, TC Electronic, Roland, API, Neve and so on, not to mention a long list of hardware analogue and digital multitrack recorders. Bernard Löhr admits that the latter don’t see much action these days. “Yes, we have a lot of older gear, but we hardly use it any more. I was quite late to go all in the box, but I am now working totally in Pro Tools, except that I still use the Duality for mixing, because I use faders a lot. Riding vocals in particular, with faders, is part of my way of working. When I do a lower-budget project at home I use a small Avid Artist [controller] with four faders. I have been working with faders for 30 years, so that is very important for me. Also, I prefer to listen than look at waveforms!
“I mix using Yamaha NS10 speakers. We also have Genelec 1038 speakers for 5.1 in Mono, and we have fantastic TAD CRMK2 speakers, which are hi-fi, and have great mid-range and spread the sound really well. Benny hates the NS10s, so when he comes in we listen to the TADs.”
Löhr explains that his big push to working in the box started during the making of the first Mamma Mia! soundtrack in 2008. “I had to work in the box, because we changed working environment all the time, and it would have been very difficult and taken much more time to have worked totally in analogue. I’ve done music for maybe 40 movies, the first time in 1984, and at the time it was much more complicated, and also much more difficult to get things in sync with the pictures. I did use some outboard during the mix of the first Mamma Mia! movie, but hardly any for the new movie. The new plug-ins are so much better now that I usually don’t feel the need to use hardware.”
“Although I did not reference them, we have digital copies of most of the tapes of the original recordings of all ABBA songs here in the building,” says Bernard Löhr. “They were, for the most part, done on 24-track, but on some of these multitracks they had erased the original lead vocals and replaced them with lead vocals in Spanish or German. Benny said that when they were happy with the mixes at the time, it was easier just to replace the original vocals with vocals in another language. Sometimes they overdubbed to copies of the original tapes so they could keep the original vocals, but they didn’t always have access to two 24-track machines!”
If Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus were to delete parts of original ABBA multitracks today, they would surely be hung, drawn and quartered for violating sacred Swedish heritage! At the time, however, it was all par for the course of a production team at the peak of their success.