Searching for a crossover hit, the team behind classical tenor Andrea Bocelli turned to one of the all-time great rock producers.
"The brief," says Bob Ezrin emphatically, "was to create the 'greatest classical album of all time with all-new material'. That's not a trivial goal! I wanted to create a new classical sound, something with a touch of modern music. I called it Classica Nuovo."
In these slightly blasé times, the ambition to create a new sound is as laudable as it is risky. There's the danger that fans may be turned off and critics may hold their noses, but instead, Andrea Bocelli's Si turned out to be both a critical and commercial success, and Bocelli's 10th pop album and 16th overall proved his first number one in both the UK and the US.
This was a sweet victory for the 60-year old tenor from Tuscany, as Si was his first album of original material in 14 years, and ambitious in all kinds of different ways. A big-budget operation, it was recorded entirely in 96kHz 'high resolution', and featured collaborations with pop stars such as Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa and Josh Groban. Moreover, whereas Bocelli's previous pop albums had been produced by adult contemporary music greats like David Foster and Humberto Gatica, the involvement of Ezrin hints at a deliberate change of direction.
The Canadian is, of course, best known for producing, and at times co-writing, rock classics. These include Pink Floyd's The Wall, Alice Cooper's Million Dollar Babies, Lou Reed's Berlin, Kiss's Destroyer and Peter Gabriel's first album, to mention but a few. By contrast, Si is mostly an orchestral album, with the odd bit of programming, all of which forms a sophisticated backdrop for Bocelli's voice. The whole thing is probably about as far as one can get from classic rock in popular music, but according to Ezrin's right-hand man, engineer and mixer Justin Cortelyou, it's just par for the course.
"I've worked with Bob for nearly 10 years now, and we have worked on everything from Phish to Kristin Chenoweth to Alice Cooper to Hollywood Vampires to Mongolian rock bands to Pete Seeger. In fact, we had just finished an Alice Cooper record when we started the Bocelli record! For us it is all music. There is good music and good art in all different genres, it doesn't matter whether it is hip-hop or EDM or what. And Bob is very prolific and very good at blending genres. With Si, for example, this involved combining Andrea's voice with those of Dua Lipa and Ed Sheeran. Bob is great at merging things that may look strange on paper, and the end result does not sound odd. One reason for this is that he is very good at arranging, and many of the albums he's done, for example by Pink Floyd, and Kiss's Destroyer, have a touch of classical elements."
The fact that changing genres is a non-issue for Ezrin is obvious when he talks about the way Si came into being. It all started in the beginning of 2017, when he was invited to produce one song on the album. "The song selection process had started two years before I got involved, and finishing the album itself took another year, because of everyone's insane schedules. Sugar Music [Andrea's label], Ross Cullum of Universal and Mauro Malavasi, Andrea's long-time producer and collaborator, had all participated in finding and proposing material. When they invited me, they had most of the songs chosen and asked if I would produce 'Fall On Me', which Ross brought to the project, along with a few other songs. We got on so well that the assignment grew to me producing almost the entire album, including some songs that I co-produced with Mauro and Pierpaolo.
"The first thing I did was reach out to John Metcalfe, with whom I had worked on Peter Gabriel's orchestral album Scratch My Back , among other projects. I knew that John would have the perfect sensibility for this. Along with John, I also brought in my friend and collaborator on many projects, Thomas 'Tawgs' Salter, who added some programming and modern beat elements to some of the songs. John and I worked on robust demos of the songs using MIDI orchestra with a touch of live playing on top, for example with John playing violin. Sometimes the demos he created were so good that we had to work hard later on to outdo them! It was important to come to Andrea with something to sing to that inspired him, but we did not want to record the orchestra in advance in case something would have to change as a result of the vocal recordings.
"We recorded Andrea's vocals at his home in Forte Dei Marmi on the West Coast of Italy. He has a recording setup with a small console, some great converters and an Italian-made clone of a [Telefunken ELA M] 251. I moved in to a hotel just down the road and walked to the house every morning and stayed through dinner. It was a house filled with love and music. It reminded me of our family home in Toronto as I was growing up. Everyone gathered together at the table each night and ate and laughed and sang together.
"Andrea Bocelli's voice is one of the greatest instruments on earth — ever. It was thrilling to be on the other side of the mic from someone who had such power, presence and passion. Andrea was completely professional, and uniquely adept at creating exactly the right performance — or staying with it until he did. We pushed each other from time to time, but always with humour and love. There was never a cross word or angry moment. We worked together very closely, respectfully and productively along with his longtime engineer and confidant, Pierpaolo Guerrini, a talented musician, writer, producer and arranger in his own right. Pierpaolo drove the rig while I worked directly with Andrea on performance. We comped the vocals as we went.
"Following Andrea's vocal recordings, John Metcalfe and I went into AIR Lyndhurst with a large orchestra and recorded the big orchestrations on top of our demos with Andrea's vocals. We also added some percussion in separate sessions, and we did some sessions with a smaller orchestra for a few of the more intimate tracks. The players in London are among the best in the entire world, and the orchestral engineers, Jonathan Allen and Fiona Cruickshank, are two of the top engineers in the English-speaking world for this kind of recording. Immediately after recording in London, I brought the tracks back to Anarchy Studios and to Justin Cortelyou, with whom I've been working almost exclusively for the better part of a decade."
While Ezrin spent a lot of time flying around the world to conduct MIDI, vocal and orchestral sessions, Cortelyou manned the fort at Ezrin's studio in Nashville, where he was assisted by Kyle Blunt. They kept an overview of everything that was sent to them, and fitted all the material in the relevant sessions. Under Ezrin's supervision, they then painstakingly edited and constructed the arrangements for each song, and conducted the rough and final mixes. "We were sitting side by side, with Justin as the engineer and me as the producer," says Ezrin.
Cortelyou has a fondness for analogue gear, which is slightly unusual for someone so young — at 38, he came up in the middle of the digital revolution — but he stresses that he's very comfortable working entirely in the box, as was the case with the Si project. Ezrin's own pedigree goes back to the '60s, but he also has a reputation as someone who likes to be on the cutting-edge technologically. As a result, his Anarchy Studio is a hybrid affair, set up for working mostly in the box, but with some choice analogue goodies.
Cortelyou: "Bob has throughout his career been very good at adapting to new technologies, and at the same time using his wealth of knowledge about the old-school ways of doing things. He likes to stay very current with the technology, and always wants to see what I am doing with whatever plug-in. He's extremely hands-on, and totally comfortable doing editing and tweaking sounds, but even if he does not use particular software himself, he's curious as to what it does.
"We had the SSL AWS here for a long time, but Bob recently got rid of that, and we now have the Avid S3 controller. One very important piece of gear for us is the Burl Mothership [with 12 A-D converters and 32 D-A converters], which is going through the Burl Vancouver summing mixer. We had already moved so much into working with stems on the AWS, that it seemed easier to just use the hardware inserts and then mix through the summing mixer. The Burl is nice because you can either add the transformer on the output or take it off. So you can drive it a bit harder to get a little more colour out of it, or have it nice and clean. However, for the Bocelli record we actually got a Lavry AD122-96 MkIII in, because it sounded even cleaner."
Other gear in Anarchy includes PMC twotwo.6 monitors with a twotwo Sub1, Crane Song Avocet II monitor controller, Pro Tools Ultimate 2018.10, a Universal Audio UAD‑2 Octo PCIe card with the Ultimate Plug-in Bundle, and a comprehensive range of outboard which comprises an AMS RMX16 delay, API 550A EQ, API 2500 compressor, API 3124 preamp, Empirical Labs Distressor, Inovonics 201 limiter, Dramastic Audio Obsidian Stereo Compressor, Tube‑Tech CL-1B EQ, Teletronix LA‑2A and UREI LA‑3 compressors, Neve 1073 preamp, Purple Audio MC77 limiter, RCA BA‑6A compressor, Altec 436C and 438A compressors, and more.
"There's something to be said for using hardware in certain places," Cortelyou remarks, "and also some mixes sound better when you put them through a console. When we were doing a Deep Purple record here [2013's Now What?!], I noticed that when I worked in the box and sent only stems out to the AWS, I could not get the depth and width that the rough tracking mixes had. Some of that got better with the 64-bit versions of Pro Tools and also when they improved the mix bus in Pro Tools 11.
"But still, if you have the time and patience to use some outboard, it remains a great option. Plug-ins have become very good, but nothing sounds as good as the old RCA BA‑6A compressor. Whatever you send through it, it instantly makes it bigger. There's some mojo it does to the harmonics. The 'metal‑knob' Neve 33609 also does something amazing that you don't get out of the UAD 33609. I regularly work completely in the box, because it gives the ability to recall perfectly and immediately, but if I have the time, I'll try to use one or more pieces of hardware, which I'll then print, to make recall easy."
The Andrea Bocelli project was too big and complex to permit the involvement of hardware, and for this reason was done wholly in the box at Anarchy — although a Neve console in London saw some action, as we'll see further on. Cortelyou describes Si as "a beast of a record, but a wonderful experience.
"First of all there were many big sessions, with orchestra, and then all the programming, and choir on a couple of songs, plus all the vocals. Dealing with all these tracks, with files coming in from all over the place, was a challenge in itself, but on top of this trying to communicate over a distance, with a language barrier, was a very big hurdle. For example, after tracking and comping Andrea's vocals at his house in Italy, his engineer Pierpaolo [Guerrini] sent the files to us, and we imported them in the sessions, matched them up and continued working on them.
"Andrea has a great ear, and is very closely involved in everything we did. It's amazing what you can do with high-speed Internet today, but if you're working with a different language there is a barrier. Andrea does speak some English, and sent notes to explain his preferences to us, but when you're riding vocals it is important to know what words and syllables need to be emphasised, and this is an issue when you don't speak the language! So there was a lot of long-distance going back and forth about that. On top of that, he sang several different language versions: French, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, German and Spanish! It took a lot of time to get all that right in the mix!
"I think this was Kyle's first or second assisting gig, and he had to keep track of all these different language versions, and all the stems, so he was thrown in at the deep end! It was a lot to keep up with, but he did a fantastic job. He also took detailed notes of every aspect of the mixes, which was nice to have. Especially if we took a break for a week or so and came back, it was very helpful to see exactly where we had left off. Finally, the song Andrea sang with his son Matteo, 'Fall On Me', was going to play at the end of The Nutcracker movie, so we had to deliver stems for that."
When Cortelyou mentions "files coming in from all over the place", he's not exaggerating. Bocelli's vocals weren't only recorded at his AB Studio, but also at PPG Studio in Italy and, in the case of the song 'Ave Maria Pietas', in Leonardo Abate Church in Tuscany. In addition to the orchestral recordings at AIR Lyndhurst in London, choirs were recorded in Miami, Toronto and Pisa, while Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa's vocals were recorded at separate places in London. Songwriter and producer Thomas Salter, meanwhile, did his programming in Canada.
Once the files were safely in Nashville, Ezrin says, "First of all, Justin and I did additional vocal comping. Andrea does not like tuning so we avoided that. But we occasionally adjusted some of the timing and phrasing — thank God for Pro Tools! But essentially the vocal performances are real and as they were sung. With regards to the AIR orchestral recordings, we had stereo pre‑mixes of the entire orchestra which sounded absolutely amazing. Going through the studio's Neve Montserrat console and using that reverb created a 'glue' that tied all the elements together brilliantly and gave them definition and coherence and adherence all at the same time. Unfortunately, back in Nashville, Justin discovered that there was a 15.8kHz oscillation coming from one of the harp mics. We hadn't heard this in London, but it was bad enough that, as good as they sounded, we could not use the AIR pre‑mixes in our mixes. We tried to recreate the mixes even better them, but by only using our gear at Anarchy we were lacking that glue.
"One song, 'Amo Soltanto Te', was an outlier in the whole process, and gave us the opportunity to reprint these pre‑mixes. The song was written by Ed and Matthew Sheeran, following Andrea and Ed's collaboration in 2017 on the song 'A Perfect Symphony', which was written by Ed and arranged by his brother Matthew. The song came in very near to the end of the project, with an arrangement by Matthew. We had the lyrics translated by the brilliant Italian artist Tiziano Ferro and we did a special session in London to record the orchestra for this song, using many of the same players and again with John Metcalfe conducting. Having to go back to London to do the Sheeran song gave me an opportunity to send all our mixes of all the other songs through the AIR Neve console again. This way we got the benefit of both our comping and editing from Nashville, which we did painstakingly, and the warm and coherent sound that comes from that control room. The results speak for themselves, I think."
Cortelyou adds: "The engineers who tracked the strings at AIR gave us separate instrumental tracks and a stereo string stem, and we remixed the strings and sent those mixes, also with our automation and plug-ins, through the Neve console at AIR, which gave a glue and width that made a big difference to the sound. We put the new orchestral mix prints back into our mix sessions, making sure they were placed sample-accurate, particularly because every now and then we ran into a situation where we wanted a little bit more double bass or cello, or whatever, and we pulled up the individual instrument tracks for that. However, on 'Fall On Me', the stereo string stem actually worked great with the track, so we used that in this case."
Justin Cortelyou says that there wasn't really a final mixing stage for Si. "For the most part, Bob and I were mixing as we went. We'd spend some time on a song, get it a little bit closer, get new vocals in and work on those, and then we'd jump to another song and get that closer with that. Working in the box allowed us to jump from session to session as we felt like. Mixing was a gradual process that began with giving the sessions their final shapes. Bob and Andrea would regularly talk to each other about the vocals in particular, and they might come up with an idea for a different word or different take here or there, and Andrea re-sang some lines for us.
"Bob and I would also go through the orchestra score to check that everything was played properly. However, Bob had done most of the comping in AIR on the fly. He has the aural equivalent of a photographic memory, and is great at remembering exactly what take, or what part of what take, contained the best performance. Much of his comping therefore happens immediately after the performances. Occasionally, when we listened in detail in Nashville, we might have heard some anomalies, and we'd go back to the playlist. We'd also work on the programmed tracks, with Bob chopping them up and building the arrangements, and creating big moments. There were many arrangement things that Bob did that really helped with the mix.
"Mixing was mostly about rides, and some EQ, and adding some reverb. We did not add a lot of compression, because all the stuff had to remain dynamic! In 'Fall On Me' there's not a lot going on, just orchestra, piano and then vocals, and the challenge was getting those to sit right and still make sure the song builds and does not sound empty in the small spots. There was a lot more fine detail than, for example, in an Alice Cooper session, where you do a lot of compression and do fun tricks and add a lot of edge with different plug-ins. Mixing tracks for Si was much more delicate, as we had to keep things sounding as authentic as possible.
"There also was the challenge of riding Andrea on top of the orchestra when it gets very big. There are some songs in which the dynamic jumps from verse to chorus are huge. Keeping all that under control without using compression was a bit of a task. It was like putting a huge puzzle together! There was about a month towards the end when we were mainly focused on mixing, and getting in any last-minute fixes. We were dialling things in to make sure Andrea was happy and that we had the energy he was looking for. But really, it was all about honing in on what we had done during the months previously."