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Inside Track: Gorillaz 'Charger'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Stephen Sedgwick
Published July 2017
By Paul Tingen

Stephen Sedgwick talks over an idea with Gorillaz’s Murdoc Niccals at GeeJam Studios, Jamaica.Stephen Sedgwick talks over an idea with Gorillaz’s Murdoc Niccals at GeeJam Studios, Jamaica.

Behind every virtual band, there are real producers and engineers. In the case of Gorillaz, they were Anthony Khan and Stephen Sedgwick.

Blur frontman Damon Albarn has spent the last two decades working on a dazzling variety of musical projects and collaborations, the most famous of which is inarguably Gorillaz. A collaboration between Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, with Albarn responsible for the music and Hewlett for the visual representation, Gorillaz are a virtual band comprising fictitious musicians 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs. For something that was initially seen as a novelty act, Gorillaz have been both long-lived and remarkably successful. Released this Spring, the fifth Gorillaz album Humanz instantly went to number two in both the UK and in the US, and topped the iTunes charts in almost 60 countries around the world.

Gorillaz Humanz album cover.Albarn’s lyrical and musical starting point for the album was the “dark fantasy” that Donald Trump would win the US presidential election — this was the beginning of 2016, well before Trump had even secured the Republican nomination. Conceived as a “party for the end of the world”, Humanz features an enormous number of guests, including famous names like Grace Jones, Mavis Staples and Carly Simon giving it, as one critic wrote, “the wildly entertaining feel of a circus show”.

Twilite Years

All the disparate musical influences on Humanz are held together by a modern-sounding urban hip-hop/R&B sensibility, which has a lot to do with the impact of Albarn’s main musical collaborator on the album, Anthony Khan. Better known by the moniker The Twilite Tone of D/\P, Khan is a Grammy-nominated American beatmaker, musician and producer who has worked with Kanye, Big Sean, John Legend and many more. Together with Albarn, Khan improvised, played and programmed much of the music on Humanz. In addition, the two co-produced the album with Remi Kabaka, a producer and drummer whose previous involvement with Gorillaz consisted of him giving voice to one of the characters, Russel Hobbs, and founding the Gorillaz Sound System DJ Project and works with Albarn on his Africa Express project.

The main team behind Humanz comprised, from left, Stephen Sedgwick, Remi Kabaka, Anthony ‘Twilite Tone’ Khan, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.The main team behind Humanz comprised, from left, Stephen Sedgwick, Remi Kabaka, Anthony ‘Twilite Tone’ Khan, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.Khan, who is related to singer Chaka Khan, is originally from Chicago, but has lived in New York since 2007. Talking from his home studio, where he has a battery of Akai MPCs, Yamaha HS7 and Event 20/20 monitors, and DAWs like Ableton Live, Logic and Pro Tools, he recalls that he was first approached about a possible collaboration with Albarn by Miles Leonard, chairman of Parlophone, who was looking for a producer for Gorillaz’s next album.

“I guess he had done his research and seen how I morphed and mixed so-called deep house, electronic music and dance music from a Chicago perspective with underground rap and hip-hop, and managed to create something new from that. The next step was for Damon and I to connect via Skype, with him being in Mali, and while the conversation was cryptic, we laughed and the vibrations were right. It was in tune. They then flew me out to London in February to work with Damon at his Studio 13 for a few days, and I ended up staying for two weeks. After that I came over for a month, and eventually I remained in London for most of 2016.”

Khan’s main instruments are three Akai MPCs: the Renaissance, Touch and 2000XL. However, he adds, “Damon quickly realised that I was not just an MPC guy who programs beats, but that I actually was able to play and jam in real time with him. This goes back to my mother who, when I was young, bought me a Casio SK1 sampler keyboard. I would play that all the time, so I became quite proficient and ended up being able to play live with other musicians, playing things by ear. Jamming with Damon made for fun, interesting, epiphany-causing times. Sometimes we transformed into children. That could be scary, because Damon would get so excited that we’d jam for hours. Over time we created so much material, it was ridiculous. Sometimes my producer hat would come on and I was like: ‘We need to stop and organise this!’ but I did not want to be a killjoy, so I often had to hold my tongue and just kept playing to keep the child in us alive.

“The idea of Donald Trump being president allowed us to create a narrative together. I suggested that the album should be about joy, pain and urgency. That was to be our state of mind before we even touched a keyboard or an MPC. Especially in American music, dare I say black music, there’s a way of communicating joy that at the same time allows you to feel the struggle the person has been through. And the urgency is there because something needs to be done. So that was the mantra. I wanted to blend Damon, a Briton, with the joy and pain and struggle that African-American music can express.”

Going To 13

Another essential cog in the Humanz-making machine was engineer and mixer Stephen Sedgwick. The vast majority of the work on Humanz was done with just Albarn, The Twilite Tone, Kabaka, Sedgwick and his assistant Samuel Egglenton present in the control room of Studio 13, which sports a 72-channel Neve VR desk and tons of outboard. Sedgwick first met Albarn in 2004, when he was an engineer at the Pierce Rooms studios in West London and Albarn came in to finish off Gorillaz’s second album Demon Days (2005). The two hit it off, and Sedgwick became Albarn’s regular engineer in 2006, spending most of his time since then at Studio 13. During 2013-15, Sedgwick engineered and mixed Blur’s The Magic Whip, and 2016 started with Sedgwick engineering and mixing Albarn’s soundtrack for the wonder.land musical. Work on Humanz began immediately afterwards.

The control room at Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios is well-equipped with instruments and outboard gear. The control room at Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios is well-equipped with instruments and outboard gear.

“Damon already had been demoing things during the last months of 2015, using GarageBand,” recalls Sedgwick. “In the past he used a four-track cassette recorder, but once he had an iPad he switched to GarageBand, because he loves the speed and simplicity and how easy it is to pick sounds. It allows him to get his ideas down really quickly, and if something doesn’t work, he can immediately move on to something else. He’ll demo anything that gets the ball rolling: a guitar/vocal recording, chord patterns, synth parts, a loop, beats, and so on. He brought these ideas in and Tone and Damon would play around with them, live in the control room. It was all very spontaneous, and I was just busy capturing everything they were doing in Pro Tools and making notes. Sometimes they’d point to a section that they felt was special, and I’d create a loop from that and they’d keep on playing to that. Damon is used to editing himself like that whilst playing. It was not a matter of: record four bars and then move on to the next four bars.”

“Damon is a wizard with GarageBand,” adds Khan. “The stuff he does sounds really great. He had a lot of ideas and we would build on those and embellished them and polished them. But sometimes I would take one of his ideas and completely rebuild it. A case in point is ‘Saturnz Barz’, which now is a whole other animal than what the original demo was. Other songs, like ‘Andromeda’ came from conversations between Damon and I and people in the room. ‘Andromeda’ was a joke of mine, and created on the spot as a reference to great songs like Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and Hall & Oates’ ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’, using similar drums and chord progressions. I channelled Public Enemy in ‘Ascension’ with the sirens and the chords and the drama. ‘Sex Murder Party’ was a headline in a newspaper that we read and we all thought it was insane and Damon and I made the beat right there. So there was stuff based on Albarn’s demos, but also original tracks that we created in the studio in the moment.”

The Men Behind The Beats

Describing the gear that was being used during these sessions, Sedgwick explains: “Tone had his laptop with MPC software, and an Akai MPC Renaissance and towards the end he got an MPC Touch. He also worked with an MPC2000XL, and with the Studio Electronics SE1x. I would be recording what he did on his MPCs as audio by taking a line-out from his computer. Damon used mostly hardware synths, including a Sequential Prophet 6, Chroma Polaris, MicroKorg XL, Moog Little Phatty, and Roland’s three Boutique synths, the JP08, JX03 and JU06. Damon also sometimes played the piano at 13.”

Anthony Khan’s main instrument of choice is the Akai MPC sequencer/sampler (rear left).Anthony Khan’s main instrument of choice is the Akai MPC sequencer/sampler (rear left).“The great thing about the Renaissance,” adds Khan, “is that I can work independently from the box in it, while at the same time recording everything I’m doing in the computer. This means that I am able to work quickly and keep the workflow going, as opposed to working with the 2000 or 3000 when you have to go through the process of transferring all tracks individually, which takes time. What’s also great about the MPCs is that I can use them either as a sequencer or as a tape machine. Sometimes I would record 16 bars playing live, and if it sounds great, I’d just keep it. I like things to sound behind the beat, and Steve knew this, so he would later edit things in Pro Tools and be like a human quantisation machine. I also often used the Korg MicroKontrol, triggering various plug-ins and soft synths by Native Instruments and Arturia’s Analog Labs, and I also played the Roland Boutique synths.”

As the writing progressed, Albarn, The Twilite Tone and Kabaka began discussing possible guest performers on the tracks that were being created. Sedgwick: “Every vocalist was chosen for a specific song. Sometimes they were artists that they simply wanted to work with, which could be legends like Mavis Staples, or young, up-and-coming artists. Sometimes the idea of working with someone came first, and they then tried to think of a song that person could sing on, at other times they had a song and brainstormed about who could sing on it. Then it was a case of approaching the guest performers via their managements, and if they agreed to appear, Damon would give them a brief of what the song was about. For example the song ‘Carnival’ originated from Damon’s experiences of visiting a carnival in Trinidad, and that inspired Anthony Hamilton in his lyrics and vocal performance.”

Sedgwick’s role during 2016 consisted for the most part of recording and keeping track of everything that was done in the various studios where they worked, and doing rough mixes. “While recording I was working entirely in the box, in Pro Tools at 44.1/24, because I needed the convenience of instant recall, as we were travelling to different places, and the guys wanted to be able to jump fast between songs. I also did the editing and rough mixing in Pro Tools. I edited the audio by hand, moving a note or a drum hit at a time, sometimes closer to the grid, but in general trying to preserve the original, natural, organic feel. Retaining a live feel was really important. You don’t hear that a lot any more in modern music, because most of it is exactly on the grid, so you don’t get that little bit of swing or groove that comes from musicians playing. In general, throughout the project, also during mixing, my aim was to preserve the energy that had been in the room during the recordings, to make sure I did not lose the excitement of the early versions and rough mixes.”

Coming Out Of The Box

Discounting a number of very short Interludes, the finished album contains 14 fully fledged songs, with five more appearing only on the ‘deluxe’ version. The final six weeks of mixing took place at Studio 13 during November and December of 2016. While Sedgwick mixed in the main studio, Albarn, Khan and Kabaka set up a Pro Tools suite in the penthouse apartment where they continued, recalls the mixer, “doing final bits of production on some of the songs to get them ready for me to mix. Most of the songs took me a day to a day and a half to mix, but in some cases, like ‘We Got The Power’ and ‘She’s My Collar’ they realised that it needed more work on the production and therefore the mixes took a lot longer. Once all the arrangements and production are complete, mixing is relatively quick.”

Sedgwick conducted the final mixes on the Neve VR, making ample use of the outboard at Studio 13. “I do mixes sometimes almost entirely in the box, because of the nature of the project, and I get results that I am happy with, particularly as I will still run these mixes through my regular outboard mix bus chain. But something like the Gorillaz project is different. I knew that at the end I’d be mixing, and for me, that’s the time I can be creative with it. Because I have been there for the entire writing and recording process it’s easy for me to remain sympathetic to the vibe, and I get to turn things up loud here in the room and I have fun with the material.

“Mixing is the part I enjoy the most. Everyone else leaves the room, and I’m left alone to spend time with the songs, which is really great. Because Damon owns Studio 13 I didn’t need to think about going for the quickest or the easiest or the cheapest option. I can take my time, and there’s great equipment here, so why not use it? I do feel I get more interesting things out of hardware. It’s just fun to play around with a Roland Space Echo! I also really enjoy spreading things out over the desk. When I was working at the Pierce Rooms I was an assistant to mix engineers like Stephen Fitzmaurice and Tom Elmhirst, who both mixed on Neve desks, so it’s how I learnt. Even today, if you have a great Neve desk, like we do at 13, it does not make sense to mix everything in the computer. I love sitting behind a desk, and being able to reach out to controls in front of me without immediately having to think too much about what’s going on in the computer. Having said that, many plug-ins sound great now, and the convenience of digital is amazing, so I use the best of both worlds.”

Damon Albarn, Anthony Khan and Stephen Sedgwick at GeeJam Studios, Jamaica.Damon Albarn, Anthony Khan and Stephen Sedgwick at GeeJam Studios, Jamaica.

Keeping The Energy

Of his Humanz mixes in particular, Sedgwick explains, “We wanted the album to sound modern so that people who are used to listening to today’s pop and R&B can connect with it. You don’t want to go so far out that it totally stands on its own. You want to stay relevant commercially and be accessible. I wanted for my mixes to be able to compete with anything else that’s out there now, whether a Drake song or a Rihanna song, or whatever. So I had to match them for punch and bottom end and clarity and separation. At the same time, the idea with Gorillaz is always for it to sound different and unique. But there’s so much inherent character in the music that there was no chance for me to make the mixes sound too bland or too pop. Plus, because I knew what the energy in the room was when the material was created, I could make sure not to lose any of the excitement of the early versions.

“When starting a mix, I would spend the first couple of hours or so looking through the Pro Tools session, to check all the edits again, check whether anything needs tightening up or whether I need to rearrange something, and after that I’d start spreading the session out over my template on the desk. I’d also look at what I would prefer to process with outboard rather than in the box. If things already worked well with plug-ins, I would usually not try to undo and recreate them, but there were many things that I knew I could do better by using hardware.

“Almost all volume rides would also already be in the box, and I tended to keep them, because I did not want to deconstruct all the work that we had done over the year. That did not make any sense. So I would bring things out on the Neve on pairs of faders set to zero, and maybe I’d make some small adjustments, but basically the Neve simply summed everything together, and allowed me to apply all the outboard. After working on the mix for a day I’d invite the guys the next morning to come and listen to it and we’d then finish it together in one or two hours, after which I would print the mix and do the stems of everything.”

Charging Ahead

This composite screenshot shows the entire Pro Tools Edit window for ‘Charger’.This composite screenshot shows the entire Pro Tools Edit window for ‘Charger’.Sedgwick’s final mix session of ‘Charger’ contains 90 tracks. From top to bottom, these comprise two mixdown tracks at the top (red), two aux effects tracks (dark green), 19 drum tracks (blue), two drum bus tracks (dark green), one bass track (purple), 14 synth tracks (dark blue, green and purple), 12 Albarn lead vocal tracks (yellow), six Albarn harmony tracks (orange), six ‘outro’ and 10 ‘ghost’ Albarn vocals tracks, all in brown, and 12 Grace Jones vocals and vocal effects tracks (purple, beige and orange).

“Below the two aux tracks are the drums. We often layer different kick sounds together, and I made sure that there were no phase issues, and EQ’d them, for example taking out some bottom end from a kick that gave me more of the attack. One of the sounds from Damon’s original GarageBand drum loop survived in this session, which is the snare on track 12. For the rest the drums here are predominantly Tone’s MPC sounds. There is a Casio MT40 snare as well on track 13. The ‘1’ in the sends on some of the drum tracks goes to the UAD Lexicon 224, which is set to a short, tight reverb with pre-delay. The Qs in the inserts are Avid EQ3s and there’s a UAD 1176 on track six, and on some of these kick tracks, the SPL Transient Designer is cutting the attack and adding more sustain because I had more attack from other kick sounds.

“I like the [Avid] Lo-Fi on hi-hats to tame the high end if it gets too harsh — I get my mix-bus EQ on quite early and I like to brighten all the drums with the Retro 2A3, and this can make the hats a little bit piercing. The Lo-Fi works well to tame the top end and to get them to sound a little bit dirtier, and not so thin and harsh. I take the sample rate down just one notch, and if that is too much, bring the anti-alias back. On these tracks I also added a little bit of distortion and noise.

“All the drums go to the drum bus, track 25, and during production I would have had an EQ and a compressor on that. Here the EQ filters out a tiny bit of sub, 25Hz and below, and there’s a UAD API 2500 compressor, which I used as a simulation of what I would do during the mix. I actually left this one on there. Track 26 is another drum bus on which I have the SoundToys Decapitator, hitting the drums quite hard. Bus 25 comes up on the desk on channels 1 and 2, and bus 26 on channels 3 and 4, so I can blend some distorted drums in with the clean drums. On the desk I also have the Chandler Zener Limiter on the Decapitor drums, to squash them a bit more. The two drum busses then get routed to my Retro 2A3, a Pultec-style valve EQ, and hardware API 2500 stereo compressor.”

Gritty Bass

“The purple track, 27, is a bass synth,” Sedgwick continues, “which has the UAD Little Lab Voice Of God Bass Resonance Tool, adding a little bit more sub, then the Avid EQ3 removing below 25Hz. I often use the EQ3 for subtractive EQ. There’s also a Waves Renaissance Compressor on the inserts. The bass is coming up on the desk on channels five and six, and both channels have the Urei 1176 and Thermionic Culture Vulture. Channel five is the main bass, and channel six was filtered quite hard and then distorted to bring out the upper harmonics, and then blended in with channel five. Sometimes with a bass synth you need a bit more grit and upper harmonics to help it cut through on smaller speakers. I check this with my Auratones. The monitors I listen to the most are Focal Solo6 BEs, as well as KRK Expose E8Bs and the studio’s wall-mounted Dynaudio M4, for bass, but only the Auratones allow me to judge whether the bass works on smaller speakers as well.

“Tracks 28 and 29 are drone parts that are mixed far to the back and just provide some sinister atmosphere. The main synth part in the track is the Moog Phatty, on track 30. Damon and I created that sound, which is integral to the vibe of the song. The sound of the synth without the plug-ins is unrecognisable compared to how it ended up. First on the inserts is the SoundToys Little AlterBoy, pitching it up an octave. Then there’s the Avid SansAmp, which is doing some really radical distortion with loads of bottom end and loads of drive. It’s what gave most of the character to the sound. After that there is a Waves API 550B EQ, a UAD 1176, and the Pro Tools EQ3, filtering a little bit of bottom end. There’s also a UAD Dimension D aux track below, which I really like for widening. During the choruses the Phatty sound is sent to the Dimension D to spread it out more in the stereo spectrum. The Phatty track comes up on channel nine on the desk, and has the Chandler LTD-2 EQ and a Chandler Germanium compressor, the Phatty Dimension D track came up on channels 19-20.

Inside Track“Other synth tracks include 41, called DJ Filter. We often sent things to a not particularly expensive DJ mixer on this album for filter sweeps that can sound very brutal, with real character. During the build-up at the end of the track, Tone would have been sweeping the filter and we recorded that back in, just to add more dynamics to the song. There aren’t actually that many music tracks in this session. We went through several stages of adding a lot of stuff, but then in the end we stripped it back a lot, just for it to be really raw and return to the original spirit of the demo.”

Grace & Flavour

“The vocals start at track 42, with Damon’s lead vocal. The main lo-fi telephone-like effect is the typical 2-D sound, because this is a 2-D song. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s done with hardware. The plug-ins on the inserts are a Waves Renaissance De-esser and RVox, and the Waves Kramer PIE [compressor], which I use a lot on vocals. Below are two tracks of lead vocals with delays.

Stephen Sedgwick’s two main plug-in reverbs for ‘Charger’ were the UAD Lexicon 224 and EMT Plate 140.Stephen Sedgwick’s two main plug-in reverbs for ‘Charger’ were the UAD Lexicon 224 and EMT Plate 140.While recording, I often use the SoundToys EchoBoy for delays, but I replace that with hardware delays to get more character. In this case these two tracks are prints of me running Damon’s vocals through a Roland SDE 2000. I was having fun with that, doing fast delays and delays with modulation. Then there are some Damon harmonies, and the yellow tracks are him singing the chorus, and some of these are pitched down an octave with the Little AlterBoy. I usually compress vocals with outboard, either using Empirical Labs Distressors or sometimes the Summit TLA 100A or Tube-Tech CL1B compressor. If want to impose a lot of character I’ll engage an old Collins broadcast limiter. For reverbs on the vocals I often use the studio’s EMT 140 plate.

“Grace Jones’s vocal tracks were sent through the Roland RE201 Space Echo. I also had hardware compression on her, and then printed her vocals back in Pro Tools and added a Waves Renaissance Compressor just doing a bit of level control. Again, I just had fun with the Space Echo, and did loads of different passes. It’s more fun to use your hands like that, and you come up with stuff you would not do with a plug-in. All of a sudden the delay will hit a dirty bit of tape and you get a little glitch in there that repeats. These are the little bits of magic that you can’t get from the software. I presented what I had done to the guys and they edited it. You can still see this in the muted parts where I had done things they did not use. Tracks 75-77 are a reverse reverb on some of Grace’s vocals, leading into some words. I did these in Pro Tools. I would have taken her first word, printed it with a long reverb on it, probably just from the [Avid] D-verb, reversed it, and then put a UAD Dimension D on it to make it stereo.”

Half Inched

“I always used the same chain on the mix bus,” explains Stephen Sedgwick, “which is a Chandler Curve Bender EQ going into an Alan Smart C2 compressor, going into a Manley Variable-Mu compressor, and then going into a Cranesong Ibis mastering EQ. The Curve Bender is great for a really vibey sound, while the Ibis adds a little bit of top-end sparkle. I just love what it does on every mix that I run through it. Then the Smart gives it the punch and the Manley glues it all together.

“I recorded all the mixes to half-inch on our Studer A820, as I did for the Blur album. It just sounds fantastic. I recorded at 30ips on 900 tape, the original BASF formula, made by Recording The Masters, and not massively hot. The line up was +7, and I had it peaking at +3. If you hit it too hard you can start to lose a little bit of the clarity and separation in the mix. I also did a tape simulation with the Cranesong HEDD, which sounds really good, and printed both versions at the top of the session. When I brought the digital and half-inch masters to John Davis for mastering, there was no comparison. The half-inch blew it out of the water, so we mastered from that. It does something really great and solid to the bottom end that you can’t replicate with EQ, and the top end is really smooth and nice and sweet-sounding.”

One understands what Sedgwick means by “nice and sweet-sounding”, though they are not exactly the adjectives that come to mind when considering Damon Albarn’s dystopian vision. “It was a bit scary to be so prophetic!” laughs Khan. “Sometimes we feel a bit guilty for getting Trump elected so we could have a successful album... Art does not imitate life and life does not imitate art. Instead art inspires life and life inspires art. Our responsibility is to create things that reflect what’s going on and that also influences what’s going on. I believe the Gorillaz project is doing that right now.”

All In The Edit

When music is being created by endless improvisations, the editing and mixing stages become as important as the actual creation stage. Although Damon Albarn and Anthony Khan had knocked each of the Humanz tracks into manageable shape to be able to present them to the guest artists and record them, the guest contributions themselves often resulted in hours more recording, leading to a long editing process followed by an extended six-week mixing process, during which Albarn, Khan and Kabaka were still busy putting the final touches on arrangements and song structures and preparing the unmixed songs for final mixdown.

“You know in film, the directors are only as good as their editors,” asserts Khan. “So for me the editing process is where the real production happens, and for this album it happened towards the end of 2016. We went in and did a lot of cleaning up. There were tons of great movements in the songs and the arrangements, but it often was a matter of: ‘You don’t need a full tank of gas to get to the end of the street.’ So there was a lot of stripping things down, not only with the musical arrangements but also the vocals. Towards the end it was mainly Steve and I doing this, with Remi and Damon chiming in, and towards the very end Fraser T Smith also occasionally came in to give feedback.”

Sedgwick: “During this editing process we again always chose vibe and feel over perfection. This meant that some of the demo material made it to the final recordings. We often ended up keeping the rawness of the original ideas. For the demo of the song ‘She’s My Collar’, for example, Damon had recorded his vocals under his duvet. We were unable to recreate that same vibe later on, so we used part of that original vocal. At one point you can hear the sound of him pulling the duvet over him!

“Also, Grace Jones had recorded many vocals for ‘Charger’, which again set us up for a lot of editing. At one point Damon and Tone and Remi wrote down all the phrases she had used on bits of card and laid them out on the floor to help them pick out the phrases that they liked and fit them in a structure. But in the end we used mostly Damon’s vocals on that song, and in fact, the final vocal is for the most part a pretty early guide vocal that has a real magic to it. We tried re-recording his guide vocal, but could not recreate that magic. Grace’s vocals pop up here and there in the song and add her vibe and character. Her contributions are a little freer and less structured, and that really fits the song. ‘Charger’ is a 2-D song and Grace’s vocals are in answer to him.”

Khan: “‘Charger’ is a punk track, or really post-punk art. Sometimes Damon is singing some poignant shit, but sometimes he’s just mumbling. Using his demo vocal was in part a satirical move, because today you have what they call ‘mumble rappers’, who are not actually saying anything. But they make these big, instant-gratification, top-10 hits. So I suggested poking fun at that by using Damon’s demo vocal. We were being serious in the making of this album, but also making fun of ourselves and of what is going on.

“We were creating a soundscape around Damon’s narrative that was cognisant of what’s going on in pop music and so-called R&B, so we were using things like Auto-Tune and stutter-step hi-hats, but in our own way, in different contexts and with different chords. In general I liked the idea of Damon singing a lot of the tracks, and then having black singers behind him. All these contradictions make for something that is, for lack of a better word, fresh. If you think about it, the music was coming from the school of thought of Richard Pryor. He is one of my heroes, and he often made himself the butt of his jokes. At the same time he’s communicating joy, pain, and urgency.”

Guests & Guides

Most guest performers came to Damon Albarn’s Studio 13 to record their contributions, but the company also travelled to various places around the world. Stephen Sedgwick: “We did a couple of days in Paris with Jean-Michel Jarre at his studio, and he ended up playing synths on three of the tracks. He told us about this watch which had a drum machine in it. I tracked it down, and it turned out to be a Seiko and I gave one to Damon for his birthday. He started playing a drum beat on his watch and we recorded that with a microphone, and that is what sparked the song ‘Strobelight’. The slightly distorted swinging beat you hear on that track came from the watch, and you can still hear us talking in the background!

“We also went to Chicago to record Mavis Staples at the Chicago Recording Company, and to New York, where we did several sessions at Mission Sound Brooklyn. In August we went to Jamaica, where we spent two weeks at GeeJam, and recorded Popcaan. Some of the other featured artists, like Vince Staples, Pusha T and Danny Brown, recorded their stuff remotely and sent it to us. We’d talked with them about the concept for the song beforehand and I then sent them a stereo mix to sing to.”The Moog Little Phatty synth sound was obliterated with the Avid SansAmp plug-in.The Moog Little Phatty synth sound was obliterated with the Avid SansAmp plug-in.

The track ‘Charger’ is based on a heavily distorted Moog Little Phatty sample, and has Grace Jones as guest performer. Sedgwick: “The song was one of Damon’s early demos, and it had a lot of raw energy. The idea came up to have Grace sing on it, and when we were in Jamaica we played it to her and she liked it and freestyled some stuff to it, which set the tone for the direction of the song. After that we put the track to one side for a while as we were working on other songs, and when she eventually came over to 13, we had one really great late-night session with her and with everyone enjoying themselves and freestyling stuff.

“I recorded Damon’s rough vocals with a Neumann KMS105 condenser, which sounds pretty good and doesn’t pick up a lot of sound from the room, so it works great if there are other people around and he quickly wants to lay down some ideas. But when it came to recording his final vocal takes I used the Flea 47, which is a really great-sounding Neumann U47 clone. I usually recorded it via a Chandler LTD1 mic pre, and then either a Distressor or a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor.

“I also used the Flea 47 on all the other male vocalists that I recorded. I even took the mic with me to Jamaica to record Popcaan, but for the male vocals I recorded at Mission Sounds I used a Wunder CM7, which also is a 47 clone. On Benjamin Clementine I had an AEA R44, which is a clone of the RCA 44, because his voice has such a classic sound. For female vocals I tended to use the Neumann M269, which is very much like the U67, but has a sweeter top end. It’s a vintage mic that was made for the German market and it’s really beautiful-sounding. When we recorded Mavis Staples at CRC in Chicago I asked what mic they like to use on her, and it’s a Telefunken U47, so that’s what I used. I recorded the female vocals at Mission Sounds with a Neumann U67, and the eight-piece ‘Humanz’ choir there with some vintage Neumann U87s, and also a stereo AEA R88 ribbon, because the live room there had a really nice sound.”

Published July 2017