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NICKY GRAHAM: Recording 'Once In A Lifetime'

Interview | Producer By Tom Flint
Published March 2000

NICKY GRAHAM: Recording 'Once In A Lifetime'

Sound On Sound's September 1999 SAE/Quantegy competition offered the fantastic prize of an all‑expenses‑paid recording session in a New York studio with a top producer. Tom Flint talked to the lucky winners to find out how they put their winning demo together — and found out how producer Nicky Graham transformed it into a potential chart smash.

You don't often get the chance to win a trip to New York to record with a top‑flight producer, and the response to our September 1999 competition was overwhelming. We received over 200 demos spanning every conceivable style of music from house to heavy metal, easy‑listening to experimental. The breadth of styles and general high standard made choosing a winner extremely difficult, and led to some heated debate in the Sound On Sound office!

The eventual winner was a catchy pop track titled 'Once In A Lifetime', created by the Suffolk‑based songwriting partnership of Ian Gibbs and Terry McCreith, with vocals provided by Michelle Montuori. All three were flown to New York, where they spent two days recording in the School of Audio Engineering's state‑of‑the‑art recording facility, with all flights and accommodation paid for by the competition's other sponsors Quantegy. To cap it all, top producer, songwriter, arranger and musician Nicky Graham — best‑known for his success producing and writing for acts such as Bros, Let Loose and PJ & Duncan — and his vocal producer Deni Lew were flown in to oversee the whole process.

The name Terry McCreith may also be familiar to some, as he experienced his first taste of pop fame back in 1976 as a member of boy band Our Kid. The lads even enjoyed a number 2 hit before having to exit the pop world to complete their schooling. Since then, Terry has been dividing his time between home studio recording, playing in covers bands, and undertaking occasional TV work as an extra, while still finding time to take a National Diploma in music technology at Lowestoft college. Programmer Ian Gibbs makes his living as a corporate manager and consultant, but has been developing his interest in music technology over the past 15 years: "About four years ago I decided to take the music on as a part‑time commercial interest. I had a project studio and I got quite a lot of work from local bands and multimedia companies. I also teamed up with Terry as a result of doing work with local artists."

The winners of Sound On Sound's SAE/Quantegy competition: Michelle Montuori, Ian Gibbs (back), and Terry McCreith.The winners of Sound On Sound's SAE/Quantegy competition: Michelle Montuori, Ian Gibbs (back), and Terry McCreith.Vocalist Michelle trained primarily as a professional dancer for cruise ships, hotels, theatres and pantomimes. Occasionally called upon to sing as well as dance, she eventually realised she could make a career as a vocalist. Michelle is currently involved in a number of different musical projects, and performs almost every evening as resident singer at cabaret venue Gunton Hall.

Sound Beginning

Ian and Terry had originally begun working on 'Once In A Lifetime' as a potential Eurovision Song Contest entry during the summer of 1999. However, once they became aware of the Sound On Sound competition, they made the decision to redirect the material already produced. Ian explains the duo's working method: "'Once in A Lifetime' was very much Terry and I. Normally I will come up with an idea for a tune by just playing around on the piano until I get a basic feel for the song. When we get it right, we get the singer to come round, then Terry gets on with the stylisation of the vocals with the vocalist."

The entire demo was recorded, mixed and mastered in Ian's modest home studio using a fairly minimal setup. Ian explains what was used. "All the sounds you hear are programmed from the Kurzweil K2500: there are no acoustic instruments. All the audio and sequences are done on Cubase Audio XT, which I use with two Yamaha CBXD5 hard disk recorders. The Kurzweil's eight outs are wired direct to my Yamaha O3D so I can manually mix the Kurzweil on the desk. When we record the vocals I use the CBXD5s which give me up to eight tracks to play around with. They're also wired digitally to the O3D, so essentially what I end up with is 16 mono tracks that I can mix. If I need to input another keyboard, I can put that on a stereo pair because I've got 24 inputs on the O3D, but generally I just use the eight outs from the Kurzweil and whatever vocals are coming off the CBXD5s."

Having decided on the basic song structure, Ian set to work programming the individual song parts, starting with the drums and percussion. Once again, all the drums originated from Ian's Kurzweil, but the inspiration for percussion and fills came from Steinberg's Rebirth software. "Rebirth is essentially a tool that creates drum patterns. It's particularly good for dance music because you can sync it with Cubase, and it gives you a feel for the rhythms. I put something together to go along with the track and liked the feel of it. I got the speed and the tempo and the sounds that Rebirth generates, then I started to mimic what it had done using all the drum sounds I'd got in the Kurzweil, effectively getting rid of Rebirth at the end of the chain."

It was Ian's fear that he couldn't achieve sufficient audio quality using Rebirth that prompted him to reprogram its parts. Ian explains: "I didn't think the sounds were clear enough to send the demo off. Rebirth plays out through a PC soundcard, and the sounds are probably quite nice if you've got a really good soundcard, but if you're using outside processors like me, which you can't pass the individual Rebirth sounds through, then you're better off using sampled drum sounds from the Kurzweil, which is a lot better for fidelity."

The bass line was the next sequenced part to be completed, in an effort to form a solid rhythm section when combined with the drums and percussion. Ian then began working on the synth chord lines which accompany the song's melody. "There are two chord lines there. The first line is the basic chords, the second are inversions that sit inbetween. They both came from the original Kurzweil factory set that I've edited. I searched for old analogue sounds that would fit the Euro‑pop idea, so just went through all the sounds I have on the Kurzweil. I wanted something that wouldn't be too club‑sounding."

Montuori, Gibbs and McCreith hard at work in New York with Nicky Graham and vocal expert Deni Lew.Montuori, Gibbs and McCreith hard at work in New York with Nicky Graham and vocal expert Deni Lew.

Shaping Up

Following Ian's hard work establishing the basic chordal structure, Terry came to the studio to develop the vocal lines and to record a basic guide vocal onto a CBXD5 track. The guide vocal was enough to provide Ian and Terry with a feel for how the whole song was developing, allowing them to add further sequenced song parts. "We put a few twiddly bits in which lifted it up before it went into the chorus. Then there's what I would call a 'riser' lead line that takes you into the chorus. There is a synth string pad sitting behind the chorus, but more importantly, what makes it bop is a high bass synth which is actually an arpeggio. In the last chorus it's double speed and that's what makes a difference."

Ian and Terry had originally begun working on 'Once In A Lifetime' as a potential Eurovision Song Contest entry during the summer of 1999.

Another compositional element added at this stage was the staccato part which starts the song before the vocal, bass and percussion appear. "I used a synthy bell pad at the beginning. It's a half‑broken arpeggio which tends to speed up during the verse. It's like a heart machine. I thought that was a nice start to th e song because you waited for something a bit shmulshy and soft and when the first note of the vocal comes in, followed by a drum beat, you realise it's dancy Euro‑pop. The line continues throughout the song so you can just hear it in parts of the verse. When the chorus comes in it changes to a sharper synth sound which is a faster version with more notes. In essence it's quite a simple tune; there's not a lot in it, I think there's only seven tracks of music information."

Satisfied that the track was now in a state where a finished vocal could be added, Ian and Terry gave Michelle a version of the song containing the guide vocal on CD‑R. Michelle then listened to the song until she was familiar with both the tune and lyrics. The next stage was to record Michelle's vocals for real, using a Rode NT2 microphone plugged straight into the O3D. Ian describes the configuration. "There is no reverb at recording stage, but there's always the same old O3D compression. I had to put noise gates on because you could hear a bloke's concrete mixer outside — the mic picks up everything! Firstly we recorded a complete lead vocal, but then we changed the lyrics slightly because the chorus was actually quite corny. It went 'Once In A Lifetime Baby, Looking For Romance', but we decided to keep it as just 'Once In A Lifetime'. We recorded it in chunks — verse, chorus, verse, chorus — and then put it together in Cubase."

Last to be recorded were the backing vocal harmonies which can be heard supporting the lead voice during the song's choruses. The lines were sung one at a time by Terry, Ian and Michelle onto separate tracks of the CBXD5, again using the Rode NT2.

Happy that he had all the parts he would need, Ian began processing the sequenced Kurzweil lines and recorded vocal lines on the Yamaha O3D. "I first made sure the vocal was clean in terms of noise. The next thing was to get the bass, drums and percussion sitting nicely together. I brought the rest in with no effects. Then I balanced everything volume‑wise and decided what stereo image I wanted from the song. There are hardly any effects, I've only got a little old Alesis processor and a Boss SE70, but I try and avoid them because they're not very transparent and tend to wash everything. On 'Once In A Lifetime' there's a tiny bit of ambience on the percussion lines, and the vocals have a subdued plate from the O3D. I also used the same plate on drums.

"I did a rough mix, then Terry came round and we listened to the thing as a whole. We kept getting it wrong and doing it again. It's all try and try again. I would rattle off a tape and play it in the car, on some multimedia speakers and also on the hi‑fi. The mix probably took a week, on and off."

The demo was also mastered in Ian's home studio using a TC Electronic Finalizer mastering processor. "I used a bit of compression and limiting and a tiny bit of stereo width enhancement which can peak it up or crush it down. I also used some EQ to take some bass off and make it a bit more toppy. We listened to it a few times and then simply dumped it onto DAT and then CD‑R."

Golden Graham

Sound On Sound's competition promised the 'guidance of a top record producer' for the New York recording session. On the strength of his previous work with similar‑sounding acts, Nicky Graham was asked to produce the track. Nicky's partner in production and publishing company Maximum Music, Deni Lew, also flew to New York to arrange and produce Michelle's vocals. By the time the session had begun in the SAE studio, Nicky had already formed a clear idea as to what he liked about the demo and where there was room for improvement: "I thought it sounded like a Eurovision demo. The verses seemed a bit dull, and some of the sounds were a bit uninteresting. I thought the choruses jumped out too much. The singing was fine but a little low. The song needed bringing together into one uniform thing, and it needed to be taken away from its pure poppiness and made more dancy."

In preparation for the recording session, Ian had assembled the constituent MIDI and audio elements of 'Once In A Lifetime' and burnt them onto a CD‑R: "I took a CD‑R with the track in its entirety, but also all the MIDI files and the audio files. I recorded all the MIDI parts into audio files piece by piece so if we got to SAE and there wasn't a Kurzweil, I could still recreate the song."

However, SAE had provided a Kurzweil 2500 for the session, so all that was needed was to get Ian's PC‑format MIDI files up and running on the studio's Mac. "We had difficulty converting the files that were PC‑based to Mac format," explains Nicky. "That took about three hours. We were eventually able to look at what had been done originally in Cubase, then we developed it from there."

It soon became apparent that the two days' recording would not be sufficient to reprogram the MIDI tracks, produce the vocals in the thorough way Deni had intended and still mix the project. Fortunately Nicky came up with a workable solution, and offered studio time back at Maximum Music. "It's very hard to go to another studio with a whole bunch of different kit which isn't configured in the same way. It's quite possible to take three weeks to configure your system to exactly the way you want it. We were dealing with pure MIDI music and a singer, trying to recreate what they had done in their home studio. We decided to utilise the time in New York by experimenting with the track."

Michelle lays down a vocal guide in the vocal booth in SAE's New York studios.Michelle lays down a vocal guide in the vocal booth in SAE's New York studios.

Whilst Deni used the time to discuss vocal ideas with Michelle, Nicky began work on Ian's MIDI tracks. "Nicky listened to it again just on the MIDI, without the vocal, and then he started to add further chordal harmonies," Ian explains. "He was playing a lot of fat, double‑handed chords to harmonise with the ones we'd done. Then he had a look at a couple of lead lines. He put the arpeggio idea to one side and decided to keep that, because he liked it very much, but he wanted new bass sounds and new percussion sounds. He started to change them to new ones off the JV2080."

After two days of hard work on the MIDI and vocal arrangements, not to mention several photoshoots, it was time for all to thank the SAE staff and head to Maximum Music to complete the sessions. The Maximum setup, which is looked after by the studio's full‑time engineer and programmer Jon Cohen, is currently built around two Mackie D8b digital mixers. An Apple Mac G3 running Cubase VST is used for recording and sequencing, whilst two Korg 1212 cards allow digital connection to the desks. Nicky explains the equipment choice: "I'm very happy with the D8bs: these days it's unnecessary to buy an SSL unless you're doing orchestral stuff, and the D8b is just sensational with total recall and Auto‑Tune on every track. Everything's running in real time off the desk — the only thing that's in audio is the vocals."

Flats And Sharps

The recording session began with the team trying to resolve certain vocal problems, as Ian explains: "We spent all day at Maximum Music. The object of the day was to get Michelle working hard and do all the vocals. The key of the song was making it very difficult for Michelle. We'd done it in E flat, because we couldn't quite get a balance between high and low, so we ended up changing the melody slightly in the first half of the verse. We made the lyric 'So lonely' go up at the end instead of down, so it would sound prominent and positive without straining on the bottom end."

At this stage in the process, Michelle was working very closely with Deni to realise some of the vocal ideas they'd come up with in the SAE studio: "Deni knows exactly what she wants vocally, she's got very strong ideas and she's very 'with it' as in music of today. She's also a very good singer in her own right. When I couldn't get the hang of the idea she would just sing it to me. If you're stuck she can show you. They're perfectionists, we were doing it over and over again, a line at a time. They'd obviously got a vision of what they wanted the product to sound like. I think they were looking to bring the song right up to date, something that could be viable for the charts as they stand today."

One of the methods Nicky employed to bring the song 'right up to date' was to use the vocal sound made famous by Cher's number one hit 'Believe'. Nicky explains his appropriation. "There was a spot where it was out of tune, so we were correcting it using Auto‑Tune and we overcooked it. We thought, 'Oh well, that's a sort of tribute to Cher, or to Brian Rawlings!'"

Jon Cohen explains how the Auto‑Tuned tracks were used. "We take the vocal untreated within VST, then we copy them so there are two tracks of the same vocal running together, then we literally knock out or include the bits with the effect rather than having to automate the Auto‑Tune to drop in and out. You've got so many channels on the software now, you can take advantage of that space."

Michelle's vocals were recorded using a Rode Classic II mic and an Avalon preamp. A Dbx 165A compressor kept levels under control during the recording and was also used on a vocal group on the desk during playback. "We love the sound of the Dbx. Even the compressors on the D8b don't have that kind of warmth and character," enthuses Jon.

Out With The Old...

Having completed the vocal recording, Michelle, Ian and Terry left Nicky to complete the rest of the track over Christmas and New Year. Much work had already been done to the MIDI track, yet some radical changes were about to happen. Nicky explains: "In New York I went back to basics with the drums and chord progressions, trying to make those a bit more interesting and a bit less obvious. Since then I went back to square one and completely reprogrammed the entire song in my own studio using different sounds. I took the vocal as the top line stuff and stripped away the MIDI track. I'd had the basic New York track to keep the rhythm during the vocal sessions, so when I stripped the rest away, the vocals were still perfectly in time. I started with a new intro, completely reprogrammed the drums, reprogrammed the bass, changed the sound of the pad and introduced other elements into the musical package. I made the intro a bit longer and I've got four choruses on the outro."

The first element Nicky reprogrammed was the drum track, this time using his own pallete of sounds. "I've got a library of snares, bass drums and kits going back for the last 15 years. I just pick whatever's appropriate. If I'm doing R&B then I've got a series of R&B snares, for example. The bass drum was a 909 that I've edited and pitch‑changed enormously. Added to that was a regular 909 but slightly lower to give the bottom end, and I think I added a 505. The snare is a 909 dance snare. They're all sampled onto the S1000 for convenience, and I simply trigger them off MIDI.

"I've got a Roland MBD1 bass module with a huge quantity of live basses. I just selected something that sounded appropriate as a front‑line bass and then added a Studio Electronics SE1 sound so that, coupled with the other bass, gave a nice thick analogue bottom end. A lot of the other sounds were JV2080 patches.

"Their demo had a load of single lines running through the mid range, whereas mine is a bit more percussive and transparent. I've got a little 'diga‑diga‑diga' sound that runs all the way through and has a 'shhhhwwoooooo' phased sound to it, and that line gives a percussive, almost metronomic effect all the way through to keep all the middle section glued together. Generally I think a track should have a groove that runs all the way through. There should be light and shade, but there can't be too much because once those drums kick in, you've got to lock onto that.

The EQ on the vocals was important in this case, because Michelle's got quite a low voice which tends to be rather thick when you try to stack it up. You have to EQ out some of the lower end to make it bright, so it will cut through.

"The development to make the chorus jump out comes on the vocals: we introduced a three‑part harmony line that isn't on the demo that lifts you in. Then we created a counterpoint line singing 'on‑ly love' which gives you a slightly different perspective on the choruses in the outro part of the song, where you might otherwise get bored because you've heard the chorus twice already. There's also a swell cymbal that lifts you into the chorus. It's a funny chorus in the sense that there isn't anything on the first beat of the bar, it goes 2,3,4 boom, 'Once In A Lifetime', so you've got to introduce elements to keep interest — I put a JV2080 hit stab to hit that down‑beat. I wouldn't have written it in the same way, but I was dealing with a song that had been written already — you deal with what you've been given."

Nicky's arrangement work on the track was almost done at this stage, but the final mix ingredient was still to be added: "There are little bells that give a little sheen to it, and add what we call 'stardust'. That describes anything that's bright and tinkly that you can't really hear, but if you take them away they're noticeable by their absence. They should link up in the percussion area. If you listen to Babyface's productions, he's got loads of tiny little bells tinkling away."

Nicky Graham and Phil Da Costa at Maximum Music, where follow‑up work to the New York sessions was carried out.Nicky Graham and Phil Da Costa at Maximum Music, where follow‑up work to the New York sessions was carried out.

After sprinkling the last few drops of stardust into the mix, Nicky made a call to ask engineer Phil Da Costa to finish things off. Nicky explains what happened next. "Phil Da Costa does all my mixes. I've already labelled up the song and everything always comes up on the same desk channels. I leave him for a couple of hours until he gets into all the elements of the song. He then does his EQ thing, gets the compression sorted out on the drums, bass, then he'll work on the vocals. Then we'll go through it all with Deni and make sure every line is audible.

"The EQ on the vocals was important in this case, because Michelle's got quite a low voice which tends to be rather thick when you try to stack it up. You have to EQ out some of the lower end to make it bright, so it will cut through. Pop generally doesn't like low voices, so most pop things are pitched quite high. I always remember Jason Donovan telling me he'd go into the studio with Pete Waterman and Pete would say 'this is the key you're singing in', and Jason would be saying 'I can't get up there, it's much too high for me,' and Pete would say 'This is the way pop is!' Jason would really struggle because his voice is quite low. In technical terms it's a baritone and he was being told to sing like a tenor or even higher."

So, having taken a pop demo of 'Once In A Lifetime', and turned it into an ultra‑modern chart dance track complete with wobbling Auto‑Tuned vocals, I wondered if Nicky thought he'd done the track justice? "I purposely don't want to listen to their demo again in case there is something I've missed. I try to be objective and single‑minded, and do something and be satisfied with it. If I listen back to the original I might get depressed if I've missed out a good bit!"

Learning The Lessons

The lucky winners explore the Big Apple...The lucky winners explore the Big Apple...Most aspiring musicians would do almost anything to corner a top producer for a few days and then interrogate them on their production techniques. So what did our competition winners get out of their work with Nicky Graham?

Ian: "I picked up vast amounts of knowledge from talking to Nicky and Deni in great depth and being very inquisitive. I wanted to know how I could do the things they do, I picked their brains in terms of the way they produce music, lay tracks, and the techniques to do the kind of tracks they do. I've already changed my gear around to try, in my own humble way, to recreate some of what they taught me. You don't get that every day."

Nicky: "They've learnt a lot from what I've done, shown them and told them about producing music and how to get on in the music business. It wasn't just about making a record, it was also about learning from someone like me who's been in the business for years, who can impart info and help point them in the right direction."

About The Sponsors


Quantegy Professional Media are responsible for one of the finest ranges of media in the world, including analogue and digital open‑reel tape, ADAT, DTRS, DAT, CD‑R and Minidisc, and recently developed the revolutionary GP9 tape. More gold and platinum records are recorded on Quantegy than all other brands combined, including the recent albums by Reba McIntire, Eric Clapton, Puff Daddy and Madonna, and virtually every Hollywood motion picture released in the last years featured a soundtrack recorded on Quantegy.


SAE Technology Colleges, situated throughout Europe, Asia and now the USA, comprise the largest educator in recording techniques and multimedia skills in the world. They offer a complete hands‑on training programme, leading to a recognised qualification, as well as the opportunity of a paid internship at Walt Disney Corporation for all graduates. The ability to move freely from college to college and country to country while you train helps to make SAE a unique educational experience. The competition winners worked at SAE's brand‑new North American flagship facility in Manhattan, New York City. As with all SAE colleges worldwide, the New York facility features state‑of‑the‑art recording studios with SSL and Neve desks, Digidesign editing suites, well‑specified outboard, and Genelec monitoring with a fully comprehensive multimedia suite.