The sessions for Divide saw singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran exploring the possibilities of home recording for the first time, courtesy of engineer Joe Rubel.
Ed Sheeran has negotiated overnight success, difficult second albums, tabloid attention and burn-out to reach an unprecedented level of chart dominance. At the time of writing, all 16 tracks from his third album Divide are in the UK Top 20, occupying not only the entire Top Five but 14 out of the top 15 places.
Yet, says the engineer who was at Sheeran’s side throughout the tracking of Divide, “I think he’s just getting started.” And given that Sheeran was already a global superstar when recording began, it’s surprising to learn that he’s still discovering his voice in the studio.
“From the beginning, I wanted to instil confidence in him,” says Joe Rubel. “I wanted to let him know that anything he wanted to happen could happen. After I’d just met him, I said ‘If you want to record a song in the middle of your field, we can do that. If you want to go to the North Pole and record, we can do that too. You should be able to do whatever you want; there shouldn’t be any constraints on what you can do.’ But his favourite place to record is at home, in his own surroundings, and be comfortable. I remember when he walked into the studio for the first time, and after five minutes looking around he was like ‘This is all mine?’
“‘Yeah, man. You paid for it, it’s all yours!’
“‘Wicked. I’ve never had a studio before!’”
In fact, prior to the start of work on Divide, Ed Sheeran had never had any sort of recording setup at home. “He’d never had a pair of monitor speakers or anything. He was touring non-stop for five years, since before the first record — and then he took his year off, so he’d never had a studio before.” At the same time, Sheeran’s previous recording experiences had left him with a distaste for traditional studios; he memorably described one hallowed London space as being “like an old bingo hall”, and prefers more ‘boutique’ rural venues such as Cenzo Townshend’s Decoy Studios.
Joe Rubel’s task thus began with the potentially tricky job of setting up a home studio that Ed Sheeran would find comfortable and inspiring, a job further complicated by the fact that vital gear and key personnel had to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. “For the first six weeks we spent in Suffolk at Ed’s house, we were working with a producer called Benny Blanco. He doesn’t fly, so he and Ed came over on the Queen Mary. Benny’s engineer, Chris Sclafani, had set up a studio on the boat in New York, and then flew over. We then had 10 days to put a studio together!”
The sea voyage had proved productive, with three or four songs taking firm shape by the time the Queen Mary docked. Stocking Ed Sheeran’s studio with gear, however, turned out to be harder than expected. “Chris put in a massive order with Vintage King before he came over, which included two vintage Neve 1073s, a Neumann U47 and some acoustic treatment. He drove down to Southampton the morning they got in to fetch Benny’s gear off the boat, but Ed and Benny just got in a car and came up. So, I knew they were coming — but a lot of the gear hadn’t arrived!”
The missing equipment was eventually traced, thanks to one of those ‘only in East Anglia’ moments: “Ed has a groundskeeper who looks after his place, and this guy is born and bred Suffolk. Two or three days before Ed and Benny were coming back, we were like ‘We don’t have a mic. We don’t have the Neves. We don’t have any acoustic treatment. What are Fedex playing at?’ The groundskeeper overheard, and he was like, ‘Are you talking about Fred-ex?’
“‘I got this text from them the other day, and they called me; told me I owed them money in duty. I thought it was a scam. I ain’t ever ordered anything on the Internet. I told ‘em to fuck off and if they ever called me again I’d call the police.’”
Other vital equipment was obtained in the UK, including eight mics from Sontronics, a Roland Juno synth from vintage specialists Soundgas, and a large collection of outboard from SX Pro — who ended up having to go the extra mile to cover for certain manufacturers’ slowness in coming up with the goods. “I know Dale at SX Pro really well, and I called him a couple of days before Benny and Ed were due to arrive and said ‘It looks terrible! We’ve got two 20U server racks with nothing in them; I can’t have Ed walk into his studio for the first time when it looks like this!’ So Dale sent me some gear, just to populate the racks — and I’d just finished turning it all on when Ed walked in. And for those six weeks at least, he had his cousins filming everything, so I met Ed, and then a camera came in behind him. It was close!”
The effort Joe Rubel put in to creating a good first impression definitely paid off. Ed Sheeran took very quickly to the idea of having his own studio, and the ensuing sessions with Rubel, Benny Blanco and Chris Sclafani proved very productive. In fact, by the time the producer sailed back to New York, a finished album was in the bag — or so they thought. “We worked at Ed’s place for six weeks, culminating in a big session at Abbey Road with a 50-piece orchestra that his brother Matthew had orchestrated. We then spent another week tidying up, doing all the backups, and making sure things were locked away. Then I came back to London, and two weeks later I got a phone call... ‘Yeah, we’re not done.’
“Benny had left the country by this point. That was August, so from September until December Ed and I met up every so often to work on more songs. A lot of that was just me and him, or at least we’d start it like that. I’d go up and spend a couple of days with him, and then we’d zip over to Decoy to do some piano. We went back to Abbey Road for a day, back to RAK to do some drums, and Dean Street to do some stuff.”
In the event, Sheeran’s prolific songwriting meant that the newer material contributed half of the album’s 16 tracks. “He released the track listing for the album in January, and I had no idea some of those songs were going to be on it! It was a productive time.”
If there’s one theme to which Joe Rubel consistently returns, it’s that the role of the engineer is to be an enabler. Rather than getting hung up on technical perfection, his focus throughout the recording of Divide was always on making sure that Sheeran’s creativity could have free rein. “You’ve got to be ready to record, and not get in the way of what he’s trying to do. As every engineer knows when they’re recording anyone, you don’t want to get in the way of them being their most creative. If the artist wants to get up and start singing, they should be able to do that. You can’t say ‘Give me a second, I want to try a different compressor.’ No-one cares about that. So if we’re doing a session where we’re putting down a song, then we’ll use the same mic for his vocal and guitar, it’ll just be moved around. I’ll have a bass plugged up, tuned up and ready, and the same with an electric guitar as well. Sometimes, I’ll pull some drum samples into the session as well.
“Ed isn’t really bothered about mics, which is good, because it means that I have room to care about that side. He knows I care about making it sound great, so he’ll let me deal with that, and he likes what comes out of the other end and knows not to worry about it. He’s very impulsive and wants to work quickly; I always need a day or two afterwards to make sure everything’s OK. Stuff goes down so fast that sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees.
“A lot of the time, I’d be working on a song with him, and I really don’t know where it’s going because he’ll already have it fully formed in his head. We’ll start a song and he’ll say ‘Give me a click’, and he’ll put down a few things over a minute or two, then I’ll pick through everything and tighten it up; we’ll build the song from there. We’ll start building it up to the point where we have loopable sections of songs. He’ll play stuff, and say ‘OK, we can loop that, we can paste it over here,’ and I’ll just have to figure out the details later, because we’d be going that quickly. But sometimes, I’m thinking ‘I don’t really know where this is going’ — and then he’ll sing it, and you’re like ‘That’s a song! It’s done.’ He’s a fantastic vocalist. Usually he’s got it all in his head already.
“I would usually bring it back here [to Rubel’s own Pixel Studio in London] to finish editing and comping it, and I added a few bits of guitar and drum programming and some synths, depending on the song and what was necessary. I’d try to do the rough here in a room that I know before I sent it to the label; you want to put your best foot forward and make sure it’s the best it can be.”
From the sonic point of view, says Rubel, “I try and do as much on the way in as possible. So, Ed’s vocal sound, if it comes via me, is that U47 or a Sontronics Aria, through a 1073 into a Tube-Tech CL1B — or an LA-2A if we don’t have one of those. The CL1B suits him really well; it was Benny and Chris’s go-to compressor, and that’s what they used for the sessions on the Queen Mary. That goes straight into Pro Tools and then it’s Waves RVox to control it a little followed by the CLA-2A for a bit of character, and that’s the basic sound before we start shaping the song. I’ll compress the vocal on the way in because it makes it sound great quickly, and also because his voice really suits compression.”
Perhaps uniquely for an artist of his stature, Ed Sheeran has never toured with a backing band — even his three sell-out Wembley Stadium gigs in 2015 were completely solo affairs. On stage, Sheeran relies on a custom-built, foot-controlled live looping system, and although he didn’t use this in the recording sessions for Divide, his approach to recording has always drawn on the same cut-and-paste aesthetic. One of Joe Rubel’s aims during the making of the album was to convince Sheeran of the benefits of working with live musicians. “There’s a couple of songs on the record that have got an Irish band called Beoga on there,” explains Rubel. “We recorded them at Decoy, and it was the best day. Beoga are the nicest people, and fantastic musicians. Decoy looks out over a lake; the live room and all the control rooms all have glass in front of them, so the sun’s coming into this beautiful building and you’re surrounded by amazing people.
“We had a couple of Ed’s co-writers there, Johnny McDaid, Foy Vance and Amy Wadge, and I felt that if anyone wanted to pick something up and play with those guys, they should be able to, so I set up a couple of mics just in case. We had two days booked, and we got their parts done in a couple of hours, because they were well rehearsed and it was overdubs on pre-existing songs. So after that, they ended up sitting in the shade of a tree by the lake, and they wrote another song, which became ‘Galway Girl’, which has been the breakthrough hit of the album since its release. Ed and Johnny cut it live on the floor with them. We did end up replacing the vocal, but it was so good! They’d finish a run-through and Ed would start producing it and arranging it, saying ‘OK, stop, do a new chord in this part, make the piano go up here,’ and so on, and I think he really enjoyed that.
“We were talking about drummers after that, and I asked if he had a drummer that he liked to work with. He said, ‘No, I don’t like live drums, they’re not perfect enough.’ Then we did a song with James Blunt in September, all at Decoy, and we had Karl Brazil come down, who’s James’ drummer, and his bassist Johnny Garrison. Karl’s ace and is really open to working in different ways; we built his drum part out of eight passes of drums, so then I could do what I usually do with Ed and chop it up, mute things, loop things and so on. Karl was amazing, and after that he did drums on a couple more of the songs we did for Ed, and Ed opened up to it.”
Unusually, all 16 tracks on Divide were mixed by the same person: Mark ’Spike’ Stent, arguably the world’s leading specialist mix engineer. “I do like the whole process of staying on something, finishing it and overseeing the mastering process as well, but it’s also quite nice to know that someone else has got that and will get it over the finishing line; it’s one thing I don’t have to worry about!” says Joe Rubel. “Also, if you’re passing things on to someone like Spike, you know it’s going to come back sounding amazing. I’ll just send the Pro Tools file as is, so he has everything there with all the plug-ins. I’ll print off a reference mix, and usually by that point it’s blown to smithereens, it’s really loud and pumping. Sorry, mate!”
At the end of it all, Ed Sheeran has emerged not only with a third massive hit album, but with a new-found confidence in the studio. “He’s feeling a lot more comfortable in the studio. He can dictate what’s going to happen, whereas I think before he probably just went with it. Now he’s like ‘Actually, I could hire a drummer, and we could sit there for four days doing parts if we wanted to.’ He wouldn’t do that, he’s not a tyrant, but I think it makes a big difference. There were a couple of times, I hope, where he thought ‘Ah, OK. That’s not as difficult as I thought it’d be.’”
Now that there is nothing to hold him back, who knows what Ed Sheeran might achieve with his fourth album?
Joe Rubel’s London production room, Pixel Studio, is home to plenty of desirable pieces of studio equipment. Of these, many have been chosen for their ability to inspire artists, especially when it comes to creating electric guitar sounds fast. He singles out his Audio Kitchen Little Chopper valve amplifier for special praise: “I made the decision that I needed a decent front-end guitar amp that I can effect with pedals. That was what I came up with, and I’m really happy with it, I think it sounds great. I’ve had Kempers in here before, and AxeFX units before Kemper was a thing, and I think they sound good too — but this sounds better. It’s got a power soak that allows you to drive the output harder without it getting louder. I love it.”
The Little Chopper was used a lot on Divide, but it was invariably recorded through a Palmer speaker simulator rather than a real loudspeaker. “Ed’s not very technical with equipment, particularly when it comes to electric guitar stuff. He’s playing a lot more electric guitar now, and he’s obviously very good at it, but he doesn’t care about amps or anything, he just leaves me to it. Usually I’ll go into the Audio Kitchen and through the speaker simulator, and then put the XLR output of the speaker simulator through a nice preamp. I’ll probably get lynched for that, but I think it sounds great. I know what that sounds like, I know it’s going to sound a certain way, I don’t have to worry about miking up a cab when in a rush. I’ve always been really into pedals and tape delays and changing the sound that way — that’s more my thing. In an ideal world it’d be lovely to have a separate live area where you could set up a bunch of amps and try different things, but it’s not really that practical when trying to work quickly. I’ve spent so much time miking up cabs before, and then when it comes to the mix, I’ve thought ‘I have to re-amp this anyway.’ This way gets it done quicker.”
Fuelling artists’ creativity was also a prime concern in the design of Joe Rubel’s custom pedalboard, which incorporates eight separate patchable effects chains. “One is distortion, two is fuzz, three is delay, four is random — the Lofi Junkie and the octaver. Five and six come out the side for patching other pedals in, seven is mono-to-stereo, so it goes through the Boss Dimension C into the Strymon Deco, and then eight is the Strymon loop. There’s one IEC on the side, and you can tempo-sync it over MIDI.”
The duo’s approach to recording acoustic guitar is uncomplicated. “It basically depends on what he’s into at the time, we never really over-think it. He’s got a couple of Lowdens, which are really lovely; he’s got a really nice nylon-string guitar as well, and we record his Martins too. Every time he brings a new album out, Martin give him a new personal guitar that’s got his thing on it, so in this case, the dots are divide symbols. They’re amazing guitars. He gets three that are special ones from Martin that he doesn’t tour with, because he beats them up. He goes through a guitar in two weeks when he’s on tour!”
Joe Rubel’s path into engineering and production was part traditional, part modern. “I studied on the Tonmeister course at Surrey University. I’m not particularly academic, and it’s a very academic course, but my main reason for going there was because they do a placement year. There are a lot fewer studios now than there were 10 years ago, but at the time, you could pretty much guarantee that you could go and work in a studio on your placement year. That was ideal for me.
“I worked at a studio called Phoenix Sound, which was at Pinewood Studios. It had been there for three years before I got there, and lasted another three after I left. It was large enough that you could record a big band in there, or a small string ensemble; you could get 30 or 40 players in there. But then we would get everything down from that as well, including lots of pop and jazz stuff. I used to do so many bands in downtime. I totally threw myself into it, and started engineering quickly, because it was a one-room facility, and also because it was out in Pinewood. If we got a last-minute session it was like ‘Of course, I’ll engineer it.’ I owe a lot to Pete Fielder, who owned and ran Phoenix and put a lot of faith in me.
“When I finished my placement year, I carried on freelancing for Phoenix when I was in the final year of university, and then carried on being freelance after that. That was my main thing for a good couple of years, and then around the time it was closing, I was branching out a bit. I was working a lot for Spitfire Audio, and a composer called Michael Price, who I still work with a lot now. I was really busy from then on, and it made sense to get a studio, so eventually I took this place [Pixel Studio] on and began to populate it with gear.”
Rubel’s growing reputation eventually led to his being recruited to work on Divide — not by Ed Sheeran himself, but by his record label. “Decoy Studios, Cenzo Townsend’s place, is down the road from Ed’s house. They needed a bigger space to record Beoga, and Decoy is perfect to do that. I know Cenzo really well and I’ve worked up there a bunch, so he’d already said ‘You should come up and do that.’ And then the label decided it would be good to have someone around for the whole project. So I went in to meet the label, and I was at Ed’s three weeks later. I didn’t actually meet Ed before we started!”