The sessions for U2's No Line On The Horizon took the idea of spontanaeity in the studio to new levels. Engineer Declan Gaffney was the man charged with creating order from apparent chaos...
Jimi Hendrix, reportedly, was one of the first artists whose creative process involved having the tape running all the time in the recording studio. It's a sprawling way of working that involves endless trawling through recorded material to mine the highs from the humdrum. U2 are among the most famous present‑day adherents of this working method, and, with technology more complex and recording budgets much larger, the Irish band's approach is vastly more expansive and Byzantine than Hendrix could ever have dreamt of. In fact, it is so intricate and seemingly endless that guitarist The Edge recently joked that U2 albums "don't get finished, they just get released”.
The band's latest 'unfinished' release, No Line On The Horizon, was the result of sessions lasting almost two years, beginning in June 2007 in Fez (Morocco), then moving on to The Edge's place in the South of France, to U2's Hanover Quay studio in Dublin, Platinum Sound Studios, New York, and finally, in late 2008 and early 2009, to Olympic Studios in London. It involved U2's customary process of writing, recording, editing and mixing, followed by ceaseless rewriting, re‑recording, re‑editing, and remixing, in any possible order and often simultaneously. At least 20 people were directly involved in assisting the band during the sessions, including a posse of engineers, mixers, assistants, drum, guitar and studio techs, and so on, plus, of course producers Daniel Lanois (see box) and Brian Eno, with help from Steve Lillywhite.
Central to the technical side of things was Dubliner Declan Gaffney, who engineered three songs, mixed 'Get On Your Boots' and 'White As Snow', co‑mixed five others, and has additional engineering credits for almost all the tracks. It's fair to say that No Line On The Horizon was a jump into the deep end for 27‑year old Gaffney, whose previous CV constitutes mainly assistant credits. Gaffney spent three and a half years working with Van Morrison, followed by a year at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, and another year at Metropolis in London, and was asked in February 2008 whether he'd be willing to work in U2's studio in Dublin as an assistant engineer, where his role quickly became more important.
One of Gaffney's main tasks was to help keep track of what was happening. "My job when I first started working with U2 was to tape‑op the Radar [digital multitrack], and man the DAT recorder, which runs all the time. The main thing about working with Radar is that you can very quickly move from one song to the next. When U2 have put down an idea they'll come up with new ideas during the next playback and will just pick up a microphone and start singing or playing guitar, and with Radar you can drop these things in on the fly, without stopping. I couldn't imagine doing a writing session with these guys using Pro Tools, because you simply don't have time to create three new tracks and put them in record. That new guitar or drum part could have vanished into thin air by then.
"The only thing that's tricky at the studio here is that we still manually patch everything; there's no such thing as routing. So when the sessions move at a million miles an hour, which they do, it can be really frantic to re‑patch things when they suddenly decide to work on another song. The outputs of the mixing desk are split to go to the Radar and the DAT, and I made notes of everything that was going on. Sometimes you get a directive, like 'Mark so and so on the DAT,' but for most of the time you need to use your own initiative. Literally months later someone will turn round and say 'We did this Joy Division‑like bass line on this song one day, can you find that?' You then need to go through your notes to see if there is a reference to a Joy Division‑like bass part, and use your own memory. It may sound like looking for a needle in a haystack, but funnily enough, the system works. The assistant engineer makes notes of absolutely everything, no matter how insignificant it may seem. The band comes up with millions of ideas all the time, and everything gets a name. After we moved the project to Pro Tools the comments fields were also always full with information, so that if three months later someone wanted a hear the hook in a chorus of such and such a take, you could go back seven Playlists and find it.”
Gaffney must have impressed the other members of the company, because he soon graduated from tape‑op to acting as a fully fledged engineer and mixer. And so, when the band decided in June 2008 to go to Edge's house in the south of France for some more writing sessions, Gaffney was invited along. By this time, the project was moved over to Pro Tools. "We wanted to keep the recording setup small, so we just had a few microphones, a Control 24, Pro Tools, and three drives, so we could move easily and quickly between different songs. Other than Pro Tools, the recording setups for most of the sessions were pretty similar. Edge's old Neve desk was pulled apart for on‑location recording, and its 1091 and 1093 mic preamps were racked. Everything was going through these mic pres, or a small Neve sidecar, then through any required outboard, and monitoring was via two Mackie 24‑channel desks. When we went to Platinum in New York we had a much larger setup, with guitars and amplifiers everywhere. The idea had been to mix at Platinum, but the band was still adding overdubs, or wanted sections added or taken out during mixing. This will happen right up until the morning the album goes to mastering. The songs go through so many permutations, in some cases you wouldn't recognise the original versions.”
As Daniel Lanois explains, 'Get On Your Boots', the first single from No Line On The Horizon, was a case in point. "It came from The Edge's workshop. He had that riff all along, and he was very excited about it, and we served it the best we could. Almost all the other material came from the sessions in Fez and France, and their beginnings were rhythmic. Brian came in with a lot of rhythmic computer preparations, which he piped into Larry's headphones, and Larry then improvised a beat running in tandem with these Eno beginnings. This immediately brought us to a fantastic rhythmic place, and gave us the opportunity to approach our instruments in a way that we had never done before.
"Bono's singing is fantastic these days, so we were also afforded the luxury of some great vocal performances, live with the band. The best emotional tracks are always recorded when you have the singer in the room with you, and that was the case on this record. We don't like living with a promise: we pursue something because we are excited about it. So a lot of the effects get printed along the way. We only ever operate on excitement, and it's not a good idea to try to recreate effects on another day. We also don't want to wait for the mix. For example, I'd do all kinds of things to The Edge's guitar sound, putting it back through an amplifier and re‑miking it, and so on. He also did some nice slide guitar solos on the record that I processed through various outboard boxes to make them as exciting as possible.”
'Get On Your Boots' was recorded by the band in the first half of 2008 at Hanover Quay, and then extensively reworked there. "Edge came in with a version of the song that had the riff. When the band started a new version of the song in Dublin, we recorded Edge's guitar, a loop by Eno, drums, Adam's bass, a guide vocal, and overdubbed the percussion and keyboards. Some sections were slightly longer than in the released version, and there used to be this extended guitar solo that Dan had taken sections of and turned them around, so you had alternating forwards and backwards guitar. Then one evening Edge had the idea for half‑time drums underneath the guitar, and everyone was like 'That's fucking cool!' One night Edge also overdubbed a really cool guitar part, that was named 'Spirit of punk rock', which is a reference to 'The spirit of jazz', a character in the Mighty Boosh TV show.
"Generally speaking, the last thing to be added to a U2 track is the lead vocal, so when we were in France, Bono worked extensively on the lyrics, the phrasing and getting the right vocal approach. Of the other tracks I was involved in mixing, 'Fez' came out of Edge playing this cool guitar sound in Fez, and Danny sampled it and chopped it up and remapped out the guitar part, and put some kind of rhythmic element behind it. Then Brian treated it and added atmospherics — you can hear a Moroccan marketplace, for instance. Brian, Dave Emery and I mixed the track in relay fashion; the two of them started the mix and I finished it towards the end of the project. Dan and I mixed 'Cedars Of Lebanon' together, live, with everyone in the room, on a K‑series SSL at Platinum. Dan insisted on doing this as a performance mix: we redid each mix pass from scratch, rather than use automation and tweak previous mixes. Dan and I also mixed 'Moment Of Surrender' and 'Unknown Caller' at Platinum on the console, and we then used stems from these mixes to tweak them when we were at Olympic in London. But the mixing work on 'Boots' in Olympia was done in the box. When we came to Platinum we had these huge analogue SSL desks and we decided to run some of the in‑the‑box mixes via them, and compared that to the in‑the‑box versions, and we decided to stay in the box where we could.”
Lanois has always advocated the idea of mixing as a performance, and unsurprisingly, his two studios, in Los Angeles and Toronto, are each built around a console, a 38‑channel Neve 8068 and a Midas 4000 respectively. So how does he retain that performance aspect while working in the box? Lanois: "It's difficult, but I found a way of working with it that still allows me to take advantage of my instincts. I don't sit behind the screen myself, but work with an engineer, like the mighty Declan, and I get very specific, saying things like: 'Go to this section, take this out, put this in, make this louder, make that quieter, pan that hard to the left,' and so on. So no tiny moves, only quite broad strokes. And I work in sections. Once a section has radical moves, it usually dictates what happens in the next section. The potential pitfall of working in the box is that the changes are very tiny and take a long time. So I prefer to stick with a broad stroke philosophy. That seems to work. And one of the advantages of mixing in the box is that you can go back to where you were at the push of a button.”
'Get On Your Boots'
Written by U2/Bono
Produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Additional production: Declan Gaffney
Declan Gaffney: "The mix of 'Boots' evolved over time. The original impulse happened one night in Dublin when Edge and I were laying down the 'Spirit of punk rock' guitar, and we changed the balance of the song, taking out the three tom mics completely. Edge asked me to put down the mix, which I did on a CD. A couple of months later, just before we were due to go to France, he called me and asked for that mix of 'Boots'. I told him that it was done on a Mackie, which doesn't have recall, but that I would try to recreate it from listening to the original and from memory. I spent a whole day in Dublin, using Pro Tools and an Icon and lots of plug‑ins, to try to get that balance and sound again. I remember thinking 'This sounds OK, but I think I can make it better,' and so I saved the mix as I had it, in case Edge wouldn't like where I took it, and did some more things to it. I sent that mix to Edge, and he liked it, and we tweaked some sections, and he overdubbed another acoustic guitar, which you can hear in the chorus.
"After that, Bono put down his new vocal performances in France. We didn't work on the song at Platinum, though I would sometimes open up the file and listen to how it sounded in that room, and tweak it accordingly. When we were at Olympic, we changed and added some sections, and put the final hand on the mix. In May 2008 Steve Lillywhite had worked on another version of the song, which was more rock & roll, and really good, but it wasn't what the band was looking for. For the finally released version, the 'let me in the sound' section was changed; the band wanted me to make it a bit crazier, and one night when I was working on the song, when I thought everyone had gone home, Bono happed to walk by and came in, and together we realised that that section didn't need fairy dust, but just to get the snare and kick f**king loud. We did some work on the outro as well, and finished the mix. But the end result is 90 percent the mix that I did on my own in Dublin. By the way, the work on the song in Olympia was done in the box. When we came to Platinum we had these huge analogue SSL desks and we decided to run some of the in‑the‑box mixes via them, and compared that to the in‑the‑box versions, and we decided to stay in the box where we could.
"There are loads of tracks in the 'Boots' [Pro Tools] Sessions — a lot more than you can see, because of the amount of ideas that people had during the recording process. The end result is essentially what happened live, but they are always trying new ideas. Working with U2 is an evolutionary process of constant writing, recording, and mixing all at the same time, and as soon as a decision is made not to use a track, it's pulled down to the bottom of the Session and hidden, so it can't play accidentally. But it will be labelled and have comments, so we can always revert back to it. We'll have track culls now and then, when the Sessions become too big and unwieldy. We'll do a 'save' marked as pre‑clean‑out, and then clear out the tracks and carry on. If you saw the Pro Tools Session folder for each song, you'd see hundreds of different versions of that Session, so the band can revert to a favourite balance or mix at any time.”
"If you were to look at the 'Boots' Mix window picture with the bass plug‑ins, you'd see the Eno loop on the left, and all the main drum stuff to the left of that. To the right are two overheads and a bongo part. 'Taurus' is a Moog Taurus bass pedal — Danny is always into getting the low end right, and the pedal is doubling Adam's live bass in the verses. 'Edge Floor A' and 'Edge Floor B' are the two mics with which his live take was recorded — 'floor' is a U2 term for a live take. You can also see the 'Nu Riff' track marked as 'spirit of punk rock'. 'Backwards loops' is Dan's backwards treatment of an Edge guitar solo, which you can hear in the outro. 'Prime Time' is Dan creating textures and atmospherics with delays and things. The Sessions are as organised as they can be, so you can understand what's going on and quickly know where you are. I arrange and clean up the Sessions when the band isn't there.”
Bass: Digidesign Digirack EQ, Cranesong Phoenix Dark Essence, Massey L2007, Bomb Factory Sansamp
"Adam's bass is really cool, low‑sounding, with no top in it. It's the sound he gets. It's pretty much the lowest bass you'll ever hear. I have a Digirack seven‑band EQ on it during the whole track, notching out 108.3Hz and 193.3Hz, and cutting above 6kHz. It's a weird EQ curve, but that's how it ended up. I don't pay attention to what the curve looks like. I also had a Dark Essence on a Sapphire setting. It appears to add a little bottom and top and makes it sound a bit sweeter, like a compressor that isn't working. It's one of those plug‑ins that can just improve the sound.”
"Using the Massey L2007 Mastering Limiter on bass is a trick I learned from Rick Rainey. It's really good at getting an even bass sound. It flattens the bass, but it doesn't make it sound compressed. It just allows you to set the level, and bang, that's it. Finally, the Sansamp is automated to come in just for four bars immediately after the first chorus, where Edge plays an overdub called 'James Bond Guitar'. Many other instruments drop out at that point, leaving the bass kind of exposed. The natural bass sound is so low that it didn't really have any mids, so to make it cut through more, I dirtied it up with the Sansamp, to give it more guitar‑like frequencies and to make sure that the James Bond guitar can sound quite small, which was the idea. The Sansamp plug‑in comes in again during the 'let me in the sound' section, where it's just bass, drums, vocals and a textural guitar solo, and it again fills the hole in that section.”
Guitars: Digidesign Digirack EQ, Massey CT4
"As I said earlier, Edge tends to find his own sound, so normally you don't do much to his guitar tracks, other than EQ them a bit and balance them. The 'James Bond' overdub is one exception. It was done a few months after the main tracks were laid down, and it happens only once, immediately after the first chorus. Towards the end of the mix, Edge said to me 'It needs to sound small,' so I EQ'ed pretty much out of it with the Digirack. Instead of this really great big guitar sound, which is what he usually goes for, it was this cool, small sound that's not in your face. The EQ does look quite extreme, doesn't it? There's also a Massey CT4 compressor on the James Bond guitar, which is just touching it, to even things out a little bit for consistency.”
Lead vocal: Waves VEQ3 & Renaissance Vox, Bomb Factory Fairchild 660, Digidesign Trim, Digirack EQ & De‑esser, Sound Toys Echo Boy
"I used the Waves VEQ3 to get rid of some of the thickness in the voice that came from using the 58/Neve/LA2A signal path [see 'Tracking 'Get On Your Boots'' box]. I'm cutting at 700Hz, just to sweeten it a little. I like the VEQ3, because it's great for broad brushstrokes. I'll use the Digirack for precise surgery; you can take specific frequencies out very quickly with it, and it won't change the sound too much. It's a 'go‑to' plug‑in for me. The Fairchild 660 plug‑in is doing quite a lot of heavy compression. You can see that the input gain is up quite high, and that means the signal is hitting the compressor hard. Bono's voice sounds really good with this plug‑in, or with the Bomb Factory 1176. If the one isn't working, I'll try the other. His voice also likes the SSL compressor, and I use the RVox here to soften things a little bit, it's not doing very much. The Digirack Trim is used to turn the output of the Fairchild down, it's not there for sonic purposes.
"There's also a seven‑band Digirack EQ that notches out around 245Hz and adds some top end above 10k for some sparkle. The Digirack De‑esser and Echo Boy are on a separate track, because I wanted to hit the De‑esser first, so that any kind of sibilance didn't hit the echo. The echo is just a kind of warm ping‑pong sound. There's no reverb on the track, there's not even any feedback on the delay, it's all about the dry sound with a little bit of space on the side, provided by the delay. In fact, there's no echo in the whole song. I recall Dan making a joke about how we were trying not to use any echo on this record. It didn't require it. I'm not a huge fan of reverb anyway; it's better to do the same thing with delays.”
Mix bus: SSL compressor, Massey L2007, Cranesong Phoenix Dark Essence, Waves VEQ4
"I always put on some mastering plug‑ins, and we then listen and decide whether they work or not. Edge preferred these plug‑ins, so they remained.
"I printed the mix through an Aux track. The stereo mix hits the SSL compressor first, on a setting that lets all the transients go through, and yet makes it sound very punchy. It's hitting the Massey L2007 mastering limiter after that, and the way the two act together works really well. While the SSL takes care of making the sound snappier, the L2007 takes off some peaks. The Massey has a very fast attack, which helps the vibe. I also tried the L1 limiter, but didn't like it, and switched it off. Cranesong do this box called the HEDD192, and the Dark Essence plug‑in is more or less a plug‑in version of that. It simply makes the mix sound better. The Waves VEQ4 is a Neve 1081 recreation, and I add a little at 100Hz, 270Hz and at 15K, again to improve the sound and for some sweetness. It's not surgery. The Neve is just there to make the whole track smile.”
Declan Gaffney: "Most of 'Get On Your Boots' was recorded in Dublin by Richard Rainey, and the basic backing tracks were done live, by the whole band together. There was an [Electro‑Voice] RE20 inside the bass drum, with an SE Electronics Titan on the outside, a [Shure] 57 underneath the snare, and Richard had his own Heil mic on top, which he alternated with a Beyer M201; the toms were [Sennheiser] 421, overheads Coles 4038; ride cymbal was sometimes a 57, sometimes a [AKG] 451. Everything went through the Neve 1091 or 1093 mic pres. The microphone on the bass cabinet was a Shure SM7 going into a Neve preamp into an LA2A; the DI wasn't used. The SM7 was the only bass mic that was used on the whole record, it's great for bass guitar!
"Edge's thick guitar sound is entirely from the live band session, recorded with two Royer 121s, one on his Fender Deluxe and the other on his AC30, and the mics went through the Neve and then an LA2A, though it's not doing anything, it was just there for the sound. When recording Edge's cabinets, it's almost always a 121, or a Sennheiser 409, occasionally a 57. I record completely flat, because Edge will have found a great guitar sound, and you just record it.
"When we were in France, we got this great vocal sound that Bono really liked, which was a [Shure] Beta 58, going through a 1091 and then an LA2A, into Pro Tools. I even A/B'ed the different 58s and Neves, and found my favourite LA2A, to get the best ones. I'm very proud of the vocal sound. I added a bit of compression while he was singing, and he got excited by that and adjusted his voice accordingly. When we were at Olympic, the vocal chain changed a little. I normally have two or three 58s up in a room, and at Olympic one of them would go through a Neve preamp and the LA2A, but the other would be Neve and then Distressor, and I actually preferred that sound. The LA2A sounded a little too thick. The Distressor had a sort of hardness that balanced the thickness out better. Edge's vocals were also recorded with one of the 58s.”
Producer and artist Daniel Lanois' association with U2 goes back to 1984, when Eno and he helped reinvent the band's sound on The Unforgettable Fire. Since then, Lanois and Eno have worked on classic U2 albums like The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991) and All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000). For No Line On The Horizon, one of his contributions was to encourage the band to work in Fez, Morocco, in May and June 2007.
"We went there because we wanted to be at a spiritual crossroads and we felt that Fez had that to offer, musically. We thought of it as a Mecca of sorts. We wanted to be in a geographical location that was filled with plenty of music, and that didn't have the usual fangs of the music business and expectations. Was it to do with going to a Muslim country? We did not speak about that. We spoke about mutual ground. I think that there's something ancient in that location that gets in your bones. And I think that it's a good inspiration for music to draw upon historical sources. Yes, you can listen to music from the '80s, the '70s, and maybe the '60s, and think that some kind of mimicry will serve you. But why not look back at a thousand years and see what comes your way?
"We hired a riad, which is a large building with an open courtyard, rolled in an 18‑wheeler truck full of U2's Dublin gear, and set up in the courtyard. The truck had about eight racks of gear for the Edge, one guitar pedal for me, a microphone for Bono, drums for Larry, and a bunch of recording gear. We recorded to Radar. I highly recommend it, it's a great machine. The riad had a sort of automatic roof that could be peeled away, so we could play in the open sky, which is to be highly recommended. The courtyard works like an ancient ventilation system; the warm air escapes and the walls provide you with shade. The co‑writing invitation from the band was very kind and very sweet. The fact is, we play well together, Eno, U2 and I, and those beginnings in Fez were very productive. Just a few weeks of recording provided us with many fascinating beginnings, beautiful landscapes, isolated moments, and poetry. It was all there. It was like a harvest.”
In a recent interview, the Edge explained that his Death By Audio Supersonic Fuzz Gun inspired his approach to the guitar on the new album. Lanois: "You mean his guitar pedal? I'm sure he's right about that. But he has so many pedals that I have lost track of them. The Edge's corner is like a minefield of pedals and you don't want to go to his corner for fear of never coming out again. My one pedal? That's a little looping box called a Boomerang. There are lots of strange repeating sounds on the record and some of them come from the Boomerang.”
"The mixing stage took place at Platinum Sound in New York. I forget all the reasons why we went to New York, but I think one of them was that we could use three rooms at the same time in one building. Eno, two mixing engineers, and I, had a song brewing in each room and we were able to waltz from one room to another. There's something nice about having three songs burning at once. We did the same at Olympic Studios in London, where we did the final mixing sessions, during which Steve Lillywhite helped out with the production and mixing. I think that things worked out really well and that the album contains some of the band's best work.”