Working with a producer and an ambitious timescale, our engineer planned ahead for the best chances of a good result.
In late September last year, I had the pleasure of welcoming Steven Adams & The French Drops to my studio for a week to record their new album Virtue Signals. I’ve worked with songwriter and singer Steven in a few different roles over the last few years, including being engineer, co-producer or mixer for his last two solo albums. Both records were recorded in a combination of home and studio sessions which were completed over the course of several months — and I wrote about recording the first at Steven’s house (http://sosm.ag/session-notes-1114). With a settled band on board again, though (see the 'Recorded This Month' box), Steven was keen that the band enter the studio as a group and leave with all the recording completed during a single sitting. Why? Well, it was partly due to the budget and logistical considerations, but there was also a genuine desire to immerse himself in the band dynamic that he’d been beginning to miss after so much time working solo.
The other significant change for this album would be that the band would be bringing along a producer, Ben Nicholls, for the majority of the recording sessions. Ben and the band had spent time together in the rehearsal room, fine-tuning the arrangements and making sure the songs were ready to record before entering the studio.
I was hosting the sessions at my Half-ton Studios in Cambridge, where my role would be that of a recording engineer, working under Ben’s creative direction to help capture the band as he saw best. My job would be to manage the technical side of the project and, when the recording was complete, pass on mix-ready Pro Tools sessions to the band’s record label.
Although I’ve worked in more involved roles with this songwriter in the past, the prospect of working alongside a producer didn’t bother me. I’m usually pretty confident about getting on with other engineer/producer types (I can count on a finger or two the number of times I haven’t over the years!), and I’ve known Steven for a while, and have a great deal of faith in his record-making instincts, so we were able to talk through how we would all fit together before I agreed to take the job. A bonus is that every time I work closely with someone else in this way, I find that I always end up learning a new trick or two — and it can make you think harder about your own way of working in a fresh way, too.
We had five days initially booked in the studio, in which we’d try and get as much of the album down as humanly possible. Steven had asked me if I’d work long days for these sessions, and after a little negotiation I agreed — but I suggested sticking to working 10-12 hour days, with a few longer ones only if required.
Alongside the all-important vocals, the band’s line-up consisted of full drums, bass guitar, two electric guitars and assorted piano and other keys. Ben and the band were keen to get as much of the line-up down live as was practical, so that all that would be left to overdub would be guitars, additional keys/piano and the lead/backing vocals.
I’ve written previously about the importance of buying yourself some time during the initial setup for a busy session. Yet, I already knew that Steven likes to get a move on, and we didn’t have the luxury of being able to sacrifice one of our five recording days to experiment with the sounds. So I made a point of booking in an extra half-day in the studio before the sessions began, to get everything as well prepared as possible. I’d been in touch with some of the band members over email beforehand, and my first priority was to make sure we were well covered in terms of instruments — as well as being the engineer, of course, I was the studio owner, and thus I saw part of my role to be providing the band and producer with a few options in terms of different-sounding drums, guitar amps and a few extra toys to play with.
Drummer Daniel Fordham was going to bring along his small Premier drum kit, but I also made sure I had a fresh set of heads on the studio kit, as I thought this might suit the band’s style. I’d worked out that, along with what the band would bring, we had three or four good guitar amp options, two bass amps and plenty of guitars and keyboards to play with. I also made sure I had all the headphone sets up and running, and enough mics rigged on stands to get the drums miked up very quickly. Half-ton’s main live room isn’t huge, but one of the studio’s big advantages is that there are three separate spaces in which I can record, and I can thus achieve plenty of isolation of guitar amps and the like during whole-band recording sessions; I made sure all the available rooms were clear, had mic stands at the ready, and had cables patched in ready to go.
When Ben arrived for the first day of recording, we walked and talked as I showed him around the studio, explaining how things are patched between the rooms. I’ve always gone for quality over quantity in terms of the number of recording channels and explained to Ben that despite having 24 channels on my Audient ASP8024 console, I had only 16 inputs going into Pro Tools, via my Lynx Aurora A-D converter. Increasing this to 24 channels has been on the to-do list for a while, but in a way I’ve grown to like the limitation — it encourages me to make production decisions as I go — which is perhaps why it has yet to be ticked off the list! Besides, there have been many classic albums that have been recorded on far fewer channels!
Meanwhile, if I find myself dealing with more than 16 sources, I can usually sum a few things down on the console — the top and bottom snare mics, for example, the room mics, or multiple mics on a guitar. As I talked this through with Ben, though, I quickly sensed that this made him a little nervous, so I made it clear I wouldn’t do any combining of channels on the way in without running it by him first. As we began to build up a picture of how the studio would be set up, though, I realised that this session would quickly push my setup to capacity, and made a note to think harder about that to-do list!
The first big decision was which drum kit to use. My Mapex kit has a 24-inch kick and a very deep, powerful sound that works well for rock-oriented material. But it became obvious, especially with those new heads, that it sounded a bit over the top for this project, with too much attack and ‘click’. Despite it being a smaller and less obviously ‘impressive’-sounding kit, we quickly decided that Dan’s smaller, drier-sounding Premier set was the better option. A small problem with this vintage kit, though, was that the old legs on the kick drum didn’t do a stellar job of holding the drum in place! I keep handy a few old heavy gym weights for just this eventuality — piling three of them up held the kick nicely in place.
Mic-wise, it was all pretty standard stuff: I rigged up a pair of AKG C414 B-ULS capacitor mics as overheads, and used Shure SM57s on both the top and bottom skins of the snare drum. For the kick, I had my trusty Audio-Technica ATM25, placed just inside, and a Neumann U87 outside the resonant head. I like to use condenser mics on the toms if the drummer’s not too thrashy, I find the off-axis sound can work much better than many otherwise great-sounding dynamic mics. The rack and floor toms were treated to an AKG C414 EBs, and a Royer SF-12 ribbon mic gave us a stereo room-mic option. Ben also wanted a close high-hat mic available. So, in total, we’d deployed 11 mics on the drums — too many to record individually, according to my initial calculations.
I have a lovely old Traynor bass amp and cab at the studio — it’s a great combination when you’re looking for a slightly fuzzy vintage bass sound — and after a little playing with the controls bassist David Steward really liked the sound it delivered from his Fender Precision bass. Ben requested a clean DI option for his guitar, which was easy to supply via a DI box, and I positioned a Beyerdynamic TXG 50 dynamic mic 2-3 inches from the speaker — this seemed to do a great job of capturing the sound of the amp. As an additional bass mic option, Ben had brought along his Turner mic, an old CB base-station model with a compressor on board that’s not dissimilar in style to the Level-Loc. This gave us a fantastic lo-fi fuzz effect — but as the mic was slightly ‘erratic’ it needed its own recording channel. We were already up to 14 of our 16 channels before hooking up the keys, the other guitar or the guide vocals, but I’d figure out how to whittle that down!
We put the bass cab in a separate room from the drums, and by using the excellent Radial SGI TX system, which allows you to run a jack cable over a long distance without compromising the signal, we were able to have both drummer and bassist playing together in the main live room with very little spill.
Keyboardist Michael Wood had access to a number of instrument options and was keen to have them all available to pick and choose from at will. We therefore made the call to create a ‘keyboard station’ in the smaller room, rather than attempt to squish Michael into the live room with the rhythm section. Along with Michael’s Nord Stage 2, Ben had brought along his vintage Ace Tone Top 5 and Vox Continental keyboards — and they both sounded great through a guitar amp. I had plenty of mic inputs in that room, so I patched in a stereo pair of channels for the Nord, and for the vintage keys I switched the output into the guitar cab when needed; this was miked with a Beyerdynamic M160 ribbon just in front of the speaker. I also had to allow for a talkback mic for this room; I needed to set up four channels on the Audient Console to be ready to go. I could then switch inputs into Pro Tools on a song-by-song basis, via the output selector matrix on the desk.
All that was left to consider for the initial live tracking setup were Steven’s guide guitar and his vocals. I have a large viewing window in my studio between the main live room and control room, which was designed for just this scenario. Steven was positioned around halfway back into the room so he could see the rhythm section clearly — and they him. I used an SM58 for his voice, and we decided a DI’d guitar sound would be sufficient at this stage for his simple rhythm parts.
This whole setup would require a minimum of 18 recording inputs, which obviously we’d have to get down to 16. The keys could be mixed down to one channel without too much compromise; if we were using the Nord, which might benefit from being captured in stereo, we could always create a stereo effect from a mono channel if we really needed to. We planned to overdub the more organic piano parts (courtesy of the studio’s upright acoustic piano) anyhow. Ben agreed to this so we just had to lose one more channel, and the drums seemed to be the best place to find it. The realistic options were losing the hi-hat mic, losing one of the kick mics, or combining them or the two snare mics on the way in. After listening back to a quick test recording, Ben and I felt the outside kick mic wasn’t adding much, and decided we could live without it. At last, we had everything we needed to get the session moving.
To give you an idea of timing, thanks to my solo setup session before the band arrived, we were in a position to start recording the album just after lunch on the first day. We could have tinkered with a few more things (eg. mic placement and fine-tuning of the drum sound), but it felt like a sensible amount of care and attention had been taken to get to this point, and Ben and the band were keen to get cracking. It had been decided that all the songs would be recorded using a metronome, and that when starting a new song, the band would play what they felt was a natural tempo while I set up a suitable click track in Pro Tools.
Things started to move quite quickly once we started recording, as the band were obviously well rehearsed. The main issues that needed debating were what sounds worked best for the keyboards, certain drum fills, and making sure we had the right tempo. I make a point of challenging bands to get the tempo right, as it’s so important — and some bands often play too fast, because they’re so paranoid about stuff sounding boring compared to how they play it live! I make them at least listen back to a section, and how the singer feels delivering the lyrics is often the clincher. If indecision kicks in try and take a break or move on and come back to that song later — fresh ears and that first listen count for so much.
This part of the recording sessions is where you need to focus on solid engineering. The band is up and running and, while it’s important to get some momentum going, I always tell new engineers to get into the habit of regularly checking things; especially when you’ve had a hectic setting-up period, it’s very easy to mentally switch off a little and just hit record. As we worked through this first batch of songs, I made a point of making regular trips into the live rooms to check on the mics, as it’s not the responsibility of the players, however experienced, to tell you if your tom mic has drooped or if the snare drum is now in a slightly different place.
But you need also to keep things flowing — it’s about choosing your moments. When the drummer heads out to the toilet, or when there’s some other natural pause in proceedings, don’t rest on your laurels — that’s your cue to have a quick look around and check things are as they should be! As I was often switching routing from the desk into Pro Tools, I also made a point of flicking through the channels to double-check what I was recording and also made myself an additional scribble strip so I could keep track of things.
By lunchtime on the second day, we had backing tracks down for four of the 10 songs to be recorded. The idea was to move onto fleshing out these tracks with Steve’s rhythm guitars and begin to tidy and build upon some of the keyboard parts. Artistically this was the right thing to do, as it’s good to keep all the band members involved and interested when working over more for than a few days.
When you start working on overdubs of any kind, though, it never ceases to amaze me just how quickly a few hours can disappear when working on the same few parts. Sure enough, by the time we had a few overdubs in place for just one song, it was 4pm and suddenly we found ourselves a bit behind. Another, smaller issue for me was that because the channel count was so tight I was starting to have to juggle things a bit, plugging and unplugging mic inputs, and most of the ‘better’ preamps and outboard were being used on the drums and bass. If we carried on doing overdubs as we went, it seemed to me that we wouldn’t even get close to getting everything recorded in the available time, so I shared my thoughts with Ben and the band.
As everyone sitting in the room came from different parts of the country, it wouldn’t be straightforward to get everyone back together for additional recording sessions. With this in mind, we decided we should focus on getting all of the basic rhythm tracks down first. This would give us a much greater chance of getting finished or, if we didn’t quite make it, leaving ourselves with just some vocal overdubs to complete. From my point of view, we could then also tear down the drum setup and properly focus on getting good sounds for all the additional instruments without worrying about switching things in and out.
With this decision taken, we made good progress during the rest of the day. Still, to get to where we needed to be, with all the backing tracks laid down in two days, we had to work until nearly midnight — which had meant a not insignificant 14-hour non-stop recording day!
As we returned the next morning, bleary-eyed and with coffee in hand, Ben sensibly insisted we double-check the last couple of songs we did the previous night. Thankfully, everything was sounding as good as we remembered, so I was given the all clear to take down some of the drum mics. Ben was keen to introduce some more ambient room-mic options for the next stage, so I repositioned the C414s (set to cardioid pattern) that had been drum overheads to point at the back wall of the live room. I also moved the Neumann U87 from the kick out into the corridor.
We set up three guitar amps initially, but ended up working mainly with two Fender Combo’s: a Champ, which worked great for thinner-sounding rhythm parts, and a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which worked well for the more effect-driven lead stuff. I had an AKG C414 EB on the larger combo, about 3-4 inches back from the centre of the cone, and an SM57 on the smaller amp. One technique I’ve not often used but Ben was keen on is placing an additional mic to the rear of the speaker. I used a ribbon mic here, with the polarity inverted so that it was in phase with the front mic, and found it great for dialling in some more low-mid if needed. We then worked through all Steve’s guitar parts without too much fuss. It was just a case of deciding what needed double-tracking and experimenting with a few pedal and tonal options on a song-by-song basis.
Things got a bit more interesting when I suggested that we might experiment with the studio’s Leslie speaker cabinet; with this blasting out in the corridor and being captured with a combination of both a close mic and the ambient mic down the other end of the hallway, it created a wonderfully eerie tremolo sound that got everyone’s attention! It can sometimes take a bit of messing around to get these things set up — in this case, the issue was finding a suitable 4Ω amp to power the Leslie — but when you get that magic sound, it can really lift and inspire a slightly tired group of musicians, not to mention their engineer! We ended up using this sound quite a lot for guitarist Laurie Earle’s more melodic parts, and it also worked great on some of the vintage keyboards.
One use that really surprised me, though, was Ben’s suggestion of using the Leslie for the acoustic piano recording! My Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon mic gives me an instantly great sound on my upright piano, but on Ben’s suggestion we also placed an SM58 pointing at the strings and used this to feed the Leslie, with a Boss EQ pedal to boost the very low level that comes straight out of a dynamic microphone. It conjured up a fantastic, shimmery piano effect — it is right up there amongst the coolest sounds I’ve heard created in my studio. I’ll definitely be trying that again!
We’d managed to get all the instruments down by the end of the fourth day, which was great, but the long days had taken their toll. Long hours are normal in studio work of course, but I remain far from convinced that consecutive 14-hour days are actually all that productive for the musicians — not to mention what it does for the mental well-being of the person operating the DAW for most of that time! Ben had to leave us at the end of the fourth day, due to some long-standing touring commitments, so I was left manning the ship for the all-important vocal recording on the final day of the session.
I find vocals to be the most challenging part of engineering, not from a technical point of view, but in terms of the responsibility of working with the singer to get the right takes in the bag. They’re the most important element on most records, so you need to be right on your game to get the best results — but by this time I was absolutely shattered! There seem to be bragging rights about working crazy hours in this industry, but I don’t buy into that at all. Some sessions you just have to grin and bear it of course, but knowing Steven as I do I felt it best to talk it through with him. He was slightly disappointed to not at least try and get finished, but we came up with a workable compromise: we’d work a shorter day, and get the songs that required backing vocals from the other band members completed; and, as Steven lives in North London, only an hour’s train ride away, he and I would return to the studio for an extra day and lay down the rest of his vocals.
Once the dust had settled after our short but intense album recording session, it was satisfying to hear just how much high-quality music we’d got down. As I’m writing these words, I’m listening to the final album mixes, which were completed by Andy Bell of Hudson Records — and it sounds fantastic! It was great to work with Ben Nicholls, and it’s been a great reminder of just what an isolating experience it can often be working on records these days. It’s not unusual for me to be engineer, producer, assistant and studio manager for the whole of a project, which may be perfectly possible, but you’re rarely challenged to step outside your comfort zone, which can’t be healthy! For the most part, Ben was happy to let me decide on sounds, freeing him to focus on song/performance issues. Helped along by a shared love of the game of cricket, we worked well as a team to get the album down so quickly.
It’s always good to observe how someone else works with an artist from a production point of view, and Ben worked hard to get the best takes out of the band. From a recording point of view, I could have made my life a great deal easier by making some arrangements to have a few extra channels of A-D conversion, as it made the long days feel that bit longer having to switch things around all the time. From a creative viewpoint, the big take-away from these sessions for me was a reminder of just how big a difference it can make finding sounds by experimenting or having some more unusual equipment. All those extra bits on the record, like the rotating Leslie effects, vintage keys and the characterful bass sound, not only made the sessions themselves more fun and exciting, but they influenced and enhanced the finished product.
You can find some audio examples from the Steven Adams & The French Drops session in the righthand sidebar of this article.
Described by The Guardian newspaper as “A national treasure,” Steven Adams was the singer/songwriter in The Broken Family Band, who enjoyed generous amounts of critical acclaim during their seven-album career, which ended in 2009.
Two solo albums followed (2014’s House Music and 2016’s Old Magick) before Adams felt it was time to work in a band again — and so this month’s featured band Steven Adams & The French Drops were born. With members of the Drink and Absentee, the band spent several months working on material before entering Half-ton Studios in Cambridge with producer Ben Nicholls to record their first album. Virtue Signs is available on Hudson Records on the 4th May 2018.