Barclay James Harvest
Barclay James Harvest
Engineer, Producer and Guitarist get together to explain how their new LP 'Ring of Changes' was digitally recorded for simultaneous release on compact disc and cassette
One of the longest-surviving bands in rock, BJH have a history going back 15 years and a back-catalogue stretching from 'Everyone is Everybody Else' (1974) to their live double album 'A Concert for the People (Berlin)' (1982). Their latest release is 'Ring of Changes', the first album to be made simultaneously available on LP, Compact Disc and Cassette. Guitarist John Lees, Producer Pip Williams and Engineer Gregg Jackman described to E&MM their approach to digital mastering for the album and the thoughts behind BJH's music.
The idea to record the album digitally for a CD version came about because we saw we could have a first with the simultaneous release of a new LP, Compact Disc and Cassette, the three main formats.
We used the 3M 32 track Digital Mastering System, partly because of the extra tracks offered over a conventional 24 track analogue system or the Sony Digital System. There were certain problems, but we learned to cope with them. The Sony system has ironed out many of these problems, and it's easier to operate, but the eight extra tracks gave us a bit of breathing space. On the Sony system the editing is similar, but the actual programming of the record drop-ins on the remote is just like an analogue machine; it's as easy to operate as an existing 24 track analogue machine but with better noise figures.
At one stage we had to use analogue recording to produce some backward guitar chords and so on, which are impossible to do with digital at the moment. The whole album was mixed onto the Sony PCM 1610 system because that's what Polygram process the Compact Disc from, and we were delighted with the overall quality; aside from two very minor hiccups it was perfect.
We used Far studios, which belong to Frank Farian, the producer of Boney M, in Frankfurt. The group was having a year out of the country for tax purposes, and Far was the only studio that had all the digital gear as well as all the backup analogue equipment we wanted. The mixdown was at RAK in London, where Gregg used to be engineer. As a producer I think the digital system has been a tremendous success and I'd go as far as to say that in future I'll always master onto a stereo digital system.
I can see more mileage in mixing to digital than in using digital multitrack, because in the nature of things you always make a lot of changes in the final mix, which means you need analogue. I don't even use an automated mixdown, I prefer to do it manually. In the initial stages Pip was presented with a batch of demos and we just did what we felt was right for each song, but since the new technology was there we felt it was time to use it.
The other exception to this was the orchestra which appears on a couple of songs. They were recorded at RAK on analogue 16 track with an SMPTE code. The recording of the album otherwise wasn't particularly unusual. Recently we've been using two tape machines linked together to give us extra tracks anyway, but I don't normally spread the drums over lots of tracks for instance. I try to get the sound right in the first place and only use a couple of tracks. We used a few tracks for vocal harmonies, and tried to make things big that ought to sound big.
We used harmonisers quite a lot, and also the Lexicon 224 digital delay. There's a 'Garage' program on it which gives a very natural live room setting, which we prefer to using the echo just for sound effects.
The title track was a little unusual in that it started very simply and we kept adding to it with synthesiser sounds and electronic percussion. The main kit is a Simmons all the way through until you get to the end, where the fills are played on an acoustic kit. This is the first time the band has used a Simmons, simply because there was one available in the studio.
We also used the Linn LM-1 and Linn-Drum for percussion, just for the congas and similar sounds and for keeping the sequences in strict tempo. We find click tracks a bit inhuman to work with, and Mel is good enough a drummer to play along to. In fact, there aren't any sequencers in use — just the arpeggiators of the Jupiter 8's — because sequencers really come from a different style of music. I like Modern Romance for instance, but it isn't the BJH style. The keyboards are two Jupiter 8's and an Oberheim OBX 6-voice; we think Bias Boshell is the best keyboard player about at the moment, although he's not really part of the BJH 'family unit'.
Pip and myself worked together on 'Long Distance Voyager' which was a big success for The Moody Blues. We do work separately, but everything we've done together seems to have been successful, such as Kiki Dee's 'Star' single which was a big hit.
I first became interested in working with BJH about four years ago, and while working with Gregg I saw the ideal combination of producer and engineer for this album. The recording, mastering and mixing took eleven weeks, which isn't long by contemporary album standards. With more experience of digital we could cut that by two or three weeks. Because there are still little problems on the digital equipment, producers need to get together and have seminars to discuss it. Those problems will only get ironed out by talking about them.
It's over a year now since we released our live album, and we've been on tour constantly since then. The band's been together for fifteen years, and although there have been some changes now — a new producer for instance — it's really an extension of what we've always been doing. We don't think there's any influence from Pip's work with the Moody Blues for instance.
Les Holroyd and myself are the songwriters and we work independently all the time. When it comes to doing an album the band gets the pick of our songs. We bring in session musicians, on keyboards for instance, and try to record the songs so that we can reproduce them on stage. Live work is a multi-instrumental thing; we all play keyboards and I play bass as well as guitars.
Although a lot of the album is keyboard-based I write mainly on guitar and play a little guitar synth. I had three Ket guitars specially built because we couldn't find anything that would stay in tune on stage. They've got Gibson headstocks for fast string changing, additional frets for very high parts and Stratocaster bodies. We've tried all kinds of pickups from Paul to DiMarzio, but I forget what we're using now! The problem is that we use quite a lot of lighting and that produces a problem with hum in the guitars.
During recording I used The Paul, an inexpensive version of the Gibson Les Paul with basic facilities and finish which was released in a limited edition a couple of years ago. We used the Roland Bass Guitar synth, and Les has got a couple of double necks like the Gibson 6/4 string.
Although we use guitar synths they won't be too prominent. I want to work on a guitar sound to suit a particular song, not just to play flash solos that distract from the song itself. I'll do a solo if the song calls for it but there aren't a lot of solos on 'Ring of Changes'. A lot of the guitar work is acoustic, it's a nice texture and it works well with synths. When you're using acoustic guitars there's not a lot that can be changed once you've learned to play in a nice smooth style.
The title track of the album was a bit unusual because it evolved from start to finish in the studio without being planned too much in advance. I enjoyed working with an orchestra again after many years, it's a very nice sound to work with. You can really hear the difference best on the CD version of the album; I think it's as far ahead of the LP as the LP is ahead of the 78. When the technology of speakers and amplifiers catches up everybody will be using CD. The only frustration on the musical side of digital recording was that we occasionally lost things and had to start again. I didn't really take much part in the mixdown side though, because we're all happy to let the producer and engineer take it away and make a good job of it.
Although we're a traditional rock band we're very involved with the new technology and have used Synclaviers and so on in recording. I write on the guitar but I do use synthesisers, for instance on 'Paraiso Dos Cavalos', and we keep everything fairly simple because we're always aware that we have to be able to perform it on stage. That's very important nowadays because a lot of people can't really play but can only put together a track in the studio.
I wrote five of the songs for 'Ring of Changes' and Les wrote the others; we do all the vocals between us. I really don't wait for inspiration to come when I'm writing, I go out and find it, force myself to work until something comes. We already have the songs written for the next album, and the other guys will be going to work on it soon. We won't tour until next year though; I'll be setting up my own studio at home near Manchester in the meantime.
At the end of the day music is music. If you use contemporary ideas as an artform it can reach a stage where they cease to be music and become happenings of a different nature. The important thing about Barclay James Harvest is that we've always pushed for the music.