The Red Shoes Sessions | Del Palmer, Kate Bush
Engineer Del Palmer spills the beans on how Kate recorded her new album, 'Red Shoes'.
There's been a lot of publicity about Kate Bush's new album, The Red Shoes; Richard Buskin goes behind the scenes with engineer/producer Del Palmer to discover exactly how the album was recorded, and how pop's most enigmatic lady really works.
Kate Bush's private studio was initially set up to record demos for Lionheart; Del Palmer was the only band member interested in operating the tape machine! Fifteen years on, Del is Kate's main man with the faders, and what was once a demo studio has evolved into a sophisticated private recording facility.
Located in barns adjacent to the Bush country home, today's studio is equipped with a 48-channel SSL 4000E console with G-Series computer, two Sony 3324A digital machines, a Studer A80 half-inch, and a couple of U-Matic video recorders.
Del takes up the story: "During early 1990, Kate said 'I want to do something, I want to go in the studio and work.' During the early stages I can set up a sound for her, set up some keyboards, show her what to do on the console, and leave her to it. She'll work for days until she's got something, then we'll get the musicians in and carry on from there."
As both producer and artist, Kate Bush is extremely focused and knows exactly what she wants. So when Del comes up with a particular sound, she wastes no time in telling him whether or not it's what she's looking for.
"There have been lots of times when I've had quite heated arguments with her — I'd say something wouldn't work, to which her response has been, 'Indulge me... Just do it.' For example, on the Hounds of Love album, there's a part that goes, 'Help me, baby, help me, baby,' which cuts in and out very quickly, which she wanted to do by turning the tape over and cutting in and out with the record switch. I said it would just be a mess, but she said, 'Look, just do it, will you?' So I did it and of course it worked, and I had to eat humble pie. I've eaten so much humble pie over the years that I'm putting on weight!"
Kate is apparently not averse to placing her own fingers on the faders, especially in relation to the vocals as well as much of the instrumentation. "I was able to just set her up with a sound, and she'd take care of it herself," explains Palmer. "She'd record all the vocals, then phone me up and say, "Let's put it all together."
These days, Kate Bush tends to write about 90% of her material as part of the overall recording process in the studio, largely because of the difficulty of trying to recreate the spontaneity and the feel of the demos.
"We just couldn't do it," says Palmer, "so we decided to use the demos as the basis for the albums. We started off by taking the demos, transferring them, then working on top — then it suddenly struck us that we should just do away with that whole process, develop the home studio and record absolutely everything right onto the multitracks and keep everything that was done. Now, a lot of the stuff that we start with doesn't make it right through to the end, but at least the flavour of it does.
"There's no fixed method to how Kate works, but generally speaking she will say, 'Can you get me a drum pattern that sounds like this?' She'll sing me something and I'll program the Fairlight with a simple eight-bar loop, never any more than that, and then she'll program a sound in the Fairlight and get a tune going. Then she'll say, 'I've got something. Can I put a vocal down?' Sometimes this may only amount to 'la-la-la-ing', but almost every time there'll be a specific little bit of lyric that will give her an idea, which in turn becomes the basis for the song. So we put it down, and that becomes the basic demo that we're going to work with; an eight-bar drum pattern, a keyboard and a very rough guide vocal. From that she can tell whether it's worth pursuing an idea or not. Some get discarded at this point, while others progress a little bit further before it becomes obvious that they too are not going to work."
Until the Red Shoes project, it was traditional to bring in the musicians one at a time to record their parts. Firstly — and, from Kate Bush's point of view, most importantly — the drummer, followed by the bass player (often Del Palmer himself); this would then allow her to review how each song was progressing and to make any necessary alterations prior to the guitarists and other musicians entering the fray. This time around, however, it was decided from the outset to record quickly and to aim for more of a band feel, so most of the tracks were recorded with at least bass, drums and, in several cases, keyboards being played together.
Palmer, wishing to concentrate on his role as engineer, didn't play the bass guitar; the same bass player and drummer worked over the course of ten separate days to fuel the group atmosphere, though guide guitars weren't deemed necessary. However, 'Rubberband Girl' does feature a keyboard pattern performed by Kate with an acoustic guitar sample.
"On the track 'Big Stripey Lie', Kate played electric guitar as well," points out Palmer. "She said to the guitarist we were using, "I'm really into the guitar. I'd really like to be able to play it," and he said, "Oh, here, play this one (a Fender Stratocaster) for a bit." So, he showed her a few chords, and — this is no kidding — a week later she was in front of this Marshall stack in the studio giving it her all! I've never seen anything like it. She's a natural — she was playing lead guitar and no one would know it wasn't an experienced guitarist."
The trademark Kate Bush sound that has been developed over the course of the past four albums owes a lot not only to the pulsating, highly atmospheric, slightly discordant noises that seem to emanate from every direction, but also her own unique vocal style, with its breathy delivery and haunting presence.
"I can't take any credit for Kate's vocal sound," admits Palmer, "because it was originally shown to me by an engineer called Paul Arden who taught me so much. He would explain anything that I asked him about. One day he couldn't make a session, so he said, 'Why don't you do it?' So I did, and he showed me how to get the sound which they had started using on The Dreaming. Kate loved it, and ever since then we've been using it.
"Basically, it's all down to an overdose of compression, and the fact that she really knows how to work with it. We set her up with a Neumann U47 in the live part of the studio — brick floor and stone walls — so it's very, very live — and then there's loads and loads of compression on the mic. The SSL desk's compression is very violent and works very well for this. So, what's happening is that every time she breathes in, you can hear it, so she has to be very specific in the way that she deals with this. She's backing off from the microphone all the time, really working it. We use a small amount of gating so you'll get the sound of the room and then it cuts off — a bit like the Phil Collins drum sound.
"If Kate's singing really loud she backs off from the mike and then she comes right in close for the quiet stuff, but when she breathes in, she does this to the side. I have to say that from a purely technical standpoint, it's really badly done, there's just so much compression on everything. But I'm not interested in being technical, I want it to sound good, and if it does, then what's the point in changing it?
"I'm sure a lot of people think, 'Well, she gets the producer credit but I bet she doesn't do much,' yet that's really not true. She knows what she wants to do and, being technically minded, she knows how to do it."
"When it comes to the mix you don't have to push the vocal up as high as you might imagine, because with that sound you're getting so much high frequency. It's real borderline stuff. Sometimes you can go too far, and it'll break up or distort, or it'll really blow your ears off, but if you get it just right, you're getting so much high frequency that you can just push the voice right down and it will still cut right through everything."
On average, Kate performs four or five vocal passes for each part, and while compiling does take place, there is normally a clear contender for the master take. This is invariably deduced by way of Kate's own vocal chart, on which she makes notes while listening to the various takes. "Usually, Kate will record a complete section of her vocal and it'll work, then I'll just have to patch up a few bits."
When dealing with problems, Palmer tend to steer clear of the old cliché, 'We'll sort it out in the mix.' For one thing, as Palmer is quick to point out, you have to be very sure that you can sort it out in the mix, so he and Kate try to get things right as they put them down on tape. When it came to mixing the album, it was simply a matter of pacing, creating space and giving everything its moment. There were, however, a few exceptions.
With the exception of her piano (recorded with two 87s inside the lid and Massenburg Parametric EQ), Fender Rhodes and Yamaha DX7, all of Kate's keyboard sounds were produced using a Fairlight. The other musicians were provided with only limited room for experimentation, as she was characteristically specific in her directives, while also keeping an open mind and ear to any new ideas or sounds that might come her way. For this reason, Palmer has become accustomed to recording absolutely everything that goes on during the sessions.
"Even when the musicians are just setting up I record everything," he confirms. "Because she'll say, 'Oh, do you remember that thing you did when you were warming up?', and of course if you haven't got it on tape you've lost it. So, whenever there's anybody in, I always have the half-inch running, then I can spin anything back in later."
All in all, a pretty wise approach; whereas some of the musicians within the 'band unit' returned time and again, others simply contributed guest appearances and it would have been altogether more difficult — not to mention embarrassing — to have these people return to redo what they had already done.
Violinist Nigel Kennedy, featured on 'Big Stripey Lie' and 'Top Of The City', was recorded in the deader of the two main live areas, standing on carpet. "The thing with Nigel is that he never stands still," says Palmer. "So, after talking to him, it seemed that the best way to work was to use a pair of 87s. They're so versatile, I use them for everything. One was about eight feet from the ground, pointing down over his (left) shoulder towards the violin, and the other was diagonally to his right and about three feet from the ground, pointing up towards his chest. Out of the two I think I used the overhead one most, but it was just a juxtapositional thing to see how different the room would sound. Because the room's so small you could put a microphone anywhere and it would pick him up. I used the Massenburg EQ — you have to watch the mid-high frequencies — our rooms are so live and so specific that you can get a tone that'll go right through your ears."
Jeff Beck played his Jeff Beck signature Stratocaster for 'You're The One' in the control room with a tiny little amp positioned underneath the front of the console and miked with a U87 positioned three inches away to the side and pointing in. "I was sitting at the console — the racks are to my left, Kate was to my right and Jeff was seated about four feet behind," explains Palmer, "so she could talk to him and I was able to both operate the desk and stand up to adjust the rack."
Eric Clapton played his Eric Clapton signature Strat using a very similar setup for 'And So Is Love', albeit with his amp in the studio area. "What happens with people like Eric is that his guitar roadie turns up with a lorry full of gear and just piles it into your studio," exclaims Palmer. "Then, when he turns up, you say, 'Well, actually what we want, Eric, is that classical sound of yours,' and so he says, 'Oh yeah,' and he gets out a small combo and puts that up!"
Gary Brooker (of Procul Harum fame), played Hammond C3 in the main room, miked with a U87 on the Leslie cabinet, and another one about ten feet away to capture some ambience. Again, Massenburg EQ and hard compression were used to create a rich Hammond sound with sufficient cut at a relatively low volume.
As the Bush studio does have a very specific room sound — small and harsh, as characterised by the vocals — it was decided that a more expansive sound might be obtained for the vocal performances of the Trio Bulgarka by recording them in Abbey Road's Studio 2. They stood around a crossed stereo pair of U87s; Abbey Road's Studio 1 was also used for the string sessions for 'Moments of Pleasure', arranged by Michael Kamen.
"The only other stuff we did at Abbey Road was technical, like moving analogue material onto digital," says Del Palmer. "We started the album 48-track analogue, using two A80s, and about a year into the project we became aware that it would be better for us to go digital... We weren't really sure whether it was going to work or not — we were kind of thinking that without tape compression we may not get the same drum sounds — but I was convinced within an hour of turning the things on!
"With Kate's stuff, where you do have a lot of level changes, there's a constant fight between noise levels and signal levels, but with digital you don't have that. You can put the quietest thing on tape and you won't get any background noise. At the same time, whereas with analogue you may say, "I'm going to put some 10k in here because I know I'm going to lose a bit," with the digital machines I found that I was using far less EQ right across the board."
As things turned out, since the decision to switch to digital was made relatively early during the Red Shoes sessions, much of the analogue material was later replaced. Only the performances by the Trio Bulgarka, as well as Nigel Kennedy on 'Top Of The City', remain from the analogue.
"With digital, a lot of doors opened up to us which we previously had no idea about, and the result was that Kate was off and running," says Palmer. "She had so many good ideas to try out, generally to do with editing. For example, if there was a piece of vocal here, rather than sampling it and flying it back in, we could actually offset the machine and put it in various strange places. Sometimes this wouldn't work, but a lot of the time it did, such as the track with Prince ('Why Should I Love You?') on which we had to offset lots of things, and some of the guitar parts now appear in the weirdest places. I'd say, "Wait a minute!" and she'd say, "No, no, it works, leave it! Put that down, it works."
"Her overview of everything is alarmingly interesting. I really find it fascinating how she can hold all these things in her head at the same time. She's very au fait with studio work. I'm sure a lot of people think, 'Well, she gets the producer credit but I bet she doesn't do much,' yet that's really not true. She knows what she wants to do and, being technically minded, she knows how to do it."
As to the future, Del Palmer feels that there's a lot of new studio gear on the market which he must check out before re-equipping Kate's recording environment. "One of the things I'm now looking to do is to make the studio a little bit more conducive to her, with everything plumbed in permanently," he says. "So all she'll have to do is push a button and the Fairlight or whatever will be up and running. And I'll find her a few more little goodies to play with..."
Interview by Richard Buskin
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