It don't mean a thing...
Swing Out Sister
Swing Out Sister have gone through a recording odyssey in reverse. Starting with the most expensive, sophisticated and flexible tools available, they have progressed gradually towards the kind of recording process where a bunch of musicians jam together in a room. And if it ain 't got that swing, all the button-pushing in the world counts for nothing.
Their first LP It's Better To Travel - including the memorable single 'Breakout' - enjoyed all the tender ministrations the Fairlight CMI had to offer: antiseptically clean sounds and seamless editing. The next two, Kaleidoscope World and Get In Touch With Yourself, eased off the technology pedal and ushered more and more session musicians into the traffic. And now The Living Return, released on Fontana, gives full reign to the raw and real playing habits of the musicians who have taken the Swing Out Sister back-catalogue to hundreds of stages around the world.
In accounting for this phenomenon, Swing Out's Andy Connell recalls an incident which took place somewhere in the arid surroundings of a Posh Studio.
"Something brought my attention to the hi-hat," he recalls. "And from that moment on, it seemed far too loud. The engineer said, 'forget about it - come back tomorrow.' The next day it sounded perfectly reasonable, and nothing had changed. I began to think we'd spent far too much time in the search for an absolutely perfect sound. When you focus on something in the mix like that, everything else disappears."
Even now, with a more acoustic approach to fleshing out their refined songs, they encounter studio habits which continue to baffle the honest musician.
"Somebody once said," Andy continues, "they couldn't understand the need for the complex process of miking up a drum kit - and I know what they meant. The drums sound great in the room, then you go into the control room and they've been completely separated. The engineer then has the job of putting them all together again and making it sound like it did in the first place..."
Vocalist Corinne Drewery identifies another symptom of being trapped in the ivory towers of pro-audio.
"The element of sophistication also reduces the chances of creative accidents happening, which are really important. If you lose the human element in striving for perfection, you lose the appeal the music has to listeners. That's why the low-tech, home recording input - like your readers' demo tapes - is so valuable."
At this point, before such romanticism gets out of hand, I am obliged to point out that 'Breakout' was one of the finest singles of the '80s, and a triumph of digital dexterity. It's just that people like to move on, and try different things. Andy, in fact, agrees that not all technical progress works against creativity.
"The great thing about the availability of new recording technology is that it means fewer musicians will be baffled by science. Everybody can have a go, and it demystifies it. On the other hand, we're getting to a point where there's almost too much choice - too many options regarding what you can do with the sound. You want options within limited parameters, but unlimited choice is like having no choice at all."
"The great thing about new recording technology is that it means fewer musicians will be baffled by science"
Initially, the Fairlight gave the band - at that point a nucleus of Corinne, Andy and drummer Martin Jackson - absolute control. They used it as a substitute for real instruments, rather than a gateway to strange new sounds.
"Peter Gabriel, for example," says Andy, "would go down to his local dump and hit bits of metal to get new samples. We never did that.
We used to enjoy the French horn sounds, or the double bass sounds. And the only logical conclusion to that is to eventually use a really good trumpet player rather than a really good trumpet sample. We've always worked on the principle that if something will do the job, we'll use it, and we've just found out about the various options at each stage. We certainly weren't confident enough at that point to dictate what we wanted to other musicians."
But hasn't achieving such clear and positive results with the malleable technology of 1986 made it easier to communicate the Swing Out Sister sound to session players ever since?
"Yeah, the parameters were defined early on, and the musicians we use now can express themselves and still fit in with what we're doing."
"It was almost like we had to map it all out first," adds Corinne, "before we even knew what it was we were trying to achieve. A lot of that was with the help of Paul O'Duffy, who was producing us at the time, and Richard Niles who did the brass arrangements. It was a painful experience, in some ways. I can remember being in tears, doing the vocals for 'Breakout', because it felt so dishonest. Andy had a simple DX7 part, Martin played the drums and I sang - that was what we did. Then there was layer upon layer of all these things that we didn't have anything to do with, and I thought, 'but this isn't anything like the song we started with...'"
"That," observes Andy ruefully, "is the modern recording process in a nutshell."
Maybe it is. But The Living Return loses very little in translation. The brass and backing vocals on this occasion augment a solid foundation laid by Myke Wilson on drums, Derick Johnson on bass, Tim Cansfield on guitar and percussionist Chris Manis, all hand-picked from the rich pool of funk and latin-flavoured musicians out there who'd love to get their hands on this kind of stuff. And the next time Swing Out Sister play the Jazz Cafe in London, pop down and sample the raw materials for yourself. You won't need an aural exciter.
The Living Return is released on 12th September
News by Phil Ward
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