John Foxx: Recording In Mysterious Ways
Ian Gilby visits The Garden Studio and learns how John Foxx composed and recorded tracks from his recently released album 'In Mysterious Ways'.
As a founding member of Ultravox in the mid-seventies, John Foxx helped broaden the appeal of electronic music through accessible synthesizer-based songs. His pioneering work on the second Ultravox LP 'Systems Of Romance' was highly acclaimed and provided a blueprint for the future sounds and styles of artists like Gary Numan, The Human League and OMD. The success of his first solo album 'Metamatic' provided the necessary finance to establish his own 24-track recording facility in London — The Garden Studio. Although subsequent releases failed to catch the attention of the great record buying public, his new LP 'In Mysterious Ways' (Virgin Records) could well change that. The synthesizers are still evident, though the recording emphasis is now firmly on the songs. Ian Gilby talked to John about the background to the recording...
When it comes to the songwriting process John Foxx has no fixed instrument on which he prefers to compose but has nevertheless evolved a general approach to writing as he explained:
"I usually set up a keyboard at home with the sound coming through a pair of speakers. Then I set up a microphone with an effect on it so that I can sing through the speakers without the need for headphones. I use my Acoustic Research AR18 speakers, or even Auratones, and find that method gives me a sort of studio effect on the voice. I always try to set all the gear up the night before so that I don't get distracted by plugging it all together on the day. Then I come into the room in the morning and start work. That's always the best time for me to write, early in the morning - especially if it's sunny! If you feel good a song will always appear to write itself I find."
"There are two things that affect me when I'm writing songs - the mood and the sound. If I haven't got both of those right I can't do anything. I can't write a piece of music in the abstract, it's all a kind of tactile thing with me. If I get a good sound on whatever instrument it is I'm playing, then a song follows naturally just like night and day. But if something's wrong, and the sound's not right then I can't relax enough to write a song."
"I'll compose the bare bones of a song at home but it really only starts to shape up when I get into the studio because then, the remaining parts are determined by the sounds I get. Matching the sounds together is something you can't do at a distance, playing part by part at home. You have to be in the studio. When something's right, you know it instinctively and you need to be able to record it there and then. You might never get the same sound again, you see... simply because of the combinations of reverbs and equalisation, say, that you're using. If you've achieved the atmosphere you wanted on the song then you should accept it - it doesn't matter in my opinion if the playing isn't as tight as it might be. The atmosphere of the song is what counts."
The moods and atmospheres created by individual songs combine to give the In Mysterious Ways album a distinctly 'optimistic' feel. Was this a deliberate act on John's part, I wondered?
"Not really. I suppose it's just that songs always reflect how you feel at the time of writing - unless you're the kind of writer who writes to order, which I'm not. I can't sit down and say to myself 'I'll write a song now'; I'm just affected by the way I feel. I can't say 'That G chord works well with that A, but it should really be a minor 9th'... I work purely by instinct."
If what he says about songs reflecting moods is correct, then that must complicate matters when it comes to choosing which songs are to be used on an album, since the writer's original moods will obviously have changed by the time the album tracks are recorded. I put the point to John.
"You're right, it does. But you can treat songs in different ways which is often what I like to do once they're written. Sometimes you need that distance the time between writing and recording allows in order to treat a song differently without feeling that it has been shoe-horned into another concept. For instance, on this album there are two songs - or rather, the same song twice - which is 'Enter The Angel 1' and '2'. The two are very different in terms of arrangements. In fact, 'Enter The Angel 2', which on the album is comprised essentially of synthesized string parts played by Peter Oxendale, was recorded almost two years ago using a full band, though I wasn't quite pleased about the way it felt. I knew it had more potential as a song than I'd managed to bring out of it at that time. So I kept the recording on the shelf and waited until I'd got a few more ideas. Then I re-recorded it completely. The second version of 'Enter The Angel' which appears on the first side of the album is the one I did this year and that took only a day and a half to record."
The manner in which 'Enter The Angel' was recorded gives a clearer insight into the way John Foxx typically prefers to work.
"What I did was start with a drum machine, pop a little program into it, so that it looped, and away it went. Then I put down some 12-string acoustic guitar chords and vocal parts on tape simultaneously, just so that there was something dynamic to the structure. Then I just began working the track up from there."
"The next instrument I put down was a synthesized bass which helped pull the elements together and made things tighter. I used an OSCar mono synth for that, on its own, as well as MIDI'd up to a Yamaha DX7. I find that a good combination soundwise because the OSCar has a very warm and thick sound and the DX7 is a bit thinner but adds the definition. If I want just a deep bass sound I'll use only the OSCar synth."
"After that I did the vocals again. What I try to do these days is work on the vocals a lot more because now I believe that's the most important thing about a song - how it's sung. Everything else just compliments that. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, such as a disco track where the emphasis is firmly on the rhythm. But I'm more interested now in songs."
"Even the production on the album is fairly low-key because I didn't want it to interfere with what the songs were doing. I've heard so many records lately where you can't hear the song for the production... which I don't enjoy listening to. I like it when you can follow the melody of the voice and when that stops, the melody is taken up by another instrument. It's a definite strategy; you arrive at things like that through a lot of thinking, not by default."
The next element to be committed to tape during the construction of 'Enter The Angel' was a synthetic string line played by John and stored as a short pattern within the OSCar synthesizer's onboard sequencer.
"It was a similar rhythm to the bass so I had the driving bass line underpinning the basic chord structure of the song whilst this string line moved a bit more adventurously, harmonically speaking, through the chords. I find the combination of those three elements - bass, vocals and 12-string guitar - give me the melodic and harmonic foundation I need for most songs. The 12-string I find very useful in helping me come up with harmony vocal parts actually. It has a very rich sound of its own and if you listen to it closely, you can hear all these subtle harmonies weaving about. It's just a matter of latching on to a suitable vocal harmony that doesn't weaken what the main vocal is doing. I know that might sound involved, but it's pretty quick to do and once you've done it a few times you get a good feel for what works and what doesn't."
"After that, it's just a matter of emphasising certain things. On that track, for example, I tried out some very simple guitar lines - just the same two or three notes continuing over the chord changes, which is something I always like. I also had some ideas for using Leonard Bernstein-like string lines, so I built up ten or so monophonic string parts using the OSCar, DX7 and my old Juno 60 - which has still got a few sounds on it that I like."
"Then Sadenia Reader came in to do backing vocals and she actually moved the song along a bit. The idea for repeating the word 'enter' on the chorus was mostly hers, and her excitement am that lyrical effect really gave the song a push..."
"And that was it really. The rest of the recording was taken up by adding little touches here and there, such as DX7 bells on the build-ups."
"Having an AMS reverb changed my whole attitude to perspective and my conception of what I could do with the stereo image."
"At the very end though, I called Wix in to re-do all of the drum parts." (Wix, real name Paul Wickens, is a drum-programmer/keyboard player of some repute who has worked with John on previous albums.) "He does that once the music has been completed so that he can programme all the necessary drum fills and treatments to compliment the whole track."
The original drum parts for the track, which John recorded to set the song's tempo and give himself and other players a guide structure to work with, were programmed into a Yamaha RX11 drum machine that John owns. No Linn Drum?
"Well, yes, we did use one. I had to put the sync code for the drum machine on to track 24 of the tape using the code generated by the Linn, not by the RX11, because the RX11 is useless at reading its own code from tape but works beautifully with the Linn's!"
"Once the code was on tape, I used it to drive the RX11 which triggered some sampled drum sounds I had stored in an AMS digital delay and some Simmons drum modules which I've had modified. I didn't actually use any of the Yamaha's own drum sounds by themselves, but I had them routed into the mixing desk, and combined them with the other drums to produce a new, composite, drum sound. I also sent some of the drum sounds out to a speaker in the live room at The Garden Studio, miked that up to obtain some room ambience and gated the return signal."
It was at this point in our conversation that John decided to single out the Yamaha RX11 drum machine for some honest criticism, since it had caused him to waste valuable studio time at the commencement of sessions for the album.
"The RX11 was a pain because of the fact that it wouldn't sync to its own code. Then Yamaha actually sent me two boxes that I was supposed to construct - one a decoder and one an encoder - so that the drum machine could understand its own code coming back from tape. And I just thought 'Sod this, it's too much trouble'. They really should have designed it properly in the first place!"
"It's a good machine but has one other big limitation: you can play it dynamically via MIDI from a keyboard - which is good, but it won't remember the dynamics - which is absolutely foolish!" Fortunately for John, he also owns a UMI/BBC B micro sequencer package (see last month's review). "The only way I can repeat the dynamics on the RX11 is by programming the thing with my UMI so that the UMI stores and remembers the dynamics on the drum machine which have been played on my DX7 keyboard."
Talk turned to the subject of MIDI, the power of which John feels is already beginning to be felt in mainstream rock studios and whose use is no longer restricted to the purely electronic music domain. MIDI is changing attitudes and approaches to recording like no other system before it.
"It's tremendously exciting what you can do with it," said John, "I do enjoy using it. In fact, I love it!" But like anything, it can be frustrating when things go wrong...
"I set up seven MIDI keyboards recently, just to experiment and find out what was possible, but I had a duff MIDI cable somewhere and it took me all day to figure out where! That's the next thing someone will have to do - find a way to locate faults. There must be some genius out there who can devise a computer program to do all that... because now, if you get a fault, you have to disassemble everything lead by lead which is a real nightmare, especially half way through a gig!"
Nevertheless, John Foxx welcomes the control MIDI allows him. Having spent years trying to make old analogue sequencers trigger various synths he's glad MIDI has revolutionised matters.
"What I particularly like is MIDI's ability to control reverb programs and effects treatments. I'm really interested in the set-ups where you can work at home and you can do mixes without going to tape. If you've got enough reverbs whose patches can be changed via a controlling MIDI keyboard,you can drive the whole lot using a composer software package such as the UMI-2B or Jellinghaus system, which will give you a very powerful set-up."
Reverb and the use of ambience, I soon discovered, are subjects close to John Foxx's heart. His previous records have always exhibited a certain preoccupation with sound textures and stereo perspectives (particularly The Garden) which John takes a considerable degree of care to create when recording, primarily through the use of reverb treatments generated by the celebrated AMS digital reverb.
"It's my favourite reverb in the world. It's brilliant! It really is the nearest thing to realism that you can get. Having an AMS reverb changed my whole attitude to perspective and my conception of what I could do with the stereoimage."
John also praised the recent appearance of budget stereo digital reverbs such as Roland's SRV2000 and Yamaha's REV7.
"If I get a good sound on whatever instrument it is I'm playing, then a song follows naturally just like night and day."
"I'm glad that those devices have become available now because more people can experiment with those kinds of perspectives. It's always been possible, of course - if you were clever enough to use microphones, room ambience and echoes, you could always create an illusion of perspective in past recordings - it's just that the new devices make it sound so much more convincing. It's certainly worth developing your skill at creating depth and perspective like that because it literally takes your recordings into another dimension, which is exactly what the AMS did for me."
Being a former art student, it's hardly surprising John Foxx takes an interest in perspective. After all, both in painting and in sound, perspective is what adds realism and breathes life into an otherwise two dimensional imitation. And that interest, for John, was stimulated by listening to the adventurous work being done in the early seventies by Roxy Music.
"Chris Thomas' production work with Roxy was always wonderful in terms of unusual perspectives. At that time they were ahead of everyone else in their field. There was simply no-one else, for me, who attempted the same complexity in their recordings. Bowie was good, but never quite as sophisticated as Roxy Music."
The standardisation of studio hardware and, even more crucial, the instruments people are using to create music, John believes, places even greater importance on the creative use of sound treatments and effects, as a means of personalising the music.
"You soon find out what the emotional range of an effect is. By that, I mean how it is applicable to the sort of material you wish to write, how it affects what you do and gives you further ideas."
So the whole challenge then of working is to use the components that everybody uses but in a different order or different way, so that the sound becomes yours?
"It's the only way to do it when everybody's got virtually the same equipment. In a pro studio even, you face the same task as an amateur at home, you've got to combine these possibilities in a way that's unique to you. That's always the challenge. In fact, that's the name of the game as far as one aspect of recording is concerned - the creative use of the equipment around you so that it sounds unique when it's all put together."
A good example of this appears on the first track of the album 'Stars On Fire'. An unusual 'spin echo' effect occurs on the lead vocal during each chorus which I was surprised to find was produced, not by a digital delay, but by making clever use of the sound-on-sound facility of two trusty Revox tape recorders. (By the way, John keeps these machines on a long shelf in The Garden Studio where they are used to produce tape loop delay effects. Moving one Revox further along the shelf from the other creates a longer delay as the tape itself is fed from one recorder to another and signals are recorded on the first machine then played back on the second - the distance apart and the running speed of the tape determining the length of the delay obtained.)
It seemed a bit of an anomaly to find these two rather battered analogue recorders lurking amongst the state of the art equipment that furnishes The Garden Studio control room. I asked why he still used them when a digital delay could do the same thing more quickly and more easily.
"I often use tape echoes in the studio because the sound you get from some digital ones is too hard and they can interfere with what is supposed to be up-front in the mix, which is usually the vocals. Tape is nice because the echo repeats comeback sounding softer due to the degradation in the bandwidth - it rounds off the top edge of the sound. I still use my Roland RE555 Chorus Echo. In fact, I keep all my old effects boxes unless they're so noisy that they can't be used. They've still got a valuable sound to make I feel."
For John Foxx, recording is essentially about sound, and his reluctance to disregard instruments or equipment purely because their technical specifications are looked upon by others as being antiquated in the light of current technology, was a contributing factor behind his decision several years ago to set up his own professional studio. Another factor was the attitude of most studio engineers, as he explained.
"There's a problematic side to using an engineer in as much as you, as an artist, filter all your ideas through him in the studio and he will give you his interpretation of a sound all of the time. Unless you've worked very closely with that guy before, then obviously you'll only ever get his version of what you want. It can get very frustrating at times because if you don't know how to do it yourself, then you're at his mercy. So the more experience you can get at home learning to operate what recording equipment you have, the wider the vocabulary you'll have when you go into a studio to tell people or even to illustrate what you're after by using a tape of a song you've recorded with the kind of sound you want on it."
"The plus side to having an engineer, of course, is that the man knows the studio inside out and can get you sounds that you might otherwise be incapable of achieving."
A further point of conflict John finds, often comes as a result of different views of acceptability between artist and engineer. Take his choice of microphone as an example:
"I like to sing through an inexpensive AKG mic. Now most engineers throw their hands up in horror because they want to use a Neumann. They think that you can immediately get a good sound out of that just because it has a higher technical spec than the AKG. But that's not true. A microphone, I believe, is only right for the job if it feels right when you listen to it. Most of the In Mysterious Ways album was recorded using just an AKG D202 microphone for the vocals. I took a spare one home once and I loved singing through it. It picked up certain frequencies in my voice that were just right and so I took it back into the studio, tried it, and the same thing happened. It was great. But engineers hate using them for that job!"
John Foxx sees recording as the best means of projecting the emotional excitement embodied in the songs he writes. Technology he sees as a tool for achieving that aim. He's in no doubt about what he wants and looks forward with enthusiasm to greater simplicity in the recording process in the future.
"The logical development of sampling and MIDI will be something simpler. It'll be a device like the AMS Audiofile. That's where the future of recording lies I firmly believe. It's still being developed by AMS but the principle of it is very similar to the Synclavier where you've got an instrument and digital recording machine combined; a very high fidelity, long sampling device in essence - but affordable. I just wish that kind of recording elegance was widely available now."
Interview by Ian Gilby
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