John Jones & Duran Duran
Recording 'Ordinary World' | Duran Duran
The big names have more in common with home recording than you might think — most of this album was recorded in the guitarist's lounge!
After a lengthy absence from the charts, Duran Duran have made a successful return to the UK music scene, with a lower-key working method, a new album and a Top 10 single, 'Ordinary World'. Richard Buskin talks to the band and their co-producer John 'JJ' Jones about the making of a hit in a living room.
Born in London in 1957 before moving with his family to Jamaica in '59, John Jones cut his musical teeth playing the piano when he was just three years old; a couple of years later, the precocious kid had composed his first minuet. "I was pretty rebellious," he recalls. "For my first piano lesson I was given a piece to learn, and I just went away and re-wrote it!"
Nevertheless, several years after his 1963 emigration to Toronto, Canada, 'JJ' had graduated to playing bass guitar and composing material for assorted bands, and in 1974 one of his songs landed him a publishing deal with ATV Music. This led to a couple of fairly fruitless stints as a staff writer both there and at CBS, coinciding with equally unrewarding results from his participation with a number of bands. Yet during this period JJ also gained some recording experience demo'ing songs at ATV and working as a tape-op at Toronto Sound Studios; in the late '70s, this provided him with the inspiration to build his own studio with musician friend Dee Long.
Buying an old farmhouse with a large barn in Buttonville, a suburb North of Toronto, they installed a 16-channel console and a Fairlight, and cornered the local demo market before upgrading to 24-track when Bob Ezrin came in to produce Alice Cooper's Dada album. Hereafter, the business really began to take off, and when, in 1984, JJ and Dee were asked by EMI to produce an album for a new band called Rational Youth, they came to London to mix it at the famous Air Studios.
Having taken one look at the vibrant London scene, the pair decided that this was where they wanted to be. In 1985 they sold the studio in Canada and returned to the UK armed with their Fairlight. Together with Dave Harries, Malcolm Aitken and John Goldstraw, they set about designing and building the MIDI room — Studio 5 — at Air.
Over the course of the next few years, work here brought them into contact with the likes of George Martin, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Yes, and Michael Kamen, but by the late '80s the world and his brother had acquired MIDI gear, and the novelty of just using Air's Studio 5 had worn off. Since then, JJ has contributed to records by, among others, Paul Rodgers, The Rolling Stones and Duran Duran, programming and re-mixing tracks on the latter's 1989 album, Liberty, as well as co-producing a piece entitled 'Burning The Ground' on the compilation CD, Decade, the following year.
January 1991 saw Duran Duran embarking on their latest project, Here Comes The Band, in the home studio of guitarist Warren Cuccurullo. "Warren had a sequencer, a drum machine, a couple of synths and his extensive guitar setup, and the idea was that by just bringing in a small keyboard rig for Nick [Rhodes] they could write there," recalls JJ "So they started composing together and jamming, and a couple of months later I came in and began to demo some of the ideas that they had.
"The group really wanted to control this record. They wanted to have the time to be creative without spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in a studio, and so they basically asked me if I thought we could make a record in a living room. My response was that we certainly could, and that we could at least start by making demos and seeing how far it would get."
Out of all this came a new album, and the single, entitled 'Ordinary World', which was to be so successful for the band.
"We'd never recorded in a home studio before," says John Taylor. "On our previous album we had a fully working band for the first time in years, so we really had most of the songs written and arranged in advance, but there were a couple of albums before that which we had written in very expensive studios. This time around we used pretty much the same method, but the difference was that it was in our guitarist's living room, and so we didn't have to keep looking at the clock."
"The console we were using was an Akai MG1214, with the built-in analogue 12-track recorder, while for monitors we had AR Red Boxes and an Auratone," explains JJ "I was placed in the window-bay, and at the other end of the room there was the guitar setup, Warren's sequencer setup, Nick's keyboard setup, and a couple of little Zoom guitar boxes which John could plug straight into. I myself used Notator on the Atari, and I had an Akai S1000, an S900, a Roland D50, other keyboards, and each setup had a Yamaha DMP7 from which I would take a feed straight into the 12-track.
"So within all of that the band played live together, everyone initially being miked with a Shure SM58 which they could each sing or talk through. Our primary aim was to get about 15 songs demo'd, because while the band has total creative control it was felt that this album should be done with feedback from the record company. We wanted to get that from day one, not after we'd spent £800,000, and so we were really concerned about the songs at this point rather than perfecting sounds. There was a feeling in that room like it was 1962, and that's what we loved about it."
After quickly running through 'Ordinary World' and three other songs on the analogue 12-track, technician and artists then awaited the arrival of two Akai ADAM digital 12-track recorders and a DDA DMR12 console.
"Simon Le Bon: We were aware of all the times in the past when we've said to each other, 'the demo was so much better', and so ice wanted to have a setup which facilitated using those recordings as part of the finished product."
"After just two days of doing a demo on the analogue 12-track we all thought, 'Yeah, we can do the whole thing here,'" recalls JJ. "We just needed a decent desk and digital tape machines, and then we could get on with it. We were aware of all the times in the past when we've said to each other, 'Oh, the demo was so much better'," adds Simon Le Bon, "and so we wanted to have a setup which facilitated using those recordings as part of the finished product... You see, our generation had been used to listening to very, very polished, tightly packaged music, and then there was punk, before everyone went back to talking about 'quality' and 'crafted songs' again. So we never used to like leaving rough edges on, but now that's changed."
A case in point is the final song on the album, a lengthy piece entitled 'Sin Of The City', of which the last few minutes comprises a free-for-all jam session. "The drum machine program kind of slipped out of gear," explains John Taylor. "Warren and I were playing along, and so we just started playing in a different key, jammed a little bit, stopped playing, put down our instruments one by one, and then the drum program ran out. We listened to it back and eventually mixed it all the way to the end, because we decided that we had to keep the whole thing."
"There are lots of different rough things like that on the album," adds Le Bon. "Lots of things which five years ago we would have had to either clean up technically or totally re-do, but we just left them on because they sounded OK. We tend to like things when they slip a little bit, as long as they're not sufficient to spoil the listener's enjoyment if he or she picks up on them."
By the time JJ became involved in the sessions, the band had already produced the basic structure of 'Ordinary World' — a DAT recording of acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard pad, and very simple drum machine, together with a vocal which, although not yet complete, had many of the elements which would end up on the finished record. "We actually started with the chorus," recalls Simon Le Bon. "Nick was playing the chords, Warren picked them up and then kind of altered them a little bit, and within minutes I had the melody. It was very, very quick."
The verse took a little longer, Cuccurullo eventually re-shaping and refining the initial chord structure, prior to the band developing the bridge melody and thus completing the musical side of the composition within about three days. "The words just fit in with the melody, and that's when I really like writing," says Le Bon. "The words seem to feel right and they are right, and suddenly they take on a meaning whereby people can understand naturally what you are trying to say.
"I already had the words 'ordinary world' when we were coming up with the chorus. At one point, somebody suggested that it should be 'ordinary girl' — [sings] 'She's just an ordinary girl...' — but I said 'no', I knew what I wanted this one to be about. 'Ordinary World' seemed like such a great title, because it says that the important thing is the ordinary thing, the reality, and the song's about somebody who feels that he's suddenly woken up in a bit of a crazy world and wants to regain the ordinary world that he once knew — something that he can recognise and feel comfortable with."
The demo of the song reflected the straightforward nature of its sentiments: stereo drums, a single bass track, a doubled acoustic guitar, a stereo pad, and a vocal, all achieved in a couple of passes. "I was engineering as well as programming, and also playing," recalls JJ "because a lot of the time someone would sing me something rather than play it, and so I would have to reproduce this. We reprogrammed the drums and tidied things up, but we didn't record any of the computer stuff at this point. We just left it all live, and this was at the same time that we bought a Calrec Soundfield mike, an all-purpose microphone which seemed the best to me in that environment — Urei and Drawmer compressors, Drawmer gates, the SSL stereo compressor, a pair of NS10s and whatever else I thought we needed. We didn't have to buy an Ultra Harmonizer — we already had one — we had two AMS delays, and we already had a Lexicon 224X."
With the arrival of one of the Akai ADAM machines — the other would take a few weeks longer — recording continued for a while in 12-channel mode using the MG1214 through into the digital recorder. "The 1214 has internal digital track assigning," says JJ, "and you can't actually use the desk with a tape machine in the conventional manner. But it has two busses, and so you assign something to the buss and then patch it out of there into the tape machine. So I'd be climbing up, moving the plugs along, and that was really intense!
"What we'd do was fill up the 12 tracks, and then I'd copy those onto the Akai DD1000 magneto-optical disk recorder with a SMPTE reference, and put that back on another tape so that we could keep on overdubbing. So for the first few weeks we were sort of 24 track, but only using 12 tracks at a time. I would have just run the DD1000 live, but we were using it all of the time. I moved a lot of stuff around. I mean, even the second time we did 'Ordinary World' we weren't yet sure that we had the structure right, so what was able to do with the DD 1000 was to take tracks off it in stereo pairs, edit them and then put them back on in a different order.
"Even much, much later, when we overdubbed live drums, there were a few points in the track where things weren't quite tight, because everything was done to machine and then drums were played to that, and this caused a couple of discrepancies which wouldn't have arisen if they were playing together. So I even moved the live drums a little bit, and I had to do this two tracks at a time, shifting little bits around and shifting the acoustic to make it work, and although that kind of work only took a few hours it was really quite intense. I mean, you're dropping in drop-ins, and again that's not something which you can do with two machines, because you're taking bits from everywhere, changing them around and cross-fading across. You can't do that unless you're putting it back through the desk and fading and so on, but I didn't want to do that because I wanted to keep it all digital, and so that's what I was doing: bouncing off digitally into the DD1000 and digitally back into the machine, so we didn't lose anything.
"John Jones: The group wanted to have the time to be creative without spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in a studio. They asked me if I thought we could make a record in a living room. My response was that we certainly could."
"When we were doing the acoustic guitar everyone was in the room. We were all sitting there, and so when it was time to clap I'd just swing the mic into the middle of the room, put it on all-around and everybody would clap. It was really fantastic. There were a couple of fans which I had to turn off, and we occasionally had helicopters flying overhead which forced us to retake, but 'Ordinary World' nevertheless definitely has some birds on it! You can't hear them on the track but you can hear them if you solo the vocal, and you can hear the odd car and the odd kid out in the street. We didn't have a sealed room, that's for sure!"
Working 6-8-hour days, bass guitar was next to be overdubbed, once again through the Zoom, into the analogue desk, and onto the digital tape machine, followed by a second guide vocal, miked with an 87. "We'd jump from one thing to another," says JJ. "We'd be in the middle of doing the bass, and we'd change something on the drums or something on the keyboard, albeit on the same song.
"The loud, raunchy guitar work on 'Ordinary World' features some heavy power chords played by Warren on one of his many Steinbergers, while there were some Beatley sounds courtesy of keyboard parts off the Ensoniq VFX, plus string and choir samples off the Akai S1000. The main string synth sound was from the Roland D50, which Nick had played on the original demo. We retained that, and it's still the main sound. It was played as a pad, however, to add atmosphere rather than melody, so we later tried to orchestrate it together and I added some real strings to give it more rhythm.
"We were constantly trying new ideas, I mean, John might come up with an idea for a sound and he'd play a little keyboard part. Simon would play a little keyboard part. Warren would play some keyboard parts; I can remember an occasion when Warren tried to tell me about a keyboard part and I just couldn't get it, so he ended up playing it. So it was very communal."
"For the proper lead vocal, Simon stood in the middle of the room and used the Audiofile," says JJ. "Again, everyone was sitting there with headphones on, and anyone could interject or sing something. Occasionally, somebody would sing a harmony in the middle of a vocal pass, and sometimes we'd end up using it. In any case, the vocal was eventually made up of a composite because we changed the arrangements slightly, and we flew a few bits in."
"These days, with vocals I'm actually much more concerned with timing than tuning," adds Simon Le Bon. "You can make tuning work for you when you get it slightly wrong — that's all down to style. Flat singing is a lot more acceptable than sharp singing. Sharp singing is too tense and it makes you feel uncomfortable, whereas flat singing just sounds a little bit laid back."
By the point at which Le Bon laid down the main vocal for 'Ordinary World', the DDA DMR12 desk had been installed. This entailed quite a lot of re-wiring, but all worth it, according to JJ. "The DDA is a very quiet desk," he says. "The EQ on it is very good, but I only ever use EQ to fix things which I can't get out of the instrument or can't get out of the mic. The Calrec Soundfield, on the other hand, is really wonderful, and we had such a great time with it, zooming in, changing the perspective and so on."
After a week's break, and some attempts to mix a couple of tracks on the new console, JJ and the band decided that they'd rather do this in a proper studio. At the same time, live drums were commissioned for 'Ordinary World' and a couple of other songs, and these were subsequently recorded in the space of a few hours utilising the percussive talents of Steve Ferrone and the engineering skills of Tony Taverner at Maison Rouge Studios in South-West London.
"Taking a new tape there with a stereo mix on it would only have left us with 10 tracks, and that might not have been enough to record a couple of drum passes. So what I did was to mix down the songs in question without the computer drums to the DD1000 with SMPTE reference. Then, at Maison Rouge, using 24-track Dolby SR analogue, we striped the tape with the same time code and Steve played along to the DD1000, and it all went off great. The real drums gave a depth to the songs."
Finally, Nick Rhodes and JJ perfected the string and other keyboard parts on 'Ordinary World' at Maison Rouge, and after a few other amendments were made to drums and acoustic guitar with the much-used Akai DD1000, the song was ready for mixing. Steve MacMillion in the US, JJ and Dee Long in the UK, and Queen's producer Dave Richards in Switzerland all made attempts at mixing the track, which were felt to be not entirely satisfactory, prior to David Leonard doing what JJ recalls as "a fantastic job."
Leonard's mix was cut at London's Townhouse Studios; but that wasn't quite the end of things. When the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness took place at Wembley Stadium earlier this year, Dave Richards was in London to cut his own mixes, and he got to hear Leonard's work on 'Ordinary World'. Unbeknown to anyone else he decided to take another stab at it, and the result so pleased the band that this is the version that has found its way into the record shops! End of story.
"We've all put a lot into this record, and we're all pleased with it," says John Taylor. "The good material is really good, and we've put a lot of work into the other material so that it still sounds fresh. So half the record sounds new to us, and the other half, which sounded great six months ago, still sounds great."
Interview by Richard Buskin
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