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New Order - Technique

New Order

Mark Prendergast takes a look behind the scenes at the recording of New Order's fifth LP, 'Technique'.


Mark Prendergast takes a look behind the scenes at the recording of New Order's fifth LP, 'Technique'.


Here's an apocryphal story about New Order and Peter Gabriel: last year, when Gabriel was away doing good deeds for Amnesty International, the four Mancunians had the run of his mansion for the recording of their fifth studio LP Technique. After mixing it with Alan Mayerson, thousands of pounds were spent on drinks for a huge party that involved friends by the coachful from Manchester and most of the inhabitants of nearby Bath! This unlikely event is just one of the many tales that surround what is 1989's first 'important' rock album. This year also sees Factory Records celebrate its first decade in the good hands of Tony Wilson. His protege, Vini Reilly, is bringing out another guitar masterpiece and the stridently independent company looks set to shrug off its rustic rural image by moving into classical music, record retailing, and the Russian market!

What is most glorious is the strange beauty and economical tailoring of the New Order record. Here again is the fusion of emotion and technology, the breathing of life into machines that for so long has been the domain of the German electronic wizards. Coincidentally, the same day I received the review copy of Technique I happened to purchase two old Klaus Schulze albums, Moondawn (1976) and X (1987) both on the Metronome label. Listening to these, one could readily hear the German superiority with synthesizers - melodic proficiency and an acoustic sense of tone and timbre that is continually absent from British dabblers, until the arrival of New Order that is. Technique overflows with that acoustic instinct - it is present on every processed Peter Hook bass line, every Gillian Gilbert keyboard fill, every Steve Morris drum beat, and most poignantly on every tiny breath and guitar whisper that Bernard Sumner makes. Recorded in Ibiza and at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, it waves the flag for what can be achieved in British music and why so much recorded material past and present just doesn't get near.

New Order spent May/June of 1988 recording the basic tracks for Technique at Mediterranean Studios in Ibiza. Producer Michael Johnson had the following to say about the recording: "The group had always wanted to go abroad and record. This was their wish for Brotherhood but they only got as far as Dublin. Ibiza was warmer, so there you go. When they got there a couple of songs were half finished, like 'Mr. Disco' and 'All The Way' I think, but the rest were made up as they went along. Mediterranean Studios were pretty horrible, like real early '70s English studios in design with green carpets going up the walls. Between the control room and the studio itself there was a small overdub room which doubled as a kitchen. There was so little room that we had to take out the window between the control room and studio to fit all the keyboards in, plus make the other little room an integral part of everything else. There were no windows whatsoever into the real world. We had four weeks there, then one week off, and four weeks more. It was good for the group because they could go and sunbathe, but I was well sick of it because I had to spend six days a week there."

Ibiza may sound like a pretty idyllic place to go to record but problems with studio equipment ensured that life was no holiday, as Michael Johnson explained: "There were lots of problems. We had to sync-lock two 24-track recorders and there was this well pump that, when switched on for drinking water, would cause interference on the timecode track. We didn't realise this until we were well into the recording, thus causing us a lot more editing and copying in order to get rid of the noise. The studio was a residential place with a swimming pool. In effect, we did everything there: the entire album was more or less on its way by the time we finished there."

Having completed backing tracks for the album in Ibiza, recording continued at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios located just outside Bath.

"We spent a further seven weeks here and that was like heaven. Peter's studio is on the top floor of an old mill in a curious place called Box, in Wiltshire, about five miles from Bath. The centre point of the roof is raised with huge windows on two sides, thus making the place very airy. It was full of pine wood and so isolated that it didn't require soundproofing. Peter was hiring it out at the time, and whilst we were recording there was a new control room being built adjacent. But now that it's finished, the whole place has ceased to be a commercial studio and is now Peter's personalised private place of work. The SSL mixing desk he had in his old home studio is now in that control room. For me, it was the best place I've ever worked in.

"There was an SSL 48-track desk, Studer 24-track tape machines, that sort of stuff. What we brought from Ibiza were basic backing tracks on which vocals, melodies, and bass lines were overdubbed. With Steven's drums, 95% were done in Ibiza, 5% at Real World. They used a lot of electronics and computers: three Macintoshes were floating around at one stage. Andy, the roadie, has one and when I was rigging electronics up to the console there was one there. Also, the group were recording music for a BBC TV series, titled 'Making Out', in a back room with their own 16-track set-up. In fact, they had to engineer, produce, record and mix that themselves because I was too busy on the album to help."

Although New Order's music has matured over the years, their recording habits remain pretty much the same in the studio - they continue to record the vocals in the control room, and still utilise a lot of effects on bass and guitars. According to Johnson, what has changed is the keyboard side, which grows more and more complicated with each passing album.

"Bernard owns keyboards himself and in the studio he's quite a musician. Most of the ideas come from him. Gillian (Gilbert) may go off to a room and tape a few ideas but most of them are then widened out and expanded upon by Bernard. New Order, in a lot of ways, depends on him. If he wasn't there it would all crash around the ears of the rest of them. It was the same with Joy Division. There, Barney was responsible for the basic tracks - guitars, all the overdubs and instrumentation, even though Ian Curtis wrote the words and melodies. (See such tracks as 'No Love Lost' and 'Failures' on the LP Substance for proof of this point!). Gillian was taken on because Barney (Bernard) couldn't play guitar, keyboards, and sing all at the same time. I agree that the others can all make music and that some of Gillian's ideas do filter through on the keyboard/composition side but Bernard has the strongest will and what he says goes, because he's usually right. New Order was always 95% his basis, this time it's 99% his basis."

There isn't the scope here to delve into the emotional/creative supportive advantage of being in a group and making music but suffice to say, like U2, New Order depend on more than one individual for their sound and ultimate success.

New Order in the studio: Bernard Sumner (guitars/vocals/lyrics), Steve Morris (drums/machines), Gillian Gilbert (keyboards), Tony Wilson (Factory Records boss), Rob Gretton (manager), and Peter Hook (bass).


The technicalities of the Technique recording make for interesting reading: "It was a very up-to-the-minute recording. The sampling is not what you might imagine, though. With the drums, Steven played his own kit and they were sampled into the computer from tape. Then during recording the computer played his samples back onto tape with any corrections that were necessary. Hence, if he had made any mistakes or wanted to change his mind about something, the playing and drum sound could be easily changed. To me, that was the most unusual thing we've ever done."

"We used two 24-tracks synchronised together a lot of the time. When you are putting down tracks and going over them, it takes twice as long to locate a point in a song, and there is always a danger of the synchronisers breaking down. In the end we had to make one 24-track recording, which made the whole thing very, very tight. The arrangements had to be spot on and things like keyboard parts could only appear where they were needed. This was before Alan Mayerson's mix. With someone like Arthur Baker (who has mixed New Order 12" singles in the past), he prefers to get a very long track with all the instruments playing right through, even though they're not required. With Barney's method everything was so exact, and I remember on one song the computer forgot the whole thing completely and we had to start all over again. With 48-track recording you end up with lots of things that you don't need, but with Technique the final mix doesn't sound that much removed from what was there before the mix. Of course, it's more polished because Alan Mayerson cut the track down and made it sound clean."

With Bernard Sumner much rumoured to undertake a solo album with ex-Smith guitarist Johnny Marr, Michael Johnson's next project will be a Peter Hook LP to be recorded at the bass man's 16-track Rochdale studio with the band Revenge. On Technique, though, Johnson is reserved:

"I've got mixed feelings about it. In a lot of ways New Order haven't really moved forward very much but after 15 weeks of recording I'm a very bad judge of it. Manager Rob Gretton thinks it's the best thing we've ever done, and I think he's got a clearer picture than I have. At this stage I don't hold too much store by my own judgement, though I've got my favourites."

LP APPRAISAL

SIDE ONE

Fine Time
This track is an obsessively technological pot-pourri of drum, cymbal and keyboard samples. Heavily synthesized bass and sinewy guitar takes what started with 'Blue Monday' (1983) and updates it to the current splashy house style. Though vocally weak, overtly dance oriented, and in places capricious, 'Fine Time' exhibits enough character to let you know that it's New Order at work and play.

All The Way
Crashing in with electric guitars and drums, this hypnotically melodic tune is the first great song on Technique. New Order have always had a knack of combining a speedy attack with a slowly building and almost 'classical' structuring of notes, and here that ability is shown off with enormous style. "It takes years to find the truth, assert yourself, not depend on anyone" repeats Sumner, again and again, in that cryingly plaintive way to understated but shining guitar breaks.

Love Less
Another straight acoustic song introduced by crashing drums. This time the plaintive lyric focuses on the bewildering situation of love turning to hate. The picked acoustic guitar is reminiscent in parts of 'Brotherhood', and even if the flow of the melody line is not as sophisticated as on other songs, Sumner's singing is as always full of passion, grace and nuance.

Round & Round
Full of sequenced drum lines and pretty metronomical keyboard parts, this track hops, skips and jumps in a fairly journeyman fashion to a noisy electronic dead stop. Qualitatively, in relation to the rest of Technique, this track is strictly filler material.

Guilty Partner
The flowering masterpiece of the record where Bernard 'Albrecht' Sumner constructs a type of real-life film noir script in song about love lost and hopefully regained. The dynamic of the piece is superb with strong bass/drum rhythms and vocal intonations pushing the complex lyrics deep into the subconscious. The song's arc-like symmetrical structure is tailored at the end by some nifty acoustic guitar playing and a sprinkling of resolving keyboards.

SIDE TWO

Run
A joyous, jangling celebration of close relationships with some cutting electric guitar and sonic variability provided by a fade to a sampled cymbal instrumental and a nice gelling acoustic outro.

Mr. Disco
Heavyweight synthesizer stabs, dramatic electro-strings and an almost computer game series of blips and beeps inform this basic re-arrangement of 1986's 'Bizarre Love Triangle'. Yet it's more honed, and the lyrics about holiday romance sound too sincere to be contrived.

Vanishing Point
Immaculate dance rooted song relating to one of Sumner's favourite themes - the mental/physical abuse of children by parents. Here New Order show how they are unique at marrying black beat patterns to their very own post-punk rock vision.

Dream Attack
The classic acoustic fuzz guitar intro of this track displays Bernard Sumner's uncanny understanding of key and note structuring. The drums are sheer rock 'n' roll and the percussive use of keyboards a treat. The breathy vocals, full of dreamy images, float effortlessly into a tough pointed guitar break that fades out the entire album.

VERDICT: To be played loud and enjoyed.


More with this artist



Previous Article in this issue

Digitech DSP 128 Plus

Next article in this issue

How to Set up a Home Studio


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Apr 1989

Topic:

Recording


Artist:

New Order


Role:

Band/Group

Related Artists:

Stephen Hague

Electronic

Peter Hook


Feature by Mark Prendergast

Previous article in this issue:

> Digitech DSP 128 Plus

Next article in this issue:

> How to Set up a Home Studio


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