Penny from heaven
The man behind Elton’s new mix
Recording singers like Elton John, k d lang and Eddi Reader, producer Greg Penny spends much of his time on Cloud 9. Phil Ward grabs a harp and joins him in mid-Air...
Capturing natural and spontaneous performances and crafting them into polished albums requires the patience of angels. It also, ideally, requires studio time somewhere like Air Lyndhurst, a converted church in North London. Elton John's forthcoming album is a case in point, as well as something of a landmark for Air. It's the first time that a rock band has recorded an entire album in what is known as 'the hall' - actually the former nave. Producer Greg Penny, a man with hair to match the length of Elton John's career, found sanctuary in its acoustic richness. Hitherto, the space has been reserved for orchestras and such, its chasms resounding to lush string arrangements from the likes of George Martin. But now the alcoves, nooks and crannies have fallen to the sonic blasphemy of rock. Well, Elton John, anyway.
Exploiting the size of the hall, Greg arranged the key members of the Elton John band to suit live, ensemble recording. At the epicentre was a semi-circle of EJ keyboards.
"Elton sat in the middle of the room facing the control room, at an angle," he begins. "Running clockwise, we had a Yamaha 9ft grand piano that belongs to Elton. In the centre, facing the control room, we had a Roland RD1000 controller so that he could play electric piano. Then to the right of that we had the Air 9ft Bosendorfer. In fact, the piano that got the most use was the Yamaha grand. We even used that as a MIDI controller for some of the electric piano sounds, because it was just easier for him to sit in one place and play and sing live. He sang live a lot. Some of which we kept and some we went back over, not for spillage reasons - just to get a different vibe on the vocal.
"Facing the control room and to the left of Elton was a large booth that Davey Johnstone set up with guitars. The rear portion of the booth was used mainly for a line of amplifiers. Different configurations, different headslacks, different microphones and ambient mics. Closer to the door we built a small isolated area where he could sit and play acoustic guitar, mandolin or banjo. We also set up an area closer to Elton out in the main room where he could sit and play electric or acoustic guitar, depending on the situation.
"Facing the control room at about 'two o'clock', Bob Birch had his bass setup, for which we used long cables to isolate an amplifier sort of behind him, in a small isolation booth that exists between the larger isolation booth and the control room. We put an amp in there. He sat on the main floor to play bass and we took a direct tap from him.
"Behind him was an identical isolation booth to Davey's. That's where we put Charlie Morgan and all his various drums, overdub stuff and electronic things. Where we wanted to use a click, he could feed himself the various clicks directly. That gave him pretty much an independent work station, he could do electronic things, drums or percussion.
"We also set up an RD1000 to the left of the desk as you face it, to allow Elton to come up with keyboard parts in the control room."
About two weeks into the album, the team was joined by Paul Buckmaster, who began sifting through the material for promising string arrangements. In the end, five songs were selected, and the whole process from scoring to recording the string sections took place within the Air studio complex. It was on the strings, in fact, that Greg used the new AKG C12VR valve microphone, featured in Total Recall (THE MIX, July). Clearly, a classic warm sound suited Elton's classic, warm ballads.
"Pete Mills was our Technical Assistant," explains Greg. "At one point he told us about a new mic from AKG that they wanted to drop by so that we could test it. They brought two, in fact, and we first used them on a song called 'Latitude', as the main overhead mics on about 12 strings in the hull. It worked out beautifully, really nice. They have the characteristics of the old valve mics, but without the noise - best of both worlds."
Writing as ever with Bernie Taupin, who also became an integral part of the Air housegroup, Elton began churning out the songs with characteristic efficiency.
"On the day that we started the album," reveals Greg, "Elton came in and maybe sat at the piano for about an hour, and at the end of that hour he had one song finished and another started. We immediately recorded, and that was how we launched into it. It went day after day like that. Elton would write something, and we would track it. If there was a break in the tracking, or a technical break where we needed to make a copy of something or whatever, he would just start writing again."
By the end of two weeks he had written 14 songs. At the end of the sessions there were 20. Taupin stayed for six weeks in total, by the end of which all 20 songs were complete.
"We chose 11 for the finished album," says Greg, "and I would take any of the cast-offs. It's simply a matter of how they fit the album you want to make. Some of them fit comfortably, and in the right running order they can work. Some of them stand out as stylistically different, so we'll use them for later things - but we're not quite sure yet what that will be."
Greg's experience with acoustic instruments came to the fore with possibly the most important instrument in the mix - Elton's piano.
Although all the master tapes were striped with timecode, the band were most definitely not confined within any machine-generated parameters.
"There are many songs on the album that aren't played to any click at all." says Greg. "Most of the album is played live - there's very little on it that's robotic-based. Where it is you don't really notice it. We thought about that when we started the album. We wanted something that Elton could tour with, and which he and the band could play live. We sometimes came off the mark a bit by adding a 30-piece orchestra..."
"I have to match Elton's speed technically. I have to be faster than him. As soon as he's got his idea out we have to catch it, with tracking, and then fast overdubs - or multi-vocals"
"There were a couple of variations, but for the most part we used B&Ks inside the piano, and the piano was tented off quite heavily even though we had this big room to use. The room is so big that you don't gain that much inside of a heavy rhythm track, to try and take advantage of it. As a matter of fact, Elton's piano has very little reverb on it at all, if any - primarily because it needs a lot of presence to be the centrepiece.
"So if you tried to use the room for its ambience, the piano would have been swallowed up by the other instruments and it might have made it sound a bit swimmy. So we chose to tent it off and use as many live vocals as we could, and that way we could keep piano tracks and vocal tracks and still punch in on them if we needed to - although Elton hardly punches in on the piano tracks at all. He's very, very organised and well rehearsed when he goes to put something down. There's enough time just between preparing the control room and going for a take for him to nail it.
"That's what makes the tracks really fun - the whole band has this real spontaneous feel."
Accordingly, Elton and his chums recorded simultaneously for the first pass: ten or eleven tracks for drums, two for bass, two for piano and so on. But since the album was recorded primarily on a Sony 3348 (48 tracks on one-inch digital tape), there was still plenty of room for overdubs. Greg favours the swift responsiveness of digital tape - but then, he needed it...
"When you consider Elton's speed," he admits, "I have to match it technically. I have to be faster than him. As soon as he's got his idea out we have to effectively catch any creative outpouring, with tracking, and then fast overdubs or multi-vocals. The Sony gives us the ability to just keep going without having to lock up a lot of other stuff. We had a 3324 locked to the 48 the whole time if we needed it; on a couple of tracks we did, but mostly we bounced back into the 48 if we did. Almost everything on the album is on 3348 straight as you hear it, lined right up with the drums always in the same area, then the bass, guitars, keyboards, vocals, backing vocals and whatever. It lines up pretty straight."
All this may seem far removed from home recording, but Greg knows what that's like too. In fact, Eddi Reader's new album, including the hit single 'Patience Of Angels', was recorded by Greg at his house about 25 miles inland from Santa Barbera in California. Making a crucial creative decision, they decided to relocate to this more domestic setting after starting the album in an LA studio. Mixed at Air, Eddi Reader is further evidence of Greg's ability to keep a song breathing right through its spell of intensive care in the rarified atmospheres of modern recording.
"It's a very acoustic record, very similar to Elton's and the k d lang albums. We set up and start recording as though it were a live record, which we stick to unless we need to inject a little bit of witchcraft at times."
Just to confuse matters, Greg recorded the highly acoustic Eddi Reader on Tascam DA88s...
"I don't think Eddi is comfortable with all the trappings of a large studio. She'll sing her most inspired vocals with a guitar at the kitchen table - and k d is very much like that, too"
"I find that it's accurate to a certain degree. My basic theory is that for 16-bit digital, the best sampling rate is 48kHz - even though a lot of people like to use 44.1kHz because they can stay in the digital domain, fly things out to DAT, make CDs straight off the DAT and so on. I tend to like the sound of 48kHz, and my explanation is that, yes, you are eventually going to reach 16-bit 44.1kH on CD, but until that point, if you're ever going to introduce analogue at any point, you may as well keep the highest sampling frequency that you can keep.
"The problem with digital is that, as true as it sounds, I think it has a hard time reproducing harmonics like multitrack analogue with Dolby SR. For me, the best-sounding reproduction of acoustic harmonics is SR analogue. But you have all the other drawbacks, like less recording time on a reel of tape - I like having half-an-hour or an hour on tape that I can keep going with without reloading. I also don't like the alignment procedures that are involved in the analogue world, especially with vintage machines. That adds another factor; they're constantly changing so you've really got to have good technical staff. I'm more and more opting for digital multitrack, mixing to analogue 2-track, and mastering through an analogue desk to 16-bit, 44.1kHz - which gives me what I think is enough of the groovy analogue stuff to the very end.
"I love the sound of SR. I like what it does to the harmonics of acoustic instruments. On electric instruments, especially guitars through an amp, you can get things out of digital that you can't get out of analogue. But for me acoustic instruments sound better on analogue SR. It just depends on the record; if I could mix formats all the way to the end, I would. But that brings on a whole set of circumstances that can really slow the creative process down."
Does the accuracy of digital tape help in these acoustic matters?
"That was a decision that I made because I wanted a certain amount of freedom," he explains. "I didn't want to lug a huge great multitrack up to the house. I just thought right, let's see how it goes. And it all worked out great; we even transferred a lot of the analogue stuff we'd already done over to the DA88s, which sounded great. Then all the way through the process we just made safeties in case we had any drop-out - which we did, and which I think Tascam are addressing. One of the main problems is the tape; it's down to the tape on those machines. I love the sound of DA88, and if you listen to Eddi's album it has a great sound."
Dealing with personalities is as much a part of the producer's role as selecting tape formats. Working with singers takes as light a touch as calibrating multitracks. Greg's roster reveals contrasting reactions to the business of recording.
"I don't think that Eddi is comfortable with all the trappings of a large, pro recording studio. You find that she'll sing her most inspired vocals with a guitar at the kitchen table - and k d is very much like that. A lot of k d's vocals were done sitting with me at the recording console. Elton's less intimidated by the prospect of recording. He doesn't get nervous about doing anything. He will happily go into a studio full of people and do the lead vocals, and he knows he can get it within a couple of takes.
"For Eddi and k d, I would make sure that there weren't too many people there, it was a very intimate setting, and that they could judge for themselves rather than having lots of people telling them. Elton has the ability to cut through all of that, partly because he's been doing it for so long, and partly because he cares less about the technical side of things."
It turns out that k d lang, in fact, is proficient on the console and has much greater involvement in the recording than Elton John.
"She decided she'd like to be involved the process more," says Greg, 'and I wanted her to be involved, so she could see how far she could go.
Precedents for location recording were set in the early '70s - and Greg was there. At 17, he actually visited the sessions for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which took place at the French country house immortalised in the album Honky Chateau and were recorded with the legendary Rolling Stones mobile unit. It was a time when UK rock acts began to enjoy the freedom of Europe in the search for alternative recording venues, and like any aspiring producer Greg donned his rucksack and followed them.
"As true as it sounds, digital has a hard time reproducing harmonics like multitrack analogue with Dolby SR"
"Ingénue was primarily done in the control room, a really homely environment complete with magazines and trays full of food and guitars lent up against the wall. We could sit with a guitar and suggest things to each other as we listened to playbacks.
"The album was meant to be true and timeless, and not flavour of the month. It came out in 1991, and this year it was No. 1 in the Australian charts. We also used that sense of timelessness on Eddi's album, so when you go and buy it you don't feel that it was made at a particular time. And I think that we've achieved this with Elton's album, without becoming too retro about it."
For the future, Greg looks on course to continue this unique triad. There's already talk of another Elton John album to be made at Air, and another Eddi Reader album in the spring of next year - hopefully out by September of 1995. Meanwhile, the next k d lang project should ensue in about September of this year and continue through until March.
"It takes me about five months to do an album with k d, from the finished demos to rewriting some things, through tracking and mixing," reveals Greg. "Because of the timelessness of Ingénue, she has been able to do the promotion work for a couple of years after the release. That period of touring etc is now over, and she needs to reinvent herself - which is a painful experience. She stops being k d lang for a while, has a complete break from it, and then she'll get really inspired by something - maybe a record, a piece of music or an experience in her life that she'll turn into a lyric.
"I think the direction will be a continuous follow-on from Absolute Torch And Twang, which was a sort of departure from country without alienating the fans. With some tracks on that album, we made sure that we left an open door to move on to another thing, like 'Trail Of Broken Hearts' and 'Pulling Back The Reins'. On the surface they look like stock country-style, but then you find the melody changes a bit, or there are a few new injections. Like k d likes to say: 'it's country - but which country?'. It's sort of a curried Nashville at times - bluegrass vindaloo..."
She is very influenced by the classic country singers, but I think if you sat her down and asked who really interests her, she would say Kate Bush. She is very much like Kate in that she can sit down and turn the studio to her advantage. At the end of the day she leaves the final decision to me, but she likes to have the options presented to her.
"I had met Elton when he was on the road in the States," he recalls. "I was a fan, my mother is a singer and she'd come along to the shows with me. And Elton was a fan of mom's at the time and he remembered my face. All my life I wanted to be a producer, to the point where I wanted to go to a music conservatory in Europe. So I sat down and wrote to these conservatories, asking for their admission forms etc. I planned the trip to Europe and I called Elton to ask where was he going to be, and he said France - working on his new album. So I stopped there first.
"Consequently I realised that going to a music conservatoire was really square and I wouldn't want to do that anyway. So I went to the sessions, and I got there the day they were doing the bass track for 'Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)'. I also heard a couple of playbacks of the album, came back to London and spent a long time here. Pop music has always been my favourite thing, so I just got around town and enjoyed the live bands and whatever was going on. It was my big adventure."
Did you get into engineering through the studios?
"No, never. I sort of became an engineer backwards. Most people think that I was an engineer and then a producer, because that's the next step. I started engineering long after I started producing, and the only reason I started engineering was to get my ideas across more quickly and efficiently, and also to understand what it was all about. After a few sessions of my own that other people heard, other people started to ask me to engineer for them - so I did."
And three people in particular - called Katherine, Eddi and Reg - are sure glad he did.
Interview by Phil Ward
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