Sticking It Together
You know all those classic sixties and seventies songs you keep hearing on TV ads these days? Well, almost every one you hear is not in fact the original recording but a completely new version. To give you an idea of how such reconstructions are produced, Nigel Beaham-Powell of Streets Ahead Music Productions recounts how he went about reproducing a Bryan Ferry track.
You know all those classic sixties and seventies songs you keep hearing on TV ads these days? Well, almost every one you hear is not in fact the original recording but a completely new version. To give you an idea of how such reconstructions are produced, Nigel Beaham-Powell of Streets Ahead Music Productions recounts how he went about reproducing a Bryan Ferry track so closely that even Mother Ferry couldn't tell the difference...
What do you do when someone asks you to produce a near-perfect carbon copy of a classic track? As a music production company, it's our business to create music to order, but some types of music are harder than others. In this case, a client wanted a re-recording of Roxy Music's Let's Stick Together for a corporate film. We've done a number of covers before, but never a seventies rock 'n' roll track. Our studio is kitted out with all the latest techno keyboards, drum machines and samplers, but as soon as we listened to the track, it was obvious that we couldn't use any of that gear!
You may ask why our client didn't use the original Roxy Music track. Good question! After all, it would have been far easier. Well, the answer lies in the song's history. It was originally written by Wilbert Harrison and recorded in a basic rhythm and blues style. It was then called Let's Work Together. Canned Heat got hold of it in the early sixties and released a cover version, which was a big hit in the States (and a lesser one over here).
Bryan Ferry then re-wrote the lyrics and re-named the song Let's Stick Together. Why? At the time, he was breaking up with a certain Miss Jerry Hall, and his lyrics are a fairly passionate - and moral - plea to stick together: quite an irony when you consider the sleazy glamour image of Roxy at the time. Anyway, it didn't work, and as we all know Jerry Hall is now with her post-Ferry man, Mick Jagger.
But back to the song. Our client wanted the Roxy Music backing... but with a Bryan Ferry delivery of Wilbert Harrison's original lyrics! The challenge was to make our version sound the same as the original Roxy recording - in a compact, modern studio - without Ferry, and without the then highly exciting Roxy band. Quite a tall order.
The first thing was to listen to the Roxy Music track. As some of you may know, it's a basic 12-bar in the key of A, so the structure couldn't have been easier to work out. But it became obvious very quickly that apart from guitar, bass, tenor sax, harmonica, Hohner Pianet N (I recognised the sound immediately, it was the first keyboard I ever bought) and drums, there were some other things going on in the mix - washboard for one. Yup - amazing as it may sound, there's a washboard playing throughout. There are also some far away piano octaves at certain points, and lots of vocal 'whoops' during the harmonica break. Ferry's voice is also heavily double-tracked, as is Andy Mackay's sax part.
Having thus analysed the original recording, we decided to use real musicians throughout - the song just wouldn't sound right any other way. It was now time to plan out the track sheet. We had 15 tracks available (on our Fostex E16), with track 16 handling the ubiquitous SMPTE timecode. We first had to work out how many tracks we would need - there is nothing more frustrating than running out of tracks during a session. Luckily for us, the original Roxy recording was probably done on a 16-track, but even so, we would have to plan carefully and bounce some tracks together in order to get everything down.
At this point I can hear you thinking: 'If you're running short of tracks and you're using real musicians, why bother with timecode?' For three reasons. One: to lay down a guide drum track with a drum machine, and then be able to re-do it later if necessary. Two: you can always sync something to a code if you're in a jam later on, but it's pretty difficult if you ain't got one to start with! Three: because of space restrictions in the live room of our studio, we couldn't have a whole band stomping away at the same time, so we had to put the real drums down to a guide drum part or give the drummer a click track in his headphones - from the code.
We assigned five tracks for the drums, then one each for the bass, guitar, piano, Hohner Pianet, washboard and sax riff. We kept two tracks free for the solos - harmonica and saxophone - and two for the lead vocals. We also needed somewhere behind the harmonica solo to put the whoops, but decided that we could use the sax solo track.
The next step was to record a basic version of the song to act as a guide for the musicians we would bring in later. We did a rough guide of the drum track on an Emu Systems SP12, checked the tempo against the record, and fired it from the timecode. We always put all the guide drums on one track, invariably track 3. (There used to be a good reason for this: when we had an 8-track, we worked out that we could do the most bounces on the machine by having a drum code on track 5 and guide drums on 3 - since then, guide drums have always been recorded on track 3!)
I then listened to the track a few times to work out the inversions of the chords played by the Pianet, and selected a DX7 patch which sounded reasonably similar. For the sax, we got out a tenor growl sample and Bella (Russell, my partner in Streets Ahead Music) played Andy Mackay's part excluding the solo. A rough bass, a quick lead vocal - from Bella - and voila, a rough (and I mean rough!) version of the song was down on tape.
By recording a template like this, you can check whether you've got the song structure and the basic chords right. You can also run the multitrack against the record to make doubly sure you've got the tempo correct, and although you've got nil feel factor, you've at least got something to start the ball rolling.
"In a fit of optimism, I did actually ring up Bryan Ferry's management on the you-never-know-he-might-be-amused-to-do-it basis, but he was in the middle of a world tour."
It was very important that we kept to the tempo of the original recording: I knew that the film production company was shooting their pictures - in pop video style - to the original Roxy Music track, so if our music was to fit the pictures for which it was intended, the tempo of the two versions had to be the same. We then decided which musicians we wanted to use, found out when they were available, and sent each of them a cassette of the original Roxy track.
Because of the lack of space in our studio, we decided to record each instrument one by one, starting with the drums. The kit was miked up using a Shure SM58 on the snare, and a Neumann on the hi-hat. Two AKG 414s were used as overheads (borrowed from a friend), until we discovered that one of them was blown! We therefore roped in our prized Neumann U87 as a second overhead mic. Judicious use of a heavy blanket over the mic in the bass drum allowed us to separate the bass drum from the rest of the kit.
It took us about three quarters of an hour to get the right sound on the kit: the live/dead sound so noticeable on seventies records. The drummer decided he just wanted to hear the drum machine bass drum and snare in his headphones, so we triggered them from the timecode. We also mixed in the guide lead vocal very far away so that he could orient himself within the take. It then took 20 minutes of takes until we were happy with his part - the drummer was a top session player and believe me it showed! He was in the groove straight away. We then recorded his washboard. This was made of glass, so it had to be heavily EQ'd before it sounded like the wooden one used on the original track.
Next the bass player - who was also doubling as session engineer - did his part. We had to compress the bass quite heavily to get the sound right, but that went down pretty quickly. We then erased the guide drums and template material.
I had arranged a schedule of six hours for recording: an hour and a half for the drums and bass, with the other musicians arriving at half hourly intervals after that to do their parts. When producing, I find that it's better to concentrate on one part at a time, and this is always achieved more quickly with the fewest number of people around. With the bass and drums recorded satisfactorily - and feeling like a real band - I overdubbed the piano octaves on our Yamaha CP70. At this point we decided to find a closer sound to the Pianet than the one I had used previously, and a DX patch called 'Wurly' fitted the bill.
Sax came next. The saxophonist had his solo down to every Mackay slur, and funnily enough the sampled tenor growl sounded great mixed in with his single note blasts, so we bounced the two together and kept the solo on its own on another track. The harmonica player had also rehearsed his part perfectly beforehand, and we recorded that with the trusty Shure SM58 - handheld in the time-honoured blues harp manner. He also brought along his two year old daughter, who insisted on being in the sound room with her Dad during takes!
All was going well. The guitarist arrived - late, but he did his part in one take. We heavily double-tracked the guitar with our Effectron delay machine to get the required thickness of sound.
The instrumental backing was one thing, but finding a Ferry soundalike was another matter. It's all very well singing a couple of lines as an impersonator, but a whole song is entirely different. Even the most unmusical people find it very easy to tell a voice that's not like the original.
The first step in our search was to ring up other music production companies: two names were on everybody's lips. We then auditioned seven people with varying degrees of success - and failure. In the end, we decided to use one of the singers who was universally recommended for the job.
The auditioning was done prior to the day of the recording, but it actually took two sessions to find the right singer. What made it so hard was using the Wilbert Harrison lyric - which is nothing like Ferry's. It's relatively simple to copy someone's vocal style when singing the same words as the original vocalist - providing you've got a good vocal impersonator in the first place - but when the lyrics are completely different it's infinitely harder. You have to imagine how Ferry would sing it, and then reproduce that performance.
"But the most difficult part was the vocals. How do you go about finding a Ferry soundalike? It's all very well singing a couple of lines as an impersonator, but a whole song is entirely different."
In a fit of optimism, I did actually ring up Bryan Ferry's management on the you-never-know-he-might-be-amused-to-do-it basis, but he was in the middle of a world tour. Oh well, some other time. Anyway, having found the best guy for the job, we spent some time getting the Ferry nasal delivery just right. There was also the interesting problem of getting a trained singer to sing deliberately out of tune. We got him to double-track his original vocal, and at last it was beginning to get there.
With all parts down on tape, we now had to mix them together to produce our final version - subject to the client's approval, of course. Fortunately, we can line up our cassette machine in the studio and run it in time with our multitrack. This meant that we could keep switching from the original - which we had all started out calling 'the demo' - to our soundalike to check the similarity of sounds.
Listening to the original, it appeared that there was no reverb on the track: just delay and some very short slapback echo - plus a hot studio atmosphere. We decided, however, to put the rhythm section of our band into a small, tight room: Alesis MIDIverb II preset number 3. We duplicated the echo on our Yamaha Rev 7, which spread the voice. We then spread the saxes using some Dimension D in 'false' stereo (one in, two outs) and compressed the piano heavily.
Each instrument was heavily EQ'd. We chorused the 'Wurly' sound from the DX7 with the old Roland SRE555 (moral: old effects units are usually good effects units). Quite a lot of top was added to the solos to make them leap out a bit. All the while, we were constantly referring back to the Roxy demo. Eventually - it took a couple of hours - we got there.
We thought we'd done it - but what about the client? The film production company who were paying for all this? I rang up the producer after he had received the master tape and a cassette copy. His first reaction was: "Brilliant backing, 98% like the original, but... the singer doesn't sound like Bryan Ferry."
Alas, he was a realist.
Thus we had to find another singer - though we ended up keeping the whoops from version one, with the second vocalist providing the Ferry verses and choruses. Eventually, the client declared himself extremely happy with our second voice - and third mix.
So, when you next hear a TV ad which has a cover of a sixties or seventies track and you think, 'Well, the backing sounds alright, but the voice is way off,' spare a thought to consider just how hard it is to duplicate. (Do you remember the Renault I Feel Free ad? Or the present Esso ad with the cover of Eye Of The Tiger?).
Last year, we did a cover/copy of Sade's Smooth Operator for another film. (Sade didn't mind someone covering her song, but didn't want the original to be used). When it was first shown, a voice over the PA said: "And now, our new film... with the voice of Sade!".
Which just goes to show, you can fool some of the people some of the time...
Streets Ahead Music Productions, (Contact Details).
Feature by Nigel Beaham-Powell
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