Sting & Hugh Padgham
Recording 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You' | Hugh Padgham, Sting
Throw a bunch of talented musicians and a world-class producer into a 16th century mansion, add some juicy gear, shake 'em about and what do you get? Ten Summoner's Tales, if you're lucky.
Ten Summoner's Tales is being widely acclaimed as Sting's best album to date, recorded at his Wiltshire home with the help of producer Hugh Padgham and some of the top session musicians in the business. Richard Buskin takes the lid off the Sting sessions.
Recently voted 'One of the Top Ten Most Influential Producers of the Mix Era' by the influential American magazine of that name, Hugh Padgham is not averse to employing the latest state-of-the-art wonder toys when he's in the studio, yet at the same time his main priorities are working on good material and enabling the listener to appreciate this without being distracted by the technology.
Such has been the case throughout a widely acclaimed career which has seen him produce and engineer records by the likes of Genesis, The Police, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Paul Young and Sting, and has gained him numerous awards in the process, including the Grammy for Producer of the Year in 1985.
After starting out as a tape-op during the mid 70s at London's Advision and Lansdowne Studios, Padgham embarked on a five-month tour of Europe with The Jim Capaldi Band before joining The Townhouse as an engineer. There he helped to wire in the first Solid State Logic console ever to be installed in a commercial UK recording studio; it was while engineering Peter Gabriel's album, The Third, in 1979, that he first encountered Phil Collins.
Two years later, both men made their debuts together — Collins as a solo artist and Padgham as a producer — on the Face Value album, and since then neither of them have had cause to complain about respective careers which, among other things, have seen them collaborate on Collins' three subsequent solo projects.
Going freelance in 1981, Padgham duly recruited the management services of Australian-born, London-based Dennis Muirhead, before going on to establish himself at the very top of his profession by way of not only his aforementioned production work, but also mixing assignments with artists such as Suzanne Vega, Hall & Oates, Brian Wilson, Youssou N'Dour, Joan Armatrading, Robbie Neville, and the Psychedelic Furs. Sting's new album, Ten Summoner's Tales, is the second to be co-produced by Hugh Padgham, following their work together on The Soul Cages in 1990.
"We worked very sociable hours, ate very good food, the work never got bogged down and hopefully that is reflected in the music," says Hugh Padgham, referring to his involvement on the new Sting new album. "It didn't take very long to make, either, and so it was a very enjoyable experience which we hope to repeat sooner rather than later."
Sting's surname as it appeared on his birth certificate is, of course, Sumner, a derivative of 'summoner' — a town cryer — and this helps partly explain the title of the new album, even though it actually contains 11 songs. All but one of the numbers tells a little story; it is for the astute listener to ascertain which is the odd one out!
Commencing in early August, the recording took a total of around two months to complete — allowing for a couple of one-week breaks, including that for Sting's marriage to Trudi Styler — prior to a fortnight spent mixing at The Townhouse in London. The normal working day Chez Sting was less than pressurised: work would start at around 11.30 am, lunch would be served at 1 o'clock, and then the major session would take place between 2 and 8 o'clock. Dinner would then be served and a little snooker played, before returning for the final 9-11 pm session of the day.
The band comprised the same line-up as that used for Sting's world tour in 1990 — Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, David Sancious on keyboards, Dominic Miller on guitar and the man himself, of course, on bass, in addition to guest appearances by a horn section, a string quartet, Nashville pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, and the likes of Larry Adler blowing into his mouth organ. (Indeed, the new touring band will be expanded to include a harmonica player.)
The 30' x 20' dining room in Sting's country home (seen in the video for the latest single from the album, 'Seven Days') was selected as the main work environment. This has a wooden floor which was covered with a rug, and walls which have oak panelling up to a height of about ten feet before rising into a semi-circular plaster-covered arch that comprises the ceiling, which affords a maximum height of 18 feet at the centre. "The sound in there was really great; nice dispersion and not at all ping-y," says Padgham. The SSL console was placed at one end of this room and the musicians at the other, thus dispensing with the usual control room/recording area setup and, according to Padgham, "making life quite difficult for me, in the sense that you couldn't monitor anything live.
"It also made life fairly difficult for the musicians," he continues, "because it's unbelievable how loud it is when you're sitting next to a drummer who's playing, and you're not on stage where the band members are all going through their amps too! We were all wearing headphones, and to get a sound on any instrument I had to record it and then play it back. Even when we tried screening the drums off a little bit it was still extremely loud, but within a couple of days we did get used to it. Everybody had Nemesis 8-channel stereo mixers and so at least they could all deal with their own foldback, otherwise I think things really would have been difficult.
"Your first reaction in this kind of situation is to panic, but you soon realise that there's not much point in doing that. I've recorded in all sorts of weird places over the years, and you just end up using equipment that you're familiar with and busking your way through. I mean, on the very first day in this studio we ended up cutting the backing track for 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', and so while things could be difficult it was also great, because being in the same room together meant that when the musicians stopped playing I wouldn't have to press buttons in order to talk to them. We'd just take our headphones off and talk to each other right there, and I think that sort of atmosphere is reflected in the music; a real band playing, and very few overdubs."
A Sony 3348 digital was employed as the recording medium, offering all of the latest software. "It's incredible, being able to bounce onto the same track that you're moving somewhere else," exclaims Padgham. "Of course, it has read-before-write on it, but that's a pretty weird concept for an analogue old-timer like me to get used to. [The read-before-write concept means that you can still bounce tracks down even if you don't have any free tracks to bounce onto.] "I have to say that the Sony was fantastic in terms of its editing capabilities, although I still personally think that the sound isn't yet the same as analogue. I hope that one day it will be, but one thing that concerns me about the music business at present is the way in which the hardware companies would have us believe that digital equals incredible and analogue doesn't! Now, if you're comparing CDs to analogue cassettes then I suppose that is correct, but in terms of what one is able to do on a professional format it most certainly isn't.
"I still find it quite difficult to come to terms with the fact that digital doesn't contain the transients like analogue. There's something very kind about analogue, whereby you can keep the transients you want but not the ones you don't want! It miraculously deals with this problem, whereas digital doesn't; I also sometimes find it quite difficult to balance songs that are done on digital.
"But, having said all that, as a format when working on projects such as the one with Sting, digital is the best way to record because we're always editing bits and adding other parts in, and it's much harder to do that on analogue if you're doing the sort of crazy edits that we do!"
In contrast to the modus operandi employed during the production of his previous album, The Soul Cages, Sting had this time penned around 14 new songs — some in conjunction with the other musicians — prior to commencing the project. Several of these were demo'd on a Synclavier at the time of writing, and often the rough shape provided herein was quite strictly adhered to when laying down the live track with the four-piece band.
As in the case of The Soul Cages, the overall sound on Ten Summoner's Tales is fairly organic and devoid of major effects. This time around, however, sticking to just the bare necessities also meant that there was no place for the much-vaunted Q-Sound, the new record being somewhat less atmospheric in approach than its predecessor. "We didn't think it would sound right when there are only about four instruments playing to have one of them hanging around your ear," asserts Hugh Padgham.
While about 40% of the material which was recorded live for the album was retained, the backing track for 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You' was completed in five passes — including two run-throughs — on the very first day of recording. The bass would be replaced later on during mixing sessions at The Townhouse, and there were also a couple of punch-ins on the guitar part, but otherwise everything remained as was, allowing the song to be easily reproduced in a live concert situation. The only other overdubs would come in the form of Sting's harmonica part, Synclavier organ — as opposed to the Hammond B3 which appears elsewhere on the album — and percussion played by both Sting and Vinnie Colaiuta to a drum track out of an old Linn machine.
"I would always keep the original performances," recalls Padgham. "On two or three tracks, for instance, we tried to improve the bass — perhaps Sting had played it with too round a tone — but there was a vibe there, and it didn't sound as good when he played it again — it sounded overdubbed. So we'd decide to leave it and hone in on it during the mix to make the sound a little bit clearer or perhaps mend a bad note in the vocal with a quick punch-in."
As it was often Sting and Dominic Miller who had been involved in the writing and demo'ing of a particular number, using keyboards and drums from the Synclavier, Vinnie Colaiuta and David Sancious would perhaps only have about ten minutes to familiarise themselves with the chords, the timing and the sounds required before actually being called upon to play. They therefore preferred to hear Sting singing while he played live, in order to better know, for instance, where the changes were.
"As we kept a lot of the original band performances, we even used odd bits of original vocal too," says Padgham. "However, 99% was done again. We would sometimes comp together two or three tracks of vocals, but usually one of these was clearly better than the others, and so we would just work on that and maybe do a couple of drop-ins. Sting was singing extremely well on this record, and doing the vocals was no problem at all."
Some Audio Kinetics screens were rented for the construction of a small vocal booth, and Sony lent Padgham their new 800G microphone, the prototype of which he had used when recording The Soul Cages back in 1990. "I've worked with Sting for a long time now, and it's always been difficult to say that I've found the ultimate microphone for him," says Hugh Padgham. "But the 800G has become my favourite for him, and on this album it sounded fabulous.
"Sting's voice has changed over the years. If you listen to the early Police records his voice was higher in tone, whereas now it has more body to it, and while this is partly due to age it's also down to the fact that he has taught himself to sing with better technique. I have always found his voice quite hard to record, even though on records such as 'Roxanne' it really sticks out of the speakers. I could never find a mic that I really liked using to record him until I came upon this new Sony, which seems to have not only a warmth from the valves but also great clarity. You really have to be on the ball when you're working with Sting, because he is not going to want to sit around while you try out different microphones.
"I have to rely on my intuition as to what is going to work and in this respect the Sony has done the business. This went through a Demeter pre-amp, I had a Urei 1176 limiter on him most of the time, and the whole thing would always be set up, so if he said, 'I want to sing,' within five seconds he'd be able to."
Perfect as it may have been for recording Sting's distinctive voice, the 800G was not always the perfect mic when called upon to record the sounds of certain other instruments. One such example was a nylon-strung guitar which Dominic Miller was playing. In this case, contrary to Padgham's expectations, the sound was not as expected, so to ascertain whether or not the room was the problem, he A/B tested the Sony 800G with his own Neumann U86 and considered the latter sounded better. "There again, I used the prototype Sony on an acoustic guitar two years ago and it sounded lovely," points out Padgham. "So who knows?"
The 800G was also used to record Sting's harmonica part on 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', and while Padgham acknowledges that a Shure SM57 may have been better suited to the purpose, he nevertheless feels that the Sony microphone was good. "Sometimes you don't want the sound to be too good, and I remember taking some top-end off the harmonica when I was mixing," he says. "There again, it sounds like a harmonica, and so that's the main thing!"
During the first weekend break from recording, Padgham took home a rough mix for some objective listening. What he heard, however, was a bass-drenched sound that was less than wonderful, and it was quickly deduced that the problem lay in the acoustics of the work area being used. However, making permanent alterations to the structure and cosmetic appearance of what is, after all, Sting's dining room, was not deemed to be the most desirable solution, and so Padgham instead sought an answer from his good friend, Bob Ludwig, who runs Masterdisk in New York.
"I told Bob, 'I must be sitting in a bass hole,' and so he put me onto this American product called Tubetraps," Padgham recalls. "They're acoustic absorbing cylinders, manufactured in different lengths and diameters, and a lot of people use them for mounting speakers on, or if there's a corner with some nasty low-end hanging around, these Tubetraps will absorb it. So we conferred with the company over the telephone and I faxed drawings of the room, to which they then sent back a fax saying, 'Yes, you're right. We've worked out that there's an 80Hz anti-node right in front of the desk, so if you move the desk back by six foot and have a few of these Tubetraps placed here, here and here, it will be a lot better.'
"We thought about it and decided to take this advice, as the sound we had was somewhat out of control. We ended up with between 30 and 40 of these Tubetraps. The bigger the diameter, the more low frequencies they absorb, and so we had two 5-foot high, 2-foot-diameter ones mounted on top of one another in the corners of the room, and then there were smaller ones to mount the speakers on. What we did, in effect, was to create a sort of room within the room. We had a semi-circle of traps in front of the desk and a semi-circle behind the desk, and it made an incredible difference.
"What's also interesting about these Tubetraps is that as they sit on little tripod stands you can move them around, so when we were doing acoustic guitar over dubs, for example, I could move them around in front of or behind Dominic and change the sound he was producing."
Interview by Richard Buskin
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