The Adams Family
Tony Horkins confesses a closet liking for the king of Canadian A.O.R. Let the kids rock...
Go on, admit, it... you liked it didn't you? But don't worry, you're not the only one to join...
Okay, so I listen to a Bryan Adams album once in a while. I can handle it. I know what I'm doing. I've just got a touch of naff taste at the moment, but it's not a problem.
Actually, the first time I listened to Bryan Adams I laughed 'till the tears ran down my leg. "This computerised crap ain't getting me off, Every where I go kids wanna Rock." You've got to admit it, it's pretty embarrassing stuff. But then again, it wasn't written with the cynical British ear in mind. But my Italian friend Alex hasn't got one of those, and he loves Bryan Adams. Which is why I was constantly treated to a blast of Reckless every time his Ford Cortina took to the 'highway'.
It wasn't long, of course, before I started making cautious preliminary steps to acquire said album myself. A sneaky phone call to Kelly in the A&M press office, a little small talk about the lyrical imagery of the latest Cure album and swirling counter-melodies of the new Banshees single, and I said it.
"I'd like a copy of the Bryan Adams album, please."
You know what she said? "Not you as well. Everyone's been asking for sneaky copies of that!"
So, I came out, owned up and found I was not alone. For all its more obvious faults, Reckless is a very enjoyable album. Totally uncool, outrageously cliched, boldly derivative and a lot of fun. But I was suspicious. Surely there's more to this album than a 'bunch of guys' (Hey, rocktalk) just hammering out a few tunes some place? No doubt with a sound like that there's hidden Linndrums, samplers, a rack of Aural Exciters on the voice and a dozen well dodgy studio tricks up its black and white sleeve. Not a bit of it.
"The success of that album lies almost totally on good songs and performance," Bryan told me in a coffee shop off London's Regent Street.
Obviously there's a bit more to it than that, but basically drums, bass, guitar and vocals were played and recorded together, with the inevitable but fairly minimal patching up that goes on later. But more of that... later. How did you get that brilliant drum sound?
"Most of the album was recorded in Little Mountain Sound, which is a recording studio in Vancouver. The studio is very, very dead and off to the side is a loading door which leads on to a loading bay where you bring in your equipment. So instead of recording in the studio we recorded in the loading bay... The drums were actually in the studio but they faced into the loading bay. So we hung two mikes on the ceiling there and recorded its live ambience.
"We also built this little wall behind the drums made of sheet metal and plywood and baffles so all the sound was directed into the loading bay.
"Then when we mixed the record, using a lot of live chambers – stairways, bathrooms – we'd have speakers at one end of the chamber and a mike at the other to add more ambience. We used that on a lot of the vocals."
Kits used in the session were mainly Ludwig and a Canadian drum called Ayotte, all double headed. Because of the nature of the session Bryan doesn't think the type of kit really mattered.
"Everything was close-miked as well – top and bottom, except the snare drum. You never mike a snare drum from the bottom, especially if you're going to use something like an AMS. If you use the snare off the bottom you get a delay on the track because the attack isn't the same. It's always better to mike the top and use the bottom as an audition if you want, but never through an AMS."
With the drum mikes ready, it's down to the serious business of playing the songs.
"We record everything together. Sometimes we'd overdub the guitars again, especially my parts because I'd be singing and playing at the same time. Because I'm thinking of my singing so much, the guitar playing left a lot to be desired. Obviously to record like this everything's got to be well screened. Keith (Scott, lead guitar) was in a separate room altogether. He uses Hi Watt in the studio and I use a Marshall and a Roland Jazz Chorus 120 for my guitar. I've only ever used a Rockman for one track, but I use them a lot for my demos; it's such a quick easy sound. We used a lot of Strats for the guitars, and also an independent company called Larrivee; their guitars are really nice. We had a lot of intonation problems with the Strats, and the Larrivee is so well crafted. It doesn't have quite the snap that a Strat has, it's a really nice guitar to record with.
"The bass is DI'd and also recorded through an Ampeg, the smaller one. But we did patch a lot of the bass. The way I record in the studio is to assemble a lot of the track through editing. So I would take the best of three or four tracks and stick them together."
Then there's the business of vocals.
"One day I set up about 15 or 20 microphones in a room and sang a whole song going from microphone to microphone. They were all on different stands and all in a row. We labelled each mike as to what line it was going to be and I sang each line the best I could. The two microphones that ended up being used were the most obvious – Neumann U87, or a Shure SM58. With the U87 you just can't get a clearer microphone for vocals. The problem is that when they've been used a lot the diaphragms get loose and I tend to blow them out."
Obviously with the Adams rasp you'd imagine he'd have a lot of trouble keeping his voice together. Surprise, surprise... not a bit of it.
"I don't have trouble with it, I'm very careful. I rest well, eat well and make sure I don't smoke. The most important thing about being a singer is to know your capabilities, and the only way you ever find that out is by going on the road. You get to know your limit, what you can sing, what's your high note, and never exceed it. As soon as you start pushing yourself in range you lose your voice. I always write my songs in the range that's comfortable to my voice. Everything you hear on my records I can reproduce easily.
"In fact, that's what I do generally. I make the records so that they're easy to do live. The records are a band playing in the studio with a real singer, real instrumentation... people expect to come and see you and hear the songs live with the same qualities and intensities. You can't do that if they're manufactured."
With his enthusiasm pushed to peak, we talk about his voice a little more. I dared to ask if he'd had lessons.
"You can't teach someone to sing. It's just something someone gave me, man. It's a gift."
After this brief immodest burst, we got down to a few more practicalities.
"I never sing from the throat and strain it. As soon as you start doing that your voice will go in a minute. And never sing if you've got a cold either, because that way you'll definitely lose your voice."
With the voice right, the songs right, the sounds right and room right, Bryan claims that recording Reckless was no problem.
"The actual recording of it was dead easy – it was getting the right performances that was hard. I mean, Run To You was a first take. I hadn't played the song to the band until I'd got to the studio, and I came in and said 'Here's a song we're going to try today'.
I didn't think the song was going to work at all. I told the band the changes and worked them out on a bit of paper. We all went into the studio, and... first take! In fact the very first line of that song is the original first line that I sang in the studio while I was playing the guitar."
The amount of vocal patching up that he does changes from song to song.
"It depends totally on the song. Kids Wanna Rock I can do in one or two takes. I spend a lot of time with the guitars, making sure they're really happening. The biggest problem is with studios and guitars you get a lot of grounding trouble. There are very few studios around that are aware of the importance of guitars and how to record them. We would normally record the guitar in a studio by itself, fill up the whole room and record it with two or three different microphones. We'll usually have a close mike one, one a bit further away and a DI and get a blend of the three and record it."
The quality of Bryan's albums has increased considerably with the amount of time spent on them. You Want It, You Got It was recorded and mixed in 20 days. Cuts Like A Knife in two months, and Reckless a more expected three months. But even bearing in mind the time differences, Reckless is worlds apart as an album.
"Yeah, the songwriting's better, that's why. A lot of it is you become more aware of what's essential for you by going out on the road and touring. Being aware of presence and delivering a song – I always believed the best singers were those that could make you believe any lyric no matter how boring, how trite it was because of the conviction in their voice. A perfect example of that is someone like Paul Rogers and maybe Joe Cocker, especially his early stuff. I think delivery is 90% of a record."
Which is why he can sing a song like Kids Wanna Rock and not turn a lighter shade of puce.
"I like that kind of stuff, I was brought up on it. Jim and I wrote that song as a result of going to a quasi-techno pop concert and thinking 'These people are not getting off here. I'm standing in the crowd and no-one's moving, and no-one's enjoying themselves. They're sitting there watching a guy playing a keyboard and it's dead boring. I like participation and people feeling part of it, and that's what Kids Wanna Rock is great for."
The sentiment may have got a little lost in the transcription, but with a Canadian drawl and lopsided grin it sounds... well, a bit silly still actually. But to Bryan, the lyrics play the key role in the development of the song.
"It's easier to write a song with a concept in mind. It's always good to know what you're writing about before you write it. A good title always helps. The lyric really is the key to everything. You can come up with a fantastic melody and if you can't get a good lyric out of it it's going to be nothing."
The lyric may be the spark, but a home 24 track in writing partner Jim Vallance's basement certainly helps pull the thing together.
"Without the help of electronic gear nowadays we would have a lot more trouble writing songs. The advances that the Emulator and the Linn have done for my songwriting is immeasurable. I wish I could say I write all my songs on acoustic guitar, but it's not true. I need the inspiration of sounds and environment too.
"When me and Jim are writing we'll set up a Linn pattern, maybe a piano sound on the Emulator, I'll play a guitar and have a mike up, we'll get a good headphone balance and songs will come out of feels and jams.
"For example, Run To You started off with that arpeggio guitar riff and the title just came right out; 'I'm going to run to you...' and we went back and forth; 'When the feeling's right I'm going to run all night...' Nice imagery. That song I'm really pleased with, the triangle situation. The bridge section of that song was an absolute fluke. I just went to play that as a solo. In fact one of the reasons that song was written was because I'd just bought a Fostex DDL when DDLs were just coming out. That part in the song where everything breaks down leaving the guitar by itself, I was playing that and loved the way it sounded with the DDL on it."
Although Bryan maintains that there are "hundreds of ways to write songs", there are basic ground rules when finishing them off with the band.
"You should never repeat yourself twice in a song – as far as instrumentation is concerned – especially with the drums. You never want to play the same drum lick twice going into a chorus because it just gets boring. You've heard it once, it was ace there, let's have another one that's different. Vocally again, my scats and ad libs are always different. You've got to realise what you're putting down. You can have a great track, but when you've put a good intense vocal on it with the right attitude it's like the icing, man. You can put a really average vocal on a song, and no matter now great it is if the performance isn't believable it won't work.
"Singers have got to sing somewhere beyond the throat – they've got to sing from the groin."
Interview by Tony Horkins
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