The Sensual World of Kate Bush
Kate Bush, Del Palmer
Recording engineer Del Palmer has worked with Kate Bush for almost 13 years. Here he provides an insight into how this innovative lady works in the studio and the background to the recording of her hugely successful album, 'The Sensual World'.
Recording engineer Del Palmer has worked with Kate Bush for almost 13 years, starting out as the bass player in her pub band back in 1977. Kate rarely gives interviews these days but Del was willing to provide an insight into how this innovative lady works in the studio and the background to the recording of her hugely successful album, The Sensual World.
When I first met Kate I knew she would make it big. I was the bass player in Kate's original pub band in 1977, called The Katie Bush Band. That was before her first single. In those days she knew exactly what she was aiming for, where she was going, and how she would get there - and she did. EMI didn't want to put out 'Wuthering Heights' as the first single, they wanted another song. Kate insisted on 'Wuthering Heights' and it was a huge success. Kate is a very special person.
I wasn't involved in Kate's first album [The Kick Inside] but after that we collaborated to set up her first 8-track studio. We built it so we could make demos for the Lionheart album. We all became involved as musicians but nobody wanted the job of engineer, as no-one knew how to work the studio - so I began to do it. The studio progressed to 16-track, 24-track and is now 48-track, and as an engineer I have progressed with the studio.
How did you learn engineering?
I'm totally untrained as an engineer, I just fiddle with things until they sound good. We used to bring in people to engineer and they were very helpful to me, they didn't mind me asking them questions. Eventually, we couldn't get an engineer to finish an album so we had the choice of either cancelling the project or waiting six months - so we decided to finish it between us. Now I have a big liking for it and I do more engineering than playing.
Aside from Kate, who else have you worked with?
Alan Stivell, a French folk singer/songwriter, and some Irish artists. But generally I've been so involved with Kate's work I haven't had time for other artists, but I'm trying to change that. Kate takes two years to make an album, so there isn't much else I can do in that time.
Can you describe Kate's studio?
We have an SSL 'E' Series 48-track desk with Total Recall, two Studer A80 24-track machines linked together - which is a bit like working with Stone Age equipment but they have a sound we like - and we mix onto ½" analogue machines. We work totally analogue because we feel that digital technology is still in a state of flux at the moment. We'll probably use digital for the next album but we'd always keep one of the A80 machines because, personally, I like the way analogue machines compress bass and drums and make them sound really punchy. You never get that effect from a digitally recorded drum kit.
We have a Fairlight Series III, two grand pianos including a Steinway, and a Bechstein upright. We never use the Steinway, we used the Bechstein for this album as it sounds nicer. The Steinway is a nice piano but our rooms are very small, and you need a big room (and high ceiling) for a grand piano. Our outboard equipment is fairly standard: we have AMS digital reverbs and delays, TC Electronic digital delays and reverbs, three different types of Lexicon reverb, and DAT machines.
What's your opinion of DAT?
We use DAT for backing up our mixes, but we would never use it for the master as we prefer the sound of ½" analogue tape. I think DAT is a great medium, but if I was going to mix digitally I would use PCM 1630 as the standard is much better. I use the Sony PCM 2000 portable DAT machine to collect samples for the Fairlight and it's fantastic quality, because the PCM 2000 has two D/A convertors and with phantom powering you can plug the Neumann U87 into it. I can't wait to get a DAT machine in my car...
What monitoring system do you use in your studio?
We never use large monitor speakers, we always use Acoustic Research AR18s. Our philosophy is that if it sounds good on them it will sound good anywhere. And they're much easier on the ears and it's much easier to pick out the stereo image. On large studio monitors you're always wondering where the sound is coming from.
Do you regularly upgrade the studio equipment?
If we buy new equipment we don't exchange it for older equipment, because each piece of equipment has it's own sound. We still have two original Eventide Harmonisers, which we always use. But the main piece of equipment is the SSL desk, which we bought after the last album [Hounds Of Love], and it saved us an awful lot of time and effort.
Who designed the studio and decided what equipment to buy?
Kate and I decided between us. Kate has always been very taken with SSL consoles and, although there are better technically specified consoles, we decided that nine out of 10 engineers know how to operate the SSL computer and console, so someone coming in for mixing would know what they were doing. If it was a console they'd never seen before, we'd have problems. We already had one Studer A80 machine from the Hounds Of Love album, so we just bought another one.
We didn't have anyone to design the studio, it was all done ourselves. And Kate's father did the building work - he's a retired doctor and a very useful DIY person. The studio design isn't what you'd expect a commercial studio to look like. It's converted garages, which makes a very long, thin studio. We have no windows between the studio and the control room, it's all done by sound. We try to keep everything live, so we have no soundproofing in the rooms - they are all bare brick walls - which is the kind of sound we like.
One reason for building our own studio was that The Dreaming album cost so much money in studio hire time, we could have built our own - which is what we did for Hounds Of Love.
Who does the Fairlight programming?
I do, but we don't use the Fairlight in the way most people do. We use it for composing drum patterns and sampling, we don't use any of its Pages. We usually sample either from a microphone in the studio or from ½" tape. Our main use for the Fairlight is for Kate to use it like a piano, but with a sound you wouldn't normally use with a keyboard. So Kate plays the Fairlight as a keyboard and I programme drum patterns, which we use as a basis to start work with.
When did you start working with Fairlights?
In 1982, when they were very experimental. On the Never For Ever album the two people who had the first Fairlight in this country brought it into the studio, and we were so knocked out by it we had to get one. That was a Series I and we progressed through the Series II, IIx, and now we've had a Series III for two years.
Did you make a demo tape for the new album?
When we first built our own studio we used to go in and quickly put down a demo - these things have a very live and fresh feel to them. We'd take that into a big studio to try and recreate it, but we found it never sounded as good as the demo. So now we don't demo, we just go straight onto tape. That saves a lot of time and aggravation later. We used to have so many demo tapes we didn't know what to use; now we have so many master tapes we don't know what to use! We spend a lot of time considering if we should take something further or leave it.
If Kate has a musical idea, do you go straight in and record?
Yes, Kate would say she had a tune and ask for a drum pattern to fit it. Or sometimes I would develop a drum pattern which Kate would like, and she'd go and write a song for it. It all depends on what Kate has in her head at the time. On some days we could work on four or five different ideas, on another day we might do nothing at all.
We always start off with the basic instruments: Kate's piano and a very basic drum pattern from the Fairlight, and then add a voice. The first take of her voice often contains a good portion of the final lyric, if the song gets used. If that basic form works, we'll go ahead and bring in new musicians one at a time, because then we have total control over what we're doing.
Whose idea was it to use the Bulgarka Trio on the new album?
These things are always Kate's inspiration. Her brother Paddy is a mine of information, he's always playing different things to us. He gave us a tape of the Bulgarka Trio just after we finished the Hounds Of Love album, and Kate's been planning the best way to use them. The Trio record for the Hannibal record company, which is owned by Joe Boyd, and he arranged for us to go to Bulgaria to meet them. Their belief is, if you're interested enough to use them, you're interested enough to go to Bulgaria to meet them; so we went out there and worked with them.
Why did you use Windmill Lane and Angel Studio for the album?
The reason we used Windmill Lane is because it's in Dublin, and we specifically go there to record the Irish musicians we work with. Irish musicians are like Guinness, they don't travel very well. Also, it's a nice break for us to get out and go to another studio. We used Angel because the Bulgarka singers were recording there for a BBC TV documentary, and we added two days to the end of that session to record the work we needed. But we do as much as we can in our own studio, unless we're forced to go elsewhere, and our second choice is always Abbey Road.
Did you record the strings at Abbey Road?
Yes, because we can't get an orchestra into our studio, the rooms are much too small, and Abbey Road has the best engineering staff for that kind of session. On the track 'Fog' there is a real orchestra plus a Fairlight orchestra. The real orchestra gives it the human element, the Fairlight adds a lot of bottom end and a lot of balls to the overall sound.
What is the most difficult song for you to engineer?
It's probably better to say which is the easiest - every song has it's own difficulties. I like to work very quickly and Kate likes to take a long time. This is where conflicts occur. For me, tracks which take a long time - such as 'Love And Anger' - are difficult. Not due to any technical or musical problems but because Kate made that song change a lot. But this happens with Kate... things metamorphose as time goes by.
We have a very understanding group of musicians we always use, including two drummers. They come back two or three times to do the same song, but slightly differently each time. This is because the song may have changed and the original feel of their part doesn't work any more. But now they know what to expect, as they've worked with us for so long.
What microphones do you use?
The whole album was recorded with Neumann U87s - all the vocals, pianos, and nearly every other live recording - except for the Bulgarka singers, where we used valve U47s which have a warmer sound. The U87 is such a good all-round mic. On the drum kits I use them for overheads and ambience, but generally I use Shure SM57s on the toms, AKG C451 for the snares, and Electro-Voice RE20s in the bass. I can trust those mics, I know what I'll get from them. I have the same drummers in the same room and so I use the same mic setups. I have tried different combinations but I find this arrangement works best for our rooms and our type of music. I must emphasise I never do anything because it's technically correct but because it feels right or sounds right.
Is there any special technique in recording Kate's voice?
There is a device which we use but Kate has sworn me to secrecy. I must say it wasn't my discovery, but the idea of an engineer we used before called Paul Hardiman - he's worked with groups like The The. Paul showed me this voice technique and swore me to secrecy, so unfortunately I can't tell you the secret of the technique, except that it involves a lot of compression. So we have to be very careful what time of day we record, as it picks up the slightest noise outside the studio. In fact, on earlier recordings we picked up the sound of the toilet flushing inside the house [Kate's studio is built next to her parents' home], so we have to record vocals very early in the morning or late at night.
Doesn't the studio have sound insulation?
No, we record everything as live as possible. We have no sound insulation at all in our studio. We discovered, mainly from Kate's experience, that you can make a live room dead but you can't make a dead room live. So we prefer to start with a live room and deaden it if we have to. We're a very unusual recording partnership, we never do the things most people do. That's another reason why it takes us so long!
How do you record the drums?
On drums we begin with a sampled pattern, but at the very least we replace the snare and bass drum by human sound, because those are the most important parts of the drum kit. Most of the percussion on the album is generated by the Fairlight, but we try to get a nice mix between the two as it's nice to have the human feel with the precision and cleanliness of the sampled sounds. A lot of the time the drummers play sampled sounds through trigger pads. But the track 'Rocket's Tower' has a complete drum kit recording, and that's the first time we've done that since Never For Ever, Kate's third album.
What about bass and guitar?
We usually DI [direct inject] most of the bass. When I record my own bass parts I must be able to control the mixing console at the same time. We use a German double bass player called Eberhard Weber, and we record him live in the studio. It depends on who it is and what we're trying to do.
For instance, when Dave Gilmour came here his roadie brought along a huge amount of equipment, but Kate told him she just wanted the Pink Floyd sound. So he brought out a tiny amplifier, which he put under one corner of the console, and I put a U87 mic on that. That's how we recorded the great guitar sound we got for the album. The amp he used was a tiny Gallien Kruger stereo amp with two 8" speakers. Dave played a Steinberger headless guitar through an MXR digital delay line, and that's basically how he gets that Pink Floyd guitar sound.
For me that was a memorable day, because Pink Floyd have been such a big influence on me, and to sit there and engineer his playing was fantastic. I had to pinch myself in case I was dreaming - it was a magic moment. And recently we did a track for a TV programme and Jeff Beck came in - he's another of my big heroes. For me, one of the great things about engineering is that I get to sit next to these people and watch them play.
How many vocal takes do you usually record?
As many as possible, but not too many. We usually try to get as much as we can in one go, and repair it. So, on average, we do four or five takes and compile the vocal from that.
Why have Kevin Killen mix the album instead of you?
He's an Irish engineer we met when Kate did the 'Don't Give Up' track for Peter Gabriel. He was working for Peter at the time, and he's also worked as house engineer at Windmill Lane and is now based in New York. We'd already decided to get someone else to mix the album, since after 2½ years recording I didn't know what I was listening to! I also felt it would be good for the music to have someone else come in and mix it with a fresh pair of ears. Kevin was very good, we just played him the tracks and he sat down and mixed it. He had control of the desk, but basically it was mixing by popular consent - all three of us were involved. I think it worked out well doing it like that.
It's a progression for Kate from her last album. She strives to be different and this is what takes a long time. I feel it's a very mature record: they are songs written by a woman, not a young girl. I feel you could listen to any part of the album and hear some good music. But if there is a track I believe people should listen to it's 'This Woman's Work', which I believe is the best song Kate has written in a long time.
Why doesn't Kate do any live concerts?
Time. If she decided today to tour, the earliest we could go on the road would be this time next year and the tour would last a year. So it would be two years before we could start recording another album and five or six years before we could release it! In fact, Kate said she'd like to do another tour but I don't think it will happen. I'd love another tour, the last one was great fun.
What is Kate like as a person?
Very quiet and very introverted. She hates being famous, she tries to avoid it. The Kate Bush the public sees is not the real Kate Bush, she's very private and very personal. She doesn't like being recognised in the streets. There's never any gossip about her going to clubs, because she isn't that type of person. She prefers to sit in front of the TV with her cats - we have four.
Even after 11 years in the music business she hasn't changed. She's very much as I remember she was when we first met. I think she's done very well.
What are your future plans?
I'd like to engineer for other artists - not famous people but up-and-coming people who are trying to make a name for themselves. Kate makes us work hard, but as a producer she's very easy going. I don't want to get involved with a producer who puts pressure on me.
And your plans for working with Kate?
We want to start another album soon, instead of waiting two years. Our ambition is to make an album in eight weeks... but I don't think we'll ever do it!
© Rittor Music.
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