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Track Record: West End Girls

Pet Shop Boys, Stephen Hague

Article from International Musician & Recording World, March 1986

Jim Betteridge meets Steven Hague: neither is vague

Shop talk

PRODUCER: Steven Hague
BAND: The Pet Shop Boys
TRACK: West End Girls

In keeping with the age-old publishers' tradition of never giving up on a song, The Pet Shop Boys plucked their track West End Girls from its previous year's chart failure in the USA to take it to a victorious No. 1 over here. This they achieved with the assistance of producer Steven Hague (best known for his work with Malcolm Maclaren and the Rock Steady Crew) with whom they re-recorded the track. The tune was done as a one-off at Advision Studios (Studio Two) with house engineer David Jacobs, but the success of the single has meant that Steven, David and The Boys are, even as I write, busy completing an album there for Parlaphone. I spoke to David about the recording of the single.

Master Demo

David: "There was very little pre-production necessary because the previous recording of the track was there as a very thorough demo. Neil (Tennant), Chris (Lowe) and Steven knew pretty well what they wanted to do with the song before going into the studio.

"There are no 'real' instruments on the track except for one cymbal, and so it was all done in Studio Two (a small but well equipped, remix/overdub suite). The song is very simply constructed with only four basic rhythmical patterns throughout. The first thing we did was to spend five or six hours programming and recording the drum tracks using an Oberheim DMX, and that first recording stayed right through to the final mix. We put down bass drum, snare, clap, hi hat and tambourine, plus the DMX's time code (in-house Oberheim) on track 23 in case we wanted to change things, but in the event the only thing we added was a shaker.

Next was the string part which goes all the way through the track and has become something of a Pet Shop Boys' trade mark. We put one track down using the standard Emulator I string sound and then tracked it using the standard Emulator II string sound. I find with both those voicings, and especially the II, that there is a very hard-sounding peak around 3.5kHz and so I just notch that a few dBs to tone it down a bit and stop it sounding mechanical. There's also a third low string part that we did on the Emulator II to give it some depth.

Composite Bass

"The bass part was done with three synths MIDI'd up: DX-7, Jupiter 6 and the Emulator II. The DX-7 voice was a very low pitched, percussive sound; it didn't have much of a note but it gave the thing depth and attack. The Jupiter provided the body of the sound, and the Emu II was actually playing a bass drum sample, the pitch of which changed as it was played on the keyboard to add some punch. Getting that sound took some time, and Steven also wanted it to be played by hand, rather than using a sequencer, because he felt that it would lend more fluidity to the track. It was a bit of an ordeal getting it in time with the drum machine, but I think in the end he was right and it sounded very good.

"Apart from the vocals, there are two other important aspects of the track, one of which is the conga part, which again was played live. We used two outputs of the Emulator II so that we could separate and independently treat the slap component and the deeper note component of the sound separately. We recorded both outputs onto one track, but applied different eq, and we also used an AMS delay to put a repeat on the lower sound. The other important part is the figure that comes in on what sounds basically like a cow bell. It was actually a combination of Emulator II choir and cow bells (playing the same percussive phrase) recorded into a Roland MSQ-700 sequencer, and then spun in manually (ie without time code, but rather by hitting the 700's 'play' button at the appropriate time).

It was originally going to be just a rhythmical choir sound, but it didn't have enough attack to cut through, so we added the cow bell and it worked very well. The MSQ-700 is a great sequencer in many ways, but the auto time-correct for real-time playing is dreadful, and we now tend to do everything in step-time which, once you get used to it, is fine. (Why can't someone come up with a reasonably priced multitrack sequencer with the simple auto-correct facilities of a digital drum machine? — JB) In this case, though, the sequences were very short and so we actually programmed them in real-time and spun them in wild (again, with no time code synchronisation). We used the same choir sound plus the Emulator trumpet voice for the solo that Steve played. It took about six hours to get the trumpet part to sound genuine, purposely playing wrong notes to make it sound more 'jazz'. I don't think you'd know that it isn't the real thing on the record.

"Another element in the track is the traffic noise which Steve simply recorded on a Professional Walkman, with Dolby C, out in Gosfield Street where Advision is. Just across the road is Wham's office and there were dozens of young girls milling around when Steve was recording. Steve looks a bit like Sting and so you can hear on the tape the girls shouting "It's Sting, it's Sting". Also, one of them was singing Careless Whisper, which coincidentally was perfectly in tune with the track; so you can hear that too at the beginning of the record, just before the drums come in.

Master 24-track

U87 — A Dull Microphone?

"The verses of the song are rap and the choruses are sung. I recorded the rap parts with a Neumann KM84i to get the full bottom end. The standard procedure is to record four or five complete vocal tracks and then Steven spends hours just before the mix going through taking the best parts of each and bouncing them down onto a single track. It does mean losing an extra generation, but with good quality equipment I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, because at this stage we can also take time to put anything through a harmoniser that's slightly out of tune, or we might put a few frames delay on a phrase to give it a slightly different feel. The biggest problem with using a harmoniser is the inherent delay that the pitch changing process entails, but with 0.999 settings the glitches aren't audible in the track. Apart from Neil singing an octave vocal on the chorus, backing vocals are very sparse, in fact there are only three lines in the track. We got a session singer in, called Helena Springs, who just sung ideas all through the track, the best of which we then sampled into the Emulator so that we could spin them in wherever we wanted in the track.

"The KM824 isn't everyone's choice of vocal mike, it's very sensitive to pops and noises, but I used a stocking stretched over a coat hanger as a pop shield positioned very close to the vocalist's mouth with the mike about a foot away, and it was fine. The choruses were done with a Neumann U87 which, as a rule, I never use for vocals because you can't get any top out of them — you can quote me. Neil's voice is very sibilant, though, so it worked well in this case. Normally I would use a Sony 48 or an AKG 414, or the new Neumann TLM170, which I think is the best mike Neumann have made since the KM84; it's about £700 though, so it should be good. We've hired one in for the album, and that's what we're now using for the vocals, but unfortunately we didn't have one when we did the single. The '170 is also very quiet which is important because we're doing the album on Sony digital, and microphone noise can be a problem.

"The single was recorded on an Otari MTR90 (analogue) using the SSL console. I actually much prefer to use the Soundcraft TS24 in Studio One for recording, it sounds so much better, as if what you're hearing over the monitors is the same as you're putting in. With the SSL I always get the feeling that I put a signal in one end and by the time it comes out the other something awful has happened to it. It has a lot to do with the VCAs and so I don't use them when I'm recording. I first discovered this with another client who wasn't quite happy with the overall sound of a track. Halfway through the session the computer developed a fault and I had to mix on the monitor faders (no VCAs) — suddenly all the sparkle and life came back into it. Since then I only use the VCAs on mixdown, which was the case for West End Girls. The great thing about the SSL is its computer, there's nothing to touch it.


"I generally either gate or expand everything on mixdown, using the SSL units, to keep the track as quiet as possible; or if they're not fast enough I use Drawmers, which are excellent. I never gate anything when recording, I think it's a rather anti-social thing to do: someone else might have to mix it and they may not like your gating — I wish other people wouldn't do it either.

"I use the AMS harmoniser on a lot of things in the mix with a setting of 0.999 on one side of the image, 0.998 on the other side and the uneffected signal in the middle. Particularly when mixing to digital, it gives a kind of ADT or wavering effect that the rock-solidness of digital can lack. Otherwise, the mix was very straightforward."

Sound Diving

Note: I wrote up a blog post on this track where I delved into the details of my favourite sounds in this track, drawing on information in this article, which can be read here:

Sound Diving #1 - West End Girls


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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Mar 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Recording World


Pet Shop Boys



Related Artists:

Stephen Hague



Stephen Hague



Related Artists:

New Order

Pet Shop Boys

Feature by Jim Betteridge

Previous article in this issue:

> Boss Micro Rack Additions

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> Studio Of The Month

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