UB40 In the Studio
This successful Reggae band discuss the recording of 'Labour Of Love' and their new studio.
When UB40 first hit the charts they caused a bit of a stir because their first album Signing Off was recorded on a shoestring budget, a very hit and miss affair with a producer who was possibly as inexperienced as they were themselves - Bob Lamb - and yet somehow they had managed to overcome every conceivable obstacle, including actually placing their work with a record company, to become an instant success.
More astonishing still, the overnight success seems to have stayed with them and spread rapidly throughout the world. Four major albums later, along with various singles, 12"s, and dub mixes, as a company, they now own their own studio, are putting the finishing touches to a second studio, have their own record label and publishing company, and are now branching out into production work for other bands.
Janet Angus recently sat down with guitarist Robin Campbell and drummer Jimmy Brown to find out what they have learned in these last few years and how they see their future.
Building a studio would seem to be quite an enormous step in itself but as Robin said, "It's all part of the master plan. We've got our own recording and publishing company, it just makes sense to have our own studio for when we eventually sign other bands to our label."
JB "I think for a band to own their own studio is like a dream. To be a recording band and to do it in your own environment means you can totally relax with no tape paranoia at all."
The studio idea was to create an environment where they could demo their tracks in their own time, and was originally intended to be only an 8 or 16 track, but somehow, as these things often do, it turned into a 24 track facility, and seems to have been a dress rehearsal for the other studio currently under construction. When asked how they set about the design Robin replied: "We chucked it together and then bodged it wherever things didn't sound right. But the new studio's going to be stunning. We don't know about the 24 track machines yet but we're discussing Studer. The desk we've got is a bloody revolution. It's an Amek Angela 24 track computerised console and it's wonderful. They custom build them and there's so many different options you can have."
RC "Because we've used them live a lot - almost exclusively we've used Amek desks, and they talked to us about our requirements, and when we went to look at it we loved it!"
Have you chosen the monitors?
"We'll be using Tannoys, because everyone uses JBL monitors - everywhere you go there are JBLs and they're horrible! They're headache monitors. They sound great, but they have a really hard hi-midrange which causes listening fatigue. Especially the way we work - 24 hours a day in the studio monitoring at a really high level. We play everything too loud. The volume creeps up and you end up with JBLs - they're a great sound but they hurt your head. You get headaches - well I do, and I think most people do. If you go to various studios where they've got JBLs they've tried various crossover networks etc and tried to soften them up, but I've never heard it work."
JB "The Manor's not far off"
RC "Yes, they use JBLs but they've also got different bass drivers - Gauss. Yes it's the nicest sounding studio. They've got a beautiful bottom end, it just counteracts that hard top, and it sounds really good."
JB "The thing is that Tannoys have got a really sweet tone and they're flat. Well, I think they're a bit loose on the bottom end. You need something to tighten up the bottom end."
RC "It's especially important for us, being a Reggae band, to get the bottom end right. The Tannoys themselves are a bit too clean and flat-sounding for us. They give you a great mid and top response, so we're talking about using Cerwin Vega bass ends which will be mind blowing. Cerwin Vega is another company that we use live."
JB "It's just about the best PA in the world - it is almost made to measure so hopefully we can get these Cerwin Vegas rigged up in the studio to suit us."
Isn't there a big difference between live and studio sound?
RC "Yes there's a hell of a difference, but it's just whether or not it works in a studio environment and you don't know until you try it. We did wonder about the Amek desk, but the studio quality desks they're building now are stunning."
The new studio has been designed and built by Alan Caves, who used to be the band's live engineer, and who also did the 'bodge job' on the first studio. It is quite an enterprising project, with two or three different recording areas, one of which will be totally adjustable by use of a novel technique which involves "adjustable surfaces like louvres. So there'll be an absorbent surface alternating with a reflective surface", thus enabling them to tune the room to the exact sound they want. "You don't have to have one surface or the other - you could have half-way."
Getting more specific in the recording area, we talked about the making of UB40's latest album Labour of Love. Due to a number of factors, including time and a restrictive tax situation, the band tends to lay its backing tracks while they are on tour. The only time they have available to work out new songs is during soundchecks before gigs, and so it makes sense to actually do some recording while they are at it. Most of their work seems to be DI'd, and in the case of Labour of Love, the backing tracks were DI'd onto the Manor Mobile Studio whilst on tour in Europe.
The next stage takes place back in Birmingham where the overdubs are put down in their own studio, tastefully christened the Abattoir, due to its slaughterhouse origins. Jimmy has recently developed a penchant for drum machines and so even the drums were DI'd, leaving only the vocals and a bit of brass to be actually recorded in the studio. Being a Reggae band, even the guitar tracks are direct injected.
RC "We're not a heavy metal band. We don't need ambience and stuff. All the effects on the guitars are electronic now - reverbs and the like. I have been miked up - both guitarists have been. We've done the odd track DI'd, but sometimes you want to sit in the control room and plug your guitar straight into the desk.
I used to have the guitar amplifier miked up but I could never get it to sound right - miked up always sounded horrible. Especially that sort of 'dead note' type of guitar - I could never get an engineer to make it sound right. It's probably because we never used a Reggae engineer I suppose. With every engineer we've used, I've taken them records and I've played them tapes and I've told them what I want the guitar to sound like and it never worked. So I just DI'd them and used the natural sound of the guitar - in fact, on that album a lot of the time I didn't even use an amp - just went straight into the desk and plonked it down."
Another reason for building their own studio seems to stem from bad experiences in other studios. A particular problem was on the previous album which was recorded in Dublin where:
RC "The monitoring is second to everything I've ever heard. The problem is it sounded great in the studio, but when you play the tape outside, it sounds nothing like it."
JB "The monitoring seems to work on frequencies which don't register on most people's hi-fis."
RC "Or any other studio. We actually did the final mix at the Townhouse in London, and when we got it there it was just a total rescue job. Everything was so bad the drum sound was like cardboard boxes! We were shocked and not a little upset when we came to put the 24 track tape on and we just said to Ralph McKenna the engineer 'do what you've got to do to get us out of this', and basically he saved it. It was not a wholly successful album. It sold but it didn't sell as well as the others - it turned gold (100,000 copies sold), but it wasn't up to much. It was voted album of the year in Holland and you know what they're like! And in Yugoslavia I think! It just never came out of the speakers. It was so covered in effects to try and make it sound reasonable that it just disappeared."
JB "You put it on your hi-fi and it just sat there and never came out!"
What sort of sound do you aim for when you record?
JB "One that we're not getting!"
RC "The thing is, there's eight of us in the band and we all think in generally the same direction - we're all aiming at generally the same thing but there's still eight different ideas of what that 'thing' is. There isn't one person who oversees it all and that's why it's so difficult. It ends up with probably only half of the band having the final say in what happens because the other four get fed up and leave! On final mixes, there's usually three or four sets of hands on the desk and one frustrated engineer."
JB "A mix is an endurance test, to see who can stick with their idea against all the flack of everyone else's ideas."
RC "And you get four or five people who just go 'Oh to hell with it' and leave the room and others go 'great, now we can do it my way'!"
JB "So we end up getting an album that most people are only 20% happy with. Everyone likes the track they did. That's life."
RC "We don't have a kind of concept. We don't say 'right we're going to aim for this kind of a sound on this album'. Every track comes out as it happens at the time, and we'll drastically alter many tracks. They'll start out one way and end up completely different."
How about writing, is this carried on in the same fashion?
RC "Well, we won't write music - we just create our music by jamming, because that's the only way we know how to do it as we can't write or anything. We'll start off with a chord sequence or a bass line, whatever, and it goes on from there.
The way we usually work is to come up with 20 tunes, 20 backings and a dozen sets of lyrics, and Ali, who's our tunesmith, fits them together. All the lyrics are put to whatever tunes we've got. Ali will try a set of words out on one tune depending on the mood or whatever and he'll think 'that'll suit that' and he'll work at it. If it doesn't fit he'll scrap it and use it on something else. It's a very long-winded, very laborious process. That's why it takes for ever."
How long does recording an album take? RC "Well actually doing it, once we've got the material together, doesn't take that long. Usually because of pressure it takes about 6 weeks."
JB "When we mix, we'll do a track a day".
RC "In fact the Present Arms album we did in two months from scratch. We had no material. It was just like lightning really, we just banged it out. It was our second album and we'd been playing the material from Signing Off for two years on tours. We did 196 gigs in that first year - that's more than a gig every other day, as well as recording the album and a couple of extra singles. So we didn't have time to get any new material. We were knackered!"
Do you use a lot of effects?
JB "Yes. We use the Lexicon 224 digital reverb - that's the death machine, we use that to death, mainly on vocals and sax. We tend to use it for enormous effects."
RC "It's wonderful for vocal reverb and brass reverbs. Because we play Dub on stage, there's a lot of effects involved and Ray, our live engineer (brother of bass player Earl) does what he calls his 'God Reverb' to create thunderous deep reverberation.
On brass, he tends to use several effects at the same time, but the one effects unit he discovered which is the saviour of bad brass is the Roland Dimension D. Wonderful, I love it. We've got a massive effects rack now, which we use live, containing Prime Time DDL, Yamaha DDL, Roland SRE 555 tape echoes."
JB "That effects rack in our demo studio is equivalent to what you'd find in the Townhouse or wherever. In fact, our effects rack is better than the rest of the studio. I tell you what are wonderful, what we actually took up to the Townhouse with us - Drawmer Noise Gates, they're really great."
RC "We've bought a bank of Drawmers for our new studio. The gates are wonderful, they make Kepex look stupid. Every engineer who has ever used them thinks they're wonderful."
JB "We use AKG microphones exclusively. There's two that I think are especially wonderful - one in a live situation and the other one is wonderful for the studio, as well. There's a square metal one - the C414(?). Those AKG mics are excellent, I just don't know their names! They've got two vocal mics - one's a silver one, and one's black (C535). The black one's so loud it's brilliant. It's great because it means you haven't got to swallow the mic to get something out of it."
At this point engineer Alan Cave was dragged in screaming to add the model numbers and a bit of clarity to the situation!
AC "Yes, the black vocal mic is the 535. That's the loud one, and the one we use live for vocals. We've also used a D330 live. There's also another D330 out which is even better - it gives an extra 6 dB of level or something. We also use the C414 which is excellent for recording anything acoustic. It's also good for vocals in the studio. It would also be great for vocals live if it was a bit nicer looking. They're just too big and chunky and they hide the person behind it."
"We use the D202 a lot, and the D12 on the kick (bass) drum, a C451 with the CK1 capsule on the hi-hat and the cymbals sometimes, but we prefer to use a C414 overhead mic. In the studio we'd use C451s, but it's C414s live as a rule."
Thank you Alan.
What happens at the Townhouse? Will you use the same engineer?
JB "Howie Gray, what a wonderful man - a very talented man..."
RC "...who is going to be a big name producer one of these days. He had a co-production credit on Labour of Love, and very well deserved it was too. His contribution was more than an engineer's because we require more than an engineer."
"He's also the fastest editor in the world. We call his edit 'the moving edit' because the machine doesn't actually stop..."
JB "15ips... scheem..." puts in Jimmy with graphic detail.
So what is Howard Gray's contribution apart from the stunning edit?
JB "Well he contributes ideas. You need someone who is receptive to your ideas, someone who'll listen - when we want to have this effect on there or we want to put a reverb on backwards (which we've done on several things). There's one drum fill for example, on 'Sweet Sensation' (from Labour of Love) where the timbale is recorded backwards all the way through stuff like that. And you can get engineers who, especially with the way we work which is really time consuming - there's eight of us and we're all screaming and rowing and everybody tells the engineer something completely different, you need someone who'll listen.
"We have broken engineers into bits, where they've gone off and had nervous breakdowns and left, and we haven't seen him for three days, and we're stuck in the studio at £1,000 a day going 'where's the engineer gone?'
JB "It's true, that actually happened!"
RC "Every one of them had a nervous breakdown except for Howie who kept it together. What I was saying originally was that he is open to ideas and he's prepared to try things. I think it's because he's still young and enthusiastic, and he maintains that level of enthusiasm all the way through the session, no matter how long he goes on for. He'll work whatever hours you do. And it's unfair - what you ask of other people is unfair. We're prepared to put in whatever hours we feel like, but there's really no reason why other people should have to. And it usually is beyond reason."
JB "Of course the only reason we put in the hours is because we do it in shifts."
RC "But after a few weeks it can be destroying - and it usually is. But Howie maintains the same level of enthusiasm - if anything he gets more enthusiastic as it goes along, and he kept up with us and was open to ideas - tried anything. That's why we're using him again.
JB "We've never used an engineer twice for two albums, but we will with Howie because he's so brill."
And it wasn't just the mixing stage that involved Howard, he, for his sins, went up to Birmingham to record the overdubs, prior to the Townhouse mix.
Looking round the 'old' studio there are, as Robin and Jimmy say, a large number of effects including TC Electronics parametric EQ, 3 pairs of Drawmer stereo noise gates, 3 pairs of Drawmer stereo compressors, dbx noise reduction, a Roland chorus echo and Dimension D, a Yamaha E1010 (used on keyboards live), the Lexicon 224 reverb, as well as the Lexicon Prime Time, Eventide Clockworks Flanger/Harmoniser, AMS Digital Delay and so it goes on. And of course with the new studio everything is getting bigger and better.
Because the band do a lot of videos, there is also the facility to mix down to video. For a 'bodge job' it really isn't all that bad!
What does the future hold for the fast growing UB40 empire?
JB "Personally I am interested in producing other acts."
How involved have you become in this already?
RC "We've dabbled - several of us - at producing somebody. Ali is producing a single at the moment with an Indian guy called Javid. Brian's done some work with a couple of guys. We're all having a dabble. We haven't had time to get into doing the other things we want to do."
So you're all getting pretty confident in the studio?
RC "Yes. It is only confidence, that's all you need really, so long as you've got an engineer. None of us are good engineers, we don't have the technical know-how. Like a patchbay really confuses me totally - I haven't a clue what's going on. If I want to do something, I don't know how to do it, I have to have an engineer so I can say 'can I do this' and if I can't have it, why can't I? And then I'll either get it, or have it explained why I can't, and I'll have to think of something else. Basically that's all producing is: imagination and confidence. There's at least three of us in the band who want to get into production work - me, Jimmy and Ali."
JB "I really enjoy mixing".
Do you do a lot of mixes?
RC "Generally yes. We've done as much as five mixes. Especially if it's a Dub mix it's likely to take a lot of time - the end result could even be an editing job. On Dub you can get a great effect by editing."
JB "I like to make things sound like they've been edited when they haven't. Smart Alecs come in and say 'That's an edit there' and it isn't, and they never hear the real ones."
What particular problems are there associated with Dub mixing?
RC "That really is a producer's art. It's not really a lot to do with what goes down on tape. It's not anything to do with the original song or even the tune. It's down to how you treat and mix it. It's a totally different way of mixing a track."
JB "You throw it up!" No, stupid, he means the mixing desk's faders.
RC "You structure the balance of the instruments in the mix totally differently. It's predominantly bass and drums. You work on the bass and drums. You don't build around the song or the lyrics. On the whole, with Dub mixes you lose the lyrics. You may fade them in, effected, now and again, but on the whole you don't work with the song. The bass line becomes the melody and that's what you work from, that's really your foundation.
"Different people have different ways of working, but generally it's imagination - you find effects and things, and you treat different instruments. Each person would do a Dub mix totally differently."
JB "The way I see Dub is that the bass line becomes the melody, and drums, and anything else is just punctuation for that. And it always comes back to the original."
RC "Lead lines don't exist anymore," prompts Robin.
JB "They become an effect."
RC "That's right."
Which only goes to show that they do really agree in principle, as they said. It's just that, come studio time, the ideas are all so strong, all hell is let loose and it's let the best (strongest willed?) man win.
I wonder what the new Eastlake look-alike studio is going to do to UB40's sound? The range of aural possibilities it is going to open up for them doesn't really bear thinking about! But it cannot be denied that this chaotic method of putting a record together works extremely well for them, if only sometimes for the engineer. Howard Gray, take heed!
Interview by Janet Angus
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