Digging In The Dirt
Recording Peter Gabriel's Us | Peter Gabriel
The release of Us sees Peter Gabriel continuing to blend world music influences and high technology into a unique collage of organic sound. Richard Buskin talks to recording engineer Dave Bottrill about the making of Us and the hit single 'Digging In The Dirt'.
Recording engineer Dave Bottrill traces the beginning of the Us project back to his first DAT reference. "We have about a thousand DATs," he admits. "We run DATs all the time as we're recording, just for reference, so that if a great performance happened about 15 minutes ago we'll just spin the DAT back." The first DAT from the Us sessions dates back to November of 1989.
For Gabriel, the writing process continued right through until the end of the recording process. As a general rule, this commenced with a groove consisting of, perhaps, a percussion loop, a drum machine program or a combination of the two, and Gabriel would then play experimental chords along to this on his keyboard rig while singing melodic vowel sounds. The rig consists of a Yamaha CP80 electric piano, an Akai S1100, a Sequential Prophet V, and a Roland D50 (for left-handed bass parts), as well as the composite output from a piano and a Korg Wavestation producing Leslie organ sounds. Going through a custom matrix into a DDA console and then into the main SSL mixing console as two channels, this enables Gabriel to create his own sound for recording.
So it was that ideas would formulate, structural sections would start to materialise, and then, almost as if trying to match together the parts of a jigsaw puzzle, a section from one day's work may be linked to that from a few days earlier.
"Peter would basically be building up sections until he'd have a tentative structure of a song," explains Bottrill, "and his keyboards would be coming up through the console all the time so that he could always play along. Even when we would be listening back to a DAT it would be coming up through the console so that he could play along, and he records everything on a ghettoblaster that sits in front of him and acts as his own personal monitor. As a result, he has thousands of cassettes on which he can be heard playing along, and this way he'd be able to recall 'Oh yeah, that was a nice idea, let's try that later!"'
Having pieced together a structural framework within which musicians could innovate and develop their own parts, Gabriel would then requisition the services of his studio band, comprising Manu Katche on various types of drums, Tony Levin on Status bass (instead of his usual Music Man) and David Rhodes on Steinberger guitar, with producer Daniel Lanois also contributing Fender Telecaster guitar parts. Backed by the unified rhythm of this line-up, Gabriel would then attempt to come up with a stronger melody via his keyboards and fit proper words to this. Structure, melody and lyrics would all be changed and exchanged until everything fitted together to the composer's liking; a case of mix 'n' match until he got it right.
"The structures were constantly changing so I was never able to edit on the multitrack," recalls Dave Bottrill. "By the time we'd get around to a structure we'd likely have three tapes going already, so what I would end up doing was to compile down from the various tapes using offsets and build a structure from that. Then Peter would possibly come up with another idea and we'd have to restructure the whole thing again, so in effect the song was constantly being moulded and built up over the two-and-a-half-year period, going through maybe three or four different structures, until finally becoming what it is today."
About 80% of the Us album was recorded in the loft studio at Real World (near Bath, England), known as the Work Room. This is equipped with a 48-channel E-Series SSL console, whereas 40-channel and 72-channel G-Series desks were utilised in the Production Room and main studio respectively. Analogue tape machines were Studer A820s, running at 30 ips with Dolby SR, while digital recordings were made with a Mitsubishi X850. In all, 10 tapes were utilised when making 'Digging In The Dirt', these being compiled down to one 32-track and two 24-tracks.
"Broadly speaking, the 32-track machine was used when compiling down, in order to restructure or just to create space so that we could put up another slave," explains Bottrill. "If I could, I would record the vocal and keyboard parts on digital, but it got to the point where we would use whatever was available. What I campaigned for and usually got were drums and bass on analogue, and then if possible the voices would go onto digital. I would normally try to do that just for ease of punching in and lack of generation loss when compiling. 'Digging In The Dirt', in fact, didn't go through too many generations of the vocal, but 'Love To Be Loved', for example, was sung by Peter about 40 times and we probably used bits from each performance."
So it was that 'Digging In The Dirt' kicked off with the obligatory groove, initially culled from a track entitled 'Zaar' on Gabriel's Passion album (recorded for Martin Scorsese's film, The Last Temptation Of Christ). This consisted of a stereo Egyptian rhythm played by Hossan Ramzy on a large metal Brazilian drum, called a surdu, and a deep tambourine-type instrument known as a duf. This was combined with another rhythm pattern from an Akai MPC60. Gabriel then wrote a bass sequence to run with this, using Performer and a D50 natural bass sound, before a seemingly endless amount of keyboard takes followed.
"Peter played along to the rhythm, came up with a structure, and the first thing that he got vocally while ad-libbing was the 'shut your mouth' part," recalls Bottrill, referring to the section which on the finished record commences with the lines, 'Don't talk back/Just drive the car/Shut your mouth/I know what you are'. Consequently, for a long time the track was known as 'Shut Your Mouth' within the confines of Real World.
Meanwhile, with a rough structure having been hewn out of some David Rhodes and Daniel Lanois guitar parts, in addition to the aforementioned rhythm and keyboard passes, there was a week-long switch of location down to the French Quarter in New Orleans, for overdubbing sessions at Lanois' API-equipped Kingsway Studio. While a horn section that was taped here never made it onto the finished recording, Leo Nocentelli's Epiphone funk guitar riff did, and then it was time to return to Real World for band track session one.
"We had everyone in the Work Room," explains Dave Bottrill. "Tony [Levin] over in one corner, Manu [Katche] in the other with Peter's African drums arranged in a sort of drum kit setup, David Rhodes playing guitar by the edge of the console, Dan [Lanois] even closer to the console, and Peter inside the 'keyboard castle'.
"Tony basically had a Trace Elliot amp and speaker setup in the room, and we'd send the signal downstairs into Studio 1 as well to have an isolated speaker. Across the way there's a little overdub room into which we also sent the signals from Dan and David's guitars, with speakers set up in two separate corners, so that way we'd have isolated guitars and isolated bass. Peter's keyboards, on the other hand, went direct into the desk.
"For miking up the speakers I would normally use a Shure SM57 and an AKG D12 jammed right up close and heavily compressed. We have some wonderful old valve compressors here, belonging to an old Decca desk which Peter bought years ago from Decca Studios, and they're unlike anything that I've seen anywhere else."
The percussion utilised in place of regular toms consisted of an assortment of drums from places as far afield as the Ivory Coast and Guinea, including a burundi and a d'jembe. "Basically I used B&K cardioid mics on whatever I could, even though I only had a few of them," says Bottrill. "The Burundi drum was used like a snare, and when on occasion we actually put a snare in the middle I would mike the top and bottom with Shure SM57s. For the double-headed kick drum — a tiny jazz kick from way back in Peter's Genesis days — I put an ElectroVoice RE20 right near the outside skin so that we didn't actually pick up any of the pedal, just a chesty 'oomph' coming out of the back. Both heads were muted, and so the result was a rather small kick with a big sound. Then we had tiny little tambourines together with a very big mazhar, which is like a deep Egyptian tambourine. The mazhar was on Manu's left foot so that he could do a sock-cymbal action, and there was a microphone way down on that.
"There were no overheads but the whole kit was close-miked, as we would generally record everything with all the speakers on. I would try to keep as much isolation as possible by putting blankets up around Manu's kit. Only his head was uncovered, in order for him to see what everyone else was doing, while avoiding spill into the drum mics.
"There were wedge monitors for the guitarists and for Tony [Levin], and the whole band had 'blasters in front of them so that they could each record what was going on. They were each getting a mix in a wedge or in their own 'blaster, so it was quite good for timing and pitch. It's a great way to record. The sound is swirling around the room but it's kind of exciting that way, and even though it's not too convenient in terms of isolation, it usually turns out okay. Everybody's a part of what is going on and I really like that a lot."
For all the effort, however, most of the first band track session was deemed unsuitable and discarded. A second session then took place in the large downstairs control room at Real World, utilising a similar band setup, except for Manu Katche who was positioned in the adjacent wooden recording area. This time around, the drummer was also playing a regular Yamaha kit — but instead of using regular hi-hat cymbals he replaced these with a pair of small splash cymbals, in order to produce a less expansive sound in that area.
Once the band track for 'Digging In The Dirt' had been re-recorded, Botrill and his assistant, Richard Blair, looped up sections of Manu Katche's performance, ran it along with the track and re-recorded it in order to tighten up the timing within the song's complex, varying structure. "We got the kick by itself and the other drums and re-did the pattern on its own," says Bottrill, "so it was the same as what Manu had been playing but more solidly in time.
We also got some break beats to go along with that as well as songe additional rhythm programming, using Manu's parts sampled into an Akai S1000 and the Burundi drum as a sequencer. Then, once we had the rhythm locked solidly together, we got Tony Levin back one more time to play his Status bass and replace what he had done before on the Music Man."
With most of the song's parts recorded, Gabriel then performed his vocal section by section in just over an hour. While this went onto tape dry, for monitoring purposes his familiar studio voice was produced using slap echo courtesy of a Korg SDD3000 with a Quantec reverb. Later on, one part whose lyrics the singer-composer was not fully satisfied with would be re-recorded using the Neumann U47 valve mic, which was always left open whenever he was playing keyboards.
This same U47 also came in handy when recording the backing vocals — fondly referred to as 'the Everlys' because of the neat harmonies — which were performed several times over in the control room by Peter Hammill and Gabriel, Richard Macphail and Ayyub Ogada, and then compiled.
While the recording and mixing of the overall album was a general on-going process, two weeks had been dedicated to polishing up 'Digging In The Dirt'.
"After that it was basically a case of adding or changing little bits and pieces, trying different things," says Dave Bottrill. "Peter wanted to redo some keyboard parts, so he set up his organ sound and his piano sound and we put that out through a Vox AC30. As we'd go along in the recording process we'd always be mixing, so there was no clear cutoff point for one and start point for the other. By the end of the record we'd probably been running in mix mode for about six months — doing a mix, documenting the setup, doing something else, and then returning to work on it, chipping away until we'd end up with the finished product. A real moulding process, like a sculpture.
"By the end we were editing different mixes from different eras. I cut them all together in the AudioFrame [digital workstation] so that I could crossfade sections, and therefore the finished song is a composite of three mixes. Some of the other tracks on the album are composites of four or five mixes. Peter always has a picture or an idea of where he wants to go, and even though it may take a long time to get there he does know when this has happened. It's not a case of being self-indulgent, but he just wants to make it right and he'll know when it is right."
What with all of the experimentation there were numerous parts that were either discarded altogether or only utilised on, for example, the B-side remix for the single.
"That remix was just slightly different, a little more instrumental," explains Bottrill. "I took the lead vocal, processed it through a tiny little Tandy 995 speaker — very, very low-fi — and miked it up again through a toilet roll tube and a pre-war Neumann M7S that has a U47 capsule inside this big, black bakelite casing. We call it the 'lollipop mic', because that's how it looks. That setup produced a sort of small, distant, short-wave radio sound. It was pretty distorted and totally mid-range, but it gave the song a whole different feel.
"There had also been a guy from Cambodia in here with WOMAD a long time ago, and he played a sralay — which is basically a double-reed instrument quite like a flute but with a fairly thin, mid-range sound. What he performed was not specifically for this track, but we just took a sample of this, put it through the Tandy speaker with the same miking technique and utilised it as an odd, sustaining, almost guitar-like sound which appears during certain sections of the remix."
Numerous different parts that appear on the track sheets were eventually never used on the finished song, be it the single version, the aforementioned remix, or the more dance-oriented remix intended for release as a 12" in the USA and as yet another B-side in the UK. These included a sampled Akai S1000 cello part played by Gabriel and a number of different David Rhodes guitar contributions.
"You have to be very cautious about things which you recorded a long time ago and loved at that time, because it may no longer suit what the song has become," says Dave Bottrill. "Conversely, if you have something which is great but you're getting bored with it after having heard it so many times, then you have to retain your objectivity and still use it. So it's all a case of finding the line between the material which does not suit the song and that which is truly great and will be a revelation to the first-time listener. You can only trust your judgement and then hope that you got it right!"
Feature by Richard Buskin
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