How does a top producer with every drum machine and sampler at his disposal approach the human version? Geoff Nicholls speaks to Mr Stephen Lipson.
"I DID A TRACK recently and I thought I'd have John Bonham on bass drum, Phil Collins on snare, and Stewart Copeland on hi-hat. It worked great too, except after a bit I realised Bonham wasn't fitting in."
Hmmm. This isn't the raving of a megalomaniac drummer. It's producer/engineer Stephen lipson talking about his approach to building a rhythm track with his Synclavier.
Steve's become a bit of a dab hand with the Synclavier. Two things are important to him getting a good drum track. First, he can play drums — not well, but sufficiently to know the physical movements involved. Second, given a song, he'll sit down and conjure up the 'drummer'. Hence the Bonham/Collins/Copeland bit.
"I imagine what he looks like, whether he leans back or is hunched over the kit," says Steve. "I've figured out what makes one drummer sound how he does; like where in time he places the bass drum in relation to the snare, or how the hi-hat is accented."
Given all this, it's not surprising that when you and I listen to a new record we can have trouble knowing what's going on. Is it a drum machine? A Fairlight? A real drummer with bloody good time? Then, when you get into a studio, do you play the kit? Program something? Does someone else program it for you? Are things that different now?
As a step towards finding out I went down to Trevor Horn's Sarm West studio in London for a natter with the aforementioned Mr Lipson. Steve's had a fair amount of success over the past few years with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones, Propaganda, and others. As engineer turned producer, Steve's in the thick of the present technological surge. But don't be dismayed, his feet are firmly on the ground. His healthy, irreverent attitude could be summed up as "whatever works is the way to do it".
But back to the Synclavier. What Steve likes about it is its ability to manoeuvre sound; being able to place the snare minutely in front of the beat, or whatever, enables you to adjust the feel of the track, perhaps to mimic the effect of a real drummer. Steve reckons the Synclavier is only limited by your imagination in this respect, and he's not too keen to talk in more detail about his current ideas for it. Since the average drummer's not going to get the hands-on experience, let alone the cash, to get to grips with the Synclavier, let's not worry about that.
Steve also says that he can't program for someone when that person's leaning over his shoulder saying "do this, do that". He has to be allowed to get on with it.
But has this experience and insight into the subtle feel of drumming modified his approach to real drummers? For instance, has he ever asked a drummer to try adjusting the time relationship of, say, his bass drum and snare drum playing? "Yes, but it never works."
However, what can work is to recognise such characteristics in an individual's playing and use them to advantage. For example, Frankie's drummer Ped has a laid-back behind-the-beat snare. So Steve pushes him, Ped plays "like a man possessed", and the result is an in-time drum track with the snare just on the back of the beat and a really heavy feel.
So far as real drummers are concerned, Steve feels the drums shouldn't follow, they should lead. Basically his experience is that it doesn't work recording the drummer last, though he concedes that lots of people do it. For him it always sounds a bit wooden. This works out fine for bands with a real drummer. The drums can go down to a clicktrack and the music can be added. But with acts which don't have a band — and there are plenty of those these days — it's more difficult.
This is one of the places where the Synclavier scores. A drummer can be 'envisaged' to suit the song, a rhythm track can be composed with the option to alter it later — so everything's hunky dory. In other words, it's horses for courses.
Another aspect of this is to recognise that there are occasions when machine tracks are best. 'Relax' (Frankie) and 'Human' (Human League) are cited as two recordings which would have sounded naff with a real drummer.
When it comes to recording acoustic drums the down to earth approach is again evident with Steve. If I went to him with the preconception that I was going to cop lists of microphone model numbers, I couldn't have been more misguided. "To get hung up on details is all wrong, it's the overall effect that matters. It's only a noise."
Steve once worked with Ringo Starr, who mentioned that he liked the look of a certain mike. So they tried it. Ringo was happy. They recorded the drums. They sounded like Ringo Starr. "Of course this is within limitations. You can't put a £5000 valve mike in the bass drum. You have to use some sense. But to get hung up on 'I've got to have these mikes'... you say 'What have we got?' Try that, and if it doesn't work, try something else."
This isn't flippant. Rather it's part of an attitude: "Around here it's inbred that you don't do what everybody else does. You just do what you think you should do. People who are bothered about fashion don't lead it." Can't argue with that.
There's more: "The thing about drum sounds is a total fabricated fallacy. If the guy plays well, and understands how to tune them, and you've got a reasonable room, mikes, desk, and brain, it'll sound how it sounds. If that ain't good enough, make it louder!" And: "It's only a noise, and once you've accepted what the noise is, you like it."
To illustrate: "A drum sound I've been complimented on lately is Grace Jones' 'Slave To The Rhythm'. Well that took no time at all." Who was the drummer? "I don't know, some geezer from Washington, a go-go player. We were recording in New York. The sound wasn't that good, but it was bold. And it wasn't messed with. The more you mess with it, the more trebley it gets, the more thin and papery." The kit was hired, the drummer spent about ten minutes tuning it, "we just put up the faders, the guy was playing, and we recorded".
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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