What's more important for a live album, the performance or spot-on playing? When do you resample instruments, and when do you leave well alone? How much of the vocals are re-recorded, and when do you need to get in your old bass player to do a tricky line? Mick MacNeil of Simple Minds tells Tony Bacon most of the answers — which is just as well, as the group have their first live album released this month.
IT MUST be nice to be in Simple Minds just now.
It would feel like this: the new live album, on which you've spent a lot of mostly enjoyable time and effort, has just come out, and is a dead cert best-seller. It sounds brilliant.
Then there's the studio complex you plan to build up in the highlands. You want it to have glass walls overlooking a loch, and design the whole thing to ease rehearsing and recording stress.
And you're not going to be rushed into a new studio album — in fact you don't plan another for release until summer 1988.
All in all, you could probably afford yourself a little smile and a glass of 12-year-old.
And if you were Mick MacNeil, keyboardist of this happy bunch, you'd be planning to team up with your guitar player and fill some of the time with an experimental musical project.
"Charlie Burchill and I are calling the project Aurora Borealis," explains Mick at home in Glasgow.
"We just call it Rory. It'll give us the chance to write something without the limitations that Simple Minds has on us. It'll be totally experimental, maybe orchestral, maybe traditional, but it'll be instrumental. Maybe some things we come up with for Rory will reflect on to Simple Minds?"
That, of course, all remains to be seen. Right now, though, there is the live album, "In The City Of Light", to behold. If you're a regular Making Music reader, then you will have been among the first to know about it — Mick talked about the group's plans for a live recording back in the July '86 issue.
You might also remember Mick telling us then about the possibility of using his Apple Mac computer's Performer software to record his live performance via MIDI. This worked, and very well, as it turned out. The idea is that MIDI info about notes and their duration is 'recorded' on the computer as it's played live. Later this is synced to the live multitrack, and, in theory, any alterations to voices or timing can be made without spoiling the spirit of the playing.
"The fantastic thing about it," says Mick now, happy after the event, "was that I kept tons and tons of my original stuff. Some of the original piano on a few tracks was out of tune, but I kept a lot of the original piano tracks. Most of the synth sounds I changed, I got them better; sometimes I would keep the original sounds and just touch them up here and there to make them sit in with the rest of the track. But I didn't interfere with the performance at all."
The only problem came when he recorded to the Mac from two synthesisers at the same time. Mick's main block of keyboards, which you can think of as one synthesiser, is an Emu II, a JP8 and an Oberheim OB8 MIDId off his master CP70 piano. When he moved to add a flourish on the other synth (an inevitable DX7), the Mac should have recorded both instruments on to the same track in the software, which would have made it very difficult to separate the instruments for later attention.
"But I was fortunate," Mick recalls, "that there was a fault in my DX7 — it defaulted to 64 on-velocity. The on-velocity is the pressure the keyboard responds to before it will transmit via MIDI, it varies from 0 to 120-odd." This means that the DX7 MIDI info didn't go to the Mac — as it turns out, a nifty way of avoiding combined data. Otherwise, it would have been a horrible job of copying MIDI numbers — not the sort of homework any musician should have to contend with.
"Just 'cos something's played perfectly doesn't mean it's the better take. And obviously we edited a few bits — it took the audience a wee while to sing along sometimes..."
When it came to preparing the live recordings for the album, Simple Minds had five concerts on tape — three from Paris, early in the tour, and two from Sydney, much later. They voted on what they liked best, and, mostly, Paris won. Originally the group had also intended to record in Japan, as Mick explains. "Japan turned out to be financially out of order, the equipment and all that. The audience were tame last time we played there, sitting down and clapping politely at the end of songs — you felt you were under the spotlight and had to play well. You felt stupid jumping about and doing the vibe thing, you had to do it like a concert. So we thought it might have been a good idea to have one of these concerts on tape as a contrast just in case the others went a bit too wild — a precaution, really. Then we thought to hell with it, we're just gonna do it. Plus the money side. I recorded my Japanese concert on the Mac anyway, and I don't think it would have made any difference really."
Actually, if you listen to 'Big Sleep' you'll hear the most obvious evidence of the fact that (mainly) French and (a few) Australian tapes were used as the basis for the record. The first part of the song is from France, the end from Australia; not only two entirely different takes, but played on different equipment and drums, and recorded on different machines. "The sound change really helps the whole atmosphere," says Mick, "it's like wham. And it's quite a big edit when you think of the distance involved. A huge edit."
As they began to work their way through the mass of taped performances at Bearsville in New York and Castle Sound in Edinburgh, the principle which guided the group was a simple one, suitably enough. "You've got to listen for the general atmosphere of a song — a really vibey song would win over something that was played perfectly," sums up Mick. "Just cos something's played perfectly doesn't mean it's the better take. And obviously we kind of edited a few bits here and there — it took the audience a wee while to latch on to sing along sometimes, for example. If we hadn't edited it, it would have been three CDs long, I expect.
"We tried to get the album to flow, so sometimes we considered running songs into one another if the keys suited. First we thought we should have it the way the concert ran, but there would have been too many ups and downs too quickly. So we've gone for a softer section and a livelier section — there are always obvious points to open and close an album. We worked it out like that, just the same as we would when programming a studio album."
Not that the recordings were left totally raw. We've already heard how the synth sounds were changed, thanks to the synced-up computer. Other instruments had occasional tuning problems: "You play them through the studio monitors and you're putting a microscope on them," says Mick. So guitars and basses were occasionally sampled and retuned — the biggest problems in this area came with tunes played at the front of the set, like 'Ghostdancing' and 'Waterfront', when the sound hadn't settled down and some of the Minds found themselves unable to hear their accustomed timing or pitch guides.
But Mick says he's glad they didn't use new drum samples. "That's why I didn't really like listening to the Springsteen live record, it sounded just so full of drum samples — drum rolls would all be at the same level, and straight away that's a tremendous amount of feel gone. We were really lucky that we didn't have to re-do drums, we could keep all those ups and downs in level and things that make the performance so good because we got a decent drum sound originally."
You'd be unlikely to find a live album these days with much of the original vocal take. "Yeah, we re-did quite a lot of the vocals," laughs Mick. "Jim re-did most of them and fixed up a lot of them, he came in and sang them one take, the whole thing, so there's still a lot of feeling in them.
"On 'Someone Somewhere In Summertime' we got in our original bass player, Derek Forbes, to re-do the bass. Even from the first time we started doing this song, Big John Giblin hated that bassline. It's a real funny one, the original, it sounds like something a lead guitarist would play. I think Derek was into Stanley Clarke at the time.
"It was Big John suggested to me that when we get back to Scotland we should get Derek in to fix it. And it was so good playing with him after such a long time — he was in the band, then he wasn't in the band, it felt like old times again, we had a really good laugh doing it. We also used a violin player called Lisa — we met her when we were in America. She did this fantastic wee bit on 'Summertime' as we were re-doing the bass, and we decided we had to keep it. It's on the quiet bit, really nice."
And now that it's all over, and the result's in the shops, Mick is, understandably, a happy man. Are any of his favourite albums live ones, I wondered? "Not really," he confesses, "I've never really listened to them a lot. But when we started planning the album I started digging out things like the Roxy Music live album to have a listen.
"Our album took quite a long while to complete, maybe two or three months really solid work. We spent that time making it sound better and better, there were so many tracks to go through. And eventually we did ditch a couple of tracks, 'Speed Your Love', and 'All The Things She Said'. It takes ages to get through things, doesn't it?"
Aye, but it's worth it.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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