Drummer with The Police chats about his approach to recording, at home and in the studio.
In this rare interview, the founder member of international supergroup The Police, reveals another aspect of his multitalented character to Ian Gilby. Having recently completed the soundtrack to the new Francis Ford Coppola movie, entitled 'Rumblefish', Stewart talks about his involvement with the film and how it affected his home studio set-up.
"I had to mix the film score to 'Rumble Fish' at home. So rather than pay four or five grand to get an Ampex tape machine good enough to do a master on, I found this Sony PCM F1 digital recorder for £800.
As you know the dynamic range is far superior to analogue in every way and its less than a fifth or sixth of the price, so it was the obvious choice for absolutely clean recordings. And then when I got it and I got the video recorder as well, somehow it all just worked a lot more comfortably — tape handling and transport etc. is a lot easier than with a reel-to-reel machine. To change a reel, you don't have to rewind back to the beginning and put on your other reel or even thread the tape. You simply push video cassettes in and out, and you can go 'search this', and it will find the required point on the tape and all that kind of stuff that you get with a standard video. It's also got the 'no wires' remote control instead of having to walk over to the thing; and for editing it turns out that not only do you get better sound out of it but also the handling and the ergonomics are far superior to a conventional reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Did you encounter any problems in cutting the record from the digital master?
Well the record was cut in America and there were problems with the different video systems and so on. But it's easy enough, because you can make an indefinite number of copies, and because it's identical you just re-copy it onto whatever format they need for cutting purposes.
For the 'Rumble Fish' soundtrack I had to take the movie music, some of which was only 30 seconds long, and turn it into an album track. So I'd have some music recorded, repeat it and put something in the middle and so on to form a song. And to do that I would need to lift mixes and move them around to physically structure the song. So, with the digital recorder, because I had a master mix, a perfectly clean first generation everytime, I could mix it onto the Sony and then transfer it onto two channels of the Otari 24 track. As I still had the master mix there and 22 more tracks left to build on, I could then record it another three times, put the takes back to back and have musical passages that connect them, and continue recording.
So when you eliminate the generation loss of analogue recordings all kinds of things open up... you have a lot more leeway to do things like using a mix, like bouncing from track to track, for instance, only doing that with 24 track as opposed to your Revox two track where you're just going from left to right channels.
I learned how to work a tape machine and make recordings before I learned how to play drums. In fact I learned how to play guitar as a secondary interest to learning how to make music on a tape machine, going back and forth. My first tape recorder was a Beocord or something and because it only had one head it was possible to bounce tracks back and forth.
I was really into recording for recording's sake in those days... that was the early 7Os when I was about 17 or 18. So I developed a guitar style that is adapted for the studio. Using overdubs and drop ins and so on, I can actually sound like a half-way decent guitarist! I've always really been a recording enthusiast and all the other instruments I've picked up — brass, banjos, keyboards and all kinds of stuff, have been largely as a result of just following my instincts in recording.
Was that because you needed them to fulfill some kind of role on your record?
Yes, I knew the sounds and I knew the three notes I wanted from a brass instrument for example, so I figured out how to play those three notes and play them convincingly. They're the only three notes I know, I don't need to know how to play a C scale or anything else about the instrument, I just need those three notes.
The Revox was the first serious machine I bought and I had it for a couple of years, but was dreaming of a Teac four track reel-to-reel; that was in the Curved Air days. With the first money I actually got from a publishing company for my own music, £750, I was able to buy the tape machine of my dreams, and I had that for a few years. Then the Portastudio came out and made it redundant. I still use the Teac four track for recording and playing back soundtracks to my Super 8 home movies — so I can have the different mixes coming in.
Do you put a click track down and sync it with the film?
No, I do two things. I use it for mixing down the music and the dialogue onto Super 8 and I also use it for things where there isn't any dialogue — I'm in my middle period for Super 8 where I am not into dialogue or sound anymore; I'm into silent film and doing music for it, which is actually more expressive. So I use it for that, and I can put four different tracks down and have one music track fading out and another one coming in on a different track.
When did you first start writing seriously, was that with Curved Air?
Yes, the band had negotiated a deal with Island Publishing whereby they paid an advance to the group and the whole group signed up as songwriters. But I held out, I thought 'well, wait a minute, if I sign this deal, the advance is going to go to the two songwriters of the group, Sonja Kristina and Daryl Way, they will take it all, so what have I got to gain by signing this deal'. So I held out, I refused to sign, and so Island said 'OK, well if you can write one song on the next album, we'll give you a £750 advance'.
I had millions of riffs and motifs, atmospheres, grooves and stuff which I'd try and play to the band in the hope that they'd accept one of them for the album, but I'd forgotten which notes they were by then, anyway, and so I couldn't show them how to do it! My songs all depended on recording technique — they were not really band material. I still suffer from that problem incidentally, which is why I've been saved by film scores, as you only need 30 second ideas but lots of them. You don't have to develop ideas... you don't have to find a verse or shape it into the pop song format.
Anyhow, I managed to write a song and get it on the album and figured out the chords to show the guitarist how he should play it, and I got the £750.
When did you really get into recording?
When I could afford to! Well, long before I could afford to if the truth be known. I went in hoc to get all this gear, but at the time I was after an 8-track machine and once I got talking I figured, 'well a 16-track machine? I'll call the bank manager', and that was the week that 'Regatta' went to Number 1.
I thought that my studio would help me write songs because at the time writing songs was what it was all about with The Police... it was songs, songs, songs. And I thought that a studio was a tool for writing songs and recording them at a later stage. But it turned out that in fact it's a large distraction. The last thing you need for actually composing a song is a studio. What you need is a tune in your head and a voice helps and maybe an acoustic guitar or a piano. That's all you need for writing a song. All the rest of the stuff is a distraction, it is a red herring really.
I think that's a problem with a lot of the bands today, who've grown up using multitrack techniques; they find it hard to write a song all the way through. They'll write something like a verse and then they're stuck...
Or they'll write a groove and then they'll put lyrics on top, which is a whole different thing. It was through working with Sting that I learned where true songwriting is at. It's not really my forte, I would think... I can write a song and I have written some good ones, but it's not really my strong suit. My strong suit is recording techniques, that's why film music is perfect for me because the atmospheres you want to create are all very precise and specific, but it's much freer in how you can do it.
On a record, you have to have everything happening, you have to have the rhythm, harmony, melody and the lyric, and it all has to be in the right place. It has to develop along lines that keep your attention and build to a climax and so on.
But with a film, the plot is the top line and the picture is important too. You can achieve dramatic effect with just a tiny little element, one whispering reed instrument will do it for you. You don't have to have everything happening. All these ideas I've had that have only involved a 'whispering reed', say, are somehow cheapened when you try and develop them and milk a song out of a simple idea.
When did you actually get involved with 'Rumblefish' then? Is it your first professional film score?
Yes, it was September '81, and I was called up by Francis Ford Coppola and asked to come over to the States and consult with him on rhythms. He was originally going to compose the music himself but I went over just to consult on rhythms as the world's leading 'rhythmetist' (I can say that since I invented the term!).
Once we got talking I got more and more involved and I ended up composing, performing and producing it all myself. Once I was in there I was able to carve out a bigger share of the creative pie.
What is the plot of the film?
It's set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is a scenically derelict city in the southern mid-west of America, just above Texas. It's about two brothers there, the younger brother idolises the older brother etc. But the musical concept is how time is running out, and as time ticks away in many forms, that point is made in many different ways. For instance, in every scene there are gigantic clocks or time-keeping devices, and then the music is the same thing... mechanical sounds looped - ticking clocks, and a lot of different rhythmic sounds from the industrial world that we live in, with music built on top of those loops.
Where was the actual recording done?
I did some in Tulsa while they were filming. While they were rehearsing the film I went down there and set up a set of drums and banged away... it was just like British Theatre only it was Hollywood!
I recorded some stuff which Coppola used in his development of scenes and so on. He said at the start that the music was very important, this idea of time. He wanted to build the development of the story (the drama and everything) to hang on this sense of time ticking away which is why I was actually playing while they were acting.
Usually the music is added last. When the picture is finally cut, that is when they look around for someone to do the music, but in this case I was there from the rehearsal stages, and they actually used the music as they were building the film up. And then when they finished filming I went back and did the major part of the score.
They use a very interesting technique whereby the movie is cut and put on video cassette. For every reel of the film there's a reel of 2" audio tape, and the video tape machine is synchronised with the 2" machine using SMPTE code. SMPTE is the worst stuff in the world. It's one of these things like Superglue — very useful and effective but you've go to watch out. It leaks onto all the rest of the tracks, if you've got a powerful mixing desk, it'll just get everywhere. It enables you to link up the picture with the music and as the film goes past, you can mark off the start and stop points for your music.
The music in a movie has to direct your emotions, it has to tell you whether this is a genuinely emotional scene or whether there's a touch of comedy to it, whether you're supposed to take the scene lightly, whether it's comic tragedy, or whether it's actually triumphant... the music directs how you're supposed to feel emotionally about the scene. Throughout a scene there are 'plot points' which are the important points for the story, and those are the points that you pick up.
The clichéd thing with the music is like when the girl says 'I'm pregnant'. You add tension music to the point where the husband walks around the room and makes himself a drink and says 'well, darling, that's lovely', and then you resolve the chords. So you take those two points, from the 'Darling, I'm pregnant' and then maybe 38 seconds will go by to the point where he says 'Darling, that's lovely', and so you've got to have a piece of music to put in there to emphasize whatever the emotional message is you're trying to put across.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced by Francis to somebody who has invented a new machine, and this is the first film it has been used on, called the 'Musync' — which is a computer that maps out every frame of the movie. You could watch the movie on the screen and on the computer screen there'd be little dots representing each frame, and right at the point where she says 'Darling, I'm pregnant', you push a button and you get the frame number. When you get to the other end of it you get that second frame number, and then you say 'right, OK, computer I want 16 bars between these two points,' and it'll go 'Drrrrr' like that and there they are.
And so I can sit over breakfast with my little Yamaha mini-keyboard and plonk away on the chords and figure things out — should I use this chord progression or maybe if I shortened it and resolved four chords earlier I'll be able to fit it in, or I want to leave the music hanging there for suspense or whatever.
I had to learn how to do the whole thing. I'd never done a film before. All these Hollywood types were all very impressed, saying 'God, how do you get these ideas' or something. The answer is that I'd never done a movie before so I was completely out of my depth.
I have been watching the techniques of studio engineers over the years so when I come into my own studio I mic up my own drums and I can get a fairly good sound, but I only do that if I particularly want live drums. When I'm working in here I'm much happier using drum boxes. I've been using drum boxes since the days when they were only for the guys in lounge bars, and they'd have all these horrible rhythms in them, but the one I had had one good rock rhythm and I used that for everything.
Which ones do you use mainly?
I've been using the Oberheim DMX up till now, and that in my opinion has the best sound, the best bass drum and the best snare sound. The cymbals on all of them are crap, you need to overdub live cymbals for that. But the triggering and so on, where you put down a trigger track on channel 1 and then you can overdub anything you want just by syncing it back in, are great. In the old days you would have to record your drum box first, then put everything else on top of it. Now you record just 4 beats in a bar and a sync pulse track.
Once you've got the bass and the rest of the arrangement, you can put your drum fills around it instead of having to do all those first.
Is that how you work — you put a basic rhythm down just to get the groove?
Yes, forget the details as you build your song up, get the main broad primitive strokes down first and then build it up.
How do you set about writing songs, do you use Portastudios and the drum box first?
It's generally a case of screwing around a piano until you find two chords that go back and forth really nicely, and then you've got an idea for rhythms so you put down the drum box and the two chords... two minutes of it. Then you pick up another idea and you put that on and see how that goes, and so on.
Do you actually experiment with recording techniques on their own?
No, I experiment as I'm going along. I haven't really ever just said 'I think I'll spend a couple of hours experimenting with mic techniques on the drum'. I'll do all that when I want to get a drum sound.
Do you compress the sound of your drums when recording them?
Yeh, I compress the shit out of them, in here and in the Montserrat studio as well. That's the reason why the drums are recorded in the dining room, I was in a separate building from the rest of the band in Montserrat with TV monitors and everything like that nearby. We compress the distant mic sound, so it sounds like the John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) drum sound. He was the guy who freaked to that one, and he was doing that at the time when everyone else was close miking, getting it perfect, putting dampening on everything and having a drum booth with the dead sounds.
The nice man at ITA talked me into an Otari 24 track recorder and it turned out to be the right machine, except I got pissed off with it recently because they brought out the Otari Mark 2 which is even better! It really is a good machine, really dependable and user friendly. It really works well, it's got the shuttle autolocator and everything, and it's a good shuttle too.
I have an Allen & Heath Syncon. A mixer which is perfectly adequate except for my purposes now I really need a computer-automated desk, and I can't make up my mind whether to get a computer-automated desk or a Synclavier. I work so quickly with this present one because I know it: I'm not that proficient that I can figure out a new desk immediately, and I'm not that rich that I can just buy a new desk every couple of weeks.
My studio was originally an old cellar and storeroom. It was just a crickity out-building, so I built up the inside walls. Once they were there, I took the roof off and put on a new one and built a studio inside this whole building so from the outside it looks like the old building.
My favourite studios are the ones that are just a room, like Surrey Sound, so I didn't bother with acoustic treatment. I figured I'd start live and work my way down, so I have these curtains that go all the way around the mixing area to deaden it down. The concept is that if you mix an album in the living room it'll sound good in a living room. If you mix it in a dead studio, it'll sound great in a dead studio.
Are you actually worried about the quality of your home recordings?
Not wildly, no. It's the quality of the music that's really the point. When I'm working by myself the tape hiss gradually builds up and so on, but if I'm working seriously on something, I'll get an engineer in just to keep track of extraneous noise.
Do you think that using Portastudios and that type of equipment is an aid when you reach your level?
Oh, absolutely! It just gets you into the idea of how the little electrons, or whatever the hell they are on the tape, the oxide particles, how they work and what you can get away with. It teaches you how a bass line may sound boring on its own but if you add the right chords to it, it suddenly has huge meaning. And just the idea of playing instruments off against each other, even if it's only on four track. It's great for composition, arranging, and for just finding out how tape works.
Home recording, is it a good thing in your opinion?
Well, it's a good thing but it's also not the main thing. It's a good thing really because the equipment is getting good enough to make masters on but then again the public has indicated that they are more concerned with the tune than they are with the dynamic range, which is also a good thing."
Interview by Ian Gilby
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