Sound Diving #1 - West End Girls
...with East End voices
by Ben @ mu:zines | 2nd Sep 2021
This is the first of a series of deep dives in which I'm exploring, and hopefully uncovering some secrets of classic sounds and classic records that fuelled my love of synthesizers and music in my formative years. The kinds of sounds that my Casio VL-Tone most definitely could not make, and that made me wish for a synth I could stand behind and look cool with, like those big-haired enthusiastically performing pop stars on Top of the Pops.
West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys was released in 1985, and it's cool, laid-back, cynical and not-really-trying-too-hard style was an instant break from all the, well, big-haired enthusiastically performing pop stars' records of the time. It was an instant classic, and that status certainly didn't diminish with time.
Please, the album that followed was the first cassette album I bought and it lived in my Sony Walkman pretty constantly during 1986. I distinctly remember listening to it while enduring an extended family dinner at a local restaurant. I was quite the social darling as a teenager!
Interestingly though, I did already know what was used, because one of the very first music magazines I bought back in 1986, my first copy of International Musician, actually had an article in their "Track Record" series, by Jim Betteridge, where they broke down the record and spoke to the people involved. However, despite many of the details of this article staying with me, I had mostly forgotten about it, having got rid of my copy decades ago - until I acquired another copy for mu:zines last year, which resurfaced a lot of old memories! This is exactly my kind of ideal mu:zines use case!
This article is now available on mu:zines and can be read here:
> Track Record: West End Girls
You can read the scans here:
As I revealed on a fun Twitter thread earlier this year, the sound sources mentioned in the article were a DX7 (another shocker!) and a Roland Jupiter 6 (this actually *was* surprising, and it's a synth I never really liked!), along with the aforementioned bass drum sample. It seems the Wikipedia entry draws heavily from this article, and it's been the primary source of reliable information on the track online for quite some time.
Still, recreating that sound using similar instruments and sounds was... unconvincing. I noticed that the bass part in the track had quite a lot of stereo spread, and this seems to be a trick that Jacobs used a lot:
I had previously come across Kirk's Fairlight pages at synthroom.com, and interestingly enough, he was in possession of (which is a story itself!) some very cool Pet Shop Boys content - Fairlight disks, samples and sequences for some of those early tracks on Please. You can read more about them on his site:
> PSB Fairlight Disks (synthroom.com)
The two West End Girls Fairlight backing tracks we are mainly concerned with are here:
...until the excellent 80sography podcast, which I had been thoroughly enjoying, released last week the first part in a great interview with Stephen Hague, discussing his early career up to and including West End Girls. You should really listen to this as background for much of what's being discussed here.
> 80sography Podcast - Stephen Hague, Pt1 1980-1985
In discussing the track, Mark and Stephen had a discussion about the intro, and how Stephen had recorded it - and something about this had always bugged me too, ever since I read in the original article this section:
"This might be our one, best shot at answering another of my long-standing audio mysteries!"
Stephen says in the first part of the podcast interview above that he cued up the tape he'd just recorded out in the street, pressed play, and Jacobs pressed play on the track together to see whether it might work. Stephen was surprised and said "Sh*t, we should have recorded that!", to which Jacobs, seasoned engineer he was, says "I did record it". (Tip for aspiring recording engineers - Always Be Recording!).
(Fun fact - the intro ambience, together with the singing part, re-appears in the mix a second time, toward the end of the song, in a "we liked it so much we did it again" kind of way - a "callback" to the intro.)
So, we already had some good new info on the intro, but still one mystery remained. What is that girl singing indistinctly at the start? Is it Careless Whisper like the widely-cited article mentions?
Kirk could not identify what the intro girl was singing/saying. It probably didn't help that he isn't too familiar with 1980s British/London dialects. However, thanks to him, I got a chance to listen to the original recordings, and as I listened, devoid of the strings and hi-hats and other masking distractions, I could instantly understand what it was, for the first time! (My brain was overjoyed!)
I think perhaps I'm the first person to figure this out - not even Stephen could recall what they were singing, and Ade Cook is sadly no longer with us.
Essentially, I think what happened is a bit like what often typically happens when there's a TV camera out in public - people come up in front of the camera and wave to get on TV, shout "Hello Mum!" etc. In this case, what I think happened is that the girls saw the guy nearby holding a recorder ("a very good one" Stephen said), and one of them chants, in a British contemporary accent, in short syllables:
You can clearly see that the road is barely two car widths at it's widest points - so the girls would have been maybe 10-20 feet away, and would have easily spotted a guy with a hand-held pro recorder/mic combo trying not to get rained on. It's very different to how I pictured it!
Once denoised the dialog is even clearer, and there is no doubt that this is what she's singing/chanting (it's almost like a football-style chant). That intro singing bit has bugged me since 1986 when I first read that article. It's great to have it definitively resolved!
The final word, if it is one, of that phrase is probably impossible to identify - I like to think it's "forever!" as given the context that would tickle my sense of poetry!
"Get on the mic-ro-ph-one.... forever!"
So what about the Careless Whisper thing? Was this just wrong, or misremembered..? It certainly wasn't that bit "at the beginning of the record, just before the drums come in", as we now know.
Well, later on in the recording - and it wasn't used in the track - buried in the noise and amongst various bits of discernible and non-discernible chatter is a little bit of comedic "la la la"-type singing, which could almost be a bad rendition of the Careless Whisper hook - you know, sung badly with an incorrect melody in a way that often infuriates musicians - or at least me! So maybe it was there, hiding, all along...
Which brings me back to that bass sound. Given that we know that Kirk's Fairlight recreations were supposedly sampled from the Sony digital tape that had the street recordings done for the final single, we know all the sounds came from that recording session - so likely the bass sounds you can hear from the Fairlight in Kirk's recordings - the low deep one (DX7) and the higher squelchy one (Jupiter 6) are slightly lower quality samples of the sounds actually used in the track.
From the first Fairlight disk, the sample "WBASS2" does appear to be a sample of the combined bass sound, without the bass drum attack, albeit at the lower quality you'd expect from an early Fairlight. However, it's not as resonant as the sound on the record, and is mono, and loses a lot of it's effect when you play it at different pitches.
The second disk has two samples for the bass part. "WESTBASS" *is* a sample of the JP6 analog synth part of the bass layer - it's a little more resonant than the previous sample, and closer to the record. It's a more playable sample, and better quality despite being short, unlooped, and with lots of aliasing noise in the tail section. It's quite a "hard" sound, characteristic of the JP6 and of other synths that I think also sound "hard" - particularly the SCI Prophets, although their filters sound quite different.
Ok, that leaves us with the other part of the bass layer - the "NAGIMY" sample. This is a smoother, rounder, deeper sound that sits underneath the JP6 and is presumably the DX7 part of the WEG bass sound.
To the DX7 library! Investigating 80s records usually means you end up trawling through DX7 presets at some point, and I'll go into my strategies for this in more detail in another blog post. I pretty much trawled through most of the "BASS" sounds and a lot of the "BRASS" ones, looking for something of the right timbral/tonal qualities and envelope behaviour. This can be quite tricky because the DX7, being one of the first really "dynamic" synths, can vary how a voice sounds a lot by how hard you hit the keyboard, so you often have to play and vary the velocity to try and find a tonal match.
I found some close matches, but didn't obviously find the *exact* sound I could hear - this is always difficult though as you have to bear in mind a pure digital synth model in a DAW may sound quite different to a synth sound you're hearing that was tracked through a console to tape, and then back out again, because along the way the input stages, EQ and the tape will have coloured the pure synth sound somewhat.
Of course, they may well have modified some existing DX7 preset, and I will often scan through the obvious sounds an DX7 owner would likely have access to in case one of those could be easily modified into the sound we hear. But with over 100,000 DX7 patches on hand (!), it's tough to mount an exhaustive search!
Anyway, with four or five in-the-ballpark sounds, I did find one that was *very* close indeed, one of the "MOOG BASS" sounds, of which there are plenty in any sizable DX7 preset collection (and very few sound actually "Moogy"). I did a few minor edits to this in Dexed, tweaking the envelopes and harmonics a bit to get even closer, and while it doesn't *quite* have that "whumpy" middle in exactly the same way - and I'm not a good enough FM programmer to extract that out of the preset intentionally - I got something that I thought was pretty close - and quite different to what I previously *thought* the DX7 part was doing!
Onto the JP6 part. I expected to have an easier time with this, as analog synth sounds are often a bit more straightforward to dial in, and due to the ease analog synths can be edited, few studio musicians would just use unmodified preset sounds on their tracks.
Despite not having a JP6, I surveyed my available options, and after a brief dalliance with the SH-101, I remembered u-he's Diva has models of the JP6 oscillators and filter, so I gave that a try. Again, with quite a bit of fine tuning around the filter and envelopes I was able to dial in something pretty close, although the recorded version has quite a bit more low end.
These two parts really lock together to form the composite sound. But you can see why they were panned apart, because if you collapse them to mono, the bass frequencies clash and become muddy and indistinct - this is a common problem when layering bass parts with similar frequency ranges. Panned wider apart, you get a thicker sound that's perceived as the same note, and you don't notice the frequency collisions as much.
The last piece was the kick drum sample. This doesn't appear to be the kick drum from the record (the Oberheim DMX drum machine), and nor was it the default BD in the Emulator II library.
To date, I haven't tracked down the exact sample, nor the exact pitch, so I'm ballparking here. I could take another few days to trawl through my BD sample library, trying various pitches to try to find the exact sample used, but I'm not sure it really matters in the context of this blog post, though it would be nice to lock it down. Let's just chuck something close in as a placeholder for now, and throw together a quick mockup of the track to see how this fits together:
So, that's quite a few secrets revealed on West End Girls. There might still be a few more secrets to spill - maybe for another time. As a last little game - can you find the one thing in the record that's a programming error, that they either missed, or they liked and left it in? Answers on a (Twitter) postcard, please...
Answer: In the first part of the verses, there is a tambourine hit (drenched in reverb) with the snare on beat 4 of every bar - a common 80s trick to add some high end sheen to a snare hit. But on bar 6 of the verse, the 8th note quantisation was missed when playing it in and the tamb hits one 8th note *before* the snare...
Once you notice this, you'll hear it - Every. Single. Time. Sorry!
...with East End voices | Sep 2021
Another milestone | Jul 2021
Blog entries from 2020...
Part 6 - OCR Part 1a - Contents & Metadata | Apr 2020
Blog entries from 2019...
Synth Patches - The Return | Dec 2019
Part 5 - Outputting the Scans to Use | Nov 2019
*Almost* the first DAW... | Oct 2019
...and Three New Things (Polyphony, Ads, & Stats) | Mar 2019
Part 4 - Processing the Scans | Jan 2019
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