Sound Diving #1 - West End Girls
...with East End voices
by Ben @ mu:zines | 2nd September 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.
(Note to younger self: No, putting the Casio on the ironing board and pretending wasn't really doing it!)
The first classic formative record I really figured out the key elements for was Kate Bush's glorious "Running Up The Hill", which I documented over on the Sound On Sound forum. I'll probably write that up here one day as part of this series - and some great new detail has just come to light on this - but that was the first really satisfying attempt at definitively unlocking some of the secrets of records I love. Let's do more of that here!
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!
Most people with an idea about the song, and the instruments used probably know it uses a lot of Emulator II factory samples - the various string parts, the trumpet solo, choirs and so on, and those sounds are widely available, and fun to play. I always loved that trumpet solo part, and it's amazing what some tasteful musicianship can do with what is really a quite limited sampled instrument - and that goes for much of the EII library in my opinion. But to me, the big attraction was that bass sound.
Fat, squelchy and huge, but not interfering with the kick drum or dominating the bottom end, it's really the first hook of the song you hear with that 3-note ascending line as the drums and music kick in properly.
As common in nerdy synth circles where something isn't immediately identifiable, synth forums for years were full of speculation of what was used for the sound, along with many "I totally nailed it on my [insert synth of choice name here - though probably not a Casio VL-Tone]."
For me though, they never did. It was a sound that I often wondered about, and occasionally tried to recreate with various different instruments any time some speculation about the source surfaced. A lot of information about it on the internet is wrong (shocker!) and even information given in interviews was often misremembered, and passed on as fact.
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:
In any case, despite getting close with recreations of the bass sound, I could never quite get that squelchy fatness, and was never that happy I nailed it, and so the quest stalled there for a while.
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:
While these tracks weren't material used in the making of the records, it appears that they were made to act as backing tracks for a planned Pet Shop Boys tour, which ultimately never happened. The disks include Love Comes Quickly, Violence, Two Divided By Zero, Opportunities (this version it seems was used by them on their Whistle Test performance) and, of course, West End Girls.
I listened to them, and watched the YouTube videos, but the sounds are raw, the material was likely a non-completed work in progress, and the bass sounds didn't sound much like the record, so at the time I didn't think it would help me with the bass sound on the record. It was certainly a quite interesting find, though.
We had a bit of back and forth on a Vintage Synth forum discussing this (that morphed from my exploration of another classic track via it's distinctive bass sound) but again, although revived a little by my rediscovery of the Track Record article, things stalled again...
...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 niggled me everytime I listened to it, because while you can hear a girl singing something in the intro, it never sounded like Careless Whisper to me. At all. Every time I heard West End Girls my pattern-recognition brain would always be trying to decode that singing part - always without success.
And it seems Mark had similar issues trying to work out what it was, and straining to hear the "It's Sting!" part.
From our original VSE thread, I recalled Kirk mentioned that the Fairlight disks were resampled from tape that had the sounds from the multitracks:
And particularly regarding the intro recording:
So I contacted Kirk, to see if he could dig deeper into the original street recording to help uncover some of these long-standing mysteries - this might be our one, best shot at answering another of my long-standing audio mysteries!
Kirk confirmed that the audio used in the West End Girls intro matched the first thirty seconds or so of the street recordings - the traffic noise, the woman walking in heels, the car horn and so on. The "It's Sting!" part was in the recording on the tape, but was from a later section and did not make it onto the record (which answers that part!).
"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:
And she wasn't wrong - she made it onto a number one single!
(There's also another brief snatch of dialog before this that you can hear on the intro, before the first kick drum hits, but even when isolated it hasn't been possible to make out what was said.)
It's funny, because in my mind I had a visual image of Hague recording outside a busy London street, with multiple lanes, heavy traffic, in the rain and with a bunch of girls on the other side of the road, some 50 feet or more away - but the recordings, despite being noisy, sound much more intimate than that. The second "Sting" part is almost whispered, yet can still be heard (the dialog actually goes: "It's Sting!", followed by a dissapointed "That ain't Sting!")
So I looked up Gosfield Street on Google Maps, to have a look - "Advision Studios" - (now The Sound Company Studios) - is the white building on the right, and West End Girls was recorded in Studio 2 (Current pics: pic | pic2).
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.
Only... it's not. It bears no relation to what I hear on the record, and there doesn't seem to be a matching sound on the Sony tape. So where this came from, or why, and what "NAGIMY" means it's anyone's guess. Perhaps it was just used to fill out the low end of the bass sound which sounded a bit weak, and was sourced from elsewhere? There's nothing with that name I've found in the libraries I have, so if someone out there knows what "NAGIMY" might mean, please let me know!
So let's look at the source recordings. Remember, the Sony tape isn't the complete raw multitracks, it simply has a variety of stuff dumped on it of just the material needed to recreate the backing tracks live - so nothing that would be played live by the band is present - the string parts, the vocals and so on. But there are plenty of drum and percission parts - and a bass track!
Just one? Yes, it's a combined track featuring all three layers of the bass. But it does give us an opportunity to get a proper listen to it isolated, and it does indeed sound fabulous, and more or less like it does on the record - fat, wide and delicious! And then I realised that although it's a stereo track, and the bass drum sample is centrally panned and thus appears on both sides, the left side is quite clearly the DX7 sound, and the right side is the analog JP6 sound! This means we can listen to them individually to finally hear the original sounds used.
The DX7 part is nothing like "NAGIMY", and in fact it's nothing like I expected it to be. I expected a deep, smooth, low part that sits underneath the JP6 part, giving it attack and depth, but that's not what it is at all. It's actually a pseudo-analog-style (in the best way a DX7 can manage anyway) bass with a quick-ish envelope and a decent amount of high end, with a typically "whumpy" middle that is quite recognisably DX-ish. It doesn't sit "underneath" the JP6 part at all, they are both doing similar roles side-by-side, with the JP6 part being a bit more conventionally analog (with some resonance).
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, while I don't think I can say I have completely nailed it, I've got that squelchy character I love so much and I've learnt a lot about how it was made and why it sounds like it does - reproducing it 1:1 is never the main goal of these things, understanding it is. My source sounds are pretty close to the recorded synth sounds, but the originals still have a bit more "weight" - they are a bit more "solid" tonally. They may well have been pre-processed on the way to tape, or the hardware synths are beefier than my plugins, perhaps.
The other thing to note is that the resultant bass sound you hear in the mix is a fair bit different to the dry source sounds - a lot of low end was rolled off and the highs were brought out more, there's compression and thickening etc, so it's not just the source sounds that have to be replicated, but it's also the mix (and mastering) setup - I haven't quite got close enough with that, but I've made a decent mockup which could be doubtless be refined with more work to get ever closer to the original, should I want to.
For me, I'm quite satisfied with that!
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!
Thanks also to Mark at the 80sography podcast and his interview with Stephen Hague, Jim Betteridge and David Jacobs for the superb article in International Musician from March 1986, Mike Gorman for supplying and scanning the magazine, and for you somewhat crazy audio-nerds that followed along and are interested in diving this deep into "audio archeology" territory.
...with East End voices | Sep 2021
Another milestone | Jul 2021
Blog entries from 2020...
Part 6 - OCR Part 1a - Contents & Metadata | Apr 2020
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