The following article by Raymond James appeared in the October 1999 issue of Audio Media
Simon Osborne has been Sting's engineer for the last ten years, so he must be doing something right. Audio Media's Raymond James talked to him about the making of Sting's latest album, 'Brand New Day' - from conception to DVD.
"I met Sting through Hugh Padgham, who I originally met while working on the Phil Collins album 'But Seriously'." Simon Osborne starts off as succinctly in conversation as in his approach to engineering for Sting. Since the 1990 album The Soul Cages, Simon has been Sting's right-hand man in the studio. "Hugh was about to produce The Soul Cages in Paris, and gave me a call and asked if I wanted to work with him, and I've worked on all Sting's albums since then," he elaborates. "I was the main Assistant Engineer on 'The Soul Cages', for all the recording sessions. We started off at Studio Guillaume in Paris, but then we relocated to a villa near Pisa with the La Voyager mobile and finished the overdubs off there." A little more background from Mr. Osborne: "During the writing phase of 'Ten Summoner's Tales', Dominic [Miller] was going down to Sting's place in Wiltshire to try out some ideas, and they asked me to come in and run the Synclavier. So I was working on that album right from the very beginning, which is a great way to build up a working relationship. We recorded the album-proper on Sting's portable studio set-up. At this point Hugh became involved.
"For this new album ['Brand New Day'], we started back in June last year. Sting was jamming around with various people, trying out ideas, and once again using his portable set-up." 'Portable set-up' is a loose term. The whole studio can be packed up and put in a truck - it's designed that way, but it's s ill a lot of gear. Simon continues: "It consists of a 64-channel SSL, and two Sony 3348s, plus all the usual out-board and mics. We also have Sonic Solutions for waveform editing and mastering. Generally most editing, is done between the 3348s, and we do a lot of that - editing arrangements and the like." Although the idea of editing songs between the two Sony machines may seem laborious, Simon has firm reasons for staying with the formula for the new album: "For the moment, anyway. I'm not convinced by computer-based hard-disk recorders yet. They still seem more like sequencers than recorders. Being part of a computer there is no one person to phone when it goes wrong. Also it would have meant changing horse mid-race. I've also been looking at the Radar, and the Euphonix systems. Hard disk is the way to go. It's certainly much easier than two 3348s."
Technical considerations aside for the moment, I ask Simon how much of a production role he takes on himself. "Sting is in charge of the whole production side. He'll leave the choice of microphone up to me; as long as he is happy with the sound, he doesn't say anything. Most of the sounds, are pretty straight, without much tweaking. I take a hi-fi approach, the voice just sounds like a voice! It's in the arrangement of the songs, this is where production comes in."
On that note, Simon takes me through the initial approach to the first stages of the new album: "The approach for moulding, rather than making, this new album was that we'd record everything, and then think, well that bits good, and this bit's good, lets put them together." Simon jests, but there is obviously a more serious side to the proceedings, as he explains: "It was obviously my role to edit those elements together into a form that can be overdubbed. One thing Sting likes to do is take a cassette copy and walk around the garden, working on melody and lyrics. We try different keys and possibly change the whole song around. Quite often we'll go back to the original, but that's all part of the moulding process."
It seems there is space for all levels of technological expertise involved: "The way of working has been quite basic initially, because it gives more scope for change," Simon points out. "We set up in Sting's villa in Italy with the portable set-up. Kipper, who produced the album, and who is also a great programmer, came out, and his influence made the whole songwriting process more fluid. What has happened previously is that Sting has worked on ideas by himself on his Synclavier. Usually quite basic ideas with a basic drum pattern, which serves to be a guideline for the final live performance. Then the band come in and play the whole thing together. At that stage sections can be taken out or added; it's really a case of arrangements again."
With the new project, however, things were done a little differently, as Simon explains: "Working with Kipper on the new album was a bit different because of the quality of the programming done at the writing stage. We'd have finished sounding songs early on, but they sounded quite one dimensional because it was all based around samples. Then we started putting on live drums, and percussion to flesh the tunes out a bit. That gave it more depth. The drum sounds came about mainly because of the nature of the parts, not intentional sounds specifically. 'Desert Rose', for example, has quite a heavy sound, which really just occurred, and was then developed."
To this end Simon is not overly concerned with mic set-ups. His motto fits in well with the 'if it ain't broke' adage. "In terms of miking up I tend to use a fairly basic set-up, because you don't always know what's going to happen, so flexibility is the key," he says. "For example, if Sting wants to get going straight away, you need to be able to just do a little gain and EQ tweaking, sort the headphones out, and roll. The great thing in terms of actual mics I now use is that after a long while of constantly changing the set-ups, I'm now at a point where I think it's as good as its going to get, the state of the art is pretty good these days."
When it comes to recording Sting's vocals, Simon has a standard way of operating, too: "I always go straight to tape rather than through the desk. I use AMS Neve 31105s and a Demiter valve mic amp, which I've used for a long while. I've also got all the usual stuff like Urei 1176s and such. I'll start with a general setting, so a 4:1 ratio, not too fast, with a quick release as a guide. His voice obviously changes depending on the key and dynamic of the tune, so it's important to have an initial set-up that can be tweaked as necessary. In terms of mics, we normally use the Sony C800G, it just works well with Sting's voice."
Simon also had an exciting time experimenting at Sting's Italian villa. "I got into using M&S miking a bit on this album," he says, "using a pair of Audio Technica 4050s in the chapel. It's got brilliant acoustics. We recorded some acoustic guitar there, so I did M&S recording of the ambience. I experimented a lot to get the right balance between the close mic and the ambient mics. Real reverb was just lovely; it really makes you realise what you're missing when you use digital reverbs!"
Great sound is the straightforward mentality for a man who knows he can rely on his ears as the best guide, and it reflects in his choice of monitors, too: "I've used Questeds for a long time," Simon maintains. "I first came across them at Jacobs, and I've used them ever since. I find the monitors brilliant, for stereo imaging; you can virtually interact with them, as opposed to other monitors that seem a bit ambiguous. Also, I find that mixes done on them are faithfully reproduced on other systems. I don't really use any other monitors for cross-referencing. What I do is use a little ghetto-blaster and put it in the corner of the room. That way you can hear if anything is missing or too loud, or whatever. What you do has to work on peoples' hi-fis, so it's got to translate."
Simon has some strong ideas on the use of varying degrees of technology in the recording process, and is keen to share them: "What the technology does, if it is used in the right way, is to make the process easier for the musician," he says with a genuine empathy. "Fundamentally, musicians need to record something and hear it back then record something against it to see how it works. That's simplifying it of course, but anything that can make that process more straightforward and quicker, the better. There's nothing a musician hates more than having to re-do something because the level to tape was wrong or something. "What's great about some of the new editing software that's around now, is cases where a take has the energy and vibe that was required, but it is not a technically perfect recording; the take can still be used, because you can go in and manipulate it after the event. That means you get the luxury of having takes that combine great feel with great sound."
And how does the engineer fit into the proceedings? "The role of the engineer is to really stay out of the way, and facilitate the performances in the best way possible. If someone says 'have you got another track?', it needs to be there. Sting will often want to do several vocal takes, so I've got to be set up to record them with no hassle. That's especially the case with Sting because he thinks and reacts very quickly: one minute he'll be doing vocals, and the next he'll want to do a guitar take. A good engineer is one who can facilitate that happening."
It probably doesn't come as a particular surprise to learn that Sting often likes to work fast. To this end, Simon is pleased with some recent purchases: "One thing Sting used a lot on this album was the Roland VG8 guitar synth, which was great because he could say 'I've got an idea', and have loads of sounds to instantly use. Quite a lot of the early parts that were done that way stayed to the final version of the song. Some of the vocal tracks were done in one hit, and on some songs, like 'After The Rain', the vocal was probably done over a period of six months, as the song evolved."
The stereo mastering for the album was done at Abbey Road, with Chris Blair. "It's really your last chance to change things, and you can change a lot at that stage. I printed to half-inch as well as digital 88.2kHz, 24-bit, so we could decide at the mastering stage which sounded better. Generally I was pleased that we'd got it mostly right at the mix stage. It's also useful to get another professional opinion. We used analogue EQ on the mastering, we went out of the Genex via a Prism D/A converter to the EQ, and then into the Sonic Solutions at 44.1 kHz, 24-bit via a Prism A/D."
The new album was also mixed in 5.1 for DVD by Elliott Scheiner. Simon isn't sure whether this will be viewed as a gimmick, but found it an extraordinary experience: "For the 5.1 mix, I started off by reproducing my stereo mix with rough EQ and reverb, to get a rough shape of what we had, so that Elliott could use it as his starting point for the 5.1 surround mix. I wanted to see what Elliott would come up with, and because I'd never done a 5.1 mix before, I left it very open in terms of what I wanted to achieve. Obviously I'd thought about how I envisaged it, but I wanted to leave Elliott to do his thing. I think 5.1 is a great format; it's at the back, at the front, it jumps out from all over the place!
"On 'Perfect Love' we put some vinyl noise into an auto-panner, so you get it going round and round in your head throughout the track. We tried to be creative with it rather than using it as a gimmick. On 'Fill Her Up', which is a kind of country tune, James Taylor plays a big-shot character who's driving across America, pulls into a petrol station, and walks around the car, so the vocal moves around too. That's the sort of cinematic vibe we wanted to capture.
"Engineering for Sting is quite a challenge, and that's one of the main reasons I enjoy it," concludes Simon. "He'll often say 'can we do this?', so even if I'm not sure, I'll say 'yes' and then come up with a way of doing it. At the same time. It's always a very fun and creative atmosphere. There are no rules, and we don't tie ourselves down in any way. During the early stages we would keep saying to each other 'We are not making a record we are having fun with music'. Sting and I are quite different personalities, and that's an advantage. Where he's more musical and creative, I'm more technical. We meet in the middle, and that's conducive to what we do together."
And I guess it has worked. Hear for yourself when the album is released - you won't be disappointed.
Find out more about Simon at his website: www.simonosborne.co.uk
© Audio Media magazine