The following article by Christopher Holder appeared in the January 2001 issue of Audio Technology
Sting can choose to record anywhere he likes. But a Tuscan barn? Seven million albums and a Grammy later, Simon Osborne has some 'Sting' in his tales.
Simon Osborne makes a good case for likening the job of a recording engineer to that of the noble craft of the carpenter. The metaphor he paints gave me a salient reminder of the fact that production excellence (and the quality of a Sting recording is always excellent) is about documenting good performances with good equipment, and combining those elements into a mix that shows off those performances in their best light. It's as easy, and as difficult as that.
Talking with Simon you soon realise that excellence isn't about the latest 'sound' acquired with the latest processor, plug-in, or flavour-of-the-month production technique. So to continue the carpentry metaphor, it's not about the latest Stihl work bench or the most recent power tool (as fun as they might be), it's about the skill of the carpenter, and the quality of the lumber. Before I go further here's what Simon had to say.
"If you're a good carpenter and you're making a cabinet it helps to have decent wood. Then you must have decent tools - so if you make a saw cut, it's sharp and straight. Make sure you're chisels are okay and you put it together really nicely, with care and attention to detail. Then you've got it. Afterwards, polish it when you're finished - in the mastering process."
As I say, it's as easy, and as difficult as that.
Simon Osborne's been around the traps for the best part of 20 years now. His studio eduction took a leap forward when he landed a staff job at Jacob's Studio in the south of England. A large residential facility that enjoyed the relatively heady days of the big budgets of the '80s, Simon worked with a variety of studio luminaries and successful bands and artists. His career took another upward turn when he worked as an assistant to Hugh Padgham (long-time producer for Sting and The Police) which developed into a long and fruitful working relationship with Sting himself. Currently, Simon primarily works as Sting's 'right hand audio man', managing and operating Sting's well-equipped personal studio and being on hand to record, mix and engineer any and all of his projects. The most recent album, 'Brand New Day', has sold in excess of seven million copies, and scored Simon a Grammy in the process. You could say that here's a carpenter who knows how to work wood.
CH: When we're talking about Sting's 'home studio I imagine we're looking at more than a PC plugged into a hi-fi?
SO: Well, yes. Before we recorded the 'Ten Summoner's Tales' album Sting decided to buy equipment so that he could record that album from his home. It's actually a mobile setup based on a 64-channel SSL G+ console, which divides into three and stacks into flight cases. It takes six guys and an articulated lorry to move around, but it can be shifted. The idea is that you don't have to use a purpose built studio, you can put into any big room. When we've recorded in Sting's house in England we tend to use his dining room, which is a big room - we put the studio in there. It's a nicer working environment. You have your gear - you obviously need your gear - but you're in a nicer space.
CH: Is that important to Sting? Having a relaxed and familiar environment in which to record?
SO: That's right. He hates being in conventional studios. You go into those places where they've got the beech wood block on the floor, you've got the panels lining the walls and you might be underground and unable to see daylight.
CH: So you undertook much of the recording in Sting's Elizabethan 'pile' in the country?
SO: For the 'Brand New Day' album we actually moved the gear to his new house in Italy. We moved it into the old grain store - a huge old warehouse-style space on the property.
CH: And how much work had to be done on the grain store to get it into shape for recording?
SO: All they did was clean it up, wash the windows, clean the dust out, and paint it. We needed to get the power sorted out, but basically it was a case of just moving the gear in.
SO: It's surprising what you can get away with. You don't need that sterile studio atmosphere. Having a conventional studio environment can make it easier to get predictable results, but it's not necessary. I mean, when we were doing vocals, Sting would sit on a chair next to me, we'd both have headphones on, and away we'd go. It's certainly easier to communicate, because you can read each other minds. You know when someone wants to do another take, because you're sitting right next to them. There's no need to worry about talk back... and they don't feel isolated or dislocated from the recording process. Although, I should note that we did set up screens just in case there was any slap from the other end of the barn - otherwise there might have been a bit too much sound coming back down the mic.
CH: Can you describe to me the process of getting a Sting album together?
SO: Given that his albums are really done in his own studio from start to finish, there's not a conventional preproduction, recording, mixing process. It's more holistic, where Sting works with ideas and slowly the ideas begin to crystallise and starts sounding more like a record. We'll have a bunch of material which we're constantly moulding and changing. Brand New Day worked slightly differently because of Kipper's involvement as co-producer for the record. Kipper's background is in programming and production, so I suggested to Sting that they should get together because he hates programming drums etc. The two of them hit it off and it went from there.They would jam together and I'd record that to DAT. We'd listen back to it and there would be a sequence, or some changes that might have grabbed our attention, and maybe develop it into a song.
CH: What were Kipper's tools of the trade.
SO: He's a Logic Audio man. So he would have loops set up on his Akai being fired off from Logic. He had his keyboards there to play a bassline or a pad. Meanwhile, Sting has one of those Roland guitar synths. Which is great, because you can just press a pedal and instantly you can be a bass player, or a guitar player, or a synth player. Brilliant for jamming.
CH: So to set the scene: you're holed up in a barn in Italy jamming and putting ideas together. Did you have time to get in there to begin experimenting with mic positionings and ascertain what sort of sound you're going to be getting from this building?
SO: I did have time to set up some mics. For example, there was a piano in there which I was unfamiliar with, so I experimented with some different mics. But what happens with Sting, is as soon as you put microphones on something he wants to sit down and start playing along with that instrument! You don't get much of a chance to be overly pedantic with mics. You plug them into the desk and Sting will be there, 'I can't hear my bass!'. So you push up his bass in the headphone mix and everyone starts playing.
CH: You paint the picture of a guy who loves musicianship and songwriting.
SO: That's right. I don't think he's that enamoured with the recording process as such, but he's a musician and loves writing songs. I mean, I think he often finds the recording process quite frustrating, because he moves so quickly, his ideas come very quickly - and it's the execution that takes the time. So if he's got a vocal line, he likes to sing it through, sing it again, then sing with that, and suddenly has an idea for a harmony, so he wants to sing that, then do another harmony. This all happens very quickly, so you have to be good with making notes, obviously: 'Can I drop in on the low part of the second chorus then?' 'Erm, which track was that!'. But I've been recording for years with him now, so we've built up a way of doing it.
CH: What were you recording to for that album?
SO: We had two Sony 3348 DASH recorders. Which became a little time consuming because we were doing so many edits. So much so that I ended up with 50 reels of tape - there was a lot of locking two machines together dropping things in and moving one part of one version onto another version. So after we finished the record and Sting went on tour, I started to look at hard disk systems. I wanted something that would make this whole process more seamless. So when Sting says, 'can we hear it in another key', I can just press a couple of buttons and out it comes. So I ended up with ProTools.
CH: But surely ProTools has been an option for years?
SO: Yes, but I think it's only really just come of age. I almost thought of swapping over to ProTools while doing Brand New Day, because they brought out their new Mix farm cards. That was a major leap forward. But what I had with the 3348s worked and it wasn't the time to jump ships.But now I think ProTools is really happening. The v5.1 software gives you proper nine-pin control, so I can run it like a tape machine from the SSL. But then it has another depth to it with all this automation, editing, time-stretching and all these plug-ins - a tape machine-plus, you could say. Also, we got a Prism ADA8 front-end to it. Sounds fantastic.
CH: I imagine you must have stacked up a few converters when you went to buy the Prisms, what sort of differences were you hearing from converter to converter?
SO: Sonically, there weren't major differences. You could say that a couple of A/D converters sounded a bit soft, a bit wimpy, not really coming through. Some sounded as good as the Prism, but didn't have the same sort of facilities as the Prism. For example, I like the way the ADA8 allows you to do double-speed AES on one cable, while a lot of them split it over two cables. (We actually mastered 'Brand New Day' at 88.2k/24-bit, and then dithered down for the CD.) So I went for a Prism - it's properly built, it's English, plus I know the guys who built it, and it's a properly engineered bit of gear. It sits there and does it's job.
CH: So how many channels of Prism did you buy?
SO: We bought eight ADA8s, 64 channels in all. It just so happens that the SSL we got 10 years ago has 64 channels on it as well, so it fits together perfectly. I've got the ProTools rig in parallel with the desk, just like a tape machine. So I still use the SSL automation for the broad picture stuff. Because mostly when you're mixing a record you just want to turn something up a bit in a particular part of a song. Then I use ProTools for the microscope factor, to take out the pops, automate a bit of bass roll-off at a certain point of the vocal, automated filter sweeps - things like that.
Brand New Mixing
CH: Most of the mixing on Brand New Day strikes me as being quite exceptional. But looking at the sleeve notes I know you didn't mix the album in the barn. You went into Mega Studios in Paris for that I gather?
SO: Yes, and it was a good record to mix. Again, it was more about this holistic approach. We didn't go in and say, well now it's time to mix this. Because we were working on the project for so long, I'd already done a lot of rough mixes - people always need a copy to listen. So I'd really been mixing the album for a year, and I knew exactly what was on tape. Admittedly, the Mega studio room wasn't one I knew, but I had my speakers in there (a pair of Quested passive nearfields), so I was reasonably comfortable. Then I just performed the stuff. I knew where it all was and made it speak as big as I could. Which is my job when mixing a record: to make everything on tape come out musically, make sure it all happened, and that nothing's missed - I've just got to enhance it all.
CH: Do you have a mixing regime you generally follow?
SO: I do, and I doubt whether it's much different to most other people. Put the drums up first. Get the bass drum peaking at -5dB, and off you go. Bring the bass guitar in, get the chords in, bit of melody... Make sure you put the voice in quite early, after all you've got to have it all fitting around the vocal. I don't solo too much. I like to EQ within the context of the whole mix, because it's all got to work together. If it does start to sound a bit vague then I do start to solo instruments, or cut things out. If you can't hear what's going on in a backing track then cut the singer out for a while, then put him back in. Shuffle it about a bit. Get the basic picture working. Then start putting some moves on the mix. Move things up and down, changing it around slightly.
CH: You mentioned 'familiarity' with the mix room. Is good mixing about familiar tools, and functionality?
SO: Yes, perhaps. For example, I'm quite happy with the SSL G+ console, but we went to Mega and worked on the J Series 9000, which, of course, is a great console as well. As far as compression goes, my favourite has to be the Urei. And the old Cadac optical compressors - I haven't seen those for years. My favourite reverb is probably a real echo plate, like the EMT, while in the early days I worked with an American one actually called Echo Plate. I found that they do vary tremendously. You can have two with the same spec and they might sound completely different. I'm sure that plates have a certain time setting where they work best - of course they are variable, but they tend to have a 'sweet spot', especially on vocals.
CH: So the vocal reverb we're hearing on Brand New Day is mostly a plate reverb?
SO: Yeah, either that or a Lexicon 224XL, which has to be my favourite Lexicon, better than the 480L in my opinion.
CH: But the Lexicon 224 is probably about as old as digital gets - by rights it should sound second rate compared the latest stuff?
SO: You would think that, but maybe it's the way they wrote the algorithms, or the design of the electronics - I don't know. It's just got some lovely programs. When it first came out 20 odd years ago, it sounded good then, it sounds good now.
CH: I have to say Simon: you listen to the album and it's pristine, transparent, and mixed brilliantly, but you read this interview and the message is - "Simon Osborne uses the same gear as any other studio in town".
SO: It is basically that. It's almost a case of not doing too much - if you're not careful, you can over do it. If you start EQing too much, your phase relationship will go all wonky, it gets a bit mushy. Meanwhile, if you take a good mic, stick it in front of good performer and record it. It sounds fine. Just leave it alone.
For Sting's vocals I used a Sony C800G - yes, the one with the heat sink. Hugh Padgham started using the mic when he was sent a prototype from Sony Japan, and Sting's used it since. It really does sound great. I've used it on a lot of other singers and it consistently has a real presence - you have a real sense of the voice being there with you in the middle of the speakers. I wouldn't call it a flat microphone at all - it's got a real character to it - but a lovely mic. Then mostly, these days, I use a Neve 1081 preamp copy, made by Shep ASSOCIATES. So the mic feeds that, and sometimes I'll use that pre to tweak the top end a little - 2dB at 14k, something like that - but mostly I keep it flat. From there I go into a Urei 1176 compressor. Quite often I then go into the desk rather than straight to tape, just so I can route it around, eight channels at a time. Sting likes to jump from one idea straight to the next, so this way I can quickly switch tracks, rather than go to the patch bay.
Drum Sound - a trap for new players
A Simon Osborne drum sound combines the magical qualities of separation and cohesion, which you'd think might be quite difficult to achieve in an untreated barn. "Because we were in this barn area, with the high ceilings, I didn't know what sort of sound we were going to get. Plus the other thing was we were all together (recording and monitoring) in the same room, so I had to put it on tape before I could truly hear the results. (It's a bit confusing when you've been blasting yourself with headphones then listening to it on speakers later.) So, I needed something that was going to give me a certain amount of control and flexibility over the drum sound.
"I used these tube traps - they're these acoustic traps and look like tubes on stands. The ones we were using were probably eight or 10 inches in diameter and about a metre and a half high. They're on stands, so you can slide them up or down to get them at the right height. I was changing the drum sound by moving them either nearer or further from the drum kit. They give you quite a bit of flexibility, because for some of the songs I had them right in among the drums and around the cymbals, but if I wanted a slightly 'live-r' sound I can pull them back a foot.
"You can put them right up by the microphone. So the mic would pick up the direct sound, and not the sound coming off the walls, because that would be stopped by the traps - that's my theory anyway. You can get a tight, close sound with the close mics, but have a big roomy sound (if you want) from ambient mics - without being in an acoustically dampened room.
"I'm not sure how available they are in Australia, but you could probably make something that would do the same job. Just take some chicken wire, cover it with cloth, and fill it with something like Tontine... presumably!"
Find out more about Simon at his website: www.simonosborne.co.uk
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