Anyone who’s read much of this blog before is well aware of the admiration I hold for the SEAT On Track live-to-vinyl cuts that have been occurring recently at Metropolis. If you don’t quite know what I’m talking about, see what I mean here. It’s phenomenally exciting stuff, and when coupled with being held in the largest independent recording studio in Europe and broadcast on Channel 4 – sessions don’t get much more exclusive and fascinating than that.
So, you can imagine my jubilation when asked on November 17th to assist on one of the vinyl cuts the following weekend.
This session was my first professional assisting role, and I was thrilled to be involved. More than thrilled, infact! I would be assisting Sam, Xavier and Ben on the session, helping out with exactly what I admire the team for, and getting an extraordinary glimpse of the professional world and how they all interact with eachother. Whilst I enjoy studying at Alchemea and believe it’s an extremely time-efficient means to learn, the one thing it lacks – and all other courses are similar – is an insight into exactly how professional sessions pan out and the various people involved deal with eachother. Not only was this an amazing opportunity, but also an invaluable learning experience.
So, the day started at 8am for me, when I got in on the first tube. I’d have been in at least an hour earlier if it was up to me, but I hadn’t thought to check what time the earliest train was on a Sunday – so I was at the mercy of TFL. Never a good position, and a mistake that I won’t be making again. By the time I’d arrived, a large amount of the session had already been set up, including the majority of the mics having already been put on stands, most of the patching completed and all the wiring of floating hardware – which included a pair of Neve 1081′s, a rack of API’s, a DBX Spectrum Analyser and a Prism. It was obvious that the team were organised and sparing no exspense in the signal chain. I helped out as best I could, but honestly for the first couple of hours, I felt way out of my depth. By the time I was there, a lot of the groundwork was done, and the camera crew and roadies were already loading. I’ve been a runner at Metropolis for 6 weeks now, and whilst I’ve got a lot of experience at the lower end of the industry – this was a whole new level, and about as intense as sessions get.
Slowly, I got more and more into it, and my jobs went from “grab us some croissants” to “wire up those 47′s”, which was a lot more satisfying. The session included a 6 piece string section, and required some serious thought to obtain both the best sounds and useful camera shots for the Channel 4 team. Normally, for the sake of the shots, we keep all the artists in the same part of the live room, which is somewhat of a nightmare for bleed, but looks great. However, because the strings needed the ambience, the drummer in this case was relegated to the booth, and the guitar amp to the fire escape. This allowed the Schoeps and valve & FET 47′s to get the best sound possible for the strings, with only vocal bleed to contend with. And I must say – listening to a string section going all out, recorded beautifully, through a giant pair of Genelecs the size of a Mini – is pretty awe inspiring. The string section in this case was a group called Wired Strings, which includes Rosie Denvers – a prolific string arranger who’s done work for Kanye West, Jay-Z and Adele, along with hundreds of other high-profile artists. Not only did she arrange the strings for this particular session, but they were also recorded for the album at Metropolis. The group are the most in-demand session players in popular music, and rightly so.
At this point, I should probably introduce the artist: Clare Maguire. No, I’ve not heard of her either. But believe me when I say that you will do shortly. Aside from being absolutely astonishingly good at singing, Clare has the distinction of being the single biggest signing last year. Rick Rubin, Jay-Z, and just about everyone else in the music industry were fighting over her – resulting in “a few good stories” and her once finding herself in a bar in London doing shots with the richest man in hip-hop. Eventually she was signed to Universal-Island, with a record deal reportedly described as “eye-watering”.
Wow. Not bad for 21! Hotly tipped to be the biggest thing in music next year, she is absolutely the one to look out for, and I promise you’ll all be humming “Ain’t Nobody” to yourselves shortly.
So, like I said – sessions don’t get much bigger than this. The band clocked in at around 10am, and we started soundchecking at midday. This was the time when Sam had to nail all the sounds, starting with the drums and working his way around. It was amazing to hear how the drum kit went from flabby and made of cardboard to punchy and demanding in a few short minutes. The details of how he achieved this sound is a mystery to me, but I think it’s safe to assume that the API’s were involved. During this time, Clare’s FOH Engineer for the tour guided Sam and helped direct him to the sound that Clare is used to both live and on her records, and between them, I believe that this is the best sounding record yet – certainly if the control room mix is anything to go by.
Clare also arrived around midday, and we set her up with an RE20 on vocals, which proved not to be cutting it and we were plagued for half an hour or so with a stubbornly weak and distant vocal sound. We tried swapping to a 58, to no avail, and so the team’s fault-finding skills were put to the test. Within a minute or so, every cable involved had been replaced, and the inputs switched to the spares on the Maselec. Problem solved! We believe it was down to a faulty XLR – and once this was eliminated, the full impact of Clare’s voice could be heard. If I had one word to describe her voice, it’d be this: powerful. I’m sure she must have been classically trained, as her vocals were downright stunning and sounded massive, and every competition winner that I spoke to commented almost immediately on this. All in all her music is pretty epic, with huge, towering sounds and scope, and a slight gothic feel. In lots of ways I think her music comes across better live than on the album versions, and I think it’d be great to see her release the Vinyl EP as a taster for the full album release in February.
A de-esser was also patched into Clare’s vocal chain as a precautionary measure, because vinyl does not take esses very well and usually ends up sounding horribly distorted.
Once the competition winners arrived, it was around 4pm, and we ran through the songs a couple more times before going for the first take. It was a joy to see the competition winners walking into the vast confines of Studio A, gawping at the sheer scale of things – I know I’d done a similar thing just a few weeks ago! Once everyone was happy, it was time to cut. This was done with military precision, and Xavier spent the whole time on the phone to the mastering engineer, Miles Showell, keeping him up to date with all the latest happenings. Once it was announced that we were going for a cut, the tension in the room became palpable, and an eerie silence reigned:
We’re going for the next minute, if the band are okay with that.
Fader is up, I repeat fader is up
Simultaneously, the drummer took his cue from the clock, locked in with the metronome and counted the band in, before the introduction to “Ain’t Nobody” started playing back through the hard drive. A perfect start.
I can’t tell you how awe-inspiring it is to watch seasoned musicians playing together, especially with such a talented singer at the helm. The string section sounded magnificent, and the whole thing was a joy to watch – even though I’d seen them run through the songs countless times earlier in the day – there was something magical about watching a take; when the pressure is really on.
Two songs down, including a frankly awesome cover of “Big Love”, and the take was halted.
Fader is coming down, Miles, fader is down.
A sigh of relief was had by everyone. But we weren’t done yet! Next, the band listened to playback whilst miming, so that the camera crew could get more elaborate shots without putting off the artist’s performance. Then, we went for the second side of the vinyl and the last two songs.
Once this was finished, and we had the final “fader is down”, the band visibly relaxed and looked very happy with themselves – and rightly so. One more run through to playback, and we were done in Studio A. The band came back into the control room and Clare joined the competition winners for a meet and greet – but by this time we were already stripping everything down. Another session was due the next day, so we had to get everything taken down as quickly as possible, before doing a massive recall on all the equipment, setting up the drum kit, bass and guitar amps and keyboards as they were the day before and resetting the massive 9080 desk back to the previous settings – routing, dynamics, EQ and all.
It took around an hour and a half to clear up from the Live-to-Vinyl, and another two to reset for the next session, and I was very pleased to be asked to stay and assist the recall as well. The band left at around 8pm, having been upstairs to visit Miles and listen to the final record, design their EP cover and do some interviews.
By this point, we were all pretty tired and Xavier was kind enough to order us all some Italian food. A small feast was had in the control room, and we got back to testing all the mics. By this time, I felt totally at home in the control room, and a much more useful member of the team than I was earlier that morning. I hope that sentiment was echoed by the other engineers!
Overall, I can say that Sunday’s Live-to-Vinyl was one of the most fascinating, inspiring and incredible things I’ve ever been witness to, and I’m sure that it will remain a highlight of my career for many years. It was an honour to be involved, and I must give a massive thanks to Sam Wheat for allowing me to take part, and to Xavier Stephenson and Ben Baptie for looking after me and giving me some direction during the session!
I’ve wanted to be involved in the Live-to-Vinyl cuts ever since I first found out about them, and now: I can tick that off the list. Whether or not I’ll end up doing more assisting is another matter, but I hope to work in the studios again soon.
On Track with SEAT, with Clare Maguire airs on Channel 4 on Thursday December 2nd at 12.10am, and will be on 4OD and YouTube shortly afterwards. I implore you all to see it, as Clare is really something quite special. All images are the property of their respective owners.