The Album ThirtySix: Part One

The first in a three part series about of the recording my first solo album, ThirtySix.

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The Album ThirtySix: Part One - The first in a three part series about of the recording my first solo album, ThirtySix. - by Simon Campbell

It seems like three lifetimes since I was in my home environment. No, not the sea, not the meeting room, but the studio. Now, I am back and recording the album that has been in my mind for a very long time indeed.

In my twenties and thirties I virtually lived in there, taking on an almost Gollum like complexion for the lack of natural light (for those jokers out there, I realise I don't look much different now).

Learning the trade

My first experience of recording was with my first band Whitefire. We enlisted the services of a guy from my adopted home town of Ramsbottom, Stuart Sheffield who traded as the Mekon Studios. It sounds grand, but in reality he was a man with a stereo reel to reel tape machine, some dodgy mikes and a small desk.

Having said that, he was pretty knowledgeable about recording stuff and was the first to open my eyes to the whole process.

We recorded our 'Parades the Glory' EP in Cargo Studio in Rochdale under the overseeing eye of owner John Brierley with Stuart producing. This was a real eye opener as we jumped from bouncing two tracks around, to the luxury of a Cadey 2" 16 track machine, big studio monitors, festoons of microphones and a 'largish' console...

I started to become really interested in the recording process, re-listening to the Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd albums with a new perspective. Jimmy Page is a master guitar orchestrator and of course, Floyd, along with engineer Alan Parsons, really understood layering of sounds to create a rich sonic experience.

The years that followed led me through many studios, both recording with my bands and an increasing amount of session work. Engineers from Pluto, Strawberry, Yellow Two, Real World and Revolution all taught me about mic positioning, EQ, compression, reverb plus tricks and techniques of the studio professional. It was at this time I met a very young Steve Boyce-Buckley at Square One, but more of this later.

I really learned the most whilst working on Little Brother's 'Survivor' album, which I co-wrote and played guitar. Engineer Nick McGurk along with producers Big Jim Sullivan (guitar legend) and Derek Lawrence literally beat knowledge into me. This was not only studio techniques, but Jim taught me a great deal about layering guitar parts.

Finally I entered the world of production, working with John DeJong, Rick Dowson and Millhaus amongst others. This was great as it allowed me to focus on listening to the music and arrangements without becoming emotionally bogged down in the writing and performance of the material!

Studio search

Since my last recordings, I had written loads of songs that really needed to see the light of day. Following the move to the Isle of Man, I was inspired to write and play live; I had forgotten how much I loved it. This is me; this is the real Simon Campbell.

So after putting my new band together, I looked for a studio to record. This was a steep learning curve as since my last experience huge leaps in technology in the form of digital recording had taken place. What was I going to do? Where were the lovely old Studer 24 track 2" machines and analogue desks!!!

I trawled the web to see what was happening and it appeared that the only way to record effectively now was going straight to digital, the industry standard system being 'Pro Tools'.

I am a tone fanatic and love a great sounding recording which, of course, is down to a multitude of factors. To me the main ones are: the use of analogue consoles, mic amps, compressors and good old fashioned tape, especially when you push it to the limits of compression; my favourite producers, George Massenburg and Daniel Lanois, love the stuff.

So previously, I had always steered away from the evil digital, as to me it (then) it sounded hard and glassy but following long conversations it seemed that it was the way to go: a lot has changed over the last 20 years :-) If nothing else it was much more economical in terms of time and materials.

Following a tour of the studios on Island I decided that I really need to 'go across' as non had the facilities I was expecting or used to, with only one having a version of Pro Tools.

Where was all the lovely old outboard gear, microphones and consoles? I guess on an Island of 80,000 people there is only a limited market so it's uneconomical to create a world class studio...

Gracieland

Of course I had used a lot of studios in the UK but many had closed. So before contacting those 'still sanding', I thought it would be a good idea to ask my UK drummer and ace session player, Kev Whitehead, if he knew anywhere: he told me of Gracieland...

Although I had never worked there, I knew of the place as it is owned by 80's superstar Lisa Stansfield and is located very close to my old stamping ground, Rochdale.

I looked at the website and found not only did they have 'Pro Tools' but also a huge collection of vintage outboard gear, microphones and in pride of place an AMEK 9098 console loaded with Rupert Neve channel strips, my absolute favourite!

I arrived to view the studio with high hopes and great expectations. Martin Rhodes, the studio manager, met me at the door and took me straight into the control room where I found my old mucker Steve Boyce-Buckley, a real blast from the past, 22 years to be exact!

As soon as I saw him I knew that this was the place to be. You can be the best producer and musician in the world but unless you have a great, musical engineer who understands the process, the studios gear and an empathy with what you are trying to achieve, you are wasting your time and money.

So this is it, I had it all, all down to me now :-0

ThirtySix

Recording a solo album requires considerable focus and planning. So one day, I walked to one of my favourite pubs on the Isle of Man, the Bay Hotel, Port Erin. Complete with a blank pad and a few pints of excellent Bushy's Ale, I started to plan the record and quickly came up with a nice long list of stuff that needed doing before I even booked the studio.

Session one

Many older (and some modern) blues albums are recorded straight up. Every one in the studio, playing together, solos the lot. Concessions to even overdubbing vocals is a recent thing!

Traditionalists look away now. Banish me never to darken your turntables and CD players again. I don't do it that way. I build up the track and use overdubs, lots of them.

So why do I fly in the face of tradition? Well, I like to have real control over the recording process and like to be creative with the production, not just the songs and performance. I believe, and I am ready for the onslaught of emails and torrents of abuse, that this, in my humble opinion, is the best way... In session one therefore, I planned to record drums, bass and guide guitar on the electric based tracks.

Steve Rowe (bass) and I were coming over from the Isle of Man and following a very gentle ferry crossing arrived at the studio. The live room in Gracieland is very small and when we walked in was confronted by a Kev's monster Tama kit, already miked and ready to roll.

To prevent leakage into the drum mics, it was sensible therefore to locate the amps in different parts of the building. Many studios have tie lines everywhere and Gracieland is no exception. The bass was set up in the basement (best place for it if you ask me) and the guitar, in the dining room, right next to the 'restroom', very appropriate.

We used the DI output from the Mark Bass amp, plus Sennheiser MD421 and an AKG 414 on the bass. Guitar was miked using a 421 and a hereto undisclosed make 'ribbon' mic.

I had booked five days for this phase of the recording and we ripped through the track (a little too ripping as I had to re-record two of them again as they were too fast).

Depending on how it went, we recorded between two three tracks a day. Some of the material, Kev hadn't played for years, some he had never played at all.

I really believe in a musician making a track their own, this can be expensive, but worth it. I could have demoed all this at home and then made everyone play what I had conceived, but that's not the way I roll :-)

We were only working a maximum of 10 hours in the studio and in the evening I tended to record some 'experimental' guitar parts some of which I will keep.

Following the session Steve wrote this in the diary...

Without a doubt the most distinctive and impressive sounds from a guitar and player I have recorded. Simon is an absolute joy to work alongside - Award winning engineer, Stephen Boyce-Buckley: Gracieland Studio Diary

Wow...

No EQ, effects or compression was applied to the tracks at all, just straight from the mic, placed correctly, through selection of fabulous quality microphone amps and then straight onto pro-tools.

Curry's, beer, curry's, beer steak, beer, chinese, beer

So what do two married men, originally from Lancashire, now living in the Isle of Man do 'après studio', in Rochdale? Drink beer and eat curry of course!!!

Serving Tim Taylor fine ales, the excellent 'Cemetery' pub is just down the road. This had great memories as it is where my long suffering wife, Angela and I used to go when we were 'courting' (what a lovely old expression). So, a couple of pints here then back to the hotel and out for curry, usually at the excellent Asia.

Just before we leave the 'Cemetery', they do a great deal on Tuesdays. Steak and a pint for five quid; can't argue with that.

The only culinary cock-up was made on a visit to the Chinese. I cant remember what its called, but it's big, near the hotel and created within a converted church.

OK, we arrived late, and we were pissed, but we were customers (and they seemed very thin on the ground) but when we walked in, the waiter almost hit us for even asking for a table.

I have never experienced such misery, the food was thrown in front of us, and when it did arrive it was 'stiff' with Monosodium Glutamate. I could feel my blood pressure rising with every lukewarm mouthful. Anyway, we survived, just...

And finally

So that's the end of part one. Part two will recount tales of Wooly Wolstenholme's Mellotron, a Hammond organ and Leslie almost catching fire, Moog synthesisers, Moogafoogers, more detail on the recording equipment and process plus good old fish and chips.

I might even tell you why it's called ThirtySix!!! If you would like to see more pictures, take a look at the gallery!

[EDITORS NOTE - On December 13, 2010, Wooly Wolstenholme took his own life following a long battle with Mental Illness. Rest in Peace Man]

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