CONTROL ZONE: FIELDS OF WIRE
Deep in the Wiltshire countryside, Fields Of The Nephilim took their world of mystical chanting into the largest control room in the world. Keith Grant talks to Richard Evans, the man at the controls.
Fields Of The Nephilim's recent indie chart topping "Psychonaut Lib III" was something of a radical departure from the groups previously more simplistic vinyl posture. It was also a complete diversion from a hitherto conventional approach to the recording studio. Rather than taking a completed and well rehearsed arrangement into a recognised rock'n'roll establishment such as Rockfield (where the band had previously worked), they opted to lock themselves away in Peter Gabriel's recently completed Real World studio complex deep in the Wiltshire countryside, with no more than a few disparate musical ideas and only an inclination as to the nature of the desired result. The intention was to allow themselves the maximum amount of freedom in developing both songs and production, as they submersed themselves in the creative possibilities of a technological world of which they had little previous knowledge.
Working with producer Bill Buchanan, Real World engineer Richard Evans was charged with enslaving the studio technology to the band's creative aspirations:
"I think what they were looking to do was make a recording that experimented with sound, so they wanted a hi-tech environment where they could fulfill their sonic aspirations."
Real World is decidedly hi-tech, with three SSL suites, including the largest purpose-built control room in the world. However, the studio is far from being a sterile utopian facility. The technology is housed within a lovingly restored water mill designed with the performing musician in mind.
"This is very much a performance studio," says Richard. "It is designed to be as far removed as possible from the normal goldfish bowl approach to studios."
The Nephilim's desire to alter their habits ran far deeper than merely discovering the joys of working with new machines. Their intention was also to ditch the whole accepted constraints of the rock song.
Richard: "I think Carl McCoy is a much misunderstood person. He has much more in common with someone like Stockhausen than Andrew Eldritch in his approach to music. It tends to be very cerebral, with his interests in numerology, mysticism and the occult. There was a composer in the middle ages called Ockeghem and there is a manuscript of Ockeghem's Requiem in existence which contains a numerological analysis of the piece, which Carl had been studying. Such numerological structures at that time were used in art, music and in architecture and were derived from the Kabbalah, attributed to what were regarded as key biblical phrases. Carl derived various numerological values for phrases from certain writings that he wanted to use to devise the structure of the song, even to determine when certain sounds should appear or rise in the mix. Devices used by the likes of Stockhausen, whereby the structure of the music is almost more important than the sound from the speakers. He had a large pile of books by people like Crowley that his inspiration came from throughout the session.
"All the recording was done with the right incense burning and by candlelight, with the electric lighting turned off. Recording is all about a band enjoying themselves and living out their fantasy, so creating the right atmosphere at the microphone end of the process can really help.
"The band were incredibly fussy about performances, rigorously analysing them and taking them apart and discarding whatever didn't stand up. As a result they were recording and overdubbing ideas right up until two hours before the final mix down. The entire process took 15 days over a three week period, working for about 21 hours a day. It was a very exhausting schedule. As a band they were obviously making a conscious decision to mature and find new directions and ways of working."
"We started off using the downstairs production room which has a 40 channel SSL 404E desk, with G series software, but we quickly ran out of channels so we moved upstairs to Peter's studio to use the 48 channel SSL 4000E (also with G series software) and two Studer A820 multi-tracks.
"Bill (Buchanan) began by recording three completely separate drum takes and then built up a single composite performance, as you might normally do a vocal. The bass was put down in a very straightforward fashion and as Tony had his part completely worked out, it went down in three hours. We miked up hi Gallien Kruger amps and he played a Warwick bass. It was a really nicely sounding set-up. He used his own Boss delay pedal and we recorded two takes to get the sound of two performances playing against each other.
The basic guitar chord pattern went down next and was tracked up about three or four times, recording it at various vari-speed settings. Pete played through an ADA guitar processor going into a couple of Yamaha power amps driving Tannoy PA stacks, which we miked as well as taking a DI split from the ADA. I tried getting him to use a couple of Fenders but he said he couldn't handle them and stuck firmly to his Les Paul. Paul used a Gretsch Falcon into a Roland JC 160 with a multitude of effects pedals and we proceeded to run through about 16 overdubs, trying out different ideas, treatments and sounds. Virtually none of this made it into the finished track but different parts were sampled using an Emulator 111 an S1000 and Peter's Audioframe Waveframe (his successor to his Fairlight), and they were used as keyboard pads.
"The same methods were used to sample various percussion sounds and create drum loops. I took an SRC-AT SMPTE-to-MIDI box, which will generate a straight midi clock from the most complicated input, and we proceeded to experiment with various sequencing ideas, using a Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track. Again much of this didn't end up on the track, but various percussion patterns and drum loops were used, as was a live hi-hat that we played into the waveframe and sequenced. Other sampled sounds were derived from an old Hammond and from Carl's voice.
"The choir sound was created using the quantec Room simulator (Peter's favourite reverb machine). It's a quadrophonic unit, with one stereo pair of outputs giving you early reflections and reverb and another giving you just reverb. A freeze facility allows you to lock a reverb from your source, in this case Carl's voice, into a loop, where the harmonic content is continually changing, as opposed to a straight loop on a sampler where there is no harmonic envelope.
"We decided from the outset to manufacture all our own samples and patches and not use any stock library sounds. There would be a kind of ritualistic battle of the keyboards at night as Carl and Bill jammed using the sounds we had developed that day. When they got a vibe together they would play along with the track. We ended up with masses of very ambient film-type music to work into the track."
"Carl's vocals were all recorded in the control room using a B & K Omni-mike. Recording in front of the monitors, the idea is just to get the performance down as quickly as possible and tackle the engineering aspects afterwards, rather than have the vocalist hanging around. It's far more natural, in terms of performing, than having him stuck in an isolation booth with a set of cans on his head. It's a method we use here a lot. We did about four different vocal tracks, different lyrics and different melodies, all of it improvisation. While we were doing all the takes of ideas that were kept or discarded, I had a DAT tape running constantly, with a time code on one track and the vocal on the other, so nothing was lost. I was therefore able to spin ideas back into the vocal track that we wanted to use again. Right up until the last minute we were changing and refining it, as Carl decided that a phrase wasn't right anymore and we'd search back through the tapes for something better.
"I'm not someone who has any particular beliefs concerning things to do with the occult, but one thing really shook me. It was about two in the morning and Carl was sitting in the control room with just the candle light surrounded by his books, and he was working up his chant that he wanted to use in the track. He was using names of ancient Gods and the like, and there was only Carl and Bill and myself in the studio and the screen on the SSL started to spontaneously write up '666'. I don't care if it sounds crazy, it really happened and none of us were anywhere near the computer keyboard.
When we came to the mixdown we had six reels of multi-track recording. We had to go through it, selecting what could be used and bouncing it across until we had two 24-track tapes to mix from. A lot of work had gone into creating material for an envisaged 20-minute version of the song, but in he end there simply wasn't the time and a nine and a half-minute version was mixed. I had to treat the two halves of the song as separate mixes and edit them together as there just wasn't the capacity on the desk to do it in one. The drums ended up quite far down in the mix and they went down dry with no additional effects (the drum room at Real World has ample natural reverb). The bass we simply planned the two tracks left and right, which must have played hell with the cut. On the guitars we made extensive use of the Korg DRV3000 - it's an incredibly underrated machine. The circuitry is taken from Yamaha's top machines. (Yamaha now owning Korg) and the operational layout is brilliant. On the lead vocals we added a Revox slapback, using tape instead of digital echo, and reverb from an old stereo plate. There were eight tracks of backing vocals which I mixed into a stereo pair and loaded into the Waveform, spinning them in off a keyboard. Other than that it was a straight forward case of bringing up the appropriate sliders.
There was a feeling of having had to make compromises with the version we did, but time and the requirement to come away with at least a vague semblance of a saleable single for the record company demanded they be made. We actually layed down enough material for an album. I hope one day I get the chance to mix the full 20-minute version we wanted to do. That would be something else.