Del Palmer's
KBC Newsletter article

A Soft Landing on the Sensual World

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[Here is Del Palmer's artlicle for the twenty-third (Fall 1989) issue of the Kate Bush Club Newsletter.]

Well, we've finished it at last...

"Hooray!" I hear you shout, and well you might, you've had to wait such a long time to finally get your hands (and ears) on The Sensual World, but I'm sure that you'll all feel that the wait was worth it.

Kate has been very prolific on this project, and one of the first problems we had was which of the songs to use and which to leave off. As you probably know by now, the way it works is that Kate has an idea for a song and as soon as possible she lets me hear it. She'll then suggest the kind of "feel" she is after and I then spend some time with the Fairlight Rhythm Composer trying to work up her idea into a pattern to work to. When Kate is happy with this, we then record the rhythm pattern onto tape, and it then becomes the basis for the finished track. (Much of this early rhythm track is replaced later by real drums, but quite a lot tends to survive into the final mix.) A rough keyboard and vocal idea finish this phase.

At this point Kate must evaluate the "demo" and decide if the song is worth pursuing, or leave it. This was, apart from writing the lyrics for the album, the most difficult and time-consuming part.

Anyway, I'm not trying to make excuses for the length of time it took to finish the album. You all know by now that recording is a long and sometimes painful process for Kate, and I can assure that she will never settle for second best. She makes us all work very hard to fulfill her "vision".

Right now, though, I'd like to tell you a little of the day-to-day work involved from my point of view. From the start it was decided that we would try to record as much of the album as possible in Kate's own studio, and that I would engineer these recording sessions. It was quite a daunting prospect, I can tell you. It would be my first major project, and the thought of recording some of my all-time favourite musicians sometimes filled me with great dread. [Heretofore Del's role as an engineer has been mainly limited to the overseeing of demo-recording.]

At this point I'm going to do my "with thanks" bit. I would have found the whole thing a nightmare if, on earlier sessions (Experiment IV, etc.) I'd not had the help of some great engineers like Haydn Bendall, Julian Mendelsohn and not forgetting my old mate Paul Hardiman. These guys were always willing to answer any questions I had about recording techniques and were always positive about my involvement in Kate's work and never felt threatened by me...Thanks, guys.

After the first phase of demo-ing had been done, we moved on to the recording of musicians. You'll notice that we used a lot of our old favourites like Stuart Elliott and Alan Murphy, but we also brought in some "New Blood". One of these was Nigel Kennedy.

We had already worked with Nigel on the Experiment IV track, and since that time had become firm friends with the "Monster". (Monster is one of Nigel's favourite phrases.)

The day that he came in, as I remember, was quite cold and gloomy, and we'd been trying to get enough of the track done for him to play to. The back-track at this time consisted of the Fairlight percussion track, and "orchestra" that Kate had played on the Fairlight (and finished up on the final mix along with Michael Kamen's orchestra), and a guide vocal which at that time was very different from the final one. [This is further evidence that Kamen and other orchestral arrangers were called in simply to perform the actual transcription of Kate's already fully composed ideas for the orchestral parts.]

First off we sat him [Kennedy] down and filled him up with teaso that he could recover from the drive across town to the studio. We then played him the track several times so that he had a pretty good idea of its construction before Kate got into telling him what she was after from him. Nigel's first reactions to the tape seemed very encouraging. Kate mentioned that she heard him playing in a Vaughan Williams-type style, and he immediately understood, and began to play the top line in the most beautiful way.

While this discussion was in progress I began to prepare the studio for the session. From what I could gather from the conversation, we would be trying for a very ambient sound. So, this meant no close mike placements (the closer the mike to the instrument the less ambience). I decided, therefore, to use my favourite microphone, the Neumann U-87 (see figure 1). [A photograph of this microphone appears, with a caption that reads: "The Neumann U-87 in its special holder, called an acoustic suspension. Note the small window just below the mesh head-cover, which is displaying the cardioid symbol."]

This without doubt doubt is the best all-purpose mike available, and I'd stick my neck out and say that it's possibly the most widely used in studios throughout the world. We used it for practically every set-up on the record, from the drum kits to Kate's lead vocals.

I decided, with a lot of consultation with Kate and Nigel, to stand him in the larger and slightly deader of our two rooms. I then set up a U-87 and placed this behind and above so that it was pointing down to the voilin over Nigel's left shoulder. I should also mention that I also set up two other types of microphone along with the U-87 to see which of them would give the better sound. In the end I did not use them. This was something that happened quite a lot during the course of things: I'd set up two or three different mikes as an experiment, but always kept coming back to the U-87.

I then placed another U-87 in front of him and down slightly, so that it ended up pointing upwards towards the other one. Both of these mikes were placed approximately six feet from the instrument. It's also worth noting that both of these mikes were set on cardioid to emphasise the signal coming from the front.

Back in the control room I had him play some bits and pieces so that Kate and I could assess the sound. At first it was quite thin and hard, so a little bit of low mid-frequency equalization was added to the sound. This helped, but it tended to soak up the ambience somewhat, so I decided to add one further mike, purely to act as an ambient fill. Another U-87 was added in front of Nigel and about nine feet above and away from him. Also, we had him stand on a piece of carpet to smother the sound of his feet. (I don't know if you've ever seen Nigel Kennedy perform, but he is a very expressive artist, and as with all musicians, it's impossible to expect him to keep perfectly still whilst he's performing.) This solved the problems, and so we were ready to start recording.

Our usual method is to fill the tape with as many takes of the part or parts as possible, so that the artist does not get hung up in re-takes and such. It's always good psychologically to get something "in the can" as soon as possible. When Kate is satisfied with what we have, we usually call it a day and come back to it perhaps one or two days later to compile the parts. This usually involves listening through to all the previous day's takes and deciding which of them is the best.

Very rarely does one complete take get used. Almost always it is made up of a number of sections from different ones. Perhaps the first line will come from take two, the second from take four, the third from take one and son on until the whole part is completed. This might appear to be a bit of a cheat, but I can assure you that this method of compilation is quite common in recording studios. Indeed, it would be quite rare and very unusual to get one take that is note perfect without any mistakes at all.

Another thing we do quite a lot is the replacement of parts of the percussion tracks with real drums played by either one of our regular drummers, Stuart Elliott or Charlie Morgan. As previously mentioned, the song starts out with a rhythm track generated on the Fairlight using the Rhythm Composer software. This is quite adequate for the purposes of Kate writing the song, but for the finished album track it will usually sound too stiff and machine-like.

This is where the real drummer comes in. Depending on the song, we start off by replacing the bass drum and snare of the rhythm track. Taking the song Deeper Understanding as an example, Kate felt happy with the machine-generated conga drums but felt that the rest of it, which included bass drum, snare and toms, did not have a heavy enough feel to it, so we replaced them.

Charlie Morgan was brought in, and after the usual tea and intensive listen we decided to use a real bass drum, but instead of a real snare we would use a sample played by Charlie like a real drum, which was triggered by a pressure-pad which he hit instead of a drum.

The bass drum was set up in the same room we had used for Nigel Kennedy's violin. I placed a microphone (an RE20, see figure 2) [The caption below the photograph reads: "The Electrovoice RE20."] inside the drum (which had had its front head removed), pointing at the spot where the drum would make contact with the head. This would give plenty of "click" to the signal, which would allow the drum to penetrate the final mix.

Recording this bass drum and snare was relatively straightforward, as it involved just the replacement of the existing ones with the new, stronger-sounding ones. It's a funny thing but as I recall, every time we recorded a bass drum I found myself "rolling out" the low mid-frequency EQ at around 1kHz. This always seemed to improve the sound and make it more punchy no matter what other frequencies I fiddled with. The main reason for using a sampled snare was so we could have total separation of the basic drum kit for the mix. Usually, if the bass drum and snare are recorded at the same time, a certain amount of leakage occurs from one mike to the other. In normal circumstances this would not matter too much.

Having done the basics we moved on to the replacement of the toms. We began by miking up three of Charlie's stage-kit toms, but when we monitored the signal in the control room, they really didn't work too well in the track. The next few hours were spent in listening to all of Charlie's percussion samples to see if any of them would work.

Time and again many a great sound went the way of Charlie's toms on this album. I mean, it's no good getting a great sound if it just doesn't work in the track. They have a life of their own, and only specific instruments and sounds will work, out of all those at your disposal.

In the end, two samples of Charlie's seemed to do the job Kate wanted; these were a sound a bit like a bedspring, which in fact was a Japanese instrument which I could never pronounce (and which I'll never be able to spell), but we referred to it as the "Rattle". The other was another Japanese instrument which sounds like a huge drum in the distance, which we called the "Dunk". The third drum was one of our own Fairlight samples of a drum which is used by the Orange Order Marchers in Northern Ireland, called a Lambeg drum. These drums all have special names, and the one that we sampled was actually made for Kate on the last album and was called "The Cloudbuster" (it was actually played on the track Cloudbusting by Stuart Elliott).

When this was completed, it became apparent that the snare was not "sitting" as well as it could, so it was decided to re-trigger it. This, in actual fact, is easier to do than to explain.

Basically what you do is, on an empty track on the tape you re-record the snare with a delay of, say 100 miliseconds, whilst the tape is playing backwards. This is achieved by turning the tape over so that the end becomes the beginning.

This gives you your original snare sound, but in advance of its proper place by 100 mili-seconds. Next you turn the tape back over (the right way round), and delay your advanced snare. This may sound like nonsense, but the effect is that you use your advanced snare (which is delayed through the DDL) to trigger your sample and record it back onto tape. Now you can advance or retard the sample and get it absolutely in time with the old one. The reason for this was so that we could de-tune the snare and lower it into a pitch which was more suitable for the track.

Another day which sticks in the mind was the day we finally managed to get Dave Gilmour into the studio to play for us. Kate had been trying for years to get him, and finally, there he was, in our studio.

Two or three hours before we were due to start, his guitar man Phil turned up with a huge vanload of equipment. I remember standing and looking in awe at the amount that he'd brought. He spend an hour setting up a massive (and very impressive) stereo guitar set-up. There must have been six or seven different guitars to choose from also. When Dave arrived we gave him the by now usual tea treatment, and after several listens to the tracks (we were to do two with him), Kate explained to him what she was after. Out into the studio went Dave and began to wind up this huge amp set-up. Twenty minutes of experimental sound later and Kate felt that really must clarify exactly what she wanted to hear.

"I want that Pink Floyd guitar sound please Dave."

"Oh!" said Dave. "Right, give us a minute."

A short time later and we had the other end of the amplifier scale. Under the corner of the console in the control room Dave had set-up the smallest stereo amplifier I'd ever seen. It was about one foot by six inches, and about four inches deep. It contained two four-inch speakers of a remarkably powerful kind. Into this Dave had plugged, via a DDL, a Steinberger headless guitar.

The sound that came out of this set-up I can only describe as astounding. It was the Pink Floyd guitar sound. I miked it up with the usual U-87, and this tiny monster of a sound is the one you can hear on Love and Anger and Rocket's Tail.

As usual, we filled up as much of the slave reel as we could, because his playing was particularly hot, and we thought it best to keep everything and decide what to use later.

There were many days like this taken up with the performances of some of the country's best musicians. Much of it now seems (and is) so long ago that I can't recall much of it. It all seems to merge into one big "file" called KB6 (KB6 was the working title of the album project).

However, I feel it would be good (and interesting) for you to know just a little of the processes involved with recording Kate's vocals. During the recording sessions I've described, wewould on occasions take the odd day and record some B.V.s. This would involve Kate layering her own voice up to sixteen times to create that block effect that we've all come to know and love so much.

Over the years I've done quite a lot of these B.V. sessions with Kate, and still it amazes me how easy she can make these weird and wonderful vocal lines appear. Throughout the whole time that we were working in the studio, the vocal set-up was left ready in case she felt like a quick "warble". Again this was our trusty old Neumann U-87, set to cardioid so as not to pick up too much of the ambience of the room.

Sometimes after recording eight or twelve voices, all identical, on one particular P.C.R. [Kate's term for her own, far more sophisticated, version of what other musicians usually refer to as the bridge], she would come in for a quick listen and say, "I think one of them is out a little."

I would listen again intently to what I thought was a perfectly layered B.V.

"No," she'd say, "one of them is definitely out."

Again I'd listen, hearing nothing that I could fault, but still Kate felt that it wasn't quite right.

"I think it's the third one on that side," she would add, pointing to the offending speaker; and when I solo-ed it, sure enough, it was slightly out of tune.

This kind of think happened nearly every vocal session, which I feel illustrates just how much of a perfectionist Kate is. However, I must say that she never sacrificed a great performance from anyone (herself included) for the sake of a slightly out-of-tune note here or a bit of mis-timing there.

When it came to the lead vocal sessions I felt great excitement for two reasons. One, when Kate does a lead vocal anything can happen. I mean it was what the whole process of the previous year or so had been about--to create a "canvas" for the vocal "painting" to come. Two, we were getting near to the final stage, mixing (lead vocals tend to be the final thing to be recorded on each track).

We spent many late nights at the studio, just the two of us, working away on lead vocals (late at night seems to be the best time for Kate's voice, and also there is less noise outside to leak in). We would use the same method or recording as much as possible in one go and then compiling the final voice. This was one job which Kate preferred to do alone. Indeed, I think that I would have been more of a hindrance than a help, as I thought that any one of the takes could have been used on the song as the lead vocal.

Kate worked away for hours with our vocal takes, selecting the best from each take, and we would then compile the final voice.

All that remained then was to mix the songs for the album. We decided very early on that we would have a fresh engineer to come in to supervise this very important process. The reasoning for this was that after nearly two years of working on the song, I did not feel that I could be objective enough to handle the mixes. A fresh approach was called for which, in turn, would give Kate and myself a fresh perspective on the project.

Kate decided to recruit the services of an Irish engineer called Kevin Killen. Kate had met Kevin whilst working on the Don't Give Up sessions with Peter Gabriel. She felt that he had a sympathetic ear and would give us his best. I feel, and I hope you agree, that he certainly did. He was able to give the mixes those little pushes and nudges which make a good recording great.

Well, it just remains for me to say that I feel very proud of this album. I think that it's probably the most mature of Kate's albums, both in content and in production.

So sit back, relax and enjoy your touchdown on the sensual world.


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©1990 Andy Marvick