Interviews & Articles


Fachblatt Musikmagazin
"Del Palmer, Kate Bush's Right Hand"
by Richard Buskin
January 1994

To the Reaching Out (Interviews) Table of Contents

Date: Sun, 2 Jan 1994 19:33:00 +0100
From: uli@zoodle.RoBIN.de (Ulrich Grepel)
Subject: Interview (Del Palmer) in Fachblatt Musikmagazin 1/94 (English version)


Kate Bush's right hand

THE RED SHOES is the new album by Kate Bush; despite his full schedule her long time engineer Del Palmer took his time to tell FACHBLATT about the recording of the album and the contributions of such illustrious musicians like Clapton, Beck, Brooker and Prince.

By Richard Buskin

As an absolute autodidactic engineer and musician Del Palmer began playing bass guitar in 1967 and since played in numerous bands. His work behind the console is not marked by that many stations, but rather began around 1978 and is especially tied with the career of Kate Bush and the building of her home studio.

Starting from very simple equipment with an eight track Teac recorder this studio was meant for for demo purposes of the second Bush album, LIONHEART, and Palmer was only involved in the work "since no other band member wanted to operate the machine". Now, 15 years later, Del Palmer is Kate's first man at the faders, and the studio has been developed into a complete private recording landscape.

Found in the adjoining sheds of Bush's country seat this studio is equipped with an 48 track SSL 4000E console with G-series computer, two Sony 3324 A digital machines, a seldom used Studer A 80 1/2 inch and a pair of U-Matic video recorders which are used when working with film (Motion Worker System). The recording sessions for THE RED SHOES needed 18 real recording months, distributed over three years. "As usual the whole thing started with Kate saying: 'I want to do something, I want to go into the studio working'", Palmer reminds himself. "In the beginning phase I set up a sound for Kate, build up a few keyboards and tell her how to work with the console - then I leave her alone. She works until she finds something, and then musicians are called in to continue working at it."

The working relationship between Palmer and Bush is clearly defined. Both know exactly what they want and do. "It happened on many occasions that we had heated conversations" Palmer admits. "She said: 'I want to do that'. And I responded: 'Look, you simply cannot do that! It won't work!' Whereupon she continued: 'Give in to me! Simply do it.' On the album HOUNDS OF LOVE for example there is the following part: Help me, baby, help me, baby. This part is cut in and out very fast. At that time she said she wanted to achieve this by turning around the tape and pressing the record button. I said that will never work. That will just result in a hopeless mess! Finally she had her way - and of course it worked."

Bush herself is not opposed to work at the mixing pult herself, in some passages of the new album she herself lend a hand. "Sometimes I left her alone for days, in which she recorded all vocals, only then she called me and said: 'I have all vocals put down, let us put everything together". There is no particular method Kate is working, but generally she says something as: 'Could you give me a drum pattern that sounds like this?' Then she sings something for me and I program the Fairlight accordingly. Mostly these are simple eight measure loops, then she programs a sound into the Fairlight, works with it and creates a melody until she has something and wants to record vocals. Sometimes it's only a 'la-la-la-ling', but almost always there is a small text line that gives her further ideas and that therefore becomes the basis for the song. So we record simply everything and so a basis demo is created with which we work -an eight measure drum loop, a keyboard and a rough vocal line. In this stadium Kate is able to say if it's rewarding to follow the idea or not. Some ideas of the new album were already dismissed in this stadium, others got developed a bit further until it became obvious that they also won't work - perhaps they will be used as b-sides or extra tracks."

Up to the THE RED SHOES project it was tradition to call in the musicians one by one into the studio so they could record their parts for the whole album: at first - according to Kate's opinion the most important - the drummer, followed by the bassist (often Del Palmer himself). This way of work made it possible for Kate to follow the development of a song permanently and to eventually change the keyboard parts or vocals. But this time for the reasons to record as quickly as possible and to get a stronger bandlike feeling we worked differently. For most of the tracks at least drums and bass were recorded together, sometimes even together with the keyboards.

Palmer, who wanted to concentrate more on the engineering task, decided not to play bass, but therefore he looked after the bassist and drummer over a period of ten days to strengthen the band feeling. Looking after the guitars wasn't necessary, though the song RUBBERBAND GIRL has keyboard patterns played by Kate that sound like acoustic guitars but that are actually sampled.

"On the track BIG STRIPEY LIE she even played an electric guitar", Palmer stresses. "She said to the guitarist who was playing for us: 'I really stand on guitars. I would like to be able to play it'. He answered: 'Oh, here, play this one (a Fender Stratocaster) a bit'. Then he showed her a few accords and - that now is not a joke - one week later she stood in front of a Marshall stack in the studio! I tell you, I haven't seen such a thing. It lies in her nature. She played lead guitar, and if she hadn't told anyone, no one had known that there wasn't an experienced guitarist at work."

Compression overdose

The typical "Kate Bush sound" that developed during the last four albums, resulted not only from the pulsing, highly atmospheric sounds that seem to come from everywhere, but of course also from Kate's completely unique, airy and whiling vocal characteristic. At the beginning there was WUTHERING HEIGHTS, in the meantime a lot has changed, in the sound as well as in other areas. "I personally can not give any credits for Kate's vocal sound to myself", Palmer admits, "because originally it was shown to me by an engineer named Paul Arden, who taught me many things. He never made a secret out of his work. Always when he asked something he showed it to me. Once he couldn't make a session and he asked me if I was able to do it. I only stammered: Oh, I don't know...

Whereupon he responded: 'What do you think about? Just do it!' He showed me how to use the sound they had started using on the album DREAMING. Kate loved that sound, and since then we are working like this.

Basically we work with an 'overdose' of compression, with which Kate can work very good. I think that this method would be impossible for an average singer. She has to wear her headphones extremely close-fitting, because otherwise the sound is so live that it comes through everywhere. We put her with a Neumann U47 into the live area of the studio - tiled floor and stone walls, so it is very, very live - and put a lot of compression on her singing. The compression of the SSL pult is so enormous and fits very good to this method. What happens is that you can hear her breathing in every time, and therefore she has to work in a very special way to get along with that.

She permanently moves away from the microphone and really works with it. In addition we put a slight gate onto the tracks, because this way we get some of the room sound before it gets cut away - it is similar to the Phil Collins drum sound. When Kate sings loud she moves away from the microphone, in the softer passages she goes closer again. When she breathes in she lays her head to the side. The gain on the mike is very high, and together with the compression the voice is really crushed up. Technically how we work is really bad, because there's a lot of compression everywhere. But such things do not interest me; I just want that it sounds good. The point is that it works for Kate.

As soon as it comes to the mix you mustn't pull up the voice as high as you perhaps might think, because with this sound you get so many treble. We really are working at the limits. Sometimes we go over the limits and it sounds distorted or blasts away our heads, but when we find the right spot we can pull down the voice and it will nevertheless put itself through everything." In average Kate Bush records five takes for every vocal passage, and generally there is a favorite take in the master mix. The choice is done with notes Kate has done; on this notes there are all text lines. While listening she adds small comments. As soon as we get to the punch in of certain vocal parts there might be problems if the noise gate produces synchronisation errors. But nevertheless, says Palmer, he always finds a way to solve such problems, regardless of how precise the work has to be. "Generally Kate records a complete passage, which normally works - I just have to do slight corrections. In some cases I just drop in a syllable of a word. Through the speed of digital machines this works."

Interfering noises

Palmer stresses that he doesn't have to work on Bush's voice not because of an unstatic performance but rather because of the above mentioned way of producing her vocal sound - many interfering noises also get onto the tape.

"It is subliminal, but on every album where we worked with that method you can hear a chirp in the vocal passages. It is so live that everything gets recorded. Sometimes, even when the red lights are on, you can hear people going through the side gate and talking - then we have to turn off the tape and wait. In addition we often can only record at night, because during the day you can hear the cars from the highway that's half a mile away."

When Palmer and Bush have to fight with such problems they do not at all rely on the old motto that everything can be improved later in the mix. Palmer stresses that you really could take it out in the mix. Therefore both pay attention that from the start everything is put onto the tape correctly. When the time for the master mix of the actual album came they only had to create the balance, space and a moment for everything. Nevertheless there were exceptions.

"Indeed we kept some effects on the tape that Kate actually wanted up to the mix. With the song RED SHOES for example, when she sings the text line 'She's gotta dance', you can hear this little sound effect, a really high delay out of an old AMS - octave above, octave below -, that goes through a SONY M7 digital multi effect unit. We fiddled with it while recording the song, but kept it up to the mix. There we still would have been able to put it onto its own fader and take it out if we wanted to. The whole thing depends on how you build it up. You have to take it in and out at the right time and not spoil one or two tracks to record it."

With RUBBERBAND GIRL there is a wabbling effect that is made by fading the voice while the stereo image of a digital delay is faded up below it. "Both signals arrive at a point where they overlap and the effect signal gets louder. Then the complete signal gets faded out and disappears more and more strangely in the background. In the meantime the whole time a Lexicon 224 hall is added to it to make it appear even more distant. In other applications I used a 480 L, a 244, a 244 L, a Quantec, a Yamaha Rev 5, a Rev 7, a SPX 90, an old Eventide harmonizer, a Dimension D, a whole lot of stuff ... I always try to use the Quantec for vocals, because it has a very cold and icy sound that matches the chilly vocal sound; it makes the thing specific. On the other hand I use a warm hall room from the 480 L for the background vocals and pianos and a short room delay from one of the 244s. So I have a long and a short hall. On the snare drum I had a reverse gate from the Rev 7 to get the sound harder. All drums came out of the sampler, an Akai S9000, and were recorded with Simmons pads. Our studio is so small that it has a very special sound, and we didn't want it. When we used samples we not only had complete separation of the sounds but also a fantastic selection. With the Rev 7 the sound is certainly fatter and rounder. Especially with songs like SO IS LOVE and RUBBERBAND GIRL this happened to work well."

One of the significant factors with tracks like RUBBERBAND GIRL and BIG STRIPEY LIE is the pumping 5 string bass sound, played by John Gidman with a G&K amp and miked with a RE20 in the kitchen to separate the sound from the drums. "I turned it up that high that it really was distorted", Palmer says, "and added tons of compression to get the sound really pumping. And here again: he plays that well that it always sounds, regardless of what you do with the sound. He has a very light playing technique, and I had to tune the sound especially for him, else he would have had problems. I had to make it possible for him to play lightly, and when I did manage this it just knocked me down. It was too good."

The guest list

With the exception of the piano (recorded with 87s and Massenburg Parametric EQ), Fender Rhodes and Yamaha DX7 all keyboard sounds were produced with a Fairlight. The other musicians didn't have very much room for experiments, because Bush exactly knew what she wanted, though she wasn't reserved for ideas and suggestions. Exactly therefore Palmer recorded the complete sessions so that at every time she was able to fall back on certain things.

"Even while the musicians build up I record everything, in case Kate asks if I remember the things played while warming up. And it's clear that you have forgotten them if there's no recording. As soon as someone is in the room I let the 1/2 inch run."

All in all this is certainly a clever way of working, especially since some of the "band members" were only guests and others only showed up from time to time. The violinist Nigel Kennedy who put his service at disposal for BIG STRIPEY LIE and TOP OF THE CITY was recorded standing on a carpet in the sound-proof chamber of the two main live rooms. "The thing with Nigel is that he couldn't stand still. Somehow he moves around the whole time. So after a talk with him I decided to record with a pair of 87s. They are so all-purpose, I use them for everything. One 87 was placed about two and a half meters above the ground over his left shoulder and directed at his violin, the other was diagonally to his right shoulder in a height of one meter, it was directed to his breast. The violin always sounds a bit chirpy, and so I used the Massenburg equalizer again. We have to take care of the mid-high frequencies, because our rooms are so specific that you can produce a sound that goes straight through the ear."

Jeff Beck played his Beck-Signature-Stratocaster in YOU'RE THE ONE out of the control room over a little amp that was positioned below the front of the console next to his right foot. The signal was recorded with a 87 which was placed about 7 centimeters from the amp and was directed directly towards it. "I sat directly at the console, the racks to my left and Kate to my right side. Jeff sat about one and a half meters behind us; so she could always tell him how to do things. In the meantime I could operate the racks and the console." In the meantime Eric Clapton played his Signature-Strat over a similar setup for AND SO IS LOVE, with the difference that his amp was placed in the studio area. "What mostly happens with people like Eric Clapton is that a guitar roadie lugs wheel barrows of equipment into the studio. And then, when Eric appears, you say to him that you really just want his classic sound, and he digs out his small Combo."

Gary Brooker, think about his famous Procol Harum past, played his Hammond C3, miked with an 87 (what else?) over a Leslie Cabinet in the main room, another 87 was three meters away in the room, to get the room sound. And again the Massenburg Equalizer and hard compression was used, with which a very fat hammond sound at low volume was achieved.

The specific sound of Kate Bush's studio in the head, they decided to use the Abbey Road 2 studios to record the singing of the Trio Bulgarka more flat. There they stood around a pair of - guessed correctly - 87s. The string sessions for MOMENTS OF PLEASURE were recorded in Abbey Road Studio 1. These 20 headed string sections were arranged by Michael Kamen, and the engineering was done by Hayden Bendall.

"The only other things we did in the Abbey Road studios were of pure technical nature, as for example the transmission from analog materials to digital ones", says Del Palmer. "We began the album on 48 analog tracks with two A80, and after a year it became clear to us that we should continue digitally ... We weren't sure if this would work - we thought that we couldn't get an as good drum sound without the tape compression, but after we had the bloody bastards working for an hour I was convinced. They were simply good.

With Kate's material, where you have so many level changes, there is a steady fight between noise level and signal level. But with digital machines you don't have it. You can record the quietest things without getting any background noises. Truth is that in the end I had to fight with the pult noises that also got recorded. With a heavy heart I kept it that way because with an average home stereo you can't hear anything anyway. I noticed that with the digital way of work I used much less EQ; I didn't have to make compromises."

As it showed up much of the analog material got replaced by digital material, because they decided quite early during the RED SHOE sessions to use a digital way of work - except the contributions of the Trio Bulgarka and Nigel Kennedy, these stayed analog.

"With the digital way of work very many doors we didn't think of before have opened for us. The result was that Kate had a whole flood of ideas."

The nameless small man

At a concert of Prince in the Earls Court he gave Kate Bush a sign of admiring her work; that was the cause for a collaboration. After permanent contacts and his approval to work in one track they send an analog tape to Paisley Park. Bush tried to reach him on telephone. She was told by assistants that "he works on it". Then, a month later, several tapes came back from Paisley Park.

"He took a four measure part of a chorus of one of Kate's songs, made a loop out of it and just slammed 48 tracks with everything possible: guitars, keyboards, drums, voices ... I sat there and thought: Wow, that's great, but what the hell should we do with that? I created a mix and gave it to Kate, and she puzzled months on it. We came back to this part again and again and with a lot of work she made this song to what it once was. It was simply crazy, all this stuff on a four measure loop; there was no relation, no sense. Completely according to the motto: here it is, take what you need. It sounded this way because she only told him: 'I want that you sing a bit here and a bit there.' He did do this, but over the loop that he created. So we had the wanted vocals, but not at the right position. We had to puzzle around with the voice parts and insert them were we wanted them; the same thing with the solo guitar. We also had to reconstruct the verses, so that they again matched to the lyrics. Then we exchanged the original drums with new, more adequate ones, because it became more of an up tempo song. Goal of the whole procedure was to again make a Kate Bush piece out of it. And even though it honestly didn't work in many areas as we hoped it would it still is a very interesting mishmash song."

In the future Del Palmer sees a whole lot of new studio equipment with which Kate Bush should get in contact, but with which he at first wants to concern himself more closely. "One point where I want to work at is the user friendliness of the studio for Kate. Everything should be cabled permanently, so that she just has to press one button and the Fairlight or something else starts playing or working. I will find a lot of toys for her..."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

On the first album for almost four years break the English woman who's also titled "Garbo of pop" offers her fans the usual picture: cracked sounds, tracked arrangements, lots of atmosphere, as dreamy as dared vocal passages, a contingent of stars with no equals (Eric Clapton, Prince, Jeff Beck, Gary Brooker, Nigel Kennedy), and the matching contingent of hits (RUBBERBAND GIRL, TOP OF THE CITY). But for me the opus that was written and produced by Kate Bush alone has its strongest moments when she frees herself from her unmistakable (and for my taste overdone) play instinct and makes music alone with keyboards (MOMENTS OF PLEASURE) or small line-up (YOU'RE THE ONE with Brookers Hammond organ, Becks catchy guitar and the impressing singing of the Trio Bulgarka) - these moments are much to seldom here ... My wish for the next album: less is more!

Andreas Fuerbach

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"The pull and the push of it all..." - Kate Bush

Reaching Out
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Marvick - Hill
Willker - Mapes
Grepel - Love-Hounds