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by Blair Jackson
In The Studio And On The Road
Dynamic singer/songwriter Tori Amos is currently receiving some well-deserved attention. As a brilliant stage performer, lyricist and keyboardist, she has transcended the rules of pop music by implementing her classical background within the supposedly more confining rules of rock. Her ability to improvise within her work adds another level to her performances, instilling her songs with new life and allowing audiences to see another side to her music.
Her most recent album, "Boys for Pele", features her agile piano, harpsichord and harmonium playing, breathy vocals and characteristically cryptic lyrics, which continually befuddle critics who should probably spend more time listening to the music itself rather than dissecting her purposefully puzzling poetry. "It's like a novel to me," Amos says of the album. "It's the descent of this woman to find fragments of herself, and the record is very much in order of how the songs wanted to be presented. They made it quite clear to me in the recording where they wanted to go."
"Boys for Pele" was recorded, per the liner notes, "at a church in Delgany, County Wicklow, and at a wonderfully damp Georgian house in County Cork, Ireland." Mark Hawley and Marcel van Limbeek engineered the disc, which Amos produced. The same team also handled the sound on Amos' most recent tour, in which she traveled the world with just her keyboards and a guitarist.
"It was her idea to record in a church," Hawley recalls. "Ireland was just a nice place to do it. We went around to 10 or 15 churches, but we didn't have a lot of time to make up our minds, and it was this one that sounded the best." But it did surprise them in one way. "When we went there it was really quiet, but realistically, there was a really busy road right down from the church. So I can hear the cars on the album, on a couple of tracks. They're very, very quiet, but I can hear them."
Considering the irreverent spirit of Amos' music, a church was an unlikely recording location, especially when on listens to her "unwholesome" lyrics. Yet the church provided her with the atmosphere she desired, not to mention some unusual recording situations. "We went to this church in Delgany and set up all the gear there," recalls Hawley. "We tried to set it up so she had the freedom to record as she wanted to. She would just go in for two or three hours at a time and just play, basically. The church in Delgany was a beautiful acoustic [space], and I think the piano and harpsichord sounds are great for that. The thing that was compromised a little bit was the vocal, on the grounds that she performed in a little box."
"A little box" is understating things a little: Hawley and van Limbeek designed a wooden booth that housed the front ends of both the piano and harpsichord, with enough space between the instruments for Amos to sit and perform and switch between them. This small structure helped the engineers avoid any crossover between the vocal, the two instruments and the natural reverb of the church. "Her attitude toward that is she didn't mind what she had to put up with as long as we record her live," Hawley says.
The new album possesses a warmth that can be attributed to both the acoustics of the church and the overall recording setup. You can even hear the hammers hitting the strings in the piano. It's an intimate feeling that Amos wanted to capture, like "when I try to stick my head inside the belly of the piano," she states, "or try to stick my head inside the harpsichord. I wanted you to hear it how I could hear it. The piano hopefully goes inside your stomach. When you put it on a decent hi-fi, you should be able to crank it up and it should just crawl into your capillaries."
As intimate as her piano sound is her vocal performance, which is particularly noteworthy for it's wide range of emotion and dynamics. "She's so particular about her vocal sound," Hawley says, "and being able to hear the realness and the detail of it. And very rarely is there much reverb or anything on the vocal." Hawley and van Limbeek swapped mics on her vocal on different songs. "Some songs were recorded with a [Neumann] M49 that she owned, and other songs were recorded with her U87s," explains van Limbeek. "And whenever she sang her own backing vocals, we made her sing into anything from an SM58 to an AKG C-414."
The harpsichord also is rich in texture and detail on such tracks as "Professional Widow," on which Amos combines the instrument's tone and an unusual melody to make the instrument sound downright sinister.
Strong examples of the intimacy that envelops the listener throughout the album can be found on it's opening two tracks, "Beauty Queen" and "Horses." We can hear Amos sitting at the piano, shuffling perhaps, preparing to play, then quietly beginning the delicate "Beauty Queen," which features fragile, high-pitched singing and sparse piano. The lightly galloping "Horses" picks up the pace for the album and builds to the more edgy harpsichord tune "Blood Roses." "Horses" features a short bridge that shifts to a louder dynamic, and the piano reverberates quite strongly, while still holding on to an ethereal edge. To achieve this effect, the B”sendorfer was played and recorded through a Leslie cabinet, a setup that Hawley and van Limbeek duplicate live, giving the piano an almost organ-like quality.
To record the instruments, Hawley and van Limbeek used two Neumann U87s in a cardioid pattern on the piano and two Neumann KM140s (also in a cardioid pattern) on the harpsichord, positioned above the bridge (located between the sound board and the strings). To record the main stereo sound for the piano, the engineers used two B&K 4003 omnidirectional mics, one on each side, about ten feet high and five feet apart. To capture more ambiance of the space, they placed two more 4003s near the back of the church and farther apart than the main pair.
The mic signal was run through Focusrite preamps straight onto Sony 24-track digital. "We didn't record anything through a mixing console because of the limitations of being on location," says Hawley, although they did have a small Tascam M3900 board for playback.
Hawley and van Limbeek later mixed the album on a Neve VR60 at Jacobs Studios in England. "Everything you hear on the album, apart from the fact that it's gone through a really nice console, is very much how it was recorded," remarks Hawley. "There was not a lot being done to it."
The recording process was fairly straightforward and uncomplicated considering the subtleties and complexities of the sound design on many of Amos' songs, whether it be the unusual guitar effects of Steve Caton, the interaction of the many electronic and acoustic elements throughout the record or the multitracked vocal passages. Amos records many tunes that would be very difficult to reproduce live without a whole band, such as the first single, "Caught A Lite Sneeze," which features piano, harpsichord, drum programming, multiple vocal tracks, bass and Caton's overdubbed "swells." Live, Amos plays without the benefit of drums, bass and backing vocal tracks, but it somehow still manages to sound full.
The engineers say that during the recording, there were no actual plans to record a specific song at a set time. For songs with other elements (such as choir, rhythm programming, guitar or sousaphone), Amos would perform the piano and vocal parts first, and the other parts were recorded afterward. If Amos did not get a good take, she'd play another song before returning to it, and this process resulted in many of the B-sides for her singles. "Alan [Friedman] who did all the loops on the album, tried with us a couple of times to get her to play to a loop," Hawley explains, "but I don't think anything got done like that in the end. She would just decide to play the songs. On 'Caught A Lite Sneeze,' the harpsichord, piano and vocal were all done as one take, so there were no overdubs."
In fact, no demos were done for any of the songs on "Pele." "Basically, two or three songs on the album and many of the B-sides were written as you hear them there," says Hawley. "'Marianne' and 'Not the Red Baron' - the first time she ever played them and the first time we ever heard them was the performance that you hear. The whole recording process was really special for that reason."
During their recording sessions in Ireland, Amos and company recorded some 40-plus songs, many of the extra tracks becoming B-sides on her never-ending stream of singles, including the recent "Talula," which has two versions overseas. In fact, during this interview, Amos, Hawley and van Limbeek were in Boston recording still more B-sides. The singer is prolific, to say the least.
Another reason Amos has developed such a passionate following is that she is a compelling performer whose passion and warmth translate well onto the stage. For her 1996 world tour, Hawley has worked as the FOH engineer with van Limbeek as the monitor mixer.
The your has been exciting for both engineers, whose previous experience was exclusively overseas. The British-born Hawley started as a recording engineer in various studios in the north of England and then worked at London's Chapel Studios, which is essentially a songwriting studio. Since then, and before working with Amos, he was FOH engineer on tours for both Curve and Beautiful South. Van Limbeek, on the other hand, worked in England for sound companies, mostly as a rigger, although earlier in his career, he did a lot of live work in his native Holland, both as FOH and monitor engineer. The duo hooked up for the first time for Amos' "Under the Pink" tour in 1994.
According to Hawley, the overall sound philosophy for Amos' recent tour was that "it can't be wimpy; it should be powerful. It should be a nice, hi-fi sound, not deafeningly loud. I don't mind if it gets a bit edgy when she screams or if the piano becomes quite loud in some sections, but overall it should be a good listening level."
For the tour, both men use 40-input Midas XL-3 mixing consoles, although van Limbeek also uses a 16-channel stretch (an extension of the Midas board) because of the loops on "Talula," which comes from an 8-track hard disk recorder. Hawley says the Midas "is the best-sounding live console I've used."
Despite the fact that the setup onstage seems relatively simple - Amos at the piano and guitarist Steve Caton by her side - the show presents a series of challenges which keep both Hawley and van Limbeek on their toes. Hawley says that getting a clear lead vocal is paramount on this tour, and "that's something that is quite tricky. The main problem with the live stuff is the fact that we have a piano with the lid up. It's not so much a problem getting the piano sound, but the vocals both from the monitors and back from the house go straight into the piano mics, and that's our main problem. In bad venues, it can take a second-and-a-half for the vocal to hit the back wall and get back to the piano."
The duo use the same cardioid mic pairs (U87s and KM140s) they used on both the piano and harpsichord when recording "Pele." "There are only a few microphones there, and they're all pretty much on the high gain," says van Limbeek, "so the whole sound is incredibly open. This is mainly because the piano lid, which is looking into the audience, works as one big microphone. As soon as Mark changes anything at the front of house, I can immediately tell, and so can Tori. And that works the other way too - if I change something, he can tell immediately."
Then, of course, there's the harpsichord, which sits behind Amos and the piano. "The harpsichord, even though the lid is facing the other way [upstage]," explains van Limbeek, "is very, very quiet and fragile - the wood is so thin - so the whole thing becomes microphonic. You can stand next to it and be picked up."
"Any problems with vocals leaking into the piano mics," explains Hawley, "you can quadruple for the harpsichord because it's such a quiet instrument, and a piano is really quite loud. We started out with monitors, but we got more of the vocal from the monitors into the harpsichord mics than we got of any harpsichord, so it just wasn't working, basically." To help Amos, van Limbeek has given her a set of headphones, although they monitor sound in only one ear.
To solve their acoustical problem with the instrument, the engineering duo placed a plank of wood, with sound tiles on the inside of it, against the lid of the harpsichord to deflect unwanted sound. Luckily, the audience cannot see inside the harpsichord because of the lid.
Another challenge is properly mixing Caton's acoustic and electric guitars. Caton's musical presence adds another level to the show, whether it's his rhythmic acoustic guitar on "Cornflake Girl" and "Talula" or the more ambient sounds he pulls from his electric on subdued numbers like "Little Amsterdam." Caton's pedal box is a Roland GP-8, and he uses volume, wah-wah and distortion pedals. Caton's amp is miked with two AKG 414s.
"The way Steve works with his equipment really suits Tori's style of playing," says Hawley. "The speaker for the amplifier [for the electric guitar] is offstage somewhere, and he just listens back through his monitors. 'Cornflake Girl' is one of my biggest problems with the acoustic [guitar]. In the piano solo, I can almost turn his acoustic off, because there's so much bleed from the acoustic gutiar into the piano mics." That is a bit of a problem, and I find it very difficult to get that right. It can be very distracting. And the sound of the guitar isn't that nice when it's coming down the piano mics."
Monitoring the mix for Amos and Caton is also a challenge, given the parameters. "I'm mainly using onstage wedges made by SSE, the sound company we use from Birmingham, England," explains van Limbeek. "It's a two-way active system. They have built-in crossover cards, so that one side of the amplifier is doing the low end, and the other side is doing the high end. Steve is actually listening to a stereo mix, an FOH-type mix, except that the guitar is more up-front, whereas Tori's vocal is more in the mix. Tori's listening to two stereo mixes at the same time. I've found that what I need to do for Tori's vocal is so complicates that I'm using a separate stereo mix for her vocal and the reverb on the vocal. Those are two wedges on either side of her. More to her back is another group of wedges, which is basically stereo piano. when Steve plays, his guitar will also show up in the wedges assigned to the piano."
Caton has two monitors, one for Amos and one for him. "He's listening to the piano pretty compressed," says van Limbeek. "He's got a Galaxy Hotspot next to him, and all that's in there is either piano or harpsichord, whichever Tori is playing, not her vocal.If he gets into a problem, especially timingwise, it's hard for him to look back at me and say, 'I need more piano.' So he's got this little Galaxy Hotspot, which is nothing but a trashy little speaker, but he can turn up the piano, harmonium or harpsichord from there in case he does need it." The Hotspot is placed in a mic stand, whereas the speaker with his main mix sits on the floor, and "that contains everything."
Van Limbeek's positioning offstage is also very important. "I'm on stage-left." he says, "so when Tori's playing the piano, she can look me in the face, and I can usually tell from the way she looks what the score is, whether she's happy or not. She has a few signs she can give me."
Such an involved show requires plenty of teamwork, and Hawley and van Limbeek have risen to that formidable task each night at a variety of different-sized venues. "Especially in smaller venues, when you sit in the first few rows, what you hear is a good crossover between sound coming offstage from the monitors and the P.A.," states van Limbeek, "and to keep the whole thing consistent, it's pretty important that Mark and I use similar compression ratios. The smaller the venue, the more Mark and I have to work together. If we're playing in a real theaterdesigned to stage plays or whatever, usually we have a proscenium arch and a stagehouse, which for us is usually ideal, since we're more seperated. Whereas, if we play in a traditional concert hall, whereas the stage is really in the same room as the auditorium, then the whole thing becomes a lot more open and we have to rely a lot more on each other."
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