It all started back in 2010, when my brother Nick sent me a couple of songs after buying himself some music software. I loved the songs, but thought they needed a bit of this and that to bring them up to scratch. Nick took on my suggestions, but didn’t quite get what I was saying, so like everything in this world, I thought, “if you want a job doing, do it yourself”, so I went out and bought the very same software (Logic Pro 9).
From that moment on Nick started sending me song ideas in project windows, which was great, but we found that sending wave or AIFF files clogged up our email, or they were just too big to send.
The next stage was to get an online cloud. Once that was done we could share massive files, and the journey began.
The normal song writing process usually goes like this:
Nick sends me a song, and my first job is to arrange it, as Nick has a tendency not to get to the point, and it sometimes takes ages to get to that all important chorus.
I’ve always said,
Don’t bore us, cut to the chorus.
When I cut Nick’s songs down, there always seems to be a part missing, and it always frustrates the hell out of me, so I put in a middle 8, a new chorus, a key change, a solo, new lyrics, whatever it takes for me to get the song feeling right. Sometimes there is very little to do, but there is always something. Then I send it back to him, or I’ll get straight on the phone, and go through the changes. This process of sending the song back, and forth may go on for weeks. It might be just a single note in a chord, but between us we sort it out until we’re both happy.
Nick and I soon had enough songs for an album, and Nick was keen to put it out, as he had released a number of solo albums over the years on his own.
There was something special about this collection of songs, and it did sound really good, but all the instruments were programmed, and the only real thing was Nick’s vocals, and guitar, which sounded great, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would sound like with real drums, and bass on it.
Finally we made the decision to go for it, we had nothing to loose, if this was going to be our first album, it had to be done properly.
The Recording Process
Our first job was to get the bass and drums recorded.
Way back in the early days of school, Nick and I had played with an amazing musician called Mike McEvoy, and Mike and Nick had continued to stay in touch, even when Mike had gone on to play with the likes of Ian Dury, Steve Winwood, and Soul to Soul.
Mike can play pretty much anything, piano, guitar, bass, viola, etc, and Nick thought it would be great if he could play bass on the album.
Mike was up for it, and suggested a studio in Muswell Hill run by Ernie McKone.
Ernie was a great musician in his own right, he had played bass for the Acid Jazz band ‘Galliano’, and in more recent years had produced great albums with ‘Push’ on Boogie Back Records, as part of the Rare Groove Scene.
So off we went to Boogie Back Studios, and in a couple of days we had the drums down.
I had always been very specific about how I wanted the album to sound, and had learnt a lot over the years about recording, engineering, mixing etc, and had always had a studio at home.
Most of my learning came from hanging out in Madness’s own Liquidator Studios in the 80’s. I virtually lived there.
Ernie was really encouraging about the work I’d done so far on the demos, and convinced me that I could mix the album myself.
For one thing it would be cheaper, and I would get what I wanted.
Why pay someone to do what I could do myself. I just needed faith in myself. So for that I’ve got a lot to thank Ernie for.
Ernie didn’t mess around, and gave me a nice clean recording of the drums as AIFF files. I remember taking them home, and sticking them into Cubase, pulling up some UAD plugins, a couple of Pultecs, and a Fairchild, a bit of EQ, and OMG I was in heaven.
You Can’t Beat Real Musicians
A couple of sessions later, Mike put down the bass, sticking strictly to our original bass lines, as Nick (I have discovered) is a hard task master, and likes things done the way we wrote them. Only occasionally was Mike let off the leash, but when he was, the stuff he came up with was amazing.
After mixing the bass and drums, I soon realised that the next job on the list was brass.
Luckily Madness has a wonderful brass section, and their MD is Mike Kearsey. Mike scores all the parts, and helps with arrangements.
I had already written all the brass parts, but had no idea how to score them. Mike sat down with me, and told me what was possible with three players (Trumpet, Trombone, and Baritone sax), and took my dreadful midi brass home with him, and turned them into proper brass parts.
We soon found ourselves back in Boogie Back Studios with Ernie, and we recorded the brass, with Mike Kearsey on trombone, Steve Turner on Baritone Sax, and Ben Edwards on Trumpet.
Soon after recording the brass, I realised there was a high trumpet part missing on the song Always Be With You. Luckily I was in The Premises Rehearsal Studios in Hoxton with Madness, and was able to get Joe Aukland our trumpet player to record the part for me on Mike Kearsey’s portable digital recorder.
Joe simply played along with a rough demo version, and Mike sent me the files via my online cloud. Don’t you just love modern technology?
Again, after mixing the brass, the strings sounded false.
This time I turned to Mike Kearsey to score the strings.
The strings were written by me to be played by an orchestra, but that was something I clearly couldn’t afford, as orchestras don’t come cheap, but Mike told me that a string quartet mixed in with midi strings, can sound like the real thing, as long as the strings are programmed with care and attention. I prided myself on my programming, so had nothing to loose.
Mike suggested a small studio run by a brilliant sound engineer called Chris Traves, and when I discovered his studio was in Kenilworth Road, Beckenham, I couldn’t believe my luck, as I live just up the road.
So a wonderful day was had by all, when Charlie Brown (Violin), Sali-Wyn Ryan (2nd Violin), Sarah Chapman (Viola), and Nerys Richards (Cello) rocked up with Mike Kearsey with the scores in hand, and proceeded to bring the strings to life.
They sounded so wonderful on Smile, that Mike extended the string part at the end, just so they could be revealed. It was almost like the rest of the music was drowning them out, and they needed their own space.
Needless to say the midi orchestra was transformed by real strings.
Next on the list was piano, and ironically I was about to work with one of the best pianists around.
Simon Hale had arranged strings for Madness on The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and had played piano on Mark II, and was about to record strings again for Madness, as he had arranged Charlie Andrew’s and Clive Langer’s version of Powder Blue, and Never Knew Your Name. He also was on hand to oversee my string arrangement of Leon, that I had done with Kirsty Mangan.
When I met him in the studio, it was a no-brainer, I simply asked him if he was up for playing piano on the Magic Brothers album. He was really busy, but when he heard the album he loved it, and said it would be a pleasure.
From then on, I got daily updates telling me where he was up to in the recording process, as he was recording at home on his grand piano (as you do). It was a joy having Simon be so positive about the songs. I used to get texts saying things like, “I’m onto Smile next. Can’t wait”.
When he had finished, he had brought another dimension to the songs, making them much more expressive, and flamboyant, yet being true to the original parts. A truly great musician.
Soon the only things left that I had written, that weren’t real, were the flute, piccolo, English, and French horn parts, so once again I turned to Mike Kearsey to score the parts, and find the musicians needed.
This time Mike took Nick Moss (Flute, and Piccolo), Lauren Weavers (Oboe, and Cor Anglais), Jackie Hayter (Basoon), and Richard Bayliss (French Horns) to his studio Atlantix HQ, and recorded them himself, then sent me the files.
Once again they added feeling, and atmosphere to the songs, and I especially like the solo by Nick Moss at the end of The River.
You can’t beat real musicians.
Keeping It In The Family
From the beginning of the recording process I had been getting Siobhan my wife to record backing vocals at home.
I discovered that Siobhan’s vocals seemed to sweeten Nick’s, and their voices complimented each other really well. She truly has a pure, unaffected voice, and was perfect for the track Sunshine. In fact my favourite vocal of hers is on You Don’t Have to Hide Your Love Away.
My daughter Mary has a beautiful voice too, but it was almost impossible to get her to sing on Sunshine, as like most teenagers she thought it was really un-cool for her to do it. It was equally difficult to get her to say the line, “We’re here” on The Magic Line. She says it really reluctantly, which actually turned out to be perfect.
Now everything was recorded, all I had to do was mix it!
Easier said than done.