Johnny Dollar & Simon Palmskin
Published in SOS July 2000
British soulstress Gabrielle returned to the limelight earlier this year with a number one single based around a distinctive sample from Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’. Mike Senior meets producers Johnny Dollar and Simon Palmskin to find out how the hit was constructed.
One of the more heart-warming success stories this year has been that of Gabrielle’s most recent album Rise. After her entry into the limelight in 1993 with the number one single ‘Dreams’, the future should have been rosy, particularly when she followed this with a number of other hit singles and an equally successful first album. However, after winning her ‘Best Newcomer’ Brit award in 1994, things did not go quite so smoothly for her: there was a legal wrangle over her first single, a publicity nightmare following her involvement in a murder inquiry, and surgery to remove nodes on her vocal chords. Fortunately, with the continuing support of her record company, she finally released Rise — her third album — last year. Although the first single from the album had little impact on the record-buying public, the second single and title track topped the UK charts for two weeks, selling more than 500,000 copies. As a result 600,000 copies of the album have now left the shelves, and it has so far spent three weeks in the UK’s number one spot.
Behind this remarkable recovery are the two producers Johnny Dollar and Simon Palmskin. Dollar initially made his name for his production work on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, not least because he co-wrote ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, the album’s most successful single. Since then he has helped to produce and co-write some of Neneh Cherry and Youssou N’Dour’s most successful work, including their massively successful ‘Seven Seconds’ collaboration in 1994.
While Dollar was working with Neneh Cherry in Spain in 1995, Palmskin was called in to contribute some percussion parts for the album that was to become 1996’s Man. However he also took with him, as he puts it, “a few records and a synth”, and his DJ’ing and programming skills quickly earned him a permanent place on the project and subsequent tours. Since then, Dollar and Palmskin have worked together on a number of other albums and remixes, though Gabrielle’s ‘Rise’ represents their most successful collaboration yet. Moreover, if it weren’t for ‘Rise’ they might never have considered working with Gabrielle in the first place. As Johnny explains, “When Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton, co-owner of her label Go! Beat] first decided that he wanted us to work on the album, he sent me all the demos that he had. ‘Rise’ was one of these demos — the Bob Dylan sample was already there before I ever got hold of the track — and it was the only one that I really liked. ‘Rise’ was the reason I got interested in the album in the first place, basically, because I thought we could do something with it.”
“The demo was good, so we tried to tart it up into a finished track, but it proved to be ‘untartable’ — it didn’t work and we couldn’t make it work. Basically, the way they’d incorporated the loop wasn’t right. They’d tried to do it in a sort of quantised fashion, but it’s got to be done out of time because the sample is out of time. There were also more instruments on the demo, too — additional bass, 808 hi-hats blasting along, some dodgy strings, all sorts of stuff. We prefer to keep things simpler. However, the vocal line was pretty much there: Gabrielle is really great with melodies, she has a really great pop sense and the vocal line and lyrics are entirely hers on the record, and she’s great at filling in the gaps in a backing track in just the right way, but like nobody else.
“As I said, we started out with the original loop off the demo, but it became apparent that we couldn’t use it — it had been in and out of a Mac and it didn’t sound very healthy. In the end, we realised that we were going to have to go back to the original, so we went out and bought a Bob Dylan greatest hits CD, the cheapest one we could find which had the track on it. We started out trying to get a loop from the CD using Simon’s new Akai S6000 running from Cubase. We tried it four or five ways, trying to get it to loop around smoothly, but it just wouldn’t sit — the groove just wasn’t right. Finally, I managed to get it looping right using my old Akai MPC60 and S3200, deliberately leaving a gap at the end. We knew that it would cause the FM compressors on the radio to suck and blow like crazy, and that it would act as a little bit of a hook. People love the sound of compression happening, and you miss that a lot on modern records. On old records, you can really hear the compressors working and it makes them much more exciting — it’s the reason the Led Zeppelin drums sound so good, for example.”
However even once the loop’s timing had been sorted out, Johnny and Simon still felt that it needed to ebb and flow a little with the track. Simon: “Later on, in order to add some variation to the loop, we played with the attack time of the envelope at the beginning of the sample as we finally laid it down to tracks on the Otari RADAR. This allowed us to change how hard the kick drum at the beginning of the sample sounded throughout the track — at the beginning of the song it’s really hard, but it softens off elsewhere, which helps provide some motion.”
In The Frame
Once the loop was in place, the job of placing the drums around it began. Again, the need to fit them seamlessly into the loop’s idiosyncratic rhythmic framework was paramount. Simon remembers that this task was not as straightforward as they had hoped. “We spent about two days in Beethoven Street Studios [in London] with the RADAR, picking out peaks on the audio waveform and listening endlessly to four-bar hi-hat loops, saying ‘forward a bit, back a bit’ and moving things around. It was hell — we started turning into machines ourselves after a while! But in the end we scrapped all of that, because it was never going to work, and Johnny just played it in! So even though we could have used three different quantisation grids — from the RADAR, from the MPC and from Cubase — we didn’t use any of them, essentially just using the whole system as a slightly weird form of digital tape. You don’t question why things work with the loop, whether they’re in tune or whatever, you just go with things if they work. And, of course, that makes sense: when it’s a loop of people playing, how on earth are you going to program a machine to match that, except by working from a live performance?”
“I played the drums in wild from the pads on the MPC60,” Johnny elaborates, “though we recorded the MIDI using Cubase rather than the MPC’s internal sequencer. I did a few minutes’ take and then we just stuck the best bars together. In fact, everything that we added to the track in the end was recorded by jamming against the loop until the performance sat with it. It means that the drums are miles out of time: if you looked at the sounds on a grid editor it’d look like the most beserk thing you’d ever seen, just nonsensical, and if you listened to the drums without the loop they’d sound awful. But that’s the point, because everything is out of time yet it all makes sense when it’s mixed inside the loop.
“The drum sounds we used were just samples which I took straight from the demo using the MPC. It’s pretty much just bass drum, rim shot and hi-hat. The only The Simple Things
Given the uncluttered final production of ‘Rise’, it’s not entirely surprising to find that Dollar and Palmskin resolutely uphold a kind of ‘less is more’ philosophy. “Where most people seem to go wrong with loop-based records,” elaborates Johnny “is that they start out with the loop and then they forget that it’s the main thing on the record — they get more interested in the things they’re adding, and it doesn’t stay in the context of the loop so the loop ends up getting buried. We always put the loop up front with everything else inside it. I don’t like too many parts audible on a record, I like things fairly minimal. The point about ‘Rise’ was that we didn’t want to override the loop at all.”
“For example,” continues Simon “we couldn’t do too much when we added the gospel singers, otherwise they would have clashed with the choir on the loop. It was the same with the Hammond: it’s already on the loop, so we had to fit our own in around that. What’s more, while doing that record I became a real master at ‘disappearing’ the programming inside the loop. It was a sort of Ninja programming — if you could hear it, it was wrong.
“Something we both feel quite strongly about is that you’ve got to keep things simple like on a lot of classic reggae recordings — even though they might have some of the most killer production going, those records are still very minimal and they let the song carry them, which can make even the most simple skank the funkiest thing in the world. It’s the same on the Marcia Griffiths version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Play Me’, to give another example: it’s simplicity itself, but it has an amazing power. Even though it sounds so muffled that you’d swear it was recorded underwater, it doesn’t matter because you’re into it instantly. Simplicity is the thing.”
thing we changed was the claps: I just put the sound on several of the MPC’s pads and played them slightly staggered to get a nicer sound.”
Surprisingly, no bass was added to the track at all, Johnny reveals. “The original demo had a bunch of extra bass sounds which completely screwed it up. Once we had recreated the loop and added the drums, it was obvious that we didn’t want to add any more bass, because the part was already there in the sample. However, we did manage to give the impression that the bass was moving a little more than it was by adding in a fairly low-pitched Wurlitzer sound from Simon’s Nord Rack 2 now and then — just a few notes was all it took.
“In fact, there’s an awful lot of other stuff on ‘Rise’ from the Nord — submarine noises in the choruses, slow synth swells, high bells, a big fat pulse pad which just makes the track a bit fatter. Not that you can hear these individual elements that easily, because they’re all blended inside the track, but they have a massive effect on it, nonetheless. The way in which all the different Nord sounds interact is strange. For example, it sounds like there’s a high bell sound at the beginning of the second verse, where we never, in fact, recorded one — it’s just the way all the other sounds come together on tape which makes you think you hear it. Really weird! There were lots of little accidents like that all over the record.
“Probably the most audible thing from the Nord is the high celeste sounds which appear during the final choruses. We tried using a real celeste, but it was too cutting, so in the end we used the Wurlitzer patch from the Nord for that, as well as for adding movement to the bass line. We used it way higher than its normal range, which made the notes detune, but somehow that made them sit inside the track really beautifully. If you isolate them they sound awful — really out of tune and horribly clashing.
“There’s also some really mad organ from Johnny’s JD800 which worked like that,” adds Simon. “The aftertouch had had a nervous breakdown, so that every time you hit it, it would sound like the ‘It’s A Man’s World’ skank guitar! But it also fitted in nicely, so we used that as well”
In addition to the numerous synth sounds, a number of live performers also contributed to the track — some gospel singers, live strings and a real Hammond organ, all of which were recorded at West Side Studios in London (see the ‘Live Elements’ box). With the backing track complete, only the vocal needed recording. However, as Johnny describes, it proved quite a challenge. “During the project Gabrielle had to have an operation for nodes on her throat from which she didn’t recover for quite a long time. However, she was thrust back into the studio by A&R — far too early, in my opinion. When she first reappeared, she was going hoarse within two or three takes, which was just silly. On the bright side, though, it meant that she had to take singing lessons for months and months so that, now, if you see any of her live appearances, she’s better than she ever was.
“I refuse to help singers at all. If they’re professionals, they ought to be able to sing in time and in tune, oughtn’t they? I’ve always made records to be an emotional experience, but when you get into Pro Tools world, with Auto-Tune and quantisation, it makes all your stuff just so frigging dull. It’s much better to just concentrate on getting great takes.”
“The problem for us when we were doing ‘Rise’ though was that she came back from the operation with a totally different voice to the one we’d started work with,” Simon elaborates, “and that was a real challenge. The character of her voice would change from moment to moment, and so it was a nightmare trying to get a consistent take. Every line you got was like a different singer — for example, she had this Janis Joplin voice for a while which I quite liked, though it didn’t last because it wasn’t really her.”
However, despite these problems, Dollar’s no-frills approach to recording was also applied to capturing the lead vocal. “Recording Gabrielle was really just a case of putting the same old U87 through a Urei 1176 and hitting record — nothing fancy. You just had to make sure that she took off her jewellery — she wears a lot of it, and it makes her jangle quite a bit.
“We were quite lucky with the final vocal for ‘Rise’ in that we managed to record it at quite an opportune moment: Gabrielle had split up with her boyfriend just before she came in to do the vocal, and that gave the vocal an immediate emotional content. She actually burst into tears once in the middle of one take, at one of the particularly poignant bits of the lyric! We’d tried to do the vocals once already at a different studio where it hadn’t gone particularly well, but her voice was on the mend and when we finally got the take at West Side she sang it really well. We just got a few tracks as she performed them and then it was a really easy comp.”
In accordance with his and Simon’s ‘keep it simple’ philosophy, Johnny’s approach to recording the live elements of ‘Rise’ was straightforward. “We used Neumann U87s for pretty much everything we recorded on the album. In fact, for ‘Rise’ there was a particular U87 which I tried to use for as much as I could, because the contours of its sound suited the sound of the loop. My entire philosophy for making records is that you make do with the equipment you have there. It’s more about what you’re putting on tape than how you get it there. I don’t even really care whether the mic’s good or bad, it’s just a means to an end.
“We always stayed a fair distance away with the mics when doing the recording for ‘Rise’ — it was a case of setting the musicians up in the room and then wandering around with the mics until whatever we were recording sounded like it was in the record. This meant that we didn’t need much in the way of delay or reverb to get them to sit right inside the sound as opposed to right on top of it. In fact, we recorded the gospel singers — Sharron Scott, Toyin Adekale and Derrick Cross, who were all so pukkah! — all around the one U87. We built them a little booth, and then moved them around until their balance was right, rather than multi-miking and balancing at the desk. We tried to do everything as simply as we could so that it would fit with the sound of the loop.”
“They did the job brilliantly,” enthuses Simon “especially when all they had to go on was me and John singing them some sort of vague line! They just said ‘Yeah, OK, we know…’, and then just went in and did exactly what we were after! It was a shame we weren’t doing a track where we could have used them a lot more.”
“I went to Wil Malone for the string arrangement, as I usually do,” Johnny goes on. “I showed him the lines on Cubase, and he wrote it all down. It was pretty simple, because we didn’t want to have a lot going on — in fact, the only way we changed the strings from the demo was by altering the harmonies and inversions a little bit. We only had a few violins and violas, because we didn’t want them to dominate too much or to add any bass. The string players were spot-on with playing the arrangement, as they usually are, even though the violas’ mic stand wasn’t tightened enough and so was slowly dropping during the take — made it sound nice though, a slow build…”
Recording the Hammond organ, however, was a challenge which required Simon to take unusual measures. “The guy who was playing the Hammond — the legendary Dr X — was playing chords fairly similar to those on the loop, once again in order to get the part to sit with that of the sample. However, we wanted it to add some movement that wasn’t already in the loop, so I stood next to him flicking the Leslie relay. However, the relay was clicking so audibly that we had to stuff it with my conga sacks to muffle it — you lose the subtlety of a gentle swell if you have a big ‘click! here it is!’ every time…”
Johnny: “Rise was mixed by Craig Silvey, in the room with the Focusrite desk at Master Rock Studios. Craig’s a bit of a Focusrite nut — he likes the fact that you can’t reach the back of the desk without climbing over it… Craig’s done everyone from REM to Mariah Carey, and he’s good because he’s not only a really nice guy who appreciates the ‘old sound’, but also because he also likes to keep things simple.
“We did God knows how many mixes — it was one of those times when you go all the way around the houses just to end up where you started. The mix is based on two reverbs only, hardly anything is going on really in that respect, because of the way we recorded things to sit in the track from the very start. Craig didn’t use any mix compression at all, just individual things compressed and EQ’d a bit.
“The mix that’s on the album certainly does the job on radio — vocal bloody loud, really bloody loud — but I think, looking back on it, we’d have preferred it if we could have used the monitor mix that we had before we went to Master Rock, which is brilliant. The problem I have with the album mix is that it is very linear, and while that fits with the lack of dynamics on the album as a whole, it would have been nice if ‘Rise’, as the only loop-based song on the record, hadn’t sounded so much like all the other songs. It lost some of the beauty of the monitor mix, which had a lot more dynamics to it, and that was a bit of a shame. But hey, it was A&R’s decision… I think that, in 10 years’ time, the album mix will sound very much of its time, — a bit bland and flat — whereas the monitor mix is more of a classic.”
Simon is obviously of the same mind on this issue: “Classical music aside, everyone seems to want CDs to be absolutely as loud as possible, all the time. You can’t have a drop, you can’t have any variation in volume. And that’s boring, because the music doesn’t breathe like that.”
Dollar’s uncomplicated yet unorthodox attitude towards production seems to extend not only to the practice of recording and mixing, but also to mastering. “I normally attend mastering sessions religiously, but this time I wasn’t too worried about it, and it came back sounding pretty much the same as it sounded before. They just made sure that the top and the bottom matched across the record. You can machinate over these things for months, but it doesn’t really matter that much: if people like the record then they like the record, if they don’t they don’t. Different cuts and EQs and varispeeds aren’t going to make a difference. It’s either good or it ain’t. It used to be important to take care when cutting for vinyl, because you were cutting to a medium that had something to say, that had a response, but with CD it’s not nearly as worth it.
“It doesn’t help that cutting engineers tend to look at me like I’m insane. It’s as if they’re thinking ‘What is that gap doing at the end of that loop?! They all seem to think I’m completely stupid. In the end I just have to say ‘Yeah, just cut it mate, and let the public decide.'”
And the public are growing to appreciate the work of these two producers more and more, a reaction no doubt related to the team’s no-nonsense approach. Following the success of ‘Rise’, we are likely to be hearing more from Dollar and Palmskin within the coming months, not least because of a possibility that they may be involved with the next Texas album. However, even though both Dollar and Palmskin have spent a good deal of time in professional studios, neither feels that successful results are unattainable from home setups. Johnny: “I’m a great believer in not making music in studios. We did a lot of the work for ‘Rise’ in my back room at home, where I’ve only got a Mackie desk, one of the old 16-bit RADAR machines, an Akai MPC60 and S3200, and a couple of bits of outboard. We also worked on it in Simon’s unit in Hoxton Square, in his bedroom for a couple of things, at Beethoven Street Studios, here at West Side, at Master Rock… but the important thing was that the track sounded great wherever we went. A good track will sound good almost no matter what equipment you use.”