Register    |    Sign In    |   
electronic MUSICIAN

Lonely Planet

By Bill Murphy | April 1, 2004

While the digital-versus-analog debate rages on and DJs continue to draw lines in the sand between CDs and vinyl, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker have quietly hovered above the fray, combining elements of vintage and cutting-edge technologies to build the lush, vibrant sound that signifies Zero 7. The duo's 2001 debut album, Simple Things (Palm), which was nominated for the UK's Mercury Prize, fully embodied this approach. Vibing on dark, dusty soul and tripped-out electronics, the album inspired Rolling Stone to call its “warm human funk…more like jazz on acid than acid jazz.” Now, after spending large chunks of time on the road and in the studio during the past two years, Zero 7 has dropped its eagerly anticipated follow-up, When It Falls (Quango/Palm, 2004) — a folk- and funk-tinged aphrodisiac for a groove-hungry world, and the timing simply couldn't be better.

“We get all different kinds of opinions [about the new album],” Binns recounts from his London flat. “But I do think this one's a little darker, you know, maybe a bit more smoldering. Somehow, maybe it taps into the subconscious, but, then, I don't know — Sam keeps falling asleep to it. [Laughs.] But to try and be serious about it, I think we had new aspirations this time around. Suddenly, we were on the road, we were with a band, and we had all of these things at our fingertips, so all our dreams kind of came true. I mean, if we started programming a beat for a tune, most of the time it was like, ‘Come on, man, let's just get a drummer.’ Every form of breakbeat just started sounding a bit naff to me, which is why I think we leaned more toward live instrumentation.”

As Hardaker tells it, he and Binns were also wary of their newfound access to more advanced studio equipment, a fully accommodated live room and a growing cadre of talented musicians and vocalists. “I think, with this one, because we started off with much more live stuff being involved, we were constantly worrying about it becoming too ‘adult’-sounding,” he explains. “The fact that we'd graduated into a slightly more professional studio and had professional musicians around us was kind of unnerving, so we found ourselves wanting to mess that up a little bit, which we didn't do dramatically, but that would often come into our heads. There's always the danger of it moving into that slick area, when you're playing a Rhodes piano and you've got a tasteful drummer in the room. We're always trying to undo that.”

ROOTS OF A GROOVE

As longtime mates from North London, Binns and Hardaker got their start in the late '80s at the near-legendary RAK Studios, founded by producer Mickie Most (probably best known for electrifying the sound of Donovan on the hits “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow,” as well as Donovan's psychedelic classic The Hurdy Gurdy Man [Epic] in 1968). Binns had been a school chum of Nigel Godrich (who went on to produce Radiohead's OK Computer [EMI/Capitol, 1997]), and the three worked at RAK for several years before leaving to form their own Shabang Studios. It was during this time that Godrich landed the Radiohead gig, and Zero 7 got its first shot at remixing a high-profile band. “We begged Nigel for a tape, just so we could have a go at trying to remix one of their tunes,” Binns recalls. “We ended up doing ‘Climbing Up the Walls,’ and they liked it and wanted a name for it. Sam just said, ‘Well, call it the Zero 7 mix [after a bar in Honduras called Zero Siete that Binns and Hardaker had frequented on a recent jaunt to the Americas],’ and, of course, that's how the name stuck.”

Soon, they were hard at it, building tracks for what became their debut album, and almost by default, the overall sound began to take on an old-school feel that relied on some rather temperamental gear. “We had this little Trident desk in Shabang, which is where we made Simple Things, and it was beautiful,” Binns says. “It was, like, 28 channels, and the EQs were horrible — in fact, everything was kind of horrible about it, but at the end of the day, you ended up with something that sounded really warm for reasons that I can't explain. I get worried sometimes about whether we're stuck in the past, but when our music sounds warm, it's just better to me.”

That ineffable analog warmth — such a crucial ingredient in the '70s funk and soul and the modern dub, jazz and hip-hop cuts that inform Zero 7's musical bent (check out the pair's 2002 mix comp for Kinetic's Another Late Night series to get a taste of their enviable record collection) — took on an almost holy-grail-like quality of elusiveness when the duo moved into Studio Two at the Jive-owned Battery complex in northwest London, where they tracked most of When It Falls. “We were just camped up in one corner of the room, which was kind of a newly decorated place — much more plush than we had been used to,” Hardaker explains. “I guess the old place just sort of instantly had an atmosphere about it, and at Battery, it was quite hard to achieve that at first. We even joked occasionally about dragging the old Trident desk up there just to get some damn vibe into the place, you know?”

Eventually, the proper mojo descended on Studio Two after Binns and Hardaker availed themselves not only of the DDA Profile 56-channel console that was already in the room but also of the vintage Studer 2-inch and ½-inch tape machines there. “Usually, just for the convenience, it's easier to record into Pro Tools,” Hardaker says, noting that he and Binns haven't entirely eschewed digital shortcuts and will run most of their synth and vocal tracks into Digidesign Pro Tools on a Mac G4. “But the 2-inch machine was sitting there, and it seemed kind of stupid not to use it. So we would record horns, drums and strings onto that and then mix it all down to ½-inch eventually, you know, for a stereo master — again, because there was a ½-inch machine in the room — so when we were mixing, we just thought, ‘Why not?’”

“I only wish we'd recorded more vocals on 2-inch,” Binns adds. “But when you want to get a vocal take down, you don't want to be fussing around too much with tape. With Pro Tools, it just makes things a lot easier.”

FREEING UP THE COMPOSITION

When it came to writing the songs that ended up on When It Falls, Zero 7 revamped its usual ritual to incorporate more creative input from its touring and recording partners, making it a much more collaborative process.

“On Simple Things, we found ourselves in a situation where we'd thrown so much at the canvas that a singer would come in and go, ‘What the hell am I gonna do with that?’” Binns says. “I think this time, we concentrated on writing songs that were more basic, and then we'd try and get the singers and musicians in a bit earlier. The vibe of the tune always starts off quickly, and then it invariably takes nine months to finish the song. [Laughs.] But it just happens, you know? A melody, some chords, and then you're fully into it.”

Among the returning artists are lead sirens Sia Furler and Sophie Barker, who lend their haunting, melodic trills to the tracks “Somersault” and “The Space Between.” Elsewhere, the silky tenor of Mozez graces the liquid Fender Rhodes chords of the opening “Warm Sound” and the closing ode, “Morning Song.” But the real barn-burner is the album's first single, “Home,” which features a promising up-and-comer named Tina Dico, whose breathy falsetto nearly channels the spirit of a young Joni Mitchell.

“That was one of the songs we did with [guitarist] Dedi [Madden] from the band,” Hardaker says. “He and Henry kind of worked out the tune to where they had most of the melody, and when Tina came in, she just helped them finish it off. When it came to the beat, I was just messing about with this little drum box that Nigel had — possibly an original Maestro Rhythm King, as heard on recordings in the early '70s by the likes of Sly Stone and Bob Marley — and I was just trying to make it sound dirty with an old Memory Man delay pedal on the kick drum.”

The song began to morph further as more layers of instruments were added. “Sam went in to play brushes on the drum kit, and, suddenly, we ended up with that end section,” Binns continues. “I think we just had an AKG C 12 microphone over the top — you know, how they used to mike up a jazz session, I suppose. Then, we whacked it through a UREI 1176, and in my haste to get it down on tape, I just left it a bit too compressed. We had this massive long debate about whether we'd compressed the drums too much, because they're kind of breathing at you near the end. Eventually, we just decided that was the sound, and we liked it.”

Live horns and numerous synths were piled on, and as the track progressed toward the final mixing stage, Hardaker says, the idea was to have “Home” swell gradually into a wall-of-sound symphonic epic throughout the course of its four-and-a-half minutes. “That was quite a difficult one because we had this vision of it getting massive near the end of the song, but we couldn't quite make it happen,” Hardaker admits. “It never quite lived up to what we hoped it would be, but, sometimes, you just don't get it 100 percent. Maybe you get it 80 percent or something, and maybe that's enough.”

ADVENTURES IN SOUND

As self-effacing as the men of Zero 7 sometimes can be when discussing their production efforts, they do have their moments on When It Falls that encapsulate a blissful state of something approaching near sonic perfection. “Look Up” stands out for what must have been the sheer daunting task of recording and mixing a full 24-piece string section with live drums, guitar, bass, chromatic harp (reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's early-'70s Tamla label recordings) and a sprawling bed of aural textures and sound effects.

“That track had to be very violin-heavy because it's just a melody on the violins, essentially, so that would make it a slightly different arrangement,” Binns says. “But there are a lot of parts going on there, and I think it was pretty much fully live, but it wasn't like we all played the tune together. Sam laid down the drums, and then we did the bass and guitar together, overdubbed the keyboards and the strings, and we even have our friend Adam playing [chromatic] harmonica, which I think is quite a nice flavor.”

To adequately capture the expansiveness of the Brilliant Strings, as that 24-piece string section is known, on 2-inch tape, Zero 7 had to turn to its old place of employment to record the session. “If we get a string session like that, I think there are very few studios in London that will sound good on a small scale,” Binns explains. “I mean, Abbey Road is for the grand strings, but when you get a big section like that and you put them in a posh studio, it all starts sounding like the theme to some horrible new film. [Laughs.] I don't know what it is about RAK, but it's full of wood, and it all just sounds a bit earthy to me, which is the sound we're going for. So we'll use a couple of Neumann M 49s for the room and then maybe one regular mic between two violinists. We'll spread everything across maybe five or six tracks on the 2-inch, bounce it down to stereo in Pro Tools and then back out to 1½2-inch when we do the final mix.”

For the electronic and Echoplex-laden soundscapes that undulate throughout “Look Up” (and, for that matter, through most of the tunes on When It Falls), Hardaker reprises in the studio the role that he plays when Zero 7 is on tour. “This is how I sort of make out that I'm part of the band,” he says, not without a hint of sarcasm. “I just have an [Akai] S5000 sampler; a couple of little MIDI keyboards with maybe hundreds of samples on different channels all the way up and down the keyboard; and a little mixing desk with a few effects pedals; and, at the moment, a Korg Kaoss Pad. The main thing that I'm doing is just providing some atmospherics, I guess — nothing serious, but it's fun stuff.”

GIVE IT UP OR TURN IT LOOSE

Although a significant amount of discussion goes into the writing, recording and mixing of each Zero 7 song (and for this reason, Binns and Hardaker are hardly ever left with outtakes or unfinished tracks), Binns insists that the entire process is “pretty loose.” He cites the overall sense of exploration and discovery that comes from working in an environment in which unpredictability is a welcome occurrence and in which trusting in what “feels right” and “sounds right” is essential.

“I think we're always trying to make a decision right there and then,” Binns says. “If it's wrong, then we'll do it again — I don't want to start getting lost in all of that bullshit; otherwise, you start going up your arse. If you put something down imagining what it'll be like later, you'll never get it. Commitments, man: That's what we need when we're making records.” As an example of how a session can go off the rails, Binns refers to the reigning — some might even say undisputed — studio control freaks of all time. “I must admit: I'm rebuying all these Steely Dan albums just for the sleeve notes because they're so hilarious,” he says. “They're the studio fables that Steely Dan have forever been known for, like, ‘The tape op left the 2-inch running and erased a vocal, and we used to quake in our boots and light a candle and console each other.’ They were the grand masters of faff [messing around] in the studio … they invented it. I mean, Donald Fagen is a very funny guy.”

Of course, as their misgivings about sounding too “slick” or “stuck in the past” would attest, this is not to say that Binns and Hardaker have operated completely beyond the pale of worry. Another one of their main concerns, according to mastering engineer Kevin Metcalfe from London's Soundmasters studio, was the chance that excessive low end would be a factor in their final mixdowns because they would always opt to saturate the tape as much as possible. “The boys have a tendency to go for it on the bass end, so you've got to make sure that it's there but it doesn't rattle the speakers,” Metcalfe says. “I use only analog EQ and compression, and I have a little trick where I can push any of the midrange instruments out just a little bit, using a master control unit designed by Leif Masses [who engineered, among others, Led Zeppelin, Abba, Jeff Beck and Black Sabbath].”

As for whether Zero 7 perceives its sound as anything other than a freely and constantly evolving work-in-progress, Hardaker runs the voodoo down. “This record just followed very naturally from coming off the back of touring for quite a while with a group of people we'd been playing with,” he says. “That was the first time we'd ever been involved in any kind of live performing of music, and it had been a really enjoyable experience for us, so it just seemed pretty natural to just pick up from there and carry on. I don't know — maybe it's a bit more human, this record, I guess because it's more about people.”

ZERO 7 IN BATTERY STUDIO TWO, LONDON

Akai S5000 sampler
AKG C 12 mic
API Lunchbox w/500-series EQs and mic preamps
Apple Mac G4 computer
ARP Solina String Ensemble synth
DDA Profile 56-channel console
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system w/Universal Slave Driver
Fender Rhodes piano
Hammond B-3 organ
Moog Memorymoog synth
Neumann TLM 170 mic
Roland Jupiter 8, Juno-106 synths
Studer A820 2-inch (24-track), A820 ½-inch (2-track) tape machines
UREI 1176 compressor
Wurlitzer electric piano

Alert to All Users of the Disqus commenting system:
Because of a recent global security issue, the Disqus website recommends that all users change their Disqus passwords. Here's a URL about the issue: http://engineering.disqus.com/2014/04/10/heartbleed.html
comments powered by Disqus
related articles
Connect with EM
Free eNewsletter
the em poll


most popular