Imogen Heap is as hands-on in the studio as it gets. Other producers have taught her a lot over the years—most notably Guy Sigsworth (Björk, Madonna) with her first solo album, I Megaphone (1998), and their collaboration as Frou Frou (Details, 2002). But she’s since shed the training wheels, producing and engineering her last two solo albums entirely by herself.
Taking the reins only fueled success for the classically trained pianist. “Hide and Seek” (from Speak for Yourself, 2005) was nominated for a Grammy and appeared on no fewer than 15 compilations, as well as on TV shows and movies, including The O.C. and The Last Kiss. Not bad for a song recorded as an impromptu, end-of-the-day inspiration using only her voice and a vocoder.
By the time Heap was ready to record Ellipse (RCA/Sony, 2009), she was tired of all the outside noise surrounding her London studio. As fate allowed, her father planned to sell their family home in Essex, a Georgian house in “a slightly greener, quieter area,” Heap says.
Heap decided to keep the house and build a studio in what used to be the playroom in the basement. She thought the project would only take a month—it took eight. “It was really time-consuming and very stressful,” Heap admits. “But once you’ve gone so far down the line of building your ideal studio, cutting corners four months into it to speed things up doesn’t feel right.”
She hired a sound company to do a frequency sweep and design a space that would preserve the home-y vibe (the room includes a fireplace). The curved walls of the elliptically shaped home helped matters sonically, but the ceiling needed work. So she had a second ceiling built with BASWAphon acoustic plaster, which took two weeks just to set due to the cold, humid winter.
When it was finally finished, Heap had a convenient and inspiring studio space—if she could just get herself to walk downstairs. “Sometimes you have a bad run of three or four days, and it’s so hard to get back into the studio,” she says. “You think you can’t do it, and you’re rubbish, and you’re never going to finish [the album]. But the minute I’m on the fluffy sit ball, then it’s great, and I just get on with it.”
Heap follows inspiration wherever it might accidentally lead her. She got a percussion idea for the hushed intro of “2-1” from a dead bug. “I had this dream of having ceiling panels that looked like sky,” Heap says. “So I built this triptych panel of lights, which have hundreds of LEDs that we crisscrossed and stuck with glue. The panel itself is a cloudy plastic, and one day I tried to flick this bug to go outside of the light area, and [my fingernail] made this great sound on the plastic. So I got some softened beaters and played the ceiling light panels like a timpani.”
Similarly, she started the beat for “Swoon” by hitting a bronze sculpture at the house she stayed at in Maui (she also wrote parts of the album in Fiji and Tasmania). Then back in London, she built up the beat using a Korg Electribe EMX-1 and a PANArt Hang drum that looks and sounds like a spaceship.
Heap says many of her beats are mistaken for samples: “I usually use the actual acoustic sound—miked drums, Hang drum, mbira, or nail violin— then just chop it up and mess with the audio on the grid, so it sounds like it’s from drum samples.”
The slicing scissors sound on “Between Sheets” is Heap playing a nail violin (made by Bill Wesley) with brushes, miked up and recorded through a Focusrite Liquid Channel preamp/compressor.
Then there are real violins—or are they? “There’s nothing I hate more than the sound of a pitch-bend fake cello or violin,” Heap says. She does use EastWest Symphonic Orchestra and Ultimate Sound Bank Plugsound string samples (in Native Instruments Kontakt), but she’s meticulous about it. “I needed to feel the realism of the strings and the bow connecting—the expression of a real player and the air within the room,” she says. “To trick the ear into thinking that it’s listening to all real strings, I brought in a real cellist and violinist to play over the top of the fake string lines.”
But to get the right expression out of the samples underneath, Heap manually automated the fake strings in Pro Tools, “just opening and closing the Focusrite EQs and pitch-bending, so it’s not one continuous sound,” she says. “You can really hear if they’re fake if you hear the shrill top end. I’m basically EQing out anything that doesn’t sound real but still keeping the body of the strings.”
Heap records vocals with a Neumann TLM 103 into an Avalon Vt- 737sp with a little compression and some bass roll-off. In Pro Tools, she might add another Focusrite compressor. And as with the strings, there’s a lot of editing involved.
She’ll record several layers of her voice and cut and stretch them so they’re lined up perfectly, but it doesn’t stop there. “I don’t really want you to hear that it’s tracked,” Heap says. “I want you to feel that the sound of the voice has more weight and more depth but without sounding like you’re removed from me because it’s three of me singing it. So I go in and edit out S’s and T’s, or I just take a Focusrite d2 EQ and process the audio so each S and each T is slightly duller and you don’t hear so much of the sibilance.”
Effectswise, Heap thinks reverb “sounds too washy and gets in the way of the clear character of the track,” so she uses subtle delay. “But I hate hearing S’s and T’s repeated,” she says. “So I’ll make a copy of the lead vocal, cut out any hard consonants, and add Waves SuperTap delay, with few repeats.”
Unfortunately, there are many things Heap does in the studio that she can’t recall. “I’m very instinctive and crazy and don’t really know what I’m doing half the time,” she says. “Even though I’ll spend five hours programming strings, I get lost in a trancelike state because I’m working like a robot. By the end of it, I’ve done it, but I couldn’t really tell you how.”
She’ll remember soon, though. Heap’s friend Justine Pearsall captured 300 hours of her recording process on video. Stay tuned to experience all the magic moments on DVD, which will be released on RCA later this year.