From the early guitar-punk of the mighty Jam to the elegant Style Council to his long and fruitful (and experimental) solo career, Paul Weller has been shaking up his own sound for more than four decades.
Weller’s latest album, Saturns Pattern, reveals many of his artistic moods and influences. There are moments of distorted rock ‘n’ roll, ’60s psychedelia, and synthy futro, plus CSNY-type harmonies, Randy Newman-ish piano pop, and even a bit of Delta blues.
Sequence, songs, and sonics were all carefully realized in Weller’s rural personal studio, Black Barn Recording (near Woking in Surrey, UK). Black Barn—truly a barn—is fitted with an MTA console, Pro Tools HDX, and Weller’s impressive instrument collection.
“We’ve got a piano, which is really beautiful,” Weller says. “It’s a Yamaha grand that I’ve had for about 25 years, and it has a very nice low end to it. We also always use the Mellotron, Minimoogs—mainly the piano and a lot of vintage keyboards.”
When Weller says “we,” he mainly means himself and engineer/producer Jan “Stan” Kybert, who’s been working on various projects with this artist since 2002. (Other credits include Oasis, The Verve, and The Prodigy.) In the case of Saturns Pattern, Kybert co-engineered the recordings with Black Barn’s house engineer Charles Rees, co-produced the album with Weller, Deca delay. He was using a blue Hoffner a lot, and he’s got a really good Telecaster and an old SG that he plays live. Paul’s also got his faithful amps. One is a Marshall that he’s been using for like 30 years, and that still sounds great.”
Kybert miked Weller’s amps with a tried-and-true Shure SM57, with the occasional addition of a Sennheiser MD421. “Also we had a Sontronics Sigma ribbon mic. That mic is really great, and then we would go through Noel Gallagher’s Neve 1073 pre/EQs, which he leant us.”
As for Weller’s voice, Kybert explains: “Charles and I went through a couple of different mics. We had a deal with Sontronics at the time, and 90 percent of the vocals are done through a Saturn mic, funnily enough; it’s pure coincidence. That also went through Noel Gallagher’s 1073s, and a lot of times it would go straight into Pro Tools and I’d compress it afterwards.”
Among the many other adjustments made during the mixing process at Black Barn, Kybert also added spectacular distortion to the vocal on “White Sky.” “That was with the Sansamp stock plug-in, in Pro Tools,” he says. “I love that!”
Other processing that’s essential to the Saturns Pattern sounds: Weller’s EMT 140 plate reverb, which Kybert says he used on almost everything. The engineer’s favorites also included plug-ins from Slate Digital, iZotope, and Fab Filter. “Slate Digital’s Virtual Mix Rack allows you to chain EQ and compression, which is great. Fab Filter is so precise, and it’s 24-band. Some of my EQs have gone to a place they’ve never gone before, because it allows me to add and subtract what I want in a different way, and it’s got a really good frequency display. They’re so easy to use, they sound great, and you have confidence in what you’re doing.”
That issue of “confidence” actually had to be resolved for Kybert to be able to mix Saturns Pattern in Weller’s studio. Kybert felt strongly that, with a studio as well-equipped as Black Barn, Weller should be able to record and mix in his own studio. However, acoustical anomalies cast doubt on the quality of the finished product.
“When we were mixing tracks for Paul’s second greatest hits compilation [More Modern Classics, Harvest, 2014] it was apparent that there was some sort of midrange problem,” Kybert recalls. “The EQ adjustments that I was making, I wasn’t hearing in the studio. If you took the mixes out of the room, they didn’t sound right at all. The room was acoustically treated and I thought it was pretty stable in there. The idea of people coming in and putting more treatment in the room wasn’t too appealing to me, because that’s always hit and miss.
“That’s when I discovered the Trinnov box [multichannel room-correction/loudspeaker optimization system],” he continues. “It comes out of the board but before the amps, and it’s virtual acoustic treatment made perfect. The guys at [manufacturer] Emerging are in the UK, so they came down and fitted it for us. It displays on a screen and shows you where the bumps are, and shows you the phase correlation between the speakers.
“The first listen with the box can be too extreme for people because it flattens the room completely, but the first time they played it, it just made perfect sense to me. I always try to push things, and on some of the bolder moments on the record that’s reflected in the stereo image; some of those things were only possible because I knew I could hear what was going on.”
At a suggested starting retail price of more than £3,500 (about $5,200), Trinnov is not an option for many pro studio owners, much less most recording musicians. And the system Kybert uses is priced around $10,000. “It’s definitely not cheap, but I would argue all day that it’s not expensive either,” Kybert says. “You have that unit for life. If you move studios, you can take it anywhere and neutralize that room, and there’s the time you save by the confidence in what you’re doing.
“Suddenly, with that one magic piece of gear, everything gets better,” Kybert continues. “All your plug-ins become better because you can hear more detail in everything. Slight changes become more apparent. When we get the drum sound together now, it’s quicker because what you’re hearing is what you’re hearing.”
“I’m lucky to have my own studio that’s really a home away from home,” Weller says. “It’s got such a nice vibe and it’s very conducive to working. Now that we have the sound really together, we can just leave things be, so they’re always ready to go. So when I start to get an idea, I can get a great sound straightaway as well.”
Barbara Schultz is the managing editor of Electronic Musician and Keyboard.