22nd-century trip-hoppers record Head Up High, thanks to Rupert Neve, Robert Moog, and Expert Sleepers Silent Way
Morcheeba (left to right)—Ross Godfrey, Skye Edwards, and Paul Godfrey. UK trio Morcheeba hit Platinum paydirt on their 1995 debut, Who Can You Trust? and its follow-up, Big Calm, the albums’ nascent trip-hop a sleek amalgam of retro English soul, loping big beats, psychedelia-drenched melodies, and Skye Edwards’ grittily beautiful vocals. Morcheeba’s music became the quintessential sound of late-night London. Almost 20 years later, Morcheeba still meshes past and present tenses, whether layering simmering blues guitar over programmed dub grooves or quirky analog synthesizers against Native Instruments Maschine-produced R&B beats. Befitting a group whose music could easily adorn a classic 007 soundtrack by John Barry, Morcheeba’s 22nd-century trip-hop treatise, Head Up High, was recorded at their 17th-century converted farmhouse/studio in the south of France.
“I did most of the man hours on the record here at our French studio, Moog Island,” Morcheeba’s DJ/producer/ lyricist Paul Godfrey explains from Bordeaux. “The studio is named after a song from our first record. Moog Island is kind of a fantasy place, like the enemy’s hideout in a James Bond movie. But instead of having controls for nuclear weapons, it’s all Moogs.
“Since the early days,” he elaborates, “I’ve collected equipment that helps me get closer to my natural musical inclinations. We use vintage equipment including a Binson Echorec, Leslie cabinets, Neve 1073 preamps, and Moog Voyager, as well as plug-ins to saturate the sound, particularly SoundToys’ Decapitator, and the old Digidesign Lo-Fi plug-in; it gives clean sounds a really nice crunch. If you have a sound in mind from your favorite records, it’s just there with the older gear.”
When Morcheeba splashed down in the mid-’90s, sampling rates were barely in the seconds, and computers deemed worthy for music-making were slow and prone to crash. Perhaps the challenges bettered the music?
“We’ve made Platinum records on a Mackie desk with ADATs,” Godfrey laughs, “working like mad, just turning the knobs inside out trying to find that sound in our heads. So when Ross (Godrey, his brother and multi-instrumentalist), Skye, and I could afford the right gear and good microphones, our jobs became so much easier. I have an engineering background, but it’s ultimately about having the experience to know what not to do; when not to f*ck with it.”
Godfrey cut his engineering teeth at Astra Audio Studios in Kent, recording such heroes of the legendary Canterbury scene as Caravan, Soft Machine, Gong, Richard Sinclair, Pip Pyle, Hugh Hopper, and the Albion Band.
Choice Moog Island gear: “I’ve collected equipment that helps get me closer to my natural musical inclinations,” says Godfrey.
“Those guys were old school,” Godfrey exclaims. “They’d worked at The Manor and all the great English studios. I learned a lot from them about sound and arranging. I worked with a lot of great musicians at a time when I was very impressionable. I was lucky.”
Head Up High is trip-hop only in its essential aural sheen, that hyper-extended sense of a never-ending club crawl, a thousand sordid tales all contained under the umbrella of the night. The album’s adult-oriented soul toys with blues, funk, ska, rap, and reggae, touching down in dance music, but never quite landing full stop.
“We’ve always been on the fringes of dance music,” Godrey offers. “I come from a hip-hop background and we have reggae and blues influences, a lot of black music, so there is obviously a crossover. But I find most modern music very brittle. When you play our music against most modern music, it can sound quite soft if you don’t hear the subtleties.”
At left, Godfrey’s mic shootout. At right, the control room, with Tonelux modular console, and Neve and Calrec pres.
While Morcheeba recorded primarily at Moog Island, the band’s members live far and wide, so home ties took priority over studio familiarity. “Our own studios are more personal,” Godfrey says, “but because Ross was having a baby we recorded at Perry Vale in London, which is close to him. It has an incredible 1976 Neve 5305 24-channel 4-bus desk. It had transformerbalanced direct outputs fitted to each channel (with 24 mic pre/EQs: 33115x22, 33114x2). Jesus and Mary Chain, Robyn Hitchcock, Swervedriver, and Primal Scream have all recorded there. We tracked vocals and guitars there using the Neve console and all its mic pres.”
Moog Island, by contrast, is where Morcheeba gets personal with go-to effects, instruments, and old and new technology. Describing Moog Island as a “hybrid studio,” Godfrey owns a Tonelux modular console, which “has transformers on every channel, 32 channels but with a footprint of two by one foot” augmented by Neve pres and “old BBC Calrec preamps. We tend to mix in stereo stems now so we will end up with ten stems that have all been processed through analog gear. While we’re tracking, it tends to be analog compression and analog EQ, then I might add saturation and distortion using the Thermionic Culture Vulture.”
Moog Island is comprised of a live room with piano, amps, and Hammond organ with a Leslie cabinet, while the control room typically houses the Tonelux console, computers, and outboard.
“The studio was a barn,” Godfrey says. “I live in the attached farmhouse. I walk through the courtyard to get to work.”
Godfrey’s go-tos for Head Up High included Native Instruments Maschine with his voluminous sample library. “Maschine is very tactile and I can bash out some beats then edit them in Pro Tools and arrange them later.” Moog Voyager is his go-to bass synth. “It’s so easy to use, and also the Cwejman S1 MKII, a semi modular synth built in Scandinavia, and the EMS Synthie. The Cwejman is more aggressive than the Voyager, but the Moog has that depth and warmth. And the ARP 2600 as well gets used quite a lot.”
Head Up High’s opener, “Gimme Your Love,” is a trip-hop stoner’s paradise, all woozy doom’n’dread synths, behind-the-beat drums, dreamy wah-wah guitar, and Skye’s luscious vocal and staggered cadences, which when tied to Godfrey’s lyrics recalls Donovan Leitch’s 1967 hit “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” (Coincidence or synchronicity? The first line of Donovan’s song is “Color in Sky brush and blue.”) The song closes with what sounds like a woman curtly pronouncing, “Well, it could be better.”
“I came up with that drum loop on Maschine,” Godfrey recalls, “and then added spring reverb from the Binson Echorec (which was famously used on David Gilmour’s guitar on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and on John Bonham’s drums in “When the Levee Breaks”). The main loop is a dusty, old breakbeat-sounding loop I had. And there’s a tom through a Roland Space Echo that is quite ominous. Then I added Moog bass. I practically wrote that alone ’cause everyone was away. I started jamming the bass line on the Moog, sent the riff to Ross and Skye, and they loved it. The pads are from Studio Electronics Code 8 synth, a kind of polyphonic Moog. The ARP 2600 is doing the atmospheric sounds. The guitar is a ’60s Fender Jaguar through a Roland Phase II pedal and a 1960s Selmer Truevoice 50-watt head. We ran the guitar through a Leslie cab as well, so you really hear that rotating, seasick, spacey sound. And the sampled vocal says, ‘I feel much better.’”
The strangely evocative “Under the Ice” begins with a plucked instrument, gurgling percussion and log-drum rhythm underpinning Skye’s enchanted vocal. The rhythm bucks and sways; it could as easily be New Orleans as São Paulo. The mood reflects sadness, layered vocals matched to subtle synths and electronic effects.
“That’s Ross playing a charango,” Godfrey says. “It’s a South American instrument with an armadillo shell and ten strings. It’s supposed to be strummed but Ross always picks it, for a harpsichord sound. I based the rhythm on that old U.K. two-step or jungle, but wanted to use more spacious, world-music sounds to give it an organic feel. One of my favorite records is Dr. John The Night Tripper’s Gris Gris. I am always trying to create those kinds of sounds mixed with the Rick Rubin hip-hop sounds. And there’s a Native Instruments Massive bass line. Also in that track is M-Tron Pro by G-Force Software, one of my favorite virtual instruments. It’s like a Mellotron, you can put it at half-speed and experiment like mad. We also filter it to become quite atmospheric. That creates the background drones. And you’re also hearing the vibraphone from the M-Tron.”
The album’s most challenging track was “Do You Good,” states Godfrey. A bed of pulsating electronic sounds and stomping drums sets the stage, a virtual 4/4 rocker. A long rest is aborted with a wall of crescendo-ing synths bubbling like a lava flow. If this is the end of our James Bond soundtrack, then it’s Duran Duran riding the 4/4 groove to the heart of the sun.
“We’re mixing Talking Heads with a tribal approach and house music,” Godfrey says. “That was way beyond our comfort zone so we had to work hard to find a balance. We did that with a few tracks and it’s been a really educational experience to get it right. I try to push things to where we’ll feel uncomfortable and Ross will try to pull me back to where he feels comfortable, then somewhere in the middle we find that sweet spot that is Morcheeba.
“Splitting credit is one key to longevity,” Godfrey says, anticipating the publishing royalties question for this 20-year old band. “Most of the musical parts are Ross, and I did more lyrics this time. I am more from a hiphop angle so I program the beats and sample and generate ideas for moods. Ross is a multiinstrumentalist, and he’s into melody, as is Skye. Ross played keyboards and guitar. I started out of my bedroom with a 4-track and a sampler that would only do two seconds, so I had to get creative. Every hip-hop producer out there thinks he is a producer before he’s even sat in front of a mixing desk.”
Godfrey tracked Skye’s vocal with a Neumann U47, which he considers a male vocalist’s tool. She typically cuts five passes, then they comp.
“I always associate the U47 with male voices but it sounded really creamy with Skye’s voice,” he informs. “The AKG C12 was too sharp. We used the 33115 pres from Perry Vale’s Neve board. And I also brought in a Mercury 66 valve compressor; it’s a Fairchild clone. I ended up using a Urei 1176LN to catch the peaks while the Mercury gave it the tone and that creaminess.”
Godfrey’s analog synths went direct via a Little Labs DI, into an 1173 and a Teletronix LA2A compressor, or the Thermionic Culture Phoenix for a touch of distortion. The Moog Voyager ran direct for bass lines, recorded at Ross’ home and also at Perry Vale studio, where Skye’s husband, Steve Gordon (who was key in getting her to rejoin Morcheeba after their 2003 split), also tracked bass using a Fender Precision through a Warwick tube amp and alternately a vintage Ampeg fliptop and a Big Tree DI. The Mercury M66 was also used for bass compression.
Ross Godfrey’s many guitars include a Gibson SG, Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, and vintage Jaguar, Martin, and Hofner acoustics, and a Silvertone Craftsman Jimmy Reed Model. His work is Head UpHigh’s secret spice, creating fizzy blues caterwaul, Eastern drones, and Hendrix dream flanger quotes, always in the most unexpected places.
“For Ross’ guitars I used an old Unidyne SM57, an AKG C24, or Neumann SM69,” Godfrey says. “We’d have a stereo mic a few feet back from the grill of a vintage Fender Tweed for ambience and then the Unidyne very close just off axis, up against the grill. We added some ribbons for tone, and balanced the mics on the board to get the final sound. Ross plays loud in the studio in order to get the kind of harmonics he wants. But we use smaller amps and drive them hard. Sometimes we ran the guitars through the Leslie cabinet and used extra flangers on the mix.”
Godfrey used various drum machines in conjunction with his vintage 1970s Ludwig maple kit and a custom kit with a 26-inch bass drum.
“I’ve always programmed drums to sound organic,” Godfrey says. “I like the atmosphere of old breakbeat loops. When programming drums I use a lot of spring reverb or plate reverb like the Binson Echorec just to fill in the gaps and give that kind of atmosphere.
“I have a big library of drum sounds sampled from vinyl,” he continues, “and different drum machines including an SP-808, Roland CR68, DMX, and the Maschine. I layer them up and make sure they’re all phase-coherent on the grid, not as far as timing but so they align. I use the 808 a lot; I love its sub-bass as a flavor.”
Godfrey is such a wiz, it’s nigh-on impossible to know where the acoustic drums end and the programming begins. He’s absolutely painstaking and ready to sacrifice for the sound.
“I put a Neumann U47 FET condenser microphone in front of the kick into a Neve 1073 into a vintage LA2A,” he details via email. “I aim a Coles 4038 ribbon mic at the snare between the hat and the hanging tom then into another Neve into a Bluestripe 1176. The main balance of the kit depends on one mic: the vintage Neumann SM69 tube. I’d advise everyone to get one while they’re still relatively affordable—sell a kidney if you have to! That goes overhead through another couple of Neves and then the Thermionic Phoenix in stereo. I love the sound of Al Jackson on the old Stax stuff so this is my Stax-inspired setup. If I feel we need any more attack on the kick, I’ll use a dynamic microphone like the Sennheiser 421 either in the kick or beater side with the phase reversed. This would also hit a Neve and some light 1176 compression. I’ll also use compression, parallel distortion, and transient design and then bounce them into stereo to make loops. I try to get the kick pitched to the home key of the song before we start as it just punches through a mix better.”
At end of day (or end of the record), who can really tell if a particular sound is vintage or new, analog or digital? Apparently Godfrey can, but of greater interest to him is using new technology to control and benefit vintage gear. “It’s incredible,” he exults. “A program like Expert Sleeper Silent Way can control all your old analog synths and they will be perfectly in time. Without it, it would be a nightmare to connect them all up. For years we’d be like safecracking, trying to dial in the right tempo on an LFO. Or trying to get samples to run in time with old computers and syncing them to two-inch tape. It was maddening. Now there’s a plug-in for everything. We live in an amazing time.”
The new economic realties are not lost on Godfrey either. While pro studios continue to close down, bedroom studios flourish. The tools of the trade are available to almost anyone, even if the experience to yield their full benefits remains hard won.
“It was so all beyond our reach when we were younger,” Godfrey reflects. “Now with $100 you can start building a rack and you have access to incredible gear. It’s a golden age really of being a consumer of audio gear. As long as you can control it and not let it control you—then you’re onto a good thing.”
Ken Micallef is freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. His work has appeared in many publications, including DownBeat, eMusic, and ModernDrummer.