Participants in Play With Your Music were recently treated to an in-depth interview with two Peter Gabriel collaborators, engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta. Both are highly accomplished music pros with a staggering breadth of experience between them. You can watch the interview here:
Kevin Killen engineered So and several subsequent Peter Gabriel albums. His other engineering and mixing credits include Suzanne Vega, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Bobby McFerrin, Elvis Costello, Dar Williams, Sophie B. Hawkins, Ricky Martin, Madeleine Peyroux, U2, Allen Toussaint, Duncan Sheik, Bob Dylan, Ennio Morricone, Tori Amos, Rosanne Cash, Shakira, Talking Heads, John Scofield, Anoushka Shankar, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Stevie Nicks, Los Lobos, Kate Bush, Roy Orbison and Bryan Ferry.
Jerry Marotta played drums on all of Peter Gabriel’s classic solo albums. He has also performed and recorded with a variety of other artists, including Hall & Oates, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, John Mayer, Iggy Pop, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Cher, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, and Ron Sexsmith.
Kevin became interested in audio engineering after seeing a documentary about the making of a Police album. His first gig was an internship in a jingle studio in 1979. He describes the usual workflow for jingles: the entire process would be completed in a single four hour session, from equipment setup to recording to mixing to handing off finished tapes to the client. This experience taught Kevin to manage time carefully, and to be be prepared. He learned to arrive at the studio two hours in advance so that the musicians could walk in and be rolling tape in ten minutes. He did this work on a Studer sixteen-track. Typically they would use four tracks for drums, one for bass, two for acoustic guitar, one or two for keyboards, and so on. There was no automation, so all mixing was live performance, usually with one pair of hands on the rhythm section tracks and another on the vocal tracks.
During the graveyard shift, the studio employees could pursue their own projects. For Kevin, that meant cutting demos for punk and new wave bands. Outside of the classical music world, there was no formal education for audio engineers at the time. You read the equipment manuals, watched more experienced engineers, and did a lot of trial and error. The studio’s chief engineer listened to Kevin’s early mixes and, instead of recoiling in horror, “magnanimously” encouraged him and gave him mixing tips.
Peter Gabriel recorded all the basic tracks for his solo albums in a cow shed next to his farmhouse outside of Bath. The shed was originally used as a rehearsal space, and didn’t have any acoustic treatment; it was just concrete walls, a metal roof and windows with cows walking by outside. (The cows enjoyed licking the windows from time to time.) Kevin describes the setup as “quite rudimentary,” but Peter found the environment congenial enough to go from rehearsing to full-blown recording in the shed. For his first few solo albums, he brought in a mobile truck, but over time he bought enough gear to turn the shed into a full-service studio. The centerpiece was an SSL console and two Studer tape machines. Peter’s engineers used the mic preamps and EQs built into the the console, which at the time was viewed as a primitive approach. Now, the music world has learned to appreciate that SSL sound; Peter appreciates it so much that he bought the company in 2005.
The studio was equipped with a wall of keyboards that included a Fairlight CMI, a Prophet-5, an E-mu Emulator and a Polymoog, among others. The South Bank Show documentary on the making of Security shows that the barn also housed an assortment of drum machines. All that gear represented a substantial financial investment on Peter’s part; none of it was cheap and all of it was on the cutting edge. The studio also had a Revox P77 tape recorder for demo recordings.
Eccentric though Peter’s studio setup was, it got results. Jerry observes that every studio had a copy of Security in the control room, and engineers were awestruck by its unique and groundbreaking sound. David Lord, the engineer on Security, was amazed that anyone thought it sounded good, because he knew how ad-hoc some of the production had been. He and Peter employed several technically questionable practices, like bouncing drum tracks between tape machines multiple times, accumulating many generations of signal degradation along the way. Both Kevin and Jerry attribute the album’s dazzling soundscape more to the musicians and engineers involved than to any particular technical methodology.
Both Kevin and Jerry repeatedly observed that albums with soul and iffy sound will always succeed more, artistically and commercially, than pristine-sounding albums full of boring ideas. Both Security and So were such landmarks because of the creative process behind them, not due to any specifics of the sound.
The creative process
Peter would always have a sound in his head, but usually couldn’t verbalize exactly what he wanted. He also didn’t have the technical acumen to realize the sounds himself. He relied on his musicians and engineers to experiment and contribute ideas until they collectively discovered the right sound. Both Kevin and Jerry spoke at length about how they felt like an ensemble of collaborators, not sidemen or hired hands. While Kevin modestly describes his job as “mostly being a documentarian,” he also talks about how receptive Peter was to ideas from everyone in the room. Jerry pointed out that Peter himself is a drummer, and so his job was to “act as an extension of Peter,” to realize ideas that Peter maybe couldn’t. He said that Peter’s admiration for his drumming made filling that role quite easy for him.
Peter is notorious for “recording everything and discarding nothing,” as Kevin puts it. The usually rock/pop recording practice is to lay down basic tracks, which you then treat as a stable foundation to build on top of. For Peter, however, nothing was ever locked down. Any part could be reworked or reconceived from scratch at any point in the process. There would be considerable “churn” while Peter hunted for lyrics. This method took a long time, cost a ton of money in tape and personnel, and made the management of all those alternative versions a monumental task. Kevin was hired to start working on So after engineering U2’s The Unforgettable Fire with Daniel Lanois. Lanois asked Kevin to come to the UK to do mixing on So. Kevin expected to be there for six weeks, maybe eight. He ended up working on So for ten months.
Songs underwent some quite lengthy evolution, sometimes arriving in very different places than where they started. Jerry describes recording an early version of “Big Time” that was much more intense and far out than the one that ended up on So, and that it “would not have been a hit.” On the other hand, “In Your Eyes” reached a state of such polish that it sounded like an obvious pop smash, and Peter told everyone not to play it for the record company executives until they had a chance to make it more experimental.
Peter is a great love of the happy accident, and anything he hears is fair game. Jerry describes how he was tuning his drum kit, and Peter rushed into the room to insist they record it as a new idea for a percussion sound.
In addition to Peter’s deliberate creative process, the work on So took such a long time due to some unforeseen technical obstacles. The initial tracks were recorded over Peter’s demos by Tears For Fears engineer David Bascomb and Lanois onto two Studer 880 tape decks, which were supposedly synchronized. However, while the synchronizer sent standard FM sync data to both tape machines, one of them was customized with a DC sync card. As was customary practice, the band would listen to the demo on the B machine and record parts on the A machine. Then they loaded those parts to the B machine and recorded more takes on the A machine. Unbeknownst to the engineers, however, the A and B machines were continually drifting out of sync. Each take started synchronized and then wound up out of alignment by the end. This was, needless to say, not good. Kevin’s task, in addition to recording new parts and mixing, was to find a way to sync all those tapes back up. Also, as of his arrival, Peter hadn’t written any lyrics yet, and the recording of all of his final vocals would be a non-trivial task unto itself.
Peter, Kevin and Lanois would arrive in the studio at nine in the morning and work until seven at night. After Peter left, Dan and Kevin would keep working through the night. Kevin says that he was motivated to keep up such a grueling schedule by his intense fandom for Peter, not to mention the fact that he was 25, way out in the countryside, and had nothing else to do.
The joy of analog tape is that what you get on playback never sounds exactly like what you recorded. Every single playback physically stresses the tape and degrades the fidelity. Copying from one tape to another degrades the quality further. You can never quite get back the clarity of your initial sounds. Imagine the challenge of keeping the sounds reasonably bright while continually reworking the tapes for ten months! Kevin and Lanois had a couple of methods to retain as much brightness as possible. One was to record excessively bright sounds on purpose, knowing that they would mellow out over time. Another strategy was to have each part played by multiple players on multiple instruments through multiple effects, layered together to make great big composite sounds.
The layering method also had the advantage of creating unique and innovative sounds. For example, on the chorus of “In Your Eyes,” the distinctive arpeggiated guitar part is actually a combination of guitar, piano and rhythmically pulsating synths, all blended together and printed to tape with effects in place. “In Your Eyes” is a classic example of the ever-evolving Peter Gabriel workflow. It was a 70% complete song called “Sixty-One” when Peter suddenly came up with the verse part. Then he decided that what was then the prechorus should become what is now the chorus. Restructuring the song so completely required meticulous edits across six reels of tape all unsteadily synced together. There was no Pro Tools, no non-destructive editing, no Undo. Analog editing is not for the faint of heart.
The technical side
Peter was an early proponent of synth-based pop. He never used patches or presets. Jerry recalls that when Peter got his Prophet-5, he let Larry Fast, his resident synth expert, take it apart and tinker with it before even plugging it in.
Kevin details the effects setup for So. The board had eight dedicated channels for effects returns. Reverb and delay units included a Quantec room simulator, an EMT plate, a Revox tape slap, an AMS delay, a Delta Lab delay, and some other chorus-y effects. Daniel Lanois’ method was to hard-patch effects units together to cascade sound from one unit through another, for example recirculating delay with reverb. Jerry observes that Peter himself wasn’t too immersed in the details of how reverb or EQ worked. He trusted his collaborators to find the sounds that matched or exceeded the ones in his imagination, which meant pushing the limits of the gear. As Jerry puts it, “snare drums never sounded like snare drums.” All the experimentation was encouraged in the hopes of arriving at one of Peter’s beloved happy accidents.
One such happy accident: the original version of “Mercy Street” was originally pitched higher. The team was listening to something else slowed down via vari-speed. That track ended and “Mercy Street” began, with the vari-speed still on. Everybody loved it, and it ended up being the basis for the whole sound of the track.
Another happy accident: the team would dial in an interesting drum kit sound with heavy compression and distortion. It would work great on the kick and toms, but would sound horrible on cymbals. So Peter would just have Jerry play without using his cymbals, and then overdub the cymbals separately later. Or maybe not; they would discover that other elements of the track building up to a section change did same the job as a cymbal crash, without the blast of noise masking everything else. It took some adjustment for Jerry to not use his cymbals, but he trusted the process.
Jerry describes working with Peter as being like “walking on the moon.” After he got a taste of having total creative freedom and unlimited time to try out ideas, he had a difficult re-entry into the “real world” of conventional pop and rock production. He is bored by standardized sounds and the creative compromises that come from working fast. Ironically, if the music is lame, he finds it easier to work on. You walk in, you play your part, you get paid, no big deal. But if the music is good, it’s harder to operate in the conventional way. You might hear an extraordinary possibility, and you want to dig in and find what it is. If you don’t have the time or freedom to do so, it’s seriously frustrating. For that reason, Jerry doesn’t do all that much session work.
Advice for bedroom producers
Kevin believes that it’s harder to be innovative “in the box” (using a DAW). A Pro Tools or Logic session is like a Microsoft Word document; it’s identical every time you open it. Analog was so complicated and difficult that accidents were inevitable. You might load a tape but forget to set up the patch bay to the correct configuration. Sometimes you get a pleasant surprise that way. That kind of randomness is absent in the digital world, so you have to force your happy accidents. On So, the team did their exploration during the daytime, and technical fixes at night. The long time delay between laying something down on tape and trying to make sense of it later opened up space for reflection. In the DAW, there’s the temptation to fix your mistakes and glitches immediately, and sometimes you correct away some desirable oddball quality. Also, analog tape only allows so many tracks simultaneously, which forces hard choices and commitment. For Kevin, that constraint is a positive for creativity. The fact that DAWs let you do infinite non-destructive edits can bury you under option paralysis.
Both Kevin and Jerry urge bedroom producers not to work alone. You can’t master every discipline; you’re lucky to master one. Just because the DAW makes it possible for you to do everything yourself, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Kevin and Jerry believe strongly in the collision of multiple creativities and differing abilities, the group dynamics that makes a bunch of musicians greater than the sum of their parts. If you work alone, you tend to treat pieces of your track as immovable objects, which forecloses options prematurely. Meanwhile, if you have a room full of people, you might be vamping out on a tune and have something great just spontaneously emerge.
Jerry draws a contrast between the normal process of writing a pop song and Peter’s process. Usually you write a bunch of material and then use the studio to realize that material. Peter came into the studio with vague sketches at most, and let the songwriting emerge out of studio experimentation. This workflow was an extremely expensive one back in the early eighties, but now it’s available to everyone. If you’re in your bedroom working on your laptop in a DAW, you can spend all the time you want tinkering and playing. Jerry also observes wryly that since the music business is dead anyway, no money is likely to be stake, so you might as well exert creative freedom. He reminisces about an Atlantic Records executive who tried to convince Peter to sound like more like Michael Macdonald in the interests of expanding his commercial appeal. This kind of pressure does not apply to the DIY bedroom producer. If no one but you is bankrolling your project, no one but you has a say in how things sound.
How do you have happy accidents in the DAW? Jerry suggests copying effects chains from one track to another. If you get a good delay or EQ on your drums, for example, why not try the identical sound on the guitar? DAWs have the virtue that you don’t need to be bound by conventional methods.
Kevin observes that in the analog era, the constraints were both technical and budgetary. Now the constraints are solely budgetary. Peter had the rare privilege of using his sizeable record advances to build his home studio so he could operate without time constraints. You can do the same thing, at considerably less expense. In theory, digital makes it possible to convey the fully accurate vision of the engineers and musicians to the listener. In practice, however, that doesn’t always happen, due to file compression and low-grade playback gear. Kevin is also not wild about sample-based hip-hop and EDM, since he thinks that it lacks emotion.
Once So took off, Kevin got a lot of calls asking for “the Peter Gabriel sound.” He found that amusing. That sound is the result of those people in that situation over that time span. Without that combination of factors, you don’t get that sound. This is true even if you hire a bunch of the same cats as Peter. Not that people haven’t tried.
Jerry says that if you want that that Peter Gabriel sound, you have to start by writing material on his level. If you want the sound of “Don’t Give Up,” first you have to write “Don’t Give Up.” Kevin was asked how he got such an amazing bass sound from Tony Levin. His answer: “It’s Tony Levin!” Tony would be fiddling around with a part, and then suddenly, boom, the sound became “three-dimensional,” due to combination of that guy with those fingers on that bass. Kevin viewed his job in that situation as being to just stay out of the way. You get good people together, create an environment conducive to flow, and then let everyone flow.
Kevin believes that the beauty of music is in the human flaws. You shouldn’t get get carried away with pitch and time correction. You don’t want to remove “the wrong flaws.”
Odds and ends
As mentioned above, Peter famously never discards anything. Jerry says that during the So sessions, Peter was working on a song called “Courage” that had a vibe to “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.” He abandoned it because he couldn’t settle on a lyric he liked. He did eventually end up finishing the tune — almost thirty years later.
There are some interesting tidbits about “In Your Eyes.” The drum kit has a triggered surdo sample on top. The drum reverb gradually opens up over the course of the arrangement. The Brazilian percussion loop is not perfectly metronomic, which is strongly apparent if you solo up the stem. In the context of the song, though, it feels right. Jerry tells the story of Youssou N’Dour’s famous appearance on the end of the tune. He was several hours late for the session, and ended up being present for just half an hour total. Still, that half an hour was enough for him to cut his hair-raising vocal, right in the control room.
Jerry talks about playing the bassline for “Big Time” with drum sticks onto the strings of Tony Levin’s bass. There was apparently some precedent for that; Gene Krupa used to play with sticks on an upright bass. Tony was so taken with the sound of drumsticks on the bass that he later developed his “funk fingers” so he could do the drumming himself.
Kevin talks about the drums on “Big Time” being especially challenging. Peter had Jerry, Manu Katché and Stewart Copeland from the Police each take a swing at playing over a scratch beat from the Linndrum. Peter liked Stewart’s take, but it didn’t exactly lock in rhythmically. So they mixed it down to mono, played it along with the click, and flew in samples of the parts that lined up the best, a few bars’ worth at a time. Peter loved the result wanted them to bring in Stewart’s fills too. Stewart has a very human feel, and like most drummers, tends to speed up into the chorus. Kevin had to laboriously sample the drum fills and alter their speed to get them to line up. All this without being able to visually line up waveforms against a grid — the whole process would have taken ten minutes with Ableton Live. In the end, not everything lined up exactly right, but since it was consistently “wrong,” the feel was there, and ultimately that’s all that matters. Jerry agrees: sometimes stuff that’s weird and out sounds like the right thing. If there’s a single message to this entire interview, that’s probably it.