This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog. Also be sure to check out our interview with engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta.
Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual for its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. While Peter was considered avant-garde back then, now that music technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, his practices have become the baseline standard for pop, dance and hip-hop.
The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception. It’s an invaluable record both of Peter’s creative process and the technology behind it.
Whether or not you’re a fan of PG, the documentary is super valuable as pop music history. PG used various practices in the early eighties that were unusual and cutting edge for the time, but that have since become the standard pop production and writing methods.
A capsule history of pop production
From the invention of recording until the 1960s, the usual process behind making a pop record went something like this:
- You had a piece of music, on paper or in your head, and taught it to a bunch of musicians.
- You rehearsed carefully, so that you could go into the studio and document the cleanest performance possible.
- Maybe you did some post-production afterwards, some splicing together of takes or application of audio effects like reverb, but for the most part the recording was a document of a real-time performance.
While jazz musicians tried some in-studio improvisation, and avant-gardists experimented with constructing music entirely from pre-existing recordings, these were not typical practices.
Starting in the 1960s, the studio started to become the setting for basic invention of the music, not just its documentation. The Beatles, for example, created music in the studio that did not originate in live performances, at least not contiguous ones. But the Beatles were unusual in that they had complete freedom and unlimited time; most musicians had to get in and out of the studio as fast as possible.
Through the seventies and into the eighties, then, the standard practice continued to be to record live performances of rehearsed material in the studio. On the fringes, there continued to be experiments with creating music from the ground up through the recording process. For example, Miles Davis and Teo Macero created In A Silent Way by editing together studio improvisation. It was considered a far-out record at the time, though now it sounds remarkably prescient. Electronic music was particularly conducive to using the studio as the compositional tool, since with programmed synths and drum machines, there is no “performance” to begin with.
Enter Peter Gabriel. In 1983, he was already a major star, both for his work with Genesis and his subsequent solo albums. He used some of his wealth to build himself a state-of-the-art studio in his home, stocked with synths, samplers and drum machines. Along with engineer David Lord, he set about creating the songs for Security through playful experimentation in this studio. At the time, all of the equipment he was working with was fantastically expensive and complex. Now, of course, the same album could be produced on an ordinary laptop at a tiny fraction of the cost. While the technical aspects of Peter’s process are a matter of history, his creative process is still perfectly relevant for musicians and producers today.
The studio as a lab for playful experimentation
Peter built the songs on Security from the beat up. As he put it, “Rhythm is the spine of the piece.” Before beginning production, he went on a methodical search for interesting rhythms, what hip-hop producers call jacking for beats. Producers compile drum loop libraries in hard drive folders; Peter’s 1983 equivalent was a suitcase full of cassettes. Having identified some inspiring beats, Peter then replicated them using the drum machine. He might also have just sampled them directly, but using the drum machine gave him greater freedom to vary tempo, groove and drum sounds. The idea of a white British guy appropriating African rhythms for his own purposes is seriously politically and ethically problematic, of course. Does Peter get a pass for his good-faith effort to support and promote the musicians he’s borrowing from, via WOMAD and Real World? It’s a subject for another post.
Peter developed his melodies and chords by improvising over the beats into a tape recorder. He and David Lord then assembled the individual loops into structured phrases. This songwriting method is much easier using MIDI and a modern DAW like Pro Tools or Ableton Live; in 1983 it required a lot of tedious tape archiving and splicing.
Maybe the most exciting part of the video is when PG and Lord go to the junkyard with a field recorder to collect samples for use as percussion, synth sounds and atmosphere. They gleefully smashed car windshields and TV screens, and also stumbled on an important happy accident: the sound of the wind blowing across the end of a pipe. This sample later became a pad sound in “San Jacinto.” Another happy accident occurred when Peter played back a whistle sample on the Fairlight. As it looped, it produced a rhythm, which later became the basis for “Rhythm of the Heat.” Some of the sounds that Peter and David Lord gathered were issued as factory sounds with the Fairlight CMI.
Peter began lyric writing by recording improvised wordless vocals — “Gabrielese.” He later replaced the nonsense syllables with English. His reason for fitting the lyrics to the melodies rather than the other the other way around: “There have been really great songs with appalling lyrics, but there have been no great songs with really appalling music.”
Peter anticipated the contemporary pop music practice of carefully designing drum sounds from scratch, rather than using the sounds of a standard kit. For example, he had Jerry Marotta play a surdo rather than a standard kick drum. Producers now typically have a hard drive folder full of different kick drums to choose from, and all production software comes with a library of such sounds. You still get the best and most distinctive results from rolling your own, though.
When the rest of the musicians arrived, Peter and Lord tracked them with isolation so that their performances could be more easily manipulated later. The parts were worked out collaboratively and on the fly. For example, guitarist David Rhodes made his way through a song, recording in short segments rather than in full takes, essentially building a library of David Rhodes samples that could be deployed by Peter however he saw fit. The musicians also recorded some full-band freeform jams that were edited down to create new song segments.
In short, Peter’s recording process consisted of gathering a ton of material and organizing it. The hard compositional decisions were all made in postproduction. While this stage is usually known as “mixing,” in Peter’s method it mostly consisted of editing in a process of subtraction. David Lord observed that normally the rejection of alternatives happens in pre-production, not post, but Peter’s method of throwing a lot of sounds at the wall and seeing what sticks has become quite a bit more common in the years since. Postproduction also entails a lot of audio processing and treatment. Peter considered the shaping of timbre and space to be an essential part of songwriting, not just a way to decorate the recorded sounds. His term for it is “treating sounds to put them in perspective.”
Security got so-so reviews in the white press (“a fair slagging”), but black radio and magazines loved it, a point of obvious pride for Peter.
You can do this too
Bedroom producers: everything Peter did on Security, you can do too, at a fraction of the cost. You just need a computer, a DAW/production environment like Ableton Live, and a couple hundred dollars worth of mics and preamps. Everything that Peter did with drum loops, drum machines, sampling, improvising, editing and processing can be achieved in Ableton. And you can take heart knowing that Peter tracked final vocals on an inexpensive SM57.
If you want to dive deeper into Security, by the way, you’re in luck. Real World Records held a “Shock The Monkey” remix contest — the contest is long over but you can still download the stems.