Labour of Love
The Making of Duncan Browne’s ‘Songs of Love & War’
by Nick Magnus
The untimely death of musician Duncan Browne part-way through an album project spurred keyboardist Nick Magnus on to complete the recordings. Here Nick tells the inside story of how he accomplished it.
Whilst probably best remembered for his 1972 hit “Journey”, songwriter, guitarist and singer Duncan Browne also produced a series of nine albums both under his own name and that of the band Metro. His writing partnership with Peter Godwin in Metro also produced the song “Criminal World”, made famous by David Bowie on the album “Letâ€™s Dance”. Always keen to diversify, Duncan also wrote the music to numerous television productions such as BBC1’s series “Travelling Man”, BBC2’s period drama series “Shadow of the Noose”, and numerous other TV, film and documentary productions.
May 1993 saw the tragic loss of this fine and talented musician and composer, after a three year battle against cancer. At the time of his death, we had been working on his next solo album, some of which had reached demo stage, and some of which had yet to be written. Thus I undertook to complete the album, albeit in the absence of the principal artist. This was both a technically and emotionally challenging task. Much of the original work had been started on “old tech” equipment, most of which I no longer own, and the greatest problem presented was that of re-synchronizing the tracks to accommodate my present setup. As for the remainder of the album, it was decided to include a selection of previously unreleased tracks, chosen to highlight the diversity of Duncan’s musicianship. These were also to undergo some “tweaking” to bring them in line with the sound and feel of the whole album.
The experience was not without its humorous side, however. Duncan was a man of high ideals and scrupulously good taste; this meant that certain artistic decisions had to be considered most carefully. The curious thing was that whenever I had serious doubts about a particular course of action, the piece of equipment involved in the decision almost invariably broke down or crashed as if in response. Somehow I knew I was not alone!
Each track brought its own set of problems to solve, so they are grouped here by type, with brief descriptions.
Love Leads You
Both tracks are well suited to the guest golden larynx of Colin Blunstone on lead vocals, being similar in mood to songs of the Alan Parsons genre. “Love Leads You” particularly demonstrates Duncan’s wonderful feel for electric as well as acoustic guitar with a brief but beautiful solo that still gets the back of my neck tingling.
The treatment applied to these tracks was fairly straightforward. Since no multitracks existed, the original demo Â¼” stereo masters were used, transferred to DAT. These were fortunately recorded to an acceptably high standard, so the only processing used was courtesy of an SPL vitalizer. Compared to current listener expectations, the top end was relatively dull, and vocal diction suffered slightly. Using the vitalizer to accentuate the high mids at around 2.5KHz, and the harmonics control to restore missing sibilants, lyrics regained clarity and backing vocals which were hitherto almost lost became quite audible. This process also revealed hidden details in the drum parts. Subtle bass end enhancement was also employed to restore the balance between the two ends of the audio spectrum. Finally, the stereo width enhancement was set at about twelve o’clock to separate the instruments and remove any remaining muddiness. Comparison with the untreated original was extremely gratifying, and the result was copied across (via analog) to a second DAT.
“Rainer” is a song inspired by the great German film director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Getting off to an atmospheric start, and sporting some rather Brian Wilson-esque backing vocals, it develops into an anthemic chorus lavish with billowing Mellotron.
“High Windows” has intensely filmic lyrics, putting one in mind of unrequited love in deserted, rain-soaked Eastern European streets. Musically, however, it is warm and reflective. Duncan sings lead vocal on both tunes.
In common with various other tracks on the album, these songs were originated on a Fostex A8 8-track. Since I had long since sold the A8 and replaced it with a Fostex R8, the first spanner in the works had arrived. Tapes recorded on my A8 turned out to be quite incompatible with the R8. Even though the A8 and R8 are biased and lined up for Ampex 406 and 456 respectively, Fostex inform me that tapes should be compatible across the entire 8-track range. Evidently, my attempts to re-align the A8 as it grew older had caused it to drift into another universe; possibly through ignorance on my part. The problem was solved by the great kindness of stalwart SOS contributor Gordon Reid, who lent me his Fostex M80 for the duration. Fortuitously, the tapes seemed to sound even better on the M80 than my memory of them on the A8.
Synchronization was the next hurdle encountered. The backing tracks had been sequenced on my trusty MC500 (which I still use in preference to a software sequencer.) Clearly it would be better to run the tracks live wherever possible, rather than use the 8-track versions, thus presenting the opportunity to make improvements in both sounds and performances. Problem was, the code on tape was FSK code (frequency shift key) which contains no song position data. This was obviously unsatisfactory; I had no intention of starting from the top of the song just to check out something at the end! To solve this, the SRC/AT SMPTE to MIDI synchronizer was used. This unit has the wonderful ability to “learn” a tempo map, via MIDI, to 1,000th of a BPM accuracy. First off, the FSK code (which also contains tempo changes) was played from tape into the MC500, which in turn generated MIDI clock information which was sent to and “learned” by the SRC. Next, SMPTE code was striped onto a spare tape track …never erase your original code! Finally, to find the correct SMPTE start time offset, the SRC once again had the solution. A single cowbell beat, placed at the start of the sequence, was patched to the audio input of the SRC. The FSK code was once again sent to the MC500, whilst simultaneously sending the SMPTE code from tape to the SMPTE input of the SRC. When the FSK set the MC500 running, the cowbell beat marked the start of the song while referenced to the incoming SMPTE code. Phew! The new improved sequences now ran in perfect sync with the tape.
Further treatments involved EQ’ing the lead and backing vocals; these had been recorded with a Bathroom Tile, otherwise known as a Tandy PZM microphone. Whilst not lacking in sibilance, they needed a little extra warmth and breathiness, so a touch of 350Hz and 4KHz on the Studiomaster Gold mixer did the trick. The arpeggio electric guitar on “High Windows” was sent through an Energy Technology VKP1 valve preamp and then to a Dynacord CLS222 Leslie simulator to get that George Harrison sound. As with all the reworked tracks, the sequenced parts needed to be edited and in some instances re-performed to suit the new sound sources being used.
Suddenly Last Summer
“Scull Twins”, although a rock song, has veiled South American undertones. Duncan also plays some very tasteful electric guitar, getting a great sound from the much underrated Roland GP8.
“Suddenly Last Summer” was enormous fun to do. Based on the eponymous Tennessee Williams play, this interpretation is both quirky and sinister. Dialogue and effects sampled from the film play an important role, and the lighthearted outset of the piece becomes progressively darker with the introduction of Moroccan reeds, doomy Mellotron strings and thundering Taurus pedals (…actually a Super Jupiter.) Duncan is lead vocalist on these tracks.
The multitracks for these songs no longer exist (a fact for which I constantly chastise myself,) so consequently these two tracks are the original demos, mixed onto a Sony EV-S700UB Video 8 recorder. These machines, which predate DAT, utilized 8-bit digital stereo PCM audio tracks. This technology, while being preferable to your average cassette deck, does suffer from audible artifacts, notably the occasional distortion of exposed high frequency program material. For this reason, I wrestled with the dilemma of whether to vitalize the mixes or not, and finally decided the advantages of Vitalization outweighed the negative aspects. Since the vitalizer didn’t blow up in my face, I guessed Duncan would have been in agreement. “Suddenly Last Summer”, in particular, benefits from the process; amongst the key features of the song are the chilling, angst-ridden low grade samples of Elizabeth Taylor which are now clearly audible through an otherwise dense mix.
This song is an up-to-date reworking of Duncan’s hit single “Journey”, a sprightly song carried by a very infectious acoustic guitar figure. The original was produced by Mickey Most in 1972. This new version, actually recorded in 1992, is an altogether more energetic, rocky arrangement than its ancestor, and needed only a re-mix to freshen it up. Vocals and nylon guitar were recorded using an AKG C1000S microphone, with a slight EQ reduction at around 150Hz on the vocal to improve clarity.
Both of these tracks are recent recordings, and were left untreated. “Berceuse” (French for “Lullaby”), is a solo nylon guitar instrumental, and was recorded in one take directly to DAT using the AKG C1000S and a dash of Medium Room 8 from a Peavey Multifex. Even if I had the means of removing the creaking chair and breathing noises, I would not have done so.
“Barry’s Lament”, which Duncan recorded with Chris Cozens of Project D fame, demonstrates how a beautifully sculpted, atmospheric piece of music can completely transcend the factory presets used to create it; in this case simply D50 Glass Voices and VFX Zirconium.
I Fall Again
This is a vocal version of the theme Duncan wrote for the BBC drama series “Travelling Man”, with Colin Blunstone guesting again on lead voice.
Technically, this was definitely a tricky one; the track existed only on Â¼” stereo, but the challenge here was to add extra instruments to the arrangement, even though there was no code of any kind – not even FSK. This stereo master was bounced to four tracks of the R8; two tracks each for the left and right channels. Why? Well, ostensibly to increase the total track width, thereby allowing more level on tape, and thus achieve a better signal to noise ratio. Whether this is totally fallacious or not, I don’t know. (Any comments, Paul?) Well, I felt better for doing it, anyway. SMPTE was then striped onto track 8…. and then the difficult part began; creating a tempo map in the SRC. Using its audio input, I initially tried tapping out the tempo in time to the track. This proved to be quite insane. Cheated of a new toaster by the lack of one coupon, I tried another approach. Since the tempo of the track is fairly constant, I programmed a regular, quantized cowbell beat into the MC500. The tempo of this was matched as closely as possible to the track and then played into the SRC (in audio trigger learn mode) as the track ran while making minute manual adjustments to the tempo whenever it seemed to drift slightly. The SMPTE offset was then set as described earlier, and the new instruments (12 string guitar, 6 string guitar and pad, all from a JV880) were running in sync. Finally, the stereo track was Vitalized to bring out the vocals and a gentle 4:1 soft knee compression applied with an Alesis 3630 to tame the occasional “hot” bass notes.
The Small Hours
A distinct Eastern European influence is evident here; a subject which always fascinated us both. Belonging to that musical genre of 60s spy thriller themes synonymous with John Barry, it is an entirely keyboard generated instrumental, programmed on the MC500. After making improvements to sounds and tweaking parts to suit, the whole thing was run live to DAT.
“Sarabande” is a very classical sounding acoustic guitar and orchestra instrumental, reminiscent partly of an Albinoni Adagio, partly of a study by Roderigo.
“Romantic Comedy”, also an instrumental, has a warm, whimsical character.
These tracks feature Duncan’s nylon guitar (known as “the Spaniard”) recorded on the A8. Once again, the M80 came to the rescue. Synchronizing these FSK coded tracks was now no longer a problem (see Rainer and High Windows). However, the guitar on “Sarabande” had been recorded in sections, and the tuning varied from bar to bar. To remedy this, all the individual guitar phrases were sampled into the Roland S770, and assigned their own keys. Each sample was tuned correctly, but with some, the inevitable happened; the timing went astray. The S770’s Timestretch, together with some cut-and-splice editing and a dollop of intuitive guesswork, provided the necessary adjustments. Each phrase was then placed into approximate position within the MC500 sequence. To preserve the feel and timing of the original performance, these phrases were compared with the off-tape performance while listening in sync with the MC500, and then re-positioned precisely, one by one.
“Romantic Comedy” had no tuning problems, but the guitar track ended abruptly, and rather too soon. Remember, these started out as demo takes, and we had no idea they would eventually have to be used for real. The task here was to extend the piece, which of course is no problem if it involves only MIDI instruments. Basically, the final theme needed to be repeated, which meant writing a modulation to get back to the correct key. This done, the relevant section of guitar was sampled into the S770 and spun in on top of the new ending. The final result sounds quite natural. Final treatments to the guitar on both tracks were a touch of 250-300Hz and a little 6KHz to warm and brighten the sound of the PZM mic, and some fairly severe hard knee compression to bring out the body of the guitar sound. Medium Room 8 on the Peavey Multifex again provided the guitar reverb. All the MIDI instruments for both tracks ran live.
The Wild Places
This track is the odd one out, as it was previously released as a single and as the title track on Duncan’s 1978 album “The Wild Places”, produced by Ray Hendriks. Featuring Tony Hymas on keys, John Giblin on bass and Simon (Mr. Double Bass Drum) Phillips on, er….drums, it became a hit in Europe and the U.S, and was covered by people as diverse as Patti Smith and (allegedly) Barry Manilow! Since this slinky rocker is generally regarded as a seminal Duncan Browne track, its inclusion seemed justified. Tweaking of this track was restricted solely to some Vitalizing of the top end (to reveal hidden details and to bring it in line with the rest of the tracks) and some bass end enhancement from the same unit using the “tight” setting. Oh, and a touch of stereo width enhancement.
The finished album, available on CD, has been released on the Zomart label. I’m both pleased and honoured to have had the trust of Duncan Browne, his family, friends and publisher to complete the project.
The album is available through retail outlets or by mail order from Zomart Records, PO Box 345, London, WC1H 8HN.
Recording & Mixing
Fostex R8 8-track
Fostex M80 8-track
Studiomaster Gold 24:8:2
Sony DTC55 DAT
Technics SV260 DAT
AKG C1000 S Mic
Tandy PZM Mic
AR 18LS monitoring
Alesis 3630 x2
Quadraverb Plus x2
Roland MC500 Mk2
Roland A50 Keyboard
Roland Pad 8 Octapads
Yamaha KX5 Remote
Roland S770 (16Mb)
Roland JV880 (Pop)
Roland JV880 (Orchestral)
Roland Super Jupiter
Roland Planet MKS30
Korg Wavestation A/D
SCSI Drive Sony 600 Mb optical
Give Me Take You
The Wild Places
Streets Of Fire
(soundtrack album, Towerbell, 1985. CD Reissue on Prestige )
(Theme to Shadow of the Noose, BBC compilation,1989)
Songs of Love and War
On The Bombsite / Alfred Bell (Immediate, 1968)
Resurrection Joe / The Final Asylum
Journey / In a Mist
Send Me the Bill for your Friendship / My Only Son (RAK, 1973)
The Wild Places / Camino Real (Logo, 1978)
(featured on Street Band’s “Toast” EP, Logo 1993)
About the Author
Nick Magnus started his career in music in 1976 with the cult symphonic rock ensemble, The Enid. Since then he has worked with ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, touring the world and recording a total of seven albums in the course of this eleven year association. The Korgis have also benefited from Nick’ expertise, as did China Crisis (on their most successful album Flaunt The Imperfection produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker). Nick also produced Karel Fialka’s hit single Hey Matthew which reached No.7 in the charts.
Productions in 1994 included albums for Duncan Browne (Songs of Love And War) and Shirley Roden (The Path Of Daring,) as well as a self-composed album entitled Straight On Till Morning. This instrumental outing concentrates on themes, strong dynamics and cinematic soundscapes; qualities very much in demand within the world of film and television music.
In 1995, Nick again enjoyed Top Ten chart success as a member and co-producer of Free The Spiritâ€™s platinum album Pan Pipe Moods, which reached number two in the National Charts, selling 2,000,000 copies worldwide. Pan Pipe Moods 2 was released later in the year, followed by Pan Pipe Moods in Paradise in 1996.
(This article originally appeared in the May 1995 issue of Sound On Sound. Special thanks to Nick Magnus for putting it in our hands, not to mention making a great album!)