In the Studio: Recreating How Long by Ace
In the Studio: Recreating ‘How Long’ by Ace
One of our more important assignments (as well as a favourite for students and staff alike) is the recreation of a well-known track. Students are asked to choose a piece of music and record it, with the aim of getting as near to the original track as possible. Recording in this way combines both the musical and technical knowledge that our students gain throughout the course to match the reference track.
In this blog post we are going behind scenes from one of these sessions and looking at the process of recreating the song How Long from the band Ace with our student Daniel Martindale, who started studying with us in March last year.
the song choice
How Long was originally recorded in 1975 by the group Ace and is from their debut album Five-A-Side. Ace was a British rock band that enjoyed success in the 1970s and included Paul Carrack as lead singer, who later became famous as a vocalist for Mike + The Mechanics and as a solo artist.
Although the lyrics are widely interpreted as being about adultery, the song was in fact composed by lead singer Paul Carrack upon discovering that their bassist had been secretly working with a different band.
Daniel Martindale is a big fan of the sound and vibe of the 70’s music and when this song came to his head he thought it would be a great choice to use for the assignment. It allowed everybody in his group to put their musical strengths to play and brought the challenge to use modern techniques to get as close as possible to the original song. “If we managed to nail it, it would just be really, really fun.”
Let’s Get To It
How Long was originally recorded at Rockfield Studios in 1974, but not much more information about the session was found in Daniel’s initial research. To overcome this challenge, Daniel’s approach focused on doing a lot of critical listening of the song and collecting information about the recording techniques and equipment used in Rockfield and the ’70s in general.
Following the dates and information from Rockfield Studios’ history we could assume that How Long was recorded at Rockfield’s Coach House Studio. It was constructed in 1968 and used by many contemporary bands like the early Black Sabbath or Dr Feelgood. Among their equipment at the time, the Coach House had a Rosser Electronic console, an 8 track tape machine and EMI plate reverb.
Once Daniel got a base knowledge of what might have caused the song to sound how it does, he started analyzing the instrumentation. Being a drummer led him to start with drums and 70’s drum miking techniques. Bass was next followed by vocal harmonies, lead vocal inflections, guitar tone, dropouts and the position of everything in the mix.
“I listened to that song so much that it became my most listened to song on Spotify”
This critical listening exercise included a common technique in mixing and mastering which is the listening of the song in mid-sides. This technique separates the centre and panned elements of a mix in two different tracks allowing for a more detailed analysis. Daniel recalls that by soloing these tracks he revealed that the bass was present in the sides which is something they didn’t realize at the beginning.
During this planning process, Daniel worked with his classmates and the technicians’ team to get different views, details and recommendations for the recording of the song.
“They were extremely helpful. It’s really nice sitting on your own to make music, but I think it’s important to be comfortable being able to show it to people and hear their input because it invariably makes a difference. Not because you should be focused on how other people think about it, but there is nothing better than sitting with someone to listen, and both getting the same feelings from a piece of music. That’s kind of what it’s all about.”
Once all the information and parts were clear it was time to make a demo before going to the studio.
Making a demo is an important process in any production because it allows you to capture the feeling and vibe of the song without worrying about the quality of the recording too much and also get everyone excited about it.
Every student from the group learned their part and Daniel organized the sessions using the production rooms, the Custom 75 studio and his home set up to prepare the demo. The process was quite laborious and it allowed him to unveil even more guitar arrangements.
Making a demo also helped Daniel to create a plan for the day of the actual recording. What microphones to use, what instrument to record first, how long it will take, what overdubs needed to be done… Preparing everything to make the most out of the studio time.
“It was really exciting. I actually really enjoyed the planning. I find it kind of exciting to do and then be accountable for it.”
The recreation of How Long was recorded at Studio 13 with Programme Director Carlos Lellis as producer and main engineer while Daniel’s group move between the musician role, assistant engineer or Pro Tools operator. The band lineup was:
- Daniel: Drums, percussion, rhythm guitar and backing vocals
- Livio: Bass
- Dougie: Lead Vocals and Lead Guitar
- Bailey: Electric piano and Organ
Before the recording started Carlos and Daniel discussed the choice of microphones, the schedule and layout, and apart from some minor adjustments, everything followed the original plan.
Some of the microphone choices were: RE-20 and AKG D-12 for the bass drum, Sennheiser 421 and Shure SM57 for the snare, Shure KSM137 for the hi-hat and Neumann M269 / Beyerdynamic M 160 as overhead. Sennheisers 421 for the guitar, SM57 for the electric piano and Flea-47 for the vocals.
During setup, Carlos Lellis and the students focused on getting the microphones in the right place. Just like our guest lecturer, producer and engineer Haydn Bendall (Kate Bush, Paul McCartney, VanMorrison) always says: The mix is in the recording. If you record it well, there is less work required in the mix. That’s one of the most valuable things our students learn from this assignment.
Carlos, as the producer of the session, made sure that there was constant communication with the musicians, making everyone in the class participate in the recording process and most of all, creating a positive environment at all times.
“It was a nice balance of keeping it natural, as it would have been in those days (when Ace recorded the original song), and then also just thinking about it collaboratively.”
Recording the song was almost like how the song goes: building up bit by bit. It started with the bass and the drums and then the keys. Guitars were next and after that, the harmonies and the vocals came in.
One of the most difficult things to match the original song was the tone of the bass. It was an extra challenge to get that classic 70’s fat rubbery tone. For this recreation, Livio played a Fender Precision Bass through a BSS AR133 Active DI Box into the Neve VR console of Studio 13.
All and all the session flowed really smoothly because the plan was solid. The preparation work paid off and the entire class had a lot of fun throughout the recording.
Down To Mixing
Once the session was finished it was time for the next task: Match the original mix. How Long was originally mixed at Trident Studios in London. The song has a creamy and warm character with a twist that fills the sonic space wonderfully. It has that 70’s sound where not everything is totally discernible.
“It’s all this kind of bubble, but with loads of clarity.”
There are many small details that you can hear in the mix but one of the most noticeable characteristics of this song is the use of plate reverb across most of the instrumentation.
Daniel’s mix was made all in the box and followed a top to bottom approach. He started by playing all the tracks through the mix bus processing to get an idea of how everything would sound together and then made decisions on how to balance and clean the elements in the mix.
Some of the processing on his session included the Neve 33609 Compressor and Pultec EQ from UAD in the mix bus, and the Neve 1073 EQ plugin also from UAD on most of the audio tracks. To try to get as close as possible to the sound of the record he also used a Studer A800 multichannel tape recorder emulation from UAD to get the characteristic tape sound from that era.
You can have a listen to the final result in the following links and compare it with the original.
What do you think about the track? Did our students get close to the original? These exercises are key in the development of our students, not only technical skills but also teamwork and organization skills that help prepare them for the requirements of the music industry today.
Ready to master the craft of music production? Check out our Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering or contact us for more information.
This article was written by guest blogger and alumnus Carlos Bricio.