Recording 'Put Your Phone Away'

by Steve Christie, Pianist and Sound Engineer at Vintage Keys Studio

This blog is to give some behind the scenes insight into the making of the first studio album by the Spitfire Sisters, 'Put Your Phone Away'. Throughout 2014 and 2015, Louisa sent me various demos and ideas for her songs for me to listen to before we had a chance to flesh them out. She sang while I added suitable chords, and she said either 'Yes!' or 'No no no'.  

Our first late night demo for 'Put Your Phone Away' was sublime. Louisa sang while I played piano and then added a harmonium idea over the top.

Several months later, Louisa's demo for 'Champagne' arrived. It immediately reminded me of John Dankworth with its close crunchy homophonic harmonies.

At that point this song didn't have the 'laurent perrier...' bridge. She had the lyrics for this part but wasn't happy with her melody so she asked me to come up with one, composed at Louisa's piano one rainy afternoon as she slurped her tea.  After a particularly long, drawn out slurp lasting about 45 seconds, she spluttered and said 'yes, that's the ticket!'. I wanted a slightly jarring juxtaposition chord to move into the bridge, so I went for an F major, 2nd inversion (F with a C on the bottom) which is an interesting contrast to the Amaj7 to D half diminished feel of the rest of the composition.

 All of the other songs arrived as lead sheets that Louisa had prepared. We played them through and they all seemed to work fairly organically. 

A schedule was set up to record in August 2015 at Hillside Studios in Winchester, using my services as sound engineer. The band had been playing all the original songs for a while at gigs, apart from Marine and Go To Hell, which were both unseen and unheard by the band before recording them. Drummer, Joe Pickering and I recorded both of these songs in one take.  I played the original recorded piano part to Marine with a calypso lilt, which was thankfully wiped when I added more keyboards later.  However, this made for an interesting rhythmic feel as Joe was playing along with me, and then I ended up playing it all with a straight, marching band feel. Swing a la militaire.

Over a strong cup of coffee, I was listening to Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage LP in stereo, and that's when I thought: 'yes, that's it... stereo'.  I decided to record everything in stereo, rather than individual mono sources mixed for stereo. The Beach Boys 1970 album 'Sunflower' was recorded this way too.  It gave the whole recording a fresh sound, I wanted to give the impression that if you listen to this on a really nice home stereo, it's as if the band are in the room with you. 

I used Cubase to lay the tracks down, with Joe Pickering playing drums and me playing piano from the next room. The drums were recorded using some very expensive microphones from vintage keys studio's store cupboard  (a 1956 AKG D20 on the kick drum, a D19 for the snare, another for the toms... and a couple of less expensive Rode NT1's for overheads). We had a choice of pianos, but in the end, the piano I ended up using was in fact a sample library played from a Yamaha weighted keyboard.  Soniccouture's 'Hammersmith Grand', 50GB of luscious Steinway samples worked amazingly, and we were able to get a very realistic, resonant sound.  I played the piano from the control room, so was able to play while assistant engineer Louisa kept an eye on things.  

Once the structure of the pieces were recorded with piano and drums, our guitarist Owen Feeney was brought in for the first of the overdubs. He played it all in the control room, with amps set up remotely. This was mostly done on acoustic guitars, apart from electric on 'Femme Fatale' and the solo on 'Put Your Phone Away', which reminded me of Henry McCulloch's axe solo in Paul McCartney and Wings' 'My Love'.  

The next session involved Doug Revolta (Louisa's little brother) adding Double Bass next on all of tracks. I had some fun miking this up with directional mikes as he kept moving around.  I had brought my delicious 1930s blonde double bass for possible use (Later on, I played it in the contrapuntal duet with the clarinet on 'Can I Have the Key?') but we used Doug's instrument throughout in the end as he had a pickup fitted which sounded pretty good.

The tracks were coming together and starting to sound rather good. Next up were the trumpets. We overdubbed all the horn parts (bar one little piece in 'Marine') in one four hour session. Matthew Shenton and Neil Doherty provided their chops and puff for this. They were recorded in the same room as the drums as we still had the sound baffles in place from the previous day. Again, all recorded in stereo and placed over the top of the mix as if we were all playing live on stage.  
The last of the Hillside studio marathon musical overdubs were the girls' vocal, sax and flute tracks.

Above: Anna, Louisa and Hannah recording the vocal overdub to 'Bills, Bills, Bills', just after the line 'and then you ask to use my car'

Above: Anna, Louisa and Hannah recording the vocal overdub to 'Bills, Bills, Bills', just after the line 'and then you ask to use my car'

Again, these were recorded in stereo, with three AKG D190s for each of them as spot mics.  This took about 8 hours in total, with overdubs following a few weeks later to tidy things up. We made the mistake of stopping for a curry at lunch...

The schedule which we pretty much stuck to was:
Monday Morning - Piano and Drums
Monday Afternoon - Guitar
Tuesday Morning - Double Bass
Tuesday Afternoon - Trumpets
Wednesday Morning - Saxes and Flutes
Wednesday Afternoon - Vocals

I had talked with Louisa about including some interesting sound effects on some of the songs. I have long been a fan of Peter Sellers' album 'Songs for Swinging Sellers' which was produced at Abbey Road by George Martin in 1959.  I love the sounds they added on this album - it was all recorded on twin track stereo machines and the mixes bounced between two machines.  I used the same approach for our sound effects.  We recorded a very expensive half bottle of Lanson being opened (by Louisa), and then being poored in the kitchen at Hillside studio.   

I built an aeoliphone (wind machine) a couple of years previously, constructed using two lazy susans, some old wood and a piece of army tarpaulin sheet. We decided to add it to 'Go To Hell' to create some menacing atmosphere. To create the wind, you have to wind the handle round. Rather a taxing job.  Later in our live stage show at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, our clarinetist Simon Slater was given the job of winding and to great hilarity, the knob fell off!

Final overdubs were done over the following weeks at 51 Skin studio in Dibden Purlieu, including Simon's clarinet parts, some extra sax from Louisa, a wolf whistle from Patrick Phillips and some strings that I scored for 'Put Your Phone Away' that Louisa gradually whittled away until there was barely anything left. I kept some in that she finally approved.

Recording Simon Slater's clarinet parts at 51 Skin Studio

Recording Simon Slater's clarinet parts at 51 Skin Studio

When no one was looking, I overdubbed a celeste and my 1967 Hammond M102 with Leslie 125 onto 'Marine'. I also played the Hammond on Femme Fatale.  This was done at Vintage Keys Studio.  I had just serviced the Hammond, and replaced some mylar capacitors, and it had an amazing bite to the sound!

The Vintage Keys Hammond M102 (with two 1950s Jennings Univox J6s on top), reputed to have once been owned by the Beatles' Apple Studios in the early 1970s. 

The Vintage Keys Hammond M102 (with two 1950s Jennings Univox J6s on top), reputed to have once been owned by the Beatles' Apple Studios in the early 1970s. 

For 'Can I Have The Key' I played a double bass solo, which I sent across to Louisa at Goose Studios. She duly added a sparkling, Acker Bilk-style clarinet solo which fitted beautifully with my part.

Here are a selection of highlights from the sound effect and overdub sessions featuring a remixed Rap (still to be completed), recording the champagne and wind effects, vocal warm ups virtuosic wolf whistling:

A couple of the songs were edits of two separate takes - Put Your Phone Away and Nightingale (available as a download), and others were recorded in sections and the spliced together at the mixing stage (Go To Hell and The Old Ones Are The Best) 

Once all the mixes were done - all with minimal effects, trying to go for the most natural sound - it was mastered onto tape on my washing machine sized Studer B67 stereo tape machine (which started its life at BBC Pebble Mill, being used to transfer recordings of 'The Archers' Radio 4 show), and then straight off of that for the CD master.

Once I had completed the final mixes, I played the album to friends and family many times, and took on board their comments and criticisms, mainly all favourable.  The final master ended up being retitled 'final final final final master', and this was forwarded on to the pressing company. The album was issued on 26th November 2015, and launched at the Theatre Royal, Winchester with a special concert featuring the full band and dancers.  

I thoroughly enjoyed putting this album together, and work has continued with some extra-curricular projects including Hannah's solo EP, and currently an album with Louisa. We are also continuing to write lots of new songs, some of which will find their way onto a new Spitfire Sisters album for 2017.

Photos, Sound recording and Text (C) Steve Christie & Louisa Revolta