Dave Eringa: Recording The Manic Street Preachers' 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' - Sound On Sound, April 1999
The first single from the Manic Street Preachers' ThisIs My Truth Tell Me Yours album entered the UK Charts at Number One - even though the band had adandoned their traditional power-chord approach in favour of acoustic guitars, string machines and unusual synth effects. Sam Inglis talks to Dave Eringa, the producer who oversaw this successful change of direction.
The number of UK hit singles about the Spanish Civil War can probably be counted on the fingers of one, well, finger - but the rise of the Manic Street Preachers owes much to their willingness to be different. Having made their name as a cacophonous New York Dolls-style punk band in the early '90s, they went on to make one of the bleakest rock albums ever in The Holy Bible, before the notorious disappearance of lyricist Richey Edwards led many to assume they were finished. Their 1996 album Everything Must Go, however, confounded the doubters, becoming one of the most critically and commercially successful releases of that year and taking their impassioned, intellectual rock to a far broader audience than ever before.
The success of Everything Must Go meant that a sense of expectation surrounded the making of the band's fifth album. In order to meet this expectation, the Manics turned to long-term producer Dave Eringa, whose career developed in parallel with the band's. "I made the tea on their very first single," he laughs, "and played a bit of keyboards, back in 1990, when they were still signed to an indie label, and then I played keyboards on their first album. When I was 21, they asked me to produce their second album, which was my big break. I did bits and bobs on Everything Must Go, and then when it came round to this one, they were ready to do more with me."
Recording sessions for This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours were divided between Chateau De La Rouge Motte in France, where the band worked with Everything Must Go producer Mike Hedges (see SOS June '98), and Rockfield and Mono Valley studios in Wales with Eringa at the helm. "They were doing sporadic sessions, so they did five tracks in France with Mike Hedges, and then three with me in Rockfield," explains Eringa. "They'd stopped doing whole albums in a chunk - they liked to do a few tracks, think about them for a while, and then go back. We did three songs in two weeks at Rockfield, which I would consider to be a very luxurious schedule, but I think the studio considered it to be quite fast!
"I think Rockfield's absolutely the best studio," he continues. "I absolutely adore it, but it's not flash - you feel like you can put down a cup of coffee! It's just something in the air down there, a lovely vibe. Without being too wanky, you do feel creative there - and you're a nice long way from the record company. The Manics are on a cool label, but with a lot of bands, it's good to be a two and a half hour train ride away!"
'Tolerate' was the first track to be attempted at Rockfield, in January 1998. "Going into it, nobody thought that 'Tolerate' was going to be a single - people thought it was going to be a B-side, to be honest! One of the other tracks that they were doing on that session, 'Be Natural', was the one that everyone was excited about, and 'Tolerate' was just this thing that was knocking around. I thought it was just a brilliant Manics title! It was the one we felt we were warming up with - you know, get the sounds up and running with 'Tolerate', and then go for the important ones... It's probably the most organically evolved track I've ever done."
The Ultimate Consumer
'If You Tolerate This...' was, in fact, barely written when the Rockfield sessions began, and bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore had yet to work out an arrangement - and before this could happen, they had to set the drums up to Moore's satisfaction. "We had a horrible first day," remarks Eringa. "In the one studio there are three or four different drum rooms, which all sound really different, so we spent the whole day moving the kit around. They were very, very particular about drum sounds on this album. On Everything Must Go, the drums had been a bit more to the back, but on this album they had a very clear idea of what they wanted, which was drums that would sound really dry, but big - with the snare drum dead wide, taking up lots of space, and a really boomy bass drum, but without any ambience. We ended up using the fairly live drum booth at the bottom of the studio. There is a very live room, but we set up the drums in there and it wasn't happening at all, although it sounds brilliant for big rock.
"We deadened down the room a lot with duvets on the floor and quite a lot of screens, and had Sean on a drum riser so the floor wasn't resonating, so although it's quite a 'roomy' sound the acoustic was really dead, which is how you get that kind of 'close-but-big' feel.
"The other problem was that Sean is the ultimate consumer: he has about 20 or 30 snare drums - a ridiculous number - and that is not the way to get a drum sound fast! We ended up using this 7-inch Noble & Cooley wooden snare drum that I absolutely adore; I've used it before, but he won't sell it to me for love or money. Nobody else uses them, but it's a really lovely drum, it's got all the depth and the snap. It was his first big expensive snare drum when they got signed. Sean got DVD before everyone else, and just every gadget imaginable. He has to spend money to live!"
The drums were miked using Shure SM57s on the top and bottom of the snare, with an AKG C451 gaffer-taped to the upper SM57. An AKG D112 and a Neumann U47 were used on the bass drum, while the toms were miked with AKG C414s. Valve Neumann 56s were used as overheads, with Neumann TLMs employed to capture the ambience, and a PZM on the ceiling. "I also used a Decca Tree [see page 204]," explains Eringa, "which is three Neumann U87s, one in front of the bass drum, one about three sticks' length above the centre of the snare drum, and one to the right over the floor tom, so they're all the same distance from the centre of the snare drum. It's called a Decca Tree because it was how Decca Studios used to record drums - you get a really natural balance, and you can compress it to fuck and balance it behind the others."
Even after Moore's drums were eventually set up to everyone's satisfaction, there still remained the problem of what the drum part to 'Tolerate' was actually going to be. "It was a question of jamming to get the part," says Eringa, "because Sean had hardly played the song, so he had to come up with the part there and then."
The distinctive drum part that Moore eventually settled upon, with its unusual interrupted hi-hat pattern, seemed to present further difficulties. "I remember at the time thinking it was just really jerky, not smooth at all," notes Eringa, "I thought it was very strange, but I wasn't too worried because at that stage 'Tolerate' wasn't a central track. I thought we'd have to get something to make it flow - but every time Sean does a drum part, he's always got the percussion in mind. There's a shaker, and the acoustic guitar does a lot of the flowing as well, and the tambourine picks up the chorus. As soon as Sean came up with the part, he said 'This is what the shaker's going to do, this is what this is going to do, get a percussionist in'."
With guitarist/singer James Dean Bradfield and Wire providing guides, Moore's drum part was recorded into Pro Tools for editing, the percussion parts being added straight away. "Pro Tools was a really big step for me," says Eringa, "and this was the first thing we did on it. Up until then I was always a razor-blade man. But Mike Hedges has three 32-track Pro Tools systems in France, so I was suffering by comparison in terms of facilities I was able to offer. I had to jump in at the deep end - and it's just so easy! You can learn the system in a day, and you can go straight into sessions without wasting time. Obviously there's a depth to it that you get into later, but I don't use it through Logic or anything like that - I just like the pure Pro Tools operating system. I use it for a lot more than editing now."
A Bit Of A Headache
Sean Moore's attention to drumming detail contrasts sharply with the down-to-earth approach of Manics bass player Nicky Wire, who was the next to record his part. "He warmed up for a couple of takes, then he just did one take," remembers Eringa. "I thought we should go back and repair a couple of bits. However, Nicky said 'Oh, no, I've got a migraine now Dave, that'll have to do!' But it was great - the feel was there and that was what mattered. I would probably just have gone in and done a couple of things that made absolutely no difference whatsoever!"
That 'Pheeeooow!' Sound In Full With drums, bass, acoustic guitar and a guide vocal on tape, it became obvious to everyone that the verse of 'If You Tolerate This...' needed something else - but no-one knew what. "Eventually," says Eringa, "James decided that something should be going 'pheeeooow', and then just left me and Nick Nasmyth, their keyboard player, to see what we could come up with!" What Nick and Dave came up with was, in the end, almost unrecognisable as a keyboard part. "All the reviews of the single said 'there's this spectral guitar effect in the verse'," he complains, "but it's actually a Wurlitzer electric piano, put into my Korg MS20, distorted beyond all piano-ness and filtered live using both the low- and high-pass filters, with resonance set really high to get that extreme distortion. It was a live, kind of organic thing - him hitting the chords and me turning the knobs! Because the filters would sweep back too far, we had to record chords one and three, and then go back and do chords two and four. We disciplined ourselves to do the whole thing live. It's too easy just to go into Pro Tools and take one good one and copy it, and then it doesn't sound as real or earthy."
Wire used a Fender Jazz bass ("He's got a pickup in the middle of the two normal pickups. It's the same as the other two pickups, but that's where he hits the string, so he had that put on in a very unusual moment of technical desire!") played through an Ampeg SVT2 amplifier, and recorded using a U47 and an AKG D12 on different speakers. "I'm quite anal with amps," admits Eringa. "I like to stick white noise through an amp and get out with a pair of headphones and move the mics around, to find the sweet spot of the speaker. If you move the mics with headphones on, you can get it so they phase correctly and you don't get any cancellation.
"With bass," he continues, "I also like to get in a Minimoog. I take the signal from the amp, and then route that through the Minimoog, distort the filter input to buggery, filter out all the distortion frequencies, then take the output of that, compress it, and pile in absolutely loads of subsonics. You get this really constant bottom end, which makes the bass much fatter and easier to balance. The input on a Minimoog has a very distinctive distortion - it's much more 'valvey' than transistors, and much more 'transistory' than valves, it's really in the middle. I ought to buy a Minimoog, because I do this all the time, but it would be a grand just for something to put a bass through, and there's always something more important to get! I can't wait to hear the new Moogerfooger filter. If that is a Minimoog filter in a box, it'll be spectacular."
With the bass and drums down, Bradfield recorded his rhythm guitar track, using a Gibson acoustic miked with an AKG C28 ("that's another lovely mic I haven't seen anywere but at Rockfield!"). "At that time it was hard to get James to play electric guitar," Eringa recalls, "so a lot of the tracks on the album at that point were feeling quite 'pastoral', rather than 'rocky'. He was definitely into being much more minimal, whereas on their earlier albums we'd regularly double-track everything, and use lots of different amps on the one guitar."
The sweeping, filtered sound that fills out the verses of 'Tolerate', which many assumed to be an electric guitar played through a wah pedal, is actually nothing of the sort (see the 'Pheeeooow!' box on page 50). The only electric guitar on the record is Bradfield's 12-string Rickenbacker, which appears for the first time on the song's middle eight. "He didn't want to spend ages on the sound," remembers Eringa, "he just wanted to see what he could come up with, and - promising me it would be fine - he plugged it into a Trans Am amplifier that he got from a catalogue when he was 16! It was his first ever guitar amp. He said 'no, honestly, the Rickenbacker sounds great through this', and it did, bizarrely.
"So we put on the electric guitar, and then the string sound in the chorus. The Manics didn't want to be pigeonholed as always using live strings, and they wanted a different sound to Everything Must Go, so although some strings ended up on the album, initially they didn't want to do any. And also we didn't want to wait - it was obvious that the chorus needed some sort of 'lifting' thing, like strings, so Nick Nasmyth, their keyboard player, got out a Mellotron string sample. However, that was too clean, so James made us shove it through his Boss delay pedal, and turned up the inputs so it was distorted. It just sounded brilliant - an icy synth sound, like an old ARP or Solina String Ensemble. It's clearly not real strings, but all the reviewers just assumed they were real because it was the Manics, which pissed us off a bit! It wasn't really filled out in the low mids, though, so we added some Hammond, which also does a nice passing-chord thing in the chorus; it's a very subtle hook.
"James wanted to do his vocal with a hand-held mic. He'd started feeling that pop-shields and big mics hanging down were a bit confrontational and just wanted to sit down, hold a mic and sing. He'd recorded with a Sennheiser mic he'd really liked in France, but he wanted to do the vocal now and we didn't have one. We ordered one for the rest of the sessions, but the only thing we had at the time was a Shure SM58, and he sounded really good through it. So the vocal is just him wandering around in the room, emoting!
"He did the vocal in three takes; he's such an amazing singer. When we did the second album we'd spend ages getting anal about the vocals, and now he just does it straight off. We do three or four takes, and then he says 'right, let's just take the best bits'. After the lead vocal, we also did the backing vocal pad at the end. It's all James and every harmony is triple-tracked to give it a really sheeny feel."
It was slowly becoming apparent, to the record company at least, that what both Eringa and the band had seen as little more than a throwaway, B-side song was in fact one of the new album's standout tracks. "When the record company came down a couple of days later, and immediately said 'That's the single', I just thought they were mental. I couldn't see it at all - I was still hearing it as really jerky, but they absolutely loved it.
"James was piling on the pressure at the time. He's got this idea that I work best under pressure; it's about putting me under as much as he can all the time! Rob Stringer [boss of Epic and the Manics' A&R representative] was waiting in the living room at Rockfield, and they told him they had this magnificent new thing. James came in saying 'We've told him it's brilliant, you'd better make it brilliant'! We had five minutes to do a monitor mix, and just fluked a good one."
Something In The Air
Though the track had been recorded in January, it was not until May that Eringa and the band took their material to Air Studios in London to mix - by which time Eringa had produced two other albums, including Three Colours Red's Revolt, which spawned their worldwide hit 'Beautiful Day'. This extended gestation period meant that stresses were mounting during the mixing process for This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. "I remember the Air sessions being really, really hard work," says Eringa. "It had been the longest album they'd ever done, and they were all quite tired. James had a very clear idea of what was in his head, and you either got it or you didn't. By now 'Tolerate' was coming out as the front runner for the single, and we were starting to think it was a good idea, so when we went in to mix it the pressure was really on. It took a while, as well: normally I only take a day to mix a track, but a couple of tracks took more than two days, which is horribly bloated and I'm terribly ashamed of it!"
"That initial monitor mix was the basis that we had to work on at Air. James said he wanted the drums identical to how they were at Rockfield, so I was stuck in Air - a different studio - A/B'ing with the DAT all the time to try to get the snare drum exactly as it had been on this monitor mix!
"With drums I monitor all the time through a Tubetech LCA2B stereo compressor, right from the inception of getting the sound, so you've got that compression all the time, 'cause that makes it so much more vibey right from the beginning for the performers. It's like mixing as you go along. So we had that, and plenty of EQ. At Air, there's a vintage Neve from the '70s, which is an unbelievably special desk. The EQ on it is absolutely fantastic, so we didn't need lots of outboard EQ.
"The 'pheeeooow!' sound is very EQd as well. We were monitoring that so EQd we ended up bouncing it onto other tracks with EQ and then EQing it again, just to get it so nasty-sounding. The 'pheeeooow!' sound, the string sound in the chorus, and the electric guitar were all going through 'Circles' on the Eventide H3000, which is a patch that's 12 260mS panning delays. The 12 taps pan from left to right across the stereo - the first one is hard left, the second more central, and so on. It's a great patch that gives you a real sense of space... it creates a 'swirling circular soundscape', for want of a less wanky term!
"The main difference between the monitor mix and the finished mix, apart from the arrangement, was that the guitar wasn't sounding quite 'glorious' enough when it came in. The end of the song wasn't quite exploding into colour, so I stuck the dry guitar sound through a Leslie speaker on fast and didn't use any of the effect in the mix, but sent that signal into the Circles patch and used loads of reverb - so the guitar itself didn't have any Leslie on it, but the effects did.
"The drums are dead dry; there's no sneaky little reverb on the snare or anything like that, just the room balanced in quite a lot. The bass is heavily filtered and low, the acoustic guitar's really dry, and the Wurlitzer sound's really wet, to create a sense of three-dimensionality. There's a little bit of reverb on the voice from an old valve plate they've got at Air, and the backing vocals were Dolby A'd - the '70s thing of sticking vocals through Dolby A as if you were recording them, which makes them come out really bright and sheeny. It's not like aural excitement. There's not that distortion element to it. It's really clean."
The most important change which was made to 'Tolerate' at the mixing stage was the addition of a third chorus, at the record company's behest. "There were some complications because of things happening between the beat, which made it easiest to edit it in SADiE at the mix. Rob Stringer came down and we just kept cutting it up in SADiE until there was an arrangement that everyone was happy with," recalls Eringa. "Now, looking back at it, it's a really obvious arangement. It just basically goes verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle eight/chorus/outro."
'Tolerate' was mastered at Abbey Road with Chris Blair. "He's a God!" jokes Eringa. "His mastering suite, apart from Sonic Solutions, is pretty much as it must have been in the '70s - gorgeous EQs and compressors and stuff. It just sounds really natural."
After all the trials and tribulations of a four-month gestation period, 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' was finally released in August 1998. Eringa's hard work, and that of the band, was rewarded by first-week sales of 156,000 in the UK, and the single duly went straight in at the top of the charts. Even in the week of its release, however, Eringa was unable to relax, as the band found themselves competing head-to-head with one of the other big singles of '98: "You get midweek chart positions and sales figures all week, and it was my first chance of a possible Number One, which is such an exciting thing. Every day it was just getting worse and worse; I was becoming more and more psychotic. If it had been released the same week as a Nirvana record or an Oasis record, you'd just have to put your hands up and say 'c'est la vie' - but the horror of losing out to Steps would have been unbelievable!"
Remixes A number of remixed versions of 'Tolerate' have appeared as alternate tracks and B-sides. Dave Eringa describes how this came about: "We did a swap with Massive Attack - they remixed 'Tolerate' and we remixed 'Inertia Creeps'. I love the 'Inertia Creeps' version we did. It's just me and James at Abbey Road, and we did a New Wave Punk version of it. Pro Tools was absolutely fantastic for that: James played the drums, which he doesn't do a lot, and we edited a drum loop, and listening back it sounds like a mad Jesus And Mary Chain thing. 3D of Massive Attack said he loved it, apparently! "The Massive version of 'Tolerate' is really moody. As you'd expect, there's just one bass drone on it all the way through. Nicky loved it straight away. I always find remixes really hard to listen to, because I'm so used to the original, but I like it, it's got a really lovely atmosphere to it. David Holmes did a remix of 'Tolerate' as well, which is really moody and nice - but I don't think he kept any of our stuff! He's just done one on the new Manics single and that is genius. He's changed all the chords! They still work, but the vocal sounds completely different, and he got a live drummer in who sounds like Keith Moon falling over a kit."