PRODUCER MARIUS DE VRIES AND MIXER NICK BAXTER TALK ABOUT THEIR ROLE IN THE MAKING OF RUFUS WAINWRIGHT’S TAKE ON NINE OF SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS, IN AN AMBITIOUS CROSSOVER PROJECT THAT CELEBRATES THE 400TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BARD’S BIRTHDAY
As the son of folk-music luminaries Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright was always expected to carry on with the family business. But the last thing Wainwright junior wanted to do, apparently, was to also become a purveyor of folk music. Instead he wilfully and flamboyantly threw himself off any stylistic cliff imaginable, diving into genres like cabaret, music hall, Broadway musical, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, big band, Sinatra crooning, and more, as well as the slightly more obvious options such as pop, rock, and, yes, folk.
Given Wainwright’s extravagant approach to stylistic diversity, and the lush, often orchestral settings of his music, it hardly came as a surprise when the singer and songwriter veered even more wildly off course into full-blown classical music territory. The first step in this direction followed an invitation by avant-garde director Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble to set a number of Shakespeare sonnets to music, for a theatrical performance called Shakespeare Sonnet’s, which premièred in Berlin in 2009. A year later, the San Francisco Symphony commissioned Wainwright to orchestrate five of the sonnets that he had put to music for the Berlin performance.
Three of these sonnets found their way in adapted form to Wainwright’s piano/vocal album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (2010). Following another rock ‘n roll-influenced outing, Out Of The Game (2012), Wainwright really went the whole classical hog with his first opera, Prima Donna (2015). It features the BBC Symphony Orchestra and four classical singers, was released on the ultimate and hyper-prestigious classical music label, Deutsche Grammophon, and sold a fraction of his previous albums. Wainwright’s transformation into a classical maestro was seemingly complete.
Just half a year after Prima Donna there’s another Wainwright Deutsche Grammophon release, Take All My Loves, 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, released last April to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s birth day. Sequenced as one whole, incredibly multi-faceted work, Take All My Loves compromises 16 tracks, five of which are the works he wrote for the Berliner ensemble and orchestrated for the San Francisco Symphony, but in this case performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and sung by soprano Anna Prohaska, with Andrew Keener producing.
Gorgeous as these five tracks are, where it gets really interesting, for our purposes is in the remaining 11, on which Wainwright worked with Marius de Vries, a man who himself has made the transition from the world of pop & rock to become a classical music maestro. During the making of Take All My Loves both men drew on all the disparate genres, experiences and skills they had touched on and developed during their careers.
The 11 tracks co-produced by de Vries and Wainwright include six brief sonnet recitations by the likes of Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham-Carter, William Shatner and others, with backdrops provided by de Vries and his son Ben. There’s one major non-orchestral, German language track that was recorded in Berlin while de Vries was busy in LA, and the remainder are four major songs, consisting of the title track, which is propelled by electronic drums and a heavy bass line and has minimalist piano and scores of vocals, a Velvet Underground-like, heavy guitar outing (‘Unperfect Actor),’ an elegant pop song sung by Florence Welch (“When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes”), and a delicate, moody ballad, “A Woman’s Face.” It sounds like a crazy mishmash, but the overall effect, including the orchestral tracks, is a knock-out.
“It’s good, isn’t it?”, enthused de Vries proudly about Take All My Loves, the moment we managed to establish a connection via Skype, with him sitting in his Berry Drive home studio in LA. He carried on to explain that it was “a funny” album to make for him, because he’s been “so deep into movie music during the last five years, that this is the first non-movie project I’ve done for a while.” He ruefully acknowledged that there’s more money in movie music these days than in his old metier, which can best be described as the making of avant-garde pop. “It’s interesting to go back into the studio without a picture in front of me,” he added. “I do it for the love of it, nowadays. The people I do music-only projects with are old friends, or they do something that’s profoundly, creatively interesting to me. Both were the case with Rufus’ Shakespeare album.”
The making of Take All My Loves was undoubtedly “profoundly and creatively interesting.” It’s a blend of myriads of genres, moods, instruments and instrumental colours, and most of all of music and, well, those sonnets, which have been the bane of quite a few English students.
“Yes, the sonnets are hard to understand,” empathised de Vries, only just, “but they’re easy to feel when spoken or performed. You can get the benefit of them without understanding every word. The truism is that you can’t rally sing poetry, because it has its own internal rhythm and melody, but Rufus is a profoundly gifted lyricist, and he has found ways in all sorts of different styles to make extremely complicated wordplay work with music. And the compositions that he had come up with in this case were so deep and interesting that they made my job as a producer easy.”
Wainwright had contacted de Vries at the end of 2015, when the latter had a break his work on the feature movie La La Land, which was to become the big success story of 2017. According to de Vries, “We had some scores and string recordings from the Berlin performance in 2009, which we incorporated later. But as a first step, Rufus came in and played me the music on piano or guitar with a scratch vocal, and I recorded that in Logic, and I then built around that, putting drums and sounds on, and he’d say, ‘I like that,’ or ‘I don’t like that.’”
“Having worked with him in the past we worked really quickly. The sketches for every single one of these four tracks came together in a day, and we then dressed them up with real instruments. Although we tried to settle on the tonal language we were going to use, I realised from the beginning that the whole thing was so eclectic that there was no point trying to turn it into one piece of cloth. The album was to become a journey with so many twists and turns that we decide at a very early stage not to be frightened of that. In the end I think it is what really makes it work.”
This first demo stage took place with Wainwright and de Vries holed up in the latter’s Berry Drive, a one-room project studio, in which he combines a mixture of 20th and 21st century technologies. “I work in Logic most of the time, using an Apogee Quartet and a Focusrite Liquid for I/O, and KRK VXT8 monitors. I use my own EXS24 sample library for many of the sounds, particularly drums, which I program beat by beat. I’m also a big fan of the U-He synths, particularly the Zebra and Ace. The box has become very good now, it really has, but I continue to do a lot of stuff outside of it. I still love my ARP 2600, and my EMS VCS3, and the MiniMoog Voyager. The tactile feel I get from touching my old synths is still very important to me. My main keyboard is the 88-key Korg Kronos, because it has a lovely feel. It also has a good array of controllers in it, which allow me to tell Logic what to do. I’ve also been really getting into the Roli Seaboard Grand, which I used on the title track of Rufus’ album. It has rejuvenated my interest in playing technique.”
In addition to de Vries’ work, additional drum and percussion programming was also performed by Eldad Guetta and Ben de Vries at his father’s Hanway Place studio in Soho in London. The next stage of the project was for de Vries and Wainwright to go and record some of these “real instruments,” which was done at Igloo Music, a large facility in LA with four main studios and several additional editing suites. Igloo is unique in that it specializes in both music and film work, and employs a whopping six full-time engineers. One of these engineers is Nicholai Baxter, with whom de Vries first worked on the Sucker Punch film in 2010. Baxter has won three Grammy Awards, divides his time 50/50 between music and film work, and also works independently. He engineered and later mixed the tracks de Vries had been involved in.
Drummer Gary Novak, bassist Chris Chaney, and guitarists Joel Shearer were all recorded at Igloo. “We did everything crazily fast, also the sessions at Igloo,” recalled de Vries. “Rufus had spent 10 years in the preparation and we spent maybe just three or four weeks in pulling it all together. We got some really great musicians in, and a fantastic engineer, and it was done before we knew it. We set up at Igloo initially for ‘Unperfect Actor,” and started by recording Gary. Joel’s guitar parts were born out of a guitar arrangement created by Dom Bouffard in Berlin in 2009, and we also used some of Dom’s parts. So there already was the idea of this repetitive, Velvet Underground-type guitar riff on one chord. Joel really went for it—his hands were bleeding by the end of that session! After that we overdubbed the bass.”
“The song ‘Unperfect Actor’ was our main focus,” confirmed Baxter, “and we wanted it to have a gritty, driving sound. After we had recorded the drums, bass and guitars for it, we backed off the compression and distortion for the overdubs on the other three songs. ‘Unperfect Actor’ was the hardest to get right, both in terms of recording and mixing, because it’s so cyclical and drone-like. To keep it interesting we had to get the drums and the guitars to build in just the right way. It grows and grows until it peaks and releases into this very gratifying tonal shift. That took a few takes, but we got it right at the end of the day.”
“For the drums I mostly used a Neve Kelso 12-channel sidecar, which has awesome pres with lots of character that compress things on the way in. I used a rock mic’ing set-up, with many ribbon mics for a fatter, grittier sound. I had 4038s for overheads, the majority of the drum sound came from them, a Neumann M49 as a mono kit mic, two Royer 121 room mics, and an RCA 44 which I really drove through the Kelso pres and used as a trash mic. I also had a Chandler compressor and Distressors on the room mics. I had an RE20 on the bass cabinet, going into an Avalon 737 and an LA2. On the guitar cabinets I had SM57s going into Neve 1073s, and then into Distressors.”
The final production stages on three of the four main songs de Vries worked on involved inserting the strings, which had been recorded in Berlin seven years earlier, and adding vocals. “We retrofitted these old recordings to our tracks,” explained de Vries. “I had also done sampled strings, so the live strings had to be fitted to them as well. The exact nature of the string sections varied from track to track, with some being larger than others. We had to do quite a bit of clever editing, though not using elastic audio as it changes the sound too much. It really was editing, and in some cases we had to change the pitches of some of the notes. It’s amazing what you can with Melodyne these days!”
The sonnet sung by Florence Welch did not have any strings, but, recalled de Vries, there were some other challenges. “Rufus had persuaded Florence to sing the song, and they found one day in London when they could do that. There was some frantic back and forth across the Atlantic as to what key she wanted to sing it in. In the end we recorded the song in four different keys, with Rufus doing guide vocals, which were way out of his range, so he sounded like this weird baritone Rufus! Florence chose the key, and then she went in and recorded the song, only for them to realise that they had set the sampling frequency wrong: they had recorded her in 48 rather than 44.1, so she was more than a semitone out of tune. She had to go back in and sing it again, but then she nailed it. At the very end of the recording process I recorded Rufus’ final vocals at my place, using my favourite black Neumann U87, going through an Avalon VT737SP, without compression. It’s my tried and tested vocal chain. With people who can really perform the vocal chain is always very simple!”
Other noteworthy production aspects of the four main songs include an epic crackle in “A Woman’s Face” and what sounds like telephone sounds on “Take All My Love,” at the end of which de Vries also reads the sonnet. The latter was part of a very late decision to intersperse the main music tracks with brief sonnet recitations, and in two cases—“Unperfect Actor” was the other—to integrate these recitations in the songs themselves. De Vries elaborated on the why and how…
“Haha, that crackle is pretty prominent! It is from an old break beat from my 90s sample collection, that I used just to get the song going. I can’t shed my 90s habits, in particular my Massive Attack habit! What sounds like a telephone sound on the title track is just me messing around with the ARP 2600, adding an introductory tone that seemed to work for the song. With a song like that, which is very drone-like and repetitive, you need a kind of signature sound to get people used to that language and draw it together. I also programmed the drums, with a contribution from Eldad, and played that swooping melody in the intro on the Roli keyboard. So other than Chris’s bass overdub that track is almost only Rufus and myself. We then decided on me reciting the sonnet, and because I’m very uncomfortable hearing my own voice full frequency, I used the AudioEase Speakerphone plugin, using the Bakelite preset.”
“We arrived late at the spoken word idea, but it turned out to be crucial to the record, because it gives some punctuation between the many different styles. The people who did the recitations were whoever was around at the time. William Shatner is my neighbour, so I just walked up the hill and asked him! Funnily enough he wanted to do it at his office on Ventura Blvd, where there’s a lot of traffic. I recorded him with a handheld Roland recorder, and when we got home we realised that the audio was compromised. His recitation was great, so I suggested to Ben to filter it and chop it up and make some dramatic spaces and add some echo and some abstract sounds. Rufus stayed with Carrie Fisher for a while, and we recorded her in her bedroom when she had a day off from her Star Trek duties. Helena Bonham-Carter is a friend of Rufus, and she was recorded by Ben at my house in London. Ben and I added textures behind some of these recitations because we wanted something a bit more abstract and musical. It sounded too brutal to have just spoken word in between the music pieces.”
With his last remark de Vries already hinted at what turned out to be the most difficult task of the entire project, which was sequencing and then mastering 16 tracks of material that was outrageously diverse, not only in terms of musical styles and sonic colours, but also in dynamic range. However, before they got to that stage there was the small matter of the final mixes of the four main tracks de Vries and Wainwright had collaborated on. During the recording stage, with people working on material in LA, London, and Montreal (Martha Wainwright was recorded there at her brother’s Mayk Music studio) de Vries had consistently loaded everything back into the Logic sessions at his own place, and done rough mixes, and edited, comped and sometimes tuned the vocals. The next stage was for him to convert the sessions to Pro Tools, and send them to Nicholai Baxter at Igloo…
“I started the mixes on my own in my room, Studio D,” recalled Baxter, “and then Marius and Rufus came in and we dug into the details together. Rufus had a very specific vision for the way he wanted each of the tracks to hit you. He did not want any half-measures. If a song was intended to be dissonant and aggressive, we went for it full force, and if a song was intended to be mellow, we went 100% in that direction. I used an Avid Icon D-Control during the mixes, which helps with workflow. The custom fader banks make things quicker and to still be able to grab knobs.”
“There’s tons of automation in the sessions, especially in ‘Take All My Loves’ and ‘Unperfect Actor’. In ‘Take All My Loves’ the vocals are becoming more dense throughout, and it took a long time to get that right. We needed to preserve our focal point while maintain the song’s momentum. There also was a cacophony of background vocals entering and exiting. ‘Unperfect Actor’ was difficult to mix, because of its shape and dissonance. While mixing I needed to have certain dissonant sections on loop for hours, and that became quite challenging. There are minor and major tonalities rubbing against each other for a long stretches in that song! We also did some additional overdubs during mixing, with Rufus adding some vocals, using a Neumann M149, and I added an additional acoustic guitar overdub, which I recorded with an AEA N8 ribbon. There wasn’t much mixing to be done on the spoken-words tracks, as Rufus wanted them really raw.”
“After the mixes we spent a long time sequencing and levelling the record, and making sure we had the just right spacings between tracks. It involved many passes of listening to the whole record all the way through and then making tweaks. We were all adamant about maintaining the enormous dynamic range of the record. It would not have worked had we crushed it. The record needs to breathe, so the loud sections can have the impact they are intended to have. It was a thrill for me to work on this project for this reason alone, to know that the fidelity would be maintained through mastering, which was done by Eric Boulanger, who did a great job. Sadly the loudness thing is creeping in in the film work as well, with movies getting louder and limiters being used at the dubbing stage, which never was the case before. Unfortunately, it’s starting to become fatiguing to listen to feature films as well!”
“The mastering was fantastic on this,” agreed de Vries. “We did a lot of crossfading and Eric also really helped to draw the many disparate elements that went into the making of this album together. I think the album is a significant achievement, and it is already finding an audience. People respond to it and spread the word. Meanwhile, Rufus is just carrying on doing what he does, as do I. I’m back on the La La Land project, and later this year I’ll be in London working with Chrissie Hynde on an orchestral jazz dub album. For now I’m just thankful that I have been able to contribute to another record Rufus Wainwright record!”
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MARIUS DE VRIES BIOG
The pursuit of music that is, as he says, “profoundly, creatively interesting” has informed de Vries’ entire career. From South-African descent he was born in London, and received his first musical education at the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir. He later became a keyboard player and programmer and then a co-writer and producer, eventually working with myriads of well-known artists, including Massive Attack, Madonna, Björk, Robbie Robertson, U2, PJ Harvey, and others. It’s fair to say that de Vries was one of the main architects of the wave in ‘90s music that took its inspiration from the latest developments in music technology.
Come the 00s, and de Vries’ work became increasingly diverse, abandoning obvious signs of being in the music tech vanguard, and taking in collaborations with the likes of Josh Groban, Elbow, Marc Almond, and Rufus Wainwright—he produced the singer’s 2nd and 3rd solo albums, Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004), and mixed Release The Stars (2007).
De Vries first wrote movie music for Romeo+Juliet (1996), and then in 2002 played a central role in the making of the soundtrack for the film Moulin Rouge. In 2010 he went to LA to finish off the movie score for Sucker Punch, and then found himself in San Francisco, working with George Lucas for a long time on Strange Magic. Since he came to LA, he recalled, “I’ve been involved in a constant stream of long film projects. Even as I still try to find time to make the occasional record, the synergy of music and film has become what I do.”
NICK BAXTER GIVES DETAILS OF THE MIX OF “TAKE ALL MY LOVES (Sonnet 40)”
1) Vocals: “In this section you can see the lead vocals at the top, entering throughout the song, and below the stacks of backing vocals. All lead vocals, in fact almost all my tracks in every session, have the Slate Virtual Console, which I use to give every track some kind of character to start out with. 7 is UAD 1176, which sounds fantastic, the best-sounding 1176 modelling plugin that I have heard. P is a Pro-Q2, Fabfilter, which is a great and versatile EQ. I had trouble using a de-esser on Rufus’ vocal, so I stopped using it and ended up using clip gain automation to take out the esses. It sounded more natural. I did the same thing on the other vocals. M the Massey de-esser, which I tried and then turned down. D is Decapitator to add some fatness, grit and character to the vocals. The sends are going to delays and reverbs. I used Echoboy delays, and an outboard TC 6000 for reverb. The bvs are all sent to a bus on which I have Cytomic’s The Glue, which is usually a 2-mix compressor but I’ll use it on busses as well sometimes. Then there’s the Pro-Q2 EQ and the Brainworks V2, which I use for width. It sounds really natural. I wanted to spread the bvs around the lead vocals, which were more in the centre. MBSR is the Massey de-esser, and TC1 is a send to my outboard TC6000.”
2) Strings: “The timing edits that you can see here were done by me. This track has a 50-50 blend of live and programmed strings to give it the sound that Rufus and Marius were after, so there is a lot of getting the live strings to match up with the programmed strings and gel together. MA and MB are the room mics. The 3rd track was a weird distant room mic. Marius’ sampled string tracks are somewhere else in the session, as a stereo track. VMR is the Slate Virtual Mix rack. I have the VCC running in there, to create character and vibe, and to fatten up the strings. I also use the UAD Shadow Hills compressor, which is another compressor that adds character and is great on strings. The signal then goes to the Fabfilter MB multi-band compressor, to control dynamics and dial back features that are popping out too much. Then there’s some EQ and a Decapitator to add more character, grit and fatness wherever we could, and then a little bit of room reverb. The string recording was really tight sounding, so we needed to add a bit more space on it. The TC send also goes to the TC6000.”
© 2016 Paul Tingen. Posted January 2017.
This article was previously published in Audio Technology (Australia) and Sound & Recording (Japan) magazines.