Interview: the making of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas?
20th Dec 2011 | 10:43
Mix engineer Stuart Bruce tells us how it was recorded, mixed and mastered in just 24 hours
Stuart Bruce has become a hugely successful engineer, producer and songwriter. But in 1984 on the 25th of November, a 22-year-old Stuart was asked to work for 24 hours straight, recording and mixing on one of the biggest selling, and groundbreaking singles in history (he's the chap in the flat cap taking charge of the mixing desk in the above video).
We caught up with Stuart and asked him tell us about the most intense engineering session he's ever done. Here, in his words, is the story of how Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? came to be.
How did you end up as engineer for the record?
"I worked for Sarm West recording studios at the time as house engineer, but being completely honest I think the gig was originally offered to another engineer but he refused to work for free. They asked me and I was more than happy to do it as long as I could get assistants Steve Reece and Heff Moraes to agree as well because I knew it was going to be an incredibly busy session."
So did you have any idea of the line up at this point?
"No I didn't have a clue and I think if somebody had have told me I might have thought about it twice - simply because of the fear factor. I was only 22 at the time and working at Sarm West was my first engineering job."
What was next?
"I spoke to Midge, Bob and Rik Walton who was Midge's engineer. He explained to me that he already had a 24-track backing track with some of the backing vocals already on there. Most of the instruments were already recorded, though the drums were a guide track as the plan was to have Phil [Collins] play drums on the day of the recordings. So I figured I was going to have to sync two machines to give myself 48 tracks.
"The first people standing in the control room were Tony Hadley, Paul Young and Simon Le Bon"
"I got to the studio at 7am and striped the tapes up with timecode and sync'd the machines. We cleared the entire recording room, which is incredible because that room at SARM was absolutely enormous and yet in the video you can see just how full it is."
What was the set up for the vocals?
"I knew I had to organise for lead vocals and a choir so I set up a Neumann U87 in the middle of the room and another X/Y pair of U87s for recording the choir. Because I knew their were so many film crews coming too, I sent a mono signal to all the patch panels in the wall and labelled them so the film crews could just come and grab a feed direct from the console if they needed it."
And by this point you'd started to hear who was coming?
"Yeah, and luckily I had worked and spent time with many of them before so I knew it was a bunch of good people. But, there were still loads of artists that I'd never met before.
"Bob and Midge and a few artists started arriving at 9:30am, which was quite incredible considering these were musicians and it was a Sunday! But, the truly amazing thing was that people just kept on arriving. All the artists and seven film crews in total arrived. I knew we had to get so much done, because I had to record all these vocals and mix the record that night. It was a 24 hour gig."
Who were the first artists to arrive?
"The first people standing in the control room were Tony Hadley, Paul Young and Simon Le Bon, but it got stupidly busy in the control room by lunch time when you practically couldn't move."
And were their egos flying all over the place?
"No, not at all, not among the artists, everyone just got on with the job. It was just the sheer amount of people that made it stressful. There were cameramen atop creaky stepladders while I'm trying to record a vocal. Hats off to the artists because it was such a lot of pressure, recording vocals in front of your peers and the press. You have to admire them stepping up and getting it done."
"I ended up actually hearing the song on the radio while I was still in the cab on the way to get the record mastered!"
Who was in charge of the order of recordings?
"Midge was in charge because he's an organised man. So he knew when people were expected to arrive and the order of takes. It was funny because every time we finished a vocal take, Phil Collins would leap up and shout 'drums!' because he wanted to do his recording. It was funny because at the time Phil was probably one of the most famous singers in the room and was so patient in waiting all day for his turn to do the drums."
"It was such a hectic day and I remember only going to the toilet for the first time at about 11pm. In fact it was funny because I went downstairs to the loos at Sarm and the door was all kicked in. When I spoke to my assistant about it he casually told me that Spandau Ballet had done it. I thought this was really odd, because I knew the Spandau boys and it didn't seem like them. But, as it turned out, Status Quo had seen the Spandau boys all head down to the toilets and followed them down and locked them in and left them there!"
Recording the drums
Tell us about Phil Collins' drum recording...
"By mid afternoon we'd finished most of the vocals and decided to do Phil Collins' drums. He bashed around so I could get a sound and then we were ready for a take. Like most drummers, during the recording he played much louder and distorted the signal, so we had to do it again, but if it wasn't for that he would have nailed it perfectly first time."
Boy George was famously the last to record…
"Boy George was the last person to sing because he arrived from New York on Concorde as he was on a US tour. He was the only artist all day that asked for something. He wanted a bottle of brandy for his throat because it was so shot from the previous night's show in the US. But he put his all into it and after a few takes got exactly the feeling we wanted.
"Once Boy George was done, we took a short break before starting the mixing. George kindly donated the rest of his bottle of brandy and Midge, Bob and I started. We had to be clever with the recording as we had limited channels so singers had to share tracks. Then we'd use a multiplier to send the same channel to four channels of the desk and use the automation on the desk to switch between the voices, thus giving you the ability to have different EQs and settings on each vocal.
"We ended up doing seven EQ and compression changes live throughout the song..."
Then it was mastering time?
"Yes, we wound up the mixing by about 8:00am the next day and we ran off a stereo 1/4-inch tape for Bob because he was going straight to Radio One for the first play on the Breakfast Show. I had the master tape and I left at the same time in another cab to head to the mastering studio but got stuck in traffic. So, I ended up actually hearing the song on the radio while I was still in the cab on the way to get the record mastered. I don't know many people who can say they've had that happen.
"I was scribbling down notes about the mix while I was hearing it on the radio. But I'd had so much brandy and no sleep that I turned up at the mastering studio telling the mastering engineer Steve Angel that it sounded horrible and he needed to do something. My ears had started shutting down from being up all night!
"We ended up doing seven EQ and compression changes live throughout the song straight to the cutting lathe because we wanted to keep the quality as high as possible and not make another tape version."
And nobody ever gets paid for this? The royalties still go to the Band Aid trust?
"Oh yes, of course."
You must be proud to have been part of this?
"It's so long ago and it's not about that. It's about the message that we simply can't let atrocities in this world just happen without us doing something."
Find out more about Stuart Bruce and his vast engineering experience over at his website.