Recording

Fleetwood Mac Is Back!

"Things are good," Lindsey Buckingham says cheerily on the eve of Fleetwood Mac's cross-country tour. "We've got a nice fresh set going and a fresh album that we all like. The band sounds really good

“Things are good,” Lindsey Buckingham says cheerily on
the eve of Fleetwood Mac's cross-country tour. “We've got a nice
fresh set going and a fresh album that we all like. The band sounds
really good. I've got two great kids [both under 5]. It's really a nice
time for me.”

On this evening in early May, Buckingham is ensconced with engineer
Mark Needham at Cornerstone Studios in Chatsworth (in the North Valley,
adjacent to L.A.) working on a radio mix for Stevie Nicks' song
“Say You Will,” which is also the title of Fleetwood Mac's
new album: the first studio disc to feature Buckingham and Nicks since
Tango In the Night in 1987. Missing in action from Fleetwood Mac
this time around is singer/songwriter/keyboardist Christine McVie, who
left the group during the 1997 reunion tour, which produced the
multi-Platinum live “hits” album and video, The
Dance
. (McVie does appear on a couple of tunes but has no songs or
lead vocals.) Of course, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie
are still on hand to anchor the band; they are the remaining links to
the group's distant past as a British blues band and to the multitude
of incarnations since.

Say You Will really feels like three albums in one. During
the course of 18 songs and 76 minutes, there are a number of tunes that
have that classic, unmistakable Fleetwood Mac sound: the soaring
harmonies, the glistening acoustic and churning electric guitars, the
rock-solid rhythm section. Songs such as “What's the World Coming
to,” “Say You Will,” “Thrown Down,”
“Steal Your Heart Away” and “Bleed to Love Her”
are sure to please the millions of fans who loved Rumours and
Mirage and the more commercial side of the group. But there's
always been an idiosyncratic — even eccentric — edge to
this band, too, and Say You Will offers plenty of that. Nicks'
tunes have always sounded like they come from her own singular
universe. And left to his own devices, Buckingham will, more often than
not, come up with songs and musical textures that fall outside of
mainstream tastes. In a sense, Say You Will is a glorious
compromise: It began its life as a Buckingham solo album but morphed
into a Fleetwood Mac album over time, taking on more of the other
members' musical personalities. In overall feeling and flavor, it most
resembles Tusk, the group's alternately puzzling and pleasing
follow-up to the giga-selling Rumours.

I spoke with Buckingham about the recording of Say You Will,
and then followed up with a call to Mark Needham (see sidebar), who
recorded many of the overdubs and mixed the album on the Neve VR at
Cornerstone.

I'm intrigued by this photo on the center of the album, which
shows you and Stevie and Mick and John all recording in a single room;
no isolated control room. What's going on there and where is
that?

That's totally unfraudulent, really. [Laughs] That is the room in
which, not the whole album was recorded — because all of my songs
were already done for the most part — but a lot was recorded
there. We got Stevie on there.

Is that the “Bellagio House” mentioned in the
credits?

Yes. I was basically done with a solo album [a couple of years ago]
and I took it over to Warner [Bros.] and they were kind of in a period
of transition where pretty much the whole regime was going to be
leaving because they'd been bought by AOL. So it was not a good time to
be thinking about putting out the album. So I said, “Mick, why
don't we rent a house and see if we can record some of Stevie's songs,
and either this will morph into a bigger situation or it won't. At
least we will have started some material for a possible [Fleetwood Mac]
album.” So we found this nice house up in Bel Air and set up shop
in the living room, and that's what that photo is. It went really,
really well, so eventually I dropped the idea of doing my solo album
and a lot of it became part of a new Fleetwood Mac album. Stevie sent
over a bunch of songs — she was on the road at the time —
and we worked on those. A lot of what you see in the picture is my
gear. I have an old Neotek Elite console and a whole bunch of other
stuff I've had for years. Those songs were all cut on a Sony 48-track
reel-to-reel and that was it. It was a very low-key situation; I did a
lot of the engineering myself.

So John and Mick were already part of the solo album?
Yeah. There were a couple of stray bass parts that aren't John's, I
guess, but for all of the other things that got done later that didn't
have them on it, we recut the tracks and then flew the parts in. So
it's all John and Mick. So the stuff that was cut in that room
[Bellagio House] was basically Stevie.

Can you talk about the transformation of your tracks that you'd
done for your album into Fleetwood Mac tracks?

There really wasn't much to do because so much of it had John and Mick
already [on it]. There wasn't the sense that you had to open up my
tracks and shift them one way or the other. They were pretty much
already there. The only thing we did was recall most of them and get
Stevie's voice on them.

What we ended up doing with Stevie's songs was not dissimilar to my
own process. I guess that was one of the things that was satisfying for
me. It was a more solitary thing of dabbling and trying things out;
it's a more personal and subconscious process. And during a lot of
that, I would also engineer, which became very natural for me. It was
the whole connection between the songs and the technology for capturing
the songs, as an artist would have his brush. When you work like that,
it gets harder to find someone else to intuitively find these musical
ideas that are so specific and elusive and abstract until you find
them. So I tended to work best alone.

One of the things that was significant about using this process [on
Say You Will] was that I was applying this over Stevie's songs
for the first time, because there was not an engineer there and there
was not the sort of politics that goes along with that or even the
verbalizing. It was just a direct connection with that intuition. So
the process of making her songs was very similar to the process of
making my songs.

Did you do the work on your own album at home?
Actually, Mick and I started at Ocean Way, where the basic tracks were
mixed by Ken Allardyce. And we had [producer] Rob Cavallo down there
for some of that. I had just met Rob and we wanted to work together.
Anyway, at the end of cutting those tracks and doing some of the basic
fill-ins, which would be bass and rough vocals, there was a push to put
that album down and do [Fleetwood Mac], which is what I did.

On your solo albums, you're free to explore any style you choose
and work with whatever players you want. Did working with Fleetwood Mac
again feel limiting in any way?

Less so this time. I think it might've felt more like that had we,
say, made a single album that had 12 songs on it. You would have really
had to marginalize so much of the landscape that was on the esoteric
side. But by having nine songs of mine that really run the gamut, it
was not that much of an adjustment for me. It didn't feel like what was
wanting to be heard was not being heard.

Obviously, though, you're also working with another writer who's
going to have a different sensibility, and there can be a push-pull in
terms of the end selection of those tunes or how they all add up.
Stevie's sensibilities are always going to be a little more mainstream
than mine, but that's part of being in a band. I think it worked out
very well for both of us.

When you put together a song and layer it with dozens of parts
and use half-speed guitars and various artificial enhancements, do you
ever think about whether it's going to be performable or is that
something you worry about later, like right now when you're about to go
on tour?

[Laughs] I don't worry about it too much. You have to take a song for
what it is; you have to be excited about it on its own terms. You can't
think, “Well, gee, this is a nice piece of studio music, but we
shouldn't be doing this, or we should change it because it's possibly
not lending itself to a live situation.” You have to get past
that first and deal with the whole act of making an album and not think
too much beyond that; or I do, anyway. Usually, even in the most
complicated arrangement, there's a song underneath that you could
perform. Finding that and developing that becomes another challenge and
a new way to think about the song. But not everything works live.

You're famous for being a tinkerer in the studio. Is it hard to
know when to stop and when a song is done?

Oh, yeah! [Laughs] There's always one more thing you can try.

Of course if you're not using zillion tracks of Pro Tools, I
guess maybe you're a little more limited.

You have to prioritize after you run out of tracks. [Laughs] Actually,
I'm getting better about knowing when to stop, and then, of course in a
band, it's a bit easier to stop because there is “x” amount
of the musicality and the rhythm and the style and the color that's
already been covered by this fantastic rhythm section. That's different
than working a more overdub-y musician-esque approach, which I have
done also. It wasn't too hard this time, plus there were other people
to tell me when to stop. [Laughs]

What was the mix like? Obviously, there are a lot of vocal
effects, guitar effects, interesting reverbs and the like. Was most of
that done at the mix stage?

Well, it depends. I predid a lot of that as an aspect of defining the
style, really. On songs like “Miranda” and
“Come,” one of the things I was interested in was breaking
up the line of singing so you are aware that the sound is changing, and
it becomes dimensional in an artificial way and you are aware of the
artificiality of it. The idea was to sort of create facets, as if you
were viewing, say, a Cubist painting where the surface had been broken
up and made artificial by painting it from different angles or just by
breaking it up. It was an idea from [Cubism] to make something more
surreal and stylistic, and yet also interesting. So a few of those
[effects] were done during the tracking, some as part of the overdub
process, and then Mark [Needham] had a few of his own tricks.

Is it fair to say that this album has more in common with
Tusk than other Fleetwood Mac albums?
Absolutely. After we'd done Rumours and it was a big success
and all that, and we toured a lot, I went to the band before we made
Tusk and said, “Look, when we record this album, I want to
spend a lot of time at home and I want to try some different things. I
want to try to expand our recording process and our songwriting.”
And, obviously, try to undermine the status quo a little bit, too. So
that was an idea that was understood and really embraced quite well by
the band at the time, and that was kind of a victory for me.

Then what happened was, when Tusk didn't sell 16 million
copies like Rumours

When it failed to sell 16 million copies!
Right! It was just a horrible situation! [Laughs] It clearly
wasn't as commercial and there was kind of this backlash that
came down and everyone sort of said, “Well, we're not going to do
that anymore.” So Mirage and Tango were
situations where I was, to varying degrees, cut off at the knees in
terms of the whole possibility of working that way. And that's one
reason I started doing solo albums.

Anyway, working on [Say You Will] was more like the
Tusk model. Of course, things were different: The dynamic had
changed, my skills had changed, the times had changed and the context
of what we were doing had changed. But given all of that, it was
satisfying to me, personally, to be able to get back to what was
Tusk-like about the process, but also have it be much more
inclusive in some ways; not just of the people, but of a [musical]
style, which was not just esoteric but also somewhat mainstream. For
years, I was very schizoid about the Tusk-side of what I wanted
to pursue and the Rumours side, if you want to pick two albums.
And I think this album does really quite well at kind of marrying those
two things.

Visit Needham online at www.markneedham.com.

DIGGING DEEPER

MARK NEEDHAM MIXES THE MAC

Over the course of two decades as an engineer and mixer, Mark
Needham has worked with a wide variety of acts, including rockers such
as Chris Isaak (eight albums), Bruce Hornsby, Cake and the Red House
Painters, blues legend Charles Brown, and jazz greats Pharoah Sanders,
Nat Adderley and Cedar Walton. He first met Lindsey Buckingham
two-and-a-half years ago when he was brought in at the suggestion of
Rob Cavallo to mix what was then to be a solo album for the guitarist
at Conway in L.A. The two hit it off, and when the solo album turned
into a Fleetwood Mac disc, Needham came onboard to help with some
overdubs and mixing.

Needham says that the mixes he'd worked on for the solo album didn't
change much when the project changed: “We'd put a lot of time
into those already. I guess we reined a few of them in slightly. On the
lead vocals on his original stuff, we really kept the vocal pretty
buried in, with a lot of effects. When we worked on the mixes again
later [for Fleetwood Mac], we brought some of those vocals out a
little; maybe another 10 percent closer to the front.”

Whereas Buckingham used his Neotek console and Sony 3348 2-inch to
cut tracks at the Bellagio House, Needham and Buckingham mixed at
Cornerstone, feeding DAW tracks through the studio's Neve VR console,
plus racks of his own outboard gear. Additionally, there were some
tracks from the solo project that were on analog reels. “For most
of the stuff, we're using a 64-channel Pro Tools rig, and then I have
probably four or five racks of outboard gear that travel with me. On a
couple of tunes, we actually had 128 channels; we brought in a [Pro
Tools] HD system. But mostly we were just using my [Pro Tools] 888
24-bit system with the dB Technologies converters on the output. We
added some parts in the studio while we were mixing, and then I like to
add in additional stuff, as well. I usually add in several more drum
sounds. And I like to have the ability to be able to split the vocal
off onto maybe three or four returns.”

While he used “quite a few” plug-ins on the project,
Needham notes that “all of my compression and EQs are outboard
analog. I have several Neve pre's and EQs and API 550s and 560s. I also
use Jeff Daking EQs, Focusrite Reds, 1176s, 1178s. I have a bunch of
Manleys that I like. I use the Drawmer 1969 [compressor] on background
vocals. Recently, I've been using some SPL [Sound Performance Labs]
things that I got hooked up with on some projects I did over in
Amsterdam. One is a piece called a Transient Designer, which I love on
drums. Then there's the cool [Charisma] Tube [processor] and their Qure
EQ. I love what that does for acoustic instruments that have been
processed through the mill on digital gear; the top end can get a
little dull and hard to fit into a mix, but I've been very happy with
what [the Qure] did. I have stacks and stacks of gear, and we used a
lot of it on this album.”

Needham says that he enjoyed the challenge of making a coherent mix
out of the many layers of tracks Buckingham delivered. “The goal,
of course, is to be able to actually distinguish all the parts.
Sometimes you have 20 or 30 vocals going and seven or eight percussion
tracks and numerous guitar parts; really, a lot of
information.”

I asked Needham the same question I'd asked Buckingham: How do you
know when it's done? He, too, laughed. “When we've tried every
possibility that we can imagine?” He notes that on the two songs
that used 128 tracks — “Peacekeeper” and
“What's the World Coming to” — “I took two
older versions of each [from the solo sessions] and the new versions
that the band had recorded, which were in slightly different tempos and
keys, and combined all that together, pulling out parts from both; I
made a hybrid of them.”

One challenge Needham faced was dealing with Buckingham's beloved
half-speed guitar parts: “The tempo variations made it a little
difficult to transfer it over to Pro Tools because his VSO speeds range
from two whole steps up to a whole step down, which caused some
problems with the Pro Tools clock,” he says.

Needham and Buckingham spent close to four months working on the
album, including time spent mixing a 5.1 version. Not surprisingly, the
surround medium opened up a lot of possibilities for Needham, because
there were so many layers of information available to be spread around.
“I tried not to go overboard with things spinning around,”
he says. “I still like to keep a fairly direct sound up front. I
think if you split off too many things, you start to lose the focus of
the band's upfront playing.”

Asked if he was very conscious of Fleetwood Mac's impressive track
record as he mixed the album, Needham says, “It's hard not to be
aware of their history and have that make some impression on how you're
approaching your mixes. For at least 50 percent of it, we were trying
to keep the classic, fat Fleetwood Mac sound, but with a few
experimental edges on it, à la Tusk. It was a really
interesting experience. I've always loved the band, and it was
fascinating to go in and mix their album. I can't thank them enough for
the opportunity.”
Blair Jackson

The year was 1989, the studio was the Complex, the album was
Behind the Mask. It's Fleetwood
Mac, in their own words
, from the Mix archives.

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