From L to R: Julio Hernandez (bass), Dan Warner (guitar), Barry Gibb, John Merchant, Barbra Streisand, Doug Emery (keyboard, programmer), Lee Levin (drums) and Richie Bravo (percussion)
After 25 years—long ones, for hardcore fans—Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb reunite for Guilty Pleasures, the long-awaited part duex to her multi-Platinum smash Guilty, which featured Gibb as producer, writer, backing vocalist and duet partner.
The approaching 25-year mark inspired Streisand to reconnect with Gibb, who again, produced much of the album, sang two duets and added backing vocals to other tracks.
Engineer John Merchant, who has worked with the Gibb brothers for more than 18 years, co-produced the project with Barry Gibb (Streisand and Jay Landers executive produced) and played a key role in finding the right players and overseeing preproduction. With three days booked at Criteria Studios in Miami for demos, Merchant assembled a team of ace local musicians, all new to Gibb. “I said, ‘give me three days at Criteria and let me show you what they can do,” says Merchant. “Barry was really thrilled at who we have locally.” Streisand reportedly loved the demos, and told the guys, “keep going.” They did, and ended up with ten demo’d songs.
The ensemble returned to Criteria for the official round of tracking, followed by overdubs at Gibb’s studio, Middle Ear Studio, located in now-trendy Miami Beach. Gibb and Merchant then met up with Babs in L.A. to record her vocals, but rather than hole up in a conventional studio, Streisand brought the team to her guest cottage, affectionately called “Grandma’s House,” in Malibu. “It’s really charming,” Merchant recalls. “The house was built in the 1950s and sits on the cliffs of Malibu. It has beautiful open beam ceilings, a view of the Pacific, but we had to essentially create a studio.”
Working with local rental companies Design FX and Advanced Audio, Merchant rented a 24-channel SSL AWS900 console, a Pro Tools HD rig, various mic pre’s and even found the exact Neumann M49 tube mic that Babs had used on previous projects. Merchant also brought some of his and Gibb’s own toys including the Chandler TG Channel mic pre and Groove Tubes ViPRE tube mic preamp. For the Grandma’s House sessions, Merchant recorded from the M49 to the Chandler to Apogee converters into Pro Tools. “No EQ, no compression, just flat to tape,” he says.
Streisand and crew then moved to—where else—the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios to shoot interview footage for the DualDisc, as well as video for the album’s debut single, “Stranger in a Strange Land” and another track, “Letting Go.” For the latter tune, Streisand gave much more than just a lip-synched performance. “It’s a great sounding room and they have a beautiful piano there,” Merchant says. “The song [“Letting Go”] is a simple piano-vocal. Barbra said, ‘Let’s do a pass of that!’ The first take was magic; now it’s included on the DualDisc.”
Merchant mixed the album at Middle Ear, but after his experience on the West Coast, the studio’s Neve Capricorn seemed to lack the needed luster. “We recorded at 96k, and the Capricorn’s maximum sample rate is 20-bit/48 k,” he says. “After the first day of mixing, we thought, ‘something doesn’t sound right.’ So we called Guitar Center Pro, and they sent over an SSL AWS900 to try out. We then ended up mixing on the exact same AWS900 we used in Malibu! It’s pretty cool to mix an album like this on a board light enough to ship across the country in a road case.”