Steve Osborne got into the audio business just in time to be “old school.” He came up through the ranks — all the way from tea boy to house engineer — at Trident Studios (London) in the ’80s. As an engineer at Trident, he had the opportunity to work with some of the hottest producers in the business, including Flood, who brought Osborne over to Ireland to help record U2’s Pop (1997). He cut all of Paul Oakenfold’s productions to analog tape for four years, including the Happy Mondays’ seminal Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, which he co-produced. By the time analog tape was on its way out, Osborne was ready to become a producer in his own right: one of a new breed that would blend not only analog with digital technologies, but also real instruments with synthesizers in a way that supported a band sound.
In his production work, Osborne truly lets the music be his guide. His breakthrough was arguably via the band Starsailor, whose processed vocals are layered with electric rock/pop instruments. Osborne has also produced all of KT Tunstall’s albums, bending her singer/songwriter sound to suit her vision and her latest crop of songs. And it was Osborne’s rhythmic, guitar-heavy production of New Order’s 2001 comeback album, Get Ready, that convinced guitarist Keith Strickland of The B-52s that Osborne must produce Funplex, the new wave pioneers’ first studio album in 16 years. Osborne says that Funplex is a “B-52s album, but for now. It’s a bit more raw, and I think we’re a bit more up-to-date with the beats.” It makes for a striking combination — an album that is undeniably The B-52s, but somehow even more danceable and almost punk; woven through it are many of the sounds and techniques Osborne has cultivated during more than 20 years in the studio.
Did you start out in the business as a musician?
The first thing I played was trombone, when I was about 6. Then I got a guitar and spent a lot of time playing that when I was 12. Then piano, then drums. My main instrument was trombone, but I got distracted by other things. We also had an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. I had a bedroom full of instruments, and I used to mess around all the time on different instruments.
Later, I got to be friends with some people at the local university who had a [Tascam] Portastudio — the original kind of cassette one. I borrowed that and learned how to use it, and started recording bands at the university. Then I had a friend who had an 8-track and we had a little demo studio, and we would put stuff on 8-track. That was when I was 19 or 20.
A few years later, I actually moved to London and had one of those lucky breaks. I met a friend of a friend who was going to get a job as a tea boy at Trident Studios, and then he decided he didn’t want to do it. So I managed to get myself an interview at Trident, which was actually managed at the time by Ros Earls, who is my manager now. She gave me a three-day trial as a tea boy.
How did you do?
[Laughs] I made a lot of tea, and I always made sure there were biscuits, and I always made pots of tea rather than cups of tea. I was keen, very keen. Then I worked my way up to tape op.
Did you then go out freelance to get engineering jobs or did you stay on staff at Trident?
Trident Studios actually got sold, and the people who owned Trident when I joined kept another studio in Victoria. They sold the Soho Studios, where I was a tape op, but when they took me on in Victoria, they took me on as a house engineer because all the people who had been engineers in Soho left; they went freelance.
How did you get involved with Oakenfold?
I was in-house engineer at Trident for a while, and then a production team came in to do some remixes. I did a remix for them, and they asked me to be their engineer. I worked with them for about a year doing remixes, and through doing that I bumped into Paul Oakenfold, who was looking for an engineer to work with. The whole house [music] thing was just starting to kick off, and he was one of the pioneers in the scene. I think the first thing we did together was a remix of a cover of “Love to Love You,” the Donna Summer song. When that worked, we began a partnership.
What made that partnership successful?
What was great about that partnership was that Paul was out there [in the clubs]. He knew what was happening on the dance floor. We could do mixes, and he would take a copy that night and go out and play it; get people’s reaction to it. I wasn’t out there clubbing; I was always working in the studio. My expertise was doing the music programming and engineering, and Paul would give it direction in terms of the club culture and what was going on.
I’ve read that because of drug problems, working with Happy Mondays might not have been so “happy.” What was it really like working with them?
Loads of people say, “It must have been a nightmare doing Pills ‘n’ Thrills,” but actually we didn’t have any trouble doing that album. We said, “This is how it’s going to work. We’re going to start at 12 and finish at 12 every day,” and that’s how it worked. They were very keen to do it.
It wasn’t anything like the stories you hear about the Yes Please album they did with Tina Weymouth; that was a completely different atmosphere from what we had. The bad stories happened after Pills ‘n’ Thrills, when the press were on their backs and things weren’t going well. When we were doing Pills ‘n’ Thrills, we’d already had a hit with “Step On.” The vibe was really up; everyone was happy. I would tell [lead singer] Shaun [Ryder] to come in by 5 or 6, and he’d come in by 9 or 10, but you’d know that. You’d know how to deal with him. We’d say, “We’re going to cut vocals every day,” and he’d say he’s not feeling up to it. But we’d say, “We’ll just do a bit every day,” and we did.
Why did you work on that album at Capitol in L.A. when you were all from England?
The idea was they wanted to get away from everybody — from dealers and friends. When we did “Step On,” we had a fantastic vibe. That is still one of the favorite sessions I’ve ever done, but you always had gangs of people coming down, and to make a whole album like that would have been difficult.
What made you decide to break out on your own as a producer?
I’d worked with Paul [Oakenfold] for a few years, doing club stuff and a lot of remixes. But my background — much as I enjoy doing club stuff — is in more guitar-based music. Happy Mondays was perfect because that was beats and guitars. And to me, that’s the most important part of production: getting the right groove, in whatever genre. So working in dance music was great, but I wanted to get into working with bands, more guitar stuff. So I changed management to Ros and said I wanted to move away from so much dance mixing.
KT Tunstall’s Drastic Fantastic album is another project that has guitars and beats. Can you describe the progression of her sound from singer/songwriter to more of a pop musician?
That was her decision. With the new album, she wanted to get a band kind of sound. It’s a different groove. When we did her first album [Eye to the Telescope], it was a departure for me, but I just thought she had something special. I said to her, “A lot of girls come along who sing and play acoustic guitar, and we have to find the right vehicle for you to stand out.” Her boyfriend, Luke [Bullen], is the drummer, and the first thing we did was we went into rehearsal with just the two of them. I got him to play some songs, just the beats, and we worked on those beats — trying to get them as contemporary as possible. She plays the acoustic guitar like a drum anyway; she’s very rhythmic.
So I thought, “Well, that’s the basis of the album.” It’s her playing acoustic guitar and Luke drumming, and trying to capture the rhythm and the interplay between the two of them and getting her to sing at the same time. I always have her playing guitar while she’s singing because then you get that vibe between the vocal and the rhythm guitar. The more I produce, the more I try to get things done at the same time. I find that too much overdubbing makes things sound stale.
What did you discuss in terms of the new direction that Drastic Fantastic would take?
KT really wanted to make an electric album. She didn’t want to do another album that was acoustic guitar. And the songs are much straighter and lend themselves more to straighter beats, as opposed to the first album, which was quite shuffle-y. It had a lot of swing. This new record has more straight rock beats.
I think every record has its own organic kind of growth. You find out how things are going to sound as you go.
How did you approach The B-52s project?
Keith [Strickland] had done a lot of work before I started. They’d done very good demos and good vocals. But Keith had wanted me there because the New Order album [Get Ready] was one of his favorite albums, and they asked me about the process of making it. I said that Bernard [Sumner, lead singer] said it was almost like they recorded the album, then I remixed it and then they re-recorded it. So the process with The B-52s was similar.
First we went through Keith’s demos, and some of them we kept and a lot of vocals we kept, because this band really has a vibe. If they all go in and do vocals in a room together and there’s all this off-mic interjection and stuff going on, it’s really difficult to re-create that. I’d say it was maybe 50/50 between vocals we kept and vocals we redid. Same thing with Keith’s guitars; a lot of his guitars, we kept. Predominantly, what I would work on was grooves, bass lines, making the sound as contemporary as possible.
Where did you work?
We did half the sessions in Clubhouse in upstate New York, with Rick Morris engineering. He worked with me on KT’s albums. Then we went back down to John Keane’s studio in Athens, Georgia, and Dan Austin engineered. Dan’s a very good producer in his own right.
Is it all real drums on this album?
It’s a mixture. We were using real drums, but we would edit them and put beats behind, as well. We would edit the real drums to fit really tight on the programmed stuff, even if you can’t exactly hear the program stuff. But on all the songs, there will always be some real drums, because without some air moving it can sound a bit stale.
The main thing with The B-52s is the lyrics are just brilliant, and it was really enjoyable. Sometimes making music can get a little too serious, so it’s refreshing to work with a band who understands that vibe is about having a good groove.
Do they have as much fun in the studio as it looks like they’re having?
Yeah, it’s all fun, and that’s my idea of how to make a record. We’re not all just stroking our beards.
What would you say were the key pieces of gear to the sound of this album?
One of the big things was the RCA 44BX on Fred Schneider’s vocal. That was stunning. As far as mixing, we had a Trident desk, so that was a big part of mixing the drum sounds.
How do you capture those amazing female vocal harmonies?
Cindy [Wilson] and Kate [Pierson] would always be in a studio together, and we would record them that way because there would be interplay. Kate has her own [Neumann] M249, and Cindy uses a U87.
Where did you mix?
We mixed it at John [Keane]’s. Because we were working in Pro Tools, the tracks were kind of mixing themselves as we were going. When we got to the end, we split up the desk — we’d take maybe all of the drum sounds and mix those up and re-record it back into Pro Tools, so everything would end up as being in the box. Generally, we’d record stuff, take it out and mess it up with analog stuff, and record it back in.
But I don’t worry too much about what gear and what mic. Making KT’s first album, that was done on a shoestring and it was a huge record. I’m finding that too much music now is based on being in time and in tune, and the technology now is being used to achieve that. To me, it’s about getting back to more performance-based music.
Barbara Schultz is a Mix assistant editor.
Selected Production Credits
P=Producer, M=Mixer, E=Engineer
Note: Other producers, engineers and mixers also contributed to some of these releases.
Headswim:Despite Yourself (1997), P/M
U2:Pop (1997), P/E/M
Placebo:Without You I’m Nothing (1998), P
The London Suede:Head Music (1999), P/M
New Order:Get Ready (2001), P/M
Starsailor:Love Is Here (2002), P/M
The Leaves:Breathe (2002) P
Doves:The Last Broadcast (2002), P
Peter Gabriel:Up (2002), P/E/Programming
KT Tunstall:Eye to the Telescope (2005), P; Drastic Fantastic (2007), P
The B-52s:Funplex (2008), P