Michael Kiwanuka chooses Chale Abbey Studios

Producer Paul Butler discusses the Chale Abbey Studios sessions of Michael Kiwanuka’s new album.

You produced Michael’s first album in your home studio. What are the benefits of Chale Abbey Studios for this one?

Michael’s really much stronger as an artist. He’s got a brilliant live set going on with good friends so he’s got four or five amazing musicians around him. This studio’s perfect for it. We need the space now. It’s amazing to have those brilliant drummers and brilliant bass players and guitarists. They all play everything, incredibly talented people. At the moment the studio looks very tidy but once Michael’s here with all his toys there’s not a square inch of space in the big room. Space for toys really, that’s the big benefit. The big feature of the second album is just to have everything here. It’s been going really well. We’re already 12 or 14 tracks in. We rushed up to nine tracks in a two-week session, just because Michael’s performance is now so strong.

What’s the big difference?

If he’s sitting at the piano or sitting with a guitar the big difference is that we can use the sound of the room, we can have a nice microphone almost a metre away from him, and with the volume dynamics that he’s singing with it seems to work a treat. It’s a lot of tweaking on the vocal chain but it’s a beautiful thing when you get that balance between the instrument and the vocals just on one microphone. He feels very comfortable with that because there are no headphones involved and he can just give a full performance, as long as the other musicians in the room are playing quietly, which suits me fine. That’s the vibe of this next album and it’s going really well. It’s exciting.

What have you gone for on this one instrument-wise?

The addition of a guitar called the Fender Bass VI, which is a normal guitar setup but an octave lower. It’s not like a dangerous six string bass. It’s just these beautiful chords, these incredibly low resonant chords. It’s like this absolute experiment in what bass tones you can get away with. We’ve been layering up double basses and this Fender Bass VI. Michael’s concept with the second album that we talked about at the beginning was “it’s going to be a lot darker with a little ray of light in the middle of each song, which kind of accentuates that light bit in the middle”. I think we’ve been nailing it. It’s just that element of a bit of voodoo in there. It’s a lot darker but everyone’s really getting into the performances.

Credit: Samuel John Butt www.samueljohnbutt.com

Were there any songs that burst into action?

I think we went for it on the first nine songs because there were nine good ones in there, had a bit of breathing space, then came back to them. There’s going to be a lot of orchestral arrangements. We’ve got the space for it now, even though all we’ve done is got Andy Parkin, who did all the strings on the first album, back in. It’s a sound that Michael’s really happy with as well. I’d be happy if there were a handful of string players that we could overlay but it’s almost a bit more spooky just having Andy. It seems to work really well. That’s all to come on Michael’s album and that will finish it off I think. The album will probably be finished by October or November so no mixing will be happening until next year.

What was the vocal chain?

We keep trying to beat my CMV 563 with a little mod and we can’t. It’s just singing at the moment. When it’s not crackling we do the 563 usually from a reasonable distance, so there’s some good space around it. Normally I’d go for the Germanium preamps in my old Swedish console. At the moment however, the Summit Audio is the pre that we’re quite happy with, just because it breaks up so well, and then it goes off into the EARs. It’s either the EAR 822Q, which is beautiful, or we use just one channel of the EAR 825Q, the mastering one, going into one of the EAR 660s. And that’s the chain pretty much on every vocal take so far.