Melody Maker


29th July 1995

With a handful of old masters and a room full of new technology, Blondie’s classic guitar pop has been reconstructed. TOM DOYLE talks to three of the remixers responsible for tracks on ‘Beautiful: The Remix Album’.
EARLY SUMMER IN THE West End of london and from the bedroom of a second floor flat comes the faint sound of Debbie Harry’s vocal for “Heart Of Glass”. Inside, attentively staring at a computer screen and a bank of sound modules and effects is Diddy, rearranger of three tracks on the new Blondie remix album, “Beautiful”, busy trying to finish a house reworking of the 1979 hit.
As with most forms of electronic music, remixing has become a home-based artform, and so Diddy doesn’t even have to step outside of his front door to tinker with Blondie’s masters, having already gone into a studio and loaded the individual tracks onto DAT. At a time when Blondie are inspiring many of the new breed of guitar bands, it’s perhaps timely that the group have approved their record company Chrysalis handing over their masters to an array of remixers, including Utah Saints, Black Dog, the Burger Queens and K-Klass.
The project was conceived when Diddy, at the time riding high in the dance charts with “Give Me Love”, bumped into a Positiva A&R man on the dancefloor of a London club. He suggested he have a go at overhauling “Atomic” as “He thought that ‘Atomic’ and my single ‘Give Me Love’ both had similarities,” remembers Diddy. “They’re both very Giorgio Moroder”. The result ended up in both the British and American dance charts. More importantly it was the first remix Diddy had ever done.
“For that one, I actually went into the studio with copies of the original master tapes,” he explains, “and I was pulling my hair out basically. It was very exciting though. The tapes had been copied, but the track sheets were all in the original handwriting and stuff. The stuff on the masters was just all your standard sort of thing – bass, drums, some keyboards done using a Poly Moog, a couple of tracks of guitars and her vocals. “At the time I didn’t have very much equipment and so I wrote the intro at home, and then in the studio I sampled all the bits I needed into three S-1000s and then retriggered them all so they were all in time. I remember having to timestretch some things – not really because they were way off beat, just because they could be a little tighter, especially the vocals. There are always two tracks of her vocals on the masters, I think because she likes to sing everything in stereo. The backing vocals had been multi-tracked too, so I just sampled those up in stereo.” The success of “Atomic” inevitably led to talk of a remix album project, which within months was in full swing, and Diddy was offered the chance to do both “Union City Blue” and “Heart Of Glass”.
“I didn’t really want to do ‘Heart Of Glass’ because it’s such a classic track,” he admits. “But then I thought, it’s like, if I don’t do it, then someone else would. So it was like, ‘Oh well, I’ll do it then!’ This time, when they sent over the multi-tracks of ‘Union City Blue’ and ‘Heart Of Glass’, I took everything off individually and put them on DAT, different tracks on the left and right channels. Then what I did was load them straight into the Mac.” With the advance from his publishing deal, Diddy bought the programming set-up he has in his flat, the centre of which is an Apple Mac Quadra 650 running logic (“The older ones aren’t compatible with the new software) which he got for £1,000, with a gigabyte drive that was about £600.
“I still prefer Cubase on the Atari though. There’s loads of irritating things in Logic, like the matrix editing where you have to open another page to charge the velocities and stuff. Cubase on the Mac is appalling though, so I’m stuck with this.” The equipment he now owns is worth about £40,000 (so forgive us if we don’t tell you the exact whereabouts of his flat in the West End). A year ago, he only had about a tenth of this set up. In fact, Diddy only took delivery of most of this equipment a few days ago. “‘Atomic’ was done on a Roland JD990, but now I’ve got a JV-1080 with a vintage card in it, so that’s virtually where all my sounds come from. My main keyboard is a Yamaha SY85. I used to use the S1000 all the time, but now it’s mostly for percussion and things like that, just to separate them. Thje 32-channel Mackie desk just arrived this week – before then I’d done everything on one of their smaller desks. I put alot of stuff down onto ADAT to separate it out because there’s only six outputs on the JV and that’s a night mare because it has 64-note polyphony and you tend to do everything on it. . . so I need to get another one! “As far as effects go, I always use the Quadraverb or the Sony MP5 which I got instead of a Lexicon because they didn’t have one in stock, and I used that for the reverb on her vocal. At £600, it was a bit of a bargain, and so the Lexicon will have to wait.”
He agrees that it is something of a luxury to be able to work on remixes in the comfort of his own home. “I think sometimes studios are really bad environments – the engineer has always got good ideas about how he wants it to sound or whatever, and you’re paying for the time. I also think that desks like the SSL degrade the sound to a certain aspect, make it realy dull.” When preparing a remix, Diddy will take the whole vocal from the original master, mainly because if he’s going to have to do a number of mixes, commercial or otherwise, he will probably need every line committed to tape. Also, as he explains, coming from a songwriting background, he likes to keep his remixes song based. Hitting the ‘play’ button on the Mac, the solo’d vocal of “Heart Of Glass” bursts out. “Her vocals are fantastic,” he states enthusiasti- cally. “I just paste them up in the sequencer – there’s usually so much vocal in the Blondie tracks that I don’t have the memory to keep it as a whole continuous sampled track, even with a gigabite of memory and an optical drive. Once I’ve worked out the tempo – which I’m really crap at – and sorted out the vocal, I’ll then try to move the individual vocal sections into time with the track because, even with a track like ‘Heart Of Glass’ that was recorded to a wonderful old electronic-sounding drum machine, they’re still not exactly in time. “In the case of ‘Atomic’, I didn’t need to timestretch the vocal at all because the remix was pretty much the same tempo; with ‘Union City Blue’, it was about 120bpm and my remix was 132bpm, and with ‘Heart Of Glass’, it was 115bpm, and they wanted it to be really dancey, so it’s now 124bpm. It’s surprising how good a vocal sounds timestretched. If you take it too far though it’ll start to sound a bit wobbly or glitchy.”
Even though the vocal on “Heart Of Glass” was almost certainly compressed to tape when it originally recorded, Diddy compressed it further again. “They’re usually not compressed enough. Especially when you timestretch things, it seems to point out the irregularities, and also when it’s timestretched you get a bit of a phasing problem, so you have to watch not to mix the stereo vocals too close together because that makes the problem worse. Sometimes it can sound good, but the trouble is that I tend to use phasing on everything else!”
Remixing, of course, also enables the mix engineer to tighten up the perfomer’s parts or just keep the highlights of each idividual part. “One of the guitar parts on ‘Heart Of Glass’ was really out of time for a dance track, even though it sounded OK in the context of the original, so in that instance I just took the best bar of playing and I looped it. I didn’t really keep any of the drum parts, apart from a couple of snare rolls. I dropped the keyboards as well.” So far, Diddy has been the only remixer to get a response back from the band themselves. “When the record company rang New York yesterday, Jimmy Destri, Blondie’s keyboard player was in the office, and he relayed a message to me to say that he thought ‘Atomic’ was fantastic. That made my whole year.”
The Utah Saints’ contribution to the album is a techno remix of “Dreaming”. Similarly, they prefered to work from a DAT of samples from the original master rather than hook up their sequencer with the two-inch multi-track.
“We got two tracks of vocals, two tracks of guitars, two tracks of bass and drums and so on,” Jez explains. “There wasn’t anything particulaly unusual on there, but the thing that did surprise us was how fast the original was running – it was 154bpm, which is a little bit faster than we’re used to working. But I suppose that’s what we’re good at, you know, taking something that’s rock and trying to update them a bit with technology.” The pair decided for this project to use Lion Studios in Leeds, the same establishment in which they recorded their first two hits.
“First of all, we sampled all the vocals – she’s a fantastic singer, and when you hear the raw voice on it’s own it becomes apparent how technically good she is – and then spent some time getting the different lines in time. It took a long time to get the vocal sorted because we never timestretched anything, we just try to do it all with start points, so we had to be a bit loose on some of the timings, to be honest. It’s always tricky when you’re taking a track with a real drummer on it and you’re trying to keep the song, which is what we try to do. We like to keep the essence of the artist in there.
“After that, we just put kick, claps, hats, a couple of swooping basses and a Bass Station on it, which we’d just got that day, in fact. Because of the speed of it, it turned into a techno track. We ended up taking about eight days on it – we do take a long time on our mixes.” And are you happy with the result? “Yeah. I don’t think it suffered too much from doing a different version of it. Updating classic pop tracks is sometimes really hard, like we’ve just done The Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’ and that took ages as well. But ‘Dreaming’ turned out well. It’s like one of those Frankie Goes To Hollywood remixes or something where a new mix will come out with just a 909 kick out of it.”
ON “Beautiful”, “Sunday Girl” (possibly Blondie’s least dance remix-friendly hit) is tackled by Craig from The Burger Queens, one half of the team who used to run the mixed gay club of the same name in Edinburgh. Rearranged at Apollo Studios in Glasgow, not only was it Craig’s first remix, it was also one of the few times he’s ventured into a recording studio. “We’d been in and out of studios messing around,” he says. “Unlike a lot of DJs, we’re not career remixers or anything like that. I kind of hate being in studios, being honest with you. I’m interested in being in there for about the first hour and then after that I’m bored shitless. We’re not going to be pestering A&R people for other remixes, put it that way.”
Their version of “Sunday Girl” was worked up from the original master which,unbelievably, the US record company had dispatched over to London. “It’s still sitting upstairs in my flat!” Craig laughs. “We got it on Christmas Eve whe it was really misty and there were no flights going out of Heathrow, and I needed to be in Edinburgh for a gig that night. The flight was going to be delayed for four hours, so I told them Debbie Harry was playing at a gig in Scotland that night, and I’d just couriered the master tapes over from New York! So they put me on the next flight, upgraded me and everything.”
With a song as blatantly bubblegum as “Sunday Girl”, it seems there was no other option but to toughen it up for the dancefloor. “It’s a really light poppy, wishy washy thing, and so when we put the master on, I thought we’d maybe bitten off more than we could chew. So we stripped it down to the vocal and there were some basslines and stuff we took. Halfway through the session, we gave them a ring and said ‘There’s not a lot we can do with this vocal, so we wouldn’t mind making it dubby’, and they were fine with that. In the end it turned out being a tough, hi-NRG tune.” One matter on which all three agree is that it was a pleasure having had the chance to toy around with songs that they had loved in their teenage years. “It’s a bit ironic,” Craig adds, “but ‘Sunday Girl’ was the first single I bought, so it was a bit of a shock getting asked to do it.”

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