Steve Orchard: Recording McCartney III

What does one of the most famous songwriters in the world do when forced to stay home for the best part of a year? Write a brand new surprise album, of course. This is exactly what Sir Paul McCartney did in 2020, using the unexpected downtime to write and record McCartney III – his 18th solo album – which serves as a continuation to his solo albums McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980).

For engineer, mixer and producer Steve Orchard (who works full time for McCartney), their lockdown work turning into a new album was definitely something that was not planned.

“It was a surprise, really,” Orchard begins, speaking to me from McCartney’s home studio – Hog Hill Mill.

“We worked in a very tight, controlled bubble. It was just me, Paul and my colleague, Keith Smith. We ended up making an album which turned into McCartney III, but we didn't know we were doing it at the time, because this bit of film music that we had to finish suddenly expanded into finishing up other songs that Paul had, and then recording some new ones. It ended up being a very productive, amazing time!”

Orchard has been working with McCartney since his 2007 album, Memory Almost Full, where he focussed on the orchestral sessions, and was then invited to Hog Hill Mill to help with the recording and mixing. When Eddie Klein (McCartney’s recording engineer since the early ‘80s) retired, Orchard was asked to come aboard.

“At the end of 10 weeks or so last year, we had the songs and we went, ‘actually, these all sit together really nicely!’ Paul came up with a really good sequence and we tried it and made a CD, and he took it away. That's when he came up with the idea that this should be called McCartney III and said, ‘let's put it out!’”

For someone that has been releasing music since the early ‘60s, McCartney is as energetic as ever, and is forever recording or noting down ideas as they come to him.

“He’s extraordinarily busy and productive,” Orchard confirms. “It took me completely by surprise as to how full on things get sometimes, and how busy things are. I think Paul's just always had this level of activity in his life where things are always happening.

"It's never the same thing twice – he's got an incredible enthusiasm for music and performing. I mean, even if he's just putting down a shaker or a tambourine or something, you look at him out in the live room, and he's really getting into it, he's performing it, you know? It's quite inspirational.”

The unexpected nature of the project didn’t affect its popularity – McCartney III was met with widespread acclaim from music critics and became McCartney's first UK number one solo album since Flowers in the Dirt in ‘89, and debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 albums chart.

We ended up making an album which turned into McCartney III, but we didn't know we were doing it at the time!

“He keeps me on my toes,” smiles Orchard. “For instance, on the song Deep Deep Feeling there's a sound that sounds a bit like tremolo strings, but in fact that's tape loop guitars that Paul did. We ended up making a couple of chords, but each chord would consist of four notes doubled, so it ended up being about 40 tracks of these tremolo string effects.

"We ended up doing different mixes where we favour different notes, or sometimes it would be mono, sometimes it would be stereo, or sometimes it would have all the notes in the chord – that was good fun!

“You might listen to the song and think, ‘that's weird; they're odd tremolo string samples’, but it's actually the guitars that he's played through his Brenell tape machine that he’s had since the ‘60s. I think he used it on The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. He’d play a lick into the tape recorder, then I'd stop it and play it back at different speeds so you get different octaves and different timings. We use that quite a bit.”

Orchard shares that there is no set routine with the way they work together, and that the studio is set up just the way they like it, ready to bring McCartney’s next idea to life.

“Sometimes he'll just suddenly throw something at me and I’ll think, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to do this?’ I’ll figure out a way... thank God for Pro Tools! If we were doing stuff on tape…” he trails off. “It's quite amazing what you can do nowadays with changing tempos, or keys and editing. That's why records used to take such a long time; I mean, they still take a long time, but that's because you've got more options.

"When you're on tape, you'd have to make a decision. To edit something or repeat something you'd end up having to copy multitracks and offset things with timecode, so it’s knowing when to stop tinkering.”

With all of these tempting options available to polish and manipulate a track, I’m curious as to when Orchard knows a track is done?

“I think there's a tipping point with a mix where things can just be overdone, and I've been conscious of that with McCartney III; we were trying to keep things pretty honest and raw, and not overly tweaked. When we were doing the songs for the album, we would work on a song and we would get it to a point where we felt it was completed.

"Then we would listen to the track and the balance and just make minor adjustments. We did that at the end of the first session, and that’s how it evolved. I think it worked well because it’s not overly studied or overly tweaked. It's quite easy to do that now, particularly with technology and the amount of plugins that there are available; it can become a bit too much and you can lose the focus and go down the plugin wormhole!”

You can never forget who he is and all of that, but when we're in the studio, I just treat Paul as Paul.

One Man Band

Like McCartney and McCartney II before it, McCartney III features the man himself on all instruments.

“It's amazing, and he's very quick as well,” notes Orchard. “If he's got a new song, he'll put down the main instrument first off – usually guitar or piano – and then we'll have a vocal at the same time. Once that's down, then he'll jump behind the drum kit or something, or we'll do a complimentary guitar or another keyboard; there's never a set routine.

"One advantage of having just one musician is you don't have to worry about spill with other instruments! If you've got a band playing, you've the concern about the drums going down the vocal mic, which you have to try and control.”

Orchard points out that often when McCartney plays a song in the studio, it’s the first time it’s ever been played or performed, so some songs take a little longer than others to come together.

“Other times, it's just a straight off the cuff thing – if it’s got the vibe. On Lavatory Lil, the vocal on that was completely live and in one take. On Women and Wives the voice and the piano went down together, live. But then Deep Deep Feeling was quite constructed with the backing vocals and all the different arranged parts that we were doing. It's never the same.”

I have to ask: how does one suggest to Sir Paul McCartney that another take is needed?

“We’ve just got to be real about things,” he answers. “You can never forget who he is and all of that, but when we're in the studio, I just treat Paul as Paul and try not to be overwhelmed by things. He's a great musician and he realises when something needs to be done again – he's got a great intuition for things like that.

"I feel very privileged and honored to be able to be part of what he's up to. I like to make the studio as transparent a process for him as possible so we’re not getting held up by the technicalities of something like a computer crashing.”

On working with a musician who famously had one of the most well known songs in the world come to him in a dream, Orchard says no day is the same:

“Paul’s got a great intuition and radar for all of that sort of thing. He always surprises me with what he comes up with, and then the approach and direction it takes. It's never what you'd expect, he always takes something slightly off angle and comes at it from somewhere else. It's quite refreshing to see this and be part of it.”

Although it's a 60 input desk, it's probably more like 80 inputs because things are on line inputs and mic inputs.

Hog Hill Mill

As you can imagine, McCartney’s home studio is full to the brim with an eclectic mix of instruments and production kit, including a huge 60-channel VR60 Neve V Series desk.

“We've recently expanded to 5.1 down here as well, and that's pulled in a bit more equipment,” Orchard grins.

Right after finishing school, he cut his teeth as a runner at PRT Studios, which he remembers had a 1073 Neve studio, followed by a stint at AIR Studios, which features the legendary vintage Neve console, designed in 1977 and destined for AIR’s new facility on the Caribbean island of Montserrat – which Orchard was lucky enough to visit. George Martin was heavily involved with Rupert Neve in the design process of this radical new desk.

“It's just quality, quality sound quality equipment with Neve – it's always well made. It sounds great and it’s always got a nice depth to it. Neve are a firm favourite of mine, I have to say.”

He discloses that when McCartney’s home studio was first built, Klein first used Abbey Road’s very own SSL desk.

“That one went into Studio One at Abbey Road, which was quite controversial at the time,” he recalls. “They ended up having the SSL for a while, but then decided to go for the Neve because it's a bigger, more flexible desk. Paul loves that sound as well, as we all do. It’s a superb desk – the flexibility of the V series when they first brought it out was amazing!

"You can swap anything within the channel as opposed to it being a global mode switch. Whereas with the V series you can swap individual channels and processing, so it's very, very flexible. The desk is absolutely full, and then I've got other preamps set up as well.”

On the V Series desk, McCartney in the past has said: “I'm not technical, I'm hopeless about technical things so I need really good engineers to help me on this. But I know it sounds good, you know? It's got a lot of knobs, a lot of buttons, and it's wonderful."

“Yeah, that's about right really,” Orchard says good naturedly. “He records his demos on his iPhone now though, which is a good step because he used to have a cassette dictaphone. He's entered the digital domain, which is cool! You’ve got to use what you have the best that you can really.

"Down here we've got everything set up on the VR60; I've got things on mic inputs, line inputs, sharing on channels...but thankfully because it's only Paul recording at once, that facilitates a lot more freedom and flexibility with it. So although it's a 60 input desk, it's probably more like 80 inputs because things are on line inputs and mic inputs, and you just locally swap them depending on what's going on.”

Hog Hill Mill is also home to six Neve 1081s and four 1064 vintage modules – some of them feeding directly into Pro Tools as there is no room left on the VR60 – plus a 33609 stereo compressor.

“They've all got their roles – each module and the old 1081s have got a lovely character to them. I think it was in the early ‘90s when we got the V series down here, so I guess it's become vintage now! But it's a bit more precise; you've got a lot more scope with a parametric EQ, whereas the 1081s have more of a fixed band and you have to tune in what frequency you want rather than it be sweepable – and the cues are preset so it gives you different results.

"The preamps sound different when you drive them or overdrive them, which I like to do sometimes because you get a different character – it's like a different instrument, almost.

Orchard is a big fan of the depth of the sound when it comes to the vintage modules:

“They’re a good size too; when you put a mic through those, they sound great. You've got an instant vibe; it's correct and you're not searching for something. It’s all about using things that are going to give you that result – it expedites the whole process. You want the stages of everything as good as possible. So you start with a nice source instrument, a good-sounding guitar, and then a good microphone in the right position into a great preamp with a bit of EQ sometimes, although I tend not to EQ too much.

"I do that as a corrective thing as and when, rather than a default. If you start with that signal chain and that process and get things as good as you possibly can throughout each stage, then you end up with a better result. It always pays off and you end up with a more satisfying recording.”

Orchard adds that he also uses the 33609 compressor on McCartney’s mixes “an awful lot” – particularly as a stereo compressor.

“I use it for recording as my primary thing. It's a favourite stereo compressor, which I love on the piano, on acoustic guitars, on the Rhodes, or whatever we're doing at the time. If something needs a nice bit of controlled, tasty compression, I use it a lot and it's great for extreme compression – that's fairly clean as well. It's just a super useful tool and a firm favorite of mine.”

Orchard also uses two AMS DMX 15-80S stereo microprocessor controlled digital delay lines and an AMS RMX16 reverb unit.

“They're still classics – love them! They've been around for absolutely years. I've always known them to be in studios; they're a familiar piece of kit with a great, classic sound, and we still use them constantly. The AMS delay is great for slapbacks, rather than just being straightforward repeats – there’s a nice tone to it. When you go through the AMS, it's just got something a bit extra about it.”

Hog Hill Mill is also home to 10 original Focusrite ISA 110 mic pre/EQ modules that Rupert Neve designed, which Orchard uses a lot as well.

“They are tremendous-sounding units,” he enthuses. “Rupert designed them when he first left Neve and he started Focusrite – these are from that era. I love them; particularly on drums and on vocals – so I use those very regularly. They've got a nice versatility in the EQ and a lovely broad tone to them. They have that big Neve sound with a similar characteristic to the vintage modules, but slightly different.”

Orchard shares that they were another key part of the McCartney III album:

“They're integral to our set up; I've got a lot of the drums going through them, and I've got the vocal channels going through them, so they played a big role. I always really loved them on bass drums and snare drums and stuff; I used to use them on those at AIR studios as well. They were here before me; I think they've been part of this setup since when the Neve desk was put in. But if I had had the choice, I would have certainly gone for them.”

With 2020 firmly in the rearview mirror, Orchard is grateful for the positive reviews their surprise lockdown project garnered.

“It's brilliant to hear something back and be proud of it. I just love it. It’s always nice to hear that people are enjoying things.”

Any projects (surprises or otherwise) currently in the works?

“Well...there are several things in the pipeline, but I can't say what they are, I'm afraid. We're always busy,” he grins.

Photo credits: MPL Communications