Merv de Peyer

a piano playing digital media lover

COUCHFIRE: THE MAGAZINE

SOUND ON SOUND

RESOLUTION MAGAZINE

DISCOGRAPHY

Discography
COUCHFIRE: THE MAGAZINE.
Merv de Peyer the piano playing digital media lover...
​“She went into the bathroom, fixed, OD-ed, collapsed on the floor with foaming of the mouth nearly dead, and was taken DIRECTLY from my session to rehab *manic laughter*.”

— on the Queen of Funk
“For instance, there was this one A&R guy, who was very proudly telling me how he spent a weekend – he went from New York to London – first class on British Airways, with the sole purpose of banging his counterpart’s assistant in London”

— On A&R People
Growing up and early life

Basically I grew up until 18 in England and my father was a very famous clarinettist. He was the number one clarinettist in the world - Gervase de Peyer – virtuoso.  He was a household name. Going into the music business was like going into the family business, it was an absolute no-no. So, I avoided it until I was 16. Then I started playing the piano – when I was 16.

When I was growing up there were people like Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman hanging around the house…  Alfred Brendel. Some of the greatest classical musicians of the last 50 years. And they all shared one thing together – which was that classical music was God. Music is a very deadly serious subject.

So for a kid it was too daunting and too much, but it got me in the end. I started playing the piano, but after a couple of years I was still hopeless. But I went to Berklee College of Music for a seven week summer course - Berklee in Boston. I moved to the States at the age of 18. I didn’t expect to, I basically went there for 7 weeks and ended up staying 22 years *laughter*.

Berklee College of Music
Walking into Berklee College of Music was a religious experience, because you have a lot of young people who are deadly serious about what they’re doing - except it’s not classical music - it’s jazz, it’s improvising, it’s making up your own notes, which was the big difference. It was a fantastic environment, very competitive, a lot of brilliant young players.

I came along and pretty much worked 23 hours a day for 4 years, which made up for a lot of wasted time… well not wasted time, but a lot of ‘time’. I acquired a pretty formidable technique in that period. And then I moved to New York - the day I graduated *laughter*.

Manhattan in the 80s

I was very impractical in terms of what I thought it would take to make it as a jazz player. You want to do jazz, you want to learn from the best and keep improving - you go to New York. It’s the only place. I mean LA, arguably, had a good jazz scene, but it was a completely different flavour comparatively to New York. And also Manhattan at that time was FANTASTIC. Just a brilliant place to be. Art coming through EVERYWHERE.

The early 80s there was an explosion of visual art as well. When I arrived there there were 22 jazz clubs that you could go to, many of them open to 6 in the morning. Not regulated. So I got a solo piano gig that finished at 11, go home, have a nap, change and then go out to 6 o’clock in the morning. Every week there was a bunch of the greats playing at a different locations. Sometimes you’d sit in with people - it was this thriving community of (semi starving) artists.
Merv with Rayford Griffin, on tour with Cameo 1987
   Merv mixing Babylon Zoo - 1998
One of the things I did regularly was go to the Village Vanguard, the world’s greatest jazz club, where people like Sonny Rollins played. You know, all sorts of people… like Keith Jarrett. All the heavy-heavy weights go there to play and also to record albums, live albums. I was very young and very wet behind the ears, I was like 22 – 23. But I was a young 23 *laughter* - in some respects – I mean I had a lot of street smarts… but anyway. The owners of the Vanguard got to know a few of us, who were just dead enthusiastic. We would just sit in the stairwell and listen. When you come to The Village Vanguard, there’s a stairwell and then the club’s in the basement. So you couldn’t see anything, but you could still hear everything. They used to just let us do it, because they knew we were jazz enthusiasts – wannabe jazz players. And sometimes if I went by there later, they would just let me in. Wasn’t busy, you know.

I saw all the jazz greats playing at the time. And then other clubs would have nights where you can just sit in. You would join in the jam sessions as much as you could. It was very competitive. Jazz is super-competitive, all the good players, the young ones, they were like tennis players, they all want to win. It’s not just a matter of sounding good and playing well – it’s the matter of winning. There’s a lot of technical virtuosos. And ultimately it’s what gives jazz a bad name – that kind of attitude, because it’s just… Maybe that competitive spirit was great in the times of Byrd and Charlie Parker, but at that time it was a bit outdated. Also you were hearing a lot of people just showing off their techniques they practiced at home. You know.

Route to producing

So eventually I got my first synthesiser and started getting away from jazz.  There’s a thing about making a living. Because in New York there was so many clubs and so many things going on, a lot of musicians could survive as being musicians. You didn’t have to take teaching jobs, didn’t have to work in a supermarket. So I got a synthesiser and joined 5 local, New York rock bands *laughter*. You know, that’s kind of what I grew up with, you could say it was inevitable that I went into more commercial music.

I played with bands and people like John McCurry of Cyndi Lauper, who were then just starting out. The players in those bands were FANTASTIC, but the point really was, that at that time in the music business the bands sometimes had development deals with labels. Sometimes they had publishing deals, so even if they didn’t have fully fledged records, there would be a trickle of money somewhere – and they could afford to pay 30 bucks per rehearsal. So you joined 5 bands with the knowledge that they aren’t going to gig very much – but they rehearse a lot. So each week you’d have like 14 rehearsals, and you’re making pretty decent money out of it.

But then T.M. Stevens, who was a virtuoso bass player, actually ended up playing with the Pretenders. It’s this black guy, FANTASTIC bass player, he told me once *makes a T. M. Stevens impressions* ‘Nah kid, you need to make up your mind. What do you want? You wanna be a road hog, or a studio hound?’ *laughter*. What he meant was that you probably won’t get the chance to do both, because it’s two separate groups of people. All the contacts you make are relevant to a specific road. The studio had a lot more appeal to me, you’re working on records that will live on, and you’re doing something new every day. You’re not playing the same set every night…

So I became a producer. However, let me explain – the word ‘producing’ is a very grey area to start with. I don’t like it very much, especially today, because everybody with a laptop now thinks they’re a producer. Although even back then I found it a fairly laughable term. Basically, the more synthesisers I bought, the more people employed me to just do my thing. That’s really what happened in the beginning of my studio career. You didn’t have to read any music. You’d come in and people would say – ‘come up with something’. Or they’d play you something off the record and they’d say – ‘We want something like this. Come up with a sound’. It’s like assembling a classical piece of music in a way.

I used to enjoy that there was a whole team. I like the atmosphere there in the studio – the assistant engineer, engineer and producer etc. Eventually I had a whole recording studio full of gear – all portable. I had 32 channel analogue console that was flight-cased. I could literally move into the drum booth of a major studio, set-up and pre-produce entire records.
As a producer you have to be a bit of an all-around guy. Allot of the time your coming up with all the idea’s. You’re not getting any credit for that, however you are getting a very decent daily fee. But of course the attraction of producing and writing is that you have a vested interest if the thing does make it big. You’re going to carry on earning.
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   Merv with Bo Diddley on "The Legends of Rock & Roll tour in Australia 1991  
Merv with Jimmy Ridao (Waitresses Guitarist) 1990
Merv on hits

The hits are elusive man. You can basically hit your head and have amnesia – and that’s when you come up with a hit *laughs*. There really is no formula for it. And that was part of my problem as a producer that I hated people who said ‘I know how a hit record sounds like, I CAN MAKE YOU A HIT RECORD.’ One does not know what a hit record sounds like - Only after the fact *laughter*.
You can hear a record that’s not a hit and say ‘that sounds like a hit’, because it wasn’t released yet. I’ve heard a few songs that are just destined to be a hit though... because they’re just so STRONG, you know, SO COMMERCIAL. They are very few and far between those songs. Maybe one out of every ten thousand. I used to say to people ‘I understand all the elements that need to be in a hit record and I know what I’m doing. I can do it in budget. I can do it on time. I can do it with different artists. I can get a great vocal from them. I can get produce them. But I can’t guarantee it’s going to be a hit record’.

As a matter of fact I tweeted that about Michael Illitch, one of the wealthiest people in the world at that point. His son wanted to be a rockstar - they had a lot of money and I was hot at that point – so they got the hottest people they could get to work on the record. That was a funny story, because he (Michael) was used to certainty. In his business he required 98% assurance that he's going to make money before he even spent a dime. So basically he was printing money.

One day while working on the record I was invited to dinner by Mr Illitch himself, and I had enough savvy to know that he wanted something from me. He's a billionaire and has 50 other people grovelling to him around the dinner table. He asked me what I thought of his son's chances of success, and I said to him ‘you can get the best producers, the best songwriters, your son can sing really well, and la-la-la-la, but you cannot guarantee it's going to be a hit record'. And that's when he told me about franchising, about 98% assurance of making money. And you see, this explained a lot to me.
 
On Franchising in the Music Industry

The music business has always been traditionally completely filled, from top to bottom, with complete bozzers *laughter * in terms of the business side of it, right? Of course you get exceptions from it, like Mr Peter Ruppert, who is very savvy and great help to have around, someone who can help a lot. However most of the people in the music business; it's all front, without any substance at all. Especially in the business side. And this explained why, because basically... Okay, the very cleverly brilliant business people understand Michael Illitch's formula of franchising.

That's what they all want, a way of making money that's assured. That's when they feel like they are... that's when they're riffing, you know what I mean? That's when they get that warm feeling in the pit of their stomach. They're having an effect. They're creating something. So those that go off into the music business, because they're enamored with the idea of being around the stars, or whatever it is. The cleverest ones soon realise, that there is no way to apply the same formula to the music business – so they pull out. They go out and do other businesses, leaving the B, arguably C, arguably D, arguably E rate business people in the music business, who basically aren’t smart enough to get out. They're not on the front-end of the business – they're on the shit end of the business. The only reason to be in the music business is if you're creating something. Just like these smart business people go off to be smart business people somewhere else, because there's no way they can impose they're wealth on the music business.

Why the Music Industry failed

So it wasn't just mp3 and downloading that destroyed the music business. It was an absolute and complete disregard for any kind of decency *laughter *. Filled to the gills with bullshitters, with people who said 'I can make a hit record!', 'I know how a hit record sounds like!'. The minute I hear that coming out of someone's mouth, I no longer want to listen to one more word they say. They have already proven the fact that they're idiots, and that's that. But you see, those people have managed to get jobs, and the people they managed to get the jobs from – they're also idiots *laughter * - so when they are told 'I know what a hit record sounds like!' - they believe it! *laughter *.

Most of the time, if you're a producer, or whoever, you're dealing with A&R people. And they are the worst of all... Yeah, they're the worst of all. It's just all front. And they totally abused their position at every chance they got. I was married to an A&R person, so I know, intimately, behind closed doors, how they think. And it was just revolting! For instance, there was this one A&R guy, who was very proudly telling me how he spent a weekend – he went from New York to London – first class on British Airways, with the sole purpose of banging his counterpart’s assistant in London. So whoever worked in the office in London, his assistant was hot, so he went over there, first-class, and had a suite at some hotel. And then 'ha-ha, ha-ha, it's all going to be charged back to this artist'. I thought, you know how many records to you have to sell to pay for a round trip and suite in a 5-star hotel. That's a lot of records... When you sit down and think about the maths, back then, of how many records you have to sell for it to be a significant amount of money... Man, that's a lot of records!

That's why there was always a big focus on the singles. The focus on it is that the earning of a single, next to that of an album cut is just a world apart. If you get a hit single in North America - you get multiple plays on hundreds of stations a day. Every time you check your bank account, you are going to see a significant rise, as long it's a hit. It's quite incredible! I mean it's still going, even in this country [the UK], though the amount of money isn't as significant. That's the money end of the business. And that's why everybody wants to go over there, because if you get a hit in the USA, you're going to make really decent money. If you get a hit here, especially now, it's like 'who the hell cares?!'. You know, what do you get – five grand? *laughs *. You know, you don't get very much money.
On tour with Larry Blackmon and Cameo
Merv live with Cameo 1988
On celebrity clients

[You've got some interesting studio stories too, Cameo, Miles Davis?]

Yeah, I worked with a number of notable people. I guess one of my best memories working with Eddie Murphy – that was quite something. It was just before he did 'Coming to America'. I guess some people thought he was on the decline at that point. He was huge at that point, really. I actually wrote a track that he co-wrote – two songs on the 'So Happy' album. When I was with Cameo, me and Larry Blackmon, we produced a third song for that record.

We worked with him for a month in LA. I forgot the name of the studio. That was a pretty heavy experience, because every day he would come in – he was very professional when he turned up – but he also couldn't stop being funny *laughter*. So basically him and his uncle who was managing him at the time – they used to ad-lip in the control room. I had to learn on how to focus my mind, come up with parts for the records. At the same time, the control room is literally filled with 20 people having stitches the whole time. Eddie Murphy - to see unplugged version of what they do was just incredible. So I used to wake-up in the morning and my stomach muscles would hurt so much I couldn't sit up.

I guess another story was the Queen of Funk. For a long time, she was one of those people – I just thought she had the best ever voice. In my humble opinion anyway. At least from what I like to listen to. So when I got to work with her I was over the moon. And I had written this song in 5-4, most songs are written in 4-4, so it's unusual. Led Zeppelin did a few songs in 5-4, Pink Floyd - it's a very cool sounding time signature. So we started off, recording my song ‘Without a Care’.

Queen of Funk

She basically ran the session. The track was done, she comes in, she sits on a stool in the vocal booth and she just dictates to the engineer – 'okay, drop me in for this line, that line, go back to here' – you know, nobody has to produce The Queen of Funk she's a completely self-producing singer. Maybe if it was someone who she totally respected – then MAYBE she'd listen to what you have to say. She's a super nice person, sweet, lovely lady. Anyway! She got through a third of the song, she's doing all these 7 part harmonies – it's just fantastic watching her work – hearing The Queen of Funk. We were all getting more and more excited, and then she says – 'okay, okay, I'm going to go to the bathroom'. She steps away, goes to the bathroom. We start to chat with each other, time goes by. 30 minutes goes by and I was the first one to ask 'where's...?'. Another HOUR went by before a very sheepish assistant comes into the room and says that she's left. And that's all we're told at this moment – that she's left. And that we all had to leave and that the tapes are being confiscated, or at least taken into possession by the label.

And it was the next day that I found out from a few different sources what actually happened. She went into the bathroom, fixed, OD-ed, collapsed on the floor with foaming of the mouth nearly dead, and was taken DIRECTLY from my session to rehab *manic laughter*. So I never got to hear what she did either, because they wouldn't let a half-finished track out, that's for damn sure. That was another real lost opportunity, even though I got to work with the Queen of Funk and understand the process that she goes through in terms of the layering, harmonies – so I did learn a huge amount from it.

As I did from working with all of the really big people that I worked for. The really big ones, the ones who weren't making their first record – you know, they were really big for a reason. Most of the great artists – they know what they're f∂@king doing *laughs *. At least the ones I worked with. The ones that are super talented – are super talented. The rest are just the the rest, that's about it.

On Miles Davis

[You didn't tell me about Miles Davis] 

Well Miles Davis, he's the greatest ever. That was the pinnacle of my whole career – working with Miles. I say working WITH Miles kind of loosely really. Basically the story behind that was that I’d been in Cameo for a while and I’d done 'Word Up' album. I was now associate producing the “Machismo' album, which was the follow-up to ‘Word Up’. I went to my studio apartment in 46 Street in New York and I wanted to place some songs to the record. So I sat down with all the Cameo sounds and studio gear and I just came up with a couple of tracks that I just thought would be really good for Cameo. Larry (Blackmon) heard this one track and he played it for Miles and Miles loved it. Basically Miles then came in, he recorded 8 tracks – I wasn’t invited into the control room for the recording. I did get to meet him though. He basically didn't have much interest in me to be honest, although it was a big honour for me. I was literally shaking at the knees. It's basically this guy - he has completely changed music. Well at least the music I like. Not once, not twice, but THREE times. Sort of like the Picasso of the music world - and questionably one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. So it was just a great honour.

But then, afterwards, when Miles left, there were 8 tracks of Miles Davis – and I was the only guy left that understood jazz. So I went in and assembled Miles's lead track out of these 8 tracks – I made a composite. Which you do with EVERYBODY. I don't care who the artist is. If it's a studio orientated date, there is only one or two artist out there who will do it in one take. All I'll say about that is that there were a few things on Miles's track that he certainly wouldn't want featured on the record. So I assembled the best bits of it. Well, listen, it was AMAZING. You push up a fader and there's Miles Davis playing a song that you wrote! Nah! Pull the fader down, push the next one up!

It was a heady experience. That particular track had a lot of critical acclaim. You know, Cameo were so big commercially that die hard jazz people were never going to like that record. It was one of those honourable moments though. What I say about working with Miles, is that I kind of snuck through the back-door – meaning I didn't rise through the jazz ranks, becoming noticed by other people first, then Miles Davis. I came in through a very commercial orientated vehicle. But who cares?! *laughter*. I got the track to prove it! And that's a thrill! Very little can compare to the feeling of listening to a song that you've written when someone so influential is playing it. I really cannot think of anybody I worked with that can compare.

*Laughs * He really looked like an alien, like from the movie 'Alien'. The shape of his head, just black, black, black, there is no grey in his complexion at all. He was an extraordinarily looking character. All the years of doing heroin, you know, it gives you this 'sucked in' look. It's extraordinary. Anything he said – could change careers. The best thing, I think, I ever read in an interview with him, was he told the interviewer talking about how he knows whether people can play. He said something like 'I don't have to hear them play, I just have to see them pick up their instrument'.

On Michael Brecker

One of the other people I worked with was Michael Brecker. Over the last 20 years, he died about 5 years ago, he was arguably the second best jazz sax player ever, the best pop player, whatever you want. Who was it, James Taylor? He had him on million dollar a year retainer. That's even if he wasn't touring. He was THE session guy in New York. The top guy of all the instruments. And I got to work with him on Cameo, and a few other artists. So I got to see how it works. You learn an attitude from those people. Like here is the greatest saxophonist, everybody agrees. He comes in – and no attitude at all. Lovely guy. What is going to make this guy happy on the session? It's if he thinks that you're happy. That's what will make him happy. He will play in a way that he finds offensive to himself, if that's what you want. Obviously, within limits. So his professional attitude was absolutely immaculate. Friendly, open, yet he's the ultimate guy.

As a studio guy a lot of people would employ him for jingles, music for advertising, because of time constraints. He did an immense amount. You'd hire him because he really would do it in one take. And the next guy down would take ten. And you don't have the extra 25 minutes. Everything's happening like this *snap snap snap *. They would earn their money by how quick and solid they were – the top guys. The first time I worked with him, he basically was telling the engineer how to set up the mics to get the best sound. So now I have like the best technique for mic-ing a tenor saxophone from the top guy whose sound everybody wants. And those kind of experiences add up. If you're alert, you're looking to learn, you learn tricks from those people.
In reflection upon himself

Eventually, I learned a hell of a lot of tricks. And I was one of the only people who could play to a virtuoso standard, but also could work the computers to a high standard. So basically what was left? Producing - it's a lot of work, you have to sit there and baby everybody. You have to deal with all the idiot label people. What's really enjoyable about producing is mixing – that was always the thing. See, because I was a keyboard player and a programmer in New York - I would pre-produce everything immaculately, put it all on tape and literally all I had to do is push the faders to zero. That was my viewpoint of where the mix should be. So a lot of the times I would feel that the mixers would fuck up my records. Mess it up. It wouldn't be as good as I wanted it to be. But there was a real resistance via the record companies to give me the chance to actually physically mix – because I wasn't an engineer. You get typecast. I was typecast as keyboard player – producer.

It wasn't until working with Arthur Baker – he is a dance music producer and he's really worth looking up if you're interested in music history. He was the first guy to use this little sampler and sample a bit of vocal and use it in a dance track. He basically invented some of the dialogue that is used commonly, even today. Dance music wouldn't be the same without Arthur Baker – he's legendary in the dance music circles. A lot of the newer guys might not respect him as much as the last generation. Either way he was a workhorse as a producer. He constantly had projects to work on. If you were his programmer and his keyboard player, you would, just through him as one client, make a very good living. Actually better living than if I was trying to produce artists myself. And also better quality of projects, because he was getting the best projects, the best remixes. Also most of the time it was remixes, which meant you wouldn't just mix the record, you would come up with your own stuff, which is ultimately even more fun.

Most importantly he was a hands-off producer - he'll come in and he'll paint a few broad strokes. Then you had to get inside of his head and work out what does Arthur Baker want? What does an Arthur Baker record sound like? You had to gravitate towards those kinds of things and if you did it right then he would give you even more responsibility. So he was the one that let me mix major label stuff. It was mainly because he couldn't get this guy Mark Plotty, who I know very well. He used to work with David Bowie for years, he's a brilliant mixer. Mark was my biggest influence. He had those big, explosive sounding mixes. So at first I would aspire to that level.

On the English Music Scene

When I moved back to England we were going to make a partnership which unfortunately didn't work out. But I did get to mix some very big records, most notably with Jonny Marr and Bernard Sumner from New Order. They made a super-group called Electronic. The records like the Pet Shop Boys, you know, they would appear on it, basically the English pop royalty – these guys. Jonny Marr is thought to be the best English guitar player up there with someone like Eric Clapton. So I got to work with all of those guys on the Twisted Tenderness album. That was a fantastic project to work on, even though Arthur Baker had a nervous breakdown on the first week *laughter *. But that meant that I had to save the situation. Arthur brought me in to programme and do my thing and I hit it off with Jonny and Bernard big time!

Some people, some rockstars are working on being nice. It's almost a self-conscious niceness, but these guys are just nice. But they're also; both of them have been rockstars since before they were adults. You're seeing a very warped sense of reality when you're hanging out with someone like that. In some ways they appear like normal people, but again, since they were teenagers they couldn't go out on the street without being recognised. Everybody adores them. They always had a massive critical acclaim and huge success. So obviously that's going to affect how you are as a person. But they're both really funny and the relationship that they have with each other is even funnier.

They really are opposites and I don't know for the life of me why they started a group together, apart from the fact that they are good friends! So on that project you had to make Bernard happy, but you also had to make Jonny happy. You know... the record came out absolutely fantastic, and that's one of my best ever mixes, I think. Really hard hitting, good sounding stuff and great lyrics. Jonny Marr is a proper virtuoso guitar player - and I consider that I know what I'm talking about when I say that. He has those hands, hands of a classical player, and if you hear him with a 12-string guitar in his hands, he just produces this incredible sound out of a guitar and seemingly has limitless technique, even though he never-ever uses just for technique's sake. You really couldn't say anything bad about the guys playing, that's why even today he’s going from one super group to the next. He was in the Smiths and then The The, then la-la-la, he's been in like 8 huge bands.

He's the kind of person; when people ask him to play - they actually ask him to be in the band. I mean, he does sessions, but if he tours, you will have to give it up baby! And he'll want a proper share of everything... and rightly bloody so! Because a portion of the audience will come in just to see Jonny Marr play! He also adds a lot of legitimacy to any project that he's in.

On Change in Music 

I've seen a lot of change in recent years. What happens a lot these days is that young bands are being directly matched with an advertiser. There's a lot of sponsorship taking place. It comes in at a very early stage in a band's career.
Back in the day, nobody would be seen dead working with these advertisers. The advertising business makes all the other businesses look nice. None of them are looking after you. The idea of no middle man has a detrimental effect on the artists. A lot of young artists need to be little business people now. You need to market yourself, look after your own business. Is that good? Is that what you're meant to be thinking about? Is that what Joni Mitchell thought when she wrote Blue? NO! Artists from the years gone by were writing about the things they felt. It's hard to do so in a world that's so commercialised.

We need to separate the commercial value of music to re-establish the idea of the middle man, the agent. I understand that everybody needs to be making money, but artists really need to focus on what they do best. The last manager I had was the biggest producer manager in England called Steve Budd. He had 50 producers on his rooster. The way things used to work in his world was - an A&R person would sign a band, then go to Steve Budd and say 'Steve, send us the resumes of 5 of your guys'. Then Steve would listen to the band, then decide which producer was best for the band, send the 5 resumes to the A&R person - and they would choose one. So who had the biggest effect on the choice? Steve Budd! Bands weren't so savvy and the A&R wouldn't know anything, so they needed someone like Steve Budd. Steve was very good at what he did, would always only suggest people who were abundantly qualified to produce this band. There's an example of the middle-man who added value and provided a link between the business side of things and the bands. The alternative is for bands to deal directly with advertisers. The bands shouldn't think about cornflakes when they are meant to make music.
When bands used to arrive in New York, they used to look for a lawyer before they would look for a bass player. I never really liked that, even though arguably the lawyers were so well connected, that they would hook you up with the right people. You go to a party in their house, get to talk everyone and advance your career that way.

On the Future of Music

Do you know what's missing from Rock n' Roll today? Self-abuse. Artists are eating health food and jogging for Christ's sake *manic laughter*. How much music is that? When they were all doing smack and LSD they were living on the edge, man! Not that I'm endorsing drugs. If you sold yourself to an advertiser it was like selling your soul to the devil. You had to be very careful who you associated yourself with. To go on a talent show? You're dead. You will never become a proper artist.
How are we going to proceed from here? That's the really interesting question. We need some kind of apocalypse. Someone needs to pull the plug and we need to re-think everything. That's basically where we're at. We are watching it all go down the tube. I don't know what we're going to do.
I know one thing though. I'm smashing my head against the wall even though I'm bleeding pretty badly. Working with someone like Peter Ruppert is where I see value. I probably wouldn't be making any music now if it wasn't for someone like Peter, Peter understands this whole other world. He's the guy that I told you about. He has the commercial values. I have a lot of integrity in what I'm doing, but I'm also good at adapting. I have that Michael Brecker thing of wanting to make the client happy. Working with Peter and his bright ideas is what makes it worth it. Otherwise, just do whatever you feel like and when you feel like it. Because you'll never know what's going to make it.
SOUND ON SOUND
MERV DE PEYER * JIM SPENCER * RECORDING ELECTRONIC'S 'VIVID'
The new single by Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner's 'supergroup' Electronic is closer to traditional rock & roll than electronica, with its driving guitars and bluesy harmonica riff. But there's more to the simple-sounding production than meets the ears, as Matt Bell finds out from programmer Merv De Peyer and engineer Jim Spencer.

When Bernard Sumner of New Order put together Electronic with guitar hero and ex-Smith Johnny Marr, the sum of the parts proved to be a pretty effective whole. Electronic had several big hits at the turn of the '90s (including the superb 'Getting Away With It' and the quite extraordinary 'Disappointed', the latter featuring Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys on vocals) and released a successful eponymous debut album. And despite a slight falling-off in fortunes following the release of their second album Raise The Pressure in 1996 (Curate's Egg might have been a better title), considerable expectations surrounded the recent release of their third album, Twisted Tenderness.


While Marr and Sumner have been at the top of their profession for so long it's hard to remember a time when they weren't famous, Electronic's new album has provided an important career breakthrough for at least two of the other people involved. For Merv De Peyer, who'd previously worked as a keyboard player and synth/sequencer programmer (see the 'Potted History' box), it represented a chance to break into production and mixing.

Electronic's chief duo chose a producer to help them through the rest of the recording process: Arthur Baker, the man behind the classic early '80s hip-hop cut 'Planet Rock', and with whom Bernard had worked while in New Order. With ultimately profound consequences for 'Vivid', Arthur brought along his regular programmer, Merv De Peyer. Jim Spencer was impressed. "Merv was one of the best things Arthur brought to that record. He's a genius with Logic and Pro Tools, a very talented musician, and full of creative ideas; all the sound effects and keyboard stuff on 'Vivid' are his."

Merv settled into George Martin's old office at AIR Studios with his racks, Pro Tools system, Mac running Logic and Arthur Baker's Yamaha Promix 01 digital mixer, while recording shifted to RAK Studios, where Jim Spencer continued to engineer overdubs onto the material recorded at Clear, with Arthur Baker overseeing. Jim's first move was to get everything that had been recorded to date off the ADATs. "Johnny's ADATs are the older black ones, and... well, they frighten me to death, to be honest. He's only got two for a start, they take ages to lock up, and you can have problems with them chewing up tapes. So when we got to RAK, we dumped everything onto 2-inch tape. We recorded a lot of the guitars onto the 2-inch for the tape sound, and then transferred everything into the version of Cubase there. I've had a lot of experience with digital formats -- Raise The Pressure was all done on ADATs and The Charlatans [Spencer's current recording project] are now using an Otari RADAR system, so I've developed my preferences for what sounds better; I think basses do, and some guitars. Some of the time we recorded directly into Cubase.

"The bulk of the recording was done in the room where I was, and then we'd hand stuff over to Merv to work on. We had two rooms going right throughout the project, and Johnny and Bernard were constantly flitting between the two."
Following the initial recording of 'Vivid' at Clear, a sampled loop was overdubbed to fill out the rhythm. It was to sort matters like this out that Merv was initially brought in, as he explains: "I was the 'fix-it-up' man -- especially with respect to the live drums. Ged is a great drummer, but they wanted to have loops running over the top of the drums, so the drums had to hook in with those. I needed to do quite a lot of drum editing. I did a month and a half on my own at AIR; they shipped me ADATs and I worked on fixing things."

Bernard and Johnny visited Merv frequently at this time, and came to trust his resourcefulness and ideas. At one point, when Bernard wanted a sitar-type sound for the album track 'Prodigal Son' and Johnny wasn't there, Merv reversed a section of Marr's guitar and processed it to obtain the desired sound. It wasn't long before Merv was not merely fixing up drum tracks, but also adding his own ideas. "Frequently, when people realise that you are thinking on their level, that you're making decisions that they would have made, all of a sudden, you get a free rein to be creative. Electronic was a perfect example of that; Johnny and Bernard were very quick to make that decision. They instilled me with this confidence that I could try overdubs of my own."
Merv's experiments at AIR culminated in him trying a full mix of one track covertly, and then revealing it to Johnny and Bernard in a near-finished state as a fait accompli. "It had been going really well at AIR, so I took a couple of days off -- didn't tell Johnny and Bernard, and didn't charge for it, either -- and worked up a rough mix of one of the songs at AIR with the Promix and my old Nubus Pro Tools system. When they heard it, Bernard said 'Well, Merv, that was pretty close to being the final mix' -- and that was just on a Yamaha Promix 01! They seriously started to consider using me to mix the album at that point."

From this point onwards, work on the album was split between Jim and Merv. Jim still engineered the initial recordings, but then handed some over to Merv for completion. Those that Jim retained, he saw through to the finished mix.
But what of 'Vivid'? This was one of the tracks Merv assumed responsibility for, having already done some work to make Ged Lynch's live drums work with the overdubbed loop. It wasn't just a simple matter of sync'ing the two rhythms together, either...
Jim: "To be honest, it wasn't an ideal situation; I was unhappy about the fact that some stuff had been recorded to ADAT, then printed to 2-inch tape, put into Cubase, exported back out onto ADAT to go to Merv, then loaded by him into Logic... We didn't have any digital interfacing, so all this was done through endless A-D converters. I was getting concerned about some of the drums sounding a bit brittle."

Fortunately, Merv had a couple of solutions, one of which was simply to apply his Empirical Labs Distressor to the snare. "That's phenomenal on snare drums. You don't lose any of the snappy impact, but you can turn... well, put it this way. Jim's drums went from 'pfftht' to 'BLAAANNNNNNNNNNGGGG!!!!!!' It also emulates other tube gear very convincingly. You can go from very subtle to insane effects, and the audio quality is impeccable, as far as my ears can make out."

The other trick was more complex, but no less ingenious. Using Logic's audio-to-MIDI conversion routines, Merv turned Ged's live drum patterns into MIDI files, and then used these to trigger samples which bolstered the flagging drum sounds. "Logic is an awesome tool. To be really honest, audio-to-MIDI doesn't work too well on melodic parts, even monophonic lines -- I could replay a line faster. But for drums, it's great. You work out the trigger threshold, process the audio, and erase all the junk the threshold hasn't caught. Then you just select all the events you've got, and make them all the same MIDI note -- and there's your snare or kick trigger. You have to go in and tweak a few of them, but it's still pretty fast. And you get all the velocity information of the original drum in the MIDI file -- so the dynamics are preserved. I have samples that I've collected over the years which I've got cross-faded at different velocities, so I was able to get the samples sounding pretty live. I suppose I was using the kick sample like others might use EQ, just to give the kick sound more edge. I didn't replace the original altogether, just blended it with the original."
As well as using the Distressor, Merv applied the same audio-to-MIDI trick on the snare, this time adding a sample of a metallic clang low in the mix to round out the sound.

Synths, Arpeggios, Tremolos... Bowling Alleys?

With the drums beefed up, 'Vivid' was already sounding good, but now Merv's creative imagination went into overdrive. "When you've got everything sounding good, then you can start to say, 'well, this is a very vibey song -- at the moment the drums just crash in. Could we maybe have an intro?'"
Enter Merv's old Oberheim Matrix 6 synth, an arpeggio'd, vaguely oriental bell sound with a long decay time, and a reversed, reverbed snatch of Johnny Marr's harmonica, which Merv placed on the front of the song in Logic, to Marr's delight. Merv: "The combination of the notes I chose, and the reversed harmonica, created a real mood for the song; exactly what Johnny wanted. I picked the arpeggio notes so that it could run through the whole verse, and still work with all the chords. Then, each time a new chord is struck, it makes the arpeggio sound different, even though the notes in that riff stay the same. It's a device that everyone uses, but it works.
"I also doubled the acoustic guitar, by taking some of it from later on in the song, where it's playing the same thing, and layering it on top of the first. That works because like double-tracking a vocal
Left: Some of Merv De Peyer's more unusual studio gear: Akai ME30P programmable patchbay, Casio CZ101 synth, Yamaha DJX, Casio toy home keyboard (with built-in toy sampler), Casio Rap Man (with built-in sampler and scratching turntable), Korg PolySix synth., the guitar is playing the same chords but not in exactly the same way. You can't get the same vibe with electronics, and you don't want it to be a perfect double, or it doesn't sound as interesting.
"The break is where I really went crazy, putting tremolo plug-ins on the guitar and auto-panners on almost everything, so sounds were flying around the stereo spectrum. One of the sounds in the background at that point is actually a sample of a bowling alley -- the sound when the ball hits the skittles. There are two or three weird loops in there which I concocted myself by processing material on the original ADAT. Johnny loved the extreme guitar effects, as it was one of his big concerns: how to make an electronic-sounding track where it's actually guitar-driven!"
Most of the special effects on the track were completed at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios, where Jim, Merv, Arthur, Bernard and Johnny relocated after the recordings in RAK and AIR. Here, they were joined by Arthur Baker's other programmer, Mac Quayle, who, while working on the album's title track in a third room, added some tom fills to Vivid's drum track in Logic in the closing stages of the recording, including the roll that sets off the song following the arpeggio intro. Merv: "That was originally just one snare hit and into the song. Mac's fill totally made the start for me." It was at Real World, too, that Bernard added his final vocal, comped by Merv in Logic.

Mixing & Completion

The album -- including 'Vivid' -- was mixed by Merv at Mayfair Studios, London, on Peter Gabriel's old Nubus Pro Tools system, which he lent for their use. Merv: "What luxury! It had eight DSP Farm cards! I could not exhaust the DSP processing -- and believe me, I tried! You know, 'OK... will it give me another 6-band Focusrite plug-in, then? Yesss! It will!!' I was like a kid loose in a cookie store!" Software plug-ins once again proved their worth at the mix. "The Drawmer and Focusrite plug-ins in the computer are awesome. The Focusrite limiter on vocals is one of the best I've heard -- you can whack it up all the way on a vocal and you can barely hear it working. It saves so much time, instead of having to automate everything.

Pro Tools & Portability -- Merv's Studio  

Intrigued by the possibilities Arthur Baker's Yamaha Promix 01 digital mixer afforded him when performing test mixes for Electronic at AIR, Merv has now splashed out on two of the newer Yamaha 01V mixers. Together with his recently acquired Pro Tools 24/Mix system, his G3 running Emagic Logic ("There's nothing to touch Logic for pop music." he says firmly) and the rest of his racked gear, he feels he now has a setup to be proud of. "This system is so powerful now. With the 01V, it's ridiculous what you get for your money. Four additional processors, each of which sounds much better than my old SPX90... The compressors in it are easily as good as the ones in SSL desks as well, if not better. Of course, I wouldn't use them for everything; I'll always choose a really nice piece of outboard over what's in the desk. They're really compact, too, and I can use one as a hardware control surface for my Pro Tools. Who needs Pro Control? Have you seen that? Seven grand, and not a preamp in it! I'm sorry, but that's a real con!

"The best thing about my system, though, is that I can dissassemble and reassemble it within an hour. It's all flightcased, and I can take it with me; I took the whole studio with me to Real World for Electronic.
"What's more, I'm already doing commercial mixes on it -- I did one for Terrorvision recently -- and no-one's complaining about quality! All I really need now is a few more grand of outboard -- some decent mic preamps -- and then I can honestly say to people 'look, I have all this gear -- let's rent some mics and a house near Nice, and go and do your album there with it'. I've been saying this sort of thing since I was in Cameo, but back then, I could only say 'let's go and do the pre-production with this gear somewhere' -- now it's good enough to do the recording and mixing as well." little word. Bernard's voice also responded particularly well to it."

When mixing, Merv is careful not to become too precious about the sound of individual components of a mix: "A lot of people who come the engineering school route are very concerned about the sound of every instrument in isolation. So if you solo the acoustic guitar, they want it to sound like a really good acoustic guitar -- but that's not really what doing a mix is about. You have to consider it as a totality. Most of the time, when I finish a mix, if you solo instruments, they're going to sound pretty crap. You're going to listen to the EQ I've picked for the acoustic guitar and say 'well, where's all the oomph?' But listen to it in the mix and it'll be taking up just the right amount of frequencies."
True enough; if you listen to 'Vivid' it seems to have an extraordinary clarity, as does much of the rest of Twisted Tenderness, no matter how dense the production becomes on some tracks. So Johnny and Bernard got the album they wanted, and Merv got the credit he has been seeking for so long -- recognition as the mix engineer of a complete high-profile album. Remix work continues to keep Merv busy.
Merv De Peyer -- A Potted History

The British son of a world-class clarinetist, and holder of a degree in Performance and Composition from the prestigious American Berklee College of Music, Merv De Peyer spent the first few years following his studies in New York, earning a living as a very unelectronic jazz pianist. Indeed, his first brush with synthesizers was not a success. At Berklee he signed up for Electronic Music Composition lectures, but was immediately put off. "The lecturers were like scientists, dressed in white coats. They said 'if you come along to every class for six months and learn all the synth theory, then maybe, just maybe, we'll let you touch this' -- and they unveiled an ARP 2600. But the music it produced just sounded like a lot of ducks quacking to me... So I only went twice!"
Disillusioned with jazz, Merv sought a change of scene in rock music, and began buying synthesizers. When the DX7 came out, he was one of the first people to actually understand it, and thus found a role for himself as a programmer. "I started to do sessions just designing sounds for people. You know, pretty mundane stuff. 'Uh -- we want a bell sound here'. That was a great example of a business that was associated with the technology of the time; people made money out of it and some people -- I never really did, to be honest -- actually pictured making a consistent living out of it. Now it's gone. History. You want a bell sound? My JV1080 has 5000 of them. It was great for a bit though. 750 dollars a day for crossing a bell with a Fender Rhodes... or just making a bell sound decay for longer... The hilarious thing was that sometimes I wasn't even the player! I would design the sounds and they had someone else to play them! I hated it, really."

Eventually, Merv's programming work led him into the ranks of synth funksters Cameo, just as they enjoyed their biggest hit with 'Word Up'. Demand for the production services of Cameo frontman Larry Blackman soared, and as his MIDI specialist, Merv enjoyed Associate Producer credits on a wide range of high-profile US releases, and toured extensively with Cameo as their MIDI programmer.

But the bubble burst. House music took off in the States, rendering Cameo old hat, and Merv not only parted company with Larry but actively stopped mentioning his name when seeking work, as he felt it was counter-productive. Doors ceased to open, work dried up and Merv returned to New York, where he founded a small studio complex. To Merv's eternal good fortune, producer Arthur Baker moved in two units along from Merv's own studio, and Merv began working for him as his synth and sequencer programmer. "We'd met before, but he'd always had other programmers, like Mac Quayle, who he still does work with, and who did some work on Twisted Tenderness, on the title track."

Through Arthur, in turn, Merv met Jaz Mann of Babylon Zoo, and the pair hit it off so well that Jaz asked Merv to mix his second record for him, eventually bestowing a co-production credit on him as well. Though the album was not a commercial success, Merv began to attract work again. "Mixing the album for Jaz gave me all the confidence I needed, and really pushed me over the top, to the next level."

Although he had been mixing as part of his job for years, this was Merv's first high-profile credit in that field; and, as he points out solemnly, it's the mixing credits that count. "My heart goes out to programmers everywhere, because basically record companies look at three things on a record. Artist, producer, and mix engineer. Programmers get totally ignored. You will never get a call associated with how good that record sounds, even though they can often have done all of the work of the mix engineer. Not too many producers and artists tip the hat to the people they've worked with, either. That is just one of the nice things about Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner [Electronic have credited everyone involved in the making of their new album on the sleeve]; they're so gracious. Arthur Baker's like that, too. He will always tip his hat to you if he likes your work" [it's true -- see the interview with Arthur Baker in SOS June '97, in which he does exactly that for Merv].
resolution magazine
The next generation audio production magazine

ChxllSeeker

Less a studio, more a model for a way of life, Chxllseeker is billed as the UK's first surround sound DVD music video label. It's creator won't let the system grind him down and warns others to take control of their own destiny.

ZENON SCHOEPE

CREATIVELY, MULTICHANNEL COULD be the rebirth and invigorator of the entire world of music,' says Merv de Peyer in his Primrose Hill, London studio, The founder of Chxllseeker, the UK's first surround sound DVD music video label, has done his research and his sums and put his money where his heart is.

The label's first release is Tapping into the Orgone which combines music mixed in 5.1 with 3D animation, plus seven special features including an interactive 'surround sound' book, 14 mini movies, bonus surround-sound tracks, a 'secret track', and web-links and is targeted at home entertainment systems, video game consoles and DVD players. And he did it all himself.
   
'Chxllseeker is a creative project that is trying to answer some of the inherent problems that the music business is having,' explains Merv. 'I looked in to my own personal crystal ball and didn't see a particularly rosy future. 1 see the bottom falling out of the music industry. Worldwide, 1 believe that copy written material as a source of income has dropped by :50St. The reasons are fairly obvious. There's ,\tP:5 but 16x rewriters in £300 PCs are, 1 think, the largest problem because there is now no time investment for people who want to copy music. Not a lot of the people 1 know are working, and those that are are not working for the sort of money they got two years ago,' he says.

Remedial action for this scenario was triggered by his first introduction to surround sound following his involvement in a 360 degree movie commissioned by Volkswagen for its headquarters showroom in Germany. He used a 5.1 set-up of Sony hi-fi speakers fed through a Digidesign 888 interface and assigned output sends from buses in Logic Audio which were then automated. 'A little cumbersome by today's standards, perhaps, but still very effective if you have enough DSP power to drive it,' he explains. 'I was amazed at the sound that 1 got out of those degasses speakers and since then I've moved up to a full set of Genelec 1029As with a Genelec sub and it's only got better. What 1 realised was that 1 could produce amazing results in my little room here.'
   
He does his own mastering and works to DVD-Videoas the carrier and clealy takes pride in the fact that hr's conquered the whole process in-house. He also has a message to those holding back from taking the plunge and doing their own thing. 'Get on it. This is a freight train.' he says. 'I've spent the last year researching it and there isn't one negative statistic you can apply to it, other than nobody else is doing it. Competition would actually be a really good thing at this stage of the game because it would help to highlight the whole idiom. I believe we have two years of growth before we start to look at saturation but that's as long as people are prepared to think dedicated DVD material.
'There is so much scope for creativity nn the mixing process and mixing in multichannel can be done very cheaply and at "home".'

There are altruistic and idealistic sides to the Chxllseeker project and Merv sees the creation of a production company from the label's artists as a key aspect. All will contribute their skills in a type of 'artists' collective' and these services will be applied to a number of different areas, including such things as multichannel music for advertising. 'The artists will be promoting our skills as a production company by association. People will be able to buy a product that shows them what we are capable of doing.'

He believes that we should all be thinking more niche. looking in to the possibilities, pricing it out and doing it if it adds up. Established producers who think that such adventures are the preserve of others are kidding themselves. according to Merv. 'I don't think there is going to be enough traditional work out there for everyone,' he claims. 'I remember more than ten years ago reading an article in the New York Times by Don Was. He was predicting that music producers will become like live radio producers in the future. The musicians have become empowered and a lot of the technology has now come down to pressing a few buttons, What will anybody want to employ a producer for? Their taste. My byword is creative services. The only way to survive in this business is if people want your ideas, your taste or your knack. Technical services on their own, 1 think, are over with. When you take how much I've spent on the gear in this place 1 don't think I'd get one gig as a commercial facility, that shows how little value having the gear has these days.

'1 started off as a jazz pianist but when I got myself a synthesiser 1 was getting gigs to go in to program bell sounds for people who didn't even know that 1 could play,' he adds. 'Now you get a software program with 1000 bell sounds and who needs a programmer for all but the very highest sessions? It comes down to thinking of ways of making yourself valuable.'
​   
After graduating from Berklee College Of Music with a degree in performance and composition, Merv moved to New York as a jazz pianist but was quickly sighed by Cameo as producer-keyboard player. He also composed a track for Miles Davis and recorded and co-wrote with Chaka Khan, Jemaine Jackson, and Eddie Murphy.
As a songwriter-composer he worked with Cyndi Lauper, Lisa Lisa, Jose and Louis featuring Madonna and remixed tracks with NYC dance gurus, such as Arthur Baker, including work with Apache Indian, Morcheeba, First Choice and Manbrake.
Back in London he co-produced and mixed the KING KONG Groover album for Babylon Zoo and mixed records for Electronic, Suede, and the Geri Halliwell number one Mi Chico Latino.
He has know focused his attention on the creation of audio and visual material and believes the 'audio only' artist may become a thing of the past.
His most recent expenditure has been directed towards the picture equipment but of his audio gear predates his multichannel 'discovery' and has adapted well to it's new purpose.
The observant will have noticed the complete absence of any mixing worksurface. He has a MixPlus+ Pro tools rig with 24 I-Os, but uses Logic as his creative front end and the Digidesign hardware and the TDM system. Patchbays interconnect to a wealth of traditional gear.
'The key with any personal studio is that if you have a few bits of high-end gear and a good way of outputting what you're dealing with, then you can take on anything,' he says.