Unicorn – Laughing Up Your Sleeve: Notes On The Mix And Restoration.
Scott Anthony, engineer at Storybook Sound:
David Gilmour engineered the Unicorn demos at home using only headphones, and the results he got are mostly stunning, but occasionally performances were captured a bit hot, with distortion sometimes evident. My goal in mixing was to restore cleanliness, but even more important was to honor the vibe of the songs and sessions, so sometimes imperfections like distortion were left alone.
Gilmour’s home studio was centered around a Brenell 1″ 8-track tape deck that needed maintenance early on in the sessions. Unicorn’s songs were recorded to four reels of used EMI tape that had first been used for Pink Floyd rehearsals at Abbey Road. On the song “Just Wanna Hold You” the bass and the drums dropped out several times for up to 35 seconds. In their place might be a loud squeal, or a rehearsal when backing vocal arrangements were being worked on for “Money!” So, parts had to be copied and pasted from other sections of the song, then matched to original drums bleeding into the guitar and scratch vocal mics.
Another early challenge with the Brenell involved out-of-sync performances. Due to the quick pace of the demo sessions, instruments would be added or replaced, but these overdubs and fixes were possibly not listened to at the time. These were all just sketches to start working on Unicorn’s next album. My guess is that to fix out-of-sync overdubs at the time, Gilmour might have played back some of the tracks from the “reproduce” head, and others from the “record” head, slightly earlier in the tape path. Songs with sync issues were not noted on track sheets, so the transfers to digital files occurring several decades later preserved the original sync problems. My solution was to calculate a fixed timing offset by measuring bassist Pat Martin’s groove to Pete Perryer’s kick drum on songs with a similar feel, and use that offset number to align all performances with sync issues close to an original feel.
“Blue Pine Trees” is the title track of the first album to emerge from these demos, but in the initial transfer it was in the worst shape by far. There was lots of wow and flutter (speed fluctuations) resulting from 35 years of storage, and much to everyone’s sadness we decided not to use the song. But as mixing wound down, Omnivore came to the rescue and provided the resources to work with Kevin Przybylowski at Sonicraft on a new hi-res tape transfer; then those files were sent to Jamie Howarth at Plangent for a new process that removes any and all speed fluctuations in an analog transfer. The result is a sonic stability that even surpasses playback on the original machines at the time of recording!
On most songs Perryer would re-sing his lead vocals immediately after cutting drums, but the song “Electric Night” (like a few others) only had a scratch vocal, with Perryer leaving out the second bridge. In mixing, I copied over the first bridge to cover where Perryer wasn’t singing in the second, but the drum performance bleeding into his vocal mic didn’t match the drum performance of the second bridge. The second bridge drums needed to be reconstructed beat by beat, using hits from both bridges.
The sweetest restoration moment of the project was for the song “Kevin Barry.” Perryer had focused on playing his drum part, again only singing his scratch vocal on the final verse. The band never went back to finish the demo of the song. In the only moment of new performances on the project, Martin returned to the studio in early 2018 to sing the earlier verses.
I started off rough mixing all the songs with the computer using modern software tools. Soon after though, we all decided to mix as if it was 1975, using an analog mixing console and outboard gear. All of the songs finished at Storybook used a Heritage Audio 20.4 summing mixer (a faithful reproduction of the core features of a classic Neve 80 Series console), Echoplate III plate reverb, and Echoplexes for tape delay. Final mixes used were captured digitally at a high resolution (96k, 24bit); early mixes to analog tape lacked the transient detail of the multitrack transfers.
When a new mix was printed, I sent them across the Atlantic to the U.K. so Pat Martin could provide his mixing notes and approvals. The process was relatively slow; jumping from song to song wasn’t practical because the setup of the room for each song’s analog mix was unique.
I loved hearing all the chatter, banter, and lack of formality in these demo sessions. At one point, you can catch someone shouting, “chorus!,” at another point the band stops at the end of a song while a scratch acoustic guitar continues on charmingly.
Further notes on the release from executive producer David DiSanzo:
I was literally stunned when I heard what was on these tapes. I distinctly recall that moment when the first reel was propped up on the tape machine at the studio and we had set up a rough stereo mix. As that reel started to spin and the music poured off, the smile on my face grew bigger and bigger. It was quite a joyous moment. Given the strength of the songs, the absolutely flawless performances, and the superb fidelity of the recordings, I knew that at some point this material had to be released commercially.
The goal, however, was to not merely assemble a thrown together archival release of unreleased demos, but to curate a full and complete album from the demos; something that made sense as an artistic statement in its own, collective right. The record was sequenced in a manner that ebbs and flows like all of the best releases throughout the years, all while maintaining its cohesive presence.
We settled on artwork that represents the essence of the band. Theirs was a truly American inspired sound, yet they retained their Englishness on every track they recorded. This is depicted in the graphics. There are also elements of the sleeves from the albums that came after these demos were recorded (see if you can find them). These are the albums that contained re-worked versions of some of these same tracks.
This project is near and dear to my heart and I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
Much thanks to Kevin Reeves and Suha Gur for original multi-track tape transfers some 15 years ago.
Pat Martin (bassist):
It was a joy to hear these tracks again after all these years. David Gilmour got such a good sound in his small home studio. He used only headphones as he didn’t have a separate control room.
The songs were mostly brand new apart from a few we did on stage. They capture that moment when a new song starts to happen.
All tracks feature just the four of us playing live with Pete singing a guide vocal so we knew where we were. We’d then do the vocals and maybe dub on a piano or mouthorgan, quite often keeping the guide vocal as it was so relaxed. Of course David also played pedal steel on “Sleep Song” which was lovely.
It really helped that David had invited us because he really liked the songs and, of course, it was a bonus being able to use any of his vast array of guitars. Magic moments which led to recording three albums produced and played on by David.
Ken Baker (guitar, keyboards, songwriter):
The meeting Ricky initiated (his wedding), was the beginning of a great musical collaboration between David and us lot.