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Composer, violinist and producer John Metcalfe fills us in on a busy 2018

Metcalfe’s new album Absence is released in September on the Neue Meister label and the last 12 months have seen Metcalfe arrange for U2 and write original music for a major new theatre production in Rome, based on Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos

John Metcalfe’s work schedule is a combination of creating his own ambitious contemporary classical electronica as well as as orchestral arrangements and production for clients such as U2, Peter Gabriel and Coldplay. The Duke Quartet, in which he plays viola, keep his classical roots well in place. He has all the attributes of what a modern day music producer should be – cross-disciplined, multitasking technologies and always striving for the new, looking to the future whilst respecting and knowing the past; never getting too comfortable and being humble. As a composer he has a unique voice. It’s a remarkable balancing act.

“I am very careful about the projects that I take on. They have to mean something and I do have various techniques to deal with my work load and pressure,” Metcalfe says. “ I set myself targets and meet those, and if things are not going well on one track or song I will turn that off and move to another track. In that way I can have lots of plates spinning in the air and nothing is going to fall off.”

His recording studio in Oxford is a dedicated set up away from his house in a facility called The Bus Stop, where much of the new album was worked on. Monitoring is on a pair of KRK V4s and a KRK 105 sub. His viola is a Giovanni Batista Ceruti made in Italy in 1800 and one of only a handful in the UK. Microphones at the facility include a Neumann U67, Neumann TLM 103 and a Schoeps CMC 6 and MK 4 Cardiod capsule. There is a choice selection of Neve 1073 mic pres recording into Digital Performer plus a host of sample libraries, including East West Libraries, Native instruments, U-He Diva, UAD plugs, Waves, FabFilters and Sibelius running on a Mac Pro recording at 48kHz utilising a UAudio Apollo 8 Quad Audio Interface and UAD-2 Satellite Octo. Latest synth additions to the studio include the Moog Sub 37. In late autumn of 2017, U2’s management approached Metcalfe to do arrangements for a BBC U2 Live at Abbey Road TV broadcast, aired in December. The brief was to arrange for a small orchestra on twelve tracks to accompany the band.

Revisiting some of the existing arrangements made for U2 by Caroline Dale, who did the track One, and other notable arrangers, with new arrangements by Metcalfe on other tracks. Working with producer Bob Ezrin, he produced demos and recordings at The Bus Stop before flying out to Monaco to meet up with the band for playback of that work. Go ahead was then given for full production with one day spent at Air recording the arrangements, the mixes of which would be used as part of the final TV audio mix, prior to the Abbey Road performance.

Metcalfe says: “As a kid I grew up being a big fan of U2’s Boy album, so to work with them was an honour. The level of support from band, crew and management and their professionalism is at a level that is quite extraordinary.”

A project that took longer to gestate started in 2014 when Metcalfe was appointed to be the musical director and composer for a major new theatrical production in Rome based on Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos. Called Giudizio Universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, the show is a stunning, €9m immersive stage show created by Marco Balich and Lulu Helbek, at the Auditorium Conciliazione in Rome. It opened in March 2018 and is due to run well into 2019. The music includes a new song by Sting created for the show. Work was recorded at Air, engineered by Fiona Cruckshank with stems mixed by Jonathan Allen.

Metcalfe summarises his artistic approach: “What I went for in some kind of representation of the human condition. Something very profound. In my view, Michaelangelo was trying, under the auspices of the church, to understand the world and the universe as seen through human eyes. He was painting people and nature, such as birds and Noah and their sense of what they thought God looked like. Also there are things that are much more elemental than that. There is the forming of the earth, of land and water and the power of the massive creation. My job was to match that in sound.” The end score on the show aimed for a new timbre. Not so much about chords and melody.

He continues: “Much of what I wrote was aimed at a sub-conscious level for the audience. As deep as it could possibly be and how, for example, humans respond to low-end. How we respond to flutes or a brass section, or strings, or a creation of a sound world that will put us in a frame of mind where we are open to bigger concepts. That was very much my palette, which was always open. Based on orchestra but also what the electronic sound world can bring.” Once in Rome, mix work on site was done with Italian sound designer and engineer William Geroli at the helm. A Bose ShowMatch was the choice of PA in a custom surround sound 9.1 set up with a Yamaha QL5 deployed at FOH. Geroli, together with Moreno Zampieri, tech supervisor of Bose Italia. together with the Auris Populi, a Rome-based system integrator and Bose partner, coordinated and supervised on site the PA setup.

The new album Absence is possibly Metcalfe’s finest and most powerful work to date. Vocal melodies soar over cutting edge layered strings, powerhouse organic rhythm section and highly detailed well structured electronics. Emotional concepts are to the fore, and deeply personal. When Metcalfe was 11 years old he came home from school to find his father lying on the floor in a critical state. In the years since his father’s passing, he has often thought about a last conversation he might have had with his father. As such, the album is very much a meditation on the notion of absence. How we all have imaginary conversations with those we know but are no longer around or who have passed away.

The album is also a band-based record. Work started in 2017 with writing and demo production. “I wanted a new melodic focus with strong themes,” he says. A lot of the source sound was driven by the textured modern folk singing of Rosie Doonan.

Absence is the first Metcalfe album that has vocals on every track. Also central to the sound of his work is the bass playing of long term collaborator Ali Friend whose lyrical, distinctive style has been a feature of Metcalfe’s music for some time. For the new album, Friend used solely double bass with a set up based on a Biesele pick up, tuner, splitter box. His FX board includes an Electro-Harmonix Octaver, Electro Harmonix Reverb, Crybaby Wah, Mutron Envelope filter and Mooger Fooger ring modulator, into a Trace Elliot AH1000 12. Friend adds: “I like to use effects and John encourages this; the harmonics and acoustic vagaries of the bass make for interesting sounds once processed by FX. I use a preamp, which mixes input from both magnetic and contact pick up sources, and put the signal through a Trace Elliott Head which seems to love that bass.”

Along with Friend, Doonan and drummer Daisy Palmer, formed the core line up that entered the studio to record the album at Monnow Valley in South Wales, Owned by Andrew Scheps with house engineer Matt Glaseby in charge of recording. The studio is based on a 64 channel Neve 8068 Mk II complete with flying faders. In addition, the studio has a selection of vintage Pultec and Lang EQs, Urei and RCA limiters, as well as valve classics from Neumann and AKG. Additional acquisitions include a Neve BCM 10 with 10 x 1073 modules, a pair of RCA Ku3a’s and a wide selection of boutique Mic’s, Compressors and EQs – all used extensively on the album.

Work on Absence then proceeded at Air Studios and Oxford with mix work by Cruckshank. Metcalfe adds: “She has brought dynamics to it in a way that I didn’t know how to. She has made it more immediate, more visceral, more beautiful. She has, if you like, ultra-realised it. Mastering was handled by Guy Davie at Electric Mastering and Neue Meister have have also made a 180-g vinyl pressing available.”

Looking to future and new live projects, Metcalfe is keen to get involved with the current trends in immersive audio. He concludes: “I do think that it is time for the industry to move on from stereo. It’s definitely time for something new. I hugely admire the work the leading PA manufacturers are doing in driving immersive audio. With object-based mixes, I like to think of it as a move to a more physical thing and a new space, if you like, where a sound could lead the listener to a new space. “Also I think a lot of new brain imaging has to be done in order to more fully understand how we as humans respond to sound. That new complex research needs to happen. If we really are going to be truly 3D, we need to do even more research. “I am sure it’s going to be an exciting journey and I look forward to being part of it.”