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‘Nothing could have prepared me for this’: producer Andy Barlow on working with U2 on the road and in the studio

Andy Barlow on being in the studio and on the road with U2

For the past two years, producer, artist, engineer, sound designer (anything else?) Andy Barlow has served as the proverbial Swiss army knife in U2’s audio tool kit. A staple part of the legendary Irish rock outfit’s touring entourage since his manager received a call from Bono requesting his services on the road as a sound designer, his work impressed sufficiently to elicit an invitation to helm five tracks from the band’s 14th studio album Songs Of Experience as producer. 

The decision from Bono and co to retain Barlow’s services beyond the rigours of touring are hardly surprising when you consider his extensive credentials. One half of influential electro duo Lamb, he’s become accustomed to working in the studio with a variety of different artists and genres over the past 20 years, having produced, in addition to his own projects, the likes of David Gray and The Ramona Flowers. He has also had compositions used in adverts for Guinness and the Tomb Raider: Underworld video games, as well as in films such as Moulin Rouge! and TV series including Six Feet Under, CSI and Torchwood. As you can see, he’s done a lot.

Now, in an exclusive conversation with PSNEurope, Barlow tells editor Daniel Gumble about life on the road with one of rock’s juggernauts, working in the studio with Bono and the responsibilities that come with producing the biggest band on the planet…

You’ve been working exclusively with U2 for the past two years as producer and mixer and as a consultant on their live sound design. How did that come about?

I was on tour with Lamb in Russia where there was about 10ft of snow and my manager called and asked if I want to go to Monaco next week when I came off tour to try out for U2. The first thing I asked when I met Bono when I got to Monaco was, Why am I here? He told me he had been a big fan of Lamb’s work for years. Becoming their live sound design consultant happened quite casually. I was on tour with them in my capacity as producer and Bono said there were some things they needed help with, including their walk-on music. A few days later he said, You’re one of the live creative team now, and that was it. Because I’m an artist as well and have been on stage lots of times, I guess I was the obvious candidate. 

U2 are known for their spectacular live shows – were there any especially strange or challenging requests?

Nearly every day! One day they would say, We need some walk-on music, but we need it by 10am, and it’s already midnight! I’d never done the live role before and it’s a really long show (over two hours) and on some gigs it would be extremely demanding on Bono’s voice. I would think about set list sequencing and change keys to spare his voice, listen to his voice on every section and speak to him about which parts were most demanding on his vocal chords, change the running order and find new ways of singing parts of the song. The extremes from low baritone to falsetto is much more of a strain on his vocals than anything else, so it was about looking at that, shortening the intervals and placing them differently on the live set so that we could get through the show without his voice deteriorating.

You produced five tracks on the forthcoming U2 record. What was that process like? 

It was like giving birth. If you think you know what it’s like to produce bands, working with U2 would confuse you because they do things very differently. Usually you have to win the trust of the musicians before they let you get stuck in with directing, but from the first moment Bono was without ego. He would say, Let’s work on this together. He is more open to new ideas than anyone that I’ve ever worked with. Bono also sings differently, he‘s channelling something when he sings. The usual process is something that we would call ‘Bongolese’, which is gibberish mixed with something he’s feeling – a melody, a cup of coffee, the view from the window. Occasionally a word would stick and come to the forefront, but it was more about the feel, the gaps in the phrasing. When we find a shape that we like, then he’ll go away until 6am the next morning and write a narrative to that shape overnight. Bono is famous for changing lyrics right up until mastering, so by the end my assistant Alex was making notes of different lyric changes, because there were so many in each song. Then, just when we thought we had all the lyrics, Trump won the election. Bono came in and said that we needed to change the lyrics because it’s not relevant now and everything had changed, so everything was up for grabs once again. 

Trying to write and record an album while rehearsing for shows was hard for the band, but as we progressed, it spearheaded the whole creative tsunami that followed. It was a crazy idea to write an album while on the road, but it worked because they were all together. When we got to LA after the tour ended, we started to get a lot done. We were in Rick Rubin’s studio and everyone was focused on the record. Being on the road, you can get each member for just a few minutes at a time, and we’re in a dressing room where there is not enough space to record as a band. So I would be piecing individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than having the overview of recording together as a band. Apart from Ireland, LA was the first time properly that we could record the band all together. 

Talk us through the gear and the studio you used to make those tracks?

We had a large UAD rig – they really like everything to be plugged in and ready to play, so every morning we would sound check guitars, keys and bass, which means having a lot of inputs. I would un-mute a channel and it would be ready to record. On the UAD rig I’ve got every plugin that it comes with. Bono really loved singing in front of speakers with an SM58, this would be run into a Universal Audio 6176, into a UAD Apollo interface via a Manley Vari Mu compressor. The drums would go into Neve 5024 Mic preamps. I’ve been monitoring on Genelec and PMC monitors. After watching a documentary with Brian Eno and seeing Bono sing into a U87, I later persuaded Bono to try singing into my Neuman 149 microphone, which I love. I was controlling the session with a Mackie control pro and recording onto Ableton Live and using the push controller with Ableton. I also had a Native Instruments Kontrol S66, which was my main MIDI controller. Guitars would come into me from The Edge’s amps via Royer ribbon microphones and SM57s. Bass I would take with Adam’s Vintage Ampeg recorded with a Shure SM7 mic via an L2 Compressor. For The Edge’s vocals, we did lots of them again handheld, with a Telefunken M80 microphone, again via a Neve Mic pre, which worked really well on his voice. 

That’s the equipment I would bring into the session, but in addition, U2 would have plenty of their own gear including a rack of 80 Neve 1073s, a huge mic collection including a C12 and Coles Ribbon microphones (mostly used on drum overheads). It is an interesting choice to use Ableton Live as the band had never used it before. I really enjoyed being able to flick around the arrangements and change keys and tempos very quickly. I don’t think they had ever experienced anything like it before. I do everything on Ableton these days, whether it’s producing, DJing or writing.

How do you approach working with a band like U2?

I like to be really prepared going into sessions, so for me it’s all about pre-production, then I can make it look easy when I’m in the studio. I’d say, What are we doing tomorrow? And Bono would say that we would be doing vocals. So, I’d prepare the session for vocals and get all the lyrics sheets prepared and microphones set up. However, once he’s reached the studio that day he’ll tell me we’re working on a completely different song, even one I’ve never heard and we’ll work on bass instead! I had to really let go of being prepared for the session and think on my feet most of the time. 

Were any of the tracks you produced particularly challenging or unusual?

All of them were challenging. When I first started with the band, their manager told me about this track called Little Things. He said that the song had been on the table for 10 years; Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Flood and Paul Epworth had all had a go but not managed to get it past the starting line. So, I took it to be my personal mission to get it into a shape where the band could take off with it. And I did, I got it on the record. It’s called Little Things That Give You Away. It’s a Hey Jude kind of arrangement, the first half it takes off and the second half does something very different. I re-engineered the second part, which made it more open, so it could really take off. 

How did this project compare to other projects you’ve worked on before?

It doesn’t compare to any of my previous projects. Nothing could have prepared me for this. The length of the day was very unusual. We weren’t in proper studios 90% of the time, which I love actually – being in spaces that aren’t studios. But I would bring all my equipment and we’d set up in whatever mansion or venue the band were close to.

How much pressure and expectation is there going into the studio with a band the size of U2?

Everyone on their team is the best at what they do, so it does set the bar very high. The band were extremely busy, so sometimes I only got them for an hour a day. There was quite a lot of time when the band weren’t in the studio because they had other commitments, which again is pretty unusual. So I had to get on with it and try to imagine what would be helpful in terms of preparation for the next session. I felt some pressure, mostly from myself for wanting to excel. There was a lot of heightened pressure, not so much from them, but just the enormity of working with a band on their scale.