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‘It was like giving birth’: Andy Barlow on producing new U2 record Songs Of Experience

Inside U2's new album Songs Of Experience

Producer, mixer and sound engineer Andy Barlow has spoken exclusively to PSNEurope about his production work on new U2 album Songs Of Experience and how he also became the legendary rock outfit’s live sound design consultant.

Released Friday, December 1, Songs Of Experience is U2’s 14 studio album and is the follow up to 2014 album Songs Of Innocence. Already being hailed by critics as one of the band’s best records in years, Songs Of Experience sees U2 incorporate the many talents of some of the most revered producers in the game, including Barlow, Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite and Jolyon Thomas.

Barlow’s relationship with U2, however, extends beyond the confines of the studio, having served as live sound design consultant for some the band’s notoriously spectacular shows.

Here, Barlow tells us how he wound up hitting the road with one of the biggest rock bands of all time, what it’s like to work with Bono in the studio and why making Songs Of Experience was “like giving birth”…

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

Becoming their live sound design consultant happened quite casually. I was on tour with them as producer and Bono said, There are a few things we need help on including our walk-on music, would you be interested in helping us? And 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 been on stage lots of times, I guess I was the obvious candidate to try out for it. Bono feels that when you are in the studio and the red light comes on, you are more forced to come out with ideas because that red light is on. So writing and recording on tour, in dressing rooms, backstage, the red light isn’t on and ideas flow much more effortlessly.

Tell us about the live role. The band are known for their spectacular live shows – were their any particularly unusual requests or challenges?

I’d never done the live role before and it’s a really long show. U2’s live show is over 2 hours long, and on some gigs it would be extremely demanding on Bono’s voice. Their schedule was pretty gruelling so I needed to step in and help. 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 and lessening the intervals and placing them differently on the live set so that we could get through the show without his voice deteriorating. Bono needed creative ways to retain his vocal power, and he was to be able to finish the yearlong tour around the world.

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

It was bit like giving birth. The thing about U2 is if you think you know what it’s like to produce bands, working with U2 would confuse you because they do things completely differently to everyone else. For example, usually you have to win the trust of the musicians before they let you get stuck in with directing, but Bono from the first moment was without ego. He is more open to new ideas than anyone that I’ve ever worked with. When Bono would come in, he would come in with a verse, then another verse, then another verse, and I’d record all of them and Bono would then say, It’s up to you, you pick the one you like’.

Trying to write and record an album while rehearsing for shows is hard for a band, but as we progressed, it spearheaded the whole creative tsunami that followed. When we got to LA, after the tour we started to get a lot done. We were in Rick Rubin’s studio and everyone was focussed 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 a SM58, this would be run into a Universal Audio 6176, into an UAD Apollo interface via a Manley Vari Mu compressor. The drums would go into Neve 5024 Mic pre amps. I’ve been monitoring on Genelec and PMC monitors. Guitars would come into me from The Edge’s amps via Royer ribbon microphones and SM57s. Bass I would take with Adam [Clayton’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.

How involved were the band on the technical side of things in the studio? How involved is Bono in mic selection, mixing etc?

They don’t give a damn, they are very happy to take my lead! The Edge is very technical and is always coming up with signal path changes and effects and processing his guitar in different ways and is a genius at it. But the band didn’t get involved in the technical side of things really; they left it to me to choose the technical equipment So they could focus on the creativity

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, so there would be a lot of my interpretation to get a feel for how the band felt for how I was progressing when they came in for the next session. I felt some pressure, mostly from myself for wanting to excel at it and not get lost. There was a lot of heightened pressure, not so much from them, but the enormity of working with a band on their scale. 

You can read an extended version of this interview in the January issue of PSNEurope