Supersonic: Owen Morris on mixing Definitely Maybe

“The first factor that should be acknowledged with Definitely Maybe is that Owen Morris took the record and really did give it an aggression”

(Creation Records’ MD Alan McGee, speaking in 2004 in the Channel 4 documentary There We Were, Now Here We Are: The Making of Oasis)

“I tried to record the record from the word go, but they had other ideas. They completely mucked it up. It was lacking in life. I redid a lot of singing. I wanted to make the sound as heavy as possible, as I was frustrated with machines and dance music and wanted loud guitars, and luckily enough so did they.”

(Owen Morris on remixing Definitely Maybe, quoted on p. 34 of Michael Krugman’s book Supersonic Supernova)

[On this page you will find the first part of a two-part interview Owen Morris gave to Q Magazine in 2010 about the recording of Oasis’s first two albums. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the interviewee]

Part 1: Definitely Maybe

How did you come to be involved in salvaging the Sawmills tapes of Definitely Maybe and what was perceived to be wrong with them?
I had previously been managed as a recording engineer/producer by Marcus Russell. He was managing Johnny Marr. In 1993 I was recording Johnny and Bernard Sumner’s second Electronic album. Marcus met Noel through Johnny’s brother Ian Marr, who knew Noel and introduced Noel to Johnny. I’d become frustrated working only with Johnny and changed my management (stupidly sacked Marcus… which I still regret). This meant I missed out on the probable opportunity of being the first choice (possibly with Johnny Marr) to record Oasis’s debut album. Anyway, we heard that the Dave Batchelor sessions were aborted (though they kept the recording of Slide Away, which I later mixed), and then that they had gone in again to record with Noel’s best friend, Mark Coyle co-producing the sessions with Noel.

Essentially, after several attempts at mixing these recordings, I thought that the sound of the finished mixes was very unfocused and quite lame. To me it sounded like there wasn’t an experienced studio person/producer overseeing everything. This wasn’t Mark’s or Noel’s fault: as first time producers they hadn’t experience of the techniques one learns in the studio over time. And by this time I think they were running out of money and patience, so Marcus, thankfully, asked me to try mixing/finishing two tracks for them. These were Columbia and Rock ’n’ Roll Star. Rock ’n’ Roll Star also needed the vocals recording, as they were having problems nailing the lead vocals… so I guess this was my trial, to see if I could both work with Liam and arrange and mix the recordings to Noel’s satisfaction.

Can you talk about the session re-recording Liam in Loco Studios for Rock ’n’ Roll Star and Columbia? Did Liam really say “You’re Phil Spector”, and you “You’re John Lennon”?
We turned up at Loco studios, Caerleon South Wales. Me, Marcus, and Noel and Liam. A Saturday and Sunday. On the first afternoon we recorded the lead vocals and then Noel’s backing vocals on Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. It was easy. Noel left me and Liam to it. Ian Marr had told me stories he’d heard about this kid Liam Gallagher, who apparently thought he sounded like John Lennon and John Lydon. And Liam sang really well. He did four takes straight off, which I then compiled into the finished complete vocal. He was funny. And I said he sounded a bit like John Lennon…which he obviously liked. And I think I told him I was trying to rip off Phil Spector on these mixes (which I was, along with some Tony Visconti tricks I was currently into).

Then I told him to fuck off and leave me alone to work, because he wouldn’t shut up. Ten minutes later Noel came and checked with me that I’d actually told his brother to fuck off so that I could get on with working on the music. I told him I had…he very much approved of my behaviour. So I’d made both Noel and Liam happy even before any mix of the music. The mixes of Rock ’n’ Roll Star and Columbia are two of the best things I ever did with Oasis. Columbia’s my favourite mix I’ve ever done. On both the songs, on the multitracks were Noel’s endless guitar tracks: he had so many melodic ideas but they weren’t arranged in any order most of the time. But this allowed me to construct the musical dynamics of the songs so easily: there was always a new part from Noel at any point in the song that would help me mix/produce the tracks. It was a lot of fun.

What did you make of each member as an individual?
Noel I’d met with Johnny Marr once before working with Oasis. I thought he was some guy just on the make. I didn’t take him at all seriously. But on the mixing session he was funny and self-deprecating and very enthusiastic about what I was doing. He was easy to work with. Liam was a live wire. Talked non-stop shite. But when he sang he was extraordinary… instantly on it, exceptionally talented. So he could justify his front.

I got to know the other three later. Bonehead I got on with straight away. He’s one of the kindest and funniest people I’ve ever met. A huge heart. Guigs was always funny and chilled. A proper nice guy. Tony was quiet and always polite to me, but seemed out of his depth… so I think Tony did well to survive as long as he did in Oasis.

Noel is a natural musician. Good timing and knowledge of what he’s doing. And nothing fancy or unnecessary. Easy to record. Bonehead’s rhythm guitar playing I always loved. Bonehead, with Tony’s drumming was a big part of the Oasis sound to me. And I loved Tony’s drumming. It was simple, certainly, but his timing was immaculate and he hit the shit out of them. Tony’s simple patterns allowed the space for Bonehead’s strumming rhythm guitar playing to really work. On record, Noel mostly played the bass, but on what Guigs did play – particularly live – he was solid and right. I loved the sound of Oasis with Tony drumming. There was magic in the dumbness of the rhythm tracks. The band never sounded the same after Tony left.

After the success of the first Loco session with my mixes approved only by Noel and management we did a day in a studio in North Wales to record a bunch of Liam’s lead vocals (in all my time with Oasis I was never aware of record company involvement…we were visited in the studio twice by Alan McGee at the end of Morning Glory and Be Here Now… so he could have the first listen I guess, but Marcus Russell and Noel A&R’d the records themselves and made all the decisions).

That day we recorded Cigs and Alcohol, Live Forever, Up in the Sky and Bring it on Down. Again, Liam did only four takes on each track and I compiled them. Noel checked that Liam sang everything correctly on the first take then left us to it.

Oasis toured after that and I was left to mix the album with Marcus Russell always with me for company and to check I didn’t miss anything important on the tracks. He knew the songs better than I did. Having said this, I did mix Digsy’s Dinner and a version of Live Forever at Loco Studios without Marcus. This was the version of Live Forever that the band had demoed at some stage before going to Sawmills, and this is the version that I muted Noel’s guitar solo at the half way point: I wasn’t totally taking the mix seriously, as I knew it was a demo and they’d re-recorded it, but it was all they had at that stage with a lead vocal before I recorded Liam’s final vocals. So Marcus asked me to have a look at it. It was essentially the same solo that’s on the finished version and that Noel always plays live, but when it went high on the second half all I could think of was Slash in leather keks with a wind machine on the Grand Canyon, so I muted it and thought I was making it cooler. I had a message from Marcus that Noel was bemused that I cut his solo in half and not to cut it in half again on the final mix.

Next I went to Matrix studios in Fulham for five days where I mixed Up in the Sky, Bring it on Down, Live Forever, Shakermaker, Slide Away… and, on the last night, a slightly drunken and overexcited version of Cigs and Alcohol. This was a great week for me. Marcus was there the whole time. I was put up in an expensive hotel. The band were on a roll and everyone was excited. I’d been given as much control as I could have hoped for. I’d decided by this time to stop working for Johnny Marr, so for me this opportunity and these mixes were my one chance to do exactly what and how I wanted to work and make music sound. After years of compromise to make other producers and record companies happy, now I had nothing to lose by being uncompromisingly honest with the mixes. I liked rough edges, I liked a big sound, I liked not being posh and polite. Thankfully what I was doing suited Oasis.

And then I got to master the album by myself, without some bored, by the book mastering engineer who didn’t get it. I mastered the album at Johnny Marr’s studio. And I remember that Johnny was appalled by how “in your face” the whole thing was. He thought I was an idiot for what he perceived were mistakes…like the noise at the front of Cigs and Alcohol: The Smiths would never have been so crude.

Here’s the nerdy detail about the mixing techniques I used for all of my mixes on Definitely Maybe. A week or two before the weekend mixing Rock ’n’ Roll Star and Columbia I’d been reading an article on Phil Spector’s production of Instant Karma. One of the things that interested me was his use of an intime tape delay on the drums. Also I’d been reading about Toni Visconti’s discovery of the Eventide Harmoniser on the David Bowie Berlin sessions: Low etc., and specifically how Visconti would use a regenerating pitch change on the drums to cause a falling/deepening effect.

Now, given that I knew instantly that Tony was extremely basic in what he did after listening to his drumming on Rock ’n’ Roll Star, but that his timing and tempo were almost autistically perfect, I set up a big regenerating tape delay doing eight time notes on Tony’s drums, which subliminally added groove and offbeats. Then I also added the Visconti Harmoniser trick to the snare to add subliminal depth and rhythm.

After these two very basic tricks, which I subsequently used as something to tell people that I was ripping off Spector and Visconti, I just did what I wanted. I heavily compressed the overall drum sound. Squeezing it so every hit was the same. I’d also program a tambourine to play along with the snare drum when I felt it helped. Anything to make the rhythm track exciting and grooving. The most obvious use of the tape delay trick can be heard on Columbia, where the actual recording of the drums and bass is just doing four beats in a bar, I doubled up the bass drum, snare and bass guitar to create the eight beats in a bar, faster, pumping rhythm.

Then I used a bunch of techniques I learned from working with Bernard Sumner when recording the first Electronic album: I put the bass guitar through a Mini Moog synthesiser and used the filter section to take all the top end off and just created a pure low sound… this was necessary and successful because it took away the hits of the notes and therefore hid the imprecise playing. Then on the guitars I used four different types of outboard special processing that I’d learned from Bernard’s treatment of his keyboard sounds: a specific phase program, a specific stereo spread, a specific modulation program, and a weird presence program. These gave me enough spaces to construct the picture of the many guitar parts. I’d also use a small reverb and a large hall type reverb. Then I’d compress the overall mix very heavily… more than would normally be considered “professional.” I would also varispeed the tape (usually speeding the track up slightly) to a place I felt was exciting.

I’d use combinations of all the above effects on Liam’s vocals. There’s other stuff I’d use to get Liam’s vocal sound but it’s secret. Because I’d always be running my computer sequencer alongside, I’d also add subsonic low sine waves and occasional guitar type tones to subliminally add to the weight of the sound.

That’s the boring technical detail about every mix I did. Maybe that stuff is really boring!!!

Were you pleased with the finished album and did you realise it would be a 20-million selling classic?
I loved the album. I listened to it constantly. I had no idea it would become recognised by other people as something very special. It was an amazing buzz reading the NME review and then it going to number one. Because my work on it had been so honest and uncompromising, and it felt like the band and the people around them like their sleeve designer Brian Cannon were also doing the same, for a while it felt like the good guys were winning. Brilliant, beautiful times. Thanks to Noel Gallagher’s songs, his brother’s singing, and the band. It was everything I’d dreamt about. Real good loving rock and roll songs for everyone.

Where did the Whatever sessions take place, and had you and the band got a method happening by then?
The Whatever session was spectacular. It was sometime around June/July 1994. I’d officially quit working for Johnny Marr. This was going to be my first session recording Oasis. We did it in Maison Rouge studios in Chelsea. We were in studio two. Studio one was where Blur recorded everything and were always there. It was quite funny. I remember studiously ignoring Stephen Street even when he’d obviously hang around wanting to be noticed and strike up a conversation. He had the feel of a Tory to me.

My recording style is very basic: set up quickly and get going. We had a week there – got Whatever recorded in two days, and then recorded Listen Up and Fade Away and a demo of Some Might Say. Then at the end of the week the string section came in for Whatever. The whole session was joyous. The band had really good friends around them then, like Sid, and Brian Cannon and Phil Smith and, of course, Noel’s guitar roadie, Jason Rhodes. That was the week Oasis was banned and we got kicked out of the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater.

Here’s the true story of why we got kicked out of the Columbia: at the end of the second day of recording when we’d finished Whatever we went back to the hotel to drink. This was my first real time hanging out with Bonehead. Anyway… by six in the morning, it was just me and Bonehead and Sid left drinking, and for some reason, don’t exactly know who or why, all the furniture in the bar started getting thrown out of the windows…chairs, tables, sofas, pot plant etc… very archetypal rock and roll sad behaviour etc.

It suddenly escalated when a Mercedes car in the car park got trashed by something landing on it. The Mercedes belonged to the Columbia hotel manager. The hotel rang the police who arrived in force, but by which time we’d all packed our bags and walked out. No one was hurt and no one got arrested. Oasis’s management didn’t bat an eyelid and booked everyone into the Hilton Hotel next door, which frankly was a much better hotel.

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