Adventures In Audio
The Kick Horns

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Sunday June 4, 2006

The Kick Horns are Simon Clarke (alto and Baritone sax, flute), Roddy Lorimer (trumpet and flugel horn) and Tim Sanders (tenor and soprano sax). Credits include Blur, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, The Stereo MCs and Trevor Horn.

Do you use additional musicians if necessary?

"We do use additional musicians when the music requires it and if the budget allows, most often trombone and/or extra trumpet. On Blur's 'Modern Life is Rubbish', one track ('Sunday Sunday') called for brass band instruments such as the euphonium and tenor horn, while Chris Rea (on 'Auberge') asked for an eight-piece section: two trumpets, two saxes, two trombones, bass trombone and tuba.

"Our favourite big section line-up, and the most versatile, is two trumpets, two saxes and trombone. Touring with The Who in 1989 required this sound, and more recently 'African Woman' on Baaba Maal's 'Firin' in Fouta' album. On the Rolling Stones's 'Steel Wheels' we worked as a four-piece, adding an extra trumpet to give more bite to the sound; and on 'Hang on St. Christopher', recorded for Rod Stewart's 'A Spanner in the Works', trombone brought mid-range attack and rudeness to the voicings. We can also 'cheat' by double-tracking, but generally we prefer the sound of musicians playing together in one room at the same time."

Where would a producer find out about you?

"Contacts are made almost always by word of mouth. We used to be in Yellow Pages, but we don't do weddings and Roddy found in hard to keep a straight face when callers asked for 'Mr Horns' or 'Kick'."

Do you expect to come into the studio and find parts already written out for you?

"It's only rarely that we're given other people's arrangements to play - but we're very happy to play them, then come away having learnt some new ideas! More often, especially on Japanese sessions for some reason, we have been given a score from which to work out our own voicings and, most importantly, phrasings."

Can you make up arrangements yourselves in the studio?

"We're very keen on pre-production meetings as they give us a chance to get to know the artist and producer before we work together, as well as allowing us some time to get to know the music and, ideally, come up with the definitive horn arrangement - which may well change in the studio... On the other hand, there are occasions when our job is so straightforward, or so clearly dictated by the artist or producer, that pre-production would merely waste time.

"When we worked on 'Connected' for the Stereo MCs they had no songs, just various grooves they were working on. Rob sang horn lines to us very quietly, which we then tried on different instruments, with a variety of harmonies and phrasings, recording thirty second bursts or riffs. They then put the record together like a four-dimensional jigsaw.

"In the studio with Eric Clapton, the entire band recording live, no overdubs, no repairs. One morning Eric suggested covering Lowell Fulson's 'Sinner's Prayer'. We all listened to the Ray Charles version in the control room a few times, then walked straight back into the studio to record it in about three takes. I guess Eric had done some homework, but it was new to the rest of us.

"We spent Christmas 1984 of the China Crisis 'Flaunt the Imperfection' with Walter Becker. He gave us printouts of the top-line melodies, and then auditioned all kinds of harmonies and voicings, for example, trumpet below flute below soprano sax with trombone on top, unusual but beautiful sounds which Walter recorded straight down to a stereo pair when he heard the blend just right. He had the most incredible ears - and patience."

How long would it take to arrange and record the horn section on the average song (if there is such as thing)?

"For one song, a three-hour session is usually plenty of time, and we would reckon on recording three to four songs in a day.

"Beyond average: With Trevor Horn, recording 'Hang on to St. Christopher', after one run-through: "The parts sound great to me - please record them with the engineer and call me when you've finished." We did, and an hour and a half later he smiled and we left.

"We recorded 'Goodbye Sally' for Carmel, starting at noon on what we knew would be a tough blow, especially for Roddy. Horrendous maintenance problems lost us six hours of studio time, the desk shedding channels like milk-teeth, and at two a.m. we were still doing overdubs. Despite everyone's tiredness, producer High Jones got a fabulous sound on tape, firing everyone up with his honest excitement and enthusiasm to give of their best.

"On our first session for Gary Langan for the band Pele, a live sort of approach was asked for. So we recorded fast, six songs in two sessions with the three of us adding harmonies on a double track. This was only possible because thorough pre-production left us with only a tweak of fine tuning to do to the arrangements.

"Arranging, whether at home or on the spot, is the most time consuming part of the process as it involves a complex series of decisions and collaborations. When we do more than a couple of takes of something it's often not because we haven't played a phrase right, but because the bass player wants to hear a big chord with a fall on the end, while the singer wants us to play a unison line that the keyboard player hates, and the producer has earmarked for backing vocals. We meanwhile tend to think we should play nothing at this point so as not to preempt the swell before the chorus!"

What would a producer typically ask of you?

"At one extreme, our brief could be to replace a synth guide part with real horns as faithfully as possible; at the other it could be: "You guys would be great on this track. You know the kind of thing." Typically, it's somewhere in between. We'll meet the producer before the session, listen to the songs, make a note of any specific melody lines required, discuss stylistic reference points, line-up etc. Then we go away and write the arrangements, trying to make the horns work as well as possible within the brief we've been given."

Would a producer ask you to change what you are playing?

"Sometimes a producer will change not a single note, and sometimes ideas change during the recording process, or new ones pop up out of the ether as we play, or the track has moved on since our pre-production meeting. Whatever the reason, it is always possible to make other ideas work. Indeed, this can be a lot of fun, and we're not in the least precious about ditching our original thoughts."

Do you have any influence on the way the engineer sets up the mics?

"As fellow professionals, engineers are as concerned to get things right as we are, and usually welcome our suggestions. We like to spend a few minutes listening and checking that we're on the right mics at the right distance for the acoustic of the room and that balances etc. go to tape correctly. This can save a lot of time and trouble later.

"Thankfully, most engineers nowadays are keen to get a good natural sound on tape, so we rarely encounter over-compression or unnecessary EQ knob twiddling. But there were dark corners of the eighties when even the music press seemed mesmerised by the electro bleep. In 1985, the Melody Maker review of the Waterboys' 'The Whole of the Moon' gallingly referred to Roddy's majestic trumpet instrumental as "fantastic synth sounds".

Do you normally finish a song in one session?


How much do you charge?

"We charge a reasonable rate, either by the three-hour session or by the day, for our time in the studio, but pre-production and arranging incur no extra cost as we like to encourage this part of the process. Our session rate is marginally higher than the MU's double tracking rate."

Do you stick to MU rules about session duration, amount of recording time, breaks etc?

"We regard ourselves as a small band, and as such go into the studio to work at the pace and in the way that suits the music and the people. If we need a break or a cup of tea we just ask for it. On the other hand there have been times when, anxious to drop in a phrase on the third chorus, we've peered expectantly at the dim and distant control-room window only to find that the engineer has gone for a pee and the producer is on the phone to his architect.

"These MU rules are needed in sessions involving large numbers of players but are not really relevant to our situation."

What advantages would a producer get from booking the Kick Horns rather than individual musicians?

"A producer booking individual musicians gets just that, whereas with the Kick Horns he would get a very efficient horn section with a shared blend, feel and sense of phrasing achieved by thirteen years of playing together. He would get a team with a long-standing commitment to the song and the singer, who enjoy collaboration with the band and the producer, who understand each other, whose aim is quite simply to make the song sound better."

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