Watermark Recording Process
Sonics, The Music Magazine (Australia) July/August 1989
For five years after leaving Clannad, Enya and Nicky have been experimenting in Nicky's 16-track studio in Dublin with various recording techniques, sound manipulations but mostly with voice-multitracking.
Watermark was recorded completely in demo form in Nicky's studio, so when they went into a London studio to master it, the entire performance had to be repeated. They were using two 32-track Mitsubishis but would often use up to 200 tracks with a lot of bouncing.
Nicky: "Doing all these vocals overdubs we'd lost a lot of quality on the demos so we had to re-record. Of course, we could bounce endlessly with digital and keep the quality but we did lose warmth in the bottom end. So, next time, we hope to use a combination of analogue and digital."
Enya: "But digital is great for recording vocals."
How does it feel to do 200 voice overdubs?
Enya "We've been working in this way for so long. It took a long time to develop because in the beginning it didn't work very well. It's just a matter of trial and error and... persisting."
How do you know when to stop?
Nicky: "It's difficult sometimes but... just when it feels right."
Enya: "Sometimes we might have recorded 90 vocal takes and we can hear that it's not working and so we have to be very brave and wipe them, even if it's taken days of work."
Do you get the problem with multi-tracking of phase cancellation or as Midi layers sometimes, adding more can weaken the original sound?
Nicky: "Yes, that can happen. Usually you get harmonic distortion which is horrendous and you can't get a rd of it until you start pulling down the parts. Sometimes it's just one track causing the problem. We don't usually get phase cancellation though. When we want a really big sound we'll record some in the monitor room and mix in the feedback from the speakers through the microphone. That's a dicey procedure, but it does gives you a different sound."
Enya: "Next time we'll master as we go. Having to repeat the demo is awful, mostly for the music. With the multi-voice recording, I love re-recording the voices."
How do you start? Do you put down a piano guide or what?
Nicky: "It varies, but we always build up the music before we do any vocals. In the case of Miss Clare Remembers, which was written on piano and that is how it sounded best, we left it alone. All this multi-vocal stuff only works in certain areas and we have to be brave enough to say, 'that piece of music only need piano', and leave it alone."
Enya: "With On Your Shore, we did loads of vocal experiments but they just didn't suit with the track. So we had to say, 'well this piece of music wants to be one lead vocal with a synthesiser'. That's it. We're not afraid to have a very complicated piece and then something really simple. One of the album's most attractive qualities is that you don't try to make every sound huge, you allow some small, frail, even ordinary sounds to stand alone in big spaces."
Nicky: "That's right... well, we didn't use compressors at all which makes it a bit of a problem for the person cutting the record, but I think has to be their problem. We have to make the music sound right at the recording end of it and in this case that meant, no compressors. Almost every album these days is made with huge compression... but you really have to listen to this album or it just drifts by you (because the dynamics are so broad)."
THE SET UP:
They use a variety of keyboards but the mainstays are a Yamaha KX88master Yamaha DX7 Emulator 111 Oberheim Matrix synths and Akai S900 but particularly Roland's D50 and Juno 60.
Enya: "The Juno is one of our favorites. We had intended to replace its parts with better sounds but we couldn't find better substitutes so we left them in. It's not always possible to have all the sounds I want for a song at the time of composing .I'd usually start with the D50. But most often, sounds suggest parts and the ones I use then are usually used on the final recording. Like on Storms in Africa... that arpeggiated line on the Juno 60 was the basis of the piece."
Nicky: "Enya has this way of playing that makes a sound move. Like on River...there are five synths Midi'd but then she plays chords over these random arpeggiators with notes popping in and out where you don't expect them. Somehow she makes that work..."
Enya: "I like using the arpeggiator in that as well, you couldn't put a click to it. And that's the beauty of it, but it's a matter of knowing how to use that randomness. Sometimes though we come up with things we can't repeat like on Aldebaran (from the Enya album). We had to put the demo track on that album because we just couldn't get the arpeggiator to behave exactly as it did the first time."
Do you know instinctively which is the right sound for a particular part? With the keyboards you're using you have an enormous pallate . thousands of sounds.
Nicky. "It's very interesting sometimes... like with 'On Your Shore,' it never occurred to us that because of the clarinet solo and the title it would be compared with Acker Bilk's 'Stranger On The Shore.' The only reason clarinet was put on that track was because Enya, as she always does, sang the solo on the demo. The way she sang it, had to be clarinet. "On 'Exile' we wanted to use shakuhachi (the Japanese flute) but we couldn't find a good player, so we got a gypsy guy to play the flute. Often the solo is best with Enya' s voice which was the case with 'The Celts' (first album), but this time we wanted to try some different instruments. "This kind of thing goes on all the time - experimenting. It's a case of keeping an open mind."
Is it true that you've never bought an album in your life? Is that because you want to avoid influences?
Enya: "It' s just the music I like, which feels strong, is in bits and pieces, not usually a whole album. I do know a lot of music though...."
Nicky. "Also we want to avoid the 'flavor of the month,' you know, fashions in music; especially now we've had a hit. If we went into the studio now worrying that we mightn't have a song like 'Orinoco Flow' (hit single) we' d be in trouble. Then we' d lose any kind of originality that we have, because there is no formula. We have our own direction and that's how we've approached both albums."
What inspires you?
Enya: "Melody is very important to me. Some tracks are extremely emotional like 'Na Laetha Geal M'Oige' which is about my childhood. It was very personal. But tracks like 'Storms in Africa' and 'Cursum Perficio' were so open to ideas we weren't sure how they would end up."
Enya's music can't be strictly labeled 'instrumental' or 'song' because she uses her voice so much as an instrument that these categories blur. But I ask her how she differentiates and decides it's time to call up her lyricist, Roma Ryan, and add words to the picture. And whether she adheres to Eno 's theory that instrumental music is like "taking the figure out of the landscape," or David Sylvian's belief that vocal music works more on the listener's imagination
She replies : "Sometimes it can work the other way like with 'On Your Shore.' That was originally an instrumental but we tried lyrics with it and it worked. But with say, 'Watermark,' that was obviously an instrumental. The piano stands so well alone whereas it's hard for synths to do that, they need the voice more."
Nicky: "I think what Sylvian said is true in part. We've found that when people don't know what Enya is singing (the Gaelic lyrics) they lend to listen to it as an instrumental. But it's amazing how often they get the meaning of the song right, because they get the feeling of the words from the vocal. Sometimes it is best, if people get a strong feeling from a piece of music, to leave it that way. Don't go explaining it because they might be disappointed! "A lot of the time we blend the vocal in so much that it just becomes part of the sound. And sometimes words can suggest the way a piece of music will go. Like 'Cursum Perficio' (meaning, your journey ends here) came from a documentary we were watching about Marilyn Monroe. Those words were written on the step of her last house. "Then sometimes Enya will adapt (not translate) Roma' s lyrics to Gaelic; so Roma will write them with that in mind."
Can you play this music live?
Enya: "Yes, but we'll do another album first so we have more material."
You'll need a large choir?
"It doesn't need to be so large because of the visual side, and the music will have to be adapted for stage though!"
Are you surprised by your sudden popularity?
Enya: "Yes, but I still wouldn't consider my music as pop. And I don't want to be concerned about the charts at any stage - if there's a single (on the next album), that's fine. If there's not, well that's all right with us.
Note: Originally transcribed by Tomás Román.