Recording with Stock – Aitken – Waterman (SAW)


When I started at PWL in 1988, Mike and Matt were recording everything on a Song 24 Track digital tape machine.

The track list for a tipical Stock / Aitken / Waterman record would look something like this…..


Tk 1 : Chords (L)
Tk 2 : Chords (R)
Tk 3 : Poly – Rhythm Seq (L)
Tk 4 : Poly – Rhythm Seq (R)
Tk 5 : Guitar
Tk 6 : Juno Seq
Tk 7 : Piano
Tk 8 : Bass
Tk 9 : Kick
Tk 10 : Snare
Tk 11 : Clap
Tk 12 : Hats
Tk 13 : Tambo
Tk 14 : Congas
Tk 15 : Rim
Tk 16 : Loop
Tk 17 : Matt Rhythm Keys
Tk 18 : M8 Vox loc / tom fills
Tk 19 : Bv’s Lo (L)
Tk 20 : Bv’s Lo (R)
Tk 21 : Main Bv’s mix (L)
Tk 22 : Main Bv’s mix (R)
Tk 23 : Lead Vox
Tk 24 : Lead D/T

If you was to pull out one of the SAW master tapes from the PWL tape library it would look a bit like the above track list I have made up.

I wanted to do the ‘make-up’ track list first as this topic I think will become long, and the track list is a good place to start as it will give you some ideas of how a BIG SAW track was put together.

The first 8 tracks were used for Keys / Bass and maybe a bit of Matt’s guitar, the bass was always on track 7 (PWL law), tracks 9 – 16 were always used to record the drums and the Kick was always on track 9 (PWL law).
Tracks 17 to 24 were for Vocals and any extra bits needed.

All the big PWL / SAW tracks were recorded on 24 track, but later we started using a Sony 48 Track. Things went wrong after that, too many tracks, keys, drums and over production, made the PWL sound poor.
My point is SAW’s biggest and best hits were recorded on a simple 24 track tape machine and nothing more!
Simple and good songs, simple production and simple backing tracks.

The famous ‘Calrec Sound Field Mic’

Credited on loads of SAW hits. I think Pete did a deal for free mic’s if he credited them on records – something like that.

It’s a stereo mic and it had a blue box that came with it. The blue Calrec box would power the mic and also be used for setting levels and so on..
If you look at the picture below just above Pete Hammond’s head you can see it.


Pete Hammond in Borough

So the Calrec mic was connected to the Calrec box and the box was pluged into the SSL desk, those 2 channels were EQ’ed mostly by an insert point by a good quality EQ like Forus Right, or Neve. In that same insert chain would be a good quality DBX 160 compressor and DBX de-sser.

So the vocals were recorded, heavily treated on tape. The Calrec SSL channels were then rooted to all channels on the SSL desk, so the recording engineer could at anytime select a channel from 1 to 48 to record vocals onto.

Different producers record vocals in different ways depending on how good the singer was, if we were recording Kylie or Donna Summer who are ‘Good’ singers and can learn a new song fast. Then Mike would do something called vocal runs. This just means letting the singer sing the song from top to bottom without stopping too much, so you would record say about 8 – 12 tracks of Kylie singing.
Mike would make notes on what lines she sung well and what track it was recorded on. If he felt he had enough to compile a master vocal track then Kylie would be sent home. If not, we would record more tracks of vocals until we had enough.
After Kylie or Donna were out of the studio then Mike or Matt would sit down with the engineer and compile a master vocal track and double track. Mark and Karl would also work like this.

The other way we would record vocals is section by section, which is alot harder for the engineer and the singer. The singer would learn the song first by doing full runs, when the singer was happy we would then start recording the verse.
He would do one track and then Mike would say he likes line 4 for the verse, or half of line one or even just one word.
Then it came down to the engineer to record on that track again without erasing the line or word Mike liked. You would do this by dropping the tape machine in and out of record with fast fingers and lazer light reflex.
By the end of the session the engineer would be mentally drained.

Some vocal session would last an hour (Kylie, Donna, Sonia) and some ages (BIG FUN, Mandy Smith), Big fun vocals sessions were hell. Poor Mark was not a very good singer. I know Mike Stock would ghost some singers like Big fun and even Jason D in his early days (Jason got better with time).

Mandy was sometimes backed up by a girl called Suzanne Rattigan, all the tricks were used in recording vocals with BAD singers.

I can even remember when we recorded the Man U FA Cup song, the football team sounded rubbish, so Mark, Karl and Chris helped the boys out a bit with the vocals on ‘Move, Move, Move’.

The use of drum loops was introduced by Phil Harding and Tony King in about 1988. When the master 24 track tape would come down from SAW Borough studio, Phil would add drums loops sampled from new dance tunes doing well in the clubs at that time. The loops would be mixed in with the SAW drums they had programmed. Sometime Mike, Matt and Pete would like the new loops added sometime not.
I was Phil Harding’s assistant for about 3 years and was on the mix session for Kylie’s “Hand On Your Heart”. I can’t remember what loop he used on the intro but I’m certain it came from a current big dance tune of 88/89.

Your comments about SAW saying in interviews that quite often never heard the finished tracks until someone played them in the office, is a little true. You must remember the PWL hit factory at it’s peak in 1989 was sooooo busy in recording and producing a ton of new hits that sometimes Mike and Matt would not hear the finish mix until they came in to work at about 11.30am, by that time the office staff might have a copy DAT or cassette of the Kylie, Jason or Rick’s new single, a mix that Pete Waterman would have approved that morning. But maybe not the final 7” mix you guys got to here.
But if Mike or Matt was un-happy with anything regarding the mix Phil Harding or Pete Hammond had done they would recall the mix on the SSL desk and change it before cutting the master.

The rumours you hear on SAW sending a half finished track for mixing and then Phil Harding or Pete Hammond adding new stuff and finishing the track off is rubbish. On all the mixes of SAW songs I worked on, the 24 Track master tape would come from the SAW Borough studio fully finished and sounding like a hit record as soon as you put the faders up. But sometime Mike or Matt would change overdubs during the mix to improve the record and Phil wound add new 12” overdubs like dub basses and vocal cut-up’s and drum loops for the 12” master mix and dub remixes.

4 thoughts on “Recording with Stock – Aitken – Waterman (SAW)

  1. Hi Les,

    On quite a few websites i read that Annerley Gordon used to do background vocals for SAW productions, do you know if thats true? Can you recall some songs she did?


  2. My brother suggested I might like this website.
    He used to be entirely right. This put up actually made my
    day. You cann’t believe just how so much time I had spent for this
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  3. This was a great read – shame people don’t seem to think Kylie is a good singer; you can tell she knows her voice and how to use it. Thank you!

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