MANHATTAN: The streets of SoHo are paved with cobblestones. Walking down these historic blocks on a cool March afternoon, its easy to wonder where on Earth you actually are, and when – you could be far in the future or deep in the past.
Now imagine that your present trek is leading you to a studio where deadlines have all but disappeared, and the only pressure is to advance the art of songwriting even further: The front door you arrive at belongs to none other than Pål Waaktaar Savoy a.k.a Paul Savoy, co-founder of the globally embraced group A-ha.
Welcome to his realm – you have reached what just might be the best of all possible worlds.
“When you grow up, all you want to do is what you love to do,” says the soft-spoken Savoy. “The first time I started a demo studio in NYC, it was all tape machines – now it’s much more doable to make a great-sounding album. The technology now gives me more time to work on the things that I find to be more important.”
A Room In Tune
Those “things” are songs, and Savoy’s SoHo studio is a constantly humming incubator for these 4:04-spans of magic. And why not? Working with A-ha, the guitarist and his bandmates from Norway have seen first-hand the power of what well-crafted songs can do: To date, the group has sold over 36 million albums and 15 million singles worldwide, played for crowds as large as 198,000, and released nine records in their lengthy lifespan – from 1982 until their official farewell in 2010.
So closely associated is A-ha with their native Oslo that the discovery of Savoy living happily in New York City can be momentarily disorienting. But actually, this oasis in downtown Manhattan has been a natural fit for him since soon after the release of A-ha’s 1985 debut album, Hunting High and Low.
“In those days, we were traveling so much that I couldn’t say I lived anywhere!” Savoy recalls. “But the first time I came to NYC to promote, I fell in love with SoHo. I thought, ‘This is the place.’”
Almost three decades later SoHo remains an ideal creative center as he writes new material for his own band Savoy — which features his wife Lauren on vocals, his collaborations with other songwriters, and film music work. Savoy’s nonstop dedication to his craft is enabled by engineer Eliot Leigh and an optimal mix of guitars, synths, analog hardware and digital tools all living together comfortably in one room growing less crowded over time, as he becomes more selective about his tools.
“10 years ago I had a Trident desk, every synth in the book, and gear up to the ceilings,” Savoy explains of his less-is-more evolution. “Now it’s more computer-based, and I’m just trying to keep the stuff that we really love, and get breathing space.
“It works a lot better. I like to experiment, but if you have too many things, you don’t get around to it. Synths with 15,000 presets becomes like Lord of the Rings – it’s endless.”
A Creative Workflow
In today’s single-happy society, Savoy finds himself liberated from an album-oriented mindset. As a result, the studio is set up so that Leigh can quickly capture Savoy’s ideas after they surface from his acoustic guitar and piano, then pursue the musical ideas further with the array of tools at their disposal. Leigh records into Logic through the converters of an iZ RADAR system, committing to a sound as much as possible on the initial pass.
“My philosophy when we’re recording is to try and get the best sound in the moment – I’m big into processing on the way in, and not as much later on,” Leigh explains. “There’s not a standard setup for anything, however. We’ll often record through whatever happens to be our favorite gear at the moment.”
Available choices for Savoy and Leigh include a blue-stripe Urei 1176, LA-2A, Gates Sta-Level limiter/compressor (with “a secret tube upgrade”), EMI limiter sourced directly from Abbey Road, Neve compressor from the dearly departed Bearsville, Anamod ATS-1 Analog Tape Simulator, and a Bel Electronics stereo flanger. Classic reverb choices, like a Great British Spring, EMT, Echoplex, or AKG BX-10 and BX-20, abound — and with good reason.
“Sometimes you can really get a whole vibe on the track from a reverb,” notes Savoy. “It can be very important. Most of the stuff I write needs a certain atmosphere to work at all, so I’m very sensitive to achieving that for an instrument or vocal — I have to have that thing that gives me shivers. If I don’t feel it, we’ll work on something else. Obviously the performance is the most important thing, but you can help it along.”
Monitoring via Yamaha NS-10’s and Klein & Hummel O300 active studio monitors, Savoy and Leigh will do a rough mix of the songs in Logic, working mostly in the box with UAD plugins save for the multiple analog reverbs at their disposal. “Our mixing approach totally depends on what the song requires,” Leigh says. “Some of the songs are very electronic, while others are more classic songwriter-type records. In those (latter) instances, we’re trying to catch an older vibe, so we use the older gear.”
While the mixes could easily be completed in the SoHo space, Savoy makes a point of taking them outside the pod once they reach a certain point. “I think it’s good to get a clean, fresh set of ears on the material,” he reasons. “When you’ve worked on something for a while, it’s helpful to have someone new on it.”
Hits From His Perspective
No matter what the project or its duration, Savoy brings the irreplaceable perspective of someone who’s created utterly massive hits.
A-ha’s “Take On Me” arguably stands as one of the 20th Century’s most uplifting musical works, and a long list of internationally charting singles follows from there, including “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.“, “Hunting High and Low“, the James Bond theme “The Living Daylights” and the ballad “Summer Moved On.”
Although Savoy has experienced the unique satisfaction that comes with writing a global smash, he has a more focused definition for a hit song. “A hit, to me, is something that moves you,” he explains simply. “A song may have been catchy or on the radio, but if it doesn’t move me, it’s not something I’ll take a lot of time trying to emulate. In A-ha, we always decided that if a song gives us the vibe, then that’s what we go for – it will give everyone else the same vibe. There’s nothing more complicated than that. That’s why we thought every song we ever did would be a hit.”
The best thing about Savoy’s instinctual musical expertise is that you can do more than just read about it. Songwriters and producers who like his approach can get in touch: His email address is email@example.com, and interested collaborators are free to just drop the master craftsman a line, anytime.
For this Oslo-to-SoHo transplant, the open invitation exemplifies his ongoing connection to NYC – a sense of wonder that will always thrive. “So many talented people are doing so much cool stuff here that I find super-inspiring,” Paul Savoy says. “That hasn’t subsided at all.”