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Page's Studio Tricks I (Ten Years Gone) - from Bill O'Neil

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Subj: Page's Studio Tricks

 

Hello, All --

 

In response to my posts re: Digital vs. Analog and re: Compression, I've had some questions regarding studio techniques. Here we go:

 

The infamous ED ZEPPELIN asked:

 

Out of curiosity, what do you do for a living that you are so knowledgeable about recording techniques?

 

I've worked as a sound engineer in both live and studio environments. I'm also a guitar player with a totally unholy interest in gadgets. I've been in the studio frequently over the last couple of months recording my band's CD, so all this stuff has been on my mind.

 

I actually pay my bills working in the comic book industry. The doctor was played by Larry Badgely.

 

Steve Z asked:

 

Could you give us some insight into Jimmy's genius in the studio, how he got Zep's records to sound so alive, what tools and techniques he used to do that?

 

Page worked a fistful of studio magic. IMHO, his best work has one consistent element: clarity within layers. Take a complex track like Ten Years Gone, for example. TYG is dense (to say the least) with guitars. During the final passage, there are something like ten concurrant guitar tracks (I counted once but remember excatly how many I came up with). Yet each of these ten tracks is discernable and the song would sound incomplete if one of them were left out. How did he do this?

 

Start with the "main" guitar part, the one that opens the song. It's a bright, chimey sound with a touch of reverb. To my ear, we have a big combo amp (like a Fender Twin Reverb) miked from about three or four feet away; the notes have the soft impact charateristic of a distance mike. This sound is graced with a touch of plate reverb. Plate reverb is generated by pumping sound into a metal plate with sensors on its ends. The sensors pick up the sound of the plate resonating. Notice how the reverb "blooms" after the note has been played -- that's characteristic of plate reverb. These days, this same sound can be generated by digital devices, but digital plate reverb didn't exist back then. Notice also how Page has the guitar panned all the way to the left, and the reverb spread across the stereo spectrum; this technique makes me feel as though I'm sitting near an amp in a very big room. Cool.

 

The bassline that joins on the second repetition is very mellow, round and warm; it's distinct from the chimey opener without being separate, almost as if it picks up the low end where the guitar drops off. This bass sound was probably created by plugging the bass directly into the mixing board, or by miking a small, low-volume bass amp. Notice that there is no ambiance to the bass sound. It's very dry and upfront, and very distinct from the opening guitar. Ditto the heavier, washy, phaser-enhanced guitar; it a close-miked amp on medium volume with no reverb ambiance. Listen carefully as the first figure he plays here finishes, and again just before it re-enters; the small noises here show you just how dry this sound is, and how close to the speaker the microhone is. You also hear that Page was not using a noise gate on this sound. A noise gate is a device that "closes" when the signal falls below a certain threshold, shutting off the signal. But when {age has stopped playing, you can still hear the amp hissing, and you can hear him rolling off his volume pot. Wow.

 

When the drums enter, they have a bigger, more reverb-enhanced sound, which helps to separate them from the guitars. This reverb is probably natural, meaning it came from the room Bonham was playing in as opposed to a digital box that mimics the sound of a room. Page was a big fan of distance-miking drums to allow their natural resonance to come through. He likely mixed in a bit of close-miked kick drum for added low end boom and snare for extra snap. Listen to the limited stereo field that the drums occupy; I mean that they don't spread all the way from ear to ear -- not yet, anyway. This leaves more room for those guitars on the outside to be heard. Listening closer, I think Page added a touch of plate reverb to enhance the drums' space.

 

When the solo enters, notice that it is very similar to the phaser-enhanced sound that preceded it. It's a bit more distorted, which gave Page the player the sustain he needed to phase his delicious melodies, but it's otherwise the same. By using the same sound to introduce a new theme, Page the producer knew he was keeping the flow of the song intact, while still keeping things fresh and interesting.

 

After the solo we have a whole batch of new stuff -- or do we? The chimey guitar that began the song hasn't actually disappeared, it's been altered into the fuller, more distorted line that's replaced it. It's the same sound cranked up a bit, probably with a deft twist of the volume knob on his guitar. Now I really think this is a Twin Reverb, because that's what mine sounds like when I crank it up. This increase in power keeps the song building, as it has been since it began. The guitar that enters on the opposite channel is just amazing: one big, huge chord that sets off the riff on the other side without clouding it. It's a full, warm sound that occupies much of the specturm, but since he simply hits and and lets it ring, it doesn't get in the way. So we're on the same page (ha ha), this is where Robert is singing, "Did you ever really need somebody..." Notice here that the drums have now spread out to encompass the whole stereo field, creating a feeling of increased vastness.

 

The next part is a prelude to the coda. We hear the first entrance of the soaring, melodious guitars that will carry the coda. Notice that Page the guitarist plays a "call and respose" figure. The first tone we hear is our old friend, the phaser sound. Page adds two (or more) tracks of a warbling sound on the outside of the stereo spectrum; this sound was likely created with a Leslie rotating speaker. The Leslie speaker was originally created for the Hammond organ (I think), and like it's name implies, the speaker inside spins around. To a stationary listener (like a microphone), the speaker moving toward it and away from it bends the frequency up and down according to the Doppler effect.

 

From here through the end of the song, the guitars really start to pile up. Listen to that rideout! Wow! Ten or more guitars with a Plant or two in the middle, Bonham everywhere, and Jones carrying the bottom. I don't think I've ever listened to this coda without getting chills.

 

Remember, I wasn't there and I didn't see any of this. But that's what it sounds like to me, and even if I'm wrong in specifics I guarantee you it *was* that complex to create. And I've left off little things like compression, EQ, relative volumes, guitars, etc.

 

That was some explanation. Now imagine making all those decisions, then executing each of those parts for suitable emotional impact and I think you'll see why Page and the boys "rested" by blasting out Custard Pie.

 

Stop me before I go into "In My Time of Dying."

 

Nathan Messer asked:

 

On a few other songs (BIGLY, others), the IFMTL mentions that Plant's voice "bled" onto other tracks and so can be heard at other parts of the song. How is this possible? Was his voice simply picked up on other mics, or did it actually leave such a strong magnetic "image" on the tape that this affected the tracks next to it (I'm assuming this was done on an 8-track recorder)?

 

Both of these things are possible. If Plant was in the room as the band tracked the live take (which he probably was), then his voice would have been picked up by the mikes in room, mostly by the mikes used to capture Bonham. If the engineer in the control room was running Plant's voice onto tape with a hot level, then his track would have bled across to neighboring tracks. This second type of bleed is called "crosstalk," is caused by inappropriate levels set at the mixing board, as opposed to a musician making a lot of noise..

 

Virtually all mixers and tape recorders allow some amount of crosstalk, even today, although it is fairly easy to avoid anything noticable. In 1969, though, the machines weren't quite of the same technological level, and suffered more audible crosstalk.

 

To my ear, the famous BIGLY "I can hear it callin' me" comes from Plant in the room, not crosstalk. Notice how it's sort of echoey, as though the mike that captured it is far away from Plant. A crosstalk mishap would sound like regular Plant, just very quiet.

 

That's got to be the longest post ever. Hope you liked it.

 

Bye,

 

Bill O'Neil
Venice, CA, USA
Maker's Mark is mother's milk.

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This Month in
Led Zeppelin History

July xx, 1969 - The band play many festivals now on their third American tour
July xx, 1970 - Additional recording for Led Zeppelin III at London’s Island Studios
July 16, 1970 - Photographer Chris Welch films Led Zeppelin on his 8mm camera, some clips later used in the Whole Lotta Love promo video
July xx, 1971 - Untitled gets re-mixed in London
July 05, 1971 - A riot erupts mid-concert, forcing Led Zeppelin to stop after about 40 minutes
July xx, 1972 - After repeated bad press, Led Zeppelin hire their first publicity firm
July 20, 1973 - A last minute decision is made to film the remaining part of the tour
July xx, 1973 - Led Zeppelin is filmed over the three nights for their film that will emerge as The Song Remains The Same
July xx, 1974 - After viewing their 1973 filmed performance, it is apparent critical errors were made
July xx, 1974 - Mixing for Physical Graffiti at Olympic Studios
July 05, 1975 - The band meet in Montreux to discuss adding South America and Japan to the end of their North American tour
July xx, 1976 - Bonham and Page fly to Montreux, Switzerland to check out some new sound and drum effects
July 17, 1977 - The last ever performance of Moby Dick played at the Seattle Kingdome
July 24, 1977 - The band plays its last US date at the Oakland Coliseum
July xx, 1978 - Led Zeppelin are invited to perform at Maggie Bell’s Festival Hall show
July xx, 1979 - Led Zeppelin film their rehearsal at Bray Studios
July 04, 1979 - Led Zeppelin confirm a second date at Knebworth in August 1979
July 05, 1980 - Simon Kirke joins in on drums for an encore in Munich
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