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Page's Studio Tricks II (The Lemon Song) - from Bill O'Neil

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Hello, All --

 

Judging from the response, people seem to enjoy this stuff, and since my alter ego is busy somewhere on the far side of the globe I'll tackle another song.

 

I've always loved the way The Lemon Song sounds, so I'll give it a go.

 

Dig that opening guitar sound! Can you say "nasal?" Guitar magazines always tout the Les Paul/Marshall sound here, but this sounds to me like a guitar with single coil pickups -- probably a Telecaster -- and it's definitely a small amp running full out. Notice how the notes are a little "blatty"? Those are probably 6V6 output tubes running to the max.

 

A word about tubes:
Guitar amplifiers come in two basic food groups: tube amps, and transistor amps. Both kinds take this wimpy little electric guitar signal and crank the hell out of it, crank it enough to push billions of molecules of air via speakers. Transistor amps achieve this using transistors, and tube amps do it using vacuum tubes. To my ear, transistors are fairly cold and sterile, and tubes are warm and fat. It'll be a cold day in hell (ha ha) before I play a transistor amp. The reasons for this are waaaay too long to explain here, but take my word for it. Virtually all of Page's guitar tracks with Zeppelin were recorded with tube amps because transistor amps were in their infancy in the last sixties, and didn't sound very good at all.

 

Now, you probably think I'm crazy for claiming I can tell what kind of tubes Page is using on The Lemon Song, but different types of tubes make different kinds of distortion. Generally speaking, smaller amps use 6V6 or EL84 tubes, and bigger, more powerful amps use 6L6 or EL34 tubes. There are others, but those four types account for about 90% of the amplifiers made then or now. Anyway, this Lemon Song sound to me sounds like a small amp pushing 6V6 tubes all the way -- similar to the Fender Princeton that I use as a practice amp. Hear how the notes compress against a certain ceiling and sort of spread along it (like smoke reaching the ceiling and spreading)? Total small-amp-on-the-move kind of sound. 6V6 and 6L6 tubes are what Fender used (and still uses), and each has a characteristic high end sizzle when pushed to distortion. EL84 and EL34 tubes have a smoother sound when distorted (smoother does not mean less crunchy, it just means smoother!). If you non-musicians out there have the opportunity, have a guitar playing friend demonstrate this to you.

 

To get that nasal kind of quality, Page has rolled off the tone knob on his guitar most of the way, chopping some of the high end off the sound. But since the amp is running to distortion, it generates a fair amount of high-end sizzle. And to my ear, this sound was captured with a mike from a couple of feet away pointing towards the edge of the speaker -- loads of body with just enough top to allow elocution. I would guess that Page played this guitar live in the room with Bonham and Jones because I can hear some small amount of it in the center channel, exactly where the drums come in.

 

The big gong at the beginning is magical, eh?

 

I love the way Page doubles the turnaround; he uses an almost identical sound, with just a bit more midrange punch. And then comes the first solo: whoa! This is definitely a Les Paul and a Marshall turned up LOUD! Notice the "smooth" quality of the distortion? Those are what EL34 tubes sound like. While Page is soloing, compare the solo sound with the other sound and you'll hear what I mean.

 

Again, Page has miked the (solo) cabinet from a few feet away, probably in a fair sized room with a wooden floor. Notice the short, sharp reverb sound? Digital reverb like that wasn't around at the time, and that sounds like a natural room to me. Boy, is that sound separated from the main guitar -- the reverb, the high end snap, the balls of it all! Can you say "rock and roll?" Notice the initial transients as he picks each note; once you've identified the sound I'm talking about, you'll notice it on every Zeppelin song in which Page played a Les Paul. The sound of the pick leaving the string is pure Page, and is all over TSRTS (the album). That sound IS the sound of a Les Paul.

 

When the song breaks down into Jones' bass solo, you can hear Page's guitar echoing. Notice how each subsequent echo loses a bit more high end sizzle. This sound is totally characteristic of a "tape echo" machine, like an Echoplex. Tape echoes are essentially tape recorders with a loop of tape passing over a record head and one or more playback heads. The input signal is recorded to the tape, which then moves toward the playback head. The length of the echo is controlled by adjusting the speed at which the tape travels; at slower speeds, more time elapses before the tape reaches the playback head. To get multiple echoes like we have here, some of that playback is fed back to the record head, which then passes over the playback head, and so on. This fed-back sound is called "regeneration." Each time, the signal degrades significantly, which chops off high end in particular.

 

This echo sequence is great, because it's one of those moments that just don't happen anymore. Follow me on this one. On the downbeat, Page hits his low E-string, then reaches over and switches the tape-echo on, then hits a short jab to the E-string, which echoes. Nobody does this kind of "live" manipulation in the studio anymore. He makes two identical echo noises, then on the third one he reaches over and turns up the regeneration and slides his pick down the string; notice how the third echo cycle lasts longer than the previous two. Cool! And all of that was done "live" in the studio, while Jones and Bonham were playing.

 

All during this bass lead section, Page plays with such restraint. Just a couple notes here and there, gradually building as Robert heats up the vocals. I *love* to platy this song with my band, and believe me -- over a groove that good, holding back is really, really difficult! The guitar bit that begins at 4:37 on the CD is just brilliant. Notice that this is basically the same sound Page used earlier in the song to double the turnaraound. My guess is that Page, when overdubbing, played the turnarounds, then let the tape roll and played through the middle section, too. This isn't his main track -- you can still hear that off on the left, hanging out on one note, Page making it sustain with vibrato.

 

When we reach the loud part again, listen closely. On that downbeat when the loud Les Paul/ Marshall sound re-enters, I fancy that I can hear the punch-in; there is just the slightest bit of static right as the guitar enters, which is charateristic of a punch-in.

 

What's a "punch-in?" Think of a multitrack recording machine as a big tape recorder like your tape deck. With your tape deck, when you press "record," the machine starts moving the tape and recording on both stereo tracks. If you're playing a tape and decide you want to record something, you must first stop the tape, then press "record" in order to begin recording. The tape deck will usually leave a slight gap between what was there before and what you've now recorded, because the head that erases what was there before is slightly "ahead" of the recording head.

 

A multi-track, unlike a tape deck, can begin recording while it's already playing. While the tape is rolling, you can press "record" and the machine, without a hitch, begins recording on the track you've previously selected. That is called a "punch-in." And just like your tape deck at home, the erase head is slightly ahead of the record head, so the slightest gap is left between what was recorded before and what you've now added. However, the tape on a multitrack is moving much faster than the tape on your tape deck; a tape deck travels at 1 and 7/8 inches per second, whereas a multitrack travels at 30 or more inches a second. [The speed a multitrack travels is variable depending on the model, manufacturer, and state of technology at the time it was built.] So while the gap between what was once on tape and what is now on tape is the same *in physical distance* on both your tape deck and a multitrack, the gap in terms of *time* is much, much shorter on the multitrack. Your ears, however, are extremely sensitive devices, and can sometimes still hear that gap -- it sounds like static. You can really hear this kind of stuff on later-era Beatles records, if you're interested.

 

Whew.

 

So now we're at the end of the song, and Page is up to his echo tricks again. At the final beat ("floor...floor...floor), listen to what happens to the echoes. Plant's voice echoes at a constant rate, and you can really hear the sound degenerate with regeneration (got it?). By the third echo his voice sounds more like a whistle than a voice. These echoes were almost certainly added during the mixdown, not while it was sung. Page's left-channel guitar is echoing, too. Notice how during the fourth echo the guitar goes "oomph" and drops in pitch; Page has lengthened the delay time by turning the delay time knob. By the time "Thank You" fades in, the combination of regenerative signal loss and lengthened delay time makes Page's guitar sound like a dog barking. Neat!

 

(There's some stuff missing here, but I don't have it. Someone on the list will, if you ask...?

 

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

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This Month in
Led Zeppelin History

May 31, 1948 - John Henry Bonham was born at Redditch, Worchestershire
May xx, 1969 - The band’s debut album enters the US Top 10
May xx, 1969 - Recording sessions for Led Zeppelin II begin
May xx, 1970 - The band works on new material at Bron-Y-Aur
May 03, 1971 - Richard Cole jams on Whole Lotta Love playing congas
May xx, 1972 - Houses Of The Holy recording sessions on location at Stargroves and Olympic studios
May 27, 1972 - Warm-up gigs kick off in Holland for an upcoming American tour
May 04, 1973 - Led Zeppelin gross nearly $250,000 for their performance in Atlanta, GA
May 05, 1973 - 56,800 attend the second show of the 1973 US tour at Tampa. This sets a record for the largest attendance for a one-act performance, previously held by the Beatlesfor their Shea Stadium show in 1965
May 10, 1974 - Swan Song Records is officially launched
May 11, 1974 - Led Zeppelin attend an Elvis concert and are thrilled when Elvis announces that Led Zeppelin is in the building
May 10, 1975 - Showco ships their PA system and video screens for the Earls Court shows from Dallas to London
May 23, 1976 - Page and Plant join Bad Company onstage at the LA Forum
May 21, 1977 - The Houston Summit claims $500,000 in damages to their venue caused by rowdy fans
May xx, 1978 - The band reunite at Clearwater Castle to rehearse
May 22, 1979 - It is officially announce that Led Zeppelin will headline at the Knebworth Festival in August
May 15, 1980 - After many revisions the European tour dates are finalized and the band is scheduled to open in Germany
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