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Subject: Studio Tricks
Hello, All --
Just as our former home ground to a halt, I received a nice letter from Grant Stavely, who was soon to have his first the opportunity to go into the studio. I'm very flattered that he asked me for my advice about how he should prepare.
Something I told Grant was that studio recording, like anything else, takes practice. To expect too much of oneself early in the game is to invite major disappointment.
This led me to think about Zeppelin's own proficiency in the studio, and how it progressed from 1969 through 1979. Right now, I invite you to review your mental snapshots of ITTOD and Zeppelin I. Without immediate deep analysis, I'm sure you can tell that ITTOD is a much more complex recording than Zeppelin I. Wanna know why? Read on.
First, technology had developed tremendously in the ten years that separated Zep I and ITTOD. "State of the Art" had gone from 8-tracks in 1969 to 24 or even 48 tracks in 1979, giving the recording musician a greater deal of flexibility. Tape heads had been refined and tape speed increased, which increased fidelity. Studio tools such as reverb, delay and compression had been vastly improved, making more complex sounds available to the musician. While guitars and amps hadn't changed much (and Page was still using instruments that were, by and large, built in the '50s), keyboards had changed dramatically. In 1969, JPJ owned a Hammond Organ and perhaps a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and while these instruments still sound great to this day, they were hardly what you might call the pinnacle of technology ca. 1979. By the time Zeppelin recorded ITTOD, the synthesizer had been born, which was a much more complex beast. A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that allows a musician to determine the sounds it makes by manipulating waveforms, as opposed to having just one kind of "fixed voice" that is predetermined by the instrument's builder. And while synth technology in the '90s makes synths from the '70s look like primitive stone tools, '70s synths made '60s keyboards look like primordial ooze.
More important than any of the technology, however, was that the musicians in Led Zeppelin were vastly more adept at capturing themselves on tape. As I said earlier, knowing how to use a studio is a skill which must be practiced. As you probably all know, Page earned his living as a studio guitarist before he formed Zeppelin. As such he spent his life in recording studios. John Paul Jones also made his living this way. Most of this work, however, was at someone else's direction; you've probably noticed that when you're trying to learn something new, watching someone else do it is vastly different from doing it yourself. Imagine learning to read, for example.
That doesn't mean you learn nothing from watching, though. From his studio career, Page would certainly have picked up some ideas about how to mike instruments, how to mix different elements to create interesting songs, how to positon instruments in a mix, etc. And he definitely would have learned that preparation is a key to success. So let's take a look at Zeppelin I and see what he did with it.
Preparation for Zeppelin I took the form of a ten day tour of Scandinavia (I would kill for a tape of one of *those* shows...). That's not really much time, and there are moments on their first album that show the band to be under-rehearsed. Minor example: Bonham's "untight" entry in "Your Time is Gonna Come." Relatively major example: notice at the end of Page's guitar solo in Dazed and Confused, Bonham misses the return to the chords and catches up with Page on the second phrase. Hardly the sort of thing that ruins a recording, but also not the sort of thing Zeppelin wouldn't dare leave in subsequent recordings. Imagine "Kashmir" with an untight downbeat. Think of the hours the boys spent getting IMTOD correct before recording it.
Notice that the guitar tones don't vary much from song to song. In Page's own words, he recorded Zeppelin I "with a Telecaster, a tiny Supro amp and just a couple of pedals." While his distortion ranges from the relatively clean sound of ICQYB to the fully saturated snarl of YSM, you can pretty much tell that it's the same guitar and amp throughout. (This may have more to do with Jimmy's reputation as "Led Wallet" than it does with learning how to record, but I doubt it.) It's also important to remember that the album was engineered by Andy Johns and not Jimmy Page, and the engineer is a critical link in the sound chain. However, later Zeppelin records were also engineered by people who weren't Jimmy (got it? ;), so Andy Johns can't be held solely responsible for the similarity in tone. IMHO, lack of experience and the incredibly fast working pace of the Zep I sessions are responsible for Page's tonal similarities. By contrast, think of Ten Years Gone; that *one song* -- recorded over more days than the entirety of Zeppelin I -- has perhaps six distinct guitar tones.
Furthermore, the songs feature rather straightforward pop arrangements. GTBT, BIGLY, CB, YSM, YTIGC, ICQYB, and even D&C are all basically standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solos-verse-chorus arrangements made popular by blues guys as far back as anyone can remember.
Flash forward to Zeppelin II. Whoa! The band's a lot tighter, which makes sense when you consider that they'd been touring almost non-stop since they recorded Zep I. Musically and personally, the boys have gotten to know one another. The guitar tones are much more varied: the crunch of WLL, the otherworldly shimmer of WIAWSNB, the scream of BIOH, the thousand-foot-tall bludgeon that is Heartbreaker. Page has figured some stuff out, for sure. Arrangement-wise, WLL falls just far enough outside verse-chorus to call it unique, and WIAWSNB has a very cool coda.
With two albums worth of experience under their collective belts, Zeppelin really branched out with Zeppelin III. Alternate tunings, loads of acoustic stuff, chimey guitars, cool special effects... The boys had learned the basics of studio recordings, and now they were casting that aside to try new and different things. That, friends, is the hallmark of an artist: always reaching for something new. Picture "Celebration Day." It has a guitar intro that sounds like nothing we've heard from Zeppelin as yet, and some interesting (and weird) effects, but it's still unmistakably our boys. And what the *hell* is "Hats off to Roy Harper"? It's great, but what *is* it? Just guitar and an evil vocal recorded through a guitar amp. Way cool, but crazy. We haven't heard anything like this from Zeppelin before. And it shares an album with "That's the Way" and SIBLY, which might make Zep III the most varied album of the time period.
So much has been said by me and others about Zep IV that I'm just going to gloss over it. You want dramatic arrangements? Try Stairway, Four Sticks, When the Levee Breaks, and Going to California. You want unique guitar tones? How about Black Dog, Rock and... hell, all of 'em. You want cool lyrics? Umm, a couple are kind of dumb, but STH, BoE, MMH, GtC, BD are groovy. You want tight performances? I'm sure you get the idea. Unquestionably, Zeppelin IV shows us that Led Zeppelin had mastered the use of the studio.
Despite McCue's contention that Houses was poorly produced (I almost made my *own* death list after reading that), it shows that our boys *still* haven't stagnated in the studio. To start with, the amalgamated drum sound of Houses is much richer than that of Zep IV. And Page's guitars are a desert rainbow of colors: almost nasal in places (The Ocean), rich and warm in others (OTHAFA), stringy (D'yer Mak'r), chimey (TSRS) -- they are a full spectrum of colors. There *aren't* any more guitar tones -- Page has explored them all. Plant's lyrics include "Dancing Days," which IMHO might be his best lyrics ever. And if they aren't, then his lyrics to The Rain Song are. And The Rain Song has a wonderfully orchestrated arrangement; the big peak late in the song always makes me smile. The band has reached it's pinnacle in terms of songwriting, arranging, and producing.
Physical Graffiti capitalizes on all this knowledge. Rich songs, intense arrangements, and powerful sounds characterize nearly every song. Very little of it is new to Zeppelin (or the listener), but every element is where it should be. The evil heaviness of "the Rover." The upbeat heavy funk of "The Wanton Song." The boogie groove of "Night Flight." Sure, there are some tracks which never would have been released had the boys not decided to do a double (Boogie with Stu barely even has a *title*), but these "filler" tracks only increase the albums diversity and richness. "Kashmir" -- arguably the crystalization of Zeppelin's magic -- simply could not have been brought to wax by this band any sooner. There's no *way* a young musician flush with his own ego could play a song as long as "Kashmir" with so much restraint. Bonham could hardly be accused of stepping on the song, and neither could Plant or Jones or Page. The groove is relentless, yet understated. "Kashmir" is a perfect arrangement; add something and it would sound busy, take anything away and it would sound empty. That is what studio recording is all about -- building the perfect track.
Most of the tracks on Physical Graffiti eclipse Zeppelin's first few albums in terms of pure sound quality. Need proof? Grab Disc Four of the Box Set and listen to "Wanton Song", followed by "Moby Dick." Better yet, listen to the Box Set in its entirety, as I chanced to do last night as I was working. This segue between songs completely threw me for a loop. As you know, the Box Set is organized in a loosely chronological manner. As we listen from start to finish, our ears don't notice any dramatic change in sound quality because the improvements take place gradually over a vast number of songs. We receive a three-steps forward, one step back approach to improved production quality. And I find it especially interesting that the material from PG, Presence, and ITTOD flows so smoothly that I often need to remind myself which album specific songs came from. But in this one moment of transition between "Wanton Song" and "Moby Dick," we are instantly reminded how far Zeppelin has come in making great-sounding records.
Which leads me to Presence. As many of you know, Presence is not my favorite Zeppelin album. There are a few tracks that I enjoy, but taken as a whole the album bores me. It sounds fantastic: warm, sparkly, and lush. Yet, in the context of this recording discussion, it's easy for me to tell you why I don't care for it: there is very little variation between tracks. Yes, the album was created in a short period, and it reflects a different kind of energy than it's sprawling predecessor, but something I cherish has been lost. The arrangements needed another go-'round of tightening -- great riffs repeated ad nauseum do not make great songs. Compare "For Your Life" with "Kashmir"; each has just a small number of riffs, repeated many times. "Kashmir," when it ends, has led you through the ticket and deposited you, blinking, into the light. "For Your Life" leaves you wondering, "huh?" (And FYL, for me, is one of the better tracks on the album.) "Achilles' Last Stand" is waaaaay too long (sort of like this e-mail ;). Sure, it *sounds* great (every track does), and that's the result of Page and Co knowing what they're doing in the studio. But every track sounds great the same way, and I find that a little boring. Yes, I know I said most of Zeppelin I sounds much the same, but Zep I succeeds where Presence fails. In 1969, the rock climate needed the hurricane that was Zep I, and the youthful energy we hear on their first album excuses some of Zep I's faults. By 1976, Zeppelin had changed the way records were made, and to follow something as rich and varied as Physical Graffiti with something as plain as Presence leaves me disappointed.
Well, we've arrived at ITTOD. This has been called "Jonesy's album." Surely, the songs are built around keyboards rather than guitars. Most of these keyboards weren't yet a gleam in an engineer's eye in 1969. "Carouselambra," "In the Evening," "All My Love..." Each of these features a synth, and more importantly, and *attitude* that didn't exist for Zeppelin in 1969. Tracks like "South Bound Suarez" and "Hot Dog" feature the piano, which was invented in the 17th century. Nonetheless, Zeppelin couldn't have recorded them any sooner -- imagine "South Bound Suarez" performed by musicians with a Zep I attitude and I think you'll see what I mean.
On ITTOD, all of Zeppelin's accumulated knowledge is brought to bear. The drums are big and "roomy." The guitars are orchestrated so smoothly you barely notice that they're orchestrated -- dig those harmonized, ascending fuzz-guitar lines in "In The Evening". The arrangements feature one instrument at a time, and by large the songs get in, say what needs to be said, and get out. Very nice. Tasteful restraint is again the rule of the day; think of "All My Love" and "In The Evening." These tracks feature fairly minimal components: just a few vocal and guitar tracks, consise solos, bridges that serve the song, etc. "Fool in the Rain" does go a little overboard (that solo might have been acceptable live, but for a Jimmy-in-the-studio solo it's pretty mindless), but "I'm Gonna Crawl" is a great track, and "All My Love" can stand up with "The Rain Song" and "Tangerine" in the "lovely song" catagory. Zeppelin could never have written and recorded this material in 1969. They simply didn't possess the knowledge and the experience to pull it off.
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