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At 3:15 PM 8/30/97, Don Olker wrote:
Creating a full live sound is a completely different sport than sculpting an awesome sound in the studio. In the studio, each track exists to serve the whole, and as such a particular track might sound fairly wimpy on it's own. For example, the main guitar line in "D'yer Mak'r" is very thin and stringy. If you removed the bass from the mix you'd have a pretty thin song.
I think Zeppelin succeeded in creating a huge live sound simply because they cared enough about their music to put in the work. There are few "secrets" involved in creating a front-of-house (FOH) mix (which isn't to say there aren't *any* secrets). Basically, the sound engineer takes what he gets from the musicians and makes it a lot louder. Simple.
When it comes to playing live, most musicians seek one simple thing: tone that makes them feel good. The musicians on this mailing list will agree with me on this: the more "dialed-in" your sound is, the more comfortable you are, and the better you tend to play. Nights when your sound isn't happening are often very frustrating.
Now, each of Zeppelin's four members had a lot of ground to cover when they played live. Translating a recording like "Ten Years Gone" -- which includes at least 24 tracks worth of sounds -- into something 4 instruments could accomplish was no mean feat. I do not find it surprising that Page generally opted for a very loud, full-spectrum sound. What he lost in terms of "refinement" he made up for in pure balls. As as a guitar player myself, I can tell you that a big, loud, ballsy sound is just pure ecstacy. Jones' bass tone was pregnant with low end but relatively mild in the mids and high end, which left Page with quite a lot of space to play with. Not many guitar players can handle that type of responsibility, but Page pulled it off with aplomb. Pete Townshend is another guitar player who knew how to make a 4-piece sound huge live (IMHO, Townshend was even better at this than Jimmy, but Townshend had fewer tracks to include in his amalgamations).
Anyway, lets' take a look at some of the equipment the band used to generate their stage sound.
In the film TSRS, we see John Paul Jones playing a Fender Jazz Bass, which is renown for its deep low end. He has said in interviews that he really cared for this bass, which he bought new in 1961, but by Zeppelin's '75 tour it was falling apart and needed to be replaced. "Rick Turner of Alembic made me an Alembic bass, and it's beautiful....It gives so much more room [than the Fender], and there isn't any position on the instrument that sounds off" (Best of Guitar Player - Led Zeppelin). For amplifiers, Jones used Acoustic 360s for most of Zeppelin's career, although by 1977 he was using a Gallien Krueger solid state amp to drive Cerwin Vega speakers. In that same interview, Jones said he preferred solid state amps to tube amps because they sounded "tighter" and "less spread out."
Page, meanwhile, used Marshalls for most of his career with Zeppelin. I've read that early in their gigging days he was using Vox and Fender amps, but I'm too lazy to go reference some photos to confirm that. Certainly by 1973 and throughout the rest of Zeppelin's touring days, Page was using Marshall amps. If I remember correctly, he had two 100-watt Marshall heads connected to 3 Marshall speaker cabinets and one Orange speaker cabinet. I suspect that his theremin was being routed through a different amp and into that Orange cabinet, but I have no information to back that up.
I own a Marshall 50-watt head and a 4x12 speaker cabinet, so I have a bit of experience with that sound. I should say first that every single amp and speaker cabinet sounds different, even identical models; parts tolerances and wood resonances and quality of tubes and a million other things vary widely enough to make every amp an individual beast. However, every Marshall does have *something* in common, something that makes it a Marshall. A Marshall half-stack (that is, a head and a speaker cabinet with 4 12" speakers) is LOUD. The amp doesn't begin to loosen up and sound full until the volume is *way* beyond a polite bedroom volume. I, for one, can't turn my amp up to where I really like to hear it because it drowns out my drummer. Like I said, it's LOUD. And, of course, it sounds divine.
Page, however, wouldn't have drowned out Bonham onstage. Bonham coaxed an awful lot of volume from his drums, and on a big stage, the drums are miked and amplified anyway. So guitar players, Page included, could turn their amps up as loud as they wanted to without fear of being too loud.
In every amp, as you increase the volume, you reach a point of diminishing returns. That is, the sound stops getting louder and fuller and begins to turn to mush. It becomes so distorted that clarity is lost. Page's live sound was ballsy and clear, so I'm sure he wasn't "diming" ("dime," as in "turn up to ten") his amps. Much of his stage time, Page was playing a Les Paul. A Les Paul creates a full-bodied, powerful signal for an amplifier to work with. There's not a ton of treble coming from a Les Paul (which has to do with its pickups and is something to discuss in another e-mail), so Page really pushed the treble on his amps. Even so, a Les Paul doesn't often get "shrieky" the way a Strat can, and it's hot output will push an amp into overdrive at a lower volume level. Page used a minimum of effects: a MXR Phase 90 (heard on TYG and NFBM), a wah-wah (NQ, D&C), and an Echoplex (heard all over the place). In later tours, the FOH sound engineer had a Harmonizer at his disposal, and would apply this effect to Plant or Page depending on the situation.
On tour, Zeppelin carried with them an awe-inspiring PA. This high-quality PA may be the single biggest factor in Zeppelin's fullness relative to other bands. By the later '70s, Zep was not the only band using equipment of this caliber, but earlier in the decade they were the exception. Listen to "Blueberry Hill" and you'll hear a band that sounds tremendous compared with many other bands of the same era.
I think that's enough.
By the way, for you guitar players out there, I recently bought a 1978 Hiwatt Custom 50 half-stack. This amp is simply amazing. Its volume, fullness, balls and feel make my Marshall sound like a toy. And it doesn't sound like everyone else on the block. Highly, highly reccommended by yours truly.
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