Tom Watson: From your point of view, what's the difference among the roles of record producer, recording engineer and mixer?
Kevin Shirley: It differs from band to band and even with the same band it differs from project to project. I have some in which I'm involved very much hands-on with everything, including the minutiae of songs and songwriting and chords. Then you have other projects where the band is well established and you have to capture what they do best without caving into the trends of popular music.
Tom: That's more in terms of the role of producer, right?
Kevin: Right, but it's all semantics at the end of the day. When I work on the Led Zeppelin material, what I do on those projects I do on my own. I'm a uot;producer" inasmuch as the work getting done is up to me. I'm not a producer in the respect that the final say is always up to the guys in that band and what you're doing is up to them. There's a fine line there. But, I have to tell you, I wouldn't want to buy Led Zeppelin work that wasn't produced by Jimmy Page. "Produced by Jimmy Page" is part of the legacy of the band. I would hate to be buying Led Zeppelin produced by anyone else at this point in their career.
Tom: The advance copy of the 2-disc The Song Remains The Same movie soundtrack credits Jimmy Page as producer and Peter Grant [Led Zeppelin's manager who passed away in 1995] as executive producer.
Kevin: Yes, Peter Grant was involved in the original making of the movie and its soundtrack, but let me tell you, the CDs you have there bear only a little resemblance to the original soundtrack album with respect to the performances included or anything else. It's all new, all culled from the three nights at Madison Square Garden. The movie was the template for the new audio.
To be fair, the movie, at the time, was adequately shot and edited and we weren't allowed to change any of the imaging, so we had to work with the audio. I don't know if you remember the original audio, but it was sometimes out of sync and there were many questionable edits, so I tried to make a more cohesive package that flows with the movie a lot better. What you have there really is a movie soundtrack with a few extras.
Tom: When the movie first came out , wasn't an attempt made to create something of a surround sound experience in at least some theaters?
Kevin: Yes. Jimmy [Page] and Eddie Kramer did some mixes, back in the day at Electric Ladyland, and they were pretty good. They tried to resurrect those for the audio, but I think they were a little less than thrilled, which is why we set about re-doing it again from scratch. 5.1 [Dolby Surround Sound] has made a huge difference in things. It's like taking an 8-track and saying, "Does this work as modern DVD audio?" It might have been state of the art back then, but it just doesn't fly anymore.
Tom: The new The Song Remains The Same movie DVD is in 5.1. What's the audio point of view? Where am I sitting in Madison Square Garden?
Kevin: You're sitting three rows back, in the center, just behind the gorgeous girl with blonde hair [laughs].
Tom: What's coming from my 5.1 rear speakers? The crowd?
Kevin: There are all sorts of things coming from the rear speakers. Audience, delays, and there are some elements coming back from the rears like in "Dazed And Confused" - the violin bow thing goes all over the place when Jimmy's climbing up the mountain - some of the drum solos, and in the fantasy sequences the audio travels between the front and the back. So, you're sitting in the middle of this very interesting experience. There are also the sound effects. There's the subway train that comes in the middle of the movie right before "No Quarter" - the train comes from right behind you and through the middle of your head, which is pretty cool, actually. It's a surround experience, no doubt. It's not a concert with just some subtle rears.
Tom: What were your instructions? What were you told was the goal with respect to the new edition of The Song Remains The Same?
Kevin: What I was told was, "Here's the movie, and we can't touch it [the visuals] but can we improve the audio? How can we make this a very good Zeppelin experience?" There are many bad edits with the original audio. With all due respect to Eddie [Eddie Kramer who served as the original sound engineer], the original's a pretty average mix - but Madison Square Garden might have been a tough venue with the equipment that was available then - it would probably be much easier and better with what we have now.
I took it and looked at it as carte blanche. I looked at the movie and would say, that doesn't sync at all so why don't we find the right piece that syncs? If you look at the end of "Stairway To Heaven" on the original movie, the visual's from a completely different take than the audio. I'd say, "Why is there a different take?" and I'd be told, "Oh, because there's a mistake on the original audio." Well, I could fix the mistake and we could put the original audio back on there. There are things you can do now that you couldn't do back then.
Tom: Most of it with Pro Tools?
Kevin: Pro Tools is pretty much the "tape machine" of today. Even if you don't use all the editing facilities that Pro Tools allows, you still use it as the source for everything, especially with the 24-bit high resolution stuff, the audio's very good.
Tom: Exactly what audio did you have to start with on The Song Remains The Same?
Kevin: I had three multi-tracks from three nights at Madison Square Garden [the three July, 1973 Led Zeppelin Madison Square Garden concerts].Tom: How many tracks did you have?
Kevin: 16-track recordings.
Tom: That wasn't too bad, then.
Kevin: Oh, no, for 1973, having 16 tracks was fantastic.
Tom: How did this project compare then to the Led Zeppelin DVD? That must have been a real bear.
Kevin: It was a different animal. The Led Zeppelin DVD was, "Here's a room full of audio tapes, what can we cull out of this lot?" There wasn't a set plan going in, it was more like, what's possible? Especially, when we started looking for accompanying visuals and all we'd fine is some bootleg. Some stuff didn't make it onto the Led Zeppelin DVD because there wasn't any video for it. Even with some of the Royal Albert Hall footage, when there was no video they resorted to slow motion or still-frame because there isn't any video for those sections.
So, Led Zeppelin was a totally different thing. We got the audio, then looked for video. Unlike The Song Remains The Same, it wasn't governed by the video. We went through and found audio performances that were good, performances that could work. If there were a couple of good audio versions of "Ten Years Gone," for example, we'd then look to see if we could find good video to go with it.
This time around, it was there's the video, period, and now we need to put the audio to the video.
Tom: This time around it was actually both - here's the video and here are the audio tracks you have to work with.
Kevin: Exactly. I don't know how much people know about this, but there's a Led Zeppelin show there and it's well done, but there are some shots in the movie that were not done live, that were done after the fact. So, it's not like the movie's a straight-up concert video.
Tom: How many mixes did you have to do - you have 5.1, 2.0, the CD soundtrack - it's more than just sitting down and doing 5.1.
Kevin: Oh, absolutely. We started from scratch. Everything was reassembled from the ground up. The original soundtrack lives only in the old version, which is almost an excuse for having both because there are two different versions now. The new version is newly assembled audio. That's why when Warner Bros. says it's "remastered," that's not really descriptive, it's re-done. As Jimmy says, "it's been revisited," which is about as accurate as you can get.
The original multi-tracks were reassembled, then we did stereo mixes. Some of the original edits compromised some of the song structures, some of which we were able to fix, though some of them have to live on in the movie DVD.
Tom: Because you couldn't alter the film visuals.
Kevin: That's right. The whole thing is that it's a theatrical release and it would have been a whole can of worms with directors, and legal hassles, and whatnot, if you started editing the movie.
Tom: Is there a variance now between the soundtrack CDs and the actual DVD soundtrack?
Kevin: No, actually the CDs much more accurately represent the movie now. What you hear on the new soundtrack CDs is what's in the movie, they're not two different things now. There's just more on the CDs than there is in the movie because the movie wasn't the entire concert.
Tom: How closely involved was Jimmy Page with your work?
Kevin: Jimmy was very involved. He came in every day and listened to everything, but, he's not jumping in, he's not hands-on. If something was bothering him, he said so, but he trusts me and he appreciates my work. He'd walk in and say, "That sounds terrific, I love the way that sounds." It wasn't a battle at any stage.
In terms of quality control, I have enough hanging over my head just knowing it's Led Zeppelin. [Laughs] You sit there with rock 'n' roll on the console - you've got one guitar, one bass, a drum kit and a vocal and I'd listen and work with something for two or three days and I'm like, I don't know what else to do with it, I don't want to push the guitar any further, this sounds about right to me now.
What was very cool was Robert [Plant] would come to the studio and he's not a big fan of the original movie, I'd say he was probably a catalyst to the thing being re-done, and when he first came by he said, "Oh my God, I don't want to hear this," and he sat down and listened to it with his hands over his eyes. Then, he starts nodding his head and rocking with it and turns around with a big grin on his face and goes, "It rocks, doesn't it?" Then he looks at the video and goes, "We weren't half bad, were we." It was great to experience that chrysalis, to see the butterfly coming out.
Tom: The thing about Led Zeppelin shows was that they were bold. It would take a bold guy like you to capture that completely. You can't be afraid of it.
Kevin: No, you can't be afraid of it. You do have to wring its neck. Actually, when I'm in the studio I compartmentalize. I'm concerned with the sonics of the thing and I don't think about anything else. Then, I'm having a beer later that night and I go, "My God, I just mixed "Stairway To Heaven!" That's when it sets in, but in the studio I'm unaffected by it.
Tom: You're doing what you do.
Kevin: Yes. I've got a block of concrete to break into dust by the end of the day. It's not always easy, it's not always enjoyable, but I do it for the end product. It's like taking a trip. I hate flying but I love getting there.
Tom: What was the biggest challenge in this project?
Kevin: Making the music fit the picture. The original video was edited all over the place, from different shows, so we wanted the sound to help the video feel real. At the end of the day, it's not a documentary, it's a movie, so there was some creative license. I'm very happy with the final result.
Tom: What about the biggest audio challenge?
Kevin: It wasn't an easy concert. The Madison Square Garden concerts, for whatever reason, were a challenge, the most challenging on the Led Zeppelin DVD, which I mixed. Knebworth was easier, and, going back, the Royal Albert Hall was way easier. Whether it was the truck on those nights [at MSG], or the acoustics of the hall, or whatever, these weren't the easiest concerts in the world to mix. We had to dig deep to get a lot of the definition, a lot of the depth into the instruments. If you listen to the original soundtrack CD, it's quite brittle, not full highs and lows, a very razor-ish sound. It was difficult audio to work with.
Tom: Did you add any effects to Jimmy's guitar?
Kevin: I did add a little bit of effects to Jimmy's guitar, which the purists will probably hate, in some sections on the clean [tone] parts where the guitar was a little out of tune. I just tried to smooth it out a bit, but you can't change the recorded intonation of the guitar, and that's one of the joys of the guitar too, so I just tried to make it a little sweeter.
Tom: How did you make panning placement decisions? Did you use the original as the guideline or primarily rely your own ears and taste?
Kevin: Absolutely, you use your own ears, and there's a presentation on the screen that says, this is what's happening, so while I don't follow Jimmy cavorting around, you follow the show. Actually, you'll hear a slight leaning of the bass to the left - maybe 11:30 [as opposed to dead center 12:00] to the left, just slightly off center because that's kind of how it looks on stage, John Paul Jones is on that side of the screen. So, the presentation is there, you just enhance it, really.
I hope people dig it, I really do. I'm not going to do a lot of interviews about it because these Internet days are very tough with some people analyzing things to death and obsessing over minute detail. It's really just for people to go and enjoy. The detailed analysis isn't really welcome - who cares if somebody says, "You needed more cymbal in 'Black Dog,' or something like that. Enjoy the experience. Don't over analyze it. It's the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band playing a very good set of shows.
Tom: It's funny. I might think, read and write about Led Zeppelin every day, but as I was putting in disc one of the soundtrack, it dawned on me that I don't listen to Led Zeppelin nearly as often. Hearing the live-show soundtrack put things back in perspective. Explosive.
Kevin: They are explosive, they really are explosive. They're just so much on the edge the whole time, everyone's on the edge - Robert's performing, John Paul Jones is such a solid foundation, and Bonzo, John Bonham, what can you say? He's the rock.
Tom: Don't know how many times I listened to "Since I've Been Loving You" today. Here we are, 30-some years later, and most blues-rock players still don't get this.
Kevin: No. One of the key things to all of that is Jimmy's playing. When you hear Jimmy's solos isolated - out of the context of a mix - you realize what genius-guitar playing really is. People try to copy that stuff with a pick, but Jimmy's all about everything - he's got a pick, he's using his fingers, he's using a pick and his fingers, there's so much going on in his playing all the time and he makes a wall of sound without turning up the distortion, it's a clean tone.
You're really right, people just don't get it. You know why? Because they can't. They're like, "It seems obvious to punch the fuzz box on and have a big heavy pick - that's the way he does it," which is the antithesis of what the man's about. He's about sensibility, he's about structure, he's about musical architecture, he's about the nuances, he's about things not being heard sometimes, about notes not being played and you just hear the resonance.
I said, in the context of the earlier DVD [Led Zeppelin] that, in my book, he's a much better protagonist of the instrument than [Jimi] Hendrix. Not that I want to start any arguments, but I listen to the depth of Jimmy's back catalog - the acoustic work, the heavy work, the fine fingerpicking stuff - and then, on top of all of that are his arrangements. You know, he's an architect, the architecture of his music is just stunning. When you look into the middle bits of the violin-bow section of "Dazed And Confused," there is nothing random about that. I mean, there's a random access quotient, the improvisational nature of that band, but there's structure, there's architecture. It's not just, let's go do a 15-minute guitar solo.
Listen to them play the same song over five or ten shows and you'll hear that there are patterns of what he's doing, and where, and how he's building it up. When you start hearing all of those things and you start listening to the architecture and you start hearing some of his influences, like [Krzysztof] Penderecki, the Polish composer, all the bits and pieces that have influenced him along the way, it's phenomenal.
Tom: And, as you listen to the soundtrack, you hear so many things that have come since Led Zeppelin.
Kevin: Absolutely. Actually, there are a couple of things on the DVD menu, like where I've taken 30-second samples and they'll cycle around, and you could make a song just from those samples of them jamming. There's Soundgarden in there, and countless others. What makes Zeppelin so unique is that it wasn't just about one thing taken further, it was about so many things done in so many different ways.
What did you think about the sonics of the new soundtrack?
Tom: They demonstrate what Led Zeppelin was about - they were out to conquer the world.
Kevin: You know, you're saying it all. That's exactly what it was about. And they did it.
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