Recording

Classic Tracks: Randy Newman's "Sail Away"

Randy Newman Sail Away is a classic song - Mix magazine talks to audio engineers and prodcuers about recording Sail Away in 1972.

They don't make records like this anymore. Much of Randy Newman's
acerbic wit and barbed social commentary manifested themselves well
before the notion of “political correctness” became
entrenched in American culture. Songs like “Rednecks”
(which managed to piss off most of the population of the former
Confederacy in three minutes and eight seconds), “Short
People” and “I Love L.A.,” masked by bouncy melodies,
brought Newman's insightful vitriol to the masses, whether they liked
it or not. Newman never sold a large number of records over a 30-year
career, but his status as cult commentator on a changing America has
been assured by these jarring singles, which would likely never get
past the market research process at Clear Channel these days.

“Sail Away” was the first of these lyrically and
musically masterful daggers to make waves, when it was released on an
album of the same name in May 1972. Newman had already established
himself as a credible hit songwriter, penning “Mama Told Me (Not
to Come)” for Three Dog Night, “You Can Leave Your Hat
On,” which became a hit for Joe Cocker, and other songs that were
covered by Judy Collins, Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee. Harry Nilsson
even did an entire album of Newman songs in 1970, Nilsson Sings
Newman
. But “Sail Away,” an FM favorite though not a
hit single, was the record that first made people stop, take notice and
want to listen a second time to make sure they were on the right side
of the joke. The lyrics constitute a tongue-in-cheek recruitment jingle
for the slave trade. To paraphrase Newman himself on the liner notes to
his 2001 Best of collection, the song touts the benefits of hopping on
a ship bound for Charleston harbor where the enlistee will no longer
have to “run through the jungle and scuff up your
feet.”

Newman seemed destined to make his mark in music. His uncles Alfred
and Lionel were both noted film composers; another uncle, Emil Newman,
would become the conductor for many of his orchestral sessions. Randy
was also a boyhood pal of Lenny Waronker, who became a powerhouse
executive and producer at Warner Bros. Records in the late '60s and
helped assemble a top-flight production team that included the likes of
Van Dyke Parks, Donn Landee, Russ Titelman and Lee Herschberg. It was
Waronker who signed Newman to the label in 1968 and produced many of
Newman's best records during his long stint with Warner Bros., along
with Titelman and engineers Herschberg and Bruce Botnick, among
others.

Herschberg first met Newman when he worked on the artist's 12
Songs
LP, which preceded Sail Away. Herschberg was already a
wiley veteran by the time he worked with Newman; he had gotten into the
business as an engineer in 1956 at the old Decca Studios in Los
Angeles, where he worked on more than 100 records, in his estimation.
He left Decca in 1963 when he moved over to Bill Putnam's United &
Western Studios; there, he engineered many more recordings, including
Frank Sinatra's “My Way.” But it was at Decca that
Herschberg got his first taste of rock 'n' roll. “We were doing
really traditional pop records there, like Lawrence Welk,”
recalls Herschberg. “But after Buddy Holly died, The Crickets
came in to do a record, and that was the first time we had seen so many
electric guitars and amplifiers. Most of the engineers on staff there
were older, so they turned the session over to me.” Rock piqued
Herschberg's young musical sensibilities, but it turns out the
orchestral recording techniques he learned at Decca and United would
fit perfectly with Randy Newman's theatrical production style.

12 Songs was recorded in a single session at United, and in
1972, with the studio now at 16 tracks and Newman's productions
becoming more elaborate under Waronker's guidance, Newman's recording
approach became a bit more complex, as well. But not much: “It
was still more like a demo session than a record session,” says
Herschberg. “He would come in and sit at the piano and play a
song, and the musicians would start to add parts as they heard them.
But mostly, we were recording piano-and-vocal demos, which became the
core of the records.”

“Sail Away” epitomizes that methodology. “The song
is literally just Newman on piano and vocal, with a 12/4/4
[violins/violas/celli] string section added later at Warner's Burbank
recording facility of that era, Amigo Studios. But Herschberg knew that
these weren't just demo sessions that he was cutting with
Newman, and after working with him a few times learned that he had to
adapt his techniques to Newman's eccentricities.

“Randy's voice is, well…you take what you can
get,” Herschberg says. “He would move his head around as he
sang, so I had to always have two microphones — Neumann U87s
— about six inches apart on his vocal to catch him. The vocals
were always live; he rarely overdubbed them, so they had to be recorded
well and consistently every time.

“Another quirk was that Randy's foot would tap out the tempo,
but he did it on the piano pedal, which resonated though the whole
piano and sometimes sounded like a bass drum from another planet. We
tried everything to mute it, including pillows under the pedal, but
nothing worked. In the end, we either masked it with other sounds or
tried to EQ it down a bit using a highpass filter in the mix.”
The grand piano was miked with a pair of U87s, as well.

Newman's vocals were kept largely pristine, going into the
custom-made console designed and built by Putnam, and to the 3M
16-track deck running 3M tape. “I'd add maybe a little bit on the
top end and a little more than that on the mids and roll off a little
on the bottom. But that was about it,” Herschberg recalls.

Herschberg doesn't remember being particularly taken aback by the
lyrics of “Sail Away,” even after he realized the point of
the song. But after a few sessions with Newman, Herschberg had come to
expect the unexpected. “At a time when people were making pop
records, Randy was making social commentary, and I enjoyed working with
people who actually had something to say. In part, that's why his
vocals were so unprocessed: We hardly ever put reverb on them. He
didn't want to highlight the vocal as much as he did the message he was
singing. I always knew what Randy was trying to do and say in the
studio.”

Orchestral tracks for “Sail Away” were a straight-ahead
matter for Herschberg after his years at Decca and United. Conducted by
Emil Newman at the Burbank studios, the orchestra was miked with U67s
over a split violin section, another overhead for the violas and a pair
of U67s on the floor for the celli, with Altec ribbon mics or RCA 44s
for additional room sounds. Altogether, with ambient microphones, there
were between six and eight tracks of strings — more than twice as
many as the rest of the elements of the track, which comprised just
Newman's vocals and piano. The mix took place at Amigo, which Warner's
had acquired when it bought studio owner/producer Snuff Garrett's
publishing interests in the early 1970s.

“Sail Away” was almost like the coda to that intimate
period in Newman's and pop music's arc of time. Of course, in addition
to continuing to cut his own albums, Newman would also go on to become
an extremely successful film composer, with scores for movies including
Ragtime, The Natural and Toy Story, among others, earning
him Oscar nominations. Two years ago, he took home an Academy Award
trophy of his own for the song “If I Didn't Have You” from
Monsters, Inc.

Herschberg would do a few more records with Newman, but he notes
that the charm of those demo-as-record sessions would fade as Newman
began to incorporate more synths and other instrumentation in later
records, like the 1977 Little Criminals (his biggest album) and
Trouble In Paradise in 1983. Herschberg, who retired from
Warner's engineering staff in 1996, still has fond memories of how
those records were made: deceptively simply and all the more powerful
for it.

He also feels that he was destined to work with Newman: “As it
turns out, when my family moved to California from Chicago in 1944, our
family doctor was Doctor Newman: Randy's father.”

Randy Newman's Sail Away was released in 1972. Memories of
that year a little hazy? Take a trip down memory lane with a look at
1972's
Number One hits
.

 

 

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