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. 6/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

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.