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Classic Tracks: Los Angeles Edition

Crosby, Still, Nash & Young (single, Atlantic, 1970)

It’s a rare song that makes you want to start a revolution, and one of the most heart-breaking, powerful and intensely inspiring of the lot is Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s response to the Kent State killings: “Ohio.”

In an era before the Internet or 24-hour news, “Ohio” was about as swift a reaction to current events as artists could make. After seeing photos of the tragedy (which took place May 4, 1970) in Life magazine, Neil Young wrote the lyrics and brought them to his bandmates, who were then in tour rehearsals.

“They were rehearsing during the day, and in the evening, I was working in Record Plant A with Stephen Stills on his solo album,” recalls engineer Bill Halverson. “One day, management called, saying, ‘It’s going to be different tonight. They have a song they really need to record.’ This was the 21st of May.”

Halverson, who enjoyed working with the equipment he’d used as a staff engineer and then an independent at Wally Heider Studios, had rented a 3M M79 24-track machine from Heider, as well as several Shure 546 vocal mics and 547s for guitar amps. The band’s road crew loaded in amps and instruments, and helped Halverson set up. Drummer Johny Barbata’s kit and Calvin Samuels’ bass were placed in a carpeted part of the main room, and all of the singers/guitarists and amplifiers were in a more live part of the room.

“The four of them were within a couple of feet of each other, and there was a lot of intensity,” says Halverson. “There was probably a lot of leakage on the multitrack, but as long as everyone’s playing the right notes, leakage can be your friend.”

“Ohio” was recorded live, including those moving harmonies, David Crosby’s chilling vocal ad-libs (“How many more?”) and all of the guitar parts. The recording was complete in three or four takes.

Halverson and the band mixed the song that night on Record Plant’s Quad-8 console, listening on the studio’s custom Tom Hidley mains as well as a pair of Auratones. “I went back and listened before this interview,” Halverson says. “That song still gives me goosebumps.” Realism, as well as brilliance, being the order of the day, the band proceeded to make a live B side, “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Read a bonus Classic Track at—Barbara Schultz


Love (from the album Love, Elektra Records, 1966)

Led by magnetic frontman Arthur Lee, Love was one the first L.A. rock bands to cause a stir nationally in the wake of The Byrds’ stunning success in 1965. The quintet—singer Lee, guitarists Johnny Echols and Bryan MacLean, bassist Ken Forssi and drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer—had only been playing local clubs for a few months when they were snapped up by Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records and brought to Sunset Sound at the end of January 1966 to record their eponymous first album with Holzman, Elektra producer Mark Abramson, and the label’s wunderkind engineer Bruce Botnick.

Though Lee was the principal songwriter, the album also contained a few cover tunes, including “Hey Joe” (pre-Hendrix) and the driving Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “Little Red Book,” which had already been recorded by Manfred Mann for the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat? The Mann version had none of the proto-punkish insistency—nor the “cool” factor—of Love’s arrangement, which was the group’s first charting single, reaching Number 52, setting the stage for their even bigger single from the summer of ’66, “7 and 7 Is” (a precursor to their second LP, Da Capo). The Love album made it to Number 57.

Botnick recorded the track live at Sunset Sound’s Studio One through the room’s warm-sounding Alan Emig 14-input custom tube console, to an Ampex 300 3-track that had been converted to a 4-track, running at 15 ips. Monitoring was through Altec 604e loudspeakers. “In those days, I always used three mics on drums—one under the snare, one overhead and one kick,” he says. For a vocal mic he often favored a Neumann U 47. He also used the studio’s famous live chamber—containing two RCA 44s—for reverb. The original single version would have been mono; the album was available in both mono and stereo.

The engineer says he can’t recall if Lee cut the vocals at the same time the band recorded the backing track, but suspects he probably did. The entire album was tracked and mixed in just four days, with the best complete takes being used—typical in that era.

“I loved Arthur,” says Botnick, who cut Love’s first three albums. “He was really special. He was a really good poet. I had the good fortune to be with two in that period—him and Jim Morrison; guys who really were word men. In fact, Arthur told Jac Holzman about The Doors, and the Doors signed [with Elektra] because they had Arthur and Paul Butterfield.”—Blair Jackson


WAR (from the album Why Can’t We Be Friends?, (United Artists Records, 1975)

In the great tradition established from the beginning of rock ’n’ roll, WAR’s “Low Rider” is a song about a car—one of the coolest, most groove-y, sultry car songs ever, in fact. And the groove at the core of it developed from the way WAR worked in the studio with their longtime engineer, Chris Huston.

“We were always recording,” says Huston, who began working with WAR and their producer Jerry Goldstein in the late ‘60s. “We’d record sometimes 10 hours a night, going through four, five or six reels of 24-track tape, regularly. They’d jam for hours, and every night there could be three or four cassettes full of rough mixes—not songs, but jams—and each one would get a catalog number, and everyone would get a copy, including me.

“Later, sometimes years later, someone would get an idea for a song, and we’d find the appropriate 24-track tape and the section they wanted. We’d find a section that could be turned into an intro, and if there was a bit we could make into the bridge or chorus, we’d use it. That’s how ‘Low Rider’ was written, mostly by Charles Miller, who sang on the actual record, but everyone would contribute.”

“Low Rider” was made in Studio B of Sound City, as Fleetwood Mac had booked Studio A. “It was a small room but we were used to it,” Huston recalls. “Everybody sang, so we’d have up to 36 microphones active in the room throughout a session.”

In addition to the jam-based groove, and Miller’s growling vocal, it’s the instrumentation on “Low Rider” that’s so memorable: the beat of Papa Dee’s cowbell (which was overdubbed and edited for the intro), the funky percussion, the thick, doubled duet of harmonica and sax. “The conga player also had tablas, bongos, gongs, cymbals and needed several vocal mics available,” Huston says. “Lonnie Jordan would also have several vocal mics because he’d have a regular piano, a Hammond organ, Moog synthesizers, electric piano and Clavinet, and I’d never know where he was going to be.”

In Sound City, Huston usually recorded to Ampex 24-track machines. “I only ever used one model of limiter, and that was the UREI 1176,” he says. “The only things I used them on were vocals and bass. I never used limiting or compression on anything else.”

Huston favored AKG instrument mics at that time, and Neumann U 87s for vocals. Everything usually went directly through the pre’s in the studio’s Neve board.

“Of all the groups I’ve worked with, WAR had such a natural creativity,” says Huston. “Even when they were just young guys from the Long Beach/Signal Hill area and had no idea what the studio was about, they were just incredible.”—Barbara Schultz


Frank Zappa (from the album Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa Records, 1979)

The disco era that brought us Saturday Night Fever, spoons on chains, and satin everything spawned an unintentional subgenre: “disco sucks” music. Rockers laughed and cheered for Steve Dahl’s parody of Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” (“Do You Think I’m Disco?” 1979), and for that brilliant iconoclast Frank Zappa’s first bonafide hit, the Number 45 song “Dancin’ Fool.”

“Fool” debuted in the artist’s live set in 1975 and was first captured as a concert recording, but the song didn’t appear on record until he reworked it in The Village Recorder with the help of his then engineer, Joe Chiccarelli.

“The live basic tracks were recorded by Pete Henderson, who produced Breakfast in America for Supertramp—I think with the Record Plant Remote truck,” Chiccarelli recalls. “Frank felt at the time that his band played great live, so he loved the feel of the drum tracks, but 80 to 90 percent of the work, including the mix, was done at The Village, mostly in Studio A.”

Numerous meticulous overdubs and retakes were recorded—many of them grouped—all to one 24-track Ampex 1200 tape machine. “Guitar solos were definitely redone, percussion, vocals—Frank always sounded great to me on the Neumann M 49, and everything went through the preamps in the Harrison 3232 console. Frank was a big fan of these old EMT PDM 156 limiters, and we used those a lot on guitar, drums and audience tracks. We also used Inovonics 201 limiters on vocals and bass.”

Elements added at The Village include the rock guitar intro; vocal screeches, choruses and laughter; and percussion by Ed Mann and keyboardists Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf. A lot of the humor in the track comes from those overdubs—Zappa’s broad chorused vocals, spacey synths, and cartoony xylophone runs.

“Tommy did a lot of vocoder background vocals; I think there might be some vocoder mixed in the choruses, as well,” Chiccarelli says. “There was a ton of experimentation with synths: Tommy had the Oberheim OB-X, Prophet 5, some Moog stuff. Also, Frank was the first person I knew to bring racks of outboard gear into the studio for his guitar rig. There were Harmonizers and MXR Flangers. He’d have a stereo amp set up for a clean guitar sound and a couple for a dirty guitar sound. What I really learned from Frank is how much he liked to push the limits in the studio. His willingness to take chances, be irreverent and fearless, certainly made a lasting impression on me.”—Barbara Schultz


Joni Mitchell (from the album Court and Spark, Asylum, 1974)

In every generation, young music and poetry lovers will “discover” the wonder of Joni Mitchell; her magnificent voice, artistic courage, and brilliant songwriting are as inspiring now as ever. And everyone who knows her work has a favorite album, but Court and Spark is exceptional among her greatest records in at least one respect: It has Mitchell’s one Top 10 pop hit, “Help Me.”

This moving song about the inner conflict between love and “freedom” also marks one of the first appearances of the jazz-pop group Tom Scott’s L.A. Express on Mitchell’s recordings. Comprising the original lineup of sax player Scott, bassist Max Bennett, drummer/percussionist John Guerin, guitarist Larry Carlton and keyboardist Joe Sample, the L.A. Express brought a feel that helped Mitchell realize the jazz-folk style she envisioned for her sixth album.

Working at A&M Studios in 1973, the artist and her co-producer/engineer the late Henry Lewy were assisted by a young staff engineer named Ellis Sorkin. “She always knew what she wanted to do, and how to do it. Her perfectionism amazed me,” Sorkin says.

“What’s memorable about those sessions, and about ‘Help Me’ in particular, is Joni was one of the innovators as far as layering vocals. Henry was constantly editing for her—all with a razor blade of course.”

The tape machines in A&M at that time were Scully 2-tracks, and Court and Spark was recorded in A&M’s A, B and C rooms, with most of Mitchell’s vocals being cut in C to a Shure SM7 via the API console and a UREI 1176 LN Blueface compressor/limiter.

“We also did a lot of piano overdubs in C,” Sorkin recalls. “We had a 1900s Steinway in there that she loved to use. But most everything else was recorded live—we always had a full rhythm section going, with all the amps in the main room, and Joni would sing a scratch vocal in a booth.

“Joni was also an early adopter of taking more time to record and mix,” Sorkin continues. “We took maybe two or three times as long as most people to mix a song, which means at that time we spent six to eight hours to get a song where she had it in her head. You would hear the song emerge in layers—she had so much talent, she could get exactly where she wanted it. Henry and I were just the button pushers for her, to a degree. She painted those mixes stroke by stroke.”—Barbara Schultz


Weird Al Yankovic (from the album “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3D, 1984, Rock ’n Roll/Scotti Bros. Records)

It was clear from his very first single—“My Bologna,” a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona”—that Weird Al Yankovic could deliver the goods. He’s built an incredibly lucrative career cleverly sending up pop songs of every style—who can forget “Another One Rides the Bus,” “Addicted to Spuds,” “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch,” “I Want a New Duck,” “I Love Rocky Road,” “The Saga Begins” (a Star Wars parody set to “American Pie”), or this epic Michael Jackson lampoon, “Eat It” (not to be confused with his later MJ masterpiece, “Fat”).

“Eat It’” was cut during sessions for Yankovic’s second album, “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3D, recorded at what was then the Scotti Bros.’ Santa Monica Sound Recorders studio in the fall of 1983, released in the winter of 1984. Producing, as he had on the first Yankovic album, was none other than rock guitarist Rick Derringer, who also played guitar on the album. The parodist’s regular band—guitarist Jim West, bassist Steve Jay and drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz—also appeared on the album, as did others.

Engineering was Tony Papa, who says, “Usually we tracked it live, with the guitar in a room away from the drums and bass. We always tried to get a great drum and bass take as our foundation. At that point we’d start layering on top of that. Then, Al would come in and we’d do a whole series of vocal sessions. But he was always there from the beginning to the end.”

The studio boasted a Neve 8108 in the control room, and Papa says Yankovic’s vocal chain consisted of “a [Sony] C-12 tube mic—I think we used that on every record—and a little bit of reverb. We had a Pultec EQ, which gave him a little more bottom than he would have had normally, and the limiter would have been an 1176.

Asked about whether they tried to replicate the sound of the songs they parodied, Papa says, “Sure. Everybody would get a copy of whatever we were doing as a tribute or parody, or whatever you want to call it, and they’d listen to their part and come in very prepared. I would listen to the song really closely, as well, for reverb and little audio things, and then our mentality was, “Let’s see if we can beat this!” Not copy it, beat it. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn’t,” he laughs.

The song made it to Number 12 on the singles chart and won a Grammy in 1985.—Blair Jackson


Jackson Browne (from the album Late for the Sky, Asylum Records, 1974)

Has there ever been a more astute and moving evocation of the distance and weirdness that sometimes dooms a relationship than “Late for the Sky,” title song of the masterful album of the same name by the subject of this month’s Mix Interview (see page 60).

“For [that album],” Browne told Bud Scoppa in 2010, “I had the songs pretty much written. It was the first time I’d sat down and written songs with the information of how I was going to record them. I went to Asylum and got $10,000 to rehearse the band for a month before we went in the studio… I just wanted the record to be like a band, and there were only the five people playing on the record. We rehearsed everything in a room in the house I grew up in, which my grandfather had built. [It] had stained glass windows, a pipe organ and a choir loft, high ceilings… It might have been one reason the songs sound kind of church-y… With ‘Late for the Sky,’ I had this one phrase—‘late for the sky’—and I wrote that whole song in order to say that one phrase at the end of it.

The Top 20 album, which also contains the classics “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Before the Deluge” and “For a Dancer,” was recorded in mid-1974, primarily at Elektra Sound Recorders in L.A., with Al Schmitt engineering and co-producing with Browne. That track is spare in its instrumentation—just Browne’s piano, David Lindley’s guitar, Jai Winding’s organ, Doug Haywood on bass and Larry Zack on drums. It was cut to 3M 16-track in Studio A at Elektra, which had a 24-in, 16-out De Medio console (Studio B, where some work was also done, had a Sound Techniques board), JBL monitors and a Yamaha grand piano.

“Jackson played and sang live with the band for almost everything,” Schmitt remembers, “and it went very smoothly. That whole album was done in 30 days—30 days straight without a day off. We mixed it at Hollywood Sound on the De Medio console there.

“One of the things I remember most is that every night when we’d finish, Jackson and I would get in the car and drive up to Mulholland [Drive] overlooking the Valley, and we’d sit and discuss what we’d do the next day. It was very cool. That album is one of the highlights of my career. It’s a very important album for me making it, as I know it was for a lot of people who listened to it.”—Blair Jackson


Randy Newman (from the album Trouble in Paradise, Warner Bros. Records, 1983)

“I Love L.A.,” Randy Newman’s anthemic (but characteristically sardonic) love letter to his hometown, was recorded for his fine 1983 Warner Bros. album, Trouble in Paradise, produced by Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker, and recorded by staff engineer Mark Linett at WB’s Amigo Studios complex in North Hollywood. While the song was not released as a single, per se, its clever video was a huge MTV hit, and a year after its release, “I Love L.A.” was used in a popular Nike ad broadcast during the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Since then it has been exploited (and parodied) countless times; why, it’s practically the SoCal “New York New York.” (Indeed, the L.A. Dodgers play the song after every home victory.)

Trouble in Paradise was recorded in Studio E at Amigo on the Harrison 4032 console to the 3M digital 32-track,” Linett says. “I think that song may have been the first thing we cut for the album. I remember that immediately after cutting the track, the whole band—Randy on piano, Steve Lukather on guitar, Nathan East on bass, Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on [electronic] keyboard and Lenny Castro on percussion—got together and did the, ‘We love it!’ [backing] vocals. We had a [Telefunken] 251 out there, and they stood around it and shouted into it, and then I think we double-tracked it.” Linett also used that 251 for Newman’s keeper lead vox: “He usually sang live with the band, but we went back and redid the vocals later.”

As for Newman’s pounding piano on that track, “We had the piano on a half-stick, ‘bagged’ [literally a bag that covered the instrument], and the bag had a couple of slots to put microphones through; probably a pair of [Neumann] 87s. We also used to use this little thing that was called a “micro-mic,” sort of like a lapel mic, and we’d tape that over the hammers, and I can’t remember if we’d reverse the phase, or what.

“Somewhere along the way,” Linett continues, “it was decided the track [for “I Love L.A.”] wasn’t up to snuff, so at the end of everything, we re-cut it. The problem, in those pre DAW days, became the shouted, ‘We love it!’s.’ I ended up putting them on a 4-track [from the original] and having to varispeed them slightly and manually fly them in.”

The album was mixed in Amigo’s Studio A on that room’s new MCI automated console.—Blair Jackson