During Led Zeppelin’s 12 years together, they set the standard forhard rock. So many of their songs have come to be regarded as classics,and you can still hear their influence all over the radio to this day.While Zeppelin were acknowledged masters in the studio — thanksin large part to the expertise and dedication of guitarist Jimmy Pageand drummer John Bonham, both veteran studio hands by the time thegroup started in the late ’60s — their live prowess has beensomewhat overlooked through the years. After all, aside from hundredsof mostly poor-sounding bootlegs and the soundtrack for their ratheruneven concert movie, The Song Remains the Same, there has beenprecious little to remind us what a powerhouse the group was onstagewhen they were really “on.” Finally, 23 years afterBonham’s untimely death ended the band, Led Zeppelin has released abounty of exceptional live material that shows what this band was allabout: A five-hour DVD, titled simply Led Zeppelin, and a newCD, How the West Was Won, have proved to be manna from heavenfor Zeppelin fans everywhere. And, considering both the CD and DVDdebuted at Number One, it’s clear that there has been a lot of pent-updemand for live Zeppelin material.
Both the CD and DVD were mixed by Kevin Shirley, who got to knowJimmy Page while working on the guitarist’s Live at the GreekCD. “I produced the Black Crowes, and Jimmy joined them for a runof live dates in 1999,” Shirley recalls. “I saw the show inNew York, and then I went to California and recorded the shows, tookthe tapes away, and fixed them up a little and mixed them. I didLive at the Greek without any input from anyone, as it wasn’toriginally going to be an official release. But I think everyone wasimpressed with it; certainly Jimmy said he was. Then, when Jimmydecided to do a new [Zeppelin] DVD, he started looking for someonefamiliar with the modern applications necessary for surround soundmixing. If you listen to the Royal Albert Hall [concert] opening in5.1, you can see Jimmy had this audio concept really early on of givingpeople a sense of the band going onstage and the audience swells aroundyou. We had a meeting to discuss the requirements needed for the DVDproject audio, and afterward, he asked if I would be interested in‘helping’ him. That completed the circle for me, sinceZeppelin got me into the business as a fan back when I was17.”
There were mountains of tapes to go through. Most of what they foundwas in good condition, though Shirley said they did bake the tapes as aprecaution before loading them into a Pro Tools|HD system.“Obviously, after the 30-odd years that have passed, we had to dosome kind of work to make them sound competitive in the present sonicenvironment. We recorded it all at 96k through the Pro Tools 192|HDconverters. All of the originals were multitrack, from 6- to 24-trackmasters. It was a fantastic environment to work in. We spent most ofMay 2003 baking the tapes and listening to them. We listened to about15 shows and made notes on them. Jimmy was very involved with both theaudio and video. I think it was out of that the How the West WasWon CD came about. We loved the performances, but there was novideo. This started as a DVD project, but we wanted to get those L.A.[audio-only] performances out, too!”
Shirley mixed the CD and DVD at SARM West Studios in London using anSSL 9000 J. He had dozens of effects at his disposal, including APIcompressors and EQ, but he says he didn’t use too many because hewanted to capture the essence of being at a Zeppelin concert. “Iused an 1176 to compress Robert’s vocals, a Peavey Kosmos Pro onJimmy’s guitar, and on the drums, I used an old Fairchild stereocompressor. One of Jimmy’s comments when we started was, ‘I wantto hear lots of cymbals,’ and I used the Fairchild for that. Thekick drum chain was pretty complex, and on the bass and keys, I used avariety of the old compressors, as well as six Fatso compressorschained together for the surround mix and the SSL console compressorfor the 2-channel mix. They sound great; they are clean and variableand dynamic.
“I had API EQ over the stereo bus. Sometimes, I used a Drawmer1961 tube EQ on the guitar. Part of my philosophy is to not do anythingexcept closely replicate how they may have sounded onstage. When youstand onstage, you can hear this massive thump on Jimmy’s guitar, andin the studio, it can sound more like a buzz, so I used the Peavey totry to keep that thump in there.”
One of Shirley’s goals with the DVD was to give the viewer thesensation of being in the fourth row at a Zeppelin concert. Most ofwhat is in the rear channels is the audience, though there are someexceptions. “I didn’t want to make the surround too tricky sincewe only have three instruments onstage. But I did a little bit of stuffwith the instruments in the rear channels on ‘Dazed andConfused’ and ‘What Is and What Should Never Be,’where the panning is part of the song, and ‘Dazed’ has thatviolin bow section where Jimmy creates this very ethereal sound, thisotherworldly feeling.
“One problem was just trying to capture the essence ofZeppelin, like that big king drum thing Bonham had on ‘When theLevee Breaks,’ which I think is a definitive sound of Zeppelin.But I think consistency was the biggest problem. The band had changedby the Knebworth concerts [later on the DVD set], and all these showswere played in different environments, so maintaining sonic consistencyfrom the small halls to the large outdoor ones was the bigchallenge.”
In putting together the DVD, Shirley and Page always put the audiofirst: “We didn’t mix anything to picture; the picture was doneto the audio. We did the mixes first. Sometimes, we had to go back andadjust the audio, depending on what happened visually. Technicallyspeaking, I think it was pretty straightforward. George Marino atSterling Sound in New York mastered a lot of it, except for the RoyalHall stuff, which we did with Tim Young in London. I don’t think therewas an awful lot that had to be done to the tapes. I think that I mixedwith a sub that was a little big for the mix room, so if you turn upthe sub in your surround system, it will be a little more like I meantit to be. I didn’t use a sub on the stereo mix. I used KRK 6000s formonitoring everything and a big Augspuger sub on the surround, whichreally was too big. It sounds phenomenal in the room, though. The kickdrum sounds about 12 feet high.”
Another important part of the audio for Shirley was offering a2-track mix in addition to the 5.1 mix, because not everyone has asurround system. Shirley is also working on expanding the How theWest Was Won CD into a 5.1 DVD-Audio mix that will come out laterthis year. “That 2-track mix on the DVD is a whole separate mix.There will be a surround DVD-Audio mix of How the West Was Wonand will also have a Dolby Digital and DTS mix, as well as uncompressedhigh-resolution stereo and surround mixes.”
Shirley found working with Page to be very rewarding. “Jimmyis amazing to work with. He is the producer of Zeppelin, and Ithink he is very happy with what we did and what we ended up with.There is more from the concerts, but if it isn’t on the DVD, there is areason for it. For instance, there is a wonderful performance of‘Ten Years Gone’ at Knebworth, and for whatever reason, Ididn’t have the benefit of the audio. There was no guitar on themultitrack we had. I tried to pull it out from other pieces, like thevocal mics, but we had to let it go, which was a big pity. Suffice itto say, the CD was meant to be a very good overview of a singleZeppelin concert. As anyone who followed Zeppelin knows, they playeddifferently every night. All through their career, every time they cameout onstage, they were a slightly different band.”