Learning From a Classic

SUMMER SCHOOL STUDENTS RE-RECORD THE BEATLES
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SUMMER SCHOOL STUDENTS RE-RECORD THE BEATLES
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Inspiration comes from all kinds of funny places. Last year at this time, I was one of the judges for a local AES student recording competition. Ten songs were submitted; one caught my attention because it was so old school. I later met David Trampe, the engineer who also turned out to be that song's author and multi-instrumentalist. Checking out his bowler hat, I instantly imagined him playing bass and singing The Beatles' “Honey Pie” from side four of the White Album, which inspired me to revisit that old classic.

Front view of drum kit shows placement of acoustic treatment to minimize snare and hat leakage into the kick mic.

I pulled the vinyl, made a CD and listened to it in my car on the way to school. Along the way, it occurred to me that side four might make an interesting performance piece because it's so musically diverse. After I casually suggested this in my classroom, three students showed up after class, and each week another member came to jam until we had the necessary instrumentation — two guitars, bass, drums and keys. I recorded each jam, experimented with mic choice and placement, tweaking guitar amps and guiding each musician toward emulating the style and tone of a vintage performance.

From the first downbeat, the bass and drums laid a solid foundation. Jess Skadburg's cymbals were vintage Zildjians from the '70s. (His dad is a drummer.) Lead and rhythm guitars were covered by Nathan Reeder and David Hedding, respectively. Alex Ramsey handled keys. The son of blues guitarist Bo Ramsey, he can play back just about anything he hears.

THE MISSION

As things came together, I realized this could be my summer class — a chance to take musicians and students back in time for two full-immersion, 40-plus-hour weekly sessions. I wanted to examine the combined art of group performance and mixing on the fly — of committing to and living with sounds that will ultimately end up on one or two tracks. I was aided and abetted by the timely release of the Kehew/Ryan tome Recording The Beatles. Combined with Mark Lewisohn's Beatle Sessions logbook, there was ample reference material.

I wanted everyone to hear how engineers made decisions using monitors from that time; my own Altec 604E loudspeakers were pulled from the garage and put into service. Mounted in their original utility cabinets and very similar to the Altec 605 coaxial speakers used at EMI's Abbey Road facility, they were even powered by a vacuum tube amplifier: a modified Groove Tubes Dual 75 (with KT-66 output tubes). The Altec 604s' sonic window is solid from 80 to 10k Hz, focusing on what is most important — everything above and below was “there” but not distracting — with surprising imaging. (An optional Bag End subwoofer was available for “support” for anything from 80 Hz down to 40 Hz.)

Everyone was invited to bring familiar material; all were astounded. Peter Bregman, my technical assistant, was amazed that the Altecs sounded any good, but the proof came after we burned the first CD. (I really wanted disc-cutting ability, but that was above and beyond anything I could pull off for this class.) The midrange was remarkably smooth, and while we couldn't hear above 10 kHz as well as we did below, the top was right where it should be.

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Rear view of kit shows placement of “doo-rag” drum damping and snare mics. Packing blankets were used to absorb cymbal splash.

What we heard on the bottom translated equally well — neither overpowering nor wimpy. Music production is a lot like assembling a puzzle with the ultimate goal of making the seams disappear. To that end, we succeeded. Was it the tubes? The tape machine? The entire analog process? I'd like to think that our good sonic fortune was not just the gear, but the combined result of every step taken. Knowing we'd be mixing along the way rather than at the end put the emphasis where it needs to be.

ALT MONITORS

In addition to the Altecs, alt monitors included modified Polk consumer speakers and Electro-Voice MS-802 near-fields. A Furman Model SRM-80 conveniently allowed us to select between the console, two turntables (mono and stereo) and a CD player. Dynaco and Craftsman vacuum-tube phono preamps rounded out the playback. We played a lot of records and vintage tapes that I have collected. For the latter, an American Harvest food dehydrator was on hand to reactivate the binder. I even pre-baked all of the vintage tape: Ampex 499 ½-inch and 406 ¼-inch stock.

INITIATION

Five tape machines were collected, all familiar names — 3M, Studer, Otari, Fostex and Tascam — one per student. Day one was an introduction to basic editing. Students came to appreciate each machine's idiosyncrasies — how to thread, deal with tape on hubs instead of reels, and how some designs were better for editing, looping and flanging. On day two, we explored the finer points of “manual” tape flanging. During the two-week period, the machines had to be calibrated and repaired, just like “the good olde daze.”

Day 2 continued with drum, microphone and placement “auditions,” well before the musicians came in, giving us a leg up and minimizing wear and tear on the band. From the beginning, the emphasis was on the importance of taking the time to get the best tones and performances. Once all of the drum mics were committed to one track of tape, there was no going back. These premixes (and care during bounces) saved us much time in the end, although the mix engineers still found plenty to do with four tape tracks, tape echo/delay and a live chamber.

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From left: David Hedding (rhythm guitar/vocals), Alex Ramsey (keys/vocals), Jess Skadburg (drums/vocals), Nathan Reeder (lead guitar/vocals), Tom Colvin (strings), Eddie Ciletti, Peter Bregman (tech), Rob Rogers (strings), Maynard Madsen (strings), Daniel Olivares (strings), Drew Hau (strings/backing vocals)

THE GEAR

The equipment and mic choices were made based on what was readily available. Vacuum-tube amplification was used wherever possible. The upside of repairing as much gear as I do is that I know who has what. Kipp Manske provided two Ampex MX-10 mixers that were used on drums during tracking. On day two, the drummers auditioned several kick mics — three from Electro-Voice (the N/D868, RE-20 and 664), a Sennheiser MD-421 and an AKG D 12. The D 12 was the first choice because it delivered a more authentic vintage kick sound. The RE-20 and the N/D868 were tied for being good kick mics. (The RE-20 and the D 12 were also surprisingly good vocal mics.) After optimizing the D 12's placement, we placed a pair of 2×4-foot acoustic baffles horizontally in front of the kit, on either side, to control the hi-hat and snare leakage into the kick mic. A carpet roll and blanket were also laid over the top of the baffles (and kick drum).

During the evaluation process, we learned rather quickly that it was easier to discern low-frequency microphone subtleties when the preamp's input transformers weren't saturated. (The MX-10s use tiny Beyerdynamic transformers about the size of a UTC “ouncer.”) Our support tech, Peter Bregman, built a 4-channel pad/phase-reverse box to tame the incoming level and minimize low-frequency cancellation from the multiple mics.

We had six snare drums; a Red Gretsch “Catalina” with wooden shell (on loan from Tom Hambleton's Undertone Music) quickly became the fave. From there, the kick and snare (Cascade Fathead ribbon on top, transformerless Shure SM57 on bottom) were respectively routed into left and right channels of Manley's Massive Passive and Variable Mu compressor/limiter; the Manley delivered its magic in Limit mode, with fast attack and slow or medium-slow release settings.

A second MX-10 combined the processed kick and snare with two kit mics — a Shure SM76 omni dynamic directly overhead (supplied by Mic King's Jeff Roberts) and a Coles 4038 ribbon (behind the drummer's head, aimed at the toms). The mono mix was fed to track one of our 3M M-80 ½-inch 4-track. Provided by Colin McArdel, the M-80 was a prototype version based on M-79 parts with signal electronics on top with the meter bridge. It never made it to market, but it sure made music for us. Students were constantly commenting on how tactile the process was. Everything they touched had an effect on the sound.

MICS AND MIXER

From the first rehearsal, we had success with a Shure SM58 on an SWR bass amp. By the time of the session, we had also acquired an Altec 438 preamp/compressor that brought us that much closer to the “Paul McCartney tone.” (Bass was routed to track 2.) Rhythm guitar amps alternated between a Vox AC-30 re-issue (provided by John Asche) and a Fender “Pro Junior,” both with EL-84 output tubes and miked with either an AKG D 12 or a Coles 4038. Lead guitar was played through a Groove Tubes Solo Single (with a single EL-84 output tube) and miked with an RCA 74 “junior” ribbon mic. A modified Peavey stereo chorus 210 was the alt lead amp. Guitar mics fed the Dave Hill-designed Summit preamps and Pultec-style equalizers that were routed to tape tracks 3 and 4.

Four-track monitoring was handled by a mid-'70s-era Raindirk desk, a 12-input, 2-bus mixer that was “on loan” from David Corter and in for tweaking (timing is everything); all of the electrolytic capacitors having been upgraded by Corter to the Nichicon MUSE Series. The Raindirk is a hybrid of mostly discrete transistors except for updated op amps on the mic/line inputs, EQ and summing amps. It has two aux buses, one of which was used for talkback and the other for our mono cue system. The mixer included two mono modules — AD&R model 670 compex limiters — that were not ready in time for the session. This console is rather odd in that all of the I/O connections were opposite to today's standard — XLR male for inputs and XLR female for outputs. This required quite a few adapters.

HALFWAY THERE

Days three and four were reserved for tracking, and in that time we captured five songs from The Beatles first album (the UK release entitled Please Please Me), four from the White Album and “The Medley” from Abbey Road. For everyone involved, the experience and the process was a fun-filled and highly challenging journey into the past that is totally applicable today. I came away with an even greater appreciation of The Beatles as musicians. While that first album was never intended for stereo release, the ability to isolate the vocals from the rhythm section allows great insight into what a great live performing band they were. Simple, understated playing; remarkably precise vocals. Stay tuned for Part 2: overdubs and mixing.

Eddie thanks everyone who helped make this Summer Session possible. Visit
www.mixonline.com
for sonic samples and pictures.