Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Bob's Diary from December 8th, 2008
Tim and I meet for breakfast at the hotel. Both quite nervous, so there is not a lot of conversation. We had talked this day to death for more than a year prior. I feel the clock counting down.
We leave the hotel for the 15/20 minute walk to Abbey Road. For Tim it takes hours. I feel as if we get there in 30 seconds
The reception desk at Abbey Road. They summon Alice Carlisle, the video liaison, and have a person show us to Studio Two control room, where we meet Chris Bolster, our engineer and Gordon, the tape op (now Pro Tools Op) whom we will later dub Magic Gordon, for his editing prowess. Alice and Aaron, the cameraman, meet up with us and, since the drum kit we've hired has not yet been delivered, we decide to do some photos of us arriving at Abbey Road as well as crossing the famous crosswalk.
With the video shots of our arrival out of the way, we head back to the studio and go over what our plans are with Chris and Gordon, as well Aaron. Setup commences with the drum kit assembly, mics being placed, headphones being checked. They've hired me a 1972 Vox AC30 which sounds magnificent. Off center on the Vox is a vintage Neumann U47, placed about 14" away, along with another U47 about 8 feet away from the amp, raised about 2 feet higher, putting it in the center of the room (left to right) and about 2/3 of the way back. I'd taken along my Parker Fly Standard Classic and no outboard processing. The drums are all vintage mic'd – AKG D112 on the kick, AKG for the overheads, an AKG for the snare and a Neumann U47 about 4 feet in front of the kit. While things are being set up, we tour Studio One, the orchestral studio where A Day In The Life's symphony section was recorded (which was being set up for a full symphony scoring session) as well as Studio Three, which is where Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon as well as other albums and is home to many bands. Later, we will mix in Studio Three.
We start to work on sounds. Tim tries the kit and toys with the placement of the drums. I am getting some sounds out of my amp, choosing which pickup/volume combinations to use. The engineer is amazed by the guitar sound and comments that he's never heard the amp "like" any guitar as much as it likes my Fly Standard. Hooray, cuz I have to agree with him. Somehow, the combination creates a sound that is just perfect for what we are recording. A word about Studio Two - the sound in there is just, so, Beatley. It's the room ambience, even though it can be altered with baffles that swing in from the side, as well as setting up ad-hoc drum booth using baffles, the room still SOUNDS like the original room the Beatles recorded in! The drum mics, and later the bass and acoustic guitar, will be routed through vintage Fairchild and Altec limiters on the way into the Pro Tools environment. Tim also has authentic Abbey Road tea towels to put on the snare drum. The lore is "the older the towel, the better" and apparently this is determined not only by age, but by how much of the kitchen has been permanently absorbed by the towel...
We decide to do my song, The Verdict, first because it is simpler and will get us warmed up faster.Time to start tracking.Tim is up first. Prior to our trip, part of our rehearsal regimen was recording and re-recording the song ourselves, as well as practicing the parts like mad. So, to save time and to keep the feel we were after, I brought along some reference mixes that Tim could play to. So, listening to a mix of the demo without drums, Tim layed down the drum tracks.
Tim is up again to lay down the bass track. He nails it in just a couple of takes. Which is amazing for two reasons - he's not a bass player, primarily, and we had decided he'd play bass for this song about a week before we went.
Time to lay down the guitar tracks. We start with the chunking rhythm guitar. One pass to get levels, one pass to lay it down. Next is the syncopated rhythm part that plays foil to the vocals and the other rhythm guitar. One take and it's down.
Time for lead guitar. Chris offered up a couple of distortion boxes as I needed a bit more overdrive than I could get running the amp full bore. The first box he suggests, called a Hot Cake, would not work - we beat it, we kicked it, we offered it bribes, but it was not to be. So, a vintage Ibanez Tube Screamer came into service. I needed just a little bit more than the amp could give, so it was very lightly used. I layed down the lead and then doubled it.
Now it's time for me to sing... this was the part I was most nervous about, but getting behind a Neumann U47 with one of the vintage wrap-around pop-shields took away my apprehension. In the headphones, the sound was INCREDIBLE. I could not believe that this was me singing! It took two takes, but we got a usable lead vocal down.
Break for lunch. Off to the Abbey Road cafeteria. Yes, it's the same room that it was when the Beatles recorded there, but it's been completely redone over the years and is now a bar as well. I had some beef and rice dish that was, I am sure, delicious, but my hunger level was so low I barely ate one quarter of it.
Back to the studio to overdub harmony vocals for The Verdict. These take a few tries (let's face, I am not a professional singer). But down they go.
We review the tracks to make sure we have what we need. Thank goodness we have two takes on the lead vocals, as a bit of each is going to be needed.
Satisfied with the tracking on The Verdict, we start work on Don't Blink, Tim's song. Same basic method is used - Tim plays drums to the reference track we've brought.
Tim drops the bass in. BUT, we hit a snag. (The snag, for the technical minded of you: The C# at the 4th fret of the A string sounds terribly flat as the fifth of the landing chord in a descention from D to F#. It has worked in the hotel room with just guitar and bass. Not sure what is causing it, as the note reads fine on a chromatic tuner. No matter which tone changes we try, the aural illusion persists. So, we decide that the root of F# at the second fret of the E string must be used instead. I still have no idea what was causing this). Suffice to say it held us up for a bit as we tried to overcome it.
Time to add an acoustic guitar track. The studio has hired us a 1966 Gibson J160E that may be one of the best sounding and playing Gibson acoustics I've ever had the pleasure of playing. A Neuman SM2 is placed in front of it, and it gets routed through the Fairchild limiters before hitting disc. Again, the sound is just classic Beatles acoustic. Tim puts down a track, but his left hand is having a very hard time. So, I put down the track, but it's a bit sluggish to the beat, and I toss down another. Later, during the mix, simply muting this track makes the song move along a lot better. But, at this point, it was planned to be a part of the song.
Electric guitar time. There are three basic guitar parts this round. The basic rhythm track is a strum with some flourishes that syncopate things with the drums. The second track simply uses single strums very close to the bridge and lets the chords ring. On the demo, we used vibrato here, but the vibrato on the Vox is not right. Unlike a Fender amp, the Vox has only switches - hard or soft vibrato, or fast or less-fast vibrato. We decide to bag the vibrato here and see if we can add it later in the mix. The final basic guitar part I put down is single notes and runs that offer melodic parts to the arrangements.
Time to lay down the lead guitar. This went quickly as it is very short and I had it very well rehearsed. We did three takes, two of which are used as doubled parts in the final.
Starting to move along, I lay down a guide vocal for Tim. I do this in two takes, both of which are retained.
Tim comes down and sings Don't Blink. We do a number of takes as Tim plays with different ways to sing the song. He has a number of takes which can be cut together to form a good take.
We order dinner, which will be ready at about 7pm and I start to lay down background vocals. These are pretty complex. It takes me a good long time to get them down, but I am still not happy.
Dinner. We eat at the Abbey Road Cafeteria again, this time we both have Spaghetti Bolognese, which I wolf down as I am starved, in the midst of a bunch of really drunk classical musicians. Nothing, it seems, is a greater gift to the British than free drinks! After dinner, we tour the Mic Locker where we discover that as a part of their vintage mic collection, Abbey Road has 14 U47s and enough spare parts to make 14 more! They also have a huge number of M50's, M49's, TLM 170's - the list keeps going.
I go back down to the studio and finish my background vocals. This is easier now, as I ask to bring the volume down on the backing tracks and can sing quieter, being able to hit the pitch on ooohs and aaaahs better.
Back upstairs, two gentlemen pop into the control room. The tall, young fellow is greeted as Giles. I am introduced to Giles - telling him my name - and he says "great name!" I don't get why he thinks I have a great name. I am introduced to the other man as Jeff Jones- Giles says that Jeff is his boss. Tim tells me to go get the camera. I still don't get it. As soon as I leave the control room and head down the stairs, I realize that we've got Giles Martin, son of the Beatles producer George Martin, in the control room. His boss, Jeff Jones, is the CEO of Apple Records! I get back upstairs and Tim sends me down for the video camera, which I hurry to get. I get back up and capture a bit of video with Giles and Tim talking. Then we get photos of us with Giles and our recording team. Giles and Jeff leave, and we review our takes.
We've just completed listening to all the takes to make sure we are done tracking, which we are. Magic Gordon starts to edit the vocal tracks to get the agreed upon best of each take into a single track on Don't Blink, while Chris heads off to Studio Three to begin mixing The Verdict. We wander down to the studio and begin to break down the gear, putting the drums away in a very leisurely manner. I grab the J160E and do an impromptu rendition of Norwegian Wood as well as Strawberry Fields (Tim has told me that the Beatles were recording Strawberry Fields in that studio on December 8, 1966). Tim catches these on video. Then Tim goes over to the Steinway and noodles around on the Steinway grand that's in there. He's playing a song that McCartney wrote, but that sounds to me like the John Lennon song "Isolation". Then I sit down and play Let It Be and Imagine - and I use the term "play" loosely. Later, when we get back to the hotel, we agree that this little time alone in Studio Two was our favorite part of the day.
Off to Studio Three to meet Chris. He's got a good basic mix of The Verdict dialed in. I make a couple of suggestions (one to fix where I sang sharp) and that's it. The mix is done by tenish.
We begin mixing Don't Blink. Tim makes a number of suggestions about drum sounds, all valid and good. They've gotten incredible sounds down on disc for us. Chris works more on sounds and the song becomes a powerful mix. We try a mix with Tim singing as well as a mix with me singing the song. Tim's vocal track still needs work. From all of Tim's takes, we can put together a good vocal performance, but we are out of time to complete this. Fortunately, we have all of the session audio, ProTools control tracks, etc, so we can mess with it ourselves later.
Copying of the session files begins. We are exhausted and exhilarated, all at once. We pack up what we came with, heavier by the incredible experience, the ProTools tracks, and an Abbey Road Mug each (on the bottom of the mug it says "stolen from Abbey Road"). We leave Abbey Road. It's the same 20 minute walk back to the hotel, but it's pouring rain and we don't care! Well, Tim gets out his umbrella and I have a baseball hat, so it's not so bad.
Back at the hotel:
We try to get the grins off our faces, but the scotch and bourbons we are drinking just help to make them wider. In between all of the stuff we did at the studio, we heard some great, great stories about people who've crossed Abbey Road's threshold. Some good, some bad. We think our sessions were light hearted, upbeat and fun, and that was confirmed several times throughout the day. So, hopefully if there's ever a story about us being told, it will be in a positive light, at least in respect to our attitudes.
Putting all of the feelings about this experience into words is just impossible. The Beatles have been engrained so deeply on both our psyches - have so formed the people we have become - that this was an almost familial union. I don't feel as if we've kissed the Blarney Stone - more like we got a chance to sit next to it and hang out. It was an experience of a lifetime, and one for which I will be forever in Tim's debt!