Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Chris 'The Grouts' Michie

Broken Barricades session-notes


Chris Michie, now Technical Editor of Mix magazine, was tape-operator for the recording of Broken Barricades, and here presents his notes on some of the songs from that album, which was recorded and mixed in AIR Studios Number One between December 1970 and March 1971, though most of the sessions were in January. You can also read his almost-complete studio diary for these sessions.


Simple Sister
I remember being surprised when they started the massed piano section for Simple Sister, mainly because I had the impression that they’d just thought it up in the pub during dinner. But it had more likely been planned in rehearsals. The technique was fairly simple and based on the fact that all professional tape recorders at the time had at least two speeds, 15 inches per second (ips) and 7 ips. The massed pianos were recorded one at a time, with Gary gamely plunking away on one note for however many bars at 7 ips. (Of course, the track he was listening to was playing at half speed, with everything transposed an octave down – if your hi-fi has a 16 rpm setting, you can reproduce the effect.) When the track was played back at the normal speed, 15 ips, all the pianos went up an octave and you now had this choir of demented piano-percussionists all chattering along in sync.

When I last listened to the record, it sounded as though there were five speeded-up pianos, but there might have been more. Once the section was completed, the mad pianos were all bounced down to a vacant stereo pair on the multitrack. A major screwup occurred when it was decided to wipe the last portion of some or all of the pianos after a certain point. After discussing with Chris Thomas where he wanted the erasing to begin, Punter pushed the record button, only to discover that Chris had meant a point a bar or two later. So the mad pianos dropped out before the selected da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah descending sequence that marked the end of each repeating non-verse (chorus?) section, rather than at the end. This error was repaired by adding in another mad piano track which was recorded on to a two track machine and "flown in" during the mix. It fades out a few bars into the next section.

I also got the impression that there was something unsatisfactory about a section of the brass arrangement, but this may be my imagination. The brass section (probably no more than five players) plays a repeated two-note accent somewhere (I’m not a musician, so can’t tell you which bar or section of the song) and I seem to remember some discussion at the overdub session about the tail end of the brass phrase and how it could be lengthened (I think the change in musical notation would be from staccato to legato). In the end nothing was changed. It may be that the arrangement was Gary’s and he didn’t want it changed, or it may have been that changing the musicians’ charts at the session would have been expensive or impractical (though that seems unlikely). And I could be imagining the whole episode; though I was a participant in the technical operations, I was only an observer of the production process.


Broken Barricades
Broken Barricades has a fairly prominent part for Moog synthesiser (in fact, there are at least two parts, in harmony and panned left and right). AIR London (which owned the studios) had taken delivery of an original three-suitcase Moog synthesiser sometime between The Beatles (the White Album) and Abbey Road and AIR Productions staffer Chris Thomas had become fairly adept at using it (some pop hits of the day feature Thomas playing the Moog as a session musician).

It was fairly easy to get some basic sounds out of it by combining sine, triangle and square wave filters in various ratios, but tuning it was difficult. Each of the tone generators that made up a particular sound had to be tuned individually, and all of them had to be related to the keyboard, which itself needed to be tuned internally (on the Moog keyboard an octave was only an octave if you specified it as such). The drone effect over the tail of Broken Barricades was initially slightly out-of-tune and you can hear it being tuned in over the first few bars after its entrance.


Luskus Delph
The flute-like instrument is the Moog synthesiser, played by Gary.


Power Failure
I believe that Robin played six-string electric bass on this track and that it was a Fender. It looked like a Stratocaster on steroids.

The original arrangement called for two verses, drum solo, third verse and out. At some point Chris Thomas decided that it needed a third verse before the solo, so Punter copied off the backing tracks for the second verse on to a second multi-track and inserted the edit. Now Gary had to sing the third verse lyrics over the duplicated second verse track, but for some reason it never sounded right and in the end they took out the multi-track edit and simply inserted a copy of the third, post-solo verse on the final mix [read Gary Brooker on digital copying within a song, here]. That’s why there’s a noticeable speed-up between second and third verses and an additional organ part.

I never really liked BJ’s solo on Power Failure. It’s too complicated for me and hits a number of time-signatures that only a drummer could love. But BJ expressed himself satisfied, and it was his solo. He added percussion effects using empty coffee cans and tabla. The few times I saw them live his solo on Power Failure swung like crazy and was, in my estimation, infinitely better than the recorded version. I’m not sure that BJ wasn’t a bit ambivalent himself, since it is his voice yelling "Rubbish!" from within the audience applause that caps the drum solo. (The audience applause was recorded at a Procol Harum concert, I believe, but I don't know when or where.)


Song for a Dreamer
I remember hearing from one of the band that when Jimi Hendrix died in summer 1970 Keith wrote the lyrics for Song for a Dreamer in a hotel room the same day. As it turned out, Robin also wrote a song in Jimi’s memory and when the two compared notes they found that the lyrics and the song fit perfectly. The final version of Song for a Dreamer was very much Robin’s creation (though the mixing effects may have been suggested by Thomas and Punter) and though the others played on it I think they thought it a bit off the Procol track. As it turned out, it became the blueprint for Robin’s subsequent career, though I don't think that any of them suspected that at the time.

I can’t remember if Robin played a Stratocaster on this track – it certainly sounds like one. In addition to various pedal effects on the guitars, there is a fair amount of "Leslie" on the track. The Leslie speaker was a standard accessory for the Hammond organ, and included spinning treble and bass speakers, whose rotational speed could be controlled by a fast / slow switch on the keyboard. Because of the Doppler effect, it added a slight pitch variation to any instrument passed through it (listen to While My Guitar Gently Weeps on the White Album for an exaggerated example, possibly further detuned with tape-echo wobble) and it became fairly common to send almost any recorded signal out into the studio and through the Leslie. For example, the opening notes of Pink Floyd’s Echoes are the result of feeding a piano mic into a Leslie at a volume such that the piano mic was just on the verge of feedback, and somewhere on a Roxy Music record is a snare drum through a Leslie.


Playmate of The Mouth
Elsewhere on this website it is implied that Playmate of The Mouth was recorded live. It may have been recorded "live" in the studio, in that the original vocal was a keeper and there was a minimum of overdubbing, but it was not recorded in front of an audience. The "detuned" piano was an upright that had been very carefully detuned – one of the three strings for each of the treble notes was detuned a specific amount.

 


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