Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Chris 'The Grouts' Michie

Technical details for PH sessions at AIR Studios


BtP e-talked to Chris Michie, Technical Editor of Mix magazine ..., a uniquely-placed correspondent for studio tales and technican tidbits!


For both of the completed albums I worked on (Broken Barricades and Exotic Birds and Fruit), backing tracks took about two weeks, overdubs a week and mixing a week. (Broken Barricades studio diary here). We usually worked on weekdays from 2 pm until between 1 and 4 am, breaking for dinner, usually at an Indian or Italian restaurant in Soho or at one of the Greek restaurants in Charlotte Street. Sometimes we all ate together, but often some or all of the band members went to the pub. Keith came to almost all of the sessions and even Barrie stuck around for a lot of sessions he wasnít really involved with (once backing tracks were finished, there wasnít much for him and whoever was playing bass to do). One track on Exotic ... was recorded and mixed the same day (New Lamps for Old), but otherwise things were quite methodical and very much in the then current style of multitrack recording.

Broken Barricades was recorded in AIRís Studio One (see AIR Studios and the State of the Art). Depending on the engineer (see my notes on the Bridge of Sighs sessions), bands would generally set up at the south, control room end of the studio, with the drummer in a 12 x 8 roofed booth made up from that ubiquitous black tubing that you cut to length and joined with angle connectors (Speedframe?) and panels of sound absorptive material and Plexiglas. More panels (gobos in American studio usage) would go between guitar and bass amps and the piano was usually baffled and covered in packing blankets, with microphones inserted under the lid, which was put down on the short stick or propped open with a 2 x 4. Multi-track recording was all about isolation back then, partly so that musical parts could be replaced if necessary and also because "leakage" Ė the sound of instrument A on instrument Bís mic Ė radically changed the sound. There was no point spending half an hour on getting a great snare sound if it all went to shit when you brought up the piano mics. Organ parts might be done at the same time (obviously overdubbed when Chris Copping was playing both bass and organ), in which case the Leslie cabinet would be baffled off with two mics on the top for stereo swirling noises and one or even two mics on the bottom speaker (bass frequencies are perceptually nondirectional, so the concept of stereo bass organ is pretty arcane).

Once Procol was settled in for a backing track recording session, they often didnít leave the studio for several hours Ė it took too long to disentangle themselves from their headphones and once BJís kit was miked he was so fenced in by mike and cymbal stands he could hardly move. So I would often take tea trays into the studio, complete with the Peak Freans custard cream and McVities digestive biscuits that formed a significant part of my diet at the time.

John Punter would have miked BJís kit with an AKG D12 on bass drum (what the Americans call kick), probably a Neumann KM86 on snare or maybe a Neumann U87, U87s on tom toms, one on each, and more condenser mics for stereo overheads, either U87s or KM84 pencil mics. The hi-hat might get its own mic, a KM84, or it might be picked up by the snare mic set on figure-8 pattern. (Itís been almost 30 years, so I might have some of these model numbers wrong. The only people who would notice probably know which mics I really meant.)

The drum mics would all be mixed to four tracks, one for kick, one for snare, and a stereo kit mix (on Exotic ..., which was recorded on 24-track, Punter might have used another two tracks for stereo overheads). As far as I remember, Punter (who was a drummer himself) laid out the stereo from a listenerís perspective, not the drummerís. So the hi-hat went slightly to the right of the snare and BJís three toms in his silver kit were placed right (rack), center (floor high) and left (floor low). Or maybe it went right, left, center Ė a close listen to Song for a Dreamer would probably settle the question.

For the Exotic ... sessions, on which BJ used either his beautiful British Racing Green kit or a brown woodgrain-faced kit, Punter spread the four toms right, left, right, left. Since BJ rarely did a sequential roll around the toms, this artificiality probably goes unnoticed. Plus a fair proportion of listeners, even Procol Harum fans, probably have the left and right on their stereos reversed.

Tracks one and 16 on the multi-track were traditionally suspect, as the two-inch tape was most vulnerable to crinkling at its edge, so kick usually went on track 1. Bass, which was probably mixed from a DI box and a mic on the cabinet, went on one track, guitar on one, piano on two (stereo), and so on. Miking the piano for Procol was a slight problem, as Robin Trower was in the same room. Part of Robinís sound was due to the combination of his Les Paul with a 4 x 12 setup. Because the Les Paulís output was high enough to overdrive the input section of his amp, probably a Marshall or a Hi-Watt, the result was permanent overload. At the beginning of each note you can hear the pick sound on the string, which would normally be much quieter than the following string tone. With Robin, the overdriven front end of the amp acted like a very high-ratio compressor, evening out the dynamics of his guitar pickups' output. In other words, everything was loud, all the time.

To isolate the piano (which belonged to the studio and was probably a nine-foot Steinway), it was surrounded by goboes. A pair of condenser mics (U87s) were stuck in so that one was over the point where the bass strings cross over the middle strings and another positioned over the high strings. Putting the mics nearer the hammers got a brighter sound, but Chris Thomas and John Punter aimed for a natural sound. Like film-making, recording is often the art of doing ridiculously unnatural things in order to create the illusion of naturalness. Punter even had a three-mic set-up for stereo piano, with them lined up in a row above the hammers.

I donít remember much about Chrisí bass playing except that he usually stood when playing (Alan often sat) and played a rather hefty looking mahogany-colored Ampeg. Robin played a Fender six-string electric bass on Power Failure.

In 1971, Number One control room had a 24- input, 16-track output Neve console and, because Studer had failed to deliver their new 16-track recorders on schedule, was equipped with a 3M 16-track. 2-tracks were Studer A62s equipped with either 2-track or stereo "butterfly" recording heads. Echo was provided by as many as four EMT "plates" which were stashed in the crawl spaces between the studio shell and the walls of the building. There wasnít a lot of outboard equipment Ė the only compressor / limiters were the stereo Neve models that slid into the meter bridge, but they were damn good Ė and the grooviest bit of gear at AIR was probably the three-suitcase Moog synthesizer that Chris Thomas had been learning to play and doing sessions with before his producing career took off. Procol used it on several tracks on Broken Barricades.

Other instruments that show up on Broken Barricades include a "detuned" upright piano, and a Hammond organ with Leslie cabinet, all of them owned by AIR Studios. It was common to rent a percussion box (literally, a roadcase full of percussion instruments) during overdub sessions, but I canít remember if any tambourines, maracas, cowbells and "assesí jawbones" were used on Broken Barricades.

For those who donít know much about studio recording, the process of adding instruments to an existing track is called overdubbing. Sometimes overdubs would be added as soon as a "keeper" backing track was recorded. More often, the band would move on to the next song. In early 1971, there was a practical reason for this; the Neve consoles at AIR could be easily switched between record and playback modes, but in order to overdub, the console needed to be in a hybrid mode (play and record simultaneously), and Neveís original design did not accommodate this. So to overdub, you had to set up as if for a mix, assigning recorded tracks to an unused stereo bus (1 and 2, say) while assigning the overdub channel to whichever bus fed the selected recording track. This was disruptive, since it meant that mic channels that had been painstakingly tweaked for recording now had to be zero-ed out and switched to line level, thereby destroying all the previous settings. This problem was fixed by Neve or the technical staff at AIR, and it might even have been fixed by the time of the Procol sessions, but this example demonstrates how technical considerations often guided the recording process.

Once backing tracks were complete, Gary (or Robin) would add vocals, usually singing into a U87 with a pop shield while standing in a three-sided temporary vocal booth made up from goboes. Sometimes it would be done in a few takes, sometimes it took all evening. Gary was almost always recorded through one of the Neve compressor / limiters in the console and John Punter would concentrate on achieving the best recording level while Chris Thomas listened to the performance. Frankly, I often couldnít tell the difference between an adequate take and a master take, but then I wasnít being asked to. If, as often happened, a take was good in parts, then it was standard procedure to keep that take and record future takes on one or more unused tracks. Then a composite "best of" take could be created by playing back the keeper takes and rerecording the best bits on to another unused track. This was called "bouncing down" and is now fundamental to most multi-track recording Ė very little is done in one take these days.

Another variant on the bouncing technique is to record multiple performances of the same material on several tracks, mix it all together and bounce it down, then rerecord over the freed-up tracks and repeat until there are no free tracks. This is how the multiple John Lennon voices were recorded for Because on Abbey Road. Similarly, the massed piano section in Simple Sister and BJís 22 mandolins on Grand Hotel.

The string and brass overdubs for Broken Barricades were probably done in one or two sessions. The sessions were probably scheduled in the afternoon, or possibly the morning, and itís not likely that any of the band were there, except for Gary, who wrote the arrangements, I believe. Both string and brass sections would have been fairly modest, say six to ten players maximum. I should remember more about the string overdub session for Nothing But The Truth since I recorded it myself, the only bit of recording I did on any Procol album. But all I remember is that it was done in Studio Two, where the rest of the Exotic ... album was recorded, and that nothing went wrong. I still have the lead sheet for the arrangement.

Click on the music for a larger, readable Nothin' but da Truth

Once all the backing tracks and overdubs were complete, mixing began. Mixing is the process of reducing the 16 or 24 tracks to 2 (stereo), adding reverberation effects and equalization as necessary. Mixing the eight songs on Broken Barricades probably took three or four sessions, and each mix might take as long as six hours. Punterís method, which was fairly standard as far as I could tell, was to start with bass and drums and rhythm instruments, playing the track through several times to ensure that the internal balance was correct. Then the various other components would be added Ė vocals, solos, string and horn arrangements, etc. Ė and various cues rehearsed. For example, the drum tracks might be pushed up 3dB for a particularly tasty fill, and then taken down again. Or the organ overdub might be left switched off until the third verse. It was all very time-consuming and extremely boring for anyone who wasnít directly involved. It was also not uncommon to lose focus and be unable to make a decision after listening to the same thing for several hours. On the Broken Barricades track I opined that the fade should be longer (it includes some great drum fills). So Punter did a fade, I did a fade, and then Chris Thomas chose one Ė my fade. It was subsequently re-faded for the production master (see below).

Finally, the master stereo mixes would be assembled on to two reels (side A and B of the album). If there were any differences in apparent volume between the various mixes, they would be copied onto another stereo machine at the corrected levels in order to make the "production master." This would then go to the cutting engineer, who might make further adjustments based on his knowledge of what would translate best on to vinyl. The resulting "acetates" went to a pressing plant and test pressings were returned to the record company and / or producer for final approvals before the manufacturing process began.


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