By the Editor@EltonJohn.com
Engineer David Hentschel.
In May of 1973, engineer David Hentschel went to the Château d’Hérouville in France to work on the Elton John sessions that would eventually become Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
In honor of the 40th Anniversary release of that landmark album, EltonJohn.com spoke with David about his role as an engineer as well as other aspects of the project. Here is part one of that conversation.
EltonJohn.com: What is the role of an engineer?
David Hentschel: You could equate the recording engineer’s job to that of the director of photography on a film. [Producer] Gus [Dudgeon] was running the whole session, much as a film director would, and I was basically in charge of setting up the instruments in the studio – putting them the right areas. Choosing which microphones to use and placing them in the studio, plugging them into the console, getting the sounds…
EJ.com: Had you engineered for Elton before?
DH: Not for Elton, but I was a staff engineer for Trident Studios in London. I remember arriving at the Château. That was a big thing for me; I’d never worked abroad. I thought, “Wow, I’ve been asked to come here…and with Elton…this is pretty special.” It was a huge, huge stepping-stone in my career.
EJ.com: How was the studio set up?
DH: We had a window from the control room into the studio so we could watch the musicians, and beyond that was a view of the French countryside. The band recorded all in the same room; there were no isolation booths or anything. We had screens that you could move around that were acoustically treated – just to put on the side of the guitar amplifiers or something so they wouldn’t bleed [on to another instrument’s microphone]. The drums were in the same room.
For the piano, Gus came up with this contraption – a big wooden box that was custom-built to the shape of the piano and stood about 2.5 feet tall on top of the piano, in place of the piano lid. The idea was to keep the sound from the drums from spilling on to the piano mics.
EJ.com: In the studio, is the band visually cueing off each other?
DH: Yeah, everyone’s looking at each other. Music in those days naturally sped up and slowed down a little [within a take]. As opposed to nowadays, when a lot of stuff is done to click tracks. But there was a lot of eye contact to make sure everyone is together. It was like a stage performance in some ways.
Generally, Elton would do the master vocals afterwards. He’d do them really quickly: he’d just stand in the studio and sing two or three times. And once it was done it was done. He’s the consummate professional. He has wonderful concentration, and that is what it’s all about in the studio…getting yourself in that “zone” that sportsmen talk about.
EJ.com: How did your synthesized intro to Funeral For A Friend come about?
DH: Even after we got back to Trident Studios in London to record some overdubs and do the mixing, the working title for the album was “Silent Movies And Talking Pictures.” Gus’ original idea was to use the 20th Century Fox music overture as the introduction to the album. But he couldn’t get clearance to use the music, so Gus said to me, “Why don’t you write an arrangement? And we’ll segue it into the song [recorded in France].” I had done some ARP (synth) work on earlier Elton records, like Rocket Man and Hercules.
EJ.com: Were you given any direction for what to write for the intro?
DH: The concept was to have it as a kind of overture, but it was down to me to juggle with some of the tunes from the songs [on the album]. It was almost a mathematical exercise as much as anything. Find things that would run together easily melodically, basically, and then make a melody that flows within itself. I know I used some lines from Danny Bailey, I’ve Seen That Movie Too, Candle In The Wind, and one or two others.
The ARP 2500 synthesizer. (Photo courtesy of Matrixsynth.com)
The way I used to work was to write charts outs out and then play monophonic parts on the ARP so I could play with one hand and adjust the gain and so on at the same time, to give it more dynamics. Playing polyphonically on analog synths can give rather flat results. You don’t get any sense of movement. But if you write the parts out and then play them monophonically, then you get a lot more control.
The ARP 2500 had a split keyboard. The lower octave was capable of playing one note and the upper part was capable of playing two at the same time. But it was a nightmare to keep in tune, because it was all analog circuitry. And there were just rotary pots, and the pots would get dirty and become intermittent. So it was a very imprecise science. Doing it one voice at a time was always the easier way to manage it.
The intro was on a separate piece of 16-track tape and we stitched it together [with Elton and the band’s recording] in the mixing stage. Because I had written out the arrangement first I could pretty much say, “Right, we’ll do maybe six or seven ‘string’ parts, and then we’ll mix those down to a stereo pair.” And we’d build it up that way on the multitrack.
I think I had three or four days to do it and write it down, and then when I got to the studio we did it all in about seven or eight hours.
EJ.com: Do you remember Elton’s reaction when he heard your intro?
DH: Yeah, he loved it. I remember him coming in and listening to the whole album after we’d finished mixing it. And I can remember him going, “Wow.”