By the Editor@EltonJohn.com
Nigel, Elton and David listen to a playback at
In honor of the 40th Anniversary release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, EltonJohn.com spoke with engineer David Hentschel about the project. We follow part one of that conversation with a discussion on the recording sessions.
EltonJohn.com: The process would begin with Davey, Dee and Nigel learning the song.
David Hentschel: Elton, Davey, Dee and Nigel had an amazing understanding when they went into the studio. Nigel does the rhythm great – no trouble there – and the other two just had a great ear. And because they played together all the time they had this intuitive sense of the parts they would be playing. Dee was the most wonderful, melodic bass player. He would do all of these… almost like, lead lines. He had a wonderful natural way of combining that with being the foundation, which is what the bass is, primarily. He would pick the right points to put a tasty little counter-melody in one of the gaps between vocal lines or whatever.
EJ.com: When you began recording a basic track, would you already know what was to be added on later?
DH: No, it was totally organic. I don’t think even the orchestral parts were planned beforehand. It was a case of get the track down, get the vocal on, and take it from there.
EJ.com: Would you sometimes combining takes [using part of one take and part of another and editing them together to make one master]?
DH: With Elton and the band (and Gus) it was as much of a performance as possible. Not manufactured, which I have seen happen with other producers and musicians. Obviously if you got two-thirds of the way through the song and it was sounding great and someone made a howler, then you would do a last section and chop it on. But it certainly was not approached with, “Let’s just get a good verse and then let’s get a good chorus and we can stitch them together later.” Quite a few recordings would have been one take. I’m not saying the first take…it may have been the fourth or fifth take…but one pass straight through.
The basics were all done together: drums, bass, piano, and main guitar. Any double-tracked or overdubbed guitar would have been done straight after. And Elton sang guide vocal on most of them, and then the final vocals were done afterwards – on the same day or soon after.
After that was done I would have been left with maybe five or six tracks to record on. And those would have been used to record the backing vocals. Davey, Dee and Nigel sang together, but it was always more than one pass. So we’d do maybe two passes of them singing the same notes. Then we’d get them to change parts and/or positions on the mic. So you would build up the backing vocals. ‘Cos you only had six tracks to work with, if we’d filled them up with all the backing vocals there’d be no tracks left for anything else. So as we went we would “bounce down”: we would take the first double-track and bounce that down to mono. And then the same with the second. Then we would put them together and probably end up with two tracks, in most cases, of backing vocals. That would free up the last three or four tracks for things like tambourine, the orchestra and the ARP synthesizer. Those would have been the very last things to be recorded.
EJ.com: The backing vocals are truly brilliant.
DH: They are. Their voices just naturally blended so well together. Nigel would always take the top part, and then Davey and Dee below that. They would just naturally go to the right notes. It was extraordinary.
EJ.com: And they were recorded after Elton had done his parts?
DH: Yes, he’s off shopping for trousers and “sparklers” (jewelry), as he used to call them, in Paris or something. So it would be Davey, Dee, Nigel, Gus and myself. We’d all sit or stand around the console and put the song on and listen. And we’d try notes and parts out. There were ideas going all around between us. In a few cases, because I had some musical training, I would throw in a couple of harmony ideas or whatever. “Why don’t you drop down there…or double it.” That sort of stuff. So it would all be figured out before they even went in to the studio. And then they just went in and did it…very quickly. The blend was extraordinary. There were usually at least two passes, or maybe four on the ones we felt we wanted “thicker” backing vocals on.
EJ.com: Was Your Sister Can’t Twist one of those?
DH: That was all done in a very different way. They just sang long notes, not to the beat of the song or anything. Just extended notes. “Aaaahhhhh.” Like a pad. And then we just switched the different notes in when we needed them…
EJ.com: As if each of the vocal lines was a key on a keyboard?
DH: Exactly. If you listen to the start and stop of each vocal phrase you can hear it sounds quite abrupt. That’s because it was being switched in manually.
EJ.com: The 5.1 mixes really shine a light on Elton’s ability to double his vocal.
DH: Well, he understands harmony. You know, some people just sort of start singing and hope that something comes out [laughing]. But he knows exactly what a third harmony below a melody sounds like. His vocals went really fast.
EJ.com: On Funeral For A Friend, after your synth intro is over and Elton and the band begin to play, your ARP part continues. Did you write charts for the whole song, as you had for the intro?
DH: The sustain stuff I would have charted out, but not the fast arpeggios. That’s an effect I used quite a lot on various things in those days. Just an analog sequencer. I think I did the introduction first, and then once we knew what that sounded like I would have done those later parts afterwards.
EJ.com: Are the castanets in the “ramp-up” part real, or you on synthesizer?
DH: The castanets was Gus as we were mixing! He had one hand on the drum faders and he was drumming his fingers on the [synthesizer] keyboard. We had run out of tracks, so he was doing it live…during the final mix.
EJ.com: How did you get Bennie And The Jets to sound “live”?
DH: That was one of the first uses of the Digital Delay Line, which was a digital method of producing (very short) delays. That was the main effect we used, on the hand claps. There were only three of us doing the hand claps, and we wanted to make it sound like a huge stadium audience clapping along to the song! So it was the three of us purposely trying to clap outside the time. We did it over and over again and for each pass that we did I could make it sound like nine people instead of the three, so it ended up sounding like about 40 people…and then with juggling reverbs and furthering the delays I made it sound like the real thing. And we also used recordings of Jimi Hendrix Live From the Isle of Wight – audience effects of the crowds cheering and that kind of stuff.