By the Editor@EltonJohn.com
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 two of that conversation with our final installment – a discussion on the album’s mixing process.
EltonJohn.com: As you’re listening to the band learn and rehearse each song, are you already starting to build your mixing concept in your head?
David Hentschel: Yes, absolutely. Every time you hear the song you’re building this picture [in your head]. And even from the first time they record the backing track…each time they come and listen to it back I’m actually turning knobs and trying different things. If it goes to a quiet section, maybe I’ll turn the piano up a little, that kind of thing. So by the time you actually get to do the mix, because you’ve done it so many times and listened to it so many times, you have an idea in your head how it’s going to sound. And I knew what sort of sound [producer] Gus [Dudgeon] was after.
EJ.com: When did you mix the album?
DH: After we recorded overdubs at Trident Studios: the orchestra, some guitars, Kiki Dee’s vocals, and Ray Cooper’s tambourine. And the clapping and stomping and all those “live” effects on Bennie And The Jets as well as my ARP and Mellotron parts and the intro to Funeral For A Friend. I think we were overdubbing for no more than a week and then it was straight on into mixing. And it was pretty much a song a day to mix, as I recall. No computers or anything like that, of course. Three sets of hands on the console: me and Gus, and the assistant Peter (Kelsey) helped out as well when needed.
EJ.com: What is the strategy and process when you mix a song?
DH: Mixes in those days were a performance, as much as anything else. You’d kind of rehearse. Obviously, we’d start off tweaking the sounds and eq’s [equalization] for all the instruments and the vocals, so they’re all blended together nicely.
EJ.com: So you treat different sounds differently?
DH: Yes. Like on the backing vocals…any closed sound, like an “oooo” (a mellow sound), you have to change the actual eq on it generally to make it more present. Because it’s a very warm sound that doesn’t cut through – it tends to “swamp” very easily. But then when they go to the open sound of the “aaah” then it’s a very bright open sound coming out of their throats so then suddenly you have to drop the eq settings down some.
I think of sound as being vertical. With stereo you have the left/right placement. Reverb and mic position gives you the depth (front to back). And the third dimension…although it doesn’t sound vertical, it’s a way I think of it in terms of the frequency content of the overall sound. So the bass will generally be taking up the lower area. The guitars will generally be above that in the “middle” area – and you juggle that with the piano. And in between that sits the vocals. And you have a nice, airy presence of the cymbals and the vocals above that. So I try and make it as smooth a vertical frequency plane as I can so that even if they are playing at the same time, you can still hear the different parts.
So that’s the first stage, and then after that it’s a case of balancing the levels. Some songs you can more or less leave the faders and not move them once you’ve got the balance. But in the case of most of these songs, they’re what I call dynamic mixes. We would split it up. Generally, Gus would sit on the left-hand side of the console and he would take care of pushing Nigel’s drum fills and tom-tom fills. The drums were recorded on four tracks. The bass drum was separate. And the snare drum was also on its own track. Then all the rest of the drums and the cymbals were all recorded and mixed down to a stereo pair. So when Nigel hits the tom-toms, Gus would push that up so you get a more dynamic effect for the song. The fill actually leads you nicely into the next section of the song. Gus would do it with the piano fills as well, in between the vocal lines. The little flourishes.
Gus would generally mix the bass and the piano tracks, and I would have the guitars, the vocals and the strings. And if it was a very complex song, then Peter Kelsey would have had a hand on the console as well. But it was a small console so there were only so many hands you could get on.
Gus wanted a mix to be so that when someone is listening to it for the first time there is always something new to catch the ear. Probably you’d leave the first verse alone, because people are getting used to it — and getting in the mood. And then the chorus. Then when you get to the second verse, you don’t want the same thing again as the first verse, so you start introducing other sounds in between lines. Gus was a great fan of the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys used to do that all the time, to maintain the listener’s interest as the song flows through. And by the end you have everything going together and everything’s grown in intensity and volume (and in some cases complexity of playing as well) and that’s what gives you the dynamic build of the song. Keeping the listener’s interest, basically, is what it’s all about. You want that “Oh…oh!!” sort of stuff going on.
Nowadays, the computer has this all programmed for you, but in those days every time there was a drum fill or something, you pushed it up and brought it down again manually. So all those sort of things take rehearsal to get right. You keep running the song through, section by section, figuring out what you’re going to do. It was a very organic process, basically. You’d both try different moves, and then one person would have to adjust his moves to what the other person’s doing.
EJ.com: It’s like two people playing on the same instrument together.
DH: Exactly. And you would do several passes before putting it down to tape. Because it was a performance, you would sometimes get disasters, where someone would just screw up…or you would get happy accidents when something really amazing happens. When you get to the stage where you’ve nearly got it and it’s time to start recording the mixes the adrenaline really kicks in. It is a performance, and at the end of it when you’ve done a good one your hands are shaking. You go, “Wow…let’s listen to that back, that was amazing!”
EJ.com: How did you decide when a mix was finished?
DH: By the time you have started a mix you’ve listened to the songs so many times (during their recording) you have a vision in your head of how you want it to sound – a goal that you’re trying to achieve. So you knew when you got all the moves that you wanted. It was a gradual, evolving, building process. When you get everything that you wanted to do and maybe a couple of really sweet unexpected moments as well, that’s when you know you’ve probably got it.
EJ.com: Did you know, when you were working on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, that you were involved in something above the norm?
DH: It’s funny, but when you’re involved in a record sometimes you get a sense that it is something very special. And we had that sense when we were at the Château. The more it went on the more you felt it. You’d go, “Wait a minute, I think we’ve got something pretty damn good here.” You don’t want to be smug about it, but that feeling sort of grows with you. It’s a sort of confidence as you go further and further through it. Everything starts to gel and things fall into place. Because it was a relatively easy album to make, in terms of the whole process. And it was fast. After we were in the Château we just spent maybe another week overdubbing [at Trident Studios in London] and then two weeks mixing, probably. For a double album, that is very fast.
Everyone was so focused. That is one thing that working in a residential studio gives you, if you can manage to be in the same room the entire time with the same people. It’s like someone coming to stay at your house [laughing]! But it does give you that wonderful focus, and I think that’s why it happened so easily.
EJ.com: Do you have a special memory of the experience at the Château?
DH: What I remember most of all was the warmth. As Elton has said, we were like a little family there. Because we were all living there, and wives and girlfriends came over and all that kind of stuff. That spirit was just so wonderful. There was no squabbling or arguments. I know it sounds unlikely, but it’s true.