Cat Posted February 2, 2008 Share Posted February 2, 2008 Epic Sounds: Jimmy Page’s Production Strategies Guitar Player Magazine By Michael Molenda | For all the much-deserved recognition Jimmy Page gets for being one of rock’s premier guitarists and riffmasters, his guitar chops shouldn’t overshadow his visionary brilliance as a record producer. How those Led Zeppelin albums sound is just as critical an ingredient in the band’s enduring legacy as the musical talents of its four members. Page’s careful placement of each element in Zep’s sonic vortex not only captured the group’s massive onslaught, but it simultaneously added mystery, excitement, and a sense of auditory cinema to what could have been, in a less-gifted producer’s hands, simply bombastic rock songs. The Groove Much of Zeppelin’s gargantuan sound can be attributed to the care Page took ensuring that the rhythm section was the foundation of the band’s recordings. “You have to base everything around the bass and drums,” he said, and, to that end, he sought a very live and exciting drum sound. “I had been on sessions with other drummers,” he once explained, “who, while they played pretty well, sounded like they were just hitting a cardboard box. The whole reason for that was they were sitting in a little drum booth, which just sucked the sound out of the drums. So right from the first album, I insisted that the drums were going to breathe, and that we were going to get a proper tone on them. Of course, given that set of circumstances, you couldn’t get a better drummer than John Bonham. He knew how to tune his drums.” But while Bonzo’s drums typically have a wonderful “live” ambience around them, they are not washy or muddy. The kick drum stabs right through the band mix like a boxer’s punch, the snare hits are solid, the toms rumble like cannons, and the cymbals sting without being overly bright. And right alongside Bonham’s drums is John Paul Jones’ bass—fat and clear and mixed loud enough to be clearly audible at low playback volumes. Genius. Page was also not afraid of signal leakage—where sounds from, say, the guitar “bleeds” into the microphones used to record the drums, and vice versa. Modern recording often strives for complete isolation of sounds, but Page typically recorded Zeppelin as if they were playing live onstage. “We would all walk around and stand around the drums,” remembered Jones. “Nobody really cared how much leakage there was on anything, as long as it sounded good. That was part of the sound.” Guitars Page’s use of small amplifiers in the studio is well documented. He’d simply overdrive them to produce the sound he wanted. But that’s not the whole story, because savvy microphone placement was employed to help capture the desired punch and/or ambience from the guitar amp. Given the varied guitar textures on Zeppelin songs from 1969 to 1980, it may be surprising to some listeners how organic and natural many of Page’s guitar sounds actually are. He always seemed to pick the right guitar, amp, and microphone, and then use the perfect mic placement (right on the speaker, far away from the speaker, or anywhere in-between) to capture exactly the tones he wanted—as well as employ the lost art of tweaking the volume and tone controls on his guitars to craft different sounds. It should also be noted that his guitar sounds were relatively dry. He didn’t crank up the reverb, opting to, once again, keep everything sounding pretty natural. The true genius of Page’s “guitar armies” is that they sound so big and sonically diverse without his resorting to tons of effects, EQ, or other studio tricks. Vocals As he did with his guitar tracks, Page mostly let the natural sound of Plant’s instrument—his voice—do the job. Unless a part was purposefully bizarre—the freak-out section of “Whole Lotta Love,” the verses of “No Quarter,” and so on—Plant’s voice was typically recorded very clearly and organically. Of course, Plant had a lot of vocal firepower at his disposal—from his low crooning voice to his high-pitched yelps and wails—so it’s fair to assume that the main job of producing Plant’s vocals was employing his fabulous range and phrasing to best fit the song. As is often the case when working with a transcendent vocalist, the most productive recording method is to set up the microphone, shut up, and let the singer do what he or she does best. Stereo Placement Although we’ve established that Page’s approach to sound was fairly natural, his arrangement of those sounds within the stereo spectrum was extremely clever. He tended to leave the bass and drums in the center—sometimes from the drummer’s perspective of hi-hat and snare slightly to the left, and sometimes with the hi-hat/snare seeming to come from the middle. Likewise, the lead vocals were typically mixed in the middle, and loud enough to be heard clearly above the band (but not so loud as to sound disconnected from the group). But the layered rhythm guitars, guitar solos, keyboards, background vocals, and other “sweetening” parts (such as percussion) could explode from almost any direction. Just check out the counterpoint guitar lines on “When the Levee Breaks” that wage a fantastic battle between the right and left speakers, or the dueling left/right string lines on “Kashmir.” Sometimes, Page would put a guitar part solely in one speaker to emphasize it, and then crank up another guitar line in the opposite speaker to bring everything to an exciting crescendo. These are just a few examples of the thrilling stereo positioning that appear in almost every Zeppelin song. Page used the placement of elements across the stereo field to help tell a story and add dimension to Led Zeppelin’s music, and, even in the age of surround sound, this production technique should not be underestimated. The “X” Factor When we discuss Page’s savvy, but relatively natural production style of Led Zeppelin, we must once again acknowledge that the musicians he was recording were relentless in their passion, commitment, and command of their instruments. For Page’s part, while he certainly had a definite vision on how his band should be recorded, he was also savvy enough to utilize each musician’s strengthens and enlarge upon them. He realized exactly what he had, and he didn’t try to make Led Zeppelin anything other than it was—a production style that might be somewhat controversial in the music-business climate of today, where artists are often molded to fit clearly into market niches. But if we are to take anything from Page’s production of Led Zeppelin, it should be that a group of super-talented musicians firmly committed to the same artistic ideals can be an unstoppable force. Get Zep Sounds in Your Home Studio! Even if you’re not Jimmy Page or John Bonham, you can conjure some Zep-worthy sounds in your home studio if you pay attention to a few simple guidelines. Listen to the records. You can’t emulate something if you’re not intimately knowledgeable about what you’re trying to imitate. Critically assess the frequency spectrum on Led Zeppelin albums: How much lows (bottom) and mids (attack) are on the bass? How much high-end is on the cymbals? Where is Plant’s voice in the mix? How loud are the guitars, and are they warm, bright, or sizzling? How are effects used, and how high or low in the mix are the effects positioned? How are elements placed in the stereo field? Quiz yourself mercilessly on every sonic aspect you can think of, and then reference your own mixes to an appropriate Led Zeppelin track. Does your song stand up sonically against the original? If your mix tanked by comparison, start over. Get the drums right. Whether you record your own kit or use drum samples, be sure the sounds are Zep appropriate. Bonham’s kick drum has a meaty smack, and it’s often mixed almost as loud as the snare drum. To emulate Page’s ballsy room sound, pick a warm-sounding, short-decay reverb (such as a slap or small room), and mix it up into the drum track. Try triggering the reverb from the kick drum alone—and then the snare alone—to see if the groove sounds right. Go easy—you don’t want to wash out your rhythm section with gallons of reverb! Arrange the guitars. For the most part, Page’s guitars sounded relatively dry and natural, so don’t crank up the reverb and high-end or midrange EQ in a misguided attempt to add “intensity.” Also pay attention to how Page mixed counterpoint lines in separate speakers, and how every guitar tone had its very own place in the mix. He seldom doubled two rhythm guitar parts with pretty much the same sound, as is often the fashion today. Leave them vocals alone. Let your singer sing, put the lead vocal just high enough in the mix to be the focal point of the song, and don’t bury the performance in reverb. Capture energy. Great rock songs explode out of your speakers. Page always went for passion over perfection, and he freely admitted that he left obvious mistakes in Led Zeppelin songs. While you don’t want a song to be a mess, don’t get so obsessed with “getting it right” that you make it impossible for yourself to hear a vibey and transcendent performance. 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