Track Record: Queen
Jim Betteridge gives Mack the Knife
TRACK: One Vision
Mack has little truck with surnames in his life. And why should he? You see he's of German nationality and I imagine that far too great a proportion of the 12 years that he's been in the recording business has been spent with mono lingual English/American people, repeating and respelling his last name which it would appear, is of a particularly awkward and unspeakably Germanic nature. No one in the English office could guarantee a spelling and Mack himself didn't even want to discuss it. Simply, 'Mack', then.
This straightforward, no nonsense approach to things seems to have served him well as an engineer. In between explaining how to write umlauts, he has recorded no less than seven ELO albums, a couple of Donna Summer albums plus work for The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan and other such musical luminaries. Today he is based in Musicland Studios in Munich, and it was here (save for a few days in London's own Maison Rouge) that he engineered and co-produced the Queen single One Vision.
Mack: "I started working with Queen in 1979 as an engineer on The Game album. The project went very well, it was a huge international success and as I'd made a considerable contribution to how it went together the band agreed to give me a co-production credit. I've been co-producing with them since that time.
"Queen is a very democratic arrangement. Regardless of who writes the song, or comes up with the original idea for it, everyone will tend to have a degree of input, guided by whoever wrote it. In the case of One Vision it was very much a co-effort with no-one taking sole composer credit, which made it a little more complicated as regards putting it together because no one had the final say.
"The ideas for the song started in the studio. It's not always the case that everyone's around at the same time and so maybe Freddie will come in and put an idea down, then Brian might listen to it and put some more guitar-orientated things on tape. Roger actually already had a complete song ready, and so he recorded a rough idea of that. Everyone works in a different way; for instance John is very organised and has a mathematical mind, so when he comes into the studio, he has a fairly precise idea of what he wants to do. On the other hand Freddie will often come in with absolutely nothing worked out and he'll just say, 'Give me five minutes', and maybe come up with something great. He's very good in that way. And so, over the course of a week we recorded a whole series of ideas ending up with four or five songs-worth to choose the best from. Out of that came One Vision.
"Another unusual thing with this recording was that the promo video for the single was being shot as we recorded it. The idea was to go into the studio specifically to do a single and have it out and released quickly, and it was decided to do a semi-documentary of it to save having to go back and do weeks of filming and editing and stuff.
So for over a week of the four weeks that we were in the studio we had huge TV lights all over the place plus sound and camera crews. That made us a little more self-conscious than usual, and that's part of the reason it took so long.
"We started with the standard process of laying down SMPTE code on the multitrack so that we could use the SRC (SMPTE Reading Clock) to trigger synths and drum machines from although on this track a lot of things were actually played live.
"The weird introduction was done with the Kurzweil 250. Freddie had said that he wanted lots of strange noises and swirling sounds, but hadn't actually come up with anything definite. I came into the studio early one morning, and started playing around with sampling some of his vocal lines into the Kurzweil and playing them back with a downward pitch change, with various effects. I like the Kurzweil sampling because it's not only good quality, but it's also very quick to use and will give 20 seconds at full bandwidth. In fact many of the sounds on the track are standard Kurzweil factory samples, the string sound, for instance, is the 'Fast String' preset.
"A lot of people think that we go to great lengths to get Brian's big guitar sound, and certainly on some recordings it is built up with several harmonies and three or four double trackings per part. But I tend to like to keep it to one good take; I think if you get the right sound once, it sounds much bigger in the mix.
"Brian was using his Pete Cornish custom distortion box before the amps, and with that amount of distortion double tracking can produce a very messy, indistinct sound. So I generally prefer a single track and that's how I approached that guitar part on One Vision. The guitar he was using is the one he built himself which he calls The Fireplace, because the wood came from an old fireplace. We used a pair of Vox AC30s with a simple MXR delay line between them with the delay setting slowly drifting between 7ms and 12ms. We used the MXR because that's what Brian has in his own rack, although he's recently bought a tc electronics rackmounting unit which has two stereo delays/choruses in the one box. The great thing with that is you have two 'wobbly' signals, as opposed to one fixed and one wobbly. In other words the delay time on both units can be independently varied so that they sweep to and fro across each other which gives a much richer effect. It's also very quiet.
"I close-miked each amp individually, and didn't use any ambient mikes at all. Nothing is 'double tracked' as such, although there are places where there are two guitar parts – one's playing a higher inversion of the same chord, the two parts are split across the stereo image and I think you can quite easily tell when that comes in. Also, in the last chorus there is a three-part (single notes) guitar harmony, again using the two AC30s. The lead guitar break was recorded at Maison Rouge in London, using a single Galien Kruger amp, and again it was just a single track. By that stage we were running out of time and had to get it down quickly. In the mix I added a little reverb to the lead guitar whereas the rhythm part is completely dry.
"Where we did get into tracking was the choral backing vocals. They're basically a three-part harmony with an occasional fourth part, and each part was sung and recorded three times, by three people, which gives a very full final sound. I used AKG 414s for all the vocals, including Freddie's lead vocal.
"The rhythmical section was the Simmons kit triggered by the Linn 2, with real drums played live over the top. I used a Neumann FET U47 on the bass drum, an AKG 414 on the snare, and a Schoeps condenser on the hi hat. For the four toms I used a Neumann U87, and a couple of FET U47s, plus a B&K reference mike as an overhead. I don't use any ambient mikes as such, but I do leave a lot of space between the mikes and the drums – about a foot from the snare, and around 10 feet for the overheads. I made the snare sound a little more cutting by sampling a Simmons snare sound into an AMS delay and triggering it with the acoustic snare. For that kind of simple triggering, the AMS is much quicker than the Kurzweil, and it's much less fussy to use. Apart from the drums in that section we used some live Jupiter 8 and there are also a few guitar fills.
"For the strange ending I sampled a repeating 'Vision, vision, vision' into the Kurzweil and simply played it progressively lower down the keyboard until it just became the jet-like noise that finishes the track.
"I use several reverb units on mix down, including a non-linear programme on the EMT 252, the Lexicon 224 gated reverb programme, and for longer reverb times I like the Quantec because it's one of the few digital reverberators that stays clean and natural over long decay times. I also used a very short reverb time from an EMT 140 plate to give the bass drum a little air. I didn't gate the kit because for that kind of track you need all the ambience you can get to give it a Rocky feel.
"The recording process was so vague, I didn't really want to wipe anything, and so we used three multitracks in all, ending up with two in the end for mix down, having bounced down the originals. They were a Studer A80 and A800, and we mixed to a Mitsubishi X80 digital stereo, a Sony F1 and a Studer A810, just to be on the safe side! We used the Mitsubishi because it offers excellent quality and the advantage of razor blade editing."
Feature by Jim Betteridge
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