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2001.12.DD - EQ Magazine - Surround n' Roses (Roy Thomas Baker)

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2001.12.DD - EQ Magazine - Surround n' Roses (Roy Thomas Baker) Empty 2001.12.DD - EQ Magazine - Surround n' Roses (Roy Thomas Baker)

Post by Blackstar on Mon Apr 13, 2020 4:55 pm

Surround n' Roses
Legendary producer Roy Thomas Baker takes on a Queen classic and a GN'R classic-to-be

[Story By Lisa Roy]

The license plate on the Rolls Royce in the parking lot at this West L.A. studio simply reads: RTB. The car itself is sleek, powerful, majestic, unique, and rare... just like its owner, Roy Thomas Baker.
Baker is currently holed up in the studio producing what will undoubtedly become yet another hit record on his already unparalleled discography — the next offering from Guns N' Roses. Once behind the green door of this famed L.A. studio, I run into multi-Grammy-winner Frank Filipetti, who is recording Korn in the studio next to Baker's. "Roy really raised the bar and pioneered so many new concepts in the art of multitracking," shares this obvious RTB fan. "There's no question that his work with Queen was a high point in the art of layering tracks and mixing. And his work with The Cars redefined rock 'n' roll production. Much of what he pioneered is still valid today, and I wouldn't be surprised if he still has a few more tricks up his very talented sleeves."

For a man who has introduced the world to electronic music via Devo, and had his name become synonymous with the words "power ballad" through his musical moldings of bands such as Foreigner and Journey, Baker is remarkably humble about his wide-reaching achievements. One might think it's because he has had the better part of three decades to get used to his status as a living legend in the producing circles. While still in his teens, Roy Thomas Baker embarked upon a project that would usher in his producing career with thundering applause. While most kids were getting their drivers licenses, Baker was working with a little-known band in London called Queen, and eventually they recorded their fourth album together, A Night At the Opera. It went on to sell millions and launch the band into the stratosphere of rock stardom. Behind them the entire way was Baker with his clear-cut vision for the band, his uncompromising integrity for the music, and his unwavering resolve to provide new ideas. The band is, of course, no more after the tragic loss of lead singer Freddie Mercury, but on November 20th, A Night At the Opera was re-released in surround sound — more than 25 years after it initially astounded audiences around the world. To truly appreciate this redo, it is imperative to revisit the making of the original.

Galileo! Galileo!

As noted, Roy Thomas Baker was extremely young when he began working with Queen, but he was fearless and full of ideas. He recalls of the early days of production on "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Freddie came to me and he was actually playing the first part of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', and he stopped and said 'this is where the opera section comes in, dear.' And that was it... it was the classic phrase and we all just burst out laughing and went out and had dinner," he continues. "Then I thought, what I'm best at is taking a basic idea and making it work. You can throw me the most off-the-wall ideas and I will eventually find a way to make it work." He did just that with Mercury's operatic notion. Brian May, guitarist for Queen recalls, "The song was really Freddie's baby from the beginning, but the task of realizing his ideas fell on Roy."

The over-the-top operatic middle section of Queen's signature song was originally intended to be only a brief interlude, but, as Baker reports, it quickly began to take on a life of its own. Sessions for the song stretched to more than three weeks, with the opera section alone taking seven days to complete. The band members sang their parts for a reported ten to twelve hours a day. This resulted in an unheard of 200 separate overdubs. Baker explains that, even back then, before the advent of 5.1 technology, the recording of this particular piece lent itself to surround sound. "When we did the original recordings for Night at the Opera, we were thinking in terms of a surround system," he explains. "We did it in stereo and we had things bouncing back and forward in stereo, moving around all over the place. Luckily, with 5.1 (especially since we're using DTS), we managed to discretely do things this time around I wasn't able to do the first time. Back then, the system that was being used by the record company, Elektra Records, was part of the Warner Pioneer System, which is a totally discrete system of quadraphonic, but we didn't actually do any of the mixing ourselves. They actually experimented on Queen II, where they took the tapes and did a quadraphonic mix. That wasn't a particularly good mix as it happened. Not for technical reasons, but purely for artistic reasons. They never quite got the nuances and the movements, things like that. So it wasn't actually that successful, but it then panned out with the idea that we're going to make it as discrete as possible even for the stereo listeners, because people's perception of stereo can be very odd.

"Basically, if you were to record a brilliant stereo piano, people don't see that as stereo, they think that's mono. Now if you have a mono signal coming out the left channel and then something's coming out the right channel, thatΥs two mono signals, but they think that's stereo because they hear stuff discrete. They like the two monos — mono out here, mono out there, you know, move it back and forth. So, we recorded the record to do a lot of that, so moving onto a surround system was the next extension of that."

Baker further confides that, although this was his first foray into surround mixing, it came naturally to him. "We sub-mixed everything internally on 24 tracks back then. A vocal track would go along, and then a guitar solo would appear on the vocal track, then we would split that off because we kept running out of tracks. For the DTS remixes, we split some of that off into the Nuendo System into different audio files. Some of it we just left on the same audio file and then stuck it up on different channels on the board — some turned off and some turned on. This is a common thing that we always used to have to do anyway," he says matter-of-factly. "When you think 'Bohemian Rhapsody' had over 200 tracks of vocals, it was obviously mixed and submixed down and then moved around — but we were still thinking audio imagery, where the placement was going to be in stereo and eventually in a surround system." He concludes, "But we were thinking of that 20 years ago."

Advice From The Masters

Starting his career at such an early age allowed Baker the freedom to learn from some of the best in the business during the hey-day of British rock. He began as an intern/runner at Decca Studios in north London working with incredible engineers such as Bill Price (The Sex Pistols) and Gus Dudgeon (Elton John). Although Baker admits that this was an incredible training ground for engineering, his heart and truest talents lay squarely in production. "I always wanted to be in record production, and engineering was a pretty good route, although, at that time, it was actually far more difficult, especially in England. Now it seems like a natural step — you become an engineer and then you become a producer, but it doesn't always work out," says Baker. "A lot of engineers can get really good sounds, but it's their rapport with artists that is the thing that is most important. Getting pretty sounds means that sometimes you end up with a great sounding flop. I'd sooner have a bad sounding hit."

Although Baker never had any formal training, he encourages young engineers and producers to attend engineering schools, but cautions them to never stop relying on their instincts. (Roy is currently toying with the idea of starting, or collaborating with, a recording school.) "Go to engineer school, that's really good. The only thing about engineer schools is they teach you how to turn the knobs but they don't teach you when to turn the knobs, and that's the big difference. It's knowing when to turn a given knob, that's where the skill and your instincts have to take over, and you have to allow that. You can't spend the whole time looking at books and saying, 'I know that so-and-so did this to the snare so I'm going to do that,' because it won't necessarily always work out. I know that using a certain mic on a singer was good. It doesn't always translate to a different singer. That's life."

It is Baker's finely tuned instincts that have led to some of his greatest successes in the studios. Lets just say he certainly doesn't subscribe to the "less is more" theory. A drum kit is an interesting quagmire of miking specialties. Per Baker's request, engineer Caram Costanzo has close to 30 mics on the drums alone — using four on the snare and two on each tom. Baker emphasizes that something like this is simply un-teachable in print or in a classroom, but must be learned through trial and error, which is how he learned the bulk of his skills. "I was self-taught as an engineer. When I was an intern and a second assistant, I was doing classical music. I was working under all the great classical engineers at Decca. I had the broadest possible upbringing when it came down to learning to be an engineer, and I also took some of those things over to my production ideas. That is why I didn't even flinch when Freddie Mercury wanted an opera in the middle of the single, because I'd already worked with the D'oylycart Opera Company, so I knew the opera."

Baker looks for that flexibility and desire to experiment in not only his engineers, but also in the artists he chooses to work with. He believes that some of the best artists are the ones who are not only intellectually talented, but technically as well. This creates a greater line-of-communication for him as the producer. "I think a producer like myself also has to be a great listener. Every record I do tends to sound different, and that's because I take the artist's perspective — I take their point of view, and I take their talent, and then I align myself with the artists in such a way as to get them to start thinking for themselves. It's a bit like meditation in terms of you try to get the artists to delve inside themselves for something that's in there that they might not even know exists. The artists I have the most amount of success with are both intellectually and technically intelligent, so they know intellectually that they can reach for their own artistic aspirations inside themselves to get out what they're trying to express, even if it means they didn't actually know that was in there. And then they've got to technically be able to get that through to their fingers if they're playing an instrument, or through to their voices if they're singing."

Technical Royalty

Baker believes that technology is the greatest vehicle for making music come alive. In this day and age of constantly changing technology, it's common to find producers shying away from the latest toys and gadgetry. Baker, on the other hand, embraces them. "We utilize every piece of technology to make everything sound really good, to bring everything up to really high technical standards, to be able to give us the tools to be able to manipulate the music, to do things that we couldn't do before. We had to do everything by cutting tape; we don't have to cut tape anymore. We used to do everything by building gadgets; now we don't need to. It's all there, but now we can use all that technology to go to the next level and keep pushing it forward."

Like every other aspect of his production, he's flexible on the analog-versus-digital question. He uses both mediums to their fullest potential, often recording straight to [Digidesign] Pro Tools, but preferring to record analog and bounce back and forth to get elements of both in the sound. Baker's own studio is set up with what he refers to as "the greatest analog machine ever built," the Stevens 40-track analog machine, built by John Stevens. "He manages to get a lot of high frequency on tape," enthuses Baker, "higher than what you can hear, and that modulates the lower frequencies. So, for example, if you put a 1k tone on a piece of tape, you can hear the 1k. If you put 20k or 25k tone, you won't be able to hear it, but it will modulate that 1k just by going off a little bit, so I'm getting modulations on tape and part of it is the tape saturation, and that way the machine works. I run the machine 30 ips with Dolby SR to keep the noise down, except for the drum tracks — we keep the signal-to-noise pretty low. I've got it bolted into my console.

Baker's console is as unique as the man who owns it. As he describes it, it's part Neve, part TLA, and, basically, a console made up of different consoles. In addition, he owns a couple of Neve 1073 sidecars, and his preference in monitoring lies with Tannoy and JBL. He jokes that, although he embraces Pro Tools, he isn't willing to purchase his own rig due to the "life expectancy" of the software. "I just let the rental companies bring me a new one all the time and let them worry about upgrading." Other than that, his only concern with the technology Pro Tools offers is that he feels some users have let it lower the standard of musicianship. "Somebody who before the days of Pro Tools would've actually had to put extra effort into playing in time and tune, now they don't have to bother because they know there's a little plug-in to salvage their indiscretions. So then, where is the skill with being a musician anymore? There is no skill. I'm hearing horror stories about all sorts of huge name bands where they actually spend three months making the drums in time."

You will never hear of that happening on a Roy Thomas Baker album. The musicians he works with are the cream-of-the-crop, and he pushes them to the limits with or without Pro Tools. He has nothing but the strongest praise for Axl Rose and Guns N' Roses, which includes Robin Finch (originally of Nine Inch Nails) and Buckethead on guitars, and Brain on drums (Primus). Also onboard are Dizzy Reed and Paul Tobias, who are long-time members of Guns N' Roses, as well as Chris Pitman on keyboards and Tommy Stinson on bass (originally with The Replacements). "This is not like the old band. This is a major progression from the old band. I loved the old band; I've always been a fan of Axl and Guns N' Roses. When I think of 'November Rain' off the second set of albums, and 'Welcome to the Jungle' and stuff on the first album, these are tracks that go down in history. These are tracks that you remember exactly where you were when you first heard them. That's very, very rare that you ever get into that situation where you can actually remember what you were doing the first time you heard something."

https://web.archive.org/web/20011221083015/http://www.eqmag.com/1201/feature_baker_113.shtml
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