Nick Drake’s musical career was fraught with tragedy. The enormous community of adoring fans left posthumously exalting his every recorded note—as well as the legions of musicians constantly namedropping Drake as an influence in attempts to quantify their street credibility—are testaments to the notion that the greatest artists are never appreciated during their time. And it’s almost too much to bear to think that Drake’s lack of commercial success—coupled with a debilitating mental illness—may have led him to ingest a fatal amount of amitriptyline one cold November night in 1974.
In the course of Drake’s short life, not a single album he released sold more then 5,000 copies. Towards his death, he was said to be living off of a £20 a week retainer from Island Records. His music being used in a Volkswagen commercial in 2000, resulted in the selling of more Nick Drake records in one year than the 20-plus that preceded—landing him in amazon.com’s sales chart as the top five grossing artist.
Drake’s three proper releases (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon) have stood the test of time, and have grown exponentially popular by the day—so much so that, nearly 30 years after his debut, droves of people from across the globe regularly flock to his hometown of Tanworth-In-Arden to pay tribute to a musician who has dramatically affected their lives.
These pilgrimages are what inspired Drake’s estate to assemble his newest release, Family Tree [Tsunami Label Group]—a collection of recorded works that span his entire lifetime. It’s in the spirit of those who love his music perhaps just a little too late, that we journeyed across the globe to talk with producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood to get some insights into the recording of Drake’s limited discography. What we found out about those legendary sessions was inspiring.
The two of you worked on all of Nick Drake’s albums. Can you share some of your recollections of the Five Leaves Left sessions?
Wood: For the Five Leaves Left sessions, Nick would track live, singing and playing along with the string section. We would split the four tracks by virtue of how we wanted the reverb to be. You needed the natural room reverb first, and if you needed to add artificial reverb, you would do it track by track. For example, you wouldn’t put any brass on the same track as the strings, because you wouldn’t want the same amount of “space” on a string instrument as you would a brass instrument.
Boyd: The best and most memorable sounds, to me, were on “The River Man.” This was done with 12-string instruments set up in a semi-circle in the middle of the room, with Nick on a stool in the middle. There were no overdubs. There weren’t even baffles between the performers—they were just all there together with a conductor. You could do that kind of thing at Sound Techniques studio, because the signal bleed was nice if you were in the right position, and if the microphones had the right relationships to each other.
You attribute your ability to record the sonic structure for “The River Man” to the room at Sound Techniques. Can you paint a mental picture of what the studio was like at that time?
Boyd: Sound Techniques was situated in an old dairy in Chelsea. There was a big room, and there was an office on one side, and a control room on the other. The control room was deeper. It had a lower floor, and the office had quite a low ceiling. The middle of the room went straight up to the original ceiling of the room. You had three different ceiling heights in the same room, so you could move a musician under the office, under the control room, or out in the middle, and get different acoustic atmospheres based on that.
Eventually, they built a vocal booth under the office, which you entered through a sliding door. You could put strings in there, or just something you wanted to record separately. The best sounds were always in the middle of the room, though. That’s where we’d put the drum kit, and that’s where we set up the musicians for songs like “The River Man.”
While recording “The River Man,” how were you affected by Drake’s performance?
Boyd: With Nick, it was quite simple to keep focus, and not be overcome with emotion during the session. What I learned very early on while recording Nick was not to monitor what he was doing, because he was always perfect. We just turned his mics off in the control room, and listened to what everyone else was doing. Then, you could really concentrate on whether a violin was out of tune, or notice if somebody came in out of order, or be alerted when there was something wrong with one of the sections. You didn’t want to be distracted by enjoying Nick’s performance.
Wood: The thing about Nick was that he was so good at what he did. People sometimes ask me, “How do you get the Nick Drake guitar sound?” The simple answer is this—we would just stick a microphone in front of him.
You never had to provide him with any guidance in the studio?
Boyd: We pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. That said, there was obviously a lot of discussion around what we were going to do to streamline the session, how we were going to approach capturing the songs for the album, and the positions we were going to set everyone up in to play.
Did you record everything live?
Wood: All Nick’s music just went down live, with just a couple of exceptions. To this day, people cannot believe we made those records that way. For Five Leaves Left, we knocked off “Way to Blue,” “Fruit Tree,” and another track I can’t remember in three hours.
Was there any specific gear you used to capture his performance?
Wood: I’ve always believed that recording studios are nothing more than working environments. I’ve never understood waiting for a Neve to arrive, or going to exotic places to track in hopes of capturing some special feeling in the air. It’s the artist that matters. I think worrying about what equipment was used is nonsensical.
Sure. But would you mind sharing what a typical signal chain for recording Drake was?
Wood: We used a Neumann U67 as the vocal mic, and a Neumann KM 56—a small valve condenser—on his guitar. We chose the KM 56 because it flattered his vocals, as well. As his vocals were recorded live along with his guitar, we had to make sure the mic we were using for each source sounded good on the other source, as there was a fair amount of bleed.
We placed the mics pretty close to Nick’s mouth, and the soundhole of his guitar. We weren’t trying to get a lot of the room in his sound, and we had to get some separation from the instruments that surrounded him in the live room. I’d run the U67 into a Fairchild 660. His vocal was the only signal that was compressed on those albums. I’d track with the limiter because I was trying to get as much of the final album sound before we mixed. We wouldn’t even use much EQ during the mix. And I’d still work that way—even with what digital affords us. You should be able to pretty much put the entire performance to tape, and be done with it.
Joe, is John’s recording and mixing philosophy similar to your own?
Boyd: I’ve obviously learned a lot from working with John, and he has informed my approach in the studio. However, I think the biggest influence on my listening—and, therefore, mixing—was my grandmother. She was a pianist, and she taught me a rather arcane, highly conceptual and slightly dubious idea that piano playing was about “singing by hand.” The concept is that a leading melody isn’t necessarily meant to be played louder, but you make it sing out in a way so that both hands stay in balance. A melody is important, and it’s at the forefront because of texture—not volume. I’ve always applied that idea to my mixing. The goal is to make the vocal line—the lead melody, and the romantic, emotional part of the music—clear and alluring without being unnecessarily loud or unbalanced. You want to suck in the listener. To achieve this, you could pick out positions in the stereo field from which to pan a source, and thus affect visibility, or you could boost or cut frequencies in the name of changing the listener’s perspective on an instrument. You have to keep the elements audible, but you shouldn’t prioritize them in a way that is unnatural.
How was the recording process for Bryter Layter different from Five Leaves Left?
Boyd: In a way, Bryter Layter became more complex, because the drum kit changed the nature of the compositions, and, therefore, the recording. There was no drum kit on Five Leaves Left, just occasional percussion. Once you put a drum kit on, you start doing things with the guitar, bass, and drum track, and Robert Kirby [Drake’s string and wood arranger] would write for horns as well as strings, so the whole album got more complicated texturally.
Wood: I spent more time mixing Bryter Layter than anything else I’ve ever spent time on. That’s okay, though. Most of the time, you playback an album you’ve recorded, and say, “I wish I would have done this or that.” But on Bryter Layter, there is nothing I would have changed. We actually mixed it three times. The first time, we had a go in New York at Vanguard Studios because we liked the echo plate they had there. Then, we had a go at Sound Techniques—which we didn’t like. Then, I changed the monitors at Sound Techniques, and we had a second go. Those are the mixes that were released.
Tell me a little about the application of plate reverbs on “The Chime of a City Clock.”
Wood: Listening to that song, I think this is one of the best mixes I ever did in my life. It also demonstrates everything I hate about current engineering and mixing. It has perspective and depth—two things that you just don’t hear people striving to achieve anymore. For this song, we used two echo plates. I would use varying degrees of each plate, plus tape retard depending on what track it was, so there would be two tape delays for the plates. For the vocal, I would use a longer retard than a sax—which has more of a short plate on it. Strings probably have a mixture of long and short, with the high strings having more reverb on them than the low strings.
I’d like to hear your comments on “Poor Boy.”
Boyd: That’s Pat Arnold and Doris Troy [from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon] on backing vocals. For this one, I suppose John Simon’s recordings on the first Leonard Cohen album inspired me. I loved “So Long Marianne” with those mocking girl backing vocals. When Nick played me “Poor Boy,” I said, “We’ve got to have girls singing the chorus.”
Originally, we went in to do a track with guitar, bass, and drums. The morning we did the track, I had been mixing a record with Chris McGregor—a South American jazz pianist—so my head was full of the sound of his piano. When Nick was going through the chords, and teaching the bass player and drummer the routine of the song, I kept hearing the sound of McGregor’s piano in my head. Chris was hanging around, so I said to him, “Why don’t you go down and play it.” And Chris said, “Sure.” I just told Nick, “Nick, you’ve got a piano player.” Nick wrote out the chords, they played through a verse and a chorus, and then Nick said, “Okay, he has it.” The take on the record is their first take.
Wood: For me, “Poor Boy” is an example of the best sound I ever got out of a piano. We had this piano that, if the person playing it was good, it sounded great. If the person wasn’t really good, it sounded like s**t [laughs]. Thankfully, Chris McGregor was good.
Nick plays two guitars on this song. One is an acoustic-electric—a Guild outfitted with a pickup. If you listen in the left side, you’ll hear a very jazzy guitar that we had recorded direct. That’s the acoustic-electric. On the other side is a very straightforward rhythm guitar. That’s his acoustic.
I would say that out of all the mixes on the album, “Poor Boy” was by far the hardest one to do. To be able to hear everything when you wanted to hear it required a lot of jumping about with the faders—especially considering there was more than one instrument on each track. The reverb on the background singers would have been a combination of plates and tape retard.
John, you have been involved in Drake’s recent posthumous release, Family Tree. What are your thoughts on the project?
Wood: I have mixed feelings about it. I think in some ways, Nick would have preferred not to have it released. On the record, there is a sleeve note in the form of Gabrielle [Drake’s sister] writing a letter to Nick sort of explaining why it came out. What happened was that, over the years, people had made pilgrimages to his parents’ home, and Nick’s father was sort of a gadget freak with a tape recorder, so he would give people a compilation cassette of stuff he’d made from tapes that Nick had left. Soon enough, people started making bootlegs of it, and making money off it. So, at the end of the day, what this record partly does is that if you’re going to have all this stuff bootlegged, you might as well have it done decently.
What technical considerations did you face in creating Family Tree?
Wood: We just tried to make it sound as good as we could. I had 170 files to work with, because the same songs would turn up on different tapes. We were getting copies of copies of copies. The only way to do it was in Pro Tools, so we had to transfer it all to Pro Tools, and then line up all the files so we could see which was the best version. This involved a lot of critical listening, and there were instances where we dropped a bit of one track onto another. There wasn’t much point in trying to make it all sound unified, because all these things come from different sources, and from different times.
How do you feel about the changes that have occurred in the recording process since you worked with Drake?
Wood: The decision-making process has been compromised. Up until the advent of 24 tracks, you had to make decisions as you recorded. You couldn’t say, “Oh, we’ll do another one of those. We’ll dump it on another track in Pro Tools.” You had to get on and go with what you recorded, and just build an album from there. I think this is one of the reasons that, for me, Nick’s records have massive vitality. Having everybody record at separate times takes a lot of the life out of a recording. There is no longer the sense of performance in albums that there once was. If you have to start resorting to picking apart things with a computer, then I think you need to ask yourself where your music has gone. People spend most of their time trying to control the environment they are recording in, making decisions that really do not have a lot to do with the music itself. I still believe that performance and material are what matters. In the end, you get the sound you deserve.
Joe, how do you feel about the evolution of the DAW?
Boyd: I hate it. It is understandable that musicians take advantage of the possibility to make something perfect. But, cumulatively, these little decisions make for a lifeless record, in my opinion. There is something empowering about working with four, eight, and 16 tracks that is absent in 128. Limited tracks force you to make decisions. The limitations allow the magic to happen.
I’ve never recorded directly onto 1s and 0s. I’ve obviously mixed onto 1s and 0s, but unless there is something analog in the chain to warm the sound up, I just can’t do it. In the digital world, everything is measurable to the minute detail—everything is transparent, and everything is in position, but nothing ever actually mixes together.
What are you most pleased about by your work with Drake?
Wood: One of my best experiences working with Nick was during Pink Moon, for no other reason than we just went and did it. Nick literally ran up out of the blue and said, “Let’s make another album.” Back then, record companies were much more driven by the artist and the product, rather than marketing. Artists had so much more freedom. You didn’t submit any demos to the record company, and you didn’t argue about any budgets—you just got on with it. I can’t remember telling the record company we were going to do Pink Moon. We just went and did it. I’m proud of that.
Other than that, I suppose I would have been quite supportive as we recorded it, because Nick was very fragile at the time. The only artistic change I noted was that Nick became more belligerent in a way [laughs]. He really was going to make the record exactly the way he wanted it. He still had a lot of confidence in his playing during Pink Moon.