Opening The Doors

Summer, 1966, Los Angeles — a young Bruce Botnick is living his dream in a 10' x 20' room, jam-packed with recording equipment, and, at most hours of the night, slightly disheveled band members. Life is good, because life is all about recording music. The long hours don’t really faze anyone.
Author:
Publish date:

A voice calls: “There’s a band called the Doors coming in. They have a guitar, drums, vocals, and an organ, and the organ player plays a piano bass.”

Forty-one years later, Botnick is back in the same place. Not literally, but certainly figuratively. The studio legend — who engineered The Doors (1967), Strange Days (1967), Waiting For the Sun (1968), The Soft Parade (1969), Absolutely Live (1970), and Morrison Hotel (1970), and co-produced L.A. Woman (1971) — is tasked with revisiting his classic Doors sessions, and using today’s tools to usher the band’s tracks into a new sonic era, as well as into the 5.1 format.

The ceremony is about to begin. Is everybody in?

So you’re finishing up work on the remixed and remastered versions of all the Doors’ studio albums. What will be the final medium for the masters?
Vinyl. Why? First, the fans have been clamoring for it. Second, the state of the art for vinyl today is much better than it once was. The technology is more effective, and the pressings are quieter and cleaner. They don’t degenerate as fast. It’s interesting, because we are going back to the original master tapes — from 1967 to ’70 — and they are all in various states of disintegration. Some play perfectly, others don’t play well at all.

What have you found in particular that’s funky about the originals?
I retrieved the tapes — including the original stereo and mono masters, safety copies, EQ copies, and anything that was a complete master — from a climate-controlled vault in Hollywood. And, interestingly, I found that the first Doors album never ran at the right speed. When the Scully 4-track machine it was mixed on [at Elektra Studios, New York] neared the end of a full roll of tape, it would slow down because of the tension. As a consequence, the speed was pretty much normal at the beginning, but everything could be flat by the end. In fact, “Light My Fire” is a quarter-tone off by the end of the song. It’s just unbelievable.

So, for these new high-resolution stereo remixes, I was finally able to get everything on pitch by playing the 4-track master back at the proper speed when I transferred it into my Pro Tools 7.3 rig at 24-bit/96kHz. Some people complained we were not being true to these classic records by taking them into the digital world. But doing this saved us from the speed issues, and from the deterioration of the originals.

Would you say this is an instance where digital tools made a truly positive impact on the end result?
Absolutely. In the case of Strange Days, there is one song where somebody had taken the tape out of the vault, and there was a big stretch in it. I had to go to another safety copy to access and replace the 1-1/2 bars that were damaged. I couldn’t have cut this in analog, because it wouldn’t have matched. Now, I couldn’t assume the tape was running at the same speed. Therefore, I had to A/B it against the original to see what would happen.

So is the first step to get everything to the right speed, and make high-quality transfers?
Yes.

What other elements needed sonic adjustments?
Over time, the tapes have lost some high end. Also, there are level changes that need to be addressed so that each song is the same volume as the ones that precede and follow it. And some of the songs are brighter than others — which is the nature of the beast — so there needs to be some global EQ.

Are you EQing in the digital domain?
Yeah. I’m really into George Massenberg’s digital EQ, and the Sony Oxford EQ plug-ins. They impart a pleasing character. I’m more into doing subtractive equalization than additive. Something I heard from [mastering engineer] Bernie Grundman has been really sticking with me lately: If you listen, there is usually something “clouding up” your sound. If you have a really good microphone placed in the right spot running into a really good preamp, and so on down the chain, you’re going to increase your chances of realizing a great sound from the start. But, sometimes, the room itself can introduce problems that you don’t catch until the mix. And when you find them, your tendency may be to push something up. Where you might feel like you need to add some high end, you may just need to cut at 200Hz to clear the sound up. Then you can add a dB or two at the top end, and it will sound as open as adding 6dB or 8dB of high-frequency EQ, and never cutting at 200Hz.

These are your original recordings. You’re not just some new-jack mixing engineer trying to spice up a classic album, so you have real perspective on these sessions. Given that, when you pulled the tapes, and started looking at them as soon-to-be 5.1 mixes, did you rediscover anything about the recordings that floored you?
Given the limited tools we had to work with, there were actually quite a few things that impressed me. And I was also incredibly depressed by other things. I’m proud these recordings still impart a certain beauty. To me, they sound pretty and sweet. It could get raw and rocking, but this sweetness still came across and held true. There were so many variables that made it all work, and you can never, ever go back. I’m not 19 anymore. I hear differently. I was eating different food, breathing different air, and recording differently.

In what ways were you recording differently?
One noteworthy technique was that I came up with a different way of tape delaying the Sunset Sound echo chamber. I had a three-track Ampex 200 machine that could handle 14" reels. It was able to provide separate record and playback equalization from the input to the output, so you could basically EQ the machine for your sound. There were NAB, CCIR, and AME equalization curves. It was a type of noise reduction, if you will. I remember using the AME EQ on the record side to put in more highs, then playing it back with the NAB curve to take out highs and reduce tape hiss. This would put a rise in the EQ curve in the chamber. Then, I would delay the output of the chamber — not the input. Nobody else was doing this that I know of, and it’s a special sound.

Tell us how you recorded John Densmore’s drums.
There were only three mics on the drums at any one time: a Sony C37 overhead at just about forehead level; another C37, flipped out of phase, underneath the snare drum; and an Altec Salt Shaker dynamic mic — the kind they used to use for announcements in airports — for the kick. And we didn’t record with an outer drum head — which was why the kick had that real “pop” to it. That was it. Sometimes, I would put a Telefunken U47 about six to eight feet back from the kit in the room, and add some heavy compression to open up the sound. I also set up the drums against the far brick wall, because I liked the reflection of the drums coming back into the overhead mic — it added a real liveness to his sound.

What was the room like?
The room at Sunset Sound had concrete floors with asphalt tile, brick walls, and plasterboard ceilings that were three or four inches thick. That place was hard. It sounded hard. You could hurt yourself in there, and you can hear that come through in the recordings. The room influenced the sound enormously. I remember being at the old Record Plant, and doing a session in Studio B where Stevie Wonder had done “Living in the City.” I set up the drums in there, set up my mics, and when the track came over the monitors, I said, “My God, that’s the same sound!” Even though I was using my choice of mics, that studio had a very distinct sound to it. It blew me away.

What did you use for Jim Morrison’s vocals?
A Neumann U47 — which has pretty much always been my favorite vocal mic. And yes, for Strange Days, we didn’t use any pop filters. I hate them, because I can hear them. Jim was very controlled, so a light compression when he screamed into the mic was all it took to keep him sounding even. In those days, it was very common to have technical recording information on the back of the albums. They would list, “Trumpets: U47” and the like. So I would listen to the records, hear those sounds, and, then when I got back to the studio, I’d try out the mics. I’d say to myself, “Wow, it does have that sound character. That’s cool. I’m going to use it!”

How did you mic Robby Krieger’s guitar?
I used the U47 right up on the grille of his amp. I didn’t know any better! Same for Ray Manzarek’s organ — a Vox Continental — though we always ran the piano bass through a direct box. [Editor’s note: The bass was a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass, which, according to Manzarek, sounded too “blown out” on record. So, starting with Strange Days, the Doors used various electric bassists including Doug Lubahn, Ray Neapolitan, Harvey Brooks, Jerry Scheff, and guitarist Lonnie Mack.] For the acoustic guitar tracks, we would just put one of the C37s back a foot or so from the body of his acoustic — which just sounded huge. He absolutely loved the sound of them.

What was it like mixing those albums the first time around?
You have to understand that most of these albums were done in a week! If you only have four tracks to work with — or eight tracks — there are only so many things you can do. Now, you have so many tracks to work with that you can virtually do anything, and you don’t have to make a commitment at every step of the process. But having to make decisions quickly added to the feel of those records. We recorded with reverb live, we compressed and limited live, and we added equalization live. What we heard when we were recording was the mix that you heard in the end.

But didn’t the Doors’ dramatic spatial elements lend themselves well to the 5.1 remixes of the albums?
Some of it really did. For example, when we did the original mix for “Riders on the Storm,” and added the rain and thunder, I just had a tape machine running in the back, and, by serendipity, the thunder came in at the right place. It wasn’t planned. That speaks to the notion that recording somewhat recklessly can end in moments of perfection. But when it came time to remix in 5.1 — which I did in Sonic Solutions — I rebuilt the mix, put the thunder in the place it had always lived, and then panned the rain, and added a delay to the thunder track to create a 360-degree environment. It ended up working really well.

What about “The Unknown Soldier”?
Well, there is that whole sequence where the prisoner is being marched to a stockade to be shot. So it marches all around the room. Jim is doing the cadence. The gun cocks and fires. Then, the crowd starts screaming, and the church bells are ringing. There’s a great deal of movement going on. There were other places where I’d just put a nice piano in the rear, or maybe the background vocals. I would have Jim’s vocal in the center speaker — just as we recorded it. In the beginning — up until The Soft Parade — we always had three Altec Lansing 604e monitors in front of us, because we recorded three tracks. It was normal to hear Jim in the center, so when I got a chance to remix these into surround, I got him back in his own environment. He’s in his own place now, and it really makes a difference.

You clearly believe equally in classic techniques and modern tools. What have you held on to — despite the passing of the years — in terms of recording techniques?
Many things are the same as they ever were. You still decide what it is that you are going to record, and what your goals are. You still have to pick your instruments, your mics, and your room — partially on faith, and partially from past experience. You still have to set up your instruments. You still have to play well. You still have to really listen to what you’ve tracked before you start with the adjustments. When you look at it that way, not that much has changed. The reality of a good recording is still capturing good sources.

But if you’re looking for advice, the best I can give you is this: Get everybody who is playing on the track in the same room, open up all the mics, assign them to their channels, and try to balance it all live. Learn to hear it all together, and make your decisions then. By focusing on one element at a time, you’ll never get the perspective you need to tackle the recording of an album. The album is the whole thing — not just the sum of its parts.

Home Cooking

When Bruce Botnick talks about using EQ before and after reverb — and changing the position of delay with respect to reverb — he’s recalling the days when you had to physically move patch cords around and match levels (often with preamps and attenuators). But with today’s software, you can try the same types of experiments in minutes — just by moving plug-ins around in track inserts.

Does pre-delay before reverb sound different than delaying the reverb signal? Try it yourself, but remember that, in those days, tape was providing the delay so it affected the sound. Also, plate and room reverbs had a very different character compared to modern digital reverbs.

Set up the following plug-in chain: EQ1 (high boost) > Delay > Reverb > Delay > EQ2 (high cut), and start by setting both delays to a specific delay time, like 70–100ms. Bypass them individually to hear how each one affects the sound, then enable both and vary the delay times — delay before and after reverb is a whole other sound entirely. Also try boosting the high frequencies going into the chain, and cutting the highs coming out to simulate the effect Botnick describes. Even though you won’t be cutting tape hiss, the result will often be a “rounder” reverb sound.
—Craig Anderton