"The Best Record Never Made" Is Finally A Reality
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By Dan Daley
A look at the highlights of the year 1967 will tell you that Lyndon Johnson was president of the United States; a first-class stamp cost a nickel; Rolling Stone magazine published its first issue; Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" won the Best Record Grammy award; John Lennon and Paul McCartney won for Best Song with "Michelle"; and the Boston Red Sox lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals (some things will never change).

What's missing from that list, however, could have changed how 1967 is remembered, and could have changed musical history. While the Beatles were poised to release Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most ambitious album of the decade to date, Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' brilliant, troubled leader, was embarking on a production that many feel would have eclipsed even that. Where the Beatles were bringing rock together with English music hall influences and stabs at musical psychedlia at Abbey Road Studios, Wilson was ensconced in Sunset Sound and a few other classic L.A. studios trying to put together an album that would span rock, pop, gothic modal harmonies, barbershop quartet, and Aaron Copland.

SMiLE - dubbed by Newsweek and the New York Times as the best album that was never released - had attained mythical status. In the wake of 1966's Pet Sounds, even the Beatles were awestruck, and like everyone else in the music business, wondering what Wilson would come up with next. SMiLE was to have a grand vision, what Wilson once described as "a teenage symphony to God": a sweeping musical journey across America in three symphonic movements, comprising 17 pieces that are as much motéfs as songs, running into each other without a pause. Anticipation for SMiLE ran high - Capitol Records had printed 400,000 album covers, awaiting delivery of a finished master.

It would be a long wait - that master took 37 years to arrive. Brian Wilson's well-publicized bouts with mental illness, as well as his fellow Beach Boys' own trepidation about moving too far away from what had become an enormously successful hit formula - by 1966, the Beach Boys had racked up nearly two dozen Top 40 hits, including "I Get Around" and "Help Me Rhonda," all produced by Wilson - conspired to can SMiLE. In 1968, after 85 recording sessions, including more than two-dozen for the song "Heroes and Villains" alone, Wilson abandoned SMiLE. What had been recorded - bits and pieces and a few complete songs on acetates that Wilson would spend hours reconfiguring and resequencing - was put into storage, seemingly forever.

When Wilson began to come out of his depressive funk in the 1990s, recording his first solo record, SMiLE slowly came back on the radar screen. In early 2003, he assembled an 18-piece band and orchestra and did six sold-out and acclaimed live performances of SMiLE's music in London. Then, in April, Wilson and the ensemble went back into the studio - Sunset Studio One in Hollywood, where he and the Beach Boys had originally recorded parts of Pet Sounds - and, after 37 years, put SMiLE, finally, into recorded form.

The enormity of SMiLE as a piece of music is rivaled by its personal meaning to Brian Wilson's painfully sad self. "[SMiLE] has been an albatross around Brian's neck for almost forty years," comments Mark Linett, the audio engineer on the new project and on Wilson's first solo record in 1987, and who continued working with Wilson on subsequent projects including boxed sets of nearly all of the Beach Boys' catalog. "Making SMiLE has been more than therapeutic for Brian: It represents him facing his own demons, and now at last he's triumphed over them. SMiLE isn't just a turning point in his career - it's a turning point in his life."

In the early '80s, after several years as staff engineer at Sunset Sound, Linett moved to Warner Bros. Records' Amigo studios in Los Angeles, where he did sessions with other legends, including Randy Newman, Michael McDonald, Rickie Lee Jones, and Los Lobos. Ironically, the first Beach Boys song he ever worked on was ex-Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth's hit-single version of "California Girls," which featured Brian's late brother Carl on background vocals.

Linett went freelance in 1984, when Warner's studios closed. In 1987, when booking a session at Ocean Way (the former Western Recorders), the studio manager said that Brian Wilson had booked a last-minute session at the studio and needed an engineer. Would he be interested? "I said of course I would," Linett recalls, a spur-of-the-moment session that turned into a year's worth of work on Wilson's eponymously titled first solo record. He would go on to supervise the digital remastering of Pet Sounds, and later mixed a 5.1 surround version of that record released in 2002.

Wilson and Linett work easily together, and Linett describes himself as a technological bridge for Wilson, with experience from an era of limited analog tracks and expertise with the digital hard-disk recording techniques that so much of Brian Wilson's visions for SMiLE prefigured.

"I don't think SMiLE is a record that had to wait for Pro Tools to be recorded,"

Linett says in response to a question. "But [Pro Tools'] ability to randomly and precisely edit pieces of music together would have made making SMiLE easier back then. I remember [record label executive] David Anderle telling me stories about how Brian would sit for hours with acetates of sections of 'Heroes and Villians,' scrambling them around, constructing and reconstructing the song over and over again out of little pieces. What began as the tag of one song would sometimes become part of another. In 1966, [Brian] was working in modular fashion - if a song had two verses and two choruses, he'd only record one of each and copy them, just as we fly in parts today on hard disk recorders. The limits of the technology of the time - 3-track, 4-track tape decks - was getting in the way of what he wanted to accomplish." (Although Linett adds that Wilson liked the idea of eight tracks: "He could overdub leads and vocals and not have to do them at he same time," he says.)

Wilson and Linett went back to Studio One at Sunset Sound with the band and orchestra that backed the live London performances of SMiLE. It was a reprise of the milieu in which Wilson conceived most of his masterpieces: a group of talented musicians playing together in a single room (the 8-piece orchestral section was placed in a single large iso booth). "Brian is a master at creating textures by putting fifteen guys in a studio with no headphones and arranging the music," Linett explains. "If you want to make a Navajo rug, you need to make it on the same kind of loom they used in the 1860s, not in a modern carpet factory. How he created sounds like that [transcended] the technology. It wasn't until we got to eight tracks that the modern idea of recording came about, using isolation to achieve sounds instead of ambience. The ability to cut a basic track and then fix it became a reality with 8-track recording. Brian came from a 3-track world; he created by using great musicians and vocalists and giving them great arrangements to play and sing. When he was working in Western Recorders or Goldstar [Studios], if he turned up a bass drum microphone and got more of six other instruments as a result, that was not a concern. A lot of bleed contributed to the dynamics of the musicians' performance. Once you started isolating them, the whole interaction between musicians and sound changed dramatically. So I think you can see why it wasn't a leap to record SMiLE the same way he did 37 years ago - all live in small studios."

Linett says leakage is a key to the sound of many classic recordings, including the Beach Boys'. So he cautions against overuse of condenser microphones in general on large tracking sessions. "The problem is that they pick up too much [sound]," he says. "We prefer to use dynamic and ribbon microphones. I'll use condensers on a few specific applications, such as the grand piano, or a lone U 47 in the room for the harmonica." Favorite dynamic mics include the redoubtable Shure SM57, the ElectroVoice RE-12 and RE-20, and AKG D112.

The band had been well-rehearsed and seasoned with the material from the London concert performances - in fact, they were able to cut all the basic tracks in just four days. Any Brian Wilson production is defined by its vocals, and the fact that to some listeners SMiLE sounds vocally indistinguishable from a Beach Boys record - even SMiLE songs that were to become hits on other albums, such as "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villians," and "Vege-Tables," retain a distinct Beach Boys timbre on the new album, this despite no Beach Boy except Brian Wilson signing on the tracks. (Carl Wilson died in 1998 of lung cancer; brother Dennis Wilson died in a boating accident over 20 years ago; surviving bandmates Mike Love and Al Jardine remain personally and professionally estranged from Wilson.) Wilson sings with the vocal group the Wonderments and other members of his touring band on SMiLE, and it's apparent that perhaps as much of the Beach Boys' sound lay in Wilson's arrangements as in the individual voices. "You can tell the difference between Brian's falsetto and Carl's on the [original] recordings and [vocalist] Jeff Foskett's on the new album," says Linett. "But that's beside the point. The arrangements are the key. Brian can hear every part of a multi-part harmony in his head, then he would 'deal' them to the various singers. And he can remember what those parts were, which is all the more amazing since some of the original recording of SMiLE never had vocals."

[Wilson told me in a subsequent interview - see sidebar - that he prefers to sing sitting down now.]

Linett has a Neumann U 67 that he has used on Wilson for several years, a mic he also used with Paul McCartney and Elton John when they sang on Wilson's current solo album, Gettin' In Over My Head. "There's no elaborate method to recording Brian," Linett explains. "I just put up the microphone and a windscreen. Brian is a very natural singer. He knows what to do. For a few songs we used an old Shure 545 on him. That mic is very similar to SM57 and the Beach Boys often used it for lead vocals in the '60s. They have the 545 on for leads and usually a Neumann 47 for harmonies and Brian and Mike Love would often move between the two microphones as the group was singing live, doing both leads and harmonies on the same pass."

"They didn't build background vocals around the lead vocal," he continues, "Actually, the delineation between lead and harmony parts is often vague on SMiLE. There are lots of ensemble leads."

Listening back to classic Beach Boys records, the double-tracking of lead vocals was often obvious - the imperfect match between tracks was part of the timbral charm of the vocals. It seemed like an opportunity for technology to intrude, either to perfect doubles or to actually do the doubling electronically. But Linett says Wilson did his own doubled vocal tracks and any application of Autotune was minimal, and not for the purpose of perfecting doubles. "If a track is perfectly in tune, it restricts where a vocalist can go," Linett observes. "When the track is perfectly A-440, any imperfection in the vocals becomes [dissonant] and sounds worse than it is; when the track has natural imperfections, other imperfections become part of the palette."

Vocals were recorded using a circa-1963 Fairchild 670 limiter, which Linett points out would never have been used on vocals at that time. "The Fairchild was regarded as a cutting limiter," he says. "Instead they used to use a Universal Audio 177, usually in-line in the buss with a bypass switch." Referring to a catalog from the era, Linett notes that a 670 retailed for $1,500 - the cost of certain new cars at the time. "And Ampex 3-track cost $5,100; if you wanted four tracks, it ran you $6,000. Things have changed a bit, wouldn't you say?"

SMiLE was recorded to a Digidesign Pro Tools | HD system running at 88.2 kHz/24-bit. Linett used Apogee AD-16 and Rosetta converters and an Apogee Big Ben clock. He is a fervent believer in using quality external clock devices. "That should be the first thing you buy after you get your first DAW," he admonishes. "When I was remixing Pet Sounds I was using a Nuendo rig running at 96/24, and I had Digi bring over a Pro Tools system so I could do a shoot out." Regardless of the combination of systems and converters, the biggest difference he found was in the use of onboard versus external clocks. "That's what really opened the soundfield up," he says.

Sunset Sound has a custom 64-input console that uses several API components. That nicely complements the customized 36 X 48 API 2488 console, fitted with Flying Fader automation, Linett has at his home studio, Your Place Or Mine, in Glendale, CA, where he and Wilson tracked the vocals, did a few other overdubs, and mixed SMiLE. (Brian Wilson had a home studio in a house in St. Charles, Illinois, where he recorded his Imagination LP. He and his family will move to a new home later this year which will have a studio in the basement.)

His console is augmented by a vintage Universal Audio sidecar mixer, similar to the one in Western's Studio 3, where Wilson and the Beach Boys cut the majority of their records, including "God Only Knows."

Linett, Wilson, and arranger/bandmember Darian Sahanaja spent nearly a month mixing SMiLE. The biggest challenge was getting the vocal balances correct, Linett says, as well as the editing challenge of getting all the segues in each of the three movements just right. Simultaneously, the trio was auditioning mastering engineers, ultimately choosing Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering facility in Maine, with updates on the mixes and the mastering output being exchanged via FTP transfers.

That combination of modern and classic technologies and methods characterized the entire making of SMiLE. In a very real sense, the record utilizes all of the major techno-paradigm shifts of the nearly 40 years its spans from conception to realization, from 3-track to the Internet. The ultimate goal of finishing what Brian Wilson started in 1967 was achieved, but only in retrospect, after the last mix was done, could Linett confirm that. "It wasn't until we completely finished that we knew we had done it," he says. "When I could see that Brian seemed lighter, as if a very heavy load had been lifted from him. That 600-pound albatross was finally gone."