I’ve been lucky to be included in the Beach Boys’ inner circle since the late ’70s—and I’ve worked on many of their records—but nothing quite prepared me for being given carte blanche to arrange, record, and produce background vocals for a founding member of one of the greatest vocal bands of all time. The legendary Al Jardine asked me to help complete a song he had been working on sporadically for 15 years, and when the audio files to “Don’t Fight the Sea” were opened at my Mill Valley, California, studio Tiki Town, the glorious voices of Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, and, of course, the forever underrated Al Jardine gave me chicken skin. I’ve come to understand that there is only one way to get that Beach Boys sound— the blend always has to include Al’s voice. He had the glue that brought all the individual voices into one instantly recognizable and magnificent vocal sound.
Scott Mathews (right) and Al Jardine during a Brian Wilson soundcheck at the Mountain Winery, Saratoga, California.
A Few Small Repairs
My first priority was to listen and figure out if any parts needed to be fixed, added, or deleted. I instantly recognized the greatness of the tracks, but there were some spots that needed work—the most obvious being a rough outro section. I replaced an out-of-tune and out-oftime vocal with my own voice, using a lovely, early ’50s Neumann U48 tube mic. The main reason I chose the U48 is that it was often used on classic Beach Boys tracks, and I wanted to go after the same sound. Once I had the first part down, I doubled it in unison for a full and rich sound that was so good I decided to triple it. Each time I sang the part, I moved slightly off the mic to emulate a more natural “group vocal” sound, as well as to introduce just the right amount of ambience to the tracks. That hit the spot, and it was the end of the “fixes.”
Singing With Angels
What came next was about as fun as recording gets—arranging new vocal parts to go with some of my favorite singers ever. I had purposely not prepared any parts in advance of the session to ensure that the spirit of the moment would inspire me to the fullest. I asked my chief engineer Tom Luekens to roll to a section of the song that sounded a little empty, and I began signing a series of “ahhs.” It took about three takes until I hit on one that was perfect for building on. I tripled this part, and then sang a higher harmony part, and tripled it, as well. I thought about trying an even higher harmony, but I quickly realized that Brian and Carl Wilson’s voices sounded so fine up there that it was best leaving that frequency range to them. I went with a lower harmony, tripled it, and was quite pleased with the results.
Happy as I was, I decided to try a fourth part that was very low. Cautious not to end up with any fat tones that could clutter the bottom end, we severely EQ’d the part after it was recorded by applying a –12dB shelf at 188Hz with a gentle slope beginning at around 400Hz. I sang a throaty bass part three times in unison, thinking that it likely wouldn’t work, and we’d get rid of it. To my surprise, it was true to the school, so to speak. Lesson: You don’t really know if something works or not until you lay it down, so don’t be timid to try things. At worst, you’ll just erase the part, and no one will know it ever existed.
Some solo-vocal lines appeared three times during the song. The first one worked perfectly, but I added a vocal to the second occurrence (singletracked) that brought something new to the part, and then added a second and third vocal when the part appeared for the third and last time. All told, I stacked 17 vocal parts. Nothing was too busy, or got in the way of other mix elements, and all the vocal tones were crafted to fit with the original Beach Boys voices. After laying down a couple of acoustic 12-string parts to introduce the choruses—parts that Al dubbed “the Tarantino Touch”—I was done
Afterwards, I realized that I had done lots of singing with the Beach Boys in my car, in the studio, and on stage, so I had a good intuition as to which types of vocal parts, harmonies, and timbres would enhance Al’s track. That experience not only kept me from being nervous about tackling the job, it also guided me to craft appropriate parts that would help complete “Don’t Fight the Sea” without moving it too far from the Beach Boys sound.