Paul Simon's album So Beautiful Or So What is a dazzling return to form — and a return to working with production legend Phil Ramone.
Paul Simon has called his most recent album, So Beautiful Or So What, "the best thing I've done in 20 years”, and it's a verdict that has been shared by critics and the record‑buying public alike. The album blends the melodic singer‑songwriter approach of his earlier career with the world music influences that have graced much of his work since Graceland. In interviews, Simon has explained that Graceland marked the beginning of him writing songs to rhythmic backing tracks, and that on the new album he wanted to write songs the way he did when he started, just him singing with an acoustic guitar, and then adding the rhythms and ethnic instruments later on. There's also extensive use of samples on the new album, while its sparsely arranged, delicate sound is perhaps a reaction to its dense‑sounding predecessor, Surprise, which saw Simon's songs blended with Brian Eno's electronic treatments.
So Beautiful Or So What finds Simon reunited with legendary producer Phil Ramone, who worked on earlier classics such as There Goes Rhymin' Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years, and also on Simon & Garfunkel's famous The Concert In Central Park (1982). The 15‑time Grammy‑winning Ramone is also known for his work with household names such as Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Paul McCartney, and on So Beautiful Or So What, was teamed with long‑time Paul Simon engineer Andy Smith. Smith is a New York city‑based freelance engineer who has worked on several of Simon's projects over the years, as well as projects with Simon's wife Edie Brickell and her current band, the Gaddabouts.
The recording process began several years ago, in a room in a cottage at Simon's property in Connecticut. "I think it was the first time that the bulk of one of Paul's albums was recorded in his own studio,” says Andy Smith. "The cottage was initially an empty house, and we gradually built the studio up as the project went along. We didn't record all the time. We'd have a month off here and there, and during that time, we'd do upgrading to the studio. By the end of the project, we had a pretty well‑equipped small studio, with a decent mic collection including the Bock Audio 251s, various high‑voltage DPA mics, Royer R1221V, SF24 and 121s, as well as the basics like Neumann, Shure, Sennheiser, AKG; mic pres by Telefunken, Great River, Grace, Chandler and API; compressors by Purple Audio, Chandler, API and Teletronix; Pro Tools HD with plug‑ins by Izotope, Massenburg, Sound Toys, Eventide, Sonnox and Audio Ease; two Apogee AD16X's and one DA16x converters; Antelope Audio master clock; and Adam S3A monitors. All the wiring was done with Mogami cables, and one of the coolest features is that there's a Grace 902 headphone amplifier at each player location.
"Paul previously owned a lot of studio gear, which gave us a good starting point for his new cottage studio. There was some gear of my own collection that Paul often used when we recorded in proper studios, and that we duplicated for his private studio. There was also a lot of floating gear that we would use when recording out in his summer place in Long Island, NY, and that found a home in his cottage studio. We did do a little recording of the album in Long Island this time around, but much less than on previous albums. The main challenge in working in his cottage studio was that it is not acoustically treated in any way, so on several occasions I had to use Izotope RX software to get rid of extraneous noises. For example, there's an oak tree right above the cottage, and occasionally acorns would fall on the roof. Because the studio wasn't soundproofed, I had to remove these noises with software. RX easily becomes one of those pieces of software that you can't imagine how you ever got along without.”
The process was very different from Simon's previous album, Surprise, which had been recorded in eight major studios in New York, London, Nashville and Los Angeles, as well as, recalls Smith, "the home studio in New York that Paul had at the time, where we recorded some of his vocals.” Phil Ramone, who became involved in the recording of So Beautiful Or So What during the last year of recording, explains the psychological challenges involved in working at home. "When Paul recorded albums like Still Crazy and Graceland, he would book a studio room out for months. It was a discipline, because it put a certain kind of pressure on you because of the money involved, whereas when people use home studios, the discipline disappears in some cases. But there are only three big studios left in New York now! So many people now work in their own studio, and it's important to keep a certain schedule. Paul McCartney will come into his studio at 10am and will stop at 6pm and Paul [Simon] kind of does the same thing. There was a nice atmosphere in the working at Paul's studio and having the discipline to go with it. It turned out to be a really comfortable situation for Paul, Andy and I. Paul and I are old friends, so I was very happy when he asked me to work with him on this project. I love opening doors that he may not have thought of, and his mind is so fertile. It was a joy. Paul and I live close to each other, which meant that I could come over when needed, and also do other projects. We spent a lot of time driving in the car, listening to what we had done and deciding what needed doing next.
"In many cases, Paul had 20‑30 percent of the songs ready when he came into the studio, at least a melody and some chord changes, and then we'd look for what colours and lyrics should go with it. Once the song started to work well, it would invite the tempo and the nature of the song after it, because Paul was already thinking of the sequence of the songs on the album before he had written all the songs. He was exploring different things, like, for example bluegrass influences, and we recorded a group of bluegrass musicians at Tony Bennett's studio in New Jersey. Paul asked the players how they would play this or that and pushed them to do a lot of interesting things. Also, Gil Goldstein orchestrated 'Love And Hard Times', and we went to Avatar Studios to record that, because I wanted a bigger room.”
Smith elaborates: "Working on this album was different than previous albums I'd done with Paul, because this time he had an idea of how each song would be before we started recording in the studio. With previous albums, he'd first build an extensive backing track, and then he'd take those recordings and see how they would inspire him to write guitar parts, and eventually melodies and lyrics to them. However, this time he pretty much wrote the songs and then came to the studio to record. Paul would usually start out by making a click track using a percussion instrument, or even just tapping out a rhythm on his guitar — he rarely uses an electronic click-track — then he'd play a guitar part that he'd already written and build the song from there. Usually the next step would be to overdub more guitars and percussion. I think it would surprise some people how complete some of the tracks sounded before any other musicians were added. Besides playing the majority of the guitars, a decent amount of the core percussion on the album was played by Paul. In the song 'Rewrite', the main percussion part you hear throughout the song is Paul's guitar‑tapping 'click track'.”
According to Ramone, the arrangements and overdubbing process were framed by Simon's desire that So Beautiful Or So What would "not sound like a studio album. He wanted to have lots of space with lots of atmosphere and feeling, so rather than go for hugely orchestrated ideas he was going, for example, for overtones in bells and gongs. Or if a sax or a kora comes in, they're there to do something specific, and not to fill in the space. One of the results was that there's very little bass on the album. Most modern records are bass‑heavy, and that eats up a lot of the space. It can be a struggle to work with a singer‑songwriter who plays heavy piano and then the guitar and the bass play right in the same audio range. Paul was very happy not having much bass on the album, until the point when he went out to play these songs live, for which he does use a bass. But it's not huge and fat, it's more part of an organic guitars section. Paul also liked a certain drum sound that's not in your face. We added other instruments as we needed them, and then decided what to use and what not to use. These additions and subtractions are very much the way Paul loves to work.”
Smith adds: "There certainly was an attempt on this album to keep the arrangements simple. There's a bass on a couple of tracks, but it's actually a baritone guitar. There was a conscious effort not to have bass, though when the songs were completely constructed and arranged, Paul did invite in some bass players, but he didn't like the way it affected the simplicity of the arrangements. By that stage, he had grown attached to the transparency of the sound of the tracks. Bells certainly were Paul's favourite percussion instrument on this album. He has a large collection of bells, ranging from exotic bells and ancient hand bells to glockenspiels. He'd record an acoustic or electric guitar and he'd then highlight certain notes by putting bells very faintly behind certain notes to give them some sparkle. We would effect the bells, to make them sound like one with the guitar, or in some cases effect them to be their own thing, such as the pulsating high sound at the beginning of 'Love Is Eternal Sacred Light'. There are also several tracks that have a standard drum kit, but Paul usually wanted them to sound a bit different. On many of the tracks, Jim Oblon, the drummer, placed towels over each drum so they'd have more of a muffled quality, leaving more room for the higher‑frequency percussion stuff.”
In an interview with the American web site AV Club, Simon explained the reasoning behind this: "I keep trying to eliminate those sounds that I don't like. Like on this record, I said, 'I really don't like most of the echo sounds that I hear coming out of the technology.' So I started using bells, and the decaying sound of bells behind lines. It sort of sounded like an echo, but with a strange tonality, and it created a sound that was atmospheric — and that is what I was looking for.”
Smith continues: "Much of the material was recorded in the main room that you see in the CD inlay tray [see photo on first spread], although his photos were taken after the recordings and during rehearsals. But for a large part of the time, Paul would be playing in the control room, with just Phil and I present. If he played electric guitar, we'd have the amplifier in another room, but the acoustic guitars he'd do right in front of us, which made it easy to communicate. For two songs, 'The Afterlife' and 'Getting Ready For Christmas Day', the track was laid down with Paul playing guitar in the control room, while we had a drummer in the main room. We would spend a decent amount of time getting the guitars that Paul played how he wanted them, and after Paul had laid down all his tracks, there was a smaller amount of experimentation with other musicians trying out parts. If the parts interested Paul, he would later edit and comp them to how he liked them, or in some cases they would get scrapped altogether. I'd make him a CD each evening of what we'd done, and he'd typically come back the next day with a list of notes. During a project, it seems like he never stops working. Throughout, Paul was thinking very much in terms of the whole album. He starts sequencing an album when he has a few tracks, and figuring out what holes need to be filled and how the songs flow into each other. That's always been the case for as long as I've worked with him.”
While most of So Beautiful Or So What was recorded at Simon's cottage studio, the company also went elsewhere for specific overdubs. Specifically, these involved a month in Simon's Long Island studio; Clinton Studios in NY to record the Indian ensemble on 'Dazzling Blue'; Tony Bennett's studio to record Mick Rossi on piano and the bluegrass ensemble featuring Doyle Lawson, Quicksilver and Joshua Swift; Avatar to record an orchestral ensemble consisting of strings, flutes, English horn and clarinet; and Germano Studios in NYC for various overdubs, including percussion and vocals.
As Smith explains, most of the prominent effects on the album were recorded with the source. "When we began work on So Beautiful Or So What, I didn't know where we would be at the end, and who would be mixing it, so I figured that it would be good to put all the analogue colouring on during recording, before going into Pro Tools, and not to count on having lots of mix options in the end. Also, in recording with effects, Paul could be inspired by those effects while playing and arranging. So many of his guitar parts went through pedals, like the Moogerfoogers, a Carl Martin compressor, [Electro‑Harmonix] Deluxe Memory Man, pedals by Fulltone, and so on, as well as some plug‑ins. We'd print it all — the plug‑ins on a separate track. We were also lucky in that the natural ambience of the room in the cottage was quite good, so I used a lot of room mics. The spaces that you can hear are mostly the sound of the room. Paul also made quite a bit of use of the relatively new Moog guitar. The sounds of that instrument worked well with the other sounds on the album. When recording, we put all the mic pres close to the players, so that we only had very short cables going from the mics to the mic pres. I used all Mogami cables for the mics and from the mic pres straight to the Apogee converters and then into Pro Tools. No patchbay or desk was used — we only had an eight‑channel Euphonix controller for the occasional fader ride. Once we were in digital we, for the most part, remained in digital.”
Smith explains that Simon was "very involved” in the technical side of the whole recording process, adding, "He might not know the exact names of all the mics and preamps and compressors, but he'll ask for specific sounds, and he'll often try different distances to the mics. He likes to experiment with how much room sound to incorporate for certain overdubs. For example, sometimes when recording a shaker, he'd ask me to put the mic at the other side of the room, so it gives the effect of a shaker going during a live recording.
"The electric guitars were mostly recorded with the tube ribbon Royer R122V, then going into a Telefunken V72 [preamp], then a Purple Audio MC77 [compressor] going into the Apogee AD16X — we think it sounds better than the Avid converters. The MC77 is an update of the MC76, which is based on the 1176, and I actually, in most cases, prefer the MC77 to the original 1176. It sounds a bit cleaner to me, and therefore works with a larger variety of sounds than the original 1176 does. I don't generally use the compression for control of dynamics, but more for a little bit of colour. Paul likes the colour of compression. When recording electric, I would also often put a microphone, like the Bock Audio 251, in front of the strings, so you can hear the sound of the pick against the strings. We'd record that separately, and blend the two sounds later. There's one song, 'Love & Blessings', in which we removed the amp sound completely, so you have just this thin sound of the pick on the electric‑guitar strings.
"The way we recorded the acoustic guitars varied. Paul has many guitars, so that could determine what mic we used. Sometimes I'd use the DPA high‑voltage mics, like the 4003 small‑diaphragm, or the 4041T2 large‑diaphragm tube mic. I usually place the microphone aimed at the 12th fret. The DPAs are omnidirectional mics, so you can get right up close to the guitar and get all the subtleties of the playing without having to worry about the proximity effect. Some of the high‑voltage mics have their own power supply, and some require specific 130V mic pres, for which we use both Grace and Millennia mic pres. They typically went directly into the Purple Audio compressor or sometimes an LA2A, or API, or a Chandler LTD compressor. Again, we used compression for colour. Paul also used many of his pedals when playing his acoustic, going to an amp, and we would later on sometimes re‑amp guitar tracks, putting them through some guitar pedals. We did the same with the clarinet track in 'Love & Blessings', to give some kind of old, quirky quality.
"As I mentioned before, we used the Soundelux 251, now called Bock Audio, on Paul's voice, going into the Telefunken V76, and then the Purple Audio or an LA2A, in some cases both. For the backing vocals recorded at Bennett studios we mainly used [Neumann] U87s and Neve 1073 mic pres. The Indian ensemble was recorded with Schoeps, Sennheisers and some DPA 4003s as room mics. For the Indian ensemble, we had the instruments Paul was unsure of in iso booths, so Paul later had no problem stripping the ensemble down to just three players. The kora was recorded with two DPA 4003s, one near the top and one near the bottom. The percussion was recorded with a large variety of mics, based on what percussion was played. In some cases, a dynamic mic worked better, or we would use whatever mic was right in front of him. Sometimes we recorded in stereo, with Paul doing the panning physically, by moving the percussion instrument around to where he wanted it in the sound image. On the basic drum kit, the miking is usually a [AKG] D112 or a [Sennheiser] 421 on the inside of the kick and a [Neumann] FET 47 on the outside, a Shure 57 Tab‑Funken [an SM57 with a replacement transformer] on the top and bottom of the snare, a DPA 4012 on the hi‑hat, Coles 4038 as mono overhead, stereo overheads with two DPA 4003s, and an omni somewhere between the rack tom, kick and the snare which I blend with the overheads. The majority of the drum sound is coming from the omnis. The flutes and violin were recorded using the Royer R122V tube ribbon mic.”
Phil Ramone: "This song was recorded early on in our work on the album, certainly early from the moment I joined. It set the direction of the album in that the sermon [the song uses a sample from a 1941 sermon by the Reverend JM Gates] inspired Paul to write the song, and so it wasn't typical of him looking to rhythmic patterns for inspiration. The sermon had a musicality in the speech that inspired Paul, and the result is really unusual, in that everything is cohesive between the melody, the sample, the rhythm, and Paul's voice telling the story from an observer's point of view. With the sermon in the song, it felt like it was timeless. It's a sound that catches your ear.
"Paul will come up with things that come from an absolute leftfield corner, and you wonder what brought it on. He listens, he researches, and then something will come along like a bolt of lightning. The rhythmic structure of the sermon kicked off a whole bunch of interesting things throughout the album. The way Paul hears eighth and 16th notes adds to the chordal and rhythmic feel. There's a lot of guitar on the album, and for this song Paul was messing with a vibrato thing on his guitar that he probably felt was part of an era. He played the acoustic rhythm guitar, and Vincent Nguini played the electric rhythm guitar, coming with a more West African approach to guitar, and the vibrato set up the whole way that those two rhythm guitars play off each other.”
Andy Smith: "I think 'Getting Ready' helped inspire a stripped‑down, rawer approach. There are foot‑stomps in the song that I think Paul liked the organic quality of, which opened up the rest of the album for similar sounds. Paul cut the backing track live, playing acoustic guitar, with Vincent Nguini on electric guitar and Jim Oblon playing drums. The footstomps were added by Paul, Jim, Vincent and whoever had shoes on right after the live drums and guitars were tracked. Paul was excited about the track, and the next day he came with the sermon and said: 'Let's see what this sounds like on top.' We just flew it in randomly, and the entire sermon was in rhythm with the backing track for the entire duration. We later tried to move it around a little, but never got it to sound as good as when we dropped it in, so what you hear on the record is where it was the first time we put it in. Paul then figured out breaks where he wanted to sing, and where we then muted the sermon.
"This song came together very quickly. Once we had the sermon in there and created the gaps for Paul to sing in, he added his vocals pretty quickly, and then added a guitar solo. After the few overdubs, the track remained pretty much the same. This song wasn't worked on as much as the others. The Session has the drums at the top. This was one of the songs on which Jim had various cloths over the drums to dampen them. Below that is the sermon, for which we did have to use some Izotope noise‑reduction software. We didn't do much else to it, other than chop things up so that the cheering fitted well between Paul's vocals. Below the sermon is Paul's lead vocal, and this has an Echoboy slap echo on it. We also added some to the sermon, to make it sound as if it was in the same room as Paul's voice. Below Paul's lead voice is a backing vocal track that he did, and then a backing vocal track by Edie Brickell, that she laid down pretty quickly.
"Below Edie's backing vocal is the acoustic guitar, which has a heavy tremolo effect from a plug‑in, with the depth set to 100 percent. We had to print the effect, because we later needed to shift the track a few milliseconds to get the feel that Paul wanted. Below that is the electric guitar, miked at the amp and right at the strings, to give it more of an acoustic quality. Then there are wind chimes, played by Paul, and his guitar solo, which was played on a Moog guitar. He likes to use that guitar because of the sustain it can give. Below the Moog guitar are the foot stomps, which I recorded with a FET 47 at the feet and above that a DPA 4003. We compressed them when going into Pro Tools, so that nothing needed to be done later to change their sound. There are two swooshy, percussive sounds you can hear at the end of the rhythmic phrase that are foot stomps that were re‑amped, with a lot of crunch on them. You can see the re‑amped foot stomps in the bottom of the edit window. There's also a sample of a locomotive in the song, slowed way down using Serato Pitch 'n Time, which ended up giving it that phasing effect. That's basically it. The song is pretty simple!”
The entire So Beautiful Or So What project was recorded to Pro Tools at 24‑bit, 96kHz. According to Andy Smith, Paul Simon embraced digital technology at a very early stage. "Paul was one of the early adopters of Pro Tools. We recorded Songs From The Capeman  to a Sony 3348 [digital multitrack tape machine] and then dumped everything digitally over to Pro Tools and mixed it in the box. That was very early on for a major artist to have an album mixed in Pro Tools. We recorded to DASH because at the time Pro Tools wasn't stable enough for tracking with a large band in the room. It's kind of funny now, but at the time we didn't tell anybody about mixing in Pro Tools because it was so new and there was initially some bias against it. You're The One  was mixed on a Sony Oxford console but recorded in Pro Tools, and with Surprise we locked a Pro Tools and a Logic system together during tracking, because Brian Eno likes to use Logic. Tchad Blake then mixed that album on an SSL desk. Besides being an amazing mixer, Tchad was brought in as a fresh pair of ears. There were so many overdubs on that album that it needed someone to make sense of them.”
Phil Ramone is credited with mixing the album, and he explains that the tracks on So Beautiful Or So What were mixed as they went along, in a process that appeared to involve both him and Andy Smith, and even, on occasion, Paul Simon himself. Ramone: "We mixed during recording, so there would be no surprises. A lot of people, while making an album, keep waiting for that wonderful day when it all comes together in the mix. But we all have good and early knowledge of when things work, and if it doesn't, you get rid of stuff. Paul is not averse to starting again and trying to do better. I said: 'Look, we are capable of doing things now in the digital world that we couldn't do before,' and so we mixed as we went. Paul and I would often listen back in the car to judge where to take things.
"The way the mix situation worked was that I'd work with Andy on stuff, and then I'd leave him alone to get the tracks into shape, and I would finesse it. I would just reach over and do things — I always ask the engineer if that's a drag. In the world we live in, things are sometimes two‑handed and sometimes four‑handed, it depends how you look at it. And when you work in Pro Tools, you are, in effect, always working towards a final mix. I'd bought Paul that small Euphonix controller, so I could do vocal moves and things. Faders still work for me. There are two schools of thought, and you can do everything electronically, but for me it takes some of the spirit out of it when I don't make the moves with my hands. I'm not travelling anywhere now without that little mixer! There are things I can do with it that continue to make mixing feel like mixing to me. I don't want to be struggling for hours to get to a place by adjusting things 1/10th of a dB at a time.”
Andy Smith takes a more 21st-century view than Ramone. "A console and faders allow you to work faster, so when speed is an issue, like when tracking a live band, it can be an advantage. But with a project like Paul's that goes on for several years, speed is not an issue, and I'm happy to work in the box. Because I supplied Paul every evening with a CD of whatever we had done that day, we would every night attempt to make it sound as close to a finished track as we could. And by the end of the project, we found that the mixes were simply done. We didn't set out to use plug‑ins sparingly, we just used them when we needed them. The ambient effects, in addition to the natural room sound, are pretty much all done with plug‑ins, except for when we used analogue bucket‑brigade delays. We also applied the old trick of sending a track out to a Dolby unit to encode it, and then not decode it, to get a high sparkle, a sizzling sound. Paul particularly wanted to use this for a vocal section in 'Love Is Eternal Sacred Light', where Paul sings in a very low, deep voice, and the Dolby effect helped it to cut through.”
Both Ramone and Smith express their admiration for Roy Halee, who engineered and produced early Simon & Garfunkel albums and also several of Simon's solo albums. Smith explains, "When I worked with Roy, I was taught to engineer in the old‑school way, which was using mics and mic placement, rather than EQ, to get the sound with the frequencies and ambience you wanted, which leads to mixing mostly being a matter of balancing and panning. On this project, besides the natural ambience, a delay was often used to create ambience, as well as some plug‑in verbs. We didn't use any de‑essers. We did the now popular thing of just manually lowering the esses that are too loud. Also, having so little bass actually made the project a little more difficult, because the typical listener expects a full frequency range, and it was harder to make it sound like a finished album when there wasn't a great deal of low end. So at times we used EQ to try to pull a little bit more bottom end from things that normally don't have much low end, like certain percussion instruments or Paul banging on a guitar. The go‑to EQ for that sort of thing was the Massenburg MDW.
"I also want to mention that we used the dithered mixer in Pro Tools, which not that many people appear to use, but to our ears it sounds better than the non‑dithered mixer. Also, a lot of the sound sculpting/mixing was actually done by Paul. He has a clear vision of what he likes and he's been using Pro Tools for so long now that he speaks in tenths of decibels and will regularly ask for specific changes. So slowly, over the long lengths of the projects we've done, he has done a lot of the moulding of the mix himself. Then, one day after doing vocal overdubs and Paul doing a vocal punch‑in, he suddenly said, 'OK, it's done. What's next? Mastering?' And Phil said, 'Yes.' The album had arrived at the point where Paul wanted it to be.”
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