Recording the One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back album, Roy Thomas Baker and the Darkness used 400 reels of tape, up to 1,000 tracks per song and a year in the studio — not to mention custom-made panpipes.
The pairing of Roy Thomas Baker and the Darkness is a one-way ticket to heaven. It had been on the cards ever since the band landed in the public eye with Permission To Land in 2003. Take a lead singer (dis)graced with leotard suits and a balls-in-the-bench-vice falsetto, add music that takes its inspiration from 1970s hard rock, season with lots of operatic bombast, and you have a band that can lay claim to being genuine 21st-century heirs to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen, AC/DC, Slade, and other stars of rock's golden age, pomp, glam or otherwise. Meanwhile, Roy Thomas Baker is, of course, the man behind much of the most innovative and outrageous rock music from the 1970s and 1980s, and is perhaps best known for producing several Queen albums and the perennial 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
Baker and the Darkness are kindred spirits, and unsurprisingly, when the two parties met after a Darkness show in LA in the beginning of 2004, it was love at first sight. Work on the new album began in earnest in the late summer of 2004, when the band set up in a barn converted to a rehearsal room-cum-studio somewhere close to their native town of Lowestoft, Suffolk, to work on new material. Baker remembers arriving in October, and elaborates "We had two stages to the writing process. One was referred to by the band as the 'round table', and this was literally done sitting at a round table in the control room where everyone would play acoustic instruments through Line 6 guitar and bass Pods and a Roland electronic drum kit, and put in their 10 cents. We recorded all that with a couple of mics.
"The next stage was to go into the live room and play the songs with guitar amps and a real drum kit. We had a Pro Tools and Mackie setup there, but we didn't use any of these initial pre-production recordings. We just kept them as references. Justin and Dan [Hawkins] are pretty unique songwriters and they can churn out a song a minute. We had what seemed like thousands of songs. The whole purpose for me as a producer in being there was to work out what the best parts were and help evolve them. We were working arrangements out as we went along, and ended up with very clear ideas of the kind of arrangements that we wanted."
That last statement turns out to be of much greater importance then one would initially suspect, but more about that later. First Baker continues his story. "The band took some time off for a UK tour, and then went back to writing. When it got close to New Year, I commuted between the barn and Rockfield studios in Wales to get things organised there. We had checked out a number of studios while they were touring the UK, and we decided on Rockfield partly for nostalgic reasons — it was the place where I recorded 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and a couple of Queen albums — and partly because of the way it was set up. It's a good studio that has totally unique acoustics, with many different rooms and echo chambers, all with varying degrees of liveness. Even better was that Rockfield has two studios set in different cottages, and we ended up booking both. It meant that we could lock the door and keep ourselves to ourselves, and also that we could record in two studios at the same time."
Rockfield, founded in 1969, is located in the middle of nowhere and is one of Britain's few surviving residential studio facilities. It still has the very Bösendorfer on which Mercury recorded 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. It was the perfect place for the Darkness to wallow in rock & roll history and get lots of work done during the first half of 2005. "Other than a couple of times when we went out for dinner, we were there seven days a week," remarks Baker.
With help of Rockfield engineer Nick Brine, recording took place at both wings of the studio complex, the Quadrangle and the Coach House. And how. For several months Baker had the band recording the backing tracks, mostly drums, bass, and rhythm guitars, in endless different configurations and locations, all to get the densely, subtly and richly textured sound he was after.
"In the smaller studio, the Coach House," explains the producer, "they have a [48-channel] Neve 8124 and Rosser mic pres, which came from the Rosser desk on which I recorded 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. In the Quadrangle there's an old [82-input] MCI 500, which was the same desk on which I mixed the Jazz album with Queen. Both studios also have several Neve 1060/1 mic pres and API 550 EQs, and each has two Studer 24-track recorders.
"We spent maybe two weeks setting up, finding out what sounded best on what, and for the most part we used the Rossers for drums, while the Neve, API and MCI worked best on guitars. We laid down the drums and guitars first. One set of drums was set up in the Coach House live room, on top of the stage that the band uses on the road. So the bass drum was halfway between the floor and the ceiling, equidistant to all eight corners of the room, and we had ambient microphones in each of the eight corners, plus close microphones and overhead mics. Typically we would use 36 microphones to record the drums, but we would have nearly double that amount set up. For a couple of tracks we put a drum kit outside in the Quadrangle parking lot, which resulted in an unusual ambience with a slap echo coming back off the brick stables."
Baker is reluctant to elaborate which mics were used where, stressing that there is "no such thing as a favourite drum or vocal or guitar microphone. When you're miking you're going for the sound that's appropriate for the song, not necessarily what's a good sound. And what's appropriate can vary greatly. That's why you need a multitude of mics, because different songs need different sounds. It's why we had three drum kits and a multitude of different snare drums and tom-toms, and each kit had different surroundings and a different miking situation, and different mic placements. We had Shure condenser and dynamic mics, and Telefunken overhead microphones, and several other old microphones that we found in the closets, like the M50, N49, U67, U87, C12 and C24, and a whole bunch of more modern microphones, AKG tubes and so on."
Moving on to the subject of rhythm guitars, Baker exclaims breezily, as if it's the most normal thing in the world: "Oh, of course there were at least 120 guitar parts in many of the songs. A lot of people play one guitar from the beginning to the end of the track, but we didn't do that. Dan has a lot of different guitars, and so we went 'OK, the first half of this verse sounds good on this guitar, but why don't we change to a different guitar in the second half, and then go back to the first guitar for the chorus, but in a different tuning, or with different strings, or a different amplifier, or a different microphone,' and so on. By the time we multitracked all those we ended up with up to 160 guitar parts on a good deal of the songs. If you listen closely, one set of guitars will come in and then a totally different set of guitars, and then yet another set of guitars. In some places there may be a bunch of 100 guitars that comes in for just two seconds."
It sounds crazy in theory, but not quite so crazy when you're actually listening to One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back. One striking example is the song 'Dinner Lady Arms', which begins with a truly impressive wash of guitars that ripples majestically from the speakers, sounding as big as the ocean. "The way I like to work," says Baker, "is to have all the guitars in the control room, so they're all at the same temperature, and you never spend half an hour waiting for a guitar to stabilise and remain in tune. I also want the guitarist with me in the control room, so we can have complete communication all the time. With the sound coming back from the monitors you instantly know whether you have the right sound or not.
"Dan had between 40 and 50 guitars in the control room during this stage of the recording, but we were not only surrounded by guitars but also by guitar amplifiers, because the amp heads were also all in the control room. It's far better to push a signal than to pull it: running a short lead from the guitar to the guitar amp is better than running a long lead from control room to studio. We had the speaker cabinets outside the control room, wired in such a way that we could connect any amp head to any cabinet — each lead was marked. We also tested all the different speakers on all cabinets. They're supposed to sound the same, but if you're using a 4x12 cabinet, each of these four speakers may sound different. So we listened to them individually and put microphones in front of the best speakers.
"We also had the cabinets in different rooms: sometimes identical cabinets would be placed in different surroundings, one in a live room and one in a dead room. The microphones could be everywhere, hung from the ceiling, lying on the floor, and so on, but we often had dynamic mics for close-up and antique tube-like mics for ambient. The microphones themselves were of every conceivable vintage and make and we had everything ready to record via a preamp of our choice. For a more American sound we used the MCI console or API EQs, for a more British sound the Neves. So every time we did a guitar part, we chose the most appropriate guitar, head, speakers, microphones, preamps, and so on.
"We did all this stuff," Baker continues, "because we were making a massive-sounding type of record. We were going for a huge, huge production sound." Justin Hawkins, when asked in an interview what he had learned from Baker, summed it up as "more is more". Unsurprisingly, basses were recorded according to the same approach, with the bassist in the control room and playing different basses and amplifiers, recorded through different microphones for different parts of each song. The bass often ended up double-tracked in the final mix, panned left and right.
The album begins with an exotic blend of Mellotron, backwards gong samples and panpipes — all the way from Peru. According to Roy Thomas Baker, "Justin had worked out a panpipe part during pre-production with a sample on a Yamaha keyboard, which he also used to demo the monk choirs and gongs you hear at the beginning of the album. Then when we moved to mixing stage we used a big Korg keyboard, the one with the blue screen, but I heard that pan flute sample being used by Shakira, so we decided to go for the real thing. We asked someone we knew, Peter Schneider, for the best pan flautist in Peru — he owns several radio stations there — and he recommended Fredy Gomez. Since a pan flute is not in the tempered scale, we had to create a new pan flute from a whole bunch of other pan flutes. It was recorded at a radio station studio in Peru."
It was during the Rockfield period that tensions in the band came to a head, eventually leading to the sacking of bassist Frankie Poullain, who was replaced by the band's guitar tech, Richie Edwards. According to interviews with the band there was a great amount of angst and paranoia going on, but all this drama didn't register too highly on Baker's radar. Presumably he was too busy surfing the tidal wave of material that he was gathering.
"There was the bass player issue, yes," he muses, "but from the recording perspective, it was far less strenuous than it sounds. It was relatively seamless moving from one bassist to another, since we had laid the drums and guitars down first. So the bass part was totally academic at that stage. Luckily Richie is a really good bass player, and he became the band's and my right-hand man, coming up with ideas like: let's put this guitar amplifier in the middle of the cow field next door."
Having resolved the bass player issue, and successfully laid down all the backing tracks at Rockfield, the company moved to Whitfield Street Studios in London, where Justin Hawkins recorded his vocals, lead guitars, sitar, and most of his keyboard parts, during a period of two months in the summer of 2005. "It was," recalls Baker, "a welcome relief from being in the middle of nowhere. For the recording of Justin's vocals, we sat down and worked out the parts at a grand piano. Even though everyone thinks of him as the guy with the falsetto, he's actually very good across the board, on the low stuff as well as the high stuff. On 'Blind Man', for instance, Justin was emulating a male Russian choir.
"During the vocal recording, Justin was in the recording area, just behind the glass. We used the full ambience of the studio itself, and I put a whole slew of microphones around him — he looked a little bit like the president does doing a press conference. All the microphones went to the Neve 88 mic pres, which have a great sound. Because I could have the mic pres next to where Justin was singing, the signals were pushed into the control room, which gives a much better signal-to-noise ratio. We might use one, or two, or six microphones, at all sorts of different levels, EQ settings, and so on, to get the right vocal sound for a part of a given song. Sometimes each line of each verse would have a different sound. I would also run his voice through a compressor, like a Fairchild or, something I particularly like, a Tube-tech compressor going into a Tube-tech EQ.
"Some songs would have 10-part harmonies, and each one of these parts would be multitracked. And then we would do a whole bunch of those, spread them across the stereo on the left, and do the whole thing again, this time spreading across the right. Or we'd have the first line of a song coming out of one speaker, and the next line out of another speaker. This was not a matter of panning, but of recording it that way. On a track like 'Blind Man' we could have 160 vocal overdubs, with me changing the sound of every part, especially the low ones. On a couple of songs we had a microphone in a champagne bucket, to get a slightly hollow sound. For me it was a bit of a waste of a champagne bucket, but he loved singing into it! All these changeovers may sound a bit complicated, but ended up being excessively slick. Obviously, his voice would sometimes get tired, and then he would go on to playing keyboards or guitar."
Lead guitar overdubs were done according to a process similar to laying down the rhythm guitars. In addition, Whitfield Street was the scene for multitudes of keyboard overdubs, with Justin Hawkins playing some nifty piano on tracks like 'Knockers' (Baker: "Very few people seem to realise that Justin is one of the world's best keyboard players!"), and adding Minimoog, Mellotron and Hammond organ, as well as some modern synthesizers. Hawkins also played the sitar there for the album's title track, which is set in a 'psychedelic dream sequence' for which Baker created phasing using four tape recorders ("It was trial and error and took a long time to get right"). The bagpipes, played by Stuart Cassalls, BBC Scotland's 2005 Traditional Musician of the Year, were also recorded at Whitfield St.
With its exotic opening section (see box earlier in this article), plus the bagpipes, marching drums and banjo-like guitars in 'Hazel Eyes', the sitar in the title track, and the lush orchestral sections in various songs (arranged by Paul Buckmaster, who has worked with artists as diverse as Elton John and Miles Davis), it's clear that some eyebrows will be raised, as opposed to heads banged. According to Baker, these things came out of an experimental try-anything mentality. They clearly were part of a desire by the band to stretch musically, and not just be a carbon copy of what went before.
Notwithstanding its innovations, One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back is full of references to the past. Justin Hawkins excels in massive Freddie Mercury-style vocal overdubs, sings like Kevin Rowland in the blue-eyed cod-soul of 'English Country Garden', and plays Brian May-esque multitracked guitar solos. Influences from Slade, Sweet, AC/DC, Big Country and others from the '70s and '80s are also obvious.
Baker is adamant, however, that it was not the intention "to make a retro record. We wanted to get the best of both worlds, of old and new. I think we ended up succeeding, because it sounds like it was done last week, and yet there are aspects where you go 'Wow, I recognise that from the '70s or '80s.' There may be a John Bonham snare sound recorded in a huge room, coming from analogue tape, but at the same time I wanted to make a modern record. I love the hybrid thing."
Roy Thomas Baker divides his time between England, Los Angeles and Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The last place is home to his estate and a top-flight studio — as well as another unique export from his home country, the original London Bridge. In the late 1960s, the 130,000 tons of granite that made up this early-19th-century structure were dismantled and transported to the Arizona desert, where the 938-feet bridge was rebuilt stone by stone.
As a producer, Roy Thomas Baker will, of course, forever be associated with one of the other famous large structures that arose in the 1970s: Queen's 1975 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. At the time the most expensive single ever made, the song was originally intended as a ballad with a small operatic section thrown in. But Freddie Mercury kept adding 'Gallileos', Baker kept submixing and filling 24-track slave reels, and the six-minute-long song ended up having more than 200 overdubs, unheard of at the time (Baker described the recording of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in a Sound On Sound interview in October 1995: www.soundonsound.com/sos/1995_articles/oct95/queen.html).
Baker can take credit for standing at the cradle of several new directions in rock & roll. He cut his teeth in London at Decca and went on to become staff engineer at the pioneering Trident Studios in the beginning of the '70s, where he engineered a whole array of classic albums by the likes of Frank Zappa, Free and Santana. Baker co-founded Trident's production company, and Queen were one of his singings. He produced Queen (1973) and Queen II (1974). The latter, he says "was a staggeringly major piece of work. It was the blueprint for my kitchen-sink production time, a time when Freddie would say 'Any idea that you have, just throw it on.' We threw things on that we thought we might later get rid of, but we ended up keeping everything.
"Then came Sheer Heart Attack and immediately afterwards Night At The Opera, with 'Bohemian Rhapsody', which was the pinnacle of my period of overproduction. I went straight from that into the Cars' album [Cars , 1978], which was totally the opposite. I made a conscious effort to pare down the overproduction, even though it still had some aspects of overproduction. It was like a blueprint for sparsity, but it still had power at times when you needed it. When the backing vocals came in, they were massively overdubbed and sounded really big."
The Cars' debut album became a classic, and helped lay the foundations for the New Wave movement. Baker went on to do Jazz (1978) with Queen, three more Cars album, and even helped shape the sound of electro-pop with Devo's Oh No! It's Devo (1982). His career then took an unexpected turn with albums for MOR rock bands Foreigner and Journey. Derided by some critics, they nevertheless sold by the bucketload, as did albums Baker produced during the 1980s and early 1990s for the likes of Slade, T'Pau, Ozzie Osbourne, the Stranglers, Mötley Crüe, Dokken and Alice Cooper.
In the mid 1980s the Briton relocated to the US, where he acted for a while as senior VP for Elektra. As the 1990s progressed, Baker dropped a little out of view, at least from the British perspective. "There was a huge change in overall attitude," Baker remembers, "from bigger-sounding records towards small bedroom-type records, and I chose to pass on many artists that were offered to me during that time." He did work with US bands like Spun Monkeys and Local H that had hits in their home country, but preferred to spend a couple of years researching Italian, Egyptian and Eastern Mediterranean architecture in order to apply his findings to his estate in Lake Havasu.
Around the turn of the century, Baker, like several other producers, spent a couple of years of his life producing a forthcoming album by Axl Rose/Guns 'n Roses, working title Chinese Democracy. Recordings for the album began in 1994, and it is said to have cost 13 million dollars by the time Geffen pulled the plug on funding it. It still hasn't seen the light of day, putting it on course for the most expensive unreleased album of all time. Under a gagging order, Baker is prohibited from speaking about the ill-fated project. In the light of this, it looks like the Darkness's album title One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back is as relevant to the producer as the band. So confident is he of its success that he took the band down to the Bentley showrooms after the recording was completed, where they ordered some of these sofas on wheels. They will probably sit nicely next to Baker's own Rolls-Royce, licence plate: RTBAKER.
Baker's preferred method of mixing analogue and digital was the perfect foil for his ambitions. "Since the aim was to go for the big, hybrid sound, we used analogue 24-track to record on," he explains, "and then transferred everything to Pro Tools HD, and did our editing in there. It's hugely weird that people go 'Do you prefer analogue or digital?' It's like saying 'Do you prefer blondes over brunettes?' or 'Are you a tits or a leg man?' Totally and utterly academic. When you make a movie, you shoot on 35mm film, and that's dumped into an Avid, where you do your editing, and then back onto 35mm again. You're utilising the best aspects of both. At my home studio I have a 40-track Stephens tape machine, the best-sounding analogue machine ever made, and both Pro Tools and Nuendo systems.
"Basically, people use digital because it's fucking cheap. I can't think of any other reason, because you are missing out on a lot of textures with digital. But the other side of the coin is that you can get textures on Pro Tools that you can't get on analogue. Analogue is certainly much more fun, but it's so expensive. Fifteen minutes of tape costs the same as a hard drive that can hold 500 albums. And it's also hard to get a hold of tape. When we first started the album, we were told that there wasn't any. Tere [RTB's wife, manager, and the album's production co-ordinator as well as the Darkness' US manager] managed to get a hold of 60 reels somewhere, and without that we would have had to do the whole thing in 'slow toys'.
"That's my nickname for Pro Tools," Baker laughs, "because while everyone thinks it's fast, for me it's so slow. Anyway, we recorded everything to analogue, because it gives you a nice, full texture that you cannot get any other way. When recording on analogue I make sure that the levels are at full tilt and the red lights are flashing. I press it exceptionally hard. For this reason I don't need to use Dolby. We align the tapes so that everything is just on the verge of distorting, and the tape acts like a giant compressor. It's why I don't like to use outboard compressors during the recording stage, because you stop the sound of tape compression from happening.
"The other important aspect of analogue is that it records high frequencies. People say that we don't hear anything above 17k, so with digital they clobbered everything above it, not realising that the sound above that point modulates the lower frequencies. If you put an oscillator at 1k and sweep another around, say, 25k, you'll hear that it will affect the way the 1k tone sounds. The good thing is that once you have recorded on analogue, you don't lose these low-frequency modulations, and they translate to digital. So we after we recorded things on analogue we transferred them to Pro Tools for editing. We were basically running 'slow toys' as a workstation and a back-up. We worked at 96k resolution, and the good thing about it is that, unlike with 44.1, where you lose a bit of punch and resolution, you get an exact clone of the analogue, including all the textures."
Baker's insistence that everything was recorded on analogue, combined with the hundreds of overdubs for each song, meant that he ended up filling about 400 reels of 24-track tape. "We must have used the world's entire supply of tape!" grins Baker. "We were trying to get a hold of more tape because we were wiping tapes that we had already used to make space for new overdubs. We had bunches of slaves. We might have a whole slew of guitars on one slave, and then submix those to two tracks on another slave, and carry on overdubbing onto that one. We were always submixing and bouncing backwards and forwards. It was very, very time-consuming."
For the orchestra recordings and the final mix, the whole company decamped to Los Angeles. "We decided to mix at the Village Studios because I know the studio inside out," recalls Baker, "and I really like mixing on their Neve 88R. I felt it was good to mix on something that's discrete — I'm a big fan of Neve. I'm sitting at one now: I have a 1073 here in my studio. We also thought that it would be easier to use all the orchestral players that Paul Buckmaster uses anyway, so we shifted gears and jumped on a plane to Los Angeles. We recorded the orchestra at Capitol. That's if we could get into the studio — the security guys often wouldn't let anyone in. It was ludicrous — one day they would not let me in, and another day we had to stop the session so we could go out and have a fight with these guys because they would not let half the band in."
The orchestral recordings themselves don't appear to have suffered, for they are truly sumptuous courtesy of Buckmaster's arrangements and the in-your-face way in which Baker captured the orchestra, with a lot of close miking resulting in 50-odd tracks. "Basically in the last stage before the mix we had transferred everything to Pro Tools for ease of operation," Baker continues. "It's also far easier and safer to send a bunch of files over to Los Angeles than 400 reels of tape! We then did a lot of sub-bouncing inside of Pro Tools. Some tracks had loads and loads of guitars and vocals and we'd end up with 1000 tracks otherwise. That's impossible, so we got everything down to 72 tracks.
"We then set Pro Tools up with the Neve 88R and started mixing. I don't like mixing inside of Pro Tools, because it feels a bit Mickey Mouse to me when you need a cursor to push up and down faders and so on. I don't get a feel for it the same way as when I push a fader with a huge motor in it. I have very versatile fingers, I can use every finger, including my thumbs, to do different things at the same time. When I drive a car I like to have the steering wheel and the gear stick under my hands. I don't think I could do it from the back seat using a computer.
"I always record with effects, because it adds to the performance, and I tend to blend in the ambient tracks. This means that mixing is mainly balancing, and giving the final tweaks sound-wise. Because I don't add much compression during recording I may add compression. I'll be using old and new stuff during mixing, like Fairchild, Summit, or Tube-tech. Instead of sticking a Lexicon on the vocals I used natural echo: echo chambers, plates, or slap tape echo. And we mixed the album to half-inch analogue on an Ampex two-track and also back into Pro Tools, as a comparison. We listened to both, and found that the analogue had a nice, big, saturated bass sound, while the digital had a really nice crispy top end. We ended up using the analogue mix for mastering, adding some treble to make it sound as sparkling at the top end as the digital did."
And so, after a year of intense work, Baker had managed to pare 37 songs, 400 reels of tape and almost 10,000 tracks down to just 10 songs and 35 minutes. Excess had made way for economy. The end result sounds remarkably focused, with no dead wood discernable, and many songs barely making it past the three-minute mark. One wonders how Baker had managed to keep track of the whole process, and to choose the best performances and sounds out of the thousands of options at his fingertips.
"Oh yeah, you have to be mentally organised," says Baker, "and make very good notes of everything you do. There were recording engineers who made sure that it all got to tape and who did the transfers to Pro Tools, which was a task as well. But for me there's no risk of not seeing the wood for the trees. It's totally the opposite. You get focused on what you think is appropriate for a song, and then you tune into different microphones and preamps and EQs and so on. As long as you stay focused on what's appropriate, you end up not getting confused whether it's this mic or that mic.
"But you have to know what your goal is. It's not like 'Let's try this, let's try that.' That's an indecisive way of doing it and you end up being all over the place. In this instance the band and I had discussed beforehand what we planned to do, and we mapped it out before we went into the studio. Of course it changes, it always changes. In the studio you're running 100 percent on instinct, and you sometimes end up with something that's a lot better than you had planned. But the structure of every song on the album is exactly the way it was planned out to be. Our vision was exceptionally clear. We had a vision of how the record was going to pan out, and we stuck to that vision, unless happy accidents happened. And I think we pulled it off."