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Rick Wakeman

Recording Return To The Centre Of The Earth By Paul Ward
Published July 1999

RICK WAKEMAN: Recording Return To The Centre Of The Earth

After many years of planning, Rick Wakeman has succeeded in putting on a show that is a worthy successor to follow his theatrical '70s son et lumière extravaganzas — Return To The Centre Of The Earth. Paul Ward was present as production of the album of the story neared completion at CTS Studios in London.

No matter what style of music they enjoy, there can't be many readers of Sound On Sound who have not heard of Rick Wakeman. Infamous in the '70s for his long blonde hair, long gold capes and long, complex synth solos, he has been an inspiration to a whole generation of keyboard players and has helped to create some of the most innovative and evocative music of our time. Though he is perhaps most famous for his stints with supergroup Yes, Rick's solo career has also had some spectacular highs and lows — and the most significant of its high points is probably the much‑acclaimed Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Based on the Jules Verne novel, the piece was recorded live at The Royal Festival Hall on January 18th 1974 and saw Rick and his band of 'unknowns' playing alongside the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir.

25 Years On...

Now Rick is back with one of his most ambitious projects to date, scheduled to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Journey. I found Rick and his engineers hard at work in CTS Studios, London mixing his new epic Return To The Centre Of The Earth.

At the time of the original Journey album, Rick enjoyed something of a reputation as a wild child of the '70s — but his excesses certainly caught up with him. At the time of the recording of the original Journey Rick was held up by painkillers and left the stage in a semi‑conscious state. Although he is now a completely reformed character, in a cruel parallel to the original, during the recording of Return Rick was taken seriously ill and hospitalised with a combination of pneumonia and pleurisy. When I met him at the turn of the year, he looked like a man still in recovery, but informed me that this time he's listening to his doctors more closely! Despite his slightly wan appearance, Rick's enthusiasm for his music could not be suppressed.

"I suddenly have all this wonderful technology at my fingertips. The original Journey was live and limited to 36 minutes, which was about all that you could reasonably cut on a vinyl album with orchestras and choirs. There were also a lot of things that I couldn't do in a studio at that time. Now I can do all kinds of weird things and I go in with an open mind."

The first time around, Rick was obviously inspired by Jules Verne's book — enough to produce a timeless piece of music from the ideas contained within its pages. This time it was up to Rick to define the plot. How did he come up with the new story? "I wrote the story as if I was Jules Verne doing the sequel. The plan was that a group of adventurers would attempt to follow the route of the previous expedition, but it obviously had to be different this time. I re‑read the book and noted the part where the shadow falls over the central cave entrance, giving them the start of their route. This time the shadow falls over the westerly entrance. Thank you very much, Jules Verne!"

Working Methods & Special Guests

Given the high profile of the original Journey, I asked Rick how he'd approached the project this time around. "I thought about what I could use as a parallel to get the best out of myself. My mind went back to some of the work I did with David Bowie on Hunky Dory. Before I went in to record my parts, David invited me to his house and he sat down with his beautiful old 12‑string guitar. He told me that he was going to teach me his new songs. If he did his usual thing of going into the studio to record his guitar parts, and then have everyone else come in and play around those parts, then the songs would be just as he heard them in his head now. He wanted something different. He taught me the songs and told me to go into the studio and just play them the way I wanted. The rest of the band then played their parts around the songs as I had interpreted them. David wanted to get a different approach to the songs — and it worked.

"I realised that what I would normally do is to put down the keyboard parts in pretty solid form, then get everyone else to play around them. This time I just made simple versions of the songs on piano and then brought in Fraser [Thorneycroft‑Smith] — a wonderful young guitar player — and reversed the roles. I was David Bowie and he was me! I taught the basic chords to him and left him with to get on with it and play them as if they were his own songs. Phil [Williams — bass] and Simon [Hanson — drums] did exactly the same. By the time I came to put my own parts on I had to play the keyboards totally differently to the way I would do normally. They'd not changed the songs, but for me it was like learning my own pieces all over again!"

RICK WAKEMAN: Recording Return To The Centre Of The Earth

A list of Rick's guest collaborators makes for very impressive sleeve notes. I wondered how the vocalists were selected...

"There were four singers that I had already contacted and I had written specific songs for them, but there were two songs that didn't have 'owners'. 'Ride of Your Life' needed a raunchy female rock vocal."

A chance comment to a colleague resulted in contact with Katrina (of Katrina and the Waves fame). "I sent her a demo of the song and she called me back to say she'd love to do it. She came in and recorded her vocal and I really couldn't have picked anyone better.

"That left one song, 'Mr. Slow', without a vocalist. I just couldn't come up with anyone who fitted the bill. While I was recovering in hospital my engineer, Stewart (Sawney), was over at Barriemore Barlow's (of Jethro Tull fame) studio recording the drums. When 'Mr. Slow' came up, Stewart explained my dilemma with trying to find the right voice for the track. Barriemore asked if it mattered if the vocalist was an unknown. He knew of a young northern singer he'd heard recently with a band called 'Kiss of the Gypsy' that he believed had the right sound for the track. He got a copy of the band's single to me and I thought he was worth a chance. We got Tony [Mitchell] into the studio and it was agreed that the best approach was for me to bugger off to avoid putting him under any pressure. He was in and out in less than two and a half hours, and had even had time to record alternative versions of the songs. The performance was straight off the top shelf.

"I took pretty much the same approach with all of the artists involved with the project. When Ozzy [Osbourne] came to do his vocals, he asked me how I wanted it sung. I told him to just record an Ozzy vocal."

And what about the other ex‑Yes member (aside from Rick himself, of course) — Trevor Rabin? "If I have any regret from the Yes years, it was that I never got to work with Trevor Rabin. I asked him to just do his own thing — pure Trevor Rabin solos. The results were stunning."

Return sees Rick again working with orchestra and choir, something which he didn't really believe he'd ever be given the chance of repeating. "There are an awful lot of people out there who wanted me to do something like this again, and I feel that responsibility. I have to be able to stand up and say 'this is what I wanted to do'. It has to be good. I can put my hand on my heart and say that this is not just everything I have dreamed of, but 50 percent more. The people who've been involved with this project haven't just done it as a job. I get calls constantly asking how things are going and wanting to know if their bits are mixed yet! Thsecret is to get people involved because they're good at their job and let them play the way they want to play — not the way you want them to play."

Some of the outboard gear used during the mix of Return.Some of the outboard gear used during the mix of Return.As if to add the cherry to Rick's cake, a discussion with EMI Classics resulted in one special guest coming on board who had originally been considered beyond the project's budget. "The narrative was done by Patrick Stewart over in Hollywood. I wrote the narrative for Patrick's voice as if it were a song. He's quite a wordsmith — extremely knowledgeable about the history and use of words."

Did recording the narrative over in the USA create any specific problems? "Patrick was recorded onto timecoded DAT. When we got the recording back home, I played some rough keyboards onto Cubase and we moved Patrick's voice around to get everything in the right place. We had all sorts of audio sync problems during this exercise, but we knew it didn't really matter, since we would be re‑doing it all later. Once we had the orchestra recorded we laid the finished narrative onto the digital 48‑track here at CTS."

"On the original Journey the songs told the story along with the narrative. This time around the songs run parallel to the story. Ozzy's song, 'Buried Alive' comes in when the explorers have been caught in an earthquake buried under a pile of rocks, but the song is more about being buried alive in your whole life. The song that accompanies their meeting with the old shepherd is essentially a love song. We've arranged the CD so that if you program your player to play all the odd‑numbered tracks, you can just hear the story."

Technology At Its Best

Rick has always been one to embrace technology if he feels it gives him an edge. "There was one occasion where a cello part during a narrative just didn't sound right. David Snell realised that I was going to ditch the part, but he suggested shifting the part to harp. Under normal circumstances, that would be a half‑day job for a copyist and you'd try again the next day. All I did was bring the part up into Cubase Score, place it into a two‑stave score for the harp and re‑print it — technology at its best. I had an extra two days booked in CTS, with musicians on standby, to act as 'repair' days. In the end we never used any of that time at all."

Technology has obviously moved on in some surprising ways since 1974. But with everyone's new‑founenthusiasm for all things old, analogue and clunky, I wondered if Rick had been tempted back to his Moogs, Hammonds and Mellotrons of old. It seems not. "For touch‑sensitivity, I used the brand new Fatar keyboard. Close your eyes and it really is like playing a piano. All of the piano on the album is real piano [a Steinway 9‑foot]. For soloing, my favourite keyboard is the Minimoog. After the Minimoog, my second favourite is the Roland JD800, which I MIDI up with other instruments. It's interactive — I love being able to fiddle with the knobs as I play. From Roland's point of view the machine was almost a total disaster. They brought it out at a time when people didn't want to play around with sound, but that's all changed. I have a sneaking suspicion that the JD800 will be discovered by some spotty little 19‑year old, who thinks 'this is great' — it'll appear on Top Of The Pops, and then we'll all be searching for JD800s! Other favourites include Korg's 01W ProX and X5DR."

Rick likes to use gear that may cause other people to raise their eyebrows. "A good example is the Technics WSA1. When I first saw it one year at Frankfurt, I told the guys then that the machine was a real winner, but they had to take the name Technics off it! It turned off a lot of buyers simply because of the manufacturer's name. The machine could have turned into something very special, but then they gave it to the home‑organ salesmen to sell — what a disaster!"

Synths & Synthesis

In the light of such failures, where does Rick see synths going in the future? "I think synths are fantastic, but manufacturers seem to be losing their way. They don't understand where their market is any more." And what about computer technology? "I look at studio technology, hardware and software technology and they seem to be like the A1, A2 and A3, whereas it should be like the A1 with three lanes! Until recently the scoring program Sibelius was only available on the Acorn computer — that's ridiculous! With everything becoming computer‑based you have to foresee a situation where people will be able to load synths in as pieces of software. But I could play you the same passage on a Minimoog 15 times and it will sound different every time — it's totally random. So the 'studio‑in‑a‑box' may well exist, but as an alternative. I'd like to see a major synth manufacturer get into bed with a major computer supplier and work together for once."

I bought my first Minimoog from a guy who said it was broken", confides Rick. "He wanted 35 quid for it — and they were £1000 new.

Do any of the physical modelling synths interest you? "Yes, it's very clever, but over‑rated. I don't give a toss how a sound is created, but if I like the music it makes then I may ask how it was done."

I remarked that it was good to hear that Rick is still teamed up with his Minimoog, being that they go together like bangers and mash — but then their association goes back a long way. "I bought my first Minimoog from a guy who said it was broken", confides Rick. "He wanted 35 quid for it — and they were £1000 new. I got it back home, plugged it in and found it in perfect working order. I felt honour‑bound to call the guy and let him know I couldn't find anything wrong. He told me that it only played one note at a time! I explained that it was a monophonic synth and was only meant to play one note at a time. He said that that was no good to him, and told me to keep it! Even that amount of money was a lot to me at the time — I was on 20 quid a week with Yes".

Rick's trademark Minimoog sound obviously relies on some subtle use of effects — so what is the secret? "I have my own way of recording the Minimoog. It's all to do with delay. I'm not giving too much away here, but something I always encourage other people to do is to try bringing other effects in on delay repeats. I also use a lot of pre‑delay."

Clearly, Rick is not enamoured of the over‑use of presets, be they in effects or synths. "Whenever I use a new keyboard, I go through all the presets, keep a few that are particularly good and then go in and re‑program the rest with my own sounds. It's important to do that if you don't want to end up sounding like everyone else. I deliberately avoided using any orchestral sounds on this occasion — why use them when you've got the LSO playing for you?"


A reasonable point, I'd say... But this sits easily with a man who, although he welcomes technology as an aid to creativity, does not like to see it get out of hand, as he feels it did last decade. "I hated the '80s. Technology was so far ahead of the musician that everything was run by it, instead of the other way around. We were discarding gear we hadn't learned to use properly simply because something new had appeared. Look at the current prevalence of analogue multitrack and mastering which looked to have been superseded by digital recorders. In the latter part of the '90s, we have learned to use technology as we need it, rather than trying out new tricks at every chance just for the sake of it."

There's a 35,000 limited edition vinyl album, of which rumour has it there are already orders for 100,000!

But surely this is a bit rich coming from the man who happily goes on the record saying he's content to mess around with sounds just to see what happens? "Definitely. On the album, we've put effects on orchestral instruments, which you wouldn't normally do. We panned them around, used 'helicopter' effects on the guitars... I don't like static stereo placement. I like to hear things moving around. I like to think that on the fortieth time of listening you hear something you've not noticed before."

I can see progressive rock fans around the globe nodding eagerly in agreement... Another name closely associated with both Rick's prog rock past and his current project is Mr Roger Dean. "Roger is doing a 38‑page booklet for the CD, and is also designing the live sets. There's a 35,000 limited edition vinyl album, of which rumour has it there are already orders for 100,000!"

"It also looks 99 percent certain that the whole project will be turned into an IMAX film. We're mixing in Dolby Surround and then there are plans for a 5.1 surround mix."

True to form, the next objective is to turn Return into a live epic. "There are plans to play Return in every continent. The music for the original Journey was quite simplistic, for a number of reasons; but given the nature of this music, it's likely the whole show will run to two hours. It's so complicated!"

Eric Jordan: In‑House Engineer, CTS Studios

"I'm acting as James Collins' assistant on these sessions. When Rick came to CTS, we transferred his ADAT tracks to the digital 48‑track machines and then went on to lay the vocal tracks. Next came the orchestral sessions which we did in Studio 1. We had two days with the orchestra, consisting of two 3‑hour sessions per day. It can be quite scary. You can count seconds in pounds when working with an orchestra! The musicians had 80 minutes of music to play, which they'd never seen before. Happily, it all went smoothly. The following day we spent around 12 hours recording the choir. We then took everything into Studio 2 in order to do all the editing and record the overdubs.

Eric Jordan.Eric Jordan."For recording the orchestra, we used a mic tree of B&K 4006 omni mics for the ambient sound. We also used a pair of Neumann M149s as outriggers. We had spot mics over each section of the orchestra. For the string section spots we used Neumann KM86, KM84 and U87 mics. For the brass section we used a Sennheiser MKH80 and a Neumann U87. Woodwinds were taken care of by AKG C414 ULS and AKG C12 UR mics. The final sound is pretty much a 50/50 split between the spot mics and ambient mics. We used no effects when tracking the orchestra — it was all down to mic placement to get the right sound. We tried to keep as direct a path to tape as possible. We recorded all of the mics onto a 48‑track digital machine set up as a slave to the other 48‑track. Where possible, we tried to keep the track placement as consistent as possible to make things easier for ourselves at mixdown.

"The choir were laid out in a standard SATB [sopranos, altos, tenors and basses] format, favouring the sopranos to the left‑hand side of room. We used pretty much the same mics as for the orchestra (Neumann M149/B&K 4006) with the bulk of the sound coming from the ambient mics. Spot mics usually give a more BV (backing vocal) sound. We did have some Neumann KM86 acting as a spot mic in front of each section. The only problem we encountered with the choir was a kind of 'tearing' effect, particularly with the sopranos. I checked all the pads to make sure we weren't overloading anything. I then went and stood in front of the choir and realised that that's how it was genuinely sounding. The air was practically bending in front of the female sopranos!

"Rick had originally planned for an 80/90‑piece choir, but on the day this became 40‑45 singers, so we double‑tracked all the choir parts. This made it a more time‑critical process than we had first thought. On the first pass we were looking to record each of the mics separately, but on the second pass we decided to go to a stereo pair.

"The tape format we are using is a pair of Sony 48‑track digital machines. We moved audio from ADAT via Otari UFC converter boxes to go digitally from ADAT to desk, then digitally to the Sonys. We are mixing to half‑inch analogue tape with Dolby SR and Quantegy GP9 tape. It's great — the noise level is fantastic and you can really afford to drive it hard. We are also taking a mix feed to DAT and CDR as well for safety. We've used Pro Tools extensively during mixing for editing — particularly to keep the orchestra in line with the rhythm section.

"Rick has wanted to experiment with crazy effects on orchestra that you wouldn't normally do, such as panning harps and adding chorus to woodwinds; that's been an exciting part of the project. When everything is going at once, that's the biggest challenge — the LSO, the ECC, keyboards, rhythm section, about 20 tracks of guitars — phew! But Rick's music is beautifully arranged, so there's not much work to do to drag out specific lines."

Guest Personnel On Return To The Centre Of The Earth

  • Narration: Patrick Stewart.
  • Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Snell.
  • Choir: The English Chamber Choir, conducted by Guy Protheroe.
  • Guest Vocals: Justin Hayward, Trevor Rabin, Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, Katrina Leskanich, Tony Mitchell.
  • Guitar: Fraser Thorneycroft‑Smith, Trevor Rabin (solo on 'Never Is A Long, Long Time').
  • Bass Guitar: Phil Williams
  • Drums: Simon Hanson.

Gear Lists


  • Korg Trinity.
  • Korg Prophecy.
  • Korg XD5R.
  • Korg 01/W.
  • Kurzweil K2000.
  • Kurzweil K2500.
  • Technics WSA1.
  • Minimoog.
  • Roland JD800.
  • Emu E4.
  • Roland R8M.
  • Yamaha QY70.
  • Ensoniq SQR.
  • Trident TS24 desk.
  • Quested monitors.
  • Yamaha NS10 monitors.
  • BGW power amp.
  • Intel 350MHz PC with Terratec soundcard and Cubase VST.
  • Mark of the Unicorn MIDI Express.
  • Alesis ADAT (x4).
  • Alesis BRC.
  • Otari 2‑inch 24‑track.
  • Fostex D10 DAT.
  • Fostex D30 DAT.
  • Sony 2500 DAT.
  • Sony R7 reverb.
  • Korg A4 effects.
  • Yamaha REV5.
  • Yamaha REV7.
  • Alesis Quadraverb.
  • Joemeek compressor.
  • Drawmer noise gates.
  • Drawmer compressors.


  • Neve Capricorn Desk.
  • ATC SCM200 monitors (for left/right/centre) (x3).
  • ATC SCM20 (rear surrounds) (x2).
  • ATC amplifiers.
  • Dolby SDE4 surround encoder.
  • Dolby SDU4 surround decoder.
  • Sony PCM3348 DAS48‑track recorders (via MADI to desk) (x2).
  • Studer A820 half‑inch mastering machine.
  • Sony RM7040 timecoded DAT recorder.
  • HHB CDR800 CD‑Rs (x3).
  • Pro Tools v4.11 (linked to desk via AES‑EBU).
  • Otari UFC (for transferring ADAT to Sony 3348s) (x2).


  • Lexicon 224XL.
  • Lexicon 480L.
  • Lexicon PCM80.
  • Eventide DSP4000.
  • AMS 1580.
  • AMS RMX16 (x3).
  • Roland SDE3000 (x2).
  • Yamaha SPX990.
  • Roland SBF325.
  • BEL BDE3200.
  • TC 2290.
  • Dbx 160s (x2).
  • Urei 1176LN (x2).
  • Neve 33609.
  • Sony M7.
  • Roland DEP5.
  • Aphex Aural Exciter C2.
  • Alesis Quadraverb.
  • Roland Dimension D.
  • API 550A equalisers.
  • Roland R880.
  • Electrospace Spanner.
  • EMT 140ST plate reverb.

Stuart Sawney: Rick's Engineer

"I'm using Cubase for most of this project, and it has been pretty good apart from a couple of sync problems. Patrick Stewart's narrative arrived on timecoded DAT from the USA and I used Cubase to chop it all up, remove breath noises and such. It's very easy to do that sort of thing with VST. I wasn't aware of some of the synchronisation 'features' in VST and we had a couple of hectic days trying to get everything in time! Using either audio or MIDI is fine, but trying to use the two together has been difficult — although Steinberg tell me that everyone else is doing it successfully! I had to build a couple of tempo maps to get it all 100 percent in time. We're using a Terratec EWS64 soundcard and that has worked well. The people at Terratec have also been very supportive.

"We recorded all of Rick's keyboards onto the ADATs, complete with effects. Rick often layers keyboards to get his sounds. These early keyboard parts were very simple, essentially to be used as a guide, but some of them have actually made it to the final mix.

"I spent time building some drum machine guide tracks at this stage before we went on to record the guitars. I used my little Yamaha QY70, the Technics WSA and the Roland R8M. I used the SQR for a couple of kick drums I like. 'Mr. Slow' has a loop going on in it which we kept from the original guide — mostly QY70 sounds.

"For guitars, we used a Trace Elliot amp and my old Fender Blues Deluxe. I miked up with an SM57 in front of the cabinet and an AKG414 behind. We weren't looking for anything particularly unusual. We used a few pedals, maybe added a little chorus and delay, and then we printed it to ADAT in its final form.

"Bass guitar came next, again in final form. I moved a few bars around using ADAT offsets where I felt that some sections were a better performance.

"For the drums I felt that Rick's drum room at Bajanor [Rick's studio on the Isle of Man — Ed] was too 'boxy', so we used Barriemore Barlow's studio. It has a great vibe in there. Simon brought two complete kits and a selection of four snares. We did four or five versions of each song, using ADAT slaves and I looked for the right feel and performance. I moved a few things around where necessary. The ADAT's facility to rehearse drop‑ins was important to avoid cutting off cymbals and such.

"After making a few more changes to the guitar parts, Rick then trucked all his keyboards over from Bajanor to CTS Studios and we recorded his parts here. Ozzy [Osbourne] and Trevor [Rabin] did their parts in America. The rest of the vocals were done here with James and Eric (the other engineers involved with the project). We used mostly AKG C414s and Neumann U87s for the vocals."

James Collins: Freelance Engineer

"My job is to try to balance a conventional orchestra and choir recording with full‑on drums and bass, and loads of tracks of guitars and keyboards. A lot of songs are pretty much on a knife edge — once you have the basic balance, if you just tip too far in one direction then it all goes to pot. With the effects too, its very tempting to go too far. I need to look at the rhythm section first, but I don't want the orchestra to end up sounding like a simple string overdub. The dynamics are huge within the orchestral sounds. On some pieces there are orchestral basses, bass guitar and synth basses. That requires some juggling, but Rick's orchestration is good, which prevents many problems. The LSO effectively handle their own dynamics as they play. I stuck a bit of compression on Patrick's voice to make it sit comfortably with the narrative background music.

"The Capricorn desk here makes you hear things in a completely new way — it's so clean. The Lexicon 480's A‑D converters are noisy as hell when heard on this desk! The Sony DAS3348s are hooked up to the desk with MADI [Multi‑track Audio Digital Interface] links, so there's no D‑A conversion until it arrives at the monitors. You have to spend more time getting rid of some of those noises that you once just learned to live with. The time spent doing that often brings the mixing time back up to that which you'd spend on an analogue console! I have three or four setups on the desk at the moment so I can go back to a good setup for each song as I mix — it's not back to square one for each song. This is where the Capricorn has real time‑saving advantages. I can recall configs as and when required.

"We would have liked to use analogue multi‑track with Dolby SR, but the choice of digital was simply down to the number of tracks we needed. I don't mind mastering to DAT, but given the choice I'll master to analogue every time. The quality I get on playback with Dolby SR is amazing. Providing the machine used at the mastering stage is lined up properly, it will sound fine — and I'll be there to make sure! The mix is being done in Dolby Surround, largely to satisfy the American market. The rear signal is largely ambience, but we've used the Capricorn to generate some interesting effects in places — listen out for some of the brass parts. And Rick's famous Minimoog has an amazing sound. It doesn't matter how much is going on in the mix, the Minimoog will cut through!

"I used to work here at CTS studios, but I'm freelance now. I got a great deal of experience of almost every aspect of music recording here. Being able to get your teeth into a project like this is just so good in having a chance to use that experience and bring it all together — even down to borrowing the score from Rick and working sections out for myself."