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Sounding Off: Are we losing the plot?

Steve Howell
By Steve Howell

The Future Sound Of Elvis...

What if Macs and PCs had been around in Elvis's day? Would 'Jailhouse Rock' have been a better record if it'd been done, say, in Logic? Imagine an interview with the engineer in one of today's hi-tech music magazines...Sounding Off: Steve Howell.

"Yeah, well Elvis came in and overdubbed his vocals to the backing track we'd built up over the previous two months. We devoted 84 tracks to the vocals so that we could drop in on individual words and have complete control. Even though we knew that ultimately most people are going to hear the record on an FM station with a 15kHz bandwidth or, at best, 16-bit/44.1kHz on CD, we recorded the vocals at 24-bit/96kHz in order to capture the maximum dynamics and frequency response of Elvis's performance, and it was really pushing the CPU to the limit. We did have some problems where Elvis had to redo some stuff 'cause the computer crashed midway through a take — that was a bummer. We also almost lost everything when the disk wouldn't mount for some reason and we didn't have a backup. Luckily, we found a company that could restore the disk.

"Anyway, after several weeks of sessions, we got all of Elvis's vocals done but listening back, there were some 'feel' issues. So we quantised them, time-stretched some of the phrases, slipped some words and phrases back and forth by a few samples and, of course, passed some through Auto-Tune. Then we dubbed them back in through a virtual tube compressor to add a tight edge. We also had to dither down the recordings to 16-bit and resample everything to 44.1kHz for the CD release.

"Trouble is, after all this work on Elvis's vocals, we then lost the link with the original backing track, which now had a kind of juxtaposed feel, so we had to redo the original band's parts with virtual instruments. We used the original drummer's part to trigger samples but discovered that some of the snare backbeats were inconsistently late by as much as two milliseconds, which was totally unacceptable for the vibe we were trying to create. We tried all sorts of groove quantise templates in Logic but with no success — so in the end, we used an Akai MPC60 for the drums, sync'ed over MTC. It had to be an original MPC60 though, 'cause the newer, blue MPCs aren't the right colour.

"We also sampled some records and spun those loops in over the programmed beats. Of course, some of these loops had to be stretched to fit and we found a great plug-in on the 'net that was well suited to what we were doing.

"However, there were some compatibility problems with Logic. In version 1.12 of the plug-in, there was a bug where, when the Logic file was saved, for some reason, it was saved as a Word document, so we had to wait to get an update. Then we found that the latest version of this plug-in could only be used on even-numbered tracks so we had to move all of Elvis's vocal tracks around to suit.

"Anyway, once we'd sorted these problems out, the track was shaping up so we transferred the whole thing onto analogue tape to get that saturation effect. We hired in 12 two-inch 24-track Studers, all synced with Timepacer synchronisers (these have the best feel to them) and once we'd laid down everything hot to get that real analogue crunch, we transferred them to Pro Tools. That was a nightmare — getting it all sync'ed with word clock.

"A final mix was done for Elvis's A&R people but they weren't happy as they felt that it wouldn't suit the target demographic for the radio station franchises, so the whole thing was passed to a group of DJs in NY 'cause they have a modern take on mixing that's kinda lacking here in Mississippi.

"Once they'd done a safe radio mix that wouldn't offend the advertisers (plus an a cappella mix, a space-trance mix, a grunge-house remix and the alternative 5.1 surround album mix for the various other formats it would be released in), it was sent to the Acme mastering house in LA..."

Now, dear readers, the above might appear to be absolutely ridiculous (and I'll admit to being just a bit tongue-in-cheek!) but it does seem to be the way so many major artists' records are made these days. However, I wonder, would the above recording process for 'Jailhouse Rock' have made a better record than the original, which was recorded in a single day straight to two-track (or even mono for all I know) with Elvis and a live band?

It does make me wonder if we're losing the plot a bit!

About The Author

Steve Howell has been in the industry for as long as the Minimoog. He runs www.hollowsun.com, a valuable resource for info and samples of vintage keyboards, synths and beatboxes.

Published March 2005