Engineer and producer Bruce Botnick recorded some of the greatest artifacts of West Coast psychedelia, among them the first five albums by the Doors. Here he describes the making of their influential second album and its title track, which saw them develop their live sound through radical experimentation in the studio.
"If you can remember, you weren't there," goes the old adage regarding the hallucinogen-fuelled second half of the 1960s. Yet even though Bruce Botnick is fond of quoting it, his own powers of recall are very much intact, and that's more than fortunate for anyone who wants to learn about an eclectic array of artists and projects from one of the most important and innovative West Coast recording engineers of the past five decades.
The son of a jazz violinist, Botnick played the saxophone and clarinet before serving an apprenticeship at Liberty Records during the early 1960s and then joining the staff of Hollywood's Sunset Sound Recorders in 1963. There he recorded everyone from the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and, later on, the Doors (their first five studio albums), to Buffalo Springfield, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Delaney & Bonnie, Tim Buckley and the Turtles, while also taking in the likes of the Chipmunks and a host of children's records.
"Many of those projects were happening simultaneously and I thought it was fine," he now says. "I loved the variety, because something might happen on the children's albums that I would then bring into a Doors session. I don't think that happens today."
As a producer from 1967 onwards, Botnick has also worked with, among others, the MC5, Eddie Money, Kenny Loggins, Aerosmith and Joe Perry. At age 22, his debut production project — Love's Forever Changes album — successfully merged psychedelia with mariachi horns, while arguably his greatest achievement in this field was the Doors' classic LA Woman (1971). When Paul Rothchild no longer felt inclined to guide one of rock's most inventive but increasingly erratic outfits, Botnick dispensed with the strings that had hampered the band's most recent efforts and in six days helped produce a stripped-down rock masterpiece that was their finest effort since their eponymous debut.
Having recorded the soundtracks to a numerous movies during the mid-'60s, Botnick has made an extremely successful transition to this field during the past three decades, producing and/or engineering, mastering and mixing projects that range from Total Recall, Gremlins, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Star Trek: Voyager and Basic Instinct to animated features such as Aladdin and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.
Current projects for Bruce Botnick include the mixing at his home setup of numerous Doors live concert recordings (for release on the Doors Music Company's Bright Midnight label), as well as film and TV work with composers David Newman, Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Menken. It was therefore amid a busy schedule that Botnick recently took time out to reminisce about the Doors' second studio record, Strange Days, when, as he recalls, the studio was his girlfriend and he was thrilled to be paid an annual salary of $8,000 by Sunset Sound. "I would have paid them to allow me to be in the studio," he asserts, "and looking back at it, I did!"
Whereas the artists, producers and engineers at a facility like the EMI Studios on Abbey Road in London benefitted from in-house technical staff who created devices to satisfy their unconventional sonic demands, this was not the case at Sunset Sound. "The big studios like United and Radio Recorders and RCA and Columbia had their techs," Botnick remembers, "whereas at all of the independent places like Sunset and Harmony and Gold Star we did our own stuff. The way the console was set up at Sunset, there was a patch point everywhere. The patchbay was immediately to my right on the floor and it went up to the top of the desk, so you had to patch everything. There was nothing ever normalled in the console. I could therefore make a microphone appear on whatever pot I wanted it to and, in the days before Fuzztones, if I needed to effect a guitar on a track like 'When The Music's Over' I could come right out of the fader into another line amp and then turn up the output. That line amp would, of course, feed another fader, so you really wouldn't hear the first fader because it didn't finish the circuit — the signal would go from microphone to mic preamp and from the mic preamp to the fader. Then I would go out of that fader into another mic pre, and the more I'd turn it up, the more distortion there would be in the next mic pre. And then that's when the tubes would blow. If I had done that working for a major facility, I'd have probably been kicked out on my ass! Still, in my estimate, that guitar sound on 'When The Music's Over' is one of the cleanest and most beautiful that I've ever recorded, not to mention how well Robbie performed."
Meanwhile, it was thanks to Paul Beaver that the Doors were introduced to the synthesizer. A year earlier, in 1966, Beaver and his partner Bernie Krause had purchased one of Robert Moog's first units, and after some fruitless attempts to popularise it around Hollywood, they displayed it in a booth at the Monterey Pop Festival and subsequently attracted interest from some among the rock cognoscenti. Paul Beaver himself quickly became one of LA's most in-demand session musicians, yet in the case of Strange Days it was only his Moog that made its way into Sunset Sound Recorders for use on the title track.
"We created an envelope where we could feed Jim's track into the Moog so that he could play any note on the keyboard and it would process his voice," Botnick explains. "I then added a little delay and fed the whole thing into an infinite tape repeat. That was hand-played."
When vocalist Jim Morrison, guitarist Robbie Krieger, keyboard player Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore first entered Sunset Sound Recorders, they were armed with enough material for their first three albums: The Doors, Strange Days and Waiting For The Sun.
"Jim and Robbie were constantly writing," recalls Bruce Botnick. "What's more, they were a gigging band, so most of the songs had already been worked out and arranged. This was especially so during the first album, when they were playing at the Whiskey [A-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip] every night. They did a lot of woodshedding, and so when they came in it was just a case of translating the material into an album. There was some doubling of Jim's vocals and we overdubbed Larry Knechtel's bass on a couple of tracks, but ostensibly that record captured what they were like live."
What's more, it was recorded and mixed in just four-and-a-half days, whereas the follow-up took a whopping two-and-a-half weeks to complete. "We weren't doing one song a day, we were doing two or three a day — sometimes even four," Botnick says. "The good thing about doing stuff quickly is that you have everything fresh in your mind. It's like a painting done in pastels, and the longer you go, the more the pastels start falling off the canvas and you don't know what you're looking at. By doing it quickly, you still have that excitement, you still know where the reverb is along with the balances and subtleties, and you just automatically do them. Then you can step back and listen, and if you need to do a fix you just edit it into the mix.
"Back then we didn't have any automation. Everything had to be done by memory, and we had to make decisions. We couldn't leave things for later on. 'We'll fix it in the mix' didn't exist. It's not that way today. I work with multi-channel Pro Tools HD, and I love all the tools, but the process is just so much longer. You have to think too much, and there are so many things that can go wrong. Years ago it was all about the performance, and the concept was fixed so that we could work from that rather than having a blank sheet and going, 'OK, let's just do the drums now.' I'm amazed that a lot of the kids who are mixing today are able to put this all together without any concept of what it's supposed to be like live, but it is what it is.
"Today, engineers have a lot of the same devices at the ends of their fingers. All of the desks have an equaliser, they have a compressor, they have filters built into them, and what's happened is that there's a lot of similarity to the sound. On the other hand, in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s, most people built their own consoles and they'd use different equalisers which they often made themselves. As a result, I could tell you by listening to the radio if it was an Atlantic record, if it was an Elektra record, if it was a Columbia record, if it was an RCA record — you could tell by the sound of the rooms and their consoles and by the echo, whereas today it's all either SSL or Neve. It's become homogenised, nobody is standing out and it's really sad. When you listen to the old recordings, yeah they're primitive, but there's character."
Released in October 1967, 10 months after The Doors had blazed a trail thanks to its stunning fusion of rock, blues, jazz, classical music and poetry, as well as the chart-topping single 'Light My Fire', Strange Days furthered the band's commercial success and critical acclaim via songs such as 'Moonlight Drive', 'Love Me Two Times', the 11-minute opus 'When The Music's Over' and the hit title track. It also marked the first time that the Doors recorded on eight-track, utilising the Sunset Sound custom console that had been designed by engineer Allan Emig.
"It was like today's consoles in that it was just a surface," Botnick explains. "Everything else was remoted, including all of the tube preamps. There was no on-board EQ — everything was plugged in; banks of Pultecs and Langevin equalisers, Fairchild equalisers, Fairchild limiters, Universal Audio 176 tube limiters, things like that. We didn't have a lot of gear. The tendency was to use the right microphone for the right colour, and place it so that we'd get the sound we wanted. I mean, if you had three equalisers available, that was a lot. At that time I had maybe six Pultecs as well as a bunch of Langevins, which had a huge insertion loss of 17dB.
"At a lot of the studios in Hollywood, the consoles had built-in EQ curves in the mic pres, because they'd use a lot of ribbon microphones. And when condenser microphones came into use, those curves were still in there, so everything was super-bright. However, when Allan Emig built Sunset Sound, he didn't do that. His consoles, and those of [Universal Audio founder] Bill Putnam, were straight ahead, even though Bill did have shelving equalisers available on almost every module.
"The console we used on Strange Days had 14 inputs and four meters, and it was set up so that you could listen to mono, stereo or three-track, because we'd recorded everything in three-track. Things had gone to four-track in a hurry, but the standard had been three-track with three loudspeakers in front, and that's why it's so funny today to see people working in 5.1 and not knowing what to do with the centre speaker. It was always there. We had [Altec] 604Es, and the good thing back then was that you'd find the same loudspeakers everywhere — you could go to New York and you would hear the same thing, you could go to Chicago and you would hear the same thing, and it was great. They may not have been the most perfect loudspeakers in the world, but at least you knew what you were getting. I could go from Sunset to United Recorders or to Columbia Records' studio or to RCA and know what I was listening to.
"At that time they'd always put the lead vocal in the centre speaker with the bass, and then they would have the drums and guitars together on one side with keyboards and strings, while on the next channel they would have the background vocals. They basically did that for mixing purposes, listening in three-track, and that was the setup which we used when working on Strange Days. We already had four-track for the first album [The Doors], and what I'd done was have heads made for it, got another Ampex record/play preamp, got the SelSync unit, and we built it. Then we wound up buying another one.
"[Engineer/studio owner] Wally Heider had the first commercially-made eight-track — a 3M — and we rented it for the Doors at Sunset Sound. Wally had never used it, and he got it back two years later. Still, he was happy — he went out and bought two more. In fact, when I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to do the MC5 Kick Out The Jams album in 1968, I hired Wally to provide all of the equipment for me. He flew it to Detroit and got a truck, and he had that particular machine on the tailgate. He and I were in sitting in the truck with our backs towards the machine, and all of a sudden we felt the truck lift off the ground and we heard this crash. The machine had rolled off the truck and fallen six feet onto its back, and when we turned around and saw it we thought, 'Oh God, we're in trouble now.' However, we stood the machine up, rolled it back onto the liftgate, turned it on and it worked fine. They don't build them like that any more."
In the meantime, the progression to eight-track for the Strange Days project was greeted with great excitement by the band, Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick. Now they would have room to experiment while recording live in the studio. And experiment they did, making the first rock album use of a Moog synthesizer on the title track, while recording, among other things, backwards drums and piano on both that song and 'You're Lost Little Girl'. Nevertheless, there was a conscious effort to avoid overdoing any particular effect.
"At that particular time, Paul [Rothchild] was all-inclusive," Botnick explains regarding the working dynamic involving himself, the band and their producer. "The music was speaking very loud and I think that we all just reacted. In line with the old adage 'Don't think, it's dangerous,' there wasn't a whole lot of thinking. It was more a case of 'Let's try this, let's do that, let's do this, let's do that,' because we had these new toys to play with — meaning four more tracks — and so it was like 'Wow!'"
In the Spring of 1967, prior to the commencement of work on Strange Days, Bruce Botnick had acquired a mono acetate of the Beatles' groundbreaking Sergeant Pepper album from the Turtles, and the effect of playing it to the Doors and Paul Rothchild was to spur them on to try innovative new techniques of their own. "We were there anyway," Botnick asserts, "but Pepper convinced us that we could go forward."
The Sunset Sound Recorders environment in which the Doors and their production/engineering team were working was a brick structure on Sunset Boulevard that had once been an auto repair garage. Consequently, the walls, ceiling and floor all slanted towards a corner where excess car fluids had trickled into a drain — hardly ideal for a recording facility, one might think, yet the non-parallel surfaces were great for acoustic control.
"It was a rectangular room with a low ceiling — maybe eight feet — and the floor sloped down towards the control room," Botnick recalls. "In fact, when it rained and the water came in, we could have a small lake there. The floor was concrete with asphalt tile and one piece of carpet on it. There was no major effort to get super-isolation. We didn't know what that was. The walls were all brick, and there were fibreglass wall panels covered with fabric spaced four to six feet apart. Then there was a vocal booth which was the creation of Tutti Camarata, the studio's owner, while at the end of the studio Tutti and I converted one of the disc mastering rooms into a big isolation booth for the strings and so on.
"Back then, no facility had a vocal booth. Tutti was the one who came up with the concept. As a producer he'd never liked the fact that there was all that leakage into the singer's mic when he recorded alongside the orchestra. He didn't have the control that he wanted, and so when he and Allan Emig designed the studio they incorporated the vocal booth. I had never seen one before, and when I walked in and saw it I was blown away. It made perfect sense, and I subsequently recorded pretty much everybody in there, from jazz singers to hard rock."
The year 1967 marked a high point on both sides of the Atlantic in terms of songwriting creativity and technological innovation, and in the latter regard Bruce Botnick was constantly coming up with new techniques to attain credible new sounds. For instance, at the same time that he was recording the Doors' Strange Days album, he was also engineering Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle LP, and it was the desire to achieve a fluttering effect on the vocal which gave rise to a Botnick invention that Parks dubbed the farkle: three-quarter-inch masking tape was creased in eighth-inch folds and wrapped like a fan around the capstan of an Ampex 300 full-track mono tape machine at 30ips. The tape then ran through the recorder and fluttered as the rubber capstan bounced, and, by bringing back the output of the farkle to the mix, Botnick was able to attain the sought-after effect while adding plenty of echo from the famed Sunset Sound chamber and delaying it further via an Ampex 200 three-track at 15ips. This same spirit of innovation prevailed on the Strange Days project.
"One my big things was messing with echo," Botnick recalls. "That Ampex 200 would hold 14-inch reels, and it had been converted to three-track from a quarter-inch mono. Allan Emig had actually got an Ampex head stack and attached it to this machine, and made his own record/playback amplifiers. Those amplifiers were totally separate, they weren't even on the same chassis, and they had different equalisations available. They had NAB, they had the European CCIR, and they had AME, which was Ampex Master Equalization. That was basically a pre-emphasis type of noise-reduction system, where it put in more highs on record and less highs on playback to ostensibly cut down the tape hiss. It was really ahead of its time, a precursor to Dolby in some respects, but I'd use it on that machine as the delay for the echo, because I loved that 167-millisecond delay in the Ampex at 15ips. I would make the record side AME but the playback NAB, so I got this bump in the curve and it really made the echo chamber shine. I always delayed the output in the chamber, not the input, because it sounds different.
"Then I had a really nice EMT plate that I used for Jim's vocals, because we recorded our echo live on him. How many singers would do that today? None. Nobody has the courage to make that kind of commitment. Back then, however, everybody did it — I don't know of a studio that didn't record the echo live. In those days people didn't think as much about these things that get in the way of performing."
For the Strange Days sessions, the general modus operandi was to record the band as a unit and capture the performance before then adding to it or fixing any problems by way of overdubs.
"We didn't do a lot of fixing," Botnick emphasises. "The feel was what mattered, and so we'd often leave in mistakes that we would know about but which others wouldn't notice. Paul was really good at that, and if he wanted another take and they said 'We've already done it,' then it was done. I mean, you've got to understand it wasn't him producing them or me recording them; it was the six of us, and we worked as a unit. It was really nice."
Only much later on, following Jim Morrison's arrest for lewd conduct during a concert in Miami, would this unity begin to unravel, at which point Paul Rothchild would have to take control in the studio. "That was not an enviable position to find himself in," Botnick confirms.
Before that, however, everyone contributed ideas, even though only Botnick had his fingers on the faders. "I could play in their sandbox but they couldn't play in mine," he quips. "I mean, Paul would say, 'Can we make that brighter?' 'Let's add more reverb,' 'I like what you're doing,' or 'I don't like what you're doing,' and it was just a wonderful, symbiotic working relationship. It was what it should be in the studio, where people feed off one another creatively, and if they're listening to one another — which is the key to everything — and watching body language, then you just kind of move in the right direction without having to be asked or told. We all just moved in the same way.
"The Doors' music was such that it could not be tracked. The drums were set up on the east wall, with John's back to the part that had an acoustical splay on it — I had very, very low gobos that were maybe about an inch-and-a-half thick with fibreglass in them, and one side was masonite with holes and the other side was a little fabric, so they were basically transparent even though they could stop stuff. Ray was positioned in front of John, facing the control room, and Robbie was in front of John, and I had another of those gobos in between their two amps. Jim was right behind them in the booth, so they could look straight at one another."
The drums were miked with an overhead Sony C37, placed at the height of Densmore's forehead in the centre of the kit, as well as another 37 flipped out of phase underneath the snare and an Altec-Lansing 'Salt Shaker' on the kick. While Telefunken U47s were employed to record both Robby Krieger's guitar and Ray Manzarek's electric organ, the piano-bass was DI'd. Tried and trusted, this was Bruce Botnick's miking technique for assorted setups with a wide variety of artists.
"I'd use this even if I was doing my Motown sessions," he remarks. "I'd developed it myself, and later on I also had a drum platform made, suspended off the floor to get a little more depth to the sound. We'd always try different things: John might put his wallet on the snare, and we'd always tune the drums for the song. Sometimes I would have a U47 positioned maybe eight feet from the kit and heavily compressed to open it up a bit, but there weren't a whole lot of games. The console was very open-sounding and the mics were pretty bright in those days, so we'd just add a little bit of EQ and that was it."
Jim Morrison's vocals were captured with a U47, and although Botnick didn't use a pop shield during the Strange Days sessions — "I still don't like using them," he says, "I can hear them" — this would become a necessity a few years later when a drunken Morrison risked getting moisture on the capsule. At that point, Botnick would resort to making filters out of ladies' stockings glued over wire frames, "and when they were fresh Jim would get stoned off of the glue!
"Still, he was great, and for the most part he was one of the easiest people I've ever had to record. He had a big, full sound — his idol was Frank Sinatra, and he always had those legendary crooners in his soul, even though he could go from crooning to screaming in a flash. He was like [Peruvian singer] Yma Sumac, with a four-octave range. I could set up his mic and just brush him lightly with compression in order to grab it when he screamed, but otherwise he was right there. He gave full value to every note. He was a controlled singer, like Sinatra and like Elvis. He loved Elvis, and he was a good student."
Bruce Botnick asserts that although the Doors and their crew were constantly discussing the direction that their songs should take while exploring ways of creating new sounds, their ideas were never inspired by what they heard on other records — as previously mentioned, Sergeant Pepper served as encouragement to forge ahead, but they never copied any of its innovations.
"Nothing out there resembled what we were doing," he says. "However, the cool thing at that time was that everybody went to everybody else's sessions. You know, Zappa would be there, and then after our date we'd attend a Zappa session at TTG [Recorders]. The Mamas & Papas would also be at our sessions, or the Byrds... everybody was hanging out with everybody, and nobody was being secretive about what they were doing. It was full and open exchange. What was going on here and in England directly paralleled one another. Nobody was talking to one another about what it was or why it was; it was just happening."