Producer/engineer Peter Henderson spent nine months recording an album that neither he nor the A&M label could afford to fail. Yet when he handed in the masters, Henderson was convinced that Supertramp's Breakfast In America would finish his career...
Peter Henderson started out as an assistant at AIR Studios on Oxford Street in 1973, and quickly teamed up with Grammy Award-winning engineer Geoff Emerick, who served as his mentor over the next couple of years. During that time, Henderson also worked with other seasoned pros such as Bill Price and John Punter, yet it was Emerick who taught him the fundamentals, from recording vocals to entire orchestras, while working with artists such as America and Robin Trower.
"When I began working with Geoff the standard was 16-track," Henderson recalls. "He would put two [Coles] 4038 ribbon mics over the drums and wouldn't even mic the toms. There'd be [an AKG] D90 on the snare and probably [an AKG] D12 on the bass drum, and that was it. There wasn't even a hi-hat mic. We had Neve consoles and Fairchild limiters, and everything leaned towards performance. I remember one of my first engineering jobs, working with Paul McCartney on Wings At The Speed Of Sound  — he'd do two vocal takes and ask, 'Which is the better one?' And when he played guitar, he'd really lean into it and give it everything he got. Well, Geoff was very much like that. Everything had to be performed, and he'd always say that he liked the sound to jump out of the speakers."
That having been said, Peter Henderson's very first engineering gig was alongside another Beatles alumnus, producer George Martin, on the 1976 Jeff Beck album Wired. "I listened to that a few years later and it sounded like it had been recorded direct to cassette," Henderson remarks. "I don't think it was one of my finer moments. The thing is, when you started off at AIR, you'd usually spend about 18 months assisting and then overnight you would become an engineer. You'd do adverts and record orchestras, and as time went on you'd be trusted to work with better and better artists."
After engineering Supertramp's Even In The Quietest Moments and Frank Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti, Henderson went freelance in 1978 and co-produced the Climax Blues Band's Gold Plated and a Tubes live album. The following year he nabbed his biggest album production credit to date, collaborating with Supertramp on Breakfast In America. "Geoff Emerick had been asked to engineer Even In The Quietest Moments, and when he couldn't do it I ended up doing the recording and he ended up doing the mix," Henderson explains. "Then I was asked to engineer the follow-up, and ended up co-producing with the band."
By 1978, Supertramp — then comprising keyboardist/vocalist Rick Davies and his songwriting partner guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Roger Hodgson, together with vocalist/saxophonist/woodwind player John Helliwell, bass player Dougie Thomson and drummer Bob Siebenberg — already had five albums behind them, and hit singles like 'Dreamer', 'Bloody Well Right' and 'Give A Little Bit'. Courtesy of producer Ken Scott and concert sound engineer Russell Pope, the British five-piece had established a reputation for lush, catchy, carefully crafted pop, and it was in the middle of a post-tour break that Roger Hodgson wrote the lyrics to 'The Logical Song', a wistful four-minute ode to separation from the simple, innocent joys of childhood and the confusion this engenders. It was just one of nine new compositions demoed at Southcombe Studios, a rehearsal space within the band's management office in Burbank, California, during late April and early May of 1978.
"I went to LA thinking we were going to start recording, but nothing was quite ready, so we ended up doing very, very basic eight-track demos for the whole album," Peter Henderson recalls. "As it turned out, this was a good opportunity to work out the arrangements for most of the backing tracks — 'Take The Long Way Home' wouldn't arrive until much later in the project — and we even assembled the running order for the album. We were pretty organised.
"The home demos of each song were pretty much all keyboard-based — vocal and piano or vocal and Wurlitzer — and then [at Southcombe] the whole band would run through them. However, by the time we completed the eight-track demos, we didn't have any of the parts that would be overdubbed on the finished record. We just worked on the live backing tracks and overdubbed the guide vocals."
Next stop was Studio B at the Village Recorder in West LA, housed within a Masonic temple and featuring a 48-channel Harrison console, as well as two Ampex 1200 24-track machines. The band members all gathered there on the first day, yet Peter Henderson didn't show — while driving to the studio from Topanga Canyon, he and his new wife were involved in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Fortunately, nobody was too badly injured, and Peter eventually turned up at the Village Recorder with two enormous black eyes. "I looked like I'd been in the ring with Muhammad Ali," he says. "It wasn't the best of starts, but we were very lucky to get off so lightly."
The delayed start was then compounded by a week-long effort to determine the desired sound setup, which involved positioning the drums in various parts of the room, experimenting with mics and even trying out three different grand pianos.
"We weren't going to start recording until everything was just right," Henderson says. "No one was prepared to compromise on anything, and although I remember the management raising their eyebrows, I really think it paid off in terms of the results. That having been said, we took this approach because we didn't want to spend a lot of time on the mix, but as it happens the mixing process was quite laboured and we did actually run into some difficulties."
In 1978, the Village Recorder's Studio B comprised a control room facing the wooden-floored live area and adjoining drum booth at the far end. For 'The Logical Song', the backing track consisted of Bob Siebenberg's drums, positioned close to the main room's left-hand wall; Dougie Thomson playing bass, also in the live room; Rick Davies on the right side of the live room, playing a Clavinet part that was subsequently mixed out; Roger Hodgson's Wurlitzer electric piano, placed in the drum booth; and John Helliwell's sax, played in that smallest room of all, the toilet.
"John kept moaning about his lot, but I think he actually quite enjoyed it," asserts Henderson. The same setup largely applied to all of the tracks, and about two or three days were expended on each song.
"We'd get the sound, do a couple of takes and then take half an hour off while Russell Pope and I would tune the drums with Bob," Henderson recalls. "Russell was another ear, almost part of the band, so we'd go in there while Bob was having a breather and change a few things. The whole idea was to get a really good band performance, and I think the backing tracks we got were terrific. Everything was fresh, and that's what I liked about the album — even though it ended up taking about nine months to complete, there's still a really, really vibrant, fresh feel to the tracks. For instance, on the song 'Child Of Vision' the entire grand piano solo was live, and across the whole record we did get to keep a lot of stuff that never needed to be redone. It was just five people playing in a room. There were no click tracks and there was no splicing of the backing tracks."
After each backing track had been completed, a slave reel was made with the drums bounced down from nine tracks to four, comprising bass drum, snare, cymbals and toms. Within four weeks, the live band sessions were at an end and the multitracks were put away until the mix. However, since said mix would take about four weeks and the overall project about nine months, that leaves seven months for overdubbing... That's right, seven months.
"Considering how much we'd actually managed to achieve, I do have to say the overdubbing took a long time," Henderson admits. "After we'd bounced down and made a slave for all the songs, we then began working on the missing parts. With vocals, we would try one, and if it worked that was great, and if it didn't, we'd come back to it later. Again, it was always about trying to get a fresh performance and not over-labouring. We'd spend a lot of time getting sounds, particularly guitar sounds, and then return to a vocal and try doing it again."
Again, the Neumann U47 came into play for Roger Hodgson's lead vocals, recorded through an 1176, and although Peter Henderson would have normally opted to use a Fairchild limiter, none was available at the Village Recorder. Hodgson double-tracked his vocal lines and took care of the backing harmonies, and this was the case for the choruses and third verse of 'The Logical Song' while verses one and two remained single-tracked. Still, he felt that something extra was needed to lift the number. He just didn't know what. Only towards the very end of the project did the answer come his way.
"Rick came up with the answering vocal on the second chorus and Roger was really pleased with that," Henderson recalls. "Roger himself was a really good singer and he was brilliant at double-tracking, although you had to catch him on the right day. Sometimes he would over-sing and he'd have to make the effort to sing a little bit quieter. When he did that, it was more natural and it kind of helped the sound. And we also did some punching in with the vocals."
In the meantime, the song's percussion intro combined John Helliwell's heavy breathing with Bob Siebenberg hitting a small cymbal and playing the castanets... after a fashion. It took some time for Siebenberg to master the little clickers, but master them he did, and he also played cowbell and timbales for the song's outro, which was further embellished with overdubs of Rick Davies' wah-wah Clavinet and the 'd-d-digital' sound emanating from a Mattel football game that belonged to English producer/engineer Richard Digby-Smith, who was working in the next room.
On the choruses, the arpeggiated guitar part was created via two Les Paul electrics going through Leslies and miked with a couple of Neumann U87s top and bottom, compressed with two 1176s, as well as a pair of double-tracked Guild 12-string acoustics miked with U87s. Synth strings comprised 'cello in the form of an Oberheim Four-voice, and an Elka Rhapsody string ensemble fed through the Boss chorus pedal for the high parts. "We did that pretty much throughout the whole album," Henderson states. "We used a lot of Oberheim Four-voice, and the Elka just sounds brilliant going through the Boss chorus."
The normal working day during the Breakfast In America sessions was 2pm to 11pm, Monday to Friday, yet while these hours contributed towards the lengthy timeframe for overdubbing, everything was on course and going according to plan.
"Sometimes, for inspiration, we'd go down to SIR — Studio Instrument Rentals — and see what was lying around," says Henderson. "I remember we rented a calliope and various percussion instruments, and some of these things helped inspire ideas. We might spend a whole day just doing one part — getting the sound for it and then working on the performance — so it was a slow process, but an interesting one, and it was a very, very joyous experience for everybody."
Then came the mix. Suddenly, it was as if everyone had lost the plot.
"We spent three or four days trying to mix at the Village, but the Harrison EQ was so harsh, it was impossible to brighten things without making them sound electronic," says Henderson. "The funny thing was, before we started mixing I spent a couple of hours doing rough mixes of the whole album on that Harrison desk, and for a long time afterwards a lot of people really liked those mixes, even after we finished the main mixes as well. However, part of the problem we had was that, over a long period, you get so used to hearing things a certain way, you almost need to go somewhere else to re-evaluate."
For the recording of Breakfast In America, Bob Siebenberg's Ludwig drum kit — featuring a more pop-oriented 24-inch bass drum in place of his usual 26-inch kick, Superphonic snare, and Fiberskin-covered 13, 14, 16 and 18-inch toms — was accorded an unconventional miking setup that Peter Henderson has never used again: a Sennheiser 421 on the bass drum, 421s on the toms, a Neumann KM84 on the snare, and AKG 451s overhead and on the hi-hat.
"The main thing about the drum sound was probably the KM84 on the snare, influenced by Alan Parsons' work on [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side Of The Moon," Henderson explains. "It's very soft-sounding, but it's also right in your face, very bright, and it added so much energy. It was just a weird combination of mics, and although one could use it again, these days I think people want more power from the drums."
Meanwhile, Dougie Thomson's brand-new Music Man Stingray bass, DI'd with plenty of EQ, was, according to Henderson, "one of the best basses I've ever recorded. He played with flat-wound strings, and while I wasn't a big fan of the Harrison desk, it really worked well for bass. We put a ton of EQ on it — literally +10dB at 100Hz and +10 at 200Hz — and then put it through a [Urei] 1176. The console had a really good low end, and the way Dougie played it, the bass also had so much depth. Dougie was very underrated as a bass player, even within the band, but I think his contribution was great. He'd always play the right thing for the song and I particularly like his bass parts on 'Take The Long Way Home' and 'Child Of Vision'. What's more, because Bob played the bass drum very lightly, we had the bass guitar very, very loud in the mix."
Roger Hodgson's Wurlitzer, fed through a Roland Jazz Chorus on previous albums, was DI'd and the signal then split through a Boss chorus pedal to create a semi-straight, semi-modulated sound. "Roger's a naturally gifted musician — everything comes very easily to him — but he always employed a very heavy-handed style for the Wurlitzer," Henderson says. "John used to refer to him as 'Hammer hands'. He was also singing the entire track, miked with a U47, and we ended up keeping his vocal on the end section from the original track."
Not that this was sufficient excuse for John Helliwell to find himself with nowhere else to play sax but the loo. Still, he plunged on, so to speak, his instrument recorded with an STC 4038 ribbon mic in the bell and a U87 about two feet away. "Everyone was playing together on the track, and we couldn't have John's sax bleeding onto the drums," says Henderson. "As I've said, he made a song and dance about it, but in a nice way. The live sax solo from the backing track was fantastic, so we kept that except for one small punch-in and re-recorded the end section."
Thus, the decision was made to relocate to Crystal Studios, famous as the Hollywood facility where Stevie Wonder had recorded Songs In The Key Of Life, and now called Barefoot Studios. Back then, Crystal had two studios: the one in which Stevie had recorded and a small mix room that had just opened, housing a custom 56-channel console with no automation. It was here that the problems really kicked in.Crystal Studios in Hollywood, where the Breakfast In America album was mixed.
"Having worked on the record for so long, everyone had different ideas as to what it should be," Henderson explains. "For some reason we weren't pressurised, although we should have been pressurised because it was a very tough time for A&M and this was kind of a pivotal album for them. Some band members wanted it to be a little bit more hi-fi and ultra-clean, while the others kind of liked the way it was sounding, which was a more full sound. As a result, we ended up going around in circles — when we tried to clean it up, it lost a little bit of the energy, and then we went through the process where we had the drums too loud. After that we had a big meeting, and then we started again. This was nearing the last week of February '79, and now we were up against a really, really tight deadline to get the album mastered by the 22nd.
"We were mixing half-inch but we were doing the mixes in sections. We'd mix a verse up to the chorus, and then, because we didn't have enough hands on deck, we'd mix the chorus, mix the next verse, and literally do the whole song like that. In the end, we mixed each song three or four times, and we were losing our objectivity as well as our patience. I mean, the stuff generally sounded pretty damned good as it was, but over the months we'd developed different ideas as to how the record should sound and now we were each trying to get back to that point. It was really confusing. What's more, there was a lot of concern over the effect this was having on the budget and whether or not somebody else would be brought in. No one could decide which was the final mix, and there was tremendous pressure on us during the last three days. In fact, on the final day we literally worked through the night remixing four songs and pretty much went straight to the mastering. It seems that when you're doing something by instinct, you can do it really quickly, whereas when you go into mix mode you quite obviously start thinking about things. Well, as time ran out and we got down to the wire, the instinct came back in a hurry and we just got on with it. Thank God it all kind of worked out."
He can say that again, and the A&M execs certainly did when Breakfast In America topped the US charts for a month and went on to sell 18 million copies worldwide. Thereafter, Supertramp would make one more studio album, 1982's ...Famous Last Words..., before mounting tensions between Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson would come to a head and Hodgson would depart to pursue a solo career. However, there was evidently no such animosity between the two men during the Breakfast sessions.
"They got along fantastically well and everyone was really happy," says Peter Henderson who, in addition to Supertramp, has since produced and/or engineered records by Paul McCartney, Rush and the Raindogs, among others, and has most recently been working on an updated version of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music and Toontrack's Custom & Vintage virtual drum instrument with drummer Chris Witten. "There was a very, very good vibe and I think everyone was really buoyed up by the recordings and A&M's response to them. The only contention I remember had to do with the first track, 'Gone Hollywood', which originally had different lyrics. Roger and the other guys in the band thought they were too downbeat and not very commercial, so they asked Rick to rewrite them and, although he wasn't too happy, he did go along with it."
'The Logical Song' became one of the fastest-breaking singles in A&M's history, reaching number six on the Billboard singles chart, and Breakfast In America spawned other hits in the form of 'Goodbye Stranger' and 'Take The Long Way Home', turning out to be Supertramp's finest hour; critically, commercially and artistically.
"The success of that record was basically down to its great songs," Henderson comments. "I never tired of hearing them over the entire time, and I think the album has a very uplifting feel to it. To my mind, it still sounds fresh, the tracks have a real energy and a real vibrancy to them, and it doesn't sound dated. Despite the time we spent on it, [Breakfast In America] still sounds like a band album. At one point, there was a discussion as to whether or not we should use sound effects — because they'd used them on their previous albums — and real strings, but I personally preferred the intimacy of the band feel, and fortunately that's what we went for."
It was a wise decision. As for Peter Henderson, he scooped the Grammy for Best Engineered Album of 1979. However, when he accepted the award, it wasn't without a sense of irony.
"The album was mastered by Bernie Grundman at A&M," he recalls. "Russell and I arrived there having had virtually no sleep following the final mix, and when Bernie first listened to the tape there was a lot of chin-scratching going on, along with worried looks. Then, I remember we did a test pressing and it was taken up to a guy called Marv Bornstein who was in charge of quality control at the time. Again, there was all this shaking of heads and discussions between the two men. Bernie was saying 'You've put a lot of bass on here,' and I said 'Well, actually, that's the way we do it in England. We like a lot of bass on our records.'
"Still, the head-shaking continued along with the worried looks and negative comments. They were kind of intimating 'I'm not sure about this,' and by the time I left that mastering session I was convinced that the whole thing had been totally fucked up. It was literally a 'This is the end of my career' situation, and the next day I got on a plane and was out of there.
"Well, when I won the Grammy, I made my speech and said thank you to the members of the band, their management, Russell Pope and also to Bernie Grundman. Then I saw him afterwards and he said 'Thank you for mentioning me. I always knew, from the first time I heard that album, that it was going to win a Grammy.' I don't know if he remembered all the shaking of heads, but he was dead serious, and that was a sweet moment, I guess."
What a business.