A Brief History of Idiosyncrasy
In the early days of recording, when studios were expected to be able to handle any type of recording which their size would allow, live rooms were more or less unknown. To this day, if the only recording space in a studio is a live room, then it is either in a studio which specialises in a certain type of recording, or the room is used as an adjunct to a studio which is mainly concerned with electronic music. Live rooms are distinctly individual in their sound character, and tend to impose themselves quite noticeably upon the recordings made in them. However, when that specific sound character is wanted, then effectively there is nosubstitute for live rooms. Electronic or other artificial reverberation simply cannot achieve the same results.
When, in the late 1960s, many British rock bands began to drift away from the more ‘sterile’ neutral studios, gravitating towards the ones in which they felt comfortable and in which they could play ‘live’ in a more familiar sonic environment, a momentum had begun to grow which would radically change the course of studio design. In 1970 the Rolling Stones put the first European 16-track mobile recording truck into action. This was not only intended for the use of live recordings, but also for the recording of bands in their homes, or anywhere else that they felt at ease. It was soon to record the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street album in Keith Richard’s rented house, Villa Nelcote, between Villefranch-sur-Mer and Cap Ferrat in the south of France, but another of its earliest uses was the recording of much of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. This album was a landmark, containing such rock classics as Stairway to Heaven and When the Levee Breaks; the latter perhaps inspiring a whole generation of recorded drum sounds. Previously, Led Zeppelin had made many recordings in the famous, old, large room at Olympic, in London. For the fourth album, they rented Headley Grange in Hampshire, England, and took along the Rolling Stones’ mobile, and engineer Andy Johns. The house had some large rooms, but none had been especially treated for recording. Nevertheless, as the house existed in a quiet, country location, the ingress and egress of noise was not too problematical.
It seems that When the Levee Breaks, with its stunning drum sound for the time, was never planned to be on the album, or indeed to be recorded at all. In the room in which they were recording, John Bonham was unhappy with the sound of his drum kit, so he asked the road crew to bring another one. When it arrived, they duly set it up in the large hallway, so as not to disturb the recording, and waited for John to try it. At the next available opportunity, he took a break from recording and went out into the hallway to see if he preferred the feel and sound of the new kit. The other members of the band remained in their positions, relaxing, when suddenly a huge sound was heard through their headphones. The sound was from the drum kit in the hallway.
John had failed to close the door when he went out, and the sound from the kit that he was playing was picking up on all the open microphones in the recording room. The hall itself had wood paneled walls, with a large staircase, high ceiling, and a balcony above. It was thus diffusive, absorbent to low frequencies, reverberant, well supplied with both late and early reflexions, and very much of a sonic character which matched perfectly the style and power of the drumming. He went into a now famous drum pattern, over which Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones began playing some guitar and bass riffs which they had been working on. Robert Plant picked up on the whole thing, and sung along with some words of an old MemphisMinnie/Kansas City Joe McCoy song. Subsequently, Andy Johns, who had been recording the sounds out of pure interest, reported from the mobile recording truck that they should consider this carefully, as he was hearing a great sound on his monitors.
Such was the birth of this classic rock recording. The story was related to the author by Jimmy Page, a dozen years or so after the event, during a telephone conversation relating to the production of some recordings for Tom Newman (co-producer of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells I & II), as one of the songs being recorded was the one referred to above. The problem related to the fact that no matter how many times Newman listened to the Led Zeppelin version, he could make absolutely no sense of the words in the bridge section. ‘Probably that is because they don’t make sense.’ replied Jimmy. Evidently, during Robert’s sing-along, there was no bridge lyric which he knew or remembered, so he sung what came into his head. Why this story is relevant to this chapter is because it shows, most forcefully, how a room inspired an all-time rock classic. It is almost certainly true to say that without the sound of the Headley Grange hallway, Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks would never have existed.
Had Led Zeppelin been recording in a conventional studio of that time, they could perhaps now have been considered to be one rock classic short of a repertoire. But, it must also be remembered that had John Bonham been playing a different drum pattern in Headley Grange, or had Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones opted for a different response, then the sound of the drums in the hallway may have been totally inappropriate. This highlights the limitation with live rooms; they can be an inspiration and a unique asset in the creation of sounds, or they can be a totally intrusive nuisance. Furthermore, there is no one live room which will serve all live room purposes.
Excerpt from Philip Newell’s Recording Studio Design, 3e.
About the Author
Philip Newell is an international consultant on acoustic design and former technical director of Virgin Records. He has over 40 years’ experience in the recording industry and has been involved in the design of several hundred studios, including the famous Manor and Townhouse Studios. He is also author of Project Studios, Recording Spaces and Studio Monitoring Design, and co-author of Loudspeakers, all published by Focal Press.