This interview, conducted by Matthew Greenwald back in 1997, first appeared in issue 14 of The Tracking Angle. As Rhino readies the new Doors LP box set (now set for April, 2008), we figured it was a good time to present it here-ed.
MG: Can you give us some idea of what Sunset Sound was like in terms of the room and the equipment?
BB: Well, we had one room, which was Studio One, which still exists today, although the control room has been heavily modified over the years. It was a compression room…the back wall was all brick, the floor was asphalt tile, the right wall looking out to the studio was shelving with sliding doors. That’s where we put the tapes, because we didn’t have a tape vault. Then there was the glass window, and there were three Altec Lansing 604e loudspeakers hanging above that. The left was a block wall covered with acoustical tile, and then there was a big door, which held the famous Sunset Sound echo chamber, and then there was the entrance into the control room.
The console was a custom tube console with 14 inputs that Alan Emig built for Sunset Sound. He also built Elektra studios, and was one of the original mixers at Columbia Records when they had their studios here in Hollywood. Alan recorded Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the famous Stravinsky recordings at the American Legion Hall, things like that. A multi-talented man. He was also one of the design engineers who originated the design of the tube amplifiers that United Recorders used. He designed a lot of those consoles, and then brought that technology over to Sunset Sound.
The whole control room was all brick, and it had individual panels of acoustical tile to deaden it down. Basically it was a very live room. The console sat on a platform, which was about six or eight inches off the floor. The tape machine sat behind us; we had an old Ampex 200 three-track, which had separate record and playback electronics so that you could select separate record or playback curves. They had a thing back then called A.M.E., which was Ampex Master Equalization, and then they had N.A.B., so if you recorded A.M.E. and played it back N.A.B., it would come out brighter. It’s like recording with Dolby and not decoding. We also had an Ampex 300, I believe, three-track, which I converted over to a four-track with sel-sync (the ability to perform overdubs).
BB: Yes, everything was done half-inch, especially in the case of The Doors and Love, until we got to the second Doors album, where we had eight-track.
MG: Was the room itself changed during those years?
BB: No, the room stayed the same from the day I walked in the door, which was about 1963 to 1968. When I came back to do some mixing in 1970 it was still the same, except that they changed the console to solid-state.
MG: Robby Krieger told me that when they built Elektra Studios, you got the board from Sunset Sound. Is that true?
BB: No. We built Studio 2 during the recording of Waiting For The Sun, at Sunset. It was a big room. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we built the control room walls, and Tutti Camaratta, who owned Sunset Sound Recorders, had bought out a studio in Las Vegas and gotten a solid-state console that was full of Langevin components. We rolled that in—it was on wheels—into Studio 2. We had Altec 604e loudspeakers in there powered by McIntosh tube amps. Then later on, when we did “Unknown Soldier,” we recorded that song in that room. The rest of that album was recorded at TTG Studios, which stood for “Two Terrible Guys” (laughs). They weren’t terrible guys. It was Ami Hadani and Tom Hildley, the same guys who designed and built all the famous Record Plant studios. Anything but two terrible guys. The cool thing about Ami was that he was a General in the Israeli Air Force, and he’d be doing a session and there’d be problems and he’d have to leave the session and go fly off to Israel, fight the war, then come back and finish a session. Weeks could go by, it was kind of funny.
But anyway, back to the console. Tutti used to go to England a lot, and he purchased a solid-state console over there. For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of it. We all thought it was kind of cool. It had a lot of features that the tube console didn’t have. It sounded different, you know? Tubes still sounded the best. Anyway, Jac Holzman purchased one as well, and we had it customized for our needs at Elektra Studios. So, that’s how the console got there.
MG: Elektra was really on a roll when they launched the 7000 series, their first rock stuff. Beginning with the first Love album, do you have any recollections from that period of time of how Jac Holzman went about exploiting that market?
BB: He saw things, basically, that other people didn’t see. He understood innately what to do, because there weren’t any ground rules. He was inventing as he went along. He was the first in a lot of areas, to seek out live air play, to do billboards. Just plain old guerrilla-warfare record selling! And he still is, to this day, very creative, and has been a great influence on me in his ability to take things where they haven’t been before.
MG: Can you give me some comments on the first Love album?
BB: If I remember correctly, the first Love album took us about four days to record. The band came in, they were well rehearsed, and we basically documented where they were at. Jac got the performances out of them, made the decisions. Then he went back to New York and I mixed it by myself and then sent him the mixes. The industry standard was three seconds between each song. But in Jac’s sequencing, he would make the spaces 10 seconds if they needed to be that long, in order to set up the songs properly. He was also very cognizant of the keys that the songs were in, so that we didn’t have train wrecks of songs going from the one key into another. He invented a lot of that way of doing things. It wasn’t just sequencing the songs, where you’d put the single at the top of one side, bracket the ends and throw a bunch of other stuff in between. He didn’t do that. He treated it as an event where you listened from beginning to end, and I think that has influenced the entire industry. He’s probably not that well known for it, but he invented that process.
MG: On the second Love album, Da Capo, did you just work on the songs on one side? Because I think that they recorded some of it at RCA….
BB: That’s right. With Dave Hassinger as engineer and Paul Rothchild as producer. They recorded all of the single songs except for two at RCA Studio B. The reason for that was that Dave was doing the Rolling Stones albums at that time “Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud,” things like that. So, they really thought they’d like to go over and get that sound. Then they came back to Sunset Sound for “Revelation.” We did that and two other songs.
MG: What about the single, “Seven And Seven Is”?
BB: “Seven And Seven Is” was produced by Jac Holzman. That was the first thing we recorded after the first album. That was done specifically as a single, and ended up on the Da Capo album.
MG: Jac told me that Arthur played most of the instruments on that one.
BB: That’s true, he played drums because Snoopy (Alban Pfisterer) couldn’t play it, it was too fast.
MG: Was Forever Changes started and stopped a few times?
BB: It stopped twice, and started three times. First time, I was going to produce it alone with Neil Young, and about two days into it he said that he couldn’t really do it because of his commitments to The Buffalo Springfield. Then I was going to produce it alone, which I did, even though the credit says Arthur Lee and Bruce Botnick. That’s because we’d gotten into a disagreement, and my pride outweighed my sanity, and I called Jac and insisted that my name not even be on the album. Later on I regretted what I did. So then I got the guys together and Arthur had all of these great songs, and they were playing really badly. Extremely badly; there was nothing there. I said to Arthur, “This isn’t going to work; we’re not going to get an album.” Then I called Jac and told him that I’d like to do a couple of cuts with studio musicians, and I called in the Wrecking Crew, Hal Blaine and those people. Arthur played acoustic guitar and we did a couple of songs, which wound up on the album—you can really hear the difference.
MG: “The Daily Planet”?
BB: Yes, that’s one of them. I can’t remember the other one at the moment. They’re really obvious, but they’re really cool nevertheless, ’cause they’re Arthur. The band sat in the control room crying uncontrollably; I mean, it was unbelievable. They all came to me after and said, “We’d like another chance, we’ll get ourselves together,” and I said, “Okay.” We went over to United Recorders, which was at that time Western Recorders Studio One, because I couldn’t get into Sunset Sound for some reason, and we recorded the basic tracks with all of them, and then we came back to Sunset Sound and recorded all the brass and strings, Arthur’s vocals, Bryan’s vocals.
MG: Did you record some tracks at Leon Russell’s home studio?
BB: We did some overdubs there; what exactly, I don’t remember.
MG: When you came to record the first Doors album, did you get an immediate sense of how important and lasting their music would be?
BB: No, I don’t think anybody is good enough a fortune teller to tell you that the first time they hear something that it’s going to be really important and stand the test of time. But I did relate to it immediately; it was nothing I’d ever heard before and innately knew what to do with it.
MG: You had already worked with Paul Rothchild by this point, right?
BB: We had already done the first Tim Buckley album.
MG: Da Capo was also happening at the same time….
BB: It all intermingled, it became a big flood.
MG: Back to The Doors’ first album, what was it like working in the studio with them, and what was your involvement beyond the technical task of getting their music onto tape?
BB: I was the engineer, I recorded it. But in any good relationship between artist, producer, and engineer, there is a meeting of the minds, and a lot of it is unspoken. It’s an understanding and there’s a chemistry there. The six of us made those records. There was nobody that said, “You’re the producer, or you’re the engineer.” It was a team effort. You didn’t think about these things; it’ s just the way it was, nobody felt threatened. Any good producer tries to extract performances and not put his or her viewpoint into the fore. My name on the cover of the album is not going to sell the album; the artist is going to sell the album.
MG: Let’s talk about Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle a little bit.
BB: One of my favorites.
MG: What do you recall about the evolution of recording that album?
BB: Van Dyke Parks recorded all around town; he did a lot of stuff that was on four-track that later got bounced to eight-track. On some of the cuts the strings were done at Western Recorders Studio 2. Van did a lot of it at United Western. I didn’t do a lot of the recording; Lee Hershberg did the majority of it. The man should be canonized. Anyway, I did a couple of tracks at Sunset Sound, and some of the vocals, but I did all of the mixing, and this is where it all sort of came together. We did a lot of experimenting; I came up with something called a “Farkle” (laughter). In those days we didn’t have a lot of tools to modify electronic sound. We didn’t have phasers, we didn’t have flangers, we didn’t have anything like that. They didn’t exist, so you kind of had to make things happen [by using your imagination.]
The “Farkle” was sort of like that. It was basically where I could take the return of the echo chamber and bring it back into a quarter-inch mono tape machine, and on the capstan I had hand-folded masking tape into eighth-inch pieces, so it was like a fan, and then taped it around the capstan. When the tape would go through, it would make this fluttering sound, and the tape would bounce over the heads. If you listen to that album, you’ll hear a lot of that. So, that was one of the things that I came up with because we didn’t have those kinds of tools. Basically it was a lot of experimentation, different reverb types, using the combination of the acoustical chamber and an EMT (plate reverb) simultaneously, playing stuff out into the studio and bringing it back on crystal microphones just to get weird pick-ups.
But also beyond the incredible creativity of Van Dyke and his mind, the one person who really understood how to pull it together was Lenny Waronker. I’ll never forget when we were mixing it down at Sunset Sound. Joe Smith was there, Mo Ostin was there, Lenny was there, and Jac Holzman was hanging out. Jac started bidding for the album with Mo, “Let me put this album out on Elektra, I know just what to do with it; I must have this album….”
MG: To put it out on Elektra?
BB: Yeah! (laughter) And they’re bidding right in front of us, we’re watching, heads going back and forth like a tennis match. Van Dyke’s credibility shot up a lot because Jac Holzman realized what the album was. He probably knew that the album wasn’t going to really sell, but he wanted it because he knew creatively it was going to enhance all the other acts. One of the things about Elektra, and it holds true about Columbia Records, Atlantic Records, in — I don’t want to say “the old days” — but in days gone by, was that labels had a sound, they had an identity. And you signed with a label because of the artists who were on it. Everybody didn’t do rap, everybody didn’t to this or do that. Elektra didn’t do jazz. They didn’t do any soul music. They did folk, folk-rock, and rock ’n’ roll.
For The Doors to sign to Elektra, they did it for two reasons. Paul Butterfield, and of course Love. If you went to Columbia Records, you were on the label with Bob Dylan and The Byrds. There was a sound, even to the records. You could identify a Columbia record by the tape-delay reverb. You’d hear their pop stuff, like Robert Goulet, and hear (claps hands loudly) “Ba-bam!”…You knew what it was. It was a Columbia record, it had that sound. Elektra Records had a sound, too.
MG: That is so true…any other thoughts on Song Cycle?
BB: Well, still to this day it’s one of the highlights of my life. I listen to it and I’m amazed. We did so much with so little.
MG: The mono mix is really amazing, too. Tell me about doing mono mixes during this period.
BB: Well, it was normal. Up until when the industry really went stereo, I’m not talking about recording studios, I’m talking about the record stores carrying only stereo records. Up until that point, mono was still our medium, as AM radio was mono and 95% of the homes in America had mono phonographs. We didn’t hit stereo radio with pop music until the late ’60s and early ’70s. Also, we used to listen in mono a lot. Even though I had three speakers, I was always listening in mono, because in three-track, the thought wasn’t for making stereo records, it was for splitting up the elements for later mixing. You could turn the vocal or the strings up and down against the rhythm section. We didn’t even always have separate drums. You made a live mix in those days. You made the decisions live; it was normal.
MG: Do you still — like mono recordings?
BB: I still like mono to this day, because there aren’t any distractions. It’s like a black and white movie, where you can create incredible dimensions, depth-wise, and hide things. That’s very hard to do in stereo. That’s because we don’t record in stereo: We record multi-track point-source discrete audio. The difference in the mix was when we would open it up to stereo, we would have to change things, because it didn’t fall in the same place. Spatially, things would fall into other places.
MG: Since we mentioned eight-track already, I was curious about one of your first eight-track recordings, Strange Days. What’s going on with the bass-drum sound on that? It sounds like it’s being punched-in in places; it’s got a funny popping sound….
BB: That was the first time we ever recorded without a head on the bass drum. I listen to Strange Days now, and where I thought the drums were up where they should be, I think they’re down. But I always used an Altec “salt-shaker” mic, which were used in airports for P.A. work. They’re still great, I still use them. But the sound you’re talking about was just the “pop” of the drum without a head. I think it was the first time we heard it, and went, “God, this is a great sound,” and we equalized it. You know, it’s not like today where you add 12 dB at 35 Hz to make it shake the room.
MG: It sounds to me as if the first Doors album had the best high-frequency extension, transient snap, and overall transparency, and that with each album— sonically fine as they are—those qualities seemed to diminish. Would you agree or disagree?
BB: I’d agree with that to an extent, because the first album was all tube. Strange Days was done on a tube console, but with a solid-state eight-track. From then on it became all solid-state consoles and solid-state tape machines. There was also this direction that Paul wanted to take it, a more intellectual kind of a sound, not as raw as the first album. The sound started to become more scientific as it went along, a little more clinical, because studios, by and large, are hospitals, they’re not places to record music. Technology is the evil person here.
MG: I guess that’s not fighting technology, it’s kind of going around it.
BB: Sound since the 1960s has gone backwards instead of forwards, in my estimation. In the recordings that I do today for motion pictures, I use tube microphones, tube microphone pre-amps, and I try to bypass the solid-state consoles as much as possible. It’s more open, it’s rounder, it has more depth. I can give you an example. If you take a room that has some reverberation— not a chamber, just good clear liveness— and you put an earphone in the middle of the room with a click going through it, so you hear the “tick, tick, tick.” Plug up a good microphone, maybe a (Neumann) U-67 or something like that, split the signal so it goes into a tube microphone pre-amp, and then the solid-state pre-amp, bring them both up on the console, and switch back and forth, and listen. With the tube, you’ll hear all the reverberation in the room; the solid-state will close down. Ten times out of 10. So that’s somewhat what you’re hearing. Even the equalizers back then were tube; we had Pultech EQ-P1A’s.
MG: What’s your opinion of digital multi-track recorded sound, and your opinion of digital recording, period, compared to analog? Which do you prefer?
BB: I would venture to say that 95% of the music that I’ve recorded in the last eight years has been all digital. Digital does not basically sound better than analog, but what it does do, is that the sound doesn’t change from what you’re recording. With analog, you record it, and when you play it back, you will get a fair representation of what you heard on line-in. Play it back a half an hour later, and it will have changed, there are less highs. Play it a day later, and it will really have changed. The high end just changes, it’s a natural process of the magnetism of the particles, and when you magnetize, record them, they change. The magnetic particles have a memory and want to go back to their original inert state. It’s just the way it is. In digital, you record it, and it doesn’t change. The problem with digital is the quality of the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters. At this point in time, the A-to-D and D-to-A’s are getting where you can record on it and it doesn’t sound “digital” anymore. “Digital” meaning that it sounds cold. “Cold” meaning that digital doesn’t show you all of the details, like the depth of the reverb and harmonic room tone. Because there’s lack of detail, and especially lack of harmonics going way out, that sound would seem colder, and “digital.” Right now, I’m recording 96 K, 24 bit, and whew! It’s good! I mean, you’re really, really hard pressed to tell it from the source.
MG: How about the remastering of The Doors’ catalog?
BB: The next batch of Doors albums, when we remaster the entire catalogue, will all be 88.2 K or 96 K. We don’t know what the exact format for the new DVD disc will be, but either way, if I record at 88.2 K or 96 K, it’s no problem going down to 44.1 K or 48 K for the final disc. I don’t know all the technical jargon, but I do know what it sounds like. Digital is really getting to that point where a lot of people who were really anti-digital are going, “Really, this is quite good.” I also like digital from a functional standpoint of punching in and out, copying tracks, building the master without (generation) loss. I build a lot of vocals today where I’ll have 10 tracks, and I’ll digitally copy the vocal to an open track, and I’ll just keep taking a word from this track, and a word from that track and build a master comp vocal and not have messed anything up, and not have to turn things up or down by hand. Also, the ability to store memory on the digital multi-track and slide it and place it where you need it. It just beats the pants off of analog as far as a tool is concerned.
“ …in any good relationship between artist, producer, and engineer, there is a meeting of the minds, and a lot of it is unspoken. It’s an understanding and there’s a chemistry there. The six of us made those records.” – BRUCE BOTNICK