secrets of the masters

What the master tapes tell us about this Doobie Brothers track

The sound engineers at OEM Inc. have spent thousands of hours with the original masters of the most famous songs ever recorded. They use them to create products like Jammit, an iPhone app that allows you to remix and play along with those original tracks. There are many, many things to learn from those original tracks. Through a partnership with Gearhead Communications, OEM Inc. engineers are sharing their discoveries exclusively with Premier Guitar readers in what we like to call Secrets of the Masters

“China Grove” by The Doobie Brothers
From the album The Captain and Me (1973 Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Ted Templeman
Engineered by: Donn Landee
Written by: Tom Johnston
Recorded at: Warner Bros. Recording Studios in North Hollywood, CA
Available in the JAMMIT “Classic Rock Vol.2” application

One of the many great things about ’70s music (besides all the artificial stimuli) is that most bands recorded a new album almost every year. This was the case for The Doobie Brothers when they returned to the studio shortly after the release of their 1972 album, Toulouse Street, to start production on their third studio album. After having success with Ted Templeman at the helm for their first two albums, The Doobies continued the proven formula for what was to become their most successful and recognizable album to date, The Captain and Me. Recorded in North Hollywood at their record label’s recording studio, the song “China Grove” would help propel The Captain and Me to double platinum sales status and become one of the band’s most loved singles.

I always love the opportunity to peek into the recordings of some of my favorite engineers and producers, and both Ted Templeman and Donn Landee are near the top of my list when it comes to albums from the `70s. From Van Halen to Montrose, the simplicity and focus, yet size and depth of their productions always seems to catch my ear. Upon dissecting the multi-tracks for “China Grove” I wasn’t all that surprised to see (and hear) everything laid-out and organized nicely, and immediately sounding familiar with the faders at zero and without EQ or effects. I spent a few minutes listening back to the album mix to get myself reacquainted with the overall vibe and sonic imprint that I’d be trying to match for the Jammit version of the song. After several passes through the timeless song, I dove in headfirst.

Tracks (in no specific order):
1) Bass Drum
2) Snare Drum
3) Drums
4) Hand Claps
5) Tambourine
6) Bass
7) Guitar Rhythm-Tom
8) Guitar Rhythm Overdub-Tom
9) Guitar Lead
10) Guitar Harmony
11) Piano Lo
12) Piano Hi
13) Lead Vocal
14) BG Vocals
15) BG Vocals Hi Harmony
16) BG Vocals Lo Harmony

At this point in recorded music history, most bands were still playing together while tracking in the studio as opposed to overdubbing almost all of the instrumental elements. It was evident right away that this was the case, as I could hear some guitar amp sound leaking into the drum tracks and some drum tracks leaking into the guitar track. The leakage was very slight, which most likely meant that the guitar amp was well isolated in another room or booth.

Drums Just Keep on Lookin’ to the Left
The drum recording appeared to be relatively simple with only three tracks—kick, snare and a mono drum track that could have been an overhead or room mic, or a combination of several microphones bounced down to a single mono track. The drums sounded great as is and didn’t need much more than a little high-frequency equalizing. The one anomaly about the drums was that they were panned slightly off center. Usually in rock music, the kick and snare are both straight up the middle, but this song had the kick in the center while the snare was slightly to the left and the drum track even more to the left. That’s a bit strange, but it sure created a nice pocket on the right side of the spectrum for the guitars and percussion.

The production on this song was pretty standard for a song of this time period. Aside from the drums, there were some additional percussion, tambourine, and handclap overdubs. The bass performance and sound on this song is top notch. It sounds to me like Tiran Porter played the melodic line using a pick and plugged direct into the board. Matching the sound was a cinch. The vocal tracks were also quite easy to mix, as they sounded darn good right off of the tape. A little reverb and slight EQ was all that was needed to get it sounding like the original.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Rhythm Groove
Other than the guitar solo and harmony overdubs, the guitar on this song is relatively straightforward, as well. From what the track- sheet read, the main rhythm guitar track was played by “Tom,” which I’m assuming was Tom Johnston, the band’s lead singer at the time and the writer of the song. An additional guitar overdub was added later to fill out the sound and thicken up the rhythm section. I spent a significant amount of time balancing and panning the rhythm guitars to get them to match the original album version, but couldn’t quite seem to nail it. I threw on some headphones to get a closer inspection of the original and noticed that the quarter-note delay that is on the main guitar track in the intro and re-intro is bypassed once the verse kicks in. This one subtle change allowed the rhythm guitars to sit properly in the mix.

I added a bit of reverb to both guitar tracks, but automated both the reverb level and the track volume of the cleaner guitar track in the bridge. Back in the day, this would have been done manually by whoever in the room could lend an extra hand to the mixing console. In 1973, fader automation on a recording console wasn’t a standard feature like it is today, so any volume, pan, or effects rides would have to be done in real-time as the mix was being laid down. This used to be part of the magic of mixing. It was a performance in and of itself. Today, one engineer can replay the mix over and over recording each and every push of a fader and turn of a knob until it’s just right before having to commit and print it as the master mix.

Mix Masters
In the days predating automation, it wasn’t uncommon to find the engineer, producer, band members, and sometimes even assistants performing these same moves all in one pass, like a well-rehearsed orchestra. If someone didn’t hit their cue, or adjusted the wrong knob, the whole mix would need to be done again from the beginning. Everything from grease pencil marks on knobs to razor blades taped above the faders (to block it from moving too far) helped make this cumbersome process a little easier. In many cases, the relative inaccuracies of this method produced some really magical results.

I have fun mixing just about every song we release for Jammit, but for some reason this one made me feel slightly nostalgic, even though I wasn’t even a glitter in my mother’s eye at the time it was made. It made me remember the stories I’ve heard many times over of how things used to be done when motorized faders on a console was as far-fetched as a little white box that can hold 10,000+ songs in your pocket. Having these limitations really put a premium on talent and ingenuity. Now I’m not going to go as far as to say that today’s music isn’t as good as it once was. (I wouldn’t want to sound too much like an old fogey, would I?) But it definitely makes me wonder if a lot of these songs that we call classics today would have been the same, worse, or better had the musicians, producers and engineers had all the tools and freedom from limitations that we seem to have today. I guess the only way we’d ever be able to find out is if we could take a nuclear-powered DeLorean back to 1973. Unlikely, just like the iPod 37 years ago.

To see/hear how you can play along to (with tab) and make new mixes of “China Grove” and other songs from the original multi-track masters, check out

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Frank Gryner looks at a more modern song, Rob Zombie''s "Dragula" - which he engineered!

The sound engineers at OEM Inc. have spent thousands of hours with the original masters of the most famous songs ever recorded. They use them to create products like Jammit, an iPhone app that allows you to remix and play along with those original tracks. There are many, many things to learn from those original tracks. Through a partnership with Gearhead Communications, OEM Inc. engineers are sharing their discoveries exclusively with Premier Guitar readers in what we like to call Secrets of the Masters

From the album Hellbilly Deluxe (1998 Geffen)
Produced by: Scott Humphrey
Engineered/Mixed by: Frank Gryner
Recorded at: The Chop Shop in Los Angeles, California
Available in the JAMMIT “Rob Zombie Vol.1” application

I guess it was only a matter of time before the tables were turned and some of my past work was put under the same microscope as other multi-tracks we’ve dissected here in the past. This month we’re taking a look Rob Zombie’s biggest hit to date, “Dragula.”

This song was the first single released on Zombie’s debut solo record Hellbilly Deluxe in August of 1998. Production was headed up by Scott Humphrey, who had already done a significant number of high-profile credits. It was—and still is—one of my most notable engineering projects. So the thought of revisiting the tracks felt a lot like going to a high school reunion—but without the alcohol and anti-anxiety medication to get me through it! Well, it’s not really insecurity as much as it is the feeling that more than a decade of additional experience must have advanced my craft to a place that would make any previous work somehow inferior. As it turns out, I was pretty off base in that assumption. These tracks held up remarkable well. Hellbilly Deluxe has a sonic character that is tough to compare to anything else, past or present— even subsequent Rob Zombie albums. So let’s begin our audio autopsy on the individual elements of “Dragula” and get a closer look at the anatomy of this modern-rock milestone.

Building a Pro Tools Frankenstein
was recorded in an awkward era when computer-based digital recording was not yet embraced as an industry standard. But Humphrey had the technology in a headlock. His digital artistry was very transparent, which why he was chosen to work as a digital audio editor on huge records by Metallica, Bon Jovi, and Mötley Crüe when most people didn’t even know what digital audio editor meant. He had pushed the boundaries of primitive DAW and was instrumental in the development of Pro Tools features like Beat Detective and batch cross fade processing. So that same inventive mentality went into Hellbilly’s production.

The Chop Shop was Humphrey’s laboratory for piecing together the album. Even though he was an accomplished musician, Humphrey’s main instrument was arguably the computer. He maxed out the then-state-of-the-art Power Mac 9600 and ran a full-blown Pro Tools TDM system that required constant maintenance. We would joke that you’d spend more time behind the recording gear than in front of the screen. While Zombie explored the prospect of severing ties with White Zombie, he and Humphrey brought in players like Tommy Lee, Danny Lohner, and Mike Riggs to play what couldn’t be looped, sampled, or chopped into place with Pro Tools. While “Dragula” and most of the other tracks on this album were the result of a sincere effort to get a big, pro-sounding record, what actually happened was more of a makeshift, unique sound arrived at through experimentation rather than pure expertise. I remember other audio professionals telling us we couldn’t make a record on Pro Tools and that the Chop Shop was an unsuitable mix environment. Hellbilly was tracked entirely in Pro Tools (transferred to 3348 digital tape only for archive) and some of the final mixes were even done in the box. It seemed we all had a lot to prove with this record as we were all transitioning from one position to another.

Digging Through the Ditches
To say that Hellbilly was constructed unconventionally is an understatement. There were no basic tracks. Zombie and Humphrey “wrote” the songs from recycled riffs and loops and then built upon them through trial and error. “Dragula” consists of combined drum loop elements supplemented with kick and snare samples, layers of heavy rhythm and high, droning guitars, electric bass infused with synth bass, Polyfusion modular synth (Humphrey’s specialty) and Zombie’s stacked vocals.

The Chop Shop was an anomaly in the Hollywood Hills just minutes away from the heart of the Sunset Strip, but isolated enough to be able to make as much noise as we could produce. We converted the garage into the tracking room and ran audio cables through the floors and pretty much every wall in the house (even concrete cinder blocks) in order to have makeshift reverb chambers, remote amp cabinets, and mic tie lines on all three levels. I can’t say that we always knew precisely what we were doing, but it all seemed to make enough sense at the time. Incidentally, Zombie was always a good sport through all construction, deconstruction, and experimentation at the Chop Shop—even when we made him sing “Dragula” in a stairwell storage closet.

Axes of Evil
The guitars on Hellbilly were, like most other elements on this record, a melting pot of “whatever works” in the mix. Nothing was sacred. The integrity of any particular musical performance was ignored and subject to radical editing and processing. It wasn’t uncommon for guitar parts to be Pro Tooled out of recognition or replaced entirely without warning. Riggs’ guitar parts may have been layered with Danny Lohner’s—there are even some rhythm guitar parts that I ended up playing in the choruses of “Dragula.”

The in-house guitar rig consisted of a Diezel VH-4, a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, and a Marshall 2550 Silver Jubilee head through various vintage Marshall 4x12s. The main tracking guitar was a Les Paul standard with a P-94 pickup in the bridge position. All in all, the guitars got mashed together to function. They certainly weren’t played with the precision of Zombie’s current guitarist, John 5, but they did have a vibe.

How to Make a Monster
Over the last 12 years, recording digitally has become the standard and technology has caught up with the demands of high track-count sessions. Taking this trip down memory lane really did highlight the significant progression in DAW recording systems, but all these advances don’t necessarily guarantee a more compelling result. Today, most engineers would turn their nose up at the rig that created Hellbilly Deluxe, and even I initially had apprehension over revisiting the tracks. But I realized you have to view recordings as more of a snapshot in time for which there should be no apologies. “Dragula” was one such still frame, and I’m pleased to be able to format this song and others like it into a piece of software that allows everyone to view that picture from a slightly different angle.

Dissecting the foundations of Mötley Crüe''s sound

The sound engineers at OEM Inc. have spent thousands of hours with the original masters of the most famous songs ever recorded. They use them to create products like Jammit, an iPhone app that allows you to remix and play along with those original tracks. There are many, many things to learn from those original tracks. Through a partnership with Gearhead Communications, OEM Inc. engineers are sharing their discoveries exclusively with Premier Guitar readers in what we like to call Secrets of the Masters

"Looks That Kill" by Mötley Crüe

From the album Shout at the Devil (1983 Elektra)
Produced by: Tom Werman
Engineered/Mixed by: Geoff Workman
Recorded at: Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, California
Available in the JAMMIT “Mötley Crüe, Vol.1” application

Mötley Crüe has always been known for their wild antics and endless debauchery, but listening back to their earlier albums, it’s apparent they are much more than womanizing, drug-dazed party animals. Their second album, Shout at the Devil, launched the band into mainstream notoriety, and it would be looked on as one of their strongest albums musically. Released well before the swarms of wannabe ’80s rock bands, “Looks That Kill” was quintessential Mötley and it cemented the band’s rightful place in music history, influencing the next generation of rock ’n’ roll in the process. While we were mixing several songs from Shout at the Devil for Jammit’s Mötley Crüe bundle, “Looks That Kill” was the standout track when it came to dissecting the tracks and recreating the original mix. Let’s dig in and I’ll tell you why.

The original LP cover of Shout at the Devil.
Recorded in the band’s adopted hometown of Hollywood, California, Shout at the Devil was definitely a step in the right direction both musically and sonically. Having garnered some success with their first album, Too Fast For Love, and having secured a big record deal with Elektra, the Mötley boys had the resources to get into a world-class recording facility where they could spend the time necessary to carve out their signature sound. Dubbed one of the best recording studios in America, Cherokee Studios would play host to the recording sessions that would ultimately lead to a bigger and better Mötley Crüe sound. Recording aficionados may recognize Cherokee as the home to one of only a few Trident A Range consoles, which even today are renowned for their amazing sound and which most certainly left a sonic imprint on “Looks That Kill.”

Larger-Than-Life Foundations
Any Tommy Lee fan most likely knows, and hears, the influence that Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham had on him. And listening to the isolated drum multi-tracks shows an intentional lean toward a more open and lively Bonham-type sound. The drum tracks consisted of two kicks (one for each drum in Lee’s double-bass setup), a snare, stereo tom tracks (several toms bounced down to a left and right pair), a hi-hat, an overall stereo kit track, and a mono ambient track. I always loved the wide-open kick sound on this album, which was a welcome departure from the tight, dry, overly muffled drum sounds of the late ’70s. The cracky, bright snare complemented the kick drum nicely, and when mixed in with an abundance of the overall kit and room microphones, it made for what would eventually become a Tommy Lee signature: larger-than-life drum sounds. Having worked extensively with Tommy in the studio, I can attest to the amount of time that would’ve been spent tweaking and experimenting with the drums and the microphones to make sure everything sounded big and bombastic. Tommy would repeat this concept again on "Girls, Girls, Girls," on which he experimented with drum triggers, and then again on the album Dr. Feelgood, creating one of the best drum recordings known to rock ’n’ roll.

The album was reissued in 2003 with added bonus tracks on the Crüe’s own label, Mötley Records.
As soon as I deciphered the track arrangement for “Looks that Kill,” it was apparent that songwriter and bassist Nikki Sixx wanted to expand on his sound as well. There were three tracks for bass: a DI track and two amp tracks. Most recordings from this era typically only have a direct track or an amped track, but the fact that three separate bass sounds were recorded was evidence of the attention placed on the overall sound of the rhythm section. The amp sounds like a slightly overdriven Ampeg SVT, with one track having a lot of midrange bite and the other providing a substantial amount of low end. All three sounds were combined in relatively equal levels to provide the complete sound. The sound of Nikki’s bass and amp in this song lends itself well to the solid pedaling of Tommy’s drums and Mick’s guitar. I couldn’t detect any drums leaking into the bass tracks, which leads me to believe that they were overdubbed after the drum tracks were complete.

Wide-But-Tight Guitars
The guitar tracks in this song provided the biggest surprise. Being a fan of Mick Mars and his love of gear, I figured most Mötley albums were tracked with many tracks of layered guitars using different amps, pickups, etc. But for “Looks That Kill” there was only one performance of the rhythm guitar track, but two separate tracks. One track was panned left and consisted of a microphone that was quite close to the cabinet. The other track was of the same guitar signal and performance, but it was a distant room mic that, when panned hard right, combined with the close mic to create an awesomely wide but tight stereo field. The same technique was used for the solo overdub. I know Mick has always used a combination of amps mixed together, so I’m not going to speculate about which amps were used for this song. All I can say is that the thick, nasal distortion found on almost all Mötley albums is instantly recognizable, and when it’s combined with Mick’s unique style it creates a sound that blends well with the rest of the band’s instrumentation.

Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars. Photo by Ken Settle
Sparse Vocals
Like most early-era hard rock songs, Vince Neil’s vocal tracks in this song are relatively sparse, production-wise. There is a single lead vocal throughout the song, with a double in the chorus. Unlike some of the other songs from Shout At The Devil, I can’t hear too many punch-ins, which leads me to believe that Vince’s performance in this song was lightly comp’d (most likely in whole sections) from a few different takes. In the mix, a slight slap delay and reverb was applied to give it some of the space that Tommy’s live drums and Mick’s distant amp mics created. Additional production in the song included a synth drone in the chorus that followed the implied chord changes of the guitar, as well as some background and gang vocal tracks. I can imagine it now, the Mötley boys surrounding a single vocal mic chanting, “She’s got the looks that kill!” Classic.

Sonic Magic
Throughout Mötley Crüe’s storied past, there have been many accounts of recording sessions that consisted more of girls, drugs, and parties than actual recording. And although the Crüe most likely wouldn’t deny that fact, they’d also be the first to relive some of the musical and sonic magic that was captured during those times. “Looks That Kill” and Shout at the Devil were the foundation that the next 25 years of Mötley Crüe would be built on. It was the first time—but certainly not the last—that they really found their own sound, and today it continues to stand the test of time.

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