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Mixing Led Zeppelin II
| May, 2008
Eddie Kramer’s name has been most often associated with the work of Jimi Hendrix, but his curriculum vitae also includes recording classic tracks for icons such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Small Faces, as well as engineering legendary live albums by Peter Frampton, Kiss, and all the acts at Woodstock. In fact, Kramer probably rolled tape for more premier ’60s- and ’70s-era artists than any other individual, and so it is no great surprise to find that he had a hand in tracking, editing, and mixing Led Zeppelin II. Kramer would also be on the job for Houses of the Holy, Presence, How the West Was Won, and The Song Remains the Same—but his work on Led Zeppelin II is arguably his most significant contribution to the band’s legacy.
Led Zeppelin’s first album was reportedly recorded and mixed in 30 hours, but Led Zeppelin II took eight months to complete, as it was recorded piecemeal in studios located in London (Olympic, Morgan), Los Angeles (A&M, Quantum, Sunset, Mirror Sound, Mystic), Memphis (Ardent), New York (A&R, Juggy Sound, Groove, Mayfair), and Vancouver (a “hut”), whenever Jimmy Page and crew could take short breaks from touring. Kramer is credited with recording three of the nine songs—“Heartbreaker,” “Ramble On,” and “Bring It on Home”—though he also worked on parts of others.
“The electric guitars were probably recorded with Shure SM57s, and the acoustics with Neumann U67s,” remembers Kramer.
The biggest change between recording the first and second albums from a guitar perspective was that Page had replaced the ’58 Fender Telecaster and modified Supro Coronado amp used on the former, with a ’58 Gibson Les Paul Standard and a Marshall stack. He also used either a ’65 Fender Electric XII or a ’67 Vox Phantom XII (accounts vary) on “Thank You.” Page’s only effects were Sola Sound Tone Bender MKII and Vox CryBaby pedals—both modified by Roger Mayer—and, possibly, an Echoplex.
Kramer and Page mixed Led Zeppelin II in two days at A&R Studio in New York City, using a Scully 280 1" 8-track machine, and a custom-built mixing console that Kramer recalls having “a dozen or fewer channels, and only two pan pots.” In several cases, Kramer had to edit together parts of songs that had been recorded in more than one location before mixing could begin. This included inserting Page’s unaccompanied guitar solo into “Whole Lotta Love,” and splicing together multiple sections of “Moby Dick”—a song containing imperfect edits that Kramer says he is not proud of.
Considerable sub-mixing had been done previously, so some tracks contained multiple instruments, and, in many cases, basic effects had also been committed to tape at the time of recording. But that didn’t keep Kramer and Page from crafting additional effects, and putting those two pan pots to good use, both in terms of dramatically moving instruments and vocals from one side of the stereo field to the other—such as during the middle section of “Whole Lotta Love,” and towards the end of “What Is and What Should Never Be”—and also for creating more subtle stereo effects using reverb and delay.
Of course, when discussing the effects used on Led Zeppelin II, it is important to note that while the studio was equipped with Pultec equalizers, Teletronix limiters, and other now-classic gear, there were no “effects processors” in the modern sense. Reverb was generated via three giant EMT 140 plates, and delay was achieved using a three-head reel-to-reel tape recorder (the delay results from the time it takes the tape to physically travel between the record and playback heads). The two effects were also combined to add pre-delay to the reverb, so that the initial attack of an instrument or voice could be heard distinctly before the reverb kicked in. Another example of an effect created using reel-to-reel tape recorders is the watery vocal sound on the choruses of “What Is and What Should Never Be,” produced by phasing Plant’s voice using two synchronized tape recorders.
“The same track was played back simultaneously on the two machines,” explains Kramer, “and the capstan of one recorder was wrapped in uneven tape, producing the warbling effect by modulating the second playback in and out of phase with the first.”
Less obvious production techniques used throughout the album include panning a guitar or other instrument to one side of the stereo field, and positioning a reverberated version of the same sound to the other (as on the opening riff to “Whole Lotta Love”), and layering three guitars with two panned to either side and the third down the middle (as on the extended solo section before the final verse of “Heartbreaker”). Page was also fond of “backwards reverb,” where the tape is flipped over, and reverb recorded to an empty track while it is playing in reverse. Then, when the tape is turned back over, the backwards reverb is heard starting before the sound it was applied to. Page has said he used it on the slide part during the chorus of “Whole Lotta Love,” but it is likely also used on the middle section of the song, and at other points on the album.
Page and Kramer also respected, and even reveled in serendipity. For example, when asked about the laugh at the very beginning of the album, Kramer responded: “I’m not sure whose voice that is, but we left all kinds of cool stuff in.”
Then, there are the ghost-like vocal lines that occur four minutes into “Whole Lotta Love.” Kramer says that a guide vocal recorded on track eight was bleeding into the mix due to a faulty fader or other problem, and that he and Page decided to add reverb to it, transforming a liability into a special effect. When it was pointed out that you could clearly hear the ghost vocal itself repeating, “Way down inside … way down inside … you need … you need, etc.”—which suggested a long delay was also somehow involved—Kramer remained adamant that there was only reverb. My inner audio-forensics detective insisted that the mystery remained unexplained, but Kramer just laughed and said, “Well, then, let’s just let it remain a mystery.”
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