For any today's bands -- and Floyd are no exception -- time spent in the recording studio is perhaps the most crucial aspect of their success. As studio techniques continue to develop, providing access to a variety of sounds and musical expression which were impossible before recent technological progress, many groups have come to rely increasingly on the facilities a studio has to offer.
A changing musical scene breeds a change of interest on the part of the public. As Pink Floyd have been consistently at the forefront of the shifting emphasis from hastily written, produced and recorded singles to extensively thought-out and intensively recorded albums, it has become essential to consider the way in which they are currently working.
Whereas an album was once cut from start to finish in a couple of days, Wish You Were Here took from mid January 1975 through to July of the same year. In fairness, however, it should be pointed out that this lengthy session was broken for two American tours and rehearsals. During that period, the band worked more or less solidly from 2.30 every afternoon to well into the evening, stopping when they felt they'd had enough. This strict regime was kept up for four days a week.
The album was cut at EMI's massive Abbey Road Studios, which nestle quietly in a residential part of London's St. John's Wood. These studios are now a legend of course, having been the birthplace of many rock's greatest albums, including much of the Beatles' and the Hollies' work. In spite of this, with so many other excellent studios around these days, the question remains as to why Floyd prefer Abbey Road. For the answer to this question and many others, we spoke to David Gilmour.
"We've always used it. We've done virtually every album there. I think it's pretty much a thing of habit but we do tend to use a lot of electronic facilities and some of the smaller studios just haven't got the equipment to cope with the various things we want to do. Unless you've got a good reason to go somewhere else, you don't go anywhere else, do you?"
The whole idea of Wish You Were Here came out of rehearsals in a room in King's Cross. Those ideas became the basis of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, which was performed on tour in France and England. It's intriguing to hear how Shine On was actually recorded and how the rest of the numbers were composed and added to complete the album.
"First of all we did a basic track of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, from the beginning where the first guitar solo starts, right through Shine On and the part with the sax solo through to the continuation of Shine On. That was in all twenty minutes long, which was at one time going to be the whole of one side of the album. However, as we worked on it and extended it and then extracted things, we came to the decision that we would make that into the whole album and we began to on the new stuff to slot in."
Here, Floyd are basically following the standard practice of laying down a backing track comprising bass, drums and guitar, possibly with keyboards added. They take the idea one step further, however, by extending the practice from a single track to the whole album. Then they separate the backing track and insert later ideas, carefully polishing and refining until they are ready to mix down the amassed ideas onto two tracks for the two channels of a stereo system.
All this sounds very smooth running and straightforward, but the recording of that particular backing track was not without its attendant problems. They were forced to spend a whole week trying to get the exact drum sound that they wanted and a few other things held up the proceedings, too, as Dave explains.
"We originally did the backing track over the course of several days, but we came to the conclusion that it just wasn't good enough. So we did it again in one day flat and got it a lot better. Unfortunately nobody understood the desk properly and when we played it back we found that someone had switched the echo returns from monitors to tracks one and two. That affected the tom-toms and guitars and keyboards which were playing along at the time. There was no way of saving it, so we just had to do it yet again."
Like most bands today, Floyd rarely recorded anything "live". In other words, they tend not to be all playing at once. A rhythm track is laid down and the embellishments added later. But there are some tracks which are more or less live in the studio. "Have a Cigar was a whole track on which I used the guitar and keyboards at once. There are some extra guitars which I dubbed on later, but I did the basic guitar tracks at one time," explained Dave.
Floyd chose that technique as being the one that best fitted the nature of the song itself. This total awareness of differing material and techniques also extends itself to Welcome to the Machine, a totally different type of number to Have a Cigar, on which they employed a radically different approach.
"It's very much a made-up-in-the-studio thing which was all built up from a basic throbbing made on a VCS 3, with a one repeat echo used so that each 'boom' is followed by an echo repeat to give the throb. With a number like that, you don't start off with a regular concept of group structure or anything, and there's no backing track either. Really it is just a studio proposition where we're using tape for its own ends -- a form of collage using sound."
The number Welcome to the Machine posed another problem one familiar to a lot of bands -- recording synthesizers. With any electronic instrument, you have the choice of playing it through an amplifier taking your tonal colouration from the amplifier, or playing straight through the mixing desk, a technique known as direct injection. Floyd normally direct inject the bass and keyboards and Gilmour occasionally D.I.'s the guitar. Synthesizer, however, create their own problems, as Dave pointed out.
"It's very hard to get a full synthesizer tone down on tape. If you listen to them before and after they've been recorded, you'll notice that you've lost a lot. And although I like the sound of a synthesizer through an amp, you still lose something that way as well. Eventually what we decided to do was to use D.I. on synthesizer because that way you don't increase your losses and the final result sounds very much like a synthesizer through a stage amp."
In mythological terms Floyd are often thought of as being perhaps the major users of new effects and studio techniques. Yet this is something Gilmour denies strongly.
"I don't think we use new equipment all that much. We do use a lot of studio effects but none of them are particularly new. Most of them are recorded by using all the old regular equipment. There are millions of different effects you can produce just by using a tape recorder or two. You can do phasing, automatic double tracking, sound on sound, most things in fact."
Incredible as it may sound, there are quite a few electronic devices on the market that Floyd haven't begun to experiment with yet, such as digital delay units for phasing and ADT. They prefer to do things the slow way with two tape machines, rather than employ the newer electronic methods. Yet in spite of this unwillingness to dispense with tried and trusted techniques, their use of effects is impressive to say the least.
When a track disappears into a thin, reedy transistor radio sound which is then joined by a plainly recorded acoustic guitar, there has obviously been a lot of thought behind the end product. How did they tackle that one?
"When it sounds like it's coming out of a radio, it was done by equalization. We just made a copy of the mix and ran it through eq. to make it very middly, knocking out all the bass and most of the high top so that it sounds radio-like. The interference was recorded on my car cassette radio and all we did was to put that track on top of the original track. It's all meant to sound like the first track getting sucked into a radio with one person sitting in the room playing guitar along with the radio."
Studio equipment can also be useful in helping you out of a tight spot, especially with vocals, which is where Floyd found they needed a bit of first-aid, Varying the tape speed is one cure.
"We have quite a bit of difficulty with vocals. I have trouble with the quality of my voice but I don't have much difficulty keeping in tune. On the other hand, Roger has no problem with vocal quality but he does have trouble keeping in tune."
Normally Floyd will keep working away at a vocal line until it's right. There was one track, though, which just refused to go the way they wanted it.
"The only time we've ever used tape speed to help us with vocals was on one line of The Machine Song. It was a line I just couldn't reach so we dropped the tape down half a semitone and then dropped the line in on the track."
All this takes a lot of time, but what takes Floyd even longer is the actual process of adding and subtracting ideas on their basic 24 tracks on the tape machine. Eventually these are all mixed down (an acoustic blending operation) to the basic two tracks, but not until everything you need has gone down on the 24. Dave expanded on this subject.
"We go on and on adding things and throwing things away and it all changes while you're doing that. In the end when you mix it's simply a process of choosing what you will emphasize at any one time. You've got all the tracks there but you'll bring just one thing forward at one time and subdue it later on."
Strangely enough, Gilmour claims that mixing these results of months of hard creative work is quick operation.
"It took us about a week on this album. We do get into a lot of arguments about the way things should be mixed and sometimes it comes down to two people mixing it differently and then we vote to see which mix to use."
Usually the majority of the band is present on mixing sessions, but with one person actually taking the producer's chair. In Gilmour's case this is also the engineer's chair as he prefers to do the balancing of the tracks he's mixing himself. It's only quite recently that 24 track started being widely used. Some major UK studios have only just expanded from 16 to 24 tracks and some have still to install their new 24 track machines. Yet, while 24 tracks is still new toy to play with, Gilmour already foresees a move beyond it.
"We have never needed more that 24 tracks as yet. It could easily happen, though, because as one gets into quad everything multiplies. One track is just one track for mono, but you need two for stereo and four tracks for one track of quad, so you could easily find yourself short of tracks on 24 tracks with quad."
In some ways Wish You Were Here is a rather bare
album from the point of view of effects and studio
gimmicks, the time spent on its recording having
been taken up more with the overall painting of the
sound -- creative effort over the long months finally
made into a complete whole by selection. Obviously
studio technique assists Pink Floyd in no small way,
but it would not appear to be an end in itself.