So Beautiful or So What
Legendary producer Phil Ramone recently teamed up with legendary songwriter and close friend Paul Simon – again – to construct yet another classic.
Album: So Beautiful or So What
Artist: Paul Simon
Phil Ramone & Andy Smith Recording Paul Simon
What is it with old guys making good music? There appears to be a whole swathe of famous musicians who reached their commercial and artistic peak in their 20s and early 30s returning in their 50s and 60s and rediscovering their muse. There are countless albums being produced by old rockers that are hailed as their best work since, well… a long long time ago. Paul McCartney’s most recent offering, Memory Almost Full (2007), is inarguably his best since his solo albums of the 1970s, Neil Young’s recent Le Noise has been billed as “his best in decades,” Bob Dylan pulled off the trick a couple of times with Time Out Of Mind (1997) and Modern Times (2006), Carlos Santana stepped back into the limelight with Supernatural (1999), The Stones A Bigger Bang (2005) was “their best in years,” Robert Plant revived his career with Raising Sand (2007) and Band Of Joy (2010), and so on and, seemingly, on.
Paul Simon’s recent album, So Beautiful or So What, appears to be another case in point. Even the usually understated 69-year old singer himself earmarked it as “the best thing I’ve done in 20 years,” while Elvis Costello, in the CD booklet blurb, calls it a “remarkable, thoughtful, often joyful record” that “deserves to be recognised as among Paul Simon’s very finest achievements.” Many critics agreed, illustrated by the fact that the album achieved a very impressive average score of 85 out of 100 in Metacritic’s compiled review ratings. The only argument that could be offered against the above observations is that Simon never sank into middle-aged mediocrity, even as Songs from the Capeman (1997), You’re The One (2000), and Surprise (2006) are often seen as lesser efforts, in contrast to undisputed classics such as Paul Simon (1972), There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973), Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), Graceland (1986) and Rhythm of the Saints (1990).
REWIND TO THE BEGINNING
In interviews Simon has explained that Graceland marked the beginning of him writing songs to rhythmic backing tracks and that on the new album he wanted to write songs the way he did when he started; just him singing with an acoustic guitar, and then adding the rhythms and ethnic instruments later on, ie. working top to bottom. There’s also an extensive use of samples on the new album, although the sparsely arranged and delicate sounding album appears to be, in part, a reaction to its slightly overlaboured predecessor, Surprise, on which Simon’s songs and Brian Eno’s electronic treatments arguably resulted in the sum being less than its considerable parts.
THE PRODUCER & THE ENGINEER
Anyone with a keen eye for credits will have noted two other signs that indicate that So Beautiful or So What is both continuation and recapping of Simon’s career. First it finds Simon reuniting with legendary producer Phil Ramone, who worked on Rhymin’ Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years and also on Simon & Garfunkel’s famous The Concert In Central Park (1982). The 15-time Grammy-winning Ramone is known for his work with household names like Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, and Paul McCartney. The other sign on the credits of the new album is the presence of long-time Paul Simon engineer, Andy Smith. Smith is a New York city-based freelance engineer who has worked on several of Simon’s projects over the years as well as projects with Simon’s wife Edie Brickell and her current band The Gaddabouts. Via separate phone interviews, Ramone and Smith provided a compelling and unique insight into aspects of Simon’s creative process in general and the recordings of So Beautiful or So What in particular.
Smith began by charting the very beginnings of the recordings, several years ago, in a room in a cottage at Simon’s property in Connecticut: “I think it was the first time that the bulk of one of Paul’s albums was recorded in his own studio. The cottage was initially an empty house, and we gradually built the studio up as the project went along. We didn’t record all the time. We’d had a month off here and there, and during that time, we were also upgrading the studio. By the end of the project we had a pretty well-equipped small studio and a new album! The studio now has a decent mic collection including the Bock Audio 251s, various high voltage DPAs, Royer R122V, SF24, 121s, as well as the basics like Neumann, Shure, Sennheiser and AKG. We gathered mic pres by Telefunken, Great River, Grace, Chandler and API; compressors by Purple Audio, Chandler, API and Teletronix; a ProTools HD systems with plug-ins by iZotope, Massenburg, Soundtoys, Eventide, Oxford and Audio Ease; two Apogee AD16Xs and one DA16x converter; an Antelope Audio master clock; and Adam S3A monitors. All the wiring was done with Mogami cables and one of the coolest features is that there’s a Grace 902 headphone amplifier at each player location.
“Paul previously owned a lot of studio gear, which gave us a good starting point. There was also some gear in my own collection that Paul often used when we recorded in proper studios, and that we duplicated for his private studio. There was also a lot of floating gear that we would use when recording out in his summer place in Long Island, NY, that eventually found a home in the cottage. The main challenge of working in the cottage studio was that it’s not acoustically treated in any way, so on several occasions I had to use iZotope RX software to get rid of extraneous noises. For example, there’s an acorn tree right above the cottage and occasionally acorns would fall on the roof. RX quickly becomes one of those pieces of software that you can’t imagine how you ever got along without.”
COTTAGE STUDIO RECORDING
By recording most of his new album at his own facility, Simon was definitely riding a very current wave that’s, in part, inspired by the developments in new technology and in part fuelled by necessity. Several of the studios credited on his previous album Surprise have since closed and recording budgets are smaller, even for major artists, making long recording projects in big studios uneconomical. Phil Ramone, who is about the same age as Simon, and whose first credits date from the late 1950s, has witnessed the rise and fall of big recording studios extremely close up. The producer, who became involved in the recording of So Beautiful or So What during the last year of recording, reflected…
“When Paul recorded albums like Still Crazy and Graceland he would book a studio room out for months. It was a discipline, because it put a certain kind of pressure on you because of the money involved, whereas when people use home studios the discipline disappears in some cases. But there are only three big studios left in New York now! So many people are now working in their own studio, and it’s important to keep a certain schedule. Paul McCartney will come into his studio at 10am and stop at 6pm, and Paul [Simon] kind of does the same thing. There was a nice atmosphere at Paul’s studio and the discipline to go with it. It turned out to be a really comfortable situation for Paul, Andy, and I. Paul and I are old friends so I was very happy when he asked me to work with him on this project. I love opening doors that he may not have thought of, and his mind is so fertile. It was a joy. Paul and I live close to each other, which meant that I could come over when needed, and also do other projects. We spent a lot of time driving in the car, listening to what we had done and deciding what needed doing next.”
Both Smith and Ramone recounted details of the top-to-bottom approach to the recording sessions. Ramone stated, “In many cases Paul had 20–30% of the songs ready when he came into the studio, at least a melody and some chord changes, and then we’d look for what colours and lyrics should go with it. He was exploring different things, like for example bluegrass influences, and we recorded a group of bluegrass musicians at Tony Bennett’s studio in New Jersey. Paul asked the players how they would play this or that and pushed them to do a lot of interesting things. Also, Gil Goldstein orchestrated Love and Hard Times and we went to Avatar Studios to record that, because I wanted a bigger room.”
Smith elaborates, “Working on this album was different than on previous albums I’d done with Paul, because this time he had an idea of how each song would be before we started recording in the studio. With previous albums he’d first build an extensive backing track, and then he’d take those recordings and see how they would inspire him to write guitar parts and eventually melodies and lyrics to them. However, this time he pretty much wrote the songs and then came to the studio to record. Paul would usually start out by making a click track using a percussion instrument or even just tapping out a rhythm on his guitar – he rarely uses an electronic click-track – then he’d play a guitar part that he’d already written and built the song from there. Usually the next step would be to overdub more guitars and percussion. I think it would surprise some people how complete some of the tracks sounded before any other musicians were added. Besides playing the majority of the guitars, a decent amount of the core percussion on the album was played by Paul too. In the song Rewrite, the main percussion part you hear throughout is Paul’s guitar-tapping ‘click track.’”
EXPLORING THE SPACE
According to Ramone, the arrangements and overdubbing process were framed by Simon’s desire that the album “wouldn’t sound like a studio album. He wanted to have lots of space with lots of atmosphere and feeling, so rather than go for hugely orchestrated ideas he was going, for example, for overtones in bells and gongs. Where a sax or a kora came in, they’d be there to do something specific, not just to fill in the space. One of the results was that there’s very little bass on the album. Most modern records are bass heavy, and that eats up a lot of the space. It can be a struggle sometimes to work with a singer-songwriter who plays heavy piano – the guitar and the bass play right in the same audio range. Paul was very happy not having much bass on the album, until the point when he went out to play these songs live, for which he does use a bass. But it’s not huge and fat, it’s more part of an organic guitars section. Paul also liked a certain drum sound that’s not in your face. We added other instruments as we needed them, and then decided what to use and what not to use. These additions and subtractions are very much the way Paul loves to work.”
Smith added: “There certainly was an attempt on this album to keep the arrangements simple. Where we did use bass it’s actually a baritone guitar. There was a conscious effort not to have bass, although admittedly, when the songs were completely constructed and arranged, Paul did invite in some bass players, but in the end he didn’t like the way it affected the simplicity of the arrangements. By that stage he’d grown attached to the transparency of the sound of the tracks.
“Bells certainly were Paul’s favourite percussion instrument on this album. He has a large collection of bells ranging from exotic bells and ancient hand bells to glockenspiels. He’d record an acoustic or electric guitar and then highlight certain notes by putting bells very faintly behind them to give them some sparkle. We would effect the bells, to make them sound like one with the guitar or in some cases effect them to be their own thing, such as the pulsating high sound at the beginning of Love Is Eternal Sacred Light. There are also several tracks that have a standard drum kit, but Paul usually wanted them to sound a bit different. On many of the tracks, Jim Oblon, the drummer, placed towels over each drum so they’d have more of a muffled quality, leaving more room for the higher frequency percussion stuff.
Smith continued, “Much of the material was recorded in the main room of the cottage, although Paul often played in the control room when only Phil and I were present. If he played electric guitar we’d have the amplifier in another room, and acoustic guitars were done right in front of us, which made it easy to communicate. For two songs, The Afterlife and Getting Ready for Christmas Day, the track was laid down with Paul playing guitar in the control room, while a drummer performed in the main room. We would spend a decent amount of time getting Paul’s guitars right and after that there was a smaller amount of experimentation with other musicians trying out parts. If these interested Paul, he would later edit and comp them and each evening I’d make him a CD of what we’d done, and he’d typically come back the next day with a list of notes. During a project, it seems like he never stops working!
While most of So Beautiful or So What was recorded at Simon’s cottage studio, Ramone explained that the company also went out to existing studios a number of times for specific overdubs. Specifically, these involved a month in Simon’s Long Island studio, Clinton Studios in NY to record the Indian ensemble on Dazzling Blue, Tony Bennett’s studio to record Mick Rossi on piano and the bluegrass ensemble, Avatar to record an orchestral ensemble, and Germano Studios in NYC for various overdubs, including percussion and vocals. The entire project was recorded to ProTools at 24-bit/96kHz. With Simon being deeply steeped in tradition with his love of acoustic guitars, folk and world music, one would expect him to be a bit of an analogue diehard, but according to Smith, the singer embraced digital technology at a very early stage.
“Paul was one of the early adopters of ProTools. We recorded Songs From The Capeman to a Sony 3348 DASH machine and then dumped everything digitally over to ProTools and mixed it in the box. That was very early on for a major artist to have an album mixed in ProTools. We recorded to the DASH machine because at the time ’Tools wasn’t stable enough for tracking with a large band in the room. It’s kind of funny now, but at the time we didn’t tell anybody about mixing in ’Tools because it was so new and there was initially some bias against it. You’re The One was mixed on a Sony Oxford console but recorded in ProTools, and with Surprise we locked a ProTools and Logic system together during tracking, because Brian Eno likes to use Logic. Tchad Blake then mixed that album on an SSL desk. Besides being an amazing mixer, Tchad was brought in as a fresh pair of ears. There were so many overdubs on that album that it needed someone to make sense of them.
“When we began work on So Beautiful or So What I didn’t know where we would be at the end, and who would be mixing it, so I figured it would be good to put all the analogue colouration on during recording, before going into ProTools, and not count on having lots of mix options in the end. Also, by recording with effects, Paul could be inspired by them while playing and arranging. So many of his guitar parts went through pedals like Moogerfoogers, a Carl Martin compressor, Deluxe Memory Man, pedals by FullTone, and so on, as well as some plug-ins. We’d print it all, with the plug-ins on a separate track. We were also lucky in that the natural ambience of the room in the cottage was quite good, so I used a lot of room mics. The spaces that you can hear are mostly the sound of the room. Paul also made quite a bit of use of the relatively new ‘Moog guitar’. The sounds of that instrument worked well with the other sounds on the album.
“When recording we put all the mic pres close to the players so that we only had very short cables going from the mics to the mic pres. I used all Mogami cables for the mics and from the mic pres straight to the Apogee converters and then into ProTools. No patchbay or desk was used – we only had an eight-channel Euphonix Controller for the occasional fader ride. Once we were in digital, for the most part we stayed there.
Smith explained that Simon was “very involved” in the technical side of the whole recording process, adding: “He might not know the exact names of all the mics and preamps and compressors, but he’ll ask for specific sounds, and often try different distances to the mics. He likes to experiment with how much room sound to incorporate for certain overdubs. For example, sometimes when recording a shaker, he’d ask me to put the mic at the other side of the room, so it gives the effect of a shaker going during a live recording.”
This ties in with comments Simon made in the same above-mentioned A.V. Club interview, “The echoes that I hear on everybody else’s records sound the same because everybody basically uses the same technology. It’s the same with guitars – there are lots of really good guitarists, but they play with the same pedals as everybody else. I find acoustic solutions to those kinds of sound problems, and I think it’s what gives the record a different sound.”
On several occasions I had to use iZotope RX software to get rid of extraneous noises… there’s an acorn tree right above the cottage and occasionally acorns would fall on the roof
TRACKING & MIXING COMBINED
Phil Ramone is credited with mixing the album, and he explained that the tracks were mixed concurrently with the recordings, in a process that appeared to involve both Ramone and Smith, and even, on occasion, Simon himself. Ramone: “We mixed during recording, so there would be no surprises. A lot of people wait for that wonderful day when it all comes together in the mix, but we all have a good understanding of when things work, so we mixed as we went. Paul and I would often listen back in the car to judge where to take things.
“Typically, I’d work with Andy on stuff, and then I’d leave him alone to get the tracks into shape. Then I would finesse it. I would just reach over and do things – always asking Andy first. In the world we live in things are sometimes two-handed and sometimes four-handed. And when you work in ProTools, you’re in effect always working towards a final mix. I bought Paul the small Euphonix controller so I could do vocal moves and things. Faders still work for me. There are two schools of thought on this: you can do everything electronically, but for me it takes some of the spirit out of it when I don’t make the moves with my hands. I’m not travelling anywhere now without that little mixer! There are things I can do with it that continue to make mixing feel like mixing to me. I don’t want to be struggling for hours to get to a place by adjusting things one-tenth of a dB at a time.”
Andy Smith, who remarked that “it was a great experience to see how Phil and Paul work together” takes a more 21st century view than Ramone: “A console and faders allow you to work faster, so when speed is an issue, like when tracking a live band, it can be an advantage. But with a project like Paul’s that goes on for several years, speed is not an issue, and I’m happy to work in the box. Because I supplied Paul with a CD every evening of whatever we’d done that day, every night we would attempt to make it sound as close to a finished track as we could. And by the end of the project we found that the mixes were simply done. We didn’t set out to use plug-ins sparingly, we just used them when we needed them. The ambient effects, in addition to the natural room sound, are pretty much all done with plug-ins, except for when we used analogue bucket brigade delays. We also applied the old trick of sending a track out to a Dolby unit, encode it, and then not decode it, to get a high sparkle, sizzling sound. Paul particularly wanted to use this for a vocal section in Love is Eternal Sacred Light, where Paul sings in a very low, deep voice, and the Dolby effect helped it to cut through.”
OLD SCHOOL WAYS
Both Ramone and Smith expressed their admiration for Roy Halee, who engineered and produced early Simon & Garfunkel albums and also several of Simon’s solo albums. Smith explained, “When I worked with Roy, I was taught to engineer in the old school way, which was using mics and mic placement, rather than EQ, to get the sound with the frequencies and ambience you wanted, which leads to mixing mostly being a matter of balancing and panning. On this project, besides the natural ambience, a delay was often used to create ambience, as well as some plug-in reverbs. We didn’t use any de-essers. We did the now popular thing of just manually lowering the esses that are too loud. Also, having so little bass actually made the project a little more difficult, because the typical listener expects a full frequency range, and it was harder to make it sound like a finished album when there wasn’t a great deal of low end. So at times we used EQ to try to draw a little bit more bottom end out of things that normally don’t have much, like certain percussion instruments or Paul banging on a guitar. The go-to EQ for that sort of thing was the Massenburg MDW.
“We also used the dithered mixer in ProTools, which not that many people appear to use, but to our ears it sounds better than the non-dithered mixer. Also, a lot of the sound sculpting/mixing was actually done by Paul. He has a clear vision of what he likes and he’s been using ProTools for so long now that he speaks in tenths of a decibel and will regularly ask for specific changes. So slowly, over the long lengths of the projects we’ve done, he’s done a lot of the moulding of the mix himself. Then, one day after doing vocal overdubs and Paul doing a vocal punch in, he suddenly said, ‘OK, it’s done. What’s next? Mastering?’ And Phil said, ‘yes.’ The album had arrived at the point where Paul wanted it to be.”
It has been said that “knowing when to stop is the hallmark of a great artist.” It’s another reason why Paul Simon clearly belongs in the latter category.