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Classic Recordings: ZZ Top

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 09, 2008 1:47 am    Post subject: Classic Recordings: ZZ Top Reply with quote

Here's some information from Terry Manning about recording ZZ Top.

What kind of console was Tres Hombres mixed on? Im assuming this is a 16 track master mixed to 1/4"?

The console was our (Ardent's) custom designed SpectraSonics, built by Auditronics of Memphis under license from SpectraS in Utah. It was a 16 tr 2" recording, mixed to 1/4".

Can you comment on the drum setup on this record? Were they in a booth, or baffled in a larger room? Was the kit on a linoleum floor? Sounds a little brighter than carpet.

I wasn't at the original tracking, which was done at Robin Hood's Studios in Tyler, TX. Tres Hombres came to me for overdubs and mixing.

Assuming there were scratch vocals from the tracking sessions, were any used on the LP or are all the vocals overdubbed?

There were some scratch vocals used, but most were overdubbed. I reached back to the scratch for some of the "aside comments," such as "they gotta lotta nice girls there" in LaGrange. There was one great one that I almost put in, and have always wished I had, into LaGrange. During the mid point of the guitar walk-down/drum stop bit, Billy said "Goin' halfway round the world and back again..." but we left that out, amongst many other things he said.

The fadeout on "Beer Drinkers" is about the most insanely perfect fadeout anyone could make...

Thanks! Good ole "Philly Ending."

Are we hearing mostly fender tweed amps on this record?

Some, but some are also from BG's customised Marshall heads, which he renamed "Rio Grande" brand. The controls were all labelled in Spanish, and the logo was palm trees.

Do you recall if during the tracking sessions, the guitar solos were played live with the rhythm tracks, or if the backing rhythm guitar over the solos went down with the band?

Most of the solos were overdubbed. The rhythm was usually played with the band. There were a lot of overdubs here, for instance many of the tom rolls are doubled.

Do you recall how long it took to track and mix?

Can't remember how long I took in yesterday's session...I think we mixed one or two songs a day average.

Were you involved in preproduction meeting for Tejas? If so, was there an intentional and motivated effort to take the record in a new direction, or did the sound of the record just simply result from the work flow?

What is a "preproduction meeting?" Seriously, Billy and I were just always looking for new ways to do everything. New or different guitars, amps, everything. On this session, the amps were Vox Super Beatle transistor ones. We just went in a bit cleaner direction.

Do you recall if "Ten Dollar Man" was one of the first songs tracked for this record or if it was recorded towards the end of the sessions? The snare drum move right before the DI guitar comes in absolutely gets me off every time I hear that song and is one of my favorite mix moments on all the zz records. Leaving dusty's cough coming into the last verse is a righteous rock moment, more people should take note of stuff like that, the average engineer would have muted that.

Thanks. Can't remember tracking order, unfortunately. I like finding little anomoly things to leave in certain tracks. There's a lot of that in ZZ stuff. I used to look for and find it in Beatles' records, so I had to do it too.

Was the master for "Gimmie All Your Lovin'" VSO'd up a whole step? I have an original LP that definitely has a pitched up version, always wondered at which step along the way this occured.

Not sure about this one. I think I may have done a sped up version for a single. But this was on an LP???

I'd love to know anything about the sessions for Deguello, specifically anything you can remember about the wide range of incredible guitar tones - amps, guitars, pedals, microphones, rooms, whatever.

On the Deguello sessions, we were really ramping things up as far as equipment and direction. This album I think is the progenitor of "Eliminator." Billy brought for the first time A LOT of guitars and amps to the session. I had always in the past only had one or two, maybe three guitars, and usually just "the" one amp around, for almost any session. It just wasn't thought of in the 'earlier' days to need a wide selection, just as it wasn't contemplated to need any outnoard mic pre's or such. But this time was the first time I remember a truckload of gear coming it's common practice; anyone who has the gear brings it! (REM were recently in our studio here in Nassau for three months, and they brought EVERYTHING they own, which is a LOT of gear. It filled over 90 LARGE road cases.)

We did indeed use various guitars and amplifiers during this Deguello session (by the way the "Deguello" is the bugle call that used to be played by the Mexican army back in the Texas-Mexico war days. It meant "There will be no quarter, only death, for any who don't surrender now!" This was played, for instance, at The Alamo.), and I employed for one of the first times during an album session, various mic's and mic placements for guitar. Billy had his Les Paul (Pearly Gates) of course, but also Strats, and some wild cheesy Japanese guitars. Amps would have been the various Marshall's (or his Rio Grande customised ones) as well as some Fenders, old Gibson's and I think maybe a Magnavox.

Again, this entire album was recorded in Ardent Studio A, on the SpectraSonics/Auditronics console (USING THE CONSOLE MIC PRE'S OF COURSE), and tracked to either 16 or 24 track 2" (can't remember which now). It would have been mixed probably to 1/4". BG did indeed have an assortment of pedals, the ones out then which are 'vintage' pedals now.

That one seems to get overlooked as a classic ZZ LP but it's always been one of my favorites. "Bad, Nationwide" kills me every time I hear it. Do you recall how Billy played that first solo? There's a part right after the intro of the solo where it sounds like he's quickly tapping 2 notes octave apart with his left hand but I could never get it to sound right.

Unfortunately, I don't remember that exact guitar moment right now. I haven't heard this album for many years, again because I refuse to get anywhere near the AWFUL "CD Remixes" which totally ruined ZZ Top's legacy on CD. But I did purchase the box set recently; haven't had any time to listen to it, but I will look to see if this is on it, and try to figure out what you mean.

A couple of items concerning the recording of Deguello, though:

•On "Dust My Broom," there was, intentionally, absolutely NO reverb or delay of any kind, and every instrument possible was recorded by direct injection (DI); no amplifiers were harmed in the making of this recording.

•The horns which appear on a couple of songs were actually played by the three group members themselves. They had bought the saxes, and spent months learning and practicing for this purpose. I did have to use some pre-Protools sampling and editing techniques to get them right, but they did play it! (I would often then use my early methods for sampling and moving parts out of time, or other methods to tune things which needed it. Also, vocals were heavily comp'd, or at least heavily punched. So much for the "good ole days" of REAL live music!)

•On "Manic Mechanic," which I really loved, there was obviously heavy treatment on the vocals...quite a bit of it was recorded with the multi vari-sped up, so it would be slow and huge on playback.

I had also read somewhere that that album was tracked in a bunch of different studios, sounds like that's not true. And any thoughts on Pearly? Could you tell it was special or was it just a typical nice early LP? [Les Paul-CG]

No this album was totally tracked and mixed by me in the same Ardent Studio A. It's also not true what Billy has said in some guitar magazine interviews, that we put a whole lot of amps in a circle, facing inwards, with the sound coming out of all of them at once, and had one mic in the centre of the circle. He just loves to send up the interviewers with a good story!

Pearly was a very good early Les Paul; it was very special to Billy because it was THE guitar for so long for him. Those instruments were already looked on as vintage, ultra-collectibles, at that time. So those facts made it special to all of us.

Someone else asked about the guitar sound on "El Diablo." I remember that Billy and I BOTH played that one, at the same time, on the same instrument. In other words, four hands!

Terry I wonder if you could comment on the guitar sound in Eliminator. What I always heard it was all Rockman - but was there an amp mixed in as well? And thoughts on the direction of that album as a whole - it certainly was a huge change in sound, even if there were hints of it on earlier albums.

The full story of the making of Eliminator (the politics, the chicannery, the technical aberrations, the high social drama, the exodus, the payback) is one that I cannot tell. Even if I could, there certainly wouldn't be room for it here! It probably won't even make it into "the book" (or the movie). Just don't forget that truth is often stranger than fiction!

However, I will address certain specific musical or technical issues, and I'll begin with your guitar amp question.

Not a little bit, not a tiny bit; NOT ANY. I don't know how these stories get started. Billy may indeed have used Rockman at a later date, after I left the situation, but I did not allow it when I was working with him. He did bring one in to try, but I was not satisfied with the sound, compared to an amplifier.

The amp used, almost exclusively, on Eliminator was a Legend. This was about a 50 watt hybrid unit, employing a tube/valve preamp, and a transistor power amp. This is the amp which has a finished wood case, and a rattan-type cane grill. It has one 12" Celestion speaker. Legend were later bought by, or at least distributed by, Gibson, but they were independent when we started using them. I still have this amp; it is almost new. A couple of years ago I plugged one of the Eliminator guitars into it, just to see...there was the sound!

The guitars were custom built by Dean. Dean were out of Chicago, and were trying to break into the high end (a la Jackson, PRS) market. They were very nice, albeit different, instruments. Subsequently however, they got a contract with Sears to make guitars, so they opted for the big bucks, Korean manufactured, low end market instead. But the ones we used were very nicely made. There were two which we employed. One was somewhat like a cross between a Flying-V and a Moderne shape, very long "ears," and the other was a sort of a warped, pointy Stratocaster-y shape. Both guitars had a single DiMarzio Super Distortion high output pickup, and almost no controls. I don't think there is even a tone control...what would you need one for? They have big, heavy, brass bridge/tail pieces bolted into the body. These guitars were very live, very resonant, and would verge on resonant feedback at all times; they were also very hard to keep in tune because of this. But they were always alive. Billy has the first one mentioned, and he gave me the latter, which I still have.

The guitar was recorded with basically only one setup; one amp (Legend), one speaker (12"), one guitar (Deans, the two were almost exactly the same), one mic (AKG 414B-ULS, I still have it) in one position (about 5" from the cone, placed at a slight angle off axis), one mic pre (the SpectraSonics console). 98% of ALL guitar on this album, whether lead or rhythm was done this way. Any variations were from the player himself, who, remember, did not even have a tone control. That's how good Billy was back then. We did use very briefly a small amp by Ross, but we didn't like it much, and I think only a tiny part or two was kept from this, if any.

The rhythm guitars were done in a precursor-to-Protools style. Short phrases were played, and then double tracked, onto one set of tracks, and then the chord change/next phrase was played on a second set of tracks. This allowed a seamless transition between changes; since the Deans were so close to feedback at all times (acoustically, through the fairly loud JBL monitors), we couldn't even lift the fingers to change chords! Then I would trim the edges of each section by punching in and out to silence at the beginnings and ends of the phrases (somewhat analogous to "trimming the region" today). This method also "eliminated" to a degree the loud harmonic squeaks between chord changes. The punch in/out points, if done exactly perfectly, made for a primitive cross fade of probably 10-20 ms, and ended up sounding very different as rhythm guitar, sort of like a big train rolling down a track, almost out of control; without knowing how it was done, one wouldn't really realise why it was different.

For the leads, as always, there was a lot of punching done.

The bass was mostly played either by Billy or by me, and was either a bass instrument, or a Moog Source (the Source was a Mini Moog [rhymes with 'Vouge'] analogue synth with digitally controlled parameters...I still have this, too). Synth chords were played on a Memory Moog (polyphonic Mini).

Billy sang great, different vocals, as usual, and the harmonies were done either by Jimmy Jamison or by me.

There are a MILLION more things which could be told about this distinctive album, but as mentioned, most of it is probably better left unsaid. But one interesting thing, at least to me, was the recording of "Legs." We had tried it a couple of ways unsuccessfully at Ardent, so I decided to try a new approach. I had a 24 track studio in my attic at home, so I took Billy's lead guitar and vocal home on a 1/2" two track L/R ("samples"). I recut the entire track myself, and then hand flew in Billy's parts onto the track. This meant careful timing of the play button on my MCI 1/2", for each and every phrase, as after a few seconds, they would drift out of sync. I mixed it there through my Soundcraft 1200 console (these were also the mic pre's) onto the MCI 1/2". The multitrack was also the Soundcraft 2" machine, which I really loved. Then I did a totally different version, which became the long "dance mix" later released to clubs, and it is now included in the new box set. Later, I saw a review of this dance version credited, to Jellybean Benitez ...go figure!

Hey Terry, what the heck is Billy saying at the end of Sharped Dressed man? Added by you I presume from one of those other tracks?

As I recall, he's saying (just as the final solo begins),

"You can't lose with the dress I dress 'em up real fine!"

Terry, are u saying you played the drums on LEGS? 1 @ a time O.D. style? or a kit?
that is insane - whenever i work with drummers, there is a fill that has become known as the "zz topper" which is any snare fill that ends with the last 2 16th notes of a bar (all over LEGS).

if this is true, then u r the creator of the famous "zz topper" fill. and although this is not a revolutionary drum fill, it has been mentioned by name in just about every rock session i have done in the last 18 years.


Well, I guess it can now be told, as long as you promise not to pass it on, but yes, I played the drums on "Legs," and in fact, almost the whole album. As mentioned, this song was recorded in my attic, except for Billy's lead guitar and vocal, which came from a previous studio version which was unsatisfactory. (Oh, if I could tell the whole, real story! Maybe someday...)

The drums were a combination of things. There was programming, on my Oberheim drum machine, and then a multitude of samples triggered in over the snare as well, using an AMS DMX, and very carefully manually trimming the input volume to catch every beat properly. The hat was a sound from the Oberheim mixed with some sampled things and some white noise, then gated and triggered from an arpeggiated spike. Then I one-at-a-time overdubbed certain other drums, some toms, and definitely cymbals. On some of the tracks of the album, I added to the tom sounds with a Simmons electronic kit, just barely mixed under the real ones, for tom 'fatness.' For the rest of the music track, a lot of it was programmed (step programming!) in my MemoryMoog. There was just barely enough memory in it to get a few things, then I'd have to re-program and punch in. I remember on one arpeg-16th sound, there was enough memory to do the whole song, but not to add any chord changes. So I would use a cassette case to hold down the tonic key (wedged in place using the F# black key as a 'holder') and then make the temperament changes with the detuning wheel. Not very easy, with the high technology available back then, but it forced you to be creative! I had to set the amount of detune for one change, then record the two passages, then re-set it for another change, start from the beginning every time, and punch in on the right spot. It took forever! The bass I played manually on a bass instrument, then doubled it in the manner mentioned above with the Moog. The rhythm guitar I played normally with a guitar, run into a Marshall head, then into my Harbinger speaker-booth-box (Ronny Montrose design out of SF). The pads and angel voices came from a Yamaha DX-9...I didn't want to spring for the whole cost of a '7'! The background vocals were done by me and Jimmy Jamison (who is now lead singer for Survivor, and can be seen on a new ad on TV, I think for Gateway or something like that). Jimmy did a lot of great BV's for me over the years. He can sound like whomever you put him with!

I mixed "Legs" from my Soundcraft 2" 24 track, through my Soundcraft 1200 console, onto my MCI 1/2" two track...I still have and use that 2 track today. Works like a hay baler, but actually records's the tranformerless electronics version. The Soundcraft stuff I sold to Sun Studios, who put it into the famous old building. U2 recorded "Angel of Harlem" on it!

As for the drum fill, I would hate to take any credit as an inventor of a fill! Billy and I worked out most of the fills together...we were very into what type of fills would work in what places. We were expecially fond of the one you mention, and also were trying to find places where a fill could extend into the first couple of beats of the next bar, after a normal fill would have ended. I don't remember if we actually executed this or not...I'll have to listen to the whole Eliminator album now, just to see!

Terry, this may get into the part of the story you can't tell, but I always wondered why Frank Beard seemed curiously absent on ZZ Top records as they started going ga-multi-platinum. It was blindingly obvious, even to the barely-ZZ-Top-fans such as I, that the drums were pretty much electronic. What happened? I never felt the drums on earlier releases were anything but good, so it doesn't seem to me to be an issue of talent. Was "Eliminator" really just a Billy Gibbons vanity record?

Definitely not a vanity record. It was an attempt to reach ga-multi-platinum status.

However, this is indeed part of the story about which I should not speak.

... I'm trying to work out why exactly this process often involves replacing the original drummer... it's so common, it's become an archetypal rock'n'roll story. is it to do with the difference between live playing and recorded drums. after all, it doesn't seem to happen (as much) with other instruments... is "hit" drumming just about hitting the kick and snare hard on the alternate beats, and everything else is detracting from that feel? i don't want to make this personal, but instead talk about it in a general production philosophy manner. could you elaborate on this phenomenon?

I think it is surely obvious that there is a big difference between professional session musicians and the average live band player. There is no substitute for crisp, well played parts when it comes to putting together a production. However, sometimes session players can sound "the same," and perhaps can lose the "trashy edge" that some bands have.

It seems that the drums are the most critical in this regard. Drums are the most difficult to "punch in" parts, and they need, in most cases, to be completed before other overdubbing can commence. For some reason, it does seem harder to make an average drummer come up to "pro record" level than the other instrumentation. In almost all cases, the singer is the one that cannot be replaced, so you have a given there. Guitars and basses and keys can be punched and punched, even in tiny segments, until they are more acceptable.

The standard way to get around the drum thing has been, short of replacing with a pro or using a machine, to record many takes and edit between them (aka "Metallica Syndrome"). But even with this, and perhaps sample replacement, there is still some hard to define difference that a studio pro "just knows" how to make.

Having said all of this, I will make it clear that my preference is always to use the actual players, to not edit between takes extensively, to maintain the best "live" feel the band can perform, in general to not resort to trickery. But sometimes you do what you have to to get the best record.

Also I will reiterate that this is not referring to Frank, ZZ's drummer. I stated before that I will not talk about certain aspects of the ZZ recordings, out of respect for the band and management. Frank did a marvelous job on many records, and this reflects upon him as a great drummer.

Terry on Tejas:

Working on those ZZ Top albums was a real fun time in my recording jaunts.

That "Tejas" album is one of my favourites as well.

But I must sadly remember that those horrendous re-digitisations literally broke my heart. After the long hours and days and weeks and months of work to create a certain sonic signature that the band and production team were looking for, to have it all totally ruined was just unfathomable, at the time, and still today.

I personally believe it to be the biggest tragedy in rock recording, and I think it did more to harm a band's name than anything else ever has.

At the time those "Six Pack remixes" were contemplated, I refused to be involved for various reasons, but in hindsight I now wish I had done so. At least the damage might have been minimised.

But the management wanted it done, and for financial reasons had allocated only three days or less to completely remix, "to digital standards," FIVE ALBUMS.

I lobbied heavily for the use of the real, original mixes, but the understanding of sonics at management level was limited, and the perceived-benefit lure of being able to say "Digitally Remixed for CD" was too strong for their small-picture minds.

I have refrained for years from writing the true story of much of the ZZ saga, especially that of "Eliminator," as I have always believed that the gentlemanly thing to do is to not tell stories. But I am inching ever closer to dropping that taboo, and the bus is being driven by the memory of those reissues.

There is to be an Anniversary reissue soon of "Eliminator," and recently I was contacted AFTER THE LINER NOTES WERE WRITTEN AND TURNED IN, saying that they meant to contact me, but hadn't done so...sorry. Another stake driven through the coffin...

And sadly I have no way of even listening to those original recordings, as I don't have my old vinyls anymore (long story), and totally refuse to hear the "remixes."

The Cowboy CD is somewhat close, but still doesn't reach it. What is going on in Mastering these days...?

... I remember well the first day that someone brought one of those "remixed" CD's into my control room. The second I heard it, I took it out of the player and scratched the CD with a knife. Then i took a hammer and a large nail, and pounded the CD, back inside the jewel box/cover,into the wall as an ornament. There was an ugly saying written upon it in Sharpie.

That was the day the world moved slightly to the left on its axis.

Speaking of "Nationwide" ... what's the phasing effect on vocal, Terry?

Yes, I conveniently "forgot" to answer the phaser question.

I have been asked that many times, but it is one secret that still has not been divulged.

... It is not tape flanging.

Terry, was that a Linn Drum that they wound up recording with in the '80s? And can you explain why they went in that direction?

There was no Linn drum.

... There are some things I just can't talk about.

Are the tall tails Mr Gibbons tells on occasion about the elaborate signal chains used to get guitar sounds true? I hear a lot of post work on the guitars on some of those albums but the sounds themselves sound pretty much guitar into amp for the most part.

There are indeed many "stories" put out on occasion, relating some recording tactics, which are somewhat...


shall we say.

As for post work, it would depend entirely upon which album and/or track you'd have in question. Things were done VERY differently in different situations. It would vary from a lot of effects and changes to absolutely dry.

For instance, our version of "Dust My Broom" had nothing at all added to the recorded signal on ANY track. And everything which could be recorded by direct injection was done so.
Playing drums with Mitch Easter and The Spongetones
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