Perfect Sound Forever

The Who's Quadrophenia

Ron Nevison Interview
Part 2 By Richie Unterberger

Q: What were the biggest challenges of recording Quadrophenia, where there are a lot of elements in the mix?

RN: It went very easily. Pete was very precise. He had it ready to go. It was very smooth. I mean, he's so together. He knows exactly what he wants. He was the guy. He was the director, the producer. It was his baby. And what a great person for me to do a first big album with. I was pretty much in awe of the whole thing.

[A] big challenge in recording the drums was Keith had so many drums, I couldn't get microphones everywhere. He had two hi-hats, he had like eight tom-toms, he had I don't know how many cymbals, and a gong. And two kick drums, and oh my god...and so, that was a challenge. The rest of it was very easy. Recording John's bass, I used mostly the amp. His amp sounded great. He had a great feel and a great sound. And Pete, same thing with the guitars. It was a very easy thing to do. And they weren't real, real picky about their sounds either. I mean, they were picky, but they weren't like up your ass about it.

I used to marvel at John's bass playing. It was just incredible. He had his own sound. Bass is not something that's really easy to record. It might be the toughest thing, as an engineer I can tell you that. He was very easy to record.

Q: Quadrophenia uses a lot of sound effects, and more ingeniously than maybe any other rock album. They're very important to the story.

RN: I recorded most of 'em myself. The biggest project was the sea [effects]. I took Ronnie's truck down by myself on a weekend down to Cornwall, only because I had vacationed there previously. I knew where I wanted to go, instead of having to go down there, scout locations, and then drive the truck down. So I went down there and recorded—I had a perfect spot, and it was a great day. I put four microphones out, and I recorded quadraphonic sea sound. Of course, I only got to use stereo.

So I took the truck down to Cornwall and set up four U87s, two on the rocks and two in the back, waited for the tide to come in; spent about three or four hours, five hours, six hours, I don't remember. When the tide went out, I kind of like went out without the microphones, [so they] wouldn't be trashed, and recorded a bunch of sea noise. That's the sea that you hear throughout the album, especially at the beginning.

We wanted some strikers striking for "Dirty Jobs," I think. They have the Speakers Corner [in London's Hyde Park], so I went there. People get up and people shout and stuff. I had my microphones out, and I got, let's say, shown off the property. I got escorted to Park Lane and told not to come back. You're not allowed to [record speakers]; I didn't know that. Another sound effects recording, I went to Regents Park and recorded a Sousa band. Now this time I was smart; I hid the microphones in like a bag, and just stuck the heads of the microphones out to pick up the noise.

I recorded the rain a couple of different places. I went out to Wales on a rainy weekend, in a tent. I was hoping to get thunder, but you can't wait for thunder. It's not something you can program. So I ended up getting a lot of rain. Then I also recorded rain at Ramport on a rainy night. I always had the recorder ready in case we got thunder, but we never did. So I ended up having to use thunder from archival footage.

Q: There's the story that the studio was actually flooded when you recorded "Drowned," one of the songs which has Chris Stainton on piano.

RN: I knew Chris, because Chris was in Joe Cocker's band, and I had been the soundman on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Chris was lovely, a wonderful guy. The night we cut "Drowned" in Ramport Studios, this was still with Ronnie Lane's mobile studio outside; at this point it was 16-track. We were cutting a live track, which meant that acoustic piano was in an isolation booth. As we're cutting the track, I started seeing like emergency lights, 'cause an Airstream has windows, like a remote truck wouldn't. There's lights pulling up behind me with like emergency vehicles. I open the door—it was pouring rain—and it was the fire department. What happened was, the roof caved in from water and went right down into the vocal booth where Chris Stainton was playing, and flooded his vocal booth. During the song "Drowned," if you can believe that. Absolutely true story. I think Chris just kept playing (laughs), and the roadies called the fire department, and they got there in two minutes or something. I don't remember whether we were able to finish the song at that point, but that was interesting.

Q: The mixing of Quadrophenia was very involved for a 1973 record, especially with all the synthesizer, horns, and effects in addition to the parts the band usually did.

RN: Pete and I did it [the mix], just the two of us. The biggest problem was, his studio was great, but the speakers weren't terrific, and they weren't tweaked. So we had to do quite a lot of work in the mastering. We had to add quite a lot of EQ to it, the top end wasn't there. But the quality of the mix was great. He had his house in a place called Goring. I was staying at a little bed and breakfast, like a pub kind of thing, on the other side of the river. He used to pick me up on his boat and bring me over to the house, because it was quicker than me going a couple miles down the river, crossing the bridge, and then coming back. We spent a few weeks there mixing the whole thing, and as you can imagine, it's not just mixing the songs. When we sequenced, we had to cross-fade all of the things [that] went right in from one to another. So it was a tremendous amount of work.

But the biggest thing I remember about the mixing—we had a lot of sound effects, and we didn't have any room. We were on 16 tracks. Can you imagine, with all the synthesizer, all the vocals, all the effects, and everything? We didn't have room to put everything onto the 16-track. So Pete got hold of a couple of these cartridge players that they used in radio stations for commercials. We had two machines—he had one and I had one—and we would load the sound effects. You'd click a button, and it goes off, and then the next one comes up, and then you hit the button again and the next one goes off, like you'd [do with] commercials. So we'd load them in in the order that we had in the mix. He'd have like three or four on one side, and I'd have three or four on the other side. When we wanted thunder, or a train whistle, we'd be mixing, and just hit the button on the thing, and sound effects would come out. That was how we achieved all the sound effects, 'cause we didn't have room for them on the recording.

Once the whole thing was mixed, the next thing was cross-fading from one song to another, which was a tricky thing. Each side of [the] four sides of this record had like 100 edits in it. One time I was spooling through one side of the record and the edit came apart and the whole thing went on the floor. Luckily, nothing was injured. We were freaked out, but a splice had come apart. So we just carefully picked it back up, and certainly it was cool. But the whole Goring thing was just Pete and I, the two of us, mixing. I don't even think there was an assistant there, just the two of us did it. We were there maybe three weeks.

Q: There were some subsequent reports that members of the Who were dissatisfied with aspects of the mix, especially Daltrey.

RN: I had heard the same thing. I never really heard anything from Entwistle. But you know, bass players want their basses loud, and vocalists want their vocals as loud as possible. And Roger was very big on the ego thing. It doesn't surprise me. Pete and I did what we thought sounded right. And this happens all the time. Not everybody's happy with all the mixing you do. It's a fact of life. It happens in almost every project I've ever done, somebody doesn't like something about it. In this case as an engineer, I followed what Pete...Pete was the producer. When he liked it, if I thought he was making a mistake, I would speak up. But when he liked it, I liked it. But it wasn't about Roger. It was about the Who.

Q: The album was called Quadrophenia in part because it was planned to be issued in the quadraphonic format. What happened with that?

RN: The parent company of Track Records, which was their UK label, was Universal and MCA, in the US in LA. Universal/MCA had adopted a certain system for this quadraphonic bullshit, which is all it was. It was supposed to be the next thing after stereo. But it was a bunch of crap. They took the stereo and they folded in out-of-phase tracks. It wasn't any kind of what we call discrete quad, where you have dedicated left-right front, left-right rear. When we tried a test mix halfway through with the album—when we finally got the equipment to encode these bullshit quad tracks—we realized that the front-to-back separation was like 5dB [decibels]. It was like a big giant mono. And Pete said, "You know, I am not going to do a quad mix that's worse than the stereo mix. Period." Why do anything like that? And that was it; whatever Pete said was it. He sent that memo to MCA. They were furious, I think, because they wanted to launch their whole quad thing with Quadrophenia, a Who album, the follow-up to Tommy, the whole kind of nine yards.

And I was right with him, man. I thought this was a bunch of shit, you know. I think that in one afternoon session, that all blew up when we realized that it was a crock of shit, this whole quad idea. And it was Pete's decision.

I think that in the end, the quadraphonic thing that MCA and record companies were trying to do in those days was gimmicky. It would have sold the decoder and two more speakers and amplifiers. So you have your normal stereo, and then you put it through a decoder and add another amplifier with two more speakers, and you have quad. But what you have is mono. And we weren't buying it. It would have been nice to have done a quad thing in 1973. Wouldn't that have been fabulous. But it wasn't to be.

Q: What you do think of how Quadrophenia sounds on CD?

RN: The only thing I've listened to is the remix. You can do such more nowadays, with the kind of quality stuff, limiting and all that. But I have to say that the [original] mix still holds up for me. But I do like the new mix. I did talk to Pete a few years ago, and he still likes the mix that we did. If I had to pick a mix, I would go with the new mix, 'cause it does sound better. It doesn't have some of the qualities that we put in there. The train whistle is gone from "5:15," not that that's a big deal, at the intro of that song on the new thing. Like I said, we had scattered all that stuff on cartridge machines, even though I think I was very careful to archive all of the sound effects on quarter-inch tape. We kept the reels of quarter-inch tape that had all the sound effects on it. They probably should have been stored with the mixes and everything else. But who knows who stores stuff? But because stuff wasn't on the 16-track, they would have lost some stuff.

Q: Quadrophenia has been overshadowed to some extent by the Who's other double-album opera, Tommy. How successful do you think Quadrophenia was artistically?

RN: I think it was very successful artistically. Maybe I'm a little biased; I thought it was just a fantastic project, and brilliantly done. And I was just so proud to be part of it. Certainly I was thrown into Quadrophenia, and I had to swim, or sink. And fortunately, I swam. It's a great experience.

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