RE/P Files: The Planet Waves Sessions—Recording Bob Dylan At The Village Recorder
Interviews with producer-engineer Rob Fraboni and promoter Dick LaPalm on the recording sessions for a legendary album...
September 21, 2015, by Gary D. Davis
From the March/April 1974 issue of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, interviews with producer/engineer Rob Fraboni and promoter Dick LaPalm on recording the Planet Waves album by Bob Dylan, supported by long-time collaborators The Band. The album hit number 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts—the first for the artist—and number 7 in the UK. It was recording in 1973 on November 2, 5, 6, 8, 9 at Village Recorder in West Los Angeles, CA.
R-e/p: Dick, how did you choose an engineer for the Dylan album?
Dick LaPalm: I left the decision up to Rob. I asked him who should do it. At the time we had three guys. Rob came back after a couple of days and said, “I should do it.” I said, “Fine.”
R-e/p: Rob, why did you decide to do it?
Rob Fraboni: Mainly because I was really familiar with Bob’s music, as well as The Band’s. I’ve been listening to them both since their first albums. I talked to the other guys, and it seemed like I was the most familiar.
R-e/p: Dick, do you feel that familiarity with the music is essential for a mixer?
Dick LaPalm: Engineers are much like a medical specialist. I just don’t think that every engineer can do every kind of music. I think this guy might be a hell of a lot better to do an R&B date, as opposed to a Country & Western date.
And one engineer might be a hell of a lot better to do a Dylan and a Stones. I’m not taking anything away from him; I’m sure he could do a Willie Hutch. I’m sure he could do a Little Milton or a Chuck Berry. But I don’t know that he could do it as well as someone else who’s really into that kind of music.
I think there’s a hell of a lot more to it than just knowing that board. I think it has to do with gut feel, and feeling for the music itself.
R-e/p: Rob, did you listen to their stuff before the sessions? Did you go home and prep on it?
Rob Fraboni: No, I didn’t. I make sure not to do that. You’ve got to approach things fresh; that’s the way I feel. After we mixed the album and it was all done, then I went and listened to his records. I didn’t want to be influenced before the sessions. I just wanted to do it fresh, and that was what they wanted, too, Dylan and The Band.
R-e/p: Was there anything unusual about the way Dylan and The Band work which would affect the choice of an engineer?
Dick LaPalm: We talked about engineers. The one thing they wanted was a guy that not only knew the equipment and respected it, but someone who could work really rapidly. Knowing how a Dylan works—the guy says, “Let’s do it now,” and he expects the engineer can do it, just like that, without fumbling.
R-e/p: Why did Dylan and The Band record at Village? What did you have that made it just right for them?
Fraboni (left) and assistant engineer Nat Jeffrey.
Rob Fraboni: One thing, the room was right for them. As far as the size, they really liked that. And as far as the control room is concerned, they just wanted something that sounded good. It could have been done at a number of places, but we had a combination of things: the room, the security and the location.
They liked the idea of being out of town (The Village Recorder is situated in West Los Angeles, about 10 miles from Hollywood). When we actually got down to the mixing, Robbie was comfortable with what he was hearing, and that was the really important thing.
R-e/p: When you say Robbie, you are talking about…
RF: Robbie Robertson, guitar, The Band.
RF: There was no producer on this record. Everybody was the producer. Robbie is the one who gives a lot of direction, although they all have something to say about the music, and are all really involved.
DL: He seems to be the one that has the most knowledge as far as engineering is concerned. He has tremendous knowledge about what equipment can do, what a board can and can’t do.
R-e/p: Let’s get back to the room. You told us that studio B was used for the album. What is it about this room that made it attractive?
RF: For one thing, you can work in here for hours and hours and not get fatigued. And you can turn this room up very loud and it won’t hurt. Numerous people have commented on that.
R-e/p: What kind of monitors are you using?
RF: The room was conceived by me and designed by George Augspurger, and the monitors are custom-built using JBL components and custom crossovers. Each enclosure has two 15-inch 2220 woofers, which are thin-cone units. They’re also efficient, so our amplifiers aren’t working so hard on the low end.
It gives us a punchier bottom than a 2215, with a different coloration. The 2215 has a more rubbery sound. While the curve of our room might look like another room, it has a certain character. The 2405 tweeters are also part of the picture. I just really like the way they sound in this installation. The overall system has a very low fatigue factor, or whatever you’d call it.
R-e/p: What kind of a curve does the room actually have?
RF: Well, it was originally flat, but we tailored the high end a little differently. I found that having a flat monitor system was a terrible hype.
The way we finally decided on the curve was that I went to a lot of studios and to a lot of people’s homes and played music on different systems. I took notes and gathered the information.
R-e/p: Since the room is equalized, you could probably have achieved similar frequency response with other speakers. Was there another factor involved in the choice of these particular speakers?
RF: Well, I like 604’s with the Mastering Lab crossover. But they still have a beaming effect. That’s one thing you just can’t get away from, and that was the reason we decided to switch to units with better dispersion.
R-e/p: Without the beaming, what kind of coverage do you get? Where is the best sound in the control room?
RF: Realistically, the working area is the length of the console. You can sit at the producer’s desk and hear well, although there is some difference from behind the console. As far as quad sound, it’s surprisingly good for a small room. It sounds very large and open in here.
R-e/p: We’ve talked a lot about the control room. Let’s discuss the studio for a while. For example, how many mikes were used in the sessions?
RF: As it turned out, I used about 28 microphones.
R-e/p: That seems like quite a few mikes for a relatively small studio. Why were so many mikes necessary?
RF: Seven were used on the organ. Garth (Hudson) has got this elaborate Lowrey organ with a Leslie on each of two keyboards. One Leslie is a model 103, of which very few were made. It has stationary speakers with a phasing device in the tube-type amplifier, as well as two rotors.
There was also a Hammond organ with a Leslie. Sometimes Garth would play both organs at one time, so we were miking three Leslies.
R-e/p: How about the other instruments?
RF: I often use a lot of mikes on the drums; I used about seven or eight. I wanted to mike everything kind of tight in this case. Bob had an electric and an acoustic guitar, as well as his vocal mike. And it all had to be ready to go because they would just say “OK” and boom, you go.
R-e/p: We’d like to know a little more about the miking, and the diagram you’re doing will help. But you just raised an interesting point. That is, what kind of a recording artist is Bob Dylan? What was it like working with him? Dick mentioned and you are also hinting that Dylan needs an engineer who’s on his toes.
RF: Right. Robbie came in that first morning and said to me, “There are going to be no overdubs. We’re doing it live. This is it, what’s happening here is it.” Bob doesn’t overdub vocals.
R-e/p: It sounds like Dylan was in the studio to perform, period.
RF: That’s really true. The record was really a performance, as far as I’m concerned. It wasn’t like we were “making a record.” It was more of a performance, and Bob wanted it to sound right, to come across. When he starts playing, there’s nothing else happening but that, as far as he’s concerned. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who performs with such conviction.
R-e/p: Maybe we can back up a little and get some information on how the album was first conceived. And how long did Dylan work on it?
RF: I can tell you what I know, although I don’t know everything. A few weeks before we started the album, Bob went to Now York by himself. He stayed there for two to two and a half weeks and wrote most all the songs.
One of the classic songs, “Forever Young,” he told me he had carried around in his head for about three years. He gets an idea for a song sometimes, he said, and he’s not ready to write it down. So he just keeps it with him and eventually it comes out.
R-e/p: When did he get together with The Band for this album?
RF: I’m not exactly sure but I know they had started rehearsing for the tour before we began recording. They only knew two of the songs on the album before coming in. The balance of the songs on the album they never heard until they were right here in the studio.
R-e/p: It appears The Band are pretty good musicians.
RF: They’re really something. And it’s got such character the music sounds like it’s all arranged. Bob would just run it down, and they’d play it once. Then they’d come in to the control room and listen. That’s another thing that really astounded me.
Nobody was saying, “You ought to be doing this” or “You ought to be playing that.” They just all came in and listened to hear what they should do, and then they’d go out into the studio. That would usually be the take, or the one following. That was pretty much the way it went.
R-e/p: Were the takes run straight through from the top?
RF: Yeah. Almost all of them were complete. The other thing was, if that wasn’t the take, they’d do a few more. Sometimes, they would change the arrangements from take to take because it was still so fresh. Then they’d choose the one that felt best.
R-e/p: How many days did it take to do all the recording?
RF: They initially came in on Friday, November 2, to get set up and to get a feel for the studio. We did use one song that we recorded that day. They cut three or four things for the album on Monday. Just came in and knocked them off.
Then on Tuesday they cut about four more things, and we used about three of them. We took two days off. Then they came in Friday and we cut the balance of the album that day.
R-e/p: So you really cut most of what you used in about three days.
RF: Yeah. Then we were assembling on Saturday, the next day, and Bob, myself, Nat Jeffrey (assistant engineer on Planet Waves) and Bob’s friend were here. We put together the master reels.
Then around noon, Bob said, “I’ve got a song I want to record later,” and I said fine. He said, “I’m not ready right now. I’ll ‘tell you when.” We were doing what we were doing, and all of a sudden he came up and said, “Let’s record.” So he went out in the studio, and that was “Wedding Song,” the cut that ends the album.
R-e/p: You mean he just walked out and it was a one-take?
RF: He just went out and played it. It was astounding. I hadn’t heard him do anything that sounded like his early records. Lou Kemp, his old friend from Minnesota, was there. He also came on the tour with us.
Anyway, Bob went out to record, and I put up some microphones, and I was going to get a sound. But usually he wouldn’t sing unless we were recording. That’s the way he was. You couldn’t get him to go out and just sing, unless he was running something down with The Band.
Well, I said I was going to get a sound. He asked, “Is the tape rolling? Why don’t you just roll it.” So I did, and he started singing, and there was no way in the world I could have stopped him to say, “Go back to the top.” It was such an intense performance.
If you listen to the record, you can hear noises from the buttons on his jacket. But he didn’t seem to care. Lou and I were both knocked out by the song. We listened to it a few times and didn’t think about it again until we got down to mixing. I mentioned re-cutting it to eliminate the button sounds, at one point, and Bob said, “Well, maybe.” But he never said yes, so we let it go.
R-e/p: Was that the last song they cut?
RF: Actually, the final recording happened during the mixing. We had mixed about two or three songs, and Bob, Robbie, Nat and I were there. Bob went out and played the piano while we were mixing. All of a sudden, he came in and said, “I’d like to try ‘Dirge’ on the piano.” We had recorded a version with only acoustic guitar and vocal a few days earlier.
R-e/p: Were you ready for it?
RF: We weren’t ready at all, we were mixing. But we put up a tape and he said to Robbie, “Maybe you could play guitar on this.” They did it once, Bob playing piano and singing, and Robbie playing acoustic guitar. The second time was the take. It was another one of those incredible, one-time performances.
R-e/p: Was anyone else involved in the mixing?
RF: Robbie Robertson has a good ear for mixing, knows what he wants to hear. So it was pretty much him and Bob when it got down to mixing. Robbie and I mixed the record together, and Bob was there commenting and making suggestions.
R-e/p: Can you describe Bob’s concern with the mixing, or at least the kinds of things he picked up on?
RF: Well, for one thing, he wanted certain types of sounds. He wanted a kind of bar room sound from the piano on “Dirge” rather than a majestic sound. He also wanted a raunchy vocal sound. We actually mixed “Dirge” immediately after we recorded it that night. Robbie and I listened to it once and I said, “Let’s mix it right now.”
So we took a mix and that’s what’s on the record. It had a unique character. The sound of that particular mix made a lot of difference and was important to him.
We did another mix later going for a more “polished” sound, but didn’t use it. That’s the kind of stuff he was sensitive to, how the mixes affected the character of the music. That might have been more important to him than the sound quality
R-e/p: Did it take a long time to mix the album ?
RF: We came in and mixed a few songs. We would work a day or two and take a few days off. And we always worked from noon to about eight, really good hours. One of the songs, “Hazel,” we used the way we first mixed it. But we remixed the other two because we felt we could do better.
Once we got into doing them, we mixed the whole album in about three or four days. But then we spent more time than it took to record or mix just to sequence the record. Bob wanted to live with a few different sequences, until he found one that was just right.
R-e/p: How far did you go with the project, Rob? Were you involved in the mastering?
RF: After the mixes were done, they virtually turned the whole thing over to me. They let me decide on the spacing between songs, and everything regarding mastering. I cut sets of refs for them for approval when I was satisfied, and then they gave me the final go-ahead.
R-e/p: We see the record was cut at Kendun. What made you go to that particular mastering facility?
RF: I did some checks, actually. I cut flat parts at a few places, and put a 700-cycle tone at the front to get accurate comparisons of the cutting. From there I decided on Kendun. So I went out there, cut it, and that was it.
R-e/p: Kendun’s room was done by Westlake, wasn’t it?
RF: Yes. It sounded a bit bright in there.
R-e/p: That isn’t surprising, considering the different monitor systems involved. Did you have any trouble adjusting to the difference and getting the right EQ?
RF: I suggested that we do nothing to it, and Kent Duncan, who did the cutting, agreed. I just relied on our previous checks of the mixes.
R-e/p: You mean when you got back to the Village with the refs, it sounded right?
RF: Yes, when we cut it flat. But we tried some EQ on the critical refs, a little on this and a little on that, and we couldn’t do anything to really improve it.
R-e/p: So you think it’s no problem to mix on one system and cut on another?
RF: No, I’ve done that. An even better example was the album I did with Richard Green before we did Bob’s album. Our studio was booked so heavily that we had to go outside to Sound Labs (Hollywood). It sounded very similar and was easy for us to adjust.
R-e/p: That’s a 604 system with the Mastering Lab modification.
RF: Right. The bottom end is different in here, it goes lower—down to 40 cycles almost flat. It just didn’t sound like it was doing that at Sound Labs. Our bottom end has a certain feel to it, as well as a sound, which is different over there. But the high end sounded very similar, which surprised me.
R-e/p: What about people who like a different sound?
RF: Of course we’re talking about taste. That’s pretty much what it comes down to. Some people like 604’s, and you can’t argue with it.
What we do have in all our rooms is a speaker switching system. We have a rotary selector switch, with other speakers on custom made stands. They have small bases, telescoping height adjustment, and heavy-duty casters. They’re sturdy enough to hold a 604E or 4320 and roll around.
R-e/p: You brought up the subject of taste, and it reminds me that we were going to discuss the mikes used for the album. I wonder if you can describe Dylan’s vocal mike, to begin with.
RF: We used a Sennheiser 421. But we went through five or six mikes to find out which would be best.
R-e/p: Did Dylan have a favorite mike?
RF: He preferred a 421 because he had used it before and liked it. Robbie suggested the 421. To tell the truth, it didn’t cross my mind because I hadn’t used it for vocals before.
R-e/p: Which one would you have used?
RF: As I said, I was experimenting, although there wasn’t much time for it. The first day, we tried an SM-53, 57, an 87 and a 47. I figured the condensers weren’t going to work because of leakage problems.
We also had to consider popping, which was a problem with the 421, especially because Bob doesn’t like to use a wind screen.
R-e/p: What did that do to the sound?
RF: It worked out OK. He’s always popped and seems to be used to it.
R-e/p: Did you use any de-essing or correction on the mix?
RF: No de-essing. We had a Pultec filter we would click in for the “p’s.” We usually shelved the vocal at 50 Hz. Nat would sit over there and switch to 80 Hz just for the p’s.
On one song, ‘Dirge,’ I got Bob to use a wind screen, He used it, and it really worked well. So, to answer your earlier question, that was how we chose the vocal mike—experimentation, with an ear to leakage.
R-e/p: What are the leakage characteristics of the 421?
RF: Well, The Band was playing fairly loud and I was limiting Bob slightly, 3 to 5 dB. Live, we were getting - 15 dB, tops, on the leakage, and that was incredible. I couldn’t believe it.I’d look at the meter, and it was just barely moving. I was immediately sold on the mike. Plus, what leakage there was, sounded good.
R-e/p: Would you mind getting into more detail on the instrument miking?
RF: On the drum kit, I used quite a number of mikes: a Shure SM-7 on the bass, Sennheiser 421 on the snare, KM-84 on the high hat, and 87’s for toms and overheads. I experimented with the set a little bit.
R-e/p: Was there anything you particularly like in that combination of drum mikes? Is it a favorite set-up?
RF: It just worked. The Band likes a thick torn sound, and the proximity effect of the 87’s worked to our advantage in this respect. And I like the sound of condenser mikes on drums, so that’s why I chose them.
On the high hat, I have found the 84 just works well on almost any set. I’ve got about three or four different mikes I use on snares, based on the kind of sound the drum set has.
R-e/p: So you try to get a sound tailored to the specific situation?
RF: Yeah. I don’t have a setup that I use on every drum set.
R-e/p: You really seem to be enthusiastic about the drums.
RF: That’s probably because I play drums. I feel they’re really an important part of a good sounding record. I have a feeling for musicians, having played myself. I always go out in the room and listen. They’ll run through something and I’ll stay in the studio.
When the musicians come in initially I always ask, “What’s the most comfortable way for you to set up?” I tell them we’ll start from there, and if there are any problems, we’ll rearrange things. It helps a lot—when you give musicians that kind of room, they feel better.
R-e/p: Let’s run through the rest of the miking. The diagram you prepared shows a lot. What about the choice of piano mikes?
RF: We used two KM 84’s. I tried a couple of things. I miked both facing the hinge. One of them was almost to the end of the harp, and about 12 inches toward the hammers about a foot to 18 inches from the hinge. The body of the mike was parallel to the soundboard, about 2 inches up.
The other mike was in the same basic position, but angled a bit toward the soundboard 00 about 30 degrees. It was in the high end section of the piano, nearer the holes. It worked really well, with practically no leakage at all.
R-e/p: Did you have the top open?
RF: I had it on the short peg, with it really covered. We were all surprised how low the leakage was. But when I did ‘Dirge’ with Bob, we used a completely different set up, mainly because he wanted it that way. I had it open all the way, no covers, nothing.
R-e/p: Did the piano get into his vocal?
RF: No, he sings so loud. Interestingly enough, the one thing that leaked into the drums was Bob’s vocal. That’s one reason the leakage was so low. He really sings hard. In fact, he was leaking so badly into the uncovered piano that I had to experiment.
I used RE15’s. I faced them toward the back of the piano, instead of the hammers, and it worked really well. It took a bit of EQ, but as far as leakage went, it was really excellent. Plus, as I said, he wanted a more “far away” sound for that number.
R-e/p: Were there any other unusual or special miking techniques?
RF: Let’s see. We used a special direct box for the bass. Our maintenance man, Ken Klinger, built it. It’s a solid state, discrete, FET type. We used that on the bass, and miked the amp—a twin reverb, I think with a 56.
R-e/p: It’s becoming easier to see where all the mikes were used. According to the diagram, there seem to be quite a few more instruments than there were players. Were they all used in the same session?
RF: Yes, sometimes. There was a pianet and clavinet—both were direct. Rick (Danko), who played bass, also played fiddle a bit. And there was an accordion. There was also a Dobro guitar. I had extra mikes up for these instruments, for whatever might happen. The Band didn’t do any singing on the album. And that’s it.
R-e/p: With all the close miking and the experienced musicians, did the actual levels in the studio tend to be low? And, if so, did everybody wear phones?
RF: The levels were medium-loud, and they could hear each other in the room. They would occasionally wear phones.
R-e/p: What kind of mixes would you give them? Heavy on their own instruments, just the other guys, or what?
RF: A stereo mix of the whole thing, and they loved it. They had Sennheiser 414 phones, and the stereo worked out very well, especially for Garth. I could put one Leslie in one ear, and the other Leslie in the other ear, and it gave him the perfect effect because that’s what he does. He puts the Leslies on either side of the Lowrey so that when he uses the different keyboards, the sound goes back and forth.
R-e/p: As far as your monitoring was concerned, did you listen in mono at all?
RF: Yes, a lot. That’s a sure-fire way to acoustically catch phase problems.
R-e/p: But what do you do with something like the Leslie, where the phase is all over the place?
RF: That’s a whole different circumstance. You just do your best to make it sound good.
Editor’s Note: This is a series of articles from Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, which began publishing in 1970 under the direction of Publisher/Editor Martin Gallay. After a great run, RE/P ceased publishing in the early 1990s, yet its content is still much revered in the professional audio community. RE/P also published the first issues of Live Sound International magazine as a quarterly supplement, beginning in the late 1980s, and LSI grew to become the monthly publication that continues to thrive to this day.
Our sincere thanks to Mark Gander of JBL Professional for his considerable support on this archive project.
RE/P Files: The Planet Waves Sessions—Recording Bob Dylan At The Village Recorder