How the Bad Boys From Boston Recorded Their Finest Albums

October 15, 2008

How the Bad Boys From Boston Recorded Their Finest Albums

October 15th


Big Twelve Inches

By Rich Tozzoli

Engineer Jay Messina on Recording the Aerosmith Masterworks 'Toys in the Attic' and 'Rocks'.

The year was 1975, and a five-piece band from Boston known as Aerosmith had just wrapped up a lengthy tour to promote its sophomore release, Get Your Wings. Both that album and the band’s self-titled debut had charted gold, but the members were still hungry—ravenous, even—for breakout success. Little did they know that the next 24 months would propel them from an opening act to full-fledged arena-rock superstars, and forge a legacy that, three decades later, would remain strong as ever.

But the band didn’t get there alone. When studio mastermind Jack Douglas and engineer Jay Messina stepped onboard for the Get Your Wings sessions in 1973–74, they established the beginnings of a production team that would help provide the so-called “Bad Boys from Boston” with the sounds, songs, and swagger to dominate the airwaves. Fully in charge for the next album—co-producer Ray Colcord and engineer Rod O’Brien helped with Wings—the duo channeled Aerosmith’s raw, reckless brilliance into the 1974 smash Toys in the Attic, and its 1976 platinum follow-up album, Rocks. These groundbreaking and influential records secured Aerosmith’s status as rulers of the mid-’70s hard-rock scene.

Now, 30-plus years after Toys in the Attic and Rocks first hit the shelves, Messina broke out the albums, and sat down with EQ to reveal the studio techniques used to create two rockin’ masterpieces.

What was your experience prior to working with Aerosmith?

I started at Don Elliot Productions in 1966. Fun fact: Don had Les Paul’s one-inch 8-track machine, of which there were only five in the world at the time. My first session there was with Ravi Shankar. I recorded it with David Lucas, the engineer who was there at the time, and I was told a doctor would pay me at the end of the session. Ravi and his band wanted to play to this psychedelic film, so we set up a 16mm projector in the control room—which made quite a racquet. At the end of the night, I went over to the doctor and got a check from him. The doctor was Timothy Leary.

Around 1968, I moved to A&R studios. Phil Ramone ran it, and it was kind of like a school. I started mastering vinyl there on a mono Neumann lathe. It was a really good background for me to get into before getting further into recording, because I got to know what not to do in my mixes. For example, you didn’t want a lot of out-of-phase material, as it will lift the cover-cutter head right out of the grooves, and your record will skip. For the same reason, you had to be careful about the low end. Also, a circuit protected the cutter head from too much high-end voltage. It would just lift the head up, and you’d have to start the cutting process over. A lot of things that sounded fine on tape wouldn’t translate to an actual vinyl record because of the limitations of the format.

I went to the Record Plant in New York City in 1970. As soon as you walked in the place, it felt like you were going into the coolest nightclub in town. For example, I was invited to see the Who record in Studio A, and there were all these colored lights turned down low. They were about to do some vocals—I could hear breathing out in the studio—and just by the level of the hiss from the return of the EMT plates and the general amplifier noise in the room, I could tell how loud it was going to be. They had a quad system in the room with 300-watt monitors, and they were all on. Sure enough, when they put the tape on, it was incredibly loud, but the sound was just awesome. To this day, Studio A is one of the best-sounding rooms I’ve heard.

What console was in there?

Studio A had a Spectrasonics console—which is very straight ahead. There wasn’t a lot of flexibility with aux and cue sends, and you didn’t get a lot of bells and whistles. But it was a super board, and you could get amazing sounds down on tape with it. Studio B and Studio C had Datamix consoles at that time.

It was while working at the Record Plant that you got hooked up with Jack Douglas, right?

Yes. Jack was assisting at that time, and he got on a few of my dates. We clicked as friends, and we also liked the way we worked together. It was a real natural partnership. Then, Jack got a couple of good opportunities to advance his production skills. I guess the first big one was when Bob Ezrin gave him the chance to co-produce Get Your Wings. Aerosmith was up and coming, and Columbia recognized them as a band that was going to happen. So that’s when we met the guys, and Jack and I ended up working on Get Your Wings together. Well, that record didn’t take off, but Columbia was still impressed with the band, and they also felt Jack and I were a good match for them. So we started Toys in the Attic.

Did the band write a lot of Toys in the Attic in the studio?

Yes, and also during pre-production with Jack. Certainly, a lot of [vocalist] Steven Tyler’s lyrics were written in the studio. For instance, we all went to the movies one night, and saw Young Frankenstein. The “walk this way” line in the film is what inspired Steven to write “Walk This Way.” The band was in a very creative place.

What did you record Toys on?

The deck was an MCI two-inch 16-track that was running Ampex tape. We used the Spectrasonics console in Studio A, and we had some really cool outboard pieces such as Roger Mayer limiters, and an old Altec compressor that gave the guitars a cool, subtle squash.

How did you track the guitars on that album?

Typically, I would use the combination of a Shure SM57, a Sennheiser 421, and a Sony C37. I would place all three mics close to the grille, and mix the signals down to one track. The “edge” would come from the 57 and the 421, while the C37 would provide the “weight.” Sometimes, we would add a little bit of phasing to get some extra edge. We had an Eventide flanger that we used occasionally, as well, and if it sounded really good, we would just print the effect to tape. In the mix, we would usually pan Brad Whitford’s guitar to the left, and Joe Perry’s guitar to the right. They had some great old Fenders, and Joe used a small Gibson stereo amp that just sounded amazing. Most of the time, it was just one or two amps per player being tracked. Once we experimented with assigning one guitar to 13 amps, and miking them up. That’s when we discovered that having 13 amps doesn’t make the guitar sound 13 times better than one amp!

What about Joey Kramer’s drums?

We set the drums on a wood floor. I would get a Sennheiser MKH 415 shotgun mic up as high as I could, point it straight down at the snare, and then put a Universal Audio 1176 on it, squashing it at around a 20:1 ratio. Generally, I would just add some of that channel under the dry track in the mix. On the snare, I sometimes used an Altec 633A “salt shaker” in place of a Shure SM57. I only miked the top head, and I used a Pultec EQ to boost slightly at around 10kHz and 100Hz. The hi-hat mic would be a Neumann KM 84, and for the toms and overheads, I used Neumann U87s. With the overheads, I would position the mics so I had a good shot at all the cymbals, but I always tried to maintain the snare in the center of the image. For the kick, we used an Electro-Voice 666. We also added some board EQ on the kick to boost the low end at 50Hz, and the attack at around 3kHz.

Toys In The Attic had drums assigned to five tracks: kick on one, snare on two, everything else on three and four, and the shotgun mic on five. The exception was “Sweet Emotion,” where the shotgun mic was multed to two preamps. One was limited with a UREI 1176, and the other with a Universal Audio 175. Each signal was printed on a separate track. I rarely adhered to traditional miking techniques back then. I was all about experimentation.

You also played some percussion on the album.

I played bass marimba on “Sweet Emotion.” We felt the bass part was missing a little edge to it, and Jack knew I played vibes, so I gave it a shot, and doubled the bass part. It worked great with the bass sound. It’s in the intro, and the re-intro after the first chorus.

Was Tom Hamilton’s bass sound all direct, or a mix of amp and DI?

It was a mix of both amp and DI—which were submixed to a single channel. Tom used an Ampeg B15 amp, and we would take the direct line off the amp head. The mic would have been an Electro-Voice RE20. We also used an old Flickenger tube limiter—a monstrous bass compressor that had its own special sound. If you applied it moderately, it kept the low end from getting muddy, and it added lots of punch in the mids. We would occasionally use a Lang Program EQ to boost the 2kHz range for some added edge.

I heard Steven didn’t use headphones for most of the album. How did you record his lead and background vocals?

When Steven didn’t hear headphones, I would record him with the shotgun mic because of its narrow polar pattern. I would set him up with a couple of monitors in the live room, and send a mono feed. We’d place the monitors out of phase, and then position Steven in the sweet spot where the two signals almost completely cancelled each other out. If he was hearing headphones—which he did on occasion to sing background vocals and other parts—I’d use a U87. While the backgrounds are mostly Steven, Joe would sing occasionally, too. You can hear him on there if you listen.

Was Toys mixed right there at the Record Plant?

Yes, and it wasn’t that difficult. Jack and I would both get our hands in there on the mix, and if we needed other hands, we would just ask. You couldn’t be shy about asking for help, because there was no automation. You had to manually ride the faders. The mixes were often a combination of using extra hands, or mixing songs in pieces, and then editing sections together. We would cut and assemble the order on 1/4-inch tape running at 15ips. The whole record took around four months to finish.

What reverbs did you have at the time?

They had some really cool EMT plates, and a spring reverb. Most of the reverb you hear—like on “Sweet Emotion”—was the EMTs. If we had a cool reverb sound going, we just printed it to tape.

Did you rely on a lot of compression for the mixes?

We didn’t use much. We would hit the tape hard enough to get some natural compression, and then add just a little to the guitars and bass to even things out. The exception was the shotgun mic above Joey’s snare. I’d really squash that one.

Later on, when we recorded Rocks, I’d take the drum mix—mostly kick and snare with a little bit of the overheads—and route it from an aux send to an 1176. I would really squash that signal at 20:1, and I’d have the input level up to the point where you think it’s too much. The 1176’s release function would almost enable you to put the compression in time with the song. What I mean is, based on how quick or slow the release was set, I could try to have the 1176 back to zero compression by the time of the next snare hit. That way, you always hear the crack of that next snare fully. Also, if you were hearing too much of the cymbals, you could slow up the release, and it wouldn’t pull up a lot of cymbal bleed. When mixing, I would add the compressed signal in parallel to the other drums to get an apparent loudness to the kick and snare without adding much meter level. This is how we got that “hit you in the chest sound” for Joey’s drums.

How many tracks did you use?

When we remixed Toys in the Attic for 5.1 surround a few years ago, I had it transferred from the 16-track master to Pro Tools. When I looked at the track sheets, I noticed that there was at least one track open on all the songs. We basically used only 15 tracks for the whole record.

What did you print the mixes to?

The final master was a 1/4-inch Ampex tape. We were very conscious of the low end and any out-of-phase material, because we didn’t want the vinyl records to skip. Doug Sax did a great job mastering the record. He sonically brought it up another notch.

Let’s move onto Rocks. What’s the story there?

The guys were rehearsing in a warehouse in Waltham, Massachusetts, and they were getting really comfortable up there. It turned out that everything sounded really good in the room, so we just parked the Record Plant mobile truck in the warehouse.

So you just miked everybody up where they were in the room as if they were practicing?

Yes—even to the point of using this huge speaker cabinet Joey had set up behind his drums for the rehearsals. He had a mic just lying in his bass drum, and we ran the signal through a little MXR equalizer with everything from 125Hz and up rolled off, and everything below 125Hz boosted all the way up. A big woof of air would come out of that cabinet, and he’d feel it every time he hit the bass drum. It made for a really cool bass-drum sound—although it bled through everything except the guitar mics that were positioned right on the speaker grilles.

How were the band members positioned in the warehouse?

They were set up in corners. As you walked in, the drums were just to the right. There was a guitar amp in the far right corner, a guitar amp in the far left corner, and Tom’s bass rig was in another corner. It was so loud that they would easily hear each other no matter where they stood. That was the point. We isolated amps and the drum kit a bit with blankets, but, of course, that only worked so well.

Was everyone miked up the same way as on Toys?

Yes—although we did try a pair of binaural mics on Joey. Those mics have their applications, but they weren’t an overwhelming success, in my opinion. We also miked this big cement room off the loading bay to get some ambience. It sounded huge. We got some great tracks up there, and we went back to the Record Plant for overdubs—mostly vocals, but some added percussion and guitar parts, as well—and mixing.

Here’s a funny story—at that time, CBS had to have their union engineers on the session, so we always had these two guys hanging around the warehouse. Right at the end of one tune, we heard a door creak open. It was one of the guys coming back from coffee. In the mix, we had to make the creak louder, because we couldn’t get rid of it. You can hear it at the beginning of “Nobody’s Fault.”

What console was in the mobile truck?

It was a DeMideo board that was super straight-ahead and clean. It had minimal EQ, so it was just used to get the sound on tape.

How did the limitations of the board affect your approach to recording the album?

It was a matter of just finding the right mic, putting it in the right place, and getting it on tape as clean as possible. In that sense, it made the album easy to record.

When you listen to Toys In The Attic and Rocks now, what are your thoughts on them?

I didn’t realize at the time that these would be big releases, or that they would go down in history as classic rock records. Who knew that “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” would become the radio staples they did? But I do remember being excited about the sessions. These albums were fun to work on, and fun to mix, and it’s nice to be driving in the car, and still hear them playing on the radio.

What comes across is the energy of the songs and the mixes—which is what we always wanted to put into the records in the first place. Listening back, it’s not about asking, “Is there enough 10kHz on this or that,” or focusing on specific technical points in the mix. It’s more about reflecting on the album in the context of “Does it feel good, and do you get excited when you hear it?” The answer, in these cases, is “yes.” I guess the magic was there when we put the records together, and that magic still comes across in the mixes 30 years down the road.
Jack’s Tales From the Attic

Often referred to as the “sixth member of Aerosmith,” Jack Douglas was instrumental in helping shape the band’s early sound. With a long track record that includes the likes of John Lennon and the Who, Douglas is certainly no stranger to making hit records. Here, he reflects on working behind the scenes with “the bad boys from Boston” for Toys in the Attic.

What were some of the challenges in making the album?

At that time, their performances could be dodgy. They would get a few moments of brilliance, and then fall on their asses, but I wouldn’t want to stop the take. I would just go for whatever I could get. Sometimes, I would be banging a cowbell in a booth just so the tempo would stay straight. That way, I could edit all the takes together when it was done, because the brilliant parts would just be incredible.

The band has often called you their “sixth member.” Explain the specifics of that role.

That “sixth member” phrase is because of the situations that went down in preproduction, when I would basically move in with them. We would create songs from the ground up, and, because of their touring schedule, they would just show up and ask, “Got any songs?” We would develop stuff from the ground up—such as the riff on “Walk This Way,” or the bass part to “Sweet Emotion.” The major contributors were Steven, Joe, and myself, but everyone certainly pitched in. 

You mixed Toys with flying fingers.

That’s right! We would mark fader levels with pencils—and even tape razor blades down to block faders from being moved past a certain point—and then it would be all hands on deck. Sometimes, you would just do a verse, then reset for the chorus, and make all your pre-planned moves. There would be stop points set for the drum fills, and so on. I miss that process, because things happened by accident on those records that were just really cool.

Did you realize how great Toys was when you were working on it?

No. I was too close to it. When Bruce Lundvall [president, Columbia Records] came in to listen to the whole album, I was thinking, “Oh my god, its just terrible.” I thought it must have sounded like this mushy big mess flying at him. After it was over, Bruce said, “I think I can take a breath now.” And I thought, “Wow, he really hates it.” But then he said, “It’s brilliant. There’s gotta be four singles on there that are amazing.” And there are only nine songs on that record!

Hewitt’s Rocking Mobile Rig

David Hewitt—the Grammy-winning President/Chief Engineer of Remote Recording—was on the scene when Aerosmith recorded Rocks. Leaving the hustle and bustle of New York, the band and production team set up shop in an empty warehouse in Massachusetts, not far from Aerosmith’s hometown of Boston. To track the sessions, Hewitt rolled up an entire mobile studio, and here he tells us about some of the gear he brought in to keep the sessions running smoothly.

What was the setup for Rocks?

The band had a rehearsal room called the Where-house—a big, insulated industrial space with unusually high ceilings. We brought the Record Plant’s truck up there, which had a DeMideo console loaded with UREI 1108 modules. These were basically solid-state discrete versions of the old tube circuits UREI had made, so they sounded really good.

How many inputs did the console have?

It only had 24 inputs and eight mix busses, and tracking was a little difficult due to the limited inputs. To get around that, we also used some Ampex AM10 submixers, which were six by two. We brought the submixers in on line positions, because, even then, we started using up to 35 or 40 inputs for the band. Joey had tons of drums, Jay had room mics up, and Brad and Joe had a bunch of guitar amps all around. Every time they would add something, I’d be scrambling to find another preamp somewhere, and another way to get it in.

What tape machines did you use?

We were still doing 16 tracks at that point, and we had a pair of Ampex MM1000s—the first 16-track recorders ever produced. Those things were big and clunky, but they sounded great.

Where did you put the truck?

We actually pulled the truck right inside the Where-house from the loading dock. Everything stayed in the truck. We ran the cables out into the room, and set things up just like a live date. We had great big honking Westlake monitors that were just awful. They reached compression at like 9 o’clock, but the guys knew them well that we used them. The whole point was to make the band feel like they were just rehearsing—to catch them in their element—and that’s what we did.

To read the originial article, click HERE.

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