Listening in Depth to Led Zeppelin

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Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series.

We always have a great time doing Zep IV shootouts. It’s one of those all-too-rare cases where amazing music and amazing sonics coexist on the same slab of vinyl. You just need to find the right slab, a proposition that turns out to be much harder than it sounds.

You probably know by now just how tough it is to find audiophile quality sonics on this album. Far too many copies just leave us cold, but the best pressings, whether British or domestic, are so good, and so much fun at the loud volumes we employ, that it ends up being worth all the time, trouble and expense it takes to wade through the vinyl dreck to find them.

But the best copies are so good, and so much fun, that it was definitely worth the trouble. Because the best copies ROCK, and it is a positive THRILL to hear this record rock the way it was meant to. If you have big speakers and the power to drive them, your neighbors are going to be very upset with you.


In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Black Dog

The key to both of the first two tracks is to find a copy with a solid bottom end. Next look for an extended top end, easily heard on all the splashing cymbals.

Now listen for a tonally correct Robert Plant. The copies with lots of top will typically have him sounding too bright. The copies with little in the way of high frequency extension will have him sounding veiled and dull.

One out of ten copies (with potentially good stampers) will get all three right: the top, the bottom and his voice. When you hear it you know it immediately, but you sure do have to go through a lot of copies before you have much of a chance of hearing it!

Rock and Roll

“[Rock and Roll] was a little tough to record because with the hi-hat being so open and [Bonham] hitting it that hard it was difficult to control. But I managed somehow or another.”

Andy Johns

“The best copies prove once and for all that these are some of most up-front, lively and above all real sounding rock cymbals ever put on tape.”

Tom Port

The Battle of Evermore
Stairway to Heaven

Side Two

Misty Mountain Hop

Note that the vocals for the first track are always somewhat edgy on even the best copies. After playing scores and scores of copies, having adjusted the VTA every which way we could, no copy did not have at least a bit of an edge on Plant’s vocal. We’re pretty sure it’s that way on the tape. Our job is to find the copy that reproduces it as cleanly and accurately as possible.

Four Sticks
Going to California
When the Levee Breaks

When The Levee Breaks is rarely mastered properly and consequently rarely sounds the way it should. If the cymbals or the double-tracked harmonicas on your copy don’t get at least a little gritty you probably have an overly smooth copy, and it’s even possible that it’s made from a second or third generation tape. On the best copies both are alive with presence and energy.

And the room around the drums is huge, as is that famous 26″ Ludwig bass drum.*

The Classic Records reissue corrects this problem somewhat, but at a cost. They’ve completely robbed the song of all the Zep magic. It’s not as big, not as open, not as rich, not as lively, not as punchy, and so on — but the cymbals are clean. Is that the tradeoff we should be happy to live with? If you’re on our site you already know the answer.


*Andy Johns interviewed about recording When the Levee Breaks

The drum sound on When The Levee Breaks is one of Johns’ greatest contributions to IV

One night Zeppelin were all going down the boozer and I said, ‘You guys bugger off but Bonzo, you stay behind because I’ve got an idea.’ So we took his kit out of the room where the other guys had been recording and stuck it in this lobby area. I got a couple of microphones and put them up the first set of the stairs.

It wasn’t just the stairwell that got that famous, earthy delay sound though…

I used two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones and I put a couple of limiters over the two mics and used a Binson Echorec echo device that Jimmy Page had bought. They were Italian-made and instead of tape they used a very thin steel drum.

Tape would wear out and you’d have to keep replacing it. But this wafer-thin drum worked on the same principle as a wire recorder. It was magnetised and had various heads on it and there were different settings. They were very cool things!

And so playing at that particular tempo on ‘Levee the limiters had time to breathe and that’s how Bonzo got that ‘Ga Gack’ sound because of the Binson. He wasn’t playing that. It was the Binson that made him sound like that. I remember playing it back in the Stones’ mobile truck and thinking, ‘Bonzo’s gotta f**king like this!’ I had never heard anything like it and the drum sound was quite spectacular.

What was Bonham’s reaction to hearing the track back?

I said: ‘Bonzo, come and listen to this, dear chap.’ And he came in and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s more f**king like it!’ And everyone was very happy. I guess I must have done it as a one-off thing and I didn’t start using that technique of room mics all the time until later in the ’70s with people like Rod Stewart. Jimmy picked up on it and used it on ‘Kashmir’. When The Levee Breaks came out quite well and people still ask me about it when I appear on music biz panels and what-not.

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