philsbook.com Recording Nick Drake
Nick Drake recorded barely two hours worth of music in his career and sold fewer than 30,000 records when he was alive. Yet since his death in 1974 of an accidental prescription drug overdose his songs have kept circulating via soundtracks, covers and the Internet and gradually gained the success, influence and acclaim that eluded him in his short lifetime.
Some of his earliest recordings stem from his time at Cambridge University when fellow student Robert Kirby recorded several of Nick's songs onto a stereo tape recorder in the Spring of 1968. Robert would use these tapes to write arrangements for the songs with strings and woodwind to be performed in College. A four track demo recorded in a college room in the spring of 1968, was played to Joe Boyd, who had the Witchseason Label, licensed through Island records and Joe offered him a management, publishing, and production contract on the strength of these demos.
"Of all the albums I ever made, the two I produced by Nick are the ones I'm most proud of. I listen to them often because he was extraordinarily good - nothing he ever did was less than striking, and he had the gift of writing melodies of incredible beauty". Joe Boyd
The recording of his first album, Five Leaves Left had began while Nick was still in college, skipping lectures to attend the studio sessions in London. One session was in Morgan but the rest of his recordings would be produced at Sound Techniques Studio in Chelsea. He soon left Cambridge, nine months before graduation, and in the autumn of 1969 moved to London to concentrate on his career as a musician.
|Sound Techniques Studio
Sound Techniques Studio was situated near to Chelsea's King's Road at the end of a small alley on 46a Old Church Street. It was originally part of an early 18th-century dairy and opened in the summer of 1965.
Although the studio started by recording a wide variety of musical genres it has become renowned for a catalogue of English folk rock from the late 60s to the mid 70s. This includes all three of the Nick Drake albums, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, Incredible String Band, The Pentangle, John and Beverley Martyn, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy and Judy Collins. It was also the place that produced the early Pink Floyd records and albums and singles for John Cale, The Yardbirds, Focus and The Who.
So how did they achieve the Nick Drake sound?
According to engineer John Wood they just put a mic in front of him and let him play. Although there may be a lot of truth in this statement there are other factors involved. Let's look at the recording chain for River Man.
Producer - Joe Boyd. Engineer - John Wood.
It's starts off with a great player with a precise style and technique. There seems to be much speculation about what guitar he actually used for recordings but the general consensus is that he used a Guild M-20 but others seem to remember him playing a Martin .
The next part is the acoustic space. Sound Techniques Studio had a high ceiling in the centre section and two lower ceiling sections either side beneath the control room and the workshop. This provided a large diffuse and varied acoustic space. The fifteen string players used on the track sat in a semicircle around Nick Drake and the track was recorded live with no over dubs.
“A lot of studios of the time were very dead, but Sound Techniques wasn’t and that made it quite special. The artists were very organic – there was nothing remotely manufactured about any of them – and it had a character that suited their work"- Jerry Boys
A Neumann U67 was used for the vocal and placed close to the singer's mouth. The guitar was close mic'ed in front of the sound hole using a Neumann KM56.
The mics went through the Sound Techniques desk to an Ampex 4-track half inch tape machine. The desk circuits were transformer coupled, discrete transistor with inductor based eq. The vocal was compressed through a Fairchild 660 limiter. Delay would be added using an Ampex 2 track and reverberation with an EMT plate.
(It certainly doesn't get much better than that, equipment wise!)
Sound Techniques Desk
EMT Plate Reverb
In early studio sessions Nick used Richard Hewson as an orchestrator, but his unhappiness with the results led him back to colleague Robert Kirby for most future arrangements. The one exception on Five Leaves was River Man, arranged by veteran composer Harry Robinson.
'Five Leaves Left' was recorded to Ampex 4- track, 'Bryter Layter' was 8- track. 3M Series 400 'Pink Moon' was 16-track Studer (although only
four-to-five tracks were utilised)
'Five Leaves Left' was recorded to Ampex 4- track,
'Bryter Layter' was 8- track. 3M Series 400
'Pink Moon' was 16-track Studer (although only four-to-five tracks were utilised)
"He arrived at midnight and we started. It was done very quickly. After we had finished I asked him what I should keep, and he said all of it, which was a complete contrast to his former stance. He came in for another evening and that was it. It took hardly any time to mix, since it was only his voice and guitar, with one overdub only. Nick was adamant about what he wanted. He wanted it to be spare and stark, and he wanted it to be spontaneously recorded." John Wood
"I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide, in the sense that I'd rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible: for it to be a plea for help that nobody hears". Gabrielle Drake, Nick's sister