Jeff Lynne

Nov 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Matt Hurwitz

Strange Magic


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Long Wave album cover

When did you first get introduced to Pro Tools?

Probably about 14 years ago. I didn’t like it when it was new; it was very low-bandwidth, it sounded brittle and gray, no color to it. Gradually, over the years, the sampling rates got better.

What do you like about working in Pro Tools vs. analog recording?

I love everything about Pro Tools. There were things that sometimes would take a week to do that we can now do in half an hour. It’s so much better, and there’s no moving parts. There’s 10 different ways to get the same sound. I just think it’s super duper.

And you can see everything you’re doing. Who’d have thought you’d end up looking at what you’re recording? You can see where the hit is. In the old days, on tape, you wouldn’t have a clue exactly where a beat was while editing. You just had to get it right, and then, if you were wrong, you had to do it again and again. You can still hear edits in some of the old ELO tracks, when we were recording on tape. Now it’s all smooth.

How did you do basic tracking with ELO?

When I had the band, I’d always start out with piano, bass, guitar and drums—live. And I always used to tell them, “Don’t worry, you won’t hear any of this,” because of all the overdubbing! [Laughs.] And that goes back to what I was saying about recording by myself. When I would record with a band, it was four guys having to get it right, each playing in their own time, trying to get it right all at once at the same time. Now you can have as many goes as you like, and then still tighten it up if you want. If you don’t want anything wrong, you don’t have to have anything wrong. Now you can do it and there’s nothing wrong. I love it.

Do you find you produce songs in your head prior to recording, particularly in the days of complex ELO recordings?

Yeah, I used to think about sounds a lot. There are certain sounds that are just built into me.

I imagine it was great fun for you to create those sounds, as well.

Yeah, it was always fun, because I was using stuff that I never dreamed of using, like choirs. 20 people in a choir—that’s quite an amazing thing to use, if you’ve never done it. And it does certainly add a completely other dimension to something. Same for big string sections, like 30- or 40-piece. It’s funny, at the start, it used to be, “Oh, a string day tomorrow!” with four sessions of strings. But by about the sixth album, it was, like, “Ugh, string day tomorrow—f***. We’re gonna have to do that all day.” Cause by then, I just wanted to simplify it.

The production on Long Wave is decidedly simple.

It’s because the songs are brilliant. You don’t need much to make ‘em work. They’re written by proper geniuses, like Rogers and Hammerstein—absolutely brilliant people. When I was a kid, I didn’t get it at all. My dad would say, “Oh, this is Richard Rogers,” and I’d go, “How? Why? I don’t understand it. It’s just a big load of grownup stuff. What does it mean?” Until I tried listening to it again a few years ago. And I thought, “I’ll have a go at one of these buggers and see if I can make sense of it now and do it.”

How did you approach them?

To learn these songs, I just sat there, playing a guitar part, listening 100 times, tunneling in the bits I needed to learn. The way I’ve recorded them, I’ve stripped them all of their original flowery arrangements that were very good in the day but not really suitable for the way I wanted to do it, which was more punch, make ’em electric. We rebuilt these songs onto my own track.

Your vocal performance, then, becomes so much more important, because it’s really all about the melody and the emotion with songs like these.

Exactly. And that’s why I really had to try really, really hard to get them right. I’d do 10 takes sometimes ‘cause I still wasn’t sure that I’d got everything covered. It was daunting trying to sing any of them. I’d come in to sing it, and it was, like, “Oh, my God. Oh, here we go… “

It’s some of your best singing ever. Particularly challenging, I would imagine, was Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared.” Did you find that, having known him and sung with him, you were able to infuse your performance with some of his heart or intonation?

That’s a really difficult question. I’d listened to him, since I was 13 or 14. It’s like some kind of god…that voice. He’s just…I don’t know, ridiculous. I mean, how can anybody sing like that? It’s so pure and marvelous and emotive. Everything about it just sensational, your hair stands up on end.

In the ELO days, how would you map out all of those interesting lead vocal and background parts, which are so much fun to listen to?

Well, kind of backwards to how most people would do it. I didn’t have any words to any of those ELO songs until the last couple of days, until I had to mix ‘em. I’d got bits of ideas for words, but I never sat down and wrote them. I was too busy doing the music. Lyrics were always the big chore. I’d be, like, “Ugh, I’ve gotta do ’em tomorrow.” I’ve got the tune in the back of my mind, which I could rely on in between doing the rhythm track and finishing all the overdubs, before I did my vocal. For my lead vocal recording, I usually modified the tune to work best with the backing track we’d done. And that sometimes made it difficult to do the backgrounds, because I hadn’t actually made the words up yet. So I couldn’t commit myself if they had words in them until I’d done the vocal.

On tracks like “Mr. Blue Sky,” you always had so many wonderful miscellaneous vocal bits thrown in, as well.

“Mr. Blue Sky” had a lot of stuff going on, little instances popping up. Back then, you could fit ’em in between, where there was an empty part on one section. The engineer, Mack, would say, “You can have four tracks there, just on that bit.” Those little pieces popping up—that is the best fun. I love doing harmonies; it’s my favorite thing to do.

How has your recording experience evolved since ELO?

I had a year off, after I disbanded ELO the first time, and I just played on my desk at home, with me as the engineer. I learned tons about EQ and echo and AMS and stuff. So when I started work with George [Harrison], the engineer, Richard Dodd, knew I was well aware of all that stuff. What I’m good at is EQ, and I like certain effects that I always use, though there are certain ones that I like to experiment with. I have here all the EQ modules from my old 16-track Raindirk desk, because the EQ on them is really, really powerful. It’s got a tremendous sweeping ability. You can sweep through certain frequencies on an electric guitar, and it makes it sound like a slide. I used it twice on Long Wave—on “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” and “Smile.” It sounds like you’re playing some weird instrument, but it’s actually just that. Oh, shut up! Now I’ve told ya—secret’s out. [Laughs.]

You record dry? I notice you’ve got a nice collection of AMS units.

Everything’s recorded dry, yeah. I love the AMS, even though it’s digital. It’s 30 years old, and it’s so easy to use. It’s just the best gadget or box I’ve ever known. Very rarely use echo on anything, but, if I do, probably would be on voice, just as an effect. And I never use reverb, except as an effect on the end of something.

How did the Mr. Blue Sky album come about?

I heard “Mr. Blue Sky” playing once, and I thought, “I thought it was better than that.” But it obviously wasn’t, not the way I had always heard it in my head. So I started with that one, to see what it would be like. I played it for my manager and a lot of other people, and they all went, “Whoa, you should do more.” So I tried “Evil Woman,” and then I tried “Strange Magic.” And I thought, ”Just keep going, then.” And I enjoyed doing them.

My goal here really wasn’t just trying to reproduce the original sound. I was also trying to improve on the overall sound. The guitar sound, the piano sound, the drum sound—trying to improve all the bits that make up the whole. That’s what I aimed for.

What was the best part of returning to these songs for a second spin? What did you learn from them?

I learned that even though I’d done quite a few albums up to then, I still needed to learn as much as I needed to learn. No song is ever the same as another, when you’re recording them. You can’t beat recording. As far as I’m concerned, it’s as much fun as you can ever have.

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