Neil Young’s Moonlit Sessions

Oct 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz



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Recording/mixing engineer John Hanlon at the 12-input Universal Audio “Green Board” and Neve BCM 10 sidecar, in the control room he built in Neil Young’s “white house.”

Recording/mixing engineer John Hanlon at the 12-input Universal Audio “Green Board” and Neve BCM 10 sidecar, in the control room he built in Neil Young’s “white house.”

“Neil’s other directive was, he wanted to record during full-moon weeks,” Hanlon continues. “That’s when he happens to get creative. That doesn’t mean if he writes a song three weeks after that, I wouldn’t get another call. But this was the gathering point for when and where he wanted to start.”

Young obviously wanted to work in a homey atmosphere; he has a high-end, fully equipped studio, Redwood Digital, on the other side of his ranch, but he chose to track in a furnished house. So, Hanlon set about judiciously paring down the decor in the white house, making enough room in the 35x25x8-foot living room for the musicians and their rigs, but keeping a sofa, stuffed chairs and warm lighting.

“I knew where the moon rose, and the way the house is oriented there’s a huge ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall glass window at one end of the room where you could see all the moonlight,” Hanlon says. “I tried putting the drum riser by the glass because there’s also a wooden-slat diffuser there—not an acoustically designed diffuser, but something to keep pool cues from hitting the picture window because there’s normally a pool table in there. But the drums happened to sound best on the far wall opposite that glass wall.”

Hanlon then positioned the rest of the band in relation to the kit, approximating their onstage setup as near as possible. “That’s how they’re most comfortable,” Hanlon says. “That means that from [drummer] Ralph Molina’s perspective, Neil’s rig—which was a ’50s [Fender] Vibralux and ’50s [Fender] Tweed Deluxe—is ‘stage left.’ At stage right is Billy Talbot’s Showman bass cabinet. Normally, to Billy’s right is Frank [Poncho] Sampedro’s rhythm guitar rig, but that wall was not wide enough to accommodate that. So, instead, I put him in this little alcove off the right side of the living room where the original house entrance used to be; that had a little tiled area where the carpet stops. It worked well because I was able to get a little bit of room ambience on him without having bass and everything else build up into his close mics.”

Hanlon installed a control room in the master bedroom of the house, bringing in a 12-input Universal Audio “green board” tube console with a Neve BCM10 sidecar, and a 16-input UA “brass board” mixing desk as well as a Baby Neve monitor board. The 8-track tape machine was an analog 2-inch Studer 827. Hanlon rented a Pro Tools 192/24 system for backup, and as a safety to cover any tracks he might need beyond the 8-track mandate. All of the mics and rack gear in Redwood Digital were made available to Hanlon for the sessions, with one exception:

“On kick drum, I wanted a [Neumann] U47 tube mic,” Hanlon says. “I wanted to record the kit Glyn Johns-style. That means two mics on the kit, and a third in front of the kick drum. I asked for a particular U47 to use on the kick; Neil happens to own two. But it turns out that the one I was asking for happens to be the vocal mic that Neil used on background vocals with Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as well as his own vocals in his studio acoustic setup. John Nowland, the studio manager over at Redwood Digital, politely informed me that it was not to be used in front of the kick. I ended up settling for a 47 FET that worked well.”

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