Classic Tracks: Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver"

Dec 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Matt Hurwitz


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Engineer Jay Lewis in the mid-'70s

Engineer Jay Lewis in the mid-'70s

Owner Armin Steiner was particularly known for his ability to customize equipment to suit his clients' needs. “He knew microphones, rooms, echoes and machines, and how to hot-rod them to get the best sound of out of them,” Lewis says. The recording console was originally a Quad 8 desk, though Lewis notes, “By the time they were done with it, who knows what model it was!” Same goes for the 3M 16-track tape machine.

Wright intended to use his demo recordings as a roadmap for his studio musicians, who would be more used to playing with the standard guitar/bass/drums setup than playing to a Rhythm Ace. “I knew I had to get drummers who could play with rhythm machines,” he says, “because I wanted to use the groove of the rhythm machines.” On a recommendation from session guitarist Hugh McCracken, Wright turned to busy drummers Andy Newmark and Jim Keltner, the latter a veteran of Wright's previous solo records. (Newmark would play on the majority of the album; Keltner worked strictly on “Dream Weaver.”)

For tracking, Wright was joined by a fresh-faced David Foster (before he became a producer), who played a variety of keyboards, most notably the signature Rhodes piano on “Dream Weaver.” The team was rounded out by another keyboardist, Bobby Lyle, who played clavinet and Rhodes on several of the other tracks.

Wright himself was actually the session bass player, using his Minimoog for the assignment and giving the album — and “Dream Weaver” in particular — a signature sound. “I did a lot of experimentation with it. And Jay really was good, too, in recording it.” The Minimoog was played live through a bass amp, which was miked, while Lewis also took a direct signal from the keyboard, mixing the two together. “The miked bass gave us more of an ambient sound, gave it a little bit more depth,” Wright notes. It also allowed the other players to feel the bass, as they would with an electric bass guitar, while tracking, as opposed to simply hearing it in their headphones.

“Later on,” says Lewis, “people started to make patches that sounded big, like that. In those days, there weren't any. Of all the things Gary did on that album, his bass playing on that keyboard was really awesome.” Though Wright played his bass live during tracking for the sake of the band performance, most of those parts were replaced during later overdubbing, using the method described above. “The parts he played weren't something that was predefined, for the most part — they were ‘found’ in the studio.”

Tracking for the album went smoothly, over a week's time. When it came time to record the final track, the choice was down to two songs, and Wright had a difficult time deciding which to record. “I was in the studio with David Foster and Jim Keltner, and I played David the two songs, and said, ‘Which of these two do you think I should do?’ He looked me, and said, ‘I would do ‘Dream Weaver.’”

That choice resulted in a mega-hit for its composer, though the song didn't sound quite the way we know it at first. “The original feel was more like The Band's ‘The Weight,’ with guitars, if you can imagine,” Wright recalls. “So David suggested, ‘Why don't you do it in a shuffle kind of thing?’ So we changed it to have a swing, kind of shuffle feel,” a rhythm that Keltner adapted to beautifully, as well.

Keltner and Newmark's drums, by the way, were miked in a fairly straightforward manner, which was Lewis' preference. “I was not — and I'm still not — a fan of a lot of microphones on drums,” he explains. Lewis used a time-tested basic setup: Shure SM57 on the snare, an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick and a Sennheiser 421 splitting the tom toms. For the floor toms, he preferred a favorite mic — a Beyer M500 ribbon, with its distinctive flat round head and large diaphragm — which he still carries around from job to job, just in case.

Once tracking was completed, Wright and Lewis spent several months adding overdubs at the now-defunct Stronghold Studios in the San Fernando Valley. Their efforts, however, were hampered by tremendous shedding issues from the then-new Ampex Grand Master 456 audio tape they'd used to record basic tracks. “Partway through overdubbing, we started hearing dropouts,” Lewis recalls. “We looked, and we were losing the face of the tape — in chunks.” They quickly returned to Sound Labs, where the tapes were cleaned by hand and then transferred back to Ampex 406, after which overdubbing continued at Stronghold, with Wright filling in gaps by re-recording any damaged parts.

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