Interview by Phil O'Keefe
I've been a big fan of Queen since I first heard Killer Queen on the radio back in the fall of 1974. If you watched the recent 2019 Oscar Awards show, then you know that this year's Best Actor Academy Award went to Rami Malek for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the film Bohemian Rhapsody. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, an epic song off of their 1975 LP A Night at the Opera, is considered by many to be one of the most structurally complex songs and ambitious recordings of the 1970s era. It still remains extremely popular today; with over 1.6 billion global streams to date, it's the most streamed song from the 20th century. It has achieved cultural icon status, and including it is always a good call for any playlist - just ask Wayne and Garth. It's an amazing artistic achievement, and even with all of the incredible high-tech equipment of the modern era, it would be a very difficult song to try to recreate today.
And yet, that's exactly what the folks at Sweetwater Studios set out to do.
There is a lot to be said for doing "faithful" cover versions of well-known recordings. While having a musician or band "bring their own thing" to a song can be very cool, and is often the best course of action when you're producing a cover version of a classic song for a new commercial release, there's a lot you can learn from occasionally doing a new recording that is as note-for-note and sonically accurate as you can make it to the original, just for the learning experience. It's a great way to not only challenge and improve your recording skills, but it will also help you develop your musical "ear" and your overall listening, tone-matching and phrasing skills. So when I recently heard about a video from the folks at Sweetwater that shows them talking about doing a faithful cover of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, and then shows the final results of their efforts, I had to check it out, and when I did, I wanted to find out more.
Here's the video from Sweetwater.
(The uninterrupted cover version of the full song starts at 7:56)
While they discuss various aspects of how they went about making the recording on the video, Sweetwater Studios Vice President of Operations and Senior Producer / Engineer Mark Hornsby was kind enough to answer some additional questions about their version of Bohemian Rhapsody with Harmony Central.
HC: Your version of Bohemian Rhapsody is musically and sonically very faithful to the original. What inspired you to take on such a challenge? It certainly does a great job at demonstrating the serious chops and capabilities of the Sweetwater Studio and staff…
I think, like a lot of people, with the recent success of the movie there is a renewed interest in Queen and their body of music. We were listening to some songs and discussing different aspects of the production and of course Bohemian Rhapsody was a large part of that conversation. One of the questions that was asked was “If we weren’t using tape and bouncing vocal tracks back and forth, how many tracks would this take up in Pro Tools?”. Then it just snowballed from there.
HC: How many people (musicians and engineers) in total were involved with the project?
Let’s see...Nick D’Virgilio on drums and vocals, Dave Martin on bass, Phil Naish on piano, Don Carr on guitar(s), Kat Bowser, Nathan Heironimus and Krystal Davis on additional vocals, myself, Nick and Bobby Dellarocco engineering, Krystal Davis assisting and Ken Love mastered it. So, ten people total?
HC: I assume you didn't try to record this to 2" tape like the original. What DAW did you use?
We used Pro Tools HDX with the new Avid Matrix I/O.
HC: Did you use separate tracks for everything, or did you do bounces and sub-mixes to try to simulate the approach taken on the original recording? How many tracks in total did you use?
We kept everything separate. In the end there were over 100 tracks at 96k.
HC: What preamps were used when tracking? Did you track with any outboard compression or EQ?
Everything was recorded through the Rupert Neve Designs Shelford 5052 mic preamps. There was some minimal EQ and compression used on the drums with the the Rupert Neve Designs Shelford 5051s and some Universal Audio 1176s. The bass went through a Tube Tech CL-1B and all the vocals went through a Retro Instruments 176.
HC: Did you mix ITB or did you use a desk?
This was mixed "inside the box”.
HC: All of the microphones used were from Telefunken, correct? Was it strictly the modern Telefunken USA versions, or did you use any vintage mics? How well do you think the reissues compare to the originals?
HC: Did you use any plugins, and if so, which ones? Any tape sims? How about reverbs? Were any doubler / ADT type plugins used to thicken the BGV's? Was any AutoTune used?
We used a variety of things, including Universal Audio’s Neve 1073s on the drums, Crane Song’s Phoenix II for tape emulation (in a variety of places), Universal Audio’s 1176 (again, in a variety of spots), Waves API 550A on guitars, Izotope’s Nectar on some of the vocals, Massenburg Design Works five band EQ in several places, Universal Audio’s Precision De-Esser, Fab Filter’s Pro-L Limiter and Pro-R Reverb. There was some mild spot tuning done with Melodyne, no AutoTune was used. All vocal doubling was done by recording/doubling the parts, no plug-ins were used to simulate that, we did it the old fashioned way.
HC: The original recording is known for its deeply layered stacks of background vocals, which is a technique Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker is rather well known for using on some of his records. How many total tracks of BGVs did you use on your version?
There are over 50 tracks of backing vocals on there, but that's because they are split out into sections for different parts of the song.
HC: Did you consult with Roy Thomas Baker or anyone from Queen to get information on how they did certain things on the original recording, or did you figure everything out just by listening to Queen's version of Bohemian Rhapsody?
We were on our own for this one. I think that, over the years, we have all dissected different parts of the song in our own way. Don, for example, knew exactly what to do to mimic Brian May’s guitar tone with the equipment we had at our disposal. But, in the end, it was a lot of time listening to the original as well as the surround version that came out several years ago. It really helped us hear some parts that aren’t as noticeable in the stereo version.
HC: Was the rhythm section tracked as a unit, or was everything waxed individually?
The basic rhythm track was recorded as a live band.
HC: Was it recorded from end to end, or was it tracked in sections and spliced together?
It was all done in sections.
HC: For those of us who have never had the opportunity to see and hear the Sweetwater Studios first-hand, can you tell us a bit about the sizes and sonic characteristics of the acoustical environments you used when recording? Which studio(s) and iso booth(s) did you use?
All the band/rhythm section stuff was done in Studio A’s tracking room, which is a very large, natural sounding space which has a nice balance of absorption, diffusion and reflection.. All the vocals were done in Studio A, B and C’s iso rooms. All the rooms, control rooms and tracking spaces, are all wired together, making it easy to have multiple people in different spaces talking to each other.
HC: Let's talk about the guitars. Don Carr used a Strat with Seymour Duncan Tri-Sonic pickups and individual on/off and phase switches for each pickup for all of the guitar parts. Any reason why he didn't opt for one of the various Red Special recreations that have been marketed over the years?
Well, we don’t own a Red Special. In the beginning, we looked at purchasing one, but they were on back order-I guess due to the recent success of the movie. That then sparked the question of “If you were a guy or girl at sitting at home with a bunch of guitars, how would you pull this off?” Telling the story of installing a new set of pickups seemed like that might be more reasonable for some people that just want to make the most out of some equipment they already own.
HC: Don said he used a wah to try to emulate some of the iconic Deacy Amp guitar sounds… was it the Dunlop Cry Baby Classic shown in the video?
HC: Don used a regular boost pedal (a TC Electronic Spark) along with the AC15's top boost channel; was there a reason why he decided to go that route instead of using a treble booster and an AC30's normal channel as Brian May originally did?
We compared several amp/pedal combinations but in the end, the AC15 sounded the best recorded. We kind of liked that because it shows that you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to get a good sound. There are lots of companies that make smaller, more affordable versions of their own iconic gear. Too often, I think a lot of gear gets overlooked that could be really useful with a little TLC.
HC: It looks like you used a Telefunken M80 dynamic mic paired with a Royer ribbon for the guitar tracks… can you tell us which model Royer, and in what approximate ratio they're used on the recording?
One of my "go to” electric guitar sounds is the M-80 paired with a Royer 122 or 121. (this was a 122) I almost always have the faders of each track at the same volume.
HC: Piano is a major component of the original recording, and the piano sound on your recording is really impressive - it's very close to the original. Is that the studio's Yamaha C7 on the recording?
That is the studio’s Yamaha C7. It is a lot warmer than most C7s you’ll find. We have spent a lot of time over the years tempering it to make it respond that way.
HC: You used Telefunken Copperheads to mic up the piano, right? How were they positioned?
This was a long process of trial and error. In the end, the microphones were slightly outside the cabinet at about 45 degrees in order to get some of that same space/resonance you hear on the original recording.
HC: How about the bass parts? What bass was used? Was it recorded direct, with an amp, or were both used and the tracks later blended in the mix?
That was a Fender P Bass with flat wounds plugged straight into a Telefunken DI. One track, very simple.
HC: Let's talk about the drums a bit. Which DW kit did Nick D'Virgilio use on the recording? I know in the video he talks about using the Roger Taylor signature snare
For this project we went with the brand of drums that Roger uses now. He has been a DW player for many years and we wanted to stay true to that as well as getting a big punchy drum sound like he got back in the 70's. We used a DW Collectors Series Finish Ply SSC Maple drum-kit along with Roger's signature Icon Series snare drum. What makes this kit so cool and sound so great is the way DW constructs the shells. They are all 100% North American Maple but the way they laminate the plies together for each shell is a bit different. DW calls it SSC, Specialized Shell Construction. It means the smaller rack toms have a bite to them along with a nice round tone and the floor toms and kick-drum are constructed to have more low end. They are very musical drums.
HC: How about his cymbals? Roger Taylor mainly uses Zildjians… was that his reason for going with those, or did Nick just work with the cymbals he regularly uses?
We went with Zildjian because Roger plays Zildjian. Nick used newer Sweet K's for this project. It is a line of Zildjian K's that are rolled extra thin and hammered in a way that makes them have a beautiful warm sound. We needed crash cymbals that had a nice wash that did not overtake the track with any harsh high end and they totally did that. We also needed a musical ride cymbal that would drive the groove. Roger Taylor's drum parts in general are so cool and a little bit different. His style and sound choices are integral pieces of the Queen puzzle. The Zildjian Sweet K's gave us the sounds we needed to re-create the song.
HC: And for the iconic gong at the end? What did he use for that, and how did you go about miking up the gong?
That was a sample that came out of Native Instruments' Komplete. We pitched it down to get as close as we could to the original. (funny, we don’t own a gong…yet!)
HC: You used modern Telefunken dynamic microphones for the drums… can you tell us a bit about which ones you used, and was Telefunken USA involved in providing gear for the project? Or did the mics come from the Sweetwater store's retail demo unit stock, or did you just use mics from the Sweetwater Studios collection?
All of the Telefunken mics that were used came from the studio’s mic locker. There was an M82 on the kick, M80 and M81s on the snare and toms and M60s (cardiod) on the overheads.
HC: Was it the M80 or M81 on the snare? How about for the toms? Were you using the long or short-bodied versions?
We used a Telefunken M80 on the snare top, an M81 on the snare bottom and M81s on the toms. All of them were the short body versions of the mics.
HC: You used a Telefunken M82 large diaphragm dynamic on kick, right? Did you use its built-in Kick EQ switch to cut things back a bit in the 350 Hz region? How much additional EQ did you need to use with it? Was it pretty easy to get a kick sound you were happy with quickly with that mic?
That is an M82 on the kick, with the low midrange cut. I also cut a little more 350 Hz at the 5052. The two switches on that mic are very useful and make it easy to get a good sound rather quickly, especially if you don’t have much outboard gear.
HC: How's the off-axis rejection and off-axis coloration on the Telefunken dynamic microphones?
It’s great, which is why you see a lot of artists and musicians using them live.
HC: Speaking of Sweetwater Studios, can outsiders book time there? Who should readers contact if they'd like more information about the studio's services?
Yes, we are a commercial studio. People actually travel here from all over the world to hang out, record, try new gear, etc. Anyone can contact Julie Doust at 1 (800) 222-4700 extension 1801 if they have any questions.
HC: What was the most challenging parts of the project from a technical standpoint?
The tempos were a beast. In the end, we created a tempo map that was very faithful to the original, if not completely spot on. That by itself is one of the main reasons we got as close as we did. You can’t just pick a tempo and play that song. It’s either no click or a map it out.
HC: How about from the musical standpoint? How long did it take everyone to learn their parts?
The band stuff went pretty quick. Don had all the guitars done in a couple hours. The vocals took awhile. Nick, Kat, Nathan and myself, sitting in the studio, listening to the originals in sections over and over and then trying different stuff. I don’t think we nailed all of it, but we got pretty close.
HC: What, if anything, did you all learn from the process? Do you recommend that musicians and bands try to do occasional faithful cover recordings from time to time themselves? Do you feel it can be a helpful exercise from a educational standpoint? Any other benefits?
When it comes to “covers”, I am much more a fan of coming up with something original. That said, I think studying anyone else’s work, be it musicanship or engineering, always has some good take-aways. I know I picked up on a thing or two that I would have never thought of if I hadn’t sat down and really studied the production of the song-even though I’ve heard it a thousand times in passing.
HC: Hopefully it was a fun project for all concerned - I certainly enjoyed watching and listening to the video. It's very impressive! Do you have any plans to do additional "faithful" covers in the future, and if so, what are you planning on tackling next?
Noooo, I think we’re all covered out for now! It was
fun, but now we’re back to our normally scheduled lives as we know it.
HC: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.