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Jun 2, 2010
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Jimmy Page Behind the Desk: Led Zeppelin Studio Secrets Revealed

Jimmy Page stands among the heaviest of six-string heavyweights, and most often with one of his iconic Gibson Les Pauls slung around his shoulders. But Page’s sonic genius extends well beyond the fretboard and composition, and into the studio.

Page was one of the greatest record producers of the 1960s and ’70s – a sonic innovator and perfectionist whose vision made Led Zeppelin albums vivid listening experiences, rather than simple recordings. Compare the six discs Led Zeppelin made from 1969 through 1975 with other classic titles from the period: King Crimson’s initial releases, the Jeff Beck Group’s LPs, Blind Faith, The Rolling Stones, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd. Sonically, Page’s work with Led Zeppelin put his band’s studio albums on an entirely higher sonic plane.

Initially, it was a matter of observation. During his pre-Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin years, Page was a session musician and had the opportunity to watch many producers and engineers in close quarters. As a guitarist, miking technique caught his interest early on. Later he would apply ambient miking to the small amps that were essential to his sound in Led Zeppelin. But he was especially interested in the drum sounds that came out of ’60s studios. Drummers were often put in small booths at the time, to isolate them from the band while basics were being cut, or out of sheer habit. Either way, the results were tinny and dismal. So when Page took the helm of Led Zeppelin in the studio, he made sure John Bonham’s kit and its peripherals were always given plenty of space in a large, bright, live-sounding room.

Page based his ambient miking of guitar amps on what he’d learned listening to classic recordings of blues and emerging rock on the Sun and Chess labels, where one microphone often sufficed to cut an entire band live – but the guitar sounds nonetheless killed.

Page applied the old engineer’s axiom that distance equals depth, so when it came time to track guitars he’d place one microphone up close and one or more additional mikes at distances from the amp of up to 20 feet. That let Page capture the full sonic effect of an amplifier filling a room, and allowed him to make the small amplifiers he recorded with, like the Supro Lightning Bolt he used on Led Zeppelin, sound huge. Many other British producers followed his lead before the practice trickled to the States.

Reverse echo was another trick Page developed. He first applied the maneuver to a 1967 Yardbirds’ single, “Ten Little Indians.” It involved initially recording the guitar on two tracks – one dappled liberally with echo. Then the tape was turned over so the sound of the echo would proceed the actually notes it made “wet.” The same technique has been applied to cymbals as well, to great psychedelic effect.

Page changed engineers between albums on purpose, to make it clear that it was his production – not the methodology of outsiders – that made Led Zeppelin’s albums sound so dynamic.

Of course, any great recipe starts with fine ingredients, and the array of guitars – particularly Gibsons – he used on Led Zeppelin’s classic recordings were superb. The best known are his revered “Number One” and “Number Two” Les Paul Standards. “Number One” was acquired from Joe Walsh while Led Zeppelin was touring the States. The Gibson Custom Shop reproduced the 1959 instrument, with a shaved neck and a push-pull pot that takes the humbuckers out of phase in the middle position, in a limited edition in 2004. The Custom Shop also recreated “Number Two,” a second 1959 Standard with a neck shaved to match “Number One” and an additional four push-pull pots to coil-split the pickups. “Number Two” is still in the Gibson catalog.

The other truly iconic Gibson in Page’s rack is the EDS-1275 double-neck he famously employed in playing “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Song Remains the Same” and “Celebration Day.” He lost a 1960 Black Beauty Les Paul Custom with a Bigsby tremolo arm to theft in 1970 while on tour, but it was nonetheless recreated by the Gibson Custom Shop in 2008 in a limited run, with 25 signed by Page. The 1969 Les Paul Standard seen in the concert film The Song Remains the Same is still in his collection, on call for special appearances like 2007’s stunning reunion of the remaining members of Les Zeppelin at London’s immense O2 Arena.

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