Bob Dylan: Planet Waves

Cast your mind back to 1974. Many of you may not have even been alive (me included), but Bob Dylan was thriving. He had just secured his first number one album with Planet Waves. It was produced by Rob Fraboni at LA's Village Recorder studio, and recorded with The Band. In March of that year, Rob and Dylan's then promoter, Dick LaPalm, spoke to the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer Magazine about the whole process, and we, courtesy of our friends at Live Sound Magazine in the U.S., are delighted to bring you some excerpts of this fascinating interview, which gives us a great insight into the musical character of Bob Dylan.

R-e/p: Dick, how did you choose an engineer for the Dylan album?

Dick LaPalm: I asked him who should do it. At the time, we had three guys. Rob came back after a couple of days and said, “I should do it.” I said, "Fine."

Rob Fraboni: Mainly because I was really familiar with Bob's music, as well as The Band's. I've been listening to them both since their first albums. I talked to the other guys, and it seemed like I was the most familiar.

R-e/p: Dick, do you feel that familiarity with the music is essential for a mixer?

DL: Engineers are much like a medical specialist. I just don't think that every engineer can do every kind of music. I think this guy might be a hell of a lot better to do an R&B date, as opposed to a Country & Western date. And one engineer might be a hell of a lot better to do a Dylan and a Stones. I'm not taking anything away from him; I'm sure he could do a Willie Hutch. I'm sure he could do a Little Milton or a Chuck Berry. But I don't know that he could do it as well as someone else who's really into that kind of music. I think there's a hell of a lot more to it than just knowing that board. I think it has to do with gut feel, and feeling for the music itself.

R-e/p: Rob, did you listen to their stuff before the sessions?

RF: No, I didn't. I make sure not to do that. You've got to approach things fresh; that's the way I feel. After we mixed the album and it was all done, then I went and listened to his records. I didn't want to be influenced before the sessions. I just wanted to do it fresh, and that was what they wanted, too, Dylan and The Band.

DL: We talked about engineers. The one thing they wanted was a guy that not only knew the equipment and respected it, but someone who could work really rapidly. Knowing how a Dylan works - the guy says, "Let's do it now," and he expects the engineer can do it, just like that, without fumbling.

R-e/p: Why did Dylan and The Band record at Village?

RF: One thing, the room was right for them. As far as the size, they really liked that. And as far as the control room is concerned, they just wanted something that sounded good. It could have been done at a number of places, but we had a combination of things: the room, the security and the location. They liked the idea of being out of town (The Village Recorder is situated in West Los Angeles, about 10 miles from Hollywood). When we actually got down to the mixing, Robbie was comfortable with what he was hearing, and that was the really important thing.

R-e/p: When you say Robbie, you are talking about...

RF: Robbie Robertson, guitarist in The Band. There was no producer on this record. Everybody was the producer. Robbie is the one who gives a lot of direction, although they all have something to say about the music, and are all really involved.

DL: He seems to be the one that has the most knowledge as far as engineering is concerned. He has tremendous knowledge about what equipment can do, what a board can and can't do.

R-e/p: What kind of a recording artist is Bob Dylan, and what was it like working with him?

RF: Robbie came in that first morning and said to me, "There are going to be no overdubs. We're doing it live. This is it, what's happening here is it." Bob doesn't overdub vocals. The record was really a performance, as far as I'm concerned. It wasn't like we were 'making a record'. It was more of a performance, and Bob wanted it to sound right, to come across. When he starts playing, there's nothing else happening but that, as far as he's concerned. I don't think I've seen anyone who performs with such conviction.

R-e/p: How was the album was first conceived, and how long did Dylan work on it?

RF: I can tell you what I know, although I don't know everything. A few weeks before we started the album, Bob went to New York by himself. He stayed there for two to two and a half weeks and wrote most all the songs. One of the classic songs, Forever Young, he told me he had carried around in his head for about three years. He gets an idea for a song sometimes, he said, and he's not ready to write it down. So he just keeps it with him and eventually it comes out.

R-e/p: When did he get together with The Band for this album?

RF: I'm not exactly sure but I know they had started rehearsing for the tour before we began recording. They only knew two of the songs on the album before coming in. The balance of the songs on the album they never heard until they were right here in the studio. The Band are really something, and the music has such character, it sounds like it's all arranged. Bob would just run it down, and they'd play it once. Then they'd come in to the control room and listen. That's another thing that really astounded me.

Nobody was saying, "You ought to be doing this" or "You ought to be playing that." They just all came in and listened to hear what they should do, and then they'd go out into the studio. That would usually be the take, or the one following. That was pretty much the way it went.

R-e/p: How many days did it take to do all the recording?

RF: Three days. Then the next day, and Bob, myself, Nat Jeffrey (assistant engineer on Planet Waves), and Bob's friend were here. We put together the master reels. Then around noon, Bob said, "I've got a song I want to record later. I'm not ready right now, but I'll 'tell you when." Then we were doing what we were doing, and all of a sudden he came up and said, "Let's record." So he went out in the studio, and that was Wedding Song, the cut that ends the album. He just went out and played it. It was astounding. I hadn't heard him do anything that sounded like his early records. Lou Kemp, his old friend from Minnesota, was there. He also came on the tour with us.

Anyway, Bob went out to record, and I put up some microphones, and I was going to get a sound. But usually he wouldn't sing unless we were recording. That's the way he was. You couldn't get him to go out and just sing, unless he was running something down with The Band.

He asked, "Is the tape rolling? Why don't you just roll it." So I did, and he started singing, and there was no way in the world I could have stopped him to say, "Go back to the top." It was such an intense performance. If you listen to the record, you can hear noises from the buttons on his jacket. But he didn't seem to care. Lou and I were both knocked out by the song. We listened to it a few times and didn't think about it again until we got down to mixing. I mentioned re-cutting it to eliminate the button sounds, at one point, and Bob said, "Well, maybe." But he never said yes, so we let it go.

R-e/p: Was that the last song they cut?

RF: Actually, the final recording happened during the mixing. We had mixed about two or three songs, and Bob, Robbie, Nat and I were there. Bob went out and played the piano while we were mixing. All of a sudden, he came in and said, "I'd like to try 'Dirge' on the piano." We had recorded a version with only acoustic guitar and vocal a few days earlier.

R-e/p: Were you ready for it?

RF: We weren't ready at all, we were mixing. But we put up a tape and he said to Robbie, "Maybe you could play guitar on this." They did it once, Bob playing piano and singing, and Robbie playing acoustic guitar. The second time was the take. It was another one of those incredible, one-time performances.

R-e/p: Was anyone else involved in the mixing?

RF: Robbie Robertson has a good ear for mixing, knows what he wants to hear. So it was pretty much him and Bob when it got down to mixing. Robbie and I mixed the record together, and Bob was there commenting and making suggestions. He wanted certain types of sounds. He wanted a kind of bar room sound from the piano on Dirge rather than a majestic sound. He also wanted a raunchy vocal sound. We actually mixed Dirge immediately after we recorded it that night. Robbie and I listened to it once and I said, "Let's mix it right now." So we took a mix, and that's what's on the record. It had a unique character, and it was important to him. We did another mix later going for a more 'polished' sound, but didn't use it. That's the kind of stuff he was sensitive to, how the mixes affected the character of the music. That might have been more important to him than the sound quality.

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