My Audio World... by Gary Langan

My Audio World... by Gary Langan

You’ve seen the film. Now hear the real story of how flamboyant new stars, Queen, with two UK chart hits and three LPs to their name, started work on their fourth studio album. Gary Langan, then assistant engineer and “tea boy” at Sarm Studios in London’s East End, looks back on...

"HOW WE MADE BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY."


Warning: the following article contains terms possibly unfamiliar to anyone used to digital recording, including “tape”, “oxide”, “7 ½” singles” and “bouncing.

It was late summer, 1975. I had recently been employed by Sarm Studios, a small basement studio in the east end of London working mainly on pop records, television sessions and jingles. I heard that Queen were booked to record what was to become their ‘A Night at the Opera’ LP and it would be my first rock album as assistant engineer. So it was daunting from the outset. After an initial meeting with Queen’s producer Roy Thomas Baker and engineer Mike Stone, the tapes started arriving – lots of them. I was used to working with one or two reels of two inch multitrack tape. Now, about twelve reels arrived alongside masses of flight cases.

Freddie Mercury was the next to turn up at the studio. He was an intimidating sight to an eighteen year old from south London, with an aura I had not witnessed before: he even wore nail varnish! Gradually the rest of the band showed up, each of them with their own persona. Drummer Roger Taylor was softly spoken with lots of confidence. My first impression of Brian May was hair, height and white clogs. Again, he was really softly spoken and calm. After being introduced to bassist John Deacon, I remember our first conversation was about the tapes, “Have they all arrived okay? And what equipment does the studio have to offer?” It was the first time any member of a band had shown any interest in that part of the procedure. What really hit me at first was how polite they all were! I don’t know why, but it was not what I was expecting.   
I had to learn rapidly who liked tea, who liked coffee, who smoked and which brand of cigarette. Some psychology was required to look after the needs of this highly creative, demanding, boundary-pushing team. But I was a part of that team and I knew that this was big. I took a deep breath and said to myself, “No f*** ups Langan!”It was obvious that this project was not only going to demand much more from me on the technical front but that I needed to be at the top of my game when it came to working alongside these talented, “big” personalities.

While the other tracks on the LP were a collaboration between band members, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was wholly driven by Freddie. Usually Roy, Mike, Freddie and myself worked in the control room with whoever was recording their parts. Freddie and Roy would conjure up wonderful soundscapes and deliver them to Mike, who then made them fit the structure of the song. I learnt to work closely with Mike, who became my mentor for many years after this album. It was an incredible environment for a youngster like me.
I was taught so many amazing core skills as an assistant which allowed me to pursue a career as an engineer. I was shown a technique to suppress tape noise that I later used when mixing ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ for Trevor Horn. To be one step ahead of the game, I would listen to conversations between Mike and the others to gauge what they might be moving on to next. For example, if I heard them letting the band’s crew know that we were moving on to guitar overdubs, I’d set up Brian’s three Vox AC30 amplifiers, all linked together but each with a different sound. I would then set up microphones, which had to be the same ones as we used previously and in the same position, a stool for Brian to perch on, and headphones. It was tough trying to keep ahead of them especially when they were attempting something I couldn’t grasp at first.
Throughout the whole project there was an immense attention to detail and precision. Freddie was tireless and relentless at getting the right performance from himself and everybody else. In this he was urged on by Roy: if you are going to create an epic then you’ve got to expect some epic discussions and results.

“We spent at least four or five days just doing the vocals for the middle “Galileo's”..”

I’m often asked how long it took to do certain things. We spent at least four or five days just doing the vocals for the middle “Galileo’s”. Likewise, doing the guitar overdubs with Brian was never swift. Occasionally he found it hard to decide whether he wanted tea or coffee, so you can imagine there were some in-depth discussions over which guitar take he wanted to use.

Two inch 24 track recording was in its infancy then: really cutting edge technology. The biggest challenge was how to record “BoRap” on only 24 separate tracks. That may sound a lot but when you learn that the Galileo’s have over 100 voices, each originally recorded onto just one of those tracks, it’s not many. To achieve it we “bounced” four individual parts onto a single track, then erased the source tracks. This was repeated time and again, creating layers of sound. Another solution was to separate the song into three parts. Part one was the intro and ballad section, which was piano, bass, drums, vocal and the first guitar solo. The second part was the operatic section and the last part was the rock outro section.
 
Because Queen were so confident, they could work in more than studio at the same time. The whole piece was initially recorded as one take at Rockfield Studios in Wales. Once they had the final take, they came to Sarm with that and all the other songs, which were in a similar shape: piano, bass, guide guitar and vocals. They also worked at other London studios: Roundhouse in Camden, Scorpio near Euston Square, Wessex in Highbury and Olympic Studios in Barnes, which is now a cinema but which has preserved its heritage and pays a great deal of homage to its former life. I would go up to The Roundhouse to make sure that the equipment and tape machine was set up for whichever band member was going to work there.

The very first ‘pushing the boundaries moment’ I witnessed was when Mike physically cut this masterpiece into three which meant he could safely record right up to the last beat of each section without fear of erasing something. After a very short time, the task of operating the tape machine was left solely in my hands. No pressure! Can you begin to imagine the internal fear of messing up; not recording at the right moment; going to the wrong cue point; not stopping playback at the right place?


But Mike and the team trusted me. Thanks to them, I learnt so much in a relatively short space of time. As well as discipline and attention to detail, I learnt perhaps the biggest technical feat of all: recording vocals. The voice is the most complex of all the instruments with a huge range of dynamics and a large number of changes that can occur in the sound. Mike and Roy recorded a vocal part three times on three separate tracks and then combined those tracks with one more live vocal of the same part. As this was happening the mix of these four elements were recorded on another track. They were called multi-layered vocals.

We used this technique to create the vocal picture for the operatic section. If the balance of those four voices sounded good, then the original three tracks were erased. This is how over a hundred vocals went into making up the operatic section.

Of course, if one of those balances didn’t work alongside the others then it would have meant starting again, but this never happened, Roy, Mike and Freddie got them right first time. It was masterful. When listening back now, it still amazes me that all those sub mixes were perfectly balanced.

Of course, if one of those balances didn’t work alongside the others then it would have meant starting again, but this never happened, Roy, Mike and Freddie got them right first time. It was masterful. When listening back now, it still amazes me that all those sub mixes were perfectly balanced.

Freddie was very hands on when it came to working on the console, although all the band members were pretty savvy when it came to the technical side of things. One afternoon, as we were multi-layering vocals, John was sitting close to the tape machine. Every time I stopped the machine he would look closely at it and eventually said, “Guys, you know I can see right through the tape?” He pointed out that the oxide (or iron filings, in layman’s terms) was actually wearing out because we had been up and down that piece of tape so many times. At this point we made a copy so we could continue. Over the course of the album I had to make quite a few copies of the multi-track tapes.

It was masterful.

The album took about three months to make including rehearsal and mixing, while BoRap itself probably took two to three days to mix. The story in the film about the impasse between the record company, EMI, and the band about releasing a six minute work as a single is true. I gave the Capital Radio DJ and (later) comedian Kenny Everett a 7½” copy of this six minute work of pure genius. He played it as 14 little snippets across his weekend radio show, the last record on Sunday afternoon being Bohemian Rhapsody in full. 

TECHNICAL FACTS

  • Brian May’s guitar, Red Special, is hand made by him and his father. The body is part of the fireplace from their house, the neck is a dining table leg and the whammy bar is one of his mum’s knitting needles.
  • The sound desk used at Sarm was a Trident B, built in Teddington, West London.
  • The desk at Rockfield was built in the Wye Valley by Pete Rosser as a one off for his friend Kingsley Ward, owner of Rockfield.
  • The tape machines at both studios were Studer A80 24 tracks.

My favourite Flare product:

At the moment my rave Flare product has to be their Pro 2HD earphones. They are, quite honestly, game changers. I’ve said this many times; until Flare introduced their ear-buds I could not tolerate any of the market leaders. Their products would be a false repre sentation of my work. My Pros take me back to listening to that final mix with my elbows on the console before it goes to the dark art of mastering.
   

Gary Langan: Bio

After completing ‘A Night at the Opera’ as assistant engineer, Gary Langan stayed at Sarm and progressed to fully fledged engineer, working with The Boomtown Rats, and Jeff Wayne (The War of the Worlds -TWOTW), before eventually teaming up with Trevor Horn, with whom he had his first number one as principal engineer with ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. He went on to make two Buggles albums with Horn, plus a host of other projects including ABC and Yes. In 1982 Horn and his wife Jill Sinclair bought Basing St Studios in Notting Hill which Langan helped to redesign, and which was renamed Sarm West.Around 1982 he joined Anne Dudley and JJ Jeczalik to form the Art Of Noise, the first band to sign to Horn and Sinclair’s ZTT label, and whom were awarded a Grammy the following year. He went on to become a producer/engineer, making albums with ABC, The The, Spandau Ballet, Billy Idol, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart. In the mid-1980s Langan built one of London’s biggest studio complexes, Metropolis. In 2003 he completely re-mixed The War of The Worlds Album in 5.1 surround sound which introduced him to the live environment, as he spent the next four years touring globally with TWOTW. He is currently working on various live projects with the Art of Noise. He has a 24-year-old daughter, Martha, who is a gospel singer and journalist with ITN News.

 

 

 

    Black and White Images Courtesy of BBC Productions.

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