The making of Bridge Over Troubled Water

Here’s an extract from a book called Sound Stories by David Simons. I edited it back in 2004. I haven’t actually asked him if he’s happy about me putting it up here, but I’m sure he won’t mind. I’m not even sure I’ve spoken to him since 2004. I’ll give him a call.

Building the Perfect Bridge

By Paul Simon’s own estimation, 1967 was a tough year for Simon & Garfunkel material. “I hit a bit of a dry patch during that period,” he later remarked. “Songs like ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’ and ‘At the Zoo’ don’t seem that great to me now. In fact, I don’t think I regained my stride until about the time of Bookends in 1968.” 

To make the most of Simon’s impressive new collection of songs (which included ‘America,’ ‘Overs,’ and ‘Save the Life of My Child’), longtime engineering partner Roy Halee was handed the role of producer (in conjunction with S&G) for the second half of Bookends. For Halee – who’d gone from editing classical to recording Dylan just three years earlier – Bookends was a major opportunity, and he didn’t disappoint, creating the now-familiar multi-textured sound field heard on opening tracks ‘Save the Life of My Child’ and ‘America.’ Released in early April 1968, Bookends was a major step forward both musically and sonically. Most importantly, it set the stage for S&G’s towering finale, Bridge Over Troubled Water, issued in January 1970.

Sessions for Bridge, the first important album of the new decade, began in Nashville on November 16th, 1968, with the taping of ‘The Boxer.’ With Garfunkel involved in the Mike Nichols film Catch-22, work effectively ground to a halt for a full year, resuming in November 1969 at Columbia’s Studio B at 49 East 52nd Street. By the time Bridge was finished so was the career of Simon & Garfunkel, for all intents and purposes. Regardless, Bridge would become their crowning achievement, scoring a sea of Grammys and topping album charts the world over (in England, it charted for more than 300 weeks, 41 of them at Number One). 

More than three decades later, Halee, now a resident of sunny Florida, assesses his technical achievement in typically reserved fashion. 

Over the years your techniques became progressively more complex – and yet by the time of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Columbia was still operating without 16-track capability. 

Roy Halee:It’s true – I needed a lot of tracks! And Columbia only had eight-track machines in those days. So I devised a way of synching up two eight-track machines to get 16. It was tough, though – you had to hit the record buttons exactly right, or it wouldn’t work. I’d do a lot of what we’d call “wild tracking,” which was just weaving the overdub into the mix later on, often at random. 

For example?

The strings at the end of ‘The Boxer’ are thrown in off a wild mono – same for that little dobro lick that just appears for a second. But the strings kept going out of synch at the end with the voices because the machines were heating up and I couldn’t get it to really lock! So I had to mix eight bars, then stop, then mix another eight bars, that sort of thing. As a result, there are lots of edits there. If you could see what went on in an engineering capacity, you wouldn’t believe it.

How would you record Paul & Artie’s vocal tracks? 

Miking the vocals was always a bit of a problem, because a lot of times Artie wanted to do his vocals separately – he always liked to take more time, so he’d say, “I’ll do my part later.” But whenever I tried doing that, it didn’t work, because by isolating them on separate microphones, the blend was never the same. When the two of them were singing live, something would happen in the sound field between their voices and the mike that was magical. That’s the way it happened. The minute you’d put a piece of cardboard between them, it went away. So I’d always insist, “You gotta do it live.” And we’d get into some pretty heated discussions about it.

Were you double-tracking their vocals?

It’s not really doubling, it’s more 3/4 original to 1/4 overdub. Just to have that second track flesh it out a bit. I’d use a good tube mic, like an old 67, or an M-49. Pretty much those two. Or maybe something else by Neumann, or even a Schoeps on occasion. I’ve always favored the tube mikes – they’re more transparent, they’re warmer, the harmonic structure seems to be more intact, they’re not as analytical. The choice of microphones is really important, obviously, but I was always adamant about keeping everything as clean as possible on the way to the tape machine – the channel, the pre-amp, the whole business. 

And, being at Columbia all that time, you certainly didn’t lack for console quality.

All the consoles I used at Columbia were crafted in-house, and they were built for dependability, and maybe sacrificed a little bit of transparency. But it didn’t matter, they were completely reliable. With the idea being that with 50 or more musicians, you can’t afford breakdowns. And they never did – not once. I’ve been in some studios where the headroom on those pre-amps was so limited, you were always riding by the seat of your pants. Headroom is very important.

What were some of your other favorite rooms around Manhattan?

I loved Mediasound on West 57th: high ceilings, unfinished wood floors, beautiful place. I love ambience – I need to hear that as part of the overall sound. So many of the records that have been done in the years since used these little booths; there’s just no character. But what do you expect when you record in a closet? You just aren’t going to get any warmth that way. The rooms where I recorded Simon & Garfunkel or the Spoonful – 799 7th Avenue, Studio B at 49 East 52nd Street – were large, they could hold a number of musicians, but they were workable in that they could be deadened if need be, or opened up to get as much ambience as you want. Plus they had a nice reverb time to them. 

What sorts of techniques would you use in order to really make the room a part of the record?

I always put ambient mikes up, how many depended on the session – there weren’t any hard and fast rules. Sometimes you strike out and you don’t get it right. You have to experiment. And though you have to have separation in certain instances, I’d always go for leakage. I love it, it makes things sound fuller and more alive. Sure, it’s harder to record under those conditions. You have to have an ear for it. And not be afraid of it.

There’s some very nice sounding piano on those S&G records, the most celebrated part, obviously, being Larry Knechtel’s on ‘Bridge.’

That came out great, but I’ll tell you, piano can be really tough to record. You’ve got all this phasing going on under the lid, you have to be very careful when you get that close. Classical recordings you don’t have that problem, because you’re working anywhere from 12 to 18 feet away from a concert grand with the lid open. So you’re battling all that. But every pop session I’ve seen, the mikes are right inside the lid, and sometimes the lid’s even closed. It’s not good. To get around that, I’d always use a third mike in the middle of the piano, and combine that with the other mikes. That would usually eliminate a lot of that phasing, with the lid open. 

What kind of mikes do you use? 

It depends. First you have to listen to the piano in the room and how it sounds. I might go with 87s, 67s, 414s, M-49s. But you could use a cheap mike if you wanted a bright sound, you might go with a dynamic mike, like a ribbon mike, a Bauer or Shure. I occasionally might use compression, if you’re looking for that sound, but generally I’d start without it. And go from there.

You managed to come up with some pretty extraordinary drum tracks while working with Hal Blaine.

One of my favorites was during the recording of ‘Bridge.’ I put some tape delay on Hal’s bass drum. It was just a creative moment. You know, “I’ve got this idea, let’s just try it, okay?” What you’re hearing isn’t really what he’s actually playing. What he does with his foot is much simpler than that. But with the delay on it, it came out like “Ba-da, ba-da, b-ba-da, ba-da.” Neat isn’t it? Hal loved it – he said, “Boy, I never would have played it like that!”

On another song, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York,’ you put his kick drum into the chamber…

It sounds like I did, but that was just a nice accident – the way Hal’s kit was miked, there was always a considerable amount of leakage. So what happened is that the bass drum was leaking into another mic that had echo on it. That’s what you’re hearing – natural leakage, rather than actually applying echo to the bass drum. Because I didn’t believe in isolating every single drum, or putting gates on, those things would happen – which was fine with me, because I loved leakage anyway. 

Also, I find it very, very distracting to hear drums across a stereo field. If anything, I’ve just done left-center and right-center. And with room sound around it, using an ambient mike. And in a lot of cases, straight mono. Very often, the drums don’t sound as big if they’re placed across the stereo field. There’s not that natural balance. I mean, would you want to go in and do a big-band date and have the toms swishing from left to right! Which you hear all the time, it’s crazy. I think you get in trouble once you split drums like that.

Like Frank Laico, you turned echo into an art form.

If you loved echo, you couldn’t top Columbia, they had the best rooms for echo around. 30th Street, of course, was famous for its live chambers, Studio B had a chamber as well, and there was the great stairwell over at Studio A. Unfortunately, you don’t see many live chambers any more – it’s all pretty much digitally reinforced reverb, rather than staircases, bathrooms and live rooms. I think live echo is kind of a lost art.

There’s a fairly well-known story about how you guys got that “really big voice” for “The Only Living Boy in New York.’

For the middle section of that song, Art had suggested a multitude of vocal tracks cobbled together, with a subtle harshness added as well. It was simply another case of creative engineering. I put them right into the echo chamber! Because Columbia had great echo chambers, I said, let’s just mic it right in there, let’s not even add the echo after. So that’s what we did. Natural reverb. I couldn’t get an airy, bright quality to it at first in the EQ, so I ended up using Dolby on it, without resolving the Dolby. And what a great sound. Of course it was hotter than hell in there! 

What other homemade devices would you use?

I also used to love to put guitar amps in bathrooms and halls, placing one mike right in front of the amp and another down the hall – or two if you wanted stereo – and combine them in the mix. If you do it just right you can create the kind of ambient sound that you just couldn’t get out of a box. 

If you could name one defining characteristic to describe your recording style, what would that be?

I’ve always tried to go into any session without any pre-conceived ideas. Once the session was underway, I’d just try to shape the sound in as imaginative a way as possible. Believe me, things didn’t always work out that great – but I hope it was always done in good taste, anyway.

The Making of ‘The Boxer’

Several months and more than 100 hours of studio time in the making, ‘The Boxer,’ released as a single in April 1969, was to Simon & Garfunkel what ‘Good Vibrations’ had been to Brian Wilson three years earlier: a landmark recording and a commercial, artistic and technical triumph. Recorded in numerous facilities in both Nashville and Manhattan (including Columbia University’s beautifully ambient chapel), ‘The Boxer’ featured such disparate instrumentation as lap steel, bass harmonica, dobro and piccolo trumpet – and, for a finishing touch, one of the most famous percussion overlays in history.

The song began with a basic acoustic-guitar with percussion rhythm track, recorded in short order at Columbia’s Music Row studios in November 1968 with country session guitarist Fred Carter, Jr. (who concocted the song’s distinctive opening flourish). Back in New York, however, the spirit of technical creativity that marked the classic Bookends sessions took over.

“Once Paul and Artie hooked up with me, they wanted to start doing things in a tastier way,” remembers producer Halee. “Especially after they finally had the clout to make it happen, after Bookends and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’ That’s when [Columbia head] Clive Davis gave me my own studio out in San Francisco to do whatever I wanted there. Unfortunately, I ended up going to L.A. all the time, because those guys were there.” 

Among “those guys” was drumming pro Hal Blaine, who wound up tagging along with Halee one quiet weekend in New York, his “big drums” in tow. Eventually Blaine found himself standing alongside an elevator shaft in the CBS building in an effort to fulfill Halee’s love of big, natural reverb. 

“There we were with all these mic cables, my drums, and a set of headphones,” says Blaine. “When the chorus came around – the ‘lie-la-lie’ bit – I came down on my snare as hard as I could. In that hallway, right next to this open elevator shaft, it sounded exactly like a cannon shot! Which was just the kind of sound we were after in the first place.”

The middle section of ‘The Boxer’ is a story unto itself. For starters, Simon hadn’t even conceived a solo break for his song; that honor, strangely enough, belongs to the largely non-composing Art Garfunkel, who’d heard the moving melody line in his head one afternoon and suggested using it as an instrumental passage. So impressed was Simon that he ended up ditching an additional verse – “I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be” – to make room for his friend’s invention (the “discarded” verse would re-appear from time to time in various Simon/S&G live renditions).

The solo itself, like everything else on ‘The Boxer,’ was recorded in typically unconventional fashion. In Nashville, during the song’s early stages, session wizard Pete Drake was summoned to cut a pedal steel interpretation of Garfunkel’s melody. But it was back in Manhattan weeks later that the passage would take on its unique character. 

During that time, Simon & Garfunkel were checking out a chapel on the campus of Columbia University as a possible location for a forthcoming Christmas television special. The natural ambiance of the building was so compelling, in fact, that the duo decided then and there to cut the yet-to-be-completed vocal overdubs for ‘The Boxer’ as a remote recording. 

Somewhere during the course of hauling mics and mixers in and out of the house of worship came the idea of taping a wind instrument for use in the solo section. Eventually the call went out for a piccolo trumpeter (Halee insists it had nothing to do with the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’). Yet rather than choose one part over the other, Halee – in yet another creative flash – decided to make a single dub of the two diverse instruments. Back in his CBS control room on 52nd Street, the producer carefully melded Tennessee country with New York classical, and the now-famous passage was complete.

Not everyone could see its future relevance at the time: On more than one occasion Halee was forced to placate CBS boss Clive Davis, who’d wondered aloud, “Why do you have to go to a CHURCH? Why don’t you just do it in a STUDIO?” 

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