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Page's Studio Tricks IV (Stairway To Heaven) - from Bill O'Neil

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Hello All --

 

This is it. I threatened to dissect the one song we all acknowledge to be our link to the non-Zep-converted. The song Robert loves to hate. The song that Jimmy loves without apology. The song that supposedly "proves" Zeppelin were Satan worshipping heathen. The song that's caused thousands to gush, "Led Zeppelin? Oh, I love him! He's got that song about heaven, right?" The song with only three cavities...

 

Stairway to Heaven.

 

You might remember I had an epiphany the other day about just how great this song is. Well, it *is* great, and we all know it, even if we've had to patiently explain to Mom and our significant others that "Zeppelin's not a 'he,' it's a band."

 

This song surely points out that Zeppelin truly wasn't a "he," not Jimmy or any of the others. This particular post is hereby officially renamed "Zeppelin's Studio Tricks," because each of the four members contributed to the limit of his abilities. So much so that I can't believe the song is credited only to Page and Plant, even if they did compose the music and lyrics, respectively.

 

I have made noises about keeping these dissections short, but this one sure ain't gonna be.

 

Ready?

 

The first thing you notice about Stairway is how clean it sounds. This "cleanliness" extends throughout the whole of Zep IV, so if you'd been listening since Black Dog you might not have noticed just how clean it is. Think, now, about Zeppelin II. Yes, it's great, and it's got the rockin' tunes, but the color of the album jacket fits the sound: muddy brown. Physical Graffiti? Compared to most albums its a pristine document, but compared to Zep IV -- whoa, is PG a chunk of lard. Zep I: clean and clear, but a bit drenched in 'verb. Zep III: some of those mikes might have been placed a bit closer to some of those amps, in my not-worthy-to-polish-Page's-Les-Paul opinion. Presence: too spare for it's own good. And don't get me started on In Through the Out Door. Just don't, okay?

 

Zep IV was without question the crowning achievement in clarity in heavy rock in 1971. Today it's the benchmark against which heavy rock is compared. Why?

 

Since we're talking about Stairway here -- or at least, we would be if I'd get around to it -- let's start with Page's acoustic guitar intro, a spare, beautiful steel string acoustic treated with reverb. I think I read somewhere that Page played a Gibson J-200 for this, but I don't know that for certain. Notice the sparkling highs and how they wash across the stereo spectrum. Notice also how the descending bass line is accentuated by the 'verb. Luscious. I would guess that Page used two microphones; one pointed at the neck/body joint, which captures the sound of the strings without "soundhole boom," and one pointed at the strings near the bridge, which really captures the intimacy of his fingers upon the strings. This is a common technique for miking acoustics as it provides a good combination of warmth and sparkle. Page likely used "condenser" microphones, which are more sensitive to soft sounds than "dynamic" mikes, which are used for louder instruments (and stage use). Page managed to sit very still while he recorded this part -- I cannot hear the sound quality change at all, which it would have if he'd shifted in his chair. I can't even hear him breathe.

 

Speaking of breathing...

 

I *can* hear John Paul Jones breathing as he plays his several tracks of recorders. Amazing. Until today, I've always thought that sound was a "recorder" sound made by a keyboard. I was probably influenced by video from TSRTS, where Jones does play this part on a keyboard. But,nope, those are real recorders. Cool. And that melody... melancholy and sublime.

 

When the recorders enter, notice how they obscure some of the reverb from Page's acoustic guitar. This causes the whole to become more intimate, as it seems to bring Page's guitar closer to the listener.

 

I have no idea how the recorders were recorded. I think that standard studio practice with wind instruments is to place microphones in front of them, but not actually pointing at the bell. Live, I know, mikes are placed inside the bell, but I think that's mostly for convenience's sake, as it doesn't yield the most natural sound.

 

When Robert enters, notice what Jones does with the recorder; he doesn't drop out -- which would leave the part sounding empty -- but instead plays low notes which stay out of Robert's way and accentuate the decending melody Page is playing. Once you've grown accustomed to Robert's voice -- and we humans naturally focus on another human voice -- Jones brings the recorders back up an octave where they can continue to enhance the melancholy mood. And when Plant has finished the stanza, Jones stays with long tones to give Page room to play his busier filegrees.

 

That skill -- deciding what to play at each point in the song -- iscalled "arranging." And Jones' skill at arranging, my friends, is what makes him a genius, and an indespensible part of Led Zeppelin. When Jones says that Zeppelin was the "air between the four of us," this is what he was talking about. Jones' fame is less than Page or Plant's because he had a smaller ego, and because his talents were subtle ones -- not because he had less talent. Had Jones' ego been bigger, Zeppelin likely would've imploded after two or three albums, the way Cream did.

 

Rewind to Robert's first vocal line: "There's a lady who sure all that glitters is gold" (0:53). Notice how quiet, how tender, his delivery is. Notice how his voice breaks on the word "lady." Such subtle stuff, but it all contributes to the mood the band has created. Notice that the lady is "sure," and by the second line Robert is back from the mike, singing in a fuller voice to accentuate the protagonist's point of view. Listen very carefully and you can hear the low frequencies in Robert's voice alternately increasing and decreasing; they're louder when he's closer to the mike (singing softly) and lower in volume when he's further away (singing louder). This is caused by something called "proximity effect." I don't know the physics that causes it, but I do know that close distance to a microphone causes a disproportionate increase in low end. Notice that on the word "heaven," which Robert sings softly and very close to the mike, the low end increases. With each phrase Robert sings, he starts softly and close to the mike, gets louder and backs away, then comes in close to sing softly again. His tremendous "mike technique" (as it's called) allows Page the producer and Andy Johns the engineer to apply minimal compression to Plant's voice, leaving it sounding natural and unprocessed.

 

2:14 into the song we reach our first major change with the arrival of several new instruments. Two minutes and fourteen seconds -- many entire songs of the era were shorter than this, but we're just getting started.

 

At this important juncture, Page has added an electric guitar and Jones has chucked the recorders in favor of an electric piano and some bass pedals. The electric guitar is a Fender XII (I read this in an interview-- I'm not *that* good!), probably running through a big amp on fairly low volume. Big amps, when running at low-to-medium volumes, have a lot of "headroom," or volume before distortion, and develop a warm, clean sound. Small amps tend not to have this warmth and to distort at lower volumes. It sounds to me as though the amp is close miked -- it's got that on-your-face sound.

 

Jones' electric piano sound is very warm. I don't know much about electric pianos, but I'm guessing it's a Fender Rhodes. I know Jones favored that instrument, and it does sound like a Fender Rhodes to me. It may have been run directly into the board, as it sounds extremely clean (no distortion). Notice that Jones is carrying the low end here, and that his right hand is playing a figure more-or-less identical to Page's.

 

The acoustic guitar is still here, too, out on the left. But notice what's happened since the beginning: the reverb's basically gone. There's still just a little bit, but most of the reverb we hear is that coming from Robert. Notice how thick this music is; it's quite different from the intro.

 

An additional guitar comes in at points within this section of the song. For example, at 3:03, a second twelve-string comes in to play the phrase, and it's well-treated with reverb, filling in for Robert's voice. This same part is back at 3:53, and it's a bit more noticable, sustaining more forcefully as it pans out to the right.

 

At 4:18, Bonham enters. And boy, does he. *Most* songs of any era are shorter than this, but we're just getting to the drums -- more than four minutes into the song! Page has offered this late drum entry as an example of how Zeppelin consciously "broke the rules." They did something very similar as early as their first album, in "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You".

 

Notice that Bonham's sound isn't that huge. His snare is thick and fat, his kick is very solid, and there's reverb, but it doesn't sound as though he's in a very big room. From this point through to the end of the song, there are so many elements that a big drum sound would get in the way. Although it does get bigger, the drum sound never becomes the monstrous, cavern-dwelling sound Bonham (or Page) chose for IMTOD, for example. Wise choice. I think that Bonham's snare is close miked, because the snares themselves are quite audible.

 

Notice how Robert's phrasing changes after Bonham's entry. He's really enunciating his consonants, which accentuates the rhythm of his words.

 

The section that lasts from 4:45 through 5:08 is another of those that gives me chills. Bonham's playing is simply amazing. Listen to what he does with his ride cymbal. At first, he's gently tapping it. At 4:53, he starts hitting it with the side of his stick, swelling in volume as he plays the subtlest fill in history. Page, in mixing, ever-so-slightly brought back the level on the guitars to accentuate Bonham's work here.

 

The fanfare at 5:35 marks the end of Mr. Nice Guy. Page has three guitars spread across the field -- twelve-strings on the outside and a six in the middle. Notice the distortion here? The clicky noises that happen with each strum? I really doubt that was intended. That sounds to me as the the preamps in the mixing board overloaded, but I find it hard to believe Page or Andy Johns wouldn't have noticed that while they were tracking. It's possible that the distortion happened somewhere further down the line, or it's even possible that Page intended it (although I really doubt it). I can tell you that the same distortion exists on the vinyl, so it's not a CD error.

 

Jones accentuates Bonham's toms, now with a regular electric bass and not keyboards. From 5:42 through 5:45 you can hear Bonham keeping time on his hi-hat. Notice how Jones' bass work through the guitar solo really bridges the gap between rhythm and melody; he's playing an uncomplicated but wonderful melody, punctuated with refreshing rhythmic jabs. I must admit, I've never listened to his bass here before, because I've always listened to...

 

One of, if not *the*, most famous guitar solos in history. What can I say? You've all heard it, and it means something to you that I won't try to supplant. As for the guitar, it's got the high-end snap characteristic of Page's Les Paul, and it's likely through a "dimed" Marshall (everything on ten). There's some reverb there, and Page has definitely used two or more mikes to get some phase cancellation. Notice that Page doubles his last phrase at 6:42. And the beautiful, crying guitars that answer Page's phrases beginning at 6:25... wow. They sound to me like pedal steel guitars, due to the way they "chime" and bend so smoothly at the same time.

 

Actually, to me they sound like a chorus of angels.

 

Then there's that final, awesome assault: "And as we wind on down the road..." This is possibly the greatest aural trick Page ever pulled off. Ask twenty heavy-rock dudes what the heaviest guitar sound in history is, and ten of them'll probably say "Stairway." Then ask 'em to duplicate it and they'll crank up the distortion, make a fist and say, "Yeah!" But listen to those guitars for a second... The one on the left is a *clean* 12-string, and the one on the right is... *another* clean twelve string! What?!

 

Yes, okay, they're not totally clean, they're a clean sound turned up very loud so it distorts a little, but it sure ain't no ballsy distort-o-rama like it might seem. I would guess that the one on the left is being played through a Twin Reverb, as it has that sparkle, and the one on the right might be a Marshall. They're both heavily compressed, which adds to their power. And the bass is very fat and warm, and blends together with the guitars as though they were all one instrument. It *is* heavy, but only taken as a whole. Cool.

 

Robert doubled his vocals for this, the final verse. Notice how he didn't try to *exactly* double his vocal, but instead sang both with maximum emotion (if not maximum pitch-correctness). The end result is a performance to send shivers down your spine.

 

And Bonham's performance during this song-unto-itself? Stand back. He plays a monster fill leaving the guitar solo, then just keeps hammering that snare until 7:14 when it's time to elevate the part onto another plane.

 

And Page... How about the ascending-descending melody that really comes in at 7:01? That's pretty distorted, probably a Telecaster with the tone rolled off, and it's reverbed to the moon. Please rewind to 6:45. Is it just me, or is Page playing that melody here and it's mixed extremely quietly? I can't even tell, because the part is so *right* that my brain might be making it in its absence. Notice that as he continues this melody, Page plays the main figure along with the other two guitars, then blends this Telecaster into the second chorus of angels that wraps up the song. These angels are the six-string variety: another Tele and a Les Paul, I think. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable

 

And, to finish, a return to the beginning: a lone Robert Plant, softly: "And she's buying a Stairway to heaven." Notice how the reverb fades to nil as RP carries out "heaven." In our final moments, we are all truly alone.

 

Somehow it's odd to have Misty Mountain Hop begin 3 seconds later. Younger people on the list who didn't first hear this on vinyl probably think I'm nuts, but the extra down time needed to flip the record is almost necessary; a recovery period, if you will.

 

Let's end this "was Zeppelin Satanic?" crap once and for all:

 

Do any of you really think that after creating this *masterpiece*, Page and Co. would have belittled their work by "backwards-masking" a vocal bit about Satan? Did Michaelangelo chisel "666" into David's skull? Did Newton say "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction -- because Satan says so"? Did Fitzgerald dedicate "The Great Gatsby" to Lucifer?

 

Has Bill Clinton ever come out and said, "Okay, so I inhaled"? (That was a masterpiece, too, you know, even if I couldn't think of a way to bring Satan into it.)

 

Lastly, I'm reminded of something the singer in my band has quoted to me. He attributes it to Robert Plant, but I don't know where it came from. "People think we were working on this song and three wise men came knocking. 'Excuse us, but are you writing 'Stairway to Heaven?'" It wasn't like that. It was just another song, until our boys put a lot of creativity, emotion, and work into it. People, they deserve the praise they get for it.

 

Bye,

 

Bill O'Neil
Venice, CA, USA
Maker's Mark is mother's milk.

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This Month in
Led Zeppelin History


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November 21, 1968 - Robert becomes a father to a baby girl named Carmen Jane.
November 09, 1968 - Robert marries Maureen in London. Their reception is a performance at the Roundhouse in London
November xx, 1969 - Tempers flare over Atlantic in the UK wanting to release singles
November xx, 1969 - Recording for Led Zeppelin III begins at Olympic Studios in London
November xx, 1970 - Plans are in motion for a Yardbirds reunion
November 08, 1971 - Finally after much anticipation, Untitled is released
November xx, 1972 - Houses Of The Holy is mixed and completed
November 10, 1972 - Led Zeppelin sell out 120,000 tickets in one day
November xx, 1973 - Initial recordings for Physical Graffiti commences at Headley Grange
November 04, 1973 - Led Zeppelin finalize the purchase of Headley Grange to be their new corporate headquarters
November xx, 1974 - The band makes plans and rehearses for the tenth North American tour
November xx, 1975 - Led Zeppelin records Presence in a mere 18 days
November xx, 1976 - Led Zeppelin book into Ezyhire Studios to rehearse new material for an upcoming tour
November 04, 1976 - The Song Remains The Same movie premieres in Europe
November xx, 1977 - Jimmy dispells rumors of Led Zeppelin’s break up
November 06, 1978 - Led Zeppelin purchase and ship new gear to Polar Studios to begin work on a new album
November 10, 1979 - Led Zeppelin and their entire entourage attend an ABBA concert
November 07, 1980 - The band meets with Peter Grant to announce the retirement of Led Zeppelin
November 29, 1999 - The RIAA announced that Led Zeppelin were only the third act in music history to achieve four or more Diamond albums, a Diamond album being awarded for accredited sales of more than 10 million units in the US.
November 01, 2007 - An announcement was made that Jimmy Page had fractured his finger on his left hand after a fall in his garden and the reunion show would be postponed to December 10, 2007.
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