Means to 'The End:' Recording a Classic at Sunset Sound - ProSoundNetwork.com

Means to 'The End:' Recording a Classic at Sunset Sound

by Curtis Berry. Some songs sound like they had an “immaculate conception;” we assume that the conditions were perfect, predictable and as inspiring as the recording would lead us to believe. As we know all too well—especially with recordings from the 1960s and 1970s—this is very often not the case. It is certainly not the case with “The End,” the classic track that closes The Doors’ first album (except possibly the “inspiring” part).
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Bruce Botnick at the console of
Sunset Sound Studio One, recording The Doors.
Courtesy Bruce Botnick

by Curtis Berry.

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Some songs sound like they had an “immaculate conception;” we assume that the conditions were perfect, predictable and as inspiring as the recording would lead us to believe. As we know all too well—especially with recordings from the 1960s and 1970s—this is very often not the case. It is certainly not the case with “The End,” the classic track that closes The Doors’ first album (except possibly the “inspiring” part).

Let’s look at some of the elements that comprised this “perfect storm” from the perspective of veteran engineer Bruce Botnick, who makes it clear that in those days, the studio was “his woman” (he ate there, kept his clothes there, showered there and often slept there). In 1966, The Doors were complete novices in the studio but certainly had the required chops as performers, having been the house band at the infamous Whisky A Go-Go, which hosted notable contemporary acts like Buffalo Springfield and Love, among many others. The Doors, despite their notorious reputation as cavalier rockers, were good students and indeed very serious in the studio: “They took what little advice we gave them,” recalls Botnick. “We didn’t give them too much, because we didn’t want to busy their brains. We wanted the performances.”

After Botnick and producer Paul Rothchild earned The Doors’ trust following the initial playback of “Moonlight Drive” on August 19, 1966, the band relaxed and got to work. Interestingly enough, the performances on The Doors’ debut album were done live. Botnick says it would have been uncomfortable and unnatural for them to work in any other way. “When you record the tracks and then do the vocal, it doesn’t have anywhere near the feel or the magic of a live performance. The Doors were very tight because they had been performing these songs every night. My goal with Paul was to capture the live performances, and, of course, enhance them. Everything that’s on that album was done live in the studio—even the vocals.”

In terms of gear, Botnick didn’t have a lot to work with, but what he did have was reliable and of extraordinary sonic quality. “We had a 14-input tube console that had the ability to do four-track output, stereo and mono simultaneously. We recorded to a four-track, half-inch, running at 15 ips. Of course, we didn’t have noise reduction at that time.” Botnick typically ran his microphones straight into the board.

In those days, recording was much more of a performance since there was no automation; effects were printed onto tape during the tracking session. “Paul and I would try to set the scene, then turn the guys loose and let them do their thing. Since we didn’t have automation, 100 percent of what we did was learning—in the brain. We played the songs as you would play a piano, except that I would be playing the console.” In terms of track assignments, the master tapes are as sparse as you might guess: “The master today has drums and piano bass on one channel, Jim’s vocal on another, Ray [Manzarek] on one channel and Robbie [Krieger] on another. That’s all she wrote, folks!” The famous Sunset Sound echo chamber is also featured on the band,” says Botnick, adding plate reverb on Morrison’s vocal as the only other verb.

A recent shot of Botnick scoring a film
at 20th Century Fox. Photo: Thomas Graham
Botnick’s photographic memory helps us paint a picture of what it was like during those sessions in late August of ’66. “I believe ‘The End’ was one of the last things we recorded—we had already been recording for three days. We recorded ‘The End’ in the evening, which was very unusual—nobody recorded at night because you had to pay $35 an hour versus $30 an hour.” To help establish the mood, Botnick dimmed the lights and placed a red light in one of the studio’s floor lamps. The visual communication among the performers couldn’t have been better. Jim was situated in the iso booth to the left of the control room and had full visual contact with the others, while Robbie and Ray were situated in the center of the studio just in front of the drums—in fact, they were just two feet away from one another. Rothchild and Botnick had full view of all the performers from their respective positions in the control room, except for Jim who was obscured in the booth.

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When one examines the sonic richness of the track now—and with consideration of the multitude of microphones that commonly appear on modern day music tracks—it is seems extraordinary that Botnick used no more than three microphones to capture John Densmore’s drums (who incidentally always considered himself a “jazz”-style drummer). He placed a blanket over the kick drum to help isolate it from the other drums. Beyond that he placed “really funky” baffles around John’s drums: “They had pegboard on one side and a very thin layer of fiberglass with fabric over it on the other. They didn’t do a hell of a lot.”

The piano bass was the only instrument that was recorded direct. As a vocalist, Morrison was a dream to record, says Botnick. “He was one of the easiest people to record that I’ve ever recorded. He just had naturally great mic technique. He knew to back off when he was about to the scream, and how to move in when he wasn’t. He was a good student because he was a big fan of Frank Sinatra,” he recalls.

Despite Botnick’s access to Sunset Sound’s expensive microphone cabinet, he still maintains that, “99 percent of the sound was in the room. I just respond to it and enhance it,” he modestly adds. “I add echo, EQ and brightness and adjust it sonically to become what I want to hear.” He says that once the room sound gets to a good point, “…you can forget about the technicality and just respond to the music.”

The view from Sunset Sound Studio One Control
Room, looking into the studio, ready to record.
Courtesy Bruce Botnick
On paper, the live room at Sunset Sound might have been less than perfect, starting with its low ceilings, which according to Botnick were between eight and nine feet high. This little detail aside, however, Botnick was particularly enchanted with the drum sound. The room’s walls were composed of brick and drywall, and it had a concrete floor with asphalt tile on it. “The fluorescent lights on the ceiling gave you ‘supermarket’ if you wanted it,” he laughs. As far as instrument positioning, Botnick would typically place the drums directly in the center of the room, with the amps in front of the drums facing outward to minimize leakage and to make monitoring easier for Krieger and Manzarek.

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Engineering “The End” was less an academic exercise and more of an intuitive one for Botnick. While many engineers would find their way by the needles and checking the levels, he insisted on being intimately involved: “I wanted to be swept away and be a participant; I didn’t want to sit there and analyze what I was doing. I prefer to have that attitude even today.” Paul Rothchild once said that he didn’t have to impart Botnick with too much guidance at the mixing console and tell him, say, when to bring up the level of a guitar or keyboard solo. Botnick felt these things intuitively, and responded to the music almost automatically.

Mixing “The End” would have been perhaps a little easier on Botnick and company, since as mentioned earlier, all the effects were already printed. The “performance” was done. The Doors played with such dynamics across such a limited number of tracks, that one could argue that the songs almost mixed themselves. During mixdown, Botnick would employ a stereo limiter (though he rarely used dynamics while tracking).

Was Botnick aware that a timeless classic was unfolding right before his eyes? “Of course not,” he says. “I would be hard pressed to find anyone who knows this while it is happening.” “The End” was completed after just two takes, and the final version used on the album used parts of the first and second versions. The entire sessions for The Doors’ first album—including tracking and mixing—went down in just five days. Was Botnick ever intimidated or stressed out recording such a monumental track by one of the world’s most important rock ’n’ roll bands? Contraire, mon frere. “Bruce Botnick was not sweating bullets—he was enjoying the moment.”