By Sean Patrick, West Hollywood, California
David Hentschel is a product of the early days of rock and roll. Starting as a tea boy at the legendary Trident Studio in London, through his Grammy for Best Fusion Jazz Performance in 1988 and beyond, he was trained not only in music performance, and the early creation of recording technology, but also in how much teamwork there is in making a song.
From the seed of a melody and lyric, through the instruments and consoles, Trident Studios, among others, was a veritable mill of the most classic rock and roll albums the world has ever heard. David Hentschel was a part of it all.
I can only say it was sheer serendipity to sit on a sofa in legendary composer and Emmy winner Jerry Fielding’s home talking to David with our mutual friend and fellow Grammy winner Dennis MacKay for an interview.
SP: When did you two (Dennis MacKay and David Hentschel) meet?
David Hentschel: I think it was July, 1969. I’d moved up to engineer, and Dennis had just gotten hired as Tea Boy, which was where we all started.
Dennis MacKay: David, I loved that policy where the Engineer on a project could fire the Tape Operator, and the Tape Operator could fire the Tea Boy… it created such a great work ethic.
SP: Was that policy more to instill loyalty from the bottom up, rather than politics from the top down?
David Hentschel: Yes, I think so. It was just to keep everyone on their toes. You had to pay attention to what you were doing, but it didn’t come up every day. At Trident, where we were, it was very much a family sort of atmosphere. Everyone used to hang around and socialize together. If someone got married, everyone went to the wedding. If someone went to the pub everyone went to the pub (laughs). Pretty much, five times a day we all got drunk! (Turns to Dennis) Do you remember my twenty-first birthday?
Dennis MacKay: Oh David, do I remember that!
David Hentschel: I was drinking glasses this size (points to his water glass) of neat Southern Comfort! This was by six o’clock in the evening, so you can imagine how messy it got later!
Dennis MacKay: I was only 17 when I started then, but I remember you playing the ARP 2500 on “Funeral For a Friend” (by Elton John).
David Hentschel: “Rocket Man” was the first one I played it on. The ARP 2500 was a synthesizer, about five feet wide and three feet tall monster, but it was a wonderful instrument. The studio bought one, and because I was the only musically trained member on staff at the time, I was chosen to be the one to operate it. It was obviously a very new sound, and it was viewed with suspicion!
All the session musicians, all the studio guys there thought this thing was going take their jobs away; they thought once their sound was copied, they wouldn’t work anymore. It was hard to build up a reputation for that instrument, and I did it by trying to use it to make sounds that nothing else could make.
In fact, the very first film score I did, “Operation Daybreak”, I used the ARP 2500 and a full orchestra; we proved that you could use electronic instruments with a full orchestra, and make it work. That score did get a lot of acclaim for being the first use of synthesizer and orchestra together.
SP: It makes me think of how everything back then must have been pure experimentation. Look at all the sounds the Beatles got out of a four-track.
David Hentschel: Yes! Certainly it was unlike today where you have plug ins to do any and every sound you want. Even going back only ten or twenty years, studios had just messes of outboard gear. You had boxes that could make all sorts of sounds, all sorts of reverbs; compressors, and funny noise makers.
When I started, and Dennis as well, there was nothing; absolutely nothing. We had a couple of compressors and an outboard equalizer. Basically, to come up with something new, you had to abuse the equipment! Or think of using it in a very different way; I mean think of it: we’d have pencils literally six feet from the tape machine, and all around the room, with the tape looping around them to create delays.
You couldn’t sample it; you’d have to record it in real time. We’d make tape machines run at irregular speeds to get effects, winding sticky tape round the spindles to slow it down.
Dennis MacKay: I remember the time we used ashtrays!
David Hentschel: Yes, (laughs) and we’d put the singers in weird positions! We’d put them on their backs on the floor under the piano, with someone else’s foot on the sustain pedal, and have them sing up into the piano wires where we had the microphones on the other side, just to get the resonance of the voice through the piano!
Or we’d put the guy in the bathroom; there was no other way of getting these kinds of effects, and we wanted new sounds all the time and come up with new ideas, so we improvised every day. Of course it wasn’t all us. We were working with people like David Bowie, who’s mind was buzzing with all kinds of ideas, and who always was willing to try new stuff to make a different mark on things.
SP: That sounds amazing by today’s standards.
David Hentschel: Oh, it was. I mean if a singer asked us how he might sound like, for instance, an alien, we’d get a plastic cup, cut a hole in it, and get him to speak through it, all the while with the tape looping around corners! It was all very creative and really fun.
SP: With that in mind, it still must be hard to find different things to do with all the stuff that’s already been done. The whole ‘pitch correction’ fad comes to mind, and the unlimited tracks you have now with ProTools.
David Hentschel: Oh yes. When you look at it, there was creativity just in the decision making back then; we only had a very limited amount of tracks. For instance, if you had three backing singers, where nowadays you just record each one on their own track, back then we’d have to do it all on one track, if you were lucky, and sometimes we had to mix it in with other things.
So you made creative decisions in terms of the recording, and the limited space you had then. Nowadays, with those endless tracks you have in ProTools, there’s a great temptation to use all of them, and so you’re actually deferring making a decision all the time throughout the process. The consequence of that is that sometimes you get to a mix, and you’re lost as to what direction you’re going.
The old days, you’d get the basic guitar parts down, and the basic rhythm tracks down, making decisions along the way, so that now the singer has something to work with; a general feel and direction that the song is going to take. That way the artist actually hears something of the final way it’s going to be, and can react to it. Now you can end up with hundreds of tracks, and no basic definition of the song; that can take even more work to whittle it down. People get tied in all sorts of knots by working that way.
Dennis MacKay: Sure… we got spoiled a bit when we got a sixteen track; I mean now you could have two microphones on the drums! Trident was the first sixteen track console in Europe; but you’re right David, now with all those overdubs on all those hundreds of tracks it can be hard to figure out how to move forward on the mix.
David Hentschel: It’s not all bad, a few more tracks allows you to keep mistakes. I remember when I was working with Mike Oldfield. He taught me the importance of keeping everything. I mean you can have a great solo, and there may be a split note, or a crunch note, or even a wrong note in the middle of it, or two or three, but it can be a really great solo.
Of course now the temptation is to go in and fix it, but with a few flaws, it gave character to the performance. People don’t hear those little mistakes, and that temptation to clean up every detail makes it a little sanitized.
Dennis MacKay: Yes, it can take some of the magic out of it.
David Hentschel: Well here’s the thing, in the project I’m just finishing, there isn’t as much of that going on because I’ve spent time getting performances out of them. That’s what music’s about. I’ve punched in a little bit, here and there of course. That’s the first rule of production: record the first run-through.
I mean you listen to the first time a guy sings his own song in the studio. He’s been thinking about it for months, and weeks. The performance he gives the first time when he’s relaxed is usually one of the best for the recording, especially if he doesn’t think he’s being recorded. If he doesn’t think that red light is on, it just flows out of him. As soon as the red light goes up, so does that sense of panic.
SP: That’s such an interesting point! I can tell you as a singer, the live performance is, to me, much more creative and easy. It’s the difference between the stage, and being a “recording” artist. You’re right. I start second guessing every little thing I do, and it takes away from the overall performance.
Dennis MacKay: It makes me think of working with Ken Scott when he was recording David Bowie. Ken would never tell David that he was going to get levels. He’d just tell him to “sing to me”, and pretend he wasn’t really recording yet.
Of course, he’d be flailing around in the control room setting up compressors and doing all the technical stuff, but he wouldn’t let on to David. David would just approach the microphone and start singing. But of course, David Bowie is incredible. You look at “Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Alladin Sane” and “Pinups”; they were all one take vocals.
David Hentschel: Well, Elton John is the same. He just sang the songs through. He wrote them in the morning, and recorded them after lunch, and we were mixing by evening!
For “Yellow Brick Road” of course, a lot of the songs were written before we got to the studio, but it was during production that they decided to make it a double album, so Bernie Taupin and Elton set about writing the new material. They’d tried to record it all in Jamaica, but it had all gone wrong, because the studio was rubbish, and there were riots going on then with the political problems.
One song in particular, “Candle In The Wind” was written that way. I was sitting to breakfast with the band and the producer. Bernie came down with a set of lyrics he’d written that night, and Elton sat at the piano, literally across the room, and wrote the music right then.
After breakfast we went over to the studio and recorded it; just straight off. That was probably three takes. Just ridiculous! Magic actually. Then of course he’d go off shopping in Paris, and buy thirty pairs of the same pants, but all different colors (we all laugh). He’d get bored in the studio because he was just a genius at writing, and it would be done before we hit the pillow.
SP: When was the first time you met Elton John?
David Hentschel: It was when he did that black album that was just called “Elton John”. Trident wasn’t very old then. I think they opened in ’66 or ’67.
SP: So everyone must have been around the same age then.
David Hentschel:Yes, the owners and such were a little older of course. We’re certainly dating ourselves here.
Dennis MacKay: Yes, David, what was it like working with Thomas Edison (rolling laughter)?
SP: How did you move on from Trident? You’ve got an amazing body of work, and there must have been some point where you decided to move on.
David Hentschel: Yes. Trident had begin to grow and grow. At first when there were about twelve people it was great, but soon it became a staff of over two hundred, so I was getting bored with it and looking to move out on my own as an engineer, and even get into production.
As luck would have it, I met a guy who turned out to be my manager for twenty years, and through him, I was able to meet Ringo Starr. I was known for being able to play that synthesizer, and, and Ringo’s people had put it to him that I might be able to use it on Ringo’s latest record. He had just started up his own label, and he thought it would be a fun idea. So that’s what happened.
Ringo bought me my own 2500, and I ended up working with him for the next four months or so, with the run of the place at his studio. It was actually the house he’d bought from John Lennon, and on the record, “Imagine” where John is playing the white piano in the white room, that’s where Ringo’s new studio was.
One night, Ringo said to me, “C’mon, let’s write a song.” So we sat down at the piano. He was playing the left side and I was on the right, and between us was a bottle of Jack Daniels. Most of the way through that bottle, he was pounding away and so was I and suddenly, he slapped my hand, fairly hard. I looked at him, and said, “What did you do that for?”. He said, “Stop playing the black notes!”
Of course the business has changed a lot, but some things are the same. If you keep at it, sometimes something happens unexpectedly that propels you onto the next thing. I was very lucky to run into that situation, and from there I’ve spent my life doing what I love.
SP: What a great story, and thank you both for sitting down with me!
David Hentschel: Sean, it’s been my pleasure! Thank you!
David Hentschel remains very prolific in his work. For more information, check out his website at http://www.thekeyboard.co.uk/index.html
Sean Patrick is a musician, writer, and WeHo New’s Sunset Strip reporter. Catch his latest at www.SeanPatrick.us