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Kevin Shirley: Mining For Unledded Gold

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Coming later this month is the long awaited DVD release of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s No Quarter: Unledded MTV special that first aired on October 12, 1994, and reunited the guitarist and singer from Led Zeppelin. It’s a fitting sequel to last year’s best selling Zeppelin DVD.

Both projects proved to be challenges to Kevin Shirley, their mixing engineer. In the case of the Led Zeppelin DVD, Shirley had to restore live performances, some of which were 35 years old. In the case of Unledded, while it was only recorded ten years ago, he had surprisingly little original documentation to work with, and ended up remixing the project from scratch.

Viewers who watch Unledded in home theaters equipped with 5.1 surround sound systems will be in for a treat: Shirley used a much more expansive mix than last year’s Led Zeppelin DVD. Not surprisingly for a recording with a Jimmy Page co-production credit, on the outro of “What Is And What Should Never Be”, Shirley sends Page’s power chords swirling around the front and rear speakers. And throughout the DVD, percussion and strings frequently appear out of the rear channels, enveloping the viewer into the sound.

The bonus materials include an MTV interview done on a London street that aired concurrently with the show’s debut; a wild version of “Black Dog” that combines Australian didgeridoos along with Page roaring away with some sort of harmonizer on his guitar; and the “Most High” video from 1998’s Walking into Clarksdale follow-up CD. There’s also a stunning version of “The Rain Song”, seen originally only by the comparative few who purchased Unledded on laser disc.

We spoke to Shirley late last month via phone about both projects, and his upcoming charitable endeavor, a marathon bike ride through China for Mencap, a British charity seeking to benefit children with learning disabilities.

Refueling Unledded

Ed: You had mentioned on your Website that the Unledded DVD was much more difficult to mix than would first seem apparent, especially because it’s only about ten years old. What made it so difficult to restore and mix?

Kevin: Well, there were a lot of technical problems with it. We got the multitracks for the audio, and then we got an edited picture. And there was no sync-correlation between the edited picture and the multitrack. So originally, when they conformed the original VHS master, they had done that from two-track masters, matched to the video. And I guess at that point, they had sync time code. But we didn’t any correlation between the picture and the multitrack.

So I had to go in and make it match. Technically, it was very difficult: there are edits in the program, and there were no notes about where the edits were. So it was very complicated–and actually, so complicated that I think you’ll find that some of the versions of the songs are quite different from some of the original versions.

Ed: I noticed that the mix of “Kashmir” seemed quite a bit different than how I remembered hearing it.

Kevin: Well, I didn’t use any of the original mixes as a template; I just started fresh. None of the of them have any relation to the old mixes.

Those tracks that were recorded in Morocco, in the square, those are edited pieces which were originally long jams which got edited together by Aubrey Powell; some of the edits have changed, making the music a little different.

So that was difficult; the technical aspect was complicated.

The mixing of it was thrilling: it’s always an honor working with music of that caliber.

Ed: Were Jimmy and Robert very much involved in the mixing process?

Kevin: No. They were involved in the listening process; I think that Jimmy was very much behind me doing my thing for it. He trusted me from the Zeppelin stuff, and he’d come in and make comments every now and then, but definitely didn’t babysit the whole program. When he felt a change was needed he certainly mention it.

For Robert, this was his pet project, more than the Zeppelin stuff last year was. So he was a big part of it, whereas we didn’t see him at all, during the mixing of the Led Zeppelin DVD and the How The West Was Won CD.

No, they left me to my own devices; it was very encouraging.

Ed: With Unledded, you seemed to go for a much dramatic surround sound mix than last year’s Led Zeppelin DVD.

Kevin: It’s one of those things: [music mixed in 5.1 sound] is new territory for all of us: I’m growing into this thing; I’m discovering what I can and can’t do, and how to make things expansive. I think that when you first get into 5.1, the expansiveness of the whole thing is maybe a little daunting. So you don’t really let yourself go quite as crazy as you could.

With this one, I really tried to use 5.1 to make it a lot of fun. There’s a lot of percussion coming from the back, and a lot of the orchestration coming from behind. It’s not really following the stage layout quite as strictly as some people might, so now you find drums in the back, and trombones in the back.

Instead, 5.1 is Disneyland for ears.

Ed: I was going to ask you how you decided where instruments were placed.

Kevin: Well, it depends. On the stuff in the square in Morocco, I tried to sort of have the instruments spread across both rear channels. On “Kashmir”, you have all those Indian percussionists, and they’re all kind of together…it’s like all mixing: where do you pan stuff? That’s the art of it; that’s the creativity that’s there.

Ed: When you have a mix that’s as wide as Unledded is, do you have to worry more about how it’s going to sound on various home systems?

Kevin: You can’t; you’ll go nuts if you worry about stuff like that, because there are 75 million home systems in the United States, and no two of them sound the same. Everybody’s got bass adjusted for taste, and depending upon the state of your room, there are Bose speakers hidden in the eaves of the ceiling or in the floor, or behind the living room sofa.

You’ve got to mix for an optimum situation, really, and just expect that people have gotten used to the way that that stuff sounds in their living room.

Ed: I think I read in Billboard is going to be shown in some movie theaters.

Kevin: I read that, too.

Ed: Is that something you took into account when you were mixing?

Kevin: No.

Ed: When you were mixing Jimmy’s guitar or Robert’s vocals, were they run through any new effects?

Kevin: I definitely beefed up Jimmy’s guitar. You’ll notice the inclusion of “The Rain Song”.

Ed: Yeah, gorgeous mix, by the way.

Kevin: See, that one came out entirely differently. I don’t know if you compared the mixes from the old laser disc. [Only version of Unledded with “The Rain Song”–Ed] But that took a lot of work. Jimmy’s guitar was originally recorded with just a pickup on it. I had to put it through a Fishman amp; then with the joys of Pro Tools, I could go in line up the phase of the original acoustic guitar track with the track with the Fishman, and we got this really acoustic sounding instrument, because you just had a pickup on there originally.

Ed: I noticed that at the beginning of “No Quarter”, Robert is singing through what looks like a minefield of Boss guitar effect stomp boxes. Was that difficult to mix that down and get a clean sound out of that?

Kevin: No, because there was a clean track as well. Actually, I had difficulty finding the effects track, so I ended up making up my own!

It was quite complicated mixing, because we got all the multitracks, and it became a bit of an archaeological dig going through all of them–there were no notes, and even going back ten years, people didn’t remember this and that.

Ed: I’m surprised there wasn’t much documentation of the original sessions.

Kevin: You and me both, mate. And the two principals of the program as well. I mean, there were time that we trying to track down stuff, and we kept saying, ‘you know, this stuff has to be somewhere.’ We got logs from all of the storage facility, and we thought, ‘oh, it has to be this tape’ or ‘it has to be that tape’. But we had to go through things and find out where the original tapes were stored.

Ed: One thing I hadn’t seen before was that version of “Black Dog”–that was wild. It sounds like Jimmy was run through some kind of harmonizer effect.

Kevin: Oh yeah, that was whacky, wasn’t it?!

Ed: Yeah! And he’s playing a different riff on it than the original recording.

Kevin: And Porl Thompson, the other guitar player, his guitar track was nowhere to be found! That’s why you don’t hear him, in case you’re wondering.

Ed: Really? I had assumed it was simply mixed very subtly.

Kevin [drolly]: He wasn’t.

In fact, the truth of the matter is that I mixed the track before I saw the video, and I had no idea that there was another guitar player until I saw the video.

Ed: Was that harmonizer something that Jimmy had used onstage?

Kevin: Unfortunately, yes.

Ed: [chuckles]

Kevin: There was nothing I could do about it; I tried my best.

Ed: It’s an interesting sound; it’s not something I associate with Page.

Kevin: Interesting is a good word…

Ed: Ok! You talked a few minutes about the material recorded in Morroco. Was that stuff recorded well? Was it difficult to blend in with the material recorded on the stage in London?

Kevin: It was difficult, but that’s what we do: you work with what you’ve got, and you try to make it as good as it can be, really. It was recorded as you see in the video: it’s in the square, and there are Shure SM-57s on people.

You know, the “Black Dog” one was much more difficult–it was virtually unsalvageable, I thought. I don’t know how that mix sounds to you, but that was very, very badly recorded.

The thing in Morocco wasn’t very badly recorded, because it was just microphones; they were running onto DA-88s at the time, I think. So we had two DA-88s synced up.

Ed: I was just curious, because it’s such an unusual place to record.

Kevin: Yeah. I think those two guys really enjoy the flavors of the more exotic and indigenous instruments around the planet. I think that’s always fired them up, even in Zeppelin, way back when.

Assembling The Led Zeppelin DVD

Ed: It sounds like, from what I read about the Zeppelin DVD, that it was a massive job to reconstruct.

Kevin: It was a massive job to reconstruct. We started off with the idea that there was a treasure trove of stuff, but the more we dug into it, I became acutely aware of how complex it was to get four individual performances in a single song sounding equally amazing.

Let me put it this way: there was an amazing amount of incredible stuff, but also a lot of stuff that wasn’t incredible.

Say for instance with the first DVD: when we first unearthed all those tapes, there was no visual to go with it. Jimmy knew of some visual material that was here, and some visuals there. They knew some Australian director had cut together a version of “Moby Dick” and they knew there were some handheld shots, but nothing had been synced to the music at all.

So we started off going through the material, and seeing what there was. And we ended up having to use, basically, any songs that were associated with the video, and a lot of the other material, we couldn’t use. There were a couple of songs–I think one of the songs ended up being used in the menu bonuses, because we didn’t have any actual video for it.

As far as the other stuff, Earl’s Court we thought was going to be phenomenal, because they did a run of five shows that they recorded–or at least this is what I was lead to believe. But when we got down to it, they actually only recorded three of them. Two had been properly recorded, and the third one had been very improperly recorded.

So we dealt with, basically, these two and a half shows, because half of the third show wasn’t really usable, so it was down to the two Earl’s Court shows. And then you had a wonderful band, who, in 1975, were experimenting with all sorts of things, so not everyone was on every night, shall we say.

Ed: Well, speaking of which, it sounds like the Knebworth stuff needed massive work to really perfect.

Kevin: Well you know, everyone has heard the Knebworth bootlegs, and they say that they can’t believe how bad the band was.

The amazing thing about that band, and what I love about them, is that especially those two–Jimmy and Robert–are always, always, always pushing the boundaries. And one thing that happens when you push the boundaries is that you go over them–that’s how you find them.

So I would find that with Jimmy, if I would just remove simple little things like an audible clunk where his finger had fallen off a string, and if I just took that stuff out, you ended up with this genius, this pure brilliance.

He pushes so much until he makes a mistake, and the mistake kind of spoils everything that had gone before. So I sort of took it upon myself to give him a helping hand there, and I did.

At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment package, as well as a record of history.

But it’s not a documentary: if you watch “Stairway to Heaven” from Earl’s Court, halfway through the solo, Jimmy’s high E-string broke. You’ll see that right at the end of the solo, when that famous fanfare goes into the last verse, he plays the last fanfare an octave down. But when you listen to it, it’s the octave up.

I had gone in and pinched the fanfare from another night and put it in on that night, because even though you see the visual that he’s playing it down the octave, it still seems more important that you have it sonically right. But you know, there are purists and “anoraks” who would hate that. But I firmly believe that that’s in the best interest of representing the band as they were, because that mistake didn’t happen every night, and that fanfare was always part of “Stairway to Heaven”, and why have one version in this huge anthology that had to be spoiled because of something silly like that.

Ed: Jimmy wasn’t using much distortion by the time of Knebworth. Did you have to run his guitar through any extra reverb or delay during that segment?

Kevin: In places. In “Achilles’ Last Stand”, there’s that wonderful ascending line. That’s always been a harmony line in the studio recording, so I definitely took it upon myself to put the delay on there to add the harmony.

Ed: One track I would have loved to have seen was “Ten Years Gone”.

Kevin: There was an awesome performance of “Ten Years Gone” at Knebworth, except that the guitar wasn’t recorded. That’s the truth: there’s no guitar on tape. He must have used a different amp for that song, and there wasn’t a microphone on it.

I tried all sorts of things to salvage it: I tried to pick it up from the vocal mike, and from the other amplifier mike; I even thought I could get enough of it and then run it through Amp Farm, or some kind of amp modeling software, but that was just alchemy at that point.

Ed: I would have loved to have seen it, because I saw it years ago on VH-1, who showed it with just the raw audio.

Kevin: I’ve seen that too, and I’ve heard a mix of it, but it wasn’t recorded on the multitrack, for whatever reason.

Ed: Is there anything new coming from Jimmy and Robert, or from the Led Zeppelin vaults that you can talk about?

Kevin: I don’t know; I don’t think so. Never say never, but I think we’ll see peace in the Middle East before that.

Ed: [chuckles] OK.

Biking Through China For Charity

Ed: One last question: can you tell me a little bit more about the charity you’re involved in?

Kevin: The one for the China bike ride? It’s an English charity that supports kids with learning disabilities, and also fights against prejudices in the workplace and in society against people with learning disabilities.

Iron Maiden’s manager, Rod Smallwood, is doing the ride, and some months ago he mentioned it to me over a tequila. About a week ago, I suddenly said to him, is there any more space for additional riders? He said, ‘I think it’s taking off in a month, and you may be way too late’.

I asked him to have a look and see. So he checked and said, ‘All right, you can come along. If you can raise the donation money!’, and consequently, I’m soliciting like crazy.

I’ve got some interesting contributors. I got a nice email and donation from Neil Peart; I totally didn’t expect that at all. I thought, “he can’t be reading my online diary!” And Steven Tyler and all the Iron Maiden guys–they’re the best, kindest people in the business, also some of the Dream Theater guys have chipped in, the manager of Finnish metal band H.I.M. So it’s been fun to see all the feedback!

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google,
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  • who cares about that?

    The man worked with IRON FREAKING MAIDEN.

    why didn’t you ask him any questions about that? what a waste.

  • Minor correction: the Australian VHS release also included The Rain Song.

  • absolutely fantastic man – you don’t get to read a lot of interviews with Shirley, and for those that keep up with his website, he definitely always has something of interest to say!

  • Eric Olsen

    great stuff Ed, thanks! Love the behind the scenes stuff and always nice to have you back