Thoughts and music of double J x

Free: ‘Fire & Water’

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June 1970 was a breakthrough month for Free. After two years of critical success and building their name as a live attraction, they were finally getting a commercial foothold. ‘All Right Now’ marked their first time on the UK charts, on 6 June, and was already a Top 10 hit by the time the band’s third studio release, Fire And Water, was released on 26 June, leading to their first UK album chart appearance in early July.  The British quartet were now deservedly winning much more widespread recognition as one of the best blues and soul-influenced rock bands of that, or any, era. Free produced Fire And Water themselves after daring to tell Island’s Chris Blackwell that they thought his production of their previous, self-titled, 1969 album was “too clean”.

The engineer on the sessions was a then-unknown Roy Thomas Baker, later to find fame via his work with Queen. The Free album that he contributed to culminated in ‘All Right Now’, which thus started its journey to the anthemic status it enjoys today. “It stood out because it was happy,” said Simon Kirke. That single was preceded by a solid half-hour showcasing the vocal presence of Paul Rodgers, the strident lead guitar solos of Paul Kossoff and the terrific rhythm section of Andy Fraser’s bass and Simon Kirke’s drums. Also listen for Fraser’s great piano playing on ‘Heavy Load’, and his bass runs underpinning Kossoff’s guitar on ‘Mr Big.’ The band had started recording their third album in January, and Rodgers later explained that he and Fraser had the great soul man Wilson Pickett in mind when they wrote the title track. They were spot on, because he recorded ‘Fire And Water’ himself the following year.

‘All Right Now’ stayed on the UK singles chart well into September: the perfect advertisement for an album that duly went into the chart at No.8. It spent three of the next four weeks at No.2 and was still in the Top 40 at the end of October. By then, the album was in the US top 20, with Free’s reputation now further enhanced by their performance in late August at the Isle Of Wight Festival.

Free_2059Fire And Water is available as part of the stunning Abbey Road Half Speed Mastering series. Purchase your copy here: https://store.udiscovermusic.com/*/*/Fire-And-Water/4ZB70000000

Fire And Water was the third and most successful album by the revered English rock band. It was their breakthrough album, sending them to number 2 in the UK charts and number 17 in the US. “On this album,” notes bass player Andy Fraser, “our confidence came from our total belief in each other. It was like a team of commandos where you knew we were all watching each other’s back.” Much of the album’s success was driven by the smash hit single All Right Now, an unimpeachable classic which has become one of the songs that define what is widely regarded as one the most creative eras in rock music.Boasting a fantastic rhythm section (Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke), exquisite guitar work from the late Paul Kossoff and soulful vocals by Paul Rodgers, Free are rightly considered to be one of the greatest post-Beatles blues-rock bands, hard rock pioneers alongside such outfits as Cream, Led Zeppelin and Derek and the Dominos. This record represents perhaps their high water mark and is perfectly suited to the half speed process. The original cut for this record was half speed mastered at Abbey Road Studios.

Free-poster1.What is ‘Half-Speed Mastering’?

This is an elaborate process whereby the source is played back at half it’s normal speed and the turntable on the disc cutting lathe is running at 16 2/3 R.P.M. Because both the source and the cut were running at half their “normal” speeds everything plays back at the right speed when the record is played at home.

2.What are the advantages of Half-Speed Mastering?

The vinyl L.P. is an analogue sound carrier. Therefore the size and shape of the groove carrying the music is directly related to whatever the music is doing at any particular point. By reducing the speed by a factor of two the recording stylus has twice as long to carve the intricate groove into the master lacquer. Also, any difficult to cut high-frequency information becomes fairly easy to cut mid-range. The result is a record that is capable of extremely clean and un-forced high-frequency response as well as a detailed and solid stereo image.

3.Are there any disadvantages?

Only two, having to listen to music at half-speed for hour after hour can be a little difficult at least until I get to hear back the resulting cut when it all becomes worthwhile. The other dis-advantage is an inability to do any de-essing. De-essing is a form of processing the signal whereby the “sss” and “t” sounds from the vocalist are controlled in order to avoid sibilance and distortion on playback. None of the tools I would ordinarily employ on a real-time cut work at half speed as the frequencies are wrong so the offending “sss” does not trigger the limiter and everything is moving so slowly there is no acceleration as such for the de-esser to look out for. This has always been the Achilles heel of half-speed cutting until now (see below).

4.What was the source for this record?

Digital transfers from the original ¼” tapes, recently prepared by Free remastering engineer Andy Pearce. This album was cut from a high-resolution digital transfer from the best known analogue tape in existence. Only minimal sympathetic equalisation was applied to the transfer to keep everything as pure as possible. Also, as this was an analogue, vinyl only high quality release, I did not apply any digital limiting. This is added to almost all digital releases to make them appear to be loud and is responsible for “the loudness war” and in almost every case is anything but natural and pure sounding.

5.Why could it not be cut ‘all analogue’?

The biggest variable when cutting from tape is the replay machine. Every individual roller in the tape’s path will have a direct effect on the quality of the audio emanating from the machine. In addition to this, there is the issue of the sub 30Hz low-frequency roll off on an advance head disc-cutting tape machine which in effect will come into play at 60 Hz when running at half speed. In addition to this, there are also some unpredictable frequency anomalies in the 35-38 Hz region with analogue tape that will double up at half speed. These are all problems if you want to hear as originally intended the lowest register of the bass end on a recording. There is also the lesser potential problem of tape weave that effectively increases at lower speeds and leads to less high frequency stability and the possibility of minor azimuth errors. Analogue tape becomes degraded with each pass over the replay heads. These tapes are getting old and it is no longer considered good practise to play and play and play precious old original masters for fear of wearing them out. I can completely understand the reasons for the concerns that some people have when cutting classic albums from digital sources. Historically, there have been some horrible digital transfers used as a vinyl cutting source. This has absolutely not been the case with this series. Micro-management of the audio and attention to detail has been the order of the day.

6.Are there any advantages to this working method?

Yes, any problems with the tape can be treated far more accurately digitally than they could be by using traditional analogue techniques. For example de-essing. I can, by clever editing, target just the offending “sss” and leave intact the rest of the audio. Therefore high-hats, bright guitars and snare drums are not affected or reduced in impact. Using an analogue scatter-gun de-esser approach would also trigger the limiter in many parts of the audio that do not need to be worked on. The de-esser cannot tell a bright guitar from bright vocal and will smooth everything out leading to dull guitars or soft snare drums and weak hi-hats. Targeting the “sss” sounds in the vocal as I have done in this series is time consuming but is worthwhile in the pursuit of the very best possible sounding record. Also if there was any damage to the analogue tape (drop-outs and clicks for example) this can by and large be restored using modern digital methods in a way that is unobtrusive and this would be impossible using analogue methods. For the record, none of the albums in this series have been de-noised. Only clicks and drop-outs have been repaired.

Miles Showell – Mastering Engineer, Abbey Road

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