When you begin to learn about recording and mixing music, you need to undertake “critical listening”. This isn’t listening to criticise, it’s listening aggresively, to learn how a song has been recorded. One of the tasks we were setwas to write up a Critical Listening Review of a song of our choice. This is the report I wrote.
Critical Listening Song review
Song: Layla Artist: Derek and the Dominos (aka: Eric Clapton)
This is a song that everyone knows and has become in the 49 years since it was recorded a classic rock song. It’s possibly one of the most recognisable rock songs ever recorded. But how well do we really know this song? How much do we listen to it beyond hearing the riff and the chorus hook-line? That’s why I’ve chosen it.
Release date: mid 1971. (Polydor Records, 1971)
Musicians: Eric Clapton, guitars and vocals, Duane Allman – guitars, Bobby Whitlock – Hammond B3 organ and vocals, Carle Radle – bass guitar, Jim Gordon – drums and piano. (Polydor Records, 1971)
Studio: Criteria Studios, Miami. Dates: August – October 1970 [Ref: (Buskin, 2019)]
Session Engineer(s): Ron & Howard Albert and to a lesser extent, Karl Richardson, Chuck Kirkpatrick and Mack Emerman (Owner of Criteria Studios at the time of recording) (Buskin, 2006)
Producer: Tom Dowd (a true legend in the music businesses) (Tom Dowd & The Language of Music, 2005)
Background to this song
As much as this is Eric Clapton’s finest song, it wouldn’t have happened without Duane Allman. It’s actually his guitar playing and solos which are most prominent. “Layla” is a song of two parts – Part One being the classic rock of the first 3 ½ minutes followed by Part Two, the 4 minutes of piano and guitar coda. The single version didn’t include the piano coda.
This is a near 50 year old recording, using the technology available back then. So it’s all analogue to 16 track tape.
“At the time of the ‘Layla’ sessions, the small Studio B control room at Criteria necessitated its 24-in, 16-out custom-built MCI console being positioned sideways to the window, while the Altec Lansing 9844 speakers, soffit-mounted to the cement wall, provided a lot of bass in a room that also housed a huge black 16-track MCI JH16 tape machine, affectionately known as ‘Dumbo’.” (Buskin, 2006)
Guitar Amps : Fender Tweed Champ for both Clapton and Allman electric guitars, mic’d with Shure SM57 and Electrovoice 635 dynamic cardioid mics. (Buskin, 2006)
The opening bar features a 12 note riff – which is actually divided into a 7 note ‘call’ and a 5 note ‘response’ – just like a classic blues ‘call’ with the next bar featuring the ‘response’. Everyone knows this riff. But what’s really in it? The song modulates from the Intro to a different key for the verse. It returns to the opening key for the choruses, so all through it there’s the modulation and key changes going on. The structure is A B A B A B B C. After the second chorus the band vamps on the chorus chord progression for the guitar solos. The chorus/solos are played over the opening riff and chord progression until the song goes to Part 2 with the piano coda. Interviews have said that the coda was recorded several weeks after the first parts of the song. (Tom Dowd & The Language of Music, 2005) If so, then it’s a superb piece of mixing and mastering to get the seamless join between the two parts of this song. This is Tom Dowd’s genius contribution to the recording.
Guitar 1 – playing the ‘call’ – using open strings on the guitar neck and letting them ring. There’s either a second guitar playing the same riff, or there’s a very slightly delayed version of this guitar also on it. The final note in this 7 note ‘call’/riff is allowed to ring while Guitar 3 enters with the ‘response’ The mix is stereo with Guitar 1 being dominant, however lower in the mix is a second guitar playing the same ‘call’/riff in unison but one octave above the lead of Guitar 1. So that’s Guitar 2.
Guitar 3: enters playing the ‘response’ to the opening 7 note ‘call’. A descending pattern, melodically extending the main riff.
This riff is played for 2 bars, with just the three guitar parts before the drums, bass and further guitar parts enter. It’s bar 4 where the mix gets busy as the band piles in.
There are now three further guitar lines being played, plus the bass and drums.
Guitar 1: the melody it’s playing continues. Mixed centre.
Guitar 2: octave above harmony for Guitar 1, mixed to be low and ‘just there’
Guitar 3: continues with the second half of the riff
Guitar 4: enters with a new melodic harmony to the part being played by Guitar 3
Guitar 5: enters with the main riff, two octaves above the opening by Guitar 1. This is the bit everyone can whistle.
Guitar 6: plays the same riff as Guitar 5, however it sounds like a slide guitar solo. It’s unison and at the same upper register as Guitar 5 but playing the notes in a different way. This is part of the magic of this song as Guitar 5 will most likely have been played by Eric Clapton and Guitar 6 by Duane Allman. Clapton would be bending notes on his track while Allman is playing them with slide on his track. The blend of these two styles is what makes the unique sound of this recording. This is the piece of auditory magic. So, six guitar parts and we’re only at bar 4!
Easy to hear, clear kick, snare and toms, despite the mix being ‘busy’ in the mid-range with all the guitar overdubs. Unusually for the time, the drums were mic’d with individual mics/drum. This technique was in its infancy at the time – and being pioneered by Tom Dowd. The cymbals and hi-hats are less clear in the mix, despite being mic’d – until the transition to Part Two.
Jimmy Gordon’s kit was recorded with a telescopic Sony ECM51 on the hi-hat, a pair of Neumann U47’s overhead, a NeumannKM48 on the snare, an Altec 633 “Salt Shaker” on the bass drum and Neuman U87’s on the toms. (Buskin, 2006)
DI’d (Buskin, 2006)
Very low in the mix during the chorus. Hammond organ, playing sustained chords, again low in the mix during the verses. Piano – it’s what Part Two is all about for the piano coda.
The verse is sung by Eric Clapton, solo. It’s not until the chorus that a second voice joins in with the ‘Layla’ hook. Like the riff, the chorus also has a call & response structure. Clapton + Whitlock sing “Layla” as a call. Clapton then answers with different lines. Both voices in harmony on the final line of the chorus. There are ‘whoops’ of vocals during the playout guitar solos, difficult to say who is singing them. My guess would be Whitlock. Buskin writes that the lead vocal was recorded over several nights and many takes. It was then comped to create the final take. Compression was then added, although difficult to hear, but probably to even out differences in levels between takes.
This is the piano coda. It’s an instrumental section with no vocals. There are multiple guitar parts. The piano part doesn’t deviate form the basic chords played. It’s left to the guitars to embellish and provide the interest in this part of the song. The dominant guitar part is the slide guitar parts played by Duane Allman.
The biggest studio “trick” in the production of this song is the join between the two parts. After that it’s the layers and overdubs of guitar parts. Studio FX were still coming of age (although Sgt Pepper had been recorded 3 years earlier) and weren’t widely used for a ‘blues band’.
To listen to this recording please visit:
An alternative recording, which sounds like a live, pre-mixdown and overdubbing recording can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VStaXEAHciM
Buskin, R. (2019). CLASSIC TRACKS: Derek & The Dominos ‘Layla’ |. [online] Soundonsound.com. Available at: https://www.soundonsound.com/people/classic-tracks-derek-dominos-layla [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019].
Tom Dowd & The Language of Music. (2005). [DVD] Directed by M. Moormann. Miami: ILC Music.
En.wikipeadia.org. (2019) Layla. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipaedia.org/wiki/Layla [Accessed 11 Apr 2019]