Updated: Nov 14
Hello, Tom here! Welcome to Reverse Engineering, a new blog series where we deconstruct the recording gear and techniques behind popular music.
In the 60s and 70s, recording processes were quite a bit different to what they are now. Think about the difference in technology - even the way we listen to music has changed drastically, let alone the cultural shifts we’ve experienced. There was nowhere to ‘Google’ how to get a good drum sound. There were no wardrobe vocal recordings, and certainly no bedroom producers. And it’s hard to imagine how the world functioned without our Island blogs!
In all seriousness, it begs the question… how did bands and producers create these timeless albums that still hold up today? One of those albums is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
This album is full of hits that have stood the test of time. It’s not just a musical masterpiece either – the production is second-to-none. In this blog, I’m going through how the album was recorded, what methods were used, and why it’s still so great today.
Ken Caillat was the secret sauce for Fleetwood Mac. Not just on Rumours, but on many of their subsequent albums too. Caillat was tasked with engineering and producing the album… which proved to be easier said than done. Let’s start by discussing the mics and techniques he utilised to get that infamous dead, crisp, bright drum sound all over the album.
In an interview with Sound On Sound, Caillat revealed that the studio kit featured two AKG 451 overheads in a spaced pair configuration. The 451 is a small diaphragm condenser – it helps create the ‘bright’ sound of the kit we hear on the album. Small diaphragm condensers feature an excellent high frequency response, while also capturing transients superbly. You’ll notice this brightness in Dreams, the second track on the album… in the opening 20 seconds, pay attention to how airy the hi-hats are, and how snappy and cracky the snare is.
The snare on the album is super fat, bright, and dead. It’s likely a deep-ish snare drum - perhaps around 14 inches (W) by 6 inches (D). It also sounds like it has a tea towel on it, or another means of deadening the sound. The all-important microphone choice for the snare was an AKG C414 – which is an interesting decision… while it’s certainly a workhorse, the C414 is not typically known as a snare microphone.
However, unlike most other condenser microphones, the C414 can take high sound pressure levels fairly well. The max SPL (sound pressure level) handling for a C414 is 140db – and if you flip the pad on, as Caillat did, it brings the max SPL to 158db. This level rivals iconic dynamic microphones like the Shure SM57, which has a max SPL of 160db. And while the frequency response of an SM57 is 40hz up to 15,000hz, the C414 boasts a range of 20hz up to 20,000hz… which is a staggering difference. So, it’s a clever choice - the C414 will sound much brighter and deeper than a typical dynamic microphone like an SM57. And the proof is in the pudding; the snare on this album is one of my favourite snares in pop music, with a full body and cracky high-end complementing the low tuning. It doesn’t get any better.
The kick drum used on the album was captured with a Sennheiser 441. Another workhorse microphone, the 441 is an exceptional dynamic microphone – with a tight polar pattern, large frequency response, and high SPL handling. Few dynamic microphones boast such a great frequency response while maintaining a polar pattern so well.
The Sound On Sound interview does not discuss specifically what microphones Caillat used to record the toms on the album. He mentions only that he used dynamic microphones. The toms on the album are quite prominent and dry, and they’re mixed quite loud. It’s likely some deadening was also used, since there’s not much of an overtone to them.
Lindsey Buckingham used an array of guitars throughout the Rumours sessions. He’s believed to have used a 1970s Gibson Les Paul Custom, a Gibson EDS-1275, and an Ovation Balladeer acoustic – but many more guitars likely went undocumented. He went through a range of mostly Boss pedals into Hiwatt, Marshall, and Mesa Boogie amps, and his ability to find a range of great tones to fit different situations on this album is testament to his talent.
The electric guitars on Rumours were recorded with a Shure SM57 and an AKG C451 B on the amps, occasionally blended with a DI signal. The SM57 was placed one inch from the cloth, while the C451 B was about two inches from the cloth and slightly off to the side. Caillat said this allowed him to ‘change the sound radically’ when experimenting with the balance of the two microphones. He also mentioned he achieved some cool and unconventional tones by inverting the phase on one of the mic channels.
On the acoustic guitar side, the tone on Never Going Back Again is what many of us would call perfect. Sizzling high end, a full low-end, clean playing, and amazing musicianship. To help pull this off, Caillat had his assistants re-string Lindsey’s guitar every 20 minutes. That’s a lot of strings – and a lot of time. If only we all had that luxury. Unfortunately, the microphone choices and placements for the acoustic guitar remain a mystery. But here’s a fun fact: after completing hours upon hours of guitar takes and string-changing, Caillat and Buckingham realised they had recorded the song in the wrong key, and Lindsey could not sing it. They had to re-record it all the next day…
Bass on Rumours was recorded with a Fat Box DI and an AKG C414 on a bass amp. Caillat said:
“I used to love that sound… I didn't think you could get any better than that. The amp got in the way most of the time. But we'd still record the bass on two tracks — direct and amp. Probably mic'd with something like a 414. And many times we erased the amp when we needed another track.”
This process would’ve been common back in the day of limited tracks. In fact, Caillat said he printed over 60 tracks down to one reel of tape to make space for more instruments.
As for keys, Caillat recalls recording direct for all Hammond, Wurlitzer, and Rhodes parts. He would also parts off to different amplifiers, depending where he wanted them to sit in the mix.
I could go on forever about the ins and outs of Fleetwood Mac. Somehow, through notorious drug-fuelled fall-outs and cold-blooded affairs, they managed to piece together one of the greatest albums of all time. Go back and listen to the album in full, and pay close attention to the amazing musicianship captured in what was an incredibly hi-fidelity recording for its time. This album will never be forgotten, and rightly so.
That will do for now, but keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of my Reverse Engineering series… catch you then!