What is a subwoofer and what does it do?
By Jack Sharkey
Bohemian Rhapsody is the iconic hit from Queen’s 1975 album A Night At the Opera (EMI, produced by Roy Thomas Baker). At the very least we’re all familiar with it from the movie Wayne’s World, but I clearly recall skipping school the day the album was released and listening to it on a friend’s brother’s stereo which was a pretty high-quality system (he was out of school and had a job).
In some of the operatic sections we are listening to 8th generation mixes of the vocal overdubs, so if you have the general commercial version of this album and play it on a high-end system, Rhapsody comes off more boxed-in and small than bombastic. My Night at the Opera CD is a bit lacking so to help overcome the flaws in my source I opted to use my M500s to deconstruct this one, but a good 180 gram vinyl LP or digitally re-mastered CD would go a long way to fulfilling the intended experience on my full-blown system (if my wife is reading this, my birthday is this year).
Turn on your lava lamp and settle into your beanbag chair for a quick look at the production of one of rock's most iconic songs.
0:00 – 0:14: The song opens with a 5-part harmony recorded solely by Freddie Mercury. His ability to match his own voice in near perfection gives the opening that dreamlike, otherworldly quality. A small bit of reverb can be heard on the tail of each phrase.
0:15: The grand piano enters in the center of the soundstage, with some stereo reverb decaying the piano out to the left and right channels. The piano accompanies Mercury’s 5-part harmony through the next stanza.
0:25: Mercury sings the first verse with his own harmonies answering his lines.
0:35: A slight bit of mixing trickery has the lines “little high” and “little low” pan slightly from the left channel to the right channel.
0:41: During the harmony line “any way the wind blows” you can hear just a tiny amount of flanging on the word “wind” as Roger Taylor introduces the next section with a mallet crescendo on a cymbal. The cymbal is also heavily phased or flanged.
0:48: John Deacon’s single bass notes on the root of Mercury’s cross-hand piano arpeggios sit behind the next verse. At this point all we hear is Mercury’s practically dry voice, the bass and the piano.
1:19: Roger Taylor comes back in again with another controlled cymbal crescendo and a few measures of the same beat he would use a few years later for We Will Rock You. The track is now bass, piano, drums and single vocal.
2:03: We hear the first of guitarist Brian May as he glides either a pick or finger along the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece of his guitar. A little reverb and a nice pan from left to right give the listener the sense of listening to a chime or belltree. It’s a very cool effect.
2:18: May’s guitar comes in in earnest on the descent into the next phrase. The tension is building here and the simple 4 note guitar phrase adds to it.
2:35 – 3:02: The guitar solo acts as a bridge between the ballad and opera sections. May’s phrases ignore the melody lines heard in the ballad section, adding to the sense that something new (and big) is coming. As a sidenote, May used a coin as a pick on a guitar he built himself, and the metallic, yet melodic, sound of his guitar is at once unique and stunning. At this point we are listening to a four piece band (piano, bass, drums and guitar) with no overdubs and few if any spatial effects.
3:02: The operetta. It’s kind of mind-boggling to note that in the days before ProTools and Digital Audio Workstations, editing took place with a razor blade and adhesive tape–sections would be recorded and then spliced to other sections by cutting and taping. One track was dedicated as a click track to keep it all synched together. Members of the band and production team have said over the years that 180 different overdubs were recorded by Mercury, May and Taylor over the course of three weeks during studio sessions that lasted ten to 12 hours. Another point that shouldn’t be missed is that studios were limited to 24 tracks in 1975 (hence all of the razor blades, adhesive tape and long days singing figaro). Brian May was quoted as saying that when the tapes used to record the vocals in this section were held up to a light you could practically see through them as they became worn out from so many trips over the recording heads.
This section begins with a simple quarter-note piano part of Mercury’s plain vocal.
3:08: “Scaramouche, Scaramouche” Here we hear the three distinctive voices of Mercury, May and Taylor for the first time as they answer the melody singing “Scaramouche, Scaramouche,” (which in the days before the Internet very few teenaged rock and roll fans knew was a clown). There are no overdubs here and just a slight but of flange to give the vocals a spacy vibe.
3:12: The arrangement goes full-on operatic here and you can hear the totality of the overdubs with Taylor’s falsetto gliding out of the end of the phrase “very, very frightening me.”
3:16: “Gallileo.” Taylor is in the right channel and May is in the left channel answering him.
3:20: “Magnifico.” Here the production team, led by producer Roy Thomas Baker, use their editing block and razor blades to splice together a wonderful example of a bell chord (where different instruments (in this case voices) basically play an arpeggio of a chord, sustaining each note. It happens so fast that it’s impossible to tell who we hear or how many of each singer we hear. The first ‘o’ is panned to the center with each of the subsequent four notes gradually moving from the center to the left and right channels.
The instruments being played during the passage are simply piano, bass, drums and tympani.
3:36: “Bismallah.” Adding interest and spaciousness to the arrangement (as if there weren’t already enough!) Taylor’s single falsetto sustains on the lines “let him go!” past the other voices, giving the listener the sense they are listening to a soloist on stage. At 4:07, during the finale of the opera, Taylor can once again be heard rising above the “choir” to close the scene out.
4:07: Maybe the greatest guitar riff of the vinyl era. This riff was actually written by Mercury (as was every other part of the song save the guitar solo). The first time around, the recording is stripped and simple: guitar, bass and drums. After Mercury finishes singing the riff repeats and the main guitar is very subtly tripled. The three parts then separate at the end to answer each other (L-C-R) as the piano returns for the finale ritardando. May’s guitar is doubled again during the “nothing really matters” section, and at the close, all of the effects are removed from May’s guitar, giving the listener a plaintive lead into the final line, “any way the wind blows.” A tam-tam (Chinese gong) set way back in the mix completes the journey.
Other than a little flanging and reverb to build power during the louder passages, it’s kind of important to note the otherwise lack of effects. Mercury’s lead vocals are basically dry (although there is some reverb on the two-track mix), something we’ve grown to view as unusual in the modern era of auto-tune and massive digital reverbs masking the voices of good singers and weak singers alike.