By Jack Sharkey, May 2, 2013
This week I’m going to de-construct the soundstage on Paul Simon’s groundbreaking 1986 hit You Can Call Me Al. I used a pair of KEF R900’s powered by a Parasound J1/J2 monoblock/preamp pairing and a Musical Fidelity A1008 CD player.
This is a pretty elaborate recording, engineered by Roy Halee who worked with Simon throughout his career. The tracks were recorded to an analog machine and then edited digitally.
Most of the Graceland album was recorded at Ovation in New York over a two week period in February, 1985. Editing was done at the Hit Factory, also in New York. Other tracks were recorded at London's Abbey Road for (Homeless) and Amigo Studios in Los Angeles (Linda Ronstadt's vocal on 'Under African Skies' and Los Lobos on 'All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints). Further recording was done at the Hit Factory in April 1986.
The one track on the album recorded entirely at the Hit Factory was the album's first single, 'You Can Call Me Al'.
The song opens with synthesizer and synthsizer guitar laid over the rhythm guitar track to form the running musical theme of the song, (which is later joined by the 8-piece horn section to push the groove through to the end of the song).
The drum track, including the massively giant snare drum and the fretless bass join in after the two-measure intro.
0:13 – This is the first time we hear the giant, up-front toms. There are three of them, two rack-mount and one floor tom. The drummer was right-handed so you hear the highest pitched tom first in the right channel; the next tom is just about left of center and the floor tom is hard to the left. The toms are way up fron in the mix adding to their larger-than-life sound.
Simon’s voice comes in on the first verse and you can hear one tape delay just to the left and another completely different tape delay just to the right of center. In an interview with Sound On Sound magazine (SOS September 2008) Halee described his trouble getting Simon’s intricate vocals to stand out against the elaborate musical track behind him:
“What I came up with was a tape delay feeding the left channel and a different delay feeding the right," he says. "All of a sudden his vocal receded into the track, at least to some degree, and we could understand the words! Don't ask me why, but it worked, and I couldn't have done that with an echo chamber or EMT 140. In fact, remove that tape delay from 'You Can Call Me Al' and, what with all of the sibilance, pops and other little mouth noises against what was going on in that track, the vocal would be unintelligible.”
0:48 – The synthesizers pick up the theme enhanced by the backing vocals singing “shoop shoop shoop shoop” very low in the mix.
1:45 – The penny whistle solo begins, with delay panned to both channels widening out the instrument, making it sound much fuller and larger than a penny whistle sounds live. Very cool effect.
2:11 – You can hear someone, (probably through headphone bleed) count out the end of the penny whistle solo (1,2,3,4). It’s very subtle, and fits perfectly. At this point the horns come in for the first time in earnest, and the track really lifts. At 2:26 you can hear the perfectly timed and mixed delay on the horns filling in the dead space between phrases, keeping the rhythm pumping during the rhythm section break.
3:16 – A bit of a vocal vamp by Simon, but underneath the bass and rhythm guitar play off each other so tightly it’s hard to tell where the bass ends and the guitar begins. Truly a masterpiece of interplay between two musicians!
3:44 – After a short hand-percussion solo comes the super-human bass lead that perplexed for years how a musician could pull off something so intricate in such a short span. It turns out Bakithi Kumalo, the South African bassist on the track was superb, but not quite superhuman.
According to Halee, Kumalo played “a one-measure descending line that, in order to extend the break, was later reversed and played backwards in order to add the ascending line.”
"I simply copied the line as originally played to a mono machine and then sync'ed it backwards into the multitrack," Halee explained. "That kind of thing was always happening — 'Let's try it in reverse.' We would wild-track all the time. Anything to make it sound more interesting."
At 3:50, the final cool trick appears when a gate reverb is applied to the already massive snare drum, extending the drum into the space between beats. That’s the odd “slurp” you hear between the 4 and 1 beats (4 and) on each measure after the 3:50 mark.
You Can Call Me Al is a great example of an expert studio engineer using technology to enhance the virtuosity of the original performances without stepping on them and making focal point the engineering and not the music.
Produced by Paul Simon
Engineered by Roy Halee
Paul Simon – lead vocals, six-string electric bass, background vocals
Ray Phiri – guitar
Adrian Belew – guitar synthesizer
Bakithi Kumalo – bass
Isaac Mtshali – drums
Ralph MacDonald – percussion
James Guyatt - percussion
Rob Mounsey – synthesizer, horn arrangement (uncredited on album)
Ronnie Cuber – bass and baritone saxophone
Jon Faddis – trumpet
Randy Brecker – trumpet
Lew Soloff – trumpet
Alan Rubin – trumpet
Dave Bargeron – trombone
Kim Allan Cissel – trombone
Morris Goldberg – penny whistle