Pet Project

In 1966, reportedly influenced by Rubber Soul, the Beatles’s recently released, near-perfect collection of pop songs, Brian Wilson wrote and recorded an album that bucked the ‘60s trend for hit singles-plus-filler, instead presenting what is quite possibly the first pop record to be conceived as a self-contained
experience. That album, the Beach Boys’ legendary collection of “pocket symphonies,” Pet Sounds, has become a major milestone in American music, in turn inspiring Lennon and McCartney to respond with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the following year.

Originally released in mono, and first mixed and released in stereo as part of Capitol Record’s 1998 four-disc The Pet Sounds Sessions, the album now gets new life breathed into it with the 5.1 DVD-Audio release set for January 2003. The album has been remixed by Mark Linett, a long-time collaborator with Wilson, who has worked on many Beach Boys reissues (including the ‘98 stereo mix of Pet Sounds) as well as Wilson’s solo projects. Linett operates out of his Glendale, CA studio, Your Place Or Mine Recording, which also offers remote recording capabilities.

Linett, a 25-year veteran engineer and producer who was nominated for a Grammy in 1998 for his work on the Sessions boxset, relates that Pet Sounds presented a number of challenges to the 5.1 remix process. Chief among those was the recording method employed at the time by Wilson.

“The basic mode was to record the backing track onto 3- or 4-track, then mix that down to mono,” reports Linett. Recorded principally in Studio 3 at Western (now Cello Studios) and at Gold Star in Los Angeles, for half of Pet Sounds that mono mix was then bounced to another 4-track machine, or to a 1-inch, 8-track machine at CBS, for subsequent overdubs. The mono mix created from the backing track is what made it all the way through to the finished mono record in 1966.

It’s interesting to understand why Wilson recorded in mono, says Linett. “Although Brian is deaf in one ear, that wasn’t the reason — he went on to make a lot of great stereo records. It was largely because of his admiration for Phil Spector and the general idea that, in mono, what you delivered was exactly what people were going to hear. They couldn’t mess it up by having the two stereo speakers out of phase or one behind the couch.” And, as he notes, records were also produced at that time to be heard on mono AM radio.

“In retrospect, It seems that, by Pet Sounds, Brian had his game really together,” he offers, “and when he recorded a track he pretty much had it figured out what he wanted instrumentally and then didn’t have to mess with that at all. On ‘Caroline, No’ they did vocal overdubs as they were mixing — mixing meaning you had three faders! When they were mixing it, Brian was singing the double live.”

The 3- and 4-track tapes feature a few more instrumental overdubs, he notes, most notably on “Sloop John B.” “The strings on ‘Don’t Talk’ were overdubbed, but that’s about it. The strings on ‘God Only Knows’ were played live in the session. What’s impressive when you listen to these tracking dates is that there are instruments that don’t play until halfway through the songs. The players are just sitting, waiting their turn.”

He observes, The musicians were playing as an ensemble and never heard it the way we’re used to hearing it unless they came into the control room to listen to a playback.”

Thankfully, “99.9 percent” of the original multitracks still exist. “Pet Sounds is more complete than any other Beach Boys record that we have, certainly in the Capitol period. We are extremely fortunate to have virtually everything for an album that, for its time, was very complicated.”

But as timecode had yet to be invented in 1966, Linett’s main challenge was to transfer those elements in sync with each other. Drawing on his earlier experience transferring the tracks for the stereo versions, this time Linett utilized a Lucid SSG 192 Studio Sync Generator and Apogee’s NativeTools, which packages Apogee converters with Steinberg’s Nuendo software. The system was chosen after comparing it to Pro Tools HD. He reports: “I preferred the NativeTools system with Nuendo, but both systems sounded very good with the [Apogee] AD-16 and DA-16 [converters].”

Following the transfer of the instrumental tracks at 24/96, he relates, “Going to the overdub tape and using the mono mixdown track as a guide, we’d adjust the vari-speed on that machine and do a transfer. The we’d line it up, get at least the beginning to phase, and keep playing with the speed until you could get the two tracks to phase for 15 or 20 seconds, which is about the most you could hope for.”

Each song would then be edited in Nuendo to bring the tracks into phase in sections. With the transfer and edits complete, he says, “You don’t play the dub-down track anymore, but what you have is the original three or four tracks of instruments and the discrete vocals.”

The most difficult was the oldest song, “Sloop John B,” says Linett, since it comprises a 3-track backing track that Wilson dubbed to first one 4-track then another for a total of seven or eight tracks. “It’s also one of the most impressive ones on the mix,” he adds.

Where lead vocals on the verse and backgrounds on the chorus shared a track, the sections were spread to separate tracks in Nuendo. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Here Today,” and others bounced to 8-track feature only vocal overdubs, with no additional instruments, says Linett. “For the first time Brian was able to record the lead vocal separately from the group vocals and stack the harmonies up differently. So you’d have answer lines that were just single voices on their own tracks. The most that you’d ever have was seven tracks, but that was pretty rare. Five or six tracks was about the most he ever used for vocals.”

Linett says that his approach to the 5.1 mix was to “make it more of a surround experience as opposed to a front plane with ambience. You really try to surround the listener as opposed to just adding some tricks and some reverb. I’ve got three tracks of instruments and five or six tracks of vocals. I’ve got discrete reverbs going in both front and rear that I could use, and we would do some mild time-shift and cross-panning to get some larger space, but nothing radical, because the sonics of the tracks are so good.”

What reverb was added was most assuredly of the era. Linett’s facility is a time capsule of ’60s equipment, all in pristine condition. “I’m mixing through a highly modified API 2488 using, in some cases, outboard modules from the same kind of original Universal Audio console that Pet Sounds was recorded on. I have a very nice EMT plate, and we used several springs and an echo plate. The only digital reverb was a little bit of Sony DSP-777 sampling reverb set to a medium ambiance.”

He continues, “It’s ironic: Pet Sounds, which was conceived as a mono record by Brian, has gone from that to stereo and now 5.1. My goal is to try to keep as much of the essence and accuracy of the original as possible, even though we’re doing it in a different way.”

He concludes, “One of the revelations for this release is going to be having the stereo and mono mix in 24/96 as well. That’s a big step up. We keep getting closer to the original recordings, and that is just great.”

Surround Professional Magazine