‘How the hell did we do this?’ Moody Blues frontman Justin Hayward looks back
Justin Hayward is not one to dwell on days of future passed, but he sure knows how to add to a storied legacy. Since 1966, Hayward has fronted The Moody Blues, a band synonymous with heady, progressive arrangements, sweeping harmonies, and an exacting standard for sound quality in their mixes, especially when it comes to live recordings and surround sound.
Last year, a massive 17-disc box set, Timeless Flight, documented the band’s legendary six-decade career. It included six stellar 5.1 mixes done by Paschal Byrne and Mark Powell that were built on early-’70s quad mixes overseen by original Moodies producer Tony Clarke and constructed by engineer Derek Varnals. Hayward, who supervised the overall mixes for Timeless Flight with his longtime production partner Alberto Parodi, was quite pleased with the results: “I didn’t have the courage to go back to any of the masters and try to recreate those beautiful, real echoes myself,” he notes.
“There’s nothing like the beauty of just a guy and his guitar onstage.”
But occasionally, Hayward does get the itch to step outside of The Moodies and go it alone, a challenge he quite enjoys: “There’s nothing like the beauty of just a guy and his guitar onstage,” he says. “And you have to mean it as well. If it doesn’t come from the heart, it doesn’t work.” Without percussion or electric guitars to back him up, Hayward and a sparse trio embarked on a solo tour last year to support his fine 2013 solo release, Spirits of the Western Sky. That tour is superbly documented in HD on Spirits…Live – Live at the Buckhead Theatre, Atlanta, released today on Blu-ray and other formats. Parodi’s crisp surround mix captures the beautiful acoustic guitar blend between Hayward and second guitarist Mike Dawes, best exemplified by Dawes’ percussive slap-taps on his fretboard counterbalancing with Hayward’s own furious chordings during the perennially hard-charging Moodies classic, Question.
Hayward, 67, recently sat down with Digital Trends to discuss the requirements for the mix of Spirits…Live, his favorite 5.1 moments, and why he needed to update some early-’80s CD transfers. If there’s one thing Hayward has mastered over the years, it’s how to answer questions of balance.
Digital Trends: Since your solo tour is acoustic-oriented, you must have had some different goals in terms of how you had it mixed.
Justin Hayward: I did nothing! (chuckles) Well, my front-of -house sound engineer, Steve Chant, puts his mix onto ProTools every night. For this particular show, we had another guy on the side of the stage who put his mix into a later version of ProTools. Steve listened to what the other guy had collected and then sent it to Alberto Parodi in Genoa [in Italy] along with his own rough mix balance of the night. And that was it, really; nothing too complicated.
The next day, Alberto said, “I just put the faders up. It sounds great! And I put some nice little echoes on it too. I don’t know what else you want to do. Do you want to change anything?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think so. Is it all in tune?” He said, “Yes, leave it. If we tune it, it’ll sounds like we tried to fix something.” So we just left it. For the CD, I probably should have done some tuning, but for the DVD/Blu-ray, I just left it. Alberto gave a little bit of “aura” around the sound and did some other stuff sonically, but that’s all.
There’s a notable difference between your presence in a Moody Blues live mix and your solo live mix. You’re a little more naked in this acoustic setting — your voice is very much upfront, with just acoustic guitars and keyboards and no percussion. You’re deliberately going for different arrangements here.
Totally. I can feel every nuance on it. The guitars are different because I brought my home guitars out on this tour with me — that is, I’m using the same guitars I wrote on and did my original demos on. That was the feel I wanted to get — how it feels in my own music room, just as it was when I finished the song and was about to make the demo. I knew all of the parts, even in the Moodies songs, that I wanted to explain to the band as it was done. So it was basically a question of transferring my living room feeling out there onstage. At home, I just double-track myself, and then I go to a little studio in Nice near where I live in the south of France, and put my vocals down. They’ve got some lovely old [Neumann] 87s there, the right microphones.
“I’m using the same guitars I wrote on and did my original demos on.”
It’s the other way ’round from the way we’d do a Moodies record, where we’d work for several days on the backing track, and then work on the keyboards and electric guitars. Here, I put my stuff down first with my voice, trying to capture the moments where I really thought I’d finished the song, and then I put the other elements around it.
Another big difference is that you don’t have a drummer with you onstage.
Yes, there are no drums. God forbid, I love drummers, and some of my best friends are drummers. (laughs) But drums and acoustic guitar, and drums and vocal mics — they don’t mix. I’ve mixed five or so Moody Blues live DVDs for Universal over the last 25 years, and I’ve found that you’re stuck with the drum sound that’s on the vocal mics. That’s the big difference. And with The Moodies, you can have upwards of 76 tracks, and that needs a lot of sorting out, repairing, and fixing. I don’t have a lot of tracks on my solo live recordings to work with. So it was a very different experience.
Is there one particular Moody Blues song in this live set that, to you, shows a dramatic difference between the Moodies version and the Justin Hayward version?
There’s a little medley we do at the beginning of the show — It’s Up to You/Lovely to See You — that comes across exactly like how I first put down the demos for those songs in Decca Studios [in West Hampstead, London] in the early days, ’68 or ’69, whenever that was. [Lovely to See You was recorded January 14, 1969, for In Search of the Lost Chord, and It’s Up to You was recorded in early 1970 for A Question of Balance.]
I noticed that you extend the syllables in certain words, like “da-ay” in Tuesday Afternoon and “he-ere” in Forever Autumn. Is that a conscious choice?
Yes. I think that happens when you have a synergy with the acoustic guitar and the way that resonates through your body. It just seems right to sing those words that way. I’d forgotten that Forever Autumn is such a powerful song. [Forever Autumn is a song Hayward performed on the 1978 album Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds, which went Top 5 in the U.K.] I so rarely get to do it. In fact, I’ve only done it on one Moodies tour, and even then I needed written permission. (both laugh) It’s such a great song, and it really resonates with people. I’m so grateful to be able to do it.
Please keep doing it. It’s a nice moment of transition before you move into the main set’s end run and the encore.
Oh yeah. It’s a winner. It’s like Nights in White Satin. I find that there are couple of songs you can go anywhere in the world and play on acoustic guitar, and people will go, “Oh, I know that; that’s great.” Forever Autumn and Nights are up there like that.
Night in White Satin is one of those songs that benefits from being listened to in hi res, whether it’s via a 96/24 download from HDtracks or its amazing surround sound mix. The breadth of that recording is even more evident in hi res.
“I realized we’d spent almost 30 years with a digital version that just wasn’t very good.”
I did that mix myself. But I can’t take full credit, because all I had was the quad version done by Tony Clarke, the original producer, and Derek Varnals, the engineer. They’d done it in 1971 in the Threshold studio, so they had exactly the same echoes. Decca never threw anything away, so they were able to bring in a whole section of the original mixing desk, about 12 faders, to get exactly the same EQ and mix on it. So I did nothing on those surround sound mixes except add some ambience things in the 5 channel.
Would you agree 96/24 or even 192/24 is the best way to hear your recorded output?
I would. I was stunned with the quality of all of those early mixes — Days of Future Passed, particularly. I was just sitting there in the studio with Alberto working on the 5.1 for the box set, thinking, “How the hell did we do this? How the hell was it done?” But I can’t take any credit for it, because in those days, you weren’t invited into the control room. It really was Tony and Derek who did it — and I’m so glad they did the quad version in such beautiful quality, because it saved me a lot of time and pain. It was a responsibility I don’t think I’d liked to have taken on.
I happen to like that some of the more, shall we say, “dated” mixes of yore that were updated on Timeless Flight.
There were a couple of things I knew they’d rushed into the digital domain in the early ’80s that I’ve mentioned to you before, and quite badly. I really noticed it on [1968’s] In Search of the Lost Chord, with Graeme [Edge]’s ride cymbal. At first, I had just assumed it hadn’t been recorded very well, until I went back to the original master and listened to it again. And I thought, “No, it’s beautiful.” And then I realized we’d spent almost 30 years with a digital version that just wasn’t very good.
I know I’m guilty, like everyone who works in the studio, of pandering to current sonic trends and how things sound, and what things sound nice. Alberto and I have received some “How dare you do this — you make it sound like it’s from 2011!” kind of comments. “You should have left it like it was!” It’s such a temptation to lift it a little bit and bring it in line with the way people’s ears are now. Time in a recording is so much more important now. You can’t have sloppy drumming or timekeeping like you had in the ’60s. People won’t accept that anymore. So we’re guilty of following some sonic trends that may make it sound a little different. But in years’ time, things may sound a little warmer or harder.
Can you give me two examples of what you felt may have gotten overlooked sonically but, listened to today, people might get something different out of, good or bad? Give me one from The Moodies, and one from your solo catalog.
“From top to bottom, the sound is just right, and lovely.”
I think To Our Children’s Children’s Children  is the one Moodies album that didn’t come across on the radio. It didn’t jump; it was soft, it was quiet. Everybody was so delicate with it and handling it with kid gloves. The way it was mastered was quiet, and the way it was transferred to disc was delicate. In the end, it ended up getting a little lost. Watching and Waiting — when we heard that song in its studio beauty, we thought, “This is it! All of those people who had been saying to us for the past 3 or 4 years, “You’ll probably just do another Nights in White Satin with it” — no! We had shivers up the spine, and that kind of stuff. But when it came out and you heard it on the radio, you kept saying, “Turn it up! Turn it up!! Oh no, it’s not going to make it.” So it didn’t happen.
And then there’s one of my solo albums, Moving Mountains , which I was totally into, but when I listen back to it now, I think, “Maybe it was just a few too many over-recordings. Maybe a bit too much was done in my front room. Maybe I did snuggle it too much afterward.” Sign of the times, yes, really.
Do you have a favorite mix that Alberto has done for you, one you’d consider his golden-ear best?
I have to say “One Day, Someday,” on Spirits of the Western Sky. That was really the top of his game. He and Anne Dudley did that together. She did the orchestration, and he was responsible for the mix. He let me play all over it, and then he got rid of the stuff he didn’t like and kept the stuff that he did. I turned up the next morning, after I went to the hotel in Genoa the night before and had left him still working in the studio. He was having a cup of tea and said, “Come and have a listen to this,” and it was like, “Wow.” From top to bottom, the sound is just right, and lovely.
My favorite lyric in that song is, “Trying to get ‘I love you’ in every song.”
Yes, that’s right — I am still trying to get “I love you” in every song! (laughs)
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