If it keeps on raining the Levee is gonna break... a Sonic Teardown
Updated: Sep 19, 2018
Track: When The Levee Breaks
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Album: Led Zeppelin IV
Label: Atlantic Records
Producer: Jimmy Page
Engineer: Andy Johns
Recorded at: Headley Grange, Hampshire
Released: 8th of November, 1971
Key: F Major
Song Length: 7:08
Genre: Blues Rock
Sub-Genre: Hard Rock/Urban Blues
Led Zeppelin are...
Jimmy Page | Robert Plant | John Paul Jones | John Bonham
"Boom-Boom Kah-Boom Bom Bom-Kah!" - In a time where drum kits were frequently padded with pillows and blankets, cymbals were taped, and snares were dampened with rubber by anxious recording engineers, John Bonham had pulled off, what many drummers were finding impossible. He achieved a drum sound that was so vibrant, and so vast, that still to this day, has proven to be one of rock music's, finest drum performances. The producer got the sound, but Bonzo (Bonham) delivered. The sheer metronomic force of this performance had set a new bar for recorded drumming, that was only appreciated years later, when the sound was sampled amongst many records during the 80s.
'When the Levee Breaks' was originally written in 1927, by the blues musical duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, after the Great Mississippi Floodravaged the state, and surrounding areas. It destroyed many homes and devastated the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin. Many communities were forced to relocated from the midwest, which massively contributed to the "Great Migration" of African Americans early, in the 20th century. During this time, most songs that were written were about the subject. Delta blues became the outlet for this hardship subject, and among the many songs written, 'When the Levee Breaks' was one of them.
The Zeppelin Version, the one we all know, love, and sample, came about after, producer and axe lord, Jimmy Page had been "working on this riff". It wasn't until Bonzo laid down the truely massive, hard rock grooves, that cemented one of the bands finest recorded moments. In December 1970, Bonzo took delivery of a brand new Ludwig drum kit. It was delivered to the Headley Grange manor, located in Hampshire, England. Andy Johns, the bands recording engineer, suggested to set the kit up in the Headley Grange entry hall. A three story hall with a spiralling staircase. Stereo mics were set up at the top of the staircase, exploiting the structures natural and monstrous reverb.
"We were playing in one room in a house with a recording truck, and a drum kit was duly set up in the main hallway, which is a three storey hall with a staircase going up on the inside of it. And when John Bonham went out to play the kit in the hall, I went "Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do this!" Curiously enough, that's just a stereo mic that's up the stairs on the second floor of this building, and that was his natural balance." - Jimmy Page (Interview with NPR)
Bonzo hits hard. His limbs were pumping like fuel-driven pistons as bass drum and snare whomp and resonate, with the odd splash of the cymbals, for some extra shimmer. The track itself is one of Zeppelin’s greatest. A draggy, druggy haze of drums, stoner guitar fuzz, haunting vocals and backwards-recorded harmonica; a swirling, hypnotic vortex of heavily treated sound... no wonder they never liked playing it live.
The arrangement (ABC song form), was based on the Delta Blues orientated original, "Levee" by Memphis Minnie. A typical 12 bar blues arrangement, but boosted with slugging guitar echoes, and a brutal, reversed harmonica. Robert Plant would sing 12 bars, up to the chorus, which left the next 12 for improv and warping harp solos.
The lyrics are dyer. They tell stories of sorrow and wasted land, as many homes become the aftermath of the disastrous floods that ripped through the Mississippi regions. Though, as blueys as the lyrical context is, the sheer power of the musicality that accompanies it, is far from blues it self. Yes, its structure with 12 bars, but the psychedelic flair added in Page's production really give the tune a story of its own.
So basically, the song form looks like this...
Intro | Verse 1 | Chorus | Bridge | Verse 2 | Chorus | Bridge | Outro
The arrangement is very consistent throughout the 7 minutes of rock. Sticking to your typical blues song form, ABC. "A" being the verse, "B" being the Chorus, and "C" being the Bridge. Very common amongst blues and rock music. The song builds with its effects, more panning and phasing applied toward the end of the track. Bonzo's beat holds its strength through the entire song.
The amazing reverb found in the Hendley Grange hall, really defined how the song was produced and recorded. Page had his ideas planned out for the track, until the drum sound was heard. As excited as they were to have found the unique sound, they really had to rethink the original plan.
Happy with the drum placement, Johns set up two Beyerdynamic M160s, hanging from the top rail of the three story staircase. Compressing it and sending it through two stereo channels. Page's guitar sound utilised the Binson echo unit, also sending that through to the recording van. Robert Plant's harmonic sound was played using a backward-echo, putting the echo ahead of the harmonica sound when being recorded.
The track was recorded at a much faster tempo than 72BPM. It was later slowed, to recreate a more sludgey sound, particularly through the guitar and harp solos. As the production was quite heavy on this track, Zeppelin struggled to perform it live, as they couldn't reproduce the same impact live, as it did on the recording. They only played it a handful of times on their 1975 US tour, before canning it completely. Though years later, it was revived. Led Zeppelin performed it at their honourable induction into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, in 1995.
When the Levee Breaks was the only song on the Led Zeppelin IV album that didn't need to be remixed. The band had their tracks mixed in the US, which later had to be redone in the UK, as they were not up to scratch. This song however, kept its original mix. May 2008's issue of Uncut Magazine elaboratesPage's choice of effects at the end of the song:
Interviewer: How was the swirly effect at the end of "When the Levee Breaks" achieved? I always imagine you sitting there with a joystick ...
Page: It's sort of like that, isn't it? It's interesting: On "Levee Breaks" you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging; and at the end, you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It's all done with panning.
In another interview, Page commented:
"When the Levee Breaks" is probably the most subtle thing on [the album] as far as production goes, because each twelve bars has something new about it, though at first it might not be apparent. There's a lot of different effects on there that, at the time, had never been used before. Phased vocals, a backwards echoed harmonica solo.
The band had set the bar with their independent production efforts. Most artists around this time were trialling and testing different recorded drum techniques. Dampening and taping up the instrument to dry out the sound, so later processing would be made easier. Zeppelin went bigger. The Hedley Grange manor assisted a lot with their tonal and processing choices, and really allowed them to develop a brand new drum sound that is still going down rock history.
Note: There's a lot of movement and automation through the track. Panning effects and spiralling guitar fuzz, effecting the 1k - 5k range. Although the overall mix doesn't seem visually as loud as other tracks iv'e looked at, there's still a masterfully engineered balance, continually captivating the listener. Screenshot taken in Bridge.
The Secret Weapon
There is no secret to this ferocious whaling effected sound that these guys achieved in their early years, as many fans and fanatics, over time, have studied and spoke of the bands techniques. Articles written, interviews publicised, samples taken, and plugins made, to try replicate the truly ground breaking sound. Led Zeppelin were pioneers of hard rock and have undoubtedly influenced many generations of rock musicians. Including myself.
Though, without any doubt, the Headley Grange poorhouse, was the underlying factor that really made this track its own.
There was a long tradition of English bands employing domestic styled recordings to approach different sounds, making their records unique in that way. Zeppelin took it to another level, capturing a natural reverb qualities. Also, add in a brand new Ludwig kit, and top it off with the amazing talents of notably the greatest drummer of all time, Wa La, you're on the way to recording one of the most organic, heavily orchestrated, and heavily produced tracks, rock history has ever seen. Though, as Zeppelin did best, they kept surprising us with more unique hits, like Stairway to Heaven and No Quarter.
Tried and Tested
Trying to recreate the Bonham drum sound would be near impossible, as the man himself had a hard hitting way that was unique to his style. His band members labelled him as the key holding band member, that really defined Zeppelin's sound. When the Levee Breaks is the prime example.
For my own personally amusement, I tried recreating Bonzo's drum pattern. Listening back to the intro, the beat holds strong with the open hats. The snare is your typical four-on-the-floor, striking on every third beat. And then built around the rest is the kick. Following a hip-hop heavy break beat. Accenting the hats, on and between beats. I penciled in the drum arrangement, using the track as my reference:
Each drum sound has its own channel, allowing for individual tuning, EQ and compression. To get the amazing reverb sound that was captured on the record, I would need to travel to England, break into the Headley Grange manor, set up a kit, and a few mics, park a recording truck outside, fitted with costly vintage compressors and pres, and get some elite jazz drum training. But that won't happen any time soon. So for now, I'll use what processing power I have (Logic Pro X), to attempt to recreate the enormous sound.
I grouped my drum tracks and bused them to an individual AUX channel, and named it DRUM VERB. I assigned the Space Designer plugin and chose a suitable preset to mess with. I found the Tall and Small room sound, which has a 1.0 second reverb decay. Seemed appropriate as the Headley Grange stairwell was large in height, but kind of tight in length and width. I made the Output 100% wet, gave it some Pre-Delay, as Zeppelin had toyed with a heap of reverse delay sounds, making the sound happen prior to the initial recorded strike.
Then, I compressed the shit out of it. A 30:1 Ratio was applied, with extreme Threshold. I also dropped the Attack time to 0ms, and lengthened the Release, to give the sound some travel. I also boosted the Input and Output gains to strengthen the signal.
Then, I applied an Echo to the signal chain. Logic's default Echo plugin, on a separate AUX channel called DRUM DELAY. The signal was delayed 1/2 . times and repeated at 37%, giving a subtle delay.
Then, once again, it was compressed. Not as much as the reverb channel was though. This was set to a 5:1 Ratio, so only a healthy amount of compression. Also, zero Attack, and a 10ms Release was applied.
Then I toyed with the levels on each drum channel. Finally applying -12dB of Reverb, and -18.5dB of Delay, keeping consistency through all tracks, as the decay time should be the same for all sources, as if it were all recorded in the one room. The Snare Panned slightly left, and the Hats slightly right, as if you were standing directly in front of the Drummer.
As for the final result, I don't think I'm quite there, but as a simple recreation of one of rock history's most influential drum lines, it ain't half bad.
Check it out.
When the Levee Breaks explains, in many ways, a time and a place. From the original version of Memphis Minnie's sorrow of the many lost homes during the Mississippi Floods, to Zeppelin making their rock defining, production decisions. Regardless of the copyright lawsuits that arose after the release, Zeppelin's psychedelic cover was a production wonder of its time. And for many producers and engineers, trying to recreate the weight of this sound, they have unambiguously concluded with the fact that, it was the sheer force of these four men, through their unique, savage skill sets, and musical mentality, that really set the bar for rock music. Which is why they are the one and only, Led Zeppelin.
Somebody please build me a time machine!
Cheal, D. The Life of a Song: ‘When the Levee Breaks’ | Financial Times. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/8d8a2e9a-b3a3-11e4-9449-00144feab7de
When the Levee Breaks. (2018). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_Levee_Breaks#Led_Zeppelin_version
Hein, E. When The Levee Breaks. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2009/the-levee-break/
Hogan, M. See Chad Smith Kiss the Ground of Led Zeppelin’s Headley Grange. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.spin.com/2015/01/chad-smith-led-zeppelin-video-headley-grange/
Reilly, B. Recreating The Drum Sounds of “When the Levee Breaks”. (2018). Retrieved from https://vintageking.com/blog/2018/01/when-the-levee-breaks-drum/