Why does the hi-res sonic legacy of The Doors continue to endure today? “We made albums so carefully,” notes Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, who signed The Doors after seeing them play four consecutive nights as the Whisky a Go Go house band in Los Angeles in 1966. “I think the attention to the detail and the fussing over getting everything just right and not letting it go out otherwise are some of the reasons The Doors have held up over time. We had it right to begin with.”
Making sure they “had it right” from the very beginning fell under the auspices of the band working in conjunction with its ace production team — producer Paul A. Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick — to all pull together to make sure the integrity of the band’s sound was preserved on record.
Botnick’s studio acumen impressed Doors drummer John Densmore from the outset. “He made us feel secure,” he says. “He’s a world-class engineer, and he’s really the fifth Door, in a way. He was there when we made them, so those songs are in his blood too. And he’s overseen each new technology that’s come along and made sure we’re on the cutting edge, especially when it comes to surround sound.”
Guitarist Robby Krieger was also quite pleased with the sound of the band’s studio output. “I’m very happy with the results,” he acknowledges. “But when we heard ourselves on the radio, we never seemed as loud as the other songs. I’d ask, ‘Why is our song always so low coming out of the radio?’ According to Bruce, it was because we had more dynamic range than most bands.”
I rang Botnick up in California to discuss how he helped orchestrate The Doors’ formidable sonic legacy, how he translated said legacy into surround sound, and what hi-res Doors offerings may yet be in store for us hi-resaholics. Their music is your special friend, until the end.
Mike Mettler: I love how you reimagined the core six-album studio catalog in 5.1 on the DVD-Audio discs in the Perception box set (2006). What’s your overall philosophy when it comes to surround-mixing The Doors? What did you want to present?
Bruce Botnick: I don’t think there’s an overall philosophy. Each song on each album has its own life. Instruments are supposed to go where instruments are supposed to go. On all the Perception discs, the goal never really was to do too much zooming from front to back. In some cases, Robby wanted it, and it was cute; it was ok.
The goal was to have the openness of the surround — left, center, right, and really use the center a lot. Most surround discs I hear are mixed for listening only, not film, and they basically avoid the center channel at all costs, because they’re so used to listening in stereo and they don’t understand the freedom of the center speaker. I will catch some heat for saying that. (chuckles)
Mettler: So what? Some vocalists, like Mick Jagger, have said they don’t want their vocals isolated in the center channel for various reasons; they don’t want to appear too naked.
Botnick: If there are drums and other things in there, you shouldn’t have a problem. If all you’re doing is putting just the lead singer in the center, then you’re in a little bit of trouble. Especially on the first album [The Doors], I used a little diversity to spread Jim’s vocal a little bit into the left and right, though, basically, it was still in the center. There’s not a lot you could do with basically three tracks.
Mettler: Well, it worked pretty effectively on “Crystal Ship.”
Botnick: Yes, and if you listen to “Horse Latitudes,” I put him in the middle of the five speakers, in the middle of the room, and everything else is revolving around it.
Mettler: I felt like I was on a rollercoaster on that track — which was a good thing, because it fit the character of that song.
Botnick: You hope that you got it right. After all, you could get nauseous. (both laugh)
Mettler: True! It was a good thing I was sitting down for that one.
Botnick: Yes! (laughs again) It’s like Disney’s cyclorama [i.e., CircleVision 360°]. If you were standing up, and it could move, you would fall over.
Have you heard the Blu-ray of The Hollywood Bowl [Live at the Bowl ’68] in surround?
Mettler: Yes, I have. It made me feel like I had a closer connection with a legendary performance. Will there be more live Doors in surround coming?
Botnick: If the market is there, I imagine we will. It isn’t that hard to do it; it just means firing up Pro Tools and opening it up into surround. There’s a little bit of balancing here and there, and you have to be ready for a change in environment, because the rooms are different. When we did Absolutely Live (1970), I think for one or two songs, we cut from New York to Pittsburgh, and to Philadelphia to Detroit. In those days, I had a pair of speakers in the rear for fun for mixing — we didn’t know about surround then — and I would put the live room in them. Every time we did a cut from a different show, you’d feel the size of the room change. In the front, you didn’t hear that much, but the rears would change dramatically, and that was very cool.
Mettler: You definitely got to use all of the surround channels on “Light My Fire” [on The Doors]. Things moved around based on the solo section you were working with.
Botnick: Right. But the song on the first album that really had separation was “The End.” We did that straight 4-track, but we had Jim in one, Ray in one, and Robby and John separate. It really made it nice, because that’s the only song on the album where the drums appear in the center.
Mettler: And we also get to hear the character of the tambourine on “The End” much, much clearer.
Botnick: To make that album work — and quite a few of the other ones, for that matter — the goal for me was to immerse people and put you into the room with them. To do that, I would use the outer space in my studio as an echo chamber. I had five Neumann M50 microphones, positioned as it would be in the listening area, and then used that combination with reverb to give you a sense of natural leakage into the rear so it didn’t have a mechanical or digital sound, but more of one that was organically analog.
Mettler: Another good example is what you did with “When the Music’s Over” [from 1967’s Strange Days].
Botnick: Oh yeah. When we got into the second album and beyond, we were into 8-track. I could position things in the rear speakers. I feel when people go out and get a surround disc, they should get a surround disc. Bring the neighbors over to hear a surround system! If there’s nothing coming out of the surround speakers but reverb, it’s a disappointment.
They need something to play, and I like to think the Perception box set really shines. I like to think cinematically in my head. You just sort of have a place when you hear the song for where it’s gotta go, without having anybody telling you where. It just happens. “Riders on the Storm” [from 1971’s L.A. Woman], without the rain and thunder, is an entirely different animal. It was great; it was. Putting the thunder and rain on it gave it that personality — and that was Jim’s idea. He’s the one who said, “It would be great to have thunder, rain, and lightning,” and it stuck in my head. I immediately knew what to do with it.
Mettler: Where did you find it? Did you go out and record storms for it?
Botnick: Jac Holzman found it in the streets of New York City, for his sound effects albums. The funny thing is, when I went back to mix it for surround, I didn’t realize that I hadn’t printed the rain and thunder on any 2-tracks. I didn’t have it. I just pressed START on the machine playing the rain and thunder and started the 8-track, and by accident, the thunder came where it was supposed to.
Mettler: It was pre-ordained, then.
Botnick: It was. When it came time to do the surround, I built it by using the very same rain and thunder. Made just continuous rain tracks, edited out the thunder, and used reverb and impulse responses in order to spread things like to create a space, like what you do for a movie sound design. [Botnick has been a scoring recordist and mixer for over 100 movies, many of them with the late composer Jerry Goldsmith, beginning with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.]
Mettler: Perception itself is like an audio movie to me, where each song has a character that’s followed through. Now let’s talk about [1969’s] The Soft Parade, an album that incorporated horns and other instruments. How different was it working on the mix for that album?
Botnick: Because we could move things around and open things up on songs like “Tell All the People” and “Touch Me” — I believe I had all the strings and the brass in the rears. But if you wanted, you could turn off the back channels and just listen to the band. Robby has always said, “I’d like to put that album out without the strings and horns on it.” I said to him, “Well, just turn off the surrounds.”
Mettler: So your dream surround projects would be to do the rest of The Doors’ live material, and what else?
Botnick: I was very encouraged by The Hollywood Bowl. (pauses) Umm, I have some things I’m thinking about that I’d rather not talk about yet. But if we wanted to do some really good live ones, that would first be New York [January 18, 1970]. The Felt Forum is a great-sounding room. That would be nice. Boston [April 10, 1970], with all of its madness, with that revolutionary atmosphere — that would be cool. Those are some of the best-sounding ones.
There are so many different things. The good thing is, the ones that we put out there are unedited, warts and all, and they’re great. People will get to experience the concert as a whole.
Mettler: What’s your feeling about hi-res audio?
Botnick: It does sound better, but I still think DSD sounds the best. DTS’s Headphone:X surround system — I want to try it with The Doors to see if it would work. If it does, I think it would be a lovely way to go. And we could do it on vinyl. Imagine — surround on vinyl.
Mettler: Here’s the hard question. If you could pick your favorite surround mix from the entire Perception box, could you do it?
Botnick: Just for your pure, show-your-system-off in surround, I would say “Horse Latitudes,” or “Riders on the Storm” — anything that was cinematic is lots of fun.
There are a lot of good things on there. Of course, in hindsight, you go back and listen and think, “Huh? Where I was coming from?” — but most of it I’m very, very happy with. I’ve heard it on big stages, we did When You’re Strange [A Film About The Doors; a 2010 documentary], I did quite a bit of material from the Perception box for that film. It worked out very nicely.
Mettler: I’d say “Not to Touch the Earth” is another demo surround track, along with “The Unknown Solider” [both from 1968’s Waiting for the Sun].
Botnick: Oh yeah! “Solider” is a good one, with the marching around the room. But you don’t want to do that just to do it; that would be a cheat. If it cinematically meant something and it would really enhance the song to that next level, you have to go there. You have to go there! But to do it just to do it is a cheat, and that wouldn’t hold up with the philosophy we had all these years, which was to be true to the music and true to the band.
Mettler: My final example would be on the song “L.A. Woman” (1971), where Jim’s vocal is moved around the channels — but it’s only after you’ve established the song, about 4 minutes into it.
Botnick: It did make sense, creatively, and it didn’t detract from the song. It’s like going to a movie theater with something in front of you, and something is coming out of the back and you can’t see it, but it’s back there. It can be confusing, so you have to be careful with how much you do. The idea is to envelop people, and give them a more immersive experience.
Can’t get enough of The Doors? First, note that The Complete Doors Studio Albums is available to download in 96/24 from HDtracks. Second, read the longer version of my interview with Botnick, wherein we discuss the band’s Sunset Sound Recorders days, The Doors on vinyl, and Jac Holzmans’s “Four Corners” album philosophy, on The SoundBard.