Studious Dylan in the Studio

Filip Łobodziński

When Bob Dylan entered the recording studio for the first time, it was 1961 the whole technological revolution was still ahead. The Columbia Studio A was a good facility by the standards of the time but there were hardly any multi-tracking, special effects and so on.

Yet in spite of this, those first recordings don’t seem outdated by any means.

Nor do his next forays into the recording studio, Freewheelin’, Times and Another Side. They’re as plain as can be, just a young guy, his harmonica and acoustic guitar (and an occasional piano) – and yet fresh as early Spring.   The songs are captured live, and that is exactly how they sound.

No tricks, just kicks.

And the same goes for almost every studio recording Dylan has done throughout his career. The “go-electric” phase, the Basement Tapes, the Biblical JWH, the 1969-1971 country and soul, the mid-seventies masterpieces, the evangelical period… 

It seems throughout like there’s nothing that could be improved, corrected, modified, at least to my ears. While so much of the contemporaneous music sounds, if not obsolete, then certainly belonging to its time. Dylan’s recordings sound timeless. Even Street-Legal with its rich textures and orchestrations.

Perhaps the only period when Dylan sounds firmly anchored to the recording epoch are his post-Shot of Love albums up till Down in the Groove and then the Under the Red Sky collection. We might like them or like them less, return to them less frequently or quite the opposite, but one thing is for me certain: they couldn’t have been recorded in the sixties, seventies or late nineties. They are as eighties-y as possible.


I think there is one clear explanation. It was the only period when Dylan wanted to sound modern – or his producers wanted him to, and he, reluctantly or not, consented.

We all know perfectly well that Dylan, more often than not, opts for live recordings. Even if there’s some multitracking and editing we don’t hear them as clear as for example in the Beatles’ recordings or on some even more sophisticated, “produced” albums.

Does Dylan double-track his voice? No. Does he like delay and reverb? No. Does he lay several guitar tracks, does he multiply instruments? No. Does he use outside natural sounds? No. Does he like special FX? No.

No studio gimmickry. No bull. No flashiness. No calculated wow-effect.

His latest recordings sound impeccable, as pure as his earliest albums. And still – no gimmickry. Just a live sound.

Of course, technology has a lot to do with it. One can’t obtain the same soundscape as on the Fallen Angels album in just their home studio because Capitol Studios are one of the most state-of-the-art huge recording studios where you can breathe and release a nice album of just your breathing.

But, again, no overdubbing, no multitracking, no special devices and tricks.

Perhaps this is why Bob Dylan sounds so out of time, ahead of time and beyond time. Because he means to convey an essence to us, instead of dancing before us, making advances, impressing us with the superficial and brown-nosing.

Perhaps this is why he is so sophisticated and pure at the same time.

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  1. A ‘techno-peasant’ like myself ponders if ‘The Boxer” on ‘Self-Portrait’ is an exception that proves the rule ??

  2. Fascinating piece. I’m no techno wizz; I am simply a listeners and I like what I hear on Bob Dylan records. Mind you, I hear other records and wonder why Bob does not get such a clear, clean sound? I’m think here of some Mary Chapin Carpenter albums which are excellent sounding. Check them out. Cheers.

  3. What you are saying is not altogether false, but it seems to a me a fairly romanticised account of Bob Dylan’s way of recording music. Sounds a bit like the equivalent of the “noble savage”, pure and unspoilt by technology.

    Two of my all-time favourite records, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, are greatly shaped by the production of Daniel Lanois. A matter of taste, obviously, but there clearly was a good deal of technology involved. And Dylan must have like Oh Mercy enough to bring in Lanois a second time.

    Also there is of course a good deal of editing and overdubbing involved, both instrumental and vocal. There is an interesting account of this by Dan Lanois in his autobiography, Soul Mining, where he describes the difficulties of making overdubs on Dylan’s vocal track, which had been recorded live on tape and had all the instruments on it. If I’m not mistaken, recent albums have been recorded with ProTools precisely because it’s easier to fix mistakes than with analog equipment.

    Here’s a good read on Dylan and his recording equipment. My conclusion would be that he may not be too interested in the technical side of the recording process, but he brings in people who make sure he’s got the right stuff ready. To me the timelessness of his sound seems to be more due to the deep roots of his music, not by a rejection of modern technology.

  4. How then do you explain the entries in Clinton Heylin’s The Recording Sessions, in which he identifies dates for overdubbing of many Dylan songs? Even Blood on the Tracks was not immune, with September 23-25, 1974 devoted to overdubs. Vocal and instrumental overdubs were done on several of the tracks on Under the Red Sky. Five tracks on Infidels were overdubbed. Oh Mercy (seven overdubbed tracks) and Time Out of Mind made heavy use of reverb and other studio technologies. Seven days were devoted to overdubs of the original Self Portrait. “But, again, no overdubbing, no multitracking, no special devices and tricks,” makes for good mythology but not good history.

  5. Folk singing by definition keeps to the bare basics but with the evolution of electronic technology in the recording industry all hell breaks loose with overdubbing and multitracking – times be a-changing, and music producers, and likely Dylan himself, become pawns caught up in the technological hurriane.

    However, there’s shelter from the storm – playing live concerts retains the rawness in the performance – so long as Dylan does not begin to lip-sync so he can do hand-stands while performing as the strobe lights of freedom are a-flashing.

  6. To all it may concern, and to Jerry, Rick and Larry in particular. What I had in mind was not exactly that Dylan be an enemy of the technology. Rather, that he doesn’t want to have any technological wow-effect upon us. Ovwrdubbing is very necessary but only to make it sound as natural as possible in his case. I’m aware he spent hours and days in the recording studios and much work had to be done afterwards. But the purpose was not a Pink Floyd-ish sterile sound but something “analogue”, inner-ear-friendly.
    And BTW of Mr. Lanois’ production. I love both albums but somehow they don’t sound like Dylan to me. (The “Under the Red Sky” set neither, it’s over-produced to my ears). But what I love best are the Jack Frost’s productions. They may not be easily achieved, there may be much work involved production-wise, but they sound smooth and natural, as if the musicians were somewhere next to me. That’s why the old Dylan seems the best record producer of himself. I find his sound since “‘Love and Theft'” until “Triplicate” the sound that suits his songs best. And sometimes I wonder how would “Planet Waves” or “Blonde on Blonde” sound had he produced them now, using the original tracks…
    My general observtion was that Bob Dylan hasn’t been using studio gimmickry that often, has been using no special or natural effects. And double-tracked “The Boxer” vocals were just a game for me, impersonations of Simon AND Garfunkel with the two voices he sang at the time, the crooning and the rasp one.
    The studio technology is unavoidable nowadays and I know it myself from my experience as frontman. No matter how much we wanted to have a “porch” sound we needed overdubbing and editing. But we managed to make it sound smooth.

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