So, I'm recording a cover of "Spanish Harlem Incident" by The Byrds. It's really a cover of a cover, as their version is a rearrangement of a Bob Dylan song. With some covers, I like to give the song a little twist or take it in a new direction. Others are so perfect as they are that my goal is to faithfully reproduce them. For me, "Spanish Harlem Incident" falls into the latter camp.
Right off the top I was in a bit of trouble, as I don't own a Rickenbacker 360 electric 12-string, which is what Roger McGuinn plays on this track. I put my Takamine acoustic 12 through a Line 6 Pod to create a facsimile, but it's really not the same. (Until I can summon the 3,645 Canadian pesos it takes to purchase my dream guitar, I'll have to live with the electrified acoustic.) Fortunately, I can replicate pretty much everything else. Michael Clarke, especially in his early years, was a very paint-by-numbers sort of drummer and so am I, so programming his parts was easy. For David Crosby's rhythm guitar, I simply had to think 1965. There were no guitar effects yet, and if you wanted a little crunch you just turned your amp up. Crosby, I think, played a Gretsch of some sort; I used an Epiphone Les Paul. I created a custom preset on my Bass Pod to simulate Chris Hillman's tone: very warm and just a bit fuzzy. Chris's bass of choice was a Guild Starfire, and my Epiphone Jack Casady proved to be a perfect substitute.
So far, so good. But to really make it sound like 1965, I wanted to simulate the stereo panning they used, which by today's standards is nutty. McGuinn's guitar is alone, hard left. His vocal, along with Crosby's and Gene Clark's harmonies, is in the middle. Everything else is panned hard right: that would be the entire drum kit, bass, rhythm guitar and tambourine.
Why would anyone record (and pan) in this way? Well, consider that four-track machines were barely available in 1965. My guess is that The Byrds and producer Terry Melcher recorded the Mr. Tambourine Man LP on a three-track at Columbia Studios, Hollywood, in early 1965. So, the session for this song may have gone down something like this. For the backing track, McGuinn's guitar was recorded on Track 1 with the rest of the band on Track 2, likely all in the same take. That left only one track, Track 3, for the vocals, which would have been sung simultaneously and mixed on the fly. (And in this case "mixing" probably meant, "David, you're too loud. Can you stand back about six feet? No. Make it four. That's good.")
Panning in 1965 was also limited. You had your choice of three fixed positions: left, centre and right. Given all these recording and mixing limitations, the wacky panning scheme actually makes sense. You're stuck with all the instruments save McGuinn's guitar on one track not because you want it that way—there was simply no other way to record the whole band at once and give some prominence to the main instrument, the chiming 12-string.
Back here in 2020, I live in a world of 24 tracks, my recording studio is about half the size of a pillow and I can record a whole album in my bedroom. Recording 1965-style doesn't come naturally. For this song, I laid down each piece of the drum kit separately, later overdubbing the tambourine, bass and rhythm guitar. Nevertheless, I'm sticking the lot on the right side like The Byrds did, in a spirit of homage and as a fun mixing challenge. And let me tell you: when you've got kick drum, snare, hi-hat, three cymbals, floor tom, bass guitar, rhythm guitar and tambourine all in your right ear, it's quite difficult to tell what's too loud, too quiet and just right. Try it and you'll gain an appreciation for how brilliant some of these '60s producers and engineers really were.