More Barn! The Studios and Gear of Neil Young's "Harvest"

In January 1971, Neil Young was finishing up a solo acoustic tour of North America. Fresh off the release of After The Gold Rush, he had recently gotten into the habit of playing out the stack of unreleased songs he found himself sitting on since breaking off from Crosby, Stills & Nash. Among the last few shows was a date at the 1800-seat auditorium at Royce Hall, a building on the UCLA campus that went on to serve as the university's main performing arts facility and a reputable concert hall in its own right. A reverberant space initially designed for the acoustics of speech, it was previously used by the label Decca for a series of Los Angeles Philharmonic recordings under the direction of Zubin Mehta.

The concert was taped by engineer Henry Lewy outside the venue in a 14-foot Dodge box truck converted for remote recording, fitted with a pair of Ampex tape machines and a Universal Audio console. It was during this set that Neil performed a new song, "The Needle and the Damage Done", a somber lament reflecting on the hardships of heroin addiction as he had witnessed in his Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten. The sparse, stark live take—complete with a few seconds of audience applause—ended up being used as the penultimate track on 1972's Harvest, and was the first piece of the album's puzzle to be tracked.

Since its release 50 years ago, the album has earned a reputation as Neil Young's magnum opus. It's a work of sincerity and spontaneity that embodies a quintessential intersection of rock and country music, and will soon be reissued for its half-century anniversary alongside a previously unreleased documentary and concert film. But what went into the making of one of the strongest singer-songwriter records of the '70s? Here is the story of Harvest's production.

Neil Young performs "The Needle and the Damage Done" on this 1971 appearance on ABC's The Johnny Cash Show.


Not long after the UCLA show, Young arrived in Nashville for a performance of "Needle" on ABC's The Johnny Cash Show. That weekend, he was invited to a dinner party hosted by the producer Elliot Mazer, by then only "vaguely familiar" with Young through his girlfriend's repeat plays of After The Gold Rush. Neil had been scouting a studio to record his new songs, while Mazer had just opened up Quadrafonic Sound Studios—now known as Quad Studios—a four-studio space on Music Row converted from a two-storey Victorian-era house.

Upon meeting, it didn't take much convincing for the two to team up. As Mazer told Mix Magazine in 2001, "Neil and I met for breakfast Saturday morning at the old Ramada Inn, and we decided to meet up at the studio that afternoon. Neil showed up and asked us to move things around so that he could be next to the drums." Neil had mentioned his appreciation for the work of the local studio band Area Code 615, but many of their members were working that weekend—in their place, Mazer brought on pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, drummer Kenny Buttrey, and bassist Tim Drummond, who was allegedly pulled from the street.

The basic tracks for "Old Man" were recorded that night, with the recording of "Heart of Gold" to follow the next day. For these sessions, Mazer used a Neumann U87 on Neil's voice and the pedal steel, while his Martin D-45 acoustic was miked with a Neumann KM86—that multi-pattern condenser was also used on Teddy Irwin's guitars and as an overhead on Buttrey's kit. Drummond's bass was D/I'd, and the pulsing thump of the kick heard throughout the album was achieved by removing the front head and muffling it with a pillow.

The Quad recordings were tracked live and are marked by an immersive room presence that is the product of using minimal mics and keeping the musicians in close quarters. "The control room was the porch, the playing rooms were the living room and the dining room which were connected by sliding doors." Mazer explained the setup. "The living room had wood panels and was acoustically lively, the dining room was padded. Neil sat between the rooms in the doorway. Kenny was in the living room to his left and the rest were to his right." Because of this, there was no way to maintain isolation between instruments, but as Mazer explains, "The leakage gave the record character and we knew we were not going to replace anything."

When taping at The Johnny Cash Show wrapped, where he appeared alongside Linda Rondstadt and James Taylor, Neil invited the two singer-songwriters back to the studio where they sat on the couch facing the control monitors and recorded harmony vocals for the two songs on a U87. The latter also contributed a banjo guitar take to "Old Man" that evening. "Two passes, and it was finished," Mazer recalls of the first-thought, best-thought approach. "I guess it took less than two hours to record everything." Neil would return to Quad in the spring to cut the title track and "Out on the Weekend", but not before a few weeks across the pond.

Neil Young performs thirty minutes of music at BBC TV Studios, February 1971.


At the end of February, Neil traveled to London for a few orders of business: he performed a half-hour set at BBC TV Studios before another solo performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Not long after, he headed to the suburb of Barking to record at what is now known as The Broadway Theatre. There, he recorded the album's two majestic, Mahler-esque orchestral centerpieces, "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World", with the London Symphony. Arrangements and orchestration were handled by sideman Jack Nitzsche, the eccentric film score composer behind The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and one-time assistant to Phil Spector.

Archival footage released by the Neil Young Archives revealed this to be a particularly difficult session. "They definitely have to hear me," Neil tells Nitzsche after a take of "Maid" where the orchestra and the artist had a hard time following each other. "They were playing half a beat behind me all the way through the fucking thing." A few takes later, they nail it. Young smiles and flashes a peace sign to the conductor.

"Words (Between the Lines of Age)" from Neil Young's 1972 album Harvest.

The Barn

The year before Harvest was recorded, Young bought a thousand-acre ranch in rustic Woodside, California known as Broken Arrow. Initial plans to set up a studio there were thwarted by tour dates and back problems that required surgery, but a makeshift one would be built in his barn sometime after the sessions in Nashville with a similar remote recording system to the one utilized for the UCLA show.

"Neil's studio wasn't built yet, so we were set up in the living room of his house," as Mazer recalled. "He had bought the same console we had at Quad—a Quad-8 fully discreet 24x16—plus some JBL monitors, a couple of EMT plates, and some tape machines." He was accompanied by Nitzsche on piano and the same band who played at the Quad sessions, for sessions which resulted in the final takes of "Alabama", "Are You Ready for the Country?", and "Words (Between the Lines of Age)".

It was here that Neil went electric, developing the dirty tone he's now famous for with the humbuckers on his beloved Gretsch White Falcon run through a narrow panel tweed 1959 Fender Deluxe Amp, as pictured on the back cover of the LP. This was his main guitar for these sessions, but he occasionally also switched out the Falcon for the 1953 Gibson Les Paul known affectionately as ‘Old Black’. Much like Nashville, tracking was similarly domestic. The team dealt with a great deal of bleed between microphones which was the result of the PA system Mazer installed in the barn for monitoring, but in the end, it added to the live "thereness" of the recording which were further fortified by ambient room mics.

According to Mazer, the mixing of the record started at Quad before moving over to Neil's ranch. "While Neil was in the hospital having back surgery, I mixed the two London Symphony things and sometime later mixed the three electric tracks there as well."

The following story is now the stuff of classic rock legend: after recording guest background vocals for "Words" with Stephen Stills and David Crosby at A&R Studios in New York, Graham Nash was invited up to the ranch by Neil to listen to the record. Upon arriving and expecting to go into the studio, Neil told Nash, "Get into the rowboat. We're going out into the middle of the lake."

The artist and producer rigged up the PA system from the barn and house, and blasted the early mix of the album across the water as Neil rowed his former bandmate out. "He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker," Nash told NPR's Terry Gross. "I heard Harvest coming out of these incredibly large loudspeakers louder than hell." Mazer then proceeded down to the shore of the lake and shouted to Neil, "How was that?" To which Neil replied, "More barn!"

CORRECTION: The original version of this article included a few factual errors on the gear used which have since been corrected. Thanks to all who offered corrections in the comment section.

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